OK, let’s get the monkey-boy, er I mean the elephant in the room out of the way right off the bat. This cover art is amongst the worst I’ve ever seen. The Rock Chick wandered in yesterday and said, “God that picture is freaky,” in an almost frightened voice. Bowie was a beautiful man, why he chose this cover art will just have to remain one of life’s mysteries. Please don’t judge this book by it’s cover. Now, on the with the post…
Last Monday, January 10th marked the sixth anniversary of rock n roll icon David Bowie’s passing. I’m still sad about that. Bowie was indeed a titan, a true rock star. His image can still be found everywhere. Every time there’s an art fair in town, whether it’s on the Plaza, Westport or Brookside, there are always works featuring Bowie’s visage. The most popular seems to be the image from the cover of Aladdin Sane, with the iconic blue/red lightning bolt drawn across Bowie’s face, his spiky hair deep orange. Bowie was a hero to all the misfits and outcasts. He sang from a real outsider’s point of view on songs like “Is There Life On Mars?” and “Changes.” He came out as bisexual when to do so could have ended his career. He blasted MTV in it’s early days for not featuring enough (or really any) black artists. Even though he’s gone I still see his face on t-shirts of young girls wandering Westport or painted on murals several stories tall. I can’t help but think, when I see people with Bowie shirts on, have they actually heard the music or is he just a symbol of something bigger?
I’m a huge Bowie fan. Now that he’s gone I look forward to his birthday, January 8th, every year as his team releases something new on or around that date annually. A few years ago it was the EP No Plan and last year it was the previously unreleased double-single, “Trying To Get To Heaven” with “Mother.” I will admit to you, I wasn’t always keenly watching for new Bowie releases. I grew up in the American midwest and frankly I was aware of Bowie but really knew very little about him. Our rock radio station (remember them?), KY102 would play select tracks. I remember hearing “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel” and “Changes.” I think they’d occasionally play “Heroes.” His most played track in Kansas City was probably his duet with Queen, “Under Pressure.” If Bowie ever came up in conversation it was sort of like Elton John at the time – he was maybe gay so you had to keep your distance. Ah, the insecurity of the adolescent male. I’d like to say I was cool even in junior high and I was early on the Bowie bandwagon and bought Low or Hunky Dory at an young age, but alas, my journey to Bowie was slow and likely to most of his true fans, very uncool indeed.
I’ve written before about the fact that most people end up making their first purchase of an artist whose been around a while by buying whatever is then current. For example, my first Stones LP was the (at the time) recently released Some Girls. My first Who album was Face Dances, which I think only I like, because the first single “You Better You Bet” was played constantly on KY102 at the time. I can’t even claim being so cool that I did that with David Bowie. When I was in junior high he came out with Scary Monsters. I’d like to tell you I jumped on his bandwagon at that point and bought that album. I liked the song “Ashes to Ashes,” who didn’t, but it was my brother who bought that record. And he’s 3 years younger than I am. Even Scary Monsters would be a cool LP to begin your Bowie journey on… nope, not me. I was holding out.
I waited to make my first tenuous step into Bowie’s music until I was in college. Yes, it was the song “Let’s Dance” that brought me into the fold. Let’s Dance came out in 1983 and I think it’s Bowie’s most commercially successful album. Even worse than admitting “Let’s Dance” was my real entry point for Bowie, I was really enticed by the amazing video that was in high rotation on MTV. I loved the line from that song, “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” After hearing “Modern Love” I broke down and bought the album which I’ll admit was a bit uneven but with Nile Rogers producing and on rhythm guitar and the then unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, you couldn’t go wrong. I know Let’s Dance was shamelessly pop-friendly and not hipster, avant garde like say, Lodger, but I don’t care. I remember a friend from high school, Brewster, who had ended up in Lubbock sending me a Bowie bumper sticker he bought at the Bowie concert from the ensuing tour entitled The Serious Moonlight Tour so it appears I wasn’t the only one on the bandwagon after Let’s Dance. I still have that sticker in a box somewhere. Everything I own is in a box somewhere these days.
At that point I went out and bought his greatest hits package, Changesonebowie figuring that was all I needed of Bowie. I was playing “Space Oddity” one rare sober Friday night and I remember the guy across the hall asking me “Why I was playing Sunday morning music on a Friday night?” It was one of my roommates Drew who plunged into Bowie at that point, leaving me behind. He brought home Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s masterwork, and I was at least moved to tape it onto cassette. That was the entire extent of my Bowie collection for the next fifteen years. I bought Tonight when it came out because I liked “Blue Jean.” But to me, it was a huge disappointment and I sold it quickly at the used record store. I was aware of the release in spring of ’87 of Never Let Me Down and the ensuing Glass Spider tour but I largely ignored it. After that Bowie retreated into his “side project” Tin Machine and floated out of my consciousness. In the 90s he went into this heavy electronic/industrial thing and even worked with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame. I had begun to think of Bowie as basically an artifact struggling for relevance. Although I loved the song, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” which was the only track that reached my ears during those days.
