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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Disembodied Listening

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone

Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting so long

Somebody holds the key

Well, I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home


Come down on your own and leave your body alone

Somebody must change

You are the reason I've been waiting all these years

Somebody holds the key

Well, I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home

- "Can't Find My Way Home", lyrics by Steve Winwood

I miss the physical act of opening a gatefold album cover, carefully letting the vinyl slide out of the slip cover to hold gingerly in my hands (avoiding palms transmitting oils onto the album surface) and lowering the LP onto the spindle to its resting place on the turntable. I miss watching the arm raise and lower the needle into the groove and then hearing the magic, no less tactile than auditory, of the music issuing forth from the speakers.

I miss to a lesser degree, cassettes and CDs. But I still miss the interaction with materials to achieve hearing music sought after. While I appreciate modern digital technology, I feel that it's too immediate and too disembodied; so much so, that I have to be careful not to let this accessibility lull me into a sense that music is only one more digitally produced and available commodity.

Sitting in a cafe and hearing any number of songs come over the speakers is a joy, particularly if it's a new song or piece I'm not familiar with. Typically, I fire up Soundcloud, get the name of the tune, research it and then, well, buy it. Would I go back to the days of having to trudge around town to find the single or the album? Do I miss the hunt? Maybe.

Today, I heard Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home". I remember buying the eponymous Blind Faith album in high school. It was still in print, but relatively hard to find (and I think I sprung for the import). It's a great album, certainly, but even at the time, I appreciated the whole organic process, the ritual of playing an album. I could hear each guitar string, each contact of drum stick, and each time I played it (or any album, for that matter) there was something else to listen to in the mix.

I can't listen to music as background noise (and I appreciate Eno's theories on ambient music and love a lot of that genre); music asks us to be part of it. I can adapt in a different setting, like a cafe or a bar, where music is meant to be part of the environment. However, it's more than "part of"; music provides a context for the conversations or the reading, or whTever else is going on at the time.

I don't know that I want to hear Blind Faith from a digital source. What was playing today was a CD, by the way. Read those lyrics at the top of the page. Does the medium alter the work? I think it does.

Even reading on a device has a kind of unphysical/non-visceral engagement with a work. This is somewhat related, but I'll just mention it cursorily here: do you miss the tactile sense of thumbing through the pages of a book? Of taking time to linger over a passage on the page before you, with which you have a direct - felt - connection? Reading a poem on a digital device isn't teleologically different; but reading a book of poems on a device is not the same for me.

Music perhaps more so.

I have Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, King Crimson's Red, Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man, and obscure Gamelan music on an ancient MP3 player. Oddly enough, I like listening to those on this someday-soon-to-die device more than, say on my computer or iPad. Why? Because, there's a little more of an effort to make. Also, it's this same player that I've had with me in all over the world. Admittedly, my iPad has traveled extensively with me, as well, and I love that it has almost all of my music library on it (I have a lot backed up elsewhere to Google Drive), but it's weird that I don't listen to music while I'm writing a blog post or when I'm working out (never really liked that; never listened to music when I ran, either). But I do listen, and deeply when I'm walking (the aforementioned King Crimson album in India was a revelation while I was ambling about in the mountains...just sayin') or sitting quietly at home.

In that way, not much is different and contradicting myself (do I? Then, I contradict myself), it's still a wonderful way to enjoy one's time on this planet. But I find it funny that it's more of an effort for me to want to hear, say, Beethoven's Sixth Symphony off the iPad, than Massive Attack's Mezzanine. Having said that, once I do get the symphony under way, I acquiesce to its charms and considerable joys.

I think I need to go back to my original point. Maybe it's not the end result of hearing a work that is at issue; it's the ease and method of delivery that I'm wary of. I can't relate to music as product. It used to come presented in a more (sometimes less) artful package that you enjoyed for itself before or while settling into a listening groove. Now, I can find some obscure piece I heard in 1979 with minimal fuss and call it "mine" in mere moments.

