Justin Smallbridge: Happy Birthday, Bowie. And welcome back.

justin_Smallbridge_headshot_01On January 8, David Robert Jones of Brixton turned 66 and released another record. It’s Bowie’s first in a decade. Still the oddball contrarian he’s always been, gearing back up right at the point when it’s conventionally expected people might retire, quit or slow down.

The new song is “Where Are We Now?” It’s an elegiac reverie that walks a beat of Bowie’s haunts in Berlin — presumably from his time there from 1976 through 1979, which yielded Heroes, The Lodger and Low as well as Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust For Life, (Bowie produced and played keyboards).

In the video, Bowie is one head on a vaguely creepy two-headed teddy bear of some kind. (The other head is Jaqueline Humphries, partner of video director Tony Oursler.)

The album the single is from, The Next Day, has been written and recorded over the last two years, in a series of New York studios in great secrecy, says producer and sometime bassist Tony Visconti. He says the single is not typical of the record, though. It’s supposed to sound vulnerable, whereas other numbers are louder and faster and more assertive. The Next Day is bowie babyscheduled for release March release, containing 17 out of the 29 tracks Bowie and his confederates recorded over the past two years. A Bouncing Baby Bowie

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Now that he can talk about it, Visconti has told various scribes (Rolling Stone, The Guardian) that he thought Bowie probably wouldn’t do any more recording, especially since Bowie had led him to believe he wasn’t writing anything. (When it came time to cut the tracks, though, he’d already recorded pretty thorough demos — multiple instruments and vocals — at home.)

He has kept a pretty low profile since suffering a massive heart attack and undergoing emergency cardiac surgery in 2004. He’d turn up every now and again, of course, most famously and hilariously as himself in the second episode of the second season of Ricky Gervais’s television show Extras. This number will likely not be on The Next Day, though I wish it were. It’s not pure Bowie, of course. He wrote the music and played the piano, but Gervais and his collaborator Stephen Merchant (the tall guy with the glasses at the beginning of this clip. “You paid sixty quid to go in there? You should’ve let me negotiate that.”) wrote the words.

Bowie’s finally appearing on with Ricky Gervais was probably inevitable, given how Gervais revered him, even if that reverence did sometimes take strange forms, like this Gervais/Merchant one-off, “Golden Years.” In addition to the visual comedy, please appreciate Gervais’s Bowie mimicry later in the clip.

It’s fitting, though, that Bowie would emerge from his quiet life of being a father to his and Iman’s daughter Alexandria to be on a TV show. He got into Ziggyrock and roll as an actor, as he’s said more than a few times, initially trying to act like a Caucasian English Little Richard at the age of eight. There’s always been a lot of theatricality to his shows as well. Back in the 1970s, when people considered how theater and popular music were melding — some loved it, others were suspicious, feeling it was somehow artificial and compromised something more “genuine” — Bowie was always cited for both the defense and the prosecution. Theatricality is also one of the Alladin Sanereasons he kept adopting new personae. Following the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, he complained about not being able to keep himself and the character straight. So he retired Ziggy and moved on to Aladdin Sane and a record written in the United States of America, which he’d been fascinated with since childhood — way back to 1965, when he adopted the surname of a Kentucky knife-fighter who died at the Alamo in the Texas revolution. Some English critics called the record “Ziggy Goes To America.”

That’s a snippet from an extravaganza shot over three days at London’s  Marquee Club in October of 1973 for The Midnight Special called The 1980 Floor Show (a pun on 1984), which included numbers from Aladdin Sane as well as Pinups and early versions of some Diamond Dogs material. But the futuristic final product wasn’t an easy thing to put together. All that theatricality has to be rehearsed, then shot and edited. The process of putting it together, however, can be less than thrilling.

Performance and pretending to be something else are also a great way to maintain mystique, which always seemed to be at least a third of Bowie’s thing, as this Aan Yentob documentary proved further to me as an impressionable 15-year-old watching Cracked Actor, in England in 1975.

