Remembering David Bowie

I was both shocked and saddened by the news that musician David Bowie had died on January 10th at the age of 69 from cancer. While I would not say that I was a huge fan of his, I definitely enjoyed listening to his music.

David Bowie

“Visionary” is a word that gets thrown around with great frequency; “unique” is another. But in the case of David Bowie those two descriptions very much applied.  He wrote and performed numerous amazing songs over a career that spanned nearly half a century.  Bowie also devised so many incredible, bizarre, innovative looks for himself throughout the years.  He was undoubtedly one of a kind.

My girlfriend Michele is a longtime fan of Bowie. She created a very nice tribute to him on her own blog.

For me, on Monday my thoughts kept returning to Bowie’s awesome 1995 song “Hallo Spaceboy,” the lyrics and tune playing in my head. Co-written by fellow music pioneer Brian Eno, the song features a collaboration between Bowie and the duo of Neil Tenant & Chris Lowe, aka the Pet Shop Boys.  I cannot recall if I’ve mentioned it here before, but the Pet Shop Boys are one of my all time favorite music groups.  So it was a genuine thrill to hear them performing with Bowie, a bona fide rock god.

Of course, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention another collaboration of Bowie’s, namely “Under Pressure” which he recorded with Queen in 1981.  Bowie and Freddie Mercury singing together was magnificent.

A good example of the massive cultural impact that David Bowie had can be seen in the Doctor Who universe, of all places. Last year in the comic book series The Eleventh Doctor, writers Al Ewing & Rob Williams and artist Simon Fraser introduced a character who was very much an homage to Bowie.

The Doctor takes his companion Alice back in time to London 1962 to see the debut performance of John Jones, a legendary rock star. Much to Alice’s dismay, Jones turns out to have zero stage presence and even less charisma.  However the drab wannabe-musician ends up accidentally joining the Doctor and Alice in the TARDIS.  As the year-long story arc progresses, Jones is majorly influenced by all of the strange, otherworldly places he visits with the Doctor and Alice.  By the time he returns back to 1962, Jones is ready to embark on a revolutionary music career.

Doctor Who Eleventh Doctor 3

Of course, in real life David Bowie was even cooler than that. He didn’t need to travel through all of time & space in order to come up with his amazing music and cutting-edge looks.

Despite his illness, Bowie was active right up until the very end. Blackstar, his twenty-fifth and final studio album, was released on January 8th, his birthday, a mere two days before his death.

Bowie’s passing has gotten me thinking. At 69 years he wasn’t exactly young, but neither was he very old.  It’s a sobering reminder that you never know how much time you will actually have.

For a few months I’ve already been considering devoting my energies towards writing fiction.  I dabbled in it when I was in my early 20s.  Over the last three years I’ve been working out an idea for a novel in my head.  Maybe now is the time to finally commit.  After all, I’m going to be 40 years old in June.  It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to keep procrastinating at this point.  I’ll still keep this blog going, perhaps switching between it and my fiction on alternate weekends.  I just don’t want to put off my dream until it’s too late.

In any case, my thanks go out to David Bowie for all of the wonderful music he created. He will definitely be missed.

Paul Williams and Tracey Jackson at Barnes & Noble

This past Thursday evening my girlfriend Michele and I were at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway in Manhattan. Singer, songwriter & actor Paul Williams and author & screenwriter Tracey Jackson were at the store to do a reading, Q& A and signing of their new book Gratitude & Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life.

Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and www.vanityfair.com
Photo courtesy of George Baier IV and http://www.vanityfair.com

Michele and I are both fans of Paul Williams. He is an amazing songwriter and singer.  I am not ashamed to say that, yes, I do have a fondness for sappy, sad, wistful love songs.  Williams has penned many memorable tunes of that sort.  I always seem to get at least a little misty-eyed whenever I hear Kermit the Frog singing “The Rainbow Connection,” co-written by Williams and Kenneth Ascher, for which they deservedly earned Ocsar nominations.  More recently, Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on their Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.

