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Front Row Seat: Rock gods born at dawn of baby boom turn 75

Elton John, Alice Cooper and the late David Bowie are getting the coffee table treatment with new books as the music world marks three-quarters of a century since their births.

Hand holds large orange books in front of Duluth Entertainment Convention Center: "Elton John @ 75" and "Bowie @ 75"
Gillian G. Gaar's "Elton John @ 75" and Martin Popoff's "Bowie @ 75," photographed at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Monday. Bowie never played Duluth, but John played the DECC's Amsoil Arena in 2011.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — As the youngest baby boomers approach 60 and the oldest start to contemplate their imminent octogenarian status, they're not aging into the kind of warm pop culture embrace their "greatest generation" elders enjoyed.

Instead, young people often see boomers as a generation that left their grandchildren a desperate world — allowing the social safety net to fray, failing to buttress civil rights gains, and ignoring decades of climate science while carbon emissions pushed the planet to the brink of a catastrophic tipping point.

Invert the telescope, though, and the boomers' story takes on a new aspect. Motorbooks is doing just that with a new series of books celebrating the 75th birthdays of iconic musicians — including two born in 1947, the year that saw the beginning of the Cold War and the dawn of the baby boom. Elton John is still with us, continuing his very long goodbye tour, but David Bowie has been gone for over six years. (The third subject is Alice Cooper, born in 1948.)

Each book spotlights 75 significant moments in the artist's life: milestone concerts, album releases, quirky occurrences. It's an accessible way to survey each musician's career, with ample visuals including bonus assets (posters, photos) tucked into an envelope in each book's cardboard sleeve. The format also allows the authors to put new spins on the legacies of artists who've been exhaustively well-documented.

Reading multiple books in the series encourages comparisons — I looked at the Bowie and John volumes — but of course it's not a contest. John is a perennial prince of pop, with an appeal so ageless that his face is on the cover of Spotify's "Hot Hits USA" playlist even as I write. "Hold Me Closer," a frankly weird Elton John megamix with Britney Spears floating around in there somewhere, is now the Rocket Man's 29th U.S. top 10 hit. Author Gillian G. Gaar may need to add a data point and reissue the book as "Elton John @ 76."

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It's no slight against John to say that his fellow Brit emerges as a more dynamic artist, but the man formerly known as Ziggy Stardust also comes in for sharper criticism. In contrast to Gaar's faintly hagiographic style, "Bowie @ 75" author Martin Popoff doesn't hold back when it comes to sharing his opinions on the "blindingly commercial" Mick Jagger duet on "Dancing in the Street" (1985) or the "overbearing style stamp(s)" of Bowie's 1990s records.

In addition to serving as career overviews, the books also function as time capsules enumerating what seems important about each artist's career from the standpoint of 2022.

Popoff, for example, gratifyingly reserves one of his 75 entries for Bowie's 1983 MTV interview in which he criticized the network for not playing more Black artists. Bowie himself might have been surprised to see an entry for that interview but not one for his deeply personal stage show "Lazarus" (2015). Still, the author's not wrong that Bowie's willingness to openly address the industry's racial bias is a more significant part of his legacy, even if it wasn't widely recognized at the time.

Gaar's book serves as a reminder that John, less often regarded as an album artist, has a career full of thematic collections with distinctive personalities. From the band-oriented "Honky Chateau" (1972) to the synth-driven "Too Low For Zero" (1983) to the generous-spirited Leon Russell collaboration "The Union" (2010), John has always had aspirations beyond hit singles. It's not his fault he's just so good at making singles.

Both authors also track their subjects' various statements regarding their sexuality. The impact of both Bowie and John can hardly be overstated when it comes to challenging norms around gender presentation, but today's more open era is a marked contrast to the heteronormative media landscape they faced, in which even holding the closet door open a crack — let alone pushing it aside and coming all the way out — required strenuous effort.

A collection of slipcovers and bold-print envelopes accompanying the books "Elton John @ 75" and "Bowie @ 75"
Both "Elton John @ 75" and "Bowie @ 75" come with extras including textured slipcovers, as well as and envelopes containing posters and prints.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

As Popoff notes, Rolling Stone ran a cover story headlined "David Bowie Straight." Although the article became infamous as "the moment Bowie betrayed the gay community," Popoff writes, the evidence suggests the magazine (and writer Kurt Loder) applied some spin to an ambiguous statement that may have been taken out of context. In Popoff's read, the magazine was reassuring its readers: "No worries, mate, Bowie is one of us."

