Saturday, January 16th, 2016

David Bowie

David Bowie has not been at the center of whatever pop music was doing for a very long time: not since 1983, maybe not since 1973. But his influence on the past forty years of pop music — as a singer, as a composer, as a collaborator, as a visual stylist, as a social provocateur, as a restless innovator — has been incalculable. He invented practically nothing — he liked to say that the secret to his success was being the second guy to have an idea — but though trained as an artist and mime, he was a shrewd student of the way pop music worked. He built his original world-famous persona on the public stories of the rockers who had gone before him, investing their meteoric rises and spectacular flame-outs with a theatrical flair that made a lot of people uncomfortable, and made a lot of other people deeply excited. Like any good collagist, he worked with the materials he had at hand, and in the UK in the early 70s the two most exciting cultural forces were glam rock and science fiction; if he eventually outgrew the increasingly ossified boundaries of rock, he never lost either his sense of glamour or his interest in imagining possible futures.

The multitude of personas he adopted and discarded throughout the 70s is the stuff of pious rock legend: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Diamond Dog, the Thin White Duke, the Berlin aesthete, the Pierrot. His sonic experiments with fellow pop-misfit autodidacts like Iggy Pop and Brian Eno set the stage for the New Pop explosion of the early 80s, by which time he was already looking around for other trails to blaze. The conventional rock wisdom is that he lost his way after Let’s Dance, but that was only a third of the way through his career, and he had many more personas, collaborations, visual styles, provocations, and innovations left to adopt, right up to the present; his newest album, possibly the most complete artistic statement of his career, is barely a week old. A career as long and diverse as his can fit into no In Memoriam, however long it runs.

These are the David Bowie songs that we thought about this week. Tell us yours.

Cédric Le Merrer on “Space Oddity”

There’s an alternative universe where this novelty single remained just that, a Space-Age folk ballad which could only ever have charted at the time of the moon landing. This side of the wormhole, however, “Space Oddity” is not so odd: a beginning, not an end, loaded with future history. Thanks to the focus on Bowie’s ever-changing, chameleonic nature, a focus he deliberately fed, it’s easy to forget the things that never changed. In the AU, this song is an opportunistic Cowell-style hit; here its science-fiction tropes are the roots of a whole rock aesthetic. The one-hit-wonder “Space Oddity”‘s lyrics are just a druggy space trip; in our universe, they’re an allegorical spiritual journey into nothingness, some of the first steps of a future Crowley-quoting cut-up lyricist who’d struggle all his life between mysticism and nihilism. The Mellotron solo could be just a trivia tidbit, but it’s also among the first experiments of a sonic adventurer who would later fuck with the very fabric of time. Until the end Bowie had a love for cheap pop gestures like that handclap-assisted breakdown which makes this so much better than something like “Astronomy Domine” and that still made him more interesting than his hero Scott Walker on Blackstar. The alternate universe’s “Space Oddity” is a gem to be reappraised; ours is a rough diamond reflecting light in myriad directions. Now that we live in a cruel Bowie-less universe, all of the song’s possibilities finally fulfilled, we can probably listen to it as both an odd single and a synecdoche for one of the most fascinating oeuvres of the past decades.

Josh Langhoff on “The Man Who Sold the World”

This charming Mephisto on the stairs is the artist himself, right? Kurt Cobain, our premier self-loathing oracle of the creative artist’s complicity in selling shit, sure read it that way. Cobain landed this song on alt-rock radio and brought ’70s Bowie to the ears of my small-town Missouri high school, but in one crucial respect I beat him there by a few months. In I’m guessing 1993, our high school gifted program (“Voyage” — not the fantastic kind) planned an evening get-together in the cafeteria where there’d be food, games, and hypothetical dancing, which meant — ding ding ding! — music provided by students. During the weeks leading up to the event I entertained one specific fantasy, something I’d probably seen on TV. I would stand at the CD player and offer a rousing speech dedicating a song to all the misfits and weirdos gathered here tonight; I’d then unleash the blistering riff of “Rebel Rebel.” Everyone would erupt into cheers and slam dance. What actually happened: I didn’t make the speech; I played “Rebel Rebel”; nobody had ever heard it and they looked at me funny. (Thus began an illustrious series of teenage DJ failures, including “Rebirth of Slick” and “One Nation Under a Groove.”) The impulse to hip people to Bowie and the resentment following my failure grew from a common root: Even in the midst of these smart kids, many of whom were also jocks or freaks or preps, I felt like a geek at the bottom end of the cool stairs. “Rebel Rebel”’s job was to up the ante — “You think you’re so cool? Try hanging with THIS.” The ante went un-upped, but it’s fair to say my creative endeavors across the ensuing decades have been spurred by ante-upping loathing as much as by joy or curiosity. I loathe the work of others, especially when they beat me there with inferior product; I loathe the low standards of audiences who don’t properly appreciate my work; I loathe my own torpor and mediocrity, my losing race against time; I loathe the world that devours my time with mundane chores whose rules change every time the world is sold and sold again. Mostly I loathe that it’s always me the doing the selling; I thought that schmuck had died alone, a long long time ago, but he never loses control. In the second verse of “Sold the World,” Bowie, resigned to grapple eternally with Mephisto on the stairs i.e. himself, shakes the hand of his formidable opponent and heads home to roam. It’s all very matter-of-fact. Those nagging riffs just keep climbing their Escher staircase of chord changes. My kid just learned the riffs in his guitar lesson. These fucking songs will never leave us alone, will they?

Patrick St. Michel on “Changes”

I never had a David Bowie “phase,” or even a a-ha moment with his music, because he seemed ever-present. My parents, bless them, talked about and nudged me to listen to him, just as they did with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, trying to share music that meant so much to them when they were growing up with their son. I dutifully gave it a listen and liked it enough, but you can only get so enthusiastic about what your folks like when you are a teenage goober. Besides, digging any deeper seemed pointless, because David Bowie seemed to hover over everything, from the deeper recesses of my favorite Radiohead message boards to the decorations lining the walls at the house holding the first college party I ever went to. Dude was in Zoolander.

I’m not sure how “Changes” ended up being the Bowie song I heard the most by the time I turned 21 — the Aladdin Sane album art seemed as omnipresent in poster form as John Belushi slugging whiskey around campus, and I think my mom mostly talked up “Queen Bitch.” Maybe because it is more straightforward in theme than a lot of his other work — “Changes” stands as a pretty easy read about how life, well, changes, and you can’t do anything about it, even if you are a rock ‘n’ roller. It’s the sort of universal message apt for montages and ogre-centric animated films.

What hit me, every time it came up on someone’s iTunes shuffle or road-trip mixtape, was how jumbled the song feels about impermanence. The chorus embraces it and even encourages staring down the different, but those famous stutters right before always sounded like slight hesitation, like he just couldn’t get it out because maybe he didn’t want to accept them. There’s resignation here, but ultimately “Changes” tries to find the positives in it while also acknowledging everyone has to deal with it (so don’t be a dick to younger people, they already got the message). Bowie would go on to do far more interesting work, but this remains one of his most comforting moments, to the point where that waft of saxophone even feels like home. This was the first song of Bowie’s that really hit me hard, and explained just why he seemed to always be nearby.

Rebecca Gowns on “Oh! You Pretty Things”

I grew up around a cluster of uncles — my dad has many brothers and male cousins, and all of them served as important figures in my life. They were funny, artistic, vivacious, always telling stories and doling out advice. I looked up to them and very nearly idolized them. Whenever they took me aside to offer a parable or maxim on how life worked, I held their words close to my heart.

As I got older, the cracks in these figures started to show — they were my uncles, but they were also drunks, conspiracy theorists, serial cheaters, racist and sexist in varying degrees. Each realization chipped away at my conception of them as all-knowing ultra-artists, and slowly, the true humans beneath were unveiled: deeply flawed individuals. Still, I remembered the things they had shared with me, the kind words they had imparted upon me, and the worlds they had opened up for me.

