Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020
Continuing a COVID-quaratined, too-much-free-time glance through just a few of my Spotify playlists, in roughly alphabetical order…
To re-iterate, a lot of this is adapted and expanded from material originally posted on the Idle Time messaging app in March/April. The Holy Bee is a proud recycler. That’s why when some artists are under review (eg. Fleetwood Mac), the focus is on a single song — it’s a holdover from our lengthy “Billboard Hot 100” discussions.
I have probably taken more abuse from the Idle Time guys for liking the Black Crowes than for any other reason. (Although just as I’m typing this, WH messaged me that he may never forgive me for putting “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News on our collaborative Best of the 80s playlist, which evidently represents a new low for my group contributions.)
I’ve always admired and respected David Bowie more than I actually enjoyed listening to him. Something about his mannered vocals, his multiple irony-drenched personas, and cool detachment left me a little put off. He’s another one of those artists that everyone in my peer group loves, and I just don’t “get.” He occupies the same mental real estate for me as Radiohead. Obviously very gifted, eager to experiment, never bound by convention, but…I don’t seem to feel that special resonance that so many revel in. Camp theatricality was never my preferred mode of artistic expression. I gravitated toward the earnest straightforwarndess of Springsteen and Petty, or the evocative wordplay of Dylan.
I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s book-length fan letter On Bowie, and it brought things into a little more focus. What self-conscious adolescent hasn’t experimented with looks and personas, discarding them as soon as a new one springs to mind? Who hasn’t covered their desire to belong with a mask of cool detachment? Bowie was a voice for any kid who struggled with their identity, their sexuality, or the hurt of being an alienated outsider of any stripe. And maybe that’s why his material never resonated with me. Any teenager or young adult will have their moments (or months or years) of feeling rejected and unwanted, and I certainly did. But I was never cut to the core by any of it. My issues were few and I was always comfortable in my own skin. So Bowie was not speaking to me on that frequency.
David Bowie first made a big national splash in the UK on a 1972 episode of Top of the Pops, performing “Starman.” Sheffield goes on to note all the young and impressionable kids watching that day: “Every future legend in the British Isles was tuned in. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr. Siouxsie was watching. Robert Smith was watching. Duran Duran were watching. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan…Bauhaus. Jarvis Cocker. Jesus, Mary, and their Chain…”
To a name, all of them artists I am either lukewarm on, or really don’t much like at all. That’s what Bowie’s legacy has been to me.
But what of the music itself? What better time than during a pandemic-enforced, in-home exile to give Bowie’s catalog a re-listen? Wait here.
[Three days later.]
OK, done. I decided not to start at the very beginning, but jumped right in at what Sheffield considers his peak run — 1975’s Young Americans through 1980’s Scary Monsters, and then circled back to his earlier material.
I have mixed feelings about Young Americans. David Sanborn’s attention-hog of a saxophone is all over this pastiche of “Philly soul.” (Both Springsteen and Bowie are guilty of being waaay too in love with the saxophone, which I have an unshakeable prejudice against, at least on songs recorded by white dudes after 1963. What’s a way to make an otherwise good song sound totally stupid and corny? Throw on a big, dumb ol’ sax solo.) The cover of “Across the Universe” makes me cringe — Bowie spends the whole tuneless song sounding as if he’s got something unpleasant caught in his throat. When the album does coalesce, it showcases two of my all-time favorite Bowie songs — the excellent title track, and the equally-excellent #1 single “Fame” (a collaboration with John Lennon, who must have at least tacitly endorsed Bowie’s “Across the Universe.”). Then there’s “Fascination.” Something about “Fascination” made me prick up my ears, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, then I realized it was a re-working of Stevie Wonder’s “Supersition.” Bowie is a musical magpie, taking shiny bits and pieces from other sources, and adapting them into his own vision.
I found myself enjoying almost every track on Station To Station, which is frequently described as the transitional album between the glam/soul style of his early 70s work to the Krautrock and electronica-influenced “Berlin Trilogy” of the late 70s, when the cocaine-addled Bowie fled the L.A. scene to get his head together in the austere German capital.
The Berlin Trilogy (Low and “Heroes,” both 1977, and 1979’s Lodger) represents Bowie at his most sonically experimental (for now). All three albums utilized the same core rhythm section, which never failed to play with urgency and a peculiar, visceral crunch. Brian Eno provided his trademark spacey keyboard texturing. On the first two albums, there is a clear divide between side one — all propulsion, energy, and mini-hooks — and side two, a sequence of ambient soundscapes with minimal vocals.
