“They’re just a bunch of assholes, with buttholes for their brains.”
After spending two albums pandering to his newly acquired audience, Bowie took a break from his work as a solo artist. He had been phoning in performances for over six years, and it left him entirely without vision. Rather than leave the music business entirely, however, he rallied together the Sales brothers – the sons of 60’s television comedian Soupy Sales – and long-time collaborator Reeves Gabrels, to form a band called Tin Machine.
They produced two albums, both of which would garner minimal commercial interest and predominantly lackluster critical reception. Bowie’s work with the band would go as far as to see his departure from EMI, the label with which he had made his disco money. According to all the usual metrics, the project was a failure.
Initially, I had planned to skip both albums. The decision was pragmatic: I started this blog in February, and hoped to write about all of Bowie’s work before the second week of March (the release date of his first album in ten years). The day came and went, and my destination remained a glimmer in the distance.
But as untenable as the goal was, the incessant nagging of that unrealistic deadline allowed me to approach the task with a sense of urgency. The tradeoff was that it allowed me to justify a poor decision: to skip all of Bowie’s work as part of Tin Machine. Neither of the albums the band produced were technically “David Bowie albums” anyway. I had cut down my workload by two albums, and I had to expend only a few sentences to do so. Finally, my legal training was coming in handy.
In rushing, however, I overlooked Tin Machine’s significance as a reinvigoration of Bowie’s artistic integrity. I compared the few tracks I heard from the band to Bowie’s best work. I placed them on a shelf next to Life on Mars and Space Oddity, and decided they were too ugly for the room. Had I moved them to a different shelf – one that included the travesties which preceded the band’s formation – I might have realised how well they tied the room together. With the benefit of time, I decided to add the albums back onto the list. The amended version is listed below:
David Bowie Space Oddity The Man Who Sold the World Hunky Dory (Fuckyeah) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Aladdin Sade Pin Ups Diamond Dogs Young Americans Station to Station Low Heroes Lodger Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) Let’s Dance Tonight Never Let Me Down
- Tin Machine 1
- Tim Machine 2
- Black Tie White Noise
- The Next Day
As when one passes up a brownie in favour of something of real nutritional value, the decision, once made, felt right. I felt as though I had tapped into Bowie’s own sense of reinvigoration, but perhaps that is digging too deep. Whatever the cause, I felt a rush of optimism, and I decided to use it to explore some of the untouched bastions of my neighbourhood – the neighborhood Patrick Stewart loves so much.
I began at seventh avenue and ran west until I hit ninth. I turned left and ran north for a while, then turned left again and spun back east. I passed seventh (again), ran to fifth avenue, and then headed north. Confused? Take a look at the following map – it’s pretty clear that this makes two of us.
It was a nonsense route, but it allowed me to make two important realisations: (1) they do a far better job clearing the paths of snow and ice in the park than they do on the streets, and (2) the area around Fifth and Carroll Street is really fucking cool.
I tried to take mental notes on the bars and restaurants that I saw, but became overwhelmed. It took the bulk of my visual attention just to avoid the ice patches, so I focussed on the path and the music, and let the rest pass by. Thankfully, the music did not encourage distraction.
Tin Machine make their intentions clear with the opening track Heaven’s in Here: this album is a return to rock’n’roll in the purest sense. There is a notable sense of feeling to it, despite the rambling solo toward the end. After the total absence of emotion on the last two albums, it’s a forgivable indulgence. The rockin’ continues on the second track, which is creatively titled Tin Machine. Just to clarify, that’s Tin Machine on Tin Machine by Tin Machine. I call this phenomenon Tinception.
The bars and cafes continue to fly by, and my feet dance delicately over the longer stretches of ice. Prisoner of Love begins – and I realise that it might be a favourite of mine on any Bowie album. It has an almost surfy feel, but wouldn’t be out of place in a Tarantino film.
It’s basically a rock’n’roll nod to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, as made transparent by the line “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation laid down in a cemetery, crematory.” There’s a surprising conclusion in the final line “Just stay square!”, which seems the antithesis of Bowie’s previous work.
It seems to suggest that – contrary to the artist’s own behaviour – one should not sacrifice one’s body in the name of cool. Clearly the man realises that, having snorted enough cocaine to single-handedly support an entire cartel, he is lucky to be alive.
