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Quentin Tarantino Films Ranked Worst to First


Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 01 seconds

Quentin Tarantino is the most important filmmaker of his generation. That isn’t to say he is the best…just the most important. Tarantino’s distinctive aesthetic, a dialogue and violence driven stew of pop culture, spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, film noir, pulp fiction, and satirical comedy, revolutionized movies.

Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, hit theatres in 1992 at the height of the grunge rock revolution. Popular music was being turned upside down by the gritty, yet stylized, realism of grunge which was eviscerating the manufactured, corporate rock preening of the previous decade. Tarantino’s uber-confident brand of filmmaking was to Hollywood what Nirvana’s music was to the music industry, an artistic nuclear bomb obliterating business as usual.

Reservoir Dogs, like grunge, created a stylized, gritty realism that was fictional but seemed more true, and honest, than the fairy tale bullshit Hollywood and the music industry had been selling Generation X for the entirety of their lives.

If Reservoir Dogs was akin to Nirvana’s cult hit album Bleach, then Tarantino’s second feature, Pulp Fiction, was Nevermind. Pulp Fiction was the ultimate game changer as it was both populist entertainment, yet also an unorthodox arthouse movie, and it became an instant classic, a box office smash and a critical darling. With Pulp Fiction, Tarantino managed to resurrect not only John Travolta’s moribund career, but also give artistic credibility to Bruce Willis of all people, and catapulted both Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman onto the A list.

Like Nirvana, Tarantino spawned a myriad of copycats who watered down his stylistic brand over the years that followed his breakthrough success. Like grunge, Tarantino went into a deep lull after his initial glorious burst of creativity as his follow up to Pulp Fiction, 1997’s Jackie Brown, fizzled both critically and commercially.

A new wave of independent minded auteurs hit the theatres in the mid to late 90’s, directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, and they were quickly putting Tarantino in the critical rear view mirror as the millennium closed. It would be six long years after Jackie Brown before another Tarantino film would hit the theatres, and during this time it certainly had felt like the Tarantino moment had passed.

During post-production there was a steady stream of bad press leaking out about Kill Bill, Tarantino’s Kung Fu movie. When word came out that Tarantino was going to split the film into two features to be released in back to back years (2003-2004), I thought that was a very, very bad sign. If the rumors were to be believed it seemed as though Tarantino’s ego was quickly becoming inversely proportionate to his directing ability. Then Kill Bill Vol. 1 came out…and not only was Tarantino not becoming irrelevant and obsolete…he was proving himself as the master of edgy populist arthouse American cinema. Kill Bill solidified his status of king of cool cinema who ruled over Hollywood, indie-land and the arthouse.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 saved Tarantino and Tarantino-ism, which long outlived its musical counterpart, grunge. For the next 15 years Tarantino has churned out big movies…they weren’t always great…but they were always cinematic events. No one makes movies like Quentin Tarantino, and as the years have passed people have even stopped making the type of movies Tarantino can make…big populist Hollywood movies that aren’t part of a franchise or comic book universe.

Tarantino’s career has not only survived but thrived despite his multitude of naysayers, and nowadays the naysayers include the cultural revolutionaries and revisionist historians of the woke brigade. If you read or listen to pc establishment film critics nowadays you hear them describe Tarantino the man, and his films, as “problematic”. He is accused of all sorts of things…like using too much violence and racially charged language in his films…and of filling his films with violence against women and “sex”. Even though I disagree with these criticisms, I will admit that some of these charges, such as the violence and racial language, can at least be made in good faith, but claims of violence against women and too much sex are absolutely absurd and reveal either a staggering ignorance of Tarantino’s work or a dubious and dishonest assessment of his intentions.

The point of all this is to say that, like him or not, Tarantino has cemented his place in our popular culture and in the history of cinema. To ignore this fact would be to ignore reality. With this in mind, and since Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, opens this weekend, I thought it would be wise to try and put together my rankings of Tarantino films.

Ranking Tarantino films is no easy task as my list is almost always in a state of flux. My top four Tarantino films are always the same, but their order can flip by the second. So this list is just capturing my thinking…and feeling…at this very moment. With that in mind…sit back…be like Fonzie and stay motherfuckin cool…and enjoy the list.

8. DEATH PROOF (2007) - Death Proof is a 2007 “exploitation horror film” starring Kurt Russell that pays homage to 1970’s slasher and muscle car movies. Death Proof is undeniable proof that paying homage to a shitty genre will result in a shitty movie. I have seen this exactly once and have zero interest in seeing it ever again. Death Proof is a bad idea made manifest which not surprisingly is a badly made, bad movie. Death Proof is what happens when you become a super successful director and no one has the balls to tell you no.

7. JACKIE BROWN (1997) - Something funny has happened in recent years where aging hipster douchebags (there is an important distinction to be made at this point…while I am aging, am a hipster, and am widely regarded as a douchebag, I am most definitely not the specific breed of monster known as an “aging hipster douchebag”) have decided that Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation movies, is a great movie. In fact, some have gone so far as to claim that Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s greatest film. Let me be as clear as I can about this…Jackie Brown is an actively awful movie. The script is dreadful, the directing abysmal, the pacing lethargic and the acting comatose.


