Teenage Wildlife

Men of Words, Men of Music

By Alec Ross

Trouser Press, October 1979
Transcribed by Ben

My wish is to encapsulate what I see around me, the environment and the time, with music…so that if I could look back on my work from 1980, I would like to see the ‘70s through my eyes, like a series of paintings. That’s why I’m doing it. –David Bowie, 1978

Bowie

In 1967 Peter Watkins released a film, Privilege, which featured Paul Jones (ex-vocalist for Manfred Mann) as a charismatic rock star "created" by the British government for the purpose of controlling and molding the youth audience through rock and toll. Actually, the controlling and molding is accomplished less by using music than by manipulating the images of the rock star, himself a construct of mass media experts. His activities, however mundane, are presented as important news items. His face is everywhere, on television and on magazine covers; there is no escaping his image. He frequently holds press conferences to discuss his (government developed and sanctioned) opinions on politics and fashion, but private interviews are rare and precious gifts to journalists. The star lives his image, and eventually becomes trapped by it. The stage show is as much spectacle as rock, with the star locked in chains and cages, flagellating himself until he draws blood. The action is placed against a series of theatrical backdrops. Audiences go wild; the star is quickly elevated to demigod, and he ends up hating his audience, his packagers, and himself.

While the parallels are imperfect, David Bowie alone could claim the title of a rock demigod in the 1970s. Privilege does foreshadow some of the techniques used to make Bowie a star. There was no precise formula; Bowie’s name was kept before the public as much as possible, and the media was used as the tool to create a seductive and unreachable image for David Bowie. They themselves swallowed it, this idea of the mind of a great artist in the body of a master entertainer and a master sensualist. Bowie himself may have believed this, and it may even have been true; at this point no one who knew Bowie in 1972 perceives a difference between his image and his true self, and those of us who were not there stand no chance of separating them. They are, as Bowie seems to have wanted at the time, locked and invincible.

Bowie

The enigma that is David Bowie first came to the attention of most of the American public in 1972, with the release of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Admittedly, the album was a remarkable achievement, a careful package that tread somewhere between concept album and rock opera, but would it have been as noticed had Bowie not held his widely publicized interview in which he stated he was gay, just prior to Ziggy Stardust’s release? Despite Bowie’s frequently reiterated statement that his music only reflects his environment, in this instance he served to make the times. That single statement about his sexual preferences touched off a rash of pop stars announcing their taste for little boys, and prompted a widening acceptance of homosexuals among the music-listening audiences. To cover himself, he later stated that he like women too, too, especially his new wife, Angela. This statement, as much as anything else, triggered the concept of bisexuality as an acceptable form of behavior, at least among trend followers. Bowie, to his delight, was finally a rock star and a trendsetter. He may have had the longest gestation period in the history of rock music.

Cherry Vanilla

From 1972 to 1974, Cherry Vanilla was Bowie's American publicist, often doing interviews for him.

David was a very creative, intense person. He's someone to whom people are very disposable. He's very intense with them when he can use themI'm not saying that in a negative way. He gives them an advantage too. But then, when his fancy changes, or his needs change, they're completely out. I'm sure he might think about them sometimes, but he doesn't two years will go by, and then he'll call you up at 2 o'clock in the morning with some scheme to do a project. And he'll say, "I'm going to be in New York in two weeks and we'll talk about it." And it will be a very intense phone conversation. And you won't hear from him again for two or three years. He doesn't get attached to people too much. He doesn't seem to me to have the emotional and romantic needs that me and most of the people I know have. He has great love for himself. Which is greatI don't mean pride or anything. If you truly have great belief in and great love for yourself, you truly become a very, very attractive person, and I think he has great love for himself. He just uses people when he has the need for them, and expects them to understand that.

He doesn't seem to get attached to the idea of being in love. He just goes in and out of it in short spans. In some cases, you think people who do that are neurotic or it's because they can't get satisfaction. But with him, I don't really think it is. I just think he likes himself more than anybody, you know? I dig him for that. I mean I love David Bowie, and I know he loves me, and so what if he only wants to get in touch with me every three years or so. That's him. That's all he wants really, for people to accept him on that level.

Have you ever been real, but the situation itself is so theatrical, that you see yourself acting out the part? Like when I was 18 years old, it didn't seem possible that some interviewer from some magazine would be sitting in my apartment in Manhattan, interviewing me about some English pop star that I worked for. So now that's happening, and I keep going inside and outside of myself. I'm sitting here, but sometimes I'm also over there looking at me. He's like that. He sees himself playing all these roles. If you meet him at a discothequethat wall is built around him normally, because you're a writer from a magazine, so he won't talk to youif you go into some sleazy night club and happen to bump into him, he'll sit and talk to you for six hours, and be David Bowie, boy-next-door -wants-to-talk-to-you -all-night-nice-guy, and groove on seeing himself that way. At the same time, you might have called his PR lady 10 times the week before. She might have said "This guy's from " and he might have said "No way!" because he's sitting in his room playing the pop star. Yet he meets you at a club and another David Bowie. "The guy's here, fate sat him next to me I'm going to groove on this role now." See? That makes him very interesting and intense to be around.

