David Bowie Is in Brooklyn

The David Bowie Is Exhibition – a collection of costumes, artifacts, sounds and visions – has been touring the world’s great museums for the past five years, visiting twelve venues in all and welcoming over two million visitors total. It closed forever on July 15, but right before the end I made my pilgrimage to see it at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City on July 8.

The exhibit, culled from over 75,000 items in David Bowie’s personal archive, gave visitors a peek into every corner of Bowie’s life, career, and creative process in surprising detail. While the show was arranged in thematic groupings, there was a chronological element to it as well, and pieces ranged from paraphernalia from his childhood and schooling to the leather-bound book used in his final two music videos in 2016. In between, we find countless handwritten lyric sheets, costumes and props from concert, television and video appearances throughout his career, sketches for stage designs, video interviews with Bowie and his collaborators, instruments, scenes from his many film roles, concert footage, and select pieces from Bowie’s paintings. Tying the whole thing together was an audio tour that changed as you moved through the exhibit, syncing up with whatever video component was featured in whichever room you were in.

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Some of the show’s highlights included:

  • In 1974 Bowie hoped to turn his Diamond Dogs album into a feature film called Hunger City. He created incredibly detailed scene breakdowns and storyboards for this proposed film. Not only were a significant selection of these storyboards on display, but the exhibition had employed an artist to create an animated sequence to bring Bowie’s vision for the film to life.
  • One section of the exhibit was devoted to his pioneering music video output, divided into three distinct groupings focusing on the 70s, 80s, and 90s-10s with accompanying costumes and props. As the general public is most familiar with his 70s and 80s hits, I enjoyed seeing people sitting down to watch and listen to songs from his later years that they might never have heard before, like “Little Wonder”, “Hearts Filthy Lesson”, “Jump They Say” and “Blackstar.” I held out hope that it might inspire a few souls to explore his later works.
  • Video footage of him and his band in studio during the recording of the Outside album, from 1995, which I consider to be one of the best albums of his career.
  • Looking at the handwritten lyrics were a special treat, but the one that really stood out was 1976’s “Station to Station” which includes numerous lines that he crossed out and never used. It was interesting to discover the greater context of the song and what shape it could have taken had these thought paths been followed fully.
  • Image result for brooklyn museum bowie isSeeing the three costumes (okay, two costumes and puppet body) that he wore for his first appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1979 took me right back to my 11th-grade bedroom, watching his mind-blowing performances on my small portable color TV.
  • Seeing the poster and costume from the stage play The Elephant Man excavated memories from 1980 of seeing news reports of his theater turn as the grotesquely deformed Joseph Merrick, not understanding how he could portray such a figure without the use of makeup or body prosthetics

I first encountered Bowie in 1975 at the age of 13 when his single “Fame” was climbing the American charts to become his first US #1 hit, and since then he has been a major part of the musical landscape of my life. And I discovered as moved through the galleries that while the exhibit was meant to be Image result for brooklyn museum bowie isa retrospective of his life, it was also a look back at my own life. Because Bowie has been the soundtrack to pretty much every stage of my life and all of my ch-ch-ch-changes. That’s the power of music: it reminds us of who we have been and how we got to who we are now. It enables us to relive moments. That’s also the power of David Bowie: he was never stagnant, never complacent, always changing and always challenging.

In recent days, it has been announced that now that the exhibit has closed it will be converted into a virtual reality experience for visitors to enjoy in brand new ways. If David Bowie was anything, he was always innovative, especially when it came to technology, so this move is entirely in keeping with who he was and with upholding his legacy.

I feel that in a way, David Bowie Is was a closure. It was a way to say ‘goodbye’ to an artist that had an immense impact on my life. It was emotional and bittersweet. And I’m thoroughly grateful that I had the opportunity to experience it.

Farewell, Starman.

You can visit the Brooklyn Museum’s David Bowie Is page here.


A Week of David Bowie

Image result for david bowie prayerThe Christmas season is now past – the tree is down, the decorations are packed away, the stockings no longer hung by the chimney with care – but for fans of David Bowie, the next holiday season is upon us: BOWIEMAS.

Bowiemas celebrates the beginning and commemorates the ending of one of the greatest musical artists of modern times. Bowie was born on January 8, 1947, and passed away January 10, 2016. It has become tradition to mark that week with special events of remembrance: tribute concerts, themed dances, screenings, etc. Check your local listings for events going on in your area. But no matter where you are, I thought I’d put together a ‘Week of Bowie’ playlist for you to enjoy, appropriate for any season, not just Bowiemas.


MONDAY: “Girl Loves Me” (2016)
Image result for blackstarOur week begins appropriately with a track from Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, released on his birthday in 2016. The song is an odd one. It doesn’t employ a straightforward narrative style; rather, it makes heavy use of various “slanguages,” most notably NADSAT (the fictitious language created by Anthony Burgess for his novel A Clockwork Orange) and Polari (a sort of carney-speak employed occasionally by actors, fairground showmen, sailors, criminals, and adopted by the gay subculture). The song repeatedly asks “Where the f*ck did Monday go?” Since Bowie passed away on a Sunday evening, two days after his birthday and the release of this album, the question seems eerily prescient. The album itself is a meticulously-constructed final statement from a man who, at the age of 69, was still the master of his craft and creating vibrant, challenging, surprising, and youthfully defiant music even in the midst of a horrendous disease that would very soon claim his life.


