Ashes to Ashes (Bowie Remembered)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

 

 

Superheroes aren’t supposed to die…

David Bowie loved to surprise and shock people. Sadly, he saved his best for last as he passed on Sunday January 10, 2016 at the age of 69. No one saw it coming.

Everything he did in life was art. The way he looked, his elegant speech, videos, film, music…above all, the music. It makes sense that he would orchestrate his final exit to perfection and go out on top. And somehow, leave us smiling through the tears.

Born David Jones, Bowie entered the music business through the same portal as many other seminal British artists during the sixties; he attended art school and cultivated a passion for music. He paid his dues playing in R&B bands on the London club circuit. The Kingbees and The Manish Boys were among the more notable ensembles Bowie played in during that era.

 

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His recording career was going nowhere in particular until he released the epic single “A Space Oddity” in 1969 (five days before the Apollo moon mission). It became a hit single in Britain (and later in the U.S.). Although “A Space Oddity”” didn’t catapult him to worldwide stardom at that time, its success earned him the opportunity to make more records until he found his stride.

In 1971 he released “Hunky Dory”, arguably the finest album of his career. It was a gigantic leap forward from his previous album, the spirited but scruffy “The Man Who Sold the World” where Bowie grabbed the attention of the press by shooting the album cover lounging on a chaise in a dress. “Hunky Dory” yielded the classic rock evergreen “Changes”. The rest of the album is a masterclass in songwriting; ranging from the acid folk of “Andy Warhol”, to the Punk Glam snarl of “Queen Bitch”, to the dour S & M imagery of “The Bewley Brothers”. There was no filler, only brilliance. But, how could he possibly top himself?

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1972 saw the release of “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars”; an album that (in its own way) changed the world as much as Beatlemania. The Beatles only hinted at an androgynous parallel universe where the languages of art, love and lust were freely spoken. Now we had a painted, sequined poster boy who not only talked the talk, but came armed with classic tunes that could outlast the critics and the naysayers. Bowie made it OK for a man to wear makeup and look beautiful. Well, for a little while anyway.

“Hunky Dory”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” comprise one of the most potent trilogies by any artist in the history of Rock Music. 1974’s “Diamond Dogs” was brilliant but something had changed. Bowie dumped his faithful backing band and was clearly eager to jump into the artistic void.

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“Young Americans” used Philly soul to capture the ears of America. The album yielded Bowie’s first American chart topper “Fame” (co-written with John Lennon). With “Station to Station” Bowie entered a harrowing phase of drug abuse that saw him lose his memory and a significant portion of his body weight. Didn’t matter, Bowie was now an artist for the ages who couldn’t make an inconsequential album

Bowie had to rehab and reboot or snuff it. For Bowie, that meant taking his buddy Iggy Pop and moving to Berlin by The Wall. He did things like shop for his own food and wash his own laundry. The austere cold war environment inspired his second great trilogy of albums. “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger”. Bowie brought Art-Rock heavyweight Brian Eno in to collaborate and help him explore his inner Stockhausen. Never had such a commercially potent artist taken such a radically uncommercial detour. Bowie was reinvigorated, his muse was overhauled and ready to meet the challenge of the 80’s.

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Bowie was famous and successful. But, he had not yet achieved ubiquitous celebrity in America. That changed with “Let’s Dance”. It was a pure commercial dance record by design. Bowie brought in Chic hit maker Niles Rodgers as producer and introduced the world to an unknown guitar slinger by the name of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Massive hit singles “China Girl”, “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” pummeled the charts, radio and MTV. David Bowie owned the year of 1983.

Bowie would never scale those heights again. He still made good records. He also did some big tours and stayed ahead of the curve by selling shares in the David Bowie brand on the stock market. He also accurately predicted that streaming and file sharing would destroy the music business as we knew it. He did several films, live theater, raised a wonderful family and manfully followed Queen after their epic Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium.

People sometimes forget he was a good sax player. He did all the horn parts on his early albums. He was a one take wonder. Super producer Ken Scott rated him as the best studio singer he ever worked with. There were no bum takes on a David Bowie session. He wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople; and who can ever forget his duet with Freddie Mercury, “Under Pressure”?

He was also a heavy smoker. He packed up in later years, but who knows what damage had been done. He died of cancer far too soon. However, he remained trim, youthful and dapper to the very end. He died a dignified and peaceful death surrounded by family. Listen to his music and be amazed by the wonder of it all.

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Lost Treasures “Soul Mining (A Musical Life)” by Daniel Lanois (Book Review)

Reviewed by Dale Nickey:

Soul Mining (A Musical Life) by Daniel Lanois (2010)

Published by Faber and Faber

Daniel Lanois….the Ernest Hemingway of Rock and Roll. No…..well, not quite….um, oh I got it. Ernest Hemingway was the Daniel Lanois of literature. Yeah, that feels right.

I found ‘Soul Mining” at my favorite used book store. A shop called “The Five Dollar Bookstore”. However, in the case of paperbacks, we’re talkin’ three dollars. Three dollars for a peek into the rich pageant that has been (and continues to be) the life of Daniel Lanois.

For those of you out of the loop, Daniel Lanois is a French-Canadian artist/producer from the cold rural northern town of Hamilton. During Daniel’s childhood, Hamilton was civilization lite with a heavy connection to the land and the elements. After a wild untamed adolescence, Lanois became a full time musician and studio owner at the ripe old age of 17. He caught his first big break as a collaborator and producer with Brian Eno on the ambient classic “Apollo”; an album of music designed as a backdrop to the film footage of the manned Apollo moon expeditions. Soon after that, he was on to producing Peter GabrielU2 and Robbie Robertson and never looked back.

