“Young Americans” and disillusionment therewith

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Young Americans album cover, 1975

Yay, here we are again. Late again. Let’s call these “roughly monthly” posts instead of strictly monthly, shall we? 🙂
“Young Americans” is an album that excites me, fascinates me, and perplexes me. It is near and dear to my heart— as is practically every Bowie album, but this time I really really mean it. I can use most of Bowie’s work to kind of frame my life from the time I started listening to him seriously, and “Young Americans” is no exception.
I’ve almost always listened to Bowie’s work in chronological order. I find that as I grow and mature, I appreciate the later works more and more. Back in 2010, I was an alcoholic mess, active in my eating disorder, lost and disenfranchised, living in Richmond, Virginia. I was already deeply in love with the earlier volumes of Bowie’s oeuvre, but even our most-beloved music gets to a point where it needs a break. Luckily, MP3s don’t wear down the way records did or I would have destroyed “Hunky Dory” through “Diamond Dogs” by then. I was comfortable with these albums, but, one day, feeling adventurous, I loaded “Young Americans” on my MP3 player and went for a long, long walk (punishing my body so that I could “afford” calories later for alcohol, natch).
I hated it.
Well, maybe “hated” is too strong a word. But it was a such departure from the rest of the albums I knew and loved, that I couldn’t get my head around it. It was pure soul (”plastic soul,” as he called it). The sax solos (which now make my heart race with delight) sounded tinny and dissonant to me. They reminded me of watching “Full House” as a kid and it depressed me because I had spent many years in front of the TV (in lieu of being parented by humans, but that’s a whole other blog, probably) and I didn’t want to be reminded of that time. In fact, that’s what I was running from in my addiction— partially, anyway. Addiction is always more complex than that. I couldn’t handle it. I reverted back to “Diamond Dogs” and prior for the next several years, only occasionally hazarding an album outside of that period, until about March of 2015.
Kind of ironic, to me, that the music Bowie created in the depths of his addiction didn’t resonate with me until about five years later, when I was clean and sober. I became obsessed (like ya do), and listened to almost nothing else, musically, for almost a year.

Thematically, I think this album is the most emotionally honest since “Hunky Dory.” There’s no flights of fancy here, my friends, no traversing the depths of the occult, no dystopian future visions, no spacemen. Just a man shattered by cocaine and life and the music industry, and his musical genius. I think there’s a kind of emotional rawness to it that reminds me of “Space Oddity”, but this time round it’s more polished in its presentation, and more sophisticated, seasoned, as it were, by experience. The songs are about love and life and being a star, and they take you on a ride. “Young Americans” is a fascinating meditation on Bowie’s observations of America; “Win” is an achingly beautiful love song; and, if you’ve listened to the extended album like I have, you’ll know that “It’s Gonna Be Me” is an epic ballad that will pretty much dissolve your panties and break your heart at the same time.
One of the most interesting cuts on the album, for me, is his cover of “Across the Universe.” Knowing what I do (or think I do) about where he was at the time in his life, I find this track strangely poignant. I’m not sure if it’s tragic or ironic that he says “Nothing’s gonna change my world” with such fervor (TBH he did everything with fervor tho) when he did, in fact, change quite a bit in the ensuing years. Just five years later he would be recovering from the addiction that allegedly ravaged his mind and body so badly that he hardly had any memory of the “Young Americans” or “Station to Station” sessions. If that’s not a change in one’s world, I don’t know what is. It makes me wonder whether it was a cry of hopelessness, or an affirmation that no matter what else happened, there was a perfect and immortal part of himself that would be retained, that the man knew who he was and stood by it throughout the storms of life.

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Fame, (fame) it’s mine, it’s mine, it’s just his line
To bind your time, it drives you to crime (fame)

Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps it’s neither.
“Fame” is another interesting glimpse into Bowie’s world at the time (was this the world that wouldn’t be changed, I wonder?) He himself said in interviews that it was an angry song, which is easy to miss, I think, if you’re not really listening. Like so many of his other tracks, even well-known ones, the true essence of the song is easy to miss if you don’t look closely (”Young Americans”, for instance, is not the feel-good pop song that it sounds like— it’s actually a pretty biting social commentary if you look at the lyrics. Shit, the opening verse is about some guy ejaculating prematurely and not satisfying his girl, but she marries him anyway because That’s What Ya Do when you’re a Young American woman). “Fame” might have been written in anger, but it strikes me as sad. It’s a song about being trapped— what you need you have to borrow, what you get is no tomorrow, it drives you to crime. It’s a song about desperation, when, from the outside, I’m sure the life looks ideal. Right? Fame and fortune are part of the American fairy tale, which I think kind of ties back to the title track’s commentary. It’s an album, in part, about disillusionment with America, with stardom, with life in general. Also poignant, I think, is that the love songs remain tender, removed, I think, from the cynicism and disillusionment on the rest of the album.
Ironically, “Fame,” a song about Bowie’s disgruntlement and abuse by the recording industry, was among his first major hits in the United States.

