How Bowie could not give everything away

The temptation was to return to blog posting on Monday 11th January. This was the day the world at large heard of the passing of the music icon, artist, rock god, known to most of us as David Bowie. But jumping in with a somewhat raw statement was a thing many seemed to be doing. Many articles interesting to read, but with a slight whiff of “getting my angle out first”, before someone else does. And did I have anything different to say anyway?

I listened to “Blackstar” the final David Bowie album prior to his passing, on its day of release, David’s birthday, the 8th of January. Before release I had read reviews, most of which said the same thing, little bit of a departure, return to form, generally pretty good, the jazz musicians here have a good thing going on. I played it twice that day. It was not underwhelming as hyped albums often are. It is interesting, but does need a few plays to open up, usually the sign of a good album. It has since grown on me some more. It is somewhat different compared to preceding album “The next day” which whilst enjoyable, was a fair nod to the past. This one different musicians, a different sound not really “bit of the weird”, but still some mystery, still engaging. A bit, well, Bowie really. Somewhat of a delight.

But there was somewhat of a feeling something a little off. Not in the quality of the album but the messages as an art piece. The black star, a metaphor? Paying respects? Remembrance of the Starman? Note, also a cancer reference (although I didn’t know that at the time). The bleak feel of both music and lyrics, and slightly detached lyrical references such as “Look at me, I’m in heaven”. The Lazarus video. But also interesting that choice of last track. I’ve always liked the album as a concept and always found the choice of the final track something to think about. If this is the final thing you do, or at least until the next one, then that track is what you sign off with. With Backstar we got “I can’t give everything away”.

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

The most “pop” song on the album. Using the classic pop song trick of saying less but seemingly saying more. Well more to interpret, so more questions anyway. Listen to the chorus with “I can’t give everything”, then as it pauses before “away”, and wonder what he is actually referring to. Good songs are often written to provide a relatable thing to draw us in, and ambiguity or space left for our own interpretation. This album seemed very layered off the first few listens, and even more so now we know that he knew, that this might be his last. It makes for poignant listening now, especially that last track. Telling us something, and having a laugh with its possibilities as an art piece. And in that, tellingly, was one of my favorite things about Bowie.

As anyone familiar with Bowie’s music knows, a journey through the albums in order yields a journey through different musical styles, different characters, different moods and messages. But aside from inhabiting different roles, David has consistently worked with different musicians. Musicians who bring something different to his songs and melodies, making an easier transistion to work different ideas or go in different directions, from what had been recorded before. Often to great effect. The seventies in particular yielded a run of albums that might be unparalleled in both quality and styles. Try Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond dogs, Station to station, Low, as just some. The first two alone would make most careers! Arguably the eighties and nineties are more of a mixed bag, but plenty of high points in there. But what makes them good is not the ability to change, experiment and try something new, but the ability to connect. Good songs engage the listener in some way. Words might tell a story, or share a common experience or feeling, but also allow the listener to bring their perspective into it. Maybe a phrase in the verse or chorus when attached to a melody, or sung a certain way, connects emotionally. On the flip side, the music might hook in the listener via a myriad of ways. A catchy melody or beat, a guitar riff, or a new noise, a certain tempo or key. If you get this with both the words and music you get good and often great work. Bowie had this  understanding with music. He had this great way of bending convention, creating mystery and inner beauty, drawing in all kinds of different people who realized that yes, there is a place for them. He could change styles yes, but still with an eye on engaging the listener. Making that connection. Highlighting the different places in art, and inviting in the different people who inhabit or enjoy them. When you can do this with different musicians and make the connections consistently then it also brings something else. Possibilities.

There are a lot of bands or musicians out there, we all have our favorites, who mainly work on variations on a theme. Similar stuff each time. Sometimes that not a bad thing, sometimes it is, giving the impression of nothing else to offer or a creative tank run dry. Bowie though, always had possibilities. Somewhere else he might go. Sure some might say “well it’s possible anyone might do this or do that” in an anything is possible sense. But with Bowie things were possible in a real sense. He was not afraid to go somewhere different. It made things exciting, interesting, worth experiencing and seeing where the connections might lead. What different layers might exist, what new discoveries  might be found. He influenced people, and sometimes changed their lives just by showing us what possibilities are, what could be realized. What being different is. Not everything worked but a lot of it did. His hit ratio better than most. Wonderful quality control. Wonderful talent. It really did feel like the possibilities were endless because he was that good. His body of work speaks to this, as does his sphere of influence. And he always understood that in creating the layers, you leave a bit of room for the listener to bring themselves into it. That bit of mystery. That bit of ambiguity. Don’t give everything away, even if you want to. That last track on Blackstar, no? Even at the end he wanted to explore that space between connections and possibilities. We might ask, is that what he really meant? And he might answer that is all he ever meant.

