What’s That Sound?: The Return of David Bowie

Author’s note: Marking the anniversary of a loved one’s death is a tradition in Judaism. Instead of lighting a candle for him, I wrote this personal meditation on Bowie’s life as an artist, presented here in the week of his Yartzeit.

Looking back on Tonight and Never Let Me Down, the two overtly commercial follow-up albums to his 1983 pop breakthrough, Let’s Dance, Bowie said sheepishly in a 2001 BBC televised interview that “those were my Phil Collins years.” While there are indeed fans of those three mid-80s albums (I’m not one of them), anyone who would begrudge David Bowie the chance to make some big money while still in his prime could rightfully be called an ingrate. Fact is that while Bowie maintained a dominant foothold in the zeitgeist all through the 70s, he never achieved the kind of album sales or concert grosses that would make him wealthy or even what we’d call “liquid.” Always one step ahead of the taxman, tied an onerous multi-album deal with RCA, and an even worse contract with his unscrupulous manager Tony DeFries, plus lavish touring and living expenses that ate up any profits coming to him, Bowie came out the prime of his artistic career with scarcely anything but debt.

Thinking that he had fulfilled the last two albums of his 1971 deal with RCA by delivering the Stage live double LP in 1978, Bowie was informed by lawyers that, no, he was obligated to provide one more album. Rather than slap something together to move on to more lucrative pastures, Bowie responded with one of his most triumphant artistic efforts, 1980’s Scary Monsters, a crowning achievement, a sort of encapsulation of his stunning Berlin Trio, and what many of his most devoted fans would consider his last great studio album, at least for a long while.

“Up the Hill Backwards”

The towering level of artistry and his constant chameleon nature through this, his most prolific era is why I consider David Bowie the best contender for the title, the Beatles of the 1970s (and certainly the artist of that decade, sorry Rolling Stone Magazine and Neil Young). Starting with the densely poetic The Man Who Sold the World (1970), through the Spiders from Mars albums, beginning with the wonderfully eclectic Hunky Dory, and then the three powerhouse albums made under the glam Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane persona, the self-produced darkly conceptual Diamond Dogs, on through the plastic soul era of Young Americans and the alt-soul stunner, Station to Station, and then the overtly art-rock Berlin Trio made with Brian Eno and finally, culminating with the Scary Monsters album, Bowie was constantly evolving, seeking, writing and performing unbelievable material, providing the leading edge for the entire culture through this incredibly rich period of the widely eclectic genre we call rock music. Delivering the final LP to RCA must have left him understandably exhausted as a musician and Bowie took an extended hiatus, concentrating instead on his other great passion, acting, first by taking up the title role of The Elephant Man in a surprise turn on Broadway and then through various film roles, spending most of 1982 filming Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and The Hunger. 

When Bowie finally got back to making music in December of that year, his intent was to collaborate again with Tony Visconti who had produced the adventurous Berlin Trio and Scary Monsters albums and had cleared his schedule for the upcoming project. Instead, Bowie ended up working with funk-disco producer Nile Rodgers to make Let’s Dance (who followed David’s explicit instructions to “make hits”), leaving it to his assistant Coco to inform Visconti that, regrettably, it wasn’t going to work out, a move that would seriously piss off Visconti, to the point that they would not work together again for twenty years, not until the Heathen album.

The intent and the sound of the three songs that lead off the album, all released as singles with lavish videos, was unmistakably commercial. As for Bowie’s true motivation for his move to the mainstream, that’s a matter of conjecture but the fact that the production and release of Let’s Dance coincided with the meteoric rise and immediate dominance of MTV on popular culture cannot be ignored. A month after the album’s release, he appeared starkly on the cover of Rolling Stone with the single headline, “David Bowie Straight” and declared in the enclosed interview with MTV’s Kurt Loder that his 1972 self-outing as gay was all a pose, as was his later identification as bisexual, that he was done with being cool, that all of that pursuit of being cool “has left me cold.” In other interviews, Bowie detailed the nostalgic influences on the new album, calling it a callback to the innocent time of his youth when R&B music swept through England in the early 60s (nostalgia for a simpler time being very much in step with the Reaganesque times, but sounded foreign coming from such a habitually forward-thinking artist). Also weird was Bowie’s lack of involvement in the music of the album. Timothy White noted that this was the first album where he didn’t play a note. Bowie responded, “this is a singer’s album.”

