“Blackstar” and The Spiders From Jazz
By Bradley Bambarger <2016>
David Bowie was on a roll — again. The rock icon had begun his 21st century with two energized studio albums and one of his most acclaimed world tours, before that momentum hit the brick wall of his heart attack in 2004. But after nearly a decade of recuperating and lying low — mostly just enjoying an art-loving life in New York City with his family — Bowie released the dream-like ballad “Where Are We Now?” as a single on his 66th birthday, the song sounding like a man looking at a movie of his memories. The Next Day — a comeback album produced by Bowie and longtime studio partner Tony Visconti with a crew of musicians familiar from recent recordings — followed soon after in 2013. There were artful videos and an EP of extras to go along with it, the project’s air one of fresh, fertile-minded reconsolidation. The future seemed bright.
Duly, the next year brought one of Bowie’s boldest creations in a career brimming with them. A lifelong lover of jazz who regularly pulled out his alto and baritone saxophones in a painterly way on record, Bowie collaborated with multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider and her big band, a group filled with some of New York’s finest improvising musicians. He was a fan, having seen her conduct the group at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. Bowie and Schneider co-wrote the single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a masterpiece of noir atmospherics and art-first impetus that allied her Gil Evans-evoking gift for harmony and orchestration with his genius for melody and oblique storytelling. It led off Nothing Has Changed, a three-disc collection of Bowie hits and rarities; the seven-and-a-half-minute song sounded like nothing else in his canon, except that it was as pioneering in its way as his peerless mid-’70s music.
In a 1997 interview, Bowie explained how he preferred the art of the unexpected, saying: “A girl wearing a red dress in a forest will be some strange vision of unexpected eroticism, but a girl wearing a red dress on a catwalk will be highly predictable.” The melding of art-rock song craft with big-band jazz orchestration in “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” was very much the sound of surprise, like that metaphorical girl wearing a red dress in a forest.
The experience of working with Schneider and her orchestra led directly to the making of Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released on January 8, 2016, his 69th birthday, just two days before his death of cancer. His end was shockingly sudden for all but his inner circle, the illness having been kept a Pentagon-level secret. Fittingly, and amazingly in this age of dissipating privacy, all the pre-release press for the new album focused on its venturesome content, not its poignant circumstance. The release of Blackstar was ideally stage-managed. As Visconti has pointed out, even Bowie’s death was a work of art.
Instead of working with the rock musicians who had helped him craft past albums, Bowie — as he had done on so many occasions in the past — ripped up his playbook and started anew. This time, he tapped a small band of New York jazzers, most of whom are also members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a featured soloist in “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” had especially impressed Bowie, so Schneider suggested that he check out McCaslin’s own quartet, which mixes electronics with improvisation. Not only buying the records, Bowie took Schneider with him to see the virtuoso’s band at the 55 Bar, a grittily intimate jazz outpost in the West Village. Bowie was thrilled by the quartet’s rhythmic drive, as well as by its mix of the organic and synthetic.
The Spiders From Jazz
Even before “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and Blackstar, Bowie had worked with top jazz musicians, such as tapping avant-garde trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation) from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to play on his 1993 album Black Tie, White Noise. He also collaborated with Pat Metheny, co-writing and recording the grand ballad “This Is Not America” with the guitar star and his group for the soundtrack to 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman.
Reflecting on that experience after Bowie’s passing, Metheny said in a statement on his website: “Watching David do his vocal was something I will never forget. I can only say that it was masterful — kind of like the feeling I have had whenever I’ve had the chance to be around a great jazz musician who carried a one-of-a-kind presence that filled every note that came out of them… It doesn’t surprise me at all that his last recording includes some of the best contemporary players in New York, such as the fantastic Donny McCaslin. During our time together, David expressed a real appreciation and knowledge of this music and saxophone players in particular. He carried the broad view of art that was inspiring to me.”
Schneider uses that same word — “inspiring” — to relay the impact of working at close quarters with Bowie. “David was just so fearless,” she told Listen. “He knew that what we were doing might divide opinion among fans and critics, but he embraced that — and it was an inspiring lesson. He was comfortable on the edge. In the studio, he was so passionate and full of creative energy, as well as so open-minded. You could tell that he knew so much music, and what he didn’t know, he wanted to know. David loved jazz and the big-band sound. You could tell that it was a real gas for him in the studio with all the guys.”
