We can be hero-worshippers just for one day

I was in high school when David Bowie burst onto the scene. I don't remember if I heard the earliest songs, such as "Space Oddity," but I do remember Ziggy Stardust, at the leading edge of glam rock. At the time, I was very much into British bands that had a certain amount of rock and roll flair, something to set a stage performance apart from ordinary life, and I was lamenting that everything around me had gone Allman Brothers and denim and, for me anyway, boring. I remember the first concert I attended at university. Argent opened for local favourite the James Montgomery Band. I was there to see Argent (who, admittedly, were rather pretentious, and certainly out of place in that venue). Everyone around me hated them, preferring blues and boogie and songs with long, drawn-out endings.

So yes, awkward weirdo in high school, still awkward and weird at university, out of sync, listening to Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Jethro Tull. I should have latched onto David Bowie, no? So many people have written about how Ziggy let them feel that being weird was okay. Bowie was liberating for them. But for me, weird and awkward and not wild, Ziggy was intimidating. Even though that whole movement started by outraging people and breaking all the rules, they were soon impossibly cool. Bowie couldn't be a role model, because I was never, ever going to be that cool, not in my wildest dreams.

At university, I was in an isolated dorm off campus (housing problem), surrounded by a certain kind of people. Rather than seeking out others like me, I became like them, as I have done too often in life. By spring of 1973, I was actually in the front row at a Loggins and Messina show at the Orpheum Theater (one of the shows that was used for the On Stage live album) and shortly thereafter was tripping my brains out to the Grateful Dead at Boston Garden. The hippie shit won out for a while.

The summer of 1974 was the last time I went home for any extended time. I was working the night shift at an all-night grocery story. We had one of those Muzak® receivers, piped into speakers all over the store. The night supervisor figured out that the cable that delivered Muzak® also had other radio signals on it. So he worked out a way to connect the cable to a radio, and thus we were able to listen all night to WPLU in New Haven (sister station to the better-known WPLJ in New York). Real rock had largely given way to California mellowness by then. But one song that stood out among the R&B and country- and pop-flavoured stuff that WPLU played was "Diamond Dogs." Woot! That was my speed. And of course "Rebel Rebel" was on that album as well, one of the greatest rock songs of all time. But I saw the album cover, and it was just so weird. So once again, it was great music, but it felt unapproachable.

I lost track of Bowie when he ditched glam and rock, which were never really what he loved anyway. I'm sure I heard songs from the period, certainly "Heroes," another of the greatest rock songs ever, but songs like "Young Americans" and "Golden Years" weren't really my thing. I was getting back into rock via punk and then new wave. When I finally started to overcome my awkwardness, Bowie as role model seemed kind of old and classic. I was too busy getting my mind blown by Pretenders and the Clash and Talking Heads to pay much attention to the Thin White Duke.

My next real encounter was via MTV. I loved the "Ashes to Ashes" video! It was so wonderfully disturbing. And shortly after I was spending a lot of time at a Boston dance club where I shook my booty to "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love." For anyone who hadn't stuck with Bowie through the Berlin years, this was pretty much a revival.

But then I lost track of Bowie again. I have never seen Labyrinth! I don't remember any of his material from the mid- to late 1980s, nor from the 1990s. By the time The Next Day came along, I didn't really care. I watched the videos. I was not nearly as impressed as many others. I've only scratched the surface of Black Star, but I will say that Bowie succeeded in disturbing me with a video once again. "Lazarus" is some scary shit!

Still, when I saw that David Bowie had left us, it hit hard. I don't tear up over too many celebrity deaths, but I did for this one. Bowie is one of the most significant influences on music specifically and on culture in general. He made an impact that is still felt far and wide. A world sans Bowie feels wrong. And it felt wrong that he was taken away so young, and for those of us outside his family, so suddenly.

But as is often the case, I am not quite in sync with the majority of mourners. Musically, Bowie was not my main man. I never saw him in concert. I don't even own any of his albums. I love individual songs, several of which I mentioned (and let's not forget "The Jean Genie," "Suffragette," and "Changes"). I think he was an excellent songwriter, but he's not my favourite. I'm glad he was so creative in a way that must have been satisfying to him right up until his death, but I probably won't buy Black Star (although never say never).

Sometimes I get a bit star-struck when I meet a musician or other artist I admire, but I'm not much of a hero-worshipper. We can be heroes, for one day or many days. It's a daunting task, for sure. When I look at Bowie's body of work and the influence he had and will continue to have, sometimes I just want to down tools and stop even trying. I will still never be as cool as David Bowie. My songs sound pitiful to me next to his. But then, they sound pitiful to me next to those of any great songwriter. And at least some of those songwriters probably felt the same way about someone who had gone before them. If artists got overwhelmed by other artists, they would never produce their own art, and we would be the poorer for that.