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Drugs and Diamond Dogs

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Diamond Dogs, 1974 — Not even completely human at this point

Once again, I’m later than I’d planned, and once again I don’t really feel like blogging. I want to work on my books and I want to work on my website and I want to mop my kitchen floor… I want to do pretty much anything else.

I think it’s because Diamond Dogs is a great listening album, it’s an epic work of art, but to me, it doesn’t have the emotional immediacy of many of Bowie’s other works. Even Ziggy was more personal than Dogs because Ziggy was about “the rise and fall” of an alien rockstar… we already know that Bowie felt alienated his entire life, and he wanted to be a rockstar, so we could even call Ziggy autobiographical, or, dare I say, prophetic? Maybe a little. Imaginative as it was, it still had some of that personal intimacy that we saw in the raw soul-baring of the earlier albums. Diamond Dogs, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Bowie (okay, it does, all art is a reflection of the artist, but bear with me). Dogs was a rock opera based on Orwell’s dystopian soft sci-fi novel, 1984. Of course I think it’s a great album, you’ll never catch me saying otherwise because Bowie was a genius, the music is absolutely fantastic and the storyline and concept are epic and fascinating.

But for me, there’s something slightly unsatisfying about it.

Diamond Dogs feels like a mask, almost. Even the album’s cover showed Bowie not as himself, but as some kind of fucked-up-looking man-dog hybrid. It’s a beautiful cover, but it’s also, to me, signifies the psychic distance Bowie wanted between himself and his audience. Perhaps because fame and success were new to him, or perhaps because he was doing tons of drugs at the time and wasn’t capable of the same level of emotional connection to himself. Whatever the reason, I miss that immediacy and honesty on Diamond Dogs, which is why I think it’s not as interesting to me, as far as writing about it.

Actually, I think the cover is as telling as the album. Bowie has positioned himself as a freak (and mentions in the title track Todd Browning’s film of the same name), inhuman, bizarre. While it was as much about rejecting the mainstream as anything else, I think it also has to do with drug use and running away from oneself. As a person who has struggled with addiction myself, I can attest that the depths of addiction do indeed make one feel inhuman, separate from the rest of the human race. It’s not a good feeling.

I think one of my favorite things about this album is the vocal performance. We haven’t gotten to hear much of Bowie’s lower register until now, and how sweet it is. Previously he seemed to be more concerned with the higher register, sounding androgynous and weird, we still get some of that on Diamond Dogs but we also get hints of the voice that would feature more prominently on later albums. I just love that sound, that crystal-clear depth at the beginning of Sweet Thing, which soars almost effortlessly into the upper register later in the song— maybe my favorite track on the album, next to Big Brother, which I love purely for the epic camp quality.

It’s telling, too, that Bowie’s voice on this album is so good, but he’s pushing the real world away. The next album would see him in the grips of a fiendish cocaine addiction, his voice almost as frail as his body. It’s sad, but there’s also some kind of magic in it. Young Americans is one of my top albums, if not the top. Certainly tied with Hunky Dory. The next two years or so, in my mind, represent the nadir of addictive despair, but even when so addled that he (reportedly) could barely remember the recording sessions of Young Americans and Station to Station, he made some fucking incredible music. Diamond Dogs is about pushing the world away, the next two albums are (sort of) about coming back around. Sort of. Scary Monsters is really the Recovery Album in my opinion, but— we’ll get there when we get there. Next January, if I can manage to stick to my schedule.

That’s all I have to say about that.

Until next month, Internet, when we venture into the depths of plastic soul, which I’m already fascinated by. Maybe next month I’ll post on time! Heh. Let’s not hold our breaths or we might wind up in the oxygen tent.

Pin-Ups, Covers, and all joking aside…

PinUps

Bowie and Twiggy doing Rocky Horror makeup two years before Rocky Horror was a thing.

