Thursday, December 13, 2007

David Bowie as Elder Revolutionary
There was a time, mostly when I was in my teens and twenties, when I really believed that rock music could change our world, politically and culturally. It wasn’t naivete so much as it was a sense of wonder that fueled that belief. Those three chords, in all their permutations, shaped my adolescence, and became my evolving mantra. Whatever was happening in the world could somehow be translated into the music of Dylan or Lennon or Lou Reed or any number of other musicians—some that were embers in the wind, and others who continue to burn brightly even now.

I was always around music. My father taught me all he knew about country music and its relationship to our Irish roots, my mother waxed on and on about Elvis and American Bandstand, my grandmother fostered an appreciation of Sinatra and swing, and my aunts slipped me soul and Brit rock. As a result, commercial radio always seemed lacking to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason I didn’t play well with others as a child. I had my music and comic books and TV, and all was right with the world.

When I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, two almost concurrent events made it all begin to gel in my mind. I read Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions collection, and I saw one of those Columbia House ads, this one featuring an album called The Man who Sold the World, by some guy named David Bowie. Between the “inner space” of so-called New Wave science fiction and the oh-so-cool apocalyptic soundscapes of Bowie, my own worldview began to take shape. Bowie, like Ellison, inspired me to absorb every viewpoint I could find. Between the influence of the two, I found a common ground from which I could think, and more importantly, write. It goes without saying that Ellison and Bowie have left an indelible imprint on pop culture. And it’s equally obvious that while their output is not as prolific as it was during their fiery days of the seventies and eighties, they make whatever statements they make, count. It’s the price of being an Elder Statesman of one’s chosen genre.

David Bowie Box, as its nondescript title suggests, makes no apologies for Bowie’s less than hit-worthy output during the millennial transition Consider it more an inside nod to the utilitarian titles of his last five albums—Outside, Earthling, ‘hours. . .’, Heathen and Reality. The last ten or so years have found Bowie retrospective more than anything else, reconsidering his status as “rock royalty,” and pondering how preposterous it is that we came to this. Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Disco King and the Man Who Fell to Earth all came home to roost in this collection, albeit with mixed results.

After the debacle that was Tin Machine, followed by the relative dance floor success of Black Tie, White Noise, Bowie tried his hand at duplicating the cyberpunk world of William Gibson with Outside. Originally envisioned as the first part of a series of non-sequential narratives following the exploits of police detective Nathan Adler Outside reunited Bowie with his “Berlin Trilogy” (Low, Heroes, Lodger) collaborator Brian Eno. While many at the time thought Outside signaled a new direction for the ever-changing Bowie, the project never went beyond this effort. Even at that, it managed to put Bowie at the forefront of industrial dance floor music for a time. Disc Two is testament to that, laden as it is with remixes, most notably Trent Reznor’s alternative mix of “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.”

On 1997’s Earthling, Bowie expanded on the industrial-techno framework of Outside, imbedding it throughout with the “drums ‘n’ bass” mix wildly popular in London dance floors. It was his first self-produced album since Diamond Dogs, and it was something of a techno hit. But Bowie found himself overshadowed by the Nine Inch Nails remix of “I’m Afraid of Americans” the “Dead Man Walking” version mixed by Moby, both featured on Disc Two. Bowie, however inadvertently, had found himself in the position of being source material for the next generation.

Bowie bade farewell to the end of the last millennium in 1999 with ‘hours…’ a transitional work that was steeped in introspection, as evidenced by “All the Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” After the experimentation that marked most of his work in the nineties, this album seemed almost like Bowie’s swan song, and in some ways, it was. With it, he severed his ties with Virgin Records, and ended his relationship with Reeves Gabrels, his guitarist and musical partner since the Tin Machine days. Disc Two veers away from techno remixes as well, concentrating more on mixes that were adapted to film soundtracks, or were paeans to the man himself.

With the release of Heathen in 2002, the Thin White Duke was redefined once again, this time as a culmination of all the themes and personae Bowie had explored throughout his career. If some of his work in the nineties suggested that he had fallen prey to Aging Rocker’s Syndrome, Heathen dispelled such assertions. His first album on his own ISO label (distributed by Sony Legacy) found him working once again with longtime producer Tony Visconti, who had worked on and off with Bowie since the early seventies. The resultant album was a work that found Bowie at last comfortable in his own skin, and was his highest charting work since Let’s Dance. The entire album exudes a confidence and power borne of acceptance of aging. In fact, it takes a second listen to realize that his versions of “I’ve been Waiting for You” (Neil Young), “Cactus” (the Pixies) and “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy) are covers. Disc Two features a Moby remix of “Sunday” and a 1979 outtake (deservedly so) of “Panic in Detroit.”

Reality followed in 2003, and continued the premises laid forth in Heathen, once again finding Bowie being Bowie, relishing his past while living in the present. Besides a diverse wealth of original material, it features Bowie’s take on Johnathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Pablo Picasso”, and a haunting version of George Harrison’s “Try Some, Buy Some.” The centerpiece of the work, though is the nearly eight minute song “Bring Me the Disco King,” a loopy lounge lizard piano and sax piece of subtle self-deprecation that also encapsulates the failed invincibility of the eighties. Disc Two features several nuggets, most notable being “Rebel Rebel” and updated versions of same, appropriately titled “Rebel Never Gets Old.”

In Bowie’s case, truer words were never spoken. While a mild heart attack in 2004 cut a world tour in support of Reality short, and may partially explain why he hasn’t released an album in the interim, it hasn’t kept him from the public eye. In 2006, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And though he says he’s taking a break from performing and recording, he continues to show up for impromptu gigs with artists ranging from Alicia Keys to Arcade Fire. He’s even rumored to be working on a rock opera adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen. Even now, over thirty-five years since he launched his career, Bowie remains an enigma.

David Bowie Box offers an important, if sometimes overlooked, part of his overall portrait. At this stage in his career, Bowie wasn’t as interested in being a superstar as he was in sharing what he’d learned with a new generation of musical rebels. In the process, he achieved both. Just as Harlan Ellison became the spokesman for a generation of speculative fiction writers, Bowie was a prime mover in the evolution of rock music. The five albums represented here, along with the five bonus discs included, are testament to that. The albums stand on their own, inconsistent though they may seem on first listen. And the various remixes, outtakes and alternate versions may be a bit much to take in at once. Still, this ten disc set is a comprehensive history of Bowie’s continuing influence on the evolution of modern music. It only leaves us with one question: where will the Thin White Duke next take us?