Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Singing Dead

While watching a herd of zombies go by, you see an old friend shambling and moaning among them, and you say, “Hey! You’re still here?”

Henry Rollins sorta-kinda reviews David Bowie’s latest album in his LA Weekly column. I say “ sorta-kinda” because he doesn’t speak of individual tracks. Rollins was mostly struck by the impression of “defeatist bullshit” he got from the album art, which is the cover of Bowie’s 1977 classic “Heroes” with a large square cut out of the middle, the word “Heroes” crossed out at the top, and “The Next Day” printed in the white space of the cutout square. 

The closest he gets to talking about the music is here:

The Next Day has a studious emptiness to it that reminds me of 2003’s Reality. It is musically dense and lyrically dark, but lacks the cool distance of Heathen. The production is solid to the point of being uninteresting. The songs are so competently tracked, it sounds like no one in the band has ever met. There is an after-the fact feel to this album that I have heard on later albums by The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. They are all great artists, but their records often sound like they are just putting in time at the mill.
Bowie has ceased to risk injury and now issues albums, however sporadic, from a safe place. That being said, The Next Day is definitely worth checking out.

There is a wealth of issues in the above passage I would like to address. First, and with all respect to Mr. Rollins, the only reason to check out Bowie’s new album is to find the One Song worth keeping. If it’s there, that is. Unless you have multiple sources of income like Mr. Rollins you’re best advised to find a stream of the album, find the miracle, then download that one and only song.

Heathen and Reality were notable only for the miraculous existence of one “keeper” song on each. Heathen had Bowie’s cover of The Pixie’s “Cactus,” and Bowie’s driving arrangement and powerful voice (poor Black Francis never had a chance) makes Bowie’s the definitive version. Reality had the pounding, rhythmic hook and catchy sing-along chorus of “New Killer Star”

The rest is forgettable. Not the kind of stuff that makes you leap from the couch screaming to get that abomination off your speakers. You want to like these songs. You hear what might be a promising hook. 

We never make ignition, though. “No life, no gamble,” as the Great Bukowski observed of mediocre literature, and hold that thought. These songs are inert matter. You don’t hate them. But it’s nothing you want to sit through again. Life is short, and this thing actually sucked a little of it out of you for wasting your time, not even being worthy of hate.

“Bowie has ceased to risk injury and now issues albums, however sporadic, from a safe place.” Again, with respect to Mr. Rollins, that’s not it. I don’t hear anyone risking metaphorical injury on Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane when Bowie was at his peak, and certainly not on the fabled Berlin trilogy, which to me was a nice, if spotty postscript to a run of solid albums from Hunky Dory to Station to Station.

It’s the songs. It drives me insane with frustration that people don’t recognize this. It was the primary lesson the Beatles taught us. The Beatles would have faded with their own fashion if all they had was haircuts and boots and collarless suits. None of them were virtuoso musicians. Whatever edginess they had came from reaching into the past for musical ideas, such as the major 6th chord that they ended “She Loves You” on, which producer George Martin initially derided as “too Andrews Sisters” and asked them to leave off. 

But they kept that musical anachronism in service of the song. And it worked, not for its own sake, but because “She Loves You” was a great song. One great song out of many. Thank goodness the Beatles quit when they did. Which, by the way, is the second lesson we get from them. If they had stayed together throughout the 1970s and beyond, the quality would have suffered.

There comes a point that, no matter what your level of genius and creativity are, you run out of juice. We don’t like to admit this but it’s true. David Bowie’s music doesn’t suffer because he doesn’t “take chances,” whatever that means. It’s not the production being so “solid to the point of being uninteresting.” I’m not the least bit interested in the production of “Rebel, Rebel” on Diamond Dogs or anything else I dig. It’s the hook, the groove, the roar of blood—the artist’s and yours—in the ears you can only get from the songs. Bowie’s later albums suffer because he doesn’t have anything as cool as “TVC 15” or “Suffragette City” to work with. He ain’t writin’ ‘em like that anymore. He can’t. 

I have a modest proposal: let’s see if we can get a satellite radio channel for our old heroes. We’ll call it Not Dark Yet after the 1997 Bob Dylan song. (”It’s not dark yet/But it’s getting there.”) It’ll play all the tracks from after the sell-by dates of the artists, which should be a fun game all to itself. For instance, do we start playing McCartney post-1986 or post 1980? Did the Rolling Stones cease to be relevant after 1981’s Tattoo You or 1989’s Steel Wheels?

Rock stars in their prime are on fire. Once the creative
mojo runs out, they’re no more than ashen husks
walking without the sense to fall down.
We’ll have all the latest by McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, the Cars, Steve Miller, Devo, with the modern Frankensteinian reconstitutions of Lynyrd Skynyrd and suchlike to fill things out. We can listen to this with the same sort of duty we have when we visit our aging relatives at the rest home.

And when we click it off—because no one can do this all day, if for a half-hour—we’ll swear to ourselves we’ll never let this happen to us. To become an empty shell beneath time-shriveled skin cranking out stuff that sounds like us, but isn’t. Because at one time we were alive, we couldn’t help but strike sparks when our fingers took to our chosen instrument. But to live and breathe and to not strike those can’t help wondering if the unlucky ones who succumbed to overdose, murder or suicide were that unlucky. 

Entropy is a fact of existence; everyone of us is born to grow old and die. It’s that long, slow fade before the end we’ve yet to deal with. Bowie is finished. So is Paul McCartney. So are Sir Mick and the Stones. They simply haven’t gotten around to dying yet. Which makes listening to them play really awkward. My point is we should acknowledge that.

If we really want to depress ourselves, let’s ask ourselves the question the Great Bukowski asked in regard to himself and Hemingway: Where are the replacements? 

Apocalypse? Youre soaking in it.

This is one of the standout tracks from what may as well have been Bob Dylan’s last album, as far as I’m concerned. The sentiments expressed in the song articulate the general theme of 1997’s Time Out of Mind — and, most conveniently, this post.