Hello again, internet. Did you miss me? I knew you did. So good to see you again. As if I haven’t been elsewhere on the internet every day since my last post on this blog…

 

 
Anyway, this has been a hell of a month, let me just say. It’s been a month of complete personal and spiritual upheaval, it’s been spectacularly painful, but also gloriously beautiful. I’m full of hope and energy and good vibes; I’ve never felt more alive.

 
I’ve also never felt less like blogging.

 
Hey, dig that segue. See what I did there?

 
Gee, a month goes by fast. Again, I find myself being stingy with my writing time. There’s so much other stuff going on that I feel like I must dedicate my writing to my books. They’re the most important thing in my life, basically, even more important to me than Bowie, if you can imagine such a thing. Perish the thought! Blasphemy! But it’s true. So the energy I could’ve put into this post went elsewhere. Again. I don’t know why I feel like I have to make excuses except that the first few posts were crafted with loving enthusiasm and I put a lot of time and thought into them, and such is not the case for these last few posts. But I made a commitment and I’m gonna damn well keep it, even if I show my ass once or twice. Or more. Who knows. It’s an exciting thing. Stay tuned.

 
So I had listened to Pin-Ups before, a long time ago, and thought it was interesting but not that interesting because it’s a cover album, and I’ve heretofore been primarily interested in material Bowie wrote (or mostly wrote) himself. For some reason, I hadn’t considered, until now, that I could probably learn a great deal about someone I deeply admire by taking a look at who influenced them.

 
Interestingly, in the weeks preceding this post, having mostly forgotten I had planned to do Pin-Ups this month, I became obsessed with the 2003 version of “Waterloo Sunset”. Pin-Ups was an album of Bowie doing covers of mid-sixties English rock songs, so no doubt the 2003 version of “Waterloo Sunset” had its origins somewhere in the Pin-Ups period, as another Kinks song, “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” was on the album.

 
I’m not sure Pin-Ups will become one of my staple listening albums (who knows though really), but what I did love about it was comparing it to other covers Bowie has done, and examining his approach to covers in general. I am absolutely fascinated by his ability to remain faithful to a song yet completely reinvent it with his delicious uniqueness. The end results are always deeply satisfying. The man had so much fucking passion for music, whether it was original material dredged up from the depths of his own soul, or whether someone else’s song that inspired him to such electrifying energy as on “Rosalyn,” the opening track to Pin-Ups.

 
Of all the covers on this album, my favorite is probably “See Emily Play,” as I think the overall aesthetic is different to any other Bowie material I’ve heard— whereas the original Pink Floyd version (1967) sounded a lot like other similar acts of the time. His cover of “Across the Universe” on the Young Americans album similarly exhibits an aesthetic wildly different to the original and different to most any other track of Bowie’s I’ve heard. Another fascinating pick from the repertoire is his version of “Wild is the Wind,” which he based off of Nina Simone’s version, whose version was based off of a kind of lame johnny Mathis joint from some movie in the fifties. The very first version reminds me of something my grandma might think was cute when she was a teenager… I enjoy Nina Simone’s version as well, but Bowie’s version, in my humble opinion, is the one that transforms it utterly into an epic, aching love song. He was kinda good at those.

 

I noticed that the sounds and themes on Pin-Ups are a bit outdated for Bowie, by this point, in my analysis of him as an artist. I mean the passion is there, clearly he loved these songs and his own versions of them were sincere, but while the songs on Pin-Ups are early rock songs about girls and drugs and whatever, Bowie was in the middle of an epic re-engineering of the entire genre, pioneering the glam rock movement and poised to release an album which was a rock-opera version of Orwell’s 1984 set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, starring thugs on roller skates wielding machetes. I mean… come on. (Btdubs, whoever curates Orwell’s or Bowie’s or whosever estate, I’m still waiting to see Diamond Dogs made into a proper stage show. Ijfs.)

 
It’s interesting to me that such a visionary artist could draw so very deeply on seemingly mundane material. I mean, not to disparage the music that he covered… they were pioneers in their own right, I’m merely observing the vast differences in sound, theme, imagination, and originality. As mentioned above, thematically, Bowie was on another planet (hee hee… it’s funny cause… Ziggy… Stardust… wasanalien) and I wonder about the alchemical (or possibly mostly chemical) process happening in his mind to transform material like we find on Pin-Ups into the bizarre mad genius of Ziggy and Diamond Dogs. Like, sorry ‘bout it, Daltry and Barrett, you guys are incredible, but Bowie was way weirder, and as far as I’m concerned, much cooler. I’ll take a glittery androgynous alien with a red mullet over a regular old rock star any day of the week. Especially Tuesday.

