When David Bowie died, according to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in a Buddhist ceremony. He was never the kind of artist who makes a point of thanking God in his liner notes, or type to suddenly go off and join a church. Aside from sometimes wearing a cross, presumably for fashion purposes, he made surprisingly little use of religious iconography. As private as he was with his spiritual beliefs, we do know that the interest in Buddhism stretches all the way back to his student days. Something about the spiritual discipline of Buddhism appealed to him deeply. He continued quietly studying the philosophy throughout his life, and would sometimes make references to Buddhist writings in his more cryptic songs. This early song, a bold standout from an era of rather uneven output, is one of the Bowie’s most explicit explorations of the spiritual condition. The fascination is with the process of becoming a spiritual person. Enlightenment requires sacrifice, discipline, hard work; it doesn’t just happen, and although we all have the potential, not everyone is able to follow that path. Some people who could have followed the spiritual path choose instead to pursue a secular one. One wonders if David Bowie saw himself as the boy in the song. Being a gifted and charismatic person, someone like Bowie could have followed a path of spiritual leadership, but instead chose to use all that exceptionality in a secular field. You could – and many of us do – think of David Bowie as a spiritual leader in his own way, but the material life of a rock star could never be compatible with the abnegation of the material world that a fully spiritual life requires.
From the vantage point of today, why wouldn’t you want a bunch of feedback-laden, industrial-sounding songs about unsavory things from David Bowie and a bunch of guys with bad hairdos? Like, bring on all of those things. When you’re browsing for David Bowie songs, don’t you sometimes think “I really want something that sounds like Nine Inch Nails but have it be about Thailand’s child trafficking industry”? Here is David Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails-sounding song about child prostitution. Which, by the way, was a subject that came up because of the very legit activism of guitarist Reeves Gabrels and his investigative journalist wife:
“That song actually came out of an investigative magazine article that Reeves’ wife wrote on child prostitution around the world. And one of the places she went to was Thailand. Reeves had the rather unsavory job of hiring the children and then getting them out of the brothels to Sara, who could then interview them. We were just talking about those experiences one night. And I’ve also been in Thailand and witnessed the same kind of thing. The actual approach of how to write the song was quite devastating. ‘Cause it was so easy to slip into sensationalism. I tried all kinds of ways of approaching it … the moral point of view … and I just ended up doing it straight narrative. That seems to make it stronger than any other approach.”
Why this approach wasn’t met with wild acclaim in its own time, I have no idea. Maybe because 1991 sucked?
All critical consensus aside, I still unabashedly really love Never Let Me Down. Most critics have dismissed it as the nadir of cheesy eighties-ness, a career low for David Bowie. That’s exactly what I love though. It’s David Bowie trying to be the commercial artist he always could’ve been, if he’d been able to tone down his natural weirdness. The weirdness is still barely contained, but buttered up with all the trendy 80’s production gimmicks. I’m not the only one who suspected that the problem was just lazy production taking the sheen off of some actually pretty strong songs, and now there’s been some remixing done (for a box set, of course.) Listen to the same song with and without dinky 80’s canned beats, and at least chalk it up as a near-miss.
What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.
This is not one of my favorite David Bowie songs, which puts on a list of possibly less than ten songs out of hundreds. It’s too abrasive? It’s musically discordant, and lyrically crass. Those are two things I don’t expect from David Bowie, and they’re not necessarily things that bother me per se, but again, not from David Bowie. David Bowie is not who I go to when I want to hear about fucking. Dick-swinging braggadocio is not his best look. That’s what The Rolling Stones are for anyway. Still, kind of an interesting experiment in striking a hard-rocker pose. Probably should have been best left as a B-side or something.
Usually, you could count on David Bowie for being a thoughtful and nuanced interpreter of other people’s material. (And, you know, his own too.) He chose interesting songs and covered them in interesting styles. But sometimes nuance and thought went out the window in favor of sheer mega-watt campiness. On the Pin Ups album Bowie chose a motley selection of obscure 60’s classics and attacked them in full Ziggy Stardust mode. And Ziggy always was one for maximum drama. To be fair, in this case, the Yardbirds’ original was already very dramatic. It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to top Keith Relf’s delivery, but David Bowie heard it and thought, “Challenge accepted.” This is probably his most bizarre vocal performance; he belts it out like a drag diva delivering a death scene. It’s just unparalleled. Enjoy.
Shaking it, if you didn’t know, is a metaphor for sex. You didn’t know that, did you? Yeah. And rock music, even at this late date of 1983, is trying to incite youth to lustfulness, right before your very eyes. David Bowie, whom you’ve never heard of before, may appear to be a very clean and upstanding young man whose hair just naturally looks like that, but he is, in fact, a sexual deviant – like all rock performers – who uses the devil’s jungle music to corrupt your children’s moral fibers. This music promotes fornication and homosexuality… homosexual fornication, even. You want to put a stop to all this gay fornication, but there’s nothing you can do about it, because it’s too late; rock music has become so thoroughly mainstream there’s now a television channel devoted to it, allowing degenerate people like David Bowie to finally infiltrate the American heartland with their entreaties to ‘shake it’ and ‘dance the blues’. Your children are going to move to New York and San Francisco, become homosexuals, cross-dress, fornicate madly, build their own subculture, create great works of music and art and literature, survive the “Gay Plague”, gain political traction, fight for equality, settle down and get married, adopt and raise children, and just generally make the world a better place. And that’s just your sons. Don’t get me started on what your female children are up to. You should have banned MTV when you had the chance.