Song Of The Day 1/12/2016: David Bowie – “Changes”


It didn't look like any of the other records in the rock bins.

The sleeves in the front of the bins in the one-aisle record department at Payless Drugs, holding the records that were purportedly the most popular, were all fairly busy. The most mainstream hard and progressive rock titles were there. A couple of soft rock titles too. The hard rock titles had logos with sharp corners, plastered upon scenes that conveyed some kind of great seismic, electrical or astrophysical catalyst or catastrophe. Like a UFO landing or taking off. The soft rock covers usually had portraits of the artist in a natural setting, slathered in earth tones representing the earthiness of the artist's earth-walks, or the implied approach of a killer state of calm. If a cover consisted simply of a portrait, then the object would usually be putting forth some kind of attitude beyond respite. A smile or a leer, or maybe some guy caught jumping in midair.

That was the dynamic at work in mainstream rock at the time: power, comfort or both. You were either going to build a spaceport or melt on the sofa with some chardonnay. Or blow up a kettle drum then relax with some weed. Rock and roll had figured out its trajectory, found a niche, and figured out its purpose. Vacillation, while not outright rejected, wasn't what Mom would have advised.

Ambiguity and confusion, naturally, were unstable intangibles, not part of the rock dynamic at all.

But this cover didn't seem to be trying to say anything: a glamor shot, like a '40s Hollywood head shot, of a man in thoughtful repose. The cover of Changesonebowie betrayed little about the man in focus, except something was obviously on his mind. It could have been a timeline of the Fluxus art movement and the dossiers of its prime contributors. It could have been the dinner menu.

That fascinated me. At my age, considering the restrictive, lightly paranoid nature of my religious upbringing, it probably scared me a little. I didn't know what to make of it. And what was the problem he had with spacing between words?

I can't say for certain what was the first David Bowie song I ever heard. Since it was the shiny heyday of Top 40 radio, I assume it was one of the songs of his that managed to scrape into the charts, so most likely it was "Fame," possibly "Golden Years." (There's a slim chance it was "Young Americans.") When we think of the American Top 40 of the time, we associate it with certain predefined styles or routines. That might not be completely accurate, but our avenues of discovery were much slower and more rigid at the time. Only songs that smothered our most accessible pleasure centers, emotional processes or animalism got to the top.

There was something different about "Fame" and "Golden Years." The former had a certain catch to it, a funk riff so hard and direct even James Brown lifted it beat for beat. (James Brown. The guy who invented this stuff, who worked harder than anyone in show business — he felt he needed to borrow this riff?*) Guitar riffs dissolve into harmonica-like alarms. The drawling title, sung in a single descending tone, answered by a high, mocking echo (turns out it's John Lennon). The backbone of the song seems to be anger or petulance or both, and the final tape-speed singing of "Fame" over and over just brings the alien quality to the fore. "Golden Years" was only slightly more normal, with another wicked guitar riff, but a conspicuously sedate version of the Four Freshmen contributing askew background commentary and telling me to do things like "run for the shadows."

By the time I was able to recognize David Bowie as the force behind those songs I decided to wait for more approved information to figure out what I was going to do with him. Sounds silly looking back on all he was and what he'd accomplish, but I was nine or something at the time. I'd just wait to see further information and make a decision on course of action then.

That would bring us to a 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Martin Sheen. David Bowie is musical guest. He starts with "The Man Who Sold the World." Bowie, wearing an extravagantly angled, art-deco citing top, is carried onto the stage by two mean in sensible dresses. The disembodiment is palpable. Later Bowie reappears in a neat, practical-looking, snugly fit dress, the kind Katharine Hepburn would wear in a movie where she's trying to get something accomplished and the men who surround her are being unreasonably doltish. Bowie's background singers (one of them Klaus Nomi) move robotically and take turns overseeing a plastic poodle on a leash. "TVC 15" is the song they do. It's about an object the singer can't live without. What a "TVC 15" actually is has never been explained.

The performance of "Boys Keep Swinging" is the most jarring, one of the boyhood television experiences that's indelibly burned into my head. Bowie himself is not onstage: He and his microphone are superimposed via video chicanery to look like they're centerstage. This is necessary because the image is only Bowie's head stuck on top of the body of a marionette, which carouses and swings wildly throughout the performance. I don't know how they did this in 1979.

The years between 1979 and 1983, for me, were years when I began to discover things I didn't know you were allowed to do in popular music. These things revealed themselves gradually over that period, climaxing with the release of Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones which effectively redefined everything I knew. It's entirely possible that it all started with this single performance on SNL — three set pieces, broadcasting to a snoozing or gently medicated Middle America, that might have been mocking the straight world's expectations of what to expect from popular music… but, curiously, hoping they were having a good time watching it.

That's where it started. A couple of unconnected transmissions, unexplainable blips on the radar, inconsistencies on the stat sheet, how'd these get past quality control?

It'd eventually make sense.

To be continued.

(*The song in question was James Brown's "Hot," and the Godfather's appropriation of "Fame" could not possibly be more obvious. Allegedly Bowie's guitarist, Carlos Alomar, suggested Bowie sue Brown for plagiarism, but Bowie decided to wait and see if Brown's version became a hit before pursuing any litigation. It did not -- so Bowie did not. Somehow I wonder if Bowie had any interest in going up against Brown to begin with. Maybe, to him, it was a compliment.)

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