Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Heroes And Rebel Rebels

I'll not begrudge Bowie fans their moment, but I can't really share it. I like some of his stuff just fine. "Heroes" is always majestic. You can't not like "Suffragette City", "Rebel Rebel", "Gene Genie", "Cat People" or "Ziggy Stardust". You have to also give kudos to the videos for "Ashes To Ashes" and "Blue Jean". Not to mention "The Hunger" and "The Man Who Fell To Earth". Also he rescued Iggy from the gutter. Bowie was also one of the few rockstars who could pull off the difficult role of taking a political stand without looking like an insufferable prat, unlike Bono say. Witness his dignified performance of "Heroes" at the Liveaid Aids benefit concert or his oh-so-elegant grilling of an MTV VJ over MTV's lack of black music videos back in the 80's. Bowie was so inherently classy he could pull that off without looking like a strident grouch (like Bob Geldoff) or a pompous twat (hello Sting).


Bowie was a very big deal for people who came of age musically in the mid -1970's which I can understand. The early 70's were a pretty bleak time. Progrock and Jazz Fusion were actually considered cutting-edge. Otherwise you could choose between burned-out hippies, drippy singer-songwriters, endless Southern Rock Boogie jams, proudly vacuous Bubble Gum Pop and Disco, lots of Disco. And everybody dressed like slobs. There were no "underground" or "alternative" scenes as we understand them. No indie labels, no zines, few clubs, fewer cool indie record stores and no campus radio.

No wonder Glam seemed like a breath of multi-coloured fresh air. Bowie wasn't the first Glam rocker; by many counts Marc Bolan got there first and his hits were catchier and less cluttered then Bowie's, and Bolan was cuter. But Bowie was more media-savvy and disciplined than Bolan was, more populist than Roxy Music and more talented than the likes of Gary Glitter, Jobriath, Sweet or Slade. Not to mention smarter. There was a reason why he was a hero to many of the first generation of Punks.


Bowie was an even bigger deal for the LGTB communities which I also get. I certainly can't deny them a figure who embraced a despised group before it was fashionable. He was also a hero to fashionistas which I acknowledge but couldn't care less about.

However I never fell into any of those groups. I came of age musically in the mid 1980's "Let's Dance" era when Bowie was not only totally mainstream but completely omnipresent. In 1980's Toronto there were only a limited number of radio choices; for AM Top 40 there was CHUM and CFTR. On FM there was mainstream CHUM FM, the Classic Rockist Q-107, New Wavish CFNY and campus radio CIUT and tiny CKLN. On TV there was Muchmusic and a few assorted shows like "The New Music", "The CHUM Countdown", "American Top 40", "Midnight Special", "Solid Gold" and that was literally it. There were also dance clubs like "Nuts & Bolts", "The Silver Crown", "Empire Club", "The Copa" and "RPM". There was no internet remember so if you wanted to listen to music aside from what you actually owned those were the only options. That may actually seem like a lot compared to a lot of other cities and it was but even for all that there was shockingly little variety. CFTR, Q-107 and the two CHUMs played pretty much the same stuff, albeit in slightly different amounts, and playlists were so predictable that certain groups were guaranteed to be played multiple times a day, usually playing the same few songs. Thus for most of the decade you could be sure of hearing The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rush, Who, Doors, Teenage Head, Police, AC/DC, Dire Straits, Genesis, Clash and Bowie more than a few times every single day without fail. CFNY and campus radio had a mandate of "New Music" and so had more variety but there was still some overlap with certain artists who had some credibility with the New Wave/Post Punk such as Bowie, Police, Clash, Elvis Costello, Pretenders, Blondie, U2, Billy Idol, REM, OMD, Teenage Head, Rough Trade, Simple Minds, Tom Petty, The Cars, The Cult, Rush (no really) and Dire Straits. Bowie had possibly the greatest across the board reach and I can recall more than once actually hearing a Bowie song on one station, switching the dial to another station only to find yet another Bowie number. Possibly the same one.


To a Bowie fanatic I suppose this would be heaven, at least in theory, but I hated it. Especially in the aftermath of "Let's Dance". At first I rather liked it; "Cat People" was nicely slinky, the Stevie Ray Vaughan solo in "China Girl" was tasty and the rest was likable enough. But after a few months I had had enough. I especially began to actively resent "Modern Love" especially since I had originally enjoyed the opening with it's swirling guitar riff and staccato drums, but eventually I came to dread hearing it. You know the way you felt about a band you rather liked putting out competent but mediocre music and then being embraced by a hoard of incredibly uncool people? Imagine that a hundred times over. Imagine being confronted by this every time you turned on a radio, went to a dance club or opened a music mag. That was the fate of several post punk bands circa 1984 and for several years afterwards. The band most associated and despised for this cultural shift was U2 of course, along with the Police, but Bowie got there first. So I guess he was a pioneer in taking hip music to dreadfully unhip people like Conservatives, Yuppies, Preppies, Frat Boys, Corporate Weasels and Jock Assholes. Maybe that's a good thing in a way but it sure didn't feel like it at the time. This was OUR music scene! Why couldn't they go back to listening to Phil Collins or something equally shitty and leave us the fuck alone?

That said Bowie was never going to be one of my faves anyway. At the time I was heavily into punk bands like The Sex Pistols, Ramones, Stooges, Ruts, TSOL, Adolescents, Sham 69, X-Ray Specs and Agent Orange, and Post Punk bands like Joy Divison, Siouxsie, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Jesus & Mary Chain, Pretenders, Wire, Virgin Prunes, the first two Psychedelic Furs and first five Simple Minds albums and early Cabaret Voltaire. I was also into rootsy punk like The Gun Club, Cramps, Deja Voodoo, Gruesomes, Jason & The Scorchers and X not to mention actual sixties nuggets like the Animals, Yardbirds, Jefferson Airplane and Velvet Underground. Compared to them I found much of Bowie's work to be stiff and overproduced, too many string sections, unfunky horns and shrill backing singers. I related much better with other proto-punk figures like the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, NY Dolls, Blue Cheer and various Nuggets and Pebbles Garage bands.


More than that there was a fundamental difference between pre-punk glam figures like Bowie, Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry and the best of the next generation of 1976 like the Pistols, Clash, Ramones or Joy Division, even taking into account the obvious influence of the former on the latter. Glam was all about affectation, artifice and striking a pose. There was little or no pretense to deeper meaning or emotional commitment. Bowie, Bolan and Ferry were posers and proud of it, and they could change that pose whenever they bored of it, as Bowie (and occasionally Ferry) so famously did.

Punk was another matter. Punk valued authenticity and emotion above all. Of course Johnny Rotten was a poser, but he was also genuine in his alienation and resentment. He meant it MAN!! Ditto for the Clash, Ramones, Joy Division, Black Flag, X-Ray Specs etc. Their music was an explosion of a rage shared by a generation of discarded, largely working class youth. A generation Bowie was not a part of. By the mid seventies he was a show biz veteran who had been scuffing around since the 1960's and had more in common with the likes of literate, artsy types like Ray Davies or Syd Barrett than with lowlifes like Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders or Stiv Bators. Even figures who wore their Bowie influences on their sleeves like Bauhaus, Siouxsie, John Foxx or the Virgin Prunes did so with a sense of alienation that Bowie never could share even if he wanted to. He was always a rock star even when he wasn't one yet. Therein lay much of his appeal and the appeal of Glam and Glitter (and for that matter Disco) in the early seventies; everybody can be a star, or at least act like one. Perhaps after the political activism of the sixties a backlash of me-first hedonism was inevitable and Glam was it (along with Disco) but by the 1976 Summer Of Hate there was another backlash, this time not just of bored teenagers but bored and angry ones. Enter Punk.

Punk had plenty of artifice as well, it's not everybody who can pull off spikey pink hair a safety pin through the ear and a studded dog collar. But that artifice was meant to advertise the anger within, not mask it in lipstick and glitter. Punk was supposed to reject mainstream success and exist outside it, not overwhelm it with style and sheer excess. The world of Glam was always that of stadiums, flashy discos, high fashion runways. Not grungy clubs, indie labels, cut-and-paste zines and tiny campus radio stations. Glam rockstars toured in private jets and went to exclusive parties with starlets, super-models and lesser royalty, not crammed into the back of a broken down van eating ramen and drinking warm beer. It's impossible to picture Bowie or Ferry in the urine and graffiti stained backstage of CBGB's. Glam was larger than life or it was nothing. Punk rejected all this with a sneer of contempt and embraced it's outsider status. Even making it to a fetish it to an occasionally unhealthy degree. This past week many Bowie fans have related stories about how they identified with Bowie as outsiders. I'll not question their personal feelings but I never, ever, felt that way. To me Bowie was a rock star just like Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, he had more intellectual heft certainly and more class but that was about it. I never identified with him the way others clearly did.


