David Bowie

David Bowie died last night.

I have disliked David Bowie’s music for a lot longer than I have liked it. Fortunately, I think, the disliking came first. I was first exposed to Bowie as a very small kid, when ‘Space Oddity’ was a hit in the early 70s. It unnerved me, the same way the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ unnerved me. These were songs about giving up control, giving up identity, turning into someone else. As a small boy, for one reason or another, I didn’t like the sound of that.

I missed out on Bowie’s great exploratory 70s music, being firmly a follower of my brother’s own taste, which in those years meant mostly Status Quo: meat’n’potatoes entry-level rock. When I began to develop my own likes and dislikes, in my very early teens, it coincided with learning the guitar, which meant an awful lot of dogged listening to Eric Clapton because for me he had some kind of educational significance. (I don’t regret learning to play Clapton-style guitar, but I do regret a lot of glum listening to his boring 70s and 80s albums.) Just as I got into livelier music, in the form of Talking Heads and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, Bowie was deep into his blandest, least interesting 80s pop star phase. I was not impressed. When Tin Machine came along, I was even less impressed; it looked like a naked bid for coolness. Dave Fanning, on his radio show, which I was then an avid listener to, called it ‘David Bowie’s latest incredible stab at credibility’, and he didn’t mean it in a nice way. Bowie in 1991 seemed like a burnout. Like the Rolling Stones, only pretentious.

I don’t think I really caught up with Bowie until the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. At that concert, he and Annie Lennox sang a majestic version of ‘Under Pressure’ which still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. Even then, I wasn’t compelled to listen to more Bowie, but I was willing to recognise that ‘Ashes to Ashes’ had something going on in it, and I’d listen to anything Fripp played on, so ‘Fashion’ was a favourite track of mine, featuring as it does some of Fripp’s most unhinged guitar playing. Then Nirvana, who I’d never liked much, did ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and did it beautifully, and I realised that I had to think again about Bowie.

I had to fall in love and get married to a Bowie-liker before I truly saw how wrong I had been. My wife Ioanna had a Bowie compilation CD and we would play it in the car when we took our infant daughter on drives. On hearing ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’, I began to realise that this was something like nothing else, something weirdly unique and wonderful.

And so I completely changed my mind about Bowie, which I’ve never done about anyone, I don’t think. I listened to Station to Station and Low and while they didn’t quite grab me as albums, their high points pierced me the way the best popular music does.

Bowie’s combination of naked emotionalism placed within a strangely askew frame was entirely his. He was as unique in his way as Thelonious Monk, and like Monk he had the ability to sound like no-one else, and to take somebody else’s song and make it sound like his. (He was unlike Monk in that sometimes, between around 1983 and 1991, he didn’t sound like anyone in particular, but even then, there were moments: ‘Loving the Alien’ is a crappy song, but only Bowie could have written it.)

I was surprised to find myself very sad to hear that he’d died. Bowie made his decisive moves with the left hand; he stole his way into your affections, sometimes literally. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought that he ripped his entire vocal approach off from John Lennon.) With Bowie dead, at the premature-for-an-aging-rock-star age of 69, it feels like a little bit of surprise has gone from the world. But his strange and wonderful career is still there.

I’d like to end with Scott Walker’s lovely tribute to Bowie on Bowie’s 50th birthday, which, as you can hear, left the recipient, for once in his life, speechless.

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David Bowie

ABBA, my Dad, and death

My dad, Jeremy Johnston, was a singular person in many ways. I’m not claiming any special virtue for him. Those who knew him best, meaning my mother, my brother and myself, would be the first to say that Jerry Johnston was not the most virtuous guy ever. It didn’t make that much difference that he converted to Lutheranism in the 1970s, dragging the rest of us (not unwillingly) with him, and steeped himself in enough Lutheran theology to earn the right to step up to the pulpit in our church one Sunday in every month, being the only time in most of my churchgoing life that the service was in a language I actually understood. Jerry developed a theology based on the notion that justification came from faith alone, which conveniently excused him from doing anything he didn’t want to do. I ended up doing an extended routine about it in a show I wrote and performed, years later.

