David Bowie - Golden years

Steve Braunias looks at the back story of five songs from David Bowie's rich catalogue.
David Bowie. Photo / AP
David Bowie. Photo / AP

1. Ziggy Stardust (1972)

One of the few advantages of old age is that I was around when ancient history was being made, when it was new, sensational, dazzling - it was like that with The Beatles and it was like that with Bowie.

Young and old felt the same shock this week at his death. It didn't take long for the worst room in the world - the comments section at YouTube - to fill up with haters ("Bowie was just a fag", etc), but the first response from everyone else, everyone of sane mind, was disbelief. The world heard some very bad news.

In his lifetime, his greatest records were the shock of the new. He'd made two okay records before releasing the Ziggy Stardust album and no one knew what to make of it; it was baffling and amazing, possibly even profound. Plus there was genuine speculation he really had come from outer space.

The coolest song on it was the title track. Bowie liked to remark that he didn't make rock records, that he just used rock to express ideas. In fact he rocked out like a mofo.

The giant riffs on Ziggy by his first great guitarist, Mick Ronson, will always sound momentous.

But there was something venal or at least ruthless in Bowie's treatment of Ronson. Mike Garson, Bowie's longest-serving musician, saw it first-hand. He told Uncut magazine, "Sometimes, people get left in the dust. We've never discussed this, but I could feel an undercurrent of regret. He did fix it with Mick Ronson before Mick's death. In his own way, he does repair it.

"Underneath all the crap you read in books, David is a good guy."

According to singer Morrissey, Ronson regularly received handwritten letters from Bowie during the time he was producing a Morrissey album in 1992: "Mick would be thrilled to receive them, and he read them quietly." He died the following year of liver cancer. He was 46.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

2. Funtime (1977)

The great US talk show Dinah! was required lunchtime viewing for a generation of mums, the halt, the lame, the unemployed and college waggers throughout the 1970s, and I hotfooted it home from school to catch the classic 1977 episode with guest stars David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Their appearance was listed in the TV pages of the Listener. It seemed too good to be true. Watching it now, on YouTube, it still seems like some kind of hoax - these two degenerates on a show dedicated to family entertainment and American blandness.

Dinah: "Do you think you've influenced music?"

Iggy: "I think I helped wipe out the 60s."

Bowie sits by in a zip-up polyester jacket, a kindly uncle there to protect his wild, damaged protege.

"He was the best there is," Iggy wrote on Twitter this week. Bowie saved Iggy's career and maybe his life when he produced his great album The Idiot, featuring Funtime, which they performed on the talk show. Bowie is on keyboards and backing vocals; superstar as sideman, to Iggy's demented star turn.

He brought out the best music in people - writing the euphoric All the Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople, and co-producing Lou Reed's perfect pop album Transformer. With Iggy, he brought out the best music in himself. The official version of rock history is that Bowie's trilogy of Berlin albums are Low, Heroes, and Lodger.

But the sequence really began with The Idiot. The friends moved to Berlin, vampiric creatures who lived by night. Bowie later said, "He became like a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound."

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

3. I Am a Laser (1973)

Things never worked out for Ava Cherry. As backing singer on his Young Americans album, she had a great voice, and striking looks - a black woman with short hair dyed peroxide blond. She was also Bowie's lover. She took him to Harlem, and gave him a crucial introduction to black music; he gave her a shot at stardom.

He produced an album for her, and wrote four songs, including the tasty I am a Laser, which he later reworked as Scream Like a Baby on his Scary Monsters album.

But her own album wasn't released until 1992. It died a quick death. I interviewed her in 1988, when she was passing through New Zealand on a promotional tour for another album that never went anywhere.

She'd grown her hair back, and was very intense, and immensely sexy. There wasn't a lot for me to ask or her to say about her album, and she didn't mind talking about the one thing that had made her famous. She was with Bowie for about four years. She told a story about how John and Yoko visited them one morning in 1974 and David asked her to make them breakfast.

Yoko turned on David and called him a male chauvinist and why didn't he do it himself. He glared at Yoko and Ava made breakfast.

"Everyone had a laugh about that," she said, "later".

Yes, and: what was he like? "He was very a intense guy, with sudden mood changes, from really good to..." She pulled an evil face. I asked whether it was a side-effect of cocaine.

"He had a greater capacity for it than anyone I knew," she said. "The body can take a lot when you're young."

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

4. Sound & Vision (1977)

Low was his most shocking album to live through. Punk had come out, but Bowie didn't bother with it; he'd gone somewhere else, somewhere wilder.

Inspired by Kraftwerk, and guided by Eno, Low sounded like it was for and by robots - it was so mechanical, an artificial intelligence at work, the music of underground bunkers and interior lives. It was so unfamiliar and so brilliant.

There were songs that lasted only a couple of minutes. The hit single, Sound & Vision, barely had any singing on it, and the words were elliptical, a set of cards with words on them, shuffled and dealt on the lyric sheet.

But the album wasn't any kind of downer. In many of the photos taken of Bowie with Eno, Iggy, Robert Fripp and others who helped make the Berlin albums, he's laughing his head off. It's the same with photos taken since then, too.

He was intelligent, cool, beautiful, never fat or haggard, and seemingly very, very happy, with a good sense of humour - in a list of his 100 favourite books, he included the satirical magazines Private Eye and Viz.

He was all smiles the one time I met him. It was backstage after his concert in Wellington's Athletic Park in 1983. He was lithe, blonde, toothy. He said, very cheerfully, "Hello! Working hard?"

I stood there with my hands deep in my pockets. I wasn't nervous; I was more in a state of dread. I'd scored the job of selling merchandise at the show - T-shirts, mostly - and was given a sack for the money. The sack got filled in about 20 minutes.

Every seller worked from a little hut, which had a beer fridge in it; I started putting the money in the fridge. The fridge got filled in about 30 minutes. Bowiemania had come to Athletic Park.

The only place to store any more sales were deep, deep in my pockets.

Photo / AP
Photo / AP

5. Letter to Hermione (1969)

Interview with Bowie, 1972: "Were you ever tempted to get into the James Taylor thing of autobiographical songs?" Answer: "Yeah, I had a spasm of that, but thank God I got out of it."

The "spasm" was Letter to Hermione, a tender, wispy song on his debut album, directed at a dancer who broke his heart.

She left him for another dancer, and to star in a film called Story of Norway.

The standard version of Bowie is that he was never any kind of memoirist, that he wrote in character or disguise - Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke - and maintained an emotional distance in his music.

Perhaps it wasn't an act. Biographers describe his mother as "unemotional, unloving, demanding, flamboyant, fanciful, and in many ways, his doppelganger, his other self".

But his life and family are all throughout his records.

Several songs refer to the tragedy of his step-brother Terry, who was committed to an asylum, and committed suicide. Bowie had previously told an interviewer,

"I feel tremendous guilt because I grew so apart from my family. I hardly ever see my mother and I have a step-brother I don't see anymore. It was my fault we grew apart and it is painful -- but somehow there's no going back."

Guilt, regret, damage - and, towards the end, the major theme was death. His 2014 masterpiece Where Are We Now? was a tour of his past. He listed old familiar place names in Berlin ("Had to take the train to Potzdamer Platz"), and appeared in the video wearing a T-shirt. It reads, Story of Norway.

The video is set in artist Terry Ousler's studio; it looks like a kind of junkshop, full of random objects. "Old iron, old bones, old rags," as WB Yeats wrote, "in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Dead man walking ("Walking the dead"), on a farewell tour.

- NZ Herald

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