Jackie Brown was a Tarantino flex where he thought he could pull his Lazarus routine on some more actors just like he did with Travolta on Pulp Fiction. But this was where Tarantino’s ego got kicked in the nuts by cold hard reality. There is a reason Pam Grier and Robert Forster were, at the height of their careers, D-level movie actors…it is because they are not good actors. Building a film around such minimal talents ended with…not surprisingly…a really shitty and entirely forgettable movie. This movie was so highly anticipated and so fucking terrible it almost ended Tarantino’s career.

And if you are an aging, hipster douchebag who thinks this is Tarantino’s greatest film, I’m going to Tony Rocky Horror you’re ass and throw you out a four story window and then I’m gonna get medieval on your ass. Got it?

6. THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) - The Hateful Eight is a pseudo-western thriller that attempts to make grand statements on race in America all while trying to suss out a second rate Agatha Christie type of whodunnit. There are some good things in The Hateful Eight…like Robert Richardson’s stellar cinematography, particularly his glorious opening sequence. But overall…this is a terribly flawed film that suffocates under the weight of its unwieldy and impotent script.

Tarantino succumbs to his lesser instincts and ego in The Hateful Eight when he fatally undermines the archetypal, mythic and narrative structure of the film by making his “hero”, played by Sam Jackson, a male rapist. The film lacks cohesion and tension and devolves into a rather vacuous bloodbath that bores more than it repulses or titillates.

This film is a frustrating cinematic venture, sort of like being marched at gunpoint naked through a blizzard.

5. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) - This is where things start to get interesting on the list as Inglorious Basterds is at once a brilliant and yet also a troublesome film. This movie boasts the single greatest scene of any of Tarantino’s films and among the greatest in film history…the opening sequence where SS Officer Hans Landa question a French farmer, Monsieur LaPadite, in his farmhouse. The film also boasts the masterfully tense and taut “basement bar” scene which is a thing of cinematic beauty. In contrast it also has some awful scenes, like the Mike Myers scene and the climactic orgy of ridiculous Hitler slaughtering violence in the movie theatre.

On the bright side the movie boasts tremendous performances from Christoph Waltz (as the aforementioned Landa), Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt but on the dark side it is saddled with the single worst performance ever in a Tarantino film…the utterly abysmal Eli Roth as The Bear Jew is excruciatingly awful and set the art and craft of acting back centuries.


The thing I disliked the most about Inglorious Basterds though was that it came out during a time when the torture of “enemy combatants” in the war on terror was being debated and it very surreptitiously acted as a piece of vociferous pro-torture propaganda. Anyone who couldn’t see the Manichean philosophical underpinnings of beating captured German soldiers to death with a baseball bat being equivalent to torturing Muslims in Guantanamo Bay or Bagram or Abu Ghraib is being willfully obtuse. And it should be noted here that the German soldiers in the Wermacht getting their skulls bashed in and being scalped by "The Basterds’ were not Nazis party members. Some may see this as a distinction without a difference, and Wermacht complicity and guilt is a contentious historical debate, but considering the context of the torture discussion when the film was released, I find this distinction of note.

Another thing that bothered me about the film was that it was, at its core, nothing but a Jewish revenge fantasy. of course, there is nothing wrong with a Jewish revenge fantasy, in particular a Jewish revenge fantasy against Hitler, who certainly deserves whatever horrors we can imagine for him, but what felt uncomfortable to me was that in Tarantino’s case his revenge fantasy felt manipulative and pandering. Context is important here, as Tarantino is not Jewish, but even though you are not allowed to say it, the majority of Academy members and studio heads are and it felt like Tarantino was trying to make a movie to shamelessly pander to them in order to win an elusive Best Picture and/or best Director Oscar.

Bottomline is this…as great as Inglorious Basterds can be, its failures make it an uneven cinematic experience. Of all my conflicting feelings over this movie, the most overwhelming one is my impulse to bash Eli Roth’s head in with a baseball bat after taunting him with a dreadful Boston accent.

4. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) - Some would argue that Django is, like Inglorious Basterds, just a revenge fantasy, except this time for African Americans against slavery. I think this point is terribly off the mark. Yes, there is a certain level of revenge fueling Django Unchained, but the archetype driving the film is not revenge but love, as Django Unchained is a mythic love story. Django is not fighting for any grandiose principles or objectives like freeing the slaves or to punish slave owners, he is just trying to get back to his wife and save her. In contrast, Inglorious Basterds is NOTHING BUT a revenge fantasy where love is nowhere to be found.

Django Unchained is, like the other films in the top four, a masterpiece in its own right. This movie is a thrilling and exhilarating ride that only suffers from one minor (although it felt major at the time) lull, and that is when Tarantino himself is on-screen as an Australian slave trader. As great a movie as this is, and it is great, Tarantino’s sloppy and narcissistic cameo nearly scuttles the entire enterprise.


