Changesbowie

British pop singer David Bowie in concert at Earl's Court, London during his 1978 world tour. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

David Bowie 1947 – 2016

David Bowie was never much of a singer, at least not in the conventional sense. His shaky timbre, as ripe for parody as Bob Dylan’s nasally whine – whom he imitated as a fledgling folky – nevertheless stood out in the crowded musical marketplace of the late sixties.

Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and a Stylophone, Bowie’s first taste of success came via an eerie song about an astronaut left alone to die in space. “Space Oddity,” released in July 1969 to coincide with the moon landing, propelled him into the charts – his first conceptual coup. His Dylanesque second album otherwise failed to launch.

Ironically, it was only after he dropped his folky pretensions that Bowie proved himself a worthy successor to Dylan. As if to illustrate the point, in 1971 Bowie penned “Song for Bob Dylan,” an affectionate parody/homage that waved goodbye to his hero whilst saying hello. The song knowingly parallels Dylan’s own career trajectory from folk singer to rock pioneer; in another parallel, Bowie describes Dylan’s voice as sounding “like sand and glue.”

If Dylan proved that a conventionally ugly voice need not be an obstacle to artistic achievement, Bowie made ugly seem beautiful. Not to overstate Dylan’s influence, but more than bad vocals or genius song writing chops, it was their shared gift for the conceptual (and, in Bowie’s case, a flair for the theatrical) that made them the most compelling figures in rock.

Dylan shifted gears so often that it was hard to keep up – a trick of the trade designed to put the artist one step ahead of the audience at all times. Bowie was cannier in how he conceived his celebrity, with a nod to Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable forging an irresistible marriage of sound and vision that captivated fans throughout the seventies and early eighties.

During this time, Bowie’s public persona went through more incarnations than Vishnu. For the generation who grew up with him during his Ziggy Stardust phase, he was God (roll over, Eric Clapton) – especially in the UK, where by most accounts Bowie’s androgynous alien was the most exciting thing ever to hit the top ten. His presence was so widely felt that even the nihilistic Sex Pistols cited him as an influence (after nicking his equipment, of course).

In 1972, Bowie took Ziggy to America, where between tours he produced ex-Velvet Lou Reed on Transformer, giving Reed’s then-flailing career a much-needed kick in the pants; that same year he produced Iggy and the Stooges on their proto-punk classic Raw Power. In the spirit of the thing, he did a pretty lousy job (Iggy Pop remixed the album in 1997, which some critics saw as a betrayal of the punk aesthetic). Rounding off the most prolific period of his musical career, Bowie even gave away one of his best songs, “All the Young Dudes,” to Mott the Hoople.

Turning his back on New York’s burgeoning glam rock scene, Bowie set his sights on black America. Eschewing “authenticity” by playing up the artifice of his latest stylistic fling, he sought to reclaim the term “plastic soul”¹ (which describes the appropriation of black music by white Englishmen). Young Americans was, in his own words, “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.” In another ironic twist, the James Brown-influenced riff to “Fame” was later recycled by the Godfather of Soul himself.

Bowie’s relationship to black music only improved, peaking in 1976 with Station to Station, a truly unique blend of American and European sensibilities that perhaps only a white limey could have made. To dramatic effect, Bowie adopted a new persona named “The Thin White Duke,” whom he portrayed in interviews as a stylishly dressed, drug-impaired, Aryan fascist. It remains unclear how much of his own personality Bowie invested in the character.

After a string of successful albums in the late seventies, including the attractively melancholic Low with fellow genius Brian Eno, Bowie stopped making music. Two promising collaborations – a memorable duet with Queen in 1981 and a dance album with Chic’s Nile Rodgers in 1983 – were tantalising glimpses of an artist in decline. Just about every new album since was hyped as a “comeback” on release. Sadly, none of them lived up to the hype.

But the “master of reinvention” had one more trick up his sleeve. Last week, Bowie dropped his first album of new songs in 13 years. With its cryptic, foreboding lyrics (“Look up here, I’m in heaven”) and seemingly half-baked concept, Blackstar mystified some critics. Bowie brought the concept full circle two days later, when he quietly and unexpectedly shuffled off this mortal coil. 

According to a statement by producer Tony Visconti, Bowie intended the album as a parting gift to fans, timing its release to coincide with his own death. Visconti’s farewell serves as the perfect epitaph to the chameleonic rock god whose every public gesture was a carefully crafted performance: “His death was no different from his life – a work of Art.” Makes you wonder what he’s going to do for an encore.

¹The term is thought to have been coined by a black musician to describe the way Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones co-opted the African-American musical tradition. (Lauren Smith, 2011)

The Gospel Truth

Belfast pastor James McConnell who went on trial for preaching “grossly offensive” sermon acquitted of all charges

McConnell stood accused of “improper use of public electronic communications network” – meaning the Internet – to broadcast an allegedly “grossly offensive” sermon in May 2014, in which the pastor described Islam as “satanic.”

In his verdict yesterday, District Judge Liam McNally said that it was not the job of the court to censor offensive speech. 

“It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances. Accordingly, I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges.”

Erring on the side of free speech, Judge McNally is clear: McConnell should never have been prosecuted for stating an opinion, regardless of whether or not it caused offence. 

Since June 2015, when it was announced that McConnell would be charged with a crime, the possibility that Judge McNally would deliver a guilty verdict has been cause for concern, one shared by freethinking theists and nontheists alike.