I was and still am, on a Bowie memorial jag and when I listen to the stuff I had on either vinyl or CD, it evokes memories of specific times and places. I couldn't tell you where I was when I downloaded Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, or Blackstar.

Well, no. Not totally: I was at home in bed when I downloaded the rest of Blackstar (but I had no memory of getting "Lazarus", the single when it was offered back in the fall).

I have no particularly meaningful moments associated with much of the digital downloads that are new to me. Mainly, I got them because I heard them first and they meant enough on their own strengths that validated hearing them repeatedly. Still, there's a sense of disembodied discovery. It's rather like being in the bardo prior to rebirth where you have no body until you see you future parents and through a near-Freudian urging find yourself coming together in an incarnate form.

Similarly, let's take something like Diego Garcia's Laura. Strong album, good writing, and a keeper. But the seller for me was the single "You Were Never There". I downloaded that in a Starbucks (couldn't tell you which one or where, though) and listened to it repeatedly. But it was months before I took the plunge to check out the rest of the album. Glad I did, but the process seemed so distant from contact.

I didn't hear about Luna from a friend, I wasn't doing anything memorable at the time (probably reading), but there was something about the song that resonated. But I didn't have to struggle to find, acquire, and listen to it.

I wonder what it's like to have never had to chase music down? Right now, they've been playing a lot of Miles, Gil Evans, and Brubeck. You grow up with listening to stuff and saving up money to go out and buy a physical product to listen to as often as you can. Whereas, now, it feels more "deployed": I don't know that the medium is the message in this instance, but the medium by which the message is transmitted is increasingly ethereal. To play devil's advocate with myself, maybe that's not a negative.

Bucky Fuller wrote that technology trends toward the invisible. He theorized, rather neo-neo-Platonically, that the physical was ultimately the result of metaphysical principles. I think he would have been over the moon, then, with wireless downloads and the immediacy of social media. To be sure, I can't say that I don't appreciate where we've gone technologically (and I don't disavow enjoyment with the resulting convenience), but I feel we've lost something with the immediacy of fulfillment.

Maybe it's the little Buddhist in me that reacts to the idea that immediate gratification leads to increased craving or that facile aquisition of pleasure results in laziness and complacency. Or maybe, I should just go out and buy a turntable, amp, and a couple of speakers.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Saying Goodbye, It Ain't Easy

Oh no, love, you're not alone!

I'm sitting in Pavement Coffeehouse, my favorite cafe near Fenway. Bowie's "Five Years" is playing and I'm looking around at kids who wouldn't look the way they do without Bowie, conceivably who couldn't be the way without his work, without him. For that matter, I'd say many of my contemporaries would be more constrained without his having been here.

What happened to my generation? We could have been beautiful and left the world in better shape. We had, arguably, the benefit of the sixties' lessons; both the good and the bad. We saw a corrupt president driven from office and if we weren't the idealists of our old brothers' and sisters' years, did we have to descend into such utter cynicism?

Bowie could build a dystopia like no one else, but I don't think he was ever cynical. At his most nihilistic, there still felt like there was a glimmer of light.

We're on "Starman" right now and I may just lose it. This could be his epitaph ("let all the children boogie" included, for sure.)

Admittedly, my-my-my generation was called the Me Generation for a reason, given to self-help books, encounter group therapy, and naval gazing that would shame the best (worst?) narcissist. On the other hand, we kind of wised up to the dead end, or some of us did, of solipsism. We started to glimpse that the self isn't what we think it is and that there are more ways we're connected that short-circuits the idea of billions of little islands out there in existence.

I owe Bowie a reassessment of my influences. We both read Nietzsche. I wasn't a fan when my friend Andrew asked me to read the lyrics to "Oh! You Pretty Things" and he asked me if it sounded like Bowie understood Nietzsche. I replied fairly non-committally, if memory serves. I seem to recall saying that without really talking to the guy, I couldn't say, but sure, why not throw in some allusion here and there. If I could go back in time to the pretentious teen fuck that I was, I'd tell my younger self that Bowie was probably living Nietzsche. Screw reading him! (Besides, the better question is: you're sixteen, know Nietzsche?)

