At this late date, many readers in the U.S. know the work of Simon Critchley, the philosopher, public intellectual and provocateur of renown in the worlds of literature and theory. He teaches at the New School, and he writes frequently for the New York Times, having a lot to do with one of its more noteworthy recent series, The Stone.
Critchley has published a great number of books on a wide expanse of ethical and philosophical subjects, and has collaborated with and/or tangled with such eminences of the day in philosophy and literature as Slavoj Zizek and Tom McCarthy. Critchley’s "Book of Dead Philosophers" made the bestseller lists in 2009, and it is an excellent starter volume for people who want to get to know his work.
Less well known about Critchley, however, is the scale of his engagement with popular music. He came by his voluminous knowledge in the usual way, a misspent youth, with just enough pocket money to invite long afternoons at the record stores (before, during and after the punk revolution in England), but since his misspent youth, he has occasionally seen fit to subject the popular song to the same kind of critical inquiry that he has used, for example, on Shakespeare and Freud. In this regard, he has recently published "Bowie," a collection of meditations on the work of David Bowie, with special attention on questions of identity, sexuality and the postmodern instabilities of Bowie’s work as a lyricist, songwriter and performer.
It’s a magnificent and deceptively slim book, in which no essay takes longer to read than it would take to listen to a David Bowie song, but in which there is a cumulative sense of revelation as regards what makes Bowie special, and why it is that his work seems to yield more, the more time you spend there. The book is delightful, highly readable, with bits of Nietzsche, Ruskin, Roland Barthes and Deleuze rising up like wisps of cloud in its funny, moving and passionate field of inquiry.
It is fair to say, however, that I did not always agree with "Bowie," the book by Critchley, even as I admired the whole immensely, and I was surprised to find, for example, that Critchley did not necessarily like Bowie’s 1979 album "Lodger" as much as I do. So I challenged him to a discussion on the subject, which follows below, and which was begun by e-mail in late summer, once the soccer pitch was cleared of international participants. In the course of this exchange, I should add, I learned that Critchley also write and records himself, which is often the way with people who know this much about music. You can listen to his work here. --Rick Moody
Rick Moody: Please give, if you would, the historical context in which you were first made aware of "Lodger."
Simon Critchley: I was 19. I remember sitting on the floor of my girlfriend's house (her parents were away and we'd only just got together — she loved Bowie too), with the album cover spread out in front of us, with that strangely contorted body image of the fallen, broken Bowie on the cover. I remember turning it over, again and again, looking for something that I wasn't hearing. Like you, I had been knocked sideways by “Heroes,” by tracks like “Blackout” and “Joe the Lion.” What I loved about “Heroes” was the layered intensity of the sound. I thought that everything should sound like that. I heard it on tracks like “Red Sails,” but it was not enough. So, my first response was disappointment. You too, right?
I just checked the exact release date: 18 May 1979. I knew it was 1979, but it makes even more sense that it was May, because my overwhelming memory is of being in London for the first time (a trip I made right after graduating from high school), and finding the Tube much plastered over with advertisements for "Lodger." This somehow impressed me. Bowie, in the Berlin period of "Low" and “Heroes” was not terribly popular in the USA, and I cannot imagine there would have been a lot of plastering up of "Lodger" posters in our neck of the woods. In London, the release was an event. This was evidence that things were better there.
It is true, yes, that “Heroes” had been of tremendous significance for me. Even the instrumental side was incredibly interesting to me. (I had recently embarked on my total obsession with all things Brian Eno, and I believed Eno had a lot to do with “Moss Garden,” et al., as he did with “Warszawa” on "Low.") Yet it is true that my first reaction to "Lodger" was confused. I would hesitate to say disappointed, because I had not understood "Low" right away, and I had come to believe that maybe Bowie was just smarter than me, and if I didn’t get the idea right away, I could work with the idea. "Low" eventually yielded up its charms to me. I really love that album now. (And I remember hearing it on the same day that I first heard "Animals," by Pink Floyd, which I thought was the better album, but which I now dislike a fair amount.) I definitely did not get "Lodger" right away. And I tried hard. Did your immediate resistance have to do with the blossom of teenage love? I mean, was it just a bad seduction album? Did you subject her to a track by track analysis that day? And what do you mean, exactly, by “intensity of layered sound?”