 
I’m not here to have a pissing contest about whose classic rock icon is better, though. Just dashing down some thoughts on Pin-Ups and trying, obliquely, to refer back to the posts that made a little more sense than the recent ones. It’s late at night, my post is three days overdue, but I feel better about this one than the last two (ish). I’m still hoping, at some point, to go back and do Hunky thru Aladdin proper justice. Bear with me a little longer, I feel like I’m on the edge of a breakthrough. I feel like I’ll soon have more resources to put into my writing, which will include projects other than the novels I’ve been working on the most lately (an epic historical romance which has grown from one book into three). I have so much more I’d like to do. Short stories, poems, romances in other genres, non-romance novels, biographies, memoirs, books I’d like to read, and shit, maybe I’ll do a cover album of my own! I’ve always thought it would be a hell of a lot of fun to cover one of Bowie’s albums, although I don’t know which one, or how I would play the music since I don’t know any instruments, but hey. Minor details. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Maybe I’ll do a whole album of kazoo covers of Bowie songs. I’ll be famous!! Look out Universe, here I come!

Sheepish remarks

I started this blog as an exercise in discipline. I wanted to write it because I wanted to think and write about Bowie, and few people (zero people) in day-to-day life have the patience to listen to me jaw about Hunky Dory for thirty minutes at a time. But I’m not excited to write about Aladdin Sane, and I completely forgot to write about Ziggy Stardust last month. I’ve spent the whole last month feeling guilty about it, feeling like I skipped a really important homework assignment or something. And here we are, at the end of June, and I didn’t write about Aladdin Sane either. I don’t know why. I guess I just don’t have much to say about either of these albums. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both deeply in their own ways. Ziggy is musical crack, it’s fucking incredible, it’s a rock masterpiece. Aladdin Sane is also a wonderful album (although IMO falls slightly short of the cohesiveness of Ziggy– though its’ more schizoid musical properties are actually part of its charm for me). Both have their own special places in my heart and in the narrative of my life, but… I think, ultimately, I just don’t find them that interesting. There’s something kind of emotionally impersonal about Ziggy, less so in Aladdin Sane, but again in Diamond Dogs, that makes me less excited to dissect it. Or maybe I’m being lazy. Maybe I needed a break— some space, as it were, to dedicate to my main writing (as my “main writing” gets wedged in between working full time, going to mental health support groups 3-5 days a week, being involved in community otherwise, exercising, taking care of my apartment, battling chronic mental illness…etc).

 
I feel like I’ve failed a little by lapsing these last two months, since this blog was supposed to be a discipline, but I like to think I’m disciplined where it counts and that I don’t have to do this thing perfectly. Hopefully I’ll revisit these albums at a later time to complete my little collection of weird essays about Bowie’s albums, but for now, I think I’m going to set them aside. I’m just going to say that I’ve had a lot going on in my personal life, and it’d been beneficial for me to devote my writing energy to my books. And I feel a little bit like I’m saying the dog ate my homework, but, well… sometimes the dog really does eat your homework, I guess.

 
It feels a little pointless to continue this blog but I’m not putting it to bed officially. Just posting an update and saying thanks for hanging with me. I’ll be back next month with… something. Idk what, but something. Until then, take care.

 
Love,
Jack

“Hunky Dory,” Gratitude, and Zombies

When I first heard “Hunky Dory,” I was in a dark place. I was in active addiction, active in my eating disorder; I was a repressed, depressed person, and nothing made me happy like it used to. I didn’t care about my old hobbies or my attempts to get new ones, I wasn’t ready to get sober yet, I didn’t even know it was an option, and I was living in a gray fog, a perpetual malaise. When not drunk or high, I was always feeling hung-over, weak, sick, tired, hungry, or all of them at once. Sometimes I felt angry or sad, but mostly I just didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t stand my family and I thought my friends didn’t care for me. I was bitter and lonely, isolated in the extreme, and constantly numbing myself through substances and compulsions. I was a zombie, without thinking or feeling, just going through the motions, without hope and without love.

 
A friend of mine had put “Life on Mars?” on a mix CD for me. Up to that point, I had only ever known the name David Bowie as an obscure figure of eighties pop culture, someone whose music I had no reason to pay attention to… until I heard “Life on Mars”.
“Life on Mars” was unlike any other song I had ever heard. Ever. It was weird and symphonic and epic, it was profound but whimsical but cynical and smart, it sounded absolutely beautiful. I loved it. The string section made me weep, the phone ringing at the end made me smile, the piano at the beginning grabbed my attention and has ensnared me for life. I eagerly downloaded the rest of “Hunky Dory”. For the first time, I heard “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Fill Your Heart.”

