Let’s begin by cutting through the mythological crap.
Music critics of all stripes have completely bought, sold and swallowed the myth of a “Berlin Trilogy,” the series of late-70’s releases that includes Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. I originally bought into the myth as well, planning to review all three albums together, assuming that they formed a coherent artistic statement synthesizing David Bowie’s personal sense of alienation arising from his nightmare experience in L. A. with the real-world alienation of a divided Berlin. I read several pieces by Bowie thought-leaders on the trilogy, and most emphasized the symbolic importance of Berlin and the influence of its unique zeitgeist on Bowie’s music during this period. West Berlin, the symbol of democratic-capitalist freedom, and East Berlin, the symbol of ideological, state-sponsored tyranny, formed a perfect milieu of opposing forces: good vs. evil, freedom of thought vs. communist dogma, the openly erotic vs. drab sexlessness. Since one of the positive outcomes of conflict is its ability to clarify individual identity and priorities, Berlin would have seemed like a good destination for a man who felt he had lost his direction in the cocaine-fed swirl of La-La Land and in the assumed identity of The Thin White Duke. Given Bowie’s gender-bending tendencies and theatricality, it certainly didn’t hurt that Berlin was also a universal symbol of decadence, a notion that had been reinforced in the minds of common folk with the release of the film version of the musical Cabaret in 1972.
As is true of all myths, there is some truth in the myth of a Berlin Trilogy and more than a little salesmanship. In a piece on Lodger that appeared on Quietus, Ben Graham comments:
Thirty years on, still no-one is quite sure where to place Lodger. In a way, that’s appropriate: as the title suggests, it’s a record that doesn’t quite belong anywhere. In fact, the only way to really appreciate Lodger is to remove it from the trilogy which, arguably, doesn’t even exist in the first place. The whole ‘Berlin Triptych’ idea was in many ways a deliberately pretentious marketing gimmick that Bowie cooked up after the fact, probably because he had no other notion of how to sell such an offbeat and disjointed collection of songs as Lodger to the public. It’s all part of the bigger picture, he assured them, and you need this one to complete the set; but it was a set he almost certainly didn’t have in mind when he began recording Low back in September 1976 — not in Berlin, but at the Chateau D’ Herouville just outside Paris, where he’d also been working with Iggy Pop on The Idiot throughout the previous summer.
Of the three releases, only “Heroes” was recorded entirely in Berlin. As noted above, most of the recording sessions for Low took place in France. Lodger was recorded in Montreux, Switzerland and New York City. So while I think it’s fair to say that Berlin certainly gave Bowie valuable breathing space, more intimate exposure to the Krautrock of Kraftwerk and Neu! and a chance to immerse himself in the vibes of a city like no other city on Earth, only “Heroes” qualifies as a true Berlin experience.
After immersing myself in all three albums this year, I’ve developed a case of righteous anger over the whole concept of a Berlin Trilogy because it falsely elevates a human experience to the distant status of artistic pretense. David Bowie was many things—the intensely theatrical performer, the fashionable subject of avant-garde photography, an accomplished musician and songwriter—but what made him special was his fundamental humanity. His life and career are filled with stories of how he helped other musicians who were down on their luck, and his best songs are memorable because they deal with core human experiences. His ability to put himself in another person’s shoes (or character, if you prefer) was exceptional, and while some may dismiss his various persona as “an act,” those people forget that great actors are people who move us, people who have the ability to evoke feelings in us that are often suppressed by the cold logic of daily existence.
Seen through that lens, the three albums take on greater meaning and genuine significance. Low is the record of a man dealing with depression, withdrawal and self-doubt, considering various aspects of his persona through stark lyrics, tentative thoughts and the wordless, evocative power of musical themes. Lodger is the man who has survived the crucible and is dying to move in a new direction.
“Heroes” is the healing experience.
When David Bowie left Los Angeles in the second half of 1976, he headed not for Berlin, but for Switzerland. Apparently he only spent a few days there before heading to Paris to produce Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (recorded in Chateau D’ Herouville, Munich and Berlin). Late that summer, he and Iggy took up residence in Berlin, forming a private mutual-assistance group of two in the quest to rid themselves of drug habits. Why Berlin? I’ve read that Bowie saw it is as a sanctuary city, a place where he could stroll about in relative anonymity. While that certainly rings true, producer Tony Visconti attributed it to the unique offerings of a divided city in an interview with Uncut magazine:
I think David just liked living in Berlin. There was so much of it, in those days, that was fantastic, fantasy-like, that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The impending danger of the divided military zones, the bizarre nightlife, the extremely traditional restaurants with aproned servers, reminders of Hitler’s not too distant presence, a recording studio 500 yards from the Wall. You could’ve been on the set of The Prisoner.
