1978. Bob Dylan was on a stage in San Diego, playing the songs that changed a nation and made him famous, but feeling directionless on this night, a feeling that had been creeping in for the past few weeks. Dylan hadn’t been able to pinpoint what it was, or what he needed to fix it. And then someone threw a cross onto the stage. Bob picked it up and pocketed it, but didn’t put too much thought into it until later that night. As legend has it, that was the night that led Dylan to the path of being Born Again, and artistically, to what would be known as his gospel trilogy, the albums Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love.
Across the globe, David Bowie was in the middle of his own existential transition. Having left familiar grounds for Germany, the Starman was in the middle of an escape in several forms. He had put his latest alter-ego, The Thin White Duke, to rest and relocated to a place that would mirror his new fascination with robotic sounds, cold synthesisers, and the avant-garde. Though the move was also to kick a cocaine habit, it too was the storied period of his time with Iggy Pop. The two, along with cohorts Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, set off to get clean and create something new. And by proximity, nu.
It was the end of the ‘70s when things were getting rusty and starting to fall apart all over the country, and both were, in different ways, on spiritual excursions. Though try as I might, there is no direct parallel with the two. I mean to say that, to my knowledge, there’s no recorded conversation between Dylan and Bowie from this time, no late night note exchange on these new paths, just two artists pulling an about-face on what we knew of them before, for better or worse, with or without you. At the time, a lot of fans on both sides chose the “without you” box. These albums were mostly critical failures, appealing only to the hardcore of fans. But for the artists, it was as creatively rich as anything they had done before, and gave both a clear new path to progress.
In the middle of their journeys, I was born. 1981. I am fairly confident that it had no impact on either of them, so I’ll fast forward to this past Christmas when I dove into the most recent box sets from both, which in a fun bit of coincidence, cover this time period. It was interesting to hear the drastic turns from two of my favorite artists, happening at the same time in history, with periods of their career that I had paid less attention to. I knew some of the singles, had passively heard the records, but never devoted the time. Which is a shame, of course. Like so many panned LPs before them, several of these records have become their own classics over the decades. Bowie’s “Heroes” comes from this time, arguably his most popular single these days. Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Pressing On” are now considered in the greatest hits cannon. It’s also important to note that afterward, neither ever really gave in to pressures. Even at the persistent begging from fans, neither ended their trilogies by going back to their earlier sounds. Bowie embraced the pop of the ‘80s with Let’s Dance and Dylan found his own version of “slick” with Infidels. Another path, another new direction.
Everything is always easier to see in hindsight, but it makes me curious about what I might be missing now, something potentially right in front of me, hidden by the weeds. It’s also interesting to put a magnifying glass on a pair of musicians who have made careers out of left turns, each met with their own resistance, and each time proven right. Granted, there are moments in both careers that I still ignore — I still skip over their early 90s outputs — but it won’t surprise me if one day I change my mind on those as well. And it’s fine if I don’t. Sometimes you’ve gotta be creative for yourself without regard to how it’ll be perceived. It’s a life line. And maybe it’s always just for you. Maybe it’s the means to find a new path, a correction, a redirection. And maybe it’ll become a buried treasure for someone else, a soundtrack for a few cold winter days.