TUESDAY: “Love You Till Tuesday” (1967)
Image result for david bowie albumFrom the end we move to the beginning. The first single released from Bowie’s first album, “Love You” is the sugariest of pop confections, coming at a time when he hadn’t quite figured out what it meant to be ‘David Bowie’. It’s a catchy, lighthearted little ditty in which Bowie seeks a bit of a frolick with the lady of his desires and, even though it’s now Sunday, he promises to love her till Tuesday. “Well,” he cheekily hints in the last line of the song, “I might stretch it till Wednesday.” The self-titled album from which it comes is much the same, but with a few surprisingly dark and macabre moments.

Fun fact: It was from this song that the 80s band ‘Til Tuesday got their name.



WEDNESDAY: “Leon Takes Us Outside” (1995)
Image result for david bowie outsideSpeaking of dark and macabre . . .

I will admit that Wednesday was a tough day to fill, but this track is the Wednesdayiest of them all. “Leon” is little more than an ambient intro to the brilliant Outside album, but Bowie’s spoken word intonations list a number of random dates, all of which are Wednesdays. The music is weird, atmospheric, abstract. The track ends rather abruptly because it leads directly into the album’s opening track proper, the title song. Fans of David Lynch should love Outside, which is a depiction of a seedy near-future city populated by unusual characters and the investigation of grisly crimes in the name of art (check out the songs “Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” and “Wishful Beginnings” to see just how gritty Bowie can get). A masterpiece.


THURSDAY: “Thursday Child” (1999)
Image result for david bowie hoursA song inspired by the 1956 autobiography of Eartha Kitt (also titled Thursday Child, after her 1956 hit of the same name), this was the first single from Bowie’s 1999 hours… album. After he’d spent the majority of the 90s experimenting with electronica and recording albums with his side band Tin Machine, 1999 found Bowie suddenly in a more reflective mood, stylistically speaking. Gone for the most part were the electronic trappings of Outside and Earthling; instead, hours was a noticably mellower album. “Thursday Child” kicks the album off in a rather melancholy tone, looking back on his (or Kitt’s?) past, reflecting on lonelier times, and letting go of it.

Fun fact: Nearly all of the music on hours… was composed specifically for the video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul, released around the same time. The game also included original instrumental incidental music composed by Bowie and Reeves Gabrels, with additional music composed by Gabrels himself.


FRIDAY: “Friday on My Mind” (1973)
Image result for david bowie pin upsAt the height of frenzy surrounding the Ziggy Stardust tour and two hugely successful albums, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane, Bowie was planning his follow-up album, which would eventually become 1974’s Diamond Dogs. However, RCA was clamoring for more product NOW. So Bowie and his band hurried themselves into the studio to slap together an album of covers, called Pin-Ups. Considering the rapidity with which this was put together – it was recorded in July and August of ’73 and released in October – it’s a surprisingly powerful album, full of some of Bowie’s and the band’s finest performances of some unexpected song choices. The album would spawn another hit for Bowie, a cover of the Mersey’s “Sorrow,” and featured covers of songs by Them, the Kinks, Pink Floyd, and two each from the Yardbirds and the Who. Side two opens with “Friday on My Mind,” an Easy Beats cover. It’s rather odd to hear Bowie, at any period of his career but especially in the midst of Ziggy-mania, sing a song about working a dreary 9-to-5 job with only the promise of weekend freedom to get him through.

Fun fact: the cover of Pin-Ups features Twiggy in a photograph originally shot for Vogue, but Bowie requested it be used for the album instead of the magazine.


SATURDAY: “Drive-In Saturday” (1973)
Image result for david bowie aladdin saneThe aforementioned Aladdin Sane was released smack-dab in the middle of the Ziggy Stardust tour. Featuring a much tougher, darker rock sound than the Ziggy album, Bowie once described this album as “Ziggy goes to America”, citing the influence his recent tours of the US had on his sound. The second of two hit singles (the first being “The Jean Genie”), “Drive-In Saturday” peaked at #3 on the UK charts (though it didn’t chart in the US). In its 1950s doo-wop style, the song depicts a future post-catastrophe society in which people have forgotten how to make love, so they turn to old videotapes (ie: they watched a lot of porn) to rediscover the lost art. The song namechecks Mick Jagger, Twiggy and Carl Jung. It’s a bit of kitsch nestled amongst some of the albums most muscular material – “Watch That Man”, the title song, “Panic in Detroit” and “Cracked Actor.”


SUNDAY: “Sunday” (2002)
Image result for david bowie heathenHeathen is a dark album. It’s also an incredibly beautiful album, layered and nuanced. Even though all the songs were written prior to the 9/11 attacks on New York City, where Bowie was living at the time, some of the recording and all of the mixing took place afterward, and there’s clearly an influence here. The album seems to reflect the mood of the post-attack country; Bowie himself described the album as “a deeply questioning ablum” that was “traumatic to finish.” The album opens with “Sunday,” one of the most evocative and richly-layered songs in Bowie’s entire catalog. Built around a haunting, shadowy guitar riff by David Torn, “Sunday”‘s bleak lyrics include lines like “Nothing has changed and everything has changed”, “It’s the beginning of an end”, “Take to the fire / Now we must burn”, “Look for cars or signs of life”, “Look for the drifters”, etc. It’s a chilling song, one of the darkest things that Bowie ever recorded, and he said of the song, which was written weeks before the attacks, “It was quite spinetingling to realize how close those lyrics came. There are some key words in there that really just freak me out.”