David Bowie Memory Palace [part 44]

Last Promo ©2016 Jimmy King

Last Promo ©2016 Jimmy King

2016 [continued]

The last song on “★” had just been released as the third, and first posthumous, single from the album last week. On my first listen, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” echoed the winsome, Toots Thielemans  harmonica sound of “Never Let Me Down” until I realized that maybe even that had an earlier precedent in the genial “A New Career In A New Town” from side 1 of “Low.” Now, that’s all I can hear listening to this song. Why it wasn’t always that way I can’t say, seeing as “Low” is a top three Bowie album for me and I would rate “Never Let me Down” among his dead last material.

But the closer to side one of “Low” was a more optimistic song. “I can’t Give Everything Away,” in spite of its loveliness, began with the lyric “I know something’s very wrong.” A hardly reassuring statement in the best of times. The resulting song sounded bittersweet at best, even in the two days before we knew Bowie was to be no longer with us. Afterward, it cannot shake the feel of an elegy. For his part, Bowie comes across with an understandable sense of urgency as he attempts to succinctly summarize his modus operandi. As with “Lazarus,” there is a straightforward quality to the song that avoided ambiguity.

david-bowie---icantgiveeverythignawayDLBowie was stating his case here and after two verses and a repeated chorus of the upmost simplicity, lets the expressive sax of Danny McCaslin speak with full eloquence as his stand-in. McCaslin unleashed a flowing, euphonious solo of almost a minute and a half with rhythmically complex runs climaxing in a a glorious peak that really sticks with one afterward. Just a handful of listens had me anticipating the flurry of notes that effortlessly coalesced into a final message from Bowie that packed desperation and grace into the last minutes of the last Bowie song. Then the second verse returned for another airing before guitarist Ben Monder got to lay down the only guitar solo I can remember hearing on this album. Monder’s tone was muted and less euphoric than McCaslin’s sax and though his guitar echoed the sweep of  the sax, the solo lasted just under a minute; feeling more like a coda than the obvious peak that McCaslin brought to the song. After Bowie joined the song for a few more runs on the chorus [simply the title], the song froze up and faded like a polaroid, with its constituent parts eventually disappearing.

And then, that was all from David Bowie.


I can’t say why I made sure to buy  “★” on the day of release, but I’ve never been as grateful for doing so. Normally I am patient to a fault at acquiring music that I want. This time felt different. I didn’t even worry that there would be a 2xCD edition out within a few months. As it stood, buying this on January 8th allowed me two days to precess this work as something other than the last David Bowie album; released as he almost immediately died. As I said, it was shot through with intimations of mortality from the first note, but death had always been nipping at Bowie’s heels as a consistent theme in his work. His recent albums had no shortage of songs with death references. That an almost 69 year old artist would have such concerns was hardly surprising. The difference here was that earlier excursions into Thanatos were intellectual exercises for this man; not redolent of his day to day experience.

What I love about this album was that it was both a personal album for Bowie where he really invested himself in the work, and yet it also broke new artistic ground for him, and balanced the whole package with a generous serving of the sort of craftsmanship that he could never abandon, no matter how lofty his artistic aims. Bowie loved to absorb radical new musical ideas and be the artist who was “second to market” with them. Often, this manifested in a fundamental trendiness that resulted occasionally in exciting new syntheses of disparate styles. His groundbreaking album “Low” was perhaps paramount among these projects. The most tragic?  The johnny-come-lately stab at industrial [ca. 1995, no less!] immediately comes to mind.

The David Bowie of his last four albums had wisely left adaptation of the latest sounds in rock for his artistic toolkit by the wayside to concentrate on the art rather than the process. “Bring Me The Disco King” managed to thrill with a straightforward stab at jazz that didn’t try to fuse it with anything else. It had me expecting more that the single “Sue [Or In A Season of Crime]” belatedly followed up on, though I’ve shamefully still not heard the original version. Hearing that Bowie had jettisoned his [fine] steadfast rock players to enlist jazzbos made a lot of sense to my ears, and the album has more than bore this out. It’s really isn’t a jazz album, but rather, it’s an album informed by jazz; occasionally using jazz [masterfully] in service of his songs. There is plenty of exciting, complex playing to he heard here, but the craftsmanship is subordinated to the artistry of the songs. Nothing here was performed for its own sake [though that can be exhilarating, as well].

Tony Visconti has yammered on about more songs being in the can and perhaps a DLX RM of “★” might be in the cards for a few months down the road. I hope that saner heads prevail and let sleeping dogs lie. I’d hate to see this strong artistic statement of a man facing the end of his life be watered down for the sake of commerce. At this point, I see no need for it. Visconti says a lot of things that don’t necessarily manifest at any rate. On the other hand, Bowie was such a planner and schemer that I can easily imagine him defining a series of releases that would hit the marketplace for years after his demise. All the same, I hope that there are none. After all, we’ve had 52 years to absorb this man’s art. Isn’t that enough?

Strangely enough, for the last several years, prior to 2013, when I thought that he had quietly retired, I often would consider “what would be the most exciting and courageous thing that Bowie could do when he died?” The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that he owned almost all of his recording masters. His canon had been potent enough to float a bond issue in the 90s!  Had I been in his shoes, I would have released all of the copyright and publishing to the public domain so that the body of work would dramatically continue to spread and mutate in the wake of my death. Anyone who wanted the music or wanted to use it as raw materials for something new would have that right.

