Sunday, January 08, 2012

[ Re-Post ] Of Heroes, Fame, Changes, Modern Love and Aladdinsanity -- Celebrating the Brilliance of David Bowie on His 65th Birthday

(Originally written and posted on 1/8/11, when he turned 64. Revised only per his age.)

As far as rock 'n roll birthdays go, January 8 is much more famous for being that of Elvis Presley, in 1935. But 12 years later, a baby christened David Robert Jones was born in London.

While I consider myself an Elvis fan--if not quite a fanatic--and appreciate his immense impact on music, culture and celebrity, the man who would in 1967 rename himself David Bowie (so as to avoid confusion with The Monkees' Davy Jones) has been much more significant to me.

And while he has not recorded or toured since having heart surgery in 2004, David Bowie remains alive, seemingly well and quite vital.

I first "got into" Bowie in the early '80s, before the Let's Dance phenomenon, probably based on hearing "Rebel Rebel," "Space Oddity," "Changes" and "Suffragette City" on rock radio stations like The Loop in Chicago. But I am living proof that it is possible to have been a big fan of David Bowie for a long time without really having a clue as to the depth and breadth of his brilliance.

The first album of his I bought was ChangesOneBowie, and to this day it probably remains the Greatest Hits collection (of anyone) for which I have the most affection. The CD version--which has since been supplanted by other compilations--was expanded and dubbed ChangesBowie, but the original record I had contained the following tracks:

1. Space Oddity 2. John, I'm Only Dancing 3. Changes 4. Ziggy Stardust 5. Suffragette City 6. Jean Genie 7. Diamond Dogs 8. Rebel Rebel 9. Young Americans 10. Fame 11. Golden Years

I imagine that even for passing Bowie fans, this seems like a pretty stalwart collection of songs. Add to it my instant fondness for 1983's Let's Dance album when it was released--along with four excellent songs, including the title track, "Modern Love," "China Girl" and "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," the record introduced me to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who played guitar on it--and reaching back to discover his remarkable Ziggy Stardust album, I had a rather substantive appreciation for David Bowie by the time I was 15.

Or so I thought.

Yes, the July 1983 Time cover story drew my attention to Bowie's chameleon-like stylistic changes throughout the '70s. Sure, I came to know a number of other songs, such as "Heroes," "Ashes to Ashes," "Panic in Detroit" and "Under Pressure," his outstanding collaboration with Queen. And, after being a smidgen too young to attend the Let's Dance Tour, I saw Bowie for the first time on May 26, 1990 at Dodger Stadium, soon after my relocation to L.A.

But it wasn't until years later, likely revolving around the next time I saw Bowie in January 2004--I attended 2 of his 3 shows at the Rosemont Theater plus one a few months later in Milwaukee--that I decided to delve a good bit deeper into Bowie's oeuvre.

And I continue to dig until this day. Somewhat similar to explorations of The Kinks prior and Steely Dan since, I came to realize that Bowie's greatness goes exponentially beyond his greatest hits. And in saying this, I'm not even alluding to how he introduced the idea of a rock star adopting an alternate persona, how his ever-changing fashion stylings presaged the MTV-era or how he rather successfully transitioned into acting. I'm really only referencing his music itself. 

Back when CDs were still the norm--at least apart from illegal downloads--I bought nearly all of Bowie's back catalog and came to hear many of his albums in full for the first time. To give you a sense of the stature of his output from 1970-1980, awards 5 or 4-1/2 stars to nine studio albums during that span, and two "lesser lights," Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, also have a number of superb songs.

So that's eleven substantive releases in the same number of years, and almost all of his material is so good it's hard to cite my favorite albums. The early output, including Hunky Dory, Ziggy and Aladdin Sane is sensational. I can't argue with anyone who cites 1976's Station to Station as his best record. And his German "triptych" recorded with Brian Eno in Berlin--Low, Heroes and Lodger--are just as rewarding as his more accessible albums. A friend of mine picks 1980's Scary Monsters as his favorite.

And though Bowie's output slid after Let's Dance--some would say with--I really liked both 2002's Heathen and 2003's Reality. So while it certainly wouldn't be wrong to start any exploration with a greatest hits compilation--the 2-disc Best of Bowie seems fairly comprehensive--realize, like I did way down the line, far past his 1996 Hall of Fame induction, that Bowie's legacy goes way beyond the rather remarkable surface.

No wonder my Bowie collection imported into iTunes would keep me audibly occupied for nearly a full day. And although I initially intended to accompany this post with 10 videos mixing more popular songs with some lesser-known gems, I couldn't help but go to 15, and could easily pick a completely different selection every bit as good.

So in response to The Beatles' legendary query, "Will you still need me ... when I'm 64?", my answer when it comes to David Bowie, is a resounding, "Yes." (And even 65, as I thought I should re-post this today.)

Happy Birthday, Mr. Bowie.

To celebrate, I give the rest of you 15 choice cuts from throughout his career, with a compilation video at the very bottom that allows you to run all the songs in sequence. (I put the videos below a "continuation jump" so click below left to see them if you can't.)

The beautiful "Life on Mars" from Hunky Dory.

"V-2 Schneider" from Heroes. Even at his most experimental, Bowie retained a great gift for melody.

"Be My Wife" from Low.

An acoustic version of "Ziggy Stardust."

"Oh You Pretty Things" from Hunky Dory.

"Look Back in Anger" from Lodger.

"Aladdin Sane" from the album of the same name.

One of my favorite versions of "Heroes." For years, I didn't know his intro was referencing this song, made famous by Burl Ives.

"Station to Station" from the album of the same name. 10 minutes long but it's stupendous.

"Rebel Rebel" from Diamond Dogs. For all my talk of Bowie's vast range, this radio staple is probably my favorite song of his.

"Modern Love" from Let's Dance. I love the title cut, but this is a bit quirkier and features a great sax solo, along with fretwork from Stevie Ray Vaughan. 

"Blue Jean" from Tonight. I bought the Tonight album on cassette after loving Let's Dance, but this was the only really first-rate song. I found a great live version, but can't embed it.

"Fantastic Voyage" from Lodger.

"New Killer Star" from Reality.

"Changes" from Hunky Dory.

All the videos above in a sequential "reel."

For any of you wondering about "Golden Years," "Young Americans," "Space Oddity," "Starman," "Suffragette City," "Jean Genie," "Fame," "Let's Dance," "TVC15," "Wild is the Wind" or much else, well, that's kind of my point.

You can read more about Bowie on and Wikipedia, see Bono's David Bowie playlist through and listen to almost all his albums, in full for free, through MySpace Music.

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