Monday, January 25, 2016

“Trans/mission”: Deceased Artiste David Bowie (part 2 of three)

In the first part of this piece I focused on the aspect of Bowie's lyrics that I think made him a really fascinating figure, well beyond the normal pop-rock singer-songwriter – namely his obsession with loneliness and dystopias. In this part I want to talk about the wonderful rarities that are available on YouTube (the bottomless pit of video clips you weren't aware of), but first just a word or two about the many “different" Bowies.

By that I don't mean his onstage personas. Instead I'm interested in his various singing styles. One that I've found few mentions of in his obits was his “crooner” approach. Of course he began as a more conventional singer-songwriter in the Sixties who was drawing on the work of people like Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel, but it was during his “Philly soul” period and after that he began to sing songs in a dreamy, crooner-like manner.

He over-emphasized this style in some of his lesser recordings of the Eighties (to the point of self-parody at times), but the most sublime examples of this style can be found on Station to Station and recent dirges like “Where Are We Now?” where his vocal is simply loaded with a commodity he's never particularly been identified with – emotion.

A perfect example of the Bowie-croon is his cover of “Wild Is the Wind,” the movie theme from 1957, which was identified with the inimitable Nina Simone:

The other aspect of his delivery is what could be called his “Shakespearean side.” His anthemic “Heroes” might be the best example of this – not only in Bowie's work, but in pop as a whole. David delivers the lines of the song as if he were Burton, O'Toole, or Harris reciting a piece of poetry or a Shakespearean soliloquy – I'm thinking here of Dave Thomas' spot-on impression of Harris on SCTV, where he perfectly caught how Harris would whisper some lines of dialogue, only to *explode* with loud eloquence a few seconds later.

Here is the first visualization of the song I saw as a wee tiny person – Bowie in a variant music video made exclusively for the Bing Crosby Xmas special (you know the one...). Yes, he does revert to his background in mime here and the song is put through an unnecessary filter at two points, but it's always a stirring recording (and the only time the voice of Brian Eno, doing backing vocals, was heard on a show starring Der Bingle). The verse that begins “I will be king/and you, you will be queen...” is of course his “two Richards” (Burton and Harris) moment.

Another aspect of his singing style was, for a lack of a better term, his “urban polysexual” side. This came out in his songs that were strictly about sex, usually in a Hubert Selby/Lou Reed-esque situation. There are only a few songs where he openly writes about an explicitly gay relationship (the best being his “John, I'm Only Dancing” – pick your favorite version, the single or the disco remake, or the other one I'm not linking to here...).

On the subject of his bisexuality (which he later professed openly – and quickly, wanting to move on to other topics – in interviews), a little quote from the “Melody Maker” article by Michael Watts from Jan. 22, 1972 that caused a massive stir (and got him endless publicity) at the time: 

He's as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I'm gay,” he says, “and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” But there's a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth. He knows that in these times it's permissible to act like a male tart, and that to shock and outrage, which pop has always striven to do in its history, is a balls-breaking process. 

This is the probably the nastiest piece you'll find about Bowie's androgynous, omnisexual appearance. An angry TV reporter wants to know what's so special about this annoying young man:

Below he performs my favorite of his sex tunes, a portrait of a seedy washed-up performer, “Cracked Actor.”

First, a quick side note about a “side man”: Mick Ronson's importance to early Seventies Bowie can't be understated. As was the case with Scott Walker and the late Sixties, Eno and the late Seventies, and Nile Rodgers and the early Eighties – Bowie was nothing if not a brilliant chooser of collaborators. Bowie noted early on that “musically and creatively, I have always been an instigator rather than an artisan.” That isn't completely true, but he definitely knew how to squeeze the best out of his colleagues.

My last take on his singing: like Joey Ramone (and Sinatra, who constantly said he learned a lot about vocalizing from Billie Holiday), Bowie was very influenced by female vocalists. I've already mentioned Nina Simone, so why not bring up Ronnie Spector? (The same person who influenced Joey an enormous amount.)

Ronnie's “hiccuping” style of singing is most evident on Bowie's cover of Iggy's “China Girl.” Since everyone knows that tune (or knows damned well how to find it on YT), I'll link here instead to a Ronnie song that Bowie said moved him deeply, her version of a George Harrison composition, produced by George and Phil Spector, “Try Some, Buy Some” (there are some beautiful trademark trills from her here):

Before I finally turn this entry into a “survey” of the best of Bowie musical performances on TV (and in a handful of movies), I should briefly run through mine own fandom for the Thin White Chameleon. I was freaked out by him as a child (the hair, the eyepatch, several things struck me as “scary”). Saw the above “Heroes” music vid on the Bingle Xmas special, but was converted into a true fan by the three “Lodger” videos directed by David Mallet (the one below of course has a direct connection to Burton in the title).

