JAIMIE VERNON – CHANGESONEBOWIE
and pulling some strings, angel”
Major Tom has left orbit for good. David Bowie’s indelible Aladdin Sane lightning bolt transfixed to our collective psyche and his audio imprint etched into turntables everywhere.
A true artist to the very end, Bowie may have orchestrated the ultimate album marketing strategy of all time with his unpreventable death coinciding with the release of his last studio album ‘Blackstar’. Much has been said already about the bread crumbs he left in the “Lazarus” song/video and, in fact, the lyrical themes on the whole album pointing like the Nazca Runway to his epitaph. He left nothing to chance. He curated his career to the bitter end which is brilliant when you think about it because it leaves nothing in the hands of people that would defame him (pun intended) for better or worse.
We all have a story. Social media capsized this past Monday following the news, overnight, that the Thin White Duke had stepped over. For once the planet was united in their reverence for an entertainer which shows how many lives Bowie has touched. So much love. So many memories – direct and indirect. When the Vatican releases a statement concerning your life and death you know you’ve gone beyond the realm of celebrity and into history.
My heart hurts for his family and his closest associates (if there could be such people in a world where being a chameleon was a lifestyle). I have many friends who had worked directly with the legend. Both Tony “Wild T” Springer and Emm Gryner had performed in Bowie’s touring bands; Carole Pope and Rough Trade opened the Canadian leg of Bowie’s ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour in 1983; Photographer John Rowlands, whose photography graces the pages of my Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia, took many iconic photos of Bowie and, in fact, his shot of Bowie as ‘The Archer’ was recently used to promote the touring exhibit ‘David Bowie Is’ over the last two years. The photograph was one of Bowie’s personal favourites.
I never met the man. Most of us never did. But lives were affected and changed by his uncompromising transitional art, sexuality, and artistic identity as a songwriter, musician, actor and painter. Bowie was Everyman. And no man. Twenty five studio albums. Twenty five musical identities. Your influential mileage may very depending on which album you heard first.
It was 1976. I was 12 and coming of age in my musical awakening. The Beatles had been re-catalogued with the release of ‘Rock And Roll Music’ that summer and raced back up the charts with “Got To Get You Into My Life”. But Bowie had beaten them to the Top20 by the spring of 1976 with “Golden Years”.. It had come quickly on the heels of the #1 hit “Fame”. I was aware enough to have bought both as 7” singles (still remember the B-sides: “Can You Hear Me” and “Right”, respectively).
My closest friend at the time, John Shuler, was more an album guy (though I recall him spinning the 7” single of the Elton/Sedaka duet “Bad Blood” until the neighbours complained) and was in possession of the modest EP length release ‘Station to Station’ which introduced me to soon-to-be essential Bowie classics “Golden Years”, “TVC15,” and the Washington/Tiomkin cover tune “Wild Is the Wind”. The whole record was memorable but seemed like and unfinished teaser.
Bowie’s label, RCA Records, were quick to satisfy fans by releasing Bowie’s first hits collection ‘ChangesOneBowie’ while “TVC15” was still on the charts in May 1976, effectively preventing it from being included on the album (it would also be left off Volume Two when RCA released ‘ChangesTwoBowie’ in 1981, instead choosing “Wild Is the Wind”).
The first hits collection was the album that stuck with me. It was my introduction to a very eclectic musician and featured the previously unreleased sax solo non-album track “John, I’m Only Dancing”. The album links me to my friend John and the summer of 1976 (though ‘Wings At the Speed of Sound’, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, and ‘A Night At The Opera’ would also be seminal).
When I met my first wife I found out she was a huge Bowie fan. Together we built a massive collection of Bowie vinyl. I’d buy her something rare and collectible on special occasions. Together we went to see him on the ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour at CNE Stadium in Toronto in the summer of 1983. When we divorced we split our collection of albums based on what we brought to the relationship. She got the entire collection. I fought for ‘ChangesOneBowie’ because it was the only one that had sentimental value to me.
Between those years I was growing a music career. Someone else who went to the Bowie show with us in 1983 was my band mate and Bullseye Records co-founder Simon Bedford-James. He ate British music for breakfast (what with being an ex-pat Brit himself). Everything I learned about Bowie came from him. It was one thing to own the albums it was another to get a formal education from Simon on what those albums represented. It was here I got the complete historical Bowie categorized and annotated. Bowie’s approach to his music would soon become the template for a lot of what I did musically from 1983 onward.
Our band, Moving Targetz, was playing the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album playlist in our live set from the start. I have a recording of a rehearsal in April 1983 (before I was a formal member of the band) doing “The Jean Genie”. As members came and went Simon and I continued adding tunes to our collective jukebox with the likes of “Wild Is the Wind”, “TVC15”, “Ziggy”, “Moonage Daydream”. “Rock and Roll Suicide” and eventually “China Girl” which was part of our live set right into mid-1985. The other tune that survived the most band incarnations was “Rebel Rebel”. Simon had the perfect voice for giving the songs the idiosyncratic approach that Bowie had applied to everything he did.
Time would crawl but my musical tastes, and personal interests mutated, and I found less interest in Bowie’s output on the back of far too many film soundtracks and albums like ‘Tonight’ and ‘Day In Day Out’ which only had brief moments of brilliance. It wasn’t until Bowie’s band project Tin Machine that I found a renewed enthusiasm. The ageing rocker was now treading the line between iconoclast and noise merchant. He had shed what many had declared his sell-out persona with EMI Records and was back in fine form agitating and challenging the masses. Look back in anger, indeed.
When I gave up on being in bands to focus on my record label, I finally had the freedom to record material I wanted to record with an eye to releasing a solo album. In 1999 we released a tribute to The Bay City Rollers entitled ‘Men In Plaid’. As a cheeky move I recorded Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” to include on the album. Why? Because the Rollers had recorded the song not once, but twice, and released them on two different album during their 13 album run. Who would have figured that Bowie had influenced the Bay City Rollers – especially given that they were contemporaries.
I finally put a solo album together in 2002. I revisited the Bowie recording and we beefed it up to sound more like the arrangement of “Rebel Rebel” I’d heard Bowie do on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. I’m proud of my version. Turns out I could do a decent Bowie impression as well having stood shoulder to shoulder with Simon all those years before. So much so, that the cover band I’ve been in and out of for the last 20 years added “Fame” to its set list in 1994 – which we still play to this day.
Wam, Bam. Thank you, Starman.
“In walked luck and you looked in time
Never look back, walk tall,
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon