Aladdin Sane has languished near the bottom of my Bowie to-do list for some time. Rarely one to follow a linear path, I’d actually decided to skip several post-Ziggy albums and immerse myself in the Berlin Trilogy this year. I’d already begun preliminary research and exploration into Low, Heroes and Lodger when something terrible happened.
Donald Fucking Trump.
My longstanding tradition at the start of every year is a sacred ritual of personal cleansing: my blues jag. I usually listen to nothing but blues in January of each year to help me reconnect with what’s real. The blues is the art form of naked feeling, unspoken taboos and facing one’s demons. Listening to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King and others remind me of what’s essential.
With an incompetent, raving maniac assuming responsibility for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, I found I had no appetite for self-reflection and was not in the right frame of mind to drown myself in the blues. Up until 2016, I had no interest in politics and had never voted before. The U. S. campaign and election turned me into a news and history junkie, screwing up my body clock and threatening the three priorities that had made my life a very happy one: sex, music and baseball. Donald Trump represents a clear and present danger to my translation of life, liberty and happiness.
Okay, the sex part was never in any real danger. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that dickless jerk interfere with my need to fuck long, hard and often.
But Trump’s election roughly coincided with the Cubs winning the Series, leaving me to face the already too-long off-season without action on the diamond. And as for music, all my carefully laid plans for the year went up in orange smoke as I shifted my focus to reviewing albums concerned with looming dystopia (OK Computer), political protest (Rehearsals for Retirement) and an affirmation of the threatened concept of world citizenship (Streetcore).
Fortunately, Streetcore put me back in touch with the form of music conceived in the blessed spirit of defiance: rock ‘n’ roll. Joe Strummer’s fabulous rock songs on Streetcore triggered an insatiable desire for a serious rock ‘n’ roll fix. I frantically scanned my music library for albums with great rock songs, tore up the old plan and came up with The Altrockchick Trump Survival Plan: rock the fuck out! I’ll probably be on a rock jag for a while, and you’ll know I’ve returned to relative sanity and security when you see a blues review. When you see a jazz review, you’ll know I’m at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and all is well in the sex, music and baseball departments.
Back to Aladdin Sane. Though I don’t consider it his best work from an artistic perspective, it’s one of his better rock albums, featuring no less than three songs that make frequent appearances on my fuck playlists. Bowie was never a rocker in the purist sense of the word; he played in many genres, imbuing those genres with his own unique perspectives and sense of style. But whenever he found himself in a rocking mood, that man could kick some serious ass!
The album was put together in between Ziggy Stardust U. S. tour dates, motivated by the desperate need for a quick follow-up to capitalize on the listening public’s sudden craving for more tunes from the budding rock ‘n’ roll superstar. Given the circumstances, it’s probably more accurate to view Aladdin Sane as a theatrical work—the soundtrack of Bowie’s U. S. touring experience rather than a carefully-shaped musical opus. Bowie referred to the album as “Ziggy Goes to America,” and Aladdin Sane is a crucial part of Bowie’s adopt-a-persona period which ran from Ziggy Stardust all the way through Station to Station and The Thin White Duke. During this period, Bowie placed equal emphasis on music, style and stagecraft, and Aladdin Sane, with a setlist ranging from glam to doo-wop to cabaret, captures the essence of this phase in Bowie’s career.
The album kicks off in unbelievably frustrating fashion with the horrid recording of “Watch That Man.” A little bit of research will tell you that there was a big hoo-hah between the producer and the record company over two versions of the mix: the one you hear on the album and another where you can actually hear David Bowie singing. The record company didn’t like the first, called for the second, decided they liked the first better and let producer Ken Scott take the heat from all those fans screaming, “We can’t hear David!” The truth is the problem with the mix goes far beyond David Bowie’s virtual disappearance: the track completely lacks any sense of dynamics. After a very brief guitar and bass intro, the rest of the song is just one layer piled on top of another as if Ken Scott was actually trying to make the soufflé collapse. Further research indicated that Bowie and Scott might have overdosed on that extraordinarily overrated but extremely popular party album Exile on Main St, and divined that throwing everything into the mix was the new black. Compare “Watch That Man” to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (next review on the list!) and you will clearly understand the difference between “sloppy mess” and “the power of discipline and restraint.”
I will now suppress an overwhelming urge to lecture my readers on the power of discipline and restraint in a sexual context.
The title track is . . . well, as a song, it’s pretty bloody awful for the most part. The melody qualifies as “extremely labored,” a pattern of notes and rhythms that simply refuse to flow. Inspired by his reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Bowie’s lyrics reflect the oh-so-romantic lost generation period between the world wars when decadence was celebrated in cafés in Paris and Berlin while the world headed for another global calamity. The title, a pun on “A lad insane,” is likely a reference to his schizophrenic half-brother, but the connection between his brother and the “lost years” of the 1920’s and 30’s is never clearly established. What makes the track worthwhile is the combination of Mike Garson’s frenetic piano and David Sanborn’s tenor sax work. Garson’s 90-second solo is a riveting experience as he slips in and out of the base rhythm with a series of amazing runs and abrupt chording, showing us a universe of musical possibility within a frightfully simply A-G chord pattern. Although I’m a pianist of no repute at all, I do know a great pianist when I hear one, and Mike Garson is the bee’s knees (check out his album Jazz Hat for additional confirmation).
“Drive-In Saturday,” one of the singles from the album, was of two astonishingly gracious gifts that Bowie offered to Mott the Hoople (“Suffragette City” was the first). Apparently Ian Hunter had a problem with the complexity of the chord pattern and turned it down. I’m assuming he wasn’t referring to the “Angel Baby” chord pattern of the verses, but the three-step key change in the chorus that does lead to a more varied chord pattern. Fuck, man, that’s the best part of the song! If it weren’t for the key change and new chord structure, “Drive-In Saturday” would be as limp as “Crocodile Rock.” What the fuck’s the matter with you, anyway?
Stunningly, Bowie took the news of Mott’s rejection way too hard and shaved off his eyebrows. I . . . I . . . don’t know how to deal with that bit of gossip.
Although the doo-wop modeling feels a bit trite, David Bowie’s vocal on this song is one of his best, full of energy and playfulness, particularly on the chorus. The lyrics to “Drive-In Saturday,” filled with references to Mick Jagger (sexy), Twiggy (sexless) and Jung (not as hung up as Freud), are post-apocalyptic in the vein of Side One of Ziggy Stardust, describing a world where people have to watch old porn flicks because they’ve forgotten how to fuck.
I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN THAT WORLD.
Alladin Sane is one of those albums that get better the further you go, and it doesn’t get much better than “Panic in Detroit.” The song works on so many levels that the best phrase I can come up with to describe it is “a masterpiece of contradiction and cohesion.” The lyrics and Bowie’s anxiety-ridden vocal capture the manic anxiety of existence amidst the chaos of riot-torn Detroit in the mid-60’s, where both property and the fundamentals of social order went up in frustration-fueled flames:
He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit
Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights
This is a very impressive expressionistic rendering of the Detroit riots, made all the more impressive by the fact that Bowie wasn’t within a thousand miles of Detroit during the explosive years from 1966 to 1968. Iggy Pop told Bowie about the riots and the 60’s revolutionaries inhabiting the milieu, and through the magic of artistic alchemy, David Bowie made the scene come alive.
The story told in word and voice gains exponential power from the supporting music. The rhythm, combining Latin and R&B influences and propelled forward by congas and Trevor Bolder’s accelerating bass runs, amplify the sense of urgency; Linda Lewis’ orgasmic cries intensify the sense of panic; and Mick Ronson’s amazing guitar somehow manages to communicate a sense of structure (though the repeated riffs) and a structure coming apart at the seams (through the clipped distortion and the occasional guitar scream). “Panic in Detroit” is a song that sounds like it’s coming together and falling part at the same time, giving the listener an incredibly thrilling experience.
I should have said, “thrilling in every sense of the word,” for despite the depiction of violent upheaval, “Panic in Detroit” is one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard. I always place it after the one-hour mark in my fuck playlists, when the foreplay is long over and all parties involved have succumbed to call of the wild. At that point, the section of the brain concerned with language has been anesthetized by estrogen and/or testosterone, rendering lyrics irrelevant and making groove paramount . . . and the layered groove of “Panic in Detroit,” is intensely erotic.
“Cracked Actor” is another track that frequents my fuck playlists, with its thick guitar, slamming drums and cry to “suck, baby, suck.” This is a very flexible track suitable for both the erotic trance and the warmup period, particularly if the heat is generated through a supple whip or stiff riding crop. The Hollywood loser who serves as the main character is one of those obnoxious pricks who fucks mindlessly and heartlessly, needing plenty of drugs to keep his little skippy hard. I tune the loser out and surrender myself to the lure of Ronson’s kick-ass guitar and Woody Woodmansey’s drums.
Bowie then transforms the mood with “Time,” an ingenious mix of Berlin cabaret, electrified Jacques Brel and Hunky Dory pop. My mother was absolutely thrilled when David did Jacques Brel in a brief acoustic interlude during the Ziggy Stardust concert at Winterland, and his admiration for Brel reflects both his intensity and sense of drama in song. “Time” is the most theatrical piece on the album, opening with Mike Garson’s melodramatic stride piano and punctuated with dramatic pauses that demonstrate the power of silence in the auditory arts. I think critics who pooh-poohed the song for its incoherent lyrics made the mistake of listening for poetry when they should have followed the dramatic peaks and valleys. For me, “Time” demonstrates Bowie’s superior acting skills in comparison to other rock and pop singers of the time (try to imagine Paul McCartney covering “Time,” for example), and his ability to make the bizarre familiar with a strong chorus without detracting from the artistry of the song.
Speaking of Hunky Dory, “Prettiest Star” should sound very familiar, with its melody and feel echoing “Kooks.” This lovely little tune actually pre-dates Hunky Dory, as the original version was a follow-up single to Space Oddity that he recorded with Marc Bolan of T. Rex fame. The single bombed, perhaps because the world wasn’t quite ready to overdose on an androgynous rock star, or perhaps because Bowie was still in relative infancy and still working on his phrasing. I’ll go with the latter explanation because the two versions are similar but the Aladdin Sane version features a more confident, in-command Bowie and a cleaner glam-rock arrangement.
We interrupt this program for a mid-review rant. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” will never appear on my fuck playlists, no matter who’s singing it. Why? It’s very simple: I hate fucking euphemisms. Let me clarify that sentence: I hate fucking (used as an intensive) euphemisms and I hate fucking euphemisms (euphemisms applied to the sacred act of fucking). Is that fucking clear now? A euphemism is “a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.” I wholly reject the notion that sex is offensive or unpleasant, and anyway, what the hell would “innocuous sex” look like? We keep our clothes on and stare longingly at each other’s genitalia? Yes, yes, yes, I realize that open discussion about sex was not socially acceptable in the mid-60’s when Jagger and Richards wrote this tune, but I find hypocrisy annoying in any era. While thousands of sexual euphemisms have been employed in popular music over the centuries, this one really pisses me off because it’s so painfully obvious what two people are going to do if they spend the night together. If they were spending the evening together, okay—let them play Scrabble or catch an early movie. But if they’re spending the night together, and they’re consenting adults, NO ONE IS GOING TO BELIEVE THAT SPENDING THE NIGHT TOGETHER MEANS WE’RE HAVING A SLEEP-OVER OR A PLATONIC PAJAMA PARTY. So why not go ALL THE WAY? “Come On, Let’s Fuck Together” would have been a vast improvement—even if the censors bleeped the dreaded F-word.
