For the full context of sadness, you need to sit down and listen to Lou Reed’s Berlin. It may leave you feeling suicidal, but in an awestruck way. It will have the impact of getting lost in, and thoroughly wrung out by, a good narrative. It’s almost like a full novel fragmented and compacted into just under an hour of music. It’ll make you grateful to be living a dull-person life, not convulsed by misery and violence, not enslaved by drug abuse, not intruded upon by so-called social services, not constrained by a broken political machine in a broken city. And if those things do constitute your life, or have done in the past, you may recognize and reevaluate yourself. You may feel triggered and have to turn the damn thing off, especially at the part when the children cry. You may even feel inspired and long to step up your own game and reach for something more impactful in whatever your own outlet is.
“The carpet’s all paid for, God bless the TV”
Elton John wouldn’t know what it feels like to be resigned to a tiny, meaningless life confined by carpet and television. He had a bigger destiny. But if he hadn’t made it as a rock star, he would well have been facing a miserable lifetime of conformity and complacency. Alcoholism, depression, divorce, alimony payments, poverty, all of the fun stuff. If he’s any sort of a reasonable thinking person at all – and I’m certain that he is! – he’s thanking the skies above that he had the talent and the drive and the luck not to end up a sad lonely little man with nothing to lean on in life but the westerns on TV. But he has a ton of empathy for those people who did end up like that. And he’s saying that there ain’t nothing wrong with it. It’s a sign of Elton John’s empathy as a performer and Bernie Taupin’s empathy as a writer that they don’t use the small person’s small life as a metaphor for some grander point about the general meaninglessness and unfairness and grinding ennui of a society that dehumanizes and isolates even as it comforts and tranquilizes etc. etc. Lots of people’s lives revolve around small comforts and familiarity and dumb entertainment and they’re not really aching for anything more. They just want to settle down and watch Roy Rogers reruns in peace, and that doesn’t make them bad people and it’s not an indictment on all of society.
I barely recognized this as David Bowie the first time I put on this record. It’s not very often that David Bowie sounds so…unhinged. Well, Pin Ups is a covers record, and he made a point of picking weird and unexpected songs. This one is from The Pretty Things, one of the first garage rock bands, and the original sounds like it was recorded inside of a large dumpster. Which is the opposite of the usual Bowie approach, and which is what makes for a weird selection. It is, of course, trailblazing, because hardly anybody was doing cover records in 1973. It almost feels like a novelty record, because it’s very very campy, almost too silly. But fun.
Nothing warms my cold Russian heart like the thought of the German infantry freezing to death on the steppes of the Motherland. So this deeply researched and historically accurate narrative ballad by Al Stewart hits me close to home in a way that pretty much nothing else does. Western European pop culture has rarely taken any notice of the Eastern bloc, making it a very one-sided love affair for music lovers living on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. So thanks not only for the shout-out, Al Stewart, but also for the vivid and accurate depiction of the war years. Like everyone, I grew up viewing the Russian resistance of the Nazi invasion and subsequent victory as the height of national heroism, and a point of pride in a history in which points of pride are notably few and far between. Of course, even a casual bit of research shows that the great victory was mostly the result of bad weather and a massive disregard for human life, rather than military competence or firepower. We’re really really proud that millions of our own people also froze – or starved – to death in the same war, but bravely! (We’re also inordinately proud of that time we burned down our own capital.) And, as mentioned in the final lines of the song, most of the soldiers who managed to survive the frontlines were killed or imprisoned on return. Because their first-hand testimony might have contradicted the heroic official narrative, which would have been a real downer for the people, so yeah, those guys had to go die in a gulag. When you say it like that, it makes sense why nobody wants to learn about Russian history and culture; it’s a stinking centuries-old mass grave with a pretty red flag on top.
Any excuse to listen to a lot of T. Rex. I’ll be over here doing that. I’m aware that I’m most likely the only one who cares about the minute gradiations of the T. Rex sound over time, or the steps Marc Bolan took that were ahead of his time. Bolan’s problem was that he was ahead of the times but not far enough ahead to get all the credit for it before others caught up and popularized his ideas into the stratosphere. Still, the T. Rex sound is instantly recognizable, and nobody else ever sounded quite like that.
The “born in the wrong generation” brand of false nostalgia that some young people subscribe to is stupid; it glosses over all of the ways the world used to be so much worse to live in for so many people. People are surely entitled to feel nostalgic for the times they’ve lived through themselves, but to long for times you only know through other people’s artifacts is disingenuous. With all that being said, however, goddamn would I not have liked to have been alive to see Led Zeppelin in all of their glory! Whatever shit went down in the 1970’s, it would have been worth it. I have seen Robert Plant in concert, and he still has L’Oreal-girl hair, but he’s a lion in winter now. If I had seen the lion at the height of his powers, I would never, ever, miss an opportunity to be an insufferable bore about it at parties.
I’ve been listening to this song repeatedly lately, and pretty much in general throughout my life and have always found it very meaningful. If the title doesn’t tip you off, yes, it’s about faith and redemption, which are things Roxy Music fans are in need of after their inflatable pleasures have worn thin. Interestingly enough, when I was younger, I somehow completely missed the religious implications, explicit as they are. The idea of interpreting the lyrics spiritually never occurred to me, heathen as I am. For a very long time, what I heard was not an ode to Jesus, but a homoerotic ode to another man. The lines about trying on his coat and walking in his garden? Homoerotic. The lines about someday making his house your home? Homoerotic, while also possibly angling to subsume a rival man’s identity, Talented Mr. Ripley-style. Now, that’s not entirely a far stretch; the language of religious praise very often overlaps with the language of romance, and if you’ve ever studied art you may have noticed the loving care lavished on Christ’s naked torso in all of those Crucifixion paintings. But I think most faith-based people very strongly prefer not to make that overlap any more explicit, despite the best efforts of lapsed Catholics like Madonna. Meanwhile, in a more specific context, as far as I know, Bryan Ferry is a pretty solid not-gay on the Kinsey scale. But the idea of a vaguely homoerotic obsession and rivalry narrative appeals to me a lot more than one about finding God’s grace. So if you’re making another man’s house your home, it’s because you’ve seduced him and stole his identity, and you’re sliding down to the singles’ bar in a tuxedo of lies.