David Bowie: a tribute

This is the entry from my other blog, Circles Of Life, chronicling my favourite 143 songs by 143 different artists. The blog – an ongoing passion project – is here. This entry was posted on July 6, 2013, the fourth entry in the entire canon. As it contextualises my life with Bowie, and my appreciation of his vast body of work, it says all that I need to say on this sad day. (NB: I have not changed the tense, so it reads as if he is still alive.)

Davidbowie-low

Artist: David Bowie
Title: Be My Wife
Description: single; album track from Low
Label: RCA
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1983

David Bowie is, in my opinion, the most important solo artist the world has ever produced. (Actually, it doesn’t feel that weird to say it out loud. You’d have to be a much bigger Dylan or Elvis or Bruce or Neil Young or Prince or Madonna or Lady Gaga fan than I to think otherwise.) It’s cool that he’s enjoying some kind of autumnal renaissance since Where Are We Now? and The Next Day, as it means Bowie no longer exists exclusively in the past. That would be a shame, since he spent so much of his career in the future.

I was a late starter. Woefully late. I was aware of Bowie’s work, of course: I remember the padded-room Space Oddity on Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show in 1980, and, around that time – the first flourish of New Romanticism – my attention was piqued by Ashes To Ashes. But my much more broad-minded friend Craig McKenna had the Scary Monsters album, and although I really liked the sleeve artwork, it never really grabbed me in long form like, say, The Specials or London Calling or Boy or Setting Sons or even The Biggest Prize In Sport by 999 did around that time. I liked John I’m Only Dancing, and other singles, but David Bowie and I seemed to get on just fine without each other. Until 1983.

Just in time for Bowie to release what diehard fans still believe to be his first bad LP, Let’s Dance (certainly his first LP made with a larger audience in mind), I got him. It’s like a couple of years later I got onions. And a few years after that, Ingmar Bergman.

It feels important as I get into The 143 to name those friends and associates who turned me on to certain artists, and in Bowie’s case, it was Vaughan Mayo, the older brother of a girl I “went out with”. He had all the Bowie albums, couldn’t believe I had none, and set about educating me. He lent me Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie first, which proved an excellent combined primer as they gave me accessible entrance points like Suffragette City, Changes, Starman and so on. If I remember correctly, it was Sound and Vision that was the first track to go onto a series of compilation cassettes I began compiling.

So it was that Low was the first Bowie album I taped in its entirety, with Sound and Vision as my start-up. It’s a peculiar LP, in that it’s divided into two distinct “sides”, and you’re not always in the mood for those ambient instrumentals. But Side One, as we must call it, is wall-to-wall clanky brilliance. My favourite track varies, from the melancholic Always Crashing In The Same Car to the moody A New Career In A New Town, with its bass drum beat that sounds like someone tapping the stylus with a finger, but Be My Wife inevitably rises to the top.

That my discovery of Low coincided with a TV showing, perhaps the first, of The Man Who Fell To Earth – for whose soundtrack many of Low’s songs were initially developed and rejected, and which provides the striking, heart-stoppingly beautiful side-on sleeve portrait – clinched it. I didn’t know I was feeling the cocaine-kicking Bowie’s pain in Be My Wife; it felt to me like a straightforward declaration of love (“Please be mine, share my life, stay with me”), not quite getting the restlessness, both geographical and spiritual, in the lines, “I’ve lived all over the world/I’ve left every place.” I knew from the sleeve that Low was recorded in Berlin, with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno (whose names cropped up regularly on the sleeves as I gradually and greedily worked my way through Vaughan’s catalogue), but it’s only now that I appreciate the context.

It’s the pub piano of the intro that does it for me, banging away throughout as if by Mrs Mills, the perfect ironic underlay for Bowie’s Chas & Dave vocal. As the compensating Bowie archaeologist, I quickly identified from sleeve credits Dennis Davis as my favourite of Bowie’s drummers, but his work on Low is so loose, tumbling and roughly recorded it goes utterly against the grain of the surgical precision of the craft he demonstrated on Stage, for instance. I still love these incredible drums, which join the harmonic organ, squawking guitars and almost buried funk bass in a mix that’s at once treacly and indistinct, yet endlessly joy-giving and layered. I know there are reference books I could consult right now to tell you who played what, through what piece of kit, and how Visconti captured them to tape, but I didn’t have access to such books in 1983; I was flying into this brave new world blind and feeling my way.

David Bowie is the one artist I find impossible to represent with one track and stick to my choice. There are a hundred I could mention. But Be My Wife is a three-minute bash of which I never tire

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