Here’s something notoriously depressing. I think we all know the story of Joy Division’s brief success and tragic ending. There have been movies about it. Tragedy obviously sells, and you can’t deny that it’s because of the tragedy that instead of being a blip on the radar of the crowded post-punk field Joy Division has had an afterlife that’s fueled the sales of a million t-shirts. At least their gloom was genuine, and people with their own gloom relate to that. Idolizing a troubled person may seem ghoulish, but if it helps other troubled people feel a little bit better, that’s about the best legacy anyone could ask for.
Elvis Costello wants to chop off your head, take your job and steal your girlfriend. None of which things he appears the least bit qualified to do. He’s just an angst-ridden nebbish in an ill-fitting suit, fussing about the world’s injustice. 1979 was a really great year for injustice and instability, meaning that it was actually a pretty bad year, politically, but politically bad years yield great cultural inspiration, and the punk and post-punk generation had their songwriting work cut out for them. Elvis Costello certainly packed his early records with enough references to world events to require Cliffs Notes, and he didn’t forget the discomfort of the average working bloke who finds himself dog-paddling madly just to stay afloat. That creeping dissatisfaction and sense of unfairness hasn’t become any less familiar since ’79. Meanwhile, the names and details keep changing but the same world events appear to be repeating themselves: another economic crisis, another rigged election, another genocide, another secret prison, another despot waving his arms on a podium.
Now feels like a good time to revisit Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It has always been Floyd’s bleakest and most challenging record, and the accompanying film, well, it has always made my skin crawl. However, it needs to be seen again, because it has become relevant in ways its makers did not intend. It was, I think, intended as an inward-looking project, an attempt by its creators to come to terms with a chunk of history they were born on the tail-end of. Roger Waters was writing as a member of a post-war generation whose early life was imprinted by horrors they couldn’t remember or understand, who grew up dealing with the trauma and guilt of atrocities they had no part in. The Wall was supposed to be a generational reckoning, but it was dismissed in its own time as a rock star vanity project, then later as fodder for dorm room stoners who think they’re, like, deep, man. Today, unfortunately, it’s come to reflect reality, and it needs to be reevaluated as a work of art that has something to teach us. For one thing, it effectively illustrates the radicalization of a disaffected young man, a social problem that we’re grappling with and seeing the real-world effects of. Although it was made years before the technological leaps that have made radicalization so insidious and easy, it’s a story ripped from the headlines. A young man who is unloved, socially unsupported, mentally ill and at loose ends in his life quickly finds himself marching in lockstep just because it gives him a momentary sense of purpose and an illusion of control. It shows that self-destruction, violence and hate are, for many people, a natural reaction to feeling dehumanized themselves. A society that devalues humans and treats them as dispensable cogs creates people who want to burn down society and destroy themselves and each other. We are seeing it happen, in real time.
I still can’t tell you quite what it means to be a rude boy. Because, you know, culture gaps. I know it’s a bit more than just a guy who likes ska. I also know that it was ska music that brought its own cultural youthquake from Jamaica to the United Kingdom to California. You can trace that history through pop culture from the 1950’s well into the 90’s. Here, we can concern ourselves the late 70’s, when ska was intertwined with punk and socially conscious British youth cared a lot about political instability in Latin America. We think of punk rock music as being a simplistic genre, probably because a lot of its practitioners never stray from the three-chord, three-minute structure. But if we try to understand the social context the movement sprang from, suddenly we’re learning about things like Thatcherism and it’s Late 20th Century History 101. Sountracked by The Clash, of course, them being the anointed ultimate punk rock band – the the antithesis of ‘ignorant punks’. Their music is loaded with global political context, so much so that fans who weren’t lucky enough to have been there personally need a study guide to really understand what they’re pumping their angry little fists about.
There’s a lot that we’ll never know about Bob Marley, a lot that we’ll never see, simply because he grew up and lived during a time when even the most creative people didn’t see the necessity of documenting themselves for posterity. It’s arguable that the world would be a richer place if Bob Marley had had an Instagram account or some similar outlet of constantly sharing his thoughts with the world; not everyone wants to constantly share their thoughts with the world, and nearly no-one’s thoughts are constantly worth sharing. (Though I imagine that an artist like Marley, who had a strong political message and an ambition to make change in the world, would have done really well as a Twitter activist.) However, it’s hard to argue that the world would, in fact, be at least a tiny bit richer if there were more – and higher quality – footage of Bob Marley and the Wailers in action. Their earliest days as a group were barely documented, and that would be fascinating to see. There must have been so many amazing performances that have been lost to memory, especially the ones that came before the worldwide fame. It’s not entirely a blank – enough shows were filmed for at least one full concert documentary, probably more. It’s enough to get a good idea of what a Bob Marley concert would have been like; it looks like fun, it looks like a powerful show to take in. We’ve just been spoiled by the technological and social advances that now allow artists to have an all-access relationship with their fans. We like all of that unfiltered oversharing. We just want to see our favorite artists doing what they do.
Apropos. While women gather at the weeping wall to bewail their burden, yet again, here is David Bowie with his two cents. From beyond the grave, a reminder that he, the original woke one, pinpointed domestic violence as one of the evils of the world way back in 1979. Just one more ugly side to the infinite-sided prism of everything that’s fucking bad and wrong about mankind, as comprehended by a humanoid alien from Mars. Everything is bad and wrong, and the only redeeming things in the world are art, and those fleeting moments when two people somehow find the means to actually feel connected to one another. In that order. And not everybody even has that. The most harmful and tragic thing is those people who don’t know how to connect to someone without hurting them; they are literally souls trapped in hell.
I’ve pondered why Lodger, in my book and it critics’, never quite gets the accolades of its nearest siblings. It’s just never been my favorite David Bowie album, and it’s never been the most acclaimed David Bowie album. Why is that, besides the unattractive cover? It’s one of David Bowie’s punkest albums. It’s got big hits. It’s got iconic videos. It’s got bold experimentation. It’s got things to say. Well, obviously, following on the heels of Station to Station, Low and “Heroes” is no enviable task. We’re nearing point when the jaded expatriate character gets towards the end of his arc and needs to retire. But, pondering it more deeply, I realized – after a lot of listening to this song in particular – that underneath all of the serious things, there’s a lot of…silliness. Like, childish silliness. I mean, this could almost be a children’s song, but with more feedback. Listen to the way he sings about sailing off to the hinterland “It’s far, far, far, far, far, far away….” Those are some Muppet-level lyrics, and it slides by only on the sheer conviction of being David Bowie and therefore impeccably cool. You can’t question David Bowie’s coolness or artistic seriousness. You didn’t question it when he was playing with instrumental soundscapes, and you don’t question it when half the songs are in gibberish or in Turkish. Of course, there’s still depths of meaning to be plunged into, the requisite existential angst, esoteric reference points, gender-bending nonconformity, everything we ask our god to provide. But there’s that element of silliness that suggests that the artist was about ready to head out to lunch.