That said, the film highlights exquisite and sterling performances from Jamie Foxx (easily the best work of his career), Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. The film was pilloried for its use of violence and exploiting slavery for entertainment, but these criticism hold no water. The violence in the film is cartoonish…except when it involves slaves…then it is handled with brutal realism and gravity. Tarantino’s dance between the polar opposites of his entertaining, over-the-top violence and acknowledgement of the horrors of slavery is actually very well-done and shows a deft directing touch.

if you ask me on another day I may say that Django Unchained is Tarantino’s best film…but today I put it at #4. Even though I have it at #4, make no mistake, it is a first ballot hall of fame movie.

3. RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) - There are times where I have Reservoir Dogs as the top film in this list…and even more times when I have it ranked ahead of Pulp Fiction….but today isn’t one of those days. Like Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs is a first ballot hall of famer.


This movie hit theatres like a hand grenade and launched Tarantino as a serious auteur. This staggeringly confident film is like a neo-noir stage play set in this well-defined but not overly explained universe where thugs, hitmen, cons and shady people all live and work. This world is not real but is so thoroughly put together it feels hyper-real.

The low budget for the film adds to its mystique and highlights Tarantino’s real talent as a writer and director. The rawness of the movie is part of its great appeal.

Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen all give stellar performances and Tarantino’s script is explosively good. His use of music, camera movement, pop culture dialogue and violence make for a combustible and compelling feature film debut for Tarantino.

A truly great movie and an instant classic that launched Tarantino’s journey to the top of Hollywood’s Mount Olympus.

2. PULP FICTION (1994) - Pulp Fiction garnered Tarantino a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and rightfully so. This script crackles with life and is a master class in world and character building. The terrific script is elevated even more by sublime performances from Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvery Keitel, John Travolta, Christopher Walken and even that dullard Bruce Willis.


Tarantino’s ability to mess with narrative structure, to masterfully use music and pop culture as reference points and his exquisite ability to place multi-dimensional characters into a palpably real but entirely manufactured world, is what makes Pulp Fiction the iconic film that it is.

Pulp Fiction reinvented the Hollywood film, and for good or for ill, forever changed the movie industry. It is the type of film that if you stumble across it on cable, you will sit and watch it from any point in the story through to the end.

1. KILL BILL VOL. 1 & 2 (2003-2004) - I realize I am in the minority on this but I think Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 combined is the greatest Tarantino film….it is certainly my favorite.


Some have accused these films of exploiting and encouraging violence against women, this strikes me as a short cut to thinking. Uma Thurman is the lead in the movie, she is an action hero, she is beaten, shot, stabbed, you name it. Just because violence happens to a women doesn’t make it misogynist…and in this case the exact opposite is true. The weak kneed, mealy mouthed woke clowns who claim this film is misogynist should ask themselves…are the Lethal Weapon movies anti-male because Mel Gibson gets the crap kicked out him in every movie? No, of course not. Tarantino empowers his female lead, an astounding Uma Thurman as The Bride/Black Mamba, to be an action hero not despite of her gender…but because of it…and that is not misogyny.

Like Django, Kill Bill is on its surface a revenge story but in its soul is a love story. The love is that of a mother for her daughter. Thurman’s Black Mamba character is unconsciously tracking down her daughter while consciously slaying all who are impediments to her maternal bond.

The brilliance of Kill Bill is in the world and character building. Tarantino’s kung fu world is populated by ninja and samurai assassins with distinct and specific histories and motivations. A rich, textured, vivid and vibrant creation that is Tarantino at his very best.

In conclusion, while there are some misfires, like Death Proof , Jackie Brown and The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has over the span of his career been a must-see filmmaker who has heightened the craft of moviemaking while celebrating the art of cinema.

The bottom line in regards to Tarantino’s best movies is this…you simply can’t go wrong with Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained in any order, as they are among the very best films of the last thirty years and are monuments to Tarantino’s unique vision and singular genius.

The question now becomes…where does Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood rank in Tarantino’s canon? My verdict will be in shortly, but in the mean time why not go re-watch Django unchained, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill or even Inglorious Basterds, as a primer before you see Tarantino’s newest offering. It will get you into the Tarantino spirit and you will not be disappointed.


Are the Grammys Racist?


Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes 58 seconds

The Grammy Awards were this past Sunday night and in their wake there have been charges of racism and misogyny leveled at the awards. The reason for the cry of racism and misogyny is that according to some in the media, Rap music did not win a major award and women were under represented in award wins.

Last year I wrote an article about how declarations of Grammy racism were statistically unfounded, and that piece stands up well against the test of time especially with 4 of 5 nominees for Album of the Year, 5 of 6 nominees for Record of the Year, and 5 out of 5 nominees for Song of the Year being minorities (non-White). 

What is funny in reading that piece now is that last year the racism uproar was over Adele, a White woman, beating out Beyonce, a Black woman, for the Best Album award. The thing that is striking about the competition between those two artists is that…THEY ARE BOTH WOMEN. For those who do not suffer from historical amnesia, myopia or otherwise have the long term memory of a Tsetse fly, this would seem to prove the absurdity of the misogyny charge against the Grammys. Add in the fact that of the last ten Album of the Year awards, five went to men, four went to women and one went to a man and a woman (Robert Plant and Alison Krause). 


