Wednesday, January 8, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 8):"TEENAGE WILDLIFE" (1980) David Bowie

David Bowie (born David Jones in 1947) turns 67 today. “Ch-ch-ch-changes,” indeed. Bowie has always been an odd bird, not easily grasped in totality. A changeling. And yet always very Bowie. By which I mean, I guess, that he’s never quite a poseur because he always adapts successfully to whatever he sets his sights on. Mainly, his changes are in style more than substance, though at times—as with the Let’s Dance album in 1983—he manages to grab the gold, commercially (with, typically, one of his less interesting incarnations). Other times he’s more like off in la-la land, and other times he’s some kind of cutting-edge impresario of some place everyone will end up, sooner or later. In the beginning he was even a bit derivative, with the cloying pop of his earliest tunes, but no one had a weirder ersatz psychedelia than that debut eponymous LP (1969), what with “Wild Eyed Boy from Free Cloud” and “Memory of a Free Festival,” to say nothing of the Dylan meets the Velvets and The Doors of “Cygnet Committee”; his second album, The Man Who Sold the World (1970), brought in issues of psychosis and übermenschen and same-sex seduction, and great riffs and . . . he was off.  “Song to Bob Dylan” and “Andy Warhol” on his third album, Hunky Dory, let everyone know where he was coming from . . . or maybe that should be “where he was going”—to America, to become a pop sensation.  He didn’t, quite. He was not a runaway chart meister, but he created a durable and influential persona to be the sensation he wasn’t: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. And for awhile, it seemed, everything was coming up ziggy.

That’s when I first knew of him because, if you read rock mags at the time (1972-74), you couldn’t avoid him—which is a way of saying that Bowie knew how to play the hype machine. The first LP I bought was that first album, now redubbed, for U.S. markets, Space Oddity and featuring striking shots of His Zigginess in all his “wild-eyed boy” glory. The title song was a hit (which is why the LP got re-released), but sort of a novelty hit, and three years old when it made it to these shores. I don’t remember hearing anything from Ziggy on AM radio, and “Jean Genie” was barely a blip—unlike the song he gave to Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes,” or his glam-rock colleague, Marc Bolan, whose T. Rex accosted the airwaves with “Bang a Gong.” Bowie, like Dylan, was usually a bit more recherché, caviar to the general, y’know.

Today’s selection is one of my favorite Bowie songs of all time. And may not even be known by more causal Bowie fans.  It’s the first song on the second side of Scary Monsters (1980). Which means it comes along at a time in Bowie’s career when he’s just finished the run of what would be known as his “Berlin trilogy” (Low, 1977; “Heroes”, 1977; Lodger, 1979) and is, maybe, somewhere else. It’s also the point at which Bowie-ness (as opposed to Zigginess) will have incurred quite a bit of debt by the up-and-coming New Wave artistes. Bowie riffs and Bowie coiffs and Bowie androgynous unisex are all over the place. And this song, in particular, is Bowie distancing himself from it all (the LP also boasted a hit with a clever return to Major Tom of “Space Oddity”: “Ashes to Ashes”—“do you remember a guy that’s been in such an early song” . . .).  In other words, I like this album a lot because, unlike the Berlin LPs, it's more in line with the earlier Bowie, now having undergone that interesting sea change that was working with Brian Eno . . . no doubt substances as well, but I’m not going to get into the heroin vs. cocaine comparisons. Suffice to say, for my money, in 1980—September, and I’d been living in Philly for less than a month—Bowie was back. Or, more accurately, I was back to Bowie.

I was also 21, for less than a month to date, and maybe that’s why the phrase “I’m not some piece of teenage wildlife” resonated with me so well. It seemed important to shed whatever still clung from those “experimental” (if that’s what they were) years of 18-20. Time maybe for the next phase, and who better to inaugurate that than a master of “new phases”? It’s also the case that the song—with that wonderful ringing guitar riff by Robert Fripp, sounding both like a clarion and commemoration—is spot on amazing. Bowie never sang like this before or after. I’m a big fan of the vocal bravado of Station to Station, but on this track he puts everything he’s got at the service of a chameleonic account of a chameleonic existence. I believe Bowie is addressing, deliberately, those New Wave kids “same old thing in brand new drag”—about my age then, and younger—who are coming along in his wake, “as ugly as a teenage millionaire, pretending it’s a Whizz Kid world,” the  kind who ask their seer for advice “David, what shall I do, they wait for me in hallways.”  The singer’s insistence—distancing himself from “teenage wildlife”—is, I believe, meant to be the position of these ephebes, but is also Bowie’s stance toward them.  They’re trying to be taken seriously. The singer, whether or not he takes them seriously, doesn’t want to be grouped with them. Or, more importantly, doesn’t want to remain “a teen idol” in those terms.

The song is passionate in its evocation of having “been there, done that”: “you’re alone for maybe the last time / And you breathe for a long time / Then you howl like a wolf in a trap / And you daren’t look behind.”  This, we feel, is the psychic cost of those “changes” our hero has been living out as well as his fans, vicariously, all these years. There may be any number of songs on the costs of rock star fame, but this one comes from one whose approach to the whole phenomenon has always been fraught with a certain existential dread (see “Ziggy Stardust” and “Rock'n'Roll Suicide” and “Time). And then, the superb kiss-off, which is a vision of the ephebe, for all his Whizz Kid charm, breaking under the pressure of it all: “others on the line filing past whisper low /‘I miss you, but he had to go / Well, each to his own / He was another piece of teenage wildlife.’”

And O ces voix … chantant dans le coupole: when Bowie takes it up to his highest register for “wild / life” with Fripp ringing away, it becomes—as Shelley Duvall might say—transplendent. What a way to pass the baton . . .

Happy birthday, Mr. Jones (when “Bowie” was actually born is a bit less certain).

(The YouTube vid, a collage created for the song by someone out there in Davidland, boasts some interesting images and seems to stick to this period of Bowie and after.)

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