Reading Report, October 2023

Books Acquired:
Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers
Richard Brautigan, The Tokyo-Montana Express
Will Hermes, The King of New York

Progress Made:
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
H.P Lovecraft. The Complete Fiction
Charles Shields, And So It Goes

Books Finished:
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

This was a tough month for reading — book reading, at least — due to travel and other distractions. I did get through two New Yorkers, which leaves me with 4 in the pile. Fortunately the subscription lapsed so I have all the time in the world for those.

In the end I finished only one book in October, and it was one I’d read before, though it felt entirely new. Player Piano was Vonnegut’s first novel, vintage 1952, and though it started a little slow — he was not quite the lean, mean writing machine he would become — I found myself really getting into it. And its portrait of a world where automation has put most of the human race out of work felt incredibly au courant in this age of AI anxiety.

From my reading in And So It Goes, I know now that the Ilium Works — the technological u/dystopia where the novel’s protagonist, Paul Proteus, works — is a thinly veiled version of General Electric’s Schnectady Works, where young Kurt Vonnegut was employed. And Proteus is a version of Vonnegut at that time: He appears to be set for life in a job that most people would envy, but he is discontented. To walk in corporate lockstep is not in his nature.

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DB Video du Jour #24

I’m going to break chronology again to post a song suggested by this recent lede from the New York Times:

Five years and change. That’s how long humans can keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere at our current rate before we’re likely to push global warming past the most ambitious limit set by the Paris Agreement, according to new estimates released Monday by a team of climate scientists.

In other words: Earth is really dying. I can’t think of anything cute or funny to say about this. The other day I received in the mail, unsolicited, a copy of a magazine called The Week. I randomly flipped it open and saw this headline:

Earth’s ability to sustain human life in peril

It was at the top of page 19.

That’s the world we’re living in now. I strive always for positivity, but some days it’s hard to get there.

Well, at least we have five years left to listen to David Bowie in.

DB Video du Jour #23

Watching the “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” video again this morning, it hit me that this in some ways is the arrival of the Bowie that we’d been waiting for since The Man Who Fell to Earth: the movie star. It’s just that the movie is six minutes long and has music in it.

The feature film is passe anyway, isn’t it? You really expect people to sit down and watch one screen for ninety minutes or more? Martin Scorsese’s new movie is three and a half hours long — who the hell does he think he is?

Today’s video is nice and short. Really it’s barely a video at all — the only thing that moves is the text. But if you want to know the Spanish as well as English lyrics, it’s all there for you.

“So She” was one of the Next Day-era songs that got lost in the sudden barrage of new Bowie material. It benefits from being pulled out of context and heard on its own. OK, it’s no “Life on Mars,” but it has it charms and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I like the part where he sings “further out to sea” — always reminds me of “Synchronicity II,” not that I’m a Police stan exactly, but I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

There’s also a slice of mid-Eighties cheese in there, but who am I to judge? “So She” crams about eight different songs into its two-and-a-half minutes. Like a good movie, it keeps moving and it’s over before you know it.

DB Video du Jour #22

I thought about posting this last night, as it is pretty Halloweeny — maybe we should just call it “Halloween-adjacent.” Apparently this video is “age-restricted”; seems a bit uptight to me. It’s not that racy, ( Or is it? At times it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on.)

This is one I wrote about back when it came out, and my opinion hasn’t changed: “It may not be the greatest song David’s ever written, but man, it’s one hell of a video.” Well worth clicking through for.

A foornote: The music at the beginning is from another song altogether, an instrumental called “Plan” that appeared on the deluxe version of The Next Day. Later, there would be a Blackstar outtake called “No Plan.” I can’t tell you what it all means; I myself have no plan. Just taking it one day at a time.

It’s a Blue Öyster Cult Kind of Day

In honor of Halloween, please enjoy this absolutely perfect video for the BÖC’s “Godzilla” made by one “TohoMojo”:

And what the hell, while we’re at it, why not this one for “Joan Crawford” (has risen from the grave)? It’s in dubious taste but why should we, the illuminated, let that bother us?

DB Video du Jour #21

Today’s Bowie song is “Heat,” which I quite like. It’s atmospheric, unsettling, and filled with gnomic utterances like “I am a seer/I am a liar.” Apparently it is highly influenced by the works of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, a fascinating human whose portrait David painted while he was living in Berlin. “Mishima is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century,” says the Wikipedia. Then also:

On 25 November 1970, Mishima and four members of his militia entered a military base in central Tokyo, took its commandant hostage, and unsuccessfully tried to inspire the Japan Self-Defense Forces to rise up and overthrow Japan’s 1947 Constitution (which he called “a constitution of defeat”). After his speech and screaming of “Long live the Emperor!,” he committed seppuku.

