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.
If modern man, with his off-the-rack suit and pre-fabricated corporate environment, is little more than an anonymous mannequin representing the material aspirations of the Western way of life, then to what end have we even bothered with all of our industry and progress? If modern life is so spiritually kaput, why do we keep grinding the wheels of technology? It’s so we can acquire collectively agreed-upon symbols of achievement and use them in substitution for insight, connection and personal growth. And in the evening we can go dance to electronic music. See, Kraftwerk asks the deep questions and makes the deep statements. The commentary made on the postwar condition of 1977 is no less relevant, except now we also have to deal with the newfangled snake-oil business of commodified identity and 15-minutes-of-wellness spiritual conformity. Yeah, it’s pretty bleak out there for people who value creativity and self expression for their own sake rather than as a branding exercise. Is it a fair trade-off for the magic of penicillin and airline travel? Are we aching to return to times when lives were presumably more meaningful for being shorter and more brutish? Nah. Modern life offers us the entirety of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and the luxury of not dying of dysentery. Our desire to complain about our own moral and spiritual bankruptcy is its own form of posturing.
David Bowie may have been struck by inspiration watching his Middle Eastern neighbors in his Berlin neighborhood, but he really didn’t need to look as far as Arabia to find double lives and secrets. He was living in Berlin! If any city is haunted by generations of secret-keepers… Bowie certainly found the culture of the place to be simpatico to his own state of psychological unrest. The music he made there reflects states of manic energy, episodes of paranoia and depression, shards of hope and romantic longing, and, as always, diverse call-points of underground art and Hollywood fantasy. “Heroes” is a weird and bleak record in a lot of ways, but its highs balance out the koto instrumentals and fog horn-like saxophone solos, and it manages to go out on an almost humorous up note. It was escapist, and right, to evoke a Hollywood fantasy of mystery-shrouded Arabia, after a relentless journey through the secret life of West Berlin.
Bryan Ferry is hardly a blues singer in any conventional sense. He is, by most standards, barely inhabiting the same universe. But Ferry pushes the emotion buttons for a very specific audience: continental white people too effete and art-damaged to admit that they still have emotional functions at all aka me. I can’t really relate to real blues music – it’s too real! But I can relate to a man who wears a tie with a leather suit jacket. Nobody is pretending this is actually a blues song. It’s a ‘mope and smoke on the balcony gazing out to sea’ song, which is a very particular feeling to evoke.