Saturday, November 9, 2013

Stage Names: David Bowie


I am pleasantly surprised that, on this, the last day of our Stage Names theme, no one has tackled David Bowie. Bowie, in my mind, qualifies twice. Born David Jones in 1947, Bowie took his stage name to avoid being confused with Davey Jones of the Monkees. And, in the course of his career, Bowie has taken on the identities of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and others. The first of these stage identities was Major Tom. Major Tom is an astronaut who begins by relishing the fame that space travel brings him. I grew up in the 1960s, and I can assure you that the Apollo astronauts did indeed receive rockstar-like adulation in their day that is hard to imagine today. But Tom also finds his experience isolating, and the alternate reality of his unearthly environment soon consumes him. He sings, “Here am I sitting in my tin can…” and it goes from there. David Bowie was a struggling unknown when he recorded the song, but his career mirrors it in eerie ways. Bowie would soon be rocketed into this same kind of fame, and he would eventually be consumed by it, and retreat into the oblivion of a serious cocaine habit.

Luckily, that is not the end of the story. Bowie was able to overcome his drug habit. He continued his musical pursuits with some wild experiments that, for a time, resulted in a string of unpopular albums. That may have been bad news for his fans, but it probably gave Bowie some distance from his fame that aided his recovery. By 1980, Bowie was able to revisit the character of Major Tom in the song Ashes to Ashes, and view matters in a way that was both rueful and a mature reconsideration of his career and life to that point. Since then, Bowie has continued to be a restless musical chameleon. Collaborators have included a list of people who little else in common: Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic, Brian Eno, Bing Crosby, Freddie Mercury, and Iggy Pop, just to name a few. Albums have become less frequent of late, and there may never be another full-length tour. But David Bowie has endured far longer than Davey Jones of the Monkees, and whatever Bowie does next is sure to be worth paying attention to.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Stage Names: Blind Boy Grunt

Blind Boy Grunt: John Brown

Robert Zimmerman, better known these days as Bob Dylan, signed to Columbia Records in October, 1961. His first album sold about 5,000 copies the first year. But soon, he would become a pretty big star.

At the time, the folk music revival centered around Greenwich Village was taking off, and in 1962, Broadside, a mimeographed (!) magazine started publication. It became a hugely influential forum for folk music, including music and lyrics, as well as articles and reviews. It fostered the kind of musical debate about authenticity and the definitions and purpose of folk music that, while easily parodied, also did an enormous amount to define the sound of the era.

Broadside also sponsored recording sessions, and in late 1962-1963, Dylan recorded five songs, three of which, "John Brown," "Only a Hobo," and "Talking Devil," were released by Broadside using the stage name, “Blind Boy Grunt” (the other two were released years later). Whether Dylan did so because of his contract with Columbia or just as a goof is not clear and there is no evidence that anyone from the record company ever took any offense. And it is further obvious that Broadside did nothing to hide the fact that it was Dylan who appeared on the record. Here is a link to the issue of the magazine from March, 1963. You can see on page 3 that the lyrics to “John Brown” are credited to Dylan (as are the lyrics for “Only a Hobo” that follow). And on the last page is an ad for the album that the songs appear on, Broadside Ballads Vol. 1—with Dylan’s name prominently listed as a contributor.

Dylan’s choice of the name “Blind Boy Grunt” was likely a nod toward the blues music that he loved, and maybe was a poke at young white men who had become enamored of the blues. Interestingly, Dylan used other stage names during this era that seem to be the kind of names you would create if you were pretending to be a blues man. On a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott album, his harmonica part was credited to “Tedham Porterhouse” and his piano and vocal contributions to a Steve Goodman project were credited to “Robert Milkwood Thomas.” (OK, he also was “Bob Landy” as a piano player on the 1964 Elektra Records anthology album, The Blues Project.)

“John Brown” is a strong anti-war song, but not one that was written about the Vietnam War that would later consume the folk and rock world, and lead to some of the greatest protest songs ever. The Tonkin Gulf resolution had not yet passed, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam was at a pretty low level. Instead, the song is a more general broadside, if you will, against war. To further emphasize the meaning of the song, after publishing the lyrics, the Broadside editors included a page from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one of the great anti-war novels of all time, describing the death of a character during World War II.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stage Names : Engelbert Humperdinck

   In the mid 60's his friends convinced Arnold George "Gerry" Dorsey to change his name to Engelbert Humperdinck, after the German opera composer from the previous century, because it sounded more interesting. 

    That's the true story... but I prefer Eddie Izzard's version.