-or- Dining on Blues with The Thin White Duke
-or- What the Texas Flood had to do with the Serious Moonlight
It might be said that David Bowie was an omnivore who subsisted on a variegated diet of genius. His was an elevated mammalian instinct—a refined sensorial ability to identify, internalize, and reproduce the gorgeous bleeding edge of his world like some dangerous polyphagist blazing with a courtesan’s practiced grace through fields of sounds and visions.
Was David Bowie a bluesman? Certainly not. But could he sniff out in its bestial flanks the raw funk of pagan genius? Most certainly he could.
I’m not talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan, by the way. At least not yet.
Nor, however, am I talking about “Running Gun Blues” from The Man Who Sold The World. Sure, there is a rawness to the lyric:
I slash them cold, I kill them dead
I broke the gooks, I cracked their heads
I’ll bomb them out from under the beds
But now I’ve got the running gun blues
But musically, it’s a different animal. Blues it ain’t.
I could though, potentially be talking about just about all of Hunky Dory, though with some explanation and contextualization required. If the folk-blues of Dylan’s early records, for example, presented a young, blues-struck songster-artist wrestling with which side of the musical soul tracks to fall on—and whether to love or mock his gods and demons— Hunky Dory could be Bowie wrestling with Dylan’s blues-struck songster-artist. Hunky Dory of course contains those Romulan and Remun songs of fidelity and scandal: one song which arguably mocks Dylan (Song for Bob Dylan), and one that arguably imitates him (Changes). Such wrestlings (Church and Jukejoint) have always been the proper moral stuff of proper blues.
Bowie was also a good rock n’ roller. And you can’t be a good rock n’ roller without having spit a bit into the handkerchief of the blues. Whether it’s theatre or not, ironic or not, Suffragette City is good rock n’ roll, and that whole wham bam, thank you m’aam bit is straight up old school sex hokum.
Which brings me to The Jean Genie.
I’m going to be singing this song on Tuesday, March 22, at The Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, in the company of so much talent I can hardly believe I have a thing to do with it. But it’s happening. It’s called Celebrating David Bowie. It started at the Roxy in LA, shortly after Bowie passed. It was led by a very old musical friend of mine named Scrote (who I know from my earliest musical days in San Francisco, and who is today one of the most innovative, creative, and thoughtful guitar players and composers around) and Gary Oldman, the very, very fine actor, musician, and filmmaker. Celebrating David Bowie literally took on a life of its own, and the concert turned into a truly remarkable happening, featuring a stunning array of musicians who had collectively and in myriad ways orbited through Bowie’s orbit. This powerful experience is now coming to San Francisco for an encore appearance. Gary and Scrote are at the helm again. Jerry Harrison has signed on to perform (cue fanboy spazz out from yours truly … The Modern Lovers!!!). The musical cast is incredible. Here they are in toto, as listed on the event site:
Jerry Harrison, Holly Palmer, Mark Plati, Gaby Moreno, Angelo Moore, Joe Sumner, Dorian Holley, Lyle Workman, Mirv, Patrick Warren, Brain, Eric Gorfain, Magik*Magik Orchestra, Blair Sinta, Mark Degli Antoni, Paul Bushnell, Jebin Bruni, Ron Dziubla, House, Princess Frank, Rob Reich, Wil Blades, Celia Chavez, Simon Petty, Alex Painter, Jordan Katz, Michael Urbano, Preacher Boy, Josh Lopez, Jeremy Little, Jamison Smeltz, Brett Hool, Marcus Blake, Jim Greer, Shawn Davis, Libby Lavella, Adam Theis, Rich Armstrong, Karina Denike, Jim Bogios, Mark Growden, Craig McFarland, Meryl Theo Press, Mike Klooster, Brad Brooks, Carletta Sue Kay, and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir Ensemble.
And as noted on said site:
Musicians on this show play with or have played with David Bowie, Tom Waits, Sting, Seal, Herbie Hancock, Daniel Johnston, De La Soul, Brian Eno, Bruce Springsteen, Jellyfish, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jackson Browne, Danny Elfman, Bob Dylan, Soul Coughing, Stevie Wonder, John Scofield, Guns N’ Roses, Lana Del Rey, Dr. Dre, Burt Bacharach, David Byrne, Todd Rundgren, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dwight Yoakam, Cassandra Wilson, Eric Clapton, Raphael Saadiq, Frank Black, Melody Gardot, Lenny Kravitz, etc etc etc…
In short, this is once-in-a-lifetime. I still can’t believe I’m going to be there. But I am. And I’m going to sing The Jean Genie.
I’m a little bit terrified. But by god, I’ll make it!
After all, musically, Jean Genie is just Bowie doing I’m A Man by way of The Yardbirds, right??? And lyrically, it’s just a hipped-up, druggy, urban-nocturnal kind of Wang Dang Doodle, ain’t it?
Tell automatic slim
Tell razor totin’ jim
Tell butcher knife totin’ annie
Tell fast talkin’ fanny
Tonite we’re gonna pitch a ball
Down to that union hall
Gonna romp and tromp ’till midnite
We’re gonna fuss and fight ’till daylight
We’re gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
A small Jean Genie snuck off to the city
Strung out on lasers and slash back blazers
Ate all your razors while pulling the waiters
Talking bout Monroe and walking on Snow White
New York’s a go-go and everything tastes right
Poor little Greenie
The Jean Genie lives on his back
The Jean Genie loves chimney stacks
He’s outrageous, he screams and he bawls
Jean Genie let yourself go!
It’s a legendary song, is what it is. How legendary? A handwritten copy of the original lyrics is—in a strange bit of timing—currently being auctioned as I write this. Opening bid? $43,000. Wow.
And ok yes, there’s the David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan thing. Did he “discover” Stevie Ray Vaughan? Of course not. Did their somewhat surprising musical dance together dramatically impact each other’s careers? Absolutely. Are “China Girl” or “Let’s Dance” blues songs? Of course not. Did David Bowie sense something that no one else could really sense—did he see something we couldn’t see, hear something we couldn’t hear, did he walk on a plane where, if you were there too, you too would know what the Texas Flood had to do with the Serious Moonlight?