Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27: David Bowie, "The Jean Genie"

Artist: David Bowie
Song: "The Jean Genie"
Album: Aladdin Sane
Year: 1973


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In a handful of cases throughout music history, referring to an artist as an "anomaly" or a "genius" or even an "icon" is simply wrong, as it does not fully encompass all that was brought to the table by the artist in question during their career.  In these rare cases, it is often only fitting to describe the artist by their own name and let their name define who they are, and this is certainly the situation when one considers the career and impact of the one and only David Bowie.  From his early years of "art rock" to the man that was Ziggy Stardust to his "plastic soul" sound, there is quite literally no other artist in music history that can compare to David Bowie, and one could easily write pages about any of these particular points in his career.  Having honed his dark, sci-fi style of glam with 1972's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie developed that album's main character even further a year later, and the result was the stunning record, Aladdin Sane.  A play on the term, "a lad insane," the album boasts some of Bowie's most adventurous work, and yet it is also on this album that the influence of the group Bowie was hanging around with at the time can be most clearly heard.  Teeming with an amazing energy and power that was heard in traces on his previous release, there is perhaps no song that better sums up this era of Bowie's career, and also perhaps no better glam-style song in history than his 1973 single, "The Jean Genie."

In many ways, all of Aladdin Sane is a reflection of "where" David Bowie was as a musician following the success of Ziggy Stardust.  During down-time from that supporting tour, he was producing records for many of the artists he was spending time with at New York City's legendary Max's Kansas City.  Bowie's work "behind the glass" can be heard on Lou Reed's Transformer and The Stooges' Raw Power records among many others.  It is his time with these two groups that one can hear quite clearly on "The Jean Genie," as the attitude and sheer power of the song is far greater than even the most "rock-based" number on his previous release.  The moment the song begins, Mick Ronson's guitar screams across the track before dropping into a soulful blues progression behind the thumping bass from Trevor Bolder.  While the strict drum beat from Mick Woodmansey gives "The Jean Genie" its signature stomp, it is very much due to the harmonica playing of Bowie that truly defines the swagger and sound of the song.  While the overall sound clearly displays the influence of those with whom Bowie had been working, it is in the attitude that runs throughout the song and the hand-clapping that defines the bridge where one can easily make the case that "The Jean Genie" is a brilliant, original creation from the mind of Bowie, and there are few songs that better display the true essence of the "glam" style.

Regardless of which stylistic approach he has taken over the decades, the one consistent factor has been the sound, soul, and pure power within the voice of David Bowie.  On "The Jean Genie," the listener is treated to everything that makes his voice so fantastic, from the breathy, seductive verses to the unrestrained attitude found within the bridge and chorus sections. Yet it is also within his vocals on "The Jean Genie" that one can most clearly hear the difference between this album and its predecessor, as their is a change in how he sounds when speaking of this far less sci-fi, more realistic character and story.  Truth be told, the protagonist of "The Jean Genie" is as real a character as one will find anywhere, and though Bowie denies it being about the man specifically, he has been quoted as saying that the song was about "an Iggy (Pop) type character."  Without this knowledge, the songs' meaning can still be easily interpreted, but once one is able to better focus the image of "The Jean Genie," the song takes on an entirely new life.  With his (Iggy Pop's) reputation as one of the wildest and most fierce performers and personalities in music history, lines like, "...he's outrageous, he screams and he bawls...," it is rather difficult to not connect the song and the person.  Furthermore, it is hard to get around the fact that the line "...sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile..." appears to be a direct reference to Pop who has the nickname of "The Rock And Roll Iguana."  Regardless of the truth behind the character, the rhythm and style with which Bowie tells his tale makes "The Jean Genie" one of the most powerful and enthralling songs of his entire career.

By the time "The Jean Genie" was released, David Bowie had already established himself as one of the most talented and unique composers and performers of his generation.  Constantly striving to push the musical envelope in any direction possible, Bowie was able to fuse soul and blues into the glam sound, and "The Jean Genie" can also be seen as one of the fundamental building blocks of the punk movement that would follow.  Though perhaps not as apparent as his more orchestral compositions, "The Jean Genie" boasts some of Bowie's finest musical writing, and it is the small touches, like the tambourine and "rattlesnake sound" that make this song such a stunning musical portrait.  Yet the one consistent attribute that runs throughout the entire song, from the music to the words to the singing is the amazing level of attitude, and somehow it is the "perfect" amount.  While many songs, especially in the glam era went overboard with their attitude to the point it became cliché, on "The Jean Genie," Bowie offers just enough to give the song a strong swagger, yet not too much that it becomes an over-done element.  This balance of style, sound, and spirit is one of the many aspects that has made David Bowie such a revered musician over the decades, and though he has gone through countless musical changes, much of his finest work can be found within the years that he was defining and perfecting the "glam rock" sound.  Reaching his musical high point of this era of his career, all of the pieces come together on David Bowie's attitude-driven, funky and punky counterculture anthem, 1973's "The Jean Genie."

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