Crack City is next, and despite the fact that it contains several lines that seem more fitting for the school playground than an album from a band in their forties (the quote at the beginning of this post, for example) it’s actually an incredibly good song. The feel is evocative of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, in that it’s the most rock’n’roll of tracks on an incredibly rock’n’roll album.
What’s interesting, however, is that the lyrics are a clear “fuck you” to the destructive industry and practices which revolve around the music business. It marks a rekindling of Bowie’s love for Rock’n’Roll as a genre, but also a new approach to the way he goes about engaging with it. When he says “I’m finished with this journey,” he means the industry, the drugs, and the sales figures – but clearly not the music itself.
I pass the Barclay centre, and run down Union Street in what I hope is the direction of Prospect Park whilst the track I Can’t Read plays. It is a low point, but the line “When you see a famous smile no matter where you run your mile” reminds me that Bowie lives in this city, and I should figure out what I’m going to do in the unlikely event that I spot him on the streets. Without the adequate emotional preparation, gushing seems inevitable.
I notice a restaurant that I’ve ordered from online but never been to, and suddenly I realise that my surroundings are completely unfamiliar. I am lost, and I cross my fingers that I am still heading toward the park – I did not save the energy for a do-over. After a few worrisome minutes, I see Grand Army Plaza looming in the distance, and I know I am running in the right direction.
Under the God plays as I enter the park. It’s a more cerebral nod to the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks Fuck Off, and it’s a killer track.
I round the southern point of Prospect Park, and arrive at the lake. Except for some minor puddles, it is the first time I have seen a natural body of water completely frozen over. I sacrifice a few seconds from my pace to go and check it out. I try to snap a picture, but my camera gives me nothing but darkness.
Amazing begins with an ascending melody that reminds me of, but is nothing like, Billy Corgan’s first single with Zwan. It’s a super positive love song that’s incredibly earnest, and it reveals a lot about Bowie’s character. When Bowie delivers the line “I’ll pledge you’ll never be blue. There’s too much at stake to be down”, I can’t help but feel that it speaks to his ability to spring back from failure.
How many other artists have embarrassed themselves with work as awful as, say, Uncle Arthur, and gone on to write an album as brilliant as Hunky Dory? A mediocre debut followed up by something better is certainly not unheard of, but Bowie has continued to follow up the tragically bad with the impressively good, as if he were immune from humiliation.
This is exactly the thing that I admire so much about the artist – not the constant reinvention that people so frequently harp on about, but his comfort with failure and ability to recognise it as a necessary part of the artistic process. Sure, you could get hung up on it, but what sort of life will come of that? There’s too much at stake to be down.
Bus Stop sees the return of one of Bowie’s most underappreciated alter-egos – super British Bowie. It’s a song about religion, and the nature of believing in a god when you’re a “young man at odds with the bible”. The subject matter is heavy: how does one balance their deeply held beliefs with their sense of reason?
It must be difficult to be given a text designed to form the basis of your worldview, and then to have to decide for yourself which parts are metaphors, and which are implausible truths. Add in a few conflicting moral lessons (from the religious tolerance group, to be fair), as well as the belief that you have an immortal soul that hangs on the correctness of your interpretation, and you have a serious recipe for an existential crisis. It is moments like this I find my belief in the finality of death almost comforting.
The next song escapes my attention until I notice the chorus: “You better run run run run run run run.” I might have found it motivational at the beginning, but by this point it annoys me – like someone telling you to do the dishes as you’re doing the dishes.
The album ends with the slower, frankly mediocre track Baby Can Dance. It’s a disappointment on an album that otherwise feels like a fresh beginning. It finishes almost exactly as I reach my destination – a pole I usually touch near the movie theatre. I look at my phone: 9.6 kilometers.
Comparative to what I’ve been running since I arrived in New York, it’s a great distance, but I view that final 400 meters as an affront. I still have a little energy left, so I decide to run a quick lap around a nearby triangle of park. I begin down an unlit path, not realising that the darkness makes absent the shimmer that would normally warn me to tread carefully.
I make that realization – hard – less than ten strides in. My foot strikes a patch of ice, and I slip backward. I brace myself, ready for impact, but glide smoothly onto the tarmac like a child leaning into a slip’n’slide. Except for a small cut on my elbow, I am entirely unscathed. Not feeling inclined to push my luck any further, however, I return to my post. That 400 meters will have to wait.