The dual impact of the passage of time and the liberating experience of being a relative nobody in the divided city reveals itself on the first track, “Beauty and the Beast.” The first ten seconds have a casual off-hand feel, more like a sound check than a carefully-composed introduction. Once we hear the piano shift to an insistent pounding rhythm, the music begins to form an edgy, ominous build as the band gradually ratchets up the tension around the overwhelming beat. When Bowie enters with an extended “oooh” (thank fuck they didn’t use a synthesizer there), the mood takes on a Halloweenish tint and the kind of thrill we get is that of a well-executed set-up in a good horror film. Meanwhile, deep in the dark background, Dennis Davis is gradually raising the volume on the drum kit, culminating in double-time thunder that forms the cue for a perfect transition to the first verse.
The lyrics to “Beauty and the Beast” have one dominant theme: the juxtaposition of opposites (night/day, beauty/beast, good/evil, real me/not me). The metaphor of the beauty and the beast captures our attraction to the inherent tension of opposites, experiences that promise both reward and a delicious sense of danger—“You can’t say no to the beauty and the best.” On a personal level, the metaphor describes David Bowie’s experience in L. A., the glamour capital of the world, where along with the beautiful and rich he indulged in the dangerous attraction of cocaine. The symbol also works when applied to life in Berlin, a living study in contrast and division—not simply between East and West, but also the divisions that invariably exist in wealthy cities (Bowie lived in a Berlin working-class neighborhood with a high percentage of Turkish immigrants).
From a musical perspective, “Beauty and the Beast” is a sharp departure from the largely introverted aura of Low. The muscular beat that drives the song sets up a raucous soundscape interspersing the something-evil-this-way-comes sound of Robert Fripp’s best-in-class lead guitar with Carlos Alomar’s crunchy rhythm guitar, Antonia Maass’ spot background vocals and Brian Eno’s varied contributions on the synthesizer. As an opening track, “Beauty and the Beast” has it all—strong performances from the band, lyrics you could probe for days on end and a refreshingly commanding vocal from David Bowie.
Further evidence of a mood change comes in the form of “Joe the Lion,” a wild, modernist cabaret number best-described as part tribute to performance artist Chris Burden (who did in fact have himself nailed to a Volkswagen) and part self-reflection on the feeling of numbness Bowie experienced as he kicked the cocaine habit. What really knocks me out about this piece in addition to the loose, playful feel are Robert Fripp’s fabulous lead guitar (he sure doesn’t sound like a guy who took three years off) and Dennis Davis’ drums. God DAMN those drums sound great! The Davis-Visconti combination received rave reviews for the pitch-shifting drum sounds on Low and “Heroes,” a sound that many have attempted to reproduce over the years with mixed success. While a good engineer might be able to reproduce the technical settings, nothing can or ever will replace the sounds of a live human being behind the kit—and Dennis Davis was a great drummer.
The title track, which remains one of the most moving works in David Bowie’s catalog, began life as a Bowie-Eno instrumental. The powerful background music, a result of oscillating detuned droning from the synthesizer and Robert Fripp’s pitched guitar feedback riding over a steady basic rhythm track, creates a palpable grandeur somewhat reminiscent of the Wall of Sound style. Tony Visconti’s ingenuity did not stop there, however, for once Bowie created the lyrics and melodic line, he upped the ante by setting up a system where the microphones were placed at different distances, and turned on and off as the song progressed. This forced Bowie to sing louder as the song moved forward, leading to the stunning emotional power of his exit lines.
The song is a story of lovers from each side of the Wall; the backstory is that the song was inspired by Bowie looking out the studio window to see Tony Visconti and Antonia Maass kissing in close proximity to the Wall. As Visconti was married to singer Mary Hopkin at the time, the affectionate but illicit couple represented a different kind of wall—the wall of social custom and obligation.
The Berlin Wall was more than a symbol of Cold War madness. It was the result of a game of chess between two leaders whose countries were geographically and spiritually far removed from the reality of daily life in Berlin. The wall did more than separate West from East—it divided families, friends, colleagues and lovers. For Kennedy and Khrushchev, those were trivial concerns. The people of Berlin were pawns in the larger global strategy game; they were unfortunate in that they lived in the one European city most prized by the Allies, one that took on significance far beyond its strategic importance. The building of the Berlin Wall was an act of state-sponsored inhumanity; its continuing existence a monument to human absurdity.
By placing two powerless people at the site of the Wall—people who were so powerless they could never count on seeing one another again—David Bowie imbued the grotesque scene of brick and barbed wire with the blessed spirit of human defiance, manifested in the form of a simple act of love. The opening lines express both the defiance and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness, balanced only by the existential urge to claim some kind of human victory in the face of human debasement:
I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day
The next verse can throw people off, as it depicts our lovers as less-than-perfect people. I believe that was the point—these are people who have been denied the right to be human, the right to make mistakes, the right to fuck the whole thing up. The situation they face is so dire that even fantasies about becoming dysfunctional people has a certain ironic attraction:
And you, you can be mean
And I, I’ll drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that
Though nothing, will keep us together
We could steal time, just for one day
We can be heroes, forever and ever
What d’ya say?
The male half then fantasizes about swimming like dolphins, a picture of freedom-as-play. In contrast, the lines “Though nothing, nothing will keep us together” and “Though nothing will drive them away” tell us that the couple is fully aware of the impossibility of their dreams—but isn’t that so very, very human? Hope is one of the most curious and endearing qualities of the human race, and though our hopes may be constantly dashed, we know that without hope we cannot survive. The repetition of “just for one day” now becomes more poignant than ever, as it seems so little to ask.
In the stirring peroration, David climbs an octave and strains his voice to reach the distant studio microphone. His tone captures frantic despair and frantic hope, the refusal to believe that something so harmless as love can be a threat to the state and the reluctant acceptance of grim reality. Lyric and voice combine to create one of the most moving passages in music history, a moment where passion overcomes reason and the power of the kiss overwhelms the power of the gun:
I, I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day
“And the shame was on the other side” is a tantalizing line, indicating that perhaps our hero caught a glimpse of an East German soldier turning away in the self-loathing that comes from following cruel orders passed down the chain of command. Another interesting line in the fade is “We’re nothing and nothing will help us/Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay,” indicating the return of ever-present fear. Our hero then shakes himself out of it with a wish (“But we could be safer just for one day), then fades on the plaintive “oh . . . just for one day.” “Heroes” is simply one of the most powerful songs in rock history, a timeless work of genius from a man with supreme human compassion.
Nothing could follow “Heroes,” so perhaps it’s fortunate that the weakest track on the album comes next. While the other tracks on “Heroes” were largely the result of in-studio improvisation, “Sons of the Silent Age” was written beforehand, and it does feel a bit too scripted in comparison. It also feels like glam-era Bowie; perhaps if it had appeared on Aladdin Sane it might have worked. Much better is the psycho-industrial sound of “Blackout,” with its caroming imagery whirling over what is by far the strongest rhythmic performance on the album. The blackouts in question seem to cover power outages, impotence and drug-induced comas, but I’ve never been able to land on a full interpretation that works. I do know one thing—this song is fucking hot and it appears frequently on my fuck playlists to support the more intense BDSM moments of a scene.
Like Low, “Heroes” is structured into two sections: the vocals in the first half and the instrumentals in the second. Bowie does violate that structure here by inserting the vocal “The Secret Life of Arabia” at the end of the album (we’ll deal with that questionable choice later in our program), so let me put it another way: Bowie should have stuck to the vocal-instrumental script, as things would have turned out better in the end.
“V-2 Schneider” comes first, a Bowie-only composition with strong bass and a breezy feel that is allegedly a tribute to Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, the man who in my mind took my main instrument (the flute) and ingeniously transformed it into . . . well, whatever the hell he wanted! His most notable accomplishment was to make the flute a bass instrument, a concept that still blows me away (but does explain the strong bass presence in “V-2 Schneider”). Bowie’s sax is fabulous here, a sort of phased growling on a counter-rhythm that sounds both industrial and beefy.
“Sense of Doubt” is also a Bowie-only work, an ominous and compelling piece built around a four-note descending piano motif reinforced in stereo and set in contrast to a variety of synthesized sounds ranging from movie-house organ to orchestral to vibraphone. The sounds of someone gasping for breath or dying of thirst appear occasionally in the quieter moments of synthesized wave sounds, adding to the eerie feel. The piece ends with the sound of a wind tunnel, fading into the Bowie-Eno collaboration “Moss Garden.”