Schneider’s music has become more radiant in recent years, but Bowie was after more shadow than light. “He’d keep saying, ‘darker, darker,’ and of course, that suited the story of the song, where Sue dies at the end,” she says. “Now I love how dark the palette is, how the song creates its own universe. I told him that after all my striving for beauty in my music, he’d ruined me with ‘Sue.’ He joked back, ‘Well, my work is done here, then.’ Really, I was just overjoyed and so relieved that he loved the track, and I was especially gratified when he wrote me that he thought it would one day be seen as being quite forward-thinking and rule-breaking. We had talked about doing more together, and I left space open in my schedule just in case he would call… Working with David changed me. In some ways, I think of my view of music now as being pre-Bowie and post-Bowie.”
Soon after Bowie saw McCaslin’s quartet at the 55 Bar, he recruited the saxophonist and his group — keyboardist Jason Lindner, electric-bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana — to be his band for the Blackstar sessions, providing them with his detailed home demos of the songs before they went into the studio. Later, guitarist Ben Monder — like McCaslin and Guiliana, also a member of Schneider’s orchestra — was added to the mix.
Reflecting on the album’s creation as part of his Bowie memorial comments, co-producer Visconti said in Mojo magazine: “When we discussed using Donny McCaslin’s band for Blackstar, David said: ‘Tony, you have to study them. They’re way above us!’ So we both had to educate ourselves to get up to the level of Donny. Perhaps that’s why David sang every single take that the band did live. Because he was learning it, refining his vocal along with the music.” Referencing Bowie’s early glam-rock outfit Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars, Visconti added: “David and Donny’s band were hand in glove. They were the Spiders From Jazz.”
The Making of Blackstar
Blackstar has parallels with a previous Bowie landmark LP, 1976’s Station to Station. There is the sheer quality of both albums and a similar duration, plus each begins with a 10-minute title epic. “Blackstar” is a darkly atmospheric two-part suite, its lyrical images as tantalizingly elusive as light in an obsidian mirror.
Another key track is the affecting “Lazarus,” also the title piece to the off-Broadway musical play that Bowie — incredibly, given his illness — finished concurrently with Blackstar. (The music video for “Lazarus,” depicting Bowie bedridden and then dancing like a specter, is haunting.) The album also includes “ ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” “Girl Loves Me,” “Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Anything Away,” plus a tough, Spartan reworking of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” There is melody in the music and wit in the words, as well as intimations of mortality. The performances have drive and depth, while the richness of the production manages the trick of sounding both of the moment and timeless. Few rock artists have capped their careers with such creative verve as Bowie with Blackstar.
None of the Blackstar players were aficionados of Bowie’s work from one end of his 40-year-plus catalog to the other, with each knowing one or two discrete periods. “Let’s Dance was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and I knew the earlier hits on the radio,” says McCaslin, 49. “I also liked that song he did with Pat Metheny in the ’80s. So I knew his great stature as a rock artist, obviously, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t know the full range of his catalog, because I might’ve been even more daunted. But working with David couldn’t have been easier — he was so focused and engaged, as well as humble and generous, just wonderful to be around. When we first talked about making the record, he said, ‘Donny, I have no idea how this will go, but let’s have fun’.”
The Blackstar musicians all talk about the open, collaborative atmosphere in the studio with Bowie. “He hired us to be ourselves, basically,” McCaslin says. The saxophonist’s best album with his electro-acoustic quartet, 2015’s Fast Future, has a tightly wound concision. Aptly, the mandate for Blackstar was for these jazz-honed players to join Bowie in realizing his music as a sophisticated but ultra-tight rock band; there’s no loose-limbed jamming on Blackstar, with even McCaslin’s solos saying more with less.
About Bowie’s templates for the songs, McCaslin says: “His demos were so evocative — it made the whole prospect of going into the studio really exciting. It was very much rock music, with David’s guitar playing gritty and really distinctive on the demos. But there was something in the songs that had a jazz feel to me, a tension in the chord voicings and the minor ninths and tritones in the harmonies. David’s saxophone playing on the demos was soulful, and I could immediately hear ideas for orchestrations that I could do with tenor sax, clarinet, alto flute and flute. The drum loops and bass lines were strong but in a way that I knew Tim and Mark would be able to take the rhythms to a new level — and David and Tony encouraged them to embellish, to do that mixed-meter thing they do. And when it came to my solos, David and Tony were so encouraging. Most of them were first takes. I think I only overdubbed one to redo it.”
