Thursday, January 21, 2016

Defined by a Footnote: David Bowie and Tin Machine

David Bowie's recent passing effected me, and like many, I feel the need to contribute to the many voices lamenting our loss.  I should admit at the outset, however, that although I have always been a fan of his work, I have never been a particularly devoted follower.  Even today, my collection of Bowie albums is embarrassingly small.  My introduction to Bowie was in the early 80’s when Let’s Dance was in regular radio rotation. Despite never actually owning the album myself, I can trace the majority of its tracks in my memory and faithfully air guitar along with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s inspired soloing.  I later got the ChangesBowie compilation that was released in 1989 and went to the accompanying Sound+Vision support tour in 1990. I admit, however, that I was far more interested in seeing King Crimson guitarist and frontman Adrian Belew play as Bowie's right-hand man. Belew did not disappoint, by the way - his backup vocals on Space Oddity still stand out as one of the live music highlights of my entire concert-going experience.

I paid attention when Bowie did anything, but clearly I was often distracted by the people in his orbit.  I did not "get" him as an artist in his own right well enough at that stage to begin prying open his catalog, and my interest in him might have all but stalled if it weren't for an article I misread.  I kept up with several music publications in the 80s, and in a brief editorial I saw that David Bowie was recording an album with a band at The Power Station.  When I saw this, I confused the New York studio that bore the name with the 80s supergroup led by Robert Palmer and backed by Duran Duran members. I was a fan of their eponymous album, and thought that David Bowie would be a really interesting lead for The Power Station if Robert Palmer planned to focus on his solo career. I tucked this piece of misinformation in the back of my mind and sat on it for months. 

This led me to the Bowie project that made the biggest impression on me, and oddly it was the one in which he tried to fade into the background: Tin Machine.  In the big scheme of Bowie’s career, Tin Machine might end up being a mere footnote, but it was the vehicle that brought me to a greater understanding of Bowie’s restless musicianship.

When Tin Machine showed on the new release rack of my local Sound Warehouse, I stubbornly perceived it as the Power Station’s follow-up album, despite the discrepancy in the name and an obviously different lineup. Listening to the Tin Machine album with the expectation of a glossy Power Station release was somewhat jarring. There was an aggressive intensity that the albums shared, but Tin Machine was significantly more ragged and noisy than I expected.  I did, however, find the tension between the obviously intellectual guitarist Reeves Gabriels and the gorilla groove tactics of the Sales brothers on bass and drums to be most compelling.

Still, it was Bowie that really piqued my interest in this project. At that point, he was the “guy that sung Blue Jean” as far as I was concerned. It was a puzzling phenomenon to see a high-polish pop-rock icon thrive in a relatively harsh musical environment. In retrospect, however, it was clear that his success had afforded him a certain status and, being the musician he was, would have nothing else to do with the artistic trappings of this title. Tin Machine, then, was an environment with one foot in the cerebral and the other in the primal and it effectively allowed Bowie to thumb his nose at the industry to which he owed his notoriety.

Tin Machine was, at times, abrasive, and did not sound like anything else that was out there in the public eye at the time. Its contrarian virtuosity was appealing, and it developed into a somewhat indulgent, private favorite at the end of my senior year. I had my eyes open for its follow up in 1991, and Tin Machine II served as the soundtrack to my second year at UNT. Tin Machine II was a more well-developed statement than its predecessor. In retrospect, the more polished feel of this album caused Tin Machine to lose a bit of the the manic grit that made them distinctive in the first place.  It is still quite good, and perhaps more varied in style than the debut album, but has not weathered quite as well.

I would continue to cross paths with Bowie’s material, playing his songs in cover bands, listening to adaptations of his more cerebral work, and just generally keeping tabs on his comings and goings. Delving into his massive catalog seemed daunting, however, and his mercurial nature made it difficult to get a bead on where to start. I got Low a few years later with the intent of examining his so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” but I never followed up. Sadly, that’s about it. It’s not that I disliked his material or had anything against him. I just kept putting it off – for decades.

And then he died.

So now I have the awkward feeling of being too late to David Bowie’s party, falling into the category of people who will disingenuously purchase Blackstar and Ziggy Stardust remasters post-mortem in an attempt to stay relevant. Perhaps that is the case, but I don't feel that my dragging feet reflect my impression of him as an artist or bandleader, but rather with my delusional idea that we would have him forever. Fortunately, he left a massive body of work behind, and an indelible mark on popular music.

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