Culturespill

The Thin White Duke at 65: Reflections on David Bowie’s 65th Birthday

16th January

That’s right, the Thin White Duke became eligible for Social Security on Sunday, Jan. 8. And I’m sure I am not alone in saying that news of Bowie’s 65th birthday struck me the same way news of Billy Idol’s 50th birthday did back in 2005: Age is not something that was supposed to happen to David Bowie, not to a guy who made his name as a kid sporting a dress and orange hair in the streets of New York City and calling himself Ziggy Stardust.

But those were the days when androgyny was the new sexy, and these are the days when CNN reporters take their cameras into the streets after the death of Elizabeth Taylor to ask passersby for thoughts on her death and find that many of them, particular younger people, either couldn’t possibly care less or just say “Who is Elizabeth Taylor?” with quizzical expressions. These are the days when the reverence once held for yesterday’s rock gods is so vulnerable to postmodern cynicism that the Flaming Lips can drop a song called “Is David Bowie Dying?”

Now, there actually is plenty of precedent for that kind of thing—remember that LA Style track called “James Brown is Dead” in 1991, when Brown actually was alive and well and would be for the next 15 years? Remember the record Townes Van Zandt dropped in 1972 called “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt?” when he too was very much alive and well at 28 years of age? Van Zandt already was great by then but he wouldn’t join the late ones until New Year’s Day of 1997. When The Lips carried on this tradition with “Is David Bowie Dying” last March, most people dismissed it as more of the kind of weirdness we expect of the Lips, but maybe it was much more than that.

To read any number of forum or blog posts on Bowie from the past few years is to think the reason he hasn’t made an album in nearly a decade, the reason he’s hardly even bothered to be David Bowie, really, with the exception of making an appearance at an Arcade Fire gig here and there or at a red carpet event with Imam, his supermodel wife of 20 years, is that the man’s health is so dire he’s dangling from the last thread of his life. Wholly unfounded speculation abounds about whether he may be terminally ill, or whether he has retired which, for the sycophants clamoring for a comeback on the occasion of Bowie’s 65th birthday last week, is far worse than terminal illness—because it’s about us, of course. Because if Bowie is physically able to entertain us then damn it David Bowie where the hell are you? What are you thinking? What are you doing with your life? Don’t you understand that you’re ours?

It’s like Lester Bangs said in his story on the death of John Lennon back in 1980: “Once you’ve made your mark on history those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.” So rather than entertain the entirely plausible possibility that at 65 years old David Bowie has earned the right to not give a crap anymore, or that he’s got an 11-year-old daughter at home he might like to get to know before he dies, or that the thirty years of unrelenting recording and touring he put into being David Bowie since his Ziggy Stardust days is not the way he cares to live out those golden years he sang about back in ’76, no, no, the only possible reason he could have gone this long without entertaining us is–that’s right–he must be dying.

Maybe I am giving the Lips too much credit here; maybe they were just being the weirdos that they are. And yes, David Bowie did undergo heart surgery after experiencing chest pain on stage in Germany in 2004 that forced the cancelation of the rest of that tour. But even so, that Lips song, whether intentionally or not, does force us to confront the absurd incredulity with which we receive news that the false gods who shaped the culture we were born into might be just as transient as the rest of us, that they, too, will get old and die. Let’s be honest; when we gasp at news of Bowie’s heart attack or his turning 65, we don’t do so out of concern for David Bowie. We do so out of concern for ourselves, because we’re watching our own lives slip through our fingers just as we always knew they would but, as John Lennon put it, we were busy making other plans.

The Daily Mirror ran a feature on Bowie’s 65th birthday in which Bowie is seen ducking in and out of a bookstore in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of lower Manhattan unnoticed, seeming to savor an anonymity he could not have imagined he would ever enjoy even ten years ago.

“Browsing the shelves in the fashionable McNally Jackson bookstore in New York’s SoHo,” the Daily Mirror’s Barbara McMahon reports, “a man in a grey overcoat and flat cap barely merits a glance from other shoppers.

“A regular customer at one of the few independently-owned bookstores left in the city, where he mostly buys books on art, the man exchanges a few pleasantries with the staff before buying, on this occasion, a couple of DVDs.

“Then he ducks back out to the busy Manhattan streets and disappears anonymously into the crowds.

“Hardly anyone has noticed that the man with the computer bag slung casually over his shoulder is David Bowie, the godfather of glam rock and one of the most enigmatic of rock ’n’ roll legends – and that’s exactly how he likes it.”

You can read the rest of the story at the Daily Mirror’s website here. The bottom line is this: The closest Bowie has come to resuming his recording career is jamming with his 11-year-old daughter, Lexi, in their living room; other than that he’s more interested in chilling with the fam than chilling with tens of thousands of strangers in a packed auditorium near you.

