Saturday, May 8, 2010

Footstompin'/Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

via Zamboni

Is there a DVD collection of musical guests from the Dick Cavett show? There are some amazing performances to be had there.

I had heard this 1974 performance before (on the poorly put together but indispensable RarestOneBowie comp), but never seen it. The obviously exciting thing about this recording is that the opening guitar riff (which is pretty much completely unrelated to The Flares' original version of the song) ended up being used, almost identically, for "Fame" the following year. As the Baronette has frequently pointed out to me, Carlos Alomar is one of the best, most inventive rhythm guitarists of all time, despite the fact that no one ever really talks about him.

A few other things I'd like to mention:

This is by far the roughest I've ever heard Bowie's voice sound, and I've heard his voice sound a lot of different ways in different recordings dating from anywhere in the past forty-six years. It sounds amazing, and it's a very different kind of amazing than the usual Bowie amazing.

Check out Ava Cherry's wonderful dancing (and skirt! and jacket! and hair! and beauty!), first seen at about 1:39 and then visible again (first only as a shadow) starting at 2:38. (If you want to see her do more, like, say, sing, there's also the performance of "Young Americans" from the same episode.)

And finally, it's just a little minor accidental detail, but: I am absolutely in love with how the very first clap from the audience at the end is perfectly in rhythm with the foot stompin' that ends the song.

And now that I've discussed how damned enjoyable the music is, let's have some dull social analysis.

The whole Young Americans period (and the fantastic* album itself) is an interesting chapter in the white people stealing Black music story. Judging from interviews at the time** (or actually just after), Bowie was consciously, explicitly toying with the narrative; he seems to take a perverse joy in pointing out that just a few years prior this album could never have been considered "soul" and talking about how "dangerous" disco is--and yet how much he loves it--less than a year after "Fame" was his biggest hit. Young Americans, he says, is "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak*** rock, written and sung by a white limey." And it's true. And yet many seriously respectable "ethnic" musicians--Luther Vandross, for example--took part in its creation. And yet, again, it is fantastic music. The best possible reaction to this music, if we're being responsible, is ambivalence, but I am incapable of doing anything other than embracing it wholeheartedly.

With Young Americans, Bowie secured the complicity of Black and white alike on both the side of performer (Lennon and Vandross, remember; and Carlos Alomar was poached from the house band at The Apollo) and audience, all the while reminding everyone that what he was doing was in fact racist theft. I honestly can't decide if this is reprehensible or admirable. It's definitely impressive.

That it all happened right around the same time as his notorious obsession with fascism and Nazi mysticism makes it all the more fascinating.

*Barring the inexplicably awful cover of "Across the Universe" in which John Lennon himself participated and which is nonetheless unlistenable.
**Though of course you can never rely too much on Bowie interviews; there's another more recent one where he says the primary thing his fans pay him to do is lie to them. Speaking as an embarrassingly huge fan, I can't say he's wrong.
***The mention of Muzak, incidentally, is interesting, coming as it does in this period just a few months before he begins working intensively with Brian Eno, who is, essentially, the inventor of ambient music. Ambient and Muzak are of course not the same thing, but there is a very strong relationship.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I guess I don't see this kind of thing as racist theft... people appropriate musical forms all the time. I'd read your other post on the topic of white people stealing music, and, though I agree with the points about the credit white musicians got, for innovation and whatnot, I was less sure about music itself. That is, it seems to me the musicians knew what the score was, and that influence and "thievery" went all around. (Didn't James Brown lift the riff from "Fame"?)

On the other hand, I've never liked this album, the completely awesome title track and the not quite as awesome "Fame" aside. (Also, somehow I didn't know about Bowie's Nazi fixation.... though I guess that imagery was pretty common among punks back in the 70s too.)