Featuring David Bowie on koto, “Moss Garden” is a very tranquil, soothing piece that could easily accompany your aromatherapy massage, or appear as a bonus track on any New Age sampler album. Personally, New Age music drives me up the fucking wall, so I generally do my nails during this piece and wait for it to pass into oblivion.
Actually, it passes seamlessly into “Neuköln,” a very well-constructed mood piece designed to depict the feel of life in the Berlin neighborhood Neukölln, a place heavily populated by Turkish immigrants. While not composed in a Turkish makam scale, Bowie’s sax occasionally sounds more like a zurna than a sax, particularly on the long wailing passage towards the end of the piece. That passage also calls to mind Miles Davis’ work on Sketches of Spain, particularly his heart-stopping solo on “Saeta.” The feelings this piece evokes in me range from stranger-in-a-strange-land to a touch of fear, similar to what one might feel on a dark street at night when the rain forms a slippery mist. In the context of an album dealing in large part with human separation and alienation, “Neukölln” is a brilliant closing act.
Oh, that it were so. Unfortunately, “Heroes” ends with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” an off-hand, humorous piece that could have found a nice place in the vocal section but doesn’t fucking belong here. Bowie biographer David Buckley points out that “its position on the album spoils the dramatic effect,” to which I respond, “Bingo!” It’s very comforting to hear David Bowie in great spirits after his battle with depression, but I wish they would have placed it directly after “Heroes” and sent “Sons of the Silent Age” off to bonus-track land.
“Heroes” has the feel of the artist resurrected, an oral history of a part of David Bowie’s life where he yanked himself out of self-doubt and found himself in touch with the world again. He was aided in this quest by a brilliant producer in Tony Visconti, a remarkably capable group of musicians and by the oddly romantic aura of Cold War Berlin. The result was an album for the ages, one that had no need of a Berlin Trilogy to ensure its enduring value.
Aladdin Sane has languished near the bottom of my Bowie to-do list for some time. Rarely one to follow a linear path, I’d actually decided to skip several post-Ziggy albums and immerse myself in the Berlin Trilogy this year. I’d already begun preliminary research and exploration into Low, Heroes and Lodger when something terrible happened.
Donald Fucking Trump.
My longstanding tradition at the start of every year is a sacred ritual of personal cleansing: my blues jag. I usually listen to nothing but blues in January of each year to help me reconnect with what’s real. The blues is the art form of naked feeling, unspoken taboos and facing one’s demons. Listening to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King and others remind me of what’s essential.
With an incompetent, raving maniac assuming responsibility for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, I found I had no appetite for self-reflection and was not in the right frame of mind to drown myself in the blues. Up until 2016, I had no interest in politics and had never voted before. The U. S. campaign and election turned me into a news and history junkie, screwing up my body clock and threatening the three priorities that had made my life a very happy one: sex, music and baseball. Donald Trump represents a clear and present danger to my translation of life, liberty and happiness.
Okay, the sex part was never in any real danger. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that dickless jerk interfere with my need to fuck long, hard and often.
But Trump’s election roughly coincided with the Cubs winning the Series, leaving me to face the already too-long off-season without action on the diamond. And as for music, all my carefully laid plans for the year went up in orange smoke as I shifted my focus to reviewing albums concerned with looming dystopia (OK Computer), political protest (Rehearsals for Retirement) and an affirmation of the threatened concept of world citizenship (Streetcore).
Fortunately, Streetcore put me back in touch with the form of music conceived in the blessed spirit of defiance: rock ‘n’ roll. Joe Strummer’s fabulous rock songs on Streetcore triggered an insatiable desire for a serious rock ‘n’ roll fix. I frantically scanned my music library for albums with great rock songs, tore up the old plan and came up with The Altrockchick Trump Survival Plan: rock the fuck out! I’ll probably be on a rock jag for a while, and you’ll know I’ve returned to relative sanity and security when you see a blues review. When you see a jazz review, you’ll know I’m at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and all is well in the sex, music and baseball departments.
