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Guitar World APRIL 2016 - by Alan Di Perna
DAVID BOWIE 1947-2016
Guitar World pays tribute to the man who fell to earth and rocked the world for more than five decades.
"Oh, it's been very sick for a very long time, hasn't it?" he replied with a sly, confidential smile. It was a very Bowie-esque answer. Way too smart to be trapped into either ayes or no reply, he flipped the question over on its side and approached it from another angle. Which is what he did with rock music itself over the course of a career that spanned five decades and a dazzling array of genres - several of which Bowie invented himself.
His answer also afforded a glimmer of hope. He wasn't about to write rock music off. Fifty-five years of age in '02, he still had another fourteen years to live and a few more great albums in him.
Now, of course, it's David Bowie that's dead. He left this life on January 10 of this year, two days after his sixty-ninth birthday, following an eighteen-month battle with liver cancer. Very few people, even those close to him, knew of his illness. But his final album, Blackstar, is a rumination on mortality. He knew he was dying as he made the record, and he knew we'd be contemplating it within the context of his passing. It is his farewell gift to us.
"Live your life as if it were a work of art," the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said. David Bowie did that in spades, but also managed to turn the grim reality of death into an eerily beautiful artistic statement. A few months down the road, the fact of his passing is still difficult to process emotionally. Maybe that's because his work is still so much with us. And it's not only the twenty-five albums, hit records, groundbreaking music videos, sundry film roles and other collaborative projects he left behind. His influence is everywhere you look across the vast landscape of popular music.
He was born David Robert Jones on January 8, 1947, in Brixton, south London, and entered the music business during the heady mid-'60s days of the British Invasion, fronting the groups Davie Jones & The King Bees, The Mannish Boys and The Lower Third. Shortly thereafter he took the stage name David Bowie to avoid confusion with The Monkees' lead singer, David Jones. The world at large first became aware of David Bowie through his 1969 hit single Space Oddity. The epic, ambivalent story of Major Tom - an astronaut lost in space, but seemingly unperturbed by that - featured an otherworldly Mellotron track played by future Yes keyboard man Rick Wakeman, a compressed acoustic guitar hook and sparkly guitar solos played by Mick Wayne.
Space Oddity introduced a few stylistic innovations that would become Bowie hallmarks. He would frequently write about outer space, and do so in sprawling narrative compositions featuring chord modulations hitherto unheard of in rock, many of them drawn from the French chanson tradition. From the start, Bowie was working from a broader set of influences than most rock and rollers.
"I love Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf and all that particular tradition of French song," he said in 2002. "There were chord changes that were terribly emotive, and you didn't find them in rock. And I thought, But I want to use them. Well, I'll put them in rock. So chord sequences came straight out of that area and were joined with straight-ahead Motown chord sequences. And they became odd juxtapositions at first. They sounded odd. But it's just naturally a part of the way that I write."
A multi-instrumentalist, Bowie played guitar, keyboards and sax. He had a keen ear for choosing gifted and original musicians as his collaborators - guitarists in particular. In 1970, he joined forces with Mick Ronson for a series of albums that would define the glam rock era - Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold The World, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane. The sound was harder than earlier recordings such as Space Oddity, powered by Ronson's 1968 Les Paul Custom. This period in Bowie's career would make the blond, striking Ronson one of the great guitar heroes of the '70s. Many subsequent rock guitarists - notably Randy Rhoads - would take a major cue from him.
One of the greatest chordal guitar hooks of all time introduces Ziggy Stardust, the keynote song from the aforementioned 1972 concept album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Along with his eclectic musical background, Bowie had studied mime and theater with the British actor Lindsay Kemp in the late '60s. He drew on this training to usher in a new era of theatricality into rock music, and his Ziggy Stardust persona was the first great manifestation of this innovative new take on rock and roll.
A flamboyant, androgynous rock star with an ability to channel extraterrestrial messages, the Ziggy character was based in part on two American rock and rollers Bowie admired - Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Bowie would go on to produce landmark albums by both artists, but Ziggy was far more than the sum of these two parts. A sense of alienation from mainstream society very much defined youth culture during the turbulent, radicalized years of the early '70s. In transforming himself into a fictionalized alien, Bowie dramatized these feelings on a grander scale than anything that had been attempted before. Beyond Ziggy, Bowie would further develop this alien persona through his starring role in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Equally revolutionary at the time was Bowie's embrace of androgyny. He made it okay for rock musicians - and their fans - to wear heavy makeup and elaborate theatrical costumes. He posed in a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World and would often sit for press interviews in drag. This pissed off the small-minded, but proved incredibly liberating for disaffected youth at the time. Male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, transvestite... anyone who felt like an outsider could find a sense of belonging in Bowie fandom.
