TRANSFORMER(S) 

A new music/DVD release does something like this on an epic pop culture scale. Best of Bowie (EMI) is a two-disc collection of David Bowie videos put out to accompany the new CD comp of the same name. While there is no evident need for another greatest hits CD from the one-time Thin White Duke, the DVD is a different story: Packaging most (all?) of the singer's videos with some pre-video-age TV appearances, it gives fans a chance to watch the famously mutable performer evolve before our eyes.

One of Bowie's songs here is "Time Will Crawl," and compared to the artist's quick-change persona, it does: In the space of 10 years, he invented and discarded more personalities than Sybil ever had. Some of them run smack up against each other - check out the gay glam pirate look he sports in 1974's performance of the classic "Rebel Rebel," and try to reconcile it with the slicked-back, plastic-souled Dave of "Young Americans," shown on the Dick Cavett show, also in '74. The sound is as changed as the vision, but the transformation is just starting. By the late '70s, he'll be crafting icy pop beauties with Brian Eno, while the music video revolution begins in earnest. A lot of these clips are terribly dated now - in fact, you're watching the MTV aesthetic be born and learn to walk as much as you're watching Ziggy Stardust grow up - but there are a handful of videos here that unite song and images beautifully. On the second disc, the songwriter gets less interesting as the mini-films become more sophisticated. Such directors as Gus Van Sant, Julian Temple, and One Hour Photo's Mark Romanek come on board, ensuring that even a lame Bowie tune is fun to watch.

Back when many would sooner use the adjective "freakish" than "fun" to describe Bowie (1972, when he was just starting to work his androgyny in the press), the young star got a chance to play with one of his heroes, the former leader of the Velvet Underground. The second Lou Reed solo record (but the first to get noticed much), Transformer (BMG Heritage), has just been reissued, and it's an inspired collaboration: Reed had been romanticizing the junkies and transvestites of the New York underground since before he lived there, but the morphine drone of the Velvets never caught on with the public. Now, with Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson at the helm, he had a gritty rock sound to balance musical excursions like the strings-and-piano "Perfect Day." Reed's personal life may have already been swinging back toward the semi-conventional, but his bisexual Frankenstein image helped sell a record with songs - "Walk on the Wild Side," "Satellite of Love," "Perfect Day" - that only needed to get their feet in the door to win fans over.

 
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Another performer whose personal life (which involved addictions to harmful substances such as heroin and Mick Jagger) has been unavoidably braided up with her public one, Marianne Faithfull recently released Kissin Time, a disc of electro collaborations with Beck, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, Blur, and others. It took a while for me to come around to the record, to see the fuzz and blip-bleeps as anything other than a distracting new coat of paint over a songwriter who, in my book, was more suited to her earlier collaboration with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti. But the songs being gussied up here are strong ones, full of ambivalent confessions and, on "Song for Nico," empathy for contemporaries who didn't survive long enough to become "lived through it all" royalty. The most confrontational song here is "Sliding Through Life on Charm," a portrait of the artist as a used-up curiosity. In it, she gets in a few bits of defiance ("I am a muse, not a mistress, not a whore"), but even those are too modest, relying on her undeniable influence over male performers; if Faithfull had really only been interesting as "a nun on drugs," we would long ago have moved on to newer, more depraved models. The truth is, she's written more compelling songs in the last 25 years than most of the men who overshadowed her in the '60s. And now, even bona fide stars like Beck can't be much more than sidemen on a Faithfull record.


More by John DeFore

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