Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, about a man we’ve written of before and surely will again, but perhaps not with as much emotion as we do this week: What’s your David Bowie memory?
I was about six when I realized that songs could be stories, and that simple notion lit up my world. Kanye West might have brought gold diggers to the forefront of the American conscious in 2005, but I knew about them over a decade prior thanks to my father’s penchant for playing the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” over and over again.
The family vinyl collection was the basis for my musical education, and it was there I learned about hotels in California, the call-and-response of Bollywood love songs, and how you’d better walk soft because you don’t want to get stopped in Beverly Hills (still great advice, whether it comes from Shalamar or Axel Foley).
One of my favorite albums in the collection featured a man I knew very well. The album was Space Oddity and the man was The Goblin King. Remember, I’m six. And to a six-year-old, sometimes Goblin Kings like singing about spacemen and that’s perfectly reasonable.
I must have heard “Space Oddity” countless times in my life, but I remember the time it clicked.
“Did he just say there’s something wrong? Is Major Tom in trouble? He’s alright, though? No. He has to come home. Make him come home. Make him come home!”
It was a pretty upsetting moment for a kid – the audio equivalent of watching Bambi’s mother get shot. In a very simple way, you realize the impermanence of life and experience the horrible feeling of futility that becomes more and more prevalent as you grow older.
As an adult, I’m awed by Bowie’s simple and masterful storytelling, but there’s still a part of me that wonders why we couldn’t have done something. Why Major Tom couldn’t just come home again.
Today, planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing we can do but listen to David Bowie songs and thank the stars that we got to share this world with his genius, if only for a short while.
A few years ago, Family Guy did a cutaway joke introducing the “gayest music video ever made” and then played David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” cover in its entirety. The joke – I guess – was just “Wasn’t that terrible?”
Though I don’t think most fans would go that far, this video probably isn’t how they’re remembering Bowie, either. Which I don’t think is entirely fair. Now I don’t have any desire to write some clickable outragebait about how “Dancing in the Street” is secretly Bowie’s finest hour – I’m not insane – but I do think it is underappreciated. And I would know. I have watched it a lot.
I was in middle school when file sharing sites like Napster and Kazaa gained prominence, and after seeing a VH1 ’80s-music-video countdown on a family vacation, I got very into downloading ’80s videos. Somehow I found “Dancing in the Street”, and, due in part to the time commitment required to download it (these pixelated videos could take up to 24 hours over our dial-up modem – god help the parent who picked up the phone when one was 95% done), I watched it many times.
I doubt I could name many Scary Monsters deep cuts back then, but I was certainly broadly familiar with Bowie. Playing the dwarf king in a school version of The Hobbit set in outer space (it was somehow even worse than it sounds), I once had to lip-sync the entirety of “Space Oddity” while on a rocket ship. So I knew that song well. I knew some other hits too, I’m sure, and I definitely knew the Nirvana cover. Enough to have formed an impression of David Bowie as a capital-S “Serious” musician. Someone like Dylan or Lennon, a performer who made art in its most humorless forms.
So imagine my surprise upon downloading this video to see Bowie in a floor-length duster and some leopard-print onesie, barely suppressing a grin as he does his cheesiest dad-dancing to a joyously half-assed Martha and the Vandellas cover. These didn’t look like ivory-tower artistes taking themselves too seriously at all! Mick even chugs a beer!
I think at that age I still separated “good art” and “guilty pleasure trash” too much. My Duran Duran and Dylan CDs may have been close in my alphabetical CD binder, but they were miles apart in my brain. But Mick and David’s “Dancing in the Street” video helped me bridge that false divide. As it turned out, you could be a genius and have fun too.
I’m not the most devoted David Bowie fan in my family (that would be my sister, who covered two bedroom walls with pictures of him), but I was more than happy to fall into his orbit. First of all, his songcraft – from 1969 to 1985, he averaged one album and at least one stone classic of a song per year. That’s sixteen consecutive years’ worth of peak music. Twice as long as the Beatles’ recording career. And he was still writing and recording relevant, vital music when he was in his late sixties and dying of cancer. Can any other musician make either of those statements, let alone both?
