Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie RIP

So many thoughts about David Bowie.  

In retrospect, of course the song and video for "Lazarus" are about his death.  I mean, the song is called "Lazarus".  Listen again to the opening lines: "look up here I'm in heaven/I've got scars that can't be seen".  And we didn't know?  In the video his body is covered by a sheet, his eyes are wrapped up like a mummy, and as he struggles to sing, he takes on a half sitting/half levitating pose.  Wow.  

I remember the lead up to Freddie Mercury's death, rumours had been swirling for months when Queen hadn't announced a tour in conjunction with their upcoming new album.  Something wasn't right.  Queen always toured, and even though they were past their peak as a recording act, as a live act they were still legendary.  This was shortly after the Who and the Rolling Stones had made their comebacks and went on record breaking tours.  Being relevant on the radio was no longer important for bands at this stage of their careers, the new album was a conveniently timed signal for beginning a new tour.  So there were plenty of rumours.  Freddie was sick.  It made sense given the lack of a tour announcement and the non-denials from the Queen camp, but nobody knew anything for sure.  News travelled slowly, there was no internet, no social media.  

I don't remember how those rumours started, but they were there, and everything was trading endlessly in the same tiny pieces of information.  Finally came the confirmation that everyone had feared: Freddie was sick with AIDS.  And the next day he died.  His inner circle had obviously known what he was dealing with for some time, but it was kept quiet.  For the public, who knew nothing officially but deep down knew something was terribly wrong, it was two shocks one after the other -- before anyone had properly processed the AIDS announcement, came the announcement that he was dead.  

Information travels so much quicker these days, and yet with Bowie, we see there has been little change in the speed of understanding.  He was looking more frail in recent photos and videos than he was for his last album three years ago.  He was not granting interviews (although the same was true with "The Next Day").  Nobody seriously raised the idea that "Blackstar" was an album of hidden messages.  On one hand, the art should be all that matters and not everything has to be a reflection of the artist's personal life, which is nobody's business anyway.  On the other hand, 85% of the internet is morons spewing hateful accusations and stupid conspiracy theories, and nobody thought to mention that maybe David Bowie was dying.  

In 1990, I bought the "Changesbowie" cassette, which I believe was the first "classic rock" greatest hits collection I ever bought, and listened to it endlessly. At a time when I was obsessed with finding really long songs, I was very much into this 14-minute remix of "Fame '90" (a version long since forgotten, even by me).  

In 2000, his set at Glastonbury wowed even the most jaded critics who felt he'd lost his way in the 90's trying to stay contemporary with his odd forays into electronic music.  I heard the set for the first time in 2004, and was blown away with how pure and powerful his voice still was.  I realized I'd be making a mistake if I didn't see Bowie play live at least once in my life.  Little did I (or anyone else) know at the time that he was almost done as a performing artist.

Two Bowie-related memories from TV have always stood out for me.  The first was NBC using the full album version of "Heroes" in the closing montage of the 1997 World Series.  The slow build of the song perfectly matched the drama and heartbreak of sport, at least on that day.  I think it was at that moment that I realized that "Heroes" was his best ever song, only ten years after everyone else realized it at "Live Aid".  

The second was his amazing one-off appearance with Arcade Fire at Fashion Rocks 2005.  Bowie was forever cool for a reason -- he never stopped being a fan of contemporary music and trends, and was constantly on the lookout for new ideas and fresh acts to inspire him.  The best artists make everyone around them better.  Queen's best song by miles is "Under Pressure", whereas for Bowie it was just one all-time highlight in a career filled with them.  The Arcade Fire performance is one of the best examples I've ever seen of an act slowly winning over a disinterested audience.  Even the director has no idea who they are.   At the beginning of the song he's fast cutting all over the stage, most likely because he had no idea who the lead singer was.  By the end of the song, an entire hall of non music fans are on their feet.  Bowie may have been the hook to get them to pay attention, but it was the joint effort of band and guest artist that eventually won them over.  For Arcade Fire, it was a great moment on their rise to superstardom.  For Bowie, it was yet another cool career highlight that he seemed to churn out effortlessly, and one of his final live appearances.

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