Wednesday, March 28, 2012

occasional dream, eight

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is all about flaming out, the art of burning out as opposed to fading away. The music imagines a five-year window within which one could exhaust everything, leaving nothing in the tank for later on. Five years to ignore consequences, to be blinkered to social and moral implications, to test boundaries. Forty-years later, we live in a world of self-conscious paralysis and constraint. The idea of a world without limits seems quaint, yet somehow the record still sounds so fresh and relevant. There’s no doubt in my mind that one of the keys to its enduring power is the fleeting taste it gives us of the good life we once had. There’s certainly an underlying feeling of tragedy for me every time I play it. Bowie is so good at creating that complicated fusion of pleasure and pathos. It seems to be built in to his songwriting DNA. Think of Space Oddity, recorded three years or so earlier, the ecstasy of those beautiful chords, of floating in a most peculiar way, but knowing that the story has a very unhappy ending. Can you hear me Major Tom? Ziggy begins with this complex of emotions and then pushes them a few steps further, refracting them through an incredibly astute reading of the music’s own moment in history. The record emerges out of the rubble of 60s idealism. In a sense, Bowie’s conceptual raw material is the residue of 60s idealism after the ideals have been pushed to the point where they turn back on themselves. It’s the old cliché your grandfather tells you when you’re a little kid: 'There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ Maybe so, but Ziggy’s main conceit seems to be that you can live as if the lunch were free and then simply die when the bill comes due. You’ve got five years of free lunch, and then – bang! – it’s time to check out. It’s not a life trajectory for everybody, but some would rather have five years of no limits than a full lifetime of boring restraints. It’s a complicated calculus we’re all faced with, this trade-off between the pleasure and reality principles. When I hear Mick Woodmansey's slow, perfectly syncopated drums at the open of Ziggy – and I love the way you can hear the squeak of his floor pedal hitting the bass drum – I feel like what I imagine a junkie feels like right before he’s about to get his fix. (There’s a reason drug dealers say, ‘the first one is free.’) I know this is another story that ends badly, but I can’t help myself because it just sounds so fucking good. There’s no resisting it. It gets me to thinking that five years is a long time, isn’t it? But really, I’m dominated by the reality principle. I don’t have a libertine spirit at all. I’m always worried about my future. I try to live safely, to neither get too high nor go too low, to minimize the potential damage, to limit liability, to save some for a rainy day. Ziggy introduces me to a different way of life. It’s not a one I could ever adopt, but when I hear those opening drums I understand its appeal completely, and for the next thirty-five minutes or so I experience what it’s like to be free…

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

occasional dream, seven

The first David Bowie album I ever owned, a ‘best of' compilation called ChangesOne¸was given to me by a woman tutoring me in Hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah. As it turned out, my favorite track on the album was only a single and never appeared on a proper Bowie record. John, I’m Only Dancing sounded so weird and heady to me back then and hasn’t lost any of its satisfying edge over the years and decades. I especially dig the song’s sexual ambiguity. I initially thought DB was trying to reassure a buddy of his: ‘I’m not trying to horn in on your girl. I’m only dancing with her. She turns me on.’ As if this would ever calm a guy’s jealous anxiety and rage! But as my innocence morphed into increasing awareness of the myriad sexual identities available to us, it dawned on me that perhaps it’s David and John who are lovers, and David is telling John something like, ‘I’m only dancing with her. I’m not gonna fuck her, even though she turns me on.’ The song is actually quite brilliant in this respect. Sexual confusion as a metaphor for the onset of a slippery age in which all meaning gets deferred indefinitely, subverted in an infinite play of signification. Nothing is stable, but that’s ok as long as Rono’s guitar is bellowing in the background, filling you with pleasure and providing perfect accompaniment to an exploration of the unknown…