On the other side of the coin, there's the fact that both of these cis white male artists were supported in the kind of extravagant indulgences that women, people of color, and especially women of color were rarely allowed no matter the extent of their talents. In her 2020 book "Black Diamond Queens," Maureen Mahon chronicles the exhaustive campaign Tina Turner had to mount to even be considered a legitimate rock artist, let alone go on tour with a giant glass spider.

Part of Turner's strategy, Mahon argues, was to closely associate herself with white male rock artists — like, yep, David Bowie. His undeniable achievements, and John's, have to be viewed through the lens of that privilege. Where's "Emmylou Harris @ 75"? "Stevie Nicks @ 75"? We're just over a year out from the late Donna Summer's 75th.

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That said, both the Bowie and the John books chronicle remarkable creative journeys from the pained daze of postwar England to transformative careers with an enormously poignant final act (in Bowie's case) and a string of triumphs continuing to this day (in John's). History's judgment on the baby boom generation won't rest on these men's shoulders, but "Life On Mars?" and "Tiny Dancer" surely have to count as points in boomers' favor.

"Hold Me Closer"? Let's say that counts as one point for the boomers, one point for millennials. Of course, to Gen Z, we're all boomers, merrily singing along as we ride the tour bus to perdition.

How to out-flare the bedazzled king -- or rather, knight. Elton John fans packed into the most-chattered-about concert in Amsoil Arena's brief history with feather boas, floor-length sequined coats, novelty sunglasses, platform shoes and glitter ...

Short cuts

Oh, sorry, I forgot we were talking about books. Duluth author Margi Preus has a new novel for young readers: "Windswept" is a fantasy about a group of young people who undertake an epic journey to find some missing peers. It's a classic setup, but Preus adds more than a few fresh twists in her book, which sports eerie illustrations by Armando Veve. Kirkus calls "Windswept" one of the season's most anticipated books — bar none.

"Inspired primarily by the Norwegian fairytale 'The Three Princesses in the Mountain Blue,'" writes Kirkus, "this edgy, somewhat dystopian tale set in a world where race holds no significance masterfully blends European fairy-tale motifs with timely warnings about human greed, waste, and destructiveness while extoling the power of storytelling."

Preus will be at Zenith Bookstore on Thursday to celebrate the book's release. For details, see zenithbookstore.com/events.

Hand holding paperback book: Margi Preus, "Windswept." In background, red building with wind vane is visible out of focus.
An advance reader's copy of Margi Preus's "Windswept," photographed at Canal Park Brewing on Tuesday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

"Waterfall," the third historical novel in the Rainy Lake series by International Falls author Mary Casanova, is out now in paperback from the University of Minnesota Press. It's set in 1922, the same year as "The Great Gatsby," except the locale is northern Minnesota instead of Long Island. Trinity Baird (what a character name!) is looking for a little R&R after an asylum interlude, but the roaring '20s aren't about to let her relax.

A sister gets drunk and falls into the lake; a romantic thunderstorm leads to a love connection; Canadian whisky is served in crystal goblets. Sinclair Lewis shows up for a writing retreat, and Trinity is introduced to the author as follows: "She's studied in Paris and more recently at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter!" So we beat on. For more information, see marycasanova.com.

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Hand holding paperback book: Mary Casanova, "Waterfall." In the background, a fountain is visible with water shooting out of a fish's mouth and a nearby artificial waterfall.
Mary Casanova's "Waterfall," photographed at the Douglas Freeman sculpture "Fountain of the Wind" in Canal Park on Tuesday.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

The other day I walked into Fitger's Wine Cellar, and the clerk was watching a vintage music video by Nelson. I thought, wow, I haven't thought about that band in a while — and then lo and behold, they were in my inbox a few days later by way of a news release from the Scandinavian American Hall of Fame in Minot, North Dakota. There are three inductees this year, and they're all named Nelson: Matthew Nelson (of Nelson), Gunnar Nelson (of Nelson) and Eric Nelson (of the National Nordic Museum). They join a motley crew of previous inductees including Buzz Aldrin, Doc Severinsen, Walter Mondale, Charley Pride, Sacagawea, Jim Henson, Karl Rove and Leif Erikson.

The three Nelsons will be inducted at this year's Norsk Hostfest, which runs from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1. Whether or not you make the trek to Minot to celebrate the occasion, you can follow the Hostfest's truly wild TikTok, which features a Viking ship parade float blasting Wagner, a tour of the Fargo Sons of Norway lodge, and the festival's troll mascot doing the cabbage patch. Hostfest.com has the links.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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