David Bowie Discovers Rock and Roll
Over the past year and a half, it has often been said that David Bowie has "gone disco." This sounds reasonable--the man has toured with black back-up singers, produced an album at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, appeared on "Soul Train"--but the truth seems to be that "disco" is once again being used as code for "nigger." The music simply isn't danceable. The kids on "Soul Train" may be impressed by Bowie, as they are by Elton John, but like Elton he inspires no fancy stepping--no stepping at all, in fact. The Sigma album, Young Americans, is softer and more polyrhythmic than Diamond Dogs, but so is the latest Loggins & Messina; the current LP, Station to Station, uses black musicians, but in a decidedly spacy and abrasive context. The only way to understand the confusion is to remember that it usually emanates from the same sources who once informed us that Bowie was a profound lyricist and a world-class mime.
Of course, Bowie encouraged the latter misapprehensions, by turning his genuine (although never very enjoyable) talent for image manipulation to the service of his dubious talent for literature and theatre. He appeared as an Artist come down from on high to grace rock and roll, but in fact he was a kitschmeister who became more pernicious as his ambitions (both commercial and aesthetic) became grander, culminating in vulgar doomsday-mongering on the Diamond Dogs album and tour. Not that his work wasn't often interesting. But it was never interesting in the way Bowie seemed to intend. My own favorite among his albums has always been Aladdin Sane, the fragmented, rather second-hand collection of elegant hard rock songs (plus one Jacques Brel-style clinker) that fell between the Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs concepts. That Bowie improved his music by imitating the Rolling Stones rather than by expressing himself is obviously a tribute to the Stones, but it also underlines how expedient Bowie's relationship to rock and roll has always been.
Expediently, Bowie's arena-scale ambitions combined with his foolish histrionics to move his music further and further toward heavy metal, thus frustrating all his softer chansonnier tendencies. Hence the stab at soul, the only music ever to synthesize nuance with any sort of "hard" beat. The stab missed. Bowie's surface synthesis had no chance of getting past the unacknowledged racism of the anomie-stricken youth audience that filled those arenas for him. Young Americans worked a little better than the tour preceding it, but the voice was washed out. Bowie scored his biggest single off that album; it was called "Fame," which he complained was "hollow." He sounded ready to hang up his bodyguards.
But before he does he will have produced the most powerful and innovative arena-scale hard rock since the '73 Stones. That's what I heard last Tuesday at Nassau Coliseum, when the latest Bowie tour billed as a profit-taking return (?) to "simplistics" (which I took to be code for "cheap") made it seem that rock and roll had finally reached Bowie as music, rather than as mass communication. The show was all black and white. It wasn't just that the high-contrast hard edges created by the brilliant all-white lighting had their parallel in the sound engineering, so that only the organ and the distort guitar slopped over their aural boundaries and even the lyrics were crisply defined. The color scheme extended to the very substance of the music.
Miraculously, Bowie's flirtation with black music had suddenly matured; even more miraculously, the new relationship seemed to leave his cynical, hard-and-heavy side untouched. This music was still yoked to will rather than to feeling, making the Stones' blues base sound sentimental by comparison. Yet while older songs like "Panic in Detroit," projected over a Bo Diddley shuffle, and "Changes," with hints of Errol Garner on acoustic piano, retained their calibrated edge, they came across just slightly warmer and more flexible. And while the stuff from Station to Station still sounded weird, its debts to black beats and licks were more pronounced than on record--the drum pattern that cants precariously toward the front of each line of "Stay" sounded distinctly African, and the backing vocals of guitarist Carlos Alomar and bassist George Murray (both black) on "TVC-15" recalled Huey Smith & the Clowns. Most striking of all, the blues materials of "Waiting for My Man," which the Velvets (and an earlier Bowie) strove to render static, were instead accented, adding an extra irony to the white-boy-in-Harlem lyric.
This was apparently a delicate synthesis. Three nights later, at the Garden, both the sound mix and Bowie's voice had lost power and clarity and the music was it reduced to good rock and roll, nothing more. What's more, Bowie bands come and go, but Alomar and Murray and former Roy Ayers drummer Dennis Davis and former Yes keyboard man Tony Kaye are essential to this music; only Canadian guitarist Stacy Haydon, who was fine, seems replaceable. And finally, there's no reason to believe Bowie appreciates what he's achieved. His taste in David Bowie has never been very trustworthy.
But my impression is that the ideas of this music, combining the nihilistic compulsion that energizes bands from Black Sabbath all the way to C.B.G.B. with black music's muscular, adaptable drive to survive, could define '70s rock the way the Stones defined '60s rock. That may not be an altogether heartwarming hypothesis, for this music runs not only hot but cold. But at least it is not inconducive to life.
Village Voice, Apr. 5, 1976