The reason the pussy-hat brigade are up in arms this year is because that ginger lightning rod, Ed Sheeran, a male artist for the patriarchy, beat out four female artists for best pop solo performance. From what I have read, the real reason people are upset over Sheeran's victory is not because his work is comparatively sub-standard but rather because of the "message it sends" since at the moment we are in the midst of a cultural female renaissance (#MeToo, #TimesUp). I find this to be a short cut to thinking. Look, God knows I am no Ed Sheeran fan, but on the merits is it totally incomprehensible that his song was a better Pop Solo Performance than the songs from Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Kesha and Lady Gaga? Sheeran is obviously a viable candidate for the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance because he won that exact award in 2016 along with a Song of the Year Grammy. Claiming Sheeran is out of his depth or entirely unworthy compared to his female opponents or only won because of misogyny is a tenuous argument at best and a frivolous one at worst. 

The other big scandal is that people are screaming "racism!" because R&B singer Bruno Mars won Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Album and in so doing beat out two rappers, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. The argument is that the Grammys are racist because they do not appreciate Rap music. 

Here is the thing about the Recording Academy, it is made up of musicians, producers and engineers. You know what musicians respect…musicianship. Musicians spend an inordinate amount of their time growing up sitting alone in their rooms learning their instrument and honing their craft. No matter how talented you are as a musician, you will not achieve greatness without committing a great deal of time and energy to master your instrument (voice included). You know who doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time learning and mastering their instrument…rappers. You know why? Because rappers do not play instruments, they do not sing, and most cannot read music. Could it be that rap does not win big Grammy awards because it is seen as a cheap shortcut to success, as opposed to rock and R&B which require years and years of working to hone ones craft and skill just to be proficient, never mind transcendent?


Rap music is certainly popular (although not as popular as you think - more on that later), but that doesn't make it artistically worthwhile or notable. To put Rap music in context, it is like reality television. Reality television is very popular, for instance the Kardashians are enormously famous across the globe. But that doesn't mean that what they do is a result of skill or craft or is artistically noteworthy. You can turn on your television and see Kim Kardashian and then turn the channel and see Meryl Streep, but that doesn't mean that they are equal or that Kim Kardashian is even an "actress". The same is true of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, they sell a lot of albums but that still does not make them musicians, especially in the eyes of actual musicians. 

This is not to say that rap does not have cultural value or anything like that, it certainly does. What it is to say is that Rap is not deemed award worthy music by musicians because it is devoid of musicianship, and this is why the musicians, producers and engineers in the Recording Academy have been reticent to award Rap their top prizes. The point being that the alleged Grammy snubs of Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar are not about racism, but about musicianship. Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z may be brilliant rappers, but that is entirely irrelevant, for neither of them can read music, play an instrument or sing, the three skills that musicians would respect because they worked so hard at them. 

The other thing that is kind of funny to me is that people were crying racism about the Grammys this year, and yet the guy who won the three big awards (Record, Song and Album of the Year) Bruno Mars, is a Filipino-Puerto Rican. If those awards went to some pasty white guy like Justin Beiber or someone equally awful and White, then the argument for racism would at least be coherent, but they didn't and it isn't. 


In terms of Rap's popularity, there were a lot of headlines this year that Rap music was now the most popular genre of music in America, overtaking rock music for the first time. When you look at the statistics though, they are terribly, and in my opinion, intentionally, misleading. Billboard claims that Hip-Hop accounts for 24.5% of music consumed (measured by a combination of album sales, track equivalent album units and streaming equivalent album units -- including both on-demand audio and video streams) , and Rock for 20.8% of music consumed, which would be big news if true. But it isn't true because the reality is that Hip-Hop has not overtaken Rock in terms of popularity, the actual category that has overtaken Rock is Hip-Hop AND R&B combined. What these statistics are really saying is that when you combine two popular forms of music, Hip-Hop and R&B, they are slightly more popular than Rock music. Since I could not find the statistics for music consumption for Hip-Hop alone without R&B, the next best thing is to look at statistics of "Album Consumption", which shows that Hip-Hop/Rap is second on the overall list at 17.5% and R&B is fourth at 8.7%, with Rock atop the list at 22.2%. This shows that Hip-Hop on its own would be well behind Rock, and frankly, so would R&B.

Backing up this argument of Rock's superior popularity, is that Rock is still the genre with the most record sales (40% of all record sales are Rock), which is a pretty good indicator of its viability as a musical genre. There is also the peculiar statistic that the Grammy awards this year had no Rock acts nominated in any of the Big Four categories (New Artist, Album, Song, Record of the Year) and the television ratings were down a staggering 24%. The Grammy show also had a dearth of rock acts performing, and a plethora of Rap/R&B acts performing, which begs the question, did people not tune in because there was no rock? Or because Rap is atrociously bad in live performance? (That said, I am not arguing that because Rock is "more popular" or sells more albums than Rap or R&B, that it is more culturally relevant, because I do not think that it is, but that is a long discussion for another day.)


It is also important to note, at least in terms of the Grammys and popularity argument, that R&B and Rap/Hip-Hop are two very, very different and distinct forms of music. One, R&B, demands a high level of musicianship, most notably the ability to sing, and the other, Rap/Hip-Hop, requires absolutely no musicianship whatsoever. A brief look at the list of top R&B performers in the last thirty years or so reveals a cornucopia of enormously skilled and talented musicians. Prince and Stevie Wonder are arguably two of the greatest musicians to have ever lived, and Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey two of the greatest singers. By the way, all of these performers are Black and all of them have won Grammys which is further proof against claims of Grammys racism. 

