The baby Bowie of the sixties was dorky, earnest and notably uncool – exactly the opposite of everything we’ve come to associate David Bowie with. It was adorable. It was also odd that out of all the exciting things going on in music at the time, Bowie was writing twee little narrative songs in music hall style, probably the least hip possible direction to go in. It does show that he was already an iconoclast with a nose for the unexpected. He just hadn’t figured out how to channel that in a way that people actually liked. Of course it also means that, in his absolute failure to get attention, he really dodged a bullet. Imagine an alternate universe in which something like this (or worse, The Laughing Gnome) became the novelty hit of the summer. It would have been an absolute career dead end, not a reputation one could easily shake or move on from. We would then have enjoyed decades of David Bowie, composer of cute novelty songs and writer of middling West End musicals, perhaps with a lucrative sideline banging out power ballads for vocal divas. That’s not a world I’d much like to live in.
I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically. Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was – there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed. – Leonard Cohen
That is a very lyrical and generous way to characterize what is, simply, the poet’s own memory of a person who struck him when he was young. And he’s right about it; the one person who lives differently, alone and unprecedented becomes the precedent for the next generation. Which is, in a small and lonely, heroic. This woman Nancy, whatever became of her, she sounds like someone I would know.
I’ve often wondered about who Emily is and what she’s doing. I’ve read that she was everything from a British socialite to a child Syd Barrett encountered in the woods, both of which things sound legit. Either way, she sounds like kind of a sad person. If she’s a figment of Syd’s imagination, she’s clearly got to be pretty sad. Or, she’s a socialite, and her socialite life is hollow and meaningless and filled with miserable parties.
If any hit song has undeservedly and inexplicably been bludgeoned into pop culture oblivion by excessive overplay, it’s this one. Is it because it’s catchy and very slightly ominous, or just because witches are very trending right now? Nothing ruins a cool tune like hearing it repeatedly shoehorned into some shitty piece of entertainment completely removed from its original meaning and context. It’s at the point where being made into an entire full length Nicolas Cage movie is not even the greatest indignity. Donovan, of course, must be earning enough royalties to purchase the Scottish highlands in their entirety, and no one could possibly begrudge him that, but when your song is being featured in a live-action adaptation of an Archie comic, I don’t know, maybe stop and think back to 1966 and how much you presumably cared about not appearing to be a greedy corporate sellout.
Comfort-music is part of a much-needed psychological self-care arsenal, along with your tea, your macaroni-and-cheese-adjacent-substance, your responsible self-medication and your small furry animals. I think it’s very called-for in times like these, and even when times are good. So on that note we’re on quite a roll with the psychedelic folk music this week, and I’m warning you, it’s not about to end. I have a lot more coming up in a similar vein, so you might as well make it a playlist. Relax, fire up a bong or whatever it is you do to unwind, and let the #bigmood take you. Because Tyrannosaurus Rex well never not be what the kids call a ‘big mood’ for me. Marc Bolan’s voice just gives me a deep sense of comfort and well-being. Psychedelia and fantasy provides an escape from the grind of reality, takes the sharp edges off a little, makes the hours go by a little more smoothly. Reality just conspires to bring you down.
Tyrannosaurus Rex is, apparently, not a universal taste. Later-era T. Rex is highly accessible and well known, but those pre-name change early records mostly elicit confusion. Maybe listeners are put off by Marc Bolan’s mushy mouthed delivery, or, if they can get past that, the odd subject matter. You’re just not high enough to really dig the bongos and children’s lit references, my friends. Listening to Tyrannosaurus Rex is like being absorbed in another world – you have to surrender to it and accept its weird rules.
We take if for granted that pop culture moves at lightning speed. Memes and trends have lifespans akin to fruit flies’. It’s hard to imagine something being consistently popular for more than a few weeks, let alone decades like Simon & Garfunkel have been. Even harder to wrap our infinite-scroll addicted brains around is something staying popular for centuries. Centuries. This song has been iterated and reiterated for so long, we don’t even really for sure what period it dates from. As far back as the middle ages, maybe. Our culture may appear frenzied, on the surface, but old folk traditions die hard. Tunes that were spread and passed down through generations in times when most folks didn’t know their letters remain entrenched in the culture. It makes you think about the implications of our collective social evolution. Society and technology may change each other in unimaginable ways in the space of a single lifetime, but people will cling to and remember useless things like a song across a timespan of countless generations. Cultural memory exists outside the whims of technology. Technologies rise and fall like empires. If it feels that societal change comes slowly and with great pain, that people’s habits and beliefs aren’t keeping up with the pace of technological development, that we aren’t living up to our own potential to evolve and improve as a global community and as a species – remember that we’re all carrying memories from forebears whose names have been forgotten and whose lives passed with no form of record. We’re still living, unconsciously, with the culture of our ancestors, still singing the same songs they sang.