12 June, 2016

When a rock loses its pillars

By Thejaswi Udupa
How similar are the musical trajectories of David Bowie and Prince? At first glance, not so much. But look again.

You have heard everyone say this. 2016 has been a horrible year for celebrities. They are dying at a faster clip than ever before. There have even been articles trying to convince you that there is steadfast logic behind all this. Here’s looking at you, BBC.

Despite all that rationalising, it is hard to come to terms with some deaths. Especially when you were not expecting them. And two of the most prominent deaths in recent times from the world of music fall into this category — David Bowie, and Prince (or the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.)

Over the past few years, I have figured out a way of dealing with the death of a favourite musician. Armed with Wikipedia and YouTube, I listen to every song the artist put out, in chronological order. It makes a lot of sense. Given my creative constraints — my ability to draw is “I’d-much-rather-be-guessing-when-playing-Pictionary” level, and any music I create will have to be necessarily categorised as avant-garde noise, I cannot come up with any work of art that can pay adequate tribute to the departed artist. The one thing I am good at is listening. So, I do that. As if it is an endurance sport, a listening marathon, not leaving a single song out (as long as it is available on YouTube.) It appeals to the completist nerd in me. It is therapeutic. And it allows me to discover gems that usually do not make the Greatest Hits tape, songs that I probably last heard many years ago when I bought the tape/CD from a Planet M/Music World, or likelier still when I downloaded the album illegally.

Before the death of Bowie and Prince, the last such marathon I did was for Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, the legendary frontman of Motorhead, and of Hawkwind and Sam Gopal before that. That marathon went on expected lines. It threw up diamonds in the rough such as ‘Yesterlove’, by Sam Gopal — a song that sounds like it predicts mumblecore cinema but with a tune and tabla.

It threw up raucous covers of old classics. It threw up many classics. And it even threw up some newer songswhose awesomeness had somehow passed me by. All in all, it charted a fairly linear graph of how a great musician’s career progressed.

A couple of days after my Lemmy marathon, I had to do the David Bowie marathon.

And a couple of months after my Bowie marathon, I had to do the Prince marathon.

It was by the time I had finished the Prince marathon, I started seeing so many parallels between David Bowie and Prince. The first thing I did was to search the Internet for whether this was a well-written about thing. A cursory search revealed that it was not. This probably just means that I may be seeing patterns where they do not exist.

Let me first get some of the flimsy parallels out of the way. One is personal. About how I first discovered them, and got fascinated.

Both David Bowie and Prince came to me in the early days of cable television in India. And as a consequence, my first contact were with their respective greatest hits. ‘Space Oddity’ for David Bowie.

And ‘Purple Rain’ for Prince.

This was at a time when I was just getting fascinated by science fiction, and these songs made an immediate impact. The science fiction of ‘Space Oddity’ is obvious enough. I even wrote an awkward and horrible short story inspired by the song. It featured a man named Major Tom dying in a space accident, while the Bowie song plays in his head. Purple Rain is science fiction for the simple reason that no one really has figured out what the titular phrase means. And think about it, there are few things that conjure up cyberpunk imagery better than the phrase ‘Purple Rain’.

Another parallel is the range of both these artists. Of course, this is not something that applies to just these two. Any artist who has been labeled a genius, you can assume has a discography that spans many genres, often defying labels and forcing critics and chroniclers of music to come up with new labels.

Both David Bowie and Prince started off similarly. David Bowie, like a musically-inclined artsy white young man in the mid-60s would, debuted with a playful work of pop psychedelia that is utter joy to listen to, which apart from all the whimsy hinted little at the Bowie we would see soon. Similarly Prince started off, guitar-wielding black bloke of the 70s that he was, with songs that were firmly rooted in funk with a whiff of disco. Yes, it is impossible not to groove along to ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, but it hardly predicts Prince’s career.

They were both artists with an innate understanding of what it took to create a lasting hit — not just for themselves, but for others too. ‘All The Young Dudes’, by Mott the Hoople — written by David Bowie. ‘Manic Monday’, by The Bangles — written by Prince.

Fairly soon in their respective careers, they had both delivered the sort of hit songs that had established their genius, which is when they shook out of whatever studios and businessmen were leashing them to. As can be expected in such cases there were some vicious struggles with their record labels. David Bowie’s album Scary Monsters and Super Creeps was an album that came out of a fight between Bowie and RCA. Bowie counted his double-live album Stage as two albums and thought his contract with RCA was done. RCA (and their legal team presumably) counted Stage as one album and demanded one more album out of Bowie.

When lesser artists have gone up against their record labels, some strange and musically unbearable albums have resulted, with artists recording something pedestrian to quickly get their contracts out of the way. Scary Monsterscontained some of Bowie’s best songs, including the classic sequel to ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

Similarly, Prince’s album Chaos and Disorder was an attempt to be rid of his contract with Warner Brothers. While not a masterpiece like Bowie’s album was, it was by no means a stinker. It’s a pity that this album is out of print. Warner, probably still miffed with Prince, has never reissued either. Which means that apart from the catchy ‘Dinner with Delores’, you cannot find the rest ofChaos and Disorder on YouTube. (But mp3s are not hard to find if you know where to look.)

Both Bowie and Prince were willing to try new things all the time, and not just because they were fashionable, but more because they both wanted to reinvent what was in fashion in their own way. And this went beyond just their music. Both David Bowie and Prince were masters of stepping in and out of personas that they created for themselves. This animation by Helen Green captures Bowie’s various avatars wonderfully.

And this gallery on Billboard shows a similar story for Prince too.

Both David Bowie and Prince lived life, as if life itself were a work of modern art. And like a lot of great works of art, there were flaws, it caused reaction, it caused dissonance as much as it created great music.

And for both of them, their death too was art. They did not die like ordinary people would, old and forgotten. They did not die like rock stars either, reckless and always on the edge. They died when no one expected them to. David Bowie, being the more consummate artist, even left us a death note and we never realised.

Dead they may though be, both Bowie’s and Prince’s music and image will still continue to prod kids to attempt something awkward and creative. That may well be their greatest legacy. And how many ever more shocking deaths that 2016 may bring us, and as many more discography-mining activities I may carry out, it is very unlikely I will find another musician with parallels to these two great artists of our times.

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