Like I said: an unusual cat. I’ve never read his books; I may someday if I live long enough.

But the real ur-text of “Heat” is Scott Walker’s song “The Electrician,” which appeared on the Walker Brothers’ 1978 album Nite Flights. Both Bowie and Brian Eno were huge admirers of Nite Flights — though really just of the four songs written by Scott; the ones written by the other Walkers1are forgettable — and particularly of “The Electrician.”

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DB Video du Jour #20

Today circumstances conspired to try to break my posting streak, but fortunately the next song up is another lesser one — even more of a footnote than “Like a Rocket Man,” “Born in a UFO” shares with it a space theme and a general atmosphere of goofiness.

O’Leary cites four references here:

And that’s already probably more analysis than this inoffensive but very slight number deserves. This video is pretty half-assed too. Well, punch my ticket and let’s move on.

DB Video du Jour #19

“Cocaine is a hell of a drug.”
—Rick James

“I’d found a soul-mate in that drug.”
—David Bowie

Chris O’ Leary sums up “Like a Rocket Man” — a decidedly minor yet rather fascinating song from the Next Day sessions — thusly:

The title’s a dig at an Elton John single Bowie had groused about being a “Space Oddity” ripoff from the day it charted; the verse melody is a near-actionable steal of the Beatles’ “Help“; the lyric references (again) the Kinks’ “Days,” while much of it’s a brutal recollection of what it was like to be a cocaine addict in the mid-Seventies.

As in “Fascination,” Bowie personifies cocaine2(quite literally: “Little Wendy Cocaine”) as the consuming passion of his life in the Young Americans/Station to Station years.

He does so with “a deceptively bouncy beat,” as Tony Visconti pointed out, adding, “but lyrically it goes to more dark places, and this time David sings it with a cheeky smile.” And indeed, lyrics like these would hit differently in a different musical context; imagine what The Wall–era Pink Floyd might have done with them:

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DB Video du Jour #18

“To the last, I grapple with thee; from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”
—Khan Noonian Singh

There’s a lot of speculation online about who the delectable poison kiss “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is directed at. Some people say Morrissey, but I find that hard to believe; would Bowie really expend so much time and effort on a “feud” that was now ancient history — on Morrissey, of all people? I always thought it might be Osama bin Laden, but I have no proof of that. It’s a futile exercise, innit, to try to figure out what David Bowie was thinking.

He certainly doesn’t pull any punches here. “I can see you as a corpse/hanging from a beam,” he says, then later:

Oblivion shall own you
Death alone shall love you
I hope you feel so lonely
You could die

At times “YFSLYCD” is so over-the-top vitriolic that it becomes a bit campy, spilling over into “Pug Nosed Face” territory. In fact the two are almost like two versions of the same song, one played for laughs, one delivered with a straight face.

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DB Video du Jour #17

Next up in the queue is “How Does the Grass Grow,” for which no video — official, fan-made, or even AI — seems to exist. But if you stop at “How Does the Grass” you get a bunch of hits for “Tell me how the grass tastes little man.” This appears to be a meme derived from a clip of a Renaissance Faire of some kind, where the larger of two combatants utters the phrase in question before laying his opponent out brutally with a thrust of the shield.

As is often the case, it is hard to tell which version is the original, but I think it’s this one:

It would be funnier if it were the little guy taking out the big one. As it is, it’s just a bit of bullying, though there is a certain Pythonesque Comedy of Cruelty appeal to it.

But now I am thinking of “Shut Up Little Man,” a meme of sorts from another age. How to describe it? Help me out, Wikipedia:

Shut Up, Little Man! is the title of audio vérité recordings of two argumentative and violent alcoholics, Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman in San Francisco…. The recordings were made by “Eddie Lee Sausage” and “Mitchell D.,” who lived in a bright pink apartment building at 237 Steiner Street (dubbed the “Pepto Bismol Palace”) in San Francisco’s Lower Haight district. Eddie Lee and Mitchell moved into the apartment in 1987, and discovered that their neighbors, Haskett and Huffman, argued nearly constantly, with Peter often shouting “shut up, little man!” at Ray.

These recordings were later distributed to the world on cassette tapes, one of which I still have here somewhere. Later still the phenomenon begat a full-length documentary, which you’ll have to click through to see:

So what does all this have to do with David Bowie? Maybe I can relate it to the “little fat man who sold his dreams”? Ah, fuck it, everything is connected. If you want a deeper dive into “How Does the Grass Grow” I commend you, as always, to O’Leary, who has a lot to say on the subject. Otherwise… carry on, people.