If you want to make the argument that the Grammys suck, are irrelevant or idiotic, you will get no pushback from me. But racist? Were the Grammys racist when they awarded Natalie Cole for the Frankenstein-ian sentimentality of Unforgettable over REM's vastly superior Out of Time? Or when they awarded Whitney Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack over REM's Automatic for the People? No, the Grammys weren't racist in making those decisions, they were just way behind the times. And for those who think Rap is an artistically worthwhile musical genre, don't take the Grammy slights personally because the Recording Academy has throughout its history consistently fucked over artistically superior music of the moment for less challenging and more mainstream fare and race has had nothing to do with it. 


The proof that the Grammys are awful to cutting-edge artists of all colors is pretty easy to see. For instance, in 1993, U2's seminal album, and arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all-time, Achtung Baby, lost out to Eric Clapton's schmaltzy Unplugged album. Another example is that In 1992 when Natalie Cole was beating out REM for Album of the Year, the best, most consequential album of that year and of that generation, Nirvana's Nevermind, WASN'T EVEN NOMINATED. 


In 1997, Celine Dion beat out Smashing Pumpkin's alternative anthem Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for Album of the Year. In 1998, Bob Dylan's Time out of Mind beat out Radiohead's brilliant masterpiece OK Computer. In 2001, Steely Dan's flaccid Two Against Nature beat out Radiohead's Kid A and Beck's Midnite Vultures, two extraordinary pieces of work.

The list goes on, in 2002 the mundane soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou beat U2's redefining renaissance album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. 2003 Norah Jones lush snooze-fest Come Away With Me beat out Springsteen's American epic The Rising. In 2005 Ray Charles nostalgic Genius Loves Company beat out Green Day's instant classic American Idiot. 

Obviously, none of these examples were the result of racism on the part of the Grammys, but were due to the Recording Academy skewing more towards the established acceptable music rather than anything that is pushing boundaries. When you add the Academy's inclination to look backwards with their memberships prejudice toward musicianship, then you get a scenario where Rap/Hip-Hop music is less appreciated than popular music fans may like and racism is not even remotely the reason. 

To me, the real scandal is not Grammy (or Oscar) "racism", it is the neutering of that word through continued overuse. Racism simply no longer has any force as a pejorative, and that is why we have seen recent attempts to up the ante on charges of racism by using the terms White supremacy, White privilege or institutional racism. The word "racism" has become like antibiotics, its overuse has made it less effective which is ultimately dangerous to us all. 

Crying racism over perceived awards slights is absurd and frankly, entirely counter-productive. Is the problem with race in America really the collection of artists in the Recording Academy or in the Motion Picture Academy? In industries where Blacks have thrived well beyond their demographic reality is that really the best place to point the finger of racism?

My advice to those crying racism over the Grammys awarding a Filipino-Puerto Rican singer over Black rappers…stop being emotional and irrational and get serious. Stop making "racism" your instinctual response to any failure on the part of Black people, especially when it comes to something so subjective as musical tastes. You are doing your noble cause no favors by tilting at such ridiculous and easily disprovable windmills. 




David Bowie : Icon, Innovator and Artist for All-Time


(This post is guest written by Sean Kennedy. In keeping with my personal policy of turning to experts in the field when I am less informed than I should be on a certain topic, today we turn to Sean to share his thoughts on rock legend David Bowie. Sean is the person I always turn to first whenever any question on the topic of music comes my way. The only thing larger than Sean's encyclopedic knowledge of music, is his passion for it. Sean has been to more live music shows than all of the other people I know combined. Sean is currently a successful writer but in his previous incarnation was also a musician, songwriter and quite accomplished vocalist in his own right. Sean's opinions and insights into music in general, and rock music in particular, are held by me in the highest regard and I offer them here for you to ponder. DISCLAIMER:  Sean's opinions are his own and may or may not be shared by me, Michael McCaffrey, but I am very proud to share them with you.)

On January 9, 2016 — the day after David Bowie’s 69th birthday — my friend, Michael McCaffrey, emailed me two simple questions: What are your thoughts on David Bowie? Are you a fan?

In retrospect, the timing of his inquiry was quite odd. Bowie would die the very next day, January 10, after an 18-month struggle with cancer (it was liver cancer that ultimately took the famed musician’s life).

The public was unaware that the star had been ill, much less that he was nearing death.

My first thought upon considering my friend’s question was, Which David Bowie? There was more than one. After all, Bowie made a career of changing personas, and sounds. There was, of course, Ziggy Stardust, as well as Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke and other characters as well. It’s hardly a surprise given Bowie’s interest in theater and acting.

Bowie’s music veered from Dylan-esque singer/songwriter, to hippie psychedelia, to prototypical hard rock/metal, to glam rock, to plastic soul (as he called it), to electronica, to dance music, to industrial, and on and on. In fact, it’s fair to say that Bowie was rock’s first alternative rock star; the innovator and purveyor of the “alternative rock" genre. 

