Howdy Pop Pickers
And so edition eight of Random Bowie, look you see. I am not getting bored of this, but perhaps some of you are – the last episode, Hunky Dory, recorded the lowest number of readers thus far. Who knows, perhaps that shall be a sleeper or long term grower. But then again, if so much as one person reads any of these and gets something from it then surely that is job done.
In this instance, or if you like episode, not so much random as a request. Someone has asked if it would be at all possible for me to look at Heathen, and so Heathen is the one to look, read and listen to, then. When one remembers that as part of promoting the album Bowie did a “Live by Request” show on the A&E network in America, a fitting reason to do it.
Fantastic facts? Surely. By the commonly accepted standard of counting Heathen was studio album recording number 22 by David Bowie. In the sense of new, real music this was also his first album of the 21st Century. The album was his biggest seller in the USA for many years, whilst in the UK it served to cement his position more as celebrated artist than just celebrity as such. Not bad for an album of curious provenance and unintended perception.
The curious provenance? Well, hello Toy. A lot of fellow Bowie fans will know this, but for the benefit of those who do not there are several known to exist recordings that have not been released, at least not officially. Sitting tantalisingly at the top of this is Toy. The record featured a few new songs but for the most part was built up of re-recordings of rather obscure songs what David gone and done back in the 60s.
Why was Toy not released? And I promise this all ties in to the Heathen album, so bear with me. No official reason has been given that I am aware of, but it is generally accepted that Virgin, his label at the time (it was scheduled for a 2000, maybe 2001 release), rejected it because of money. With Bowie owning the publishing on the re-recordings there was little for the label to make from it, and this was a time when, ostensibly, buying CDs was the only way to get music. Downloading one song illicitly took about 45 minutes and ran your phone bill up.
So, many of the songs for Heathen – in particular Slip Away and Afraid – were at least 2 years old by the time the record came out. Bowie in interviews stated that, as point of fact, all of the songs were written before September 2001. Yet this did not stop critics and listeners at large interpreting the album as “Bowie’s reaction / comment / response to 9/11”.
By and large this interpretation of the record is pareidolia, or maybe apophenia. It’s not entirely misguided. Bowie’s love of life in New York was well known, hell he even made sure it was referenced in his Lazarus farewell to us all. But, whilst he acknowledged some of the recordings were post 9/11 and unavoidably had influence, no direct intention to have such was in place. Maybe the record gave people what they wanted to hear after 9/11, but by no means would I say Heathen was the one people called for. Such an honour, you would think, would be better presented to Bruce Springsteen’s superb The Rising album, out the same year as Heathen.
Perhaps that was just Bowie being coy, and not wishing to taint or tarnish a record by allowing people to think it was some “cash in” on a tragedy. It is not like anyone would genuinely think that, but there are strange people with nothing better to do than throw out such conspiracies. Whilst it can be heard that way, to listen to Heathen “only” as a 9/11 reaction is possible but it would rob you, the listener, of appreciating a far wider thematic scope to the record.
Just south of 650 words and not much comment on the actual record. That’s smart going by me, is it not?
Generally my short, in your face review of Heathen is that it is “the start of the overt subversion”. Whilst one could successfully argue that subversion was at the heart of much of what Bowie did across his entire career, it was only in the latter releases that he seemed to thrill in applying it to his own work. It’s not instantly easy for me to quantify or justify this interpretation; just the little things. Like, for instance, Tony Visconti all of a sudden being back on production duties, having last been seen on 1980’s Scary Monsters.
I think the clincher in terms of “overt subversion” for me is the appearance of a very specific Neil Young cover, I’ve Been Waiting For You. This was the first David Bowie record post Tin Machine not to feature guitarist Reeves Gabrels. On that final Tin Machine tour they played this very song, with yes indeed Reeves taking on vocal duties. Surely more subversion than happy accident. Not when another song on the album, Everyone Says Hi, is rumoured alleged and sometimes outright claimed to be about Bowie and Reeves parting ways.
The overall actual sound of the album? In many respects a continuance of Hours…., blending as it does rock moments with softer, perhaps more sombre reflective material. I have no idea if this makes sense as a description, but "slow paced melodic jazz" is what feels right. Slow Burn is perhaps the best known song from the record, used as it was to promote the album. Promote, but strangely not released as a single in many places. Even though singles were still very much a thing. It's a jolly good song, sounding as it does like a slowed down Strangers When We Meet. A song Bowie very much cared for, since he recorded two different versions of it. As a favourite song, other than the ostensible title one what we will get to below, I would probably go with Slip Away.
