[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
It's already an interesting year for album releases, and it's not even Record Store Day yet.
Besides the excellent Nick Cave and Marnie Stern albums released this year, we have the new David Bowie album, The Next Day, and at the end of next month, Ready to Die by The Stooges.
Like many people, I have spent a lot of time listening to Bowie and The Stooges. When there is a new release by either, I am all over it.
Jan. 8 was Bowie's 66th birthday. He celebrated by releasing a song called “Where Are We Now” from the new album. It was then that I saw the cover of what was to be The Next Day, his first since 2003's Reality album. I was immediately angry. The cover, if you have not seen it, is the cover of his album Heroes with a huge white square in the middle with “The Next Day” written across it. The word “Heroes” from the original has been crossed out. What is the statement?
I might have been jumping to conclusions, but I thought it was completely defeatist bullshit. The more I looked at the image and played the song again, the more pissed off I got. Of course, I advance-ordered the album and eagerly awaited its arrival. I thought his last albums, Heathen and Reality, were good and was curious to hear what Bowie was going to bring after a decade of silence.
Several days ago, I saw the cover of the new Stooges album, set to come out April 30 on Fat Possum. It knocked me out. It's our man Iggy wearing a belt of explosives, wired to blow, à la Tamil Tigers, Hamas, Hezbollah. It is a strong image, to say the least.
I immediately thought of my afternoon at the Café Moment in Jerusalem in 2008. Nice place, good coffee. I had just come out of the men's room when someone I was sitting with called my name and pointed out the window at a train of black SUVs hurtling by. It was Condoleezza Rice's motorcade. I ran outside and flipped it off as vigorously as I could. On 03/09/02, a person walked into Café Moment and blew himself up, killing 11 people and wounding many others. The photos of the aftermath, the blood splatter and incredible carnage were hard to look at, but I did it.
I am not interested in censorship. There are a lot of things said and done that I don't like, but in the spirit of the First Amendment and fair play, it's all good to go. So, if the aforementioned imagery is what these two wildly talented men want to put on their album covers, that's for them to do. I plan to buy The Stooges' new album as soon as I can.
I have gotten used to being underwhelmed by the Bowie albums that came after 1980's Scary Monsters, which is one of his best. Had Bowie packed it in after that one, I think his catalog would be top-shelf perfect. Even with all the amazing albums leading up to and including Scary Monsters, it took Let's Dance for Bowie to connect with America as much as he had in Europe. I distinctly remember fellow Bowie fans recoiling over this album, insisting that he was finished. I thought that guest guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn made it sound cool.
This is when Bowie became accessible and quite mortal. He had landed, gotten out of the ship and was now hanging out with us mortals; millions of people dug it. What came after Let's Dance was a series of releases that were pretty normal compared with the amazing strangeness of what had come before.
In 1987, Bowie released Never Let Me Down. The Glass Spider tour that came after was his last big production stage show. The tour did really well, but the album, which of course I bought, went back on the shelf faster than his previous album, Tonight.
In the late '80s, Bowie formed a rock band, Tin Machine. The critics turned on him with a vehemence that made me think they were reviewing one of my records. I never felt closer to Bowie than at that time. I was one of the 12 people who bought all three Tin Machine albums. Damn, I still play those records.
I wanted to love 1995's Outside and 1997's Earthling but could only like them. I got to see the Earthling tour. Bowie sang so well and seemed really into it.
I remember watching the audience from the side of the stage. When he and the band played a new song, everyone sat down. When he played an old one, everyone stood up. I wondered what Bowie made of that.
The Next Day has a studious emptiness to it that reminds me of 2003's Reality. It is musically dense and lyrically dark, but lacks the cool distance of Heathen. The production is solid to the point of being uninteresting. The songs are so competently tracked, it sounds like no one in the band has ever met. There is an after-the-fact feel to this album that I have heard on later albums by The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. They are all great artists, but their records often sound like they are just putting in time at the mill.
Bowie has ceased to risk injury and now issues albums, however sporadic, from a safe place. That being said, The Next Day is definitely worth checking out.
What are we to expect from our musical heroes who have stayed at that proverbial mill? Is it fair to demand that they match their brilliance of 30 years ago? I don't think so.
This is where my idea of faith comes in. I just conclude they are giving me all they've got at any given time and try not to judge them more harshly than I judge myself. I am in for the long haul.