“merry christmas mr. lawrence” – ryuichi sakamoto (1983)

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A few weeks ago, I revisited by favorite film featuring David Bowie.  1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is an underrated gem of British and Japanese cinema.  Unfortunately, it isn’t a film that is often mentioned when I hear people talk about David Bowie’s work in film.  While people’s nostalgia factor always leads the discussion towards Labyrinth, even his lesser known films such as The Hunger and The Man Who Fell to Earth, I find, get more attention.  Never really a great actor, Bowie has managed to carve his own niche into each role and elevated the film in some way.  You’re drawn to him.  There is a power and magnetism there that makes you connect with his character’s story.  Where he lacks acting ability, his presence make sup in pure charisma.  And Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is the best example of this.

In the film, Bowie plays Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers.  Recently captured by the Japanese military during World War II, he is subjected to a Japanese tribunal and sentenced to be imprisoned in a POW camp.  Celliers becomes ill in the camp and is tormented by dark secrets from his childhood.  As he recovers and is cared for by other prisoners, Celliers becomes a point of fascination for Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) who oversees much of the camp’s operations.  Yonoi develops a homoerotic fascination with Celliers which include visits with Celliers at night, extra care when Celliers is sick, and asking many questions about Celliers to his superior officers at the camp.  As Celliers becomes more rebellious and challenges Yonoi’s authority through demonstrations and possessing wireless equipment, Yonoi asserts his authority in increasingly brutal and punitive ways.

I feel the film is beautiful on all levels, but it has some inherent flaws.  The acting at times is stiff and the performances by some of the actors aren’t executed well.  While much of the film is beautifully shot, many of the scenes appear dull and muted colors.  The story, with it’s themes on homosexuality and brotherhood, is intriguing but often times deviates from the narrative.  None of these aspects of the film are exceptional by any means but when they come together, the product is stunning, raw, and emotional.

Despite many of the flaws with the film, it does have one flawless element; the music.  In addition to playing Captain Yonoi, Ryuichi Sakamoto also composed the score for the film.  Sakamoto relies on his Japanese heritage’s penchant for minimalism and crafts a beautiful score featuring a fusion of electronic and experimental music.  The signature piece from the film’s score is opening piece from the film.  Simply entitled “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” this track serves as the main theme for the film and features a hypnotizing melody that is rearranged in various pieces throughout the rest of the soundtrack.  The repetition in the track is key.  Embracing those few bars and repeating them, Sakamoto seamlessly blends minimalism in music with contemporary sounds and production.  Subtle changes occur throughout and the listening experience is dreamy and captivating.

The score to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and it’s main theme, is truly the best part of the film and almost serves as a character in of itself.  Despite it’s flaws, everything comes together well to tell a story that is filled with nuance, subtlety, and passion.  It’s a film that addresses tough moral questions with a theme ahead of it’s time.  The soundtrack also stands alone.  I find that some soundtracks are not as good without the context of the film.  However, with this score, that is not case.  The experience of listening to Sakamoto’s complex yet accessible score is remarkable.  While this film doesn’t get much attention for being one of Bowie’s best films, the score deserves to be recognized as one of the best ever.

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“bowie” – flight of the conchords (2008)

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I’ve heard a rumor from ground control.

Oh no. Don’t say it’s true.

Ashes to ashes.

David Bowie passed away on Sunday, January 10th, 2016. He had released his last studio album ★ (Blackstar) just two days prior. Since then, the world has mourned the loss of one of the most iconic figures in not only music, but popular culture. Tributes in the form of thoughtful works of art, singing candlelight vigils, and retrospective blogs each provided their own take on the influence Bowie had on their lives. Everyone grieves in their own way.

In my blog last week, I had posted an entry for Bowie. I knew since starting the blog that I had to do Bowie. I keep a long list of potentials songs to write about. And since I have a self-imposed rule of never repeating an artist, a smaller list of potential tracks from their respective discography. In the end, it all really depends on my mood. I bounced between several Bowie tracks from recent catalogue entries to long-standing favorites. I ultimately settled on the title track from his last album and published the entry on the day of the album’s release.