Jerry died in November 1996, when I’d just turned 26 and had recently learned that my first play was going to be produced by the Abbey Theatre. I don’t really know if the knowledge made him happy that the Abbey was going to produce my work, when it had once been a home to the plays of his own father, with whom he’d never had a great relationship. I think he might have been a bit jealous, but I like to think that he, who’d been to Harvard and had got a BA cum laude in English, was at least slightly pleased that he’d passed on the respect for things of the mind. My brother became an expert in certain aspects of the Napoleonic Wars. I became a writer. Sort of.

Dad’s musical tastes were very much those of his youth. He used to play Bartok and Hindemith around the house; not that I knew at the time that that’s what he was playing, because he wouldn’t tell us. He kept his tastes largely to himself, and seemed to feel no need to share them. When I wanted to get a bass guitar, he was against it, because he thought I wouldn’t bother to learn it properly. However, I didn’t know that at the time. He didn’t tell me. He told my mother instead, and it was up to her to assure him that I would take it seriously. I did take it seriously, but he never seemed to notice that I’d done so, although, to be fair, he did dutifully drive me to and from various band practices, even though he never took the slightest interest in my progression as a player, or ask me what I wanted to do with my fascination with music, or encourage me to do anything with it, or engage with that particular subject at all, on any level.

However, when Dad became a Lutheran, he started to be exposed to a slightly different grade of music. During the 70s, as Dad had to travel to Germany and Scandinavia both in the course of his job and as part of becoming more involved with the church, he became an ABBA fan.

If he did, so did we. He was the cultural authority in the house, at least until I reached my late teens and busted out (purely intellectually speaking; I didn’t manage to actually leave the house until my early 20s). And so that’s why I post this, the last and, to me, most moving because most abstract track from the first Abba record Dad brought into the house: the title track of ABBA’s 1976 album Arrival.

Something about it always makes me think of my Dad; I don’t know why, because being a basically sad-but-happy piece of music, yearning yet resolved, it’s at least superficially unlike the music I’d associate with my Dad, a man who always seemed to be uninterested in what was going on immediately around him because he constantly had his mind on something else; not necessarily something more elevated, but at any rate, something that he found more fascinating than the thing immediately to hand, no matter what it was. But maybe that’s why it reminds me of him; maybe that’s why he liked ABBA so much. Perhaps the direct and uncomplicated emotionalism of ABBA records represented something that he would have liked to have. Or maybe he just fancied Frida and Agnetha.

ABBA are one of the few links I find with my Dad, who remains as much of a mystery to me as I suspect he probably was to himself. He died almost half my life ago. I would have liked him to know that he was going to have cool grandchildren. I don’t know whether he would have agreed that they were so, but in any case, I think that they are, and that’s what should matter. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, by the same token, it would be great not to have the doubt.

In the meantime, I post this in his memory, because let’s face it, ABBA are for all seasons.

ABBA, my Dad, and death

Isolated thoughts about Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga: sure, she’s derivative. But so were her predecessors. The thing about Lady Gaga is that she is open about it. Madonna, her most obvious precursor, behaved as though nobody except Madonna had ever behaved like that. Whereas Lady Gaga’s genius, which makes her perhaps a greater artist than Madonna, is that she behaves as though she knows what it’s like to be a pop music fan because she is herself one. With Madonna, it’s a kind of shell game in which we’re supposed to not point out that she ripped off this look from Cyndi Lauper and that look from Marilyn Monroe. This is why Madonna’s work seems so corporate and impersonal. We can believe that Madonna herself wants it that way, but it looks the same as if it had been designed by a committee, because Madonna herself thinks like a committee. Whereas Lady Gaga’s brilliance is that her work, although openly derivative, has all the messiness and embarrassing degree of apparent overshare of indie music. She knows that her fans worry about her and care for her, whereas Madonna always behaved as though she doesn’t give a fuck and can overcome trouble with sheer force of will. Gaga dramatises her own trouble in her work: look at her mastery of new media like the long-form video (Marry the Night). Madonna’s effect is of ruthless self-will, whereas Gaga gives the impression of someone who’s constantly trying to reward her fans for their loyalty — there are stories of her buying pizza for fans queuing up at signings, which you really can’t imagine Madonna doing. (Madonna as modernist, compared to Gaga as postmodernist; Madonna is like T.S. Eliot, Gaga more like Frank O’Hara).

Isolated thoughts about Lady Gaga

Cee-Lo Green and the classical style

One of the side benefits of having a seven-year-old daughter is that you can rely on Wii Just Dance to keep you up to date on the pop hits of four years ago. One of these hits, which actually crossed my never very alert pop radar at the time, is Cee-Lo Green’s ‘Forget You’, which is of course the smash hit radio-friendly version of ‘Fuck You’. Since Cee-Lo released no less than three official versions of this song, all sorts of interesting-ish questions are raised about canonicity and which is the ‘real’, ‘authentic’ version, but I’m going to pass them up for another time by confining myself to ‘Fuck You’, because it’s just the most fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s such fun, and in doing so I keep coming back to the late Charles Rosen‘s discussion of classical style in his oh-so-appropriately-titled book The Classical Style.

‘Fuck You’ is constructed and produced like a classic Motown song, with an arrangement of what at least sounds like classic Motown instrumentation: multiple guitars, piano, bass, drums. Even if it’s all been done in Pro Tools or Logic, which may very well be the case (the piano, for example, is exactly tracked in the lower register by a distorted version of the same part, as if someone had fitted a piano with a vintage fuzzbox), Cee-Lo clearly meant this to say something about ‘classic pop’ in general and Motown in particular. The song sets up its stall with a title drop in the very first line: ‘I see you drivin’ round town with the girl I love, and I’m like, fuck yooo-oo-ou.’

So this is not going to be a song which is uncomplicatedly about being abandoned. Cee-Lo is not going to gnaw on his exclusion and wonder if it’s his fault. The second line appears to build on the first, but it also complicates the matter of who the ‘you’ in this song really is: ‘I guess the change in my pocket wasn’t enough, and I’m like, fuck you and / fuck her too-oo-oo.’

So the song is sung both to the girl who has rejected the singer for a guy with a better car and more money, and also to the guy with same, but it’s the girl who’s going to get the worst kicking. As the song builds, we find out that it’s not at all a song about being lonely at all. Cee-Lo sings ‘I said “If I was richer, I’d still be wid ya” — ain’t that some shit?’, to which the sassy backing singers agree ‘Ain’t that some shit!’, an effect beautifully amplified in the video by having the singers pop up every so often to throw in their wide-eyed disapproval of the hero’s hopeless pursuit of this girl. In fact, everyone the singer knows is aware that there’s just no point in him going after her: ‘Oh she’s such a gold-digger / Just thought you should know, nigga’, they chorus.

Rosen’s discussion of the classical style in his book is technical and involved, dependent on showing how composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven forged a new style from the musical language of their predecessors that was capable of expressing much more complex emotions than music had been able to show before. It’d be wrong to suggest that Rosen’s classical style can be uncomplicatedly mapped onto Cee-Lo’s deployment of the musical language of Motown, but two elements in Rosen’s argument do chime with Cee-Lo’s recording: the emphases on balance and on wit. ‘Fuck You’ is, at the same time, a bitter rejoinder to the person the singer is singing to, and a joyful dismissal of the same person. It doesn’t wallow. It seeks to make the listener aware of the singer’s pain, but it doesn’t try to pretend that the listener can share it, which would be sentimental. But neither does it try to pull off that cynical Beautiful South trick of cloaking a bitter song in a charming, radio-friendly arrangement. The ‘fuck you!’s are right up front. It makes saying goodbye to someone sound like some of the most fun a person can have. This, too, is in keeping with Rosen’s argument that the classical style is fundamentally, you know, comic. ‘Fuck You’, unlike its radio-censored offspring, is a great recording because its joy and defiance are in exact proportion to its level of abjection; it recognises painful human emotion and makes space for it, while at the same time refusing to give in to it.

Cee-Lo Green and the classical style