That’s why I was so surprised when “I Can’t Give Everything Away” appeared as a song title! If I had his career, that would be how I’d want my legacy to continue. I would have given everything away! The family can’t be hurting for finances. Of course, the song parsed that title in the other reading that was possible. Instead, he was arguing for retaining some mystery and opacity even as he sought to communicate the reality of his situation via metaphor and artistic innuendo.

I will honestly miss the artist. I truly felt that we had another decade of music to come from him, but at least he went out on a high water mark. I feel that Bowie put himself primarily into three albums: “Stationtostation,” “Low” and “★.” There were many other good albums that reflected his interests and thoughts, but I think that they were colored by varying degrees with commercial concerns in addition to their artistic concerns. That there were also albums with almost no artistic concerns can’t be denied either. The David Bowie Continuum covered a fairly wide swath of ground.

To his credit, one telling detail about the man was that when he first grabbed the brass ring in 1972 after “Ziggy Stardust,” the first thing he did but extend the spotlight to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Mott The Hoople. It spoke of a generosity of spirit that seemed admirable. He gave artistic and financial oxygen to writers and performers he admired [and yes, pilfered from] and gave them a leg to stand on in the marketplace for the first time in their careers. In return, his body of work was the bedrock from which countless artists I enjoyed took their own inspiration. It’s really true; without Ferry and Bowie, my Record Cell would be a lot smaller.

bowie-wave

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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13 Responses to David Bowie Memory Palace [part 44]

  1. cdave2 says:

    [stands and applauds]

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  2. JT says:

    You know, with a little fine-tuning and a few edits, you can almost go back and ret-con this series into a Rock GPA. Seemed to drift more and more into that territory as you went along.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – That was intentional. I had not reviewed “The Next Day” and on the first day, this thread was intended to be a “Blackstar” review, so by the end, it went in that direction. But really, this thread was intended to be more like the non-review posts in the even larger Simple Minds thread. Only it was constructed through the framework of how I experienced Bowie’s career in real time.

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  3. Taffy says:

    Hey – thanks for the great Bowie series, as heard thru the ears of a Monk! Great to follow along with your journey. Like you, Bowie was (is) a pivotal artist in my musical universe. I’m still digesting Blackstar, and I’m still filling gaps in my Bowie collection (I’m actually missing most everything after Let’s Dance and before Heathen!).
    Oh, and I totally agree that it would be great if Backstar remained his final album, but we all know that the powers that be surely won’t let that be, so hopefully any posthumous releases do indeed come out as Bowie himself cleared with ground control before his final launch.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – More than happy to share it all. Missing everything between “Tonight” and “Hours…?” There’s only a few I’d demand you own. “The Buddha Of Suburbia” is primary among these. I also liked “Tin Machine” quite a bit back in the day, but your mileage may vary. “Earthling” may be wrong on the face of it, but it’s worth it for about half of the tracks which are pretty great. “Black Tie, White Noise” is another half great album. Maybe do a DL mashup of those two and you’d be in clover! As for posthumous Bowie releases, one can be certain that The Thin White One himself undoubtedly plotted at least a decade of further releases under his aegis while it was still possible.

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  4. Echorich says:

    If there is any sort of programming intent in the lineup of songs on ★, then ending with I Can’t Give Everything Away is certainly proof.
    Almost five months into 2016, and no other song has made me sit back and just listen to it over and over like this one. The first time I heard it, I welled up in tears. The most recent time I listened to it, I welled up in tears.
    I have to agree with you Monk, this is an elegy, it’s a man coming to terms with his import in the world, his power to change the world, or lack thereof, even for those close to him.
    It immediately reminded me of a song which has been one of my favorite Bowie songs of the past 20 years, Thursday’s Child. That song open’s 1999’s Hours, finding Bowie reassessing his life, his career, and comforted by the new love and life he had found with Iman. It is a beautiful love song that finds Bowie wearing his heart on his sleeve. I Can’t Give You Everything is like a bookend to Thursday’s Child. It’s a final, loving farewell. But just like with all the best Bowie songs, it’s something much bigger than that, reaching out to his entire audience.

    Thank you Monk for making this review of David Bowie a personal one. It has gone a long way to allowing your readers and contributors, especially this one, to let out and share some of those feelings, those special moments and celebrate an incomparable artist.

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  5. It was the most personal remembrance I’ve read, and I still get misty eyed at the sentence, “And then, that was all from David Bowie.” We all know, from a pretty early age, that we’re going to die ourselves one day, but there’s a part of our minds (a part of mine, at least) that thinks that if you knuckle down, do the work with craft and care, be kind and sincere, and your own kind of beautiful, you’ll be rewarded with at least a longer and happier life than most, live on in people’s hearts, and you’ll find “another way down,” to cop a phrase. I guess he mostly got those things, which may prove my theory, but I did so hope for another few years of music, particularly given how deeply good the last two were. OTOH, if you have to leave … this was certainly a high note to leave on. Show business rule #1, well played David.

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  6. SimonH says:

    My wife still finds it hard when I play those last two tracks…understandable really.

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  7. Jordan says:

    Well reviewed series Monk.I also bought Blackstar the day it came out.I have now had several months to listen and absorb.For me,the last track,I can’t give everything away,is my favorite.Not because it is the last track of the last album ever by Mr Bowie but simply because the song resonates with me musically and lyrically,could have been this year or 20 or 35 years ago.I think this is his best LP possibly since Low.In a way,this is how I imagined he would leave us,with no less of an art project or artistic statement,as much as about death as about life.

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