Floating in the midst of millions of other fans mourning the loss of David Bowie, it’s hard to find just one or a few common themes about what Bowie and his music represented. For me, it was the hard rock of “Jean Genie,” “Suffragette City” and “Rebel, Rebel,” the anti-brand William Gibson-esque message of “Fashion” (you can almost hear “facist” if you listen to the doubling vocal track), and the highly danceable “Modern Love.” For some of my WPRB-FM friends, David Bowie epitomized every hip, trendy and erudite movement in the music business. From Lou Reed’s influence on his early career (much of which I believe is captured in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) to Rick Wakeman’s keyboards on “Space Oddity” to Bowie’s “This Is Not America” collaboration with Pat Metheny to his meta-meta-Christmas “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby (!!), Bowie intersected just about every plane of the music business, driving a perpendicular to each facet to reveal a new experience, a new tonal style, a new interpretation of something that had sedimented into our collective musical history.
When I heard of his death this morning my first thought was of some radio station friends who loved Bowie with nearly religious fervor. I get it, at least with three decades of hindsight. They felt what I did when Chris Squire died last May; a pillar of the soundtrack to our salad days was suddenly removed from its rightful place. We can’t count on that musical constant of constant change, and we are collectively, socially, poorer for it. We deal with uncertainty by looking for those things that are familiar; no matter how hard the work day or parenting night might be, you could listen to some Bowie (or Yes or Rush) and be grounded, at least temporarily. While those artists are alive, we refuse to age; when we lose our musical heroes we are fragile and exposed through those cracks in our framing.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Be weird. Be different. Define culture as you wish to be observed, because culture is all about observing how ideas spread. And if you’re asked to play keyboards for an upcoming artist whose music seems completely different, get more than twenty quid for it (read: Wakeman on “Space Oddity”) because you may just be providing the music for the dispersion of those new ideas.
Chalk up another transitive closure to amazon.com’s suggestion engine. While hunting for Yes “Live at Montreaux” on CD, I was presented with the concert mash-up of the last Genesis jaunt across Europe, appropriately titled “Live Over Europe 2007.” I ended up throwing a nice Rick Wakeman compliation (“Sixty Minutes With…”) and Asia’s “Fantasia Live in Tokyo” into my cart. Tuesday provided the perfect chance to audition all of the recent arrivals, as I had a trip to and from Newark airport along with a reasonable ride to a youth hockey league meeting. I’m disappointed that the Asia concert assembly didn’t include Steve Howe performing Clap, but on “Live at Montreaux” not only do we get Clap but the condensed game version of To Be Over with Howe on acoustic guitar, no lap steel, no other-Magnification required. It’s a great rendition of one of my favorite Yes tunes (I can’t further qualify it as favorite on the “Relayer” album because there are only three tracks on the whole thing).
Surprise, surprise, though, was the live Genesis CD. I was a bit disappointed in the Phil Collins vocals — while they’re crystal clear and the enunciation is better than most live recordings, he seems to have lost a bit of his range. The In the Cage medley, drawing on “Lamb Lies Down”, the Slippermen section of Cinema Show and the tail out of Duke’s Travels is spectacular — I listened to it three times before even popping in disc two of the set. The segue to Afterglow is very smooth (thank goodness for gapless playback on the iPod, or I won’t be able to listen to this one), but best of all, Firth of Fifth shows up, in pieces, with some Hackett-like guitar work by Mike Rutherford or Daryl Stuermer. Only thing missing (besides Supper’s Ready): instrument credits per track, to go along with the location credits for each.
Just finished reading Rick Wakeman: The Caped Crusader, a semi-biography of the Yes keyboards player that covers his life from childhood through the “main sequence” of Yes albums ending with Going For The One. Found it on amazon.com through a used bookseller for about $30, which was significantly better than the occasional copy that shows up on eBay for closer to $100.
Of all of the anecdotes and quips in the book, though, the one that stuck with me was that Wakeman played the Mellotron on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” marking one of the first recorded uses of that keyboard (pun intended). He was paid nine pounds sterling for the gig — session fees for session work, never mind the fact that Bowie was breaking a lot of rock and roll glass. I guess you never know when you’re on the way up until you can look back from the next hill.
It’s been 13 months since I started blogging. I’ve discovered old friends (who have discovered me online). I’ve found interesting Google page-ranking algorithm effects that cause my blog to show up in the most amusing searches. I’ve received emails from Willie Stargell’s niece, from Rick Wakeman (of Yes keyboard fame), and from a friend of Patrik Elias’ who forwarded my blog post about the Devils star buying sneakers. I’m writing, I’m reading, I’m thinking about writing as I’m reading, and I’m taking many more pictures of everyday things that seem blog-ready.
Yes-heads will immediately note that the late 70s tour was “Yes in the Round” and I’ve botched the title. But I spent the early part of this evening thinking about the various circles of Yes-dom and how they intersect. I’ve previously written about the intermediation of various circles of interests, ranging from eBay to charity events to sports fanaticism. But after consuming way too much science fiction recently, I decided it was time to once again dive into the stack of books I’ve acquired about Yes. Listening to “House of Yes” in the car to and from Boston this week certainly influenced my selection. (Double disclaimer: it’s not the best Yes concert CD, but it’s the cleanest version of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with Steve Howe, not Trevor Rabin, on guitar. And I like it).
Tonight’s linkages discovered: Alan White played on John Lennon’s Instant Karma and Imagine, also appearing on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Rick Wakeman shows up on David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Finding your favorite musicians in other places is prelude to discovering more music that you like. Jay Littlepage, VP of the software group that delivers the Sun Connection, finally convinced me to buy Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus by telling me that the Tower of Power horns appear on it. Obviously, they don’t appear on the three tracks my freshman year roommates played endlessly, or I would have bought a vinyl copy in 1981.
If you’re really into playing the equivalent of LinkedIn for rock stars, check out Peter Frame’s book of Rock Family Trees that shows the formation, merging, splintering and evolution of many of the 70s and 80s art-rock bands. Leafing through it you realize that this is how rich, highly cross-referenced and annotated information was conveyed before there were browsers, hyperlinks and wikis.
Unable to sleep last night I popped in the DVD of Yes’ “Keys To Ascension,” a somewhat sloppily produced concert archive of their 1996 shows that brought keyboardist Rick Wakeman back to the group. My affinity for the 1996 CD sets of “Keys” and “Keys 2” (the other half of the concerts) are strong — I have been a Yes fan since I discovered rock music. One of my strongest memories of summers at the Jersey shore was putting on WYSP 94.1 FM in Philadelphia and hearing “Close To the Edge”, side one, tracked through late at night. I was hooked. The layers of the music, the amazing guitar work of Steve Howe, even the obscure yet ever-hopeful lyrics continuously gave me something new to listen to, to listen for, or to enjoy anew.
After college, marriage, and children, my CD player saw more of “The Best of Sesame Street” rather than Howe & company. But in 1996, I bought “Keys”, and I was hooked again. Yes ascended, indeed, and I’ve re-purchased most of their catalog on CD. Each listen jostles some mellowed brain parts, and provides something to explore repeatedly. This week’s favorites include the closing section of “Wurm” from Yessongs and Steve Howe’s guitar solos on “Turn of the Century” from “Keys 2”.
But in my late-night state of half-listening, half-snoozing, I heard Wakeman’s solo on “Wurm” (from the DVD of “Keys”) differently — and for some reason, it sounded exactly like the piano solo in Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” (which is played by Rick Wakeman), with Moog replacing Steinway. Something else to ponder over break.