History often happens in quiet ways, right? Two weeks before the release of "Lodger," Thatcher won her first general election. I had just got a job cleaning toilets in a local swimming pool. I think it was the end of April that year and I remember the lifeguards and the boss at the pool talking about the election and not caring in the slightest who won: Labour, liberal, conservative. It all felt like the same shitstorm at the end of the '70s. I didn't vote. We were punks, but sort of nihilistic. The economy had fallen off a cliff, trash was in the streets, the cities had collapsed. Life was grey, cramped and dull. But the disaster was also kind of glorious. I also remember a lot of marches/demonstrations by the far right, the national front and the British national party.
How wrong we were about Thatcher. But enough about that. We're not doing sociology, right? But it does throw some light on Bowie's pronouncements a few years earlier that Britain needed a fascist leader and that he would make an excellent prime minister. Maybe that was the side effects of the cocaine, but there was a palpable sense that the whole post-war Labour Party project of reconstruction, the national health service and all the rest had gone to pot. That was the dystopian context for Bowie's music, particularly amongst working class kids.
I rewatched Anton Corbijn's "Control" recently. I didn't like it when I first saw it because I was comparing it to "24 Hour Party People," which I liked far too much. But it's a great film when it comes to setting the context for Bowie. The opening shot has Ian Curtis walking back from the record store with a Bowie album and listening to it in his little shitty bedroom in his little shitty house. What can I say, that’s was how it was.
Unlike you, I got "Low" immediately, probably because I'd been listening to all this German electronic music (Tangerine Dream, Faust, Klaus Schulze, Neu!) and people like Terry Riley ("Rainbow in Curved Air") and I was also deeply into Eno by the time "Low" came out. So the instrumental parts of "Low" felt like elaborations of what Eno was doing in the quiet parts of "Another Green World" and, of course "Discreet Music," which is a work of total genius.
About side one of “Heroes” being densely layered, it was the sheer sensation of all those layers of instrumentation over a solid back beat, with Dennis Davis and George Murray on drums and bass, Bowie’s best ever rhythm section. I just remember thinking this is how music should sound without really understanding why.
My new girlfriend, who I was with for many years, was deep into Bowie, not quite as deep as me, but pretty deep. So listening to the album was something we did together as a way of being together, if that makes sense. You know the way that certain precious pieces of music are essentially shared. I love that. We fell in love around Bowie and around Roxy Music, who she loved more than I did, especially "Manifesto," which came out in March 1979, I think.
Anyhow, shall we talk about the music on "Lodger"? This was your choice, which I think was oblique and interesting. So, what's on your mind? One thing I recall just now was that the album was originally going to be called "Planned Accidents," which describes the oblique strategy of Bowie perfectly.
I’m going to say that listening to David Bowie for me is always about being wrong about David Bowie. When I really like something (for example, I liked "Let’s Dance" at first), I’m often wrong, and when I really dislike something, I often feel like I am sort of wrong about that too. I disliked “Young Americans” for a long time, and now I think it is very interesting.
(Perhaps the same logic extends to your project. I believe, for example, that in your book, you dislike Tin Machine quite a bit, but I am prepared to defend the Reeves Gabrels collaborations of David Bowie, and I really like the Sales brothers rhythm section (it worked on "Lust For Life," after all), and there are songs among the Tin Machine albums that are of some interest. I think the hatred of Tin Machine has more to do with history than with Tin Machine itself. It was Bowie’s turn to be disastrous. And it lasted for 10 years. (Until, arguably, "1. Outside," a sort of a sequel to the Berlin albums.)
Therefore, whereas, I tried very hard to like "Lodger" at first, and failed, I came belatedly to think it was kind of great. In fact, I would say, right now, that I like it a lot more than I like anything in the five or so years following, including, e.g.,"Scary Monsters" (although “Ashes to Ashes” is legitimately awesome). So: I want to defend "Lodger." And I want to try to get to what bothered you about it then and to tease out whether it still bothers you.
One thing, oddly, that bothered me at the time, was: unrhymed lyrics. Now, I know that the lyrics are unrhymed (which usually means: cut-up) on "Low" and “Heroes,” but for some reason I had the experience of suddenly figuring out that the lyrics were unrhymed on "Lodger." It starts right at the beginning with “Fantastic Voyage,” which has the very strange opening. The music sounds a bit like “On Some Faraway Beach” by Eno, from "Here Come the Warm Jets," this kind of gospel/country piano part, with some synths holding down the string section, and then that line: “In the event/That this fantastic voyage/Should turn to erosion/and we never get old.”
