Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Song Went On Forever

"And he was alright, the band was all together. 
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever."
"Lady Stardust" by David Bowie

As I left my apartment building Monday morning, I was stopped in my tracks in the lobby by something I didn't expect to ever hear, "David Bowie has died." I stopped, dropped my bags, and stood watching the television in the lobby turned to The Today Show. I did what any modern person would do and got out my phone to check to make sure the show was reporting accurate information. His family was confirming along with other media outlets. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie was gone.

And the stars look very different today.

I am sad. I cried when I found out and when a friend checked on me later in the morning. I've never met David Bowie, never saw him perform live but his music has and always will mean something to me. It's the music of growing up and finding yourself and imagining yourself as the rock star. It is about reinvention and boundaries, both pushing them and deciding how to deal with them. And creativity - the bounds of his creativity are just unfathomable to me. 

My aunt introduced me to David Bowie but I know that when she did I was still too wrapped up in boy bands (because everyone has a boy band phase or equivalent) to care. It wasn't until seeing The Breakfast Club for the first that I really decided Bowie was someone I should listen to. I know this is true because I bought the soundtrack to the movie and Hunky Dory (the album that gave us "Changes") around the same time. A song lyric is a song lyric until it's something else entirely.

While Hunky Dory was my first Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is and will forever be my favorite Bowie album. The album was released in 1972 and Bowie has said that he was influenced to write about the artificial nature of stardom sometimes being more real than reality. In the liner notes for the 30th anniversary edition of the album (released in 2002), Bowie talks about some of the influences for the Ziggy Stardust character including Lou Reed's replacement in the Velvet Underground (whom Bowie mistook for Lou backstage) and Vince Taylor, "the French Elvis Presley." Taylor's onstage breakdown can clearly be seen in the songs where Ziggy breaks up the band. The album is about the artificial nature of rock stardom as much as it is about this character Ziggy Stardust. It's considered to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

I had a cassette tape version of the album in high school but got it on CD for the first time in 1999 when the first 2 CD special edition was released. It was a Christmas present from my parents and I remember that one of the CDs was missing and I was a little jerk about getting it replaced (sorry Mom and Dad). Once I did get the new complete copy I listened to it a lot so much that I've had to replace it twice since. I love the story of Ziggy Stardust; it's so easy to visualize the characters and the story BUT you can also take the songs alone. I found comfort in Ziggy Stardust in college much as I did in high school. I love the music and the lyrics; I can listen to this album on repeat for hours and find new things to love every time. It was not like anything I had heard before (or would hear after). "Lady Stardust", "Moonage Daydream", "Starman", and "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" are my favorite songs off the album; "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" is my favorite Bowie song. I'd like it played at my funeral.

Over the years I've collected other albums and songs (on CD and vinyl), replaced Ziggy Stardust a third time, and bought books about Bowie including Marc Spitz's 2009 release Bowie: A Biography (I highly recommend it even for a casual fan). I have several Record Store Day releases from over the years and a 1979 promo LP that DJs were given. It is, to this day, the most expensive album I have ever purchased ($60). I eagerly awaited the release of The Next Day in 2013 and was as surprised as everyone else when Blackstar came out last Friday. We'll get back to them in a few minutes.

After Ziggy Stardust, I never really loved a full Bowie album the same way but found songs off of almost every other album that I love ferociously. My top five Bowie songs are:
  1. "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide"
  2. "Heroes"
  3. "Life On Mars"
  4. "Rebel Rebel"
  5. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)"
That last one might come as a surprise but it's an awesome song. It's from a terrible 1980s remake of the movie Cat People but if you can get past the synthesizers at the beginning, it's an epic anthem of sorts. I've loved this song since I saw the movie in the late 90s but moved it to my top five after Quentin Tarantino used it in Inglorious Bastards in one of my favorite uses of music in his films (I'll be sharing more about this in an upcoming post just in time for Valentine's Day). If you've never heard the song before you can watch the video from Cat People here or Tarantino here. Seriously, if I were a superhero I'd want this to be my theme song.

There are tons of other songs I could talk about but we don't have all night. I enjoyed The Next Day; I knew I would but at the same time there's always that fear that new stuff could end up being terrible. It feels like a David Bowie album like Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust but different at the same time. My favorite song, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" has a "Space Oddity" feel to it without being a mimic. The title track is one that I could imagine myself dancing to at a club if I was the kind of person who went to clubs to dance. The lyrics are aggressive which I like a lot.

Blackstar is stunning. I think that word has been used by everyone who's written about it since its release and Bowie's death. Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer, has described it as "a final gift" to fans and I think he's spot on. I've only been able to listen to it once all the way through since Monday because it made me cry. It's very different and there's a lot to listen to in seven songs. I think that's what's most powerful about it; until the end David Bowie was doing exactly what he wanted and making something beautiful and amazing.

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