The studio experience was similar for Monder. “David and Tony gave me a lot of freedom to interpret the tunes and come up with sounds that I felt were right,” the guitarist says. “When they liked something, they were excited and vocal about it. Even when they didn’t like something, it was easy. Once I was playing too many notes on something, not really getting it. David just said, ‘Give me some chordal slabs.’ That unlocked it for me, as simple as that. Tony, like David, is great in the studio. He knows how to get the best performances out of people by letting them do what they do. And David’s manner made it such a positive experience for everyone. He was down-to-earth, just a normal, nice guy. I left the studio elated every day, and that’s not always the case.”
Most of the basic band tracks during the Blackstar sessions — including several extras as yet unreleased — were nailed in one or two takes. “David and Tony really appreciated spontaneity,” Lindner says. “They weren’t going for perfection in the performances, but rather vibe and energy.” The trickiest song to capture was the new version of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” At first, the quartet tried to be as faithful as possible to Schneider’s widescreen arrangement. “No one was feeling that path one hundred percent,” explains Lindner, a big fan of the original. “So we decided to strip it back to the bass line and a few integral parts and then just do our own thing in the moment, which was more aggressive — it took on a different life.”
With Bowie singing alongside the band on the studio floor, his vocal presence was a catalyst for the band’s performances. “David singing with us was electrifying,” McCaslin says. “We were playing off each other in the moment, and he was part of that dynamic — the chemistry was immediate. I’d be looking right at him as we were playing, reacting to the passion he was pouring out as he was singing.”
Although they were ostensibly “scratch” vocals with the words unfinished, Bowie’s singing in the studio had the vigor of live performance, Lindner says: “He sounded like the rock star he was, powerful and totally personal, individual. Honestly, it made my spine straight and my hair stand on end. The four of us in the band play with a high level of intensity, but when David opened his mouth to sing, he pushed us to play even harder, make the music go deeper. We wouldn’t have been able to play quite like we did without him singing with us. The love for what he did flowed out of him, and you wanted to receive it and radiate it back. He was an art rebel — and you could feel it playing with him.”
With Bowie and Visconti sharing a history going back to 1969, there was an easy rapport between them in the studio that was “beautiful,” Lindner says. There were a lot of tales from the glory days, along with much talk of books, films and visual arts. Bowie not only enthused with McCaslin over “the grandeur” of Charlie Parker’s records; he and Visconti expressed appreciation for the production of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly. There was also a lot of wordplay and “good-natured ball-busting,” Monder reports: “David was so funny in the studio, with this sharp English wit, especially between he and Tim, who’s a pretty funny guy. By the end, though, David was kicking everybody’s ass with the zingers. But he had a sense of humor about himself, too. He had us watch that ’80s video of him and Mick Jagger doing ‘Dancing in the Street,’ but without the music. He was laughing at how ridiculous it looked.”
During the sessions, Bowie informed the band that he was being treated for cancer. “Yet he would be leaving the studio in the afternoon to work with Henry Hay, the music director for the Lazarus theater piece,” Lindner says. “I don’t know where he got all that energy.” Monder adds: “I never saw an indication of his illness in the work, ever. In hindsight, the dark overtones of the lyrics take on a whole new — wrenching — meaning. To me, they’re so much better for how indirect they are, even though you can sense now what the guy was going through.”
Upon hearing of Bowie’s passing, Lindner lit a candle in the dark and played Blackstar for the first time at home, listening all the way through with his girlfriend. He marveled at the detail of the final mix (much pored over by Bowie and company after the initial sessions), though he was ultimately immersed in the album’s emotional impact. “I haven’t been able to listen to it since,” the keyboardist says. “The experience of recording Blackstar was transformative for me in a way that I can’t put into words. And working with David and Tony definitely raised the band to a higher plane.”
McCaslin, Lindner, Lefebvre and Guiliana played a week’s run at the hallowed Village Vanguard in late January. Every set of every night, they played a version of “Warszawa,” an instrumental from Bowie’s groundbreaking Low LP of 1977. “That was Jason’s idea — he could just hear us doing it,” the saxophonist says. “We played it rubato and opened up spaces for improvising. It was always an emotional point in the set. We’ll record ‘Warszawa’ at some point as a tribute.
