Thursday, July 4, 2013
Bridging The Gap: David Bowie: "Life On Mars?"
And we have now come, dear readers, to a song that is predictive of many things; and even then, not so much predictive as descriptive.
I do wonder, sometimes, if people who love music, love it enough to understand it well enough when they are, say, 22, can somehow hold on to that understanding as they age. Not just hold on to their original understanding, though, but grow wise with age and know that if they remain loyal to music itself, music will always offer them something new; but if they cut themselves off from music, then it will all just seem like so much noise, in whatever format it appears in.
I am moved to think about this by this song, a song that was written compulsively in one day, the writer so moved that he got off the bus and walked back home to do so. And that is because he is mentioned in two different pieces of writing by the same person…
“So long as rock ‘n’ roll carries its own caste system, so long as there is an ‘intelligence’ structure, so long as there is snobbery insisting that whatever David Bowie does is automatically more valid than the tomfoolery of Earth, Wind and Fire, then I shall feel irritated enough to bore you by holding up the value of rock’s less pretentious, less concerned, ‘poor’ relations.” – Danny Baker, NME, 1979
“No wonder we make so much fuss about Bowie’s TOTP in 72 if this is today’s sensation.”
“I am guessing that 98% of this “amazing” Glastonbury will be digitally filed away and not seen as culturally valuable as 70s Bowie.” –Danny Baker on Twitter, June 29, 2013
The caste system, by the looks of these contrasting pieces, remains doggedly the same. Bowie is still held up as the peak of what is “culturally valuable” and the new thing, which in this case is Example, is indeed seen as a ‘poor’ relation, so much “tomfoolery” that Bowie cannot help but be seen as “automatically more valid.” The author clearly considers himself (and is considered by many, many others) to be part of the ‘intelligence’ that deems itself more than capable of deciding who belongs where in the caste system; there are many others out there, as everyone knows. A kind of received wisdom percolates throughout music media, a stubborn set of opinions that, as shown here, will be scoffed at but then eventually obeyed, as if it was itself the law. What happened 40+ years ago is far more valuable than anything happening now; my youth, in essence, trumps your youth every single time.
I wish I could look at all this and simply see it as grumpiness, but I can’t – it’s too consistent, too persistent.* This binary way of hearing music goes against music itself I feel, and leads to ugliness. I don’t know what to do about it, save to note that I try to hear the best of everything in my own modest way – the ocean of sound (as David Toop puts it) or planet of sound (as The Pixies put it) is far greater than can almost be comprehended, but as long as you keep swimming or walking or moving somehow, not just staying in your area but venturing out once in a while to others (different eras, styles, methods, languages) then you can have a much healthier and – dare I say it? – much more intense relationship with music itself. (Indeed, this is what I am hoping this blog is doing, amongst many other things.)
I am reminded of all these things as this song by David Bowie is a dramatic, swooping song about culture itself, and what happens in the gulf between the performer and audience. The girl is having a “godawful small affair” – the smallness is presented quietly, and (in the first echo) she leaves home, at least for now, yelled at by her parents. That she has “mousy hair” and doesn’t even have a good boy/friend with her in her hour of need makes her vulnerable; so she goes to the movie by herself. Here she looks for escape (“hooked” to the silver screen, as if it was a drug to take her out of her own “sunken dream” of a life), but finds just the same old thing – and she doesn’t like it, but stays anyhow…long enough to see the sailors, the lawman “beating up the wrong guy” – and the music comes to life with the movie, soaring to wonder if anyone on screen knows they are in the “best selling show” – if the figures on the screen have any real consciousness, or if they are just abstracts, literal projections of want and desire and nothing else. And then the octave leap up to “Is there life on Mars?” as if this planet is too much, and another planet is necessary for true escape…
…and then the calm news, as the music peaks and then comes back down…”Amerika’s” Mickey Mouse is in trouble, turned into a cow; there are other “mice” in their “million hordes” who gather on vacation in Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads - meanwhile “the workers have struck for fame” because “Lennon’s on sale again.” Suddenly we are away from the solitary girl and the bigger picture has appeared, surreal to some in its hugeness – and from this perspective it seems as if Bowie is predicting his and Lennon’s “Fame” a few years hence, though unthinkable to the Bowie of ’71. (This song, I should note, is here as it is a Luxembourg #2 and was re-released to capitalize on his Ziggy-era stardom, a persona he ended around the time this was a hit.) The orchestral swoops are done by Mick Ronson (who also plays guitar) and the piano is Rick Wakeman, who made his part more classical, thus making this song a bridge between the old and the new; Bowie himself intended it as a tribute to Frank Sinatra, though what Frank would have sounded like singing “To my mother, my dog and clowns” I’m not sure.
