Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowieby Dave Thompson
By 1987, David Bowie was at a creative, critical, and commercial low. His most recent album was dismissed by the music press, his latest tour written off as a disaster. Fifteen years after becoming the most colourfully controversial superstar in recent rock history, Bowie was seen as a spent force. Almost twenty years later, Bowie has re-established himself at the… See more details below
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By 1987, David Bowie was at a creative, critical, and commercial low. His most recent album was dismissed by the music press, his latest tour written off as a disaster. Fifteen years after becoming the most colourfully controversial superstar in recent rock history, Bowie was seen as a spent force. Almost twenty years later, Bowie has re-established himself at the very peak of his profession in one of the most extraordinary comebacks in rock history. His 1995 release of the critically-astonishing 1:Outside album has been followed by equally groundbreaking efforts. He is a content family man, married to super-model Iman, and one of the richest musicians in the world. While most biographies on Bowie still focus on his early years, Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie is the first to chronicle the comeback in detail. Drawing upon exclusive interviews with fans, colleagues and associates, it is also the long-gestating follow-up to Dave Thompson’s Moonage Daydream (1987), widely hailed among the best David Bowie biographies.
"One of the most comprehensive reviews of [Bowie's] entire career." California Bookwatch
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The Rebirth of David Bowie
By Dave Thompson, Jennifer Hale
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2006 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
Kissing the Viper's Fang
They burned the spider in a New Zealand field at the end of the tour, in November 1987. For six months, David Bowie was carting the fifty-foot monstrosity around the world, so that every night at the outset of every show he might perch himself within its mandibles, to be lowered down onto the stage; for six months, too, he had subjected himself to one of the most tightly choreographed and musically structured tours he had ever undertaken.
Long before the end, he was sick of the sight of the beast that had once been his pride and joy. He juggled the set list to escape the strictures of the script, even admitted to taking quiet pleasure from the nights that high winds and lousy weather meant the spider could not be erected on the open-air stages that were the only venues that could accommodate the creation.
Now it was all over, and it was, Bowie said, "such a relief," standing and watching as the flames not only consumed the physical manifestation of the Glass Spider tour, but also devoured every last scrap of the psychic grief that had accompanied it: the bad reviews that lurked in every local newspaper, the disappointed catcalls from the audience, and the legion of gremlins that seemed nightly to descend upon the clockwork precision of the show.
Many of the problems were of Bowie's own making. "I over-stretched," he confessed later. He could not be held responsible for the musical mood that existed outside the circus, the growing realization in the pages of the music press and the hearts of his public that rock had grown bloated, tired and disgusting. But he was responsible for the Glass Spider, the crowning conceit in the spiral of ostentation that had consumed rock 'n' roll in the years since Live Aid. It was his show, his vision, his music and, at the end of the day, his white elephant. "It was so big and so unwieldy, and everybody had a problem, all the time, every day. [And] I just had to grit my teeth and get through it, which is not a great way of working."
The year 1987 was not the best time to be David Bowie. Indeed, the 1980s had scarcely been kind to him. Exiting the 1970s on the crest of a wave that looked like it would break, he opened the new decade with what is still one of his most enjoyable and farsighted records, 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). But a growing fascination with his burgeoning acting career (he made his big-screen debut in 1979, alongside Marlene Dietrich in Just a Gigolo), and a corresponding dissatisfaction with his record label of the past decade, RCA, saw him fritter away the first years of the decade with little more than a handful of dilettante musings.
He quickly regained his equilibrium, however, signing a massive, multimillion-dollar deal with EMI America, and rewarding them with a multimillion-earning new album, the Niles Rodgers–produced slickness of 1983's Let's Dance. A tour that same year amplified the record's popularity. It was only at the back of the mind that one sensed how the new album was almost absent from the two-hour concerts ... just four songs out of eight were even rehearsed for the show, and one of them ("Cat People") was a remake of an earlier movie theme. After all, Bowie had a decade's worth of albums to draw from, and a new army of fans. They'd probably already bought Let's Dance — now it was time to teach them the rest of the repertoire.
Meanwhile, dark murmurings of dissatisfaction were leaking out of the star's inner sanctum, reports that the stakes had grown so high that Bowie was suddenly lost — or worse, he was panicking. As he said, "what I'm best at doing is synthesizing those things that I find riveting," and his entire career to date was built around pursuing that synthesis. "Let's Dance put me in an extremely different orbit ... artistically and aesthetically. It seemed obvious that the way to make money was to give people what they want, so I gave them what they wanted, and it dried me up."
