I love the Rolling Stones when they’re at their most weird, and they never broke away from their usual hitmaking formula harder than they did on Their Satanic Majesties Request. In all fairness, 1967 was a bumper crop of psychedelic albums striving to emulate the surreal sing-along ebullience that sounded so effortless when The Beatles did it. But among all of the attempts to make a worthy reply to Sgt. Pepper, nobody failed as hard as The Stones. They didn’t just fail to capture the Summer of Love spirit, they made mockery of it. With three-fifths of the group being embroiled with the criminal justice system, nobody’s head was exactly open to waves of cosmic love or whatever (something Mick Jagger was always too much of a flinty-eyed realist to fall for anyway.) The Stones’ use of popular hippie musical tropes only exposed those gestures for what they were: empty posturing and hopelessly naive ideology unhinged from reality. The sixties only went downhill from there.
When David Bowie died, according to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in a Buddhist ceremony. He was never the kind of artist who makes a point of thanking God in his liner notes, or type to suddenly go off and join a church. Aside from sometimes wearing a cross, presumably for fashion purposes, he made surprisingly little use of religious iconography. As private as he was with his spiritual beliefs, we do know that the interest in Buddhism stretches all the way back to his student days. Something about the spiritual discipline of Buddhism appealed to him deeply. He continued quietly studying the philosophy throughout his life, and would sometimes make references to Buddhist writings in his more cryptic songs. This early song, a bold standout from an era of rather uneven output, is one of the Bowie’s most explicit explorations of the spiritual condition. The fascination is with the process of becoming a spiritual person. Enlightenment requires sacrifice, discipline, hard work; it doesn’t just happen, and although we all have the potential, not everyone is able to follow that path. Some people who could have followed the spiritual path choose instead to pursue a secular one. One wonders if David Bowie saw himself as the boy in the song. Being a gifted and charismatic person, someone like Bowie could have followed a path of spiritual leadership, but instead chose to use all that exceptionality in a secular field. You could – and many of us do – think of David Bowie as a spiritual leader in his own way, but the material life of a rock star could never be compatible with the abnegation of the material world that a fully spiritual life requires.
The Beatles didn’t singlehandedly convince ‘the establishment’ that rock and roll was worthy of the same respect as ‘proper’ music, but they certainly contributed more than a fair shakes towards earning that respect. It’s generally agreed that Sgt. Pepper was a catalyst in establishing rock music as a real art form, and She’s Leaving Home is generally pointed out as proof that rock musicians are capable of producing works of great sensitivity and nuance. The youths of the time needed no convincing on this point, but the squares were reluctant to give those long-haired upstarts their due as songwriters and composers. All they needed was Paul McCartney in his most dewy-eyed mode, thoughtfully acknowledging the sad and inevitable gap between between generations and their inability to relate to one another, backed with a plush string arrangement. Now, of course, the artistic validity of rock as a genre is beyond any shadow of a doubt; if anything, it has become overly entrenched as the dominant cultural standard. It strikes us as outlandish and unthinkable that anyone would have ever questioned it.
The Rolling Stones may have been slightly out of their element playing phosphorescent psychedelic pop music about love and rainbows, but they’ve rarely written anything prettier. No one was immune to the dizzy highs of the Summer of Love, not even a group whose key members actually spent the summer in and out of jail. Anyway, the Stones’ fabled sympathy towards the dark side was mostly savvy marketing (although, one trail of corpses later, it does seem to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Mick Jagger could just as easily sold himself to the public as a nice young man who went to a very good school, but the pop market already had enough nice young men and the public wanted a bete noire. With this kind of songwriting and less carnage, the Stones could have become pillars of the British Empire a lot sooner.
In between the hits, we find Rolling Stones songs that are not about the usual sex’n’drugs crap. All that strutting would be a pretty meaningless posture if Mick Jagger didn’t occasionally show glimmers of vulnerability and self-awareness. Nobody, not even Jagger, can maintain eternal cockiness as a full-time job, and it’s endearing to think that he may mope and worry about his hair turning grey. (It’s hard to imagine Jagger maintaining his longevity without a fluffy head of hair.) It’s also endearing to know that Jagger, like anyone else, just wants a little sympathy and a pat on the head. You can have sex with thousands of people, but not all of them will pat you on the head afterwards.
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’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.