Pay the Private ‘I’

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: 1. Outside (1995)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Slight
Three-Word Review: Noirish, character-filled, poignant

My first listen to Outside (in this project) made me notice how long it’s been since I heard one of Bowie’s songs and instantly said Yup, that’s an all-time favorite, pop that one right in the top-ten list, let me put it on repeat. I’ve appreciated loads of recent songs (“Tumble and Twirl,” “Buddha of Suburbia”), but the last one I adored inside of a minute was probably ‘Modern Love’ back in 1983. In this case, ‘I Have Not Been to Oxford Town’ won me over, even though I’m not sure why I find its refrain so very poignant:

Toll the bell
pay the private eye
All is well
Twentieth century dies

It may be because I’ve been feeling a bit of a reject from the World Wide Internet lately. Blame the US’s current toxic election (over tomorrow as I write, thank all the gods), but social media and online news-reading have really soured for me in the last couple of months. Everybody seems to be struggling to stay abreast of the latest super-trivial crap, when they’re not struggling to have exactly the same latest high-tech apps and snarky memes as everybody else.

My internal muse, sensing the ick, kicked me off on a heavy levirate related to the works of E.W. Hornung and Arthur Conan Doyle. Not going to go on about those here – although god, could I – except to note that they’re Victorian, and Victorian popular culture, while almost as consumption- and celebrity-driven as our own, could at least occasionally shut up.

In the television program based on my recent favorite stories, set in the 1890s, the main character complains to his BFF about the latter’s insistence that he install a telephone. You were determined to drag me kicking and screaming into the twentieth century, he gripes, when I would have much preferred to retain the genteel anonymity of the nineteenth. For the twentieth and nineteenth centuries read the twenty-first and the twentieth, and you have my malaise in a nutshell.

David Bowie was famously the first major music star to see and embrace the potential of the Internet. In Outside, he’s so cutting edge you can’t even tell what’s going on most of the time. This is not someone trying to cling to the past. He chops the past up in little pieces, throws it all over the floor, and reassembles it into freaky montages (with help from Brian Eno) – 70s drug culture, Damon Runyon, you name it.  bowie_outside_corridor

At the same time, Bowie had no illusions about where the Internet, and the developed world’s level of discourse, was headed, even twenty-one years ago. As Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie says, “…Bowie’s interest in the breakdown of society’s hierarchy of significant information. Mentioning to Ikon’s Chris Roberts the equal weight given by current press reports to the O.J. Simpson trial and the Middle East crisis, he suggested, ‘When you get that lack of stress upon what’s important and what isn’t, the moral high ground seems to disappear as well. You’re left with this incredibly complex network of fragments that is our existence…There’s no point in pretending, well, if we wait long enough everything will return to what it used to be and it’ll all be saner again and we’ll understand everything and it’ll be obvious what’s wrong and what’s right. It’s not gonna be like that. So the album deals with all that to an extent. That kind of…surfing on chaos.'”


Yet so much of Bowie’s work grapples with how to live successfully, artistically, as oneself, in the cracks between faith and doubt, accessibility and inscrutability, high and low art – between eras, metaphorically if nothing else. In the Pegg book, the bloke who kept failing to be an atheist also says, “I’m actually very nineteenth-century – a born Romantic, unlike Brian [Eno], who’s terminally end-of-twentieth century.”

Where does that get me? Not to solutions, but maybe a sort of mirror in the cutups, solidarity in the frustration. I can always put it on airplane mode. Or plug my ears and hum “All’s well/twentieth century dies.”

“Can’t live with it. Can’t, well…y’know?”

Next: Hallo, Spaceboy…it’s Earthling.

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