That is a very strange way to open an album. Even “Joe the Lion” and/or “Always Crashing the Same Car” seemed to have a little narrative. But this is following the disjunction of the language all the way. To its conclusion. Everything about “Fantastic Voyage” is counterintuitive: “Remember it's true/Dignity is valuable/But our lives are valuable too.” The narrator believes in indignity, as long as it is self-preservative. And then there’s the nuclear attack stuff, also in the background there. Along with the “We’re learning to live with somebody’s depression” bridge. Which I assume is extremely arch self-expression of the “side effects of the cocaine” variety. It doesn’t seem to have a chorus exactly, it doesn’t seem to have verses exactly, it was perhaps planned accidents, onto which lyrics were grafted late in the process.
A very strange opening track. But now, at this time of life, the desperately-middle-aged time of life, I find it exhilarating, Brechtian, ironic, funny and oddly panicked in this way I associate with the album as a whole. It’s an anxious song, pretending to be a jaunty, poppy thing.
I finally slept last night, but that's another story. I also kept listening to "Lodger" and thinking about what you said. And then, on track four, 'Yassassin' (a track I don't really like because of the white boy reggae backbeat. I'm very particular about my reggae, although there is something of Can's ethnographic forgery series about the track), in a Philip K. Dick moment of revelation, the mist cleared and Bowie sang “I'm not a moody guy.”
And then I thought this is why you want to talk about "Lodger." You are not a moody guy or you don't want to be, which also goes back to your father's graduation gift of a trip to London, a gift that you didn't want at some level, where you saw posters for "Lodger." Good lord, I'm waxing all psychoanalytic on you. Gifts refused and received and refused in being received. Poisoned gifts.
Am I a moody guy? Decidedly. But my moodiness is marked by conviction when I hear Bowie songs. I often revise my views, but a track will just hit me and I'm there with it. Thumbs up or down.
I very much agree with what you say about Tin Machine above. I bought all that stuff when it came out and don't want to denigrate the work Bowie did with Reeves Gabrels, much of which is great. But I guess there has to be a fall in order for there to be a redemption, right? So, the '80s become Bowie's fall and the '90s are the slow road to redemption, culminating in "1. Outside," which is a masterpiece and then "Heathen" is the crowning glory, Bowie as Christ triumphant surrounded by a halo of light declaring the last judgment. That's kind of how "Heathen" was received in the UK late in 2001. It just had to be that good, particularly appearing as it was released just post 9/11 when people needed something strong. And "Heathen" is good. But so is "Reality" in my view, the album from the following year, which didn't get the same accolades.
Let's look at "Lodger," shall we? First, the differences between our reactions are really interesting. I don't know why, maybe it's just the way I'm programmed, but I've always found that Bowie's most abstract, imagistic Ezra Pound-like lyrics make perfect immediate sense to me. The sudden beginning of “Fantastic Voyage” made complete sense to me, but I can see what you mean. It is a really weird series of words and the steadfast refusal of rhyme and narrative is odd, although Bowie for me was completely consistent with everything I went on to read, when I began really reading (Eliot, Pound, Lewis, Joyce, Woolf -- you know). I don't think I’ve ever understood narrative. Always feels fake to me.
I've been trying to revive my first impressions of "Lodger," and these views can be revised and should be, but it was thumbs up for “Fantastic Voyage” and then a lull before thumbs way up for “Red Sails,” “DJ,” “Look Back in Anger,” “Boys Keep Swinging,” and “Repetition.” “Move On,” even without its embarrassing racial profiling of “Africa is sleepy people,/Russia has its horsemen,” just doesn't work for me, although I like the Bo Diddley feel of the track. “Yassassin” is a thumbs down and “African Night Flight” I can never make up my mind about. “Red Money” is just unlistenable for because it uses the same backing track as Iggy's “Sister Midnight.” I know Bowie wrote the music and did all the work on "The Idiot," but Iggy's vocal is so perfect. We could talk about Bowie's Iggy covers, though I find them a little painful. I really loved Iggy.
But I'd like to talk about the sequence from “Red Sails” to “Repetition.” I'll save it for a future moment in this exchange. But the word that comes back to me in re-listening to these tracks is claustrophobia. There is no air in these tracks, especially “DJ” and I love that. It's like Jacobean drama or Trauerspiel. Much of the music I love is claustrophobic. I feel like Ian Curtis just before he hanged himself listening to "The Idiot." I know that must sound weird.