In retrospect, Bowie’s music had little to do with his fame; spectacle and notoriety made his name a household word and, once at the top, he demonstrated enough talent to keep himself there. The curious thing–hindsight does have its peculiar advantages–is how Bowie managed to fail for so long. His prehistory reads like a constant struggle for fame–David Jones/David Bowie must have been obsessed with it–and it apparently jumped from bandwagon to bandwagon trying to achieve it. Sorting out his influences is an exercise in futility; Bowie imitated everyone from John Coltrane to Peter Noone at one point or another. On his first record, as leader of the King Bees, he covered Paul Revere and the Raiders. With the Mannish Boys, he mimicked the Yardbirds. Davy Jones released a single that drew heavily from the Who and the Rolling Stones, and with the Lower Third, imitations of Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles popped up. Like most artists, Bowie was learning by pastiche, and polishing his playing, singing and songwriting. If nothing else, he was learning a great deal about commercialism, but it wasn’t doing much for his career. Despite a string of failures that would have sent lesser men crawling off to program computers, Bowie still operating under the name of Jones, was confident enough of his imminent success that he changes his name to avoid a career conflict with Davey Jones of the fantastically famous (at the time) Monkees. Since the Monkees were not yet well known in England and no one in America had even heard of David Jones, the name change was an act of either massive egotism or incredible foresight.

Bowie’s first album (alternately called David Bowie or Love You Till Tuesday; 1967) is a potpourri of irrepressively cute songs that resemble parodies of "Well Respected Man"-era Ray Davies sung as a parody of Anthony Newley, and his work bears little value, historical or otherwise. Despite congratulatory notes from Mel Torme, Franco Zeffirelli, and other major industry artists, the record stiffed sales-wise. Frustrating as this obscurity must have been to Bowie, the rest of us have certainly made out well by it. David Bowie saw him heading in the direction of cabaret, and success at that time would have relegated Bowie to the status of a minor celebrity. Reports from the period show him rather miffed at the album’s unkind reception–under the circumstances, the public and the critic’s can hardly be faulted for their response–and the experience probably influenced Bowie’s later experiments with buttressing his music using other techniques, such as image as promotion gimmick.

Bowie

All the people who know Bowie have agreed that he is an extremely charming and charismatic person, and must have had these qualities during his prehistory, for despite his string of flops record company after record company gave him contract after contract. (It must be remembered also that this predates the era of the superstar–which Bowie as much as anyone brought into existence–and record companies were being chancier with their money.) He bounced from Pye to Parlophone to Pye to Deram to Phillips/Mercury–thereby dooming himself to continued obscurity in the USA–before he had his first hit, the now-famous "Space Oddity." Released around the time of the first moonwalk, "Space Oddity" smacked of a novelty item (which explains its #1 chart slot as well as the music does) but it also featured the first great production Bowie had ever had, employing intriguing echo effects and insistent rhythms that highlighted Bowie’s haunting, detached vocals. The composition was far more ambitious than anything in Bowie’s prior catalog, and both song and production are superior to anything else on "Space Oddity"’s parent album (called, among its various incarnations, David Bowie, Man of Words Man of Music, and in the RCA reissue, Space Oddity).

Actually, Space Oddity,The Man Who Sold The World, and Hunky Dory, the three Bowie albums preceding Ziggy Stardust, can be taken as a unit, since they share many of the strengths and weaknesses. In these albums, Bowie recasts himself in the singer-songwriter mold, and many of the numbers are soft rockers. None are particularly satisfying albums, though each have a few strong songs surrounded by far weaker ones. Certain Bowie trends can be seen in their embryonic stages: a predilection for science fiction themes (later surfacing in Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, and Station to Station) can be found in such songs as "Cygnet Committee," "Memory of a Free Festival," which also looks toward the electronic experimentalism of Low, "The Supermen" and "Quicksand." Elements that were recombined into Ziggy Stardust appear in many songs, especially on Hunky Dory, and lyrics from "Cygnet Committee" could easily refer to Ziggy, as seen from the other side of the mirror:

We had a friend, a talking man,
Who spoke of many powers he had.
Not the best of men, but Ours.
We used him
We let him use his powers.
We let him fill Our needs…

The Bowie of these three albums is still unintegrated, a Bowie grasping for attention, wanting the listener to be fascinated by his clever lyrics and turns of phrase. By Hunky Dory, he is approaching the music with far greater care than before, but he is still unmatured as an artist, the lyrics still take precedence over the music, and the songs on all three albums are standard fare when [laced next to Bowie’s later work. In the long run, the only significance of Hunky Dory may lie in its combination in the same place for the first time of Bowie, Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey, and Trevor Bolder.