Williams also starred in, and wrote the music for, the superb cult classic movie Phantom of the Paradise which I’ve blogged about previously (here’s a link). Among his other acting credits that I’ve enjoyed were his portrayal of Virgil the scientist/philosopher orangutan from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, appearing as himself on The Odd Couple and The Muppet Show, voicing The Penguin on Batman: The Animated Series, and playing an animated version of himself on Dexter’s Laboratory.  I’m probably forgetting a few other good ones.

For a number of years Williams struggled with alcohol & drug addiction. He has been sober since March 15, 1990.  Since then, he has been active in the recovery movement, working as a Certified Drug Rehabilitation Counselor.

Author Tracey Jackson is, on the other hand, not an addict, at least as far as substances such as booze or pills are concerned. But for many years she found herself trapped in a pattern of repeating a variety of self-destructive behaviors to compensate for and avoid dealing with her unhappiness.

I enjoyed hearing Williams and Jackson reading from Gratitude & Trust, and listening to their Q & A. I had a great deal of identification with both of them, and I felt they offered very helpful suggestions for people who are in recovery.

Photo courtesy of www.gratitudeandtrust.com
Photo courtesy of http://www.gratitudeandtrust.com

It is true that you do not have to abuse alcohol or drugs to be an addict. And once you put down those substances you can still end up not having a sober mindset if you merely substitute your addition to those for other things.  Even if you do not have a problem with mind-altering substances, there is so much out there to become addicted to: food, money, shopping, sex, work, gambling, fame, anger, the Internet, etc.  And, yes, that includes comic books and caffeine, I acknowledge with a definite self-awareness!

I do not know if it is a quality of Western society or of humanity in general, but we often cope with unhappiness and dissatisfaction via outside remedies or distractions. We seek material possessions and the validation of others over addressing the defects of character that lie within us.  Instead of addressing our flaws and working to put behind us the traumas of our pasts, we look for ways to get out of our heads.  It is actually understandable, because it is far easier, at least in the short term, to grab hold of something that will give us momentary satisfaction, than to commence at the hard, unflinchingly honest work that is necessary to address our underlying unhappiness.

Perhaps there is also that impetus of self-reliance, the myth of pulling yourself up by your boot-straps, at play, upon which much of Western society is rooted. We are more likely to try to solve problems on our own than to turn to others for assistance, seeing that as a sign of weakness.  But often there are tasks and struggles we cannot overcome without the help or advice of others.

And then there is the issue of God. I can definitely understand why many people recoil at that word, and at the thought of praying to some nebulous deity for strength & assistance.  There are so many examples of organized religions acting in an imperious, oppressive manner throughout the world, movements and organizations rife with hypocrisy & corruption, so much so that we often wish to slam the door on God.  But it is a fact that some people do find great comfort in their faith.  I am a firm believer in the vital importance of individual spirituality.  What works for me may not work for you.  Each person should be free to work on developing their relationship with the Higher Power of their understanding.

Williams and Jackson definitely address these concepts within Gratitude & Trust. The book is their attempt to take the principals of recovery that have been utilized by alcoholics & drug addicts over the decades and demonstrate how these can also be utilized by others to improve their lives, to find serenity and peace of mind.  I certainly applaud their efforts.  I’m looking forward to reading their book.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put these suggestions into practice into my own life.

Photo by Michele Witchipoo
Photo by Michele Witchipoo

So, yes, it was definitely very cool meeting Paul Williams at Barnes & Noble. I’m afraid that I was terribly nervous, and I forgot to tell him how much I was a fan of his acting & music throughout the decades.  But I did let him know that I appreciated that he and Tracey Jackson penned this volume.  I hope he heard me, since I was probably mumbling a bit!

Anyway, I think that Gratitude & Trust is worth a look. Considering how many of us attempt to look for relief in a bottle of whiskey or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a shopping spree at Macy’s or whatever your particular vice is, this book offers a more constructive alternative to the very difficult task of living life on life’s terms.

