My first ever memory of David Bowie was seeing him dressed up in the sorrowful pierrot’s costume on Mars in the video for “Ashes to Ashes.” He looked like an alien but there was something about his voice and the lyrics that stuck with me. He seemed otherworldly and strange. Bowie’s eccentric persona struck a riff in the imagination of this very weird child. And I loved changing the words to the closing stanza of “Ashes to Ashes.” I’d walk around our casa and sing at the top of the lungs, much to my Mami’s annoyance, (with apologies to Bowie) “My mama said to get things done you better not fuck with major tom…” At the time I thought it was funny and to this day I feel like it fits better than “mess” but that’s me and my childish imagination.
My admiration and devotion to David Bowie has grown throughout my years. From his ’80s pop years of “putting on the red shoes and dancing the blues” through his aggro nights of Outside, the Nine Inch Nails-inspired “Hearts Filthy Lesson” and his Earthling jungle-filled days of “Little Wonder,” all the way to my personal theme “Never Get Old” from Reality. The deeper I dig inside the canon of one David Bowie the more treasures I discover. The man is one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of our modern generation. What makes Bowie stand out is his chameleon-esque nature, as he incorporates post-modern rhythms and styles with his own personal artistic charm, and the results are constantly simply dazzling.
I’d love to say that I’m reviewing a new Bowie album but alas this is not the case. Instead, I just came across this compilation, yet another one, his twentieth, or… oh who knows I stopped counting after his last Best Of. But before I start going off on my clichéd diatribe about legendary artists releasing yet another hits album, I have to stop myself because iSelect is a different breed of compilation.
First released as a complimentary gift when purchasing the June 29th, 2008 edition of British’s newspaper The Mail, iSelect, is a collection of songs personally chosen by Bowie himself. This is not a greatest hits per se, but in Bowie’s own words, “I’ve selected twelve songs that I don’t seem to tire of. Few of them are well-known but many of them still get sung at my concerts.”
iSelect starts off with the very timely “Life on Mars.” (I must quickly add that for years I have wrongly mis-titled this one “Life is Mars.” Once again, my bad but doesn’t change the connotation of song making it more cosmically mysterious. Maybe it’s just me, I’m weird like that.) Alas, “Mars” is a song that Bowie frequently revisits in his live shows. It spawned a BBC hit series that has now debut in an American incarnation that takes the title of Bowie songs (watch the American version, it’s worthy of Bowie’s song name).
Bowie writes commentary on all of the songs he’s selected. Think of this as a kind of storytellers/behind-the-song peek inside the mindset of where he was when said classics were written; time, place, etc. One thing that’s not in the liner notes is that “Mars” was Bowie’s attempt to rewrite “My Way” as an ode to Frank Sinatra. By the way, listen for the telephone ringing at the end of “Mars” kind of creepy goes along with the theme of the TV series.
Another one of the most requested songs, a perfect addition to iSelect, is “The Bewlay Brothers.” At just about all of Bowie’s shows, you’ll usually hear some die hard fan scream out for him to play this classic. Bowie describes this song as a “palimpsest.” He claims to have smoked something out of his Bewlay pipe, which inspired the late night recording of “Brothers.” This one reminds me of an old flame I met in New Orleans, who was one of the biggest Bowie fans I ever met, and “Bewlay” was her favorite song. “Lady Grinning Soul” is one of my newfound beloved Bowie songs. This is a majestic one featuring the magical piano stylings of Mike Garson. Written for “a wonderful young girl whom I have not seen in over thirty years…a song…close to the past…that you can almost reach out and touch it.” I adore the flamenco guitar strings over Garson’s piano keys.
Is it just me or does “Teenage Wildlife” sound a little like “Heroes?” This is Bowie’s attempt at Ronnie Spector. Listen to the dueling guitars by Robert Fripp and Carlos Alomar; simply splendid.
The rare find for all Bowie fanatics is the inclusion of the “Time Will Crawl (MM remix).” Originally found on Never Let Me Down with plastic drum machines having been replaced with real drums courtesy of Sterling Campbell. I also really fond the strings Bowie added to the song. It sounds as though “Time Will Crawl” has been resurrected, and is an apt theme for our current times.
The compilation closes with a track from Live Santa Monica ’72 concert. If you’ve had the honor of seeing the Thin White Duke in concert, this live version of “Hang on to Yourself” captures the power of a Bowie live set circa 1972. Oh how we miss the electric guitar greatness of Mick Ronson—you can hear, as he shreds the riffs, that this right hand man to Bowie was the electric force behind Bowie’s stage presence. The thing is that Bowie may have aged but he still sounds as lively and creatively challenging as he did back then. He may no longer be the same interstellar palimpsest I used to watch on the video for “Ashes to Ashes,” but I will continue loving this alien. By discovering new treasures like the remix of “Time Will Crawl,” iSelect is essential for the Bowie diehard in your life. He may change his guises but Bowie will remain the great one with the voice that will shine for me and all of us, beyond rhythms and all times.
David Bowie – ChangesBowie
Morrissey – Greatest Hits
Roxy Music – The Best of Roxy Music