David Bowie was an uncle figure — not present like a father figure, but always on the periphery, arriving with strange little gifts and a kind word or two to say. “Oh! You Pretty Things” is peak Uncle Bowie: small everyday conversation about breakfast and coffee that meanders into ruminating about Jesus, and the end of the world, and don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and your papas insane? As a kid, this music was anxiety balm — pure uncle chatter! As an adult, I can see “Oh! This is coming from a hypersexual cocaine addict with boundary issues.” That knowledge tempers, but does not diminish, the thrill of hearing that piano line vamp through the verses, explode into the chorus, and taper off into a extremely satisfying major chord flourish. The galloping rhythm, the howling “Oh!”… it’s a bonafide singalong. Thank God Bowie was here to give us these strange little gifts; they maintain the romantic aura, while the gift-giver can recede from the infallible alter ego back into personhood.

Britt Alderfer on “Life on Mars?”

Long live the ballads, the torch songs, the silver screens, the daydreams, men who brawl in bars, apes who fight like men, parents who just don’t understand, bestsellers, “my mother, my dog and clowns,” punctuation in song titles, working class teens, America, spitting in the eyes of fools, making fun of Frank Sinatra, the disconnect that never goes away, no matter how many generations pass through it. The tune goes with “Is there life on Mars?” but it could also go with “Does it get any better?” or “Do you really love me?” or “Christ why is everyone else at school so lame?” or “Fuck your pictures that don’t have me in it, or something like me, someone like me, what shit are you trying to feed me?” Bowie just pulled the ripcord. You don’t need me to tell you how this thing sounds, do you? You already know it by heart.

Danilo Bortoli on “Five Years”

I first encountered David Bowie’s work in the beginning of my high school years, a time most music is supposed to hit the nail on the head. And that’s what it did: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was my introduction to the very own idea of glam rock and its appeal. Ziggy was, and I was lucky for it, the entry point to Bowie’s career for me: rock music, as it turns out, has a history and a very definite narrative that, for a very brief but important time in the seventies, seemed to belong to no one but the Starman.

“Five Years” is the song that epitomizes that narrative. Inside the album, it works as a prelude — it highlights the moment Ziggy, the character,breaks the news, informing us doomsday is coming in such a short notice. The whole thing is a parody of the pompous conceptual album cliché that had plagued Britain since the album format became a form of art all by itself, yet it meant a conceptual turn all of its own.

This is why some people seem to forget that “Five Years” is supposed to work as a song, too. And that it is emblematic in its own right. Stripped of its (mildly exaggerated) initial reading, we get a wake-up call. A battle cry. An anthem of death. An ultimatum. Here, catharsis transcends context.

He did not need it, but in this song Bowie possesses a guttural tone in his voice. In the end, it’s always about theater and performance and nothing else, but for most of Ziggy Stardust and, in particular, “Five Years”, Bowie treats an ultimatum like a toy, an idea to be exercised: His brain hurts a lot, he tries to parse out the madness in the streets. He’s got a limited period of time left. Then, he mourns. But the whole thing is done as a theatrical act. With a sense of grace.

When people say David Bowie treated life and death as matters of art — as a performance, even — they are not exaggerating. “Five Years” sees Bowie creating a myth out of himself and his previous aesthetics. Put better, Bowie became a myth — he had five years, his brain hurt a lot. Yet, that’s what he got. What a crazy premise for a song.

Josh Langhoff on “Ziggy Stardust”

Ziggy played guitar. We were Ziggy’s band. I had to break up the band… and that’s it. That’s all you get by way of coherent narrative in one of the most you-are-there rock ’n’ roll songs ever written. “Ziggy Stardust” jives about rock ’n’ roll the same way “The Strawberry Roan” lays out bronc busting or all those Beach Boys car songs cover the ins and outs of dual quad induction: They approach their subject as secret code, a barely scrutable fountain of jargon separating insiders from the insider wannabes. (Those are the only two categories, right? No one exists who’d just as soon remain outside.) Whoever’s narrating plops us down in the midst of their rock doc reminiscence, spews some nonsense about a ballbreaking leper messiah (Metallica nods sagely, bows), and then leaves us to hang. Whatever happened with these dudes was melodramatic — you can tell because of those operatic octave leaps in the melody — and bittersweet — check those added 9ths in Ronson’s riff — but above all, “Ziggy” recounts a bracing fracas with a cat whose talent and ass were so far beyond, the only intellectual recourse is aliens or God.

Katherine St. Asaph on “Suffragette City”

My mother’s taste in entertainment can be summed up as: books with death and murder in the title, and theatrical rock songs. Bowie well qualifies for the latter, so of course she loved him, saw him live. The only reason I didn’t text my mother immediately is that it was 1 a.m. and she too was pushing 69 (cancer-free, thank God). I’ve gone through at least five generations of software on which she asked me to download much of the Bowie discography, but first on the list was always “Suffragette City.” Having heard Bowie secondhand via cultural osmosis, and then through the singles, I always wondered why that song. The first time I heard it, too, underwhelmed: why, of all oeuvre, this?

Why, this: If you had to explain to an alien the concept of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” — a Bowie undertaking if there ever was one — you could do far worse than “Suffragette City,” a Little Richard-loud cheer about ditching your friends because this girl you’re with is just so much, right? The title rankles modern sensibilities, but the underlying emotion is not contempt but awe; Bowie of all people can barely keep up with the track (not that anyone else can; I love Hazel O’Connor but yeah, nope.) At the same time it’s very specific, if you get past the pace and the Clockwork Orange slang, about just what sort of outta-sight sex is going on, who’s getting off and who’s getting awed. By the time he gets to the “wham, bam,” his eyes might as well have popped free of their sockets, cartoon-style. It’s Bowie at his slightest, but if you care about that you hate fun more than I do.

Rebecca Gowns on “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide”

I received The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust for my 12th birthday. One of my uncles gave it to me with a note that said: “This is where it all starts.” When I took it home and listened to it, it was a magical, cinematic experience. The sounds were wild, the words were gentle, and the imagery was vivid and surreal.

I would play this album late at night, when I had trouble sleeping. I started to have trouble sleeping more and more often, as my anxiety was exacerbated by puberty. I thought too much, I felt too much. At school, I was discouraged from talking, but I couldn’t stop expressing myself — which made me a teenage weirdo. I was small and mousy, but felt extravagant. I made up alter egos and alternate realities: worlds without hesitation, without fear, and with endless means to be able to wear what I wanted and go where I wanted to go. Bowie’s glam rock playfulness immediately resonated with me.

If I was listening to this album in bed, and I reached “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide,” it was just about time to give up sleeping at all. The roar of “Suffragette City” ends with a thump… then in comes a gentle guitar, at a lullaby rhythm. Bowie sings about being a strung-out rock star, but the words easily double as advice from a kind adult to an anxious teen. (This is the case for many Bowie songs, which I believe cements the love that people develop for him in their adolescence.) When the chorus finally breaks, it’s a crescendo of earnest feeling — “You’re not alone!” When every other method had failed to calm myself, there was one sure thing: Bowie screaming “You’re not alone!” and “Give me your hands!” and “You’re wonderful!”, which often wrenched sobs out of me. With that catharsis, I could finally drift off to sleep; tear-stained cheeks flushed with the joy of being seen and understood.

Jonathan Bogart on “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)”

They say the lights are oh so bright on Broadway, he sighs to himself as the song fades out in a tangle of piano clusters and motorik rhythm. The reference is only ten years old, but it feels a lifetime, a cataclysm, ago, as the smooth, syncopated certainties of the Drifters, urbanely optimistic even when all they’ve got is one thin dime, have given way in a decade to the roiling serialist-funk chaos of Mike Garson’s piano solo, the greatest piano solo in pop I think most days, and Bowie’s arch, languorous moan. “Who will love a lad insane?” he cries, echoing the elongated, world-weary delivery of Marlene Dietrich on her first hit, 1930’s “Falling in Love Again,” as much as on her last, a 1962 cover of anti-war standard “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (The same year that David Jones formed his first band at Bromley Technical.) But I think more about 1930 (because of course I do), because the verses are all impressionistic Lost Generation pastiche, the Great War glimpsed through the fizzy haze of the 20s and under the shadow of the doom still to come. Saki (or sake?) and strings divine. Passionate bright young things. Battle cries and champagne. Paris or maybe Hell. (The neon lights were, of course, bright on Broadway throughout.)

