My Favorite Artist (Now): David Bowie
Nowadays I consider David Bowie my favorite artist. It’s no longer a question of identity, but one of respect for his total body of work. He’s been my favorite artist since sometime in college. But, looking back, I’m hard pressed to pinpoint the exact moment when he became my favorite. I was hooked on Blue Oyster Cult the minute I first heard Tyranny and Mutation. Likewise with Iggy Pop and Raw Power. Yet Bowie more or less crept up on me.
In fact, as befits a chameleon like Bowie, my early opinion of him went through some radical changes. For a while I dismissed him entirely.
The first Bowie album I bought was Ziggy Stardust. Of course. Once again, the purchase was based as much on what I had read as what I had heard. Critic after critic rated Ziggy Stardust as one of the best albums of 1972. But “Space Oddity” was getting all the airplay; it was his only song I was really familiar with.
I remember standing in the record store, flipping back and forth between Ziggy and Space Oddity. Which one should I buy? I knew I liked the song “Space Oddity," and didn’t recognize any of the song titles on Ziggy. But Ziggy had the reputation, and in the end I went with it.
Which was undoubtedly the right choice, and was, perhaps, one of those momentous turning points in my musical taste. For I consider Space Oddity one of Bowie’s absolute worst albums; to this day, I still do not own a copy. Had I bought it, I might easily have dismissed Bowie as vastly overrated, and it might have taken me years to discover his genius. If I ever did.
Ziggy Stardust, on the other hand, is a work of genius, and I loved it immediately.
Yet it still didn’t make me a hardcore Bowie fan. I passed on Alladin Sane when it came out, although it is now my favorite Bowie album. In fact, it was a few more years before I bought another Bowie album. And that purchase (a bootleg of the 1972 Santa Monica Civic Center show) was inspired as much by its being a bootleg as its being Bowie. (I’ve long had a fascination with bootleg albums.)
Also I had just seen him live.
Yes, I saw the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974. Indicative of my indifference to him at the time, it was an absolutely last minute thing. I only went because the final exam I had the next morning was canceled. I mean, I certainly wanted to go, but it wasn’t a thing of desperate necessity.
The concert was amazing. He had the most elaborate stage set I had yet seen for a rock show; it depicted a post apocalyptic cityscape. The show was all theatrics; he acted out little skits for every song: being made up for “Cracked Actor”, boxing (for some reason) for “Panic in Detroit.” He sang “Space Oddity” from an elevated chair high over the audience. He sang “Time” from inside a futuristic capsule of mirrors and blue neon. And the show was totally his; except for one saxophone solo, the musicians remained hidden behind screens for the entire show.
I walked out raving about what a great concert it was. Yet it still signaled the start of my waning interest in Bowie. For as great as the show had been, musically it had been a disappointment. The Bowie I loved was hard guitar rock, and this had been something else entirely. The music, besides being totally subsumed to the show, was some funky hybrid I didn’t totally relate to.
And then he released Young Americans, and it was over for me. Young Americans was -- horrors! -- Disco!! That total scourge of modern music, music that was plastic, and funky and polished and everything I couldn’t stand.
In my mind, Bowie became an artist who had put out a couple of good albums, and then changed styles and lost his appeal. I grouped him with Elton John, who had done something similar. (At the time, pairing Bowie with Elton John made more sense than you might think. They were both extreme showmen, at their most extreme. And Elton, with “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” had also sold out to disco.)
Yet that bootleg album helped me to sustain some level of interest in Bowie. For it was the live Bowie music I had not gotten in the concert I saw. This was especially true in the opening cut, “Hang Onto Yourself,” in which Mick Ronson’s guitar solo turned into o total guitar freakout.
So what I did was become a Mick Ronson fan. Ronson was the guitarist in The Spiders from Mars, and as such was responsible for the sound of much of Ziggy and Aladdin Sane. Bowie’s music on his breakthrough albums was totally guitar based hard rock, and the guitar it was based on was Ronson’s. Further, Ronson actually arranged much of the music on Bowie’s early albums, especially Hunky Dory.
This enabled me to become a total rock snob, and run around claiming that Ronson was the real genius behind Bowie’s early work. Without Ronson, Bowie was just a hack. I got particularly incensed over an episode of the concert show Midnight Special, where every Ronson solo was nipped in the bud.
Unfortunately, Ronson’s solo albums were, for the most part, crap. While they had their high points, mostly in his guitar playing (his version of the jazz standard “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” is beautiful), they fell apart on his weak songwriting. Ronson was not a great songwriter. Nor was he, in fact, a great musical leader. He was a musician and a collaborator, someone who was best at bringing out and elaborating someone else’s genius.
Which points up one of Bowie’s real strengths. He was a collaborator as well, but of a different sort. Part of Bowie’s genius has always been using other musicians to fulfill his musical vision. Although I at the time I saw this as exploitation (at least as far as Ronson was concerned), I can now see it as a real talent. Throughout his career, Bowie has coaxed superb musicianship out of his sidemen. Just look at some of the guitarists he has worked with -- Ronson, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Stevie Ray Vaughn -- and the work he got out of them. Look at his collaborations with Brian Eno. Look at the great albums he has produced for others -- Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, and, yes, Iggy Pop.
