I was reading before Christmas how this time of year is very popular for dying, and it certainly seems to be true in 2016. There have been a bunch, but the two I’m thinking about are David Bowie and Glenn Frey. I will instantly offend multitudes by suggesting that these are both not quite A-List cultural icons, but certainly household names and very important to large numbers of people. I mean, it’s not like Bob Dylan or Keith Richards died … I should probably just stop now.
Anyway, Bowie was always interesting to me. He produced music that did touch a ton of people, but he also produced a lot that was very forgettable to me. I can say that I was very attached to his “Berlin recordings” and in particular Low and Heroes. I wouldn’t listen to either of them much today, as they were very much (to me) the kind of thing that I could listen to excessively to feed my teen angst and these days (at 52) I get enough angst in my daily life that I’m not really looking for more in my spare time. They were very important records at the time, however, because they truly did feed in to a lot of the music of the 80s and were hugely influential. It is rather common knowledge that the track “Warzsawa” on Low directly lead to proto-Joy Division naming themselves Warsaw, and the sound and the aesthetic of those records clearly was adopted for 80s shoe-gazing and moping (I loved that music, don’t get me wrong). It was also super-important because in the pre-internet days a a guy like Bowie was much better at keeping his ear to the ground than I was, and he would tell me about really important things I otherwise wouldn’t know. In the case of Berlin-era Bowie, he was telling me about Kraut-rock and I wouldn’t even know it for years to come. However, when I did encounter Can, Neu!, and Amon Duul after a very circuitous route, I was ready for it thanks to the fact that Bowie had figured out its importance years earlier. Even if most people never listened to the Berlin-era recordings their influence lead to a lot of the music to come. Public Image Ltd always seemed to me to come out of that, the previously mentioned Joy Division and everything that came from that, and even a band like Tortoise that connected back to Krautrock through a series of influences, all might go through Bowie. Of course, Bowie also ensured that the otherwise hopeless (at that point) Iggy Pop had a lot more years in his career, by producing The Idiot and Lust for Life and making it clear that when someone kept him moving forward, Mr. Pop was an artist.
Anyway, it was a little weird for me when we visited New York recently and wound up staying about a block from Mr. Bowie’s residence. There it was: the shrine that you always see on TV with the flowers and the candles, and the really terrible paintings. I must admit that I was a little confused about the level of admiration, not because Bowie wasn’t an amazing person, but because I wasn’t sure that anyone remembered him. Turns out they did, I guess. Thing is, he was a person that we don’t have many of anymore. First off, he did whatever he wanted, and was never “in fashion” … he was creating fashion. He did not do fashionable things, he did things that freaked people out for a while, until they all started doing it too to be as cool as David Bowie. Being in New York, I expect to see some of that, but mostly what you see is people trying to make their mark by wearing what they’re supposed to wear and doing what they’re supposed to do. Bowie didn’t do that. When he was The Man Who Fell to Earth, or the Thin White Duke, only he was those things … there was no trend, he was creating it. He was the right person to be in The Hunger because he had been a vampire for quite some time: long before anyone else was a vampire. Like the Krautrock thing, all of his other personas had been borrowed from somewhere, but he found cool things that other people weren’t looking at and showed them to us, and we went “wow, that’s pretty cool”. That’s quite a talent.
Bowie was also a “renaissance man”. He made records, of course, but he seemed to be ahead of trends in all kinds of fields. He was always ahead of the curve with fashion, he was very well read (he is probably directly responsible for Herman Hesse books being on my shelves), and he was actually in some good movies. Aside from the Hunger, I really loved him in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, a beautiful film that is very much of it’s time that still really holds up today.
Ah right, I mentioned Glenn Frey. I have less to say about him, but I do have something to say. There has been way too much “I’m too cool to say something even remotely nice about the Eagles” for my liking. They were from quite a nauseating time in music to be sure, and they pretty much define what makes me feel queasy about the 70s (along with Fleetwood Mac, who somehow fit into the same category in my brain). However, while they often take me back to a bad time in our culture, the Eagles were really good at what they did. I can not honestly say that they weren’t cool, and I really do think that they were fantastic at what they did. I can sing a lot of their songs from beginning to end, and there are some pretty great lyrics, even if they are basically semi-country music from California played in a haze of cocaine and decadence. I can not deny some type of appeal to the line “it’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me” even if it is kind of meaningless and, well, absurd. I have a guilty pleasure of listening to Desperado, even if it is absurd (again) to think of these guys singing about a cowboy … there is something tremendously touching about that song when sung by the Langley Schools Music Project with their little-kid voices … there’s something great about that corny song. So, hey, I am sad about the passing of Glenn Frey, if only because the sound that he made defined a time, (even if it was a somewhat nauseating time), and when I hear that music I can be right there again, listening to the Long Run endlessly on an 8-track that is stuck in a car’s player. It’s not even a good memory, but it is that time, and to define a time is no small achievement.