Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Low, 1977
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Minimal
Three-Word Review: Addictive, glorious, exciting
One afternoon when I was sixteen or so I was at home alone. The phone rang. I picked it up. A deep male voice said “LISTEN!” followed by a long pause. I turned to ice. It sounded for all the world like his next words would involve him being outside the window with a gun. He’d strangle my dog unless I let him in. I was about to become a statistic.
Then the recording went on: “…Are you paying too much for car insurance? Our certified agents…”
I slammed down the phone. I cussed telemarketers with all the cusses I knew. The phone rang again. I hit the ceiling. I picked it up ready to cuss some more.
“I just got the scariest phone call!” exclaimed my latchkey-teen pal down the street. “I thought the guy was breaking into the house!”*
I’m reminded of this moment of bone-shaking terror when David Bowie sings
I’ve been breaking glass in your room again
There’s no evil content to it, hearing it in Low. Nobody’s outside the window of the house in the town I don’t live in anymore. But there’s the same kind of instant pin-drop focus: whatever it is, it’s vitally important and happening right now.
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” – Samuel Johnson, in James Boswell
Or, to put it another way,
They can’t get enough of that doomsday song
They can’t get enough of it all
I listened to ‘Warszawa’ for the first time while sheltering from a sudden rainstorm in a public atrium near Bryant Park. Couples with Starbucks, Hasidic dudes playing chess. It felt at once more spacious and substantial than the prior Low tracks, which pack a lot into short durations. Then it hit the choral part (just after the 4-minute mark). Everybody else was also wearing earbuds, or absorbed in their chess game, so they probably didn’t hear me exclaim “What the hell?!”
Initially I was most impressed by the vocal range and variation. Bowie is his own call and response, in several different voices, from his newer deep, throbbing tone to his older rock & roll shriek, here in the service of something like a requiem mass. Possibly I say that last bit because my shrink’s-couch word-association with ‘Warsaw’ would almost certainly be ‘Uprising.’
Then – lacking prior education on this album – I started trying to figure out what language he was singing in. Polish seemed like the obvious answer, but not like any Polish I’d ever heard. Definitely not German or Russian. Czech? Serbian? Armenian? Hungarian? Can I think of any other tongues from that quadrant of the globe?
Although I’ve tried to listen (LISTEN!) and then analyze, I gave up after four or five repetitions and looked it up. And what do you know – the language is the desperate Eastern European-influenced requiem-like equivalent of ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves. We all know what that means even when it’s not in the dictionary. John Lennon wrote reams of evocative mock language for comic and/or satirical effect. Bowie apparently does it for sheer drama.
Later that night I found myself humming something almost laughably unrelated. Bulgarian women’s choirs wouldn’t start winning Grammys for fifteen years post-Low, but there’s something about Bowie’s high, vibratoless pitches that reminds me of that gorgeous, eerie sound. What I went around humming was, of course, Bulgarian Women’s Choir for Dummies, and one of the loveliest bits of dramatic music I know. As with ‘Warszawa,’ you get the sense of what’s being sung even without a translation.
*This was pre-Scream, even.