What made Let’s Dance particularly crass in the moment was not just that Bowie had gone commercial pop after so many years of being a bold hero to “all the nobody people,” every sort of misfit and outcast that society coughed up and abandoned, but that he had announced that this airbrushed, Ken-doll paragon of conformist capitalism was the real him and that he was, in effect, renouncing his artistic, rock and roll past. And the songwriting reflected a significant change as well. Whereas Bowie had scored two hit singles from Scary Monsters, “Ashes to Ashes,” the spooky, addled tale of space hero Major Tom’s descent into loneliness and drug abuse and the snarky anti-anthem “Fashion,” the glossed-up pop songs of Let’s Dance were completely devoid of irony, commentary, or anything but a call to embrace the hard-partying normalcy that in 1983 was the pre-Iran Contra height of phony Reaganism. That Bowie had recycled and remade as golden boy his once-menacing Thin White Duke persona to create the great-sounding but unfulfilling Let’s Dance album and subsequent Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider tours was, in effect, and lives on as perhaps the perfect artifact of the Reagan Era that was offered by the rock establishment as it groped for a way forward in the ethos-crushing years of that cruel decade, the 1980s.

But people adored Let’s Dance (the album outsold any of his previous releases by a factor of five), it earned him a ton of money and a whole new following, the title track and “Modern Love” were fun to dance to, and who could deny anyone such simple pleasures or such long-elusive profits for Bowie himself (who was now earning a much larger share of royalties under his new EMI contract as well as a huge signing bonus). The album introduced the world to the brilliant Texas blues guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan and helped revitalize the suspended career of producer Nile Rodgers who leaped back to the A-list after the devastating backlash against disco that also sidelined the Bee Gees during the same era. Rodgers rode on from Let’s Dance to produce that other gleaming artifact of crass consumerism during the Reagan years, Madonna’s Like a Virgin album. Stevie Ray Vaughan was later revealed to have only been paid a small session fee and no profit-sharing for his integral role in the hit album (promised opening slots for his band on the tour were rescinded when it was feared that he’d steal some of Bowie’s thunder, Stevie Ray later dropping out of the tour where he was a low-paid sideman). Bowie’s following loved Let’s Dance and tolerated the next album, Tonight, but by 1987’s Never Let Me Down, the trendy shtick was wearing thin and his old fans were wondering what happened to their shape-shifting cipher, why was he stuck on this, the most mediocre phase of his career?


In an interview 14 years later around the Earthling album, Bowie looked back on this uncharacteristic mid-80s period of commercial success: “It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity.” He explained that the money eventually “ceased to fill the hole that not really believing in one’s writing makes,” and that he suddenly felt very apart from his audience, wondering “how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?” He chose to keep his new fans, making the two follow up albums, material he thought they would find accessible. “That,” he conceded, “was really bad thinking.”

The winding trek Bowie took back to find his muse, his integrity, and his artistic soul is a fascinating pilgrimage for listeners to trace. It’s all documented in the remaining albums of Bowie’s shortened life.

“Heaven’s In Here”

Bowie’s journey back begins with Tin Machine, the band he formed with guitarist Reeves Gabrel and Hunt (drums) and Tony (bass) Sales, the Sales Brothers, sons of Soupy, and rhythm section to Todd Rundgren (on the stellar Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren and Something/Anything albums), as well as Iggy Pop on the Bowie-produced Lust For Life album (and subsequent short tour where Bowie was the anonymous keyboard player). It was Reeves Gabrels, an unknown Boston guitar player whose wife Sara Terry was working on the press staff for David’s 1987 Glass Spider tour, that helped Bowie break his addiction to the “money-go-round,” playing all the hits in concert, delivering accessible product on his records, living the increasingly unfulfilling high life. “Just stop doing it.” It took a while for that advice to sink in, but that’s exactly what Bowie did. He stopped. 

The pressures of that extravagant eight-month tour were so great that when it ended with one show in New Zealand, David had a portion of the set dragged to a field and burned. Gabrels and Bowie had become backstage friends on the tour, the guitarist never letting on that he was even a musician, feeling it was inappropriate in his wife’s workspace to offer anything but friendship and conversation. After the tour, Bowie thanked Sara and asked if he could do anything for her. She slipped him a tape of her husband’s music.

