A while back I was listening to the Band’s song “Life Is a Carnival”:
And, you know, sometimes Ls sound like Rs, and Levon’s drawl makes the vowels a little squirrelly, so for a moment I heard it as “life is a carnivore.” And I thought to myself: What a great title. I want to use that as the title for something.
“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.”
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.
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.
But apparently there is some kind of relationship between the two.1Chris O’Leary says so, and he’s (almost) never wrong.(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.”