Jamming cabaret and soft rock and Cecil Taylor together to demonstrate the tumult of history as a metaphor for the tumult of a human mind (or is it vice versa?) would later be recognized as a very Bowie move, the kind of thing that might be expected from such a magpie sensibility, a theatrically-trained art student in love with pop radio, but I always wonder how the glam kids who fell in love with Ziggy Stardust’s fey crunch took it when they first heard it. I hope they heard it as just as much an expression of love as everything else. I know I do; even — or perhaps, to my shame, especially — at his most cerebral and artsy, he still seems to be screaming, “You’re not alone.”

Megan Harrington on “Diamond Dogs”

It’s hard to imagine David Bowie as something dirty, something gritty, something irrevocably tied to worn city pavements. Throughout his career he was the very embodiment of sleek — 8 Hour Cream on his eyelids, hair that grew in an architectural swoop, clothes tailored and pressed. But for a brief time in the mid-70s, Bowie crawled through the alley on his hands and knees. The Diamond Dogs are glamorous in their excess and their despair, but human in their failures. At the same time as he calls on Tod Browning’s Freaks and monsters like Tarzan, Bowie’s affection for his cast of characters makes them seem charming and friendly, a visit to the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Halloween Jack might be King Friday in this world, the benevolent ruler of all Fantasy. Though Bowie cautions, “beware of the Diamond Dogs,” I’ve never once felt that fear. It’s only desire, desire to be one of them, desire to live a life that glittered with lack, a life constantly on the verge of total collapse. In “Diamond Dogs,” I heard a world I recognized, where a young girl was already headed. Me too.

Brad Shoup on “Rebel Rebel”

Part of the esoterica of stardom is that anyone can pull down your light. A frequent feature of our eulogies has been how Bowie, glam gender insurgent, startled awake — or affirmed — queerness. But give a thought to the ones who knew a gem like “Rebel Rebel” as a song — a song with dim provenance, but a song that touched like a genderqueer tornado. Maybe the shade it cast — the ambiguity of “your hair’s all right,” the camp praise “you tacky thing” — landed just past their heads. Maybe they lost their minds to the perfectly resolving riff (cooked up and allegedly played by Bowie), flitting up and down like a battle formation of wasps. Maybe they fell for Warren Peace’s castanets and loping percussive throughline, which RCA added for the US single release, then withdrew after a couple of months. Likely they didn’t catch the promo, in which David — rail-thin in a tight, red three-quarters jumper — badly mimes rhythm guitar, his instrument becoming just another toy. It doesn’t matter! Like so much pop trash, “Rebel Rebel” depicts a world just within the bounds of the imagination, a space for transgression, performed as a matter of course. This was the close of Bowie’s dalliance with glam — a style that allowed fortunate dunces like Slade and Gary Glitter to turn the time machine’s dials, and peacock without infringing on their dearly-held masculinity — but how was everyone else to know? The ultimate genius of “Rebel Rebel” might be how it locates its insurrection in defying parents — though one wonders what Bowie thought of lines like “you’re a juvenile success” in the ’90s and beyond — which, for the vast majority of radiogoers, was the first crucial step toward wholeness.

Jonathan Bogart on “Young Americans”

There are a lot of ways to read “I want the young American,” from the tawdry and biographical (and, let us not mince words, vile) to the more generous spirit that interprets it through that time he dared to suggest that a black 17-year-old who loves the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye is part of America.

Which, god, really should not be grounds for pop-culture sainthood, except that thirty-three years later white America still refuses to agree. Sure, the Isleys and Marvin are acceptably historical now; but Twitter eggs and Fox yellers are falling over themselves every hour to deny the humanity, never mind the citizenship, of any black 17-year-old who loves, say, Migos and Thugger.

“Black’s got respect and white’s got a Soul Train” remains as much a utopian fantasy today as it was in 1975, and if you want to whine about the second half of that quote, shut the fuck up until the first half is true. I’m not here to claim that David Bowie did anything for black people that they didn’t do themselves — white tourists in Black America from Paul Whiteman to Quentin Tarantino are always profiting more than they’re paying out, whether they want to or not — but I can’t help (for I too am a white tourist) but appreciate his honesty about the plasticity of his soul. Only three years after Exile on Main St. saw Mick & Keef & co. disappear so far into their fantasy of Depression-era Mississippi Delta blackness that in some ways they’ve never crawled back out, Bowie’s hiccuping falsetto and aristocratic shimmy exposed English affinity with American blackness as the pose it always was (for which I think the generation of US rock critics who first clutched the Stones to their bosom have never forgiven him).

But there’s nothing wrong with posing, so long as everyone acknowledges that’s what’s going on. Self-conscious artificiality has pleasures every bit as rich as false consciousness, and Bowie, Vandross, and company’s reliance on the sturdy pop structures of call-and-response, rhythmic slippage, intensifying dynamics, and unexpected caesura gives “Young Americans” perhaps the most classically pop moment in David Bowie’s entire catalog. “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me….”

Every time, it does.

Maxwell Cavaseno on “Fame”

There isn’t an ideal place to start when describing this song. On the one hand you have Carlos Alomar’s guitar parts, which continue to this day to make him my favorite Bowie guitarist, with that wall of grand sweeping on the intro, the fuzzy nasal honks of squall, the razor-sharp funk licks that sounds like the way light catches on fractures within glass. And then you have John Lennon, a man for whom I have little patience detached from the Beatles but wisely used by Bowie for his greatest role: Cartoon High-Pitched Backing Singer of Clownish Libra Buffoonishment. This is an understated trick for Lennon, the guy who you could believe might get sucked down the drain just like A Hard Day’s Night suggested. In “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” the highlight is truly Paul mugging in soul-boy agony while multi-tracked idiot John Lennon voices coo Ray-Lette style. Since Bowie is already sticking his tongue so far in the cheek you’d think he’s trying to dig a piece of tuna out of the crevices of his mouth, he doesn’t need much for his bellowing “Game Over!” sound on that “FAAAAAEEEUUUUHHHHM” to be driven to cartoon histrionics. Thankfully that squawking mockney voice with its “FAAAAYME!?!?” does it, a better moment of bewildering British Humor than anything that’s ever been shat out by Monty Python and flogged to death by gaudy theater kids. It’s the hysterics, and the unnecessary qualities, that make what could be a nice groove into a downright jam. You know George, Bootsy and Co. heard that and they were like “DAVEY’S GOT SUM SOUL MAMA”; they didn’t even need to see his eventual arrival on Soul Train where the man is… so beautifully GONE off coke, or liquor or who knows what, attempting some weird rock ‘n roll shimmys and getting some endearing cheers of approval. Ye Olde “Okay, go white boy!” if you will. Details like this, little stops and pivots of perspective, allow you to understand just how a record like “Fame” becomes as useful a record for Public Enemy in their future to slot right alongside their collage wall of James Brown and Run-DMC for “Night Of The Living Baseheads”, or those moronic “LAAAAAAAAAAAAEUUUUUHMMMMMME” chants on “Takeover” by Jay-Z. It’s one of the most brilliant ways a foreigner has approached R&B, and all the kids who are mining R&B these days to cover for the way rock is a dead and buried career path need to take note of why “Fame” works. It’s a deep groove and a deep-enough lyric, but it never stops pulling out tricks and has no problem making itself sound absolutely ridiculous. Because fame is ridiculous, BOWIE is ridiculous, he’s such a clown and he knows it; the man’s called himself Pierrot before. And that’s why I’m not crying when he left us, because this was a man that for all his moments of insight and depth was just a book of Gogol quotes in some clown shoes, if you know what I mean. Both of them are treasures, and both of them have their places. But trying to balance the two when you’re learning to work for a different audience? That takes courage.