Misfits and Osaka Popstar at Forbidden Planet

I went to the signing at Forbidden Planet in Manhattan this past Wednesday.  At the store were Jerry Only, Dez Cadena, and Eric “Chupacabra” Acre, the current line-up of the punk rock band the Misfits.  Also at the signing was John Cafiero, frontman of the anime-inspired punk group Osaka Popstar.  I hadn’t actually heard of Osaka Popstar before, but of course I knew of the Misfits, even though I’ve only really gotten into listening to them in the last few years (my girlfriend, on the other hand, has been a fan since high school).

It was pretty darn cool meeting Jerry Only. I have to say, I was surprised to see so many fans who were in their teens and early twenties.  Nice to know that there are still younger people out there listening to real music, rather than that all of that Auto-Tune crap.  (Not that I’m really old or anything… I’m only 36!)  Yeah, you can argue that the Misfits are past their prime and that almost all the original band is gone (Jerry Only is the last founding member currently still in the group).  But at least they still play their own instruments, write their own music, etc.  I’ll gladly take the Misfits in their current incarnation over most of the new pop “singers” clogging the airwaves.

Jerry Only seemed like a really cool, friendly guy.  He appeared to be enjoying himself, and made a real effort to talk to all of the fans.  Certainly wasn’t playing the role of aloof, famous rock star, or anything like that.  I’m sure part of the reason he was in a good mood was because all these cute twenty year old punk and goth girls were lining up to see him!  But, hey, he made time for everyone.  When I mentioned that my girlfriend wasn’t able to make it because she had the flu, Only gave me a free Misfits mask autographed by himself, Cadena and Acre as a gift for her.  I think he knew that she was a true fan because I brought along her limited edition Jerry Only doll to get autographed.  He was thrilled to see that.

Misfits swag

Only, Cadena, and Acre were signing copies of the new Misfits album Dead Alive (or, if you prefer, DEA.D. ALIVE!) which is a recording of their Halloween 2011 show at BB Kings in Times Square.  I gave the CD a listen yesterday.  It isn’t the greatest live album that I’ve ever heard, by any means.  But it’s certainly a fun, enjoyable collection of cool sci-fi / horror inspired tunes, which is what has always been the appeal of the Misfits for me.  If you’re already a Misfits fan, you’ll probably like it.

Going by Dead Alive, you could argue that Jerry Only is a better bass player than front man, that perhaps he does not quite have the spark of either Glenn Danzig or Michael Graves. That said, Only is obviously passionate about keeping the Misfits going. You have to give him credit for keeping at it in the era of lip synching “artists” who cannot even play their own instruments.

Misfits Dead Alive

I enjoyed the Osaka Popstar CD I picked up somewhat more, at least.  Rock’Em O-Sock’Em Live is a really cool collection live punk music, including covers of a few Ramones songs.  It was recorded back during Fiend Fest ’06.  John Cafiero is on vocals.  Backing him up are Dez Cadena & Ivan Julian on guitars, Jerry Only on bass, and Markey Ramone on drums.  The CD is topped off by a cool cover illustrated by Garbage Pail Kids artist John Pound.  That really brought back memories!

Osaka Popstar just released a new single, “Super Hero.”  I didn’t have a chance to get a copy of that at Forbidden Planet, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

Osaka Popstar

Anyway, even though I was pretty lukewarm about Dead Alive, I would still like to see the Misfits live one of these days.  I’m sure it would be a fun show.  And hopefully I’ll also have a chance to catch Osaka Popstar.  Judging by Rock’Em O-Sock’Em Live, John Cafiero is a heck of a good performer.

Putting the Squeeze on Coney Island

I’ve had this blog for a few months now, and I realized that I haven’t written anything about music.  I actually do listen to a lot of music.  It’s just that I find it a difficult subject to speak about.  If you’ve read my comic book reviews, you may have noticed that I focus on plot and characterization, but not nearly as much on artwork.  I sometimes find it a struggle to intelligently write about the elements of illustration and storytelling.  Likewise, along those lines, it’s very difficult for me to explain precisely why I like or don’t like certain music.  So don’t expect to see too many music reviews here!