“There were so many life lessons that came from working with David,” McCaslin concludes. “First of all, there was never wasted time or energy to the way he did things. It has hit me that you never know what’s going to happen 10 years or 10 days or even 10 hours from now. The moment you’re in is all that you know you have, so you really have to live that moment to the fullest. David Bowie did that, right up to the end.”
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Sound and Vision — Bowie Off the Beaten Track
Speaking in tribute to David Bowie after his passing, U2 guitarist The Edge said: “He made creative audacity feel normal.”
Constantly shape-shifting identities, pioneering theatrical conceptions and the integration of fashion, dance and visual arts to heighten rock music — these are the things that one often heard celebrated in memorials of Bowie. But we shouldn’t forget that, above all, Bowie was a great, emotionally evocative songwriter and an intrepid sonic adventurer. This mix of talents made him a one-of-a-kind record maker, as influential in his own way in the ’70s as The Beatles were in the ’60s. Bowie even recovered from artistic ennui in the wake of his worldwide pop success after the Niles Rodgers-produced Let’s Dance album, eventually sloughing off the ’80s rote studio gloss that ruined many ’70s artists to reclaim his imaginative individuality. And unlike most of his peers, Bowie never stopped challenging himself or his listeners, presenting bold music right up to the end.
The list of iconic Bowie songs goes on and on, from “Space Oddity” and “Rebel Rebel” to “Fame” and “ ‘Heroes’,” not to mention such left-field gems as “Under Pressure,” his inspired collaboration with Queen. But with such a capacious catalog, there are rich seams to explore. In reverse chronological order, here are 25 tracks that illustrate Bowie’s sound and vision as well as any of his best-known hits.
1. “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Blackstar (2015). A mix of the buoyant and bittersweet, this final song on Bowie’s 25th and final album knocks you over with a feather-light touch. The track has an upbeat, art-pop groove, even if the keyboards give it a dark-hued harmonic undertow; poignantly, Bowie’s harmonica evokes that on “New Career in a New Town,” his bright-eyed, Berlin-era instrumental of 1977 (see below). The lyrics, though, sound like a searching, valedictory missive, with Bowie delivering them as if confiding in his listener: “I know something is very wrong / The pulse returns for prodigal sons / The blackout’s hearts with flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes… Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That’s the message that I sent.”
2. “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” Nothing Has Changed (2014). The single that preceded Blackstar by a year should stand as one of Bowie’s most daring creations, a noir-hued fantasia for jazz orchestra. Co-written by Bowie and composer Maria Schneider — who justly won a Grammy Award for her beautiful arrangement — “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” suggests a drama that doesn’t end well for the title character. Some of New York’s finest jazz musicians feature in Schneider’s big band, including Blackstar bandleader Donny McCaslin, who plays the song’s cascading tenor-sax solo. Although one of the ultimate album artists, Bowie has also been one of the most anthologized, with multiple greatest-hits discs and a boxed set on the market. The deluxe three-disc version of Nothing Has Changed is an ideal, career-spanning combination of not only remastered hits but many rarities.
3. “Where Are We Now?,” The Next Day (2013). Released on his 66th birthday in 2013, this classy comeback single evoked Bowie’s late-’70s period living and working in Berlin with the likes of Iggy Pop. An elegant, free-flowing ballad, “Where Are We Now?” is a deeply touching evocation of change, nostalgia and lost time. Brimming with melodic hooks, playful lyrics and imaginative art-rock production, The Next Day also included such gems as “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “Love Is Lost,” with a deluxe edition of the album including an entire disc of fine extra songs.
4. “Sister Midnight,” A Reality Tour (2010). Captured on what would be Bowie’s final world tour in 2004, the double-disc CD/DVD A Reality Tour is a wonderful capstone to a performing career dotted with exciting live albums. His road band was a sonic force, pulsing like neon one minute and exploding with red-hot brio the next. Along with the supple rhythm section of bassist-vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Sterling Campbell, the group included lead guitarist Earl Slick, who had lit up Bowie albums off and on since the mid-’70s. The man himself was in great form, his voice only having grown golden with the years. One highlight is Bowie’s take on “Sister Midnight,” a freaky, Oedipal number from Iggy Pop’s 1976 comeback LP, The Idiot, which Bowie co-wrote and produced (as he did the classic follow-up, Lust for Life). Whereas the Pop original was elemental and throbbing, Bowie and company’s live version imbues the climax with art-metal majesty.