“I Can’t Read”

Tin Machine was formed as a democracy, but Bowie had never been in a band so that took a little adjusting. Forming a band proved to be a major kick in the pants, apparently one he sorely needed because Bowie later confessed that music had started to take a backseat in his life, that he was more consumed with visual arts, and could have become a rich recluse in the late 80s, involved in painting and sculpting instead of writing and performing. The gritty two guitars, bass, and drums format was refreshing for listeners after all of the shiny keyboard textures of Never Let Me Down and Tonight before it, and the rock and roll mission of Tin Machine gave Bowie a much-needed focus. The album has its moments, finding a place between riff-based Bowiesque rock (mutant echoes of “Rebel, Rebel” can be heard in “I Can’t Read,” probably the best track) and what can possibly be thought of as proto-grunge, with a broad smattering of Eddie-influenced guitar pyrotechnics from Gabrels throughout. I, like a lot of people, dismissed Tin Machine at the time but after repeated listenings, I’m coming around to the album now, although I’m not hearing a lot of coherence as a band — sounds like a decent Bowie rock album with a dubious star turn from Reeves Gabrels on shredding guitar (a lot of sound and fury, but without a lot of talent or intention, his distorted thrashings become part of the landscape, which is not a terrible thing). Tin Machine had a follow-up in Tin Machine II (1991), some touring, and the live Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey Baby album (1992), after which Bowie hung up his rock and roll shoes for a while.

“You’ve Been Around”

While Tin Machine did much to recharge his batteries, Bowie’s long road back to restoring what he viewed as his dinged-up integrity was a bit of zig-zag. In 1992 he once again collaborated with Nile Rodgers, but this time, instead of 17 days in production (the insanely fast schedule for Let’s Dance), his next album, Black Tie White Noise took over a year to complete (an eternity for David Bowie). While the intention was to avoid a retread of their previous wild success, the stated goal of Black Tie White Noise as an exploration of the melodic potential of House music resulted in something sounding pretty dated from today’s perspective due to its wall-to-wall reliance on now tired, ubiquitous 90s drum loops. Still, it was good to hear Bowie’s angular vocal melodies which elevate the project — in the moment, the album was well-received as a return to form, at least in the UK where it enjoyed good reviews and reached #1 on the UK Album chart. Again, in retrospect, Black Tie White Noise is inventive, Bowie sounds engaged, but it’s so mired in grating, repetitive 90s drum loop production (plus an “Ebony and Ivory”-esque duet on the title track with oddly chosen urban one-hit-wonder, Al B. Sure) that it’s a bit of a difficult listen.

Notably, Bowie and the love of his life, Iman were married in 1992. The album is bookended by two wedding songs, the instrumental opener “The Wedding” being one of the most enduring tracks (led by Bowie’s own strange, fractured melodic sax), it’s an album that is both unmistakably buoyant and a little labored. As Rob Sheffield asserts in his post-death meditation, “On Bowie,” David never made a lazy record again once he was with Iman because the relationship gave his writing a sense of purpose. It’s as if Bowie set about to destroy the cliché of marital bliss turning a rock star soft. Bowie the artist will be completely redeemed before his death and it is certain that the sustenance brought by marriage to Iman was instrumental in fueling his return.

“The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”

Bowie the artist must have been getting restless because his next project, Outside, a reunion with Brian Eno was a total experiment in music composition and record-making. Ever since their meeting at David’s wedding to Iman, Bowie and Eno had been trading tracks and long written manifestos on what they each thought was missing in music, turning their collective focus to the avant-garde periphery instead of the commercial mainstream. They booked time in a Swiss recording studio before a single note of music had been written, or even an idea, and spent a day interviewing patients at the Gugging Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna and observed their collection of “Outsider Art,” the product of the facility’s art therapy program. Next, Bowie and Eno constructed a 3-hour collage piece that was mostly spoken word from their observations, which eventually provided the basis of the Outside concept.

Simultaneous with the beginning of the project, Bowie had been requested by Q Magazine to keep a personal diary for ten days, but fearing that it would be too mundane for publication, he took the inspiration and wrote entries for a 15-year diary of one of the project’s characters, detective Nathan Adler, who is obsessively investigating a series of “art-crimes” in a near-future dystopian narrative. These entries became the seeds for many of the individual songs on the album, whose complete title is actually 1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle), but not before the written words were given a “cut-up” treatment through a randomizing computer algorithm, rendering the narrative itself pretty incomprehensible, but leaving the themes of alienation, paranoia, and sad romanticism basically intact.

After a long absence, the overt art-rock pretense and sound of Outside is a welcome reappearance for the Bowie faithful. Not only were his old fans treated to a new collaboration with Brian Eno, the first since the audacious Berlin trio of the late 70s, but Outside is also a vehicle for returning pianist Mike Garson who was so instrumental in the sound of Bowie’s golden age from Aladdin Sane through Young Americans. Garson, a disciple of Cecil Taylor’s bashing, atonal, punkish approach to jazz piano, underpins the “edge of madness” feel of Outside. And while there’s a steady presence of mechanized drums and long threads of droning synthesizer textures, the familiar guitars of Carlos Alomar and Bowie, joined by Reeves Gabrels give texture, emotional teeth, and a human sense of rhythm to the musical storytelling while the constant presence of Garson’s virtuosic, lush romanticism, and sheer beauty of his grand piano lends a crushed-velvet air of high culture to the dystopian world of Outside, one that contrasts and enhances the palpable darkness of the general feel of the album.

