Last January brought with it a glorious occasion: the release of David Bowie’s “Blackstar” album on his 69th birthday.
Here’s a timeline. On Friday, Jan. 8, I went to Bull Moose in the Old Port and bought it on CD and vinyl. That Saturday, I listened to it three times in a row and realized what a masterpiece it is. On Monday morning, a phone call woke me up. It was my friend Sarah calling because she wanted me to be told by a human rather than the internet that, the day before, David Bowie had died. He had been very ill, and only a handful of people knew about it.
It was several months before I could listen to “Blackstar” again. I’m still recovering from the loss of my favorite musician in the world. It’s still hard to talk about. But what I do know, and what I’ve known all along, is that I’m not alone in this. Bowie had many fans, including Portland musician Mat Zaro. This Saturday night, Zaro and his band will be paying tribute to Bowie, on the eve of what would have been his 70th birthday, by performing “Blackstar” in its entirety, along with every song from Bowie’s 1976 album “Station to Station.”
I reached out to Zaro to get an understanding of what Bowie’s music means to him and how he first came to know his work.
Zaro, who is the founding member of the now-defunct band Bass Box, got into Bowie when he was in eighth grade (he’s now 34) by way of The Beatles.
“I’m a very big Beatles fan, especially John Lennon. So through that connection, ‘Fame’ was the first Bowie song that I really became familiar with,” he said.
From there, Zaro snagged two records from his father’s collection: the compilation “CHANGESONEBOWIE” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” The latter really dazzled Zaro. “In particular, ‘All The Madmen.’ That keyboard arrangement still just kills me.”
The first Bowie album Zaro bought on his own was the Rykodisc edition of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
“I was really hooked after that one,” Zaro said. “I soon learned that his whole Ryko catalog had also just gone out of print, so I went on a quest to find them all, which took me the rest of high school. I loved those glam rock records at first and while I still do, my interest and love for Bowie really took off when I bought ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ my freshman year.” That album features guitarist Robert Fripp on several tracks.
“All I knew was that guitar sound was the coolest thing I had ever heard. To this day, my absolute favorite period of Bowie’s career is from 1976 to 1980. Any of those albums — ‘Station to Station,’ ‘Low,’ ‘Heroes,’ ‘Lodger’ and ‘Scary Monsters’ — could each be my favorite depending on the day you ask me.”
But Zaro also said he felt an instant connection with “Blackstar,” and the more time he spends with it, the more he thinks it may just be Bowie’s absolute masterpiece. His point is certainly taken with this fellow Bowie fanatic.
So how did Zaro wind up choosing “Blackstar” and “Station to Station” as the two albums to perform live? He had no problem answering that question.
“I wanted to play ‘Blackstar’ from the moment I heard it,” he said. “Nothing gets me more inside a record than picking every instrument apart, deconstructing it and putting it back together. There was just a lot for me to learn as a musician and as a person from this record. I didn’t have to think very hard about what album to pair with it.”
As for “Station to Station,” Zaro said, the choice seemed like an obvious one. “Both albums have a similar flow and structure, and they’re both records made at what seem to be the two darkest moments in Bowie’s life. They’re both albums that acknowledge the death and rebirth of a current life path. One figurative and one literal. The outfit he wore in the ‘Lazarus’ (from ‘Blackstar’) video was even one he had worn for promotional photo shoots for ‘Station to Station.’ I’m pretty sure that was a direct acknowledgment of the life-to-death, station-to-station transition he was about to make.”
Here’s a clip of Zaro and his band performing Bowie’s “Golden Years” in Portland in 2015.
As for me, I can’t wait to hear what Zaro and his band do with songs like “I Can’t Give Everything Away” and “Lazarus” from “Blackstar” and “Word on a Wing” and “Wild is the Wind” from “Station to Station.” These are not simple songs to learn, and my hat is off to these guys for tackling both of these albums.
Here’s the video for Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” a song very near and dear to my heart. I knew this version long before I knew Nina Simone’s famous take on it. The song was written in the 50s by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington.
As for the band, it’s Zaro on lead vocals, Scott Hughes and Jerry Perron on guitar, Jim Goss on synths and backing vocals, Peter Dugas on keyboards, Colin Winsor on bass, Adam Montminy on tenor sax, Tim Johnson on backing vocals and percussion, Luc Bergeron on drums and Andrew Doody on ewi (an electronic wind instrument), sax and harmonica.
Zaro also shared with me his Facebook post from a week after Bowie’s passing. Here’s an excerpt: “I’ve always had a difficult time relating to the world around me. I don’t do well reading body language or facial expressions and various other social cues. But I’ve always understood music. For most of my life I would say it’s the only thing that truly made sense to me. Bowie’s music moved me in a very deep way that I’m not entirely sure how to put into words. When I dropped the needle on this new record, I wasn’t prepared for just how deeply this particular album would effect me. It was so beautiful and warm, yet so sad. All I can say is that I am very grateful to have heard this album before the true weight of its meaning was spelled out so clearly. A true artist to the end, Bowie made an event of his passing, giving us “Blackstar” on his final birthday, a Friday, and ascending on Sunday. We’ve seen the passing of a mythic figure in the truest sense. Although I never knew the man, I heard him. I heard that voice and I understood. Goodbye.”
WHEN: 9 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH & INFO: $10 in advance, $12 day of show, 18-plus. portcitymusichall.com