The Genius of David Bowie, in 5 Songs

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I'm going to let other people remember David Bowie for his cultural importance: his brave and liberating embrace of sexual ambiguity, his clever shape-shifting, his sophistication as an actor, his sharp sense of pop art's relationship to rock and roll.

He was truly great in all of these ways. But for me David Bowie is just the guy whose records I blasted into my brain through bulky headphones when I was a teenager. As a creative musical artist of the 1970s, he was at the same level as the very best of his peers, such as the Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the ex-Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Since I spent so many of my teenage hours with David Bowie records spinning on my turntable, I would like to honor his death by offering up my five favorite songs for the benefit of anyone who might not otherwise ever hear of them.

These were not his big hits, and probably all five were too long for radio. If you are curious about Bowie but only know his more popular stuff, I hope you will dig into these five deep cuts and find within them the same depths and glories as I did when they helped me grow up.

Here are my five favorite David Bowie album tracks or recorded live performances, in reverse order, best for last.

5. Station to Station

Station to Station was David Bowie's "ice" album: cool and slick, mechanical and precise. "Cool" was apparently the mood Bowie was in around 1975, after he morphed out of his hotter Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs phases. And what's wrong with a record album sculpted of ice? I listen to the album's epic ten-minute title track when I want to be in a heartless mood myself. It's a sarcastic lyric about a guy with a gigantic ego who is trying to look beyond his own reflection and fall in love with somebody else for the first time.

Should I believe that I've been stricken?
Does my face show some kind of glow?

4. Time

From the album Aladdin Sane, which may have the best-ever David Bowie cover artwork (ok, tied with the gorgeously orange Low, but Aladdin Sane is the better record). I love this song for its atmosphere, and also for the Brechtian piano work of Mike Garson, who also played the famous splashy piano solo on the same album's title song "Aladdin Sane". I almost chose that song for this list, but I'm going with "Time" for the powerful lyrics, which I remember once sustained me through a difficult high-school romantic breakup. "Keeping dark is hateful," Bowie said, and those are words worth remembering.

Breaking up is hard, but keeping dark is hateful
I had so many dreams
I had so many breakthroughs
But you, my love, were kind, but love has left you dreamless
Your door to dreams was closed
Your park was real and greenless
Perhaps you're smiling now,
smiling through this darkness
But all I have to give is guilt for dreaming

3. The Bewlay Brothers

David Bowie had a mentally ill older brother who supposedly inspired him a lot by turning him on to the cooler possibilities of London underground culture in the early 1960s, like jazz, Beat literature and Buddhism. But this older brother had problems that were beyond the reach of Bowie's help. I have always related to this because I have a younger sister who has suffered from schizophrenia all her adult life. The song "Bewlay Brothers" from Bowie's gentle early album Hunky Dory is often considered mysterious and incomprehensible, but I always believed it was a song about having a mentally ill sibling. That's what it was about for me, anyway. Coincidentally, I'm pretty sure Hunky Dory was my younger sister's favorite Bowie album.

My brother lays upon the rocks
he could be dead, he could be not
he could be you
he's chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
shooting up pie in the sky, the Bewlay Brothers
in the feeble and the bad
the Bewlay Brothers
in the blessed and cold
in the crutch-hungry dark
was where we played our mark ...

2. Width of a Circle (Live)

"I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree," Bowie tells us in this epic suite. "I looked and found that the monster was me." I sometimes guessed that "Width of a Circle" was about the mixed horror and delight of untethered sexual experience, about the dangerous but necessary act of letting go and living in the moment. The band chants "Turn around, go back" at the end of every verse as the song nears the climax. Perhaps that phrase is meant to be a safeword.

Important fact about this song: the studio recording is not that great, but Bowie and the Spiders from Mars absolutely NAIL it in this performance from the 1973 Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (Live) movie and record album, which was directed by the brilliant D. A. Pennebaker. I love the way Pennebaker pans lazily over the fascinated faces in the crowd as Mick Ronson delivers one of his best-ever flash guitar solos.

This 14 minute clip also includes some kind of guitar/bass mythical simulated battle between Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder, which nearly veers upon Spinal Tap, followed by a rather well-executed mime set piece by David Bowie. Is there any wonder it's one of my favorite Bowie moments?

He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame
He said "You'll never go down to the Gods again"
(Turn around,go back)
He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said "Do it again, do it again ..."
(Turn around,go back)
His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil's love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said "Do it again, do it again ..."
(Turn around, go back)
Breathe, breathe, breathe deeply
And I was seething, breathing deeply
Spitting sentry, horned and tailed
Waiting for you

1. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)

This is it, the one. If anyone ever asks me to name the best David Bowie album I will name Diamond Dogs, and if anyone asks me to name the best Bowie song I will name this epic nine-minute suite, which is unfortunately listed as three linked songs though it's beyond me how you could possibly listen to any of the three except together. (Yes, it is a fact that three of my five favorite David Bowie songs are epic suites. He was good at epic suites.)

Diamond Dogs is a concept album inspired by George Orwell's 1984, mashed up with other elements from A Clockwork Orange to Naked Lunch. It's a lusciously dark and grim album, and it's weird that I'm picking "Sweet Thing/Candidate", a dark and grim song on a dark and grim album, as David Bowie's #1 masterpiece, since Bowie has created so many cheerful or uplifting songs, from "All The Young Dudes" to "Suffragette City" to "Young Americans" to "Absolute Beginners".

But there's something about this "Sweet Thing" ... something that made me listen to this side of the album over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over when I was a teenager. I still listen to it over and over and over and over sometimes today. It just sounds that good. The words are pretty intriguing too.

My set is amazing
it even smells like a street
There's a bar at the end
where I can meet you and your friend
Someone scrawled on the wall
I smell the blood of Les Tricoteuses
Wrote up scandals in other bars
Having so much fun with the poisonous people
Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up
Some make you sing and some make you scream
One makes you wish that you'd never been conceived
But there's a shop on the corner
that's selling papier mache
Making bulletproof faces
Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay
"If you want it, boys, get it here, thing"
So you scream out of line, "I want you! I need you!"
"Anyone out there, anytime?"
Tres butch little number whines
"Hey dirty, I want you"
When it's good, it's really good
and when it's bad I go to pieces
If you want it, boys, get it here, thing
On the street where you live I put a hole in my head
For I put all I have in another bed
On another floor, in the back of a car
In the cellar of a church with the door ajar
Well, I guess we must be looking for a different kind
Cause we can't stop trying till we break up our minds
Till the sun drips blood on the seedy young knights
Who press you on the ground while shaking in fright
I guess we could cruise down one more time
With you by my side it should be fine
We'll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands

This track ends in an orgasmic release, a driving drumbeat accompanied by some of the grindingest, grungiest guitar noises I have ever heard. Then (if you are listening to the album in sequence, as you really should) the beat and the guitar noise cuts off and the record segues directly into the next song, the album's hit single "Rebel Rebel", and that moment, that splice is what Diamond Dogs was really all about.

You got your mother in a whirl
She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl
Hey babe, your hair's alright ...

Goodbye, David Bowie.

10 Responses to "The Genius of David Bowie, in 5 Songs"

by Jim H on

Nice choices. For some reason I can't stop listening to John, I'm Only Dancing—perhaps because isn't that all any of us are ever doing?

I actually saw him on the Diamond Dogs tour. Small crowd, Greensboro, NC. Oddly affected today.

by josh moore on

I remember being in my late teens with my good looking/trendy/artsy/prone to violence white skinned blonde haired post high school Native Girlfriend arguing about the importance of Bowie.

For her it was listening to her mother's LPs. Diamond Dogs, Low, all of it. Somehow we couldn't figure out that Joy Division and Bowie were all the same note playing on an universal deep symphony.

Of course reading about his death the first thing that pops up is the allegations of rape and underage sexual partners. I don't know. It's hard to say.

If I was a rich famous guy walking on the sun from pounds of coke perhaps having sex with a fifteen year old and her best friend would be prudent.

Judging people isn't really my job.

I do appreciate the fact he keep details of his illness private. I read somewhere about Magic Johnson telling people about how God made him the Moses of HIV and I shook my head in disgust.

I've listened to the artists he's produced far more often than the man's music himself. IE Iggy Pop or Lou Reed.

When we discuss someone with such a huge catalogue (much like let's say Neil Young or the Grateful Dead) not all of it will be up to par.

Once again Levi I'm impressed with the wiki the brain you have has.

I can't say that Bowie was 'important' as Pink Floyd or any of the other artists you've mentioned. I'm not saying he is less important than any of them you've mentioned.

But once again going back to the Blond Blue Native Girl from high school (who reminds me of "Pale Blue Eyes,--BTW) she was the only one who I knew was a teenage groupie twenty years after the fact.

Yeah everyone listens to "Wish You Were Here" and thinks of themselves. But unlike Wings or CCR Bowie didn't have many songs that repeatedly get played on classic rock stations. What "Let's Dance," "Fame," "Space Oddity?"

I'm sure there's a few I'm not mentioning-but in a way Bowie was always an underground artist.

Much the same could be said of Lou Reed (and no I don't want to listen to Berlin ever again).

Hell who else gets mentioned by name in a Kraftwerk song?

And who else ever made that much money?

The song that keeps running through my mind is "Modern Love." One of my favorites. I read that Bowie composed that song using the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up technique, then found out that he also used the cut-up method on some of his other songs, too. The thing is, I mainly know his singles that played on the radio. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is the only Bowie album I ever owned, so the above five songs are new to me, and I enjoyed every one of them. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

The lyrics you posted from Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing are fantastic! And it sounds fantastic, too. The first time I listened to it on my iPhone with no earbuds. I just got through listening to it again in its full splendor!

by Laura on

I am an absolute beginner with David Bowie. There is so much to listen to, and as you mention, I only know his popular stuff. What a great selection of songs you have here! It makes me incredibly anxious to explore the rest of his music. Perhaps I should just start with his first album and work my way through his music chronologically?

Thank you by the way for all the articles on this website about the Beat Generation. They are extremely helpful for a paper I have to write.
Best wishes!

by Katherine Watt on

I love this article. 3 of these songs are my absolute favourites of Bowie and I thought it was just me.

Sweet thing/candidate/sweet thing reprise (you are right it should always be listened to as one track), Time and the Bewley Brothers are always overlooked and forgotten. They have some of my favourite lyrics of all time. Absolutely spot on!

by ge on

Hi!
My initials should have link to new blog begun to reminisce on DB
'US LADS INSANE'
+ cover of the soopah song SLIP AWAY
of his from HEATHEN which I only discovered post-mort.
having mostly writ him off since 'Scary' era.
I concur re yr # 1 song choice, btw. that darn thing goes thru my head often :)
...also readers of this may be glad to know of Bowiesongs/'pushing ahead of the dame' blog of Chris O'Leary
with tons of perceptive reader comments in addition to his analyses

by Stacy on

A great article and song selections. It should be be fun for Bowie newbies to watch "Time" *video.
Also, since the video for the #1 selection is now blocked, here is a new one.

4. Time (live): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGzBLkdA31A
2. Width of a Circle (clearer Live version): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASitcSAk330
1. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing
.... unblocked video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC_lLK1ghlM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC_lLK1ghlM

by J. Kafka on

David Bowie was pure genius. There was *so* much it's hard to choose, but I'd have to place his 5 greatest songs as: 1) Five Years ....... 2) The Man Who Sold the World ..... 3) Moonage Daydream ..... 3) Space Oddity ..... 4) The Bewlay Brothers ....... 5) Sorrow (Bowie's version, on his Pinups Album) ....... so much more :)

by Teri White on

Great choices. I couldn't stop at 5.

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