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.
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.