Anyway, my love for Mick Ronson kept me exploring Bowie’s back catalog, as I searched used record bins for anything Ronson played on. I grew to love much of Bowie’s work, at least that featuring the Spiders. So when Bowie swung back to my musical taste, I was ready.
Which he did a couple of years later. Although 1977’s Low still had some disco overtones, especially the hit “Sound and Vision,” it was also experimental enough to get me curious. Later that same year he released “Heroes,” with Robert Fripp now playing the snarling guitar hero, and he had me again. His next two studio albums, Lodger and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)remain among my favorite albums of his, and of all time.
Since then, Bowie’s output has been incredibly inconsistent, and that hasn’t just been a case of changing styles. While there are many people who consider Young Americans a great album (I still don’t like it), there are very few who would say the same about Never Let Me Down.
Still, I stuck with him. I bought every album as soon as it came out, and at least gave it a chance. More importantly, I didn’t let a single weak album (or even two or three) discourage me. For every Never Let Me Down or Earthling there would be a Black Tie White Noise (maybe not one of his best albums, but definitely one of the most interesting) or a Heathen. Actually, I found his last two, Heathen and Reality, very strong albums, a return of his songwriting abilities.
So he has remained my favorite artist over the years. Much of that remains based on the best of his work from the 70’s. Even if he had never released a worthwhile album since, he would still be high (if not at the top) on my list of favorites. But he has released enough good work since to maintain his status in my mind.
You might say that the point when I settled on David Bowie as my favorite artist was the point when my musical taste matured. That is, it was the point when I realized that not everything my favorite artist produced was going to be a work of genius. That a true artist was going to keep experimenting, and therefore was inevitably going to have some missteps. That consistency and genius may well not go together.
CODA: BOWIE AND IGGY
I must admit that another thing which brought me back to Bowie was his work with Iggy Pop. Coincidentally or not, Bowie’s disco period corresponded with Iggy’s disappearance from the music scene. During that time, when Iggy’s name appeared in the press, in was usually in conjunction with Bowie. In the end, they were working on Iggy’s comeback. My own return to Bowie probably had as much to do with Iggy’s first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life (both produced by Bowie) as with Bowie’s albums at the time.
Iggy and Bowie’s careers have often been intertwined, and I would say that has been to both of their benefits.
For the most part, I want to confine my amateur psychoanalysis in this columns to myself, but I’m forced to do some speculation on the relationship between these two. I would speculate that Bowie was attracted to Iggy for much the same reason I was -- Iggy represented the opposite of what Bowie was. Iggy was all about the loss of control, and Bowie is the ultimate control freak. Okay, maybe not as ultimate as Frank Zappa (who preferred synthesizers to live musicians because they would do exactly what he told them to do), but you can’t listen to Bowie’s albums without believing every note was carefully placed in exactly the right place.
(If you have any doubt about this listen to his live albums. Live albums usually get their appeal from the spontaneity of a concert, but Bowie’s sound like they were recorded in the studio. The exception to this is that Santa Monica bootleg, which is by far his best live album. It achieves its greatness through classic rock’n’roll looseness, especially on the Ronson guitar freakouts “Hang on to Yourself” and “Waiting for the Man’, but also on subtler cuts such as “Life on Mars” and an acoustic version of “Space Oddity.” But it is also downright sloppy at points, such as a meandering guitar duel in “Width of a Circle” and (heaven forbid!) Bowie forgetting the words to “Suffragette City.” It is probably no coincidence that the recording wasn’t officially released until the mid-90’s.)
Likewise, Iggy was probably attracted to that very control, especially when it, repeatedly, put his career back on track. By imposing some level of control, Bowie helped produce many of Iggy’s greatest albums, starting with Raw Power. Although Raw Power did also demonstrate the conflicts between control and abandon. Iggy was not happy with Bowie’s mix of the album, which lacked the power Iggy was looking for. “That fucking carrot top sabotaged my album,” he is widely quoted as saying. Years later (1997 to be exact), Iggy remixed the album to his taste; his mix is now the official one, the only one available. Fanatic that I am, I own both mixes. While I will agree that Iggy’s rocks far harder, and probably would have astounded people even more had it been released in 1973, I still find Bowie mix more interesting to listen to.
Out of Iggy’s solo albums, the ones Bowie produced are generally more controlled. And more successful. The Idiot and Lust for Life are consistently rated as his best solo albums. 1986’s Blah Blah Blah, while not rated as high critically, was among his most commercially successful albums. (As for me, I consider Blah Blah Blah the best Bowie album of the 80’s.)
It’s a bit harder to pin down what Bowie got out of the relationship, at least as far as specific pieces of music are concerned. It’s quite possible that the harder edge of Aladdin Sane and the experimental qualities of Low are both at least partially the result of Iggy’s influence. On a more general level, working with Iggy no doubt helped recharge Bowie’s creative batteries.
In later years, Bowie was able to do one further, financial favor for Iggy. By recording Iggy compositions on his own albums, Bowie was able to earn Iggy some royalty payments. Somewhere I read (I no longer recall where) that Bowie’s 1983 version of “China Girl” (which I must say is far inferior to Iggy’s version; Bowie turned a chilling song about cultural imperialism into a bouncy love song) earned Iggy more money that he had earned in his entire career as a musician up to that point.
In any event, over the years David Bowie and Iggy Pop have provided a very effective yin and yang of my musical taste, from totally under control to totally out of control, and (with both) always willing to try something new.