Song Of The Day 1/14/2016: David Bowie – “Teenage Wildlife”


The music industry's stance on evolution was always tenuous. We've all heard stories of established artists wanting to try something new, only to have the A&R man make a quiet plea to just try this thing one more time, just like the last time. It was so successful, lots of people liked it, Dick Clark nodded his head and crude oil futures went up. New forms worked best when they were built in progressively, sometimes over the course of years. We didn't know when Barry White starting having hits with chardonnay grunts and extremely long titles in 1973 that what he was doing was "disco." But three years later that's what everybody called it, and it was a lot of fun, until the TNT went bonkers in Detroit and the Tigers had to forfeit the game.

Sudden changes, the ones that shifted empires at the base, were approached with extreme caution. Everyone wanted to make quick bucks off the Sex Pistols' year of tumult but nobody wanted to deal with the fall-out or the bans. The Ramones' first burst, commercially, was still somewhat self-contained. There were pockets of the world who were insane for them, but the mass populace still kept them at arm's length. They were on Sire Records anyway; it was their job to put all the weird stuff out. (Even if the Ramones were just Berry's basic rock and roll with louder guitars and psychological division.)

And even more suspect were artists who changed their methods entirely from project to project. Some Joni Mitchell fans felt snubbed when it became clear there wasn't going to be a sequel to Blue, or when she ran off to take care of Charles Mingus' last rites. Neil Young was so insolent in the '80s that Geffen sued him for not making commercial music. Newness and change are always dealt with circumspectly, I guess. Grace periods aren't cheap. The assembly lines are all set up; it'd just be a shame not to use them, wouldn't it?

A big storyline in the wake of David Bowie's passing was his routine change of character from album to album. England didn't have much of a problem with it, but America was more guarded. Ziggy Stardust wasn't an immediate mainstream smash in Middle America. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco got him, but you know how those cities are. Just when FM radio started to figure out Ziggy's deal and felt a little more confident about installing him on their playlist, he "retired." Then you had Aladdin Sane, the moony expatriate with night-vision goggles trained on America. Then whatever Bowie's character in the Orwell knock-off Diamond Dogs was — sort of a combination Truman Capote, Marcel Marceau and a Mummenschanz understudy.

Ziggy's trail was so immense that Bowie was saddled with the glam label for years, even after he stopped playing the music associated with it around the time of Diamond Dogs. The latter half of the '70s saw him in less extravagant poses. He warmed up with blue-eyed soul on Young Americans, then on Station to Station went with the Thin White Duke, very intentionally conceived as cooled-off, detached — kind of a prick, actually. All those years of hippie-driven self-reflection were giving way to the facile id-stroking of the late '70s. Bowie saw the onset of sleek artifice and superficiality. No way he's gonna let that start without comment.

To what extent Bowie was living those characters off-stage is something I always questioned. There had to be something of himself in all of them, and certainly the Ziggy character paralleled his rise to fame so closely that there had to be some line-crossing there. The subsequent characters threw people off their game a little. Information moved a lot more slowly then; the most agile of character-based artists didn't have that much space to set up their path, to explain their schemes directly or indirectly. Those who wanted answers bad enough could find them with a little work beyond the frontline media. Those who didn't have time thought Bowie was using gimmickry.

That's when Bowie went to Berlin for three albums with Brian Eno that seemed to both recharge and reset his artistry. Low broke everything in sweet pieces — the music took more of a block form, the lyrics were sparser and more elliptical, and on Side 2 he abandoned all pretense to rhythm and delved into straight ambient instrumentalism. "Heroes" did more of the same, although the title track might be his greatest song ever. (Currently, in the immediate post-mortem, it's his most popular song on Spotify.)

Then came the album that, for years, I claimed as my favorite Bowie album ever: Lodger. This was the straight songwriting feat of the Berlin albums, mainly back to verse-chorus-verse, with some frantic accents from global music and post-punk. The blurry cover showed Bowie smashed up against a pane of glass with an alarmed look on his face, like some punk in Central Park was getting tired of his changing all the time and decided to deck him. I liked Lodger a lot because, out of all the albums from his first ten to fifteen years of recording, it sounded the closest to who Bowie actually was, in flesh, blood and spine. Maybe it was because there were some songs that sounded like testaments: "Fantastic Voyage," which we heard the other, very dark night; "Move On" and "Look Back in Anger." No perceived affectation came along with Lodger, the character was drenched in static and fuzz. The guy didn't even have a name.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was the last Bowie album of his hallowed RCA era, with the hot-mess Pagliacci clown being the most famous representation from the project. The songs were all fall-out, hungover distress and, for the first time, cynicism. It wasn't that Bowie was going the misanthropy route — he could never do that — but it fumes with exhaustion and very polite impatience. The people David was watching were getting too separated from emotion, and their robotics weren't doing it for anybody, themselves especially. They're "so war-torn and resigned," and they might as well "throw camel shit on the wall." Some of them — like the kids in today's song — were asking David for answers. 'Cause he helped create the identity crises they were having by changing his identities all the damn time. Didn't he?

Let's take that up tomorrow.

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