From the Stacks

From The Stacks: David Bowie, ‘Portrait Of A Star’

His was a career known for its creativity, but even the great David Bowie had a creative peak.

Some might argue that Bowie’s finest work happened during the years he collaborated with Mick Ronson. Those five albums, beginning with 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World and ending with 1973’s Pin Ups, are undeniable records, and they contain many of Bowie’s most popular songs: “Changes,” “The Jean Genie,” “Starman,” “Five Years.” Come on!

Bowie was huge during that period, a full blown superstar in heavy rotation on the FM dial and a regular in the music magazines, and he was living the weird, drug-addled life that came along with that kind of chart success. You know the stories, and if you don’t look them up. The musician allegedly was so coked out that he couldn’t remember recording 1976’s Station to Station.

Station to Station might be considered a transitional album, bridging that early hits era and what was to come. It doesn’t get much more poppy than “Golden Years,” after all, while “TVC 15” is a post-punk romp that predates punk. But it’s the ten minute title track’s cold menace that points the way to what we now call “the Berlin trilogy.”

Haunting Berlin studios with the creative dream team of Brian Eno (producer) and the rhythm section of Dennis Davis (percussion) and George Murray (bass), Bowie recorded three perfect albums over 2.5 years: Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger.  Along the way Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp, Iggy Pop, Adrian Belew, and many others provided invaluable contributions. Each record left its contribution to the Bowie songbook–“Sound and Vision,” “Heroes,” “Boys Keep Swinging”–but listening to the Berlin albums one clearly hears the artist’s disinterest with commercial viability. The trilogy opens with the instrumental “Speed of Life,” for crying out loud:

Bowie was clearly influenced by place–by Krautrock’s electronic keyboards–during this period, but the career-spanning influence of Scott Walker is also present throughout the three records (though not so much on “Speed of Life”). That vibrato-rich baritone that Bowie settled into–that’s all Scott Walker, as I’m sure the Dame would cop to if he were still alive. Here’s a little taste of Walker doing Jacques Brel’s “My Death,” a song the Bowie also covered:

The Berlin era ends as the ’80s begin. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) is often regarded as Bowie’s return to commercial music, though there’s some pretty dense stuff on that record, too. And then there was his theater work around that time, starring in The Elephant Man on Broadway in ’81 and appearing in a BBC’s version of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal in ’82. It all added up to a perception of Bowie that was unlike that of any other top 40 musician before him: Bowie wasn’t just a rock star–he was an artist.

We throw that word around a lot, but no mainstream musician ever deserved it more than Bowie did at that moment. It was a period in which he never pandered or condescended, and yet he remained rock star popular. That’s a pretty cool trick.

And so I’m guessing that’s why the French arm of RCA decided in 1982 to re-release the Berlin trilogy as a box set entitled “Portrait of a Star,” all laid out in a font reminiscent of the Baal EP that was released right around the same time. In terms of track listing, the only difference for American listeners is that this pressing includes the French language version of “Heroes,” but that’s not the point. Some argue that the mixes on these three albums sound better than the originals (others disagree), but that’s not the point, either.

So what is the point, then? “Portrait of a Star” marks a particular moment in time, perhaps the last one where Bowie was revered (and marketed) for his artistic achievements more so than his commercial success. The use of quotation marks in the title almost seems sarcastic, like a greatest hits package that isn’t, or a bildungsroman for a superstar rather than a serious artist. I don’t know.

But I do know that a German pressing of “Portrait of a Star” was released in 1984, so if you’re a completist you have two versions of this box to track down. Add those to your original pressings and their multiple CD releases and you’ve got a whole lot of Berlin trilogy to track down, so get to it.

You can expect to pay around $50 for either version of “Portrait of a Star.” Happy hunting.

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