Let’s come back to the Heathen years. That was, of course, David Bowie’s big post 9/11 album, written and recorded immediately before, during and after that historical event. Those were rough days for people with an already shaky faith in humanity. Was the whole world just descending into madness? Well, yeah, but no more than usual, as it turned out. What we can hear reflected in this music is the emotional contradiction that was so apparent at the time; the contrast between the incredibly inspiring display of individual human courage and compassion; and alongside, a bitches’ brew of religious fanaticism, institutional failure and political corruption that made a person not want to live on this planet anymore. It was a hard time to hold on to romantic ideals about the little human heart’s resilience. Heathen managed to be both bleak and uplifting, as if quixotic romanticism was the only redeeming virtue in a world that was already undeniably halfway fallen apart.
Nothing is more underrated than early-2000’s David Bowie. David Bowie, of course, never flies under the radar, but it does seem like the material he put out in 2002 is due for a rapturous posthumous embrace. It may be because these are the Bowie records I grew up waiting for and running out to the store to buy. It may be my own attachment feelings. But I do think that Heathen, for example, is record that really needs to be held up. It has an atmosphere of sustained melancholy, and yet an uplifting warmth and grandeur. And, of course, iconic visuals. Sometimes I forget how much I loved this record in 2002. We’re always too busy listening to Ziggy Stardust for the fifteen hundredth time, but sometimes Ziggy is just too addled and wired. Sometimes the leper messiah comes in floppy bangs, reminding us to keep our heads warm, even though the world might be slowly burning.
Marianne Faithfull has for the most part left her gutterpunk mid-70’s persona far behind. She is a lady of class and gentility. But every once in a while that half-dead but foul-mouthed wraith still reappears. She who poured all her rage and her broken soul into lines like “Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.” In 2002 she made her most rock-oriented album in a decade, and it recaptured some the skin-tingling burning anguish of the Broken English years. She finally let it be known exactly what she thought of her longtime role as the ethereal muse, her iconic girlfriend-to-the-stars salad days; “suburban shits who want some class all queue up to kiss my ass.” It’s simmering with resentment for a lifetime as an accessory, a supporting character, a short chapter in someone else’s book, an icon for all the wrong reasons. Yet it’s also self-deprecating. She knows she got through on dumb luck and the kindness of strangers. She knows she went splat when she fell off the pedestal, but she’s still angry about being on that fucking pedestal in the first place.
I appreciate a good meditation on loneliness, solitude and alienation, especially when my own love life is on track. Loneliness and solitude, of course, are distinct things that only incidentally intersect. Alienation, longing, love and the rest are yet more circles in an imperfect diagram of the human condition. Many of us sleep just fine alone in our beds – in Moby’s case, most likely on organic whole wheat sheets. There’s always the dream, even for the most incorrigible loner, of finding someone to sleep with holding hands. I mean, sex is cool, but have you ever slept with someone holding hands? (As the meme goes.) We humans are just habitually oversexed and undersnuggled, I guess, and we want feel warm and safe in our sleeptimes. And loved.
Moby really makes the romantic yearnings of an unassuming schmuck sound, well, romantic. In the general scheme of things, as things stand today, mediocre dudes who have the sad feels are out of favor, let’s leave it at that. But Moby is not your average mediocre sad dude. He only looks like one. He has great things inside that eggy bald head of his. Artistic greatness, as we all know it, is taking your own mundane and inherently selfish emotional landscape, and transposing it into something that sparks other people’s souls with recognition. Great art makes you look anew at people you normally dismiss, barely visible people, people you would mock if you noticed them at all. Like that aging hipster with his vegan latte and his limited edition laptop and his beanie – he’s a person too, and he has the same great depths you have. He may even have great sounds and visions inside his head that could touch the world with their beauty and universal truth. All this because art is empathy. Art is awaking others to their own depths of feeling. Art is sharing those depths of feeling. (Art is shorthand for emotional communication for people who suck at talking about their feelings.)
Neil Young is notorious – and admired – for doing just exactly what he wants with little concern for how it may land. He’s done some weird and unviable things on his quest to follow his muse no questions asked. There was the string of contract-breaker experimental records he made in the early 80’s, the feedback-heavy hard rock albums with Crazy Horse, and lately, the increasingly all-consuming paranoid railing about Monsanto and other environmental evils. Let’s just say that he’s taken his fans on a bumpy journey over the years. But it’s jams like this one that keep people climbing on board and coming back again; the fluid, versatile musicianship, the plaintive romanticism, the poetic phrasing, the granola idealism. This music is full of soul, the work of a man who loves what he does and writes about what he loves and what he believes. Neil Young really believes in everything he does, even when other people don’t, and that’s what has kept him popular and beloved all through his creative ups and downs.
Sex with strangers is a taboo, one of the milder ones. It’s a not-uncommon fetish. It’s a profession. For some people, it’s a symptom of the corruption of traditional values; for others, it’s just something you do on spring break. Nearly any way you look at it, there’s the implication that for people who have sex with strangers it’s because they lead lonely and broken lives. They’ve failed, somehow, to know the people they have sex with. That may be nearly true. It’s probably true that most sex workers, for example, didn’t arrive at their position by skipping down a path strewn with daisies. There are the confirmed lonelyhearts of the world, the people who find sustained relationships impossible for whatever reason. Too busy, too ugly, too traumatized or too antisocial, they’ve just given up on partnership and domesticity. There are the fetishists, whose fetish exists outside of how functional or not they might be in other areas of their life, and then there are people who simply get a thrill from the breaking of a mild taboo. Then there are those who think they are being brave new girls, feminist trailblazers lifting the stigma of promiscuity one drunk stranger at a time, carving a new society by their rejection of good girl standards, claiming their place alongside men in the arena of meaningless fucking. Until they realize that their behavior has calcified into fetish, they’re too old to learn relationship skills, all of their peers have disappeared behind their white picket fences, and all they’ve done is repaint the old taboos a different color. They find that they’ve become the nighthawk at the diner.