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To live and die authentically: Twin Cities musicians reflect on David Bowie

Venus DeMars found her "life map" through Bowie's music.

Venus DeMars found her "life map" through Bowie's music.

One month to the day has passed since the death of David Robert Jones, the starman who fell to earth on January 8, 1947. He was the man who sold the world 140 million records during the 69 years and two days that our planet was graced with his presence.

Under the guise of David Bowie — or, rather, under countless guises, from Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane to Halloween Jack and the Thin White Duke — Jones’ impact on us earthlings is immense and immeasurable.

This month, that impact is especially evident locally, with two star-studded tribute shows taking place in as many weeks. The first one — We Can Be Heroes: The Bowie Tribute — will hit Minneapolis’ Parkway Theater on Feb. 19. Then, on Feb. 25, St. Paul’s Bedlam Theatre will host Twin Cities Tribute To Bowie

An impressive array of artists will be honoring Bowie at both shows, with Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Phil Solem (The Rembrandts), Julius Collins (Greazy Meal), and Michael Bland (Prince) among the Parkway performers. Tabah, Peter Miller (We Are the Willows), and Al Church are among the many at the Bedlam. Jeremy Ylvisaker (The Suburbs, Greazy Meal, Andrew Bird) will grace both events.

The tribute shows this month are just the tip of our iceberg, however, as Bowie’s influence runs deep for many innovative Twin Cities artists — from Mark Mallman to Little Man and Ana Voog to Venus DeMars.

As testified by throwback rocker Chris "Little Man" Perricelli, “there is a special connection here in the Twin Cities with David Bowie.” Indeed, Perricelli was just one of many local music-scene luminaries involved in an annual Bowie tribute show that ran for 10 years in First Avenue's Mainroom. Perricelli expands:

"It was called [Rebel, Rebel:] Rock For Pussy, a benefit show for no-kill cat shelters. The Current's DJ Mary Lucia started that. As a band member to that, it brought us together to experience Bowie's music from the live concert setting of playing those songs and connecting with the music and the audience.

To perform his songs in elaborate costumes of our favorite Bowie was a celebratory ritual. The audience loved that and participated full on by glamming up for the night, singing along and feeling the performances right along with the band. It was a great community event that over the years grew into an obvious 'family' feeling." 

It has yet to be determined whether a 12th Rock for Pussy will occur later this year. 

Among the Twin Cities musicians most influenced by Bowie is piano rocker Mark Mallman, who acknowledges the artist as his “greatest musical influence." Mallman — whose forthcoming album The End is Not the End raises the question of death’s finality — contributed these reflections on the end/not end of his musical hero: 

"Bowie applied radical ideas to the pop format in ways that experimental musicians fail to consider. His gift was the ability to craft chaos. He gave all of us weirdos the courage to be who we really are.

When I was texted in all caps at 1 a.m.: 'MARK!!! DAVID BOWIE DIED,' it felt like I had been sucking on a vacuum cleaner. Alone in my bed, my mind boiled over with the same existential paradigms a Bowie lyric might. I wasn't sad, because I don't believe in death. 'Looking For Water' is my favorite song. Have you heard it? I have no idea what it means.

Those are my favorite Bowie songs. He's been more influential to me than any other artist. In fact, my new album is a 21st century interpretation of Scary Monsters. I chose to go to art school instead of music school because of him. His work consistently points to the beyond in a way that suggests his whole life was a preparation for dying.

I'd like to imagine it was a complete thrill for him, finally having this burning question answered, of knowing what's behind the velvet curtain of life."

Similarly, Minneapolis-based musician and DJ Richard Meredith reflects: 

“A piece of my past dies with him because for me, in my tortured teens in rural Mid Wales, he was the guiding light; the voice in the darkness; the one who showed the way for all of us who felt that little bit different and didn’t want to join the queue of conformity that seemed to beckon around every corner.

His reach was universal. He is one of the very few artists I can think of whose body of work has something that almost everyone can relate to, despite being the alien among us.”

Another regular performer at Rock for Pussy, Ciaran Daly, leader of Brit-rock band Stress of Her Regard, avers:

"After I heard 'Heroes,' there was only one singer I could ever want to sound like, and I decided I would spend my life trying. I failed of course, but somewhere along the way managed to find the way to sound like myself, and myself only. Which, I suppose, is the deeper lesson a life like David Bowie's leaves us.

I still catch myself, at odd moments, being possessed by his voice. I won't mind it so much now. It will feel like he's saying hello. A piece of the world is missing now and we all have to find a way to fill it. Let's get after it."

