Monday, January 18, 2016

In the Years of the Scavenger.

"I do get the feeling that by listening to the album we can kind of get closer to you than we have for many years, in terms of knowing who you are and where you are at?"


"You know, Jonathan, that'll never happen."
Bowie on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, 2002.

I first discovered David Bowie in the early Seventies as a young child, listening to The Laughing Gnome played on the Sunday morning children's show on an orange Aztec radio in my room. I can't remember what I thought of the song - I think I liked the sped-up voices.

I first discovered David Bowie in 1979, in television advertisements for the Australasian collection 'David Bowie! Chameleon'. Snatches of songs - 1984, Sorrow, over the top of weird and jarring images from his music videos lingering in my young mind. DJ featured heavily; Venetian blinds, mixing desks, a gas mask and boiler suit.

I first discovered David Bowie in 1979 on Star Trek, a compilation of Sci-Fi-themed music and songs. My brother and I had bought it for the Star Wars and War of the Worlds themes, probably, but this also featured sound-alike versions of Space Oddity, Life on Mars? and Starman alongside other knockoffs of Elton John, Boney M and The Carpenters. They were the definitive versions of the songs for me until...

I next discovered David Bowie on a three-album collection of Sixties British pop, the real Space Oddity featuring alongside the likes of The Honeydrippers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Petula Clark and Cliff Richard. The box-set collage featured Bowie in an anachronistic Ziggy guise. I wasn't taken in.

I then discovered David Bowie as a creepy, unearthly figure, the singer of the irresistible Cat People (Putting Out Fire) which loomed large in my pre-adolescent subconscious, and of Ashes to Ashes, an even freakier video in which he tiptoed around a woozy landscape dressed like a scary clown (or, as I noted mere months later, Doctor Who in 'Watcher' form), or as a thrashing astronaut brought down to a suburban nightmare. Even I knew that Major Tom was a junkie by then. 

Then I discovered David Bowie with Let's Dance and China Girl; and, inspired by information gleaned from a courtesy cousin 'enthusiast', made my own compilation of Bowie songs, one side of a C60 cassette combining the various records we had and off-air radio recordings. "That's Bowie-", the excited announcer cries out at the end of Let's Dance; an addition I'm utterly unable to edit out, but which at least convinces me that once you're on top of the world you don't need two names. Like the rest of my class I was a fan. Briefly.

Then I forgot Bowie, and found him again, and set him aside once more for other things. He did duets with Tina Turner, movies like Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners, the Glass Spider Tour, floundering fare like Tonight and Never Let Me Down, and a classmate was such an ardent fan I avoided Bowie for years.  I was done. There were more interesting and less try-hard and pretentious artists out there. Like Sting!

I discovered Bowie in the smoky, incense-fogged bedroom of a bandmate on a loose Saturday night not gigging. He played Hunky Dory and pointed out, quite rightly, that it had a lot going on over the Flying Nun stuff I was immersed in. Even Andy Warhol.

Then Bowie turned fifty and had a big party with my university favourite acts, like Robert Smith, Frank Black, Billy Corgan and Foo Fighters. He released Earthling and Little Wonder, went all drum-n-bass and jungle, and in the middle of a brief but colourful UK glam revival in the Nineties, I was intrigued. Bowie pointedly didn't do the glam bits, but he didn't need to when the likes of Suede, Babylon Zoo, Spacehog, Placebo, Nicky Wire and Todd Haynes were happy to tip their hats to the master.

I rediscovered Bowie wearing headphones in a city dentist's chair in Wellington, listening to a supplied CD (Suffragette City), one of the most exciting songs I'd ever heard the man play. And being played by a Cuba Street busker (Ziggy Stardust). He was everywhere. I bought two compilations (The Best of David Bowie 1969-1973, The Best of David Bowie 1974-1979) and listened to it - selectively.

Then Bowie came to Wellington, and on a very rainy night I went to the concert. More on that later. Graham Reid produced three excellent overviews of the man's music for Radio NZ, interspersed with some earlier interviews. It was an education, uncovering more deep cuts to my growing knowledge - The Belway Brothers, Memories of a Free Festival, It's No Game. I think I still have the tapes somewhere...

Dad Rock ensues. Nothing to see here.

Then I rediscovered David Bowie through Jet Junior, who was, like many of his generation, an early adopter of the futuristic. Bowie songs grew and grew among our bedtime song collections. I finally discovered the simple genius of Absolute Beginners and its gorgeous C#m to Gdim drop through playing it on a ukulele of all things. But then, as Jet Jr would remind you, Bowie composed Lust for Life on a ukulele, so there. Kooks was my favourite to sing to him, and still is.

I'm still discovering David Bowie.

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