David Bowie describing Bob Dylan as “a strange young man […] with a voice like sand and glue” is the most accurate thing ever. It’s an homage, a parody and a challenge all at once. Bowie does an alright job mimicking Dylan’s cadences, and his gnomic stream-of-dream writing. Of course, Bowie’s own wordiness has always had a direct debt to Dylan, which only had to be acknowledged. But it was also a definite poke at Dylan’s rock god status. By 1971, Dylan was just not as cool – or as productive – as he had been in the 60’s. The poet’s glow had faded somewhat, and his records weren’t being read as some kind of counter-cultural scriptures anymore. David Bowie saw it as “a void of leadership” and he had big plans for filling that void. If Bob Dylan had semi-reluctantly been the voice of his generation for the kids of the 60’s, David Bowie would be the rock messiah for the 70’s. It was an arrogant statement of ambition that could only be made by someone with a busload of faith in himself. Someone with a bit of a messiah complex, in other words.
“Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief”
Feel free to Google along if you want to follow all of the references. Being a David Bowie fan comes with a lot of homework. He consumes and repurposes culture of every stripe -a prodigious amount of culture – and he doesn’t bother to provide footnotes. Bowie, like many of his rock star peers, attended a technical arts school and he carried the persona of the earnest art student for many years afterwards. (As I understand it, at that time, English art schools served as a dumping ground for students who did poorly on their exams or had disciplinary issues i.e. John Lennon, Keith Richards, et al.) In fact, if the ever shifting nebula of Bowie personas could be boiled down to an essence, it would be that of the prodigious student. The brilliant student who shows off with his scope of knowledge grows into the confident academic so at ease with his many points of reference. On Hunky Dory – and this track in particular – we catch Bowie as the student who still feels the need to mix in ALL of the references just to show that he knows them, like an amateur cook going crazy with the spice rack. Do you really need to namecheck Greta Garbo and Heinrich Himmler? And Churchill? And Crowley? And Nietzsche? We get it, you’re an intellectual. From anyone else less brilliant it would be insufferable, of course, but it’s Bowie, and he built his stature on his ability to appeal to those people who feel at home with occult references and many level’d depths of meaning, people who feel underserved and understimulated by lowest-denominator entertainment. Just as he validated and inspired sexual outsiders with his androgyny and glamour, he attracted intellectual outsiders and dissidents with his book smarts and ambitious ideas. If David Bowie was an object, he’d be a bookshelf covered with glitter.
In which David Bowie steals – “with love!” – The Velvet Underground’s light and heat. Stealing with love, of course, has been David Bowie’s mo throughout his career; it’s what he does. And he was certainly better qualified than anyone to dip into Lou Reed’s narrative bag of drag queens, hustlers and various wild side characters. Lou Reed, though, was a journalist with a guitar and he wrote about real people and their real lives, as he saw them. David Bowie wasn’t all that much interested in reality, except possibly as an existential concept. In his interpretation of the same milieu, the element of fantasy replaces the element of grit. It’s like a Lou Reed song performed by one of Lou Reed’s characters, which I think is exactly the intention.
One of the most regrettable things in David Bowie’s career is that he didn’t make any videos during his Man Who Sold the World/Hunky Dory phase. The resplendent locks and man’s dresses were well photographed, but apparently he didn’t perform much that year. When he did get around to making videos for the albums he was already in full Ziggy regalia. I doubt that Bowie himself regretted those decisions very much, but it’s always pained me as a fan. It was a rare lapse on his part, especially since he was just coming into his own with the whole visual iconography thing. Still, be grateful for what you do get. The pretty things are going to hell, he would inform us in 1999, taking a decidedly different point of view.