Back to Aladdin Sane. Though I don’t consider it his best work from an artistic perspective, it’s one of his better rock albums, featuring no less than three songs that make frequent appearances on my fuck playlists. Bowie was never a rocker in the purist sense of the word; he played in many genres, imbuing those genres with his own unique perspectives and sense of style. But whenever he found himself in a rocking mood, that man could kick some serious ass!
The album was put together in between Ziggy Stardust U. S. tour dates, motivated by the desperate need for a quick follow-up to capitalize on the listening public’s sudden craving for more tunes from the budding rock ‘n’ roll superstar. Given the circumstances, it’s probably more accurate to view Aladdin Sane as a theatrical work—the soundtrack of Bowie’s U. S. touring experience rather than a carefully-shaped musical opus. Bowie referred to the album as “Ziggy Goes to America,” and Aladdin Sane is a crucial part of Bowie’s adopt-a-persona period which ran from Ziggy Stardust all the way through Station to Station and The Thin White Duke. During this period, Bowie placed equal emphasis on music, style and stagecraft, and Aladdin Sane, with a setlist ranging from glam to doo-wop to cabaret, captures the essence of this phase in Bowie’s career.
The album kicks off in unbelievably frustrating fashion with the horrid recording of “Watch That Man.” A little bit of research will tell you that there was a big hoo-hah between the producer and the record company over two versions of the mix: the one you hear on the album and another where you can actually hear David Bowie singing. The record company didn’t like the first, called for the second, decided they liked the first better and let producer Ken Scott take the heat from all those fans screaming, “We can’t hear David!” The truth is the problem with the mix goes far beyond David Bowie’s virtual disappearance: the track completely lacks any sense of dynamics. After a very brief guitar and bass intro, the rest of the song is just one layer piled on top of another as if Ken Scott was actually trying to make the soufflé collapse. Further research indicated that Bowie and Scott might have overdosed on that extraordinarily overrated but extremely popular party album Exile on Main St, and divined that throwing everything into the mix was the new black. Compare “Watch That Man” to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (next review on the list!) and you will clearly understand the difference between “sloppy mess” and “the power of discipline and restraint.”
I will now suppress an overwhelming urge to lecture my readers on the power of discipline and restraint in a sexual context.
The title track is . . . well, as a song, it’s pretty bloody awful for the most part. The melody qualifies as “extremely labored,” a pattern of notes and rhythms that simply refuse to flow. Inspired by his reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Bowie’s lyrics reflect the oh-so-romantic lost generation period between the world wars when decadence was celebrated in cafés in Paris and Berlin while the world headed for another global calamity. The title, a pun on “A lad insane,” is likely a reference to his schizophrenic half-brother, but the connection between his brother and the “lost years” of the 1920’s and 30’s is never clearly established. What makes the track worthwhile is the combination of Mike Garson’s frenetic piano and David Sanborn’s tenor sax work. Garson’s 90-second solo is a riveting experience as he slips in and out of the base rhythm with a series of amazing runs and abrupt chording, showing us a universe of musical possibility within a frightfully simply A-G chord pattern. Although I’m a pianist of no repute at all, I do know a great pianist when I hear one, and Mike Garson is the bee’s knees (check out his album Jazz Hat for additional confirmation).
“Drive-In Saturday,” one of the singles from the album, was of two astonishingly gracious gifts that Bowie offered to Mott the Hoople (“Suffragette City” was the first). Apparently Ian Hunter had a problem with the complexity of the chord pattern and turned it down. I’m assuming he wasn’t referring to the “Angel Baby” chord pattern of the verses, but the three-step key change in the chorus that does lead to a more varied chord pattern. Fuck, man, that’s the best part of the song! If it weren’t for the key change and new chord structure, “Drive-In Saturday” would be as limp as “Crocodile Rock.” What the fuck’s the matter with you, anyway?
Stunningly, Bowie took the news of Mott’s rejection way too hard and shaved off his eyebrows. I . . . I . . . don’t know how to deal with that bit of gossip.
Although the doo-wop modeling feels a bit trite, David Bowie’s vocal on this song is one of his best, full of energy and playfulness, particularly on the chorus. The lyrics to “Drive-In Saturday,” filled with references to Mick Jagger (sexy), Twiggy (sexless) and Jung (not as hung up as Freud), are post-apocalyptic in the vein of Side One of Ziggy Stardust, describing a world where people have to watch old porn flicks because they’ve forgotten how to fuck.
I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN THAT WORLD.