We now return to our review of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
Euphemisms temporarily aside, David Bowie’s version of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is far superior to the original, which lopes along like a humble cowboy faced with a reluctant virgin. An exploding synthesizer and Mike Garson’s radical, dissonant, urgent piano set the tone, and wham!—the band starts down the track like a bullet train. When Bowie sings “I’m in no hurry, I can take my ti-hi-hime,” he is lying through his teeth, suffering from serious anxiety that his balls are about to explode. When he cries, “Oh, my!” in the second verse, I know that all I have to do is show him my tits and he’ll come in a New York second. The slowdown leading to Bowie’s poetry is a bit of theatrics I can do without, but without those kind of diversions, Bowie wouldn’t be Bowie, and I love him for that.
And I love him even more for “Jean Genie,” a fuck playlist perennial. I find it fascinating that this song thrills me so, given its lengthy musical genealogy from Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the Bo Diddley original to the raving Yardbirds version of the mid-60’s. I can feel my ass getting into gear as soon as I hear Mick Ronson’s hard-and-fast picking and the entry of Trevor Bolder’s bass. When the band settles into the irresistible groove they maintain their discipline like good boys and give David plenty of room to play. Instead of going manic on us, though, Bowie approaches the vocal with a laid-back but unmistakeable attitude, reinforcing the tease. When part of the band jumps the chord pattern a bit too soon and Bowie responds by telling them to “Get back on it,” he sounds like a man on life support desperate to maintain contact with the building, teasing groove. I tend to agree with the characterization of the lyrics as the “stylized sleaze” of the Velvet Underground, forming part of the erotic background instead of telling a story. This fits the backstory, where Bowie said he wrote the song in the apartment of one of Warhol’s female devotees, whom he described as a “sexy girl.” Given his tendency to indulge in long, unintelligible explanations of some of his works, his brevity speaks volumes. “Jean Genie” is about sex, meant to inspire sex, drips with sex, and should be the national anthem of the entire fucking world.
Alladin Sane closes quite appropriately with the drama queen tour-de-force, “Lady Grinning Soul.” Mike Gerson’s piano in this piece falls somewhere between Liberace and Liszt; I picture David doing this vocal in a full-length evening gown at the late-night drag show. While it would have been easy for this song to inspire the giggles, Bowie’s obvious sincerity and commitment to the role make for a strangely alluring listening experience. The lyrics are the best on the entire album, describing a multi-talented, independent woman—just the kind of woman who strikes terror into the hearts of the insecure male population. David Bowie encourages men everywhere to give into her temptation AND SO DO I!
She’ll come, she’ll go
She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view
And when the clothes are strewn
Don’t be afraid of the room
Touch the fullness of her breast
Feel the love of her caress
She will be your living end
David’s acoustic guitar solo is pretty impressive, too, and I love the way the fade gives everyone in the band a little action, as if they’re taking their final bow. Theatrics at its best.
Sensuous and dramatic, curious and curiouser, displaying remarkable variety in style and arrangement, Alladin Sane may not be one of Bowie’s best albums, but let’s pause on that thought for a minute and put it into context. If this is not one of his best albums, it’s because we set the bar higher for David Bowie—and I think he made similar demands of himself throughout his career. The truth is that most musical artists would kill to have one album as good as Aladdin Sane, because even when Bowie wasn’t at his best due to circumstances or mood, he was still David Bowie—unique, irreplaceable and fully committed to his art. More than most musicians who kick around for a while without focus or intent, David Bowie understood the vital importance of commitment, of giving it all you’ve got, regardless of the risk.
You can’t clone that. You have to be that. David Bowie is one of the few who got that.
Hunky Dory was David Bowie’s breakout album, but hardly anyone noticed at the time.
While welcomed by generally favorable reviews, Hunky Dory didn’t do much on the charts until after Ziggy Stardust. This wasn’t uncommon in the 60’s and 70’s, when the record companies generally took more time to develop their artists and were willing to take some losses up front in the hope of a bigger payoff down the road. The closest analogy to David Bowie’s commercial trajectory is Billy Joel, who didn’t hit the big time until Strangers, his fifth attempt. After Strangers went platinum, Americans went batshit crazy for Billy Joel, digging into his back catalog and discovering “Piano Man,” a tune that appeared on his second album. It eventually became Billy Joel’s signature song.
