You may remember in those 1983/4 days, when large sectors of the population were proclaiming that they'd been faithful Bowiephiles since forever (and not just hopping aboard the Let's Dance juggernaut, oh no), I claimed that Baal was his best recent work. I was — in case it wasn't already clear — striking a deliberately contrarian pose.
[Aside: with hindsight the Let's-Dance-era Bowie seems culturally Thatcherite, don't you think?]
At the time, Baal was the only post-seventies Bowie release I had. And it remains so to this day. So from this strong foundation in ignorance, I'd like to suggest that maybe, coincidentally, I was right. His voice is really strong and full of character; the arrangements are timeless. You can keep your Modern Love.
But I don't really want to talk about Bowie, let alone get into an argument about him. I want to tell you about a performance of Remembering Marie A that ranks as just about the most sublime musical experience of the last five years. It was by The Tiger Lillies at the Brecht tribute revue evening that Patti Smith curated as part of her 2005 Meltdown.
A great evening all round, including performances by David Thomas, Marc Almond, Fiona Shaw, Dresden Dolls, Antony, Martha Wainwright and Patti herself. The Tiger Lillies played three songs, and I think Remembering Marie A was the last of them. They took it more slowly than Bowie does (either on record or in the clip above), making every phrase count. Suddenly there was that moment when three thousand people are holding their breath and they become aware that everyone else is holding their breath too. Concentrated, rapt attention focusing forward on three figures picked out by strong lights. Eyes suspend their usual saccadic restlessness, so the scene on your retina first goes 2D, and then almost abstract. Time slows, breath still held, eyes now moist. How fitting that Brecht's lyric should describe an incidental image burnt into memory, "the cloud that floated in the sky / I know that still and shall forever know it… that cloud had only bloomed for minutes / I looked up; it vanished on the air."
As it finished there was a pause before a woman strong enough to find her tongue sought, bravely but inadequately, to express what we'd all felt, "Beautiful!" The Tiger Lillies' website said at the time, "These 3 [Brecht] songs hopefully will appear on our next album." Their Live in Soho album subsequently two of the three, but not Marie. Just as well: I bet it proved impossible to capture that moment again.
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