The words ‘sound and vision’ became a little bit of a catchphrase for David Bowie in later years. They were the name of a comprehensive compilation and the tagline of a world tour. Because ‘sound’ plus ‘vision’ equals ‘visionary sound’ aka genius and the whole shebang. But at the time Low was being created, those things seemed more like, at the very least, uncomfortable burdens. This is the work of a man in the throes of cocaine-induced pseudo-schizophrenia. Bowie often said that he hadn’t been doing all that blow because it was fun; he did it because it allowed him to be inhumanly productive. In that context, the creativity of ‘sound and vision’ is more like an inner demon that had to be purged, or at least made peace with. But, much like Heroes, the works produced from dark lows come to be seen as triumphalist symbols of… not dying in the low, I guess.
My ‘heavy rotation’, as streaming services like to call it, leans heavy on the deep cuts. In other words, I play a lot of obscure T.Rex songs, and I treat them as though they were big hits. Because to me they are. It alarms me that not everyone knows the biggest T.Rex hits, and it saddens me that nobody knows the “track nine” type songs like this one. It’s in the Track 9 zone that you always find the most interesting and weird material anyway.
The disco culture wars are over, because we’ve all agreed that while most disco does suck, there’s no shame in enjoying some frivolous escapist fun and to frame it as an objective cultural divide smacks of snobbery and prejudice. And as the tides of history have run in and out, disco has left behind almost as many indelible and timelessly relevant artifacts as any other popular genre. For anyone still interested in having this argument, though, the prime exhibit in defense of disco music has always been Grace Jones. Coming from the intersection of nightlife, high fashion and art, Jones brought real cultural clout to her musical debut. She came out swinging with songs by Sondheim and Piaf, and she quickly diversified her sound with influences from her native Jamaica, and her adopted homes of Paris and New York. She never moved away from dance music entirely, but rather enriched it with the substance of her far-ranging interests and inimitable personality. Which means that if there’s any such thing as an essential disco album, it’s definitely the work of Grace Jones.
David Bowie has a real quarrel with the straight world and the briefcase-carrying types who populate it. It’s not just David Bowie, of course. Artists and musicians and assorted Bohemians have mocked the conventional life in a trope as age-old as dogs chasing cats. It’s a real tragedy that so many people remain locked in a life of silent conformity, and the probability that most of them are perfectly content with it just adds to the pathos. In David Bowie’s eyes, it’s also symptomatic that we’re all living in some kind of an Orwellian regime that actively punishes free thought and self-expression, which is just… reality. George Orwell, for his part, may have added one or two science-fiction-ish flourishes to his world, but mostly he was just describing the perfectly real. So we’re all children of the silent age, aren’t we though?
From the image of Ian Anderson boiling his tea water over an open campfire, to the final ode to domestic tranquility, everything about Songs From the Wood speaks to my heart. Jethro Tull tapped into something that rock music, with its relentless bluster, rarely touches on: the appeal of a peaceful life. They also leaned hard on English folklore, another thing that pop culture usually disregards. It’s a sustained vision of sprites in trees, Solstice revelries, sexy outdoor sportage, and warm homes full of happy dogs. Everything a soul might long for when they have to spend most of their lives in windowless, featureless modern public spaces. There’s an entirely conflicting fantasy, of course, about the glamour of urban life, but glamour, unlike a nice backyard garden, is a very nebulous thing to aspire to. For someone who hears the highway through their bedroom window, the longing to hear leaves rustling and to smell the earth and sleep in natural darkness is… well, it’s there, quiet and small and undiagnosed, like a vitamin deficiency.
Nobody does poignancy like Paul Simon. That’s why we pay him the big bucks. Because he writes the songs that make us think about all of the ups and downs of the human journey and get a little bit dewy in the eye. I don’t know if you can pinpoint an exact time when he crossed over from being the angsty and acerbic fellow he’d been in the 60’s towards becoming the philosophical old man he is today, but I guess the late 70’s a good place to look. Like everybody, of course, he must’ve done a lot of cocaine in the 70’s, which is conducive to some people’s creativity, but not everyone’s. Some people’s creativity flourishes better with a sober brain, and I suspect that Paul Simon might be one of those latter types. All conjecture, of course, I don’t know that much about his life. But it’s a compliment – and not a compliment that I would give to just anyone – that this song sounds like it could have been written by a man of 75.
You’ve heard this song before, except it was called Red Money and David Bowie was singing it. (Having cleaned up the Oedipal references.) Well, this is the original, and it is, like Iggy Pop himself, a scary out-of-control rampaging motherfucker. It’s a good example of the creative symbiosis of minds that Iggy and David enjoyed during their years of being drug-fueled BFFs. It was some of the most creative times for them both, despite or because of the binges. It doesn’t prove, despite popular belief, that drug abuse fuels creativity, but I think it shows that having an adventurous life and like-minded collaborators does.