And then Bowie the Friendly Forebear appears, stepping on to the stage after the movie is over, admitting that he is the one who has written this “saddening bore” of a story, and “it’s about to be writ again” as he asks you – you, not the girl – to witness the sailors, the lawmen, the “freakiest show” – “look at those cavemen go” – as real life steps in as the main attraction. The dream is over, the day in the life is here, the wrong men are being beaten up, the lawman’s crooked, and is there life on Mars? It is Bowie asking you the listener to understand what spectacle is, and crucially, not to divide yourself from the girl who is disdainful but nevertheless hooked to images, ones that help her escape her distressed life. In effect the song puts you into her place, even if you thought you were above her or separate from her in some way; and it also neatly says that what is escape for some is simply life for others, and that no one, not even you the listener, are able to escape that, even on Mars.
This could be a downbeat song, but the music is breathtakingly emotional and dramatic, building and moving in ways that seem encouraging, warm, empathetic. Even the end, where the main theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey is quoted, is a nod to the cinema, and the piano comes back quietly, ending just as a phone rings, the two moments balancing each other very nicely. The video is a simple one, with Bowie in a powder blue suit, Ziggy hair and dark blue eyeshadow against a white background singing the song as if he would on a tv show – simply, minimally – and cuts once in while to the teenage girls at his show, ones who have arms outstretched, who are crying, who are clearly trying themselves to escape their own “small” lives and are intensely in need – almost ghostly figures in the dark of the audience. And there is Bowie, separate, away from them…distant and not responding to this audience in anyway, just another figure on a screen to ponder and be “hooked” on, but never know. It is as if he is acknowledging that he has screaming, pleading fans but doesn’t want to have anything to do with them, save to note that they do exist…just as he talks about the mousy-haired girl in the first place, and maybe somewhere admits that he is completely self-aware that he is “the freakiest show” and he doesn’t have to “wonder if he’ll ever know.”
In short, this song is one of Bowie’s best (to some I know it is his best) as it looks at the whole gulf between what is wanted and what happens; and then Bowie himself comes in, and the song is no longer a simple story of escape but one of politics, the once and future Beatles, the act of creation vs. the actual simple act of paying attention. Its empathy is what strikes me the most – I don’t sense he looks down on the girl, on the hordes. If he is drawing up a caste system it’s not one based on age or number, “tomfoolery” or what is “culturally valuable.” That lawman beating up the wrong guy on the screen merely reflects real injustices; art reflects life, and the artist may know s/he is repeating life again and again, but that is the function of art, to give back to life something – like this song.
I have saved one last thing here – that may be a key to this whole thing. The original quote is from a review Baker wrote about Chic’s Risque; and the tweets are about Example. Now, both the Chic Organization and (of course) Example played at Glastonbury, and they each represent dance music in their own way; and in his original piece Baker calls dance music (disco, what have you) “less pretentious, less concerned”…less concerned about what, though? It is as if he is saying that those who make dance music are less concerned with…artistic statements? Political commentary? Clever wordplay? Being well-regarded by their peers and fans? Bernard Edwards wept. Is this not what Chic were doing, even at the time of Baker’s review? Even here I can sense that he feels as if dance music is just about kids buying singles they heard in the club and that the songs themselves are merely for dancing, that songs such as “Everybody Dance” or “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” or “Good Times” are not “concerned” about anything other than getting their listeners on the dance floor. That lyrics and musical quotes aren’t meaningful; or rather they are, but only in the cases of Bowie, Ian Dury, Roxy Music, etc. (to name other artists who he feels are part of that caste, so to speak). And with Example (who I will take here as but part of the huge UK dance scene in general) there is certainly concern, not just with having fun but also with commentary. How many listened to the chart of August 27 2011 to hear “Heaven” by Emeli Sande and “Don’t Go” by Wretch 32 and Josh Kumra and felt as if these songs were active responses to the riots – many, I’d suggest.**
Musicians are musicians, and maybe some are less concerned than others, but to me musicians across all time are trying to express something – even if it is oblique or self-referential, quoting other songs or styles, each song is indelibly woven into another, joined as invisibly and mysteriously as the world is itself. It is all valuable.
*Baker also wrote this: “Jagger will be 70 in a few weeks. Incredible. In generations to come they will have to recreate this. We are seeing him now. #Mozart” Really? Have to?
**How well I remember Baker, a few days after the riots ended, looking at the current #1 (“Swagger Jagger” by Cher Lloyd) and considering it part of the whole malaise of the time – a symptom, if you will, of the whole situation. I don’t recall him saying much about “Heaven” or “Don’t Go” however.