Yeah, I appreciated Bowie, more than actually liking him for most of the seventies. His public image and eccentricities seemed to overshadow what was doing and I was too stupid and unsophisticated to get it, anyway. I was into serious artistic brooding, not this effete affectation of retro rock cabaret that I took to be the sole extent of Bowie's creativity.

That changed quickly around 1977 when "Low" came out and I realized just how big an idiot I was. In the space of a few weeks, I devoured his back catalog. It didn't hurt that Eno's cache helped enormously with this. I was in Massachusetts when "Heroes" came out and I realized that I lived in remarkable times. I got back to Houston the following year and within a day or so of having returned, found out that Bowie was playing at the Summit, where the Houston Rockets played and where I'd seen the Who two years before. I think my ticket was 7.50. I walked right up to the box office and experienced what remains the finest concert of my life. From the first note of "Warszawa", I was treated to some of the most remarkable music ever performed. But more than that, it was the first time I felt the love of the performer for the audience. It's arguable that that's simply projection, but for the duration of the concert, I felt like I was in one of the most honest, intimate relationships an audient can have. And simply put: Bowie fucking kicked ass. There's a YouTube video (well, audio) of the concert out there and I promise I'll check it out someday, but my memory is what it is and I'd rather not have it overlaid with a secondhand view.

Around this time, Bowie had cleaned up and was on his way to the eighties ahead of the rest of us. A lot of what I thought about was that the world was grim, but there was grace and joy abounding, that we weren't really divorced from what is good and true and beautiful. Then Reagan sailed into office and John Lennon was murdered and oh, God, how incredibly fucked up the world got.

We swung to the right and drew the sabers. The Cold War escalated to ridiculously shrill levels. By this point, the paranoia from David Byrne to William Burroughs was palpable. The rise of greed and the supremacy of market driven policy was only just beginning. Bowie's "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" was an appropriate response. The anger and frustration in "It's No Game, Part One" mirrored mine and everyone else I knew. "Up the Hill Backwards" painted the Sisyphean tasks ahead of maintaining the dignity Bowie had mentioned on "Lodger" in "Fantastic Voyage."

Between the Clash and a handful of other politicized musicians, music held a relevance that kept despair in check. When "Let's Dance" came out, I remember a bunch of us artists were dancing in a congo line in Frank Williams studio in Houston. It was the fluffiest album Bowie could have made, but Jesus, it was fun! And not without weight, but the gears had shifted into Fun and maybe that's the prescription Major Tom decided we needed. Plus, Nile Rodgers never met a groove he couldn't use to good effect!

On the subway, I write.

At this point, Bowie seemed to be omnipresent in a way he'd never been before; embraced by the mainstream. Yet, unlike other artists, it didn't feel like selling out so much as vindication. As Sean O'Neal points out, the issue is more complex than that, but however we look at it, a broader swath of society at large was finally recognizing one of its most vital and influential artists. Acceptance into the broader popular culture only meant that he was legitimized, not defanged (and we'd see evidence of that throughout the rest of his career) and he didn't cease subverting cultural norms or speaking up for rights of others. Despite his dalliance with the trappings of fascism in '76, it's unlikely he genuinely believed what he was spouting. He was too much at the forefront of bending gender norms and social convention to be convincing as a true believer of National Socialism.

The 80s were, nonetheless, an interesting time for a Bowie fan. He was multimedia; acting on Broadway, in films, and even acting in music as "just a band member" in Tin Machine. From what I gather, the Glass Spider tour was a remarkable, if calculated (some say soulless) affair, but it brought him to an even wider public if such a thing was possible.

In the meantime, his musical descendants were all over the map. From the pretty boy neo-glam New Romantics like Duran Duran to less memorable bands like Icehouse, the baritone croon and gated drums were aped and repurposed to varying quality and dubious meaning. By the nineties something gave.

When Bowie married Iman, we got a lovely present in the form of "Black Tie, White Noise", an entirely too much overlooked gem. It's got some clunkers, but it shows him regaining control of his music. Sorry, Bowie could never be just another band member. Soon enough, he'd be back to absorbing new trends, trying them on for size and if not completely reinventing them, coming close enough. If nothing else, he explored enough to show others what could be done.

