Tuesday, May 29, 2012

occasional dream, fifteen

Touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love of her caress, she will be your living end… I may be a little down on Aladdin Sane at the moment, but Lady Grinning Soul is one of the finest songs Bowie ever did, one where he really comes into his own as a vocalist.  Part of Bowie’s distinct genius comes from his ability to achieve emotional immediacy within a more generally detached standpoint.  If this seems contradictory, it is.  It’s a funny little trick he pulls off.  He filters everything through performance, adopting the McLuenesque conceit that the medium is the message, and this gives things an element of artifice and fakery, yet he makes each of his incarnations feel like organic outgrowths of who he is, even though a clear concept of who he is elusive. This pretzel logic of personality, if you will, peaks with the Berlin trilogy, where Bowie’s pain and alienation cross a threshold into stunted numbness, only occasionally breaking out into a full venting of human suffering, but always at the precise moment where the acute emotionality will achieve maximum impact, most memorably from the third verse of ‘Heroes’ onwards.  The capacity to be at once distant and intimate is another unifying aspect of Bowie’s best work, and Lady Grinning Soul certainly fits into this category.  The song feels like an elegy to a fallen age, She’ll come, she’ll go.  But the end of the glitter era, the death of Ziggy Stardust, isn’t mournful.  On the contrary, it’s pregnant with new possibilities…



Friday, May 25, 2012

occasional dream, fourteen

Raw Power is more about atmosphere than it is about good music.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but separating them in this case is the only way I can explain why the record appeals to me.  With the exception of the first two tracks, Search and Destroy and Gimme Danger, the songs are kinda ho hum.  But the record’s dark and deeply nihilistic vibe, a continuation of what we get on Fun House, makes up for the mostly mediocre music when judged strictly as music, if that makes sense. One of the received ideas about Raw Power is the notion that Bowie ruined it with a muddy, messy mix.  Sure, it’s not the greatest sounding record in the world. But I’ve taken the Pepsi Challenge with the Bowie mix and the updated ‘should have been’ mix side by side and I’m here to tell you that there’s really not much difference between the two.  It’s a big myth.  If anything, the Bowie mix is more appropriate because an album like Raw Power ought to sound as washed out as the guys who are playing on it.  And maybe I get a little defensive when it comes to David Bowie, but another thing that bothers me is the commonly circulated idea that Bowie’s only contribution to Raw Power is his ‘shitty’ mix.  All you have to do is listen to the acoustic rhythm guitar and the tambourine on Gimme Danger and you’ll know that Bowie has his finger prints all over the record, directly and indirectly.  A number of the songs actually sound like outtakes from Alladin Sane.  The two records are perfectly complementaryThey were released within several months of one another in 1973, and while each is imperfect, perhaps necessarily so, they both also make the high hopes of 60s idealism seem na├»ve and remote.  A rainy Saturday afternoon spent listening to Raw Power and Alladin Sane, and then perhaps viewing The Parallax View, The Conversation, and The King of Marvin Gardens, would really put you in a malaised, early 70s frame of mind, probably not altogether different from the frame of mind you find yourself in these days when you choose to not live in the past...


Thursday, May 24, 2012

occasional dream, thirteen

First things first:  Is this not the greatest picture you've ever seen?  I love Ronno's fat Windsor knot and what appears to be the icky English food the two of them are eating.  Thank God for the great Mick Rock, who took so many of the memorable Bowie photographs of the Ziggy era... 
Alladin Sane has diminished in my estimation somewhat over the past few years.  It’s the natural cycle of things.  I go hot and cold on most records.  There’s only a small handful that I never get tired of.  One complaint I have about Alladin Sane is that it’s such a poor sounding record, probably because a considerable chunk of it was recorded in the midst of the whirlwind days of Bowie’s 1972 tour of America.  But also, while the record features several fantastic songs, it’s not quite up to the previous two or three releases when taken as a whole.  I guess this slippage is interesting in and of itself in that you can really hear the glitter thing start to run out of gas. The record has an exhausted feel to it, quite different from the sense of a new force in ascendance one gets in listening to Ziggy Stardust.  Don’t get me wrong, though: For just about anybody else, a record of the quality of Alladin Sane would be a career high.  Fair or unfair, the bar is set so much higher for Bowie. I might even venture to say that Alladin Sane is his weakest record of the 70s, though ask me again next week and I might very well tell you it’s one of the greatest records of all time… One of the things I like to think about when I hear Alladin Sane is Bowie’s burgeoning relationship, at the time, with Iggy Pop.  But for the life of me, I see no resemblance whatsoever between Iggy and Che Guevara… 

