BLACKSTAR DAY

Two years and two days on from Blackstar and Bowie’s 69th. Two years on from Bowie’s departure. January 10th: Blackstar Day.

Bowie's Blackstar

Blackstar Day

How much more do we know about the album and its messages? Lots, if you’re forensically inclined and need to have the whys explained. I’m not and I don’t. To me, Blackstar is kinda frozen because when Bowie went, time slowed – for a little while – and when you go back to the album, time slows again. Maybe that’s down to how and when you listen to it.

But when do you listen to it?

Not too often is my answer. Not yet, anyway. Definitely not in daylight, and not without complete attention for the whole album – it’s that kind of record. And even though it’s not played often, it feels as close and personal as any lifelong favourite, as it no doubt does for every other Bowie fan out there. I did play Blackstar on Sunday though, for the anniversary of its release. Mary Anne Hobbs paid elegant tribute to Bowie in her morning radio programme, as you’d expect, and that night, out walking in the 2-degree dark with a feels-like -6 freeze, Blackstar focused the senses. No distractions. New things heard. Still as knocked out by it – and by him and his exit – as the first time.

Blackstar is such a full-on album that it feels like the best gigs you’ve been to. Moving yet introspective, possibly even transcendent, yet never to be taken for granted. Like a true live-music moment, Blackstar absorbs. It’s more than just an album of music: it’s a life and a death and an afterlife, all at the same time, and it’s this inseparability that surely makes Blackstar’s pull stronger. I don’t want to know too much about its making or its meaning, if there is a meaning – again, not yet. Just enough to revel in its jazzed creativity, but not so much that the mystery and the magnitude of that January 2016 weekend is lost. It’s the kind of album that makes you think UP, especially on the title track and Lazarus. We think space, we think in ideas, we think bigger when we listen to Bowie’s best. Don’t we? And I’d put The Next Day up there as one of his best too, another album which fits the blackout of night. They’re not for comparing, and Blackstar stands alone both for the music and what it came to represent, but The Next Day was a step toward. Countless times I’ve lost myself in it in the small hours when sleep has slipped away.

So yes, back to Blackstar. It deserves a quality of attention. You could say that, with that album and its layers and wrappings, Bowie is teaching us how to listen again – a last lesson from a pop-music-art creator-collaborator, a signal to get off the musical waltzer and slow things down a bit. Or, in the case of Dollar Days, slow down a lot … there’s a good reason for it not being the last track on his last record. Too fraught a finish. If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to … fuck, man. Those words, followed by the spirited sax that rises out of them, are almost unbearable. I Can’t Give Everything Away at least offers a momentary musical lift.

And with that, we have another year and another RIP to David Bowie. Still vivid and unreal, it’s all we can do to cue up the music and immerse ourselves in Bowie stories. There’s no such thing as indulgence this week, so take your radio pick from Marc Riley’s Bowie tracks, or Mary Anne Hobbs and her interviews with Donny McGaslin and Denis O’Regan, or a repeat listen of this “Heroes” 40th anniversary doc. Just do it all, and check this Guardian feature on writers’ top Bowie tracks too.

For what it’s worth, this post was made with No Plan, half of Stage, one whole Reality and a double dose of Disco King. Previous words on Bowie loss here and here, and an Earthling review here

Just sharing the love.

2016: the worst, the best

Festive salutations and a happy new year!

Hope the bigfella Claus delivered the goodies, but whatever delights came spilling out of his magic sack, 2016 was a tough gig. What a remorseless cull of rock and pop names, and it didn’t even break for xmas – George Michael on Christmas Day, Rick Parfitt on December 23rd. Surely there’s got to be a little bit o’ room for a little bit of Quo in everyone’s collection, so how about spinning a handful of harder-rocking SQ to celebrate Parfitt and keep the party going at the 12 bar, even if it’s only in your head? Mystery Song, Don’t Drive My Car, Over the Edge and Is There a Better Way will all do the trick.

So, another bit of chat about the music events and highs of 2016? We’ll list a few, right after the shortest of December Rewinds.

REZNOR’S RETURN

Nine Inch Nails came back in recorded form with a new EP. Not the Actual Events appeared earlier in December and a first listen to Burning Bright (Fields on Fire) shows Reznor and soundtracker-turned-bandmate Atticus Ross on slow-grinding, doomy form. More to follow in 2017?

SHOCK of the year

David Bowie. Not over that one, even a year later, and Blackstar is still a difficult listen. The upcoming new Five Years documentary in January will no doubt be the most fascinating, and the most emotionally-charged, of the lot as it covers his last years.

