Easter 1973 was perhaps the first one I remember; I had the chicken pox and was confined to my bed, while my father went off to this place called Canada for a job interview. It was sunny and warm in L.A., I was hot and itchy and felt weird - weird to look at my skin, and weird that I knew that if he was successful, we would be moving pretty soon. The undifferentiated chunk of my early formative life in Los Angeles, in Silverlake in particular, would be ending, the future unknown (not that I thought much about 'the future' as such back then). When he came back, he brought me a concave plastic toy - shiny silver, with a green rubber ball suspended in the middle, so I could move it around and notice the reflections in the concavity...(my father wasn't much for presents).
At the time I had no idea about David Bowie, as I've said before; but I can imagine there was a whole horde of kids in the UK who also felt weird, as if their own skin was strange, and who latched on to Bowie with that same feverishness I felt; if following T.Rex was like an ecstatic experience, then Bowie was more a contagion, something that took you over and left its marks, for good or bad. This song (#2 on the Luxembourg chart) from Aladdin Sane has the strangeness of something you know is bad for you, maybe even corrupting; but it is done so well that hardly matters.
It is hard, especially in these renewed days of Bowie fever, to cast any light on this song that hasn't already been shone; save to say how even on a train from Seattle to Phoenix (he didn't like to fly - still doesn't I guess) he is still determinedly English; let Elton John and Bernie Taupin sing about America, Bowie guesses that the young creatures of the future are going to be Anglophiles into Mick Jagger and Twiggy, not Marilyn Monroe or Roy Rogers. These young folks have to learn the arts of romance, so to speak; and thus go to see movies and learn how they are done. Yes, in the dystopia to come, even normal instincts are lost; or perhaps the apocalypse has made them unnecessary, until now...I don't know if the love in this song is real or not; or perhaps the love for cinema is stronger than the actual 'love' made in and around the song itself. This is a concave world folding in on itself, the music a complex doo-wop*, Bowie's voice climbing and noting, gaining footholds, sympathetic (I think) to these hapless ravers, who are bumbling in the dark, so naive they have to read books and consult friends. That this is normal adolescent behavior and doesn't need a post-apocalyptic setting to work is the secret of this song; teenagers will be clueless no matter what fall out may be around. It is the music that is the most strange thing; I suspect that is why Mott the Hoople turned it down - Bowie gave them first dibs - and their rejection of it upset Bowie. I am not sure Ian Hunter would have liked singing about "Jung the foreman" or "Astronette 8" and would have no idea what "Sylvian**, The Bureau Supply for ageing men" meant. (Hm, maybe it's the lyrics and the music together...) The entire effect is one of a kind of decadence, wherein figures from the 60s are in a 70s-style doo-wop song sung from the point of view of someone looking back on a post-apocalyptic future adolescence. Whew!
This is audio pop-art, the kind I remember being full of noise, lights, machines with personalities; I remember seeing a show like this at the time and being alternately thrilled by it and a little scared too. That is as close to my reaction to Bowie would have been at the time - that this was maybe a little too grown up for me, that there were a lot of symbols and ideas going right over my head, ones I wouldn't have a clue about one way or another. In the spring of 1973 Bowie was, as the V&A show no doubt says, influencing people; asking them, with this song, to consider the eternal verities and warn them of nostalgia, of relying too much on Jagger and Twig the Wonder Kid for glamour - for propping a whole culture up on the 60s in essence, the effective continuation of life itself on a video or two.
That people are clamoring for Bowie now at the V&A is ironic as far as this song is concerned; I think it is right to view the past in context, but the right context is to hear the whole chart for this time to note how utterly different Bowie (and T.Rex and Roxy Music) were to everything else; strange and thrilling and a little scary. (The V&A show strikes me, who will probably never see it, as one of itchy idolatry - the overheated reaction to it and his new album show that the contagion still exists, a benevolent one of course, but one that leads to things like zig-zag earrings and "David Bowie Is Turning Us All Into Voyeurs***" buttons isn't always a good thing.)
Still, this is the tacky, awkward post-apocalypse of romance; teenagers are going to manage with whatever is left, the 50s/60s merging into a past that is only of some help. For those who felt out of step, odd in their own skin, Bowie was there to reassure them; but for others, those who didn't have to rehearse any lines or read books because their hormones were on fire - well, that's what I'm getting to next.
*Add to this confusion a performer who is very much English trying to do an American style of music - in hearing this I wondered if Bowie had ever even been to a drive-in. Methinks not.
**I have no idea if David Sylvian got his last name from this song, but then again he was 15 at the time, so he probably did, unless it was the New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain first.
***Voyeurs of what? "David Bowie Is Watching You" is the t-shirt for the show; all this watching, directly or surreptitiously, sounds like one ugly game of hide and seek. It also makes me wonder how this figure of the future knows about what the kids are doing...why is he so interested? Cough.