Monday, September 19, 2016

David Bowie, "Red Sails"

This Bowie live set on German TV in 1978 justifies YouTube's existence

Try as I might, I cannot get over the deaths of David Bowie and Prince earlier this year. Both men were true musical geniuses, as well as rebels against narrowly-defined masculinity. In the case of Bowie, his death prompted me to finally check out an album I had heretofore ignored: Lodger. I didn't know any of its songs, and although it was recorded in the late 70s, I'd always heard that it was a departure from what Bowie did on Low and Heroes, perhaps my two favorite records of his.

Well, I had been steered wrong. Lodger is phenomenal, a melding of his impressionistic Berlin sound with hard-edged pop rock. It's like a glimpse into the alternate reality 1980s that I wished had come to be. No song illustrates this better than "Red Sails." It has Adrian Belew's chaotic, effects-laden guitar and the humming, slightly ominous (and surely Eno derived) electric groove that underlay Iggy Pop's Idiot album (produced by Bowie.) Beneath it lies the insanely tight, amazing rhythm section of Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar, and George Murray, setting a rock solid base. There is a theme of travel, accentuated by the fast tempo and galloping beat, but we're not sure where we're going exactly, until the chant on the bridge about going "to the hinterland." It is perhaps the only song ever to properly embody the propulsion of travel combined with its anxiety.

Bowie was so amazing that this song comes from an album usually regarded as relatively minor in his oeuvre, the least notable of his Berlin Trilogy, and is still superb. I hear it now, with its themes of travel, less as part of the Berlin Trilogy and more Bowie pointing the way forward to a new musical territory to explore. He had survived fearsome levels of drug abuse in the mid-1970s, went into a kind of therapy in Berlin, and emerged as the purveyor of a new, nervy kind of poppy art rock with the same sharp angles and adventurous spirit of New Wave, but without being derivative in any way. He and Prince both had a rare ability to both drive and respond to changes in the musical landscape without sacrificing originality. (Well, apart from the mid-80s in Bowie's case.) I despair because I don't know if we will ever see artists capable of that again.

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