TRACK of the year

OK, so the track came out in 2015, but Bowie’s Blackstar is a highlight for ANY year, as is the re-tooled Sue (Or in a Season of Crime). Iggy’s American Valhalla and Nick Cave’s Anthrocene are right up there for edgy atmos. And for something more manic, Spit Out the Bone is on heavy rotation over here too – fast and melodic Metallica with Hetfield in his most convincingly aggressive voice since the Black Album.

MISS of the year

As in, a gig on your doorstep that you really should have gone to. And in Oxford a few weeks ago, that was Primal Scream. Why a no go? Fear of too much Moving On Up and Rocks and Country Girl, not enough Vanishing Point Xtrmntr Evil Heat aggro. What did they play? Moving, Rocks, Country, but also Accelerator, Shoot Speed/Kill Light, Swastika Eyes and Kill All Hippies. ‘KIN ELL… ludacris decision making on my part. Kiran Leonard also a bad miss.

LUCKY MISS of the year

As in, a gig on your doorstep by a band you don’t know but, coz of who’s involved, you’ve got innerest piqued. Step forward Honky, the band of Butthole Surfers and Melvins bassist Jeff Pinkus. Check the music online – not great. Reject gig. Wonder if gig ended up being one of those ‘should have been there’ moments. Check trusted review source (Nightshift page 10). It wasn’t.

NEW SOUNDS of the year

Still getting into these new-to-me discoveries, but semi industrial groove psyche dealers Blackash from Birmingham and Belgian avant noise punks Raketkanon are doing the job nicely, as are Blackstar band leader Donny McCaslin – beefy modern jazz with a drummer who absolutely kills it – and downbeat electroni-cists worriedaboutsatan, who also have their music making its mark in Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation. Lofty company for the satanworrieds. Three Trapped Tigers and The Comet is Coming brought explosive prog math and Heliocentrics-fuelled heavy beats jazz-ish respectively.

ALBUM of the year

The old guard put out a lot of great great stuff this year, and the top 3 are linked by maturity, mortality and death: Bowie, Iggy and Nick Cave reached new highs in heavy themes, and Blackstar is the peak. Once January 10th revealed its scalp,  Blackstar became forever more than just a record.

Others: FUCKINGMETALLICA, Mogwai, Melvins, Crippled Black Phoenix, Kandodo and McBain, Cult of Luna w/Julie Christmas, Thee Oh Sees

PRINCE of the year

Prince. ‘nuff said. Check this clip, worship non religiously, then get a music fanatic’s view of Prince’s passing from Henry Rollins in what is one of his best LA Weekly missives of the year.

FISHY MEDIA FEATURE of the year

Did you see this feature in the Guardian back in the summer? Fishbone. Yes, Fishbone. Why??? Don’t know. But if, like me, you never got round to actually buying their albums when Swim and Freddie’s Dead and Everyday Sunshine were doing the rounds, here’s the prompt you need to pick up The Reality of My Surroundings and Give a Monkey a Brain…. the only downside is the 20-odd years without these phenomenal heavy funk rock ska metal explosions tripping out the (monkey?) brain.

BIG 3 AT 30 of the year

Three of the Big Four put out their meisterworks thirty years ago: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, 1986. Anthrax shunted Among the Living out a few months later, in 1987… heady days for head bangers, right?  Some, if not all, are ingrained so deep that we don’t even need to press play, but when DID you last press play and listen to Master of Puppets, Peace Sells and Reign in Blood end to end?

There’s nothing to say about Puppets. It’s pretty much perfect and reveals much less on a new listen, precisely because it was THE album of that bunch. Some say it needs a remix but nah, leave it – keep the mud on. Peace Sells and Reign in Blood can still bring surprises, though. With possibly the best opening track of any major thrash record, Megadeth’s #2 sounds even more accomplished today, and you can feel the chaos darkening the vibe. As for Reign in Blood, this is still the anomaly because it’s the least metal of the classics…way more disturbing and a truly diabolical force summoned in 28 possessed minutes. Still deadly.

Happy new year, have a great start to 2017. ‘til next time!

David Bowie

Listening to David Bowie. Again. Sixth straight day now – nothing but Bowie, except for Iggy Pop’s The Idiot last night, which has DB within and all over anyway.

Man, what a week. No one saw that coming, did they? And yet here we are, a week in to a world without David Bowie, a week that started just hours after Blackstar emerged as a vigorous statement of presence and life.

It seems odd to feel this saddened and moved by the death of someone you never knew – it’s not grief, but it is loss of some sort, and the scale of comment and tribute to David Bowie means that it must be valid, it must be real. Listen to Marc Riley open his evening show on the day of Bowie’s passing and you’ll hear a seasoned broadcaster who struggles to hold it together. It’ll bring a tear. It did to me.