Anyway, this summer there’s been the 34th annual Seaside Summer Concert Series going on at Coney Island.  Usually the shows are held on a Thursday night, which is a bit of a problem for me, because it takes a long time to travel to Coney Island from where I live.  So if I have work the next day, it’s not a great thing for me to have to try to make my way home from there after the show, and then be at the job a few hours later.  I just seem to need more sleep than most people.  So I hadn’t gone to any of the concerts this year.

Last week, for some reason, the concert was on a Friday night instead of a Thursday.  Since I didn’t have work the next day and could sleep in, my girlfriend pestered me into going.  I have to admit, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the line-up: Squeeze and The Romantics.  I knew a couple of songs by each band, but I would definitely not classify myself as a fan.

When we got there, I wasn’t too impressed.  It had been raining most of the day, and now the weather was very overcast & breezy.  Hardly any people were there.  Row upon row up empty chairs sat before the stage, looking quite forlorn.  If I had been in either of the bands, I might have taken one look at that scene, gotten back in my trailer, and hit the road.  Yeah, it was that bad.  It was like something out of This Is Spinal Tap, when the band hits rock bottom, and ends up playing to a crowd of a dozen people at an amusement park.

But apparently the show must go on.  The Romantics came on first, and did a decent set.  The only two songs I knew were “Talking in Your Sleep” and “What I Like About You.”  But I enjoyed it.  Like I said, though, I felt bad for the band having to play to a nearly-deserted venue.  People started to slowly trickle in while The Romantics were playing, and even more came during the intermission.

I was half-expecting these new arrivals to be scared off by Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, who took to the stage to talk incessantly, rattling off all sorts of nonsense in between name-checking every single corporate sponsor.  That’s politicians for you; they love the sound of their own voice.  But people stuck around, and by the time Squeeze took to the stage, there was actually a halfway-decent crowd.  Still lots of empty seats, but nowhere near as bad as before.

Okay, I was really impressed by Squeeze.  The thing is, I thought that I only knew a couple of their songs, namely “Black Coffee in Bed” and “Tempted.”  Those are two decent tunes, although “Tempted” has unfortunately become one of those horribly overplayed numbers, so I didn’t think that I’d even want to hear it.  But the band did a really great live version of it.  And, surprisingly, it turned out I knew more of their songs than I thought.

Back in the mid-1990s, I used to hear “Pulling Muscles (From the Shell)” on the radio all the time.  I thought it was by some alternative band whose name I could never find out.  I had no idea that it was actually a 15 year old song by Squeeze.  Even more surprising was when the band launched into “Cool for Cats.”  That was a jaw-dropper.  I love that song.  I had no clue that Squeeze sang it.  My exchange with my girlfriend during the show went something like this:

“Wait, Squeeze did this song?”

“Yes. You never knew that?”

“No, I thought that it was by some British band.”

“Squeeze is from England, Ben.”

“Oh! I thought they were from the South or Midwest or something.”

*Ahem!* Shows how much I know.  Anyway, as I said, I really enjoyed the Squeeze set.  They did a fantastic job, and I’m sorry that they ended up performing to such a sparse audience.  Not sure they were happy about fireworks going off at the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball stadium next door, either!  Hope this whole experience doesn’t dissuade them from returning to New York in the future.  I’d like to see them again.  (I’m actually listening to their greatest hits CD as I type up this blog entry.)

Looking over the concert line-up for the rest of the summer, I saw that there were a couple of other shows I’d like to catch.  But they’re on the regular Thursday dates, though.  Joan Jett and the Blackhearts I saw in Central Park several years ago.  So, if I miss them, at least I was able to catch them in the past.  No, the one that really bummed me out was that next Thursday at Coney Island they’re going to have Dennis DeYoung from Styx, Lou Gramm from Foreigner, and Bobby Kimball from Toto, all on one stage.  When I saw that, I disappointedly cried out “Awwwww, man!”  I would really like to catch that show, but I have work the next day.  What a bummer.

That said, if the Pet Shop Boys ever end up playing at Coney Island, I don’t care what day of the week it is, I am so there!