Which brings us back to The Spiders From Mars.

If Bowie had been grasping for success for eight years, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars must have pleased him no end. In some ways, it is the ultimate narcissistic fantasy: some have called the ultimate marriage of theater and rock music. But while the album remains complete and satisfying without the stage show, David Bowie cannot so perfectly be separated from Ziggy Stardust. It is an almost perfect rock album, a work so strong that any of Bowie’s other works must be examined in its light. Individually, the songs mark a fully developed Bowie–lifting a few tricks from his friend, Marc Bolan, processing them in characteristic style, and turning them into his own–and both the music and lyrics move far beyond anything Bowie had previously attempted. His singing is passionate but oddly detached, and some songs ("I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey/and Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay") give the uneasy impression that Bowie is out among the audience, watching himself perform. On the positive side, the effect of playing with a real band apparently had a beneficial effect on Bowie, and the quality of the work becomes consistent and the sound highly stylized for the first time. The years have not decreased the importance or the listenability of the album, though, oddly, the ballads "Five Years" and "Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide" have the most interesting selections mostly due to Bowie vocals, which show a desperation he wouldn’t reveal again until the German version of "Heroes."

It cannot be said that David Bowie rose to prominence strictly through his own merits and/or designs. The time was primed for him. The Beatles had disbanded. Rock music had been driven into depression, partly through a shift to country rock on the one hand and toward featureless heavy metal on the other, and partly by a string of deaths that included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. The reaction of British pop music to this was glitter rock, first formulated by Marc Bolan. Genesis, rising from the murk of art rock groups, began to heavily base their stage act on theater. But no major star had surfaced, and it remained for David Bowie to mix both these trends with his own experience in mime and conceptual art.

Ziggy Stardust was the zenith of glitter rock. It epitomized the trend, transformed the theatricality into spectacle, and unleashed an ideal of decadence: a doomed world in which public image is all, where impotent messiahs are transformed into stars, where the only logical way of life was to live for the thrills and fame until the end. If the public, especially in America, wasn’t ready to embrace these attitudes wholeheartedly, it was ready to live them vicariously–and Bowie, in make-up, was playing on his aloofness and his ambient sexuality, dressing outlandishly and living flamboyantly, was the perfect role model. Too perfect. No one before him had gone so far to make play into life. As the first–perhaps the only–real superstar of the ‘70’, he elevated glitter rock to its highest expression–and wiped out its possibilities.

The life of Ziggy Stardust was led not only by David Bowie, but also by the others around him, those people who comprised Maniman, Ltd., Bowie’s management company. Formed by Bowie and business wizard Tony DeFries, Mainman Began with two people in England and four people in the USA and soon expanded into an organization of octopus proportions, with most of its employees hopelessly dedicated to the ideal of David Bowie. In attempts to project himself to notoriety as quickly as possible, Bowie made himself as intriguing as possible, and Mainman was the structure that maintained the intrigue. They kept him away from interviewers, promoted him through underground channels that surfaced with seemingly no connection to the man himself, and, as the weeks passed, muddied more and more the dividing line between Bowie and construct. As secretive as Bowie himself, Mainman soon became a star in itself and the subject of many rumors: wild all-night parties, monies being channeled into business and that, bedding Bowie as the initiation ritual for both male and female employees of Manman. The organization did its best to live up to both the rumors and the lifestyles.

"It looks to the outside world like there were many millions of dollars than there actually were," said Cherry Vanilla, Bowie’s former publicist and now a hopeful rock star-to-be herself, in a recent interview. "It was a very rare magical thing, a combination of people who were doing it with their whole heart and soul in it. Not just an operation or a job. It’s like, in old Hollywood…they knew that when times were hard, all anyone wanted to see was fantasy and make believe and someone saying, ‘Everything’s divine! We’re drinking champagne and riding in limousines all the time.’ People want to believe in that, you know? We had so much belief and love in that project, David Bowie especially, that we had the energy to slave all day and get the work done and still stay out all night. We’d show up at Max’s Kansas City and buy champagne for five tables. That’s what made it happen, besides what David was. If we didn’t have the product to sell, we couldn’t have sold anything, but David was fantastic and we knew it. DeFries was living a high lifestyle, and we appeared to be living a glamorous and expensive lifestyle. A lot of it was done on credit. Everything was only temporary. It was all rented.

