Someday I’ll get my hands on a hard copy of Outside and immerse myself in whatever information is hidden there. In the meantime I’ll just immerse myself in David Bowie at his most disturbing. Outside was one of those records that smacked me right in my impressionable adolescent brain with its deep ideas and macabre aesthetic. It was the Bowie iteration most suitable for a kid who read and reread Helter Skelter. It hasn’t become any less relevant in the intervening years. I still ask myself just how much does human creativity balance out human depravity, and to what degree those things feed into each other. We’re also in a brave new media world that allows ritualistic displays of public suffering to become entertainment. I mean, the psychotic breakdown of Britney Spears wasn’t intentionally a piece of performance art or guerrilla theatre, but it was one of the definitive pop culture moments of the 2000’s, and that’s actually a fairly mild example of human sacrifice-as-pop-culture. We really need to ask ourselves a lot of questions about what we’re entertained by and at what expense. The way we’re going, ritualistic art murder is not just around the corner, it’s about to be the latest commodity.
The mournful sound of Marianne Faithfull’s voice is perfect for a day so dark that at 9 a.m. it felt like midnight and the rain has made sinkholes in the yard outside. Sleep, incidentally, is what one should do on a day such as this. Some of us have to get up and ponder the cosmos, alas. Still, the mood is set. Let your mournful spirit guide take you on an existential walkabout.
Just as we’ve established that all songs are about sex, we now see that most songs are about women, some are by women, and a select few are all of the above. Now, we explore those things in more depth. We will confront the dreaded ‘male gaze’ and its female sidekick ‘the muse’, and what we can learn from them both, and, of course, what female artists have to say about it from their side. Who better to kick that thesis off than Marianne Faithfull, who still has the words ‘professional muse’ stamped at the top of her resume decades after she walked out of that job and slammed the door. There is a lot to unpack in Faithfull’s embodiment of the muse, and she unpacked it very well herself. (Hint, read her book.) The short of it is, it’s impossible to be a fully flowered artist when you occupy a pedestal of other people’s making, and in order to become one, you have to kick your youthful, pedestal-occupying self into the dirt, and having destroyed her every vestige, move on with your life. What Faithfull has to offer, in her second life, is real hard-won perspective on a woman’s inner life, a clear view of what scars we carry as we move away from our prime muse years and into our real prime. Love, sex and romance aren’t what songs written by men make them out to be. In fact, they’re often the opposite, and men’s romantic gestures are very often just plain abuse dressed up with flowers. That’s something that has to be learned the hard way, and it makes the allure of pop song romance fade quickly. Romantic pop songs come from a place of unquestioned privilege or from the deeply naive. Torch songs and the blues are where it’s at. That’s what Marianne Faithfull’s torch songs have to teach us; they’re love songs for when we’ve become too grown up to fall for love songs anymore. We know that to be fully creative and self-sustained, we have to reject the romantic fantasies we pursued as girls – the ones that got us walking blindly into growth-stunting, manipulative, abusive situations with men who offered us pop song platitudes – and choose sometimes to be lonely, unsupported and sexually frustrated because it’s still preferable to ending up in a cage gilded with romantic gestures.
I just started listening to Pulp about a year ago. They’re one of the great bands of the 90’s, so of course I’d never heard their music. I can’t be too embarrassed for not being familiar with a band that peaked around the time I was 12, but I am slightly ashamed I didn’t discover them earlier in my adulthood. Apparently a thing called Britpop happened in the early 90’s, and some pretty great bands came out of it, along with an accompanying wave of Cool Britannia fashion, and I completely missed it and still know next to nothing about the phenomenon. Funny how the history that actually occurred within your lifetime is the hardest to learn about. Anyway, here’s Pulp, specializing in a particularly British brand of well-dressed disaffection. The gist I’m getting here is: sex, self-loathing, class resentment and an eye for just the right hemline. I can get behind all of those things.
Perhaps I’m one of a few, but the opening notes of David Bowie’s Outside give me the shivers. Hindsight offers new perspectives on a great artist’s work, and in coming years, Outside is going to be held up as one of Bowie’s most ambitious achievements. For one thing, it’s a culmination and fulfillment of the experimental techniques he and Brian Eno pioneered in the Berlin years. Whereas those acclaimed records were sonically daring, emotionally fractured, and only loosely thematic, Outside is fully conceptualized. Bowie and Eno returned to the use of flash cards, oblique strategies, characterization, in – studio improvisation, multi-media, cut and paste narrative and other techniques they’d originally developed in the 70’s. This time they tied it together in a self-contained narrative of near-future dystopia, with commentary on the value of art and human life in a deteriorated, image and media saturated society not far off from our own. Bowie initially talked of Outside as the first in a series of albums documenting the final five years of the millennium, which he admitted was ‘over-ambitious’ but also ‘a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’ Like many of Bowie’s overly ambitious concepts, it was never followed through. However, the Outside sessions were meant to yield enough material for a trilogy, and that material is presumably just waiting for somebody to come dust it off. Perhaps, sometime soon, Brian Eno may take it upon himself to finish the project. (If he doesn’t, sooner or later someone else will.) Although it’s a bitter disappointment that David Bowie, with his famously short attention span, lost interest in this particular project, for my money, his entire career was a once-in-a-lifetime series of overly-ambitious albums documenting the end of the millennium in a dystopian science fiction near-reality parallel to our own.
Morrissey is known for a lot of things, but indulging in sprawling six minute experimental songs with drum solos is not one of them. Yet here it is, the sprawling indulgent drum solo and the nearly seven minutes. With what I’m understanding as a disapproving message about the perils of plastic surgery (could be anything though.) Coincidentally or not, in 1995 it seems that a lot of people were sick to their back teeth of Morrissey, and his experimental opus got a chilly reception. What followed was a lengthy fallow period, and of course, the triumphant comeback. But obscure mid-90’s Morrissey is still worth exploring, because extravagant minute counts aside, he never really left his topical discomfort zone.
Now, obviously, it’s grossly unfair to ask someone to pick their top five David Bowie albums and stick with it, but if I absolutely must had to do it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Outside would definitely be on that list. It’s a thorny and impenetrable concept album, the concept of which I used to think I understood, but now I feel vague about it. (Must revisit liner notes.) It still gets points for atmospheric depravity, and being a great reflector for teenage angst. Leave it to me to want to hang out in the very darkest corner of the pantheon. But I think it’s monumental.