The Hot Chestnut Man

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Tin Machine (1989), Tin Machine II (1991), Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey Baby (1992)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Minimal
Three-Word Review: Slick, noisy, uninteresting

I claimed in my last post that I’d call all the Tin Machine output bad. I was exaggerating, yet I can’t say that I’ve become a convert to this chunk of Bowie’s career.

It’s fun to listen to Tin Machine, and I can’t argue with the immense talents of all the participants. Furthermore, I like a lot of music that’s just rocking for its own sake, especially drawing on the blues-rock heritage of the 1960s and 70s – see here Tin Machine’s ‘Stateside,’ or the entire career of Aerosmith.

My mountain of ‘meh’ stems more from locating Tin Machine’s work in Bowie’s oeuvre, when Bowie’s worked for thirty years to raise expectations above those qualities. To put it another way: I expect Bowie’s songs to be full of subtlety, allusion, humor, weirdness, and maybe those things are happening in the Tin Machine numbers, but you mostly can’t hear them over the drums. Even the welcome cover of John Lennon’s twisty-bitter ‘Working Class Hero’ buries a screamy vocal under a heavy beat and screechy guitar, drowning out all the ironic touches as if it were the grandiose dystopia of ‘Diamond Dogs.’

Speaking of dogs, my favorite Tin Machine song is probably ‘Bus Stop’ from their first album. Why dogs? Because the first time I listened to it I burst out in guffaws when Bowie sang

“I love you despite your conviction/the dog never laughs at my jokes.”

And then I caught on that he was a young man at odds with the bible, and maybe faith works, and I thought ah, he’s probably saying that God never laughs at his jokes, and wow, that’s deep, but I kind of preferred it with the unsmiling dog. (So does the first commenter on that YouTube clip, at the time that I write.)

Mondegreens aside, I quite enjoy the song as a sort of companion piece to the Hollies’ 1965 slice of perfection by the same title. Both speakers find unexpected depth at the mundanity of a bus stop – the Hollies’ hero by falling in love under an umbrella, Tin Machine’s by doing whatever a couple might do on their knees in a bus shelter – maybe praying, or maybe just exclaiming “Oh, God!”

And then they came back and did it like Johnny Cash, so that was wack.


True confession time: Since I started Bowiefesting I’ve come across a number of quizzes diagnosing which Bowie persona/era/style I am. I consistently get ‘collaborative’ or ‘guest artist’ or ‘Tin Machine’ answers, which as a character portrait is kind of flattering, especially when they come with the sort of picture above. When Tin Machine is the answer, though, it makes me think the quizmasters haven’t really listened to Tin Machine. Sure, they were a collaboration, but their sound comes off as macho competitive rather than happy group project.*

In this 1992 Japan appearance, Bowie concludes quirky band introductions by saying, “And I, of course, am the hot chestnut man.” This strikes me funny for two reasons: first, it’s David-as-collaborator, carefully avoiding the notion that this band only exists at his whim. Second, a chestnut is both a yummy food and slang for a cliche or tired joke. He could be saying “I’m just a humble vendor of goods here” and/or “I’m reheating leftovers.”

And speaking of leftovers: not much to say musically about the 1990 remix of ‘Fame,’ but the video makes me happily anticipate the decade in which Bowie hit his peak of physical attractiveness, aged roughly 45-55. That may say more about me than about him, but you’ve got to admit he looks amazing.

I was also supposed to be watching The Last Temptation of Christ around now, but what with work and the news I seem to be dragging my feet on it. Instead I watched Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World, source of the hummable Bowie soundtrack song ‘Real Cool World.’

*Ha, never mind – I just took another and it said I was Low: “You are classic Berlin-era Bowie. You keep yourself to yourself and read a lot of poetry. Vintage synthesisers play a big part in your life and you have a friend called Brian.” #winning

Next: Bowie gets married again and mojo again.

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