Thursday, May 1, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 121): "SEE EMILY PLAY" (1973) David Bowie

It’s May Day! Beltene, in the Celtic calendar, and it’s supposed to be suffused with good spring-like vibes. Here in CT yesterday was an epic downer of cold and rain that went on all night. Now, after a morning of fog and drizzle, tepid sun begins to seep out and into things. Hardly a riotous welcome for the new month.

Today is also the birthday of one of the few current filmmakers I actually admire: Wes Anderson. And because Anderson used a soundtrack’s worth of David Bowie songs—in Portuguese no less—on his film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I’ve decided to go with Bowie’s cover of a tune from Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, “See Emily Play,” originally released in 1967, because of its reference to playing “free games for May.”

Seu Jorge
As originally recorded it was a hit for the Summer of Love, a splash of psychedelia, arriving later in the same month, June, as the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. Bowie’s version, released in 1973 on Pin Ups, his album of covers of songs from the London of his youth, is a striking example of glam meeting psychedelia, with Bowie giving it his reverential all, but also working in even odder interludes than on the original (arguably) and with a background chorus of raucous voices. It’s a trippy little number no matter who takes it on.

Put on a gown / That touches the ground / Float on a river / Forever and ever / Emily, Emily.

Sounds a bit like Ophelia’s fate, maybe, but, even so, what better man to cover the song for today than one who wasn’t above donning a gown when it seemed to suit?  Bowie’s celebrated androgyny went further than just about anyone’s—that photo dates from 1970—and by 1973 there were glammed acts aplenty, not least the New York Dolls.  Bowie’s “See Emily Play” can be conceived as a cross-dresser’s song (not much of a stretch since Barrett wrote “Arnold Layne” about a guy who likes to steal women’s clothing from washing lines) with its “Emily tries but misunderstands / She’s often inclined to borrow / Somebody’s dreams till tomorrow.” Perhaps Emily is trying desperately to be a she.

In the Floyd’s version, at the height of psychotropic drugs as recreation (LSD wasn't illegal yet), the trying and the dreams and the misunderstanding sound like they may well be accompanying a trip, particularly with that “You’ll lose your mind and play”—lots of songs from that era were about reconnecting with childlike wonder, as it was often the case that the benign version of drugs made one feel every bit a Wordsworthian child of nature, “trailing clouds of glory”. . . yeah, lots of clouds of glory about the place, no doubt. You’d be happy to inhale.

But in Bowie’s more Mad Hatter version, he sounds to me perhaps like some Wonderland creature, maybe the Caterpillar proffering some jazzy doings to an earnest Emily filling in for Alice. In other words, there’s a touch of camp here, but it’s all in good fun—hear the weird little voice that Bowie uses in the background for “float on a river forever and ever,” as if the Caterpillar were played by a miniature Anthony Newley.  The guitar is riffier, the piano more extreme—I’m pretty sure it’s Mike Garson, the guy who graces “Aladdin Sane”—and those strings extending at the end lend a touch of the quaint.

Anyway, before I got this posted, the sun came out loud and clear, and is raining down on my chair.  

Who are youuuuuu?

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