Secondly, Bowie’s public persona was literally bigger than life, in the way it affected and influenced the lives of so many who felt “other” – as National Public Radio put it, Bowie was “an icon who wrote anthems for the alienated.” I’ve been devouring blogs about people’s Bowie feelings this week, and here’s one that nailed an important point: Bowie’s “do your own thing” life mantra coupled with his laissez-faire approach to sexuality empowered an untold number of people to embrace their individuality, recognize who they were (or thought they were at that moment), and, most importantly, to not give a shit about what anyone thought.
Bowie addressed sexuality in song like no other major rock star did, both matter-of-fact and fun. “Boys Keep Swinging,” from 1979’s Lodger, is a good example; tongue planted firmly in (somebody’s) cheek, he lists all the great things being a boy means – “You can buy a home of your own! / Learn to drive and everything!” – while giving the impression that the world is your oyster and everybody loves your oyster, if you know what I mean. Bowie’s take: “I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of gender.” See? Funny and smart.
Bowie, I think, must have gotten a big kick out of the cover of “Boys Keep Swinging” by Hirsute Pursuit, featuring Boyd Rice on vocals. It’s stripped way back to one driving drum loop and occasional skritches, topped by Rice’s calm monotone, and it’s designed to get under your skin and pulse, pulse, pulse. It plays gender games, too – “You’ll get a girl” is changed to “You’ll get a boy,” and then back again. It’s sexy, it’s bold, and it’s the Bowie cover that appeared on most of my mixes over the past year.
When my sadness over Bowie’s passing is gone, his songs will still be here, and I’ll hear them sung by Bowie and many, many others for the rest of my life. That’s a good thought to hold onto. Thank you, David, for coming and meeting us and for blowing our minds. And now, let all the children boogie.
David Bowie was never one of my favorite artists, but he was clearly a member of the rock pantheon whose music, as far as I knew, always existed and was often great. Growing up in the 70s, I always heard his music on the radio. He never ceased to challenge his audience, and despite that (or maybe because of that, in a different music world), maintained a high level of both commercial and critical success over a long career. I think that is because, although there was much about Bowie that was “show,” there was always substance behind his façade, a lesson that many of his lesser imitators never figured out. He also had incredible, and varied, taste in musical collaborators—Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mott The
Hoople, Queen, Bing Crosby, Scarlett Johansson, Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, John Lennon, Rick Wakeman, Adrian Belew, Luther Vandross, Pat Metheny and Arcade Fire are only a few that he worked with over the years.
Back in my vinyl collecting days, I’m pretty sure that I never bought an actual Bowie album—I was satisfied with greatest-hits collections, and that carried through when I started replacing my LPs with CDs. Except that I own a vinyl copy of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Bowie’s 1980 release, because I got it for free as an unofficial benefit of working at a college radio station.
Which leads me to my Bowie memory (which I have written about here). The album was, appropriately, released shortly before Halloween, and Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where the aliens landed in 1938’s legendary Halloween broadcast of War of The Worlds, was only a few miles from our studio. I sent a few staffers out to Grover’s Mill with a box of Bowie discs to hand out to local residents. I’m pretty sure we did some sort of remote broadcast on the air, and somehow one of the extra copies found its way into my collection. It happens to be a great album, maybe Bowie’s last to hit the sweet spot of quality, diversity and commercial appeal.
Because this is a cover blog, I found a really good cover of the title song by Superchunk that I had never heard, but will have to add to my digital collection.
Like many ‘80s kids, the first time I ever saw David Bowie was in the movie Labyrinth. HBO ran the movie twice a day for a decade, it seemed, and I spent more than a few afternoons plopped down on the floor, glued to the television. The first few times I saw it, I was mostly focused on the puppets, but somewhere along the way I realized there was something about this guy playing the Goblin King. He could have been over the top, a caricature, but Bowie was perfect for the role. Jareth was supposed to be a tempter. He spent a great deal of the movie trying to convince Sarah to join him. With Bowie involved in the film, the character became something more than a fairy-tale devil.
The acting alone would have done it. He lent a charm that suited the mischievous character well, making it obvious why an impressionable girl on the edge of adulthood would consider leaving behind the mundanity of the real world and follow him. The way Bowie delivered his promises of love elevated the material. He was able to hint at a sensitivity and a loneliness in the character that was a little touching. No small feat when playing a Goblin King attempting to seduce a teenage girl.