The rise of Bowie the star dredged up another Bowie: the starmaker. There is the implication that, having played Narcissus, he felt obligated to play Gepetto, but if he expected his celebrity to be a golden touch, he was only partially correct. Bowie the starmaker was incapable of having any lasting impression on molding public opinion, and his one major success was in rescuing Mott the Hoople from oblivion by giving them a hit single, "All the Young Dudes," supposedly penned in an hour in a hotel room. (Several years later, Bowie told an interviewer, "I never compose while in hotel rooms, or on tour. I can’t concentrate.") The blessing was short-lived. Though one of the best rock albums of the decade, All The Young Dudes, the album, had a peculiar mix; at full volume, it still doesn’t project ant real sound. The Bowie influence also pushed Mott into the position of a backup band for vocalist Ian Hunter, which eventually splintered and disintegrated the group. Bowie’s maneuverings only postponed the breakup. Other musicians receiving his aid were Arnold Corns, Dan Gillespie, Carmen (remember them?) Mick Ronson, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and more recently Devo, who would have come under his aegis, had not other projects presented themselves. Of those groups, three are mercifully forgotten, although Arnold Corns bear the distinction of having covered several Ziggy Stardust songs pre-Ziggy. Mick Ronson, now performing with Ian Hunter, is hopelessly connected in the pubic mind to Bowie. Reed received one hit single with Bowie as producer ("Walk On The Wild Side"), but the rest of the production on the Transformer album is listless, implying that Bowie had thrown his all into that one song alone. Iggy Pop flew into a legendary rage at Bowie’s production of Raw Power, and it is interesting to note that, in the case of Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Bowie softened their natural sounds and this lies in his own natural direction. For all its power, Ziggy Stardust is not a hard rock album, and Bowie is more a pop singer than a hard rocker. Real rock ’n’ roll was left for his next release, Aladdin Sane…done after Bowie’s abortive fling as producer.

Unfortunately, if David Bowie was catapulted to fame by Ziggy Stardust, he is also held mercifully prisoner by his own construct. If Bowie is still having trouble with the confusion of identities–and he is–he has himself, really, to blame. He was a far more convincing actor than he set out to be, but he did not take enough time or effort to remind his public that he was acting (if, indeed, he was…but that opens another kettle of fish entirely…)

On another level, Ziggy Stardust provided a blueprint for Bowie’s career from Hunky Dory to Station To Station. If "Five Years" can be taken to have personal rather cultural significance ("Five years/my brain hurts a lot/Five years/That’s all we’ve got…), that is almost the exact amount of time passing between the appearance of Hunky Dory and the death of Bowie the star with the release of Low. While all the songs dealing with the evolution of a rock star easily fit the progression from Ziggy Stardust to Diamond Dogs, with "Rock ‘n’ roll Suicide" seeming like a before the fact memoir from Bowie to himself of hiss nearly suicidal plastic soul phase, which culminated in Station To Station.

One other question about Ziggy Stardust must have distressed Bowie: how could he surpass it?

Aladdin Sane was Bowie’s follow-up to Ziggy Stardust. At the time, it did not seem to be a progression past the previous album. If Bowie had cannibalized Marc Bolan for Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane seemed to be Bowie’s version of the Rolling Stones, moving toward their harder version of rock music and sporting a cover version of "Let’s Spend the Night Together." Jagger was, at the time, widely reported to be seen often in Bowie’s company, and "Angie," supposedly written about Bowie’s wife by Jagger, was moving up the charts. On the surface, Aladdin Sane followed the pattern set by Ziggy Stardust, a collection of songs–some interrelated, some not–that together formed a story of a rising star who is swallowed by his fame. Despite the development of a new character–all of Bowie’s characters, whether the Jean Genie, the Diamond Dog, or the Thin White Duke, are Ziggy–it was apparent that Bowie was on his way to being stuck.

Now Aladdin Sane is the most surprising of Bowie’s albums. If not as cohesive as Ziggy Stardust, it is far more self-assured. Bowie’s backing band had now been together through three albums and a lengthy concert tour and had tightened considerably. Both the songs and the playing are the most violent ever produced by Bowie, for Diamond Dogs his energy had dissipated and after that his interest lay in other areas. Only "Watch That Man" and "The Prettiest Star" (dredged up from Bowie’s prehistoric days with Marc Bolan) are out of place, throwbacks to Bowie’s coy lyrical phase. But the rest of the songs, especially "Drive-In Saturday," with its depressive lyrics set against the twisted carousel melody, and "Panic in Detroit," show a shift from mock-decadence to real perversity in Bowie’s attitude. Whereas Ziggy Stardust was pictured with ambient sexuality, Aladdin Sane is featured on the album as lacking genitalia altogether–a direction culminated by the painting of Bowie as a spayed dog on Diamond Dogs.