5. “Heathen (The Rays),” Heathen (2002). For his first album of the 21st century, Bowie reunited with producer Tony Visconti. They had teamed to create Bowie’s greatest studio works, including his so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low/“Heroes”/Lodger. The Heathen album was the first time they had worked together since the 1980’s Scary Monsters LP. The most affecting song on Heathen is the spectral title elegy, marked by a tolling rhythm and hovering atmospherics (courtesy of avant-star guitarist David Torn). The album was finished just after September 11, 2001, and the lyrics of “Heathen (The Rays)” — delivered via a deeply moving vocal melody — seem to channel the tragic day: “Steel on the skyline/ Sky made of glass/ Made for a real world/ All things must pass… I can feel it die.”
6. “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” Live at BBC Radio Theatre (2000). A full Bowie concert broadcast album recorded in 2000 was released as a limited-edition bonus disc in the Bowie at the Beeb: 1968–72 collection. Along with excellent versions of “Fame” and the Station to Station rocker “Stay,” the set included this lush, wide-screen retooling of “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” a track from Bowie’s 1977 LP Low, a milestone of European avant-rock. Bowie wrote the song about making the same mistakes over and again while in the throes of cocaine addiction, referencing an episode where he rammed his Mercedes into an underhanded drug dealer’s car in Los Angeles. The remake trades the oblique irony of the original for an almost cinematic melancholy.
7. “Dead Man Walking,” Live from 6A: Late Night with Conan O’Brien (1997). This stripped-down, live-on-TV version of a track first released on Bowie’s jungle/drum-and-bass-influenced Earthling album is superior to the skittering, beat-driven original. The song’s lovely melody and words come through clearer on the duo version with Bowie and Reeves Gabrels on acoustic guitars. Hard to find now on an out-of-print various-artists compilation album, it’s worth seeking out.
8. “Hallo Spaceboy,” Outside (1995). Bowie reunited with co-producer/sonic provocateur Brian Eno for Outside, a dystopian concept album about ritual-art murder and millennial-minded paganism. One of the album’s key tracks and a Bowie favorite in his live shows right up through his final 2004 tour was the hurtling, pounding rocker “Hallo Spaceboy,” which he described as “Jim Morrison meets industrial.” He even performed it on occasions with his band augmented by the Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails for extra force. The Pet Shop Boys re-produced the song for a single, but the album original and a live version on A Reality Tour are more aptly intense.
9. “Buddha of Suburbia,” Buddha of Suburbia (1993). The Buddha of Suburbia album features themes reworked from a score Bowie wrote for a BBC television adaption of the debut novel by British writer Hanif Kureishi. The album blends instrumentals and songs; the most memorable track is the tune-rich title song, threaded with image-laden lyrics of English life (and a Lenny Kravitz guitar solo mixed in subtly toward the end). Kureishi’s story of identity relays the frustrations of a young man — the son of a Pakistani immigrant — yearning to break out of the South London suburbs for a freer life in the city. It’s a kind of magic that Bowie’s song transmutes those frustrations into melodic catharsis.
10. “Jump They Say,” Black Tie, White Noise (1993). The highlight of a patchy, transitional album of pop experimentalism, “Jump They Say” can take its place firmly in the line of Bowie’s most enduring singles, blending as it does substance with surface allure. Written after the suicide of his schizophrenic stepbrother, the song is driven by a darkly catchy melody and a motoric groove laced by hooks from Bowie’s own saxophone. Avant-jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago adds a scintillating solo.
11. “Under the God,” Tin Machine (1988). Bowie’s intrepid hard-rock band Tin Machine gets some bad press, yet that’s just lazy bandwagon criticism. Tin Machine had the sharp intuition but bad luck of anticipating the grunge-era revolution of the 1990s, predating the Nirvana breakthrough. Bowie functioned as first among equals in a quartet with dive-bombing lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the volatile Sales Brothers rhythm section from Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. Bowie blended dark social commentary and scabrous humor into the lyrics, expressing himself in a tough-minded, less-refined way than in his solo work. All bruising rhythms, squalling guitars and Bowie at his most vocally aggressive, “Under the God” wove a tale of religion-evoking white-power fascists that sounded like an alarm. After a mid-’80s stretch of lax quality control following Let’s Dance, Bowie used Tin Machine’s two studio albums and a live disc to find his way back to art-driven first principles.
