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 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 former sixties London R&B scenester turned cosmically-inclined singer-songwriter David Bowie. It’s “Space Oddity”, a single as taken from his second self-titled 1969 album that would in time be re-titled Space Oddity when it was re-issued in the early seventies. The song would be released on July 11 in the UK, on the same day of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon. The BBC held off on playing it until the astronauts returned safely.
For Bowie’s part as far as the approach to writing this song, parallels to science fiction and his journey with fame would begin here, with many other songs and at least one movie role in his future that would explore the same themes. In this case, this dynamic is achieved through his character of Major Tom, a renowned astronaut lauded by the masses, but finding himself isolated and searching for meaning when confronted with the planetary scale of things, all awash in acoustic guitar strumming, jazzy drumming, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s appropriately spacey mellotron lines.
From here, it’s not too difficult to draw parallels between floating in a tin can far above the world, the nature of fame, and of existence in general. Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Teutonic singer, actor, and model Nico. It’s “These Days”, a song as taken from her 1967 record Chelsea Girl, her solo debut. That album is noted by the extremely high quality of songwriting and instrumental talent behind it, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Tim Hardin.
This particular tune was penned by Jackson Browne, who was a teenager when he wrote the initial iteration of this song. It would evolve later on, and be recorded by several artists including Browne himself later on when he made a name for himself as one of the key figures in the singer-songwriter boom in the early to mid-seventies. Nico was the first to record it in a finished studio version. Browne plays the distinctive electric guitar picking part, accompanying Nico’s distinctively austere and icily distant vocal performance, delivered in her signature lower-register range. All of this is contrasted by a bittersweet wash of strings, added in post-sessions by producer Tom Wilson.
By now, this song has been covered by many, and is perhaps best associated by modern audiences with its use in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Nico’s recording of this song seems to connect with its active ingredients better than most versions do. And what are those ingredients, exactly? And what does Nico bring to it to make it what it is? Continue reading →
Listen to this track by British pop chanteuse and peerless interpreter Dusty Springfield. It’s “Windmills Of Your Mind”, a shimmering pop gem as taken from her seminal 1969 album Dusty In Memphis.
That album was a strategic move on Springfield’s part to make a bona fide R&B album in the very heart of where some of the greatest soul albums were created during that era. The results of this and the story behind them is an epic tale with a who’s who of characters including Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and The Memphis Cats all in tow. But, all the while, Springfield proved above all that she was able to sing anything and in any style and make it all work on an LP that comes together in an extraordinary way. This tune isn’t strictly a soul song, for instance. But, it certainly has soul as Springfield sings it. So, it fits because of her voice.
Among other places, it was featured very prominently in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and sung by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 Academy Awards, at which “Windmills Of Your Mind” won for best original song. Its place in the film is where a lot of casual music fans will recognize it the most. So, how did Dusty Springfield take this song, and make it the one by which all others must be judged? Continue reading →
Listen to this track by Brummie blue-eyed soul and rock quartet The Spencer Davis Group. It’s “I’m A Man”, their 1967 hit single as taken from the self-same album I’m A Man. This would be the group’s last hit single in their original incarnation that featured Stevie Winwood on vocals and organ before he left to join Traffic later in the year.
Like many soul singers, Winwood started his musical journey in part while involved with the Church, although this time it was the C of E and decidedly not a sultry Baptist chapel somewhere in the American South. Nevertheless, access to a bona fide church organ had to be important to his trajectory. He had something that a lot of British musicians didn’t have at the time besides. Winwood didn’t just pick up his trade simply by listening to blues and soul records. The time he spent playing in pick-up bands to back up American bluesman like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker as they toured Britain was also an important part of his musical apprenticeship. This gained him first-hand exposure and training to achieve the real sound of the blues and get straight to the heart of soul music. It also introduced him to how all-consuming it can become to pursue a musician’s life.
That’s what this song is all about; a love song to the music itself and to the state of being in a band, despite the dangers of losing oneself while being entangled in it all. It’s a snapshot of a mind that is both juvenile and ambitious all at once, which is part of why it became a rock standard. But, it goes beyond that, too.
Listen to this track by former TV band turned actual real life band featured in their own movie, The Monkees. It’s “Porpoise Song”, a 1968 single also to be heard on the soundtrack to the movie Head. The film wasdirected by The Monkees TV series creator and director Bob Rafaelson who would go on to direct many films into the 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, who in turn would serve as a screeenwriter on Head. The Monkees TV producer Bert Schneider would also produce the feature. The gang was all here.
In addition to the filmmaking aspect of the project, The Monkees had other allies on this tune, with whom they had a healthy and fruitful relationship; Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had written a number of other songs in their catalogue, including a hit song in “Pleasant Valley Sunday“. That was during the era in which the band were beamed into living rooms all over the nation. Since that period, they’d cut loose the bonds of their former personas as lovable TV goofs. They had established their own path as a real band without the fuel of a hit TV show to propel them onto the charts.
And yet, with “Porpoise Song” and with Head, that former life was still referenced, although in a more satirical light — or maybe as a way to decompress from it and make their escape once and for all. The results were, perhaps, not as they’d thought. Continue reading →