Rock legend David Bowie died this week only a few days after his 69th birthday, following a lengthy battle with liver cancer. Bowie was a relentless trailblazer in areas of music, performance, technology, and sexuality and was a significant pop cultural force on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.
I can't say that I loved (or even appreciated) all of Bowie's music--in fact, it would take a person with very wide tastes indeed to say that. But I've been aware of Bowie my whole life, and definitely appreciated him in several guises. As a little kid I used to treasure an LP (on thick green vinyl!) of the Philadelphia Orchestra with Bowie narrating "Peter and the Wolf" on side A and "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" on side B which to this day I credit with my ability to recognize the sound of different instruments.
Later, it was through Bowie that I first heard the music of one of my favorite musicians. I love that he was responsible for launching Stevie Ray Vaughn by asking him to play straight blues on the Let's Dance album. I've seen Bowie in concert on tv many times, and one of my favorites was the first time. I remember watching Live Aid in the summer of 1985 and being blown away by his performance-this recent article by Caryn Rose is a great primer if you haven't seen it yourself. I was privileged to see Bowie live when his Sound + Vision tour came to Foxborough, Massachusetts in 1990. To this day it's the only stadium concert I've ever seen, and it was amazing. That show featured one of my favorite Bowie guitar heroes, Adrian Belew. I recently found a video of the concert on YouTube, including their then-current single, "Pretty Pink Rose"-check it out!
I have been impressed this week by the outpouring of emotional reactions to Bowie's death--as of today, a search for "David Bowie" on Google news yields 61 million files! One of the best that I've read was written by musician and longtime guitar journalist Joe Gore, who used to be an editor for Guitar Player magazine in the 80's and 90's. Gore's article, "My Brushes With Bowie", is worth a read for the light it sheds on Bowie as a warm, funny human as opposed to the ever-changing icon many might have supposed him to be. That said, Gore makes clear that Bowie had a natural star power that was undeniable:
We spent the afternoon tooling around town in my dumpy Mazda two-door hatchback with David perched astride the back-seat hump. (He insisted on taking the most uncomfortable seat.)David was charming and unpretentious, yet freakishly charismatic. This is going to sound a bit woo-woo, but he just seemed to scintillate with some weird luminous energy. That probably sounds like the typical star-struck reaction of a lifelong fan. But I’ve met several members of the super-famous tribe over the years — Madonna, Springsteen, Ringo, Steve Jobs — and never encountered anything remotely like David’s spark.
Gore was describing time spent with Bowie and his frequent guitar collaborator Reeves Gabrels. In the cover story of the June, 1997 Guitar Player, Bowie and Gabrels were the cover artists, with 23 pages of content about Bowie's approach to guitar playing over the years. Rereading the article now, it is so clear what a talented, gifted artist Bowie was. I don't just mean gifted as a way of complimenting him, but David Bowie seems to have been possessed of a certain degree of synesthesia which to me is a very special gift. In a joint interview with Bowie and Gabrels, Gore says, "you both tend to describe music in visual terms", which kicked off a fascinating response:
Bowie: Ever since I was very young, I've seen music in visual terms. I see the textures that I'm hearing, and I equate certain sounds with the relative roughness and smoothness or density and transparency of color. I really see it in painter's terms. The idea of, say, Rimsky-Korsakov developing a "color organ"--a primitive thing with colored glass and candles--always made perfect sense to me. It always made perfect sense that you could go to, say, E minor, and it would have a particular hue.
Gore: The guitar neck is also very graphic.
Bowie: I see the guitar neck as a landscape. I see length and barrenness. I see each note or cluster of notes as objects within a landscape: a tree, a fence. I describe instrumental parts in visual terms: "The first part should be like a moor with a light fog. As we approach the chorus, it shouldn't emerge as a clear figure, but as an approaching object in a darker gray than the gray of the fog. It takes on recognizable features by the time it gets in close to you." And then I'll make a hand gesture to indicate the sort of shape it should gradually take on. I just happen to be lucky to be working with people who understand what the **** I'm saying!He sure was lucky! I can't imagine what I'd do if I was in a recording session with someone who described a song like this! But Bowie was part of the large number of British musicians from the 1960's who attended art school. Even many who didn't (like Paul McCartney) were well educated in artistic theories that would be totally unfamiliar to most current artists. Later in the article, Bowie (who notably studied mime with Lindsey Kemp prior to the rise of Ziggy Stardust) drops a reference that would probably not come from, say, Justin Bieber:
Bowie: ...I'm sorry to keep using the word "context", but it's a governing principle. Context is almost everything. This is something too pretentious for words, but there's another attitude that's very much a part of what I do as a musician and performer. Brecht...[dissolves into laughter] Can you believe I said that?
Gabrels: I believe it.
Bowie: Bertolt Brecht believed that it was impossible for an actor to express real emotion in a natural form every night. Instead, you portray the emotion symbolically. You don't try to draw the audience into the emotional content of what you're doing, but give them something to create their own dialog about what you're portraying. You play anger or love through stylistic gesture. The voice doesn't rise and fall and the face doesn't go through all the gambits you would portray as a naturalistic actor.
I've done that an awful lot throughout my career. A lot of what is perceived as mannered performance or writing is a distancing from the subject matter to allow an audience to have their own association with what I'm writing about. That comes straight from Brecht, who was a major influence on me as a whippersnapper. It applies to any art form. It's a question of creating a space between your subject matter and yourself as an artist. I sing notes that stand in for emotion. I honestly couldn't care less about what the subject matter [of the album] is. I need lyrics; I write some lyrics. I guess a lot of subconscious things come through, and that probably says something about me. But it's almost like lyrics standing in for lyrics: [sings] "Some words go here, and here's some more words". That's enough. It's almost like when you do an undersketch for a painting. You sketch out what it looks like--a sun here, a house here. That's fine. The enthusiasm fleshes things out.
David Bowie never lacked enthusiasm. The world is a less interesting place without him, but we can be thankful that he shared so much of his art with us.