Around 2002 I traveled to London for the very first time in my life. I was 20 years old and traveling on business. I was the managing editor of XY magazine, an American magazine for young gay men that survived a fair amount of controversy during the 90’s.
So I was Out. I was fucking gay. I dressed like a punk and I bought my pair of tight purple jeans. I was in a foreign country–unsupervised– and I was of legal drinking age there whereas I was not in the States.
I had several personal missions to get into trouble while I was there, but one of my easier missions was to hunt down the elusive 1967 debut of David Bowie. It was such a vastly unpopular album that torrent users refused to seed it. I typed in the name over and over again and came back with nothing.
By this point I had every one of Bowie’s solo records on a small green iPod nano except for David Bowie 1967. It wasn’t even that I wanted to listen to it. I just wanted to own it. To have it meant that I could have a complete collection of his work.
I walked into a pink HMV store, looked through their expansive Bowie collection, and finally found it on CD. My very first independent foreign exchange of money and goods was David Bowie 1967. I traveled back to Hamstead a short train ride away from Piccadilly Circus, retrieved my CD player, and started listening to it.
It is an album that isn’t very good. This was David Bowie before he was cool. Released in 1967, it sees Bowie following along rather than setting the trends. 60’s Bowie is kind of a mod-rocker and a preening mess.
Nevertheless, my problem with the album is with the sound, not the content. The content including the lyrics and the stories in the tracks are all as classic bowie as you can get.
Tracks of Note
She’s Got Medals
This is prototypical of almost everything Bowie would come to embrace. Gender bending, sex bending, everything bending. The girl who has medals probably isn’t sure whether she’s a boy or a girl, but Bowie has a long way to go until he can tell her that she’s alright. We establish early on that Bowie is interested in the ways that queerdom is expressed. He and I will continue to obsess over this topic for a long while.
There Is A Happy Land
This sounds almost like Five Years from Ziggy Stardust. It’s a light narrative consisting of setting and characters. I think it’s a truism that most writers wish they could make music. I took band in High School playing the clarinet with a bunch of other kids, and I was good at it. Learned enough to read sheet music on a basic level and get to play a few notes of Ode to Joy. It’s something about the passion that music brings that books cannot. The written word doesn’t ever make my heart sing like a good melody can.
I think Bowie was the rare person that came at it from reverse. He was a musician who wanted to be a writer. I believe this is what makes him so unique. His music isn’t a message, or a statement of fact, it’s a little snapshot of a narrative that evokes the intellectual feeling of reading a story that speaks to you and makes you feel less alone in the universe with your thoughts. David Bowie absolutely loved books and writers and it shows in his work.
There Is A Happy Land has that quality of the beginning of a great Bowie-like story, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere. Bowie wouldn’t make the connection between song and story until Space Oddity.
Please Mr. Gravedigger
[There’s a neat fan-made animated version of the above track here]
I don’t think all of the tracks fail. I think Please Mr. Gravedigger is a fantastic piece of work that taps into what Bowie really prized about performance. Here is a production and a song unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Well maybe not true. I haven’t heard something like this in rock but it does remind me of those skits employed in old hip hop records. There’s a lot of the theater of the mind stuff going on. There’s setting, characters, a story with a beginning and end. Bowie is so committed to his act that he pantomimes sneezing on the track (if one can say that a sneeze can be pantomimed). Bowie studied to be a mime and it starts to show here. I think a lesser artist would have nixed the track, but Bowie being Bowie, committed to it.
A thing about Bowie being a mime. This is not an unimportant fact. Bowie’s career as a mime didn’t end with his training. He mimed his way through acting, mimed his way through a rock career, mimed on stage, mimed every change in his musical style. Bowie isn’t a chameleon. He’s a mimic. There’s an element of what we call “Passing,” in that. Passing was used in connection to people of one minority race passing themselves off as a majority race. That concept trickled down to sex and gender studies. Gay people can pass as straight through a type of mimicry.
The importance of being a mime and of passing wasn’t lost on Bowie who listed Nella Larson’s novel Passing as one of his top 100 books.
Mimicry and Passing were also concepts not lost on me as I sat in my Bed and Breakfast room in London–being a brown gay misfit from the West Coast–doing the job of a person twice my age and listening to David Bowie 1967.
David Bowie 1967 – Full Album