Scott Mildenhall on “Sound and Vision”

He might be asleep, he might be semi-conscious, but more likely he’s just sat there. For almost the entire first half of the song, Bowie can’t even manage to open his mouth. Lurking in “Sound and Vision” is the sickening feeling of an inability to do as much as get up before the afternoon, and yet it still retains a sense of humour. Everything is consumingly terrible, but at least you know it is. Even as the multiple voices compete for space — wuzza-wuzza spoken Bowie, “Sorrow”ful crooner Bowie, pained Ziggy Bowie — he seems curiously at ease. It’s a miserable vignette of abject desolation, but what else can he do? Here he is, immobilised and husk-like, just waiting, waiting, waiting for the weather to turn.

Ian Mathers on “‘Heroes’”

In 2004, I wrote: I still cannot believe that there is a three-and-a-half single edit of “‘Heroes’”. Diluting the impact of the six-plus minutes present on record seems both sacrilegious and needless — who gets tired of “‘Heroes’”? Who tires of that endlessly unspooling guitar part, the spectral tambourine clang of the second half, and Bowie’s delivery, slowly edging towards impassioned? I think if anything I undersold Bowie’s performance. It’s not for nothing that Aphex Twin didn’t have to do much to his voice to make the climactic bits of his version harrowing. Whatever the quotidian details of its creation, whatever its role, thematic or otherwise, in eventually bringing down the Berlin Wall (more than you might think, apparently), whatever odd lyrical fillips it has (this is, after all, a man who once said “When I’m stuck for a closing to a lyric, I will drag out my last resort: overwhelming illogic”), “‘Heroes’” is ultimately about one thing, a feeling bigger than the world sometimes: “We can beat them, just for for one day. We can be heroes, just for one day.” There’s a breathtaking reach and a heartbreaking pragmatism to the idea, one that keeps the potential tyranny of “I, I will be king” in check even as it allows the song and the sentiment to soar. Bowie would often undercut himself like that, whether by making a joke or switching direction or refusing to allow himself to be too idolized. The longer the song goes on, the bigger that “we” gets. By the time he died, it was anyone who wanted it to be them.

Scott Mildenhall on “Boys Keep Swinging”

“Other boys check you out”. I will never and would never want to be the Bowie of that line, insouciantly swaggering and irrepressibly libidinous, but I’ve taken more from it than I realised. “Boys Keep Swinging” was a song I listened to a decent amount in my last year of school. Perhaps in part due to it being a long way from 1979, I was pretty confident in who I fancied — a taxonomically compatible stealth bully with a girlfriend, to be precise — and as it turned out, pretty naïve about it. Quite quickly, the feeling of delighted certainty I had about the perfect, simple symmetry of being a boy and liking boys — that luck had just kissed me hello! — began to give way to broader understandings of who I was attracted to. Things changed. The quiet smugness subsided, but in that one alluring lyric, it’s still all there. Amid all the sarcasm and careful toeing of the line marked “DO YOU SEE?”, it feels completely and utterly meant, and that became what the song meant to me. As much as it feels wrong to take from a critique of maleness, what I got from “Boys Keep Swinging” was full-blooded affirmation of a kind that remains rare, and one I didn’t think I needed.

Alfred Soto on “Move On”

Stuck for ideas? Play a great song, in this case “All The Young Dudes,” which you gave away, backwards. Voilà! And this assembly-line method worked for the song’s comical depiction of wanderlust. “Sometimes I feel the need to move on,” Bowie declares in his most serious quaver, doubling up with laughter. “So I pack a bag. And move on.” Meanwhile Carlos Alomar strums a continuous two-chord pattern — who said anything about moving on? But the music projects the emotion that Bowie can’t allow himself to express until the last verse: an overripe piano, ay-ya-ooh backing vocals rising to a fever pitch. It took a few years for me to notice “Move On.” If he had placed it at the end of Lodger, we’d have remembered it like the inferior “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.”

Mark Sinker on “Yassasin”

Maybe the first time since the 60s he’d done songs as character sketches, Lodger saw a chastened, low-key Bowie entirely recalibrating himself, a wary, worried observer relocated into a marginal, threatened space. The songs weren’t cheery Kinks-ish satire from a decade optimistic about social shifts: there’s no trace of any kind of countercultural superiority over those fashion has passed by. He’d also shed the tormented counter-utopianism his early 70s personae plunged repeatedly through and away from. Living for over an auto parts shop in Neuköln, the Turkish migrants’ quarter in Berlin, he made a whole LP about statelessness and ex-pats in hunted transit. Yasasin is a Turkish toast meaning “long life”: he’d seen the word graffitied on a local wall, who knows how spelled, and let inklings of the sounds he’d been absorbing torrent through it. “Neuköln” on “‘Heroes’” ends in orientalist Bowiesax scribble; here, Hawkwind violinist Simon House pushes towards something more richly immersive — which didn’t stop reviewers tossing around “kebab shop music” jibes. Tourism was a word that some of punk and postpunk were beginning to use as a diss: “tourist in other people’s misery”, “at home you feel like a tourist”, gender tourist, cultural tourist…. And yes, the rhythm’s a daft kind of springloaded krautrock reggae — you could imagine Can coming up with it, as a lightheaded break from their Ethnological Forgery Series. Meanwhile the lyric, as read off the page, is earnest displaced workingman’s dignity-seeking, Springsteen as Gastarbeiter. But the stressed, resigned edge of Bowie’s delivery somehow winkles out another element present in this stubbornly self-reported pride: even in one’s own home, surrounded by one’s own culture, such a stance is often partly just a front, a public performance. Which is just what you’d expect this consummate, intolerably self-conscious performer to note and to mirror: the occasional need for masks, whatever your milieu. There’s a generosity here, and even a glimpse of a perverse basis for solidarity, across every political and cultural gulf. It was released as a single in Turkey and the Netherlands.

Kat Stevens on “Ashes to Ashes”

March 2004: Space is at a premium in my CD wallet, so I’ve only got Disc 2 of Best of Bowie with me, having left Disc 1 in its jewel case at my parents’ house. Now I’m in my tiny Bethnal Green box room, in a flat full of strangers. Independent at last! No internet, no money, maybe about 2 cigs’ worth of rolling baccy left in the pouch. A sleeping bag, a pair of ratty Converse and my portable hifi. I don’t have any kitchen stuff with me; the 40p baked potatoes at the work canteen will have to do. The real world starts here, I write in my notebook (Livejournal will have to wait). I’ll never get the chance to be irresponsible again — no dependents, commitments or watchful eyes, just total freedom. This means I’m finally saying yes to things. “My mother said, to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom.” Well that depends on the specific ‘things’ now, doesn’t it? University is done and dusted. If I wreck my brain with drugs, then what does it matter now? “Songs that please the ear and leave the mind alone.” I’m falling deeper into Bowie’s surreal false-colour landscape and no-one’s around to catch me. I feel the spine-chilling alien fingers of the bass and guitar clutching from both sides, strangling Major Tom as he sings. “Want an axe to break the ice, wanna come down right now.” I’ve never heard anyone sound as desperate and anxious, hounded by a chorus of nagging Mother-Bowies reminding him that he’ll never escape his fate. It’s too late for the doomed Major Tom, but not for me. “I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue.” After twenty-one years on the hamster wheel, it’s time to make my own mind up for once. I’ve taken the plunge into the most irresponsible path I can think of: rock and roll. Half-starved and paranoid, lonely and afraid — though I can’t admit that to anyone. Because it’s my choice this time. Giving up and going home is unthinkable. I pick up the notebook again. Make some memories now. Just in case the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Strung out in heaven’s high… hitting an all-time low.”