Throughout this past month and for many years before that, Bowie’s signature looks and songs have been celebrated all over Minneapolis and St. Paul, not just at live shows but also at dance nights (DJ Jake Rudh’s Transmission) and on radio shows (DJ SLT’s “Across The Board” on KFAI, and Rudh’s “Transmission” on 89.3 the Current).

Especially now, though, many musicians are wondering what can be done to honor Bowie beyond recreating his styles and covering his songs. After all, Bowie's legendary creative unpredictability deserves celebrating, too. 

Cognizant of this quandary is Orion Treon of local rock bands Phantom Tails and Rupert Angeleyes:

“Bowie was never content to just ‘play the hits.’ He continued to collaborate and find new influences throughout his career. This is one of the best lessons other musicians and artists can learn from him: never stop taking in the new, and don’t be afraid to push your boundaries.” 
Similarly, Eric Moen, frontman of indie-rock band Autumn Kid, declares:

“What we as artists need to do to honor Bowie's legacy is continue to find areas artistically that we don't feel quite comfortable and operate within those areas. I think we'll find amazing things start to happen. If we settle for mediocrity, the lowest common denominator, we fail to evolve, which is what Bowie did so flawlessly, and is possibly his greatest artistic impact.” 
Jim Handrigan of power-pop band the Puritones contributes:

“To honor him, at least for me in a personal sense, I feel I should bring more of the following into the world: music (done to the best of my ability, in my voice); graciousness (with less judgment of others); elegance (where I can); generosity (given freely, and without expectation); creativity (in any form); and fearlessness (turn and face the strange!).”
Contemplating whether our world is now a “post-Bowie” one, writer/musician Jim Walsh succinctly paraphrases the ethos that Bowie imparted: 

“Do your thing. Stay generous, empathetic, open-minded, and open-hearted. Make the world beautiful and strange. Have original ideas that come from deep within and via the outer limits. Refract and reject the times you're born unto and burn, burn, burn, burn ...” 
And yet Bowie is gone, and he left us with an album that compels us to turn and face the strangest of strange things: death. Blackstar was released on Bowie’s final birthday, just two days before his death, and has since became his first No. 1 album in the U.S.

John Eller, the musical director/bandleader of Rock for Pussy, reflects:

"Leave it to Bowie to, in his final act, leave a positively brilliant work of art with death as its centerpiece, hauntingly toying with it. Like nearly everything he ever did, he was just so far ahead of the pack, so singularly himself. Others will take their cue from this last project and try to reinvent it as something of their own making.

But as always, Bowie did it first. That he toiled and created while in failing health to present this final work to the world tells us what we Bowie fans have always known. His work was — nay, is — driven by artistic exploration, not by what an audience might respond to most. The gratification needn't be instant. Quite simply, Bowie gave us sound ... and vision."

Blackstar is as perfect a bookend to an oeuvre as any an artist could hope for. It's “a ribbon on a massive career,” as Mallman expressed the morning after Bowie died.

Or, as longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti put it that same morning, "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

Treon helps us recognize how:

"Blackstar and the accompanying videos [for 'Blackstar' and 'Lazarus'] are filled with haunting references to death and the afterlife. With Blackstar, he successfully did what very few artists get a chance to do: end his career with a definitive and final statement with every intention of it being his last.

It is a perfect finale to his diverse career. A new sound, yet distinctly Bowie, with his familiar lyrical themes of religion, extraterrestrials, and death. Musically, a far cry from the artist who made Hunky Dory or Young Americans, but not too far from Outside or Heathen." 

Musically, Blackstar is a far cry from those albums. Yet musical themes from older songs — chiefly 1977 album Low’s “A New Career in A New Town” — are sonically referenced throughout this final album, most notably in its final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Lyrically as well, the songs are very closely tied to Bowie’s past. Most notably, Major Tom, the protagonist from Bowie’s first hit single, 1969's “Space Oddity,” reappears as a transfigured, bejeweled skeleton in the video to “Blackstar." In it, Tom graduates beyond the role of the skeletal junkie portrayed in “Ashes to Ashes” (“we know Major Tom’s a junkie”) midway through Bowie’s career.

Station to Station is also referenced. In the closing moments of the video for “Lazarus,” Bowie forever disappears into a darkened wardrobe dressed in the same outfit he wore on the back cover of that 1976 album.

Given that the song “Station to Station” is about traveling through occult doorways to other planes of reality (“from Kether to Malkuth,” as the Cabala-informed lyrics put it), Ana Voog persuasively states, “I don’t think we can speak of Bowie’s work without addressing that he was an occultist.”