So no, he is not dying; he’s just not going to play the monkey to your organ grinder at 65 years old, especially not after a heart scare eight years ago and decades of alleged drug and alcohol abuse have put him in a place in life where he realizes more than ever that any given day could be his last. So why spend what time he has left busting his ass for you? As one of Bowie’s friends put it in McMahon’s story, “there’s no great secret agony or fear of failure that has led to this. He finds the reclusive rocker tag very amusing.”

Imagine that, David Bowie more interested in amusing himself than in amusing you. Well, clearly then, he must be dying, right? I mean, what other reason is there?

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Follow Culturespill on Twitter
Follow Culturespill on Facebook

Leonard Cohen drops new song ahead of Jan. 31 album release

10th January

If you have any idea what Leonard Cohen has been through since emerging from the Zen monastery “Mount Baldy” after years of seclusion there following his 1992 record The Future, then the seething ruminations on age, death and ruin he indulges on the new song he dropped today is precisely what you’d expect of the grizzled, 77-year-old bard. Culturespill told the full story here back in 2008, but here’s the CliffsNotes version: Cohen re-entered the real world to find that the $5 million retirement fund he left in the hands of his long-time manager Kelley Lynch had dwindled to $150,000. With no recourse through which to recoup the money and his estranged manager on the lam, he instead embarked on the much-celebrated world tour documented on two live releases–2009′s Live in London and 2010′s Songs from the Road.

Now he is set to deliver a long-anticipated new studio album, Old Ideas, on Jan. 31. Cohen angered some fans with the unfocused gaiety of his last studio effort, 2004′s Dear Heather, and defended himself by saying that it was meant as a “playful” album to be followed by a collection of more characteristic material–you know, the stuff that makes you want to kill yourself. In keeping with that promise, the song Cohen dropped today is called “Darkness,” and delivers precisely that. He tosses metaphor to the winds and instead dives right into the rough of what’s bugging him here. “I’ve got no future / I know my days are few” he growls in the gruff and whispery baritone Elton John calls his “non-voice.” “The present’s not that pleasant / just a lot of things to do.”

These sound like the words of a man who, now in his late 70s, might have been perfectly content to live out the rest of his life much the way David Bowie does these days–chilling at home with family and friends, savoring the anonymity of walking the streets unnoticed, and feeling absolutely no compulsion to add anything new to his abundant and glittering oeuvre. And perhaps that’s where things might have stood had Lynch not directly linked her American Express card to Cohen’s bank account and sucked it dry to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars at a time.

Poets like Cohen get snarly when critics read autobiography between every line they write, and perhaps rightfully so. But autobiographical or not, “Darkness” delivers precisely the kind of unabashed and strikingly sincere appraisal of the human condition that longtime fans heard on every Cohen record before the hapless and baffling Dear Heather. If “Darkness” is any indication, Old Ideas will deliver much more from where all that came from.

Veteran fans will delight in this track’s more stripped-down approach, a sound Cohen largely has abandoned for the slicker, more ornate production he’s preferred since 1984′s Various Positions and its brilliant follow-up, I’m Your Man. “Darkness” opens with a gorgeous flutter of acoustic guitar that storms with the ominous and theatrical finger-picking style exhibited on some of his most signature tracks, such as “Teachers” from his 1967 debut or “Avalanche” from the incomparable Songs of Love and Hate in 1971. Those earlier records are achievements no artist can ever hope to replicate, but “Darkness” comes damned close, and suggests that somewhere in the consternation of a retirement disrupted by circumstance Cohen turned up a few more of those songs of love, hate and, now, the growing specter of mortality.

You can check out the track here, and also visit his website where you can hear another track from Old Ideas he released in November, a supine piano ballad called “Show Me the Place.”

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Follow Culturespill on Twitter
Follow Culturespill on Facebook

Bill Callahan’s “Apocalypse”: The Transcendent Emergence of a Great Songwriter

3rd January


Achingly gorgeous from first song to last, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse (Drag City Records, 2011) sounds like the work of some 21st-century Jerry Jeff Walker who spent many hours ransacking his parents’ collection of Van Morrison LPs as a kid.

As on all records Callahan has released under his own name since leaving Smog behind in 2005, these songs color spare musical landscapes with flourishes of flute, piano or fiddle, the elegant but very occasional shuffle of percussion, and hard-bitten lyrics delivered in the kind of off-the-cuff, sort-of-singing-but-really-just-talking-to-ya manner of Walker or Lou Reed.

Taken as a whole, this brief song cycle explores a courageous and curious imagination that looks away from nothing and takes no easy turns. Callahan speaks of the man that “love’s coltish punch” empowered him to become. He discovers “the bee’s nest in the buffalo’s chest.” He watches Letterman somewhere in Australia while undressing American jingoism with ruthless sarcasm, dropping the names of giants like Kris Kristofferson, George Jones or Johnny Cash along the way.

The music throughout Apocalypse replicates the whimsy, beauty and restraint of records like Van Morrison’s exquisite Veedon Fleece, Leonard Cohen’s 1967 debut Songs, or Will Oldham’s masterpiece, I See a Darkness. Just when you think you’ve got Callahan’s number, though, he shifts his tone to a truculent and foreboding rocker like “America!”

Apocalypse is urgently worthy of your attention; the same can be said of every Bill Callahan record to date. It is available for just five bucks at Amazon.com’s MP3 store; or you can pony up for the cause by buying directly from his label here.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Follow Culturespill on Twitter
Follow Culturespill on Facebook

Best Albums of 2011 Series: “In Love with Oblivion,” Crystal Stilts

26th December

For the first foreboding minute of “Sycamore Tree,” the opening track of the second LP from Brooklyn-based quintet Crystal Stilts, you might think you’re about to hear a clumsy-but-inspired take on The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth.” Which would be an appropriate place to kick off the festivities on In Love with Oblivion, really, since Brad Hargett and his reverb-muddied baritone sounds like he’s shoveling somewhere deep within himself to unearth his inner Jim Morrison throughout the album.

Kyle Forester’s keyboard clamors in the tortured dark of the song as you wonder if you’re trapped inside some Twilight Zone rerun. Then Andy Adler kicks in with a mean bass line and suddenly the track erupts with chugging percussion straight out of a Sun Records-era Johnny Cash single. Guitarist JB Townsend turns in licks lifted directly from the psychobilly playbook of The Cramps, Hargett enters with a vocal performance that sounds like he’s singing from six-feet under, and the blue-plate special of influences these guys serve throughout Oblivion begins.

And that’s just track one.

Through the Floor” delivers a radiant and similarly lo-fi festival of hand-claps, jangling guitar layered over a stinging solo here and there, and Hargett’s booming voice draped in the chirping echo of background vocals. If Phil Specter wasn’t in jail for killing Lana Clarkson you almost might think he’s the man moving the knobs at the console. As if guiding you on some comprehensive tour of all-things ’60s, Townsend saunters out of the doo-wop era and into Byrds-brand psychedelia on the exceedingly jangly “Silver Sun,” where he sounds like he’s stolen Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and fully intends to keep it for himself.

Along with tracks like “Flying Into the Sun” or “Shake the Shackles,” “Silver Sun” is equal parts Highway 61-era Dylan and Murder Ballads/Let Love In-era Nick Cave as Hargett continues his relentless tribute to Joy Division and The Doors. By the time you make it through the nearly eight-minute-long “Alien Rivers,” the masterpiece of the album and easily among the finest tracks cut by any band all year, you might ask yourself “Why did no one cut this record in 1965?” You encounter the ghosts of many other bands throughout Oblivion, most of them at least as old as your parents–The Ventures, The Box Tops, Velvet Underground, to name a few.

Oblivion actually is the first of two records the Stilts have dropped this year; they released a fascinating EP in November called Radiant Door. There, Hargett shows off his upper register with such aplomb on “Dark Eyes” you wonder why he doesn’t go there more often. If you thought you heard a drowsy interpretation of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” somewhere in Townsend’s guitar work on “Alien Rivers,” Hargett makes “Dark Eyes” sound like it’s Michael Stipe Karaoke Night in your stereo.

A couple tracks later the Stilts turn in a devastating cover of “Still as the Night” by baritone badass Lee Hazelwood, known to you as the dude who wrote “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” for Nancy Sinatra in 1966. Hazelwood died in 2007 at age 78, but Hargett sounds perfectly pleased to carry the legend’s “Cowboy Psychedelia” torch himself. The cover is worth the price of admission alone, and the EP as a whole suggests that the Stilts are far from exhausting the creative vision they explore on their first two LPs.

The frenzy of genres critics contrive to describe the Stilts’ sound is a testament to how intensely the band has listened to the many long-ago groups they worship throughout this LP. From “garage-pop” to “neo-psychedelia” to “psych-pop” to “shoegaze” to the dreaded “post-punk,” a term as overused these days as “psychedelic,” what you end up with here is a band that has gone so far in a direction all their own you need a lexicon to interpret the mumbling and fevered attempts bloggers make at helping people understand what the hell they sound like.

To this blogger they mostly sound like a band called Crystal Stilts, and the wild fun they obviously are having throughout In Love with Oblivion makes it clear that they would have it no other way.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

Follow Culturespill on Twitter
Follow Culturespill on Facebook