via Bob Lefsetz (click for playlist as you read) :
“I’m an alligator
I’m a mama-papa coming for you”
The first Bowie song that hooked me.
It was the sound of Mick Ronson’s guitar. Bowie plucked him from obscurity and made him an icon. Ronson ultimately co-produced Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” cut his own album, “Slaughter On 10th Avenue,” worked with Ian Hunter and then died. But first and foremost, Ronson was cool. Which was quite a feat, standing next to Bowie himself.
It was the summer of ’72, I was in London, cruising the record shops, reading “Melody Maker” and the NME, going to the Chelsea Drugstore, and the two biggest acts were T. Rex and David Bowie, the former with little traction in the U.S., the latter completely unknown. So, when I got back across the pond I bought the album with all the hoopla, “Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.” The vinyl was flexible, as was the wont of RCA, a label which featured very few stars, never mind true rockers, all this to say the LP was brand new to me, I was listening in my bedroom, having an adventure. And back then you’d play albums over and over and over again, and as they wore on you’d get hooked and favorites would change. But to this day, my heart remains pledged to “Moonage Daydream.”
“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe
Put your ray gun to my head
Press your space face close to mine, love
Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”
IT AIN’T EASY
I knew it. It was on the sampler LP “Friends” from the fall of 1970. There was an ad in “Rolling Stone.” Unlike the Warner “Loss Leaders,” you didn’t even have to send A&M money. And it included Cat Stevens’ “Trouble.” And Free’s “I’ll Be Creepin’.” Along with “It Ain’t Easy” by Ron Davies, who never broke through. If you fast-forward to the one minute mark, you can hear Davies’s original here:
Because of the riff, instantly memorable. With the backstory of this concept album contained in its lyrics.
ROUND AND ROUND
And then the man went on tour, he played the Music Hall in Boston, it wasn’t sold out, Bowie was still unknown, I mail-ordered the tickets and we drove down from Vermont and when the strobe lights came on and the band in their spacesuits started to play it was a transcendent moment.
But not as high a peak as the encore, when the house lights went up and the band came out and played “Round And Round.”
The original is by Chuck Berry. The Stones had the famous British Invasion cover. It was the kind of song you knew by heart but never heard on the radio. Playing it Bowie illustrated his roots and his chops all at the same time. He was twitching on stage, the music was in him, all we could do was marvel.
From “Hunky Dory,” arguably Bowie’s best album. Hell, I’ll go on record, it IS!
Once upon a time, “Changes” was completely unknown. I never heard it on the radio before “Ziggy Stardust” was released. Hell, I never heard any of “Ziggy Stardust” on the radio!
But Bowie had a whole career, a whole catalog, before I got hooked. But with limited cash and not knowing where to start, I did not immediately go out and buy “Hunky Dory.” But my college buddy John Hughes did, and I followed him shortly thereafter.
“Changes” is the famous song, hooky and meaningful, but almost too obvious, especially compared with the deep, insightful stuff that fleshed out the rest of the album, like…
LIFE ON MARS?
“It’s a god-awful small affair”
A story song, that pulled you in and made you want to get closer to the artist. Funny how album cuts do that, make you a fan. You think it’s about the hits, but it’s when you throw off convention and follow your muse that we become bonded to you.
“Ziggy” rocked, “Hunky Dory” had more of an acoustic feel.
This is the essence of the scene, if not life, we’re all just kooks, hung up on romancing.
“As in ‘holes'”
From before Bowie became an art rock icon, when he wasn’t famous in New York, when he was looking to the art icon from across the sea.
He sings like he means it. So you do too. Haunting.
OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS
It’s hard not to include every song from “Hunky Dory.” I feel bad about leaving “The Bewlay Brothers” off. But “Oh! You Pretty Things” not only has indelible changes that have your brain twisting, the message encapsulates the era:
“Oh! you pretty things
Don’t you know you’re driving your
Mamas and papas insane”
PANIC IN DETROIT
I went back and bought “The Man Who Sold The World” too, but eagerly anticipated and purchased upon the day of release “Aladdin Sane.”
I’d like to tell you it superseded what came before, built upon the base and broke through, but it didn’t. I played it again and again, figuring I’d missed it, that it would reveal itself to me, but…
I did like a number of tracks, this one jumped out first. Especially the break, wherein Bowie sings about making his way to school and finding his teacher crouching in his overalls.
THE JEAN GENIE
The one you hear most from “Aladdin Sane” today. The vocal is a detached sneer wherein Bowie is cooler than you, he always was.
LADY GRINNING SOUL
Is this already forgotten?
The final track on “Aladdin Sane” became the one I played most. Credit Mike Garson’s piano playing. For all the space age sound, the commentary on modern life, Bowie would display unexpected range, with stuff like this, which was one step away from a James Bond theme song, at least the ones they cut back then.
ALL THE YOUNG DUDES
So, the cognoscenti know Bowie, as referenced above, Lou Reed hired him and Mick Ronson to produce his breakthrough “Transformer” album, which contained “Walk On The Wild Side.” Bowie made Reed palatable for the masses, without his work it’s doubtful the bard of Long Island would be the legend he is.