 
I heard God.

 
The mothership had landed.

 
Like Dorothy stepping out into Oz, as I listened to more Bowie, the world took on a kind of color again, a vibrance, a shade of brilliance that told me that life might somehow be worth living.

 
“Hunky Dory” saved my life.

 
It’d be three more years until I actually got sober. I slogged through those last years of active addiction clinging to Bowie’s music like a buoy in a storm. Nothing in life brought me joy the way Bowie did. Once I got sober, my appreciation for Bowie’s work has gotten ever deeper and more profound and far-reaching. His work has carried me through the most difficult years of my life— and the greatest times of my life as well. I firmly believe that with hundreds of songs to pick from, there’s a Bowie for every occasion, whether I feel so lonely I could die, or feel the need to move on, or if I’m only dancing.

 
Or if I’m a Blackstar.

 
“Hunky Dory” had such a profound effect on me and my life that I spent years trying to craft a fan letter to Bowie, but it never felt quite right. I could never quite capture the intensity of my feelings or the depth of my gratitude, nor could I figure out how to convey it in a way that didn’t sound completely psychotic. At this point in my life journey, I am a deeply spiritual (non-religious) person, and I think that when we pass on, we come to know everything. So I like to think that Bowie, in whatever form he might still exist, knows exactly how I feel and how much his music has done for me and countless others like me.

 
Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but I’m not going to pick this album apart like I’ve done with the others. I started to, but it didn’t feel quite right. I know this post is shorter than the others and a few hours overdue, but I’m going to leave it at that for now.

Sex with the Devil and “Man Who Sold the World”, 1970

An earworm, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, is basically a song or part of a song that gets stuck in your head (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm). As an auditory learner (so spake my fifth grade teacher), I get mad earworms. Usually it’ll last a couple of hours or a day, maybe a couple of days, and go away. Usually my earworms aren’t “cured” by listening to the song in question (although I hear that works for most). No matter how many times I listen to an earworm song, it’s just there until it’s done with its residency in my brain and then it moves on.

 

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Official album cover for the UK release

A couple times a year, I’ll get a Bowie earworm that persists for weeks or even months. I become obsessed with a song, consumed by it, distracted in my everyday life by it. It’s like a kind of fever, almost— at times I do feel almost ill, during brief moments of clarity where I realize that what I’m doing is a benign kind of madness, but I don’t care. I’m in love with the song and that’s just how it is. I play it on repeat, over and over and over, for the duration of every trip in the car, while I’m cleaning my apartment, while I’m cooking. The radio becomes unbearable because it’s not “that song.” I think about “that song” constantly when I’m not listening to it.

 
“Width of a Circle” was “that song” for a time, the first of many Bowie tracks that would grip me mercilessly and refuse to let go until they’d had their way with my auditory cortices.

 
I don’t mind.

 
“Width of a Circle” is the opening track on “Man Who Sold the World,” a ten-minute long epic psychedelic hard rock fusion about… well… sex, drugs, and rock n roll. It starts out as a kind of dreamy vignette, evoking hints of Eastern mysticism with references to Kahlil Gibran and the suggestion of introspection in the beginning (”I looked and frowned and the monster was me”) which might mean meditation. The song becomes increasingly psychedelic as it goes on, with the narrator talking to black birds and seeing or hearing small, yellow prayers and talking a sort of nonsense to himself (”Well I said hello and I said hello, I asked why not and I replied I dunno”). The “meditation” of the opening verses leads the narrator to an epiphany that he is not so different from God, thwen the song takes off into a rollicking, pulsing riff that accompanies about five verses detailing a wild and intense sexual encounter, where the narrator starts out making love with a man and winds up screwing the devil (”Spitting sentry, horned and tailed”).
It’s an interesting comment on many things but two themes in particular I find interesting: occultism and sexual fluidity. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of a young man who’s waking up to new ideas and new experiences— for occultism and gay sex were scarcely mentioned on the preceding albums, if memory serves.

 
Occult themes informed his work for years to come, especially during the mid-late seventies. In this piece, the occult serves as a window into the self, revealing ugly truths to the narrator about himself (”The monster was me”). As a recovering addict myself, I know all too well that these kinds of realizations can fuel a drug addiction, and I think it’s telling that this album preceded and coincided with Bowie’s burgeoning drug problem. Interestingly, years later, Bowie would turn to religion and the occult to “protect” himself from the terrifying figments of his paranoia during the years of his most serious drug use. In this sense, spiritualism is a kind of yellow brick road, leading Bowie into the “Oz” of his darker self, then leading him out of it, back to Kansas with a spirit full of new awarenesses.

