One month ago, David Bowie turned 69. At the same time, he released a great album, arguably to be compared to his best ever works. But, two days later, he died.
I am not over it. Maybe the Internet has moved on. But, I haven’t.
David Bowie helped to shape the world I grew up in. So many musical movements I enjoyed was touched by him. Every weird haircut that I admired was indirectly inspired by him. The very definition of what a man was supposed to be was redefined for me by him. For our generation, manhood (and womanhood too!) became a spectrum of identity along which we became free to move. With that in place, we could decide on the details of what our identities meant for ourselves dynamically instead of holding to some spurious one size fits all ideal. Turn and face the strange, he said! These days, these dynamics are just a given, of course. But, I believe that we have Bowie to thank for a lot of that just because of the impact he had on popular culture with the various masks and personas he wore.
That’s just the thing. David Bowie was as much about redefining how we perceive identity as he was about musically inspiring his peers and followers. In fact, Bowie’s innovation with identity and artifice is entwined with his musical output in such a way that makes either one a facet of the other. What’s come out of that dichotomy between persona and sound simply makes him immortal.
Here are 16 personas that Bowie projected through out his career either by his design or made manifest through our perception as his audience. Which one do you identify with the most? I imagine the answer to that is as varied as there are the number of personas Bowie took on. But, take a look, and tell me what you think.
Listen to this track by New York-based art rock and new wave quartet Talking Heads. It’s “Psycho Killer”, an early composition that would eventually appear on the band’s appropriately titled 1977 debut album Talking Heads 77 and become its second single.
The song was released in the winter 1977, months after New York City was menaced by The Son Of Sam, a serial killer later revealed to be one David Berkowitz, who claimed that he was driven to kill six young women at the behest of his neighbor’s dog Harvey, who according to Berkowitz, was actually a demon in dog form. Despite this song seeming to be a direct reference to this series of events, the song actually pre-dates them, written in 1974 around the time the band was formed. Maybe it was chosen as a single because of its relevance during a time when psycho killers were on everyone’s mind.
Singer, guitarist, and co-writer David Byrne has been quoted as saying that this song is about the Alice Cooper meets Randy Newman interior monologue of a single, and very pretentious killer. Yet, I think this suggests something beyond that that has more to do with us listeners than it does with any one bad guy. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Northumbrian chamber-folk collective The Unthanks, once known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset until 2009. It’s “Mount The Air”, the sumptuous and sprawling title track to 2015’s Mount The Air. This is the full-length ten minute plus version of the song, that can also be heard in a more radio friendly length.
The song’s lyrics reference a traditional poem published in a book of Cornish folk songs in 1958 called “I’ll Mount The Air On Swallow’s Wings”, an ode to lost love, and certainly in keeping with the British folk traditions that the Unthanks have pursued over the course of eight albums. Musically, the influences on this song are attached to a similar vintage of the late fifties, although on a different artistic spectrum. The connections with Miles Davis and Gil Evans and their work on Sketches Of Spain in particular are almost universally acknowledged at this point, even by the band who wrote this song. Maybe the mournful trumpet gives it away. Or, maybe it’s the ghostly Gil-Evans-like atmosphere of the almost-discordant strings.
The sonic landscape of this tune seems to match the thematic content, even if that might not be expected. Even if this song can be looked upon as a standard lost-love folk tune, it touches on other themes as well that go beyond any one tradition. This song is about transformation. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Nova Scotian power pop scensters and Canadian national treasure now based in Toronto, Sloan. It’s “I Hate My Generation”, a key song as taken from their breakthrough second album Twice Removed.
This album was one of a few that helped to draw the spotlight to the fertile East Coast scene of bands centred in Halifax doing interesting work during the early to mid-nineties and at once compared to their American Pacific Northwest counterparts. Yet, the scene had a distinct sound of its own, and with as much diversity when you took a closer listen. Thrush Hermit, Jale, Superfriendz, and Eric’s Trip were a select few other players on that scene from the early to mid-nineties that provided a touchpaper effect in the Canadian music press, if not always setting charts ablaze south of the border.
Although not a single, this tune from Twice Removed sounded like the flagship song to a hard won hit album. It reflects that struggle of trying to find a voice when all those around were clamouring for the same old thing. It’s also something of an anthem of that hated generation, too.
Listen to this track by Icelandic former Sugarcubes frontwoman turned electronica art pop maven Björk. It’s “Hidden Place”, the first single as taken from her highly acclaimed 2001 album Vespertine, released in the summer of that year. The album would go onto many a best-of-the-decade list, and stand as a significant change in artistic direction for its author.
The record was created while Björk was engaged in the creation of the soundtrack for the movie she starred in at the time, that being Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. The movie was screened at the Cannes film festival in 2000, where Björk won an award for Best Actress. Along with the critical accolades however,her experience on the shoot was purportedly tense. Von Trier’s tight control of the project rankled against her own creative impulses in the lead role. As a result, Vespertine could be looked upon as an equal and opposite reaction to the action of starring in her first (and possibly last) feature film with another artist in Von Trier at the helm.
This wasn’t just about control. It was also about tone. In the movie, Björk’s character Selma after whom the companion album Selmasongs is named is an extroverted and driven character who becomes the tragic victim of circumstance. If this song has a character at the center of it, then she could be considered Selma’s opposite; a langourously relaxed, insular, and contented person. This is due to another force in Björk’s life at the time; new love. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by musical chameleon, vocal titan and otherwise folk-jazz-whatever singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. It’s “Song Of The Siren”, the version which appeared on his 1970 album Starsailor.
The song had been around for a while, featuring in particular on his 1968 musical guest appearance on the very last episode of The Monkees TV series, of all things. In that appearance, the song is decidedly folkier and more vocally polite than the one you’re hearing here. Buckley was a restless artist, constantly on the move and seemingly driven to push his own artistic boundaries, sometimes to a fault when considering his commercial footholds, or lack thereof. During his particular era, changing tracks musically, or in fact building one’s own track from scratch, was a trickier thing than it is today. The template for that kind of career wasn’t quite set across the board.
Regardless of all of that, Buckley’s “Song Of The Siren” is one of his best known songs, even if it appeared on an ablum that wasn’t exactly mainstream-friendly. So, was Buckley trying to accomplish by retooling it? Continue reading →