With Blackstar topping the charts, many people will have had it on heavy rotation this week. Me, I can’t bring myself to play it again just yet. It was the last music I played on Sunday evening, 10th January, and that exploratory first proper listen had good omens – not surprising given the Sue, Blackstar and Lazarus teasers ahead of the launch, all of which led to us being just a bit fckn excited by the Bowieotherness of this new music. Like everyone, I looked forward to sinking into Blackstar as an album after two months of trying not to hear the singles too often. Wanted to save some of freshness for the right context.

Waking the next day, we hear that Blackstar’s creator had died. Day by day the insights and revelations started to unfold with touching, revealing comments and tributes from the likes of Tony Visconti, Brian Eno, Mike Garson and Henry Rollins who, as usual, pens a precise, impassioned piece of reportage, fanaticism and insight. He writes about music like the fan that he is, like the fans that we all are.

With Bowie though, we’ve all got our own version, haven’t we? No-one really knew who he was but he made connections, not just with people and listeners but with ideas, scenes, forms, genres, literature, cities even. He connected on a distant yet inexplicably deep level with us, so much so that you could pick him up at any time in his career or your life and still have him mean something massive. You didn’t have to have been there in his reputation-defining decade, transfixed by a full-beam Starman on the telly. Death of Ziggy? Nope – wasn’t around, read about it as an adult. Low, Heroes? Same deal. My earliest memories are a TOTP Ashes to Ashes vid and a lingering oddball imprint of Bowie in front of a mirror turning himself into a baldy alien – spooky as fuck. Still haven’t worked out how I saw that.

So he was part of the pop years of early childhood with Let’s Dance, Absolute Beginners, Under Pressure and the like, but when you reach adolescence and leave pop behind because you’ve been punched in the guts by rock, metal, Big Four thrash, Seattle and the alt/industrial bloom of the early 1990s, how do you find David Bowie?

You don’t.

You don’t find Bowie because, unlike Zeppelin, Sabbath, Motorhead and other relative elders, he just doesn’t figure in those scenes. He’s irrelevant. Meanwhile you get busy with Soundgarden, Faith No More, Ministry, Tool and Nine Inch Nails, whose Broken becomes a big deal. So aggressive. The Downward Spiral becomes the best new album you’ve ever heard, and that’s when it all starts: Trent Reznor cites Low as an influence.

And you’ve never heard of Low but you can’t believe Bowie the Popstar could ever have informed Nine Inch Nails.

And then you discover the Stooges, and see Bowie’s name on Raw Power.

And you see that Nirvana’s Man Who Sold the World was not written by Nirvana.

And around the same time you hear some industrialised rock on daytime Radio 1, but there’s a proper singer and avant piano that your youngadult ears don’t understand … surely not NIN with a vocal transplant?

No. It’s Heart’s Filthy Lesson, and the Outside album – dark, vital, bold, conceptual, heavy and one of Bowie’s best – is the one that marks the start of a beautiful, labyrinthine journey with the man who took a permanent leave of absence from our world this week. 1995 was my Real Time convergence with the path of Bowie’s restless star.

So it wasn’t so much that I or people like me found David Bowie, but that – somehow – Bowie found us, and what he did in the next couple of years cemented his presence: tour with Nine Inch Nails, appear on Reznor’s Lost Highway soundtrack, bang on about Photek and drum n bass and fuse it all into Earthling (fckn great record, don’t know why it gets a so-so from cr*t*cs), sing on Goldie’s Saturnz Return album, become a player in the art world, publish a fake book that hoaxes the art world… and that’s just the stuff I either have or remember from a sliver of time in what were supposed to be his past-it years. Can you imagine how warp-speed the 1970s must have felt?

And can I say again how essential Outside and Earthling are?

But, like Blackstar, they haven’t been played (yet) this week … instead, solace has been found in the post-Earthling run of ‘Hours…’, Heathen and Reality, records that slightly underwhelmed on first listen but grew – like new Bowie pretty much always does – as soon as you accept that it is what it is, and it’s not what he was. Those albums, all air-conditioned cool and surface calm, give you SPACE to luxuriate in the lost man’s voice and do it far away from the mega hits that covered the news and the radio this week. Hours… may be the slightest of the three but even there, If I’m Dreaming My Life and What’s Really Happening are Bowietimeless. Black Tie White Noise, Buddha of Suburbia, All Saints Collected Instrumentals and Tin Machine (never understood the full-on trashing they got) have also all done the job this week. New detail is revealed with every listen, which is one reason why we end up with our very own strange fascinations of this far-reaching artist: he gave – no, gives – so much that we can always learn and will never, ever catch up.

David Bowie. Transmitter, seer, creator, and truly an artist of both sound and vision. A more significant rock music loss is impossible to imagine.