If you’re like me, and even the words “ambient soundscape” inspire an inner eye roll, at least it can be said that Berlin Trilogy’s ambient soundscapes are probably the best of that particular style you’re going to hear. There are nice world music flourishes, and the momentum never wanders off into ethereal noodling.
Lodger doesn’t adhere to that format quite as much, and I feel it’s the weakest of the trilogy overall. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), recorded back in London and New York, ups the ante on the world music flavor and the artiness of the “art rock,” and coats it with a commercial sheen that foreshadows the next album.
I extended my initial listening one album past Scary Monsters to 1983’s Let’s Dance, where Bowie’s shifting personas finally coalesce into their final form — the confident, hit-making, MTV-friendly pop star in the natty suit and loosened tie. Produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, Let’s Dance was made to sound great on the radio, and spin off multiple singles. There were the inevitable cries of “sell out” from the type of unpleasant person who likes to cry “sell out,” but this may have been Bowie’s master stroke. And there was nowhere to go but down.
At this point, I backtracked to the start of Bowie’s career. His actual debut album, 1967’s David Bowie was considered such a colossal embarrassment by all parties involved that he named his 1969 follow-up…David Bowie, as if to erase the existence of the previous version. The second incarnation of David Bowie, an acoustic-textured blend of hippie folk sounds and wordy prog-rock lyrics, was re-released in 1972 and re-named after its title track (and far and away its best song): Space Oddity. 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World is more of the same, with an overall darker tone, more electric guitar, and a heavier emphasis on the bass end. (Nirvana did a terrific cover version of the title song.)
Hunky Dory (1971) trades acoustic guitar for jaunty piano as its primary instrument, and showcases an entirely new cabaret-pop style that gave Bowie (“Space Oddity” aside) his first clutch of truly memorable statements — “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars?,” among others.
Then came his “glam rock” trilogy: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and Diamond Dogs (1974), which made Bowie a global superstar. (1973’s Pin-Ups was an all-covers album, and interesting in its own way.) Ziggy is a true concept album, with a loose narrative based around the messianic title character. The two follow-ups abandon a cohesive narrative, and are instead a series of observational sketches seen through the eyes of a Ziggyesque “alien outsider” character. (Ziggy himself “died” onstage each night during Bowie’s ‘73 shows, and was retired at the end of the tour.) Each album rocked a little harder than the one before. The sound of Ziggy was still essentially the bottom-heavy folk-rock of Sold The World, cut through with Mick Ronson’s stinging lead guitar, but by Dogs the sound was full-on hard rock.
I saved the long decline (and bittersweet comeback) for last. Bowie himself pretty much disavowed all his ‘80s material after Let’s Dance. He threw in the towel on solo work and formed a four-piece, no-frills hard rock band called Tin Machine in 1989, which seemed like a great idea…if only they’d had any decent songs. They disbanded after only three years and two pretty dire albums. His solo work in the ‘90s and early ‘00s was even more experimental than in his prime, fully embracing industrial, drum-and-bass, and electronica, but it was often unfocused and unmemorable. A heart attack in 2004 sent him into retirement…
…or so it was thought. In 2013, he put out the recorded-in-secret The Next Day with no promotion or fanfare whatsoever. Re-purposing the cover art of “Heroes,” Bowie sounds jolted alive, and presents us with a cohesive, coherent art-rock album that could easily stand alongside his classics, and includes “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” his best song in thirty years. Its 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, carries the burden of being the album written and recorded as Bowie was fading away from cancer. He died two days after its release, and naturally, all of his fans cherish this as his final gift to them.
And here’s where I make the blasphemous confession that will forever bar me from true Bowie fandom: I don’t like Blackstar all that much.
I enjoyed my deep dive into the Bowie discography, and I think I made a pretty good playlist, but the experience didn’t move the needle very much on how I feel about him. Admiration and respect, always, but it’s not passionate love. We can just be friends.
When Johnny Cash re-emerged in the ‘90s thanks to his work with producer Rick Rubin, everyone was retroactively horrified that his record company of 25 years, Columbia, heartlessly dropped the legend in the mid-1980s. Having listened to his early ‘80s output, however, I can only wonder what took them so long. I still love Cash, but navigating his post-Folsom Prison, pre-Rubin discography was a Sisephyan task of getting through an album full of unfunny novelty songs, ponderous spoken-word narrations, turgid gospel, and quasi-misogynist my-woman-is-my-property “love” songs. Then doing it all over again with the next album. Then you find a nugget like “Far Side Banks of the Jordan” on 1977’s little-remembered The Last Gunfighter Ballad, and it feels worth all the trouble.
