How Bowie Bookended my Final Days of Youth

Last weekend, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday. It had been a Bowie-fuelled couple of days. On Friday, while writing my piece about Bowie’s new band, ‘Blackstar’ played non-stop. On Saturday, I enjoyed the entire ‘Heroes’ album with family in the afternoon, and again in the evening, with friends. On Sunday, ‘Blackstar’ cured my epic hangover. On Monday, Bowie was dead. And the world stopped turning.

It all seems like a compressed version of the huge impact Bowie had on the lives of millions of people. He built landmarks in our memory. He was like a globetrotting friend: hard to recognize at every return. Different hair, different costume, different band, different sound. Different.

The launch of his most recent album ‘Blackstar’ was equally different: haircut of an electrocuted person, ‘bicoloured’ eyes blindfolded, electro-jazz people in his ranks and prophetic avant-garde rock on tape. He created a brilliant scenography for his final masterstroke, which would foreshadow his imminent end.

“The last show that we’ll ever do”

Unfortunately, Bowie didn’t just silence one his incarnations this time. In 1973, at the end of a concert in London’s Hammersmith Odeon, he laid Ziggy Stardust to rest, saying: “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” A stunned audience and legion of journalists thought Bowie was withdrawing from music altogether. But only three months later, he-who-used-to-be-Ziggy launched ‘Pin-Ups’. And the following year saw the release of ‘Diamond Dogs’.

The saddest festival. Ever.

Now that I’m reading Ziggy’s famous last words again, I’m transported back to 2004: I’m wandering around the Rock Werchter festival site. Somewhat lost. Hugely disappointed. Bowie cancelled his set due to severe heart problems. I bought the ticket for one man and one man only. But the saddest bit was that I would never get the chance to see Bowie in action. Ever.
At that time, I took the Bowie train from … station to station. Commuting between the stilish art rock of ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’, colourful early works like ‘Hunky Dory’ and the revolutionary sounds of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.

Icon/Iconoclast

Later, I found that every single Bowie was fascinating:

Young Brel Enthusiast (Amsterdam), Novelty Hitmaker (The Laughing Gnome), Spokesman of the Late Space Age (A Space Oddity), Folky Balladeer (‘Space Oddity’),  Pop Perfectionist (Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust), Orwellian Messenger (‘Diamond Dogs), …

Philly Soul Man (on slightly underrated album ‘Young Americans’), Pale-Skinned Skinny Sci-Fi Actor (in Nic Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’), Ambient Architect (‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’), …

Visionary Pierrot (Ashes to Ashes), Spontaneous Collaborator (with Queen on Under Pressure), New Romantic Dancer (‘Let’s Dance’), Mid-Eighties Superstar (This Is Not America, with the Pat Metheny Group), Back-to-Basics Bandleader (with Tin Machine), Mourning MC (at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert), …

Icon-turns-Iconoclast (Little Wonder), Self-Mocking Funnyman (in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant sitcom ‘Extras’), Renaissance Rocker (‘The Next Day’), Legendary-yet-Obscure Backing Vocalist (The Reflektor by Arcade Fire), …

“Love, David”

Last Sunday, that same Bowie eventually put off his mask and let his superhuman soul slip away. He bookended my birthday with his, and with his sudden decease. In my thoughts, he left a litte piece of paper, on which he wrote: ‘I’m off now, Fabian, and I’m taking your youth with me. Just so you know. Love, David.”

David Bowie Back

Meet Donny McCaslin: star of Bowie’s ★!

Bowie’s ★ is out. I haven’t received my copy yet. Not my fault: pre-order shipping delay at Warner’s … Luckily, the man who once fell to earth already offered a glimpse of his new directions. He released the title track and Lazarus as singles and paired them with deeply unsettling videos. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a well-established NY jazz combo to play a major role in Bowie’s new sound. But it does. So let’s focus on Donny McCaslin. Who is he? How did he appear on the Thin White Duke’s radar? And why should you track down his work?

In short: Donny McCaslin is an insanely gifted, soaring saxophone player, based in New York, just like David Bowie nowadays. When the news of ★’s imminent launch broke, I immediately delved into ‘Casting for Gravity’ (2012). The album sees McCaslin his extraordinary band – including force of nature and Brad Mehldau collaborator Mark Guiliana on drums and electronics – combining all kinds of influences into a strange-yet-familiar jazz melange. Notice their brilliant reworking of Alpha and Omega by Boards of Canada, a performance even Bowie used as a reference during the ★ sessions:

Closer-than-close-knit

Bowie did not just recruit McCaslin. He wanted the entire band. And you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to understand why. McCaslin, Guiliana, Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and ace guitarist Ben Monder are excellent instrumentalists in their own right, which is just part of the story. Together they create an abundance of ideas and form a closer than close-knit unit.

When McCaslin’s gang reaches for extatic heights, as in Praia Grande, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. Instead, it surfs the harmonic waves skillfully and with telepathic ease. The band is equally strong in the angular metropolitan territory of Bend (not too much unlike overlooked Japanese fusionistas Machine & The Synergetic Nuts)

Eno, Fripp, Grohl

Bowie was never really a lone rider. He’s been scouting the country’s and the world’s top musicians for decades. The names of Mick Ronson and Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan will resonate the most. Not to mention one-off guest spots for John Lennon (Fame), Dave Grohl (on Neil Young cover I’ve Been Waiting for You) and Pete Townshend (well, two times … on Because You’re Young and Slow Burn twenty years later).

And what about the excellence provided by lifelong companion Tony Visconti, and by the likes of Gail Ann Dorsey (her Under Pressure vocals on the Reality Tour were spell-binding), Mike Garson (hear his avant-garde soloing on Alladin Sane) and Carlos Alomar (listen to him layering funky guitar with Earl Slick on Stay).

So when Bowie is going to hire a jazz band, you know it’s not going to be some run-off-the-mill combo that never looks beyond Georgia On My Mind or Autumn Leaves. He needs lieutenants who bring their own vision to the mixing table. And that’s why Donny McCaslin’s band, which released the excellent ‘Fast Future’ in 2015, is such a great catch.

Not “Bowie with jazz combo”

Last december, both ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut Magazine’ reported on how McCaslin was instrumental in the making of ★, follow-up album to jack in the box comeback ‘The Next Day’ (2013). Bowie met McCaslin while recording fierce 10″ single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McCaslin took the lead in the hefty brass parts, which sounded more forward-looking than anything on ‘The Next Day’, a fine, but fairly conservative album, measured by some of Bowie’s 70’s and 90’s standards.

As the story goes, Bowie dived into ‘Casting for Gravity’ at home, took notes and invoted the entire band into the studio, early 2015. But as McCaslin clarifies in Mojo, it’s not “Bowie with jazz combo”. A claim that’s been intensified by pre-album singles Blackstar and Lazarus.

McCaslin’s star is rising

Donny McCaslin’s involvement in Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ is great in many ways. It transports Bowie to yet another reinvention of himself. Besides, McCaslin is a frontrow witness of Bowie’s current work ethic. A spokesman role he shares with Tony Visconti, while Bowie mysteriously stays out of the limelight. McCaslin’s studio story even reached – somewhat bizarelly – British tabloid ‘The Sun’.

At the same time, McCaslin’s Bowie liaison will no doubt boost exposure for his own work. In a perfect world, he’ll be playing ‘Casting for Gravity’ and ‘Fast Future’, truly great albums, somewhere near you soon. In a surreal world, he’s supporting Bowie minutes before joining him for his long-awaited return to the stage.★