Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016'

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'Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016.'
'Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

What was David Bowie's last song? In Ashes to Ashes, author Chris O'Leary offers two answers to that question. One answer is "I Can't Give Everything Away," the last song on Bowie's last album (Blackstar, 2016). The other is "Ashes to Ashes," the 1980 song that revisits his iconic character Major Tom, from 1969's "Space Oddity."

"Bowie had far more years to come," writes O'Leary in the book that takes its name from the song. "There were far more songs to come and far more farewells. But 'Ashes to Ashes' is his last song, the closing chapter that comes midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children's rhyme: eternally falling, eternally young."

It's a moving passage about a moving song, "one of Bowie's greatest studio moments" and a track that's deceptively complex despite its radio-friendly sheen (it was a U.K. chart-topper). In a seven-page analysis, O'Leary speaks not only to the song's significance in Bowie's career ("the cold self-assessment of having done nothing spontaneously") but to its status as a sequel song ("Wild, irresistible Peggy Sue gets married, moves to a prefab house, has kids. Where else for Major Tom to go but back to Earth?") and to its layered construction (that's Roy Bittan of the E Street Band, playing a grand piano wired to emulate a Wurlitzer organ).

O'Leary's discussion of "Ashes to Ashes" is a typically insightful passage from a fascinating book, a 2019 publication that's well worth dipping into as we mark what would have been Bowie's 73rd birthday. It's the second volume of a career-spanning set that began with Rebel Rebel, a song-by-song guide to the first part of Bowie's oeuvre. Ashes to Ashes spans a much longer frame of time, and it's accordingly thick: 705 pages.

The author could certainly be considered a David Bowie expert, but as he explains in an introduction, he didn't necessarily start out that way. Both as a writing exercise and to learn more about an artist who deserves a close look, O'Leary launched a blog dedicated to Bowie songs. That blog became two books, and even in a world where Bowie books abound, they're welcome additions to the literature.

O'Leary applies a critical ear to Bowie's songs, defending underrated projects (Tin Machine II is no Ziggy Stardust, but it doesn't deserve its out-of-print status) and offering his view on Bowie's worst track ever (his saccharin 1984 cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows"). He won't defend the Mick Jagger duet on "Dancing in the Street," but "hating this camp disaster takes too much effort." O'Leary also points out that Bowie himself enjoyed the "music-less" edit.

More significantly, O'Leary is frank about the challenging and occasionally problematic nature of Bowie's music, in songs like "China Girl," where Bowie's hit interpretation evoked "the more elegant racist" compared to Iggy Pop's more visceral take on the song they wrote together.

If anything, the quality of O'Leary's analysis merits a more accessible and attractive presentation. Ashes to Ashes is essentially a brick, with no illustrations and confusing formatting.

That said, the beauty of a book like this is you can skim and skip around, passing over the albums you don't know or don't like (Hours, anyone? Reality?) and diving deep into the corners of the canon that you most adore. Among the tidbits I learned about some of my favorite Bowie songs:

Brian Eno didn't produce the Berlin Trilogy. He was a close musical collaborator, but his contributions came through writing and playing, not through corralling session players or twisting dials.

Bowie edited the lyrics to "Tonight" because he worried Tina Turner would balk at singing them. "She was built of sterner stuff," thinks O'Leary, writing about the harrowing Iggy Pop collab about a strung-out junkie. In his own version, Bowie turned the number into "a light reggae cocktail-lounge duet" with Turner.

The relentless pulse of "Heroes" was inspired by the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting for the Man." Hear it now?

That Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet was recorded on a boom mike. With no idea that the "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" carol would become a cult classic, the producers of Crosby's holiday special recorded over the original 16-track master. Oops.

The title of "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" was inspired by the free prizes inside boxes of Corn Flakes. "Bowie's scraping vocal," writes O'Leary, "and the pop rush of its refrains helped 'Scary Monsters' help create alternative rock."

Bowie hated the soundtrack version of "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)." He preferred his Let's Dance remake to co-writer Giorgio Moroder's sprawling master for the 1982 Paul Schrader flick, but O'Leary argues that in the second version, "Bowie's hoarse vocal and rushed phrasing was inferior."

Nile Rodgers couldn't believe Bowie thought "Let's Dance" would be a hit. Bowie knew there was commercial potential in his update of '60s rave-ups, and producer Rodgers created an arrangement that paired the track's ear-candy hooks with the spare sonic punch that made it totally '80s. Let's Dance, Bowie's commercial peak, is often pegged as his "sellout" album, but O'Leary finds several pages of fascination in the title track. (Now I feel like I finally understand how the gated-snare sound works.)

There's more to Labyrinth than "Dance Magic Dance." The baby-tossing song is the one everyone associates with the Jim Henson movie that defined a new generation's image of Bowie, but Bowie actually wrote five songs for the film. O'Leary's especially intrigued by "As the World Falls Down," the melancholy ballad that soundtracks the Goblin King's masquerade fantasy. Had it been released as a single, the author thinks, the song could have been Bowie's "Lady in Red" or "Careless Whisper."

The title track to Black Tie White Noise was Bowie's answer to "Ebony and Ivory." Bowie appreciated the complexities of racism and resented the vapid idealism of songs that suggested a smooth pop hook could heal the world. That said, this Al B. Sure! duet didn't offer much musically to support its author's sharp observations.

"Jump They Say" was inspired by the 1985 suicide of Bowie's older half-brother. I always thought it was just about dancing.

"I'm Afraid of Americans" was originally about being afraid of "the animals." When the song was tapped for the Showgirls soundtrack, Bowie made some very on-the-nose revisions to his lyrics.

David Bowie sings on Arcade Fire's studio recording of "Reflektor." Did you know that? I didn't know that.

The last time Bowie sang for an audience was at a rehearsal of Lazarus. After an early run-through performance of the musical he'd created with playwright Enda Walsh, the bandleader asked if Bowie wanted anything. "Yes," said Bowie. "I think I'd like a sing."

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Jan. 15: When the Stones Came to Town: Rock 'n' Roll Photos from the 1970s by Fred Case with Eric Dregni

Jan. 22: A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford

Jan. 29: Acid for the Children, a memoir by Flea

Feb. 5: The Beatles A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour by Peter Asher

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