Floating in the midst of millions of other fans mourning the loss of David Bowie, it’s hard to find just one or a few common themes about what Bowie and his music represented. For me, it was the hard rock of “Jean Genie,” “Suffragette City” and “Rebel, Rebel,” the anti-brand William Gibson-esque message of “Fashion” (you can almost hear “facist” if you listen to the doubling vocal track), and the highly danceable “Modern Love.” For some of my WPRB-FM friends, David Bowie epitomized every hip, trendy and erudite movement in the music business. From Lou Reed’s influence on his early career (much of which I believe is captured in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) to Rick Wakeman’s keyboards on “Space Oddity” to Bowie’s “This Is Not America” collaboration with Pat Metheny to his meta-meta-Christmas “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby (!!), Bowie intersected just about every plane of the music business, driving a perpendicular to each facet to reveal a new experience, a new tonal style, a new interpretation of something that had sedimented into our collective musical history.
When I heard of his death this morning my first thought was of some radio station friends who loved Bowie with nearly religious fervor. I get it, at least with three decades of hindsight. They felt what I did when Chris Squire died last May; a pillar of the soundtrack to our salad days was suddenly removed from its rightful place. We can’t count on that musical constant of constant change, and we are collectively, socially, poorer for it. We deal with uncertainty by looking for those things that are familiar; no matter how hard the work day or parenting night might be, you could listen to some Bowie (or Yes or Rush) and be grounded, at least temporarily. While those artists are alive, we refuse to age; when we lose our musical heroes we are fragile and exposed through those cracks in our framing.
Here’s what I’ve learned: Be weird. Be different. Define culture as you wish to be observed, because culture is all about observing how ideas spread. And if you’re asked to play keyboards for an upcoming artist whose music seems completely different, get more than twenty quid for it (read: Wakeman on “Space Oddity”) because you may just be providing the music for the dispersion of those new ideas.
I was probably five years too late to truly appreciate Lou Reed in his prime, but I’m not alone: I believe he is the most under-appreciated, least-understood influences on rock. The Velvet Underground was formed 50 years ago, and yet two full generations later, we seem to be arguing over the same social issues: drugs, gay rights, gender identity, freedom of expression, and race. Reading Bockris’s biography of Lou Reed is eye-opening, despite the last hundred or so pages feeling like they were churned out as a hasty eulogy. Reed’s habitual lack of collaboration, refusal to attribute input or value, and insistence on pushing social buttons is the hallmark of so many contributors who were only appreciated post-humously – Isaac Newton (classical physics), Paul Dirac (atomic theory), Alan Turing (modern computation and cryptography). They all had anti-social tendencies bordering on the pathological, yet all produced works that shape our views from the atomic to the political scale.
Without Lou Reed, there’s no David Bowie, there’s no Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Academy Awards or playing the lead in Hedwig in an art-imitates-life-imitates-art moment that is loops back on itself joyously. Within the realm of Hedwig, you can draw parallels: Hedwig as Reed, Tommy Gnosis as David Bowie, Yitzhak as Rachel, Reed’s lover of “Coney Island Baby” fame. Reed pushed our buttons; he was constantly giving the finger to the music industry (see: “Metal Machine Music”), to preconceived notions of love or relationships or identity. None of Reed’s songs are overly complex or complicated musically, no prime numbered time signatures or overlaid sitar solos. Every one of his songs is a complicated love song, pushing the boundary of “love” to be more inclusive independent of time. “Sweet Jane” speaks of “different times” – time-centered in the early 20th century (with a Stutz Bearcat reference) and sneaking a salacious peek at a cross-dressing couple (“Jack is in a corset”). For whom were the times different, or just Hedwig-level angry?
This year Alan Turing received proper respect for his contributions in “The Imitation Game”. Two decades ago gender identity made the spotlight with “The Crying Game;” four decades earlier we raised eyebrows at “Lola” and “Walk on the Wild Side” and Elton John’s rumored sexual preferences. Social norms and cultural attitudes change, sometimes very slowly.
Our “different times” can be richer, more inclusive, and celebrate the Lou Reeds among us.