Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Ran to the Street, Looking for Information

Like everyone else who was blithely celebrating Mr. Bowie's birthday one minute, and mourning his death practically the next, I have my opinions about which of his songs are the best -- especially once you get past the less obvious choices. James Gunn had a great list (which is no surprise), but enough of the similar retrospectives have made me go "oh, please" that I've written my own.

"Fill Your Heart." Hunky Dory, like The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars right after it, is an almost perfect album. I mean, "Queen Bitch"! "The Bewley Brothers"! But I have always been unaccountably, uncontrollably in love with this song. It took all these years before I realized it was written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams (king of '70s easy listening and star of the kitschfest Phantom of the Paradise). Which makes sense, since it's catchy and poppy and full of goofy, hippy-dippy lyrics. But it seems perfect for Mr. Bowie! Despite being someone with a reputation for calculating artifice, he delivers a performance bursting with naive sincerity. When he sings "Love heals the mind and makes it FREEEE!" I want to fling out my arms like Shah Rukh Khan, and hug the whole universe.

"Five Years." As true today as it was in 1983 -- this is my favorite Mr. Bowie song, hands down. This pre-apocalyptic tune introduces the premise of Ziggy Stardust, but works equally well as a stand-alone. Both despairing and inspirational, it tells of a world in which the Earth is doomed to an unspecified destruction, which will take place in, you guessed it, five years, itemizing the transcendent joy of perfectly ordinary, mundane human life: exactly what something like Ziggy was designed to help his fans escape from. Weird, right? But it's beautiful. I have often related to the line when, dazzled by everything that's going to be lost, he sings "My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to space/I had to cram so many things to store everything in there." Then follows that up wistfully with "I never thought I'd need so many people." I could cry just thinking about it. It's perfectly book-ended with the also-amazing and more-often-played "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide," which closes the album. 

"Hang Onto Yourself." Bonus Ziggy track. If anyone wants to know what glam rock sounds like, this is it. You can just hear the crazy outfits and outrageous makeup in it! I don't even know what you call what those guitars are doing at the end: distorting? But combined with the heavy breathing and the "come on"'s, this is fun and a little bit campy, and there is no reason that can't be as artistic as something more serious.

"Watch That Man." "He talks like a jerk, but he could eat you with a fork and spoon." Aladdin Sane tends to get lost in the shuffle because it's just great, not perfect, but it has some of my favorites, mainly this one. I like its scenario - a party that, typically, devolves into a dystopian vision -- and the clever lyrics, with references to Benny Goodman and the "Tiger Rag." Said by some to be a hasty Rolling Stones knock-off, but if this is someone's substandard throw-away, they're operating at a way higher level than most of us!

"Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family." Well, this was inevitable. It's a really weird piece that concludes the 1984 section of Diamond Dogs. I kind of have to include the song "Big Brother" with it, because one song segues right into the other. And that one's pretty great too, if not quite the whackjob tour-de-force that "Chant" is.

"Always Crashing in the Same Car"/"A New Career in a New Town." The yin and yang of Low? I've always thought of them as companion pieces: one about doing the same thing over and over, the other about starting fresh; one with coolly delivered lyrics, the other an instrumental; both of them very short (just over and just under three minutes, respectively). They sum up that time in my 20s when I was in fact doing both of those things at the same time.

"Joe the Lion." From the "Heroes" album, this shares that vibes-y, Wall of Sound style with the title track, plus a bombastic vocal style that makes it larger than life. This is a Bowie song that's little remarked upon, so I have no idea who Joe is supposed to be, why he's "the Lion," or what his deal is. The Wikipedia says it was inspired by Chris Burden, the performance artist who was literally nailed to a car, but I can't help thinking that Joe's nailing is a bit more metaphorical.

"It's No Game (Part I)." This is Mr. Bowie at his punkest. The aggressive Japanese lyrics (performed by Michi Hirota), followed up by Bowie practically shrieking them in English, is amazing. The line "to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading" was practically on my coat of arms in the Reagan years -- in fact, the one Bowie button I generally wore was his face from the cover of this album, Scary Monsters.

"John, I'm Only Dancing." This single was on the Changesonebowie cassette that pretty much changed my life. There's something about his voice here, that turns up in other early (and early-ish) songs as well, where it sounds almost like it's breaking. Whenever I hear it, it twinges a chord of weirdly emotional intimacy. The about-to-crack sound moves me more than the polished croon of, for example, a "Young Americans." Which is a great song, but I just don't react to it the same way.

So that's my Mr. Bowie collection. One of these days I'll listen to Blackstar, with my broken heart.

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