And that’s the last fucking time you will ever hear me comparing Billy Joel to David Bowie.
Bowie’s attempt at airplay got off to a rough start. His first album was released on June 1, 1967. Hmm. That date sounds awfully familiar . . . oh yes. It was the day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released.
His first few albums were characterized by artistic oscillations that probably made it hard for the listening public to get a fix on him. His first album, David Bowie, falls somewhere between British music hall, Engelbert Humperdinck and Herman’s Hermits—pleasant but surprisingly sexless and rock-free. His second album (also called David Bowie, but better known by the title of the 1972 re-release, Space Oddity) is more folk-tinged—still subdued but you can hear growing confidence in his voice. Bowie didn’t start to rock out until The Man Who Sold the World, and while the album has some interesting cuts, it’s obvious he was still feeling his way and hadn’t quite hit his stride.
And then it all came together on Hunky Dory. Whether it was his free-agent status (he recorded the album without a contract), the new band lineup consisting of the future Spiders from Mars plus Rick Wakeman, or the volumes of Nietzsche he was consuming at the time, David Bowie transformed himself from quirky, uncertain performer into a man brimming with confidence in an expansive artistic vision. I’ll let the rest of the world engage in the debate as to which David Bowie album is his best, but I would say that Hunky Dory is his most exuberant album, filled with delightful surprises, playful humor and enough stylistic diversity to keep things interesting. I would also say that this is the point when David Bowie became a great songwriter, a quality that has been often overlooked in the many retrospectives on his life’s contributions.
The album opens with what started out as a cheesy lounge number and became one of Bowie’s most memorable numbers, “Changes.” Many critics have interpreted the song within the limited context of rock music, taking the line “look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers” as Bowie’s challenge to the old guard that he’s on his way to the top. If such was the case, the song would never have connected so strongly with the general public. Careful listening (a skill many critics curiously lack) reveals a more universal tale of life and change. The repeated line, “Turn and face the strange” is a message for any human being on the planet who finds him or herself stuck in a rut—something all of us experience from time to time, not just rock musicians. Facing the strange, whether it’s listening to bebop for the first time or visiting a country where you know neither the customs nor the language, is an uncomfortable experience indeed, but it is also a growth experience that gives us new ways of looking at life. Only the first verse deals with Bowie’s personal growth, a journey launched by self-reflection (“So I turned myself to face me”). The second verse calls out the older generation for trying to control and limit the potential of their children, another universal experience dating back to the dawn of human civilization:
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through
“Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it,” sings Bowie—great advice that is too often ignored. When we get to the line, “Look out, you rock ‘n’ rollers,” Bowie is simply pointing out that even rockers can become brain dead losers resistant to change and to new possibilities in music.
Literary interpretation aside, “Changes” is an endlessly delightful song. The opening still retains a cheesy, easy listening feel, making the lyrical depth and variable phrasing of the verses all the more interesting. The stuttering “ch-ch-ch-ch changes” is a rhythmic masterstroke that breaks the pattern of more traditional transitions from verse to chorus, and producer Ken Scott’s panning on the chorus that places the “ch-ch-ch-ch changes” in center while we hear Bowie sing the lines in stereo makes for a terrifically engaging listening experience. Although it’s almost impossible to assign a signature song to an artistic chameleon like David Bowie, “Changes” is as good a choice as any.
