1673765002 Bowies origins as we know him

Bowie’s origins as we know him

David Bowie at a photo session for Hunky Dory in 1971.David Bowie, at a photo session for Hunky Dory, 1971.BRIAN WARD

In the seven years since his sudden death, Bowie has become ubiquitous. Like the Ramones logo or Warhol’s banana that adorned the cover of The Velvet Underground’s first album, the red and blue lightning bolt crossing his face on Aladdin Sane’s cover has transcended its original content and context. An inexhaustible stream of record editions and reissues, merchandising, events and films feeds this effect. However, the possibility of Bowie becoming a commercial franchise, like Queen, still seems very distant. Time is ticking for an artist whose importance is not just limited to shops, he is also material for museums and universities. On the other hand, Bowie wasn’t born with the famous lightning bolt on his face. He spent nearly ten years in staggering before attaining his ordination as a musician. In the 1960s, the decade in which popular music became a major cultural and social force, he jumped from failure to failure, still unable to properly articulate his talent. In reality, Bowie wasn’t in his sixties, but no one knew that, including him, until the next decade began. His mission wasn’t to be a mod or hippie or make hard rock, his mission was to act as a loathing, to give rock back to the youth, to infuse it with sexuality and transgression again.

Divine Symmetry illustrates this pivotal moment in which Bowie begins to define his personality as a creator. That’s what happens in 1971 with a new manager, Tony DeFries, who breaks him out of a dead-end record deal and brings him to RCA. It coincides with his debut as a composer for other performers – Peter Noone writing “Oh! You Pretty Things” in front of the author himself – and also with his eagerness to become the godfather of new artists like Dana Gillespie or Arnold Corns, a group formed to show off his lover and couturier Freddie Burretti. In addition, he has the right accomplice, his wife Angie Barnett, with whom he maintains an open relationship, accepting adventure with others and others. It is she who encourages him to feminize his image, put on her clothes and increase his androgyny. For the cover of Hunky Dory, released in December of that year, Bowie posed inspired by old Hollywood actresses like Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake while capitalizing on his image as a Pre-Raphaelite nymph. He was in New York with Warhol and in London he met the cast of the play Pork, a theatrical fantasy about life in the factory. He was obsessed with philosophy and the occult, and some of his writing reflects this obsession with Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley. The collection of ideas is full and this time everything is going in the right direction. Hunky Dory failed the charts again, but the process, which would culminate with Ziggy Stardust less than a year later, was already irreversible.

cover of the album Cover of the album “Divine Symmetry” by David Bowie.

The journey that Divine Symmetry proposes begins with a series of demos dating back to 1970. They occupy the first of four CDs – a Blu Ray is also included – from a box, the songs from sessions for the BBC, a live show from 1971, restored versions of some songs for promotional purposes, a remaster of Hunky Dory and an alternative version of it, composed with remixes and different versions of the songs included on his first substantial album. The content in particular reflects how much it took Bowie to find the confidence to impose his personality on his own compositions. The demo CD includes sketches of some absolutely essential songs as well as others destined to become classics like ‘Life On Mars?’ or ‘Changes’. Tom Jones refused to record “How Lucky You Are” (years later Elvis would not agree to make “Golden Years” his own), which remained unreleased. ‘Tired Of My Life’ is discovered to be the nucleus of ‘It’s No Game’ and ‘King Of The City’ contains one of the key verses of the shocking ‘Ashes To Ashes’ which, like the previous form, would be final nine years later with Scary Monsters .

While Bowie pondered a new incarnation on stage, a new style dubbed Glam began to flourish under the leadership of his friend and bitter rival Marc Bolan. In 1971, the T.Rex singles captivated young audiences with their mixture of original rock ‘n’ roll and folky mysticism. Bowie was no stranger to this. On Hunky Dory, Mick Ronson is no longer just a guitarist, he’s the musician who helps him unlock the potential of his songs by dressing them in exquisite arrangements. With him were drummer Woody Woodmansey and newcomer bassist Trevor Bolder; The trio, not yet called The Spiders Of Mars, bring the needed consistency to the repertoire, which can be felt on the BBC Session album. Although not yet in final form in the studio, the versions performed for John Peel as David Bowie & Friends in June 1971 reflect how important it was for Bowie at the time to cross paths with these musicians. A first-time version of “It Ain’t Easy” – which would later become part of Ziggy Stardust -, an “Andy Warhol” sung by Gillespie, or the first steps of “Queen Bitch”, a song that wanted to celebrate the influence of the Velvet Underground, prologue of a story that will culminate a few months later and change rock.

At the time Bowie also lacked mastery of the stage and this is evident in the concerto which occupies the CD dedicated to the concert at Friars, Aylesbury. The balance between his electric side and his singer-songwriter flirtation has yet to be resolved. When he plays Berry and the Velvets he seems to run an effective cover band in a pub; When he performs his most lyrical songs, it seems as if another artist has come on stage with the same voice as the previous one. With an excellent presentation that includes a reproduction of Bowie’s notebook with handwritten notes on the project, Divine Symmetry is an essential chapter in this Bowie encyclopedia that is written year after year. It will bore those who think that the movie Moonage Daydream sums up the universe that was Bowie, but it will make its scholars very happy.

Divine Symmetry is published by Warner Music. The vinyl edition will be available on February 24th.

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