Cameron Carpenter: Past & Present Tens – The Man Who Souled My World
Last Friday a small group of us were working on our laptops in the board room of the Indie Week offices when someone suggested a little music might be nice. I leapt into action and put on my Bowie playlist as it was his 69th birthday. I was thrilled when one of the “kids” recognized the opening notes of “Blackstar” and stated how much she liked Bowie. The playlist is 40 songs long and as various songs from different eras came on someone would ask if the song was an old one or a new one. I thought that was interesting and said something about the timelessness of some of his songs.
On Saturday morning, when I walked over to the Balmy Beach Club to watch football with the Arsenal Breakfast Club, I had my iPod on and was once again listening to the last few songs on the Bowie playlist. I decided somewhere on the boardwalk that this week’s column would be ten unique Bowie songs and some thoughts on the two videos from his album “Blackstar” which was released last Friday. It always feels good when I come up with my topic with four or five days to spare. Arsenal won their match and all was well with the world.
Most of the world found out that David Bowie died when they readied for work on Monday morning. Wendi broke the news to me just before 7.30 AM and I am glad that I heard the news directly from a loved one rather than seeing it on-line. Anyone who knows me knows my love for Bowie. If you asked me my favourite artist at any point over the course of the last forty years the answer would inevitably be David Bowie.
“Ziggy Stardust” was released in 1973 when I was the impressionable age of thirteen. The cool kids at high school already knew Bowie by his albums “Hunky Dory” and “The Man Who Sold The World” but Ziggy rocked a little and opened the door for me. I still remember the early adopters at school; Graham, Thom, Sue, Lynn, Jennifer, Wendy, we became a little clique and discussed all things Bowie, saw and discussed his shows at The O’Keefe Centre and Maple Leaf Gardens and read every article in Creem. When a new album was released, be it “Aladdin Sane”, “Pin Ups”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Young Americans”. “Station to Station” (imagine this – all released during my high school years), we would dissect every song, every picture, every rumour. If Bowie worked with or acknowledged Iggy or Lou or Dana Gillespie, we would rush out and buy those albums. Bowie smoked French cigarettes? We hunted them down and smoked them too. No Export A’s for this lot. Mick Ronson releasing solo records? We bought them. For the most part there were no videos of his songs and the only time you got to watch him sing was on television or on tour. We still remember those late night performances on The Midnight Special or the quirky performances on The Dick Cavett Show, American Bandstand and Soul Train. We were stunned (and proud) when he wore a dress on Saturday Night Live or when he introduced the rest of the world to Klaus Nomi. These were magic moments for this teenage boy. He was going to play keyboards on an Iggy tour? Off we trekked to Seneca College to watch.
I was faithful to David my entire life. When he had, what I like to refer to in retrospect as his “Born In The U.S.A.” moment with “Let’s Dance” (early Bruce and Bowie fans, ok snobs, will know what I am saying), we were there at the CNE under the serious moonlight with tens of thousands of new fans because he was ours. We were rewarded when Mick Ronson came out for the encore and played “Jean Genie”, one of the last times they were on stage together, and we knew how monumental that was.
On September 20, 1995 a lifelong dream came true. Bowie was playing “The SkyTent” at The SkyDome with Nine Inch Nails. Sue and I were going and early in the day I got a call from Bill Banham at Virgin Records and was told to be at the Hard Rock Cafe at 6 PM. I assumed it was for a pre-show drink (of course it was) but then Bill came over and said the two of us were going to the meet’n’greet. We really should not have been invited as it was for retailers and Virgin staffers but Bill knew what huge fans we were and wanted us to meet our idol. David went through the receiving line of the seventeen people but spent a minute or two with each of us and truly engaged us in a conversation. He shook our hands, Sue may have leaned in for a kiss, looked us in the eye, and talked. When it was time for the group photo he stood alone in the middle until he asked if someone was going to stand beside him and Sue dutifully shuffled over to fill the void. David smiled, looked down and said “I like your boots luv”. It was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
Two years later we managed to get tickets for the two shows at The Warehouse (Kool Haus) in Toronto, very intimate, for the “Everything” tour. He encored that night with “All the Young Dudes” which I had never heard him perform live and also played Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”. The set list was fantastic and it was one of the best shows I ever saw him perform. We were asked to stick around after the show and were once again were introduced to David, this time in a much smaller group. We talked for a good five minutes and David was very relaxed and I think we had more of an audience with him as we were with our mutual friend Raymond Perkins from Roots. Raymond and I would somehow have side stage access when Bowie played the “Area:One” tour with Moby, OutKast, and others, outdoors in the parking lot of The Docks in 2001.