12. “Absolute Beginners,” Nothing Has Changed (1986). Along with the full-length LP version of “Let’s Dance,” this song — recorded as the title number for an ill-fated Julien Temple musical film about youth culture in late-’50s London — is Bowie’s peak ’80s pop achievement. Full of sweeping grandeur yet produced with more restraint than many singles of that decade, “Absolute Beginners” remains a classic song of heart-swelling romanticism, with a stirring Bowie vocal performance.
13. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” Let’s Dance (1983). For Paul Schrader’s erotic-horror flick Cat People, Bowie wrote lyrics and a vocal melody to the title song of the soundtrack composed by Euro-disco king Giorgio Moroder (who made Donna Summer a star). The song’s original recording had a gothic feel, its ritualistic electro-rock production allied to Bowie’s deepest croon and evocatively intense lyrics (“putting out fire with gasoline”). Bowie re-recorded the song with producer Nile Rodgers for his Let’s Dance album, yielding a punchier, more organic version hot-wired by bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan’s lead guitar.
14. “It’s No Game, Part 1,” Scary Monsters (1980). Along with its thrilling title track and the smash-hit “Ashes to Ashes,” Scary Monsters features an opener that finds Bowie making avant-garde music utterly infectious. “It’s No Game, Part 1” includes a very assertive Japanese woman’s dizzyingly impenetrable spoken-word narration, as well as fantastically bent guitar playing by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp; yet the song’s wildest element is Bowie’s howling, throat-shredding vocal, quite unlike anything else he ever did.
15. “Joe the Lion,” “Heroes” (1977). The title track of “Heroes” presents Bowie at his pinnacle as a richly emotive songwriter and singer, but the LP — made in Berlin with Eno and producer Tony Visconti — is also one of his deepest and most sonically adventurous; the album includes the kaleidoscopic “Sons of the Silent Age” and unhinged “Blackout,” as well as a sequence of atmospheric, Krautrock-influenced instrumentals. Another highlight is the wildly exciting rocker “Joe the Lion,” colored by Fripp’s grinding guitars and Bowie’s improvised lyrics that seem to relay a nightlife tale you can’t quite grasp, riveting though it is.
16. “New Career in a New Town,” Low (1977). This catchy, wistful instrumental — marked by Bowie’s brightly lyrical harmonica, Eno’s synthesizers and the widely influential sound of pinging, Harmonizer-treated drums — originally appeared on Low. It’s also available on All Saints, a 2001 compilation of Bowie’s instrumental tunes down through the years (mostly from the late ’70s). For classical fans, Philip Glass has composed two symphonies based on Bowie-Eno instrumentals; an excerpt from the “Low” Symphony features on All Saints.
17. “Alabama Song,” Stage (1976). Bowie was always an enthusiastic interpretive artist, covering favorites from The Velvet Underground, The Pretty Things and Nina Simone to Roxy Music, John Lennon and The Pixies. A fan of German Expressionism in painting, film, theater and music, he covered Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s almost psychedelically weird “Alabama Song” from their 1930 opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. He sounded far more at home musically (if less whisky-soaked) than The Doors with their cover. Bowie recorded the number in both live and studio versions, with the concert rendition on Stage blessed with cabaret verisimilitude.
18. “Station to Station,” Live at Nassau Coliseum (1976). Station to Station is one of Bowie’s most perfect albums — even if he said he barely remembered making it, such was his addled state of mind during his Thin White Duke period. The 1976 LP includes such high points as “Golden Years,” “Stay” and his definitive cover of the Nina Simone number “Wild Is the Wind.” The 2010 deluxe reissue included a freshly mastered version of a previously unreleased (but oft-bootlegged) double-disc live set taped in Long Island for radio broadcast. The live recording kicks off with an extended, extra-feedback intro by lead guitarist Earl Slick for a 12-minute version of the album’s epic title travelogue, which boasts the memorable couplet “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking it must be love.”