David Bowie I always loved your work. As one of the true icons in a musical sense, you were right up there at the top. After time away from music, from 2003 till the next day, I came to appreciate your work even more, if that is possible. More reason to enjoy what you brought to us. Blackstar your final gift on your terms. Your death, a loss to many. Thank you for the art and the inspiration, the connections and the possibilities. Thanks for not giving it all away and leaving us more to find and learn about, and understand. Thank you for the music.

P.S. Just yesterday I was listening to the Ziggy Stardust album for the, I don’t know, 500th time. I still notice things going on with the vocals or guitars, and how the sound is used that I had not noticed before. So good…

The song or album that represents the time that is…

Image courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

Image courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

Posts at the moment seem to have either a common theme, or somewhat refer back to an earlier post. Recently, I was having some discussion with a friend about music lists. I have my 10 favourite on an early post somewhere, and a post on an idea called “the music map of me”. But in discussing we also referred to that old BBC radio favourite desert Island discs, and a feature in Mojo magazine called “All back to my place”, (where numerous questions are asked around your soundtrack for different circumstances, e.g. sunday mornings). So we came up with a new list. The idea is that you choose a song or album that represents you, or has a lot of relevance to you in a certain circumstance. I guess really they are about memories. So here is some of the list that we came up with. Some categories were easier to answer than others:

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A haiku of music

"The Seer" by The Swans

“The Seer” by The Swans

I did have a slightly linked post almost ready, but in a slight departure from the last post, and as I always like a music post from time to time, I am going to combine an update on the “latest” music I’m currently listening to, with some Haiku. Well three Haiku, somewhat linked to each other and the rest of the post. Some readers might want to skim through the music part. Or the Haiku part. Or maybe the whole thing and just enter what you are listening to in the comment box at the end.

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Music Albums of the year 2012

Regular readers know I like a music post from time to time. This one is my end of year look at this years best albums. For me, this year had plenty of good albums, but not one I think that stood out as something really special, or ground breaking. Mojo magazine went with Jack White’s album, as their number one which shows what I mean. Good, but a bit retro. I like this album, but I haven’t played it in a few months. So for my number one, I went with something different.

Fiona Apple - The idler wheel. Best of the year?

Fiona Apple – The idler wheel. Best of the year?

Album of the year

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

For the second year running, I’m selecting an album by a female artist (last year it was PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake”). This one a more unusual choice for me in the respect that I had never bought anything from Fiona Apple before, prior to this year. This means to me she was pretty much a new artist, albeit one with a back catalogue to explore. However with running this blog this year, I took more of an interest in poetry, short story, song lyrics and that whole area. Fiona’s album has a clever mix of intelligent lyrics. and phrasing, and the way she delivers or sings them, with subtle adjustments in her voice, mean there is lots to continually find. It made a good balance for me against the aforementioned interests. Musically it is also pretty subtle, a little low key, a lot of percussion, but it lends a touch of freedom which shows through in the album as a “whole” (speech marks intended). Try “Werewolf” or “Regret” as examples.

Runners up, were Bat for Lashes (another female artist), which I like a lot but as a fairly recent release, I’ve not lived with it long enough. Tame Impala with its neat way of live band dance music, and rolling drum beats, is also pretty cool, and a good soundtrack to various things going on in my life.

Further close calls include Bob Mould’s “Silver Age” (regular readers will know I’m a big fan and only recently saw him live for the first time). Bruce Springsteen also had a good, accessible record in “Wrecking Ball” which seemed to fit in with this election year (in the US). See also honorary mentions which I think are all good albums work checking out.

