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I Miss You, David Bowie

I never had time for David Bowie.

That changed when I was 16 though. I read an article in the newspaper, an interview with Bowie about his then-new album , 1.Outside. It was a concept album, planned to be the first of a series, one to be released each year until 2000 or something like that. (It didn’t quite end up happening like that. 1.Outside was the only disc released from the project). In the interview Bowie talked about his creative process and his assumption of different characters and stuff like that, and as a teenager struggling with his sense of identity and coming to terms with what it meant to be a creative person, I was intrigued. Accompanying the article was a competition: you could win the album by phoning up and answering a trivia question or something. I did, and I won. So my first Bowie album was possibly his most impenetrable, his darkest, his moodiest. The one with a graphic depiction of a disembowled cadaver in the booklet. 

Of course, one of the most fun things about becoming infatuated with an artist who already has a few decades under their belt is that you can dip in and visit different eras of their creative life at will, rather than waiting for them to occur in realtime. My next Bowie album was Tin Machine II (which I scored for 92c on cassette – bargain), followed by the largely disappointing Black Tie, White Noise. It wasn’t until I got the ChangesBowie compilation that I really ‘got’ the glam Bowie I’d seen pictures of in his Ziggy Stardust getup. To me, glam-era Bowie is the music of beer and bourbon mixed with glitter and mascara, a kind of fuck-you androgyny that I didn’t feel the need to personally express but which I liked the idea of anyway for what it said about identity. I sure didn’t want a spiky red rooster mullet and a unitard with one leg missing, but I felt strangely liberated that Bowie did. Songs like “Rebel Rebel,” “Diamond Dogs,” “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “Jean Genie” had an undercurrent of darkness below the youthful, hormone-drenched excitability on the surface. I had the ultimate “get ready for a night out” music.

Then I discovered Low.

After he retired Ziggy Stardust, and after he’d tried on the character of the Thin White Duke for a while, Bowie took off to Berlin to work on a series of albums with Brian Eno (and produced by Tony Visconti): Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. They’re often dark and brooding (“Always Crashing In The Same Car,” “Sons Of The Silent Age,” “Look Back In Anger”), but every now and then some light shines through. You probably already know the tracks I’m talking about, even if you don’t know which albums they’re from: “Heroes,” “D.J,” “Boys Keep Swinging,” “Be My Wife.” And the experimental ambient instrumentals of Low and “Heroes” preface works like Nine Inch Nails’ Ghost by decades, while also reflecting Bowie and Eno’s awareness of the avant garde scene in Europe at the time. Even today these albums sound timeless. When I listen to Low in particular I’m taken back to when I first moved to Melbourne, listening to it in headphones and walking around in the cold and fog, or playing it loud as sunlight streamed through the windows in early spring. Whatever environment I listened to it in, and whatever I was going through emotionally at the time, there was something within Low that resonated with it. It’s still like that today.

Then I discovered The Man Who Sold The World. If you can strip the title track of its association with Nirvana, and if you can listen to “Width Of A Circle” and “All The Madmen” without paying too much mind to the dated production, you’ll hear some incredibly strong heavy-rock songs. The whole album is a bit pretentious, like Bowie is stretching and squirming as he tries to fit into (or maybe wriggle out of) his own skin. Who can’t relate to that at least once in their lives, right? Plus, Mick Ronson’s guitar work on the album is like a pre-emptive crash course in the next 25 years of rock guitar vocabulary. Bowie’s great like that: he’s kind of the non-bat-biting equivalent of Ozzy in terms of discovering or otherwise popularising great guitarists: Ronson, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew (who he poached from Frank Zappa), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar – and let’s not forget Nile Rodgers, who produced and played guitar on Let’s Dance.

Stepping back a bit, it’s 1997. I’m in first year at University. Browsing the CD racks at The Music Shop in Belconnen, I see a brand new Bowie album (yes, I’m old enough to remember when you learned about new releases by browsing something called the New Releases section at something called a CD Shop). It was Earthling. Bowie was fucking around with drum n’bass, combining it with the brilliant guitar work of Reeves Gabrels, and creating a bizarrely listenable hybrid that went against everything I probably should have believed I should have liked at the time. But for all their sonic flash, every song on Earthling stands up on its own. Check out this acoustic rendition of “Dead Man Walking.”

Then there’s Heathen and Reality. These are the last two albums Bowie released before he slipped into retirement, and they’re both much more Low than Let’s Dance. The dark moments can be incredibly dark, like “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” and “The Luckiest Guy.” Heathen is most definitely not an album to listen to when you’re feeling depressed. But perhaps the most brilliant moment out of this pair of brilliant discs is “Bring Me The Disco King,” the final track on Bowie’s final album, Reality. Interestingly, Bowie wrote this song in the early 90s and he’d recorded versions of it for both Black Tie, White Noise and Earthling, but he never settled on an arrangement he liked until Reality. It’s a song about knowing when it’s time to leave with dignity – or rather the fear of not knowing when it’s time to leave with dignity. And it’s the perfect way for Bowie to put a full stop on his recording career. I don’t know if he knew when he recorded it that this would be the final track on his final album (because it’s widely understood now that he’s well and truly retired), but whether intentional or not, it’s a hell of a way to wrap up a brilliant career.

Bring Me The Disco King

You promised me the ending would be clear

You’d let me know when the time was now

Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door

Stab me in the dark, let me disappear

Memories that flutter like bats out of hell

Stab you from the city spires

Life wasn’t worth the balance

Or the crumpled paper it was written on

Don’t let me know we’re invisible

Hot cash days that you trailed around

Cold cold nights under chrome and glass

Led me down river of perfumed limbs

Sent me to the streets with the good time girls

Don’t let me know we’re invisible

We could dance, dance, dance thru’ the fire

Feed me no lies

I don’t know about you, I don’t know about you

Breathe through the years

I don’t know about you, I don’t know about you

Bring me the disco king

I don’t know about you, I don’t know about you

Dead or alive, bring me the disco king

Bring me the disco king

Spin-offs with those who slept like corpses

Damp morning rays in the stiff bad clubs

Killing time in the ’70s

Smelling of love through the moist winds

Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door

Close me in the dark, let me disappear

Soon there’ll be nothing left of me

Nothing left to release


2 Responses to I Miss You, David Bowie

  • Neil says:

    Great article Peter!

    I was introduced to Bowie’s music through my mother who was always a big fan of his. She would play me the recording of him reading Peter and the Wolf when I was a kid.

    Later I got to see him live with Joe Satriani opening for him. That concert rocked my world. Bowie’s songwriting and theatrics transported me to another world.

    Also you can’t discount his other artistic endeavors like acting. Labyrinth anyone? Man to cool.

    Thanks for bringing me back. I’m gonna go listen to some more Bowie right now!

  • Steve says:

    Bowie almost has something for everyone. My other half is a big fan and we’ve seen him live several times, including with Tin Machine. I love the drum and bass stuff on Earthling, but also like the old stuff. I guess he doesn’t need the money, but it would be a shame if he doesn’t produce any more music.

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Peter Hodgson Hi! I'm Peter Hodgson. I write for Gibson.com, Australian Guitar, Australian Musician, Mixdown Magazine (including my instructional column, 'Unleash Your Inner Rock God,' which has been running since 2007), BluntBeat (including their weekly hard rock/metal column Crunch) and The Brag. And I'm Assistant Social Coordinator with Seymour Duncan. I've been playing guitar since I was 8 years old, and I've been writing for magazines since I was 18. I've also worked as a guitar teacher (up to 50 students a week), a setup tech, a newspaper editor, and I've also dabbled in radio a little bit. I live in Melbourne, Australia, and my hobbies include drinking way too much coffee, and eating way too much Mexican food. You can check out my guitar playing at Bandcamp or on YouTube, and feel free to email me at iheartguitarblog@gmail.com If you'd like to support the site, feel free to kick in a couple o'bucks using this donation button.

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