Thursday, July 27, 2017

Low Revisted - 1977's Avant-Garde Masterpiece

Simply put, the body of work David Bowie released in a single decade is mindbending. Bowie's '70s were a cavalcade of masterpieces: The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station To Station, Low, "Heroes" and Lodger, plus two live offerings and Pin Ups, an incredible collection of covers that sound like originals. The pace and intensity of that sort of creativity was only magnified by Bowie's own dedication to the characters he created; he was to rock theatre what Brando was to film. He didn't sing about Ziggy and Aladdin; he became them, mind, heart, body and soul. It's no wonder, then, as the decade faded into the 80s, that Bowie was exhausted, physically and artistically. When he moved to Los Angeles to record 1976's Station To Station, cocaine addiction entered the picture as well, possessing the Thin White Duke.

His childhood friend, singer Dana Gillespie, recalled, "Everybody did so much coke that you fell asleep wherever you could. David would be strutting around on the guitar and Mick Jagger and I would be playing duets, and then he and David would be mincing about." Playboy model Bebe Buell also hung out with David, his wife Angie and Jagger at the hotel. She said: "Mick was worried because David was doing so much cocaine that he would hallucinate. One time we were in David's suite and he asked us if we could see the angels flying outside the window."

At about this time, David struck up a solid bond with John Lennon in which drugs, music and a shared quirky sense of humor prevailed. They often spent a night on the town with Tony Visconti, who recalled: "We stayed up until 10.30am. We did mountains of cocaine, it looked like the Matterhorn, obscenely big, and four open bottles of cognac."

David’s most enduring friendship at the time was with Iggy Pop, the troubled singer with whom he became obsessed. When Iggy was in a psychiatric hospital in 1975, trying to kick his drug habit, David came to visit bearing gifts. Long afterwards he admitted: "We trooped into the hospital with a load of drugs for him. We were out of our minds, all of us. He wasn't well, that's all we knew. We thought we should bring him drugs, because he probably hadn't had any for days." So candid and naive. By this time, it was clear that Bowie needed a radical change in his approach to living, chosing to move to Berlin. "There's oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain. And I moved to Berlin to do it. I moved out of the coke center of the world into the smack center of the world. Thankfully, I didn't have a feeling for smack, so it wasn't a threat."

He went on to say of his downward spiral as the Duke, "I sunk myself back into the music that I considered the bedrock of all popular music: R&B and soul. I guess from the outside it seemed to be a pretty drastic move. I think I probably lost as many fans as I gained new ones." Though that cocaine addled era produced two of Bowie’s most revered offerings, particularly retrospectively, Bowie's move to Berlin was not only lifesaving, it was a return to the creativity that everyone had come to expect from the chameleon.

"For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway." A longstanding interest in German electronic music (he often cited Neu! and Kraftwerk as strong music preferences just before his move to Berlin) had to make the decision to live there even easier. All the elements were in place; his own natural brilliance, the desire to continue exploring new musical avenues, being surrounded with a cultural heritage that appealed deeply to him and the ability to be relatively anonymous. And so, work on Low began.

According to both Bowie and Visconti, Low was indeed reflective of a very low period in Bowie's life, and the overall mood of the album reflects just that without becoming drowned in moribund self-pity .  It's a near perfect example of what collaboration between the right artist and technician can produce; as much credit goes to Visconti for the stunning sonic achievement of the LP (and to "Heroes") as to Bowie. This is evident from Low's opening moments; the instrumental "Speed Of Life" assaults the listener with an explosive drum sound that simply hadn't been heard prior to the release of the album.

"Breaking Glass" continues the assault, this time with vocals that seem spontaneous. Retrospectively understanding this troubled period in Bowie's life, lines like "Don't look at the carpet/I drew something awful on it" leave a lot of room for the listener's imagination to fill, despite their poignancy; likewise, there's a vague-yet-specific distance to lyrics like "You're just a little girl with grey eyes/ Never mind, say something/Wait until the crowd cries." Even "Sound And Vision," finds him curious and confused about his own immediate future: "I will sit right down/ Waiting for the gift of sound and vision/ And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision..." The first side ends with another aggressive instrumental, "A New Career In A New Town," and perhaps the song's title is as telling as any lyrics could ever be. It's a wonderful bookend to the opening track, once again chunky and complex, everything held together with smoke and mirrors but remaining concrete through to the end.

Side two is a completely different album. Where the first side is seven quick-hit tracks with uptempo leanings, side two is four brooding instrumentals that obviously draw heavily on Eno's experience with dark electronic music. "Warzsawa" leads the listener through a futuristic metropolis, an alien utopia with ominous sky scrappers, and busy highways (a very different future than the one revealed in Diamond Dogs. All this is invoked through layers of synthesiser, pillars of electronic bliss. Cold, dark pulses of  piano start the track, continuing throughout, providing a steely heartbeat, a glacial timbre of grandeur. The listener is sent on a heady and isolated six minute journey, transgressing the realms of the pop music of Side One. The creation of the track is equally as interesting as the song itself. As the story goes, Bowie told Eno he wanted to create an instrumental with an “emotive, almost religious feel”. Eno, in his typical mad-scientist-meets-eccentric-professor way, suggested they record a track of finger clicks to signify chord changes. This session interrupted when Bowie and Tony Visconti left to attend a court date, leaving Eno to babysit Visconti's son, Delany. The kid got a bit restless and started playing around on a toy piano, repeatedly playing the notes A, B and C. Eno joined in, completing the melody. The melody in place, Bowie combined layers of vocals on top of each other in order to achieve a chorus effect. The chant itself is in a made-up language, enhancing the alien feel of the track, giving it a foreign context. Inspiration for this track came from a train journey through Warsaw which explains the foreign setting and the track's unique geography.

It was if the influence of the decadence and inherent sadness that permeates so much of German art found its way into Bowie's head and heart through these pieces. Still, for all the obvious melancholy, repeated listenings reveal rays of hope that shine through the gloom; if ever there was a blueprint for fighting to find the goodness in despair, side two of Low is the prototype.