Each post is different. I could talk exclusively about the composition of the track from a technical standpoint, interpretations of the meaning behind the song, or a profile of the artist themselves from a historical or societal perspective. For my Bowie entry, I acted in rare form and opened myself up about my own personal experience with Bowie. He held a significant place in my heart and I felt that showing my vulnerability and personal feelings would be the best way. When I would normally analyze, I paid tribute instead. Little did I (or anyone) know he was near death. That made the experience of sharing my feelings all the more heartbreaking, but therapeutic.

I have a conflicting relationship with social media. For the most part, I feel it is the sound of people shouting into the darkness (I understand the irony/hypocrisy of my contributions to the noises within the void). When major events or sensationalist news stories appear, I typically avoid it. I would much rather see pictures of your kids, cats, and personal accomplishments. With Bowie’s passing, I refused to disconnect even for a moment. I wanted to share in the collective mourning and praise of a figure who possessed the power to unify people across generations and cultures. I loved reading people post stories about their discovery of Bowie, favorite albums, the privilege of witnessing him in concert, or touching artistic renderings they found online. I saw so many video clips and heard songs that were new or forgotten to me. It was like discovering Bowie all over again.

I contributed to the praise of Bowie and the first thing I posted was my refusal to accept he had passed away in the traditional sense. Bowie was always seen as an alien; something not completely human but still relatable in an indecipherable way. This image was cultivated over the decades by his unique facial features, iconic voice, complete secrecy of his private life, imagery within his songs, and a little dash of mischief. He lived up to his namesake so well that when I found out he died, I was stunned because I did not think I lived in a world where Bowie could die. I believed Bowie completed his mission on Earth and left us to continue his journey amongst the stars.

In 2008, the New Zealand folk duo Flight of the Conchords released their first studio album. Consisting of original tunes that parodied musical forms and satirized themes within our everyday lives, Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie proved to be quite adept at mastering a variety of styles. One of their signature tracks (which would later become an episode on their HBO show) is “Bowie,” a song about the enigmatic rock star chilling in deep space with Clement and McKenzie in awe. Busy with a schedule of jamming with the Mick Jaggernauts, orbiting Pluto, and being pulled by space’s Groovitational pull, Bowie effortlessly maintains his cool while Clement and McKenzie ask the Starman questions about life in space. Towards the end of the track, the signal starts to haywire a la the scene with Major Tom in “Space Oddity” as Bowie loses the transmission and is lost in space. Wherever he is now, I know it is not boring.

“Bowie” is a great track not only for it’s music video and witty lyrics, but Flight of the Conchords also manage to imitate different eras from Bowie’s discography. Stylistics moments reminiscing “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance,” and other classic Bowie tracks are experienced throughout the track. It is evident that Clement and McKenzie are true fans who excellently paid tribute to such an inspirational artist.

Bowie’s death and the news of his secret cancer diagnosis was shocking. As the world grieved, we still managed to share the love. I’ve been listening to his music all week while at work, home, and running errands. Last night, I even played vinyl copies of Hunky Dory and Let’s Dance at full volume while volunteering at the music school. There have been moments of pure elation, sadness, and introspection. It is all still foggy and confusing and hard to accept. But, there is one thing I do know. Now that Bowie has left us here on this floating ball lost within the vastness of space, I know his departure only signifies he truly belongs to the ages.

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

“blackstar” – david bowie (2015)

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Music is very important to me. Opening doors and teaching me lessons about humanity, music has been a gateway to new ideas and philosophies. It has comforted as well as challenged me. In moments where I can be completely centered, listening to music can be a transcendental experience.