As if to underscore his weariness and confusion, David Bowie at this time retired (for the first time) from touring, and released–perhaps because he felt he could get away with anything, perhaps because he wanted to–Pin Ups, an absolutely nauseating collection of covers from the 1960s. It was a return not only to the ‘60s, but to Bowie’s worst qualities of those days. There is something peculiarly dissociative about Bowie’s message to his listeners on the back, as if he were releasing a promo to fan club members:

"These songs are among my favourites from the ‘64-67’ period of London.

"Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a ‘y’ or an ‘i’?)-Scene club circuit.

"(Marquee, eel pie island la-la- Some are still with us. Pretty Things…Them…Yardbirds…Syd’s Pink Floyd…Mojos…Who…Easybeats…Merseybeats…Kinks…

"Love-on ya. Bowie"

Despite a good selection, none of the covers, which included songs as famous as "Shapes of Things" and "I Can’t Explain,’ stood up in any way to the originals, and Pin-Ups is easily the most dispensable Bowie album since his first for Deram. Curiously, there are no credits on the album for either musicians or production people, though the Mainman symbol appears on an album for the first time.

In various interviews, Bowie has spoken of his mental instability at this time. "It is impossible to remain in the circus arena of rock and roll without being addicted to something," Bowie told one interviewer. "There is such a lack of substance that your ego becomes the world. You come to think that the only defense is to believe in yourself…I was surrounded by people who indulged my ego, who treated me as Ziggy Stardust or one of my other characters, never realizing that David Jones might be behind it." Whatever the reason, the dream of being a rock star had gone sour, resulting finally in Diamond Dogs, the culmination of the Ziggy Stardust prophesies.

While critics have called Low and Heroes pretentious, it would be difficult for Bowie to be more pretentious than he appeared on Diamond Dogs. The last of Bowie’s rock and roll albums, composed of a warped science fiction vision influenced by William Burroughs and George Orwell, Diamond Dogs shows a desperate Bowie transforming the "circus arena of rock and roll" into a picture of the future. His self-image has disintegrated, and in dog-form, Bowie lies on the cover before a sideshow sign reading, "Rock–the Strangest Living Curiosities." His depression demonstrated by the opening piece, "Future Legend," which also features Bowie at his most ostentatiously portentous:

"And…in the death…as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare–the shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Buildings–high on Poachers Hill and red mutant eyes gazed down on Hunger City–no more big-wheels–fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats and ten thousand poepleoids split into small tribes coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers–like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love Me Avenue–ripping and re-wrapping mink and shinny silver fox–now leg warmers–family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald–any day now–the year of the Diamond Dogs ‘This ain’t rock’n’roll–this is Genocide.’ "

Bowie
Photo by Bob Messineo

In concept, Diamond Dogs is amazing a panoramic examination of a lost, inhumane future where the Supermen are all Morlocks, the flesh-eating descendants of Man in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In practice, Diamond Dogs is little better than Zager and Evans’ "In the Year 2525." The album wallows in its own negativity, sporting songs like "Diamond Dogs," "We Are The Dead," and "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family." It is amazingly lacking in any sort of vitality, except in the drums (provided by Tony Newman and Aynsley Dunbar)–and even they become funeral dirges by the end of the album. While Rebel Rebel, provided Bowie with a hit of sorts, the only upbeat song on the album, "Rock’n’roll With Me," is a throwback to Ziggy Stardust and sounds more like it was intended for that album.

Quite clearly, it was time to get out of rock music.

Carlos Alomar

Carlos Alomar has played rhythm guitar for David Bowie since the Young Americans album. He was the bandleader during Bowie's 1978 World Tour, during which this interview was conducted, and he has also collaborated with Bowie on many compositions, including "Fame" and "D.J."

How did you start with Bowie?

At the time I started working with Bowie, I was with the Main Ingredient, doing some stuff at RCA. David was producing Lulu at that time. I helped out on her album, and afterwards I asked David to come over to my house and relax for a few drinks. (This was when he was on the road a lot, and weighed about 92 pounds.) After having spent some time with him, he asked me to join him on the Diamond Dogs tour. Financially, I couldn't do it then. I was busy doing studio work with Robin [Clark, Alomar's wife].

You've written several songs with Bowie. Can you tell us something about how you collaborated?