In an interview with the man himself, McConnell framed the charges levelled against him as both a matter of religious principle and as a matter of free speech.

“I’m not taking it lying down. I am not going to be gagged. The police tried to shut me up and tell me what to preach. It’s ridiculous. I believe in freedom of speech. I’m going to keep on preaching the gospel.”

Not one to climb down from his convictions, McConnell declined an “informed warning” that would have avoided a prosecution. Faced with the inevitable, he rose to the occasion, with good humour and generosity of spirit demonstrating exactly what kind of man he is. 

A devout Christian who is not so blinded by his beliefs that he would deny others the right to express an opposing belief. A strident free speech advocate who for all his religious fervour turns out to be more enlightened in his views than Northern Ireland’s supposedly enlightened liberal left, whose “progressive pieties” –  in the words of Suzanne Breen – don’t extend to defending an evangelical preacher with unfashionable opinions.

In a trial rife with unintended ironies, none garnered more attention than the appointment of Belfast Islamic Centre spokesman Dr Raied Al-Wazzan as chief witness for the prosecution. In January last year, Dr Al-Wazzan found himself in hot water when he said Islamic State, the terrorist group that has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, had been a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq. 

As he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme:

“Since the Islamic State took over, it has become the most peaceful city in the world. Yes there are other things going wrong there…they are murdering people, I agree, but you can go from east to west of the city without fear. My family is living there at the moment and that’s what they are telling me.”

To recap: the person leading the charge against a Christian pastor for speaking ill of the Islamic faith believes Islamic State is creating a modern utopia. If you weren’t offended already, this is your opportunity to take offence.

The trial took place over three days in December. Perhaps befitting a legal landmark, the scene outside Belfast magistrates’ court on day one was something of a media circus.

Arriving at court, McConnell was met by TV crews and politicians. A mixed crowd of supporters consisting of atheists and born again Christians held up placards bearing the messages “civil and religious liberty for all” and “protect our free speech.” 

Inside the courthouse, more than 100 people packed the public gallery. During a playback of the “grossly offensive” sermon, which included a number of gospel songs, supporters swayed in their seats, clapped their hands and tapped their feet.

On the final day, Judge McNally decided to reserve judgment until January. Lest there’s any suspicion he arrived at this decision to save ruining Christmas for the defendant, McConnell was acquitted of all charges when he returned to court on January 5.

Speaking after the ruling, McConnell said he was “happy that there is liberty to preach the Gospel,” before adding that his only regret was the response from the Muslim community, that he “was out to hurt them.”

I’ll sign-off by permitting what the censors of the world would deny and let McConnell say his piece without interruption.

“There was no way I was out to hurt them – I wouldn’t hurt a hair on their head. But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in. If there are Muslims out there, I want to assure them I love them and, if they need help, I am there to help them, but their theology and their beliefs, I am totally against them.

I would do it again but I would word it differently because I would be conscious I was hurting innocent Muslims, I would be conscious I was hurting Muslims who have come here to work hard and are doing their best—there’s no way I would hurt those people, but I would do it again, yes.

“As far as I was concerned I was preaching to my own people, I was preaching in my own church – I didn’t realise it would go out there and so forth.

Another Big Fat Surprise

Scientists who called for the retraction of an article by author of The Big Fat Surprise Nina Teicholz take credit for end to low-fat diet

A scientific study examining the relationship between dietary fats and coronary heart disease (CHD) that featured in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) in October has been described as a “game changer” by a host of scientists and nutritionists, according to an article published Monday by MedPage Today

The “game changing” JACC study built on the recommendations of a scientific report by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), about which Harvard Professor Meir Stampfer, MD, said “for the first time, and based on strong scientific evidence … abandoned any explicit ceiling on total fat intake, focusing instead on the types of fat.” 

Other quotable notables from the MedPage Today article include Stampfer’s Harvard colleague Frank Hu, MD, co-author of the JACC study and member of the DGAC, who said “If saturated fat is replaced by refined carbs, there is no reduction in CHD risk.” 

If this sounds familiar, it should. Journalist/author Nina Teicholz heralded an end to the low-fat diet with the release of her book on the history of nutrition science, The Big Fat Surprise, in May 2014. Note that she has the good grace and humility to give credit where it’s due.

 Nina Teicholz EPI

In November, Teicholz was the subject of a letter that was sent to the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) requesting the retraction of her September 23 article, The scientific report guiding the US Dietary Guidelines: is it scientific?which criticised the methodology and findings of the 2015 dietary guidelines report. 

The letter was organised by Bonnie Liebman MS at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, DC-based advocacy nonprofit, and was signed by over 180 credentialed professionals,¹ including several of those mentioned in the MedPage Today article.

After receiving the November 5 retraction request, the BMJ published this November 19 post by Executive Editor Theodora Bloom asking the authors of the letter to submit it as a “rapid response” on thebmj.com, requiring all signatories to declare any competing interests. 

As reported in an item I co-authored with US (Atlanta, GA) investigative reporter Peter M. Heimlich, on December 17 the BMJ posted an updated version of the CSPI letter, absent the names of 18 scientists and graduate students.

¹Including these three co-authors of the JACC study: Frank Hu, MD; Eric Rimm, ScD; and Walter Willet, MD.

This item has been updated to include the names of three signatories to the CSPI letter.