But then in 1999 something happened. I was listening to the radio and I heard a song “Thursday’s Child.” It was from a new album from Bowie, Hours… and I loved it. I know, another odd entry point back into Bowie, but I’m not a music snob. If a song hits my lower brain stem I’m in. Critics were lukewarm on the album, it was composed as a soundtrack for a video game and had a song with lyrics composed by a fan in a contest, but I really thought it was a return to his classic sound. It’s described in Wikipedia as the beginning of his “neoclassicist period,” whatever that means. It was only then, at the end of one millennium and the dawn of another that I plunged into Bowie. I went back and started buying all of his LPs, from The Man Who Sold The World up to Scary Monsters. I joyfully followed Bowie’s every twist and turn on that back catalog and that’s when I became a huge fan. I also realized how much I’d been missing out on… That newfound fandom was only solidified when Heathen came out in 2002. It’s an album everyone should own and it’s exactly the type of late-career type of LP B&V was founded on. He followed up with the brilliant Reality in 2003 and it was on that tour, that I finally joined my friend Brewster in actually seeing Bowie in concert. “Station To Station” was the highlight of the evening. The Rock Chick, sadly, was a bit baffled by the evening as she wasn’t as familiar with his stuff as I was… but marriage is a compromise.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I discovered there was an unknown chapter to that fruitful 1999 to 2003 period. Apparently jazzed with how his backing band had sounded on the tour for Hours, Bowie decided to head into the studio. He was excited to have a band honed on the road, doing live shows and he wanted to capture that. On that tour he had decided to start revisiting songs from his early pre-fame period when he was just a struggling Mod in London. They were playing various tracks on the tour like, “You’ve Got A Habit of Leaving.” Bowie’s plan was to hole up with his touring band, Mark Plati (multi-instrumentalist/producer), Earl Slick (guitar), Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), Mike Garson (keyboards), and Sterling Campbell (drummer) and record an introspective version of Pin Ups his 70s LPs of cover songs that I featured on my list, B&V’s Favorite Cover Albums: Singing Other People’s Songs. While he covered other artists on Pin Ups, on this new album Toy he was going to go back over 30 years and cover himself. The plan was to do a surprise release of the album which is common now but way ahead of its time in 2000 but that’s Bowie for you… a visionary. Apparently there wasn’t the technology available yet to go from studio to release in a matter of weeks. Unfortunately the record company wasn’t as excited about Bowie revisiting his early catalog as he was, they wanted an album of new songs, and they rejected Toy. Let me just say, I doubt the cover artwork helped any. The sessions did lead to Heathen…so there’s that.
As I mentioned, a decade later in 2011 Toy was leaked to the internet and became a widely bootlegged album. I don’t condone bootlegging but I won’t lie I’ve been an owner of a number of bootlegs since I was in college. I had a copy of Toy on a CD that I got from sources that shall remain hidden. While most Bowie aficionados look down on this record, I think it’s damn good music and a hell of a lot fun. A couple of tracks from Toy had been released as b-sides for Heathen so some of it had seen the light of day. I loved that it was Bowie singing passionately with a band that does sound road tested and rocking these old songs. It was modern and yet it had that mid-sixties mod energy. Listening I felt like everyone involved was wearing a suit with a parka and riding a scooter while taking pills. With titles like “I Dig Everything” you definitely get a sixties vibe which is nothing but a good thing.
Toy was finally released in last year’s box set Brilliant Adventures (1992 – 2001). The running order and track list was slightly altered from the 2011 bootleg but the sound is better and I think it’s an even better version of Toy. The day before his birthday, last Friday, Bowie released Toy as a box set of its own with the original LP, a disc of alternative versions and a third disc entitled Unplugged And Somewhat Slightly Electric. The original Toy is all rock and roll. He was right his band was really tight. The track I’ve been obsessed with since it came out as b-side is “Conversation Piece.” It’s a melancholy rumination from the eyes of a young person wondering if they’ll ever amount to anything or connect with anybody. I think it ranks amongst his best deep tracks. “I Dig Everything” is a ferocious rocker and the perfect opening track. “You’ve Got a Habit Of Leaving” is an elastic rock song. “Karma Man” is my current obsession as it wasn’t on the bootleg. “Shadow Man” is a beautiful ballad. Most these tracks just rock, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “Let Me Sleep Beside You” are prime examples. This isn’t Bowie setting new directions, this his him rocking out and gads, having a great time doing so.
The second disc, full of alternative versions, might be the bootleg versions I had in 2011 although I can’t be positive. It kicks off with “Liza Jane” a great bluesy, harmonica tune that I just love because well, everything I dig can be traced to the blues. I think this may just be a remastered version of the 60s original although the vocals sound 2000 to me. I’m like most people, I’m not familiar with Bowie’s pre-“Space Oddity” work so this is all a new treat to me. There’s also a track “In The Heat Of The Morning” that’s a solid rock tune that’s not on disc one. Disc two is interesting but it’s probably for obsessives like me who ruminate over different tempos and guitar parts.
Disc three, the Unplugged & Somewhat Slightly Electric disc, is as advertised, Bowie’s band playing the Toy tracks in a more stripped down fashion. I don’t know if this disc was recorded in 2000 or Plati, who produced all of this just went in and re-recorded the backing tracks behind Bowie’s vocals like they did for the “updated” version of Never Let Me Down a few years ago. I like the stripped down versions of the Toy material, it’s like a lost Unplugged concert that we never got to see or hear (not that these performances are live). If you like Toy you’ll dig the Unplugged versions on disc 3.
Once again Bowie has a birthday and he gives us the gift of his music. I really think Toy is worth checking out for any Bowie fan. Especially if you dig his latter day work like Heathen, Reality or even the great LP The Next Day. It stems from a great period for Bowie and he had a great inspiration trying to capture the magic that a great band delivered live in a studio. I highly recommend pouring a nice glass of wine and kicking back with Toy, you will be rewarded.