Hero: Thoughts on the Music and Career of David Bowie

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I was truly shocked and saddened by the news of David Bowie’s passing. I had an immediate flashback to the 10th grade, Mr. Ogorman’s French class at Riverside High School in Windsor, Ontario, where I had a classmate named Morven, who I didn’t know at all (in fact, I doubt I ever even talked to her). She was quiet and a little fragile, but also confident, if somewhat defiant and aloof. She always dressed in what I thought was quite outlandish fashion at the time—she was somewhere in between glam and punk, the latter of which was still largely undefined in 1975. One thing stood out to me–she often wore David Bowie t-shirts, and for some reason, I could picture her sitting in the row by the window wearing one of those wild and provocative t-shirts from her seemingly limitless supply. I wasn’t aware of Bowie’s music beyond a handful of hit tunes that were in rotation on the FM rock stations in Detroit at that time, but Morven’s singular devotion to the man made me more curious about his music.

On Morven’s non-verbal suggestion, I started delving more deeply into Bowie’s music and I have kept up with his career since. I have over a dozen of his recordings in my collection and I’ve been listening to them all on repeat since his passing. As I listened to his music all week, I also read many of the tributes and reviews that came out to celebrate his life. So many articles have appeared, all lauding his genius, his vision, his consistently remarkable and varied creative output since the 1960s (all of which I agree with wholeheartedly). What is it about the man, his music, his career, that has caused this worldwide outpouring of adoration upon his passing?

He was certainly a pop star with a string of major hits throughout the decades, but he was much more than that. He was able to do something quite remarkable and very rare—he transformed musical forms from a variety of different genres and blended them in a completely authentic and convincing manner to serve his artistic vision and create an output that is overwhelmingly unique and instantly identifiable.

Most commentators (including an expert from Rolling Stone) were spouting the same crusty and vacuous cliche–“Bowie reinvented himself”–a cliche that is used far too often in pop music criticism. (“Reinvention” is not a value in and of itself–many have tried it and most have failed because the artistic product at the end was not very good). As I listened to his music, I didn’t hear “reinvention” at all. I heard what I hear in most of the great musicians in any genre—a singular artistic vision sustained and nurtured over decades of creative activity by the exploration of different conceptual frameworks. This is most apparent in the first 15 years of his career, which is, incidentally, when most of the “personas” are found as well. He found inspiration in literature, particularly writers in the science fiction/futurist realm like Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, George Orwell, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and of course, the infamous Beat Generation writer, William S. Burroughs. Bowie was so successful in his musical adaptations that he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2013, the only musician to receive this honor.

As the renowned musicologist Roger Scruton points out, music needs philosophy, and, unfortunately, most popular music just doesn’t have a philosophical framework, which explains, in part, what makes so much of it forgettable and disposable. Without that element, the lyrical content tends to be autobiographical, focussing on personal events and experiences. That works well for a short time, but soon, the stories culled from a single life are limited, and new topics, broader topics, are needed to sustain a career as an artist. Most pop musicians are not able to make that leap from the concrete to the conceptual. Bowie, on the other hand, succeeded marvelously in making that leap. Almost from the very beginning of his career, his music has a conceptual and yes, often a philosophical framework, which stands in stark contrast to most of his peers from any of the eras in which he was active.

I do, however, understand how Bowie earned his reputation as a “changeling.” Simply put, he was spectacularly gifted at breathing life into his inspirations and offering himself as the living canvass for his art. In fact, he was so convincing, at the beginning at least, that one wondered if there really was any separation between Bowie and his host of personalities. This has been an endless source of fascination for the media, with Bowie’s various “looks” being chronicled repeatedly in major entertainment publications, including a vertigo inspiring gif that was featured in Time as well as on Germany’s Tagesschau news network, who called Bowie a “Pop Music Chameleon” (Bowie’s years in Berlin in the late 1970s made him an icon and adopted son for many Germans, not only for his music, but also for his outspoken opposition to the Berlin Wall in his anthemic hit from that era, Heroes.)

Bowie’s many identities and style periods are also a source of some consternation for many, including one critic, Chris Barton (LA Times), who claims that Bowie is “impossible to capture” from a stylistic perspective. I disagree. Speaking from a musical perspective, Bowie’s music certainly evolves and changes throughout the almost half century in which he was active, but to me, as I listened to his music en masse as I did during the weeks after his death, it seemed, on a structural level, remarkably unified. One hears the tremendous influences from his youth—Bowie was born in 1947 which means he grew up in the era in which blues and gospel music were giving birth to early rock and roll. It was also the golden age of jazz and jazz singers and of Broadway musicals and show tunes. Bowie used and fused these styles into a body of work that reflected his voice and his vision, that was rooted in the music from his youth, but was at the same time never (for the most part) derivative or imitative, it was Bowie from start to finish.

The source of rock and roll and pop music (in general) is American Rhythm and Blues, which is found in Bowie’s music throughout his entire career, from the early years (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Young Americans) to mid-career (Let’s Dance, Tonight, Tin Machine) and continuing through to his late career (Reality, The Next Day). As opposed to a lot of rock, however, Bowie’s music retains vestiges of the sounds he must have heard in his adolescent years when his tastes were forming and these remain a consistent part of his sound. For example, it’s hard to find an album that doesn’t have, at some point, the sound of a saxophone section or a full blown horn section chugging away on Basie-style Kansas City blues riffs in the background accompaniment. There are other times when the sounds of late ‘50s doo-wop appears (although in some instances it does seem to be used ironically) or how about the reference to Danny and Junior’s sock hop hit “At the Hop” as the introduction to “Let’s Dance”?

Also notable is the presence of jazz elements in his work. The saxophone as solo instrument is featured prominently, played by Bowie in the early years and occasionally in later years, but it’s hard to qualify it as “jazzy” given Bowie’s limited skills on the instrument. He did, however, often turn to professional saxophonists to provide jazz-inflected improvisation to his music. While solo saxophone in rock or pop is not uncommon, what stands out in Bowie’s music is how often he features saxophone, piano, and even trumpet that utilize the more dissonant and difficult sounds of avant-garde jazz from the ‘60s and ‘70s. For example, listen to the piano solo by Mike Garson (the classically trained jazz pianist who worked with Bowie throughout his career) on the title track to Aladdin Sane, which could easily be mistaken for a solo by avant-garde jazz pianist Jaki Byard, including the humorous quotation of “Tequila” (which would become PeeWee Herman’s theme song 13 years later). There is a great deal of saxophone playing that is similar in displaying an avant-garde temperament–and this is not limited to more obscure tunes. For example, listen to the avant-garde trumpet and saxophones in his smash hit “Let’s Dance,” which coexist happily with the Texas blues guitar of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another example is his collaboration with the famous avant-garde leaning jazz trumpeter of the same last name, Lester Bowie. Bowie (Lester) is featured prominently on Black Tie White Noise improvising freely over funky electronic soul grooves, while the other Bowie plays some wonderfully tortured and slightly out-of-tune improvisations on saxophone.

The jazz influence is not limited, however, to rock and avant-garde solos—it goes much deeper than that, using jazz chords with colorful extended harmonies and even the occasional jazz chord patterns quietly inserted into the pop music texture. Consider, for example, his hit  “Changes” from Hunky Dory (1971) which starts with some surprising chromatic chords (played by strings and piano only, no drums or bass) that sound quite jazzy, which are followed seconds later by that instantly recognizable driving blues riff as the rhythm section appears briefly. This is then then followed seconds later by the verse of the tune as the rhythm section disappears and it returns to the strings and piano with voice. A few measures in, we find a series of jazz chord changes that every jazz musician knows and uses when playing standard jazz tunes from the Broadway songbook. (They occur when Bowie sings “And these children that you spit on”–Cmaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, E-flat min7, Dmin7.) This stock chord progression is found almost verbatim in the title song from the 1965 musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” by Alan Jay Lerner. It is also commonly used, for example, in the first two measure of Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train.”  In any case, these are rudimentary jazz chords, the kind which are generally not found very often in pop music. (As an aside, note how the form of this song, with the abrupt changes of texture match the title–in particular, notice that when Bowie sings “Time may change me,” the time signature immediately changes from 4/4 to 3/4 which is just one instance of clever text painting in his music!)

Or consider the songs “Bring Me The Disco King” from Reality (2003) and “Dead Man Walking” from Earthling (1997) both of which feature jazz harmonies, and, in the case of the latter tune, some overt jazz improvisation by Mike Garson at the end of tune, while Bowie croons overtop. There are many similar examples to be found in his body of work, but perhaps the one that makes me smile the most is on Diamond Dogs (1974), his dark and dystopian rumination on George Orwell’s 1984 (which is, I think my personal favorite Bowie recording). The opening track, “Future Legend,” opening with Bowie theatrically reading the Burrough’s inspired text (“And in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting in the slimy thoroughfare…”) sets the grim tone for the album. The music under the text begins ominously, but when Bowie arrives at the text “No more big wheels, Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats…” the music underneath changes to the “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” from the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey (1940), which is both humorous and jarring, as if the music of the idyllic (but perhaps illusory?) world before the apocalyptic collapse echoes eerily through the now barren valleys of “Hunger City.”

There is also quite a bit of minimalist and ambient influence, most prominent in his work with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp in the late ‘70s. (The minimalists have similarly found inspiration in Bowie’s music–one of the founders of the genre, Philip Glass’ Symphony #1 and #4 are based, respectively on Low, and Heroes.) What’s surprising is that some of this music also contains jazz elements, albeit in a more European vein, that can be found in the harmonic structure. Consider the song “Some Are” from Low which was recording during his Berlin period. The song could easily be revisited as a European-style jazz ballad in the tradition of Kenny Wheeler or Tomasz Stanko.

His giant footprint in pop music and pop culture often overshadows the fact that he was an incredibly gifted singer, who came of age in the era of the great song stylists of the jazz era and brought that approach, with his rich baritone voice and his powerful command of that remarkable instrument, into his music in a seamless manner. This is what makes it difficult to describe his style—alongside his R&B based tunes, there exists a wide variety of other styles in his work. (There are a few genres that Bowie touched on, but appeared to abandon quickly; for example, listen to the reggae-inflected smooth jazz in “Don’t Look Down,” or the cheeky drama of the tango-flavored harmonies in “Lady Grinning Soul.”)

