I vaguely remember looking over the track listing of The Next Day before it had come out and noticing that there was a song called “Valentine’s Day.” Bowie being Bowie, it seemed unlikely that this would be a Hallmark moment.
And indeed, though on the surface “Valentine’s Day” is one of the poppier numbers on the album, underneath it is a pretty grim piece of work. Without ever actually coming out and saying it, David gradually lets us know that Valentine is a psychotic school shooter, and his “day” is the one on which he will carry out his killing spree — and, as these things go, probably end up dying himself.
It is perverse and perfect. Says O’Leary:
It wouldn’t be as chilling if Bowie hadn’t made the song so catchy, with his Beatles chorus vocals (compare his ooo-la-la-las to those of “You Won’t See Me”) and [Ear] Slick’s guitar arpeggio fills. Even the line about Valentine’s victims — “Teddy and Judy down”—has a sad Sixties echo to it, calling back to Ray Davies’ Terry and Julie in “Waterloo Sunset“; in a brighter time, the song could have been about them, a pair of lovers trying to work things out. Instead they’re just bodies lying in a classroom.
A track that seems as if Bowie used a Waring blender to make it, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s yet has a garish rock-show arrangement. Its title is a would-be manager’s promise of fame but it’s also advice given by St. Catherine of Siena.
—Chris O’Leary, Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog, 2015
If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!
—St. Catherine of Siena, Letter 368, circa 1380
I really like this one. Musically, it’s pure, gut-level rock’n’roll of a type that Bowie has done rarely, and done well even less. Like the best possible iteration of Tin Machine. Lyrically, I love the sheer perversity of lyrics about the Village folk scene set to such metallic backing. I mean, what could he possibly have been thinking? Why? Then again why not?
—Pushing Ahead of the Dame commenter “Billter,” 2015
Time is short today, and so is this video — just over a minute:
Quick factoid: Aside from the drum loop, David played all the instruments on this, overdubbing himself Prince-style. That’s all for now.
In honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s 101st birthday today, I’m taking a break from the ongoing Bowie thread to talk about something I just read.
The first story in Look at the Birdie, “Confido” — which was written, but not published, sometime in the early 1950s — is about a handyman who works for a company that makes hearing aids. In the course of tinkering with microphones and speakers, he accidentally invents a machine that talks to you. He describes it to his wife like this:
“What is it every person really wants, more than food almost?” Henry had asked coyly, showing her Confido for the first time. He was a tall, rustic man, ordinarily as shy as a woods creature. But something had changed him, made him fiery and loud. “What is it?”
“Happiness, certainly! But what’s the key to happiness?”
“Religion? Security, Henry? Health, dear?”
“What is the longing you see in the eyes of strangers on the street, in eyes wherever you look?”
“You tell me, Henry. I give up.” Ellen had said helplessly.
“Somebody to talk to! Somebody who really understands! That’s what.” He’d waved Confido over his head. “And this is it!”
After this conversation Henry goes to work, leaving Ellen alone with Confido — who, it turns out, is a horrible gossip with an endless string of snarky things to say about the neighbors. When the kids come home from school, she is still in her housecoat, knee-deep in slander.read more…
This morning I rewatched the “I’d Rather Be High”/Louis Vuitton thing and I have some thoughts.
- First off, what do we call it exactly? A commercial short film? A music video with product placement? It seems like it might actually be a couple of 30-second spots followed by a full run through the song. Not that it really matters what we call it; from this vantage it is a bizarre slice of late-early-21st-century culture.
- As I read the lyrics today, I am thinking this song is the dying reverie of a teenage soldier who spent too much of his short life reading. Which makes it all the more a perverse choice for a high-gloss fashion shoot. And I mean “perverse” in the best possible way — there is our old friend Bowie, up to his old tricks again, sneaking his morbid/sexy weirdness into the mainstream.
- David’s mouth never syncs up with the music, which has to be a conscious choice by the director. Is he trying to make some kind of comment about time? Clearly Art is being attempted here; as the video goes on, we start to see the camera crew and makeup artists. (“A hedge fund manager’s idea of surrealism,” sniffs O’Leary.)
- I had not previously watched the very end of the clip, wherein the bit from the “Love Is Lost” video with David washing his hands in his bathroom is reprised. This has to mean something; like, he was washing his hands of the whole thing, preparing even then for his move to the next bardo?