motor city's burning

Fun House is one of the nastiest records ever made.  A mere three years removed from the Summer of Love, and coming out of Detroit via L.A., the “songs” ooze with sweaty sex, and they conjure up images of burned-out factories, race war, and creepy-crawly drug freaks who come to your house in the middle of the night and cut you open.  Ron Asheton is not an especially accomplished guitarist in technical terms, but he has exactly the right feel for this type of music, imbuing it with its dark vibe by simply cranking things up all the way so that they create primal sounds that leave the listener feeling keyed up and edgy.  But it’s not an unpleasant sensation.  It’s actually quite freeing, all the more so because Iggy is that freakishly toned idiot savant who somehow makes nihilistic self-destruction seem appealing. Fun House is not a record anyone’s gonna wanna play every day.  But when you’re in one of those moods where you feel like you need to break someone or something, play this one real loud and get ready for an experience beyond catharsis…




occasional dream, twelve

I have, at best, mixed feelings about Lou Reed.  I recognize his ‘importance’ and yada yada yada, but there’s something about the guy that puts me off.  It’s the pretentiousness, the orneriness the arrogance, the unpleasantness.  You’re a rich rock star, Lou.  You get paid to play rock ‘n roll to fans who admire what you do and just wanna know a little bit about what goes on in your head.  Why you gotta be such a dick? Are you really that unhappy and/or self-important?  I guess sometimes that’s what makes the artist an artist. It’s a personality type that’s hard for me to warm to, but then again I’m not an artist so maybe I simply don’t understand.  I don’t need to love the people who make the music I listen to as people, necessarily, but in Reed’s case his repellent qualities come across in enough of his music that I tend to approach his stuff with my guard up…  Having said all this, Reed has had his share of great moments.  I love the Velvet Underground and will periodically play the title track on Coney Island Baby and a few tracks on Street Hassle, Blue Mask, New York…  If a good Lou Reed song pops up randomly on my iPod, I’ll usually take the time to listen to it.  He made a lot of music with the late Robert Quine, a guitarist I’ve always admired, so he’s definitely got good taste.  …But Transformer, released in late 1972, is in a class by itself.  It’s a record that sends my imagination soaring.  This is probably because I’m a Bowie freak and I like to imagine what it must’ve been like in the studio with Bowie and Ronson. Their production work is first rate and played no small part in eliciting some of the best performances of Reed’s career.  Andy’s Chest, a much tamer version of which Reed had previously recorded with the V.U., is my favorite track on Transformer.  Ronno’s trash guitar is mischievous and oh-so-satisfying.  And then there’s Bowie’s backing vocals. They’re hard not to notice.  That’s the thing about Bowie and backing vocals.  He definitely wants you to know he’s there.  Nobody ever said the guy wasn’t a total diva…

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

occasional dream, eleven

All the Young Dudes is one of the two or three greatest songs David Bowie ever wrote. It comes at the peak of Bowie’s first creative explosion between late ’71 and mid ’73. That he gave the song to Mott the Hoople, perhaps recognizing that Ian Hunter would lend it just the right combination of defiance and world weary vulnerability, says so much about Bowie’s self assurance and burgeoning capabilities at the time.  Here’s a man who knew that there would be plenty more where this came from, enough to share with worthy beneficiaries of his artistic largesse.  There are hundreds of songs that move me. Rarer are the ones that transport me, and rarer still are the ones that transport me and get me to feeling like I imagine it must’ve felt at the time they appeared on the scene.  All the Young Dudes is one of those super-rare songs.  The melody is perfect, especially in the chorus.  I love the signature David Bowie/Ronno hand claps and tambourine.  And the lyrics have a beatnik scat quality about them. Boogaloo dudes… He dresses like a queen, but he can kick like a mule, it’s a real mean team… Speed jive, don’t wanna stay alive, when you’re twenty-five...  But despite this nod to the past, the song is undeniably in and of the early 70s, another instance where Bowie transforms the failed promises of the 60s into something distinct and path breaking. It’s amazing to think that at this point he’s still one of the young dudes and only just getting started…


Thursday, May 17, 2012

victimize me, please...




