Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Black Tie, White Noise (1993)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Minimal
Three-Word Review: Passionate, mournful, welcome
It’s a breath of fresh air to listen to Bowie’s 1993 album following the pleasant but unsatisfying run of Tonight – Tin Machine II. No secret why: In April 1992, Bowie married the lovely and talented Iman. It’s the one union I know among all the rock star/supermodel pair-ups where both partners entered in on equal terms and as real, adult people with both eyes open. Around that time, perhaps as both cause and result, Bowie was “just in a state of mind where his music was really, really making him happy,” according to producer Nile Rodgers.
Black Tie, White Noise combines Bowie’s wedding music with meditative love/domestic verses, under the banner of a title song that acknowledges both Bowie’s long debt to Black American music and that he’s a white man who’s just married an African woman – Benetton ad, indeed.
That title song, sparked by the Rodney King-related riots in Los Angeles, is still all too relevant two decades later. I feel as if I should say something incisive about “I’ve got a face/not just my race,” but all of it is being said much better than I could by Black writers. (Here are some.)
Instead I gotta talk about Bowie’s biggest hit for seven years, “Jump They Say.”
It’s a highly appealing and catchy number, and it’s about the 1985 suicide of Terry Burns, Bowie’s older half-brother. The latter fact is well established in interviews Bowie gave at the time, even aside from the obvious related imagery in the music video: Burns got in the way of a train. The “they” is, among other things, the schizophrenic voices making the deadly suggestion. We recall that this isn’t the first time Bowie explored his brother’s voice(s). ‘All the Madmen,’ way back on The Man Who Sold the World, clearly evokes him.
And then there’s the whole theory about how ‘The Laughing Gnome’ is actually a guy cracking up and hearing a gnome following him. The alternate mix of ‘Jump They Say’ at the end of Black Tie, White Noise includes some little voices that give extra credence to that disturbing notion. It took me many hearings to decipher the wordy overlay at the start of the track, but now I’m pretty sure they say
Don’t stop me.
Don’t stop me – David, stop me.
David, stop me!
Probably nobody living knows enough about the relationship between the brothers to unpack Bowie’s guilt, grief, and understandable relief at Burns’ death, but this is a breathtaking admission. The very idea of the song, standing in for Terry’s silenced voice(s), crying out to the songwriter/singer of it – well, it’s chilling, and tragic.
At the same time, the song also echoes Bowie’s ongoing struggle with not-quite-atheism. Which of the voices in your head do you believe? The metaphorical angel on your right shoulder, the devil on your left? Your own, whoever that is? The voice of God? Then how do you know it’s God? A leap of faith, perhaps? “Got to believe somebody – Jump! – Got to believe.”
A side note: Has someone yet written the essay about the constant classical references in this album? I mean, whole song called ‘Pallas Athena,’ but then here’s Double Hermes in the ‘Miracle Goodnight’ video – appeals to me, I’m a Gemini, but darn if I understand it beyond that. Two gods? Are they on top of it all?