Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Diamond Dogs, 1974
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Minimal
Three-Word Review: Ridiculous, grandiose, lovable
Ask any of my friends who try to recommend me books or movies and they’ll tell you I hate dystopias.
Blade Runner? Fell asleep before the end. The Hunger Games? Read the first one under extreme peer pressure, was relieved to finish. Mad Max? Heavy industrial machinery couldn’t drag me to it.
OK, OK, I love the Terminator movies (except the sucky third one). But then they don’t take place in the dystopia, do they – they’re about the people preventing it from coming to pass. Plus, Linda Hamilton.
So I was gritting my teeth when I came up against Diamond Dogs. Ziggy’s five years left to cry in I could maybe barely handle. Droogy urban decay, not so much.
But Bowie’s 1974 cut-up grew on me fast, for three good reasons.
First: Dystopia suggests cautionary tale: melted ice caps, ergo Kevin Costner on a raft. Not only does Diamond Dogs lack any such content – it laughs nastily in the face of such content, probably showing rotted teeth. It’s Grand Guignol, not prophecy. Just another future song, lonely little kitsch indeed.
Second: It’s Bowie’s Smile or, better yet, his Lifehouse. Lifehouse, as you probably know, is the world-shifting grand concept album Pete Townshend wrote as the follow-up to Tommy. He wrote it uphill, downhill, and in my lady’s chamber until it could never possibly be produced, and bits of it ended up as miscellaneous decontextualized songs on other albums. (Here’s one.)
Similarly, Diamond Dogs is the beach where wreckage has pitched up from a fully plotted stage play of Ziggy Stardust; a musical theater version of 1984 that died when George Orwell’s widow denied the rights; and some sort of film project whose actual remants may be floating in Bowie’s giant unreleased archives.
There’s no message here, although there are some really great tunes (that anthemic ‘someone to claim us/someone to follow’ in ‘Big Brother’, for instance).
Third, and most of all, the heart of Diamond Dogs is that one gorgeous redemptive song in the middle, and no, I don’t mean ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.’ I mean ‘Rebel Rebel.’
HE’S SO HAPPY AND YOU’RE JUST RIGHT THERE.
People say of ‘Rebel Rebel’ that it’s Bowie’s farewell to glam, that it’s the welcome from a counterculture denizen to a newcomer, that it’s infant disco with that utterly irresistable four-on-the-floor beat. That all works for me. It’s the first Bowie song that’s truly in the running to be my all-time favorite. It’s up against some serious competition, admittedly, but given the insane richness of Bowie’s catalog, runner-up is not a bad place to be.
Although Diamond Dogs turns out not to be a dire warning for humanity, Bowie himself started to look a bit of the cautionary tale as he began to prefer drugs to food. His skin and bones are still sexy as hell – disturbing though that is – but better yet when he looks just a touch more human.
I’ve also enjoyed the David Live album, recorded on the related 1974 tour. It’s reclaimed a few songs to which I was indifferent before. Absolutely my favorite rendition of ‘Cracked Actor,’ for instance, and a darn good ‘Time.’ Speaking of a darn good time, he’s clearly having one belting out Eddie Floyd’s ‘Knock on Wood, among others.
Now on to the young Americans, young Americans, young Americans.