Death-Defying Acts

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Reality (2003)
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Moderate
Three-Word Review: energetic, emphatic, clear


Buy New Reality.

This was actually what I wrote on my to-do list when I realized that my old CD of Reality had got scratched up and I needed to repurchase the album in digital form. Needless to say, I, the country, much of the world have been feeling of late like we were indeed shopping for new reality, buying it or denying it.

The album’s opening song, ‘New Killer Star,’ addresses this with a faint reflection of the brain warehouse from Ziggy’s ‘Five Years’:

All my idiot questions
Let’s face the music and dance…

All the corners of the buildings
Who but we remember these?
The sidewalks and trees
I’m thinking now
I got a better way
I discovered a star
I got a better way
Ready, set, go

I could listen to the key-center shifts under “don’t ever say I’m ready” and “I got a better way” all day long. They have almost the effect of the cliche’d musical theatrical inspiring key change, except each goes to a completely unexpected harmonic place.

And yet, like much of the album, the song is surprisingly uplifting – finding value in the ephemeral and mortal even if doomsday is near. The truly wonderful ‘Never Get Old’ video bears this out with its contrast between the sober talking head musing about history and the exalted, finger-popping man on the stage, immortal onscreen and on record.

The moon flows on to the edges of the world because of you…
And I’m awake in an age of light living it because of you…
I’m looking at the future solid as a rock because of you…
And I’m running down the street of life
And I’m never going to let you die
And I’m never ever going to get old

Bowie’s Reality-era comments back this up, such as a 2003 interview with Paul Du Noyer:

“It occurs to me that we have been living under a lot of stress in the last few years. The halcyon days are well and truly over. It’s just cyclic, isn’t it, the anxiety. That’s why I keep trying to be positive. The last time, there was the Bay of Pigs [a prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962]. I remember how scared my Mum and Dad were, they really thought that was it, we’re gonna go up in a nuclear holocaust. Every now and then you get one of those and you think, Well, we pulled back last time and I’ve got a three-year-old daughter now and we are definitely going to pull back this time because she is going to have a great life, dammit. When I keep coming back to that I can’t afford to be negative any more. It doesn’t behoove me to be the nihilist any more, even for creative reasons. I have to be positive.”

Perhaps it’s in that spirit that Bowie included on this album my favorite of all his covers: George Harrison’s ‘Try Some, Buy Some.’ Bowie’s version retains the foregrounded drums and demented fairground countermelody of the original but improves on it slightly in clarity of production and (sorry, George) the sheer beauty of his voice.

Harrison and Bowie were born four years apart, rock & roller white men from England, but spiritually could there be two more different artists? – Harrison the avatar of certainty, Bowie the monster of doubt.

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And yet Harrison’s lyric introduces the fundamental postmodern notion that humans can never experience reality directly, but only through some level of interpretation. To perceive anything requires already having a framework.

Not a thing did I see
Not a thing did I know
Till I called on your love…

“Got to believe somebody,” Bowie might add.

Harrisongs and Bowiesongs have other parallels as well. Neither one, when given his head, wrote on conventional pop topics. The odd questionable ‘Something’ aside, George’s “you” is nearly always Krishna, or a second-person life instruction, not an idealized love interest. And David writes about history and its end vastly more than he writes about affection. This suggests that both of them agreed with me on the starter meaning of ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ – “your love” is the divine’s love, a lens for experiencing reality, and, maybe, experiencing it with joy despite worrying circumstances.

A couple of miscellaneous points.

I spent about a week with the song ‘Reality’ running through my head in search of what’s echoed by that little backing ‘woo-hoo’ or ‘wah-oo.’ Thank goodness I finally realized it was ‘The Jean Genie’ and could sleep again. Coincidence? Some hidden connection between those songs? Other than some sort of obscurely coded sex – “the tragic youth was going down on me,” “Jean Genie lives on his back” – I got nothing on that one.

My Trump-bump subscription to the Guardian yields all sorts of unexpected riches, like this recent endearing story about Bowie’s love of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Despite having been the target age at the time, I didn’t grow up with this film and had no idea.

“You see, he was a real snowman.” I believe him. Don’t you?


What’s happening next: With Reality, I’ve caught up to the end of Bowie’s contiguous career. Following the massive Reality tour, he apparently retired for almost a decade before, of course, returning with two more albums and a stage show. He turned 69 just about a year ago as I write, then died three days later. On that date, I’ll be attending a special tribute concert. After that: The Next Day, Blackstar, an interesting offshoot involving H.G. Wells – and then What I Learned, If Anything, from my Bowie Crash Course.

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