BROWNFIELDS & BOWIE: Worlds Collide
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
This past Sunday, my worlds collided ...
Back in the early- to mid-90’s, as a geologist and environmental consultant early in my career, I was one of the first of my colleagues that I knew to embrace the concept of the “Brownfields” redevelopment & reuse market (redevelopment hampered by industrial history due to real or even perceived environmental contamination and its potential cleanup costs and health risks). I was fascinated by the confluence of the environmental & economics. Taking what was seen as a seemingly unrevitalizable liability and turning it into an asset. I especially loved when there was potential to create arts & recreational assets, whose community & economic value was just beginning to be understood.
I worked for a large company at the time that didn’t yet see or understand the embryonic Brownfield market. So I just took it upon myself to educate myself and become one of the early Brownfield “experts”. I went to (and often presented at) all the early conferences and met with the local / state / federal economic development officials & mayors and corresponding environmental officials who would ultimately become the champions and necessary public-side partners in the Brownfield “practitioners” cohort.
I remember meeting economic development leaders & mayors of Bethlehem, PA as far back as 1995-6 through the early 2000's. Discussing the potential options for revitalizing the just shuttered 1800 acre Bethlehem Steel facility. When so many saw despair, people like us saw opportunities. I remember going to numerous “unveilings” and presentations at the Steel Stacks, as progress was being made on the redevelopment … first, slow & incremental … but eventually huge successes, as the former industrial “blight” became an arts & entertainment & commercial community “asset”.
But it had been YEARS(!) since I had been to the site. I had retired from that environmental career about 5-6 years ago. Plus, there hadn’t been those Brownfield-related milestones for many years beyond that. So I had no “business” purpose for being there. And even though I knew about the long-held, remarkable MusikFest, I had somehow not managed to fit it into my schedule for decades. Why? Who the heck knows.
So here I was Sunday, playing on the Town Square Stage with my band … “haZy cosmic jive” … doing our David Bowie tribute thing. Literally in the confluential shadows of the historic “Steel Stacks” (purposely left behind during decommissioning) and the modern glass building MusikFest, home of Arts Quest events. My worlds were colliding. And I really felt it. The weird juxtapositions. It all felt a bit like vertigo.
The reimagination and revitalization of the Beth Steel Brownfield to an arts community. The steel stacks backdrop that has the same feel & look as Bowie's elaborate & well known 1974 Diamond Dogs tour set .. full of gantries and steel ... set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. Yet adjacent to a modern glass, arts-focused structure ... at a major music festival ... the largest free music festival in the world (Bowie has an early song called "Memory of a Free Festival"). Playing Bowie music. This! All this! I'M SURE BOWIE WOULD APPROVE!!
As for my music world, even the idea that I have a band that does this Bowie tribute is kinda weird. Not that I’m not a fan … and not that Bowie’s music & 70’s cultural impact didn’t hugely influence me. I am … and it did.
But as a musician that prides myself on creating original material … learning piano at age 5, writing my first original song and starting my first band by age 10 … the idea of doing “the tribute band thing” had long turned me off. I get the nostalgia market it serves. It just bugged me that original music & bands, which already have a tough time competing with the world of traditional “cover bands”, was also competing with the ever-increasing plethora of tribute bands. Every other one, seemingly, a Dead tribute band, by the way. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the Dead … I cut my teeth on the Dead & Allman Bros. But come on! There is so much other great music out there).
But I had long said to myself, if I had to do a tribute thing, I’d probably do Bowie. The music is just so varied & interesting … challenging. And the necessary vibe so cool. (Or something else similarly more under the radar and challenging like Little Feat).
So I ran into some great guys (musicians) a couple years ago … in early 2019, during a big multi-band birthday celebration thingy. Got a chance to jam with these dudes. Later on, they looked me up to do what was supposed to be a one-off Bowie night at this iconic venue near Philly.
Well, we ended up loving the experience. As it turned out, the rhythm section (Joe Tassoni on bass and Anthony Rodriguez “Arod” on drums) became my go-to rhythm section for my original bands. And as Philly Loves Bowie Week 2020 (Jan 2020) was looming in the fall of 2019, we decided to get a really great band together for that event.
“haZy cosmic jive” was born. It includes Joe & Arod as the rhythm section. We kept the coolest cat on sax, Bill Butryn, from our “one off” show. Then I rounded it out with the uber-talented Joey DiTullio and Jon Paul Smith. Bill is older than me. The other guys are much younger than me … by 2 to 3 decades (Joey DiTullio in the photo below, is 23). It’s a great mix. We have the kind of chemistry bands dream about. I didn’t anticipate it taking off the way it did, but I guess that is what happens when those things come together.
I love these guys! In addition to being great musicians, they are just great people. I haven’t yet told them about this “worlds colliding” business yet. The significance of it for me … the vertigo-inducing juxtaposition of it all. But when I do, I know they will get it. That’s the benefit of doing the things that you love surrounded by good folks. AGAIN, I THINK BOWIE WOULD APPROVE.