And then comes Mott The Hoople.
Four albums and no success. I saw them open for Traffic at the Fillmore East, they played their instrumental cover of “You Really Got Me” from their debut LP with the Escher cover but…they never got bigger. And then they switched labels, from Atlantic to Columbia, were produced by Bowie and…
Let’s be clear, Bowie WROTE THIS! Suddenly Mott The Hoople had a bigger hit than Bowie ever did! Who gives up his best number? Eventually a Bowie recording slipped out, but that was long after the fact.
SEE EMILY PLAY
A fan buys everything, without hearing it first.
By this time, the hip rock press was filled with Bowie stories, especially “Creem.” We knew this album of covers was coming. But the problem was I already knew most of these songs already, and Bowie did not improve upon them. “PinUps” was not special. Was now the time for Bowie to indulge himself, or should he have gone in for the kill? Then again, he was a superstar in the U.K., even though he meant little in the States.
But this is one track I didn’t know. Everybody lionizes Syd Barrett these days, but at this point in time people were just catching up with the latter-day Pink Floyd, “Dark Side Of The Moon” was beginning its ascendance. “See Emily Play” might have meant something over there, but here it was deeper than a deep cut.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE GOOD TIMES GONE
One of these days Ray Davies is gonna die, and you’re gonna lament you never saw him live, you’re gonna look back at his work and marvel how someone could chronicle life so accurately, to the point so many covered his songs…hell, Herman’s Hermits had a hit with “Dandy.”
This is my favorite cover on “PinUps.”
And suddenly David Bowie is all over the radio, the FM dial, the only one that counts, Top Forty did not experience a renaissance until 1982, after MTV winnowed down the number of tracks and turned those chosen into hits and new radio stations copied their playlist and ate up market share and killed AOR.
The press hated “Diamond Dogs,” said it shot low, was a disappointment.
So much for critics. Who mean even less in the internet era.
Bowie’s now playing arenas, with multiple backup singers dressed as dogs, the story is all over the rock press, “Diamond Dogs” is a triumph, illustrating the power of a hit single to truly establish your career.
My favorite track on “Diamond Dogs,” from back when Orwellian nightmares were a constant reference, before that year came and went.
SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME
Someone up there must need David Bowie, to trash the oldies and establish a new path. I liked the “Blackstar” song/video, and have to give the guy credit for doing the unexpected, for following his own muse, he’s confounded our expectations, it’s the album “The Next Day” should have been. And “Young Americans” was confounding, a complete one-eighty, a jump from moist London to gritty Philadelphia, David Bowie reimagined himself as an R&B star.
But I didn’t buy the album, I didn’t buy any albums, I was living on a wing and a prayer in Sandy, Utah. I had five pairs of skis on my roof, but not a dime in my pocket. Which is how I found myself sleeping in my car behind the Hart warehouse in Reno, Nevada, waiting for them to open the next morning so I could get a new pair of Freestyles. Before the security guard woke me up in the middle of the night, while I was huddled under my sleeping bag in the front seat listening to the radio, I heard this. It’s still my favorite track on the album, it locks you into the groove the way a roller coaster locks onto the chain and it doesn’t let go. Furthermore, it makes you feel GOOD!
The other one that gets me on “Young Americans.” Which was co-written by soul legend Luther Vandross and features the rock solid rhythm section of Andy Newmark and Willie Weeks, never mind New York legend David Sanborn on sax and Bowie teammates Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson on guitar and piano respectively.
I know, I know, “Young Americans” featured the multi-format smash “Fame,” but I never cottoned to it, it’s almost too obvious and was played to death, but I loved that Bowie had become a huge star in the U.S.
Cut in L.A. at Cherokee (just to get inside a recording studio was a treat back then, I remember the first time I was there in the eighties), “Station To Station” was an extension of the “Young Americans” sound, and this is my favorite cut from it, I love the way it ultimately transitions and accelerates at the four minute mark.
How cool is this?
A hit I was enamored of, unlike “Fame,” great changes, great sound, great production.
SPEED OF LIFE
I loved this, the opening track on “Low,” I was living in one room with no light on Carmelina in West L.A. but every time I dropped the needle on this my mood brightened.
Bowie would completely change sounds and genres, daring us to come along. And he seemingly didn’t care if what he did was a hit or not. Sure, Neil Young felt the same way, but Bowie was bigger and had further to fall and the jumps were much longer.
I know, I know, Madonna is famous for changing genres, but does anybody really give her credit as a musician? Don’t we credit her cowriters? And even though she slings a guitar across her shoulder do we really think she can play? (And don’t make this a sexist thing, Jennifer Batten and Tal Wilkenfeld, who both famously accompanied the best rock guitarist of all time, Jeff Beck, can SHRED!) Sure, electronic music was starting to burgeon, Eno had put out a bunch of LPs, but his breakthrough, “Before And After Science,” came almost a year after “Low” so…it’s hard to say Bowie jumped on the bandwagon, rather he helped establish it!