Next up on the hit parade is “Dirty Boys,” which for my money is one of late-stage Bowie’s best songs. It’s an outlier in a couple ways: for one, it sounds different from everything else on The Next Day, built on a Morphine-esque bass-and-sax dialogue. (The stabbing guitar that keeps barging in is in thrall to Robert Fripp’s work on Scary Monsters.)read more…
The funny thing about “I’d Rather Be High” is that when you get to the part where he says what he’d rather be high than — “training these guns on those men in the sand” — you have to scratch your head. Well, of course, Dave, you’d rather be high than doing that — who wouldn’t? What are you trying to get at here?
The whole song is a confusing tangle of literary references and war imagery. Then all of a sudden the soldier seems to remember he’s in a rock’n’roll song and croons,
I’d rather smoke and phone my ex
Be pleading for some teenage sex, yeah
It’s a good tune, though, and it comes in a few different flavors. I’m partial to the album version, but the official video uses the Venetian mix, which is heavy on the harpsichord. The definitive version, though, may well be the one he did for Louis Vuitton. Unlike the other video, David actually appears in this one:
It’s quite the little epic. Sure, it’s a commercial; so what? Late-stage Bowie could do whatever he wanted, and this was what he wanted to do. Who are we mere mortals to question him?
Just remember, duckies, everybody gets got.
I don’t think much of “The Informer” as a song — it plods along for four and a half looong minutes, and the melody is so unmemorable that despite having listened to it about about 15 minutes ago, I cannot at this moment call it to mind. This video isn’t much either: “Random Bowie images thrown together in five minutes,” says the poster.
But there’s an intriguing suggestion hiding in the lyrics, which appear to be written from the point of view of an assassin. Chris O’Leary relates them to In Bruges, the 2008 black comedy that everyone but me seemed to love, though honestly I barely remember it. Maybe I ought to give it another shot.
Meanwhile Momus, the Scottish singer/songwriter who was a prolific commenter on COL’s Bowie blog, has this to say:
The song seems to be an assassin’s death sentence passed on someone who’s betrayed a generation, sold out their aspirations, gone for gold over soul.
Chris O’Leary says that “Boss of Me” is “the worst thing on its album. There is no reason for it to exist.”
I like it a little more than that. In fact when it’s playing I rather enjoy it. But to COL’s point, were it suddenly to disappear from the spacetime continuum, I would never notice. It appears to have been tossed together over an afternoon, and named after an effects pedal (the Boss ME-80). But it made the cut for The Next Day. Well, that’s Bowie for ya.
“Love Is Lost” is one of the better songs on The Next Day: dark but glamorous, with a throbbing urgency. At some point Bowie invited James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to create a remix, which he called the “Hello Steve Reich Mix,” and all the hipsters fell all over themselves to say how great it was.
I personally think it sucks. (I’m not saying I’m right and they’re wrong — de gustibus non est disputandum — but none of them are in this room to argue with me right now.) Yet somehow, like the Pet Shop Boys’ dreadful mistreatment of “Hallo Spaceboy,” it ended up usurping the rightful place of the original song, appearing on greatest hits compilations and whatnot.
The official video uses an edit of the remix, which in its uncut form was an insufferable ten and a half minutes long. And using the keyboard line from “Ashes to Ashes” was cheating. For the record, some LCD Soundsystem I quite like. But this thing… nah.
The video is pretty creepy. Supposedly David made it himself at home. The bathroom appears to be the same one from the “Thursday’s Child” video; does that mean it was also shot chez Bowie?
And that thing he keeps saying: “what have you done?” Where do I know that from? Oh, right:
Sexy Sadie, what have you done
You made a fool of everyone
After finishing Player Piano I decided to go back and reread some of Vonnegut’s stories, which constituted the majority of his output from that period. Imagine my chagrin to find Welcome to the Monkey House missing from the library. Also gone: the posthumously released story collection Bagombo Snuff Box.
I guess I must have loaned/given them to somebody? This vaguely rings a bell. In fact I seem to remember giving away more than one copy of Monkey House when the fancy updated edition was released some years ago. Fortunately neither it nor Snuff Box was expensive to reacquire. They are currently en route from Fife, WA and Kansas City, MO respectively.
In the meantime I started reading another story collection I found on my shelf, Look at the Birdie. Here’s the first sentence of the first story. I think it bodes well.
The Summer had died peacefully in its sleep, and Autumn, as soft-spoken executrix, was locking life up safely until Spring came to claim it.