At the time of its release in 1995, reception for Outside was mixed, its reliance on spoken-word segues being called into question, and even though this was Bowie’s longest album (clocking in at 74 minutes) some reviews pointing to its paucity of fully realized songs. As is typical, Outside has lately experienced a critical reassessment and it’s now ranked among his best, most fully realized works, Bowie’s total commitment to the concept being cited as a reason. Follow-up albums within the world of Outside were planned (Bowie and Eno recorded over 20 hours of material for the project), and various continuations of the narrative were considered, but after an assistant engineer leaked outtakes to the internet, Bowie apparently lost interest. After Bowie’s death, Brian Eno revealed details of the lost project and one would hope that Eno himself might one day complete a worthy follow-up to their collaboration from the mid-90s.

“Little Wonder”

The team of Bowie and Gabrels made just two more albums together, the hyperactive electronica-drench Earthling (1997) and the more languid adult contemporary, Hours (1999), and the two projects couldn’t be more different. Whereas Earthling is the product of Bowie’s obsession with jungle beats and the drum ‘n’ bass movement that was current at the time, specifically the music of Prodigy, Photek, and Tricky, Hours is a much more conventional singer-songwriter album, judged by critic John Mullen as an improvement on Earthling, and aptly described as “a high-brow version of Sting.” 

For Earthling, Bowie kept up his experimental techniques of song construction, utilizing stream of consciousness in the lyrics and imposing arbitrary rules and limits on musicians in the studio, a variation of Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” method. While he intended to re-record various orphaned and overlooked songs from his recent projects, Bowie found himself writing new material in a prolific burst of inspiration. Every song on the album, however, is completely steeped in speedy jungle beats and dark-timbered industrial drum samples, all pushed way forward in the mixes. For all of its artistry, Earthling can’t help but sound like something of a genre exercise, especially in retrospect.

“Something In the Air”

The songs for Hours were written simultaneously with instrumental music Bowie and Gabrels produced for the adventure video game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul. While the album seemed to fly under the radar at the time and continues similarly among fans and music historians, it’s a wonderfully listenable album and to my ears, Hours presents a working template for Bowie’s music from that point onward, at least until his final statement, the inventive and overtly artistic Blackstar album.

“Sunday”

2002’s Heathen marked the welcome return of Tony Visconti in the co-producer’s chair. By this time, Bowie is firing on all cylinders as the consummate postmodern, art-rocking adult contemporary artist. Dipping in and out of all pools — digital, acoustic, programmed, organic, narrative, non-linear — Bowie is the ultimate curator, his impeccable taste is his primary instrument. Heathen is brimming with vitality, humanity, and though there are heaps of digital processing and sources, the feel is sensuous, intimate, and in a word, beautiful. Certainly a good place to start for 70s fans that lost track of his career, with Heathen, Bowie and Visconti seem to pick up where they left off at Scary Monsters

Visconti stayed on for the remainder of Bowie’s career, continuing the intention of Heathen in an even more succinct, song-oriented, well-structured album in the Reality album, released soon after in 2003. With all of the postmodern sense and sensuality of its predecessor, but with even greater pop sensibilities, audacity, and “Bowie-ness,” Reality is strong; full of confidence, humor, but also frailty and maintains an album-length arc that gives it a true place in Bowie’s discography. What was planned as a 7-month tour supporting the album was expanded to the better part of two years and was only cut short when Bowie experienced what he thought was a pinched nerve in his shoulder but turned out to be a heart attack in June of 2004. The performances provided the material for the live DVD and album, A Reality Tour, released in 2010.

For reasons not yet revealed, Bowie’s career subsequently underwent an extended 9-year hiatus and the surprise release of the album The Next Day was a completely unexpected musical event of 2013 (it was recorded in total secrecy, the musicians and engineers all signing NDAs). Musically, the album represents another turn, as it’s rooted mostly in live drums and live performances overall. As such, The Next Day presents itself as an eclectic rock album, at times overflowing with energetic drums and guitars as in the title track which kicks off the record, at times it’s a languid, jazz-inflected piano-based song as in “Where Are They Now,” the album’s intriguing first single, which refers to Bowie’s long absence. There are riff-based rockers like “Valentine’s Day” which overflows with Bowie’s enduring pop sense, and where the energy and tempo push the limit towards jungle territory in “You Can See Me,” it’s still apparent that it’s an amazing rock band playing at full-tilt, something that gives The Next Day currency, vitality, and through its authenticity, relevance. It’s music that grabs you and holds you, an extraordinary album, dramatic and penetrating, with Bowie front and center, but only a preamble for what was to come.

“Blackstar”

You don’t need me to tell you to go listen to Blackstar, David Bowie’s last will and testament to this mortal coil, his musical and artistic epitaph. I could tell you about my personal experience, but it’s no more informing than any other fan’s.

I’ll tell you anyway.

In an advance release, on November 19, 2015, Bowie put out the album’s extraordinary title track as a single and a music video and when I first heard the song, “Blackstar,” I was stunned, thrilled, and immediately hooked. My own obsession with Bowie began with the Space Oddity record (1969) and ended abruptly with Scary Monsters (1980). I didn’t own any of his other albums, except for Outside, which a friend had recommended and given to me on CD (thanks, Alex). I knew Bowie as the punk of “Queen Bitch” and “Hang Onto Yourself,” as the art-rock godhead of Low and Scary Monsters, as the dark conceptualist that dreamed of Diamond Dogs and created the weird, compelling world of Station to Station. Most of all, I knew him as an artist, certainly the boldest and most prominent pure artist in rock and roll. When I heard “Blackstar,” it was the shock of recognition. Bowie the pure artist had reemerged. 

I drove around with my phone face down on the passenger seat, playing the YouTube video of “Blackstar” so I could hear the music as music, and make my own movies out of the lyrics, the jittery, shifting music, and the ominous sound of Bowie’s voice. I told everyone I knew to check out the extraordinary new Bowie single and kept listening to the pre-release as Bowie intended, enjoying the sweet anticipation of the coming Blackstar album. The album was released on January 8th and, in a final stroke of irony, Bowie himself died on January 10th. 

We now know that Bowie had been dying of liver cancer, having been diagnosed 18 months earlier, just a few months after the release of The Next Day. David never went public with his condition, instead he planned the Blackstar album as his swan song and parting gift, leaving us all as we knew him best, as a true artist. The album itself is a masterpiece of both iconoclasm and iconography; Tony Visconti tells us that they intentionally avoided a rock and roll sound, working exclusively with jazz musicians and listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album during the sessions for inspiration. The punk element in Blackstar is palpable, in the complex, nearly inconceivable rhythms presented by drummer Mark Guiliana, in the free jazz cascades of screaming saxes layered over the propulsive rhythms in the re-recorded “Tis’ a Pity She Was a Whore,” in the insistent defying of expectations that permeates the entire listening experience of Blackstar. We now know that Bowie was aware that he was dying and putting his every last effort into his last work on Earth. That his final album is so full of life, artistry, intention, and ultimately, meaning is a grand statement about Bowie the man and a beautiful testament to Bowie the artist.

What was so otherworldly about the death of David Bowie was that as a fan, we had gotten used to Bowie’s shape-shifting and tendency to hide away and then reemerge. It was a grief never before experienced because we fans had been through these disappearances in the past; it was so odd to realize that this time he was really gone. Bowie leaves behind a rich legacy of art and music but he also leaves us with the extraordinary portrait of his life as an artist. Tracing the path of his life through his works is a long, compelling narrative and, a worthwhile pursuit, and a gratifying experience, a privilege really, just as it has been to share life on the planet with the ultimate chameleon — Bowie the hippy poet, androgyne, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, the rocker, the punk, the postmodernist, the artist, the Man Who Fell to Earth.

Here’s the Spotify playlist I started compiling at the time of the release of The Next Day, that provided the inspiration for this article. No Bowie fan’s playlist will be identical (and some might stick to listening to his albums only as complete works). Here’s mine, presented for your shuffling pleasure:

The Return of David Bowie

Shooting Star Photo by Achraf Alan from Pexels

Links:

Bowie’s “Phil Collins years”:
https://www.quotes.net/movies/friday_night_with_jonathan_ross_102253

The “Straight Time” interview with Rolling Stone, May 1983:
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/david-bowie-straight-time-69334/

Bowie Interview, Musician Magazine, May 1983
https://www.moredarkthanshark.org/eno_int_musician-may83.html

Excepts from Texas Flood, biography of SRV:
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/stevie-ray-vaughan-biography-texas-flood-excerpt-863263/ 

“Bowie Beyond” Interview, Live! Magazine, March 1993
https://allthenobodyppl.tumblr.com/post/143136979811/chromesarus-beyond-bowie-by-steve-pond/amp 

“I’m Hungry for Reality” Interview, Uncut Magazine, 1999
https://www.uncut.co.uk/features/david-bowie-i-m-hungry-for-reality-part-3-27227/