As a consequence, Bowie is like ten artists wrapped into one. Which David Bowie are you referring to, I wondered? 

My initial reply was, “He’s one of my favorite artists. I hold him in the highest regard. I have a bunch of his albums. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve appreciated him.”

Then, upon further reflection, I wrote a follow-up: 

“Bowie is the original rock 'n' roll chameleon, continually changing his sound, style and even image through the decades. He never followed trends — he set them. 

"When he had great success with a sound, or album, he’d change it for the next release. It must have driven his record company mad.”

Then, on Monday morning, January 11th, I awoke to a couple of texts from friends informing me that the great David Bowie was dead. It did not compute. He had just released his 27th studio album, and turned 69, the previous Friday — just three days prior. Had there been an accident? Another heart attack (Bowie suffered one onstage in 2004)?  

Bowie kept his illness hidden from all the world, aside from his family and closest confidants. 

The stunning news compelled me to write another reply to my friend, Michael: 

“Your sudden interest could not be more fitting, or well-timed. As I’ve said to you before, the word “genius” is thrown around far too loosely — often to describe people and things that really aren’t genius. Bowie was indeed a genius. He was a true original; a pioneer; a trend setter; an icon; and an inspiration to countless other musicians and artists. 

"I am stunned and saddened to know he is gone. I will miss him. But, as always, the music will live on. 

"HIs goal was to release Black Star on his birthday, and to make it to the finish line. That day was January 8, and two days later he was dead

"Oddly, I was just listening to Hunky Dory and Low last night, perhaps at the time of his death. Weird.  

"His shit is deep, varied and heavy. It is for people with complex minds and complex interests. It is not always easily accessible. It is art. You can appreciate it. You are an artist. 

“Seek, and discover his genius.”

Truth be told, Bowie’s catalogue is so immense, and diverse, that I am still in the process of seeking and discovering it myself. I am an old fan and a new fan, all at once.  

Bowie’s music foretold and influenced punk rock and new wave. He inserted all forms of artistry into Rock ’n’ Roll. By constantly changing both his physical and musical identity, in an almost schizophrenic fashion, Bowie compelled the genre to continue evolving and seeking new identities along with him.  

This is, after all, the man who wore a dress on the cover of his third album, The Man Who Sold the World, in 1970. Popular music had never seen anything like it. He bucked all the norms of the time. Men simply didn’t do such things. To top it off, he had long, flowing, blonde hair and looked positively feminine. This was the advent of Bowie’s gender-bending period, which continued through the early- and mid-seventies. 

He was a man willing to challenge any and all conventions, as so many great artists throughout history have been. 

David Bowie may be the most interesting character in rock history. I find him to be a mesmerizing figure, and millions of fans around the world agree. 

Bowie was iconic because he was so revolutionary and transformative. Quite simply, he was the most compelling figure in 20th Century music, and the most innovative in rock.  

Bowie’s self-titled debut in 1967, when he was just 20, gave no real hint at what was to come… other than the fact that it was odd, experimental and daring — relative to the pop music of the time. It mixed pop, theatrical music and cabaret, along with the psychedelia of the day. A peculiar blend, to be sure. Needless to say, it produced no hits. 

The singer wouldn’t release another album for over two years, but in the meantime he immersed himself in dance classes and the dramatic arts, including mime and avant-garde theater. During this period, Bowie also took an interest in folk music and poetry. Yes, he was the consummate artist; always seeking and exploring.  

The single “Space Oddity” was released on July 11, 1969, just five days prior to the Apollo 11 launch. The song, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, reached the top five in the UK, becoming Bowie’s first hit. 

The ensuing album, which featured “Space Oddity” as a single, was initially titled David Bowie, just like his debut. However, it was eventually renamed Man of Words/Man of Music for its November 1969 US release, and finally Space Oddity when it was re-released in 1972 (yes, three different titles for the same LP). The album, which was not a commercial success upon its release, was a mix of folk music and hippie rock — far from the sounds that Bowie would soon unleash. 

The Man Who Sold the World followed in 1970, and ushered in a heavier sound that wasn’t all that different from what Cream, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were doing at the time. The divergence from the previous album was striking, as was the diversity between all three of Bowie’s releases to this point. Clearly, he was an artist intent on not repeating himself. 

This is the previously mentioned album whose cover featured Bowie wearing a dress and reclining on a chaise lounge. It was the beginning of his androgynous phase, and was certainly meant to shock. It probably worked. Other rock stars weren’t wearing dresses at this time. Did they ever? 

Nirvana famously covered the title track for their MTV Unplugged album, and it may ultimately be the album’s most well-known song as a result. But the album yielded no hits at the time of its release.  

Bowie reverted to more of a pop sound for his next release, 1971’s Hunky Dory, which contained the hit “Changes,” as well as “Life on Mars?” The album is at times kitschy and introspective, but contains cleverly catchy songs, many of which are beautifully wistful. 

When I was in high school, more than a decade after the album’s release, my psychology teacher played “Changes” for us, presenting the song as a tale of teenage angst, loneliness and isolation. We dissected the lyrics, which seemed to describe the universal challenges of young people trying to fit in, and to make sense of themselves in a world of adults who didn’t understand them. I was fascinated and enthralled. 

