Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: David Bowie in Bertholt Brecht’s Baal, 1982
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Nonexistent
Three-Word Review: Poetic, ravishing, funny
When I began my Bowie crash course, I came across references to his 1982 appearance in Bertholt Brecht’s Baal, but I got the impression that that soundtrack was unavailable. I should’ve known better in this Internet age – in fact it’s on both iTunes and YouTube. I was pleased to catch up with it in the last couple of weeks, not least because it gave me a nice break from Tin Machine. That’s not to say that Tin Machine is bad (I’ll do that elsewhere), but just that Baal is utterly different from anything else Bowie was doing in the Eighties.
Bowie’s no newcomer to Brecht and his circle; we recall him channeling Lotte Lenya two years before. Coming in unfamiliar with Brecht’s first full play myself, I didn’t know at first if the lyrics, the music, or both were original to it, contributed by Bowie, or something else. Something else, it turns out, meaning Mr. B is employed here solely as a cover artist. And what a cover artist! – hot diggity, does he sound good.
He didn’t write them, but the Baal songs are right in Bowie’s line as traced from his first albums – those little folk-rock dramatic vignettes, setting a stage with his words and voice, juicing every nuance from a short story upon it, and whisking it away again. They also share his recurring interests in impermanence and death, metaphorical or literal – ‘Dear Mr. Gravedigger,’ ‘Changes,’ ‘My Death.’
“But for the cloud that floated in the sky/I know that still, and shall forever know it…/And yet that cloud had only bloomed for minutes/When I looked up, it vanished on the air.”
Rank this, for sheer beauty, with the most perfect experiences of Bowie’s art.
Here’s a tiny taste of his characterization, which strikes me partly for its accent – that Bromley-ish twang often evident in Bowie’s singing, but not in the Baal songs. Maybe the character’s a chameleon – I don’t know, since video is thus far unavailable to me.
This stark and atmospheric video of the song ‘The Drowned Girl’ (by a-team Brecht and Kurt Weill) captures better the feel of the EP, as distinct from the play/television show.
Next: tin ears?