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.
There comes a point in every important conversation when you have to stop and ask, “But what does David Bowie have to say about it?” Although David Bowie has contributed more than most others in his field to our evolving ideas about sexuality and gender, he’s not the type to write crude anthems about fucking. I’m guessing that he was probably one of those insufferable intellectual soft bois who gave his one-night-stands a book to take home as a parting gift. Which, as a person who can’t quite separate sex from philosophy, I can relate to. That as it may, there wasn’t very much to find for this particular series of songs. Just a semi-instrumental from the obscure Buddha of Suburbia album. So, when pressed, I suppose that David Bowie just wants you to shut up and dance.
I still haven’t figured out if this song is in reference to the movie of the same name that came out in the same year. That movie was two and a half hours of Brad Pitt looking his most Aryan-ideal-ish against a backdrop of snowy mountaintops, so most likely what David Bowie was thinking of was the book that the movie was based off. Certainly it wasn’t his first time visiting the theme; Bowie’s interest in Tibetan culture and spirituality goes all the way back to some of his earliest songs. Musically this couldn’t be farther away from the days of Silly Boy Blue and Karma Man – this was deep in Bowie’s 90’s industrial phase. But he’s still toying with a lot of the same ideas, mainly the ‘nothing ever goes away’ part.
The baby Bowie of the sixties was dorky, earnest and notably uncool – exactly the opposite of everything we’ve come to associate David Bowie with. It was adorable. It was also odd that out of all the exciting things going on in music at the time, Bowie was writing twee little narrative songs in music hall style, probably the least hip possible direction to go in. It does show that he was already an iconoclast with a nose for the unexpected. He just hadn’t figured out how to channel that in a way that people actually liked. Of course it also means that, in his absolute failure to get attention, he really dodged a bullet. Imagine an alternate universe in which something like this (or worse, The Laughing Gnome) became the novelty hit of the summer. It would have been an absolute career dead end, not a reputation one could easily shake or move on from. We would then have enjoyed decades of David Bowie, composer of cute novelty songs and writer of middling West End musicals, perhaps with a lucrative sideline banging out power ballads for vocal divas. That’s not a world I’d much like to live in.
David Bowie may have been struck by inspiration watching his Middle Eastern neighbors in his Berlin neighborhood, but he really didn’t need to look as far as Arabia to find double lives and secrets. He was living in Berlin! If any city is haunted by generations of secret-keepers… Bowie certainly found the culture of the place to be simpatico to his own state of psychological unrest. The music he made there reflects states of manic energy, episodes of paranoia and depression, shards of hope and romantic longing, and, as always, diverse call-points of underground art and Hollywood fantasy. “Heroes” is a weird and bleak record in a lot of ways, but its highs balance out the koto instrumentals and fog horn-like saxophone solos, and it manages to go out on an almost humorous up note. It was escapist, and right, to evoke a Hollywood fantasy of mystery-shrouded Arabia, after a relentless journey through the secret life of West Berlin.
I went to David Bowie Is, now in its final days at the Brooklyn Museum, and saw – among many things – the famous Pierrot costume. It is a puffy wonderment. It is, of course, the genius of David Bowie to pinpoint a character that dates back to the 17th century and upcycle him as a figure of punk-era malaise. Rock and roll didn’t know it needed more sad French clowns, but it did. Bowie was well in tune with the times in 1980 – as always – and made a record that shakes with fear and anger. Which befits our unstable times as much as it did its own. Running scared feels like the default collective mood of right now: it’s all paranoia and insanity, everything feels like it’s cracking up.