Category: Hunky Dory

Andy Warhol

Ah, Andy Warhol; his presence is felt in rock and roll history yet again. The mad times of the 60s were over, and the differently mad 70s were off and running. Andy had lost only a little of his relevancy, being viewed as an elder statesman of pop culture rather than an active participant. He still created art, and he still inspired art, as well. And being the astute and cutting observer of culture that he was, David Bowie’s attention was of course turned to Andy for a bit.

The song “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory is probably the most accurate poetic statement of how Andy and the Factory actually were. Mind you, how they actually were is bound to be a little different from the prevailing public opinion; I wasn’t born yet and if you’re reading this, chances are you weren’t either. Bowie provides a razor-sharp glimpse here, clean as a surgeon’s scalpel. “Dress my friends up just for show / see them as they really are.” What more need be said?

I know how Andy must feel here, being talked about as if he’s not even in the room. Celebrities enjoy that kind of thing; Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” But the ultimate awkward silence moment came when Bowie invited Andy to the studio to hear the finished product before he released it. He played it for him, and Andy didn’t say anything. Bowie waited a few moments, and Andy still didn’t say anything. They were just staring at each other, Bowie waiting expectantly to hear an opinion on his art. Andy must have felt like a person does when they have that dream in which they’re naked in a public place.

When Andy finally spoke, he commented on Bowie’s shoes. The two of them then proceeded to have a 10 minute conversation about shoes.

Months later, Andy said in an interview that he thought the entire song was a heartless comment on his complexion. “Andy Warhol, silver screen / can’t tell them apart at all.” Even if this isn’t a purposeful reference to Andy’s paleness, I can’t hear it without instantly thinking of Andy’s lily-white, emaciated face. And I chuckle a little.

The vinyl flip is the super-campy burst of glam silliness “Fill Your Heart,” and the album turns to more traditional and guitar-oriented material after that, starting with “Andy Warhol.” Mick Ronson is one of the great guitar heroes of the 70s in this humble writer’s opinion, but he wears a different hat for half-plus of the record. His string arrangements, while not worthy of a Broadway play, fit in perfectly with the ironic song-and-dance timbre of Hunky Dory, most especially on “Fill Your Heart.” It’s almost a vaudeville routine.

Bob Dylan

But things change to a more rock tone, though the sarcasm and cutting wit aren’t reduced at all. “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch” are much the same as “Andy Warhol,” blurring the line between homage and devastating criticism. The subject of “Song For Bob Dylan” is rather obvious; Bowie addresses the dual nature of Dylan, commiserating with his desire to be somebody else while criticizing his efforts to hide his true nature. “Song For Bob Dylan” comes right after “Andy Warhol,” which is a little ironic considering Andy and Bob’s simultaneous affections for the same girl (pop superstar/media trainwreck Edie Sedgwick).

“Queen Bitch” is harder to penetrate, though. I’ve read from more than one source that it’s a tribute to the Velvet Underground, but I just don’t see it. It makes intellectual sense, since Bowie was very buddy-buddy with head Velvet Lou Reed, but I don’t hear “Queen Bitch” and get a Velvets picture. The word-scheme and meter are a little similar to “I’m Waiting For the Man,” but “Queen Bitch” has so much more energy and drive than anything the Velvets did. Regardless, it’s a great song, and one of the best on Hunky Dory.

The American press always makes more out of something than is actually there, and Bowie is no exception. “The Bewley Brothers” is his little joke on them. With this song, he invites those silly Americans to speculate at its possible meaning, and gives them plenty of fodder. In reality, though, the song isn’t really about anything. Like a college student majoring in literature, we dissect and dissect ‘til our dissectors are sore, and all the while Bowie is giggling that we’re wasting our time.

Hunky Dory can be most fully enjoyed in hindsight, knowing that the next album, Ziggy Stardust, builds upon the foundation it created. But even in the mere moment of the end of 1971, in a here-and-now context, Hunky Dory challenges us and takes us for a wild ride. How could Bowie get better?

Amazingly, he does; just wait.

Father & Son

Fatherhood has a tendency to turn the most macho of men into blubbering softies. One baby enters their lives and they instantly go from tough and uncrackable to teary messes totally in love with their child. