If I’m Dreaming My Life

“If I’m Dreaming My Life” has all the earmarks of an album closer: It’s long, it’s grandiose, it builds to a crescendo with an ambiguous sense of finality. But on the hours… CD it is the 4th of 10 tracks and gets a little lost. When the album was finally released on vinyl in 2015, “IIDML” was the last song on the A side, which makes a little more sense.

In fact, now that I think about it, the whole album makes more sense on vinyl. The CD always felt too long, even though at 47 minutes it was hardly one of the longer discs of the era. Two shorter chunks seem more manageable, and ending the A side with “If I’m Dreaming…” and the B side with “The Dreamers” is nicely symmetrical.

The estimable Chris O’Leary says that “If I’m Dreaming My Life” “seems half-finished at times,” and that’s true in more ways than one. It asks a question that it never answers: “If I’m dreaming my life away…” Well, then what, Dave? He never says; you have to decide for yourself. My answer would be “Well, so what if I am? So’s everybody.”

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Survive

Today is the seventh anniversary of David Bowie’s movement to the next bardo, and as fate would have it, the next song in the queue is “Survive.”

David survives, of course, in our hearts and minds and YouTube feeds and Spotify playlists. It’s rare that a day passes when I don’t think of him, partly because our shower curtain is a collage of Bowie images. I also have a coffee mug that shows all the studio album covers in order, as well as these pieces in the room off the kitchen:

When I listen to a song like “Survive” I wonder what it was like to create knowing that your legacy was already set, that nothing else you did — in one way of looking at it — was going to matter. (Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether anything any of us does matters. It’s Tuesday, for Chrissake.) By 1999 Bowie’s audience had pretty much shrunk to the diehards. If you’d lasted through Tin Machine and Black Tie White Noise and Earthling, not to mention the mortifying Eighties, you were a fan indeed and would probably buy whatever David put out.

But whether you’d actually listen to it was another matter; it was easy to put a new album on the shelf, but when your hand reached out it had a tendency to come back with Ziggy Stardust or Station to Station. As it happens I did actually listen to hours… a fair amount at the time, but I think that’s because I truly had nothing better to do. And if memory serves I rarely listened to the whole thing.

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Divine Symmetry

In honor of David Bowie’s 76th birthday, I sat down today to listen to the Divine Symmetry box set. It is a mountain of material — 72 tracks and almost 4 hours — but pretty light on actual “new” songs (and most of those have long been bootlegged anyway). Mostly it’s made up of demo, alternate, live, and radio versions of songs from Hunky Dory.

What strikes me most is how different this music (all from 1971) is from what immediately preceded it. There’s no trace of the metallic leanings of The Man Who Sold the World; it’s almost like, having split (for the first but not last time) with producer Tony Visconti, Bowie rewound to 1968 and went in a different direction from there.

It worked out. Hunky Dory was David’s first bona fide classic album, and its songs still beguile and befuddle more than a half-century on.

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Something in the Air

David Bowie’s “Something in the Air”

is not the same as Thunderclap Newman’s:

But apparently there is some kind of relationship between the two.1(There are no coincidences in Bowie World, just planned accidents.) The latter was written by Speedy Keen, Pete Townshend’s former flatmate. Keen had previously composed “Armenia City in the Sky,” which Wikipedia says “was the only song The Who ever performed that was specifically written for the group by a non-member.”

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Farewell Horizontal

In my 1999 mood I decided to finally listen to the deluxe reissue of Pavement’s last album, Terror Twilight, which is subtitled “Farewell Horizontal.” This is a task I’ve been putting off for months, as I suspected there wasn’t much of value left in the vault after the epic Brighten the Corners reissue. I wasn’t wrong, but I don’t regret having done it; time spent with Pavement is never entirely wasted.

TT was an outlier among Pavement albums, produced by a big name (Nigel Godrich of Radiohead and Beck fame) and really produced — big-sounding and loaded with detail, it thus lacks the shambolic charm of, say, Wowee Zowee. But you have to admire the craft that went into a song like “Spit on a Stranger”: every note and word precisely in place, not a note or word wasted, and — bonus points — just a smidge over three minutes exactly. In short, a perfect song.

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“Spit on a Stranger” sounds like a hit, but it wasn’t, because the world is full of Philistines. Weirdly, at this point Pavement’s biggest “hit” — streamed 88 million times on Spotify, more than twice the total of the next contender — is “Harness Your Hopes,” which was not a single or an album track but an obscure song that appeared on the “Stranger” CD single. For some weird algorithmic reason “Harness” got pushed to a lot of people as a song they might like, and many of them liked it, and they were right to like it because it is also a perfect song.

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Like It’s 1999

I’ve been thinking a lot about 1999 lately, I’m not sure why. Something about that moment in time resonates with our current one.

In 99 we thought it was end of an era, the first move to a new century any of us under 100 had experienced, and the first into a new millennium in many a generation. But of course there was no big sudden change — the exciting chaos we’d been expecting never materialized, and we woke up on the first day of the “new era” a day older but the same as ever.

The real new era — for Americans at least — arrived a year, nine months, and ten days later. In some ways I feel like this country has never fully processed the trauma of 9/11. We had always felt invulnerable before that — we had lost in Vietnam, but that happened far away. You can trace a direct if somewhat blurry line between the wave of paranoia and finger-pointing that followed to our current hate-filled political condition. In that sense, the terrorists won.

Again, I’m not sure why I feel like we’re on the cusp of something similar. I’m no psychic or pundit. It would be nice to think some kind of positive change is the offing, though there’s little reason to think so. But hope springs eternal.

Anyway… you need to live your life one day at a time, don’t you? Tonight I will not be partying like it’s 1999. Back then I was in Seattle with some friends. We ate special brownies and watched fireworks while waiting for the great blackout to never happen. At one point I remember AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top if You Wanna Rock’n’Roll” came blasting over the hill and I decided that it was the greatest song ever written. Later my friends wanted to go to bed but I was all amped up and wandered the neighborhood looking for parties to crash. I think I found a few but the whole thing is pretty vague. At some point I ambled back to Sky Command, my friend James’s redoubt at the top of Queen Anne Hill, and fell into a deep and I think peaceful slumber.

Tonight my beloved and I will be supping on a five-course tasting menu at the Carter House’s restaurant in Eureka, then ambling slowly to our room at the Inn. May even make it to midnight, who knows.

While we’re on the subject of 1999, here’s a song from that year that popped into my head for some reason. It’s a good one. Happy New Year, everybody!

Thursday’s Child

After some consideration I’ve decided to just write a bit about each of the songs on hours… in order. Nothing too fancy. It’s a rainy and quiet Thursday here, nothing much is going on, so let us begin.

I’m actually a little hesitant to write about “Thursday’s Child” because it is very close to my heart. In the dark days of 1999 — which wasn’t a horrible year, necessarily, just a strange and confusing and sort of lonely one — it was a beacon of hope. And now, as I sit here thinking about where I was then and where I am now… well, just take a good listen to this thing and you’ll probably understand where I’m coming from.

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This is the rare case where I disagree with Chris O’Leary, who calls the character in this song “a loser in love.” I can understand that, given the generally dour mood of hours…, it’s hard to take the apparent optimism of “Thursday’s Child” at face value; but I’ve listened to it many times — five times just today — and I can’t hear anything in it but sincerity.

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hours…

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My favorite thing about hours… may be its artwork. In the 3D cover image, an angelic-looking Bowie, clean-shaven and long-tressed, cradles the head of a short-haired, scraggly-bearded version. It’s a cheeky take, as Chris O’Leary points out, on “Michelangelo’s Pietà, with Bowie’s new somber majordomo persona cradling the dying ‘rave uncle’ of Earthling.” Sort of like Doctor Who if the old Doctor died when the new one appeared.2

On the back cover there are three Davids, two icily aloof and one distraught:

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This is Bowie leaning into what I would call his benign narcissism. There is no question that he liked to look at himself; a picture of him graces the cover of every album up to The Next Day, where he is mostly obscured by the white title box. (On Blackstar, recorded as he slowly faded out of existence, he is noticeable by his absence.)

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A Foggy Day

So here we are again at the shortest day of the year — “The Return of Light,” as the Tao Te Ching calls it, because tomorrow will be slightly longer, and the day after a little longer still, until at last spring arrives in all its glory.

Yesterday there was a 6.4 earthquake that shook Humboldt County around pretty good but left our house mercifully intact, though without power until late in the day. Today is foggy and gray, as good a day as any to note the passing last week of Angelo Badalamenti, composer extraordinaire.

Angelo lived 85 years and did a lot of stuff, but most of us know him from his work with David Lynch. Says the NYT:

His best-known work was the “Twin Peaks” theme, recognizable from its first three ominous, otherworldly notes. He won the 1990 Grammy for best instrumental pop performance for the number, which was, according to the Allmusic website, “dark, cloying and obsessive — and one of the best scores ever written for television.”

In 2015, a Billboard writer described the theme as “gorgeous and gentle one second, eerie and unsettling the next.” It was, according to Rolling Stone, the “most influential soundtrack in TV history.”

But for today, his 1998 collaboration with David Bowie seems like the right thing to listen to.

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I’ll be honest, I’m not 100% sure it was a good idea to turn the Gershwins’ gossamer bauble into a gothic cathedral of sound. But if we posit that it was, certainly Dave and Angelo did a fantastic job. In their version the sun doesn’t come bursting through the clouds; we glimpse it briefly behind a layer of relatively thin fog, and then it’s gone. We know it’s there, and have the idea we’ll see it again, but who knows when?

Even so… hope springs eternal.

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