“Changes” is a piano song, and the second number on the album follows that pattern. Many people don’t realize that “Oh, You Pretty Things” is actually a remake of the original, one that became a modest hit for the post-Herman’s Hermits Peter Noone. True to his cute boy brand, Peter changed the line “the Earth is a bitch” to “the Earth is a beast,” ensuring he would forever be linked in the annals of infamy with the Rolling Stones and their artistically gutless decision to sing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The common read on the song reflects the influence of Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley, particularly their ideas on the improvability of the human race, but I find that interpretation somewhat limited. As he did in “Changes,” David Bowie tied the theme to the unnecessary conflict between parent and child, a fruitless battle that defies the evolutionary progress embedded in the human gene pool. It makes perfect sense that Bowie would be sensitive to generational dynamics, having become a parent during the development of Hunky Dory. The “pretty things” are the children of the coming generation, especially the teenagers who were experimenting with flamboyant dress and make-up after seeing Marc Bolan all-a-glitter on Top of the Pops in March 1971. The Marlene Dietrich-influenced cover reflects also Bowie’s progression towards hermaphrodite status, which makes for a more provocative interpretation of the line, “Got to make way for the Homo Superior.”
“Oh, You Pretty Things” fades nicely into the piano intro to “Eight Line Poem,” where David is joined by Mick Ronson, who provides a sweet counterpoint to the keyboard. This short piece primarily reinforces the more reflective feel of Side 1, an intermission that seems to have come too soon. “Life on Mars” also begins with another reflective passage on the piano, but here the intent is satiric, as Bowie’s intention was to create a parody of Paul Anka’s “My Way,” especially the version sung by ‘Ol Blue Eyes. While that may have been his intent, the lyrics do not present the faux self-reflection of the original, making the satiric connection inferred at best. What Bowie does describe is life as a script rather than the exploration it should be, and continuing the theme of generational disconnection, he makes the heroine a young girl whose lack of physical perfection enhances her status as an outcast:
It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times before
The build to the chorus is intensely dramatic, thanks to Mick Ronson’s string arrangement, setting the stage for Bowie to express deep frustration with the absurd human obsession with violence that characterizes life on Earth:
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
The second verse shifts to a first-person semi-absurdist narrative where Bowie shares his read on current affairs. I think shifting to first-person actually weakens the poetry—the girl in the first verse gives us someone we can empathize with, while the second verse gives us opinions we can agree or disagree with. The result is we lose the emotional connection to the song. That said, Bowie’s lead vocal compensates nicely for the lyrical deficiencies, as you have to admire his command of dynamics and intensely expressive phrasing.
A generational song of a more personal nature, “Kooks” is a musical welcome to Bowie’s new son Duncan. I know it’s probably difficult for people to reconcile the David Bowie pictured on the covers of Aladdin Sane or Diamond Dogs as a responsible, loving parent, but I can’t imagine a kid not wanting a father who approaches parenting like this:
And if you ever have to go to school
Remember how they messed up
This old fool
Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s Dads
And if the homework brings you down
Then we’ll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown
“Kooks” is the only song I’ve ever heard that actually awakens the maternal urge in me. It makes me want to show the whole world that kooky bisexual perverts can make way better parents than self-important, sexless bores obsessed with getting their kids into Hah-vaad! Let’s move on to the next song before I get the urge to go shopping at the Sperm Bank!
“Quicksand” is definitely a mood-shifter, with its weary vocal singing of Crowley and Himmler riding over the shifting dynamics of a solo acoustic guitar. While I love Ken Scott’s arrangement of layered acoustic guitar mingling with another clever string arrangement courtesy of Mick Ronson, I find the lyrics both didactic and self-absorbed. I find philosophical dissertations boring in any context, but especially so in the context of music.
Side 2 opens with a playful interpretation of a song co-written Paul Williams (!) and a character named Biff Rose, who had brief fame as a comedian in the late 60’s, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, among others. Tiny Tim, another curious only-in-the-60’s kind of guy, recorded “Fill Your Heart” as the B-side to his horrible hit, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Bowie has fun with the song, which is about all you can do with it. It ends with a rapid trip down the piano keyboard, followed by the odd sound of a single saxophone note flashing across the stereo spectrum—the opening to “Andy Warhol.”