My fascination with the puppets in the movie faded as I got older, but I still kept watching it every time it came on. Bowie’s acting, as interesting as it was, wasn’t the reason I kept turning to the film. It was the music. Even as a child, there was something about his voice I loved. “The Magic Dance” and “Underground” were both played a lot in my house, but the song I really loved was “As the World Falls Down.” There was something very hard to understand about the way that song fit into the movie for me, and it wasn’t until much later that I figured it out.
“As the World Falls Down” plays during a key scene in the movie. Jareth is attempting to trap Sarah in a crystal ball, giving her the fantasy of a masquerade ball, letting her search for him amongst a slightly grotesque group of revelers. Bowie stands out the middle of this group, but the entire situation still should have been much more off-putting than it is upon viewing. No one in their right mind should have believed an innocent girl could be tempted by this situation, but Bowie’s voice makes him impossible to ignore. The song, a promise of being there for someone even when things go terribly wrong, is mesmerizing. It made me believe that there might just be the smallest possibility that this character wasn’t evil, just misunderstood. He sounds wounded, like he’s experienced all the things he’s promising he’ll wait through to be with this girl. Bowie’s voice was capable of that much.
As I grew older, I realized that Bowie was much more than just the singing actor from Labyrinth. As I started getting into music, I realized just how many different phases he’d gone through. The worst of them was still good. Bowie refused to be pigeonholed. His creativity and constant reinventions will be talked about at length by people who are much more familiar with his work, but I’ll say this: It takes a tremendous amount of courage and confidence to do what he did with his abilities. Human nature leads the majority of us to do as little as necessary to get by. Bowie refused to settle for one approach to music. It would have been easy for him to have been happy with his success and to stop evolving at any point in his career, and he did not. He made himself try new things constantly, and each of those new things inspired countless artists to follow in his footsteps.
One of my favorite Bowie covers is, unsurprisingly, a version of “As the World Falls Down” by Girl in a Coma. They recorded it for their album Adventures in Coverland, but I prefer the music video version. It’s shorter, an indie-rock take on the song that changes the purpose of the music. Instead of a seductive promise, Girl in a Coma makes it a declaration, a garage band taking a song originally about seduction and ending it by saying “makes no sense to fall.” The difference in the original and this cover is striking, just like the difference between any of Bowie’s various iterations. He refused to be categorized. There’s something in his work for everyone. Even if you started from the movies, like me.
Growing up on the Minnesota/North Dakota border, none of my friends had the right kind of big sister to introduce us to David Bowie, so I didn’t really listen to him in high school or college. In fact, my first conscious memory of getting Bowie comes really late and centers around an episode of Gilmore Girls in which literate bad boy Jess is closing down the diner where he works when he meets Estranged Father and they listen to “Suffragette City” together in the darkness without talking; eventually, genetics rears its complicated head and they mouth the “wham bam thank you ma’am” invocation to the coda together before Estranged Father feels exposed and exits the diner.
The idea that a musical oeuvre – one that had been uniting freaks, outcasts, and weirdos for decades – could function as a paternity test resonated with me immediately and stayed with me long enough that I bought a career-spanner at Costco and suddenly realized exactly what I’d been missing for almost thirty years. The moment also helped me remember watching Bowie and Annie Lennox perform at the televised Freddie Mercury tribute concert years earlier with my own father. At some point during their rendition of “Under Pressure,” my father said, “I probably should have listened to more David Bowie.”
I don’t think my father’s epiphany led him back to Bowie the way that mine did, but that moment suggests that he and I may have been more alike than either of us has really understood, and every one us probably needs luck and good timing to recognize our fellow travelers when we see them. The final performance that we watched was polished and “artsy,” dramatic in all the right ways. This rehearsal footage shows us a Bowie no less professional or cool than the televised version, juggling a lit cigarette in order to sing and eventually snap into a handheld microphone. But it also shows the sense of tribe and oddly cast family that I would eventually find in Bowie’s music years later: the joy on Bowie’s face as he watches Lennox wail, the loving smirk on hers as she waits for Bowie to enter, and, in the wings, a reverent George Michael singing along like the rest of us.