 
Sexual fluidity became Bowie’s trademark for a while, and is still one of his more famous (but arguably less interesting) qualities. He wore a dress on the cover of the album (although the version with the cartoon cowboy was the official U.S. release because we Puritans couldn’t handle a gorgeous man in a fabulous dress playing psychedelic heavy metal music), and the cover of “Hunky Dory” would feature a portrait of Bowie’s face which hearkens to glamorous portraits of Hollywood actresses in the early twentieth century— and so on, right up until Blackstar. Many assumed Bowie was gay back then, but he was not— he was sexually and intellectually liberated. In this sense, we see “Man Who Sold the World” as a daring leap in the direction of the fearless, free-thinking, self-re-inventor we all know and love. While the first two albums were both good and interesting in their own ways, I think they still had at least one foot firmly rooted on that side of “normal.” On “Man,” Bowie abandoned himself to androgyny and occultism wholeheartedly, set precedent for future thematic obsessions musically and otherwise, and also set precedent for allowing himself to constantly change and evolve as an artist. Anyone who listens closely to “David Bowie” and “Space Oddity” and then “Man” shouldn’t have been surprised when Ziggy was “killed off” suddenly at the zenith of his popularity.

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American release version

The rest of the album is a blend of themes from war (as in Vietnam, as in “Running Gun Blues”), sexual braggadoccio (”She Shook Me Cold”), mental illness (”All the Madmen”). Tellingly, four of the other tracks on a nine-track album are occult themed. These tracks are also, in my opinion, the most musically imaginative, which I think is interesting. In particular, “The Supermen” is one of the most haunting, bafflingly epic songs I’ve ever heard. The low, demented “wahhh” sound, which is clearly a vocalization but not directly human; the prominent, pounding timpani; the eerie chorus behind Bowie’s strident voice proclaiming truths beyond time; it gives me chills no matter how many times I hear the track. (Side note: I also really enjoy the less-weird but equally epic version included as a bonus track on one of the reissues of “Hunky Dory”.)

 
To me, “Man” is the first album where we see Bowie in full bloom. Gone are all traces of the somewhat sleepy, folky mood of the first album, even on the slowest track of “Man” (”After All”, which is a haunting dirge about Aleister Crowley). Even the songs that use acoustic or folky sounds, there’s a vibrant new energy, a new liveliness, that infuses the music, and I think this stems from Bowie completely unleashing himself from social expectations and social acceptability. In this sense, Bowie himself is the man who sold the world: He “sold” or cast off the world he knew and loved, in order to be free as an artist to make the music he needed to make.

 
The second half of “Width of a Circle” betrays a fascinating sort of shame around sexual fluidity, by casting the male sexual partner as the devil (or vice versa). There’s something Puritanical about it, for sure, but I don’t see the narrator in the song balking at having sex with the devil. In fact, he seems to really enjoy it,  so much so that he invites the listener to come along (”Spitting sentry horned and tailed… waiting for you”). It’s almost an acknowledgment that Yes, we’re going on this ride, and it’s gonna be trippy and maybe a little scary, but it’s also gonna be awesome. And, like the mime piece from “Love You Til Tuesday,” it’s eerily prescient of the coming years of Bowie’s career and personal life.

Whimsy, Austerity, “Space Oddity” 1969

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This is actually the 1972 RCA LP issue but I like this cover better than the original.

I was pondering Bowie’s work the other day (like ya do) and I think I realized what it is that sets “David Bowie” apart from every single other album he made.

 
Y’see, “David Bowie” is whimsical. Or it wants to be. And that is not an adjective I can ascribe to any other of his albums. At all. Even when he was playful, Bowie was not whimsical. Dictionary.com gives the following definition of “whimsy”: capricious humor or disposition; extravagant, fanciful, or excessively playful expression.

 
While some of the albums may have been playful, they were not excessively playful. You could say that “Diamond Dogs” was fanciful, but whimsical? Fuck no, it was a glam rock musical about a desperate dystopian future where everyone’s a depraved cannibal on roller skates. Not whimsical. For some reason “extravagant” brings to mind “Station to Station”, especially the title track, with its luscious layers upon layers of sound, but again I have to say, definitely not whimsical (except maybe, MAYBE “TVC-15”, but… not really— that plodding bass line just has too much gravitas).

