A Brief Word On David Bowie’s January Birthday Single, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”/”Mother”

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I like to pride myself on always being aware of when new music is coming out. Be it an actual brand new song or LP from a band or a “new” previously unreleased track from the vaults. I’m always looking for stray B-sides or soundtrack tunes. I’m typically a pretty focused “watcher on the wall.” Well, in rock n roll terms, anyway. There’s a lot that seems to get by me anymore but I digress. The only reason I got onto any social media platform in the first place was to follow the Stones. And that of course led to other bands. I quickly realized that news on new music and upcoming concert tours tends to drop on “the social media.” It became a great source of information. Beyond that, I even continue to read rock n roll magazines: Uncut, Rolling Stone (although God only knows why I still do), and Classic Rock to name but a few. But alas, every now and then something gets past me. A band will release an album, or more likely, a single and I don’t hear about it or more importantly hear the music until months later. That is exactly what happened to me this week.

I was doing some research for my post for this upcoming weekend. I tend to listen to stuff all week and write about it on weekends…I needed a hobby. I was out on Spotify doing this aforementioned research. I tend to use Spotify the way I used to use the file sharing sites. I use it to discover and check out new music – or more accurately stuff I’m unfamiliar with – and then go out and buy the stuff I like so the artist gets paid. Spotify is never my chosen music delivery mechanism, but it does serve a purpose. I was looking around my Spotify home page and I discovered this “For You” section. They had all these playlists out there creatively titled, “Daily Mix 1” or “Daily Mix 2.” Usually I blow past stuff like that. I’ll pick my own music, thank you. But I was intrigued at the division of the four or five playlists… they seemed well curated based on my and the Rock Chick’s varied tastes. I plunged into one and scanned the fifty songs… and to my surprise, the last track on one of the playlists was David Bowie, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven,” a Bob Dylan cover. After some quick research I discovered the song came out January 8th of this year, 2021, six months ago.

Since Bowie’s tragic passing, his estate started releasing stuff on his birthday, the aforementioned January 8th. In 2017 they released the EP No Plan, with tracks Bowie recorded for the play he was working on at the end, Lazarus. I thought they’d actually gotten away from doing the Bowie birthday release thing, now 5 years removed from his death. But, embarrassingly unbeknownst to me, Bowie’s estate released a single this year to celebrate his birthday. Now, in my defense, I was a little preoccupied on Bowie’s birthday this year with the aftermath of the armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. Perhaps I can forgive myself for missing the release of a song even if it is by one of my most beloved artists since traitorous rioters were occupying the U.S. Capitol…but this is not a political blog, we’re lovers here at B&V, not fighters.

As I’ve often mentioned, I dig a good cover song. It’s like a “two-for-one.” You get to groove on the artist singing the cover song and it takes you back to the original artist’s recording. It’s a layered experience. Over the course of his career Bowie wrote so many staggeringly great songs. But, he also always had impeccable taste in cover songs. He’s one of the artists who did an entire album of covers songs, Pin-Ups. On that album he covered great songs by the Who, the Pretty Things, Them (Van Morrison’s original band) and even threw in a track by Springsteen (“Growin’ Up”). As late in his career as 2002’s gem Heathen, Bowie covered Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You,” a track off Young’s debut LP. Bowie just always had a way of plucking out an obscure song and making it his own. On the 2003 follow-up Reality he did a couple of great cover songs by George Harrison (“Try Some Buy Some”) and Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers (“Pablo Picasso”). Those tracks were highlights on that album. I’m proud to say I saw Bowie on the Reality tour, a true highlight for me and the Rock Chick.

After discovering “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” on Spotify, I started looking to buy the track. It was then that I discovered the B-side was “Mother” a cover of the John Lennon track from Plastic Ono Band. I couldn’t help but think, a Dylan cover with a Lennon cover… bonus! I can not stop listening to these tracks. “Tryin’ To Get to Heaven” was originally done by Dylan on his 1997 album Time Out of Mind which was seen as a comeback for him. The album (and song) were produced by Daniel Lanois and has that Lanois rootsy, bluesy feel. Dylan’s voice is gravelly. The track starts off with piano and Dylan’s voice, punctuated with guitar. It’s a beautiful ballad on the album. Bowie’s version is much more “modern” sounding. It’s synth and drums with the guitar coming in later. Naturally Bowie’s vocal is smoother than Dylan’s. The guitar on this version is more alt sounding. It makes the track more muscular. Bowie totally captures the lonely wanderer vibe of the track. It’s more ethereal and more soaring than Dylan’s. I can’t believe this never got released.

The Lennon cover, “Mother” is probably one of Lennon’s most personal songs. He wrote it about the abandonment he felt at the loss of his mother when he was a teen and his father bolting the family prior to that. Lennon and Yoko Ono had been going to primal scream therapy prior to recording it and his vocals come across on the original as just that, both primal and screaming. He’s obviously exorcising a demon or two. Apparently Bowie recorded his version of the song for a 1998 Lennon tribute album that never came out. I’m a little stunned they left this one in the can this long as well. Bowie’s version doesn’t have that visceral pain that Lennon’s did but he does dig deep on the vocals. Again as on the other track Bowie’s vocals just seem more soaring. Bowie imbues the track with a beautiful strength. He does capture the pathos but with so much less pain than Lennon. There’s no screaming here but Bowie sings the shit out of this song. I was just stunned by the performance.

Here is a link to both tracks:

I searched for the 411 on these tracks – who played guitar, drums etc – but you can’t find any details out there. There were a number of announcement articles in the press which I apparently missed. I do believe that Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer for many of his greatest albums, produced “Mother.” I wish I knew more.

Hearing these two tracks makes me hope there’s even more in those Bowie vaults… I guess we’ll have to wait for next January 8th. These were a fitting birthday gift from Bowie, on his birthday, to all of us who loved him and miss him so much.

Cheers!

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