One of the qualities Bowie fans often cite admiringly was his constant changing of personas, a quality Madonna fans constantly praise as well. This is often referred to style over substance but I think this misses the point; it's process over substance. To me as a fan of Punk and Post Punk this was a sign of a a basic opportunism. By contrast while the best Punk and Post Punk bands may have had equally carefully constructed personas those they seemed more real, and they rarely changed them. If they did they could face a backlash from fans who though they had sold out as would happen to U2, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, Ultravox or The Knack among others. It was possible for some to cross the dividing line between the underground and the mainstream to some degree but it was tricky and none who crossed that line could ever be fully accepted again. Many bands struggled with this Catch-22. When Simple Minds or Psychedelic Furs finally scored hits with film themes after close to a decade on the fringes they seemed paralyzed and unsure of how to respond and essentially fell apart. Other bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie, Killing Joke, Japan and Love & Rockets flirted with success by following near hits with obscure artsy singles that were sure to fail and did. Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello insisted on not making videos or taking years between albums. Others like Polly Styrene, Holly Beth Vincent, The Only Ones or Vapours simply disappeared. They were never able to reconcile the punk ideals of an underground scene they at least partly believed in with the demands of a mass audience they were never truly comfortable with. Bowie never had this conflict because he came out of an earlier era when being a Rockstar was the highest achievement.

This then was the context of Bowie for me, worthy of some respect but fundamentally not part of the scene (or scenes) I loved. Although it's fair to point out that unlike most of his pre-punk contemporaries Bowie did not reject the newer musical genres of Punk, Post Punk, New Wave, New Romanic or Industrial. It may have been his natural curiosity to both art and music as well as to freaks and outlaws or it may have been his keen eye for new trends to exploit but either way he was not threatened by new trends. He did not reject them so he was not rejected in turn. It's worth pointing out as well that Bowie's one of the few artists who can claim they put out something relevant in every decade since the 1960's. Certainly the Stones can't say that. Or Paul McCartney. Or Dylan. Or the Who. Oh I know they can still release albums that chart and sold out tours but does anybody actually care about anything they've done since, say, the eighties? I think not. There only a handful of other figures with that kind of reach. But Lou Reed was less prolific and Iggy less varied. In fact the only figure with as long (longer actually) and still relevant career is Neil Young, and his influence is strictly limited to certain musical genres, not film, fashion or larger social trends. Young's appeal is also mostly limited to the English speaking world of North America, Britain and Australia, he's not nearly well known in places like Asia or Eastern Europe where Bowie certainly is.

This led to some cool punk era covers, although notably far fewer than true proto-punks like Iggy Pop or The Velvet Underground. Especially Bauhaus with their version of "Ziggy Stardust". I liked Bowie's version well enough but I prefer the Bauhaus version, seriously if you're going to do a song about an over-the-top rockstar then you should really go all out.


Then there were the Polecat's Rockabilly cover of "John, I'm Only Dancing" which is clearly more dancable than the original. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love".


Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy would later fire off a version of "Funtime" as well which is strictly by-the-numbers but still well done.


There have been a number of good covers of "Heroes" by Nico, Blondie and King Crimson.


An obscure Toronto band, Manix from the eighties, used to run through their own ramshakle version of "Ziggy Stardust".


Later on there would be a few more like Toronto band The Knifings slapdash aggro version of "Queen Bitch".


Eventually Simple Minds, a post punk band with obvious Bowie/Roxy influences finally got around to a Bowie cover of their own with "The Man Who Stole The World". And then they fired off a fine acoustic version.


Finally The Coal Porters, founded by ex-Long Ryders singer Sid Griffen, did a nice Gram Parsons style Country Rock version of "Heroes".


One more Bowie note; Immediately after his death an account from a former groupie (self-described) in which she claims to have had sex with Bowie when she was under-aged. This has led to much online hand-wringing from some quarters describing Bowie as a "predator", "abuser" and "rapist". Inevitably comparisons to Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi have been raised. I call bullshit. I read the actual account from the woman in question. She did not and does not consider Bowie a rapist or herself a victim. She was by her own admission a willing groupie who met Bowie after a gig at a club, retiring to a hotclub quite happily. There is no indication that Bowie knew she was under-age, she never told him and they were in a licensed club where he could reasonably expect everyone to be of age. That's it. There was no luring or drugging as with Cosby or sudden violence as with Ghomeshi. She has no recriminations or regrets. Demands from activists (who have not bothered to meet or talk to the woman themselves) that she be treated as and consider herself a victim to suit their own sexual politics do not impress me. By all means hound that smug, sleazy, asshole Cosby to his grave but I don't see any story here.


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