Of course, and not just for the sake of it, I want to defend both “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin.” In fact, I really really love “African Night Flight.” It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. First, there’s that squiggly analogue synth. That is a vintage Eno analogue synth squeak. It’s what I loved about Eno in the old days, his tendency to get his synthesizer to sound like some animal. “African Night Flight” is also the only song in the Berlin trilogy when I’m certain I can hear Eno singing — in the “asanti” chorale section. As I have a conviction that the greater part of "Lodger" was made up in the studio, using Eno-esque instructions (Carlos! You play drums!), I feel like the song is “African” only at a later stage in its development, as a way of describing what the music was already doing, and thus to think of it as a commentary on Africa, or some kind of exoticizing refraction of Africa, is to be critically reductive.
Meanwhile, we know elsewhere that Eno’s travels were/are responsible for a lot of what he does. (In fact, when I was a teenager — at almost the same moment that I first heard "Lodger" — I conducted an interview for my high school radio station with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. I was very excited to meet them. But even more than meeting them I was very excited to meet someone who knew Brian Eno. They were working on "Fear of Music" at the time, I think. And Frantz said something during the interview about Eno getting ideas from travel.) “Move On” is entirely taken up with travel, and even the title of the album glances off of travel in its constancies. So hit-and-run cultural appropriation is part of the ironic, Brechtian distance of the thing, its cultural anxiety. By the way, I deeply resist “Move On,” too. It has only one virtue, or did at the time, the phase shifter on the electric guitar, but that is a rare example of something that has dated on a Bowie album. There’s a little phase shifting on side two of “Heroes” as well, I think, but it’s not one of Eno’s most lasting engineering tricks, and otherwise, in this case, the song is thin, with some lyrics that do not commend themselves to history.
“Yassassin,” on the other hand, is really a Middle Eastern song that traffics in reggae, not an example of reggae that happens to have Middle Eastern violin. Maybe the Carlos Alomar reggae figure was concocted so that it wouldn’t seem Orientalist for all its Turkish flavors. For me the singing is great on “Yassassin,” and I don’t always love the Bowie croon of 1976-1981. “Move On” has a little bit of crooning, and there are moments here and elsewhere. I always felt like the croon was where Bowie hid out a bit. When he was unsure of his ability to manufacture the pathos, then he would croon. (For me, "Station to Station" is an album of great triumphs, but also bombastic failure, viz., “Wild Is the Wind,” which was the first time that I found myself troubled with respect to the crooning.) There’s a little punk energy on "Lodger," as there was on “Heroes,” and this may be why you keep finding an Ian Curtis analogy here. But I would argue that "Lodger" is more New York punk, in a way, than London punk, in that there was a kind of Romantic-tradition nobility, a Byronic quality, to British punk, but New York No Wave of the 1978-1979 variety (which Eno had just documented on "No New York"), was far more nihilistic. It was anti-Romantic, and that was reflected in the absolute sludge of some of it — Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and so on. The singing on “Yassassin” has this punky aspect to it. There’s no vibrato here. No crooning. Like Tom Verlaine, or Johnny Thunders, or Arto Lindsay.
Maybe what you are describing as the lack of clarity in the sound — which I now hear better, and understand — is a recognition of this cultural difference. It’s more Eno’s influence on the sound, and his time in New York, and less Tony Visconti’s influence, which is always overlooked on "Low" and “Heroes.” Visconti was the one recording those sessions, not Eno.
Another way of describing this Anglo-American gap, yes, is to note the differences between the two of us having this discussion. Myself, an American, describing an album, "Lodger," that in my recollection dates to my first trip to London, and you, a British citizen (a “subject”) describing, in America, an album that to you is quintessentially British. Bowie himself foregrounds this gap, this divided-by-a-common-tongue-ness, in his “I’m Afraid of Americans” tape that he runs periodically, though he lives in NYC and has lived here a while, and recently made his very good album The Next Day in New York. He knows more about 9/11, it’s fair to say, than either you or I, because he lived south of Houston Street on 9/11. That’s about as New York as you can get. The Anglo-American gap is a recognition of the two things being inextricably linked obverses in the theater of Bowie criticism.
Therefore, here’s where we agree, without a doubt: I think “Red Sails” is kind of astounding and great. I will let you go there now . . .