Bill Nelson is a bit pretentious, but boy can he play guitar.  If Mick Ronson had been classically trained at a music conservancy, he’d be Bill Nelson.  Classical training, mind you (or at least playing that sounds classically trained), makes for a bad mix with rock, more often than not, to the extent that those who’ve been formally schooled tend to be overly ambitious and given to conceptual overreach.  Progressive rock is what happens when rock ‘n roll flirts with classical structures and motifs.  I’m ok with some progressive rock as long as the ridiculousness and self-importance are reined in.  Like, for example, Yes don’t temper their ridiculousness.  I have a friend who’s been trying to get me into Yes for years.  I don’t have the heart to tell him it ain’t ever gonna happen.  I think he’d be crushed and feel rejected.  People get very emotionally invested in the music they love.  I know I do.  If you told me there was no way you’d ever like the Byrds, or David Bowie, or the Beach Boys, or the Lovin’ Spoonful, I’d probably tell you there’s no way we can be friends.  I digress… As its title suggests, the first Be-Bop Deluxe album, Axe Vctim, is a guitar lover’s fantasy come true. The Be-Bops are progressive rock, but they come from the segment of the genre that initially had toes in glitter and eventually made a transition to New Wave.  The thing about Bill Nelson that’s so exciting to me is that he maximizes the potential of the guitar like very few others are able to do.  And he’s able to make it sound so effortless.  How the hell does he get that unbelievable tone?  I’ve tried in my own amateurish way to replicate Nelson’s sound with my Tellie, but it takes a tremendous amount of talent and know-how to get a guitar to sing like that.  Also, there’s the problem that Nelson’s sound relies quite a bit on natural distortion, which requires that you crank things up as high as they’ll go.  Doing this isn’t practical for a strict bedroom jammer like me.  The windows in my house would shatter and my cat would run away.  And I have neighbors.  So all I can do is daydream about the awesome phallic power one must feel in getting a guitar to hum and whine and explode in the manner of Bill Nelson.  …If you love and worship the guitar as much as I do - if it’s one of the few things that bring your life meaning, continuity, pleasure and happiness - then you can’t not have Axe Victim in your collection.  Nelson’s playing is a unique and perfect blend of tarted-up glitter and classical aspiration.  The guitar in his hand becomes a gateway to the sublime, and I become an all-too-willing axe victim…



Wednesday, May 16, 2012

occasional dream, ten

One of the things that hits my aural g-spot, if a man’s man like myself can be allowed to have such a thing, is the crispness of the acoustic guitars on Bowie’s early 70s output.  Even Hunky Dory, written largely on and for the piano, has some of the cleanest strumming you’ll ever hear.  This cleanliness, as it were, reaches a zenith of sorts on Ziggy Stardust, but still remains quite remarkable over the next two records (not including Pin Ups, an album I don’t have much time for).  And there’s a reason things sound as distinctive as they do, namely that Bowie plays the acoustic parts on a Gibson 12-string guitar.  I have a cheapie 12-stringer myself and I must confess that I find it very difficult to play.  But if I’m having one of those days where things are going well and I get in the right groove with it, I really don’t wanna go back to a mere six strings.  On the other hand, though, I can’t put the thing down fast enough when I’m having a less than stellar day, so demoralizing it can be when I fumble with the guitar and get nothing but horrible sounding fret buzz.  Bowie had a knack for making his 12-stringer sound muscular, godly, and just fucking perfect.  But his is not a typical 12-string sound in the manner of Jim/Roger McGuinn, or George Harrison, or Johnny Marr, all of whom rely largely on jingle-jangle arpeggios to get their distinct brand of 12-string magic.  Bowie makes his 12-stringer sound like an otherworldly six-stringer, like the best six-stringer you ever heard, a guitar with tone you can otherwise only dream about.  I don’t know how he does it.  Rock ‘n Roll Suicide - which along with ‘Heroes,’ Ashes to Ashes, and All the Young Dudes, ranks as my favorite Bowie song - is the quintessence of what the 12-stringer sounds like in his hands.  What makes the performance all the more impressive is that, by the time he gets to the third verse, the bizarro chord and key changes come so fast and furious that  it’s shocking to me more people haven’t commented on Bowie the guitarist. …I fear that the 12-string guitar has become more obscure and rarified with the passage of time (not that I’m really up on the NOW in music, it’s just an intuitive feeling I have).  If I’m right, it’s really too bad.  It’s an amazingly rich instrument…at least it is when the right person is playing it.  David Bowie is the right person...

