David J, a day in the lifeThursday February 8, 2018 05:00 am EST
There’s an adage in the arts world that says an artist is only as good as what they are doing right now. When taken at face value, it’s a dogmatic and somewhat heavy-handed expression. But it’s one that resonates when looking at the careers of great artists throughout history, from Pablo Picasso to David Bowie — artists who turned out consistently brilliant works until the end of their days on Earth. It’s also an expression that former Bauhaus and Love and Rockets bass player, singer, songwriter, and co-founder David J. Haskins says rings true.
“Every artist has a legacy, and if that legacy is strong, then it is to be respected. But one cannot rest on one’s laurels,” Haskins says. “In order to keep active, and to engage, you have to evolve and keep making the work.”
From the murky British goth and post-punk inflections of his 1983 solo debut, Etiquette of Violence, through the lush Americana of 2017’s Vagabond Songs, Haskins displays an insatiable imperative to continue moving forward as an artist. He is the playwright behind 2008’s Silver for Gold (The Odyssey of Edie Sedgwick), and the author of a 2014 memoir, Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus Black Magick and Benediction (Jawbone Press). But above all else, music is David J’s center.
Over the last several years, David J, as he is most commonly known, has spent much of his time traveling the world, playing “living room” shows. These are typically solo acoustic performances in unorthodox spaces that have ranged from sponsors’ actual living rooms to bookstores, and, in one instance, the chapel in a Victorian cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. These shows are intimate, low-key gatherings that are purposefully designed to facilitate a more up-close and personal experience than the large venues he spent years playing while touring with Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. Occasionally he invites local guests to perform with him, depending on who happens to be in town, evoking a troubadour spirit, performing songs from throughout his career. As such, there’s a certain winking resignation to Vagabond Songs’ title.
After releasing over a dozen solo albums, and collaborating with everyone from “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” writer Alan Moore, to Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller, Haskins propels his music forward by looking deeper into himself.
The 15 numbers that make up Vagabond Songs, follow a story arc that distills Haskins’ life experiences into a finely balanced double LP.
“The Day That David Bowie Died” opens the album with a slow unfurling of acoustic flare and reflection. The song is an homage, stamping in time Haskins’ feelings and whereabouts on the fateful day when he learned that one of his lifelong musical heroes — the inimitable Mr. Jones — transcended the physical plane. The song is matched at the end of the LP with a sentimental, acoustic rendition of Love and Rockets’ 1985 song, “The Dog-End Of A Day Gone By.” In the midst of it all, “2000 Light Years From Gold Street” offers something of an artist’s manifesto when Haskins sings, “Nostalgia is two parts bullshit to one part blue/Add a dash of bitter regret and the song is coming through.”
“...Gold Street” is a thesis for a percolating and unlikely song cycle steeped in stories and imagery plucked from throughout Haskins’ earliest days spent discovering music and growing into adulthood in his sleepy hometown of North Hampton, U.K. “It is autobiographical and it’s general, and a bit specific to the cynicism of North Hampton,” Haskins says. “But it’s a healthy cynicism. There is a downside when it’s carried too far, and it becomes negative, but it can be taken as a goad, and an encouragement to get on and change what you don’t like. Make what you do like. It’s being realistic,” he adds. “With nostalgia there’s a tendency to see the past through rose-tinted shades, and that’s bullshit — it becomes ‘the good old days.’ But it’s also melancholy and beautiful looking back.”
These psychological cues are channeled into the barreling guitar rhythm of “The Sun Sets Soon On Heroes,” a cover of Little Feat’s laid-back and New Orleans-infatuated “Roll Um Easy,” and the sweet psychedelia of “A Star Crossed Shipboard Romance.” Each song paints a portrait of Haskins’ persona with a greater sense of depth than his previous works have revealed. “I don’t think about these concepts when I’m writing the songs, they just pour out,” he says. “The concepts reveal themselves to me in the process of making the work.”
Still, his songwriting has evolved a long way from the phantasmagoric characters — some real, some imagined — and abstract imagery of early songs such as “The Fugitive” from Etiquette of Violence, his pairing with former Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy for 1992’s “Candy On the Cross,” and 1991’s alternative chart-opping number, “I’ll be Your Chauffeur.”
The writing has become increasingly personal, which is the result of growing as a person, underscoring another adage: You write what you know. “Sometimes, when I’m having an experience, in a way I’m writing a song — listening to a person with one ear, and with the other ear listening for lines,” he laughs.
As evidenced by the barely three-year gap between Vagabond Songs and 2014’s An Eclipse of Ships, writing songs seems an effortless endeavor for Haskins. But that’s the magic of good songwriting. “I’ve become a lot more productive, the older I’ve become,” he says. “Earlier in life I would release just about everything that I wrote. Now, sometimes I discard things completely. Other things I shelve.”
This discerning ear and sense of restraint may not be obvious upon first listen to Vagabond Songs, but it culminates in a body of timeless songs that grow brighter with each listen.