I write some of the music, that's all there is to it. Some of it is just incidental. David is very generous that way. A lot of it is done in the studio. He has a great mind for electronics. You have to remember, much of the material we do is conceived, written and done right there in the studio. It isn't a rule with David, but he seems to like to get the rhythm section down on tape first. Then he can see what he's got. After that, he adds the lead guitar, keyboards, etc.

There have been criticisms leveled at the new material (Low, "Heroes") that it is pretentious and inaccessible

Commercialism right now is disco, and that to me is an insult. Anyone who isn't satisfied now, just wait until [Lodger]. You can't please all the people all the time. Being a musician and composer, he's got plenty of time. Maybe next year he'll please them. David won't take a step backwards. Let's face it, he's listening to other music. It's definitely a sign of the times. I think David chooses his musicians properly, and if anyone could give you disco, this rhythm section could kill you with it! The low undertones of the music he's giving you has enough for everyone.

A two-year sojourn to America provided Bowie with an opportunity to move into a new area: soul music. Philadelphia–home of American Bandstand–provided him with the musicians but not the attitude he needed, and David Live could easily be called David Dead. The musicians–Tony Newman, Pablo Rosario, David Sanborn, Richard Grando, Mike Garson, Earl Slick, Herbie Flowers, Gui Adresiano, Warren Peace, and Michael Kamen–are ill at ease with the material, which covers Bowie’s career from Honky Dory through Diamond Dogs, and Bowie stands apart in his vocals, seemingly more from disinterest than from his usual emotionless posturing. If he had exhausted his potential for rock music, Bowie showed with David Live that his potential for handling soul music was severely limited. David Live can properly be described as a rock album with soul inflection. Only "Knock On Wood" does the band come alive.

However, now that he was embarked on a new musical synthesis, which he called "plastic soul," Bowie would not until he had also wiped out all the possibilities of that form–which he would do two albums later, in Station To Station. First, however, he would move to Los Angeles and produce Young Americans.

That album was easily Bowie’s most ambitious. David Live had been Bowie’s first musings about with soul music; Young Americans was his means of coalescing his thoughts about it and making it over into something he could use. Aiding him in this transfiguration were his new sidemen, Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis, who (with George Murray) thereafter became Bowie’s permanent rhythm section. They appear to have hit it off with Bowie immediately, and the collaboration was beneficial for Bowie: while hardly perfect, Young Americans was his most coherent work since Ziggy Stardust. This is strange, for Young Americans spreads itself over many months of production, three cities and three sets of producers. Paying tributes again, Bowie covered "Across The Universe," and it suddenly seemed–recalling "Knock On Wood" and "Let’s Spend The Night Together"–that Bowie might do his best work interpreting other people’s material. The object of that tribute, John Lennon, collaborated with Bowie and Alomar on "Fame" (even if the main riff is lifted from James Brown), and the song provided Bowie with his first number one single in the USA.

Still, Young Americans features mostly forgettable songs, as Bowie was hardly at the peak of his songwriting talents, though the title track was his best song in years and probably received more radio play than any of his other numbers ("Changes" may be the sole contender). Despite Bowie’s emancipation from rock and roll, the album is a pyrrhic victory: his "plastic soul" comes dangerously close to disco, then just on the rise (Bowie later stated that he hated disco, and the similarities were an embarrassment to him). Young Americans produced no permanent changes in Bowie’s songwriting or arrangements. It did, however, cause him to develop the range in his voice, an improvement which has made later albums aurally richer.

Now the plot thickens. A rift had emerged between Mainman, Ltd. and David Bowie, and Bowie successfully sued his way out of the company. There has been much speculation as to the cause of the break; it appears that the problem was simply money. Mainman’s attitudes toward money have been chronicled earlier, and Bowie, seeing how they used the money that he earned, was having trouble seeing the reason why he couldn’t get any. The company had grown to insurance proportions. Bowie’s comments about how he was manipulated led to some to suspect that Bowie’s personae had been inflicted on him by sales-minded Mainman, but the manipulation was only financial. The creative decisions regarding him were ones he had made, and the sins he was paying for, with money going to support an image he had long since outgrown, were his. The split with DeFries was less than amicable, and DeFries implied at one point that he was responsible for Bowie’s success. The matter was turned over to Bowie’s lawyers, whom he is still paying off.

In the meantime, he broke into films, starring in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. He had been trying to enter that medium for some time, but Bowie’s luck with movies had not been auspicious. Earlier, stories spread that he would play the messianic Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land. The movie was never made. Bowie was to take the part of a collaborationist IRA member in The Eagle Has Landed. The part was given to Donald Sutherland. A film called The Wally, about painter Egon Schielle, has yet to be made. Bowie’s few film appearances were all concert and promotional material for television. He had made "Cracked Actor" for the BBC, had taken his "1984 Floor Show" to Midnight Special, and had appeared as a guest on The Cher Special (more recent appearances have been on the last Bing Crosby Christmas Special and In Concert).

