The Crash Course for the Ravers carries on…
In the closing years of the 1970s, David Bowie put out two slightly elegiac singles and made two television appearances alongside colleagues who were (unknowingly) about to die. It makes for a bizarre but not unappealing pile of stuff. While listening to it, I went to his house again.
‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’, 1979
Here’s how behind I was on this single: I hadn’t realized it was an extra helping of the 1974 song rather than a sequel to it. This longer, funkier version was apparently recorded in the Young Americans sessions but unreleased. My reaction to it is pretty much a throwback to that whole album.
‘Alabama Song‘ and ‘Space Oddity‘ (new acoustic recording), 1980
An educated guess says Bowie had a bit of a thing for a certain kind of elegant, genderbendy European diva. Why else would he have consented to appear in the turgid 1978 film Just a Gigolo, except to stand next to the aged Marlene Dietrich? Similarly, I bet his urge to record ‘Alabama Song’ by Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht had something to do with Lotte Lenya. Possibly it stemmed from this 1962 performance on British television:
By the 1970s Lenya may have been best known as Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love or from the original Broadway cast of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, but of course she rose to fame as the partner/muse of a composer competitive for weirdness with Bowie himself. I should perhaps mention here that I know many recordings of ‘Alabama Song’ – including the Doors’ (not Bowie’s source, I wager) – and I haven’t the first clue what it’s about. Not clue one. But then I feel that way about quite a few of Bowie’s songs as well…
This poignant re-arrangement of the decade-old ‘Space Oddity’ is daring in its spareness. What popular artist today would ever trust their listeners enough to leave five bars of complete silence after the first verse? He also just sings it gorgeously.
If these non-album singles revived Bowie’s earlier years, Marc Bolan’s short-lived television show proved he’d never moved on from his. It seems almost cruel of Bowie to parade his vastly superior talent around Bolan’s set, outmatching Bolan’s glammy, undeveloped ‘Deborah’ with one opening bar of ‘Heroes.’ Then, infamously, the two former King Mods step forward to sing a dumb duet when Bolan steps right off the stage. Bowie holds it together manfully for a few words, then gives a vulpine giggle.
Bowie couldn’t know, when he laughed publicly at Marc Bolan’s expense on September 9, that Bolan would be dead in a car wreck by the time the episode aired at the end of the month. Bolan was never a Bowie-level artist, but you can’t help feeling sorry for him – although he, too, is clearly having a laugh at his own clumsiness as the credits roll. Maybe best to think of it as two old, familiar rivals chuckling together at the vagaries of showbiz.
Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, 1977
This cheesefest, in which slender, alien Bowie sings descant to cardiganed crooner Bing, deserves most but not all of the derision it receives.The dopey script points up the generation gap between the two, with Crosby claiming he finds “contemporary stuff” “just fine,” and Bowie remarking that he likes older artists such as Harry Nilsson. However, their actual duet on ‘The Little Drummer Boy’/’Peace on Earth’ is lovely enough to remind us of when Bing Crosby was no oldies station, but a powerful element unifying America in an age of real crisis. Here he is in his prime, bellowing tunefully about the real meaning of freedom just a few months after Pearl Harbor. In 1977, two years after Vietnam proved that the world wars had failed to end major conflict, Bowie mentions his son and sings a prayer for peace “for my child, and your child too.” Surely even the most ironic and cynical Bowieite can’t fail to be moved by this sentiment.
This Christmas special was recorded in mid-1977 and aired at the end of November, by which time Bing Crosby had been dead for six weeks. That prayer for peace was among the last things he ever crooned. Not a bad note to go out on.
A Wander Downtown, June 16, 2016
Last week I had a meander around Greenwich Village and Soho in New York City. I went in part to find a record store I’d heard about for the first time from its closing announcement. Though I thought they’d still be in ‘everything must go’ phase, in fact they’d already locked their doors when I turned up. I took a couple of sad photos. Heck of a good name, Rebel Rebel records. RIP.
Later on I walked up to the former chocolate factory near Lafayette and Prince where I took this photo a few days after Bowie’s death. This is how the same space looks now.
Within the essentially joyful message “Let’s Dance!” are numerous individual epitaphs, benedictions, and quotations, ranging from Hunky Dory’s ‘Quicksand’ to The Next Day and Blackstar. Here are the panels in higher resolution if you want a detailed look. It’s worth it.