Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


The David Bowie Listening Party, part one


For Christmas, my longtime friend, playwright Trey Nichols, bought himself the recently released boxed set of David Bowie discs from 1977-1982, “A New Career in a New Town.” Last night we were finally able to coordinate our schedules so he could bring it over for us to listen to it together.

Listening to three Bowie albums in a row reminded me that no matter how much I love and appreciate an artist in theory, there’s nobody I love in toto. I admire a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, and Philip K. Dick’s work, but I will never again read “Slapstick,” and I’d like back the hours spent trying to read Dick’s execrable mainstream novel “Voices from the Street.” Much as I like the Beatles (at times), I never need to hear, say, “Octopus’s Garden” again.

I had the great pleasure of seeing David Bowie on tour twice — on the “Serious Moonlight” tour in support of the “Let’s Dance” album, in 1983, in Philadelphia; and on his final tour, at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim in 2004. Both times, with very different shows and very different set lists, he and his band sounded great. On “Stage,” though, an early live album reissued in this new boxed set, I don’t hear any of the sort of magic I heard onstage. Instead, these are almost rudimentary live versions of songs that are far more magical on their original recordings, as performed here by what sounds like an above-average local cover band. Ouch.

The next disc we listened to was “Re:Call 3,” made up of rarities of a sort:  non-album singles, somewhat-different versions of album singles, b-sides, and ephemera. This was more like it, with different versions of some of my favorite Bowie songs:  “Heroes,” “Breaking Glass,” “Fashion,” “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” and more. It also includes the soundtrack version of “Cat People,” which I hadn’t heard in years, a 1979 folkie version of “Space Oddity” that I’m fine without, and, most interestingly, Bowie’s songs for Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal,” which I’d always heard about but never actually heard.  Now that I’ve heard them, I can say unequivocally that I prefer Bowie the rock star over Bowie the musical-theatre singer; in the former, his femme operatic voice is balanced out by the hard punches of rock-and-roll, while on the latter all his fluty indulgences flit around unanchored in a way that would have me running for the exit.

Finally, we listened to Tony Visconti’s recent remix of “Lodger.” Visconti, who was Bowie’s longtime producer, has stated that he didn’t feel the album had gotten the credit he deserved, and now he’s taken a swing at producing a better mix in hopes of better serving the music. As an enormous fan of this album, Trey was able to point out all the subtle differences; being less familiar, I didn’t hear them. Listening to it — and enjoying it — did give me occasion to look up this very positive review from Pitchfork, which left me howling with laughter. Here’s just one wonderful excerpt:

The music is punky and dramatic and a little odd, with detours into reggae and near-Eastern tonalities (“Yassassin”) and nebulously exotic “world” sounds (“African Night Flight”), all filtered through the ears of a British guy with plenty of money and the imperial leeway to appropriate whatever he felt like. To this day, no musician has better mastered the hermetic intensity of cocaine, a drug that makes you want to have long conversations with everyone you’ve ever met without leaving your room.

Whether you care about David Bowie’s music or not, I strongly recommend reading the entirety of that review for the pungent wit alone.

Given that it was approaching midnight, we didn’t get to the other albums in the boxed set last night, and unfortunately we didn’t get to sit outside and have cigars while doing this because Los Angeles was uncharacteristically approaching freezing, so we’re looking to set another play date, in March. That’ll give us a chance to listen to what may well be the best three albums of Bowie’s career:  “Heroes,” “Low,” and “Scary Monsters.”

2 Responses to “The David Bowie Listening Party, part one”

  1. Dan Says:

    Ahhhh, an evening of good company and fine music!

  2. Dan Says:

    But after reading this, I’m afraid I’ll have “Octopus’s Garden” stuck in my head all day.

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