His forays into jungle, with bass and dub, and even with the Reznorian electronica he helped create weren't always successful, but when they were, ooooh, baby. There are singles on each album in the nineties that shimmer; and if, say, "Outside" isn't quite the revelation we'd hoped for (after all, Bowie + Eno = not boring), I defy anyone to not fall in love with "Strangers When We Meet" or "'Thru These Architects Eyes." Oh, and "I'm Deranged" and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson".

"Hours..." boasts some beauties, as well ("Thurday's Child" is one damn song that makes me break down and cry); and to be sure, it seemed that if his work seemed less urgent, it was the voice of a man now on the other side of fifty taking stock of his mortality. There is a poignance in his work that begins around here unlike anything else in his oeuvre.

The next day: "Heroes"

Back at Pavement and "Heroes" is playing (not nearly loud enough and why isn't everyone here either weeping piteously or dancing their asses off?)

Here's a quote from Julius Kassendorf at The Solute (in the comment thread...the article is lovely.)

"I spent a bit of my day today looking over the various tributes and I was really taken aback by the breadth of Bowie's influence. A lot of artists have a relatively narrow audience, but Bowie is one of those who seem to have spanned across generations and cultural barriers. Vibe had an article of 12 Rap Songs that Sampled Bowie. I retweeted Guillermo Del Toro's response last night. I saw a lot of friends with very conservative tastes lamenting the loss. Queer people saw him as an icon bending the rules of sexuality with a confidence and ease. I saw men and women equally sharing their favorite aspects of his work. On MTV's posting of that infamous "why don't you show black people?" interview, so many people said that was a key moment when they really took notice of him as a person and an artist.

There are few artists who seem to have reached the universal range that Bowie was able to reach. Not that he reached every single person, but his fans seemed to include somebody from most walks of life. Losing that is heartbreaking."

It's not just that we won't see his like again; it's that we need more now. What to do? Try to be "heroes"; write a poem or a play, volunteer like a boss, take your passion and nurture it. Make some music, we can't have too much. Make love, it's in short supply sometimes. Maybe if we spent more time just trying to care for each other, we'd see a more heroic world.

After the heart attack and what seemed like retirement, it still felt like the cracked actor would surprise us one more time; at the very least, it was enough that he was still with us. "Heathen" and "Reality" were each heralded as his strongest work since "Scary Monsters" and then, silence. Sure, there were a couple of appearances, but the silence was noticeable.

Seemingly from nowhere, in 2013, "The Next Day" hit. There was a the video of "Where are We Now" and the album itself dropped. Tony Visconti and the band worked in utmost secrecy and one of the finest works of the decade comes out. It was a vast piece of work for me that I needed to unpack over the year. It yielded its cosiderable pleasures slowly and would leave me shaking at its audacity and import. It's not a young man's work, though it it's as energetic as anything a twenty year old could come up with (if that twenty year old was possessed of genius beyond his years); it's ripe with a worldliness and a kind of dizziness at the reach of a vista of a life. I wonder if Bowie himself was dazzled by what lay in his wake.

It's dark, but again, with Bowie, the darkest aspects point to something else.

Then, another surprise. The Bowie exhibit at the Albert and Victoria Museum traveled to Chicago, which I found revelatory, and seemed to herald a new chapter in the man's life, at once valedictory and celebratory and we hoped, promising more work.

Who knew? A few days ago, an even greater work sees the light of day and then, a few days later, the light goes out.

Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the light has returned home; it's still shining and in some ways, more brightly. I haven't choked up that much because all this seems like a perfect whole. Bowie wrapped everything up very nicely for us; here, he said, one last parting gift.


During the interview with Robert Fripp for "David Bowie: Five Years" (2013)
...a question was asked, answered, and edited out of the documentary.

Q: Why was Bowie so influential? (paraphrase).
A: He spoke on behalf of what is highest in all of us.


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