Paul McCartney’s two-minute toss-offs are better than your symphonies. That’s an exaggeration; symphonies are symphonies and Paul McCartney’s are not all that. But two-minute pop songs are a different story. How many hit songs come out that cost millions of dollars to produce and have a credit list to rival a Hollywood blockbuster? And how many of those songs suck so much it makes you wonder if any human beings were involved in their making at all? Then there’s what Paul McCartney comes up with just doodling around alone in his basement. McCartney puts most of the rest of the music industry to shame.
“Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief”
Feel free to Google along if you want to follow all of the references. Being a David Bowie fan comes with a lot of homework. He consumes and repurposes culture of every stripe -a prodigious amount of culture – and he doesn’t bother to provide footnotes. Bowie, like many of his rock star peers, attended a technical arts school and he carried the persona of the earnest art student for many years afterwards. (As I understand it, at that time, English art schools served as a dumping ground for students who did poorly on their exams or had disciplinary issues i.e. John Lennon, Keith Richards, et al.) In fact, if the ever shifting nebula of Bowie personas could be boiled down to an essence, it would be that of the prodigious student. The brilliant student who shows off with his scope of knowledge grows into the confident academic so at ease with his many points of reference. On Hunky Dory – and this track in particular – we catch Bowie as the student who still feels the need to mix in ALL of the references just to show that he knows them, like an amateur cook going crazy with the spice rack. Do you really need to namecheck Greta Garbo and Heinrich Himmler? And Churchill? And Crowley? And Nietzsche? We get it, you’re an intellectual. From anyone else less brilliant it would be insufferable, of course, but it’s Bowie, and he built his stature on his ability to appeal to those people who feel at home with occult references and many level’d depths of meaning, people who feel underserved and understimulated by lowest-denominator entertainment. Just as he validated and inspired sexual outsiders with his androgyny and glamour, he attracted intellectual outsiders and dissidents with his book smarts and ambitious ideas. If David Bowie was an object, he’d be a bookshelf covered with glitter.
In which David Bowie steals – “with love!” – The Velvet Underground’s light and heat. Stealing with love, of course, has been David Bowie’s mo throughout his career; it’s what he does. And he was certainly better qualified than anyone to dip into Lou Reed’s narrative bag of drag queens, hustlers and various wild side characters. Lou Reed, though, was a journalist with a guitar and he wrote about real people and their real lives, as he saw them. David Bowie wasn’t all that much interested in reality, except possibly as an existential concept. In his interpretation of the same milieu, the element of fantasy replaces the element of grit. It’s like a Lou Reed song performed by one of Lou Reed’s characters, which I think is exactly the intention.
It goes without saying that I want to go away on Marc Bolan’s flying saucer. Take me away to an alternate universe of sex and glitter. Bolan is offering to rescue you from your mundane life; music will make you free, it will make you cool, it will take you to a higher consciousness. It’s a promise of redemption through creativity. Or just being a libertine if you’re not the creative type. That’s really all rock music ever had to offer, its one big idea; self-expression as sea change. Can we thank rock music for the way we understand our identities today? The idea that who you are means something. Create yourself and you create the world.
Kris Kristofferson pays tribute to his fellow outlaw country singers; Johnny Cash, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, men of a dying breed. Outlaw country doesn’t really exist anymore. Those guys were glamorous because they weren’t; they led lives more interesting than fiction, with music being a sideline to help finance all the booze. Of course they were all also toxic trainwrecks who poisoned their bodies, sabotaged their relationships, and alienated their children.But a moral story is not a fun story. In a fun story the going up is always worth the coming down.
Watch Cat Stevens be adorable and full of optimism. If the whole ‘chugging towards a better future’ message grinds on your cynical nerves, you must be very immune to charm. Granted, the idea of a future-bound train of peace is better suited to a children’s show than as a grownup anti-war commentary, but that shouldn’t make it less charming to grownups. Also I doubt that it’s intended as any kind of a serious commentary. He’s just saying that peace is nice and we should be aiming for it. In fact, don’t think of it as a protest or anti-war song or a political message of any kind; you should just think of it as an invitation to personal optimism; try to make the world a little bit better than you found it, and good things will come to you.
I’m still waiting for the day when I drop acid and watch Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. That seems like a very necessary thing to do in life. In the meantime, it’s still a film worth watching again and again. It’s Pink Floyd at the height of their powers, and that’s enough to make for a fascinating document. I like all the footage of ancient artifacts and arid landscapes, but that’s not really the point. You could say that the act of playing, without an audience, in the middle of a ruined city represents something about the band and their spirit of innovation, as in, you know, they’re just playing just for the sake of pure artistry, man. Or you could be cynical and say it’s just a visual gimmick. I’m leaning towards the former; you rarely see so much joy in pure innovation and creativity and just playing for the sake of it. You also didn’t see much of it again either, not after the big hits started coming. Maybe success didn’t curtail Pink Floyd’s innovative ambitions, but it definitely put a damper on their sense of joy and their unity as a group.