Yet Bowie was a natural actor–or was he? Thomas Jerome Newton, a.k.a. The Thin White Duke of Station To Station fame, is as the protagonist of The Man Who Fell To Earth, Ziggy Stardust turned technocrat. While Ziggy was an alien come to Earth to save it with rock and roll, Newton is an alien come to Earth to take water back to his own dying world. The film was a natural role for Bowie; it is literally a fable about accepting a public role, until you become that role at the cost of self-denial in the worst sense of the term. Newton, though alien, needs certain things: love, friendship, companionship. Though he isolates himself, he forces through his isolation toward those persons around him who are not like him but they think they are. By the end of the film, Newton is human –with eyes and skin like ours–and, having failed his mission, very very drunk.

Visually, The Man Who Fell to Earth is sometimes fascinating, sometimes irritating. Like its predecessor, Performance (also directed by Roeg and starring Mick Jagger), it is a textbook compendium of underground film techniques. Bowie successfully makes Newton an isolated, almost pitiful figure, but he is not, as some suggest, an emotional character. The emotion simmers under the skin; piercing now and then through Newton’s despondent aloofness.

Bowie’s film curse was still active; The Man Who Fell to Earth opened to virtually universal pans, the film was held back from general release, 30 minutes were gutted from it before it was brought to America, and Bowie’s apocryphal soundtrack was rejected in favor of one by Stomu Yamash’ta. (The Bowie curse is still working on his new film, Just A Gigolo. Critics have not been kind, and the movie, set in Berlin prior to World War II, was opened in Germany, greeted by riots, and withdrawn. Its future unsettled).

And where is that legendary soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth? Odds are it became Station To Station, and internal evidence supports this theory. The title track deals in part with out-of-the-body travel, a subject not previously found in Bowie’s work but one which appears in the movie, and one very suspicious line turns up in the middle of the song: "One magical motion from Kether to Malkuth." On the Tree of Life, Kether is the Crown, or Heaven, and Malkuth is the Kingdom, or Earth. The only motion from the one to the other is a straight line down; i.e., a fall to earth. Segments of the album’s other songs refer to specific scenes of the movie. As stated in "Golden Years,’ Candy Clark, Newton’s girl friend, drives downtown where she once belonged, in the back of a dream car twenty feet long. "Word On A Wing" is also about astral projection, and includes the fitting lyrics "my girl flies like a word on a wing. Does my girl fit with your scheme of things?" The TVC of "TVC 15" probably refers to a television console, one of Newton’s obsessions.

Station To Station, by itself, is Bowie’s most underrated album and his most successful in musical terms. It not only completes the plastic soul phase of Bowie’s career, but also sums up all his previous accomplishments while pointing toward his later works. Blending the best elements of his rock songs–lyrical complexity, an ability to blend the pop song and ballad forms, and insistent lead riffs–with the backbeat, the compositional fluidity, and the lushness of production of Young Americans, Bowie completely overcame his needs for a character to tie his albums together, despite the presence of The Thin White Duke. And, at last, the lyrics and the music held an equal position: the lyrics became part of the music, and vice-versa, instead of being excuses for each other. Vocally, Bowie had come of age, and pushing himself to the limits of his ability on Station To Station made his vocal manipulations on Low, "Heroes", and Lodger possible. In terms of sheer listening pleasure, these qualities make Station To Station Bowie’s most satisfying album.

The collapse of Mainman, the failure of Station To Station in the marketplace (though "Golden Years" had made a successful single) and the non-release of The Man Who Fell To Earth combined with Bowie’s own depression and increasing use of drugs to drive him off the deep end, and 1976 found him making psychotic statuary in his Los Angeles living room. A quick lesson in art therapy and a word from an unnamed friend sent him packing off to Berlin, just in time to join forces with Brian Eno and enter his collaborationist stage.

Low, Bowie’s first release in tandem with Eno, abruptly breaks form with any of his earlier work, though his interest in electronic music had reared its head on Station To Station, and that album’s concern with the technology of communication reappears, albeit in the musical not lyrical content. As often noted, Low surrenders Bowie’s strong points–lyrics and vocals–in favor of a more instrumental, mechanical approach. What went largely unnoticed was that Low’s instrumental pieces reproduced the result of some more advanced avant-garde works: this most processed of music sounds like church music. The vocal pieces on the other side of the album show a grim humor and an austerity of sound and lyric. Indeed, Low is far removed from a persona of any sort as Bowie has ever been, and it demonstrates a secret that few people know, because few people have ever tried it: the more you take yourself out of your work, the more you put yourself into it. Paradoxically, Low is Bowie’s simplest album and his least accessible, and RCA, frightened by his new direction, rushed out a greatest hits package to cover the sales of Low.