In the past, he had always followed his own musical instincts — "stubborn, obscure, confrontational in my own indulgent way," and he enjoyed "every second of it." The results — the glam slam of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, the soul of Young Americans, the icy textures of Low and "Heroes" — established him among the most creative, and creatively brilliant artists in rock 'n' roll history. Those instincts were failing him now. In the past, he would simply follow one album with another of utterly dissimilar textures, confident that a loyal audience of confirmed Bowiephiles would happily follow wherever he led, just as they had since his emergence in the early 1970s. But the Bowiephiles had been swamped now, smothered by a newer, massive audience that regarded him not as an artist, but as a commodity, and who would reward his compliance with further untold riches.
So Bowie complied. Later acknowledging that he had placed his own critical faculties on hold, for reasons (money, money, money) that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, 1984 saw him release Tonight, a feel-good, sounds-great combination of new dance routines and old, favorite covers. It stunk and he knew it — even before the album's release, Bowie made it clear that he wasn't going to tour, was scarcely going to move in support of the album. He shot a couple of videos, made a fuss about one of them ("Blue Jean" arrived wrapped up in a twenty-minute cinematic short, Jazzing for Blue Jean), and was scarcely seen again. He didn't even turn up to the MTV Awards, where the previous year's "China Girl" won the Best Video gong.
He could still pull the genie out of the bottle when he wanted to, however. His title song for Blue Jean director Julien Temple's movie Absolute Beginners was as fabulous as the film itself demanded, while Tonight served up "Loving the Alien," a soaring epic that, released as a stand-alone single, might have ascended to classic status overnight.
His performance at Live Aid in July 1985 was another wonder, and the album that precipitated the Glass Spider tour, 1987's Never Let Me Down, had more than its fair share of worthwhile songs. But dyed-in-the-wool fans looked for more than that in a new Bowie record. They also sought Bowie's glimpse into the future that had already inspired three successive generations of new rock movements — glam, punk and futurism — they sought confirmation of their own musical tastes, and they demanded a consolidation of all that creative prophesy.
Bowie was not, after all, the first artist to shade his music with the glamour of glam rock, but, Marc Bolan aside, he was the first to imbue it with a singular manifesto. Likewise Low's protopunkish dismissal of all that had passed as pop; likewise so many more of Bowie's 1970s albums. Even Let's Dance surfed a zeitgeist of sorts, even if it was simply the overproduced, over-slick and overwrought sheen that dominated the airwaves of the early to mid-1980s. As a late-1970s RCA marketing campaign memorably put it, "There's old wave, there's new wave, and there's David Bowie."
Where was that prescient brilliance now? From a simple listener's point of view, Never Let Me Down was a fair album, Glass Spider was an enjoyable tour. But they were dead-end streets all the same, alleyways that drifted as far from Bowie's core audience as they did from the very tides and fashions he had once so effortlessly predicted. Which is not to say he should have been making albums that sounded like the ones he'd created in the 1970s; but Bowie needed to make ones that meant as much as those albums had — to him, and to his audience.
It was not as if the scene that surrounded Bowie was totally fallow. 1987 saw the very first stirrings of the Madchester scene, as the Acid House dance regime began to rumble out of the clubs of Chicago and New York, and electronic music, the same electronic music that Bowie had done so much to popularize in the first place, prepared for its most cataclysmic upheaval yet. It was the year in which Industrial rock commenced its slow ascent out of the unknown thrashings of Throbbing Gristle and non, and into a marketable arena of loud guitars and frenetic rhythms. It was the year in which the Pixies released Come On Pilgrim, their debut EP and a harbinger of a new generation of rock-heavy fuzz and dynamics.
Bowie was aware of all these things, and was a fan of them, as well. But the man who would once have drawn from these scenes (and a few more besides) had taken a backseat when it came to songwriting and recording; either that, or had been wholly overwhelmed by the moneymen who reminded him that cult stars only sell music papers, while superstars sell millions of records.
The problem was, he was doing neither. Tonight topped the UK chart in its first week of release, but plummeted back down the listings again, while its platinum sales in the United States were largely clocked up in advance orders alone. Never Let Me Down fared even more poorly, barely going gold in America, and conking out at number six at home.
Off the road, with the embers of the spider still glowing in that field, Bowie began wondering why he even bothered anymore. He was tempted, in fact, to give up altogether, to concentrate on his movie career, to throw himself into his painting and art, to get out of the rock 'n' roll rat race.
"More than anything else," he acknowledged later, "I thought I should make as much money as I could, and then quit. I didn't think there was an alternative. I thought I was obviously just an empty vessel, and would end up like everybody else, doing these fucking stupid songs [and] singing 'Rebel Rebel' until I fall over and bleed."
But part of him still clung to the hope that it was boredom, not bankruptcy, that had pushed him to the brink, and that the old urges were still intact somewhere, if only he could peel away sufficient veneer to find them.