The first in series of three tribute songs on Hunky Dory, “Andy Warhol” is by far the strongest. The casual opening featuring David Bowie correcting Ken Scott’s pronunciation of the artist’s name immediately establishes a relaxed intimacy that is reinforced by Bowie’s delightful multichannel laughter. In contrast, the music is Spanish-tinged heat, with Bowie driving the acoustic rhythm and Mick Ronson deftly picking the cascading notes that form the counterpoint. While the music has little in common with flamenco in terms of either time signature or beat emphasis, the music captures the feel of Spanish folk music through the strumming style and the use of clappers. The music bears little apparent connection to the subject matter, which ironically reflects the character at the heart of the story—the music communicates a sense of mystery, and for many people, Andy Warhol was the ultimate enigma. “Why’s this guy painting Campbell’s Soup cans? What does that have to do with art?” You find yourself asking a similar question when you listen to “Andy Warhol,” namely, “What’s the connection between Spanish folk music and Andy Warhol?” The explanation from the Warhol Museum website is the best answer you’re going to get:
The social intent of his work may lie in its very ambiguity and the possibility for multiple interpretations. Do Warhol’s portraits pay homage to Jackie’s stately example of mourning—her public grief as the widowed First Lady? Or do they mirror, in their constancy and repetition, the media’s relentless portrayal of the events surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination? In this work, as in others, the artist seems to both celebrate and critique American culture.
Enigmatic music for an enigmatic artist makes perfect sense. Where Bowie’s lyrics really shine is in his ability to capture the mind of an artist who sees all cultural artifacts, including living, breathing human beings through the prism of artistic possibility:
Like to take a cement fix
Be a standing cinema
Dress my friends up just for show
See them as they really are
Put a peephole in my brain
Two New Pence to have a go
I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show
Warhol held up a mirror to American culture, and the line “Andy Warhol, Silver Screen/Can’t tell them apart at all” is the essence of his work. An exceptionally compelling piece of music, “Andy Warhol” is one of Bowie’s finest moments.
I’m far less enthusiastic about the second tribute song, “Song for Bob Dylan,” which I hear as competitive sniping and little else—and that’s from someone who’s pretty lukewarm about Bob Dylan. I’m far more excited by “Queen Bitch,” a tribute to the Velvet Underground, or, more accurately, to the Lou Reed faction of the Velvet Underground. Finally, some kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll! I remain stunned that Lou Reed never recorded this himself, as David Bowie perfectly captured the Lou Reed style and attitude right down to the offhand phrasing of the bemused observer of life:
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo
Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low
‘Cause she’s hoping to score, so I can’t see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart, walk out of her mind? Oh not her!
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that
The band’s tightness here foreshadows the style of Ziggy Stardust, where they would really shift into overdrive.
Hunky Dory ends with “The Bewlay Brothers,” described by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray as “probably Bowie’s densest and most impenetrable song,” a point of view generally in concurrence with Bowie’s comments on the piece. Hmm. I’m not sure I agree. It’s obvious that the bulk of the lyrics have to do with the imaginative adventures of two brothers as they try to survive the dullness of their childhood environment; the use of the “we” form indicates that David Bowie is one of those brothers. In the last verse, something happens to the other brother—something so unspeakable that neither the brother nor the family will receive much in the way of sympathy:
Now my Brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, He could be not
He could be You
David Bowie did have a schizophrenic half-brother, and schizophrenics do tend to trigger more fear than compassion. The distorted vocals on the coda hint that the parents—particularly the father—chose to ignore the problem, virtually abandoning both children by refusing to deal with the unspeakable:
Lay me place and bake me Pie
I’m starving for me Gravy
Leave my shoes, and door unlocked
I might just slip away
Just for the Day, Hey!
Please come Away, Hey!
“The Bewlay Brothers” may remain a mystery for the ages, but I find the song oddly engaging and curiously inviting, like the creaky door to the abandoned house everyone says is haunted.
I have to say that I enjoyed the hell out of doing this review. I had the chance to listen to Hunky Dory several times during the process and I never tired of it for a second. David Bowie would lead us through many twists and turns during his multifaceted career in the arts, but Hunky Dory is the place where he gained his footing as both a songwriter and recording artist. For that reason, it remains one of his most important contributions to modern music.