My speculation on the title of the record brings us to subversion once more. Faith, indeed religion, was always of interest and importance to Bowie. By the time this record came out, however, we were on the verge of world war ostensibly based on religion. On a more limited scale, to the time at least, “atheism” was on something of a rise – at least in terms of people on the still relatively new “internet” deciding “hey, if I say I am an atheist that means I am automatically intelligent”. As someone steadfast in the view that faith and belief remained important in his life, perhaps in a reversal of fortune Bowie was starting to feel the “heathen” for doing so.
In terms of the rock, there’s some guest turns on the record. Undoubtedly the two highest profile of these are Pete Townshend and Dave Grohl. Whilst their distinctive sound is unquestionable, what’s interesting is that it’s toned and honed to the Bowie vision, rather than either of them coming and doing their guest slot all over in a distracting way.
Much of the album misleads you all the way up to the title track, the last song on the album. Subversion is the word which comes to mind again. There’s a soft, maybe fragile assurance given by the album, tempered with anxiety and a familiar sense of desolation. But that gets brutally shattered by Heathen (The Rays). It’s a haunting, partially harrowing and captivating piece. Musically it echoes the instrumentals from Heroes and, indeed, The Buddha Of Suburbia. Lyrically Bowie has seldom been quite so chilling, maybe intimidating even. Upon hearing it you cry out for more, but of course there is none – hence my sense of subversion, I suppose.
On my fancy “special edition” there is a second disc with four tracks. Two are OK remixes, one is the 1979 re-recording of Panic In Detroit which featured on the celebrated RYKO / EMI reissue of Scary Monsters back in the early 90s. The fourth, however, is an absolute gem. It’s a re-recording of Conversation Piece. The original was a sort of folksy type of folk song, somewhat underused as a b-side to a single and seldom heard, bar the versions of the Space Oddity CD that had it on as an extra. I love the original, but this more bass heavy, certainly more informed re-recording is inspired.
So is Heathen a David Bowie album worth getting or at the least listening to by you, the more casual Bowie fan presumably here for further information? Most decidedly so, yes. In certain circles Heathen is spoken of as one of his best of all time, and not just in that usual critics favourite “…since Scary Monsters” era. Whilst I am not convinced I would call it such, I would certainly say Heathen (The Rays) is downright essential to hear, and of course to own. As in, to be entirely honest, the whole rest of the album could be complete garbage but I would still treasure it for that song is on it.
Curiously, perhaps, the lasting legacy of Heathen might well be the visionary interviews Bowie gave in support of the album. To all intents and purposes this album saw the last time he made himself somewhat freely available to the press. A recurring theme in the interviews was his view on the future of music, and how we would access it. Bowie said that he believed that one day, soon, music would "flow like water or electricity", and that's how everyone would consume it. He also issued a dire warning about copyright.
An example of these interviews can be found here. For me the most interesting thing is that he predicted "streaming" services in all but name. Do bear in mind that this was 2002 - there was no You Tube, no iTunes store, no Tidal, no Spotify and next to nothing in terms of radio stations broadcasting across the net.
For those interested in Toy, well, it is not at all hard to find. A copy mysteriously leaked onto the internet in those years between Reality and The Next Day. I shall not place a link here, but some searching and you will soon find it. Should you get stuck, consult Brian Eno on that Twitter thing. For some reason he routinely shares a link to download it. I guess he really, really likes the album and believes all should hear it.
It’s weird, but with a lack of huge hits on it I do feel like when I speak of Heathen I am speaking about an obscure Bowie record. Baffling, for it did as mentioned earlier sell very, very well indeed. Perhaps you already have a copy and it’s been placed or buried in a box. Time to dig it out, maybe.
So, another episode or incident of Random Bowie done. Where next for what will ostensibly episode 9? Lots to choose from. One sixties, loads of 70s, a couple each from the 80s and 90s and the other three from the 2000s. We shall see together, so long as you are back next month to read more.
And, on that note, thank you very much indeed once more for coming by and reading this and all the stuffs of writing what I do here.
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!