Edward Okulicz on “Fashion”

Underrated, I think, in the wake of “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion” is my favourite of Bowie’s 80s megahits. As Bowie loved fashion, I’ve presumed he scorned people who followed it for its own sake rather than it being a natural projection of the self. The desire to satirise this while making a song with a killer bass line to strut vacantly along a cat walk to must have been too much to resist. And it’s the bass line that drives the song, as Bowie drops catchy asides one minute and withholds them the next — “turn to the right!” on the first iteration of the chorus, and then just “RIGHT!” the second time, the absence of the rest of the phrase a hook in and of itself. There’s a lot going on, from the squalls of guitar to the too-bored multi-tracked chant of the chorus, but the record as a whole is as loose as the groove is tight — the last minute is the same thing over and over again but you could listen to Bowie going “fa-fa-fa-fa-fa” for at least another three minutes beyond that. Back when Marilyn Manson laughably covered “Golden Years,” the clear ancestor, I remember thinking “Oh you ridiculous idiot, you should have picked ‘Fashion,'” because as it is only Franz Ferdinand seemed to pick up the threads of this iteration of Bowie to any commercial or artistic success, and I think that’s a real shame. As simple as the lyrics are, the music is full of really clever, deliberate choices that make the satire hit its target as hard as the sounds hit the joints.

Abby Waysdorf on “Teenage Wildlife”

The thing about “Teenage Wildlife” is this: it’s my favorite Bowie song. It simply is. I can’t connect a story to it. I can’t pinpoint it to a time in my life, to a narrative of what was happening around it, any sort of representation or symbolic power. It’s just always been my favorite, every time I sit down to think of what my favorite Bowie song might be.

David Bowie means so much. He means so much to all his fans, including myself, and so much to popular culture at large. But in all of those meanings and memories he’s also responsible for some fantastic music to listen to. I keep coming back to “Teenage Wildlife” because it’s simply incredible, because it hits me every time I listen to it. The steady drive of the beat, the arcing and jagged guitar, the echoing chorus, and especially Bowie himself. He can be an incredibly affecting vocalist and never more so than here, soaring and yelping and growling, all emotional breakdown and catharsis. There’s this moment at about 2:40 that never fails to give me chills: David what shall I do they wait for me in the hallways, Bowie goes one way, the chorus goes the other, the piano and drums skitter, and it ends in a distressed howl — and then the song goes on. It does it again, and again. And you’re alone, for maybe the last time. “Teenage Wildlife” is nearly 7 minutes long and I could easily listen to it go on for another seven, and then another. It is perfect.

Brad Shoup on “Under Pressure” (with Queen)

Like so many pairings of superstars in the ’80s, “Under Pressure” does little more than nod at the agonies of the underclass. (Freddie Mercury’s iconic blurt “people on streets” was but part of a Bowie-directed first-phrase-best-phrase exercise.) But unlike those other corporate congloms, “Under Pressure” prized feel over feeling. A champion collaborator to the end, Bowie sat out the iconic intro, led by a Roger Taylor hi-hat slurp, then John Deacon’s funkless/immortal seven-note bassline, then Freddie’s woke two-chord piano progression, and finally, Brian May’s warm guitar figure. (Even in absence, though, Bowie left his mark: Deacon forgot his hook, but David remembered; May wasn’t used to breaking out the 12-string, but David insisted.) Due to Bowie’s group-writing experiment, “Under Pressure” is a grueling shuttle run between the personal and the universal; thanks to the band’s unflagging compositional sense, the track disregards all that. Queen the band is set on sunshine, and while David keens about “the terror of knowing what this world is about” — maybe the realest lyric ever penned — they’re thrashing toward transcendence. Not that they reach it — Freddie’s repeated “why can’t we give love” gains in agony what the band deposits in complacence — but maybe that’s the point. You can’t wave pressure away with a hand, no matter how manicured it is, or how many you’ve got.

Britt Alderfer on “Let’s Dance”

Some things do not occur to you, and to me, until we’ve been invited to them. Strange things lurk in our dreams, maybe, but we wake and don’t recall. I’ve spent most of my life trying to remember them and chase them out into the light and maybe do something creative with them. David Bowie is my inspiration. He intuited mad fantasies, monsters even, while waking, and made them reality. All the time. It wasn’t effortless — he worked like a horse. But he was the one who invited. “Let’s Dance” is one of his most overt, an invitation to do the obvious “under the moonlight, this serious moonlight.” Of course it was my introduction to Bowie; that monster hit, the biggest of his career, already long by 1983. I didn’t pre-date the 80s, I’ll admit. I would inevitably put on MTV or VH1, depending, in the mornings while getting ready for school, when they still just played blocks of music videos. “Let’s Dance” had the biggest sound and the hardest sheen of them all, and I loved it. I still love it. It was everything. “Let’s Dance” could never be just background music. Much later I would step backwards, a kind of rewind through the metamorphoses of Bowie, and see the cocaine-grim gauntness and slicked-back hair of Low, the powders and pastels of Hunky Dory, the extraterrestrial glamour of Ziggy, all of those costumes like ribbons unfurling, and love those too. But I’ll never forget my first. This act of Bowie’s is not “plastic,” but rather elastic, it bounces with those keyboards, snaps back. The brass around the edges is what makes it urgent, with Bowie’s voice sounding like it’s already coming from a jukebox. For sure, he knew something I didn’t.

Sabina Tang on “China Girl”

Early 1980s. My family hosts a blonde, blue-eyed English noblewoman on exchange, studying Asian art. She brings us Coca-Cola; to this day she sends Christmas cards. Superman screens for industry insiders at the No.1 Shanghai Film Factory. I remember Kal-el’s pod and my piercing sadness — a toddler’s understanding of loss. Then I’m given a passport, I’m on a plane, I’m in a pod. I’m in New York where it snows. I hear “Beat It,” “Careless Whisper,” I hear “China Girl” too. I think of none of this when I play Iggy Pop’s original, with its Nutcracker vibraphone and Visconti pasting over cracks with echo effect. Iggy sounds like a disaster and wants a specific woman. The sad-eyed colonizer played by Bowie wants a construct, a universal exotic — he’s Jeremy Irons in M. Butterfly — but his desire doesn’t matter either (shhhhhhh). When I say for the first time a song was about me I don’t mean that I thrill at being the object. Only that it’s nice to be addressed directly. I watched you stumble into town, after all: I took your telly and your coloured contacts, your soda and your superhero movies, and it occurred to me to wonder what you were thinking. (Minus a point for doubling down on the Oriental riff, not even as an irony move but as a novelty pop sell-out move.)

Jonathan Bradley on “Modern Love”

With all the things that David Bowie was — doomed spaceboy, rock god Martian, imperious Aryan — I feel as though I’m letting down his legacy by claiming my favorite single of his as “Modern Love.” That was not even Bowie as unfashionable, as during his fallow 1990s. Rather it was during his commercial peak; it’s Bowie at his most square. Fitted in white suit for the video, hair sculpted au courant, singing about making it to church on time, “Modern Love” is David Robert Jones receding from the outre to domesticity and blue-eyed soul. But Bowie is Bowie, and why I love “Modern Love” is that, in his hands, squareness is a performance like any other: normativity reinvented as yet another reinvention even when normcore was just a twinkle in the eye of a yet-to-be-born New York correspondent. And yet even to call “Modern Love” square feels wrong; it is pop and sophisticated, but with its Nile Rodgers production, its dancefloor rhythm, and its opening funk guitar, it radiates a new cool. The call-and-response hook is familiar for a decade that was fast coming to grips with the rock and soul roots of its contemporary culture, but Bowie’s honking saxophones aren’t straddling The Blues Brothers and The Big Chill. For all its aspirational chic, there’s something, as the lyric supposes, that is terrifying in “Modern Love,” whether that be emotion or charm or maturity or faith or not believing in any of those. “I’m standing in the wind,” Bowie sings, his tenor attenuated. “There’s no sign of life.” There’s a strange emptiness at the centre of this vivacious song: the space between god and man, where there’s no confession, no religion, no certainty. Bowie’s squareness is theatrical, yet even the pantomime is unable to force back these existential uncertainties. But we try. We try.

Megan Harrington on “Dancing in the Street” (with Mick Jagger)

Someone will tell you this song is awful. Someone will tell you this is the worst music David Bowie ever made. These are not incontrovertible facts. Perhaps because he’s an artist and artists are supposed to make art, there’s a sense that the whimsy and frolic of a deeply off-key and unpracticed duet with Mick Jagger doesn’t meet Bowie’s standards. But, how can anyone deny the total joy, the starry-eyed heedlessness, the good natured one-downmanship? Listening to this song is an act of deliberate glee, it’s choosing happiness, it’s every “you won’t!” met with “I will!” Remembering David Bowie should both be a celebration of his incredible career and a dedication to the fullness of his body of work. We can’t preserve the Ziggy Stardusts and reject “Dancing in the Street;” they are all equally David Bowie.

