Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - January 2016

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie: Scary Elegance as Art

(note: this may not seem to be typical "guitar lesson content", but actually it is....)  

I saw - saw - David Bowie for the first time as a co-headliner with Nine Inch Nails. 
It was a very clever show, one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve seen. As his set progressed, Trent Reznor came onstage to sing with Bowie. Then another song, but one of Bowie’s band would leave, then one of Reznor’s would come onstage.
This progressed until it was Nine Inch Nails, but with Bowie singing Reznor’s songs. Bowie bows out, and it’s just Nine Inch Nails. 
Very clever, completely dispenses with standard operating procedure at a concert. Executed flawlessly, in a very naturally evolving way. That his music could flow so seamlessly into Reznor’s is a testament to his oeuvre. Bowie’s music spanning my entire lifetime, through a “set” that documented how he stayed on top of trends, and set trends, all the way up to the Modern Era. 
What I remember most from the experience is how captivating a presence he was in reality. Everyone knows of his theatrical delivery, combined with kinesthetic/dance motifs. Veritably Madonna before Madonna, always changing his “look and feel” in brilliant and novel ways. 
But live, a few feet in front of you, it’s different. There is an X factor at play. Things come across that a camera does not resolutely pickup, that lens distortion and depth of field conspire to obscure. 
He did a cross section of his characters that night, Thin White to Ziggy. His facial musculature as he sang, it’s composure, for each song was different. The timing of how his brow fell on a sentence, the tension in the cheek muscles. His posture made his clothes fall in a very particular way, and depending on the character, it might be perfectly still, or unsteady. Very subtle movements you can’t see on television. 
The net effect was two things. One, “this person is completely committed to this character”. Not evidenced by a coarse stage acting of the raising of the eyebrows, but in the gravitas of the tension - or lack of - in the facial muscle movements. On the movie screen, you get a hint of this on a tight closeup with a narrow lens with some star actors.  Though as part of that you don’t see the poise of the person. It’s not the same effect. 
When it’s in front of you, it’s extremely compelling; like an exotic animal, it’s art. This guy stalked around the stage as different personas for an hour, for each song, illustrated a different “animal”, a blend of effects he physically created. This was educational for me, because you read anecdotes from people talking about the “physical presence” of a famous or historical person, and you think it’s hyperbole - it’s not. Some people on the planet have what I might call an “extroverted kinesthetic high I.Q.”, and awareness of what their physicality is conveying in conjunction with being able to manipulate it for effect. When people talk about Bill Clinton’s “personal charisma”, or Elvis’ “charm” - as if it’s something you don’t know, they’re saying it because they realize perhaps it really is something you don’t know. 
Just like having a high musical I.Q., or verbal intelligence, I think this can be a phenomena that is a top-percentile bracket that one just does not commonly experience. In turn, being aware of such a thing could be completely off your radar. 
In this sense I think seeing Bowie live is actually something akin to seeing history in front of you: a rare, unique individual. I can imagine how someone with this subtle control of personal affect could become famous in other ways, for better or worse. He used it to maximal effect for art. 
Two (yes, I remember I wrote “two things”) - that character-induced effort to control facial musculature was having an impact on his vocal delivery. 
It sounds silly, but when you talk with a smile on your face you sound different, even if you think you are being neutral in your delivery, than if you frown. With Bowie, jutting out the angle of his chin, holding it there, or holding a sideways frown - while singing imparted a subtlety to the sound of the delivery. It yielded the conviction required to sell the character. It imbued color and character. Something that is mostly lacking in 21st century vocal delivery, with it’s perfectly-mediocre, staid execution. 
I’m not the biggest Bowie fan, apart from a handful of songs I like greatly. I thought his show would be interesting, but I did not expect captivating. Something akin to enjoying watching Nicholson flip out, or Walken simply be “Walken”, except in 3D in front of you; but with much more potency than is conveyed through secondary media.
It makes me wonder what it’s like to see someone like a De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, 6 feet in front of you in real life portraying a character. Is it a similar potency, that while diluted through a lens still comes across? A thought I would not have pondered prior to seeing - literally - David Bowie.