Read the rest of David Bowie Tribute Week here.
Son Raw told David Bowie to work with Goldie in the first place.
David Bowie is the rare artist who was the first at what he did, the best at what he did, and the most popular at what he did. This measure of success renders his influence almost impossible to quantify. He is a huge and crucial part of every subsequent guitar pop artist I’ve loved, from David Sylvian to Kevin Barnes, but left just as big a mark on practically every art rock group that ever made me gag – and even worked with some of them. For me however, Bowie’s most crucial influence is the one which he had on artists far removed from the principal context he worked in, rather than his direct followers. And ground zero for that influence is “Subterraneans” on side two of Low.
Low is (of course) a classic: that’s not up for debate. It’s the rare statement from a boomer era icon that leapfrogged its generation to become a blueprint for punk, new wave, dance music, and almost any piece of music worth listening to since its inception. Ziggy Stardust’s camp tourism belongs to our parents, but Low’s gated drums, depression, withdrawal, dissociative cut up lyrics, and emphasis on texture and granularity belong to us. That impetus to take despair, pain, and chemical imbalance and refract it through the avant-guard reaches its peak on side two, which consists of a series of morose instrumentals that were almost unthinkable at the time of their release considering Bowie was best known as a cross-dressing glam rocker turned coked-out soul boy. Today however, listening to “Subterraneans,” the record’s finale and emotional peak, it becomes impossible to imagine contemporary music without it. Kanye West’s left turns into icy soundscapes and not-quite-art-school pretention? It’s there. James Blake’s marrying of rock’s emotional candor with otherworldly production and instrumentation? An obvious reference. And though it might be a bit gauche to tie this piece to my current concerns, Bowie was a South London born—a working class lad who married black dance music to white artiness as if the two were a natural pairing. I have no doubt he’d have visited Boxed if he was 30 years younger. He did hang out with Goldie in the 90s, after all.
David Bowie was a rock icon and a fearless pop provocateur, but that’s not the Bowie I’m mourning. The Bowie I’m mourning is the man who risked throwing all of that away to fuck off to Berlin and make music so wildly unconventional that it birthed its own context, one light years away from the petty rock vs. disco debates that most 70s musicians were consumed with. I’ve lived in Neukölln Berlin for a month for the past two summers, and I’ve spent at least one night each year walking around to “Subteranneans.” I couldn’t pull off that sort of ready-made use of music après la lettre for any other records: walking around 2015 NYC to Tribe or driving around LA to The Doors would feel straight up incongruous and a bit sad. And yet “Subteranneans” still effortlessly captures Berlin, and the experience was never corny—it was perfectly emotionally resonant. I hope it stays that way for another hundred years.