Thomas Inskeep on “Loving the Alien”

Don’t talk to me about the single version; I hate its mix, and it’s far too short. This song requires its full 7+ minutes to breathe, to get its point across. Now, yes, I’m known to be a perverse defender of the Tonight album, an album I find fascinating for where it comes in Bowie’s catalog, for its slapdash kitchen-sink approach; and for the fact that no album of Bowie’s has so much Iggy Pop on it (he co-wrote five of the album’s nine songs). But “Alien” has nothing to do with Pop — and barely has anything to do with pop, either. Its predominant instrument is the marimba, for god’s sake, which right there makes it sound like precious little else (except, of course, like a Bowie record, because few artists have ever so thoroughly done anything they wanted, artistically speaking). Derek Bramble coaxes unease out of his synths, chords that initially sound relaxing but have a menace lurking, like a fluffy cloud of poison gas. Bowie’s longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar rips some gorgeous little guitar riffs, especially on the song’s coda. Omar Hakim keeps everyone in time. But ultimately, this is all down to Bowie: his vocal is one of my favorite of his career. It’s an art-damaged croon, one that’s just a little off: listen to the way he leans into the word “prayers” in the chorus, ripping it — and you, as you listen — apart just a little bit. It’s twistedly gorgeous, turning a dark song just an iota towards the light.

Thomas Inskeep on “This Is Not America” (with Pat Metheny Group)

It somehow made perfect sense that, on the heels of Tonight, Bowie should collaborate with jazz-fusion superstars the Pat Metheny Group on a single from their soundtrack to the US-USSR espionage film The Falcon and the Snowman. Befitting John Schlesinger’s claustrophobic film (starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn), Metheny’s soundtrack is tight and constrained, and Bowie wrote a set of icy lyrics to match: “A little piece of you/The little peace in me/Will die,” the song opens. There’s an edginess here, an appropriate level of anxiety. But at the same time — and this may sound counterintuitive — with this song, an awful lot of people were, in essence, introduced to smooth jazz. In the mid-’80s, the Pat Metheny Group was chiefly trafficking in smoothed-out textures with Metheny’s own tricky little guitar patterns on top of them. So when this made the charts — top 3 across Scandinavia, top 20 in the UK, #32 in the US — Bowie fans (and pop music fans in general) everywhere were likely being introduced to Metheny and his band. As someone who’s a big smooth jazz fan now, and a major fan of Metheny, I will forever be grateful to Bowie for introducing me to him. And also that Bowie made this superb collaboration, one of the most unsung singles in his catalog.

David Sheffieck on “Magic Dance”

I initially approached Bowie from the context that I understood as a teen from the suburban Midwest who checked CDs out from the library as my primary source of new music: a serious artist making serious things and writing about deep truths. Then I watched Labyrinth — and suddenly, there was “Magic Dance.” A song that is deeply, deeply silly even without the Muppet goblins and infant coos. It’s the Hokey Pokey of pop songs, or one of them, built on commands to “jump” that anyone could follow, and I was deeply skeptical of it as some kind of fluff. “Magic Dance” walks the line between existing as a song that relates directly to the movie’s plot and one that’s dedicated to pop music’s ever-present Baby, between being about magic and being about Magick, serving both while never committing to either. Yet Bowie himself commits completely to delivering that balancing act, his performance some kinda blend of camp and earnestness that I’m not sure categorization can handle. And the song is anchored by not only his inimitable vocal, but one of the decade’s most immediate synth hooks — the kind that any number of new wave bands would sell their eyeteeth for. “Magic Dance” is a serious goof, or goofily serious, and while it might be a soundtrack song from a kids’ movie, it works just as well as pop. Which makes it as much a synecdoche for Bowie’s career as any song: it shouldn’t be this good, but it is. And for all the depth that Bowie demonstrated over the course of his career, for all the attention he paid and light he brought to important issues, let’s not forget that one of his best songs was gleefully sung to a room filled with felt and latex.

Thomas Inskeep on “Under the God” (Tin Machine)

Being a member of a band suited Bowie well; his collaboration with Reeves Gabrels and the Sales brothers rocked harder than just about anything in his career. Tin Machine’s self-titled debut was loud and nasty and hit buttons that Bowie hadn’t really hit before, almost a mix of the alt-rock to come (cf. Smashing Pumpkins) and metal (listen to those squealing guitars). Because frankly, Bowie was just about always ahead of his time.

Brad Shoup on “Jump They Say”

They say that your favorite thing by whichever is the first whatever that whozit released. And sometimes your favorite David Bowie song is “Jump They Say”. A lot of good words were strung together about how Let’s Dance mutually rejuvenated Nile Rodgers and Bowie’s fortunes. (Many of these words came from Nile Rodgers.) But each man spent a few years in the cultural wilderness — Rodgers working on Ric Ocasek and Eddie Murphy LPs, Bowie working on… well, he did Labyrinth and the title track to Absolute Beginners and he formed Tin Machine: I guess he was OK. But almost ten years to the day that Let’s Dance dropped, Bowie and Rodgers loosed Black Tie White Noise, a cheery set of funk-inflected pop-rave. Like so many superstars, David’s post-peak years would be spent in the thrall of past-peak ideas and artists (drum’n’bass, Moby, Trent Reznor). But “Jump They Say”! It surged on congested synths and Bowie’s headcold sax, whose alien melody gets cut off before the final resolving note. Rodgers’ drum loops suggested d’n’b without falling into a condemned industrial hole. The hero was — as ever — Bowie, whose plastic brass soulwork foreshadows a gutting existential peek at his highest tenor voicing. “Jump They Say” depicts the misplaced wisdom of crowds much better than “Under Pressure”: the “they” get the lion’s share of the track, sowing doubt and whispering false confidence. Still, it’s tempting: the most stirring part comes after the “jump,” when Bowie sings “got to believe,” holding that last syllable like a judgment, or maybe an acknowledgment. He wrote this partly from the memory of his half-brother Terry Burns, who broke out of hospital in 1985 and killed himself. (By most accounts, Terry turned David on to jazz, giving an extra patina of pathos to Lester Bowie’s insistent trumpet solo.) Chris O’Leary reads the lyric as a heartless clinical diagnosis, and I don’t doubt he’s on to something. No matter how heroic we perceive our loves, every fucking last one of them is susceptible to the same losses. It’s vital that in grappling with these, we win.

Anthony Easton on “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”

How did something which sounded so au courant in the late 90s — ugly, brash, vicious and crushing — which even didn’t sound very much like Bowie, sound dated twenty years later? How did it manage not to sound like Bowie at all? How did something made by Eno not sound like Eno? If everyone was waiting for Eno and Bowie working together to sound like Berlin, but it sounded like machines — not sleek cyborg robots, but something even more like estrangement? Fincher is always a literalist; having it at the end of Se7en didn’t even sound subtle. But it sounded like he was listening — just like how Fight Club used the fashionable problem of the Pixies.

There was this tight little circle of listening — Bowie sounding like the Pixies or like Reznor — Reznor eventually working with Bowie (their mutual live covers on the tours they co-headlined are what would happen if oedipal conflict ended with peaceful cohabitation). Kurt pretending David was authentic, singing “The Man who Sold The World” on MTV — in the 1990s Bowie was having an American moment, and he had an American moment because he was going downstairs as his fans were going upstairs. The lesson on this track was one of collaboration, of generosity, of someone whose ego was so monstrous that it was allowed to split and consume. Pretty monster who became ego less.

It might be wondered if it was also a time, after AIDS (mostly), when he was ready to live under Flaubert’s axiom. The legend was that this song came from Eno and Bowie meeting at Bowie’s wedding. They were trading licks, playing for each other. Having spent two decades apart, and not really working together afterwards — the text becomes a kind of bending of time. It was Bowie’s introduction to the world again — the place where he could eventually make work like Earthling — but with Eno, it was a sort of return to Berlin and his interest in industrial noise (as indeed Reznor had used a backtracked sample of “Nightclubbing” on “Closer”).