My five-year-old daughter turned me on to David Bowie. I was not a big Bowie fan in my youth. I didn’t dislike him, but I was more into jazz and blues-flavored rock and had heard “Fame” about a thousand times too many on the jukebox while working at a local pizza joint.
My true introduction to Bowie came later, when my daughter was young. She is a healthy adult now, but at the time she had a life-threatening illness. Her regular babysitter really liked David Bowie. The two of them would sit on the couch and watch the movie Labyrinth over and over. A lot. My five-year-old daughter had became a huge Bowie fan, at least of the Bowie she saw in Labyrinth. She called him “Davin.”
Sick kids sometimes get special privileges. Bowie was touring that year, 1997, and I contacted a local alternative radio station that was sponsoring a Bowie event to see if they could facilitate a visit when he came to town. Seemed like it would be good PR, and a nice thing to do. They showed no interest.
I did some online research and eventually (it was harder than I’m making it sound) ended up in contact with Bowie’s management company. The closer I got to the inner circle, the nicer they were. A few days before he was to play in town, I got a phone call at work. David had read my letter and wanted to meet my daughter.
The night of the show, sitting on equipment crates backstage, we waited a very long time to meet David Bowie. As with most things rock and roll, everything was happening a couple of hours later than scheduled. Then, out of nowhere, Bowie appeared. He established an instant rapport and spent about ten minutes totally focused on my daughter. They talked about Labyrinth and savings boxes (British for piggy banks), and he showed off his toenail polish (dark brown with a hint of red). He asked if we could stay to see the show and made sure she had ear plugs.
After the visit, Bowie’s assistant set us up near the soundboard. With Reeves Gabrels on guitar and Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, it was an excellent band and a fine show. Gradually, over time, I had come to appreciate Bowie’s music and the scope of his artistic talent. But that night, in a short amount of time, I came to respect him for his caring and kindness.
Though we weren’t waiting to score, we did spend hours that night waiting to see the man. During that tour, Bowie and his band often covered Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.” I’ve chosen a 1997 video to share.
Let’s face it – come the ’70s, Lulu was already irredeemably naff. “Shout” was already nearly a decade ago, and she had followed Cilla Black into the desert of BBC Saturday Night Light Entertainment. Seeming way older than she even does now, she hosted 30 minutes of mid-evening hell. These were unbearable times – or, as I called them, the holidays, home from college, sitting with my parents, waiting desperately for them to go to bed and let me watch the late night horror in peace.
David Bowie, however, was cool. Having created and killed Ziggy, by then he was big time, and even my parents had heard of him, even if they didn’t relish his nancy-boy behaviour on Top of the Pops. And a geek like me knew his older, pre-Spiders material. So when suddenly there was Lulu, belting out “The Man Who Sold the World,” it was confusing. Even more confusing: she was doing it well. I liked it. Hell, I loved it. OK, I said I preferred the original, but in truth I didn’t. With much the same band and Bowie’s unmistakable parping on alto sax, it was nearly a carbon copy of the original, but somehow more fun.
Sadly, the moment didn’t last. Lulu went back to dull as dishwater, Absolutely Fabulous cameos still light years away. Bowie went disco and I lost interest, fickle and foolish as I then was.
I heard David Bowie died while I was on the way to work. I was filled with profound sadness. I immediately mentioned it to a coworker. “Bah,” he said. “I was never a fan.”
I was never a fan either. Not a real fan. I never bought a Bowie album. I rarely listened to deep Bowie cuts, never listened to a full album from end to end. But what I did like, I loved. And my answer to my coworker was deeply honest: “How can you push aside one of the most influential musicians ever?”
Every so often a website will interview musicians to find out what their favorite music of the year is. And if you read it, something clicks and you get the yin and yang of music. Some metal band was listening to hip-hop, or some country star likes punk. Music is all connected. You may not like David Bowie, but some musician you liked picked up a guitar because of him.
No matter who you are, it is impossible to escape David Bowie. His cultural influence was mighty. The Man Who Fell to Earth. Nirvana singing “The Man Who Sold the World” on Unplugged. Chris Hadfield’s actually playing “Space Oddity” in space. Labyrinth and The Life Aquatic.