Before I blow wind or hot air into “Red Sails,” let me make a point that's important to me. I'm a philosopher, right? And we're meant to be in the reason business, providing arguments, being rigorous, exposing unjustified assumptions. You know the sort of thing. The problem is that it doesn't happen much. It is actually very hard to change people's minds with arguments, especially philosophers' minds. I can't think of a single occasion in the last decade at the New School when someone has given a philosophy talk and the first question is: You are completely right, I was wrong in my basic assumptions, I need to go back and revise my views.
Even more acutely, when it comes to our aesthetic judgments, we tend to cling to our views out of some kind of weird anxiety or we make non-statements like It was interesting in response to some work we saw at the opening of a show. What the fuck does interesting mean? Nothing much.
On the contrary, in relation to sports and music, different sets of conventions apply and this really interests me (interests?). I am a huge soccer fan and have a fanatical religious commitment to Liverpool football club and a devotion to the team and, most of all, the supporters. But that doesn't make me a dogmatist. I meet people all the time in the street (usually when I'm wearing my Liverpool gear — sad, I know, but true) and have conversations with supporters of other teams, where we talk about what happened in a particular game, tactics, prospects for the rest of the season, transfers. The point is that it is a profoundly rational activity. Arguments are presented, evidence is weighed and you can see another's point of view, even a Manchester United fan's point of view. This is because we are relaxed about our basic convictions when it comes to sports like soccer. We are not threatened or wracked with anxiety.
I think it is similar when it comes to music. Look, we are both huge Bowie fans. Let's just say that there is no more important musical artist than Bowie over the past 40 years. Let's say we agree about that. But then we could meet someone at a party who thought the opposite, let's say a Zeppelin fan or a Floyd fan or even a Little Feat fan. And we could begin an argument, provide evidence, make a case, but also listen to the other's case. At the end of the conversation, our basic assumptions about, say Bowie's greatness, would not be fundamentally altered, but we would have learned something which might lead us to go home and stick on "Physical Graffiti" or "Dark Side of the Moon" or even "Feats Don't Fail Me Now" and say to ourselves, Yeah, that person had a point. This is pretty good.
Part of what I want to do with pop music, and it is important for me hang on to that term — “pop music,” music that is popular— is to show that it is worthy of our most refined aesthetic attention (for me, nothing is more aesthetically important than these little, often puerile three minute songs: they open worlds, they make life bearable, especially when you're young, but in my case long after until right now) and it can become exemplary for how we think about a range of our activities. If we thought about politics or fine art or philosophy in the way we think about pop music, then that would be a massive step in the right direction. One can be passionately committed to a set of beliefs about an artist like Bowie, but that doesn't make you a dogmatist.
So, after I made my case about "Lodger" and which tracks I thought were good and less good, you made your case for “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” and I went back and listened to them again and I can see why you say what you say. I was wrong about “African Night Flight.” the Eno synth squiggle is genius and it is the weird disjunction between the sluggishness of the rhythm track and the super fast vocals that pulls one in to the song. It sounds out of time all the time. And you are right about “Yassassin,” well, up to a point. I think you are right about Bowie's singing and the problem with his persistent crooning, which is sometimes a kind of cover that he hides behind, maybe because of that fundamental lack of confidence in his voice. Bowie should shout more often.
So I changed my mind a bit. That's the point I was trying to make. We do that with music and I really wish we did that in our other activities.
On the UK/U.S. thing, yes, I agree. Bowie is the quintessential New Yorker. That is, the person who finds a place by being out of place. That means neither being in one place, like England, or another, like the U.S.. New York allows you to be both and neither and that's its unique pull for me, its gravitational field, which neither exhausts nor bores me. I think of Quentin Crisp in this connection too and John Lennon, who said that New York reminded him of Liverpool. When I squint my eyes on the Q train crossing the Manhattan Bridge, I know exactly what Lennon meant. It's a home from home, a home that frees you from home.
Look, I hate England with a genuine passion. It feels dumb and cramped to me. And I know that this hatred is just the flipside of disappointed love, but the only area of Englishness that makes me chauvinistic (apart from Chaucer, Milton, Julian of Norwich, Shakespeare, Blake and Coleridge. You get the picture.) is popular music. England lives on for me as a series of musical memories and cliches, but also some genuine possibilities. I think that's kind of how it is for Bowie: I hate England, I never want to live there again. But when it comes to music, well that's England's dreaming, as Jon Savage so nicely argued ages ago. I like the dreaming, just not the reality.
