In my last blog I wrote about the reaction to David Bowie’s death. Or, rather, my reaction to the reaction of David Bowie’s death.
Having never listened to a full album by the man, I had used social media to ask for suggestions for three albums to listen to, as an introduction to his work. I decided on ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and his last album, ‘Black Star’.
I finished my last blog by saying I would listen to these albums, and do a follow up blog about how I found them. That was almost three weeks ago.
At this point I don’t think I had consciously tried to put off writing this blog, but on reflection I think that is exactly what I had done. That’s the thing with anxiety, you get the urge to not do something, to procrastinate, but you don’t necessarily fully comprehend why at the time.
The issue here I believe is that I’m nervous about giving opinions on a subject like this, and being found wanting. It really should be as simple as expressing how I reacted emotionally to the music. After all, how can that be wrong?
But more than that, it’s stating opinions on how I found the music, in terms of structure, presentation, etc. It would be very easy for me to state an opinion on the technical aspects of the music, that could easily be countered by various existing articles and studies. David Bowie was very popular and as such, will have had his art analysed in great detail from many, many sources.
But hey, I’m not writing a four page spread for Rolling Stone, it’s a blog. So here goes.
First off was ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. Whilst the concept of the album is quite ambitious, the reality is that this is simply a really good, solid, rock ‘n’ roll album. Easy to get in to, a lot of fun.
I was struck by just how many of the songs I already knew. But what was interesting here was listening to these songs, not in isolation, but in the context of an album. An album is not just a collection of songs; it is a work in and of itself. A format that is possibly on the decline now, but in 1972 was king.
An example of this is listening to ‘Starman’. I’ve heard this song so many times before, as everyone has, but its impact here is greater. As ‘Moonage Daydream’ fades we move in to the discordant opening, and then the first grinding verse, before the triumphant chorus. It’s a pleasure to hear such a familiar song in a new way.
Next I listened to ‘Hunky Dory’. I had intended on listening to the albums in release order, and had mistakenly thought Ziggy Stardust was released first. This album is a very different beast to Ziggy Stardust though, and in many ways is more representative of how I see David Bowie.
Where as Ziggy is a relatively straight forward rock n roll album, stylistically this is much more of a mixed bag. It’s this kind of experimentation that I am used to when I think of Bowie, and in many ways I suppose this really is a good introduction to the man.
Not only is there the mixture of styles here, there is also levels of consistency that I picked up on over the different albums, such as use of horns (particular Saxophone, which I play myself, so is always good to hear) and wonderful piano. But also, we learn more about who his influences were.
There are songs titled to make clear their dedication, such as to Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. But also there are songs that are stylistic homage, such as ‘Kooks’ for The Kinks, and ‘Queen Bitch’ for Lou Reed and the Velvet underground.
In some ways the stylistic mix on this album means that I didn’t find it as accessible as Ziggy Stardust in musical consistency. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, just an observation.
Finally I listened to ‘Black Star’. I feel more cautious about this because of the amount of press I have seen discussing in which ways Bowie was talking about his illness and impending death. The fact that he can take on this most significant and inescapable aspect of the human journey is a testament to his creative ethic. However, I don’t want to be guessing at his intentions here, so will simply speak about how I found the album on first impressions.
The opening titled track for ‘Black Star’ is wonderful. It begins almost wistfully, then bringing in Bowie’s vocals and a more complex beat underneath. It slowly builds from here. With more knowledge of production techniques I could possibly comment on how it has its effect, but really here I can just speak of my emotional response to it.
To me the music builds and starts to surround you, gentle holding and pulling at the centre of you. You could call it heart, or possibly soul, but here is something that you can almost feel, sat under your rib cage. Difficult to describe, but there is a physical connection to the sounds you are hearing. To me, this is what I’m looking for in great music. I can describe in numerous ways why I don’t like certain music, but for music I truly love, describing why is difficult. You just… feel it.
Then the song switches up entirely, surprising you. Lighter with more sax. At first like a middle 8, but out of control. An entirely different theme in itself. Eventually the first theme comes back, feeling almost withdrawn compared to before.
Next track is ”Tis a pity she was a whore’. The dizzying intro a mash up of drums and discordant piano and horns. Confusing in its beauty. Lyrics bring focus, but doesn’t dampen the madness of it all. Driving.
When we come to ‘Lazarus’, to me, the tonal shift from the previous two songs gives it a more stripped back feeling. Whilst there is real beauty here, it also felt to me that it took the power from this song in some way. In isolation, a wonderful song, but the adjustment needed at this stage in the album was a bit difficult for me I found.
Whilst ‘Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)’ provides a brief lift in pace, The rest of the album stays at a similar tone. I got to the end of the album and allowed the time to think, this is it. The end.
So David, Whilst I admit I didn’t have a particular emotional connection to your music when you passed, I was still very well aware how influential you had been on generations of musicians and music fans. The outpouring of grief when you passed is testament to this. Thank you for breaking new ground in art, and giving me another back catalogue in music I feel I now have to explore.