I don’t think of myself as a Bowie fan, but then I can’t imagine what Bowie fans would be like. He’s such a chameleon, an almost Dadaist artist. Endlessly fascinating to me.
As a David Bowie fan, I thought I’d try to explain. I’ve written before about some of the things I appreciate about David Bowie, but it’s a good invitation to write about David Bowie in a broader sense.
First, one caveat; compared to some of the musicians that I love, I’ve never been particularly tempted to collect his albums. I’m really a fan of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie At The Beeb, The Best Of Bowie, Low, and Heroes. I have a number of his other albums, but I never listened to him much, and am perfectly happy with the best of collection as a representative of the other albums*. I find Bowie’s most interesting work deeply fascinating, but have never felt any temptation to be a completest. Perhaps it’s important that I got into David Bowie by listening to Ziggy Stardust intently, and it was years before I got anything else by him, and I do think he rewards that sort of close attention.
So let’s start by taking one song, here is a fantastic live version of Five Years.” The first thing that’s impressive about that is that it makes clear how much of a risk-taker Bowie is. The studio versions are so carefully constructed that it’s easy to take the craft for granted, but watching it live it’s obvious just how many challenges the song presents. I feel like in many cases listening to early recordings of musicians who would go on to become superstars that I feel like their talent exceeds their material — that they’re tapping into an energy or charisma that isn’t completely defined yet. In this video you have a 25-year old David Bowie, at the peak of his talents working really hard to manage all of the twists in his song. Think about this song for a moment, in terms of energy, it starts at an almost conversational (if stilted) tone and gradually builds to a final crescendo. But in terms of imagery it opens with an anchor weeping on camera at the news he’s delivering (“News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying / Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying”) that the world is going to end. The narrator thinks about all of things and all of the people in the world that he will miss (“My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare / I had to cram so many things to store everything in there . . . I never thought I’d need so many people”) and that’s still in the first verse. The second verse has images of people in the streets losing their minds, fighting or crying, and just as it’s building up emotional power there’s a completely sweet aside (“I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor, drinking milk shakes cold and long / Smiling and waving and looking so fine, don’t think / You knew you were in this song”) then back to the character’s sense of unreality (“And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor”), and then build to the big emotional finish (“We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got”)
That’s a challenging song to pull off. Even at the level of lyrics, I’m really fond of every line that I quoted above, but you have to admit that, “my brain hurts like a warehouse” is an odd image. I’m not sure what would be a better image. The more common phrase is some version of the mind “overflowing” but I don’t think that would be better — particularly that close to the image of crying it might just evoke tears again. So, what David Bowie do, he writes a slightly off-kilter image and then sells the heck out of it. It’s not tongue in cheek at all, he sings it and you know exactly what it means. He’s not playing it safe on that song (and on most of Ziggy Stardust) and you might say that one of Bowie’s great strengths is the ability to be quirky or clever without creating ironic distance.
It’s been observed that David Bowie is, “the most actorly of singers” which is a good description and means, in part, that he approaches lyrics like a script. his role as a singer is to draw out the emotions that have been written — which you might contrast with some singers for whom the words are just a vehicle for the emotion that they bring to the music. There’s a distance to David Bowie’s performances, but he uses that space to be extremely precise.
The other thing I would mention about Ziggy Stardust specifically, is that it’s an amazingly creatively fertile album — it’s full of good ideas. As one example, I sometimes tell people to go through the album listening to the first 10-15 seconds of each song and the skip to the next track, and you realize that every song sounds different and almost every song has a memorable hook. But even within a song they’re full of detail and attention, as “Five Years” exemplifies. Listing to Best Of Bowie I always felt like the first disk was notably creatively rich, and the second disk is poorer and sparser in that regard, but makes up for it with a well-crafted pop sound, and a number of excellent singles.
I don’t have much to say about Low, though I’ve come to think it may be Bowie’s second best album. I would note that it’s one of the albums on which he does the least singing, and yet it’s still clearly a David Bowie album. Perhaps it’s just worth noting that he’s had many productive partnerships with other musicians (e.g., with Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti on Ziggy Stardust, as a producer for Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, with Pat Methany on
“I’m Afraid Of Americans” “This Is Not America”, etc. . .) so his work with Eno is not unique in that regard.
The final thing I might note is that Bowie is well suits my habits of listening. I’ve said before that when I listen to a new song, I tend to float along with it and see what moments, or what lines stand out to my ear, and work backwards from their to the rest of the song. With Bowie those moments when the music and lyric and performance combine to stress some line or some image are always clear, distinct, and well chosen. It works quite well to listing to “Starman” starting from, “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up” and to hear the entire song as existing in relationship to that image; it does explain something important about what’s happening.
* I’m not sure why I’ve never listened to Hunky Dory much. I expect to love it, I just haven’t spent much time with it.