Hunky Dory sold reasonably well at first, but it wasn’t a major commercial success. That would soon change with the release of his next album. 

Debuting in 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars would alter the course of Bowie’s career, and of rock music itself. The album introduced his first, and perhaps greatest, character. It is a concept album that positions Ziggy as a rock star who acts as an intermediary between humanity and space aliens. Far out stuff. Teenagers ate it up. 

The album is widely hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, and was truly ground breaking. Bowie mixed theater, music and science fiction into an exciting new brew of rock n roll, unlike anything that had come before it. Bowie was intent on setting trends; not following them. 

He was now an international mega star. He had a devoted audience who were willing and open to being challenged by the singer’s exotic imagination and wild creativity. 

Bowie created the Aladdin Sane character for the album of the same name the following year, and it debuted at the top of the UK charts, driven by “Panic In Detroit,” “The Jean Genie” and a raucous cover of the Stones “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” 

To attempt to highlight Bowie’s long and enduring career, much less to attempt to illustrate it, would require a biography, and the limitations of this format (not to mention your patience, perhaps) will not allow for such an examination. So, I will attempt to be relatively brief. 

Surprising everyone, Bowie went on to explore soul music — quite an ambition for a white Brit in the mid-‘70s — on Young Americans (’75) and Station to Station (’76). In fact, he became in 1975 one of the first white artists to appear on Soul Train, performing “Fame” (his first US No. 1 hit) and “Golden Years.”   

Bowie then changed gears once again, recording a trio of very experimental albums with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti in Berlin. Known as the “Berlin Trilogy,” Low (’77), Heroes (’77) and Lodger (’79) saw Bowie continually evolving and challenging himself, not to mention his listeners. The first two albums contain whole sides of music - sans vocals - that sound like they were intended as the score to a sci-fi thriller: spacey, eerie and odd. Once again, Bowie was really far out, way ahead of his audience. 

This was an artist intent on continually taking chances, showing a bold willingness to defy convention, challenging his audience to follow him, and daring radio programmers to play his songs. It must have driven his record company (RCA) mad. They were, after all, in the business of mining hits and making money. But Bowie had uncovered — or created — an audience that would go along on his wildly artistic and creative ride. The fans never seemed to think he’d lost the plot. 

Bowie returned to a slightly more mainstream sound with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980, which spawned the classics “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion.”   

Bowie had studied pantomime as a young man, and this influence/interest showed up when he appeared as Pierrot, the sad clown, in the video for “Ashes to Ashes,” which was at the time the most expensive music video ever made. 

The record company must have been pleased, and the pressure was on for Bowie to continue delivering more radio-friendly material.   

Released in 1983, Let’s Dance became the best-selling album of Bowie’s career, reaching No.1 in both the US and UK, among several other countries. The album, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers (which was a daring choice for an alternative rock star), spawned three huge international hit singles: the title track, “Modern Love” and “China Girl.”

But Bowie had misgivings about the album, and felt he had to pander to a new audience due to its success. 

“It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity,” said Bowie in a 1997 interview. 

He said the album caused him to fall into a creative rut for a few years, and that he was suddenly writing for his audience, rather than himself.

”I remember looking out over these waves of people [who were coming to hear this record played live] and thinking, 'I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?' I suddenly felt very apart from my audience. And it was depressing, because I didn’t know what they wanted."

How many artists would say that upon achieving the greatest commercial success in a career that had already spanned more than a decade-and-a-half?

Bowie wasn’t chasing hits, money or fame for the sake of fame. He was chasing artistic integrity. He was seeking an enduring career that would be respected by his true fans and by fellow artists. He answered only to his muse. 

That’s what kept Bowie such a vital and engaging artist through the 1990s, and into the new millennium. To me, Bowie was just as magnificent on Black Tie White Noise, Earthling, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day, and Blackstar as he had ever been. 

He seemed to have a limitless well of creativity, resulting in soul-stirring music filled with fascinating sounds and compelling lyrics. For some artists, the well eventually runs dry; the muse abandons them. For Bowie, that was never the case. 

He was the consummate artist, first and foremost. Music was just one manifestation of his expression. He didn’t just create music; he created characters for his music, as well as for the stage and screen. Bowie appeared in more than a dozen films, and was equally natural in that medium as on a stage filled with fellow musicians. 

For him, it was all about the art — all forms of it.

Bowie was an art collector, a painter and a visual artist. He loved, and frequented, art galleries. He enjoyed the ballet, theater and all the cultural activities that his adopted home, New York City, had to offer. 

When Bowie met his eventual wife, the model Iman, in 1990, he was living as a tax exile in Switzerland. She was a transplanted New Yorker (by way of Somalia), who persuaded him to relocate to the Big Apple with her. 

The couple married in 1992, and New York became their home from that point forward. Bowie emphatically declared, “I’m a New Yorker!” to SOMA magazine in 2003, more than a decade after his arrival, saying he’d lived there longer than any other city.  

New York clearly suited Bowie. It’s grittiness, complexity, diversity and abundant arts culture were tailor made man for a man of his ilk. 