The Clash…I don’t listen to them nearly as often as I should. Every time I choose to put them on, I’m always glad I did. I bought MMDG’s old Toyota Corolla off him in 2007. He had covered the rear window and bumper with stickers. Tastefully monochromatic, mind you, not garish, and aligned with geometric precision, but it was a very guy-in-his-20s look, and I was by then in my (very) early 30s. So I scraped them all off — except the Clash, which retained pride of place in the back left of the rear window for as long as I had the car.
The Last Gang In Town purports to be the Clash’s “definitive biography,” but the last ⅔ of the book is author Marcus Gray needing a bucket to carry the amount of butt-hurt he exhibits because the Clash turned out not to be actual committed socialist revolutionaries after all, but just a great rock band.
Creedence…I do not need all nine minutes of “Susie Q.” Luckily, the radio-edit version is available. I do not need a single second of their eleven-minute version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine…”
[The next day.]
OK, I caved and put “Grapevine” on the list. They build a pretty hypnotic groove.
Bob Dylan…he released a seventeen-minute song early during this quarantine…there was a snippet of Idle Time chatter about it on the IM app…
BC: …which features the lyrics “rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul.”
WH: He’s still got it.
Once you get into the Beatles, it’s a pretty short hop to getting into the Byrds, and from there, an even shorter hop to Dylan.
Memory Lane time…as previously mentioned in these Chronicles, I got a stereo and CD player for Christmas ‘88, retiring my old hand-me-down Panasonic turntable. Except for a handful of random ones (and mixtapes, of course), I skipped the cassette phase entirely.
After meticulously collecting all fifteen Beatles CDs, my next two CDs were The Byrds’ Greatest Hits and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits. My limited funds at age fourteen meant my music-buying was mostly restricted to building a serviceable Classic Rock Beginner’s Set, consisting of single-disc, hits-only packages. No plunging into whole discographies for the proto-Holy Bee just yet.
Re-selling of used LPs had alway been a thing, but by the turn of the decade (‘80s into ‘90s), a glut of product caused an absolute 0-to-100 explosion of re-selling used CDs. Nationwide mall-store chains like Camelot and Sam Goody avoided the practice, but more regional chains like Tower Records and the Wherehouse happily indulged. Bored or disappointed with a CD? Bring it in to one of these places, and they’d give you two or three dollars for it. Five if it was really good, but you wouldn’t be getting rid of those, would you? Unless you were desperate. People who needed drug money were the used-CD shopper’s best friend. (Usually they were selling things from their roommate’s collection that they hoped wouldn’t be missed.) Used CDs sold for between six and nine dollars. A very large portion of the CD collection I built in the ‘90s was secondhand. And I sold more than a few back myself. So long, Possum Dixon. So long, Presidents of the United States of America. So long, Mick Jagger solo album Wandering Spirit.
You could tell which albums were huge disappointments by the sheer number of them that appeared in the used racks. By early ‘95, the “R” section was often ablaze with orange from the multiple copies of R.E.M’s Monster. (An album almost universally disliked by people who consider themselves R.E.M. fans, but I defend it to this day as one of their most audacious works.) You could pave a road to Seattle with all the fake-grunge CDs from the likes of Sponge, Candlebox, Bush, and Stone Temple Pilots. They say the Coverdale/Page sell-back stack was visible from space. And lots of rejected-in-disgust copies of Helmet’s post-hardcore Meantime. (Over multiple issues, Spin magazine kept hyping Helmet to the skies as the post-Nirvana “next big thing,” but their mainstream appeal was, shall we say, limited. Yes, I sold mine back, too.) Usually a store would have a publicly posted “Will Not Buy Back” list for CDs by the likes of Color Me Badd or Right Said Fred that they probably couldn’t give away for free.
The most enthusiastic practitioners of re-selling CDs were the local indie record stores. In Yuba City, we had The Underground, a five-store NorCal mini-chain which touted itself as a “rock & roll department store,” in that addition to CDs, it sold clothes and other music-related ephemera — jewelry, buttons, posters. Thanks to several jars of Manic Panic hair dye purchased at The Underground, the Holy Bee sported blue-black locks for several months in ‘94. It also had an 18-and-over back room that specialized in “water pipes” (for tobacco use only, of course, this was a quarter century before legalization) and sex toys.
