Bowie, Still David Bowie

When we last left David Bowie it was 1993 and his music had moved in a somewhat darker direction. This leaves him with 23 years and 6 more albums before the culmination of his career, Blackstar.

OutsideNext up for Mr. Bowie was Outside (1995), a concept album realized with Brian Eno. The pair entered the studio with no written songs, just a vague wisp of inspiration from a fictional dystopian diary written by Bowie. A computer program was used to chop up and randomly cut and paste the text of the diary, and the result of this process became a starting point from which music was improvised. This music eventually coalesced into the finished album. An intensely dramatic entry in the Bowie catalog, I recently discovered this album and cannot stop listening. It’s a truly amazing work.

Earthling1997 saw the release of Earthling, an album influenced by the drums and bass culture of the 90s. As with all of Bowie’s work, he takes the kernel of an idea (in this case a style) and makes it truly his own. For example, instead of sampling other people’s music as a starting point, Bowie’s band creates their own loops to use as musical building blocks. The resulting music is highly aggressive, filled with industrial buzz saw guitars and synths. I would never recognize this as a Bowie album just from listening. Critics were pleased with the results and the recording received a Grammy nomination.

HoursAlways striving for ch-ch-ch-change, Bowie released Hours in 1999. It was his first album to miss the US top 40 in over 25 years. The music is very mellow, even falling comfortably in the Adult Contemporary category. In short, I really quite, er, like it less than intrusive surgery. As do many Bowie fans. However, I can respect the exploration of new styles, and really, in a 40-year career I can give him one album that I’m less-than-enthusiastic about. And perhaps you, Dear Reader, might love and cherish this recording. That is the beauty of personal taste.

Bowie released two more albums before taking a 10 year break: Heathen in 2002 and Reality the following year. Both showed marked improvement to the lackluster Hours. Many good songs, packed with variety, and a laid-back vocal style that characterized the remainder of Bowie’s work.

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A 2004 tour was halted by emergency coronary surgery and this slowed Bowie’s output significantly. He took most of 2006 off, performing his own music on stage for the last time in November. Work continued as a composer, with occasional appearances, but a decade passed before the appearance of another album in 2013.

This is where I must wax philosophically. David Bowie, who was such a big part of my musical existence, took a 10 year break and I wasn’t even aware of it until researching this post. At some point I assumed that Bowie had peaked, didn’t have anything left in the tank, and I stopped paying attention. Now I know that a wealth of great music was created after 1983. And I’m grateful that this music will forever be a part of my listening rotation. But I remain stunned that Bowie all but disappeared for 10 years without me even knowing. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned in here somewhere.

Next month we will look at the final albums, more fabulous music, and the grand finale in an exquisite career. Stay tuned.

Not Your Parents’ 800s

Pity the poor 800s. Of all the Dewey sections they are the most misunderstood. Officially they house the books about “literature and rhetoric.” Sounds pretty exciting huh? Now before you fall asleep, dear reader, let me share a little secret with you. The 800s have a side you don’t know about. A hilarious, raunchy, cutting edge and sometimes disturbing side. You see, the 800s also house all the books on humor.

We’re not talking knock knock jokes either. To begin with, there is a lot of what my colleague Carol eloquently defines as “Voyeuristic Literature.” Consider if you will Awkward Family Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack. Based on their popular blog, this book offers up a collection of some of the most cringe-inducing family portraits ever taken and provides the awkward stories behind them. This book is worth a look for the Star Trek themed portrait alone.

If you want to be exposed to more public humiliation definitely check out People of Wal-Mart: Shop and Awe by Andrew Kipple. Also based on a popular blog, this book provides frightening examples, with photos naturally, of what some people consider appropriate to wear and do while picking up necessities. 

One person’s chuckle is another person’s essential information so some may question the inclusion of The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks in the humor section. After all, who will be laughing when faced with the conundrum of how to dispatch the living dead? Brooks will provide you with lots of answers—shotguns are a no-no surprisingly—and guide you to relative safety.

After surviving an onslaught of the undead, you will be entitled to a good stiff drink. But what kind? Take a look at How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice by Jordan Kaye to find out. The creation of cocktails is taken seriously with instructions on everything from proper measures to the type of glass to use. The actual reasons for drinking? Not so much. Who knew that an Old Fashioned was the perfect drink for “Endless arguments over easily ascertainable facts”?

Finally, if you feel like kickin’ it old school definitely check out Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead  by Rich Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz selects some of the funniest writing from National Lampoon magazine in its heyday and also follows up with the writers and where they are now. As the title suggests, few have retired to suburbia.

Richard

Voyeuristic Literature: Get Caught Snooping

Are you curious enough about other people’s lives to glance into their windows after dark when they leave their drapes open and the lights on? Do you watch reality TV obsessively? Have you ever spied on an ex’s Facebook or MySpace page? If so, you’re going to want to check out what I call “voyeuristic literature.” I find these types of books irresistible and I hope you will, too.

Milk, Eggs, Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found by Bill Keaggy.

The author’s collection started out as a blog proclaiming to be “the world’s largest online collection of found grocery lists.” The book is chock-full of grocery lists you forgot you wrote. The book includes commentary on each writer’s paper, penmanship, spelling and list of contents. One list of pretzels, 40 waters, ice and chocolate is deemed to be the ingredients for the “lamest party ever.” There are stories that go along with some of the lists. The list with  Chevy Chase’s autograph is particularly funny (page 199). I’m going to copy the list on page 141, take it to the grocery store and leave it in the cart when I’m done, just like it says to do, with hopes that it will be mailed back to the author.

PostSecret Series compiled by Frank Warren.

Our humanity has never been more humiliating…or interesting. PostSecret invites anyone to write a secret—usually on a postcard that is decorated to coordinate with the secret—and send it to the author for inclusion on his website or in his many books where anyone and everyone can read it. Some are funny: “Every time I’m on the phone with my parents I have to poop.”  Some are ponderous: “I still look at your 3rd grade picture and think what might have happened if I hadn’t moved 825 miles away.” Some are just heart-wrenching: “If I died, no one would notice.” The creator of PostSecret, Frank Warren, has compiled many thousands of secrets into several different books.

Found: The Best Lost, Tossed and Forgotten Items from Around the World compiled by Davy Rothbart.

This book combines concepts from both of the other books. Davy Rothbart created a magazine called Found, which  consisted of papers he and others had found. Love letters, grocery lists, Valentines, printed emails, all discarded, all collected by people from all over the country and submitted to Found. Reading through them is a decidedly weird experience. These people didn’t realize that what they wrote, whether casual or passionate, would be tossed on the ground and eventually shared with the world. Items in the book have contributors’ names and locations where they found the items. This is useful if you’re like me and think that the handwriting on a page looks awfully familiar. Is that what happened to the note I left in my crush’s desk in eight grade? Nope, I didn’t live in Baltimore, so my secret is still probably safe. For now.

Carol