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The music map of me, and you

(Image courtesy of Microsoft Clipart)

In most cultures around the world, in some way, our lives are linked to music. It might be through traditional songs that tell stories of our culture, it might be from songs in the music charts, it might be songs you hear on a tv show, or it might be songs used to stir emotions which on the surface might seem more primitive, but have a deep underlying resonance. Underlying this might be how we universally have an innate capability to understand music, and to distinguish different musical notes and tones, even if we understand none of it. “This is your brain on music” by Daniel Levitin is an excellent book on this subject, but that is a different blog piece. I’m interested on a different take, and in particular how it works in Western cultures.

Any excuse to mention this album again huh?

Much as songs are used in some cultures to document historical events, and passed on from generation to generation, Western cultures experience this in a different way. There is so much music around these days, and we get exposed to a lot of it. We might have similar interests in music, and have experienced different events with the same music, but all our experience will be different. If you were able to draw a map highlighting how music has impacted your life, you will see that certain songs or pieces of music link to certain events. It could be that you like a song a lot and use it at a significant life event such as a wedding, or it might just be that something was playing as something happened. I’m not talking about your favourite tracks necessarily, it might not be something you chose, or even like, but nevertheless, in some way it is linked. If you were able to somehow extract all these different songs and pieces of music, you would have a music map of you. It would need some translation, but I would hazard a guess that everyones map would be quite different, even if some destinations are shared. I wrote a short piece of fiction called “the unusual map” that began to explore this idea, which I published on the blog last week, however let me examine that idea further with some examples from my life.

In the early days of January 1994, I was in a branch of the long since departed UK music chain “Our Price”, actually one of the earliest casualties of music downloads, and approached a listening post. They had on several not big selling, but critical hits from the year before to listen to. One of these was “Giant Steps” from a band called The Boo Radleys. I had heard of the album, it being Select magazine, and the NME’s album of the year. I had not hear anything from it. I listened to first track “I hang suspended” and immediately knew it was for me. I bought the album. It subsequently soundtracked a significant part of college, and my first year of university, and is still one of my all time favourite albums. This one event however, had a big influence on where my music tastes went, and as regular readers know, I’m a big fan of music.

Sometime in the early 2000’s I was in a fast car with a good friend of mine. He was driving down country lanes at night far too fast. Don’t worry he said, I know these roads well. He has pretty much terrible taste in music. The track playing at the time was “Money for nothing” by Dire Straits, not a favourite of mine it has to be said. I was convinced as a music snob of varying degrees, that I was going to die an ironic death soundtracked to this. Thankfully we got home safe although every time I hear that track now it still reminds me of that drive.

I have an album I like a lot but by someone not really cool, which I call my guilty pleasure. I won’t tell you what that is, because I have a post about it soon.

Bunsen burner” a fun track by musics biggest failure (his words), John Ottway, was a nice live moment which myself and my then girlfriend, now wife, experienced at the half moon pub in Putney back in 2007. It was unexpected fun as we thought the gig would be crap, and still reminds us of those early days together and what seems quite a different time back in England.

“Changes” a track by Sugar I originally got in 1992 on a cassette from long dead UK music magazine “Vox”was incredibly significant in where my music tastes went, even more so than the Boo Radleys. The album the track came from “Copper Blue” was the first CD I ever bought, and one of my favourite all time albums. I heard this album played live by Bob Mould last week in its entirety which I loved. This cassette moment reminds me of my old walkman, some lazy times hiding in my bedroom at my parents house, a fun time in buying / reading the music press, as I discovered a lot of new things, and evenings this summer blasting the remastered version of the album through great headphones. That track and album lives with me.

Elbow’s beautiful track “One day like this” which has become a wedding favourite, was used as the money dance for my wedding. It obviously reminds me of that, actually one of my favourite parts of the wedding, but also of the times around it, and of leaving most of my family to move to the US. If you don’t know the track, take five minutes to check it out below. I’ll be surprised if you don’t like it.

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These are just a few of the destinations on what would be my music map. An alternative way of looking at your life and how it has been affected in some way by a small part of your culture. I hope you followed what I was getting at, maybe found the journey interesting, and hopefully made you think of some significant links in your life. If you have time, tell me below of a destination on your map, the track and how it relates to you.