I would walk into The Underground every other week or so, and after gagging at the initial blast of incense and patchouli that would waft into my face as I opened the door, I would make a beeline to the glass display counters that held the bootleg CDs. There I would gawk and dream of owning the triple-disc set of Beatles outtakes that sold for triple digits. (After triple-plus years of looking at it, they finally sold it — to me. I had gotten a job, saved up, and bought the damn thing, and it was less than six months later that the Beatles released their Anthology sets, chock-full of the very outtakes I had just spent rent money on.) After staring at the expensive bootlegs, I would wander over to the used CDs, and nine times out of ten leave disappointed. For a larger selection, one would have to travel forty-five miles to The Beat in Sacramento, which didn’t bother with selling tie-dyed hippie rags, vibrators, or pewter dragon figurines. Its much-larger floor space was dedicated entirely to music, with a small cafe up front. It smelled like coffee (and smug purism) instead of incense.
Used CD shopping came down to luck and timing. Anything of real value would disappear in short order. One time, not long after I got my driver’s license, I was stunned to find Dylan’s holy trinity in The Underground’s used section — Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde — for $7.99 each! There must have been some mistake. I could own three of the most important albums in rock history for twenty-five bucks. At the moment, I had zero bucks. I raced home (picturing some lucky bastard snapping them up the whole time I was away alternated with picturing me getting my first speeding ticket). I got an advance on my allowance based on a lot of empty promises, and I was able to claim my treasure. In the fifteen or so years that I went used CD shopping afterwards, I never found a better deal.
[The conglomerate known as Trans World Entertainment bought up all the Camelots and Sam Goodys in the early 2000s, then either liquidated them or turned them into super-lame F.Y.E. stores, which are also circling the drain. The Wherehouse went bankrupt in 2002. Tower Records fell in 2006. The Underground went under in 2008. The Beat stopped in 2013.]
I was deeply flattered that one of my selections was, by virtue of winning the last round of Rock & Roll Roulette for our Billboard Hot 100 list, acclaimed by Idle Time consensus to be the Greatest Hit Song of All Time — Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
In case you’re interested, the rest of the top five were — #5 “Brass In Pocket” by the Pretenders, #4 “Hungry Like The Wolf” by Duran Duran, #3 “Heart Of Glass” by Blondie, and #2 “Train In Vain” by the Clash (even for a well-liked band, I don’t know how that specific song climbed so high…but Roulette has spoken).
All the too-cool types and post-modern music writers love Fleetwood Mac’s double-album boondoggle Tusk. But come on…Rumours is where it’s at. Everyone knows the album’s story — the two couples within the band split up with each other, wrote a bunch of songs about it right before tapes rolled, then had to swallow their hurt feelings and play nice with each other while recording their tales of betrayal, heartbreak, and the search for rays of hope. Also, these songs turned out to be relentlessly catchy pop gems that caused Rumours to sell a bazillion copies.
Every spring (except this shelter-in-place one), my work sends me to the marina in Sausalito, CA to assist in the big “Age of Sail” field trip, where a bunch of 13-year-olds crew a schooner out on San Francisco Bay. The parking lot where we get off the bus is adjacent to a funky-looking, rustic wooden structure. After a few years of being abandoned and decrepit, it recently re-opened as a sauna and “wellness space” (very Marin County) called Harmonia. Back when it was empty, I would always take a moment to walk over and pay homage, even sometimes laying a hand on the side door with the distinctive round porthole window.
This building was once the Record Plant, one of the premier recording facilities in the entire country, and the studio where Rumours was born. Stevie Nicks conceived “Dreams” here in a small, dark side studio with a carpeted pit sunk into the floor (according to Record Plant lore, a favorite lurking place of Sly Stone as he gobbled drugs and groupies). She said she had the whole thing in her head, and recording the demo took all of ten minutes, with a Fender Rhodes electric piano and cassette recorder. She also said the rest of the band didn’t much like it at first. Luckily, she changed their minds.
Just on the surface, the song ended up sublime. Stevie’s husky vocal melody makes me weak in the knees. Lindsey Buckingham’s shimmery, phased electric guitars wash across the verses like watercolors, and his flawless acoustic work dominates the chorus, where it’s joined by a subtle organ and some bells or chimes, which continue through the post-chorus wind-down. The whole experience is propelled by the pulsating trademark Mick Fleetwood/John McVie rhythm section that gave the band its name.
And guys, there is so much Production Whore stuff going on in this song below the surface. Tiny moments like Stevie’s murmured little double-tracked “mmmmm” just after the intro. Fleetwood’s extra kick on the bass drum when she sings the word “heartbeat.” McVie’s bass guitar hitting a few additional fluctuating notes to wrap around the lyric “wrap around your dreams.” Stevie providing her own backing vocals on certain key words as we build towards the cathartic chorus.
It’s Nicks’ song, but a lot of the credit for “Dreams” and Rumours as a whole should be given to Lindsey Buckingham as the band’s musical arranger. But let’s face it — like a lot of geniuses (particularly geniuses in the music profession), Buckingham’s a world-class asshole. At least when he was fired in late 2018 (for essentially being a world-class asshole), the rest of the band tacitly acknowledged the massive hole he would leave by having to hire two brilliant musicians to replace him — Mike Campbell on guitar (from Petty’s Heartbreakers and newly unemployed), and Neil Finn from Crowded House on vocals. I have to admit those are inspired choices, but I honestly don’t know if I would pay to see a Buckingham-less Fleetwood Mac.
I have been quoted (by MMDG in the Decades book) as saying Rumours is a “perfect album,” but this is a total misrepresentation. I said it is an “almost perfect album.” (By the way, I don’t believe in a “perfect album.” There’s always a clunker or two. Always.) Back in the pre-digital days of mastering a vinyl record, each side had to be timed. If the music ran on even a minute or two too long, there would be a loss of fidelity (probably noticeable only to obsessive audiophiles and/or Lindsey Buckingham). This led to some hard decisions by perfectionist artists/producers when it came to track listings.
Rumours was one track too long. An intense eight-minute Nicks epic called “Silver Springs” was cut to four-and-a-half minutes, but still got the chop because Buckingham reportedly hated it. It was relegated to the B-side of the “Go Your Own Way” single. (Frustratingly, leaving it off made the album a track too short, so they plugged the hole with the pretty-but-slight three-minute “I Don’t Want To Know.”)
Buckingham was also (temporarily) out of the band back in the early 90s, so “Silver Springs” was slipped onto Fleetwood Mac’s inevitable early-90s box set. (Even the goddamn Monkees got a lavish box set in the early 90s — what a time to be a classic-rock lover with a bit of coin and some shelf space!) Then it was revived for their ‘97 reunion tour, became a highlight of that set, and has been considered one of their major statements ever since.
So, what would I have dumped from the original Rumours to make room for “Silver Springs”? Easy — Christine McVie’s “Oh Daddy” is definitely B-side material. I don’t have much patience for her solo vocal/piano showpiece “Songbird” either, but a lot of people see it as one of the absolute highlights.
Sometimes a debate can be settled by an album’s worst track. Only as strong as the weakest link and so on. Was IV or Houses of the Holy the “best” Led Zeppelin album? Every track but one on each album was great. How do the worst tracks stand up against each other? “Four Sticks” from IV beats “The Crunge” from Holy. Therefore, IV is the superior album. (Dumb metalheads always say II…)
Once upon a time, there was a big debate among people who cared about such things regarding whether or not Green Day was truly “punk.” Of course they were. If the Ramones and the Buzzcocks — playing rough, speedy pop songs (yes, on a major label) — are considered “punk,” why not Green Day? And as they grew older, they revealed that they were actually heirs to the Kinks and the Who all along. And all the better for it. (Green Day’s hidden gems? Their instrumentals. The surf-rock “Last Ride In” and the spy-movie homage “Espionage” are awesome.)
After three years of bucolic isolation, in July of 1989, my family moved from a rural country house back to civilization (or at least as close to civilized as Yuba City can come)…and back to cable TV. I spent the final month of summer break gorging myself on a hundred channels, especially MTV. One of the first videos I saw was Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” with its chiming guitars, anthemic chorus, and the band’s late-80s brand of swagger and charisma on full display. Up to that point, I had mentally filed them with Motley Crue and Poison and the other hair metal bands a lot of my slack-jawed middle-school peer group had been into.
Upon seeing this video, I realized how wrong I was. Guns N’ Roses were the real deal. I made a mental note to get the CD, but the opportunities for CDs were few and far between. I usually had to wait until my birthday or Christmas, or scrape up seventeen dollars ($15.99 plus tax) a quarter here and a dollar there. And my to-get list was so long…the Rolling Stones, the Who, etc…my classic rock collection had to be impeccable (and that stuff was never on sale) before I could turn to any new stuff.
I bought Appetite used at the Wherehouse a couple of years later. In the meantime, I made do with my cassette of “Paradise City” and a few other Appetite hits taped off the radio, where it nestled alongside fellow radio tapings such as “Love Shack,” “Youth Gone Wild,” “Love in an Elevator,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Free Fallin’” and “Bust a Move,” all of which are indelibly associated with my staring high school in the fall of 1989.
[For more on the Holy Bee’s experiences in his most formative year — 1989 — click here.]