 
Even at his most playful, I think Bowie’s work retained a sense of austerity that is missing from “David Bowie”, which begins to take over during “Space Oddity.” Dictionary.com gives the following definitions of austere: rigorously self-disciplined and severely moral; ascetic; abstinent: and severe in manner or appearance; uncompromising; strict; forbidding. From what I know of the man, Bowie took his work quite seriously, and the rigorous self-discipline and uncompromising dedication it took to produce the prolific, luminary work he released during the 1969-1980 period is self-evident. (Not that I think either of these qualities waned after 1980, but he released thirteen incredible albums in eleven years, which, to me, typifies the afore-given definitiosn of austerity.)

 
My point is that this whimsy, which I feel was artificially injected into Bowie’s first album in an attempt to make it more commercially appealing, is mostly gone by “Space Oddity”. The only song I feel the “David Bowie”-esque “whimsy” still clinging to is my favorite song on the album, and I wish it had been given the full Bowie treatment (which it did in 2002, to be sure, and it’s glorious), “Conversation Piece.” And just like the biting cynicism of “David Bowie” was softened by being couched in whimsy, so is the poetic isolation of “Conversation Piece.” The original version of this song on “Space Oddity” is easy to write off because of the way it sounds, but once you pay it half a modicum of attention it’ll break your fucking heart. Or maybe that’s just me, because the song describes my life right now pretty accurately, only instead of visiting with an Austrian grocer, I go to twelve-step meetings.

 

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This album spans the gap between “hessian and lace” and “rock and roll,” where “Man Who Sold the World” would pretty well close it. “Space Oddity” isn’t one of my go-to albums, although I’ve done my diligence in listening to it quite a few times. Prior to the most recent listening, my favorite track on the album was probably “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” (which, being a self-professed Rock and Roll Person, makes sense). It starts out kind of slow and folky but quickly picks up into a filthy dirty blues-rock song. If you look up the lyrics, it’s quite a gritty number that touches on classism, raw sexuality, and hangovers. Knowing the bit that I do about the so-called “Bowie mythos,” this song feels like a tribute to his intense relationship with the legendary Hermione Farthingale. Farthingale, if I recall correctly, was rumored to be the daughter of a fairly well-known politician, which would explain why the father figure in this song is so concerned about his daughter’s dalliance. To be fair, said dalliance leaves her clinging to the toilet puking at the end of the song, so perhaps the father’s concern is justified. I never picked the song apart before, I just liked it because it was a good and interesting rock song, but I like it even better now.

 
Still, it lacks the emotional immediacy of “Conversation Piece.” Another song on the album about Hermione, “Letter to Hermione,” more than makes up for “Unwashed”’s lack of intimacy. However, I read “Unwashed” as a song in the beginning/middle of the relationship, whereas “Letter” is most definitely a breakup song— a terrific breakup song which beautifully captures the pain of watching someone move on when you yourself haven’t. The middle stanza, “Something tells me that you hide/when the world is warm and tired/you cry a little in the dark,” is so telling, so layered.

 

On the surface, it seems like a sentimental line about how breaking up sucks. But if you look a little closer, the narrator is imposing his own feelings on the subject of the song, and it’s actually— dare I say?— a little pathetic. Pathetic in the sense that the narrator is in so much pain and turmoil that he has to manufacture the same feelings in his ex, even though, at the beginning of that stanza, he says, “They say your life is going very well/They say you sparkle like a different girl.” She sounds all right to me, not the kind of person who I imagine crying in the dark over her ex. She’s fine, she’s happy, she’s moved on. He hasn’t. The narrator doesn’t want to believe that the subject can be so happy without him, so he forces her, in his own mind, to “secretly” be in the same pain as he. It’s tragic. It’s also beautiful, and it’s something I think we all do, to some extent, whether in romantic or platonic relationships. I remember, after a particularly painful breakup, thinking to myself, One day he’ll realize how good he had it and cry himself to sleep at night. I honestly had to believe that in order to cope with my own pain. In retrospect, I’m sure that never happened, but at the time, it was a wonderfully comforting thought.