One of the most reverential tributes to Bowie ever performed is above. Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement recently tweeted what we all feel: “It’s sad to lose Bowie, but it beautiful to think millions of people across the world are listening to his music right now.”
Sometimes in your life you have this thing that you never thought much about, or a person who didn’t really mean much to you, and then BAM you have an epiphany! You wake up one day and everything is different, and that thing, or person, or belief just has a new meaning.
That’s not how David Bowie’s influence was for me.
I have no idea when I noticed how much I enjoyed Bowie’s music; somehow he slow-rolled me. I didn’t like his stuff when I was a kid, but now I think it’s great. The only time, as a kid, that I really got into Bowie was his duet with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.” I loved Crosby’s Christmas songs because my parents played them every year (but not before Thanksgiving – we’re not monsters). But at some point I heard the collaboration with Bowie on one of my least favorite songs. It was amazing: Bowie’s countermelody is absolutely what the song needed (evidently it was hastily added because Bowie, too, hated the original song) and his and Crosby’s voices mesh together perfectly. When I got older and saw the video that went along with the song it dawned on me how crazy this whole thing is. They seem like they are from two different worlds, and Crosby would only live another month after recording the song. Yet there they are, side by side, laying down the best version of “L.D.B.” ever recorded. When I hear a traditional version of “Drummer Boy” now, I can’t help but hum the Bowie counterpoint. His influence on music and pop culture is immeasurable, but in my very small corner of the world that permanent alteration in how I hear every version of the song is indicative of the power he had.
I know that he was 69 years old and I know that death is inevitable, but waking up to the news of David Bowie’s passing last Monday morning provided me, and many others, overwhelming sadness and shock. I was naive enough to believe that if anyone was going to buck death, it would be David Bowie. Lately, he had been involved and relevant on several different artistic platforms (2 albums in 3 years, a cameo on an Arcade Fire album, the off-Broadway show Lazarus), and with each appearance I would marvel at the immortal nature of his presence. Friday’s release of Blackstar further solidified Bowie’s immortality to me. I couldn’t help but think of more Bowie albums, potentially as good or even better, coming out in the future.
But as it turns out, Bowie (and a very select few others) knew for about 18 months that he was dying of cancer and essentially finished Blackstar on his death bed, which is so tragic, beautiful and for Bowie, appropriate. He was a true genius and unflinching artist, experimenting and creating literally to the very end.
I know I am not alone in agonizing over this immeasurable loss. We all have our own Bowie stories – nostalgia is so often wound up with music, and Bowie had a way of moving people so deeply that those moments are seared into our psyches and are easily retrievable. My most profound David Bowie memory was the first time I really heard “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” the valedictory track from the perfect album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” begins by painting a picture of a washed-up soul (possibly Bowie himself) smoking cigarettes and lamenting past regrets. This sympathetic character is “too old to lose it and too young to choose it,” and is reminded that “the clock waits so patiently on your song.” And then, accompanied by muscular horns and drums, Bowie morphs into an empathetic inspirational speaker, building up to a hoarse, sobbing, soul-wrenching SCREAM that “You’re NOT alone!” Bowie closes out the song by pleading to the protagonist – or is it to the listener? – to “Gimme your hands! Cuz you’re wonderful!” I’d be happy if those last 45 seconds went on forever, but in a flash, like a lightning bolt across the face, the song is over.
At the time, I was living in a closet of a studio apartment, lacking direction and confidence and feeling like the sad protagonist in the song. But after really hearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” for the first time, I remember thinking “Yeah, God dammit! I’m NOT alone! I AM wonderful! Bowie says so!” Then, even though I was just learning and could barely play three chords on the guitar, I didn’t rest until I learned how to play and sing my favorite David Bowie song.
I would wager that I’m not the only person those lyrics affected the exact same way.
I like to believe that perhaps Seu Jorge had the same experience, considering how beautifully he covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” with a passion and ferocity similar to Bowie, in the movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Jorge covers this song along with an array of other Bowie greats, all in his native Portuguese, as a strumming minstrel throughout the entire movie. His heartfelt covers, no doubt fueled by Bowie’s greatness and strength as a storyteller, are the glue that binds the film.
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