Tag Archives: David Bowie

Seven Songs You Must Listen To If You Want To Be A Songwriter

First, “I Did It All” by Tracy Chapman. Few artists would dare tread on Sacred Sinatra Soil, but that’s exactly what Tracy Chapman does with this song. This is “My Way” for a new generation. Tracy Chapman is a badass, plain and simple. I knew it when I saw her beat out Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen for best set of the day at that Amnesty International Concert so long ago—she did it with just a single guitar, when she was just a young woman with one beautiful and strange hit on the radio called “Fast Car.” If you ain’t down w/ Tracy Champan, you ain’t down with much.

Next, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Because you can’t believe it was WRITTEN. That one writer, with a pencil and a guitar, actually sat down and created this. It didn’t grow out of the ground like some bent and peculiar flower. It didn’t fall out of the sky like some permanent snowflake. It was WRITTEN. And it is perfection.

Third, “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Yes, I have him on the brain. We all do. But this was a classic the second he released it. It is a classic as we mourn him. And it will be a classic for decades to come. THIS is proof that pop music and vision don’t have to mutually oppose. For me, this song is like the great, pathos-laden girl group songs of the 60’s, those rockabilly-meets-torch songs that broke and mended hearts, then broke them again. In that strange, baffling, all-consuming emotional eco-system where love and loss of parents and love and loss of love—where romantic love and parent love—are inextricable, there is a song playing, and it is the soundtrack of this crazy emotional realm, this neo-natal origin story of the heart, and it is this song.

Next, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Because anyone who can fit an entire play, an entire movie, an entire novel, and entire life, an entire world, an entire species, an entire galaxy, into a single, mutant art-folk song, deserves to be recognized as a bloody genius. The man David Bowie has given us the man Major Tom, and he has entered our consciousness through song.

Fifth is “My Funny Valentine.” The song was written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and it is quite simply one of the most gorgeously weird songs every written. The melodies are almost crippingly beautiful, and when voices like Chet Baker’s take it on, it’s almost too much to bear. Hearing the notes emerge from Miles Davis’ horn is akin to drifting into a gossamer trance. And then there are the lyrics:

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But dont you change one hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

This is an emotional perversion of the highest order, and there is something both hopelessly earthy and trancendentally romantic afoot here. This isn’t a song you could sell, or pitch, or even explain. One just has to write it. Fortunately, this one was written, and we’re the better for it. Care to argue about the definitive version???

Next is “Ugly” by Robert Pete Williams. Because if you don’t think Country Blues produces incredible songwriting, then you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because this song ends with the lines:

Mama, why I got to be so ugly in this world?
Son, that’s just a mark that God put on your face.

Because if you don’t think that’s poetry, you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because when you HEAR this song—with it’s raw, howling vocal, it’s emotive, impressionistic lyric stream, and it’s rivetingly funky, minor-chord stomp, you WILL know somethin’ about somethin’.

Finally, for song number seven, we have “Broken Arrow,” written by Neil Young. This is one of those songs that sort of proves what’s possible when it comes to song itself. In many ways made possible only by the studio (it famously took some 100 hours to record), it is also at heart a simple folks song. The images are so powerful, the melodies so compelling, the oddities so appealing, and the simplicities so magical, it’s simply hard to know how to name its accomplishment. It’s a song I come back to time and time again, to just marvel at what’s possible when one believes in song.

The streets were lined for the wedding parade,
The Queen wore the white gloves, the county of song,
The black covered caisson her horses had drawn
Protected her King from the sun rays of dawn.
They married for peace and were gone.
Did you see them, did you see them?
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you.
Could you tell that the empty quivered,
Brown skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow?

Celebrating David Bowie


-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?



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