“I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man/
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman”
If The Man Who Sold The World was full of anxiety, then Hunky Dory is pure catharsis. TMWSTW is fire, and Hunky Dory is water. The blur and confusion of losing your mind gives way to the spiritual joy of explaining yourself in a fit of clarity. Hunky Dory is what sometimes happens when you go through a bad patch, either with yourself or someone else, and a wall inside your mind crumbles and you can see a plan for your life for the next year or two.
It has all of the optimism that was missing in the prior album. On its own, it’s a hokey piece of work. At least I thought it was hokey when I first heard it. I have a memory of myself at 17 lying on the carpet of my mother’s apartment in Los Angeles listening to all these albums, hitting Hunky Dory before I had listened to TMWSTW, and wondering whether Bowie was laughing at us.
My reasoning lay in how it sounded like the entire album was composed on one of those old saloon type pianos that appeared on TV Western’s like Bonanza. This is hardly a “rock” album befitting a “rock god.” And while I’m not entirely sure that Bowie isn’t laughing at us–I do think that there is a sincerity in this album that I missed as a teenager, and that has grown both within the album and within me as a listener.
It was January 11th 2016, Monday morning, when I learned that David Bowie had died. I couldn’t believe it. I went to work a shell of myself, and I chose to listen to three albums. Two of them were my definite favorites: Station to Station, Diamond Dogs. The third was Hunky Dory. It wasn’t until that day that I realized that Hunky Dory was my third favorite Bowie album, which was a strange way to learn something about yourself.
It’s the album with music that told me that–not only was it okay to be gay–but it was an honor. “Gotta make way for the homo superior,” is a lyric that made me smile then and still makes me smile. “Turn and face the strange,” was a salve for all the insults society would throw at who I was. Life on Mars? Still makes me cry. It’s a song that communicates that your strangest dreams and desires are more important than movies or prayer.
In the last entry I mentioned that Bowie in a dress in the Man Who Sold The World was a risky gambit. An album about mental illness with Bowie in a dress signified anxiety about identity. This cover, even more femme than the last, has no anxiety whatsoever. Here Bowie is revelatory and pure. He is calm, assured, with his pale hands sweeping his hair back, and revealing himself to be a woman. A woman–that’s what I thought when I saw this cover for the first time–existing as a mere 10 by 10 centimeter jpeg on my computer screen. Bowie shimmers. The picture looks like its been painted on with a technique called pointilism which implies that minuscule points of interest reveal something larger–about what? About Bowie and ourselves.
The cool thing about this picture is that we have many pictures from the shoot to sift through. See them here. I can see, visually, how important this cover was to Bowie because of all the other beautiful pictures that didn’t make the cut. This is one of my favorite pics of this session and of Bowie:
It’s a gorgeous shot, but it didn’t suit the message of the album–in other words–it’s still too “boy.” Bowie pushing his gender as femme as possible, and positioning that as clarity and joy, is still one of the most punk things I’ve ever seen.
Tracks of Note
Changes sets the tone for Bowie’s new direction following the last album. Bowie opens with lamenting a few of the last album’s anxieties
“I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets”
And references the uncanny crisis in TMWSTW of being a person who has split himself–and can observe himself:
So I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
And then it shrugs all of that off–c’est la vie–because peace comes when you accept who you are, and what you are.
The language Bowie uses is Nietzschean, but the implications are written in a language that gay and trans kids everywhere can hear loud and clear.
Changes moves from addressing the changes within a person to addressing the changes in a society. Old people and old ideas get pushed aside in favor of younger ideas and younger people. I heard a rumor that Bernie Sanders uses “Starman” in his rallies. I have no idea why he didn’t choose this song instead.
Oh! You Pretty Things
I heard this song when I needed to hear it, and it went a long way from pulling me away from the darkness caused by finding out that I was different, and that the difference could potentially disappoint my mother. In some ways, the first person I ever came out to was David Bowie, privately, with this song playing through my headphones.
Oh! You Pretty Things can be about something specific–let’s say the avant-garde glitter and punk kids of 1971–but it also has the qualities of a neverending struggle. I suspect that there will always be newer and prettier things that will drive me crazy as I get older (heard all about those kids calling themselves genderqueer? What is THAT all about?).
I felt a bond with Bowie’s words and took them as almost sage advice. Looking back, that advice was sound. Kids; be yourself, drive the older generation insane, and know that the future is yours no matter what you are.
Life On Mars?
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Life on Mars? –the music video–was one of the most viewed Bowie videos on the day he died.
Surprised only because that music video was one of my own most viewed Bowie videos from the Best of Bowie DVD. The DVD set is out of print now, and I lost it to a roommate, but I remember being transfixed by the video. It is my absolute favorite of his music videos and I was happy to see it getting the recognition that it deserves on youtube over his mega-pop hits.
The song itself was re-popularized by Jessica Lange’s performance (complete with blue suit and makeup) on American Horror Story: Freak Show in 2014. My husband, who is a Bowie virgin, remarked that it was a pretty song.
Yeah, it’s pretty. I think it’s also profound. Easily one of Bowie’s best songs.
It was Bowie’s take on Paul Anka and Sinatra’s song ‘My Way’ (Bowie has a strange history with that song), but instead of celebrating the singer, Bowie sort of celebrates the boredom that it takes to create. There’s a girl who is dissatisfied with her life, her parents–she goes to the movies to escape–and is then dissatisfied with the movie she’s watching!
She wonders whether there’s life on mars. If you remember previous entries, space is a Bowie metaphor for salvation, creativity, and danger.
My interpretation of this song is that it is an homage to our strangest ideas and desires. The content of the song is a downer, but the melody of the song builds to this wonderful crescendo that is a complete non-sequitur; what if there’s life on mars? The important thing is that you keep having strange ideas like this and that you don’t give up your sense of wonder in a world that can be a total bore sometimes.
Notes On A Few More Tracks
Quicksand and Fill Your Heart are two wonderful sides of the same coin. Quicksand is a song that gets better the older I get. The lyrics lament the limitations of the artists, and the limitations of living in the past. Fill Your Heart takes all of that worry and wipes it away in a comedic fashion, essentially telling us to be happy to lose our minds and thoughts in order to experience joy. I believe both songs signify a grounding of all of Bowie’s advice. He is–after all–an artist with limitations and shouldn’t be thought of as an expert or messiah (until he becomes a literal messiah in the next album). Seal made an amazing cover of Quicksand which you can watch here.
Kooks is such a sweet song about Bowie’s son, and I didn’t realize it was a song about his son until I decided to write this (lol). I love the idea that it’s a song meant to convince the baby to be his son. It really makes me think that Bowie would be a wise father; understanding that a son could eventually choose to stop talking to a father.
Eight Line Poem is like a raft boat floating in a beautiful mountain lake during a 6 am sunset. I want to sit in front of it with a cup of coffee. Queen Bitch is fantastic and has been overused and abused for the sake of Wes Anderson trailers. And I might be very weird because I don’t care for The Bewlay Brothers but I love Andy Warhol.
It means a lot to me that this album exists. The songs presented here probably had the most impact. I hope that it touches some other poor kid’s life too.
- David Bowie: The Complete Works (Intro)
- David Bowie 1967
- Space Oddity 1969
- The Man Who Sold The World 1970