I occasionally play a party game with friends. I posit, “Everybody laments musicians who die young, like Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Janis Joplin, et al, saying, ‘What might they have accomplished if they had lived.’” I then say, “Name as many musical artists as you can, who lived and have continued to grow and be creative.” My list tends to be short: Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jeff Beck, Jim Hall (while he was alive), Pat Metheny, maybe one or two more. It occurred to me today, as I learned of David Bowie’s death, that I never included him. On reflection, I realized it was because the fact that he would continue to grow and change as an artist as he aged was so obvious it didn’t bear mentioning.
It is hard to conceive of someone as world famous as David Bowie being underrated, but in discussions of pop musicians as serious artists, too often the list stops at Dylan, Mitchell, Young, and Lennon, with nary a mention of the Thin White Duke. Perhaps his death will help change that.
In the coming days you will read reams of copy about “The Chameleon,” David Bowie. That is because facile, ignorant critics contrast him with pop artists who have a successful shtick and then milk it for every penny, with just enough variation to keep the suckers interested. No one ever called Picasso a chameleon, despite his shift from Blue Period to Cubism, and, whatever else they said about Miles Davis’ radical shifts in style, the lizard analogy was never used. Joni Mitchell bridles at being compared to other pop artists, feeling she should be considered in the same arena as Miles and Pabs. So, too should Bowie.
My entry into Bowie-world, like so much of my musical experience, was through a guitarist. Weaned on the work of Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, Peter Green, etc., Mick Ronson was not flashy enough to attract a young me, nor was Bowie’s early music funky enough. It took the first double-live record, with its double-whammy of a burning Earl Slick on guitar and the soulful tunes of Young Americans being featured, to perk up my ears. Subsequently, Bowie reeled me in with Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Reeves Gabrels, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gerry Leonard, David Torn, and finally Ben Monder.
Along the way I was treated to the glories of Station to Station, Low, Let’s Dance, Reality, and finally Black Star, not to mention The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, and even The Linguini Incident. Yes, let’s not forget Bowie the “cracked actor.”
My personal experiences with Aladdin Sane are as follows. During the making of “Under Pressure,” I was recording a demo with my band at the Power Station, where Bowie and Queen were working. We were being produced by Cydny Bullens (nee: Cindy Bullens) who had been managed by Mainman, the company that handled Bowie. She arranged a brief introduction, limited to a hello from Bowie and Roger Taylor. I remember feeling surprised that he seemed more affable and approachable than I would have imagined.
Years later, I was at the original Living Room in New York, a venue about the size its name would suggest, watching one of my favorite guitarists, Gerry Leonard, do his Spooky Ghost thing, which involved looping with a live band. Sitting at a table directly in front of me was Bowie, as close as you are to the device on which you are reading this. He was no doubt checking Gerry out for his eventual position as Musical Director of the Bowie band.
I remember watching Bowie on “Live by Request,” the A&E show hosted by Mark McEwen, CBS’s version of Al Roker, of all people. The conceit was that the artist would field requests for songs phoned in by fans. I was astounded at Bowie’s Vegas sense of humor. All that was missing were the rim-shots. Thus, it came as no surprise when, in his Guitar Moderne interview, Reeves Gabrels said, “The first day I ended up in his trailer, where we watched Fantasy Island with the sound off and made up our own plot.” And, that Gabrels posted as his memorial, “Well done, my friend. The world has the music. What I remember most is the laughing.”
Yes, I came for the guitar but stayed for the amazing music. Sure there were missteps, but so too were there unjustly ignored works: go back and check out records like Heathen and Reality. I plan to visit The Next Day, which apparently I am not alone in having missed. And, by all means delve into Blackstar.
Bowie has died almost immediately after releasing yet another record that encapsulates the gestalt of its time, and features another modern guitarist. I could be content with the fabulous drama of that, feeling the man died as he has lived. And, of course, he lived enough life for a score of men.
There is just one problem. As Blackstar proves, he had so much more creativity and life in him—and 69 is just too damn young. There is no doubt he would have continued to provoke, astound, and delight us, for decades to come. So sad for him, so sad for us.