Monday, 11 January 2016

New year, new start, new blog? RIP David Bowie

This had been on my mind for a while now. Getting this blog moving again. Writing had and has always been a passion, and music is always my biggest love. Writing about music then (but positively, there's already too much negativity in reviews etc out there) was always a no-brainer. And the small collection of unfinished novels was just getting bigger and bigger. Writing smaller more concise pieces just made sense.

Getting married in April 2014 was great. Getting diagnosed with cancer four weeks later was not. I'll touch on this more regularly as I write posts here, and people find out more, but basically cancer messed up a lot of my life. Chemo, surgery, lots more chemo, other drugs, fatigue...people surprising me with being not as helpful as I'd hoped, everything got stopped, delayed, or outright cancelled. I'm trying now to effectively reboot/restart everything, but it's proving difficult. I'm still doing it though.

This then now becomes my blog. It'll still have music stuff, but equally it's going to be me, rambling, writing, thinking, probably whining. We'll see.

Today then got off to a bad start with hearing the news of David Bowie's passing. Bowie was a huge part of my life, musical and otherwise. I loved everything he did (excepting the ropey Tonight and Never Let Me Down albums from the mid-eighties), he was the link that bonded me with my future wife, and his music for me still stands above anyone elses. One mistake people made though was to always refer to him as a 'rock star'. Not incorrect, but it in many ways missed what Bowie was. The term rock star conjures an image, an image that Bowie was distinctly differently from. A well-read, articulate man, that played to some level of skill a dozen different instruments, spoke seven languages fluently, was well-versed in all forms of music and cinema, he personally and musically was in fact more of an avant-garde artist that had found mainstream rock success. Hyperbole? Possibly.

Some things to consider then. At the height of his early rock success, he killed his hugely popular character off and retired his successful band formula. His next move? To attempt an art-rock take on George Orwell's famous '1984'. Eventually he dumped rock and released a soul album. This met with huge success, gifting him an American number one single in 'Fame' (which James Brown then ripped off in the form of 'Hot'). Bowie's next move was to record an album that blended soul with a colder, more introspective, more European sound, before abandoning this direction entirely and decamping to first France, then Germany and then finally Switzerland. Not to record, like everyone else, some quickly back-to-basics punk rock, or some garish attempts to jump on the brief disco bandwagon, but instead to record a trilogy of distinctly left-leaning experimental electronic and world music with ambient pioneer Brian Eno. From here a return to hard rock lead to gigantic mega pop success that would for a while be his undoing, before again diving into heavy metal, dance rock, full-on ambient, jungle...

Some would simple-mindedly, and mean-spiritedly, say he was 'selling out'. But that frankly is not an argument that stands up to much scrutiny. Jungle and it's related dance genres were never mainstream popular, so recording an album of material taking in those was that selling out? Retreating from massive American sales to record electronica before electronica was even a thing, and when everyone else was making disco? How is THAT selling out? Ambient music? How does an artist sell out by making ambient? His most recent album was incorrectly described by uninformed music press peoples as having dumped rock and embracing jazz, and some had said this was merely an attempt to be 'edgy'. This was a half truth at best.

David Bowie was the artist who first got me into a lot of different music. 'Low', 'Heroes' and 'Lodger' alone pointed me towards Kraftwerk, Can, Ashra, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, King Crimson, The ProjeKcts. And so many more. But Bowie also showed me and many others Iggy Pop, The Stooges, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Pixies, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush...but for me he was also the man who got me into jazz too.

He had always spoken highly of his love for various jazz players and albums, and I'd always enjoyed the stories of how he and his band would experiment and improvise in the studio, but as usual it was the music that spoke for itself. The album 'Aladdin Sane' featured superb American pianist Mike Garson who added some out of the world jazz piano and made the songs something more than just the songs, for 'Black Tie White Noise' the guitar was almost completely absent, replaced by both Bowie's own saxophone and jazz great Lester Bowie's peerless trumpet playing. The piece 'Looking For Lester' was an incredible slice of modern jazz against a proto techno funk backing, with turns being taken between both Bowie's and Garson's dazzling piano runs. This alone inspired me to check out more of this music, and it was not long before I was regularly listening to Keith Jarrett, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Matthew Shipp, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Coltrane and lots more.

David Bowie had for the vast majority of his career always done things differently. It's just that some people weren't paying attention. On his more recent more standard 'rock' albums, he was still finding alternative ways of doing things; performing with the Kronos Quartet, using the stylophone as an actual musical instrument, hell, 2003's 'Reality' even finished with the seven-minute low key jazz-esque piece 'Bring Me The Disco King'.

Buying Bowie's 'Black Star' was an exciting day for me. Buying a new record from a beloved musical hero yes, but more than that. For me, something to force myself to overcome my physical and mental weaknesses. Listening to it for the first time was a strange and wonderful experience. Instrumentally perfect, with brilliant snapping drums throughout and some incredible sax work, the tone of the album is from the start very dark, and dark even by David Bowie's standards (we're talking about the usual miserable love songs or break-up whines here, this is a man who has written songs featuring  commentary on domestic abuse, dystopia in societies and infanticide). And yet, it ends with an uplifting nearly upbeat piece in 'I Can't Give Everything Away'. I found it quite happily moving on first listen. After hearing about his death though the song takes on an eerie other tone, with lyrics that seemingly directly reference his coming passing. The song now is simultaneously tinged with sadness yet bizarrely warmly uplifting.

It's a great way to end a great album, and it's a fitting end to a stellar career and life. Thank you David.

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