Saw him starring in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway (it was a really great performance, exceedingly low key and poignant). Wasn't as into the blonde MTV Bowie, followed him through the very lean period of the late Eighties (the “Glass Spider” tour was one of the three times I saw him in concert). Was drawn heavily back into his music and mythology by two exes (both big fans). Saw his last NYC-area appearance at Madison Square Garden (the “Reality Tour” in December 15, 2003). As with all my other obsessions, there are people I've found on the Internet who know megatons more facts-and-trivia than I do, but I have loved and admired his output for a while now.

So now onto the rarities that are strewn across the “vault” of endless insanity known as YouTube. As a transition (“oh my TVC 15...”), I will simply include here two pics, because I haven't seen them juxtaposed elsewhere. The first shows DB pre-supposing the thin, choppy-haired punk look...

… and the second is of some young fan (John Simon Ritchie, aka El Sid) who appropriated it after this picture was taken (note the Bowie t-shirt). He may not have been able to play his instrument at all and was a bad rocker in general, but at least he had good taste in heroes (just for one day...)

Now, on to the items that fans like myself used to pay big bucks (well, not really) to score on VHS. There's a veritable library of odd moments in Bowie's career on YT, starting with the very goofy and minimalist film made to promote songs from his first album (discussed in the preceding part of this blog entry).

His first major agent, Ken Pitt, thought rightly that David could be a major film performer – the only problem was that the music sequences crafted for the “film” “Love You Till Tuesday” were probably thought to be cheesy even when they were new. They do have a certain charm, though, and the songs themselves are fun. Here is the theme song for the “film” (it's not really a movie per se, it's just a bunch of promotional films – what was called in the Eighties “a video album”):

Bowie's first acting role on film (and quotes should definitely put around the word acting) was in a low-budget horror short that was made to be played with foreign movies in UK cinemas. The Image (1967) is a slight piece that registers as something midway between Daughter of Horror and a rather standard Twilight Zone ep (or rather, Karloff's Thriller). It involves an artist whose subject – a young man – comes to life and haunts him. Bowie plays the young man and basically has to appear both dreamy and menacing.

The writer-director of the piece, Michael Armstrong, continued in the horror vein for years to come – he wrote and directed the famous Mark of the Devil (1970), which was shown in the U.S. with “vomit bags” handed out to every moviegoer. He also wrote the scripts for House of the Long Shadows and did uncredited rewrites for Lifeforce. These days his film debut is notable only for the fact that he got young David Jones to costar – by this time he was using the name Bowie, having released an album and some singles under that name.


One of the major oddities from Bowie's early career is the telefilm Pierrot in Turquoise (shot in 1969, aired in '70), which was made for Scottish TV. It's an adaptation of Lindsay Kemp's modernist stage version of the commedia del arte scenario involving Pierrot, Columbine, and Harlequin. Oddly, for a piece of mime, Bowie plays a character called “Cloud” who sits on a ladder looming over the performers, offering a “narration” of sorts with two songs. Kemp, well known for his stage productions, taught Bowie (and, later on, Kate Bush) mime; he also directed the “Ziggy Stardust” stage show.

The first is “When I Live My Dream” (see the previous part of this blog entry) and the other is “Threepenny Pierrot.” As I rewatched the full film (only a third of it is on YT) I was going crazy trying to figure out what the melody was reminding me of. It turns out Bowie later reused it for a very catchy song called “London Bye Ta Ta” that was only made available on collections several decades after he recorded it. It also led me to hum “Here Comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again,” which was released in 1971, after the two Bowie tracks.

One of the most notorious and fascinating TV appearances Bowie made was “the 1980 Floor Show,” a full-length concert he did for The Midnight Special (shot Oct. in London; aired in the U.S. only in Nov. '73). It's a very odd creation – Bowie does a few old numbers, some brand-new ones (from the forthcoming Diamond Dogs album), and hints towards his upcoming tour (which, because the widow Orwell wouldn't allow it, had to be changed from being a musical adaptation of 1984 – thus the “1980 Floor” business).

On a musical level, the concert sequences are great – mostly because he's playing with Mick Ronson and the “Spiders” (the band he had notably said would never play together again at the famous “farewell” concert filmed by D.A. Pennebaker). The true joy of the show, however, for kitsch-lovers like myself is the all-male dance troupe that appear in certain sequences. Performing with all the campy ridiculousness of “the Juul Haalmeyer dancers” on SCTV (that show again!), the dancin' boys use their bodies to spell out the words “1980 Floor Show” and are just too, too much.

One of the Bowie albums I've played several million times is his collection of covers called “Pin-Ups.” Bowie, his boy dancers, and Amanda Lear (she who may be a transexual or may not – read her Wiki bio to understand that odd statement) have a wonderfully kitsch moment where Bowie lip-synchs to his recording of the Merseys' “Sorrow.”

This particular version of the show is missing Bowie's chosen musical guests – the Troggs and a Spanish band called Carmen – but it does contain his wonderfully camp duet with Marianne Faithfull. Marianne is dressed as a nun (legend has it she was nude under the cloak) and Bowie is “the angel of death” (don't ask). They perform “I Got You Babe” and are both not at their best, to put it politely. (Marianne had yet to develop her mesmerizingly gravelly “Broken English” voice.)

Despite the omissions, this is the best-looking version of the show that I've ever seen.

Bowie's UK TV appearances are great – esp. the times he performed live on shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test – but his American appearances are even more watchable because they are, indeed, somewhat odd and/or kitschy. In one regard he was a trendsetter – he was the first white solo artist to perform on the legendary “Soul Train” show. Unfortunately that show was as cheaply produced as the heinous Dick Clark's “American Bandstand,” and thus Bowie was just lip-synching to his latest singles.

This was particularly pointless when it came to the song that he performed on the first of his two appearances (in April of '75), “Fame,” which is filled with speeded-up and slowed-down voices (which he had to pretend to be emitting from his own face). The second time he came on, though, he lipsynched a song that better fit the proceedings (and which didn't have sped-up voices), “Golden Years.”

He admitted in interviews years later that he got drunk to do the second appearance, most likely because he agreed to do a Q&A with the audience, most of which he chuckles through (or falls back on his simplest crutch, his British accent). Still another amazing time-capsule appearance, though:

Bowie performed live on the Cher variety show (it aired in November of '75). He sang “Fame” (to a backing track – that is song is *very* much a studio creation) and also took part in a duet with the hostess that reflected the variety-show formula I've spoken of many times on the Funhouse TV show: these shows combined the very best of American popular culture with the very worst of American popular culture, sometimes in the very same segment.

As for this duet, it's talent-made-tacky. (“Hey, what do they do well? Let's have them do something else they don't do so well.” Come to think of it, that's the “joke” to most of the gimmicky shit happening on Fallon's Tonight Show these days....)

The two perform a medley that is *stunningly* silly – the tunes are linked together in a ridiculous fashion by words in the titles. Thus, Bowie's “Young Americans” is followed by Neil Diamond's “Song Sung Blue,” which somehow segues into Nilsson's “One” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” and so on and so forth. (They also dueted on Bowie's “Can You Hear Me?” but that's just dull, not tacky.) This segment actually succeeds in making the coke-addled “1980 Floor Show” look subtle and artsy at least. Was anyone not on coke in mid-Seventies show biz? Apparently not...

And speaking of shows that Bowie didn't belong on... a few months after the Cher deal he made two appearances on Dinah Shore's daytime chatfest. I'm not sure who booked him, but they shoehorned him into the format bizarrely in the first instance (shot in Feb. '76, aired in March '76). Nancy Walker (yes, Rhoda's mom) was the “anchor woman” on the panel for the week, and Fonzie himself, Henry Winkler, was the first guest. 

Bowie comes out, does some songs, and “does panel” with Walker and Winkler. He's quite charming with Dinah, who wants to know what he's like (this is when he's “returning” from his “alien” phase and is turning to the crooner mode).

He talks very openly about his “stealing” from other artists, touts Roxy Music (who most Americans hadn't heard of at this point), and participates in a karate lesson (!) near the show's end. The particular bootleg source these clips come from is missing the odd moments of dialogue I found on a VHS boot years ago – specifically Nancy Walker saying she doesn't like Bowie's music (Manhattan Transfer was her fave).