What stands out to me, however, is the regular appearance of songs that show another side of Bowie’s personality, a side whose roots lie in the Broadway/jazz songbook. His Broadway songbook roots can be heard most overtly in his singing style—his approach is theatrical, using an intentionally pronounced vibrato (that would not be out of place on Broadway) a variety of other vocal techniques, including his sophisticated rhythmic placement, which is often subtly behind the beat; in other words pop music phrased with jazz stylings. There are many times, however, when Bowie completely embraces his musical theatre roots and flies his Broadway flag unabashedly. “Sunday” from Heathen (2002) and “Life on Mars” from Hunky Dory (1971) are two examples of this from early and late career. Both feature some sophisticated harmonies and harmonic movements not often found in pop music, with the melodies highlighting those movements in a way that is entirely in line with musical theatre practices. Both of these tunes (and many others in Bowie’s catalogue) could, with simple re-orchestration, easily be transplanted to the Broadway stage. “Life on Mars” was actually recorded by Barbara Streisand on her album Butterfly (1974) which is quite a powerful seal of approval from one of Broadway’s most famous singers, but Bowie did not like her version of his song, calling it “atrocious.” Another song that comes to mind is Bowie’s version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” which he recorded on Tonight (1984). Somehow, Bowie reimagines this saccharine ‘60s war horse without crossing over into kitsch, which is, I think, quite remarkable, but perhaps not as remarkable as his duet with Bing Crosby in 1977, where they sang a clever montage of “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth” together for Crosby’s “Merry Olde Christmas” holiday special. Here we have Bowie, in his Berlin period, with Low and Heroes percolating in the background, singing a Christmas song with Bing Crosby, and showing that he has the consummate musicianship needed to successfully sing alongside a towering icon of the golden era of the American songbook. Bowie shows once again, that he is not just a “pop star” but rather, an accomplished singer and musician with incredible sensitivity, taste, and the skills and technical flexibility needed to perform at the highest levels in another genre.

I think then, that it is interesting that he chose, for the first time, to use an extant group of jazz musicians, led by outstanding saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, for his final recording “★” (pronounced “Blackstar”). It is a difficult album to listen to, knowing that Bowie is no longer taking on a role for inspiration; his story here is his own, as he contemplates his imminent passing, and it is intimate and personal. It’s not a jazz album by any stretch, but with these musicians collaborating and bringing their modern jazz aesthetic to Bowie’s vision, it is imbued with that flavor nonetheless.

With this last gesture, Bowie returned directly to the source of so much of his music: jazz and the popular music of his youth. His genius was to take those timeless values of excellent songwriting, singing, and theatre, and to reinterpret and reimagine all of them in a way that was genuine and authentic and stunningly original, that spoke to life and love and existence in a way that made sense to the generations that followed. To do that, he dealt with larger topics in a philosophical and poetic manner, leaving questions asked, rather than answered, which is, I think the eternal quest of our lives. Given all of that, it is hard for me to imagine the force of will and commitment that it took for him to embark on “★,” which was to become his eulogy and his final goodbye. I can think of no greater testament to his artistry and his devotion, than this affirmation of life and love, his final gift to the world.

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About FraKathustra

http://www.kurtellenberger.com

7 Responses to “Hero: Thoughts on the Music and Career of David Bowie”

  1. Well done, Kurt

    It sounds like we went through a similar period of honoring/mourning Bowie’s passing by re-familiarizing ourselves with his music.

    You’ve captured a lot of my feelings about him as an artist so it’s quite unnecessary to share my thoughts.

    Watching various concert videos of his performances, I had to smile at the sheer ferocity of his bands at times. And his generosity and fearlessness as a leader. There are moments that remind me of Mahavishnu Orchestra in terms of intensity, groove, and tonality. He hired good players, set the scene, and let them rip.

    Well played, David.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your rejection of the idea that David Bowie “reinvented” himself. You put it eloquently – he experimented tirelessly with new structures and genres to find an evolving path of self-expression. Like The Beatles, his creative identity was so strong that he could span pop, rock, Broadway, jazz, minimalism and European avant- garde styles and still be David Bowie. Like Miles Davis and all the greats, he was a questing artist who dedicated his life to a consistent vision expressed in a kaleidoscopic range of styles.

    Thank you for a genuinely considered overview of David Bowie’s achievement.

    • Thanks Jack! There was (and is) so much more to say in a career spanning almost 50 years…I was going to reference Miles Davis as well, as the leader, Bowie did much the same thing–found the right people to make his vision happen, and then let them do what they did best.

  3. Structure and freedom personified! Thank you.

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  1. Ghosts in the Machine, Part III: The Ghosts | Also Sprach FraKathustra - September 10, 2016

    […] death earlier this year. (For a more comprehensive discussion on Bowie’s jazz influences, see my article following his passing earlier this year.) The use of saxophone or piano as a solo instrument in pop […]

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