19. “Time,” David Live (1974). With “Time,” Bowie penned his own cabaret-style tune channeling the inter-war Berlin vibe of Weill/Brecht. It originally appeared on his 1974 studio album Aladdin Sane, though the version from the David Live album has a more suitably theatrical air. Mike Garson’s piano has a burlesque feel, while Bowie’s lyrics are poetically louche: “Time — he’s waiting in the wings / He speaks of senseless things / The script is you and me / Time — he flexes like a whore / Falls wanking to the floor / His trick is you and me… Time — in Quaaludes and red wine…”
20. “We Are the Dead,” Diamond Dogs (1974). Bowie’s Diamond Dogs LP was his glam-era swansong, with many of the tunes culled from an aborted musical based on George Orwell’s 1984. The album includes a blood-pumping title track that runs on one of his killer riffs, as well as the smash “Rebel Rebel” (with Bowie himself playing garage-rock lead guitar). The LP’s dark-horse track — never played live — is “We Are the Dead,” a hypnotic song full of mystery and melody, the title a line from 1984. Bowie, a keen fan of William Burroughs, utilized the Beat icon’s “cut-up” technique to rearrange words by near chance, coming up with fantastical verses impossible to create deliberately, like “Heaven’s on the pillow, its silence competes with hell /
It’s a 24-hour service, guaranteed to make you tell.”
21. “Cracked Actor,” Aladdin Sane (1973). “Cracked Actor” is one of Bowie’s dirtiest rockers, with yet another crunching riff played by original Bowie guitar foil Mick Ronson and a rhythm that swings like a Sunset Strip streetwalker. The lewdly witty lyrics — the best lines unprintable here — concern an aging Hollywood star and a young prostitute, with drugs part of the mix. The song’s title was used for a notorious BBC documentary about Bowie at the time that depicted his brittle, cocaine-addicted mental state on tour.
22. “Lady Grinning Soul,” iSelect (1976). A dramatic ballad colored by Mike Garson’s faux-classical piano, Mick Ronson’s flamenco-guitar flourishes and a warmly mellifluous Bowie vocal, “Lady Grinning Soul” closed the Aladdin Sane LP. It also appears on iSelect, a fascinating 2008 compilation that Bowie curated of his favorite deep cuts from his catalog. In his liner notes, Bowie said about the song: “This was written for a wonderful young girl whom I’ve not seen for more than 30 years. When I hear this song, she’s still in her 20s, of course. A song will put you tantalizingly close to the past, so close that you can almost reach out and touch it.”
23. “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars: Motion Picture Soundtrack (1973). The 1972 studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars made Bowie a star and included such songs as wonderfully weird “Ziggy Stardust,” ecstatically rocking “Moonage Dream” and wild-eyed hit “Suffragette City.” Famously, Bowie shocked the rock world by announcing just before the climactic “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” that it was “the last show we’ll ever do,” suddenly retiring his star-making Ziggy persona. D.A. Pennebaker captured it for a show documentary, with a live album following. “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” is a cautionary tale, with Bowie’s refrain of “you’re not alone” having the power of almost spiritual uplift for his young audience.
24. “The Bewlay Brothers,” Hunky Dory (1971). Hunky Dory saw Bowie come into his own as a songwriter, with the LP featuring such ever-enduring tracks as the irrepressibly glam “Queen Bitch” and exotically soaring “Life on Mars?” The album also included such compelling oddities as “The Bewlay Brothers.” It was “layered with ghosts,” Bowie said, an opulently melodic ballad brimming with surreal stream-of-consciousness, like reams of Bob Dylan reflected off a gothic funhouse mirror: “I was stone, and he was wax / So he could scream and still relax, unbelievable / And we frightened the small children away/ And our talk was old, and dust would flow / Through our veins… Now my brother lays upon the rocks / He could be dead, he could be not / He could be you / He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature…”
25. “Kooks,” Bowie at the Beeb (1971). The acoustic take of “Kooks” that Bowie taped in 1971 live on BBC radio — just his voice and 12-string guitar — should be considered the definitive version, as it’s far more organic and touching than the clunky production recorded later for Hunky Dory. It’s a song of young bohemian parenthood, with Bowie addressing his first child, Duncan Jones (his father’s given name being David Jones). The boy was born just weeks before this performance. (Duncan is now a film director, who made his debut with the great 2009 marooned-in-space film Moon — poetically, given that his father’s debut hit was “Space Oddity.”) Few kids have had such a lovely welcome written for them: “Will you stay in our lovers’ story / If you stay, you won’t be sorry / ’Cause we believe in you / Soon you’ll grow, so take a chance / With a couple of kooks / Hung up on romance… I bought you a pair of shoes / A trumpet you can blow / And a book of rules / On what to say to people / When they pick on you / ’Cause if you stay with us, you’re gonna be pretty kookie, too.” — Bradley Bambarger
(These pieces were published as part of a memorial cover package in the summer 2016 issue of Listen magazine.)