Since I was a teenager, I set out to discover as much music as I could. Growing up on military bases, geographically isolated cities, and a rural farming community, I did not have a place where music was conveniently waiting for me. I had to find it. Through magazines and music shows, I had to read about the greats and the obscure. At the turn of the millennium before the digital revolution and the invention of the pocket oracle, whatever I could not find around me physically I had to bargain with friends to steal from primitive piracy sites. At the time, it was all very laborious. Especially when you consider how easy it is find anything now. Looking back, it all seems so quaint and perhaps a good outlet for my insatiable hunger for information and the arts. Better to be looking for music than looking for trouble.

You never know it at the time, but there are moments in life where you are changed completely. Someone or something is introduced to you and it feels as though you have shed an old skin; reborn naked into a screaming world of sound and vision. The moment I would start taking music seriously as something that can bring out the best (and worst) in one’s self is when I discovered David Bowie at the tender, and impressionable, age of 13.

Before 2000, I knew some music. I listened to pop radio for the ear candy and summer anthems. The late 90s brought the sounds of Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, and one hit wonders like Fastball. Car trips and bus rides to school had these sounds coming over the radio. I know many millennials are nostalgic for 90s music for all their own reasons. The world always looks nicer through rose-colored glasses. While these songs satisfied our infant need for culture, it would soon be time to grow up.

Before the year 1 BB (Before Bowie), I listened to a lot of classic rock and pop bubblegum. I recall my first CD being the first entry of the Jock Jams compilation series and I loved listening to AC/DC and Van Halen on class rock radio. I liked hard-pounding R&B jams you could dance to and playing air guitar to songs like “Running with the Devil.” Music was fun. You didn’t need to think about it. There was no deep meaning. Just three-chord guitar riffs and loud drums.

Bowie was an awakening. Anything I had played in my room or CD Walkman before then didn’t matter anymore. So much so that I never listen to that music anymore. They don’t even carry over as remnants of a lost age or something to be nostalgic over. If anything like Van Halen were to come on the radio now, I would change it. The power of the Thin White Duke was that strong.

Bowie was almost like a secret treasure I wanted to hide. My mother had some albums, but this was before I would grow to appreciate the album as a work of art to be dissected or observe as a singular entity. It was all about the greatest hits compilations for me. I wanted my introduction to Bowie, or any other artist new to me at the time, to be a concise retrospective of their career. The appeal of cherry-picking between periods or styles was refreshing. She burned for me a two-disc compilation of singles that I played and played and played. For a brief period, I almost felt ashamed for enjoying this music. Were kids supposed to like this? I thought. Is this something people listen to? Does anyone know who David Bowie is?

At the time, music listening was a very personal experience. It was all so new and left me feeling very vulnerable to the cruel teasing and judgment of others. Bowie wasn’t on the new music or hip-hop charts; music that the cooler kids in my school were listening to. In the world of middle school cultural politics, you were defined by the culture you consumed. What you listened to had to be surface level and reflective of your own personal choices and style. It was all very superficial.

I loved going for long walks with my bulky CD Walkman. Listening to Bowie and walking down the street through the neighborhoods made me think I was on some great journey somewhere; not only was I progressing and moving forward mentally, but it reflected physically too.

Since Bowie, I have grown to adore certain artists and be a more discerning listener; to think critically about the meaning of the artist and the perceived meaning of the listener. While artists I have discovered since Bowie have resonated with me more, Bowie served as the source. The beginning. The Alpha to whatever will be my Omega should I grow tired of music or die.

With Bowie’s long and storied career, there are so many great tracks to choose from. “Life on Mars” with its beautiful melody was an education in songwriting and imagination. “Heroes” being an introduction to the avant-garde. “Rebel, Rebel” as the sexiest and most erotic thing a 13-year old boy could leave to his imagination.

When I discovered Bowie, Heathen and Reality were on their way but they would be under my radar until years later. Then, Bowie quit music for a decade. This seemed to further elevate him as something of a distant memory; a celestial being that is increasingly distancing himself from humanity. The world thought they had seen the end of a Bowie record until the 2013 release of The Next Day, an introspective and humbling record that still gets heavy rotation from me today.