“Red Sails” is the track I have played most often when listening to "Lodger." I guess this goes back to when I bought "Neu! 75" in 1975. I used to skip lunch, stay hungry and use the money to buy albums. "Neu! 75" was one of my proudest possessions, with a wonderful, gatefold shiny black and white cover. It's not just the Klaus Dinger drum and bass track that is lifted from Neu!, (listen to “Hero” and especially “E musik,” which is simply prophetic of everything that happened subsequently in music for the next decades), the blank motorik beat that reduces rock and roll to a gloriously empty Trauerspiel. The debt to Neu! is also is also in the softly melodic synth and guitar parts that are very close to the work that Michael Rother did, both with Neu! and on his solo albums like "Sterntaler" from 1977. So, when I heard “Red Sails” for the first time, it felt like a vindication of this obscure band that only I seemed to like.
But the moments that just kill me on “Red Sails” are the little, melodic vocal run, when Bowie says “Sailor can't dance like you” and his voice almost breaks and then it's followed by a real or synthetic scream. It makes me wince with total delight every time I hear it. The other moment is the choral shout, “The hinterland, the hinterland, we’re gonna sail to the hinterland.” This opens up onto everything that happens for the next thirty second or so. We get this line, “It's far, far, fa fa fa far far far away/It's a far far fa fa fa da da da da da.” And then Bowie just counts '1, 2' and then pauses slightly before '3, 4' and then emits an unearthly wail. A sail wail.
Again, the slightly droll, Orientalist conceit of the track disappears at the end into a pure phonetic series of signifiers of the most completely obvious kind: ‘1,2,3,4’ or 'da da'. The whole energy of the track seems to dissolve its own pretense and flip over 180 degrees into something devastatingly interesting.
I'm very loquacious today. The only other things I wanted to mention were that “Fantastic Voyage” is obviously an allusion to the 1966 movie of the same name, which is a wonderfully constructed parable of miniaturization and shrinking submarines. Bowie must have seen it. The movie is a kind of fantasy of inner space as opposed to the usual fantasies of outer space. I would connect this to sense of claustrophobia and inner depression that marks that song and much of "Lodger." It is peculiar indeed that when Bowie is talking about outer space, from “Space Oddity” in 1969 through to “Dancing Out in Space” in 2013, he’s really talking about inner space.
The last thing I want to underline is the gender dimension to "Lodger," which occurs in two particular moments. in “Boys Keep Swinging,” we get an apparent celebration of being a boy and popping cherries, but, as the wonderful draggy video for the song shows, this is a kind of performative parody and undermining of masculinity. It is a decidedly queer song, revealing the hollowness of boys playing at being a boy.
The track that follows, “Repetition,” is about domestic violence. It's about a boy that keeps swinging at his wife. Bowie's work is replete with social commentary, but he always handles things in an oblique way, which many people miss. A recent example is the internal monologue of the serial killer on “Valentine's Day.” But “Repetition” is much more direct and it is about the repetitive loops of male violence against women, particularly husbands against wives. The moment of real brilliance in the track (and I would love to ask Bowie about this song) is the fact that whole lyric is told in a distant, impersonal third person form: “Johnny is a man and he's bigger than her.” But there is one moment when Bowie switches into the second person to make a plea, to plead with Johnny, “Don't hit her.” You could miss it on the first couple of hearings, but it's what structures the whole song. The only thing that can arrest these cycles of domestic violence is a commandment, an appeal, which always has to be in the second person, like “You shall not kill.” It is not a law, it is an ethical demand.
There’s a synthesizer riff that starts at 1:47 on “Red Sails,” and it works like a string section, like one of those George Martin production gambits in which the instrumental section is so well composed, so melodic, that it’s like another hook in the song, and it’s the thing that causes the song to lift off for me. It is set off by the “Red sail/Red sail action!/Red sail/Some reaction!” section, and it gives way to just the part you’re referring to, the section with the word salad. Which begins with “hinterland.” The word salad is very interesting to me, coinciding, as it does, with a monstrous Adrian Belew guitar solo. This is one of the most dramatic sections on the album, I think, but you are right (and in this way I agree with your reverie on the infrequence of philosophical reconciliation) that the rhythm section is oddly buried in this recording. The drumming is rather astoundingly great in this out-section of “Red Sails,” but you wouldn’t know. It’s mixed back a lot. If you’re going to have this great, funky rhythm section (and I would single out George Murray, too, who is funky without doing excessive amounts of Larry Graham popping), you should be able to hear them!