So I will admire Bowie and mourn his loss, a loss to all of us, but I will hold back on the hyperbole. I will do my best not to be intimidated. Because someone else might think my art is worth liking and admiring. And even if no one does, I have to make it anyway, for my own sake. Bowie earned huge success, but I have read that he felt the same way. He did what he had to do. He was fortunate to connect with a great many people, but ultimately he did it for himself.

We shall never look upon his like again. But perhaps, at least to some degree because of him, we shall look upon others.


The vinyl frontier

Deities help us, we have a turntable set up again, for the first time in longer than I can remember. We have started to listen to the two crates' worth of records that we didn't sell before we left Boston more than 20 years ago, armed with a stack of CDs. No dancing in the living room when a record is playing! This is an old house.

I've been critical of the resurgence of vinyl for a number of reasons. Vinyl records are easily damaged. Every time you play a record, the reproduction quality goes down. You can't run a weighted diamond stylus through jagged plastic grooves without molecules flying off. That's just physics. And to get the best sound quality, you need some seriously good equipment: a quiet, leveled turntable running at exact speed, a well-damped tonearm with optimum balance, and a stylus that is not worn. If the record warps, you're toast. A skip is forever.

Let's not even get into the weirdness of the RIAA rolloff or the physics of playing inner grooves versus outer. Given all the factors, I find it even more amazing that it's possible to get such fidelity out of this system than it is to believe that music can be reduced to bits and then turned into music again (which is also weird).

Still, it's not the inferiority of the medium that I have objected to most strongly. It's the fact that the new vinyl you're buying is unlikely to give you the full analog experience that you get from an old record.

Back in the day, no part of the process of making records involved sampling voltage levels and encoding them as bits. Music was recorded on analog tape. Effects were analog. The mastering process was analog. The entire process involved some form of waves, not zeros and ones. Even in the early days of CDs, the steps before CD manufacture were analog. You can see the letters "AAD" on old CDs, meaning that the recording and mastering were analog and only the process of encoding onto CDs was digital. Little by little, analog slipped away, first from the mastering stage (ADD) and then finally from the entire process (DDD).

Nowadays, if you have enough money, you can still record on analog tape. You can even do analog mastering, if you can find a mastering studio set up for it. But unless you're super careful, you will likely be using digital effects during recording. Some part of the signal will have been turned into zeros and ones before being reconverted for recording on analog tape. ProTools and other effects software are ubiquitous, doing their best to emulate the analog reverb, compression, and other effects they replaced.

Most bands can't afford to record on tape. It's not only expensive; it's hard to do, and thus time-consuming. In the old days, if you screwed up a note, you could "punch in" a new one, if it wasn't too close to notes you wanted to keep, but that's about it. Otherwise, you recorded another take, and maybe several more. You couldn't correct the myriad mistakes that are routinely corrected now, such as imprecise rhythms. Digital recording and effects are the devil's toolkit, but if you're willing to sell your soul, your band can sound better than it has any right to sound.

This means that when bands press vinyl, and buyers think they are hearing analog sound like on old records, they're wrong. They're hearing a digital bit stream converted to analog one step earlier in the process, at the turntable rather than the amplifier and speakers. They're hearing a certain amount of analog "warmth," to be sure, but not the same way as they would if they were to listen to all-analog recordings. Really it's like a CD with pops and scratches. Even reissued older recordings are often remastered, and that remastering is usually digital. Vinyl lovers seem not to realize that at least some of what they are appreciating is high-quality digital sound.

But actual all-analog vintage records, we got 'em! And I definitely understand the appeal of taking out a record (nice weight), carefully putting it on the turntable, and listening to the results, possibly while checking out the full-size artwork or lyrics you can actually read (and possibly using that double-album gate-fold for other purposes). We'll listen to a whole album all the way through, the way it was intended to be listened to. Even turning the record over is part of the pleasure, unless you're having trouble getting off your couch.

I get it. The satisfaction of playing our old records isn't just that we haven't heard them since forever. It's the return of the record playing ritual, something you can't get from CDs and certainly not from MP3s (nor, really, from cassettes). For kids, it's something new and exciting. For altekakers like me, it's old and exciting.

New records? Still problematic. And I could not care less about things like coloured vinyl. I have never treated records as collectible items. I bought them to play. And sometimes that meant they got very scratchy indeed. But every pop and scratch is familiar, like an old friend. Yesterday, I was listening to some new music using my computer and headphones, and all I wanted to do was to put a record on downstairs and let music fill the house.

(Apologies to my dear friend Mackie for nicking the name of his old band for the title of this post.)