shoot me with your wray gun...


Since I’m thinking so much about the guitar these days – its potential, approaches to playing, ways of learning, tone, sound, vibe, feel, etc. – I thought it’d be fun to use this space as a way to think out loud and articulate my views as they evolve.  This is strictly something I’m doing for myself to work out my ideas, but if readers get something out of what I have to say, all the better. …One of the ways I learn is by trying to assimilate the sounds that hit me on an emotional level.  Technical prowess, as an end in itself, doesn’t move me at all.  I think of a band like King Crimson and the two guitarists who shaped their sound so distinctly, Robert Fripp and, later, Adrian Belew.  Both are unbelievably gifted players, but both strike me as being technicians.  Neither plays with what I would consider any real emotion.  Actually, though, that’s not true.  They’re both capable of playing with feeling when someone else’s vision dictates the approach.  So they’re both good session players.  Some of the most memorable David Bowie songs from his New Wave period – basically the five-year stretch from Station to Station to Scary Monsters – feature great, emotionally affecting playing from Fripp and Belew.  Fripp’s playing on Teenage Wildlife, for instance, is quite visceral, and he’s also made great contributions to some of Brian Eno’s best music.  But in the context of King Crimson, with some exceptions, the playing is dry and lifeless.  You feel as if you’re listening to an infinitely complex but also bruisingly dull lecture on music theory.  I want the opposite of this.  Technical expertise with no heart is always forgettable.  The antidote to this is the late Link Wray, who played with nothing so much as furious passion.  His playing conveys deep inner pain but somehow induces ecstasy in the process.  It’s like flossing the sensitive regions of your gums.  It hurts, yet there’s something about it that makes you wanna do it more.  Wray’s playing takes me to the same masochistic threshold.  It’s ugly, and it’s beautiful; it’s angry, and it’s joyful; it’s a big, mean bully, and it’s your outsized guardian angel who protects you from bullies.  He keeps things very simple. “Rumble” is really just three or four chords and a pentatonic scale, but he creates an unmistakable sound, which he apparently discovered by poking a hole in his amp with a pencil. One wonders if this was some kind of stand in for self mutilation. He was half Native American, and proudly so, which likely accounts for the intense anguish that comes across in his playing.  Nothing like being the wretched of the earth to inspire raw feelings of betrayal and oppression. Those who can turn this into great art are the truly gifted people in the world.  There’s not much virtuosity involved in Wray’s playing.  He doesn’t need it, and this gives hope to all of us who want to be able to play but are all too aware of our limitations.  …My other passion in life besides music is baseball, and I’ve always had a huge soft spot for players who overachieved simply on the basis of heart and grit, guys like Larry Bowa, Brian Downing, Darryl Porter, Tug McGraw, Rusty Staub, Wally Bachman, Tim Salmon...It’s the same with guitarists.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love me my Clarence White, Eddie Van Halen, and Johnny Marr, just as I love me my Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Keith Hernandez.  But while all these guys have or had incredible ability, it’s the passion with which they play that makes them great. Link Wray plays with passion above all else. If he has a distinct approach it’s simply to play with unbridled feeling and intensity.  Have a listen to this performance of “Rumble.” Try to imagine the dark, sinister vibe it created in 1958, and then marvel at how fresh and ferocious it still sounds 20 years later.  He plays it especially slow here, which suits the song just fine.  It’s incredible stuff.  It puts you in the dark parking lot, out back behind the bar, face-to-face with a tall, lanky sick fuck with a shaved head and a thousand-yard stare, interrupted only by a tiny little sadistic glint. He’s swinging a heavy chain in a way that tells you he lives for this shit. He loves breaking heads open and watching pools of blood form on the pavement in the same way most guys love having their cocks sucked.  The hard, dull steel is about to smack you in the face, knock your teeth out, break your nose. You might even feel one last boot to the stomach before evertything goes black.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Nothing.  But that’s ok.  It’s gonna be such sweet, sweet pain…