At the bleeding edge of the punk era, there was a ton of attitude in this, possibly “Low”‘s most accessible track, which is saying something.
BE MY WIFE
An offbeat track by one of the biggest artists in the world, talk about taking a risk!
I can’t believe I’m including four tracks from “Low”! But when you’re a fan, you play this stuff over and over again, and if it’s good, it reveals itself to you.
And yes, Bowie worked with Eno on both “Low” and “Heroes,” but this was much more accessible. And although a number one hit in Ireland, Scotland and the U.K., it was nowhere near as big in the U.S. But it had a place. And over time it’s gained more and more traction in the public consciousness, it’s one of the most referenced tracks since Bowie’s death.
ASHES TO ASHES
From “Scary Monsters,” instantly accessible.
I moved from that ground floor apartment to Barry Avenue with my girlfriend. And when that ended I ended up where I am now, nearly friendless, because we each completed each other, and that’s not a good thing. So I set out to make new friends, and I remember Andy Mazur being enraptured by this number, maybe even buying the single, when that was nearly taboo, we’d sit in his place overlooking the city and when I heard the music I felt my life would work out. And now not only are two Beatles deceased, but Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are gone too.
And by all rights, Bowie should have been done, a creature of the seventies who’d been through so many twists and turns that he’d expended all his capital, and wasn’t there a new wave of U.K. groups dominating the chart and ultimately the newfangled MTV?
But MTV gave David Bowie a victory lap, made him bigger than ever before, starting with this.
I’d love to tell you I love it, but I don’t. I like it more than “Fame,” love the groove, but it was simplistic lyrically and overplayed in a newly mindless era. But at a distance, I can tell why it went to number one. Bowie was built for MTV, even if he predated it, Bowie had a presence, he knew visuals.
I liked this one better, it rocked more.
CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OUT FIRE)
There’s an iteration on “Let’s Dance,” but you really want the 1982 single. The title song from the movie, back when Nastassja Kinski was the new “It Girl,” this track snuck up on you, was subtle and ultimately hooked you. Credit Giorgio Moroder, who was on an incredible hot streak, everything he touched went gold, he’d already succeeded in films with “Midnight Express.” I can’t imagine anything like this being chosen as a title track today, they want an instant hit, it’s not about art, but commerce. Then again, the movies themselves are in the dumper.
LOVING THE ALIEN
Bowie was now on EMI America. One wonders what his career would have looked like if he was on Warner or Columbia in the States, he never had the benefit of a reasonable label in his heyday.
This is darker than the stuff on the “Let’s Dance” album, but in many ways even more satiating.
Okay, okay, there was more.
“Blue Jean” was a hit after this.
And I never mentioned “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. And it was stunning that Bowie rescued the Sales brothers from Todd Rundgren and obscurity with Tin Machine. But as time wore on, Bowie kept experimenting and had less impact, at least commercially.
Who do we blame? Bowie himself or a culture that became all about obvious pop hits, ultimately written by others with two-dimensional characters as fronts?
But I did see Bowie one more time, from mere feet away, at the Wiltern, an underplay back in 2004. It was neither sad nor creepy, Bowie smiled and gave it his all and then he was done, disappeared.
To tell you the truth, I thought the cocaine got him, that it compromised his heart and that’s why he couldn’t go back on the road. I did not expect him to die of cancer.
And now he’s gone.
This has hit me hard. Because it wasn’t Bowie’s time. But the Grim Reaper doesn’t seem to care, he takes people willy-nilly, no matter their impact, no matter how much they are loved.
So we end up with more questions than answers. Which is where art comes in. It makes sense of the world, it gives us something to hold on to and believe in.
And we believed in David Bowie. We didn’t think he was a fraud, propped up by the machine, rather the genuine article.
And, of course, there was the acting and the outfits and the production, the theatre, but really it comes down to the music.
Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s all rolled up in this thing we know as a career.
You remember careers, right? That’s what lifers did before money came first and they began whoring themselves out to corporations and it was about being a brand and getting a clothing line and having your own vodka and… Artists used to stand apart, they were beacons, now they’re just hustlers looking to use and abuse us in their climb up the ladder. No one can say no, no one can take the road less traveled.
But Bowie did.
His most famous track didn’t break through until years after he recorded it.
Yes Major Tom, your circuit’s dead there’s something wrong…
We never counted you out, we always hoped you’d surprise us, we always thought you’d be there to take one last swing, to define the game and play it your way.
But now you’re floating in your tin can, far above the moon.
And you have no idea how blue planet Earth truly is. You have no idea of the pain and suffering, the outcry over the loss of your presence.
You played guitar.
You jammed good with Weird and Gilly, never mind Lou and Ian and Freddie.
You were the special man.
We could never be in your band.
But we wanted to be.
We wanted to get closer, we wanted to know you, see the world through your eyes.
Now we’re all alone.
Spotify link: spoti.fi/1J1Z9ZA
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