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.
What David Bowie giveth, David Bowie can take away. Yes, this is the same song as Iggy Pop’s Sister Midnight. (Which we’ll discuss more deeply in due time.) Bowie originally wrote the tune for Iggy, then rewrote for himself, wiping out all of Iggy’s lyrics except part of the chorus. On one hand, understandable; Iggy’s lyrics were about Oedipal lust. Incest and murder are uncomfortable and depressing, even for an artist who likes to skew pretty dark. But why Bowie felt inclined to take the tune he’d written for Iggy’s album and make it into a completely different song doesn’t make much sense, except as a deliberate dick move. Maybe they were in a fight? David Bowie could be a real dick sometimes, especially during the cocaine years. As it happens, Sister Midnight is a really great song, while this iteration is merely somewhat great. I think Bowie realized that, because in later years he made it a setlist staple – and performed it Iggy Pop’s way.
Joe Jackson has written about a great many things and explored many different musical directions, but his best known and most popular album remains Look Sharp! and I think it’s accessible for a reason. It’s not exactly a concept album, but it’s definitely a theme album. The theme is ‘angsty and alone’. This song is very much on theme; it’s the complaint of the disgruntled single guy, awash in desire and resentment. It’s selfish and childish and mean, and it’s damn near universal. The world is a cornucopia of beautiful women who are out of your league, and deep down inside, you know that your style and wit will never make up for your unfortunate lack of a chin. Now, obviously, this line of thinking is a dark and dangerous rabbit hole lined with fedoras, but it’s still something everybody has experienced to some extent. And this kind of post-teenage angst is exactly why the three-minute pop song was invented. Like, literally.
The B-52’s really don’t get enough credit. I mean, have you seen them? Like, really paid attention, though? Their good-taste-to-the-wind brand of eccentricity is like nothing else. And how about Kate Pierson? She’s the icon you didn’t know you were indebted to; one part drag queen, one part hipster dream girl. Being campy and kooky isn’t mutually exclusive with being edgy, either. The B-52’s were pretty experimental for a party band. Examine the extended intro of this song. I, for one, didn’t know until just now that the space wave noise was actually Pierson’s modulated voice. Unfortunately, the older video is ruined halfway through by the appearance of some kind of alarmingly hirsute talk show host, but the first half is a marvel of sustained weirdness.
Go ahead and tear it, tear up the paper…
Obviously, this is a pretty poignant metaphor for us literary types. When you’re obsessed with narratives, there’s nothing more frustrating than the basic inability to control or foresee your own. In this case the metaphor is for love affairs, necessarily constrained by the size and quality of the paper and haunted by everything that doesn’t fit on it. And in the end you crumple it up and throw it away, because it’s essentially disposable, essentially inadequate. That also holds true for life, which fails to provide a satisfying narrative arc, doesn’t work out just how you want it, doesn’t contain enough romance or adventure, doesn’t take the shape you want it to. If you’re lucky your life will be looked back on as one of those well-thumbed books with the cracked spine and coffee stains. If you’re not, it’s just a half-empty spiral notebook growing soggy in some box in the basement.