The album that changed my life: Reality – David Bowie
It was, first and foremost, my doorway into the Bowie phenomenon and while not reaching the creative heights of some of his most influential sounds and visions, it is a great rock ‘n’ roll record with a pertinent theme
In 2003 I had little conception of who David Bowie was, or the significance that his career and legacy would have on music and British culture – this would only fully dawn on me a little over a decade after the release of Reality. It certainly wasn’t his best piece of work (nor anywhere near his worst) but it was the album that I first recall learning the lyrics to from start to finish with distinctive, anime-inspired artwork further embedding it into my recollections.
There were obviously other albums I knew of, but thankfully they have since faded into the obscurity of no-name indie groups and terrible schoolground chart-toppers – many of these probably too embarrassing to remember and so remain pushed back into the recesses of memory, where they will hopefully remain arrested. Reality was the soundtrack to driving with my dad in the early 2000s, gliding along in his old silver Audi and, ironically, likely asking him to put something else on after its umpteenth run-through. But I’m glad he persisted.
You can quickly run out of adjectives and superlatives when attempting to summarise Bowie’s career, nor can you really say anything that hasn’t been said before: a master, a chameleon, ground-breaking, ever-changing, ever-influential. His influence should certainly never be underestimated, or his peculiarity questioned, despite delivering his fair share of clangers within an expansive soundscape, even by his own admission. His death in 2014, however, really did rock the nation and the subsequent outpouring of affection was remarkable, to the point that murals of his likeness are now protected shrines and statues designed to imitate this monolith of culture continue to be pulled up – perhaps, dare I say, he was this generation’s Elvis.
I clearly remember the dreariness of ‘Looking for Water’ on Reality, touting such moribund lines as “I lost God in a New York minute”, which only made their references known when I began to appreciate the potential of lyrics to mix solid events with artistic ambiguity. Bowie’s career was similarly as contradictory, indefinable, and euphemistic as his words and fundamental to his records was the space to interpret their inevitable vagaries, even though Reality is arguably the most forward-speaking album in his discography. It’s a comment on the uncertainty of truths in a post-modern world, while at the same time, and even more pressing in my interpretation, it is also the words of a post-middle-age bloke who continued to wrestle with that familiar and ever-looming spectre of finality, the phantom who classically wields a scythe that pricks our conscience with increasing tenacity as we get older.
Even ‘Never Get Old’s’ defiance is flecked with awareness that there will never be enough time (a song that would sadly foreshadow the on-stage heart attack that would compel Bowie to take up a life of relative anonymity up until his death). The debut of 90s track ‘Bring Me The Disco King’ only underlined the ultimate certainty of ends to all things, and compliments Jacques Brel’s oft-covered ‘My Death’ by Bowie, or the poetic brilliance of ‘Time’ from earlier years. Despite such long-running feuds with the insouciant persona of time and the room beyond the door, Bowie was also relishing life and wrestling with those muses with more vivacity than ever before in 2003.
This, for me, was Bowie at his coolest, and by the testimony of his long-running band members, saw him at his most content, most controlled, but no less contemplative or searching. His live shows from 2003 were as lively and celebratory as they were sombre, and reflective: this was an artist whose range refused to contract, and whose hair refused to conform to middle-aged mediocrity. Similarly, Reality delivered an uplifting sound, this time more rock ‘n’ roll than usually expressed, but still remained tinged with tragedy. ‘She’ll Drive the Big Car’ seems like a self-referential nod to ‘Life on Mars’, and even to the big red car’s final flash of colour before the eviscerating blast of the apocalypse in ‘Schute’s On the Beach’. This is countered by the thunderous sounds of tragic youth in the album’s title track, and the funky, comical tones of ‘Pablo Picasso’ – an exquisite cover of The Modern Lovers’ original tune.
Perhaps what unifies this record the most is the excellence of the band Bowie had assembled. This was a long-running unit comprised of Mike Garson, whose avant-garde jazz had defined Bowie’s career for decades, the cool-bass of the multi-talented Gail Anne-Dorsey, the edgy, masterful wielding of guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard and the ceaseless brilliance of Sterling Campbell on drums. I unfortunately never had the opportunity to witness these modern masters as a collective live, though I have caught Mike Garson’s excellent ensemble that is currently touring the Bowie discography around the world in ode to the central figure that brought them all together.
So, while this album may not be a fan favourite for most, nor was it a record that I personally grasped hold of with genuine enthusiasm on first-listen, it has since cemented its own importance for several reasons. It was, first and foremost, my doorway into the Bowie phenomenon and while not reaching the creative heights of some of his most influential sounds and visions, it is a great rock ‘n’ roll record with a pertinent theme. It is also a record that I’ll long associate with my old man, and will most likely be a soundtrack to which I will repeatedly refer when he moves over and, as the oft-quoted, fleeting nature of time inevitably wraps itself tighter around my own life with ensuing years, I believe Bowie’s work will only make its relevance more apparent; just don’t let me know when you’re opening that door.
Image credit: Adam Bielawski