Alladin Sane is one of those albums that get better the further you go, and it doesn’t get much better than “Panic in Detroit.” The song works on so many levels that the best phrase I can come up with to describe it is “a masterpiece of contradiction and cohesion.” The lyrics and Bowie’s anxiety-ridden vocal capture the manic anxiety of existence amidst the chaos of riot-torn Detroit in the mid-60’s, where both property and the fundamentals of social order went up in frustration-fueled flames:
He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit
Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights
This is a very impressive expressionistic rendering of the Detroit riots, made all the more impressive by the fact that Bowie wasn’t within a thousand miles of Detroit during the explosive years from 1966 to 1968. Iggy Pop told Bowie about the riots and the 60’s revolutionaries inhabiting the milieu, and through the magic of artistic alchemy, David Bowie made the scene come alive.
The story told in word and voice gains exponential power from the supporting music. The rhythm, combining Latin and R&B influences and propelled forward by congas and Trevor Bolder’s accelerating bass runs, amplify the sense of urgency; Linda Lewis’ orgasmic cries intensify the sense of panic; and Mick Ronson’s amazing guitar somehow manages to communicate a sense of structure (though the repeated riffs) and a structure coming apart at the seams (through the clipped distortion and the occasional guitar scream). “Panic in Detroit” is a song that sounds like it’s coming together and falling part at the same time, giving the listener an incredibly thrilling experience.
I should have said, “thrilling in every sense of the word,” for despite the depiction of violent upheaval, “Panic in Detroit” is one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard. I always place it after the one-hour mark in my fuck playlists, when the foreplay is long over and all parties involved have succumbed to call of the wild. At that point, the section of the brain concerned with language has been anesthetized by estrogen and/or testosterone, rendering lyrics irrelevant and making groove paramount . . . and the layered groove of “Panic in Detroit,” is intensely erotic.
“Cracked Actor” is another track that frequents my fuck playlists, with its thick guitar, slamming drums and cry to “suck, baby, suck.” This is a very flexible track suitable for both the erotic trance and the warmup period, particularly if the heat is generated through a supple whip or stiff riding crop. The Hollywood loser who serves as the main character is one of those obnoxious pricks who fucks mindlessly and heartlessly, needing plenty of drugs to keep his little skippy hard. I tune the loser out and surrender myself to the lure of Ronson’s kick-ass guitar and Woody Woodmansey’s drums.
Bowie then transforms the mood with “Time,” an ingenious mix of Berlin cabaret, electrified Jacques Brel and Hunky Dory pop. My mother was absolutely thrilled when David did Jacques Brel in a brief acoustic interlude during the Ziggy Stardust concert at Winterland, and his admiration for Brel reflects both his intensity and sense of drama in song. “Time” is the most theatrical piece on the album, opening with Mike Garson’s melodramatic stride piano and punctuated with dramatic pauses that demonstrate the power of silence in the auditory arts. I think critics who pooh-poohed the song for its incoherent lyrics made the mistake of listening for poetry when they should have followed the dramatic peaks and valleys. For me, “Time” demonstrates Bowie’s superior acting skills in comparison to other rock and pop singers of the time (try to imagine Paul McCartney covering “Time,” for example), and his ability to make the bizarre familiar with a strong chorus without detracting from the artistry of the song.
Speaking of Hunky Dory, “Prettiest Star” should sound very familiar, with its melody and feel echoing “Kooks.” This lovely little tune actually pre-dates Hunky Dory, as the original version was a follow-up single to Space Oddity that he recorded with Marc Bolan of T. Rex fame. The single bombed, perhaps because the world wasn’t quite ready to overdose on an androgynous rock star, or perhaps because Bowie was still in relative infancy and still working on his phrasing. I’ll go with the latter explanation because the two versions are similar but the Aladdin Sane version features a more confident, in-command Bowie and a cleaner glam-rock arrangement.