Saturday, March 10, 2012

PLU comes to you this evening from Phoenix, AZ, where I'm enjoying a weekend of Angels spring training baseball with one of my best buddies and his son. The boy calls me uncle, which makes me feel good...old, but good. It's also a good feeling knowing that baseball is just around the corner. ...I've had some time to myself here in my hotel room tonight, and I started thinking about Reg King. Tonight's song suggests he had difficulty with the transition from the 60s to the 70s. The music is a mess and leaves you with a feeling that everything's coming apart. It clocks in at well over six minutes, which is especially heartbreaking for me because I hear it as confirmation that the golden era of the three-minute pop song is long gone. But through all the sloppy chaos and palpable unease, you still get a nice taste of Reg King's distinct charisma. The sense of desperation actually works in spots. The song doesn't really cohere, but maybe that's the point. ...When I think about my favorite 60s bands, the Action are always very close to the top. They had a good five or six magnificent pop songs - well crafted, precise, self-contained. King's subsequent solo stuff is not as good as the Action, but it's a great feeling when you find the nuggets of gold deep inside material that's otherwise well past it's sell-by date...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

occasional dream, six

Life on Mars is one of those songs that stops me in my tracks every time I hear it. This happens even still today after having heard it probably several thousand times. The song moves me on multiple levels. I invariably need to hear it again, and I seem to discover something new and fascinating with each listen. The melody is absolutely perfect and it’s one of the great singing performances of Bowie’s career.

Take a look at the lawman,
beating up the wrong guy.
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know,
he’s in the best selling show.
Is there life on Mars?

...Ronno’s cascading string arrangement is brilliant. Ronno is remembered primarily as the king of trash guitar, and that’s certainly a great thing to be remembered for, but he deserves equal credit for being a first-class arranger. I was watching a Bowie documentary a few nights ago and one of the talking heads pointed out that the records from The Man Who Sold the World through Alladin Sane could have - and perhaps should have - been released under the banner of Bowie and Ronson. Then again, part of what makes Ronno such a hero to me is the way he eschewed the limelight, preferring to be behind the scenes and to act as a session player even though he was so much more than that. I have a soft spot for guys who remain in the background but are critical to the enterprise at hand. It’s why Jerry Grote is one of my all-time favorite baseball players. Would Tom Seaver have been as good without Jerry Grote? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that Grote was an integral part of so many of Seaver’s high points that you just gotta believe his presence really mattered, a steady warrior who took a beating behind the plate as Seaver gracefully painted the corners with his heavy drop ‘n drive heat. I think Bowie and Ronson were the Seaver and Grote of rock, the masterful artist and the indispensible (and willing) role player. Apologies if that strikes you as being a terrible analogy. With less than a month to go before the games begin again, I’ve got baseball on the brain, along with Bowie. Unlike baseball, though, Bowie doesn’t have an off season, at least not in my world. …I think the thing I love most about Life on Mars is the way the song is a kind of social and cultural signpost. Interpreting Bowie’s meaning is always potentially treacherous, but the song strikes me as being in keeping with the overriding theme of Hunky Dory as a whole (again as I interpret it): The 60s are over. The dream has collapsed. And what’s emerging from the smoldering wreckage is not yet knowable except that it will be far stranger and far more morally ambiguous.. Is there life on Mars? We don’t know yet, but we’re definitely gonna find out soon enough…

Thursday, March 1, 2012

occasional dream, five

The version of Queen Bitch I’ve posted this evening is not nearly as good as what you get on Hunky Dory, but the Ziggy-era footage of Bowie, with Ronno slashing away at his Les Paul in the background, is incredible. One of the things you’ll notice from the first few Bowie albums, all the way up to Ziggy, is that the rhythm guitar is almost always a 12-string acoustic. And it sounds absolutely magnificent. Even Hunky Dory, which is largely a piano album (with Rick Wakeman elevating the music into the realm of the sublime), features some of the richest acoustic rhythm guitar playing you’ll ever hear. Our crack research staff here at PLU has also discovered that the 12-string on Hunky Dory is often double, triple and even quadruple tracked. This new Wall of Sound, if you will, is a huge part of why the album sounds so amazing. The songs just leap out of the speakers, fill the room, and give you…aural pleasure. Sorry. …Tonight’s live performance doesn’t afford any of Bowie’s studio based inventiveness and ingenuity, but his sexually ambiguous charisma is on full display. At this time in California, hippie singer songwriters were gazing into their navels, whining and moaning about their confusion and unrealized dreams. Bowie, on the other hand, welcomes the confusion and, perhaps more than any other artist, moves the transition farther along. What makes him so distinctive is that, with the exception of Pin Ups, an album I never reach for anyway, he refuses to look backwards or stand still. He chooses instead to sharpen the leading edge, creating a new cultural currency in which alienation, ambivalence, and perpetual transition come together to fuel aesthetic creativity of the highest order…