Today is Bowie’s 69th birthday and also is the release date for his new studio album ★ (or Blackstar). In his most experimental album to date, Bowie brings together a fusion of jazz and alien rhythms that only he could master. I’m eagerly awaiting going to the record shop; a kind of shop that wasn’t available to me until my college days. I rarely buy new albums anymore. But when I do, I make it an event. And very few people are worthy of such things as Bowie.

“total eclipse” – klaus nomi (1981)

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When I started this blog a few months ago, my main focus was to shine a light on songs I felt did not get enough attention. These could be songs that were once popular and have since fell from the public consciousness, or were never commercially successful al all. With each song, my posts tend to gravitate between an analysis of the track itself to feelings from listening to it. Lately, it seems my selections have been lesser known tracks from relatively well-known artists. I don’t think I’ve spent much time discussing obscure artists that have had significant impacts on modern music.

Klaus Nomi, a German born countertenor, was an early discover for me in college. I remember the first time I saw his likeness. He was parodied as one of David Bowie’s bodyguards in the [adult swim] cartoon show The Venture Brothers. I felt the show was extremely layered with offbeat references and I am the type of person who will investigate when I am unfamiliar with a reference. From there, I was an instant fan.

The brief cameo in The Venture Brothers was a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of Bowie’s performances on Saturday Night Live. Bowie performed “The Man Who Sold the World” and “TVC 15” with Nomi serving as one of his backup singers. Standing behind this monolith of popular music was a strange-looking man with striking white makeup and pointy black hair. During that performance, Bowie was sporting an oversized, broad-shouldered vinyl tuxedo that would become part of Nomi’s iconic image. Unfortunately, that performance on Saturday Night Live would be Nomi’s only exposure to a widespread American audience.

For me, Nomi’s signature track is “Total Eclipse.” After witnessing an electric performance on the 1981 post-punk concert film Urgh! A Music War, Nomi was a significant standout performance among an already impressive roster of performers including the Police, the Cramps, Gary Numan, and the Go-Gos. With what sounds like deep synthesized thunder, “Total Eclipse” immediately starts with a fiery intensity. The tracks features a deeply dark melodic synthesizer with a punky rhythm guitar that evokes an impending moody darkness. The pulsating rhythms and driving energy of the musical arrangement evokes a sense of danger as we feel the world turn cold as the sun is being eclipsed.

Though the music is interesting and very danceable, it sounds generic and tame compared to the operatic bravado behind Nomi’s vocals. Nomi’s voice is an instrument in itself and immediately elevates any song from mediocrity to a stunning example of the breadth of post-punk and genre blending. Nomi expresses considerable range in the track. With each verse, his German heritage becomes quite obvious as he casually sings with pep. It sounds quite similar to the vocal phrasing on much of Kraftwerk’s discography. However, it is during the chorus that Nomi perfectly shows off his vocal talent. His voice projects several octaves higher as he belts out that it is a total eclipse that you can’t come to grips with. Even pushing his range further, he closes each chorus with oscillating pitch changes that prove the seemingly easy command he has over his voice. Blending his operatic training with the underground alternative music of the era, Nomi beautifully crafts his own niche in contemporary music. His is a style that is not easily imitated.

Nomi’s career didn’t last long. Only releasing two albums during his lifetime, Nomi was one of the first musicians to die from complications related to AIDs. “Total Eclipse” from his first album was only released two years before his death. Since then, Nomi has become an icon for both his physical and musical styles. Popular musicians such as Morrissey have cited him as inspirations for their careers.

Despite his popularity among post-punk fans and musicians, I feel Nomi will never get his due beyond being known as the odd-looking gentleman standing behind David Bowie. I feel a lot of musicians are afraid to take risks these days, so they don’t bring themselves to the sound. They let the sound define them. Klaus perfectly applied his own unique talents to his music and I respect him for that. He did exactly what he wanted before there was a total eclipse on his life.