Noting this synthesis and transfiguration of multiple Bowie “characters," Voog — an artist and former frontwoman of Twin Cities dream-pop band the Blue Up? — expands: 

"What I, personally, take away from my 'Bowie experience' is that Bowie was actually not a bunch of personas but one integrated being who was truly authentic.

Even when he was being inauthentic he could still have ability to see other people’s lives. I think the significance of Visconti saying Blackstar is a parting gift means to live as authentically as possible. He was the klown and the king. The king is dead long live the king. Go make art. Look death in the eye and make art.

And for David Bowie, it seems, death was a rather unpleasant experience. And he decided to tell us this story, this archetype. Because we all must face this door which leads to another beyond that."

For Voog and other artists in our community, then, Bowie’s greatest “significance and gift” is that he shows us how to “live and die authentically.”

This is certainly true for Venus DeMars, whose glam-rock band All the Pretty Horses would reinterpret a classic Bowie song midway through each Rock for Pussy. DeMars reflects:

"David Bowie wasn't supposed to die. I still need him. In 1969, I was 9. I was also trans, but nobody knew what that was. With absolutely no life map to guide me, I spent my days hiding from myself, and a small part of each day feeling afraid and ashamed.

One night that lonely summer, my Mom went out for an evening errand to the new Target store over the hill in Duluth, Minnesota. I road along, and stayed in the car with the radio on while she went into the store. There in the dark, under the stars, I heard “Space Oddity” for the first time. It knocked my breath away. Later, when I saw him guest on Midnight Special, and saw him at his most androgynous, it was like I'd been given that map. I wasn't so alone.

I've followed that map since, watched as Bowie journeyed so paths, always keeping focus. I learned how to play a guitar that summer, and because of Bowie's steadily unfolding movement forward, unlike so many other artists from then, I had the courage, in 1988, to become myself. To untangle the complexity of my life. To wear makeup, strap on an electric guitar, and climb a stage.

But I still need him. January 11 was my birthday, and it's the day we all learned of his death, and collectively felt such a loss. Instead of enjoying my annual celebration, I spend the day reflecting — on Bowie's legacy, on what his art did for me, on all my friends who I've lost along the way, of my own mortality. David Bowie's gone, but he's still here. And he left me another map. One which shows how to finish a life. I am already studying it."

No stranger to acknowledging debts, it seems Bowie is doing something particularly significant in the song “Blackstar,” where he hauntingly declares:

"Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar / I’m a blackstar"

After all, a “blue-eyed soul” Bowie was — along with Elton John — the first white musician to be invited to perform on Soul Train back in 1975. And in 1983, Bowie took VJ Mark Goodman to task for featuring “so few black artists” on MTV.

Acknowledging another of Bowie’s personal acknowledgments of debt (this time, with Blackstar, to Kendrick Lamar), it seems fitting to close these reflections with the thoughts of musician and writer Jon Hunt:

"I've said it a few times over the last couple of days: I think the next Bowie will be black. That's where the innovation has been in the last few years: R&B, hip-hop, afrofuturism, jazz. The problem is that we — you know, Middle American White Folks — are so attuned to our own thing (indie folk whateverthefuck) that we might not even notice him/her and certainly won't be prepared to embrace 'em.

I feel like what Bowie would want from all of us is to open our damn minds and start listening to more than just the stuff we're comfortable with. Hell, he was listening — Blackstar is absolutely the product of a couple of someones listening like crazy to Kendrick Lamar (maybe it's him!) and embracing that jazz/soul/futurist ethos.

Let's go where the innovation is, folks, and let's demand our radio and press give it to us. Can't think of a better way to honor his legacy. And remember: The next Bowie may well be a woman, too (see: Janelle Monae). Open. Minds. Folks. Now."

We Can Be Heroes: The Bowie Tribute

With: Dave Pirner, Julius Collins, Michael Bland, Winston Roye, Brian Gallagher, Cory Eischen, Phil Solem, Jeremy Ylvisaker.

When: 7 p.m., Feb. 19. 

Where: Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis. 

Ticket: $35; more info here.

Twin Cities Tribute To Bowie

With: Tabah, Peter Miller, Julie Thoreen, Hot Date, Al Church, Jeremy Ylvisaker, the Crash Bandits, Blue Green, Dan Mariska & the Boys Choir, Nick Costa, Wyatt Overman.

When: 8 p.m., Feb. 25.

Where: Bedlam Theatre Lowertown, 213 E. 4th St., St Paul.

Ticket: $8; more info here.