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Daniel Lanois has long been one of my musical heroes. Little did I know that “Soul Mining” would make him a personal hero as well. I wasn’t expecting to find profiles of courage in the book. I’m not talking about artistic courage; a laughable concept in a pre-apocalyptic, post-Fukashima world. I’m talking about real “staring down the face of death” courage. Courage is different than fearlessness. Courage is when you are ‘load your drawers’ terrified, but have the clarity and calm to make the right moves when your adrenal glands are messaging you to run like hell. Imagine disarming two crack-crazed home intruders with the offer of turkey soup and a friendly game of pool until observant neighbors and friends could summon the police. Such are the tight-rope walks a soul takes during the course of a life well lived.

I was just hoping to pick up a few production tips that I would likely never use, or a hot tip on a stomp box or echo machine. Oh, I got all that. But, I also got a lesson on life.  How our only regrets on our deathbed will be the dreams we didn’t pursue.

I was not expecting such rich narrative or descriptive prose from the musician/producer. I’m not sure why I should be surprised. One read of Daniel’s lyrics reveal him to be a deep and multi-layered writer. Knowledgeable about history and the applied science of sound as well as the mythologies of the Bible and Delta voodoo. But lyrics and poetry are to books, what the 100 meter dash is to the marathon. Someone who is a great sprinter is seldom a great distance runner and vice versa. Daniel Lanois turns that theory on its head and shows us there’s not much he can’t do.

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“Soul Mining” is an easy and rewarding read. Any point of entry works for the reader. It’s more episodic than novelistic. It’s OK to skip around. I did. But ultimately, you must read the whole thing to really get the full breath and expanse of the man and his muse. Daniel Lanois is testament to the adage, “there’s no such thing as a bad boy”. Raised by a single mother of four, Lanois was a handful as a kid (as most are). But, his reckless youth merely underscores the redemptive powers of music. Once Daniel and his brother Bob got to work in earnest on their basement studio and the religion of music started guiding their life decisions, Daniel began regular deposits to the karma bank that would pay rich dividends later in life.

Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, U2, Robbie Robertson, The Neville Brothers, Brian Eno, Scott Weiland…….No, it’s not a guest list for a R&R Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It’s the list of artists Lanois has produced. Every artist Lanois produces, he collaborates with. In essence, all of these artists made a Daniel Lanois album. So signature is his sound; and so eerie is his ability to guide super talents in mid-life doldrums to career defining heights. Lanois can claim credit for kick starting Dylan’s comback in the 80’s with his production of “Oh Mercy” and thus, the beginning the bard’s incredible third act heroics, which include his Lanois produced multi-Grammy winning masterpiece “Time Out Of Mind”.
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To call Lanois a producer/artist is to trivialize him. Lanois is a sonic explorer. That can mean building a New Orleans studio from scratch to capture the city’s wandering spirits for a Neville Brothers album, or risking life and limb traveling to the the rural wilderness of Mexico to hear the symphony of mission bells of Oaxaca. It could mean leasing an abandoned movie theater in Oxnard Ca. in order to create a comfy performance vibe for Willie Nelson. All the while, angels and spirits seem to travel with Daniel, saving him from catastrophes large and small.

“Soul Mining” is a manifesto to the nomadic, romantic soul of the artist. What did I learn from “Soul Mining”? I learned the past we make is often a collection of missed connections and chances not taken, but the future is as easy to change as our minds……

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R & R Hall Of Shame (Spotlight) – Brian Eno

You hear his music every day of your life. Eno composed the six second startup sound for Microsoft. Brian Eno started out in the early 70’s as a sound sculptor and keyboardist for Prog-Glam crossover band Roxy Music. He soon left to carve out his own unique and highly intellectual niche in the rock and roll firmament as a solo artist.  He used idiot energy, random cut and paste methodology (before computers), unorthodox production techniques and the best musicians of the day (Robert Fripp, Phil Collins, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Percy Jones, etc….).

In the mid-seventies, Eno crafted four totally left-field, free-radical solo rock albums that were eons ahead of their time. Then he went cold turkey on rock music and singlehandedly brought the word “Ambient” into the rock vernacular by releasing a string of pioneering and successful albums embracing the virtues of quiet, space and environment ie…”Music For Films”, “Discreet Music”, “Music For Airports”.  The ‘New Age’ genre and ‘The Wave’ radio format can be traced directly to Eno’s innovations in sound and compositional approach.  Eno co-wrote (with David Bowie)  the greatest Emo-rock anthem yet written “Heros”.  Oh yeah, he introduced Devo to the world by producing their first album.  Oh wait…..yeah… that’s right, he took the production helm for U2 at the precise moment they crossed over from standard issue arena rock gods to sociopolitical Mega-Stardom.  Produced Talking Heads during their most commercially and critically viable period.  However, Brenda Lee gets in first because…ah…well,….I don’t know why the fuck Brenda Lee got in! Eno is such an amorphous artist, it’s hard to post a definitive video or “live” performance in the traditional sense. He’s producer, writer, artist, collaborator, videographer and musicologist all rolled into one. However, the ambient instrumental “An Ending (Ascent)” is surely one of Eno’s most beautiful pieces of music. Here we have a remix version with a stunning video superimposed on top. Coolest thing I’ve seen or heard in quite a while.

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