The filthy lesson here, then, is the ouroboros of queer time — of the body that has become meat, of absorbing people before him without nostalgia, and inventing fashion — of a platoon of cadets — but this was the queer time we already knew. This was a lesson that was transitory, necessary, and so it appears dated, because its position was functional. Once its function was worked through, it was no longer timeless.

Sabina Tang on “Hallo Spaceboy”

I revisited 1. Outside as someone who’s written Hannibal fanfiction positioning Buffalo Bill as art brut against the likes of Hirst and Sherman, and still find it densely… uncondensed. “Hallo Spaceboy” escapes the Verbasizer’s nihilistic dada vortex and serves accordingly to anchor the album to Bowie’s preceding (and ensuing) work, rather than taking up a central position in its one-off Art Murder Mythos. The Pet Shop Boys single remix is canon: unlike the original industrial rock exercise, neither its electrohouse throb nor the swirling, clattering drum’n’bass subsuming it can be dated to the year. Neil Tennant’s interpolation sends a shiver down my spine even though I expect him: “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom / Dead the circuit, countdown’s wrong…” Ground control as Verbasizer, as HAL for the first time, though the referential move is JJ Abrams-esque coming from anyone else but Bowie himself (less so than James Murphy’s on “Love Is Lost”!) and a mixed metaphor to boot — Spaceboy is never Major Tom, and Bowie knew that. He left it in because it worked.

Alfred Soto on “Strangers When We Meet”

Originating on The Buddha of Suburbia as a husky-voiced plaint with the gingerly tread of a demo, “Strangers When We Meet” got the full band treatment on 1995’s Outside. Thanks to its six-note bassline and one of Bowie’s most confident late-period vocals, it was a grand way to end an album wracked by an incoherent libretto about art crime. It’s a love song, no more than that, written in the broken images of a lifelong adherent to William Burroughs’ cut-up method: no sentence that a pair of Kmart scissors couldn’t rearrange, Bowie told himself. Betrayed by vendu. Slinky secrets hotter than the sun. But the images rearrange themselves into coherence for that key change that signaled the final chorus: Steely resolve is falling from me/My soul all bruised passivity. He lavishes the track with the full power of his baritone, the vibrato limited to last syllables. Meanwhile the keyboards and guitars swell in the last instance of that “‘Heroes’”-esque, Eno-fied wall of sound. Struggling to find music apposite to the homosexual tumult in my heart, I settled in the fall of 1995 on “Strangers When We Meet,” a song whose title comes from a Kirk Douglas-Lana Turner schlock classic about adulterous lovers.

Katherine St. Asaph on “A Small Plot of Land”

When I say I hate the rock canon, I really mean I hate ’70s rock. It seems an odd opinion to have these days. Fashion has declared the ’70s Back Again; and given that such declarations tend to winnow their way into what one “just happens to” start liking, I now consider avocado a fine color, leather a fine fabric, center a fine place for a part. I have purchased and wear a skirt with a patchwork pattern resembling an anachronistic Panel de Pon board, in orange and brown of course. (If any artist wouldn’t mind a digression for fashion, it’s Bowie.)

But ’70s rock, like the Southern rock it’s inextricably tied to in my mind, is impenetrable; supposedly classic songs just make me want to plug the quacking voices, Robin Hood the blues riffs back to their original owners and pour all the limitless boring cocaine into a giant Powder Game. And all that is before the 14-year-old elephant in the room. (Two things: Lori’s exact words were “it was fabulous,” which isn’t my place to redefine; and more pertinently, if you think certain very-much-alive pop stars aren’t regularly doing the same today, you may be disappointed. This is not just in the past.) All this should mean I should, as the song goes, strangle Bowie with his neckerchief. (Words by Kristeen Young, who was joking.) Fortunately, Bowie is bigger than the ’70s. I am told that Outside is not a good David Bowie album. And indeed, it sounds at times exactly what you would expect from the industry madlib “David Bowie [CLASSIC ROCKER] does a tour [KIND OF MUSICAL COLLABORATION] with Nine Inch Nails [’90s YOUNGS].” But never mind the critics; it’s thoroughly listenable, and on “A Small Plot of Land,” Bowie at his chilling best.

Outside is a concept album — oh boy, is it a concept album — and “A Small Plot of Land” is a philosophy reference and a narrative event — but nevertheless, it stands alone. A less-known Bowie fact is that much of Outside was “written” on the Verbasizer, a Mac program designed by Ty Roberts (later of Gracenote) that procedurally generated lyrics. On the scale of ’90s “interactivity” dabblers from Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel to I’m Your Man, is well toward the former end, perhaps at it, and it’s near-entirely due to Bowie’s skill as a co-author. “A Small Plot of Land” is a memorial, but unlike the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” keening of “Starman,” so inescapable over the past year, or even “Lazarus,” it’s Bowie facing death with its own sentiment. The lyric is a piecemeal dismantling of platitudes: “he’s less than within us,” “prayer can’t travel so far these days.” His eulogy is computer-mediated nonsense — “he pushed at the pigmen, the barbs laughed, the fool is dead” — a senseless death, discussed senselessly. Throughout, the closest thing to emotion is Bowie’s foghorn refrain: “POOR soul…” (This is probably coincidental, given that neither Bowie nor Eno have mentioned Sondheim and vice versa despite it being infinitely plausible that they might, but the intonation is near-exactly that of Sweeney Todd‘s “Poor Thing>,” another tale of tragedy filtered through human pettiness [and a spoiler]. The “he never knew what hit him, and it hit him so” line sure sounds like Sondheim, too.)

There’s another mix of “A Little Plot of Land” for the movie Basquiat: a smoother more traditionally “cinematic” thing, mostly just the strings. Director Julian Schnabel apparently preferred it to the album version, which goes to show he has no taste. The former is “moving” in the way storyboard beats are; the latter is terrifying, Bowie and Eno’s “Big Stripey Lie.” Sterling Campbell and Mike Garson’s section is plenty chilling on its own, percussion just a bit too frantic and dissonant piano trills around a single theme. Reeves Gabrels has a death cry of a guitar solo, against which Erdal Kizilcay’s bass, heretonow mostly absent, starts intoning a slow tritone — the devil’s interval sounds even worse against Gabrels’ fifths — then tolls the last note, as if to say “all right, pack it in, job’s done, bloke’s dead.” Barely audible speech, possibly Verbasized, gabs about in the background. As a mix it’s ghoulish, as a funeral it’s a farce. Bowie’s voice is the only real thing in the room — which is more eulogy than most men get.

Abby Waysdorf on “Little Wonder”

I had no context for “Little Wonder.” I was about 11 at the time, had recently moved to Denver from Washington DC, and was just starting to sort of think about music. I had some awareness of David Bowie’s existence, but to be honest, I can’t remember from where — I didn’t see Labyrinth for some reason until I was in my late teens and already a confirmed Bowie fan. (I was not all that impressed, but that’s a different story.) But I watched him on SNL around the time of Earthling coming out with a sense of “oh, that’s what David Bowie is.” And I liked it. Being American, being in a family that tended more towards rock, I didn’t really know the sounds and styles he was using, but I did know it was catchy and intriguing and cool. And that David Bowie himself was incredibly cool. (Did he wear the Earthling jacket? I can’t remember, and Google’s not helping.) And more importantly to my future development, I realized he was old and cool. It’s one of those things that sounds silly when you discuss it when you’re older, but when you’re 11, there’s something revelatory about finding out that older people can still make cool stuff. That you can always continue, your whole life, to do interesting things.

“Little Wonder” stuck with me. I used to find myself singing it at random times. At some point I got the album, which was also cool. (That jacket!) At which point my mother insisted I listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or I stole it out of her CD collection, it depends on which version of the story you remember. Either way, I realized that not only was Bowie cool now, that he was cool then — that music released in the 1970s could be as vital, as vibrant, as music being released right now. Which pretty much shaped my music-listening habits from then on, as I became obsessed with Bowie and glam rock and then punk and then post-punk and just about everything released before I was born. Would it have happened without “Little Wonder,” without Bowie? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have shaped me the same way. It wouldn’t have told me the same thing.

It’s fitting that was the first lesson Bowie ever taught me. That the past is worth knowing, and the future is always possible, no matter how far you get into it. You never have to give up and you never have to forget. He’d teach me more, of course. But what a way to be introduced to what music could be.

Mark Sinker on “Telling Lies”

Carrot-spiked and goblin-king gaunt, ambiguous sylph no more, in schmutter that’s nothing but Union Jacked angles, Bowie on Earthling’s cover gazes out across England’s green and pleasant hills. Which is to say, away from us. And for “Telling Lies,” sixth song in, he hocks up his best “Albatross”-style atonal Lydon moan over a skitter and dust of no-longer-quite-fashionable drum’n’bass, before croon-mumbling a self-mocking lyric that revisits William Blake as bathos: “Gorgeous girls are bound to meet/to talk of stars and kings and feet.” Blake mentions the feet first, and then the Holy Lamb of God; in the hostile grinning blur of the video, Bowie sees himself as a very different monarch, with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey alongside him on stage and screen in cloven hooves, horsetail and red hell’s imp horns. The embrace on this LP of all things semi-modish fell a bit flat with critics at the time: on one hand his dadglam mindgames left people squirming, on the other the implication that d’n’b would end up more flavour than movement was possibly a bit too on-the-nose. In hindsight it fits better into a career-long conceptual arc — from the gorgeous counterculture-changing fib that was Ziggy all the way up the breathtaking coup de théâtre of recent days: make-believe is after all key to most of art’s power to uncover tricky facts about the world. But the song stands in its particularity also — albeit a mutable four-fold particularity. It surely wasn’t new in pop to release a single in several mixes, of course, but their availability as downloads certainly was new. Lydon’s albatross to be shed was the entirety of pre-existing rock ’n’ roll, all its habits, all its attitudes — and if you miss this connection, the bass-shapes and tone in Mark Plati’s “Feelgood” mix also echo PiL. The coming transformation-extirpation isn’t going to be sonic or attitudinal this time, though: instead it’s a format shift, off discs and out towards the wolfish maw of P2P. The earliest established pop figure to be a digital native, the aging Panto Lucifer had stepped back in to help the industry hollow out its own economic logic for good, or for the other one.

Jonathan Bogart on “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell”

In 1999, during lunch at my first library job, I was leafing through a general-interest magazine in the break room in order to avoid talking to anyone, and read an article complaining that radio was too youth-driven these days, that Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and David Bowie were making some of the best music of their careers and getting critical raves and selling well and why weren’t they getting played? I saw no reason to disagree.

The same year that Stone Temple Pilots released No. 4, my favorite of their albums for no better reason than because it’s the first one I bought and the only one I ever listened to a lot, hours… sounded perfectly normal. Sure, the guy’s voice was weirdly processed and slurry, but I was used to Collective Soul and the Offspring and Live; vocal eccentricities in shiny hard rock were just part of the plastic, pounding rush.

When I listened to it again some years later, I knew who the Pretty Things were and what the Stooges song sounded like, but most of all I now knew what David Bowie had been in the 70s, and I was revolted by exactly the same shiny hard rock and plastic, pounding rush. It somehow sounded both airless and pneumatic, the lyrics stale and meaningless instead of tantalizingly ambiguous, Bowie’s performance numbingly one-note in place of the vast, trembling drama of the old days. Of course it didn’t belong on the radio in 1999, it would have sounded paralytic next to the inhuman litheness of Britney or Destiny’s Child.

Now, some ten years on, it still sounds stupid, but it sounds productively stupid, both a parody of lunkheaded 90s rock and its own weird, inviolate self. Gabrels’ whooshing guitar hook will always be a part of me — for a while in the early 2000s this, David Byrne’s “Neighborhood” and Elvis Costello’s “Tear Off Your Own Head” formed a kind of triptych of Weird Old Guy Rock that I listened to a lot for reasons I still can’t really explain — and of course I can’t now hear “life’s a bit and sometimes you die” without a slight pang. Stupid, of course; mortality is all over the man’s discography, generally way more elegantly phrased.

But… sometimes you do die.

Ian Mathers on “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”

If Blackstar didn’t exist, 2002’s Heathen would be the last really interesting record Bowie made. Seemingly informed by both 9/11 and religious angst (not that Bowie was really ever much of a believer himself), it’s not only his best batch of songs in years (with some of his best covers), it’s a surprisingly coherent cycle of songs about mortality and doubt. Bowie himself said this particular song was about death, which is how it struck me the first time I listened to the album. (It is, of course, followed on the album by a song where Bowie threatens God.) And in that context the fragile cheer of the song is even more heartbreaking. The person is just on a “big trip,” the sorrow of others is conveyed in the title instead of something more direct, the narrator laments that he never took a picture. It feels a little like the way you might talk about someone who’s died with a child. As Bowie’s voice frays a little and he urges the deceased not to “stay in a bad place” and talks about how if the food is bad or the money lousy they can just leave, the absurdity of the eternal absence of the dead strikes you once again. The song fades out over Bowie struggling to get in a list of people who “say hi”, everyone who someone might have touched in their life, expressing how any death leaves the world bereft in some way. There is never enough time to tell people that they are loved.

Sabina Tang on “New Killer Star”

Reality was the first Bowie album I heard end-to-end, and the first I spent appreciable time with. I had the rare experience of coming to it devoid of history. The moves were new moves, to me, and the recurrent later pleasure of revisiting the songs had to do with the recognition of what was old about them: that Bowie had many times exhorted his listeners to face the apocalypse and dance. It’s not not about 9/11, but the unshakable image of the titular star in my mind is not nuclear or science-fictional; it’s medieval, a portentous comet illuminated in parchment, all the little details in colour. The first appearance of Blackstar. Its approach is leisurely and relentless, like that of Von Trier’s rogue planet.

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on “Lazarus”

We often think of our heroes as invulnerable figures, whose pain only serves as gasoline for their creative vision. We see them as giants who laugh in the face of death, aware that their work has already transcended the confines of their own physical existence. Bowie has died many times, and each new version of himself, each new persona represent a resurrection. These themes permeate the music of Blackstar, our giant’s farewell album. “Lazarus” looks in the face of impending doom; its slow, creeping beat and atmosphere echoes the looming shadow of the reaper. It could be a sad, farewell song, but our hero is better than that. He sings “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” in a frail, hurt voice, aware that the body is giving up, but as shown in the video, the other Bowie (the incomparable visionary) is determined to create, giving life even (and especially) when facing death. Both versions of David seek the same thing: freedom. This might be why Blackstar is such a jazzy album. The horns in Lazarus are like a funeral dirge, but Danny McCaslin’s lead sax gives the sombre track an air of serenity even through the chaos. Bowie sings in the chorus “Oh, I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird,” as he readies himself for the inevitable end. He’s no longer afraid, he keeps creating. “Lazarus” is a goodbye gift from him to us. A proper send-off for a man that embodies the idea that the human experience is a work of art in itself. We will always love you, you unstoppable creative genius.

6 Responses to “David Bowie”

  1. I completely lost track of time reading these, thanks and well done all. Max’s “a book of Gogol quotes in some clown shoes” is perfect.

  2. If anybody’d like to photoshop that into existence of course then we’d really seal the deal.

    I’m 20% in but I’m enjoying this.

  3. Thank you all for this

  4. Beautiful writing here, folks.

    I made a Spotify playlist:
    https://play.spotify.com/user/cryptosicko/playlist/4VL4WA8TmeXjSf4PyGTP0N

  5. This was so lovely, all. I had such a terrible week outside of this loss that I didn’t have a moment to contribute anything, and I am a bit sad about that.

  6. Thanks for doing this. I sipped it all weekend, and it was great comfort. And I appreciate the guidebook through the post-1990 work, which I have never given the proper time or attention to.