Things quieted in the mid-2000’s as David had health issues and we all hoped that someday he may do one final tour. On January 8, 2013 (his 66th birthday) we awoke to the brand new Bowie single “Where Are We Now?” and the news that a brand new studio album “The Next Day” would be released that March. It was released and it was surprisingly good. In 2014 a triple-CD compilation was released entitled “Nothing Has Changed”. It was an interesting package with some different mixes of singles, a few unreleased rarities and a stunning new song “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” which was like nothing he had ever recorded. Unbeknownst to us that song was setting up the “Blackstar” album, on which he re-recorded the track.
I raved about the song “Blackstar” in my last DBAWIS column of 2015 and now the song and the album have become a much more important milestone in my life. I could keep writing for days about Bowie but right now I want to sit back and listen to some of his music. Here are ten Bowie songs that I will always cherish. Luv on ya David.
1. “Lazarus” (Blackstar)
The last video he ever shot. Released last week. All the clues are there. Haunting and so very difficult to now watch. Verse one: “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”. Verse two: “Look up here, man, I’m in danger, I’ve got nothing left to lose”. Verse three: “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird, now ain’t that just me”. Sure is.
The first time I heard the song the lyric that jumped out to me was “Something happened on the day he died. Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside”. I don’t know why but that line just jumped out to me. I didn’t know what to make of the video, but, that was the case with most Bowie vids. They were pieces of art that I would let the intellectuals deciminate. I am actually pretty happy that there are not a lot of videos from the seventies and eighties of the Bowie songs I really loved as they would forever change my perspective of those songs. The Pre-MTV world will understand this.
3.”Station to Station” (Station to Station)
The “Isolar” tour came to Toronto twice. The first Maple Leaf Gardens show was February 26, 1976 and the second was May 1, 1978. I was at both. I seem to recall the first show opened with the house lights still on and the band slowly grouping on stage as the sounds of “Station to Station” slowly grew from a whisper to a roar. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love”. The perfect 10 minute walking song.
4.”Heroes” – (Heroes)
The second “Isolar” tour once again opened with the house lights on but this time it was “Heroes” that opened the show and that caused panic around the concession stands as it was pretty obvious Bowie was on stage and the show had started. My fauvorite version of the song is “Helden” on which Bowie sings the song in German. There is something about that song and that language that are a perfect match. I also own the 7″ where Bowie ‘chante en francais’. It is an interesting take but not as strident as the German single.
5.“Aladdin Sane” – (Aladdin Sane)
Such a fantastic album and one of the most iconic LP covers ever. For me this song is all about the piano solo by Mike Garson. Stunning and unique.
6.”Life on Mars” – (Hunky Dory)
Bowie was really starting to hit his lyrical and musical stride on “Hunky Dory”. This song was the shape of things to come. I loved what Jessica Lange did with the song in “American Horror Story”.
7.”What In The World” – (Low)
Like every new Bowie album “Low” confused the hell out of me when it was first released. It took a while but this album grew on me, so much so that it would now be on my Top 3 Bowie desert island discs.
8.”The Width of a Circle” – (The Man Who Sold the World)
Bowie could always write eight or nine minute epics that were like short stories and after hearing them you still wanted to hear more. This was one of them.
9.”I’m Afraid of Americans” – (Earthling)
A song which was inspired when Bowie saw a McDonalds in Java. He was knee-deep in his Nine Inch Nails phase here and you can sense Trent all over this track.
10.”It Ain’t Easy” – (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars)
The album that started the ball rolling for me and a song that didn’t effect me back in the seventies but, maybe because it wasn’t played to death, still resonates with me now.
I have barely scratched the surface here and I feel there is a very good chance there will be a few more Bowie-themed columns in the future.
My thoughts go out to Iman, Duncan, Alexandria and Angie. We lost an idol, they lost a father and a husband.
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Cameron Carpenter has written for The New Music Magazine, Music Express, The Asylum, The Varsity, The Eye Opener, The New Edition, Shades, Bomp!, Driven Magazine, FYI Music News, The Daily XY, New Canadian Music, NXNE Magazine and Don’t Believe A Word I Say.