Bowie was a man who wore many masks, and who used them to express all facets of his complex personality. He was an actor at heart, thrilled to play different roles and different characters. He couldn’t imagine playing Ziggy for more than a couple of years - much less forever - though many of his fans surely wished he did. It was too limiting. He explored the character and moved on. 

That became a recurring theme through the years. 

Bowie saw music as just one of the many art forms he sought to integrate, such as theater, film, dance and fashion. More than once he conceived albums as theatrical productions. 

Diamond Dogs was intended to be musical interpretation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and ended up being a marriage of the former and his own post-apocalyptic theme.

Outside was also a concept album devised as a theatrical piece. It was conceived as a dystopian vision of 1999, a time when the government investigates the phenomenon of Art Crime. Murder and mutilation have become a new underground art craze. It’s the stuff of a David Lynch film. Bowie said the album was thematically related to Diamond Dogs.

“We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really is every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III,” Bowie later said. "The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience.”  

Once again, Bowie felt compelled to move on. Perhaps his lack of patience was an asset. Why retread old ground? 

So many of Bowie’s contemporaries were influenced by old bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, or rock’s early pioneers, such as Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Little Richard and Elvis.

While the young Bowie enjoyed them all, he was eventually captivated by the Velvet Underground. He was taking pages from other, completely different, books. Bowie also loved Andy Warhol and immortalized the famed artist in a song bearing his name on Hunky Dory. 

Early on, Bowie’s abstract interests were evident.   

A 14-year-old Bowie became so infatuated with jazz greats Charles Mingus and John Coltrane that his mother gave him a plastic alto saxophone. It remained Bowie’s primary instrument throughout his long career (he also played the guitar, keyboard, harmonica, stylophone, viola, cello, koto, thumb piano, drums and percussion). Jazz remained a passion and an influence throughout his career; it’s free form structure perfectly suited Bowie’s tastes. He was a lover of the avant-garde and the esoteric. 

That’s what set him apart from his peers in the 1970s, and from the wannabes, followers and adherents he inspired in the 1980s. 

TV executive and author Bill Flanagan, who worked with Bowie on several TV projects, had this to say about the star on CBS News Sunday Morning: 

"Bowie the musician was the most influential figure to appear in rock music after the 1960s. Without Bowie, there would be no Lady Gaga or Nirvana, no U2 or Madonna.

Bowie appeared when the standard for rock & roll credibility was authenticity. Musicians were expected to sing their diaries, to perform in the same jeans they wore off stage.

Bowie did not value authenticity one bit. He knew that as soon as a performer stepped into the spotlight, he was in theatre. Why not use all of the tools and resources theatre offered? 

He denied his songs were about himself. Like an actor, he moved from role to role.” 

I was too young to have seen Bowie in the ‘70s, and for one reason or another never got to see him in the ‘80s either. But at that point, I knew him only for his hits — the songs played on FM radio as I grew up; the ones found on his greatest hits package, Changesbowie. 

The first time I saw Bowie live was on the Outside Tour, in October 1995, at the Forum in LA. It was a fascinating and riveting performance, pairing Bowie — somewhat oddly — with Nine Inch Nails as co-headliners. Bowie said he was well aware that most of NIN’s audience was very young, and that most of them were unfamiliar with his music — especially since he was not playing his hits. He felt challenged to win them over each night. He also admitted that most of his fans didn’t like the pairing of the two bands. 

On the opening day of the tour, September 14, 1995, Bowie asked USA Today, “How do you commit commercial suicide? Well, you do this: play songs from an album that hasn’t been released yet, and complement it with obscure songs from the past that you’ve never done on stage."

That encompasses the daring of Bowie. He was always up for a challenge. 

I saw Bowie once more on his final tour, in support of the album Reality. On April 22, 2004, I sat center-stage, in the third row, at Hollywood’s Greek Theater and had my mind blown. Bowie was the consummate performer: powerful, alluring, charming, sexy, sophisticated, witty and in great voice. The audience was enraptured and couldn’t take their eyes off him; he was a powerful presence. It was a stellar performance, and he made it look effortless. I felt so fortunate to be there. Little did I know, he would never tour again. 

But Bowie remained vital and highly creative right until the very end, releasing (after a ten-year absence) his brilliant The Next Day in 2013, and finally his coda, Blackstar, on his birthday this year. They are not the works of an artistically spent man. They speak to his vitality and artistic vigor. They are the standout works of a highly creative man with lots more to say, and give.

While life is a challenge, so is dying gracefully. Yet, Bowie pulled it off with aplomb, as he had done with every other artistic challenge he confronted during his five-decade career.  

As Tony Visconti, his longtime friend and collaborator, put it, “His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."


In what are perhaps the final photos of Bowie, promotional shots taken for his Website in conjunction with the release of Blackstar, he is seen smiling joyfully, and dressed splendidly in a perfectly tailored grey suit, with a matching fedora. 

As a friend said to me, “He was a model for how to live and experience joy, right until the very end.”

I concur. Bowie’s smiling, cheery and triumphant image reveals a state of grace.

David Bowie didn’t just teach us how to live creatively, fearlessly and honestly. He taught us how to die joyously.

What greater legacy could one have?