September 12, 2016

Lessons from David Bowie

Originally posted January 25th, 2016

DavidBowieScaryMonstersCover

The 36 year anniversary of the release of Scary Monsters


David Bowie did not register with me until very late in his career, and long after my intense interest in rock and roll. I had been in the right place on a couple of occasions, starting in 1968 in Montreal’s Paul Sauve Arena for a concert by Cream, the supergroup. That was an end of grade 8 treat. Then my family moved to Vancouver where I saw Zepplin, Creedence and even the Monkees in concert.

By the time I started in university radio at UNB, I was playing old gold, nostalgia music, just a little before it was popular to do so. I guess I’d been influenced by my sister—5 years older. She was listening to Buddy Holly, Spector’s wall of sound and then the Beatles. The rock and rollers I admired had rejected Elvis’ gold lame suit from the cover of the album Elvis for Everyone. Even folk protestor, Phil Oachs had mocked this show-bizzy look by wearing the same kind of suit at his “Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.”

Rockers wore jeans, Credence wore lumberjack shirts, some wore buckskin jackets and capes. David Bowie’s glamour rock was a little hard to understand. So were his alter egos. But a university roommate played me “Song for Bob Dylan and I had to respect Bowie’s respect for tradition. This 1971 effort pays tribute to Dylan paying tribute to Woodie Guthrie.

Bowie captures the rhythm of Dylan’s singing without doing an imitation. I filed that respect away for a few decades and kept an open mind. When my son Christian showed interest in Bowie, it was not from a quick listen to a novelty song. Christian is a producer of music, stage performer, and audio engineer.  When I heard that Bowie was influenced by West Ender Anthony Newley, Christian played me “Space Oddity” and “Starman” so I could hear Bowie’s interest and aspirations in music theatre.

A really other odd connection to other types of music, David Bowie took an early stab at translating “Comme D’habitude” for Newley, which didn’t work. But another translation by Paul Anka did work for Frank Sinatra. Hum…Sinatra, Bowie, Newley, Dylan, Woodie. What a party.

Maybe Bowie never resonated with me because in my day there were absolutes, clear purpose and direction, and a radical dualism or polarization of sorts. The cold War was us vs them. Music was divided along colour lines—not just R & B and white cover versions, but also literally with different colours for 45 rpm records in different genres. I remember country was green, there were some red and I forget what else.

In the 50’s and 60’s politics, movies and music there was “right and “wrong”, “good” and “evil” and most importantly for rock and roll vs everything else. To be a fan of Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones you were signaling to your community that you were part of a subculture, usually a group of undesirable radicals who opposed the establishment at every turn.  Even the counterculture of the 60’s still defined itself by what it opposed, and in doing so relied up the old bipolar worldview.

We made Frank Sinatra cry, apparently. Mr. S. sat along playing Elvis’ All Shook Up and Heartbreak Hotel over and over again, crying and trying to figure out what was so special about But back to David Bowie. Perhaps the reason why my son loves David Bowie is because of the radical shift in modern culture that happened in the time between my start in radio in the early 70s, and his growing up in the 80’s and 90’s.  The personality disc jockey of the 1960s was fading fast. My heroes, the ones who kept me company in the car and at night were nearing the ends of their careers—Jackson Armstrong (CHUM), Charles P. Rodney Chandler, Roger Scott (CFOX), Stevie Grossman (CKLG) were having their dead cat bounces.

They made way for playlists and focus groups. My little connection with this fading world included playing Backgammon with Buddy Knox (Party Girl) until 3 AM on night and working with the great DJ, turned TV host Fred Latremouille. But where did Bowie fit in to this sea change to a more corporate approach to radio and top 40? My son says it involved an artistic shift to plurality.  Perhaps if Bowie wasn’t going to please corporations, and yet didn’t have a direct connection to his audience without those corporations, he decided to please himself. His career was about personal introspection and subjective interpretations.

No artist could better express this shift or embody this shift than David Bowie.  The endless reinvention and exploration of characters and identity fits perfectly in line with our compartmentalized, isolationist modern lives.  If you’re packed in with hundreds of other people on the subway, all blocking each other out with smartphones and earbuds, why not pretend you’re an intergalactic rock-star, anonymous Berliner or the cruel Thin White Duke? David Bowie means something slightly different to every one of his fans.  In my time capturing the public consciousness meant radio hits, but post- Bowie it’s all about the way you make your audience feel.  The intimacy is in the earbuds, as if the sound was all made especially for you.

Bowie was so interested in a more audience centred version of his art, and the new technology of the internet that he famously raised money through “Bowie Bonds” leveraging the profits from future sales of his back catalogue, to start and Internet Service provider “BowieNet”.  Ultimately, both of these ventures ended with lukewarm results, but early adopter and visionaries are often punished by the market for their prescience. It’s staggering to think Bowie was Born in the bombed out ruins of England post World War 2, and ended his life on the cusp of an entirely different, splintered world of internet nihilism and non state actors, and that he remained one step ahead of the pack through it all.

It’s sad for me and many others of my generation to think that we will never again experience the kind of once in a lifetime mass media experiences we had back in the 60’s like the moon landing or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But it’s exciting to think of where we might go in search of our own personal truth as David Bowie did.

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