What's also missing from this version is the segment where Bowie and his costar Candy Clark plug The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was about to open.

The second Dinah! appearance is much stranger. At this point David was retreating for a bit from his own career and chose to go on the road with Iggy Pop as his piano player (an interesting move for a superstar). One assumes that the lure of having Bowie on got Dinah's booker to put Iggy Pop on afternoon “girl talk” TV. (With “anchor woman” Rosemary Clooney!)

Iggy and his band (which includes, in addition to Bowie, Hunt and Tony Sales, sons of the Soup!) perform two songs, but the most memorable moments occur in the interviews. There is a stand-up one that can *not* be found on YouTube. In that one Iggy acts super-polite to Dinah (I believe he does call her “Ma'am” at one point), and she discusses with him the Iggy Pop name, his parents, whether or not he gets cold performing shirtless (!), and what influences his music he notes it's the industrial sounds of Detroit – but then she realizes he's kidding. (When he introduces Hunt and Tony as Soupy's kids, she thinks *that's* a joke, however....)

Bowie and Iggy in Berlin
The part that is online is the subsequent sitdown interview, where it is mostly Bowie doing the talking, firstly because he's the more eloquent of the two, but also because Dinah is still looking for some sort of explanation for Iggy's behavior onstage – again, the mind fairly reels thinking about this being on the “women's” daytime TV block.

The sitdown segment is linked to below (only the Spanish subs have kept it up online evidently – if the folks owning the rights to the Dinah! shows want to make some dough, they could just release some of the best-remembered episodes, including the two Bowie shows, in a DVD box set). Best part is without question Dinah offering a list of things Iggy has done to himself onstage and him noting that he's in therapy and won't be doing those things (dripping hot wax on himself, cutting himself with a bottle, etc) any more.

After Bowie's death I re-aired an episode of the Funhouse TV show that I had done in 2011. I called the show “Bowie in Weimar Germany” because I featured scenes from two of his starring roles as an actor. The first one I'll get to below, but the second was the theatrical feature Just a Gigolo (1978). The film has a terrible reputation, and it is by no means even in the ballpark of a similar tale like... say, Berlin Alexanderplatz. But it certainly isn't as bad as the critics, and Bowie himself, had said; in fact it has a certain charm and is as picturesque as it needs to be (esp. considering the stars).

Bowie called the film “my 32 Elvis Presley films in one” but his low-key acting fits the piece (a lot of which requires him to look model-suave and mildly troubled), since his character is an innocent who is drawn into political circles and eventually becomes, well... read the title. Kim Novak is as dauntingly sexy as ever, and the film features the last onscreen appearance by the legendary Marlene Dietrich, whom Bowie never met because her scenes were shot in Paris and his were done in Germany.

Since Bowie's death a lot of attention has been given to his Dec. 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Like the Tonight Show appearance (and, yes, the Bing Crosby Xmas special), this was a seminal viewing moment for young people like myself. Bowie did three songs, each with its own unusual “effect” (and guest backup artists Joey Arias and the inimitable Klaus Nomi).

All three of the songs can be found online and are worth watching, but this one reintroduced a song of his that didn't do much of anything in the U.S. upon its first release. It became a big hit years later in the stripped-down rendition that Nirvana gave it on their “Unplugged” show.

Johnny Carson hated rock, any kind of rock music. He banned rock from The Tonight Show in the mid-Sixties (I believe after an appearance by the Byrds bugged him). But on Sept. 5, 1980, Bowie appeared on the show to perform two songs (no panel!). It fascinates me that Bowie was the one rocker Carson bent his rule for – and that Bowie's handlers thought he needed exposure on The Tonight Show, which was truly, as much as we all nostalgize about it now, a pretty square affair by '80.

I saw this appearance when it aired and was indeed blown away not only by “Life on Mars?” (which I hadn't heard until that moment) and his latest hit, “Ashes to Ashes” (about which, more in my next blog entry, about Bowie music videos), but by David choosing to dress up as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (I was a big James Dean fan as a teen, a few decades too late). He wore the same red windbreaker in the German cry of despair Christiane F. (1981).

The whole Tonight Show appearance can be found here, but here's a much clearer version of “Life on Mars?” from the show.