Bowie had recruited an enormous pool of musicians to accompany him on his records and tours over the previous few years, but only one player had remained constant through them all. Indeed, Carlos Alomar, the New York son of a Puerto Rican Methodist minister, had been playing alongside Bowie for the best part of fifteen years, since they had first met in New York, back when Bowie was recording with the Scottish songstress Lulu. Her career, all but moribund since the late 1960s, had just been rejuvenated by a hit cover of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World." But early 1974 found the pair working on the projected follow-up, booking into the RCA Studios on 6th Avenue to record with the studio's own house musicians.
Alomar was among them. Although neither of the songs he worked on that day (they also cut a radical revision of Bowie's latest UK single, "Rebel Rebel") would see more than a fleeting release, the friendship that was ignited would blossom into the longest unbroken working relationship in Bowie's long career.
From the Young Americans soul show, which allowed Bowie to place the glam of Ziggy far behind him, to the glacial Euroman Stomp of Station to Station, on through the Berlin trilogy of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, and beyond Scary Monsters to Let's Dance and Tonight, Alomar wasn't simply David Bowie's guitar player, he was the very heartbeat of any group of musicians the star assembled, a musical director who took his employer's visions for a song and placed them in a context where they might work to the best advantage.
Gradually, Bowie realized that those contexts were not necessarily the ones in which he wanted to move. There was something luxuriously reassuring about knowing that, whatever tune he threw at Alomar, it would come back rearranged for Top-40 perfection. But there was also something stultifying about that knowledge; the realization that he simply did not need to be forever dancing with the upper echelons of the chart; that his own musical constituency was happier snuffling around the fringes of the music scene, and his own successes tasted so much better when they did so.
But ten years had passed since he had last, truly, gone out on a limb; ten years since he had cut an album that not only bemused his audience, but so horrified his record label that they literally begged him not to release it. Only after the object of so much revulsion, Low, turned into one of the biggest hits of his career, and one of the most influential records in history, was Bowie's decision to persevere with it vindicated. Since then, as one writer admiringly put it, nobody would ever dare question one of his decisions again.
How had Bowie responded to that new freedom? By cutting a succession of albums that would not have raised an eyebrow in the most conservative golf club on earth. And, though he couldn't and wouldn't blame Alomar for that, he was also painfully aware that, for as long as he had the guitarist's seamless sense of rhythm and commerciality to fall back on, he was never going to escape that trap.
Alomar himself described the last years of their collaboration as a power struggle, as he attempted to keep Bowie pushing ahead, while Bowie struggled to take the music somewhere else entirely. Once Bowie came to the same realization, it was inevitable that there could only be one victor. Quietly, gently, respectfully, Bowie took Alomar aside one day and told him the news. They would not be working together again in the foreseeable future.
Alomar responded with similar grace, and wondered only how long the resolution would last. "I knew David wanted to do a different kind of music," he acknowledged. "[But] I always thought that if I gave [it] back to him, it would end up going back to the Spiders from Mars." And that, he smugly pointed out, was "exactly what happened."
Exhausted by the tour, Bowie spent his first few months of freedom at home in Montreaux, Switzerland, barely venturing out of the house for anything more than the necessities of life. By early spring 1988, he was ready to stir a little.
He was still uncertain as to his future direction. He knew he was tired of the album-oriented-rock (AOR) direction in which he was moving, but he didn't know how to escape it. So he didn't even try. Flying out to Los Angeles, he teamed up with American producer Bruce Fairbairn, best known for his fm-pounding work with Bon Jovi, to demo up a few ideas for a new album. Fairbairn assembled the band, borrowing guitarist Keith Scott and drummer Mark Curry from Bryan Adams' regular combo, and keyboard player John Webster from Tom Cochrane's Red Rider, to sashay through three songs, none of which really promised to go anywhere, but which might at least serve as a starting point for something.
Versions of the newly composed "Pretty Pink Rose" and "Lucille Can't Dance" would see the light of day in years to come, and he would return to the session's shot at Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" as well. At this stage, however, the union with some of America's heaviest hitting AOR journeymen came no closer to extracting Bowie from his musical morass than had anything else he'd done recently. The tapes were shelved and the partnership dismantled. Whatever Bowie was seeking, he wasn't going to find it in L.A. It was time to start his search afresh.
Bowie would not be stepping completely into the unknown. The L.A. experiment notwithstanding, he already had an inkling of what — or rather who — he needed next, as he closed his eyes to the business going on around him, and trusted instead the exquisite sense of balance that had already seen him through several careers worth of creative crises.
Excerpted from Hallo Spaceboy by Dave Thompson, Jennifer Hale. Copyright © 2006 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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