We interrupt this program for a mid-review rant. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” will never appear on my fuck playlists, no matter who’s singing it. Why? It’s very simple: I hate fucking euphemisms. Let me clarify that sentence: I hate fucking (used as an intensive) euphemisms and I hate fucking euphemisms (euphemisms applied to the sacred act of fucking). Is that fucking clear now? A euphemism is “a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.” I wholly reject the notion that sex is offensive or unpleasant, and anyway, what the hell would “innocuous sex” look like? We keep our clothes on and stare longingly at each other’s genitalia? Yes, yes, yes, I realize that open discussion about sex was not socially acceptable in the mid-60’s when Jagger and Richards wrote this tune, but I find hypocrisy annoying in any era. While thousands of sexual euphemisms have been employed in popular music over the centuries, this one really pisses me off because it’s so painfully obvious what two people are going to do if they spend the night together. If they were spending the evening together, okay—let them play Scrabble or catch an early movie. But if they’re spending the night together, and they’re consenting adults, NO ONE IS GOING TO BELIEVE THAT SPENDING THE NIGHT TOGETHER MEANS WE’RE HAVING A SLEEP-OVER OR A PLATONIC PAJAMA PARTY. So why not go ALL THE WAY? “Come On, Let’s Fuck Together” would have been a vast improvement—even if the censors bleeped the dreaded F-word.
We now return to our review of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
Euphemisms temporarily aside, David Bowie’s version of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is far superior to the original, which lopes along like a humble cowboy faced with a reluctant virgin. An exploding synthesizer and Mike Garson’s radical, dissonant, urgent piano set the tone, and wham!—the band starts down the track like a bullet train. When Bowie sings “I’m in no hurry, I can take my ti-hi-hime,” he is lying through his teeth, suffering from serious anxiety that his balls are about to explode. When he cries, “Oh, my!” in the second verse, I know that all I have to do is show him my tits and he’ll come in a New York second. The slowdown leading to Bowie’s poetry is a bit of theatrics I can do without, but without those kind of diversions, Bowie wouldn’t be Bowie, and I love him for that.
And I love him even more for “Jean Genie,” a fuck playlist perennial. I find it fascinating that this song thrills me so, given its lengthy musical genealogy from Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the Bo Diddley original to the raving Yardbirds version of the mid-60’s. I can feel my ass getting into gear as soon as I hear Mick Ronson’s hard-and-fast picking and the entry of Trevor Bolder’s bass. When the band settles into the irresistible groove they maintain their discipline like good boys and give David plenty of room to play. Instead of going manic on us, though, Bowie approaches the vocal with a laid-back but unmistakeable attitude, reinforcing the tease. When part of the band jumps the chord pattern a bit too soon and Bowie responds by telling them to “Get back on it,” he sounds like a man on life support desperate to maintain contact with the building, teasing groove. I tend to agree with the characterization of the lyrics as the “stylized sleaze” of the Velvet Underground, forming part of the erotic background instead of telling a story. This fits the backstory, where Bowie said he wrote the song in the apartment of one of Warhol’s female devotees, whom he described as a “sexy girl.” Given his tendency to indulge in long, unintelligible explanations of some of his works, his brevity speaks volumes. “Jean Genie” is about sex, meant to inspire sex, drips with sex, and should be the national anthem of the entire fucking world.
Alladin Sane closes quite appropriately with the drama queen tour-de-force, “Lady Grinning Soul.” Mike Gerson’s piano in this piece falls somewhere between Liberace and Liszt; I picture David doing this vocal in a full-length evening gown at the late-night drag show. While it would have been easy for this song to inspire the giggles, Bowie’s obvious sincerity and commitment to the role make for a strangely alluring listening experience. The lyrics are the best on the entire album, describing a multi-talented, independent woman—just the kind of woman who strikes terror into the hearts of the insecure male population. David Bowie encourages men everywhere to give into her temptation AND SO DO I!
She’ll come, she’ll go
She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view
And when the clothes are strewn
Don’t be afraid of the room
Touch the fullness of her breast
Feel the love of her caress
She will be your living end
David’s acoustic guitar solo is pretty impressive, too, and I love the way the fade gives everyone in the band a little action, as if they’re taking their final bow. Theatrics at its best.
Sensuous and dramatic, curious and curiouser, displaying remarkable variety in style and arrangement, Alladin Sane may not be one of Bowie’s best albums, but let’s pause on that thought for a minute and put it into context. If this is not one of his best albums, it’s because we set the bar higher for David Bowie—and I think he made similar demands of himself throughout his career. The truth is that most musical artists would kill to have one album as good as Aladdin Sane, because even when Bowie wasn’t at his best due to circumstances or mood, he was still David Bowie—unique, irreplaceable and fully committed to his art. More than most musicians who kick around for a while without focus or intent, David Bowie understood the vital importance of commitment, of giving it all you’ve got, regardless of the risk.
You can’t clone that. You have to be that. David Bowie is one of the few who got that.