I would refer to the “word salad” section of “Red Sails” as the end of the travel theme on "Lodger," which is largely confined to side one, and this odyssey ends in what I have lately been thinking about as the inexpressibility trope. I love when the songs don’t know what to do, because everything that needs to be said lyrically has already been to said, and so the abstract register, which is to say the musical register, has to take over (the best moment of this, or one of the very best is in that Big Star song, “What’s Going Ahn,” where Alex Chilton sings “Always nothing left to say,” and then leaves the last line of the verse empty). Bowie goes “da da da da da da,” and then just leaves the rest of the space to Belew. It can no longer be said!
As you rightly observe, side two is the masculinity side, and since we were both boys verging on manhood at the time of its release, it stands to reason that this side would have a lot of impact (or maybe I speak for myself). It starts with “DJ,” which is really one of the high points of the album (video here). I’m pretty sure the string section is in part Bowie’s chamberlin, which was used to excellent effect on the two earlier Berlin albums. The sound is more rock and roll, with the rhythm section in fine form, and mostly audible. Belew and the chamberlin, and some real violin, I believe, all function at the outside limit of an acceptable harmonic vocabulary for a rock and roll, and then the lyrics would seem to deal with the idiocy of pop machinery, especially the masculine culture in which rock and roll happens. As with that song on "Scary Monsters," “Teenage Wildlife,” which people think is a flipping of the bird at Gary Numan, it’s possible to imagine that “DJ” is directed at a specific deejay somewhere, but who cares? I am never interested in that kind of transparent autobiography. You make the case in your book that Bowie’s autobiography is less frequent than we think, and I would probably take issue, to some extent, because I think it’s often when things appear less autobiographical that they are more autobiographical (like Alain Robbe-Grillet to me is a very autobiographical novelist, and Charles Bernstein feels very autobiographical to me), and so I imagine that the masculinity side of "Lodger" is about inhabiting a series of masculine selves in the same way that side one is about inhabiting a series of “foreign cultures.”
“Look Back in Anger” is not an interesting song for me, because it relies on the crooning tendency, although I love the rhythm, which is a distant relative of the chitter-chatter of the “Lust For Life” teletypewriter rhythm, but that’s not enough. I’m interested again in “Boys Keep Swinging,” with its Jerry Lee Lewis rhythms, and it’s highly ironized lyrics. “When you’re a boy/Other boys check you out/You get a girl/When you’re a boy.” What does swinging mean in the title? It’s all foreshadowing of the very ominous “Repetition,” which follows. All of this from the David Bowie, who, in the popular press, was supposedly an androgyne, or bisexual or perhaps gay. A very inside-the-beltway commentary on all the pitfalls of contemporary masculinity. A great guitar solo here, too, as if to indicate the role that great guitar solos play in constructed masculinity. So great is the solo, in fact, that it happens twice. Unless I miss my guess, it’s two different solos composited, as one does in the studio. “Repetition,” with its No Wave groove (it could almost be James White and the Blacks), continues the theme. “Repetition” reminds me a bit of the kind of fake jazz Lou Reed was doing on "The Bells," too, also a very underrated album.
I probably like “Red Money” more than you do, because I actually like "The Idiot" less than I like "Lust For Life," and I don’t object to filching an old song if a new and better song can be made from it (I was backstage at a gig last year when I heard a certain songwriter of the moment, one I old in high esteem, say, “If people only knew how many of our songs are our other songs backwards!”), and I sort of think that Bowie does more interesting things with the backing tracks than Iggy did with them. I think, that is, that Bowie is a better melodist than Iggy is. Bowie’s melody has some R&B to it (it’s pentatonic), some hooks, whereas Iggy’s is more punk, more elemental.
What is the flavor of the whole? In your book, you say of "Lodger," “I remember sitting alone cross-legged on the floor of my mum’s flat gazing at the distorted accident victim image of Bowie on the cover and trying to like the album more.” I concur with that first response to it, but I guess time has been incredibly kind to "Lodger" for me, and I find that there only a few songs I don’t like on it (“Move On” and “Look Back In Anger”), and for me the overall flavor of experimental tinkering, and anti-pop repurposing of pop-song structure, is welcome, and, in a way, more adventurous, than some of "Low" and “Heroes.” He didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought, he didn’t even seem to give a fuck what Brian Eno thought, and that is some genuine liberty. He wanted to make art. And art is outside of taxonomies of art. Art is hard to talk about, at first, or to evaluate, because art doesn’t fall into a particular set of standards, it’s the category beyond standards.