The other film I included in my “Bowie in Weimar Germany” episode of the Funhouse TV show was the BBC version of Bertolt Brecht's Baal (March 1982) , directed by the late Alan Clarke. I was happy to give scenes from this telefilm a U.S. “premiere” on the Funhouse, since it had been so hard to see for so many years over here (now it's on YouTube, for the moment, so sample at will). The EP consisting of the short songs from the film (which is in the form of an LP but contains about as much music as a 45) was always available in record stores.

Aside from his latter-day children's fare (which I'm pretty certain he did because of his daughter Lexi) and minor items like The Linguini Incident, he did usually make very interesting and bold choices as an actor. Here he fits the role of Baal well, because the character is a musician, a seducer, and a murderer who thrives on his charm and brusque demeanor – kind of like Mack the Knife, but accompanying himself on banjo.

Director Clarke did a great job of approximating Brecht's theatrical “distancing” techniques in the film medium by using long shots (to simulate the proscenium), split screen images, intertitles, and generally “flat” performances to keep with Brecht's desire that the audience always be aware they're watching a spectacle, not real life.

I think Bowie's later songs are best represented by his music videos, but I wanted to shine a spotlight on one that I found particularly touching. When he was living in New York, around the time of his appearance in The Elephant Man, he took to watching The Uncle Floyd Show (a personal all-time fave; I interviewed the cast at the Bottom Line in the late Nineties). He told the cast when they asked him how he had found out their program (which at that point was airing on a UHF station out of NJ) that John Lennon was a regular viewer and had recommended it to him.

Bowie attends an
Uncle Floyd Show
performance at the
Bottom Line. Photo by
Bob Leafe.
Bowie spent the last decade and a half of his living here in NYC, but he evidently had very fond memories of that period at the turn of the Eighties when he was watching Floyd's show. So he included him and two of his puppet friends – the late, lamented Oogie and Bones Boy – into the lyric for a song called “Slip Away” (a demo exists of the song when it was simply known as “Uncle Floyd”).

I attended Bowie's last appearance at Madison Square Garden (on the “Reality tour”) and he oddly didn't do “Slip Away.” He did perform it at a later concert at the Jones Beach theater in Wantaugh, Long Island, with the great Polyphonic Spree backing him up on vocals. For his concert performances of the song he would start off with footage from The Uncle Floyd Show that, according to the credits on the “Reality tour" DVD, were obtained from “Captain Fork productions” (cast member Mugsy).

On the DVD performance (which was shot in Ireland!) Bowie leads the audience in a singalong by having Oogie's head as a bouncing ball of sorts as the lyrics to the song were projected behind him on a screen. I'm glad he did the song in Long Island but still wonder to this day what went on with him not performing it in NYC, one place where memories of Floyd's show are still strong for many of us.

In any case, here is a video of the Jones Beach performance in 2004. No one knew it then, but Bowie was at the end of his touring life.


And since I cover film more than I cover music on the Funhouse TV show I want to end this part of my tribute to Bowie with two splendid film clips using his music in a vibrant, vital way.

First, the final credits from Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003). The film is a meditation on America done in an experimental style (no sets, but markers on the floor, as in a rehearsal space). The film is as harsh and brilliant as all of von Trier's work, but he capped it off under the end credits with a sudden burst of Bowie's “Young Americans” as we see photos of impoverished Americans, from photographer Jacob Holdt's book American Pictures. It doesn't work as well out of context (in context, it's devastating), but it's still a fascinating “gift of sound and vision”:

And finally, I return to Leos Carax, who used a Bowie song in each of his first three films. I used the first one in the first part of this blog entry (his beautiful visualization of “When I Live My Dream” in Boys Meets Girl); the third (“Time Will Crawl” in the exquisite Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) I will dispense with.

This is truly one of the best-ever uses of a Bowie song in cinema: the moment in which Denis Lavant realizes he's in love with Juliette Binoche in Mauvais Sang (1986). We hear a radio playing a song by the great Serge Regianni (who has a supporting role in the film), and then the music changes to “Modern Love” from Bowie.

I had loved the song when it first appeared on Let's Dance but hated the video because it was just preening MTV blond Bowie being creepy and self-assured onstage as he lipsynched the song (it was almost like he had given up – the guy who had made some of the most innovative music-videos of that era did a video that was similar to Springsteen's insufferable “Dancing in the Dark”). In this sequence Leos Carax tapped into the mood of the song and created the ultimate music-video for it. It's a testament to both Carax's power as a filmmaker and Bowie's as a rock songwriter.

1 comment:

Madi said...

Dear Ed, thank you for all you do. Amazing two-parter.