 
“An Occasional Dream” is another maudlin breakup song. I prefer “Letter” to this one, because the first verse of “Dream” is just reminiscing and glorifying the relationship which is obviously very much over. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, it just turns me off a little. I do like the images later in the song of “I hold some ashes to me,” which I think describes what’s happening in the first verse pretty well; that is, the narrator is holding the ashes to him in song. In the end of the song we learn that “I keep a photograph/it burns my wall with time,” which I am inclined to link back to the ashes, held in verses prior. This photograph the narrator keeps— if I were his friend, I’d tell him to take it down and throw it away, burn it even, and move on (let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but oh my God, accidental “Lodger” reference, hah). The photograph is toxic, it’s destructive, it’s literally burning him! The fact that it’s burning the wall is a signal that the pain is destructive, but it also makes me think that there are walls coming down in the psychological sense.

 
That, I think, is exactly what’s happening on “Space Oddity.” Bowie was at the apex of what I call the bell curve of despair— something that happens to me, as an artist, where there’s a parabolic relationship between time, emotional angst, and artistic productivity. I think his falling-out with Hermione prompted him to bare his soul in a way that we did not see on “David Bowie.” Sure, there were songs on “Bowie” about relationships that made some poignant observations, but they were nowhere near the gut-level honesty of “Letter to Hermione.” I mean, it’s an open letter to his ex girlfriend. Who hasn’t done that? That’s not the kind of thing that we typically share with people, yet Bowie made a fucking album out of it.

 
Honestly, I think these moments of openness about Hermione are rare ones in Bowie’s oeuvre. The ensuing work tended to be more fanciful and/or more vague, for a time. I don’t think the vagueness and fancy detracted from the honesty of the work, I can think of many songs that were just as honest but less specific. So maybe I mean literal. The songs about Hermione were very literal and autobiographical. With a few exceptions on Hunky Dory (and possibly between 1983 and 2003, which albums I’ve not yet rigorously studied) there aren’t many other songs like these.

 

Hermione’s memory burned away certain walls, and I think other walls— more transparent, more poetic walls— were rebuilt in their place. There’s nothing wrong with walls, you know, walls are boundaries. Boundaries are healthy. Walls can be good things. I think in the verses in “Dream” that refer to walls burning down, the walls I imagine are the kind we typically mean in an interpersonal/psychological sense: Defensive walls which close us off from the people around us. Hermione broke those walls down, in terms of Bowie’s artistry, and for that I am eternally grateful. Bowie’s later work saved my life, again and again, and continues to do so to this day. Had Hermione never happened, or had it happened differently, we might never have gotten the immense catalog of Bowie’s music and other art that we enjoy today.

 
As an artist, I think it’s easy to develop affectations that only go skin-deep, which may seem more substantial than they really are. “Fake deep” is a term that gets thrown around sometimes. I don’t disparage any one style or mode of expression, but I think other artists will know what I mean. There’s a kind of willful abstruseness that can be employed for no reason at all. That’s not always a bad thing, but, for this listener, the stripping-away of these affectations during the writing and recording of “Space Oddity” is what shaped Bowie into the artist we all fell in love with. The psychic pain of this breakup was like the pain of tempering and polishing a piece of glass, until it can endure almost anything and sparkles in the light. Bowie shined so bright that his legacy burned a black star on to the retina of our culture, and it was his authenticity, his austerity, and his dedication to his work that set him apart from any other artist we’ve ever known.

 

P.S. I just realized I didn’t talk about the title track at all, which might seem weird because it’s one of his most famous songs and arguably the one that “put him on the map.” I don’t feel particularly inspired to try to work it into the post. I think it’s a good song and I love it, I get pumped when I hear it come on unexpectedly in a store or something. It’s a bit of a novelty track as well as an oblique metaphor for drug use, and, in my opinion, nowhere near as analytically interesting as the other tracks. I may come back to  “Space Oddity” some other time, but for now, that’s all I want to say.

Introduction – Hallo, Spaceboy!

I am undertaking to review one David Bowie studio album per month until I get through all twenty-six of them. Obviously this will exclude a ton of other material. I might include that in between album reviews, if I am so moved, or I might tackle it after the albums, but we’ll see.
A friend of mine introduced me to Bowie back in 2009. It was a dark time for me back then and I didn’t feel I had much of anything to live for. I’m not going to say that Hunky Dory became my reason to live, but— close enough. As Bowie himself said of the first time he heard Little Richard, the first time I listened to Hunky Dory all the way through, I felt like I had heard God. I felt like Dorothy stepping into Oz– Bowie’s music was important to me in Technicolor when the rest of the world was a nihilistic sepia. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard. At a time when I was completely numb from booze and drugs, Bowie made me weep and smile again. Anything that can touch an addict active in their addiction that deeply– that’s some powerful shit. Thus began a passionate, abiding, probably lifelong obsession with Bowie’s music.

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