The irony of "Lodger" is an uppermost feature here, and it extends to ideas of how to make a pop song, and how to make a proper record. The bad sound, one supposes, is part of a rationale, like Bowie and Iggy Pop just giving Tony Visconti the demos for "The Idiot" and telling him to make a record out of it somehow. "Planned Accidents" is too literal for a title, or, if you’re going to make planned accidents the technique for the album the technique has to extend to the title itself too. The "Planned Accidents" thing reminds me of the original title for "Gravity’s Rainbow," by Thomas Pynchon, which you probably know was "Mindless Pleasures." I think "Mindless Pleasures" gave too much away. Probably titles should be hints as to the contents without giving it all away. "Let’s Dance" gives too much away, which is why it’s a popular album. As soon as you start giving things away, then you are courting the mass audience.
Everyone always says "Scary Monsters" is the last great Bowie album, but I think "Scary Monsters" has three good songs on it, whereas "Lodger" is mostly great. Greater with each passing year. Because it’s part of a tradition of genre-busting that includes "Aladdin Sane" and "Diamond Dogs" and "Low" and "Reality" and "The Next Day." I think the danger with Bowie is to presume that it’s all earnest, and the danger is to presume with Bowie that it’s all ironic, and it’s when he’s between things, as with gender and sexuality, then he is at his subtle, artful best . . .
That last reply was really good, Rick. Anyhow, as Lou Reed said at the end of one of his albums, "New York," I think, “Stick a fork in my ass and turn me over; I'm done.” I'm done, but let me just pick at the scabs of a couple of things you said.
What's so great about this exchange is that we both care so much about Bowie and both know the music, but there is just so much that one misses. So I just went back to that moment at 1:47 on “Red Sails” with the stringy-synth part, and you are right: it completely lifts the track and takes it somewhere else, somewhere much more intense.
And this somewhere is nowhere, in the sense that what happens towards the end of “Red Sails” is an exhilaration that seems to accompany the exhaustion of the song, where there is nothing left to say. It's at that point, when something becomes nothing, narrative fades into pure image, or a series of phonemes (da da/fa fa) and sheer sound, that music HAPPENS. Nothing else can do that. Poetry, prose, visual art, culture, horticulture, sericulture. I could go on. none of those things can make this happen. Maybe sex can, but it has to be REALLY good sex.
A few things you said in the last reply really hit home and suggested to me the discipline of an artist like Bowie, his askesis, and his precise use of the oblique as a strategy to generate his art. What I mean goes back to what you say about autobiography and the idea that the less autobiographical writing or music is, the more truly autobiographical it can become. I think that the logic of Bowie's endless ventriloquism, his occupation of different personae and different voices: Scott Walker, Tony Newley, Marc Bolan...
So you remember that T.S. Eliot's first title for 'The Waste Land' was that weird line he borrowed from Dickens: he do the police in different voices. It's a much better title, but I guess Eliot was too interested in money and sales, as you suggest about "Let's Dance." But I think that Bowie does do the police in different voices and he do(es) this because he sits on that razor edge that demarcates the earnest from the ironic. As you say, it is a complete musunderstanding to see Bowie as either earnest or ironic. He is both at once: absolutely serious, absolutely playful. Andy Warhol silver screen, can't tell them apart at all.
So, you are right, the choice of 'The Lodger' as a title is perfect in the sense that it maintains this oblique discipline. Planned Accidents gives way too much away. It becomes just another tedious discourse on the method. There is something menacing about the very word "Lodger," something utterly dodgy. The artful lodger. But the lodger is also the serial killer, the neighborhood threat, Jack the Ripper. It's also obviously an allusion to Hitchcock's 1927 eponymous film, whose subtitle is “A Story of the London Fog.”
In our ends are our beginnings. Or vice versa. Or both at once. Begending. But I think of you in your story of the London fog in 1979, traveling on the underground and seeing those twisted accident pictures from the cover of Bowie's album. And I think of myself back then, aged 19, covered with acne, trying to find something from "Lodger" that it just wouldn't give me at the time. Funny, it took 35 years to speak to me finally, like a radio ghost from the past demanding a blood sacrifice. But it was worth the wait.