#7Songs2016 (1): The shadow of the Thin White Duke

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If you had to
pick seven songs from this year or yesteryear that have meant the world to you
in 2016, what would they be? I so enjoyed the #7songs “challenge” last year
that I thought I’d try my own twist on it this year. Hence #7songs2016. Let’s
kick it off with a beautiful jazz tribute to Bowie. And let’s keep the uncontrollable
laughter and joy of Bowie’s creativity alive.

The death of
David Bowie in early January 2016 cast a shadow across the entire year.

My first
#7songs2016 pick exemplifies this: Warszawa by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, from
his excellent album Beyond Now (although the album version doesn’t appear to be
available on youtube, so please enjoy instead this live rendition):

Warszawa is a
David Bowie piece from the gorgeously atmospheric, largely instrumental second
side of Low (my favourite Bowie album*). Low sees a lost and drug-addled Bowie
pull back from excess to seek quiet, calm and refuge in late-70s Berlin,
soaking in its unique atmosphere to produce his most beautiful record.

Warszawa in its
original incarnation is a haunting – and really rather odd – piece of music.** Chris
O’Leary’s excellent Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog
sums it up thus:

“The song
is a broken, brooding man reincarnated in a city.”

He cites its
influence on a certain Mancunian group (who would go on to become Joy
Division):

“The
creative peak of Low, Warszawa is one of Bowie’s most sublime works, and its
influence would echo for years to come. Ian Curtis was so obsessed with the
song that he named his punk group after it.”

McCaslin’s
2016 version is stark and sombre.*** It gives perfect musical expression to the
sadness that so many of us felt with Bowie’s passing.

For McCaslin,
Bowie’s passing is uniquely personal. He was part of the raw, wonderful jazz
trio that Bowie brought on board for his last album Blackstar****. Blackstar
has a power and a beauty in finality that is all its own.

But Blackstar
couldn’t be more Bowie in the way it was made. It was created in the spirit of
questing for the new – and in the same atmosphere of joy and hilarity in
creation – that characterised Bowie’s work throughout his career. Always aware
of the cutting edge of music, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a
Butterfly
is a key influence on Blackstar (as I recently blogged).

Quite silly

As stark as
1977’s Low was, its recording was often outright silly. Bowie and collaborator
Brian Eno would converse in the voices of Peter Cook and Dudley
Moore’s Pete and Dud***** characters, as Bowie himself admitted:

“We
certainly had our share of schoolboy giggling fits. […] Brian and I did have
Pete and Dud down pretty pat. Long dialogues about John Cage performing on a
‘prepared layer’ at the Bricklayers Arms on the Old Kent Road and such like.
Quite silly.”

Very little had
changed in terms of silliness levels by the time of the Blackstar sessions, producer
Tony Visconti suggests in his take on the title track in this month’s Mojo magazine:

“I thought
it was very humorous. The Gregorian chanting was slightly melodramatic, and the
Al Green section was hysterically funny, singing he’s a black star and all
that.”

The death of
David Bowie has cast a shadow across the entire year. And the deaths of the
great and the good have kept coming throughout 2016, even as western politics has
taken a turn for the apparently insane.

I love that
right until the end, Bowie was as fearless and as joyous in his creativity as
he’d ever been. We owe it to his memory, and to ourselves, to continue this
spirit in all we do. To doff our hats to the dame.

 Footnotes

* I present
as evidence of my ongoing love of Low my written-on-a-postcard micro-review,
submitted for Q magazine’s rundown of the greatest albums ever and published in
their February 1998 edition.

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** I do
wonder whether 70s Bowie fans hearing
Warszawa‘s wordless humming vocals
for the first time nearly four decades ago might have succumbed to a – if my
use of conversational French can be excused this once – reaction of “What is
this bollocks?” I’m also starting to wonder if Warszawa is something of a
rallying cry for those who love Bowie’s Berlin period. For such a comparatively
obscure entry in the Bowie songbook, I chanced upon it a number of times in
autumn 2016 (via McCaslin’s album; as opening track on an ambient mix from The
Orb
; and mentioned as a
mood-setting opener for DJ sets at New Romantic mecca Blitz, in
BBC4’s recent Boy George documentary).

*** McCaslin’s
isn’t even the first atmospheric jazz cover of Warszawa in recent years. Check
out Dylan Howe’s different but equally wonderful version from his 2013 album
Subterraneans.

**** Blackstar
is loaded with meaning, and finds a beauty in finality. Bowie knew the end was
in sight. Even without the
context of Bowie’s passing, Blackstar would be an extraordinarily good album. There’s some proof of this in my excitable scribblings about hearing the title track for the first time a year ago – back when Bowie was still very much with us.

***** A
little spot of Pete and Dud perfection for you:

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