Not long after, things got even blurrier, when Bowie was Thomas Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.

bowie - younger modBy this point, he was well into his “plastic soul”/ Thin White Duke phase — the depths of severe cocaine addiction and a subsequent battle with the bottle. Even through all that, however, the records were always terrific. Bowie knew how to write a song, and always had an exceptional guitarist as a lieutenant. The first part of his career it was Mick Ronson, then Carlos Alomar, then Alomar and Earl Slick (whose work is a key element of The Next Day). And for a good portion of the 1980s, there was Peter Frampton, whose father Owen ran the Bromley Technical School Bowie attended as a child.

Like Hall & Oates, Bowie had his biggest commercial success in the 1980s with music that, while fine, didn’t seem as interesting — to me, at least — as the work during the 1970s.

bowie sound+visionThen it’s 1990, and Bowie launches the Sound+Vision tour to support the Ryko box set and EMI/Ryko album reissues. He has a kick-off press conference in London to announce his intention to retire the songs once the tour is finished. Somebody asks him if he’s “cashing in.” Bowie, somewhat perturbed, disputes this. (It’s right at the end of this clip.) Cashing in

The tour starts off in Quebec, and three days later it’s at Toronto’s SkyDome. The entertainment reporter for the 11:00 o’clock news at Toronto’s CBC affiliate is assigned to “cover” the event. Because it’s a Concert Productions International show, the drill is the same as all their other arena events: reporters (who are redundant in this scenario anyway, except as possible gear-mules and cable-pullers, depending on union rules) and videographers are kept in a kind of holding pen, rushed out the sound desk, where they are handed XLR cables t plug into their cameras. The level is always — without fail — way too hot. I was lucky enough to work with shooters who knew that and always packed 10 and 20 dB line attenuators to knock the signal down to a usable level. As soon as you’re plugged in, you are allowed to shoot for about two minutes. Not a whole song, of course, only the beginning of the first number. I guess that was to discourage the brisk, nonexistent trade in bootlegged concert video. Because the shooter is working from well back in the hall, he or she has to use a tripod, because the camera is zoomed in to its maximum to get anything at all. And then the plug is pulled and the electronic media gaggle is herded out of the venue.

bowie-currentNow it is expected they will provide something for the newscast. Citytv always just went with a voiceover/soundbite combo as part of a larger wrap consisting of several items. The good ol’ Canadian Broadcorping Castration expected more. (Please excuse me for not being able to provide the video of this. I was not very good at hanging on to my work at that point. Now, of course, I have boxes of moldering VHS tapes of old TV newscasts.) Because I knew we had tape of that news conference and Bowie denying he was cashing in, I figured why not have some fun with his declaring that a tour to sell his back catalogue a second time somehow didn’t count as “cashing in.” So, we put together a package that includes the concert footage, the clip from the press conference, points out the reissue program and as part of the script, I say something like, “Oh, I get it, Bobo — it’s marketing for your back catalogue’s reissues, not cashing in at all. Big difference.”

COHLA couple of days later, my boss gets an ornery letter from one of CPI boss Michael Cohl’s lieutenants expressing CPI’s collective fury and outrage that an insignificant televised goofball such as myself would have the temerity, the cheek, the gall to refer to an artist of Mr. Bowie’s stature as “Bobo.” For having commited this crime, I was to be punished by being barred from covering any future CPI concerts. Yes, barred from a stupid ordeal that was labor-intensive and yielded little in the way of decent or worthwhile video. It just meant the videographers didn’t have me along when or if they covered CPI shows. And the CPI people never seemed to notice that we’d still occasionally put 20 or 30 seconds of whichever enormo-dome rock-and-roll spectacular they were mounting on the 11:00 o’clock news.

That CPI ban is one more thing I’m grateful to Mr. Bowie for. Thanks, Bobo.


Justin’s column appears here every 4th Friday

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS_ButtonJustin Smallbridge is, among other things, a writer, producer, broadcaster, voiceover artist and record collector.

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