David Bowie. Man, oh man. Rarely, if ever, have I been as wrong about an artist.
Believe me, I loved David Bowie. Crazy love. Second only to The Who for at least a year or so. Actually, pretty much from Space Oddity through Aladdin Sane. For some reason, he lost me with Diamond Dogs. I loved it on first listen, hated it on the second. That had never happened before... or since... with anyone. Interesting. I liked various Bowie songs and videos after that, but, I kinda decided he was just too much conceptualist, not enough rocker for me. That said, I never lost respect or admiration for his work. I just didn't listen to it much.
When he put his catalog up as an IPO in the 1990s I thought anyone who bought in was a knucklehead. I mean, the guy was practically over. Tin Machine anyone? Like I said, I've probably never been more wrong. David Bowie is an institution. Duh.
My dear pal, Ken Sharp, has just released a book called Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making of David Bowie's Hunky Dory. Virtually any fan of popular rock music will find this a fun little book. But, for true Bowie fans, this is absolutely essential reading.
Ken is expert at rock oral histories.
In this new book, he has interviewed everyone involved with the making of not only Hunky Dory, but, David Bowie's entire career up 'til that point... managers, agents, engineers, producers, musicians, photographers, graphic designers... If they had a hand in HD, they're here. The late great Mick Ronson (truly Bowie's remarkable musical right hand man at the time) is quoted from earlier interviews. But, Ken was also able to elicit insights and episodes from Ronno's various family members and old friends. Mr. Bowie himself only shows up via quotations from other interviews as well. But, these are fun because most of the comments Ken chose date from the initial press coverage of Hunky Dory. Everyone else is looking back with 20/20 hindsight, but one gets to hear from David when all this history had been freshly minted on vinyl and oh so au courant. Ken is clever.
A few days ago, Mr. Sharp and I chatted about this latest opus of his...
Binky: "Ken, you have a way of eliciting such genuine and open responses from your subjects... whether you're dealing with all the guys who helped create John Lennon's Double Fantasy album in your book, Starting Over, the cantankerous members of KISS in your Nothing To Lose, or The Spiders From Mars here in your new book on Hunky Dory. How do you do this?"
Ken: "First and foremost, the choice of any project I undertake is done on the basis of passion, period. If you ever find I'm doing a book on Bon Jovi or Metallica, you'll know I'm penniless, tin cup in hand, pet monkey on my shoulder. Along with my experience as a writer/interviewer, l'm also a musician and singer/songwriter with three CDs to my credit. My interest comes from a musical place and perhaps that curiosity plus my passion engages my subjects to open up. I build a sense of trust. Perhaps selfishly, I'm driven to create books that I want to read."
Binky: "Nice line. Like KISS being the band they wanted to see. I have to say, I was initially disappointed in most of Hunky Dory. Although a song like "Life On Mars" was instantly undeniable. I was a big fan of Bowie's much heavier The Man Who Sold The World album which preceded it. There is a load of info about TMWSTW in your book as well. What are your personal feelings regarding these two albums?"
Ken: "I'm a song guy, always have been. The songs on Hunky Dory captured me immediately. From "Changes" to your "Life on Mars" to "Queen Bitch" to "Quicksand" to "Kooks," this album, perhaps more than any other in Bowie's canon, showcases the purity of his talent as a songwriter, unadorned, naked and intimate. As for his prior album, The Man Who Sold The World, any album cover featuring Bowie in a dress is bad-ass. It's an impressive record, much heavier, built around riffs and introduced us to legendary guitarist Mick Ronson whose electrifying work with Bowie is all over his follow-up albums, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Pinups. The Man Who Sold The World is much more of a guitar album, muscular riffs and attitude, where Hunky Dory is much more of a album centered around the piano. Most expertly played by a pre-Yes Rick Wakeman, by the way."
Binky: "Wow, right! Rick offers some of the best insights and most vivid memories in your book. Man, is he a Bowie fan! Hunky Dory also seems like the album where David Bowie found his persona "David Bowie". Your thoughts on Bowie in a general big picture way and where Hunky Dory fits, sir?"
Ken: "David Bowie is arguably the most significant musical icon that sprung out of the 1970s and his legacy continues to grow. He was never content or comfortable to stay in one place, musically. He was, and is, always searching, always evolving, always pushing the envelope. Whether it was the dystopian nightmare of Diamond Dogs, the 'rubber soul' [Ha!] of Young Americans, the Kraftwerk meets R&B flavor of Station to Station, his groundbreaking Berlin trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger, he has been the model for musical excellence. For me, Hunky Dory fits seamlessly into the fabric of Bowie's work. It amply demonstrates his unerring gift for a melody and compelling lyric, divorced from image or trends. It's an album that's so out of time that it's in time, if that makes any sense."
Binky: "As in, timeless! I have to tell you, Ken, I never played my 24 year old daughter, Eleanor, one David Bowie song during her childhood. She found him on her own and he is her all... time... favorite... artist. I can recall about 20 years ago thinking he'd burned himself out with too many failed experiments. Yet, he's red hot these days."
Ken: [laughs] "Your daughter has great taste. Hey, from Nine Inch Nails to Moby to Lady Gaga, Bowie's intoxicating spell over modern music just thrives. Music, image, concept, he's the ultimate art project. [Nailed it, Ken!] And as proved by his most recent album,The Next Day, his first in many years, he's still got it and continues to reinvent the musical form in surprising and spectacular ways."
Binky: "My God, I am so overdue to hear that album. Yikes! I suck. Thank you very much, Ken. Best of luck with the book, man."
Ken: "Thank you, Binky!"
Three years ago, I put this David Bowie story up on Huffington Post. You might've missed it so you can read it here.