Monday, January 11, 2016

"You Promised Me The Ending Would Be Clear," or, "Thank you, Mister Bowie"

I'm not a big celebrity chaser or an idol worshiper. I don't build up an aura or mystique around famous artists and entertainers the way some do, but I do respect and admire those creators whose work inspire me. Because I'm not so invested, I guess I'm generally not as devastated when we lose figures from our cult of personality (though I do appreciate many of my friends were pretty broken up about Lemmy a few weeks ago). However, sometimes, just sometimes, a celebrity death really kicks me in the gut.

The first time I was really bummed about such a death was Kurt Vonnegut. I was HUGELY into his books at the time and while he was getting up in years and wasn't writing much anymore, the definitive realization that there would be no more books really stung. Plus he was such an interesting and fascinating fellow.

The most recent before today was Terry Pratchett, which was hard because I loved Pratchett's work at least as much if not more than Vonnegut. His was also massively influential to my own writing. It didn't hurt as hard as it could have because we knew he had been sick for a long time and that the end was coming. Plus I heard the news of his passing while my wife was in labour, so I really didn't have time to dwell on it.

Then came today.

A little background info first. In 1995 I was listening to mostly stuff I picked up going through my dad's old vinyl. Deep Purple, Queen, Three Dog Night, Jesus Christ Superstar for some reason. The newest album I owned was a cassette of Micheal Jackson's "Thriller."

My friends were mostly still into 80s hair metal and early-90s thrash metal, refusing to modernize to what the "cool kids" were listening to (Nirvana and Pearl Jam). I was far from the cool kids, and while I liked some of the metal, my friends were going farther and farther into dark growly stuff that just didn't do it for me.

I did have one friend who was into pretty much everything though, and he would constantly tape music videos off MuchMusic (the Canadian version of MTV). One day he introduced me to David Bowie's new song "Heart's Filthy Lesson." We only picked up on it at first because we misheard the line "I am already" as "I am a Reggie" which we thought was HILARIOUS. We watched/listened to the song over and over cracking ourselves up, until I eventually realized "Wait a minute, I really like that song."

I actually went out and bought the CD that the song appeared on, "Outside," which was one of the first CDs I ever bought, and probably the first album of new music (previous CDs were Queen and Deep Purple Greatest Hits records).

It came in a cardboard sleeve instead of a jewel case.
Bowie was so avant-garde.
"Outside" may not be remembered as one of Bowie's best or most famous albums, but 15-year old me LOVED IT (35 year-old me does, too). It was another of his concept albums, set in "futuristic" 1999 where Bowie played "Detective Academic" Nathan Adler, a PI investigating the murder case of a 15-year old prostitute. Technically, the full description was "The Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle," and the liner notes had some twisted and messed up artwork to accompany the weird and haunting story of Nathan's case.

More important than the off-the-wall concept was the music. "Hallo Spaceboy," "Heart's Filthy Lesson," "I Have Not Been to Oxford Town" and "Strangers When We Met" are still some of my favourite songs, period. The rest of the songs, between the weird dramatic segues, are also great. For those who aren't familiar, "Outside" came out during Bowie's period when he was hanging out with peak-form Trent Reznor, and Reznor's industrial influence was massively apparent on the record.

This new style of music blew my mind. I had heard of Reznor before but had never really given him a chance (my friends weren't into it - such is the power of peer pressure). Filtered through Bowie, however, I was immediately hooked. This led me to Nine Inch Nails, as well as Marilyn Manson, Tool, Linkin Park and Korn. He also led me back to the guys who influenced Reznor, like Joy Division/New Order, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, Depeche Mode and, of course, Bowie himself. For those who know me, THOSE are the bands who defined and shaped my teens and early adult years. Hell, in  the case of Reznor and Maynard James Keenan of Tool, some of those guys are STILL making music I love.

Marilyn Manson still makes music, too.
It's the music that helped make me who I am. It's the music I listened to when I was an angry young man. It's the music I listen to as a perturbed suburban dad. It's the music I listen to when I write. It influenced me just as much as Vonnegut or Pratchett. And it can all be traced back to Bowie.

(Then there's Labyrinth, which was a very special movie to my wife and I during our early courtship. Bowie's finger prints are all over my life.)

So yeah, David Bowie had a massive influence on me, and the shocking news of his death this morning really hit me hard. I had literally just downloaded his new album "Blackstar" just twenty minutes before I heard. It's heart-wrenching. This may be the last new Bowie music we ever hear. I say "may be" because if there's other material out there somewhere it will eventually see the light of day. We all remember how Johnny Cash's exceptional final album "American IV" was followed with several posthumous releases of diminishing quality.

In the case of Bowie, I kinda hope there isn't any more. If there was additional music out there that Bowie wanted us to hear, he would have put it on "Blackstar," or his previous record "The Next Day" (which was really, really good, by the way).

Though if I had to pick just one, 1997's Earthling is probably my top Bowie album.
Back in 2003 when he released "Reality," he thought that may have been his final album, and the last track "Bring Me the Disco King" would have been a perfect coda to his career. That was not an accident. I'm sure he knew (or very strongly suspected) that "Blackstar" was going to be his last, so whatever note he wanted to end on, hopefully he chose it. Judging by "I Can't Give Everything Away," the last song on "Blackstar," I think he ended it exactly the way he intended to.

Thank you, David Robert Jones, for giving us everything you did.

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal sons
The blackout's hearts with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That's the message that I sent

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

I can't give everything
I can't give everything
I can't give everything

- David Bowie, "I Can't Give Everything Away"

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