by Eric J Baker
I always crack up at Shaun of the Dead when Ed (Nick Frost) tries to kill a zombie by throwing an Electro record at it and Shaun (Simon Pegg) shouts, “Hey! That was the second album I ever bought!” No matter how forgettable the recording, music lovers will always elevate their early favorites to legendary status. In my case, though, no rose-colored glasses are needed. The first album I ever bought is a certified classic.
It must have been around 1979. I remember carrying my 10 bucks into a ratty box car of a music shop called Graymat (perhaps the worst name in the history of stores, at once evoking a drabness and a laundromat), selecting my vinyl, and plunking the cash on the counter. The manager was a chunky, stone-faced guy with all the expressiveness and charm of Darth Vader. He intimidated the hell out of me, so this coming-of-age moment was tempered by a case of jangled nerves. I was sure glad to be out of there with bag in hand.
The album was David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (1971), a continuous sequence of brilliant songs including Changes, Life on Mars, Oh! You Pretty Things, Quicksand, and so on. I had to decide between that one and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie’s follow up from ’72. Though I’m still happy with my purchase, I wish I’d had the foresight to pick up Ziggy instead. That way, this story would dovetail much better with the next paragraph.
You see, this spring marks the 40th anniversary of Bowie’s masterpiece, which has been remastered and is set to be rereleased on June 5 in multiple formats, including CD, DVD, and vinyl. The album features some of the British singer’s best-known tracks, including Ziggy Stardust, Starman, and Suffragette City. Only Bowie could take the concept of an androgynous, mullet-sporting, make-up wearing space alien and turn it into one of the coolest, most kick-ass rock-and-roll albums ever recorded. It’s the kind of genius that separates geniuses from the rest of us.
Beyond his massive catalog of great songs, one of the reasons I admire Bowie so much is his refusal to repeat himself (album reissues notwithstanding) or play it safe. After the success of the folksy, piano-heavy Hunky Dory, he cranked up the guitars and went glam. Then he went pop, followed by electronic, then bass heavy and funky, the pop again, then techno, etc. I can’t think of another iconic artist who has changed so much yet stayed so true.
But if we can consider the early ‘70s to be the pinnacle of Bowie’s career, some credit must go to the late Mick Ronson, whose guitar wizardry as much a part of Ziggy’s sound as Bowie’s voice and persona. Just like Ozzy had Randy Rhoads and George Michael had Andrew Ridgely (bent over an ottoman), Bowie had Ronson’s dynamic power, passionate soloing, and unforgettable riffs to counterpoint his flamboyant theatricality and to keep his music firmly rooted in the realm of rock and roll.
Anyway, I wonder how Bowie would do today on a show like American Idol or The Voice. Like Prince, he is known to employ some rather unusual vocal styling that simply wouldn’t work if attempted by a lesser artist. But do people know the difference when they see it?
I’ve said in a previous post that The Voice is the superior show because the judges are proven musical talents rather than ‘personalities’ (my apologies to Jennifer Lopez, who can’t sing, and Steven Tyler, who was once a vocal talent but has long since devolved into an eccentric Hollywood queen). However, after watching the battle rounds for the past four weeks, I have my doubts about the four panelists on this show as well.
Cee Lo Green knows from hit songs, but how in the world could he ax Justin Hopkins in favor of Tony Vincent’s Broadway-show shtick? Hopkins is a genuinely soulful singer with just the kind of gritty voice that rock fans have been eating up since the late 1950s. Meanwhile, the exceptionally unlikable and untalented Erin Martin is still in the competition, perhaps because she looks good in a plastic miniskirt?
The most amusing moment from the episode two weeks ago was Cee Lo’s friend and fellow producer/songwriter Ne-Yo trying to keep a straight face while Erin ‘sang’ in rehearsals. All the while, Cee Lo gazed on like a proud papa. This is what happens when unattractive men get famous and have access to beautiful women: They lose all judgment. Trust your pal Ne-Yo, Mr. Green. He knows the score.
Meanwhile, Xtina has probably the most deft vocalist in the show with 40-something gospel singer Jesse Campbell. But, hello, he’s a 40-something gospel singer. Jesse Campbell, I’d like to introduce you to Life Isn’t Fair. Sera Hill, a pretty R&B singer on Aguilera’s team, has a shot too, but she needs to can the nervous, jumpy act. It’s not charming, and, since TV viewers are taking over the decision making as of tomorrow night, she better get likeable in a hurry. Follow my Tom Hanks Rule, Sera, and you’ll be fine.
Over on team Blake, the only person who has a remote chance of parleying his appearance on The Voice into a music career is Jermaine Paul, though you have to wonder why a guy who has performed with Mary J Blige and Alicia Keys needed to blind audition for a TV talent show. The rest of Shelton’s team is as forgettable as bland country western music.
I’m sticking with my prediction that Mathai, from Adam Levine’s team, is going to win this thing in the end. She’s got a good voice, she’s cute and likeable, and she has stage presence, though she probably needs to spend a few hours with PFC’s own Mr. Tuttle and get some decent clothes.
From watching these TV talent shows, I realize two things: A lot of ordinary people are really good singers, but hardly anyone has That Thing. I’m talking about what Prince and David Bowie have. Or Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Xtina, and Cee Lo Green have, to a lesser degree: Presence. Does fame give it to you or do you need it to achieve fame? I don’t know.
By the way, I ran into that scary guy from Graymat about 15 years ago. I was buying vitamins or something at GNC, and he was behind the register. Though 18 years had passed, I recognized him at once. He didn’t look so intimidating to the adult me.
“You know,” I said with a laugh as we transacted the sale. “I remember you from Graymat.”
“Yup,” he said.
“You sold me the first album I ever bought, Hunky Dory by David Bowie. This might sound funny, but I used to be terrified of you. Isn’t that a laugh?”
He fixed me with a killer’s stare as he handed me the bag. “Yup,” he said, filling my veins with ice.
Ok, maybe it didn’t quite happen that way. He was probably just grumpy about having to peddle protein powder and energy bars rather than cool music. Instead of sending kids toward a life of Loving the Alien, he was sending them down a path toward steroid use. And I’m sure, when that mostly full vitamin bottle got tossed in the garbage years later, no one said, “Hey! Those were the second vitamins I ever bought!”
This Week’s Brunette is topical. Here’s Mr. & Mrs. David Bowie by Victor Skrebneski: