I've spent the week listening to three albums; 1972's Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and 1977's Low and "Heroes". Bowie was one of those artists like, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, or Johnny Cash that was just always in my life either through the radio or television and I don't remember becoming a "fan" of any of them they were just a natural part of my life. In a way, I took Bowie for granted for years. I was always happy to hear him on the radio, regardless of era, but he wasn't an artist I obsessively sought out, like Black Flag or Townes Van Zandt, until I heard "Heroes".
I was twenty two and living in Boston. I'd gotten a job at Waterstones Book store, on Exeter St. working in the receiving department. Whoever occupied my table before me had left behind a small stack of CDs which included Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbinson, a Motown compilation, and Bowie's "Heroes". Bowie really surprised me. "Heroes" had such a vital sound-artistically rich, but with a pop sheen. I knew I needed to start taking Bowie as seriously I took Lou Reed.
My next purchase was the Rykodisc double cassette Best Of, which accompanied me on many train rides to and from work. What I learned about Bowie was that he brought a sheer joy and exuberance to playing rock and roll which other artists lacked. Not to take away from anyone's songwriting abilities or their albums' production values, but Bowie wasn't to cool to smile through the music. That was refreshing and was always a good palette cleanser after a lot of the hardcore, blues, and doom metal I usually listened to.
It took me awhile to finally land on one of his albums that I'd call my favorite, but Low was it. Recorded the same year as "Heroes", Low is part of the Berlin trilogy that also includes Lodger. 1977 was a pretty crazy year for Bowie and long time friend Iggy Pop as they worked on each other's albums and recorded Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life the same year as "Heroes" and Low. We're talking about four of the best albums made by either artist crafted in less than a year!
One of the things that set Low apart was the synth/electronic b-side that was mostly instrumental. The a-side featured some very good songs that are like little sci-fi character dramas (the sci-fi aspect being provided by the Kraut rock influence of synthesizer music). Be My Wife was released as a single and was the most classic Bowie sounding rock song on the album. The rest of the album is much more avant garde than anything Bowie had attempted up to that point, and despite what some critics thought, it was a great success. Partly because the album had a secret weapon in Brian Eno of Roxy Music providing much of the synth sounds. I can't say I've ever been a huge Eno fan, but I certainly have a great appreciation of him on Low.
When the news of Bowie passing hit, Low became my go to album. The last one, Blackstar, is amazing, and I enjoyed listening to it last Saturday morning while I was writing, but I think I'll take a little more time before I return to it. Low has a hopefulness to it that has been a great comfort, even in the more down beat instrumentals and lines like "Sometimes it gets so lonely...". In my head Low creates a whole world in it's seven tracks, as complete as a JG Ballard novel. There's not a hell of a lot of other rockers that have accomplished as much as Bowie and stayed good and vital for as long as he did. His shoes are just too damn big to ever be filled by the Fall Out Boys and Kanyes of this world.
(full album here)