Daron, here. Hi folks. I had to write something to go before today’s chapter, not because of anything in the chapter but because of the news we got late Sunday night that David Bowie had died.
I know a lot of you were upset about Scott Weiland so recently. Honestly, I felt sad for Scott’s wife and kids not just that he’d died but about the way he’d lived, and I felt sad for having lost a peer to the same battle that way too many rock musicians have lost. Most of you know, or realize, that Scott Weiland and I are basically the same age and came up in the music industry at almost the same time, and in some similar ways. So yeah, I was bummed about Scott, but I kind of was able to shrug and moved on. It was the death of a guy.
Bowie’s was the death of a god. I don’t know how else to put it. He wasn’t supposed to be mortal. He was supposed to be a constant of the universe like the speed of light. For me, he was. It’s like something in the fabric of my universe has changed fundamentally forever. Weiland made me sad. Bowie fucking HURTS. It just fucking hurts. Ziggy’s worse off than I am.
This is the thing. I’ve had a kind of love/hate relationship with Bowie’s music since I was a kid. Why? Because it frightened me, challenged me, made me question my assumptions (and my dreams) about music, stardom, and artistry, and very very deeply challenged my ideas about how art and identity are linked. Ziggy challenges me in similar ways: he was thinking about those things a decade before I was ready to face them. But as you know I did eventually get my shit together to start facing the big questions about identity and art, about genre and assumptions, and all that. There were times it felt like Bowie was taking up the one slot the music industry allowed for chameleonic queer exceptionalism. There were times I just fucking hated a song…but there were far more times when I loved a song. And I loved his musicianship, and the way he brought musicians together–everyone who’s worked with him has stories about it.
When THE NEXT DAY came out by surprise a few years ago I snapped it up immediately and found it on repeat in my iPod for about a month. I’d pretty much decided he’d retired and ridden off into the sunset, so to have a new album that was so referential to his old work and yet sounded utterly new, hooky and tight, it was like aha, here’s a coda to a career…or, wait…maybe it’s a new phase? Then we heard he was working on a new album. Aha, new phase, we thought.
That album, Blackstar, was recorded with a prog jazz band in mostly just a few live takes, apparently. Does that sound familiar to you? That’s the way I like to do it. Rehearse and rehearse and then catch lightning in a bottle instead of painstakingly re-recording each part and putting it together with tape. Or software. To have the album drop–and it’s breathtaking, by the way–and then to have him die a few days later? And the album has repeated references to death and rebirth and he knew he didn’t have long to live because he had cancer for 18 months and DAVID BOWIE ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME YOU TURNED YOUR DEATH INTO YOUR FINAL ACT OF ART YOU MOTHERFUCKER
Ahem. Anyway, yeah, we’re all in deep mourning here. I was going to write about how devastated I was when John Lennon was shot, because I was–remember at the time I was listening to the White Album EVERY DAY and absolutely idolized the Beatles in a way I didn’t idolize other musicians. But it was like at the moment Lennon died I realized fuck, he was just a working musician like me (yeah, I was 12, almost 13, and I’d already started playing the occasional gig with Nomad). It was like I suddenly realized he had feet of clay.
Bowie still doesn’t have feet of clay. He’s a saint now. He’s who I’ll be lighting a candle to the next time I need help with a song or a band or a record company. That is, if once I come out of mourning, I find I have any faith left at all or if my whole heart is ashes. This is hard. Okay, I keep saying Ziggy’s taking it harder than I am but maybe that’s a lie and it’s just that I’m more stoic about it.
We’ll heal. I know we will. It’s just hard right now. It’s not like the first time we’ve ever been through a death. We’ll get past it. Eventually. I thought about not posting today, about going dark out of respect, but ctan and I talked about it (in a comment thread from April that we got sucked into) and we agreed no, in this dark hour people probably need us most. So here’s today’s post. If you’re in mourning like we are, take heart, here’s a hug from me to you. And if you’re not, be gentle with those who are. This is a tough one.
(Today’s chapter starts below)
The next day there were more meetings, I signed more papers, and I needed to start hiring some people. To do that I needed to listen to the album. Apparently it was in English and then they had also added two Spanish language versions of two songs. This wasn’t that unusual. I remember hearing French and Spanish versions of songs by The Police when I was in high school and Sting’s accent being pretty obviously terrible.
Ziggy and I were sitting in Barrett’s office and he had the record on vinyl–I guess they were still a few years behind us in Latin America and the vinyl LP was still the standard, unlike how CDs were pretty much taking over everything in the USA. Barrett dropped the needle onto it and the song in Spanish came pouring out of the speakers he had set on top of a low, wide file cabinet.
I went into some kind of weird deja vu. I hadn’t realized how much Spanish I had picked up while I’d lived in Seville. I felt at the time like I still didn’t know anything, but I could understand pretty much all the lyrics to this song, which, granted, was a love ballad and not super complicated. But it made my brain feel turned inside out.
