David Bowie is the Peter Sellers of rock 'n' roll: He's all blank slate, the chameleon who adapts to his surroundings without actually adopting an identity. He commits only to schlock, tailoring the disguise -- mod rocker, dickless spaceman, fashion faux pas -- to fit the delivery, which is somewhere between smirk and sneer (the hybrid of which is called "smarm"). He insists now that the 1970s were a put-on, a sick and silly joke taken too seriously, but how else to explain away the orange mullet and nonsense concept albums about Martians picking up instruments to save the Earth from imminent destruction? You never get the feeling this guy particularly believes in what he's doing, just that he's doing it right now and that tomorrow might find him fronting a polka band if that's what the kids are into. Ten steps ahead back in the day, he's now three behind: He looks like the hippest dad in the car-pool lane, and the torpid lounge version of "Let's Dance," the final track on the alleged bonus disc of this triple-disc live vestige, is the sound of a desperate, doddering last gasp. But Bowie doesn't evolve; mannequins have no such capacity. Rather, he puts his finger on the pulse and then speeds up or slows down the drum machine to keep time. That's why the music always seems so cold and distancing: It's prefabricated and calculated, the sounds of a distant present made by a man racing to keep up with someone else's tomorrow.
Thank God, then, his "latest" is a look back at his own yesterday, that period when the earthbound folkie discovered rock guitar, hair dye and fellatio and made fey fashionable for a brief, brilliant moment -- or until he released Pin Ups. Once more, a label digs into the vaults and renders the bootleggers moot, especially since this boxed set's first four tracks, from May 1968, have never even appeared on the black market, because they come from the personal collection of Bowie himself. Turns out everything old is Newley again: "In the Heat of the Morning," "London Bye Ta-Ta," "Karma Man" and "Silly Boy Blue" -- all from the Top Gear show on the BBC, all performed with the Tony Visconti Orchestra -- sound like outtakes from the world's most daft off-off-off-Broadway show about London in the Swingin' Sixties. (How about: Stop the Record, I Want to Get Off?) Bearing loads of strings (the better to hang yourself with) and lyrics about being "cloaked and clothed in saffron robes," it's all so unbearably . . . groovy.
Proceedings continue with the previously unreleased "Let Me Sleep Beside You" (unrecorded, because as Bowie explains to DJ David Lee Travis, his mother thought the lyrics were too "dirty"). It's one of those prerequisite soaring-boring psychedelic folk-rock songs from 1968 with lyrics about letting your hair hang down/child, you're a woman now/doo-doodle-dum-dumb. Like most of the tracks on disc one, it's a vestigial oddity to be coveted by the fanatics (i.e., those lunatics who write this paper insisting "hours . . ." and Black Tie White Noise and all that Tin Machine rubbish are worth owning) and disregarded by those who booed and bored Bowie offstage when he opened for Nine Inch Nails back when. But even the freaks won't be able to tolerate "Port of Amsterdam," a Jacques Brel ditty better suited for open-mike nights. I don't begrudge the man his pretensions -- shit, that's all he's got -- only his taste.
After slogging through a good hunk of Space Oddity ("The Width of the Circle," "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud," etc.) performed at a stoner's pace (listen long enough to lyrics about how "the hangman plays the mandolin before he goes to sleep," and you'll get the munchies or just nod out), the final handful of tracks on disc one save the day. Recorded on June 5, 1971, and featuring what DJ John Peel refers to as "an astonishing number of friends" (including Mick Ronson on lead guitar), the final five tracks offer a fascinating view of an alternate history: Bowie as roots-rocker, Bowie as regular guy, Bowie with a pulse. "Looking for a Friend" sounds like the Band covering the Stones, swinging and bouncing until it nearly explodes; after that, the boys gallop through Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown" like some bar band ignoring last call. For once, here's a boxed set that offers revelation instead of warmed-over coffin fodder. The moment passes quickly -- soon enough, the band launches into "Kooks," a touching song for son Zowie that would end up on Hunky Dory -- but it's a long-lost moment of history that sounds brand-new, that allows us to see the man beneath the spangles and makeup long enough to wonder: What if?
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The second disc covers familiar ground: Dating from September 1971 to May 1972, it's the best of The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust ("Suffragette City," "Ziggy Stardust," "Moonage Daydream," "Rock and Roll Suicide" and so forth) and Hunky Dory ("Changes," "Andy Warhol," "Queen Bitch," "Eight Line Poem," blah, blah, blah), mixed in with Bowie's love letters to Lou Reed ("Waiting for the Man" and "White Light/White Heat"). The live setting, even in the controlled sterility of a BBC recording studio, amps up the performances just a notch: "Hang On to Yourself" (included twice), with its '50s riffs and Fun House swagger, proves once and for all Mick Ronson was glam's most valuable player (Bowie was just its switch-hitter). It's a worthy addition to the canon, even if the echoes do get in the way. But Virgin can keep the third disc, recorded on June 27, 2000, which won't be available for long: Bowie's never made for good in-concert albums, and this stumble through past ("Ashes to Ashes" indeed) and present ("I'm Afraid of Americans," and the feeling's mutual) doesn't do anyone any good. By the time you get to the dance-floor "Fame," you might forget why you bought this thing in the first damned place.