As the Ziggy Stardust lyric says of the song's hero, "he took it all too far, but boy he could play the guitar." However outrageous Bowie's theatricality became, it was always rooted in the gritty truth and cranked-up rock guitar playing. And much of this originated from Bowie himself, a fine guitarist in his own right. He handled six-string duties on another iconic track, Rebel Rebel, which boasts a raunchy, seminal guitar hook. A simple D to E figure against a ringing, open E string, but it drives the whole track.
The roots of genres as diverse as punk and hair metal can be found in Bowie's glam period. A lesser artist might have stayed with this musical direction for his entire career, but Bowie was always a restless, mercurial artist, changing musical genres almost as often as he changed costumes. The mid-'70s found him moving toward funk and soul music, and working with two American guitarists, Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick. While it's a tricky business to generalize about anything regarding Bowie, Slick generally tended to hold down the heavy rock leads, while Alomar served as Bowie's unstoppable funk machine. It was Alomar, for example, who originated the main riff for Fame, the massive 1975 hit that Bowie co-wrote with Alomar and John Lennon.
Alomar and Slick would work on and off with Bowie in the following years, but he was never one to stick with any one group of musicians for long. "I don't feel that sort of loyalty to bands and musicians and all of that," he said, "That feeling of 'Okay, I'm working with this person, now I have to work with him for the rest of my life.' I don't really have that kind of umbilical cord. I do look at them like, 'Who's going to be the best person for the job?' And the job dictates who I'm going to be working with."
By the end of the '70s, Bowie had moved to Berlin, where he kicked a nasty drug habit and plugged into the European art rock scene. With producer Brian Eno he began work on three albums that would be known as his "Berlin Trilogy": Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. While Alomar remained very much a part of the picture in this period, the title track for the "Heroes" album found Bowie working with the innovative former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, whose richly sustained lead guitar melodies form a kind of counter-melody to Bowie's voice, imparting a sense of tragic grandeur to this anthemic and much-loved Bowie song. And Lodger brought another boldly experimental electric guitarist, Adrian Belew, into the fold.
Looking back on the Berlin Trilogy in 2002, Bowie described it as "the most rewarding. Because it was a way of developing a language which I could then use, and have done, on and off, over the years. The others weren't so much about developing a language. It was more like copping an attitude toward a certain genre of music. But the electronic and German and European landscape that we found ourselves in the very late '70s - that was more about actually rewriting the way that one works. And that in no small part was due to Brian's, at the time, very odd ideas about how you should work in the studio - as he put it at the time, planned accidents. That was going to be the title of LLodger at one point - Planned Accidents."
Following this period of art rock experimentation, Bowie surprised everyone by moving into a much more straightforward style of pop presentation on his 1983 album, Let's Dance, produced by Chic guitarist Nile Rogers. The edgy alien rock star of previous decades had morphed into a regular, if strikingly handsome, guy in a nice suit. For Let's Dance, Bowie recruited an up-and- coming young lead guitarist at the time, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He had seen Vaughan and Double Trouble perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982. This was before SRV had landed his own major label record deal, but Bowie knew a great guitarist when he heard one. Vaughan's fiery leads on the Bowie song Let's Dance helped make it a major hit in 1983. The same goes for the follow-up China Girl, which Bowie had co- written with Iggy Pop. Following sessions for Let's Dance, Bowie offered Vaughan a slot in his touring band - a tempting offer, but SRV ultimately decided to focus on his own music. His work on Let's Dance however, had played a key role in launching his career.
Having operated as a solo artist for most of his career, Bowie next tried his hand at what was designed to be a band of equals - Tin Machine. He previously worked with the rhythm section of Hunt and Tony Sales on Iggy Pop's Lust For Life. Tin Machine's guitarist was Reeves Gabrels who had become friendly with Bowie during the latter's Glass Spider tour. Known to use massage vibrators and other appliances to wring wild tones from his guitar, Gabrels was an ideal successor to prior Bowie guitar men such as Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew.
After Tin Machine disbanded in 1992, Gabrels would follow Bowie into his next phase, which found him embracing contemporary electronic sounds such as industrial and drum and bass on 1995's Outside and 1997's Earthling. Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails in support of Outside, becoming close friends with Trent Reznor, who would later credit Bowie with helping him get off drugs. Another key guitarist to collaborate with Bowie during the final phase of his career was David Torn, a master of digitally manipulated guitar textures. Torn can be heard on Bowie's Reality and The Next Day albums, from 2003 and 2013 respectively.
In 2004 Bowie suffered a heart attack while performing onstage in Germany and had to undergo emergency angioplasty surgery. This would effectively put an end to his touring career, although he remained active as a recording artist, also producing a series of pensive, abstract music videos and coauthoring the play Lazarus with Edna Walsh. He worked on his final album, Blackstar, with his longtime producer Tony Visconti while undergoing chemotherapy treatment for the liver cancer that would ultimately claim his life. As the project unfolded, Visconti realized his friend and colleague of many years was making his farewell album.
"He was so brave and courageous," Visconti told Rolling Stone after Bowie's passing. "And his energy was still incredible for a man who had cancer. He never showed any fear. He was just all business about making the album.