I think that slightly delayed my actual reaction to the song which was, honestly: this is some bland ass shit.
I’m pretty terrible at hiding my reactions, as you know. I’m sure I looked concerned.
Ziggy played with a rubber band nervously. “What?”
I blamed it on the Spanish thing, and actually I wasn’t sure what language was going to come out of my mouth. “Nothing. I just…forgot I’d kind of learned Spanish and this is giving me severe flashbacks.”
I had a sinking feeling, though, as we listened deeper on the album. I grilled them about instrumentation on a couple of the tracks and made notes on a notepad about it, but the further it went the more I thought, God, this music has no bite to it at all.
Some of that was the guitar was mixed way down and the synthesizer was mixed way up. On the third track on the album I asked, “Who is this on guitar?”
“Like it matters?” Ziggy snapped.
The two tracks that really stood out were the one he and I had written together–but of course I would like that one–and one other one that sounded mind-itchingly familiar. I kept trying to figure out if it was a cover without coming out and asking them who did it originally.
I finally broke down and asked, “Who wrote that one?”
Ziggy was giggling behind his hand.
“You did,” Barrett said. “It came via Trav.”
“Ahhhhh.” I felt like an idiot then, and I was already prickly as hell about how dull the rest of it sounded and how I was going to deal with that, and also knowing we were going to have to build a set-list that included some Moondog Three greatest hits but suddenly feeling very unprepared emotionally for that discussion.
Then the aesthetician breezed in and after quick introductions–her name was Linnea but she told me to call her Linn–I excused myself to the restroom to have a quiet moment to myself.
This men’s room was a wheelchair accessible single-occupant one with a toilet, a urinal, and a sink. I splashed my face with water and washed my hands and stared in the mirror but I wasn’t really seeing myself. I was thinking: what the hell have I gotten myself into?
Then I took a deep breath and thought to myself, don’t freak out, maybe that’s not what’s going on. Maybe this is a leftover reaction to the fact that for so long I resisted doing this and I’ve got, like, emotional fallout with a slow half-life.
So I examined my feelings (is the reason I hate that word because of the song? Feeeeeelings…. I just hate the way it sounds, but anyway…) and decided no, I’m not mad at Ziggy, mad at myself, or regretting working with him or going on the road… I just really don’t like some of the musical choices they made. Some of these songs are really dull. Really, really dull.
Could be worse, I told myself. Could be Broadway. Besides, you know things never come off the same live as they do in studio. And this is Ziggy we’re talking about. There’s no way it’s going to seem dull when he’s on stage.
Right. That left the problem of how not to make it obvious to Ziggy or the rest of them that I didn’t really love the music, just to keep from sowing dissent or unrest, you know? Or hurting Ziggy’s feelings. I needed to find out how much of it he wrote before I said anything stupid.
Anxiety prickled up my neck and down my arms, making the hairs on my forearms stand up. Deep breath.
When I went back into the office, Linn the aesthetician–a woman about four-foot-nine with aggressively black (i.e. likely dyed) hair and eggplant eyeshadow that somehow managed not to look like bruises–was holding forth about some new lighting effect while pouring vodka into a pitcher of something opaque and pastel-colored. Peach, pink, yellow? Not sure. She handed me a glass without breaking stride of her explanation and I took a seat and listened for a while. Hm, fruity. The drink probably calmed my nerves more than anything. I listened with half an ear while they talked about colors and look for the stage set and dancers’ costumes.
“The thing is to present a polished, finished look to it all through coordination of elements, but there should be some things that evoke a D.I.Y. spirit.”
Quite suddenly her finger, which had a talon of a nail on the end, was pointed right at me. “I like the look of your shirt.”
I looked down at what I was wearing. I had my leather jacket on, but under it I was wearing the shirt with Ziggy’s handprint on it. I chuckled a little as I pulled my jacket off so they could see it. “This is Ziggy’s handprint, you know.”
“See? Perfect.” She grabbed Ziggy’s hand and examined it front and back. What she was looking for, I don’t know. She made a note on a notepad.
She breezed out again after about two hours. Meanwhile I had made myself a list of questions about how many musicians to hire. Did we need a drummer and a separate percussionist? Horns or could we do with just a saxophone and keyboard player–possibly the same person? Backup singers and if so how many? I had drawn a diagram of a stage based on something Linn had said and made question marks where various people might stand.
“I’m seeing Priss at two,” Ziggy announced. Then he asked me, “Come with me?”
“I should make some phone calls.”
He stood and stretched, his shirt riding up to expose his flat belly. It was a convenient moment to feel a tendril of desire for him curl through me.
“I’ll meet you here on the way back, then,” he said, and leaned over to kiss me. I wasn’t totally sure how a casual kiss should work. Jonathan would do it sometimes on his way to work and once in a while I tried to hard and we knocked teeth, or noses.
Ziggy kissed me on the very corner of my mouth, which somehow felt more intensely intimate and private than if he planted a wet smacker right in the middle.
“Okay,” I heard myself say as he floated out the door.