On another occasion I think I might revisit the character from the short fiction and use him as part of a different story. But that is a different post.

Lexicon word of the day: distrain.

Notes on where ideas come from – 1

This is the crux of writing isn’t it? Well creative writing, fiction, poems and the like. Generating ideas and turning it into a “something”. This is one of those things that sets us apart from other animals, in that we can get ideas beyond our instant needs or requirements, and take them somewhere. Build them into a different thing. Something that speaks to our minds, or if you want to put it this way, our hearts and souls. Fundamentally, writing about “a something” derives from two functions. Having an idea, and the ability to turn that idea into that which communicates with people. Both can be tough. Especially the first part.

In having less time to spend on writing lately, I’ve begun to evaluate the different facets of it, and how I do it. What are my strengths? What works for me? What doesn’t work for me? These are the sort of questions I’m asking. Ideas might be examined in different forms. For simplicity, I first thought about the context of smaller projects, with the initial idea as it appears, and a little on how that idea is expanded on.

(Image Source: Microsoft Clip art)

I’ve been asked a few times about how I work the 15 minute poem exercise, which is not to say I am an expert, but that the results, for the allotted time, have been decent, at least on some occasions. Or at least interesting on some occasions. For me it is a fun exercise, which involves some focus, but also allows the dropping of some boundaries, which in real terms means, “opens up the subject matter which I can write about, to anything”. Usually I do not sit at the notebook / blog with entirely a blank slate. I will usually have a prompt first. This prompt comes from many places. It might be a phrase I read, the name of a book or song, or the name of an episode of a tv show. Regular readers will know that I took got two poems from the name of an episode of the eighties animated show “Spiderman and friends”. The first because I misheard the name of the episode, and the second where I then decided to use the correct name.

Having the prompt, I then can begin. Sometimes I have the prompt for several hours prior to the writing, during which I might (or might not) think of the odd idea. I try not to think of actual lines of the poem unless a strong line pops into my head, mainly because I like the exercise of doing it at the time, within the time limit. Other times, I just have the prompt only, and sit down to begin.

With that in mind, I will then think for a minute or two, usually not more, of what the prompt might mean to me, or what might be a good angle to approach it. For example with the prompt “Knights and Demons“, It made me think of what might make a person be a knight, and head off from there. The line with the naughty word pretty much appeared at the beginning so that set a tone. Married with the other idea, I set off to see what came out. In this instance, I did not want to tell a direct story such as a knight vs a specific demon, but that was where I was at the time. Another day another idea. Possibly.

To me it seems odd, but quite quickly I normally have an idea or two for a mini story (which may be a story thematically), and the means to tell it is then spread across how many verses it may be. For example, I might be thinking of four or five verses of four lines. Perhaps each line has a certain amount of syllables. Or perhaps I want a couple of large verses. It depends what I feel at the time, so I write to that. Maybe add or remove a verse, change up some words here or there, occasionally change the structure as something better has come out. I think of the main beats of the story and map it to the verses. For example, verse one the character asks a question or has a revelation. Verse two, something that relates to it. The final verse, adds a conclusion or switches it by asking a further question. And that is pretty much it. Working to the time limit I can “hit the story” pretty quickly. So far I don’t feel I have anything unfinished, although I do think on some I could add more if I wished to do so. A sort of directors cut.

Thinking about this now, I do not know why this works for me. My mind doesn’t go blank, I have virtually the opposite of a blank slate. If this was a larger project, I would dawdle along. Perhaps it is the allotted time limit. Perhaps I need to start doing things like this on my larger projects e.g. 15 minutes on ideas only. 15 minutes on the specifics of a scene. Something to experiment with? Perhaps.

Where do your ideas start from on smaller projects, e.g. poems, short fiction or blog pieces (I will save longer fiction for another time)?

Lexicon word of the day: parsimonious.

Am I too addicted to buying new music?

Some recent buys and yes, I’m boring enough to burn downloaded music to CD so I can also play it via my stereo.

No results to “the experiment” parts 1 or 2 this week, I haven’t got round to writing it yet. My mind is on other projects, so I had to add a bit of finish to this half written post, instead.

I love music. Regular readers of this blog will know and understand this. An early post of mine discussed how music influences me, or more specifically, what music and writing have in common, to me anyway. I’ve blogged on music lots of times, although not too much recently. I’m always hearing new things I like on radio Sirius XMU, or reading about music that sounds interesting in Mojo magazine or on Pitchfork. So I like getting hold of it. I’m mostly talking about albums here. The snob in me looks down on just buying individual tracks. I’m an old timer in that sense. You can tell I’m a music fan when I love the album over downloading seemingly random tracks.

My current dilemma involves buying new music. Although I prefer CDs (for the quality of the format), I’m quite willing to try new music as downloads, especially when the price is good, that always seems to serve as a good introduction. But naughty Amazon.com keeps putting albums on a $5 or sometimes even less, price. So what is a music fan to do I ask you? Ok I shall give you the answer. Buy some music. Bring it on…

So I both do, and did. And you know what, it’s great. Problem is, when you get a new album, especially a half decent, or good, or great one, they take four or five listens to really open up and to begin to get to know the songs a bit. Your mind needs time to decode the layers. Usually a song that sounds great straight away, rarely lasts that long, before fading into the sometimes played. So time is needed to play new music, to fall for the lyrics, the melodies, the beat, the timbre, or whatever facet grabs you most. And I’m now getting a bit of a backlog of albums I’m trying to familiarise myself with. Here is a list of recent buys, loosely grouped into genres although admittedly some could cross into several groups:

Pop / Folk

  • The idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do – Fiona apple
  • What we saw from the cheap seats – Regina Spector
  • Thats’s why God made the radio – The Beach Boys
  • Yours trully cellophane nose – Beth jeans houghton
  • Home again – Michael Kiwanuku
  • Tramp Sharon Van etten
  • Valtari – Sigur Ros
  • Bloom – Beach house
  • Master of my make-believe – Santigold
  • Dr dee – Damon albarn
  • Huh? – Spiritualized

Rock / Alternative

  • Maraqopa – Damien jurado
  • Oceania – The Smashing pumpkins
  • Neck of the woods – Silversun pickups
  • Open Your Heart – The Men
  • Celebration rock – Japandroids
  • Ghostory – School of seven bells
  • Funeral Blues – Mark Lanegan
  • Blunderbuss – Jack White

Dance / Soul

  • Hurry up, we’re dreaming – M83
  • Wonky – Orbital
  • The bravest man in the universe – Bobby Womack
And this is not everything either, there is probably some I’ve missed. Some of the above I am more familiar with than others. Thus far I would recommend checking out tracks from the Bobby Womack album, Fiona Apple, Jack White, Damien Jurado, Spiritualized, and if you like a good rock / slightly punk album, Japandroids. Though that said, none of the above strike me as bad thus far. For example if you’ve liked Orbital in the past, you’ll probably like that one. Oh and I’ve also bought the Sugar “expanded” reissues (when I was in the UK where they came out earlier and had dvd discs). I loved that band, they are one of my all time favourites. I’m obviously familiar with those though.
To help with this fun problem I recently received (a few weeks ago) an expensive but completely fabulous gift from my lovely wife and son. It was a pair of these superb Grado Labs SR225i headphones. You can keep your Dr Dre, or Bose headphones, I’m not criticising them, and I do own a few pairs of Sennheisers which are decent, but I prefer Grado Labs.

quiet now.. come to daddy..

This particular pair are open headphones which means if you are sitting nearby you will also be able to hear what is being played. But as anyone familiar with how headphones work can tell you, you can get a much better sound out of open headphones than you can closed ones. It is to do with the airflow. These headphones really are fabulous, they do a great job of opening up the sound, great clarity on instruments, great separation, they introduce things you have not noticed before. As a downside, they also show up when MP3 quality can be bad (the detail isn’t in the file to play), or when something has a dense mix and the separation is not there. These headphones are great, noticeably different from e.g. a $50 pair. An upgrade from my older pair Grado Labs Sr60i (also very good). And more encouragement to buy more music. Oh well, I love music, what can I do.

Music. It’s my addiction. Am I addicted to buying new music? Well of course, and old music as well. I love it. It is entertaining and inspiring in so many ways. If only I had time to do it justice. This addiction I’m ok with. Oh by the way, suggestions for other new good music are welcome below.

Lexicon word of the day: pudendum.