Bowie’s other major collaboration of the period was an attempt to inject interest in the sagging career of Iggy Pop, resulting in The Idiot, which is as much a David Bowie album as Low is a Brian Eno album. Bearing a very dry, ponderous feel, the songs on The Idiot are prototypes for those on Bowie’s next album, "Heroes". On that album, Bowie’s sound, still heavily influenced by Eno, becomes darker, suggesting that the Bowie of Low and the Bowie of The Idiot had merged. The album met with better response than Low, but it seems in part a step back toward the popular taste. Bowie’s Presence is more recognizable here, though the instrumental pieces, especially "Moss Garden" and "Neuköln" stand among his most impressive works.

Bowie

Which brings us almost up to date. With Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Bowie narrated Peter And The Wolf as a present for his son, and it stands as easily the best recorded version of the work in English. While it failed to live up to the excellence of the live show, Stage, Bowie’s second concert album, provides a nice retrospective of Bowie’s major work by the most talented single group of musicians he has ever recorded with. Lastly, Lodger, his most recent work, shows Bowie on the verge of casting off his relationship with Eno, mixing his recent lessons in electronics with a more rocking feel and a demonstrated interest in traditional, Third Worlds music (though Eno shares a growing interest in the latter).

How then should we assess the career of David Bowie? We must deal with both sides of the personality, the star and the artist, but the star can only be judged as a man, while the artist must be judged, ultimately, by the work he produces.

Recently, the New Musical Express passed this judgement on Bowie: "…if any constant can be traced through Bowie’s work, good, bad, or indifferent, it’s that of theatricality, of a disconcertingly conscious confusion of image and identity…much has been made of the ‘breakthroughs’ scored by Bowie and Eno on the largely instrumental sides of (Low and "Heroes"), whereas Bowie, although admittedly taking commercial chances, simply has continued to filter influences (anything from Can to Penderecki) with his usual incisiveness.

"New music? Not really, since others have been there and beyond before. But then that’s Bowie’s method–to backhand, to pass on, to pass down, to make previously inaccessible information accessible: a gift he may well have abused."

"More so than any of his peers, Bowie engenders a debilitation fascination for gamesmanship, for emotional and intellectual dishonesty and for the vicarious experience of high-life hedonism (not so cheap thrill). As a soundtrack for the so-called modern world or for the long overdue collapse of the Western Way and its myopic emphasis on consumerism, Bowie’s oeuvre is unparalleled. As a soundtrack for humanity and humanism, it’s totally deficient. We get what we deserve."

While the above criticism is overly brutal, it bears more than a grain of truth. Much of Bowie’s career does center on overemphasis on image and destructive gamesmanship. He has worn so many masks that we cannot even be sure that the new David Bowie is not just David Bowie playing a new character called David Bowie. All that we may be reasonably certain of is that Bowie is a torn man: having sought fame for so long, Bowie is unwilling, having finally gotten it, to relinquish it, though his artistic development will be hindered if he doesn’t. Someone once said that while Bob Dylan went from being an underground folk hero to being an international pop star, the Beatles went from being international pop stars to being underground folks heroes; David Bowie is evidently following in the Fab Four’s shoes. While he has made comments to the contrary, massive tours, attempts to synthesize experiments into popularly accessible forms, and occasional comments to interviewers imply that Bowie is still interested in maintaining a wide popular base–and his last tour showed him willing, if necessary, to shift his focus if the audience demands it. Infortunately, the audience has a long history of demanding Ziggy Stardust.

And of Bowie’s artistic achievements?

Of himself, Orson Welles says: I’m always looking for synthesis: it’s a task that enthralls me, for I must be honest about what I am, and I am an experimenter…I am profoundly cynical toward my own work and toward most of the works I see in this world; but I am not cynical about the act of shaping raw materials. It’s difficult to explain…"

While Bowie cannot easily be compared to Orson Welles (though there are more similarities than one would suspect), the above statement holds well for him. As an artist, Bowie has made his career from standing on the shoulders of giants. He has taken new or unpopular forms and put a handle on them; it’s unfortunate that the handles usually break when he finally gets a real grip on them. Yet, while this makes David Bowie an important cultural force at the moment, it relegates him to relative unimportance in the long run. If he has indeed been put back in touch with himself, as he says, it is a time for David Bowie to emerge in the 1980s as a creator of ideas, not merely a highly visible librarian of them.

"If it works, it’s out of date."–Bowie, 1978

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This document last updated Sunday, 25-Apr-1999 16:13:10 EDT
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