Thursday, May 3, 2012

occasional dream, nine

A few people have asked me over the past few weeks why I stopped blogging.  I guess the short answer is that there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do everything I want to do.  The spare time I’ve had over the past six months have been devoted mostly to learning how to play guitar.  It’s what I should’ve been doing when I was 10 or 11, and it’s hard work, but it’s really helped me heal in the aftermath of a setback last fall, to say nothing of the thrill I get when I have a breakthrough and can play things I’ve always dreamed of being able to play.  Which brings me – as so many things in my life seem to do these days – back to Bowie. A student of the guitar can do a lot worse than making a careful study of Bowie’s first few albums, basically everything up to and including Diamond Dogs.  But that’s not really what I want to talk about, though I do want to talk about Bowie.  I always want to talk about Bowie.  He’s pretty much the only thing I wanna talk about these days.  The trouble for me starts when I try (and fail) to find people who actually want to hear what I have to say.  It’s not as easy as you’d think…



A few months ago, when I started having these occasional dreams, I mentioned that Bowie’s particular take on melodic structure was in place from the very beginning.  You can hear it, obliquely, in the early recordings he made when he was still Davy Jones, and you continue to hear it all the way through post-millennial albums like Heathen.   Trying to pin down the essence of the approach to music that unifies Bowie’s career is a bit tricky since he’s always been given re-invention as an end in itself.  But there’s a unifying element that connects his various incarnations.  I’m not sure how to characterize it verbally.  It’s one of those ‘I know it when I hear it’ types of things.  I guess I’d say that it’s an aesthetic of pathos and alienation, or simply aestheticised pathos and alienation.  Bowie’s music stands as a form of sublimation.  I might be a masochist on some level, but I connect most deeply with music, and art more generally, that goes to dark and painful places and transforms them into things of beauty.  Like an image of a lost soul going round and round a hotel garage, touching close to 94, but in place of screeching tires you get to hear a flanged-out Ricky Gardner guitar solo.  …Even when Bowie’s songs are celebratory and life affirming, which is the case for much of Ziggy Stardust, there’s a kind of sublime tragedy built into the music. And the reverse is true as well.  His most tragic songs also manage to be life affirming.  I’m not sure how he pulls this off.  Is it something technical like the chord progressions?  He uses a ton of major sevenths where most songwriters would just opt for the root chord.  It can’t be that, though, can it?  He’s not afraid to step outside the key a song is in.  Rock ‘n Roll Suicide in particular is all over the map in this respect.  This kind of bold risk taking definitely injects added drama and melancholia just as the song is making its emotional ascent. Or maybe it’s his choice of collaborators.  It’s no accident, for example, that he’s always worked with fantastic guitarists, whether it’s Keith Christmas, Ronno, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardner, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Nigel Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaugh, Peter Frampton…Or maybe the answer is much simpler.  Maybe it’s just that Bowie is a genius (a word I use reluctantly), one of the major artists of the second half of the 20th century, and he simply has the ability to do things that most of us could never imagine doing , like using enduringly pleasing melodies as the avenue through which to create complex moods, synthesize contradictory impulses, and get at the essence of a particular time and place in history, often all at the same time.  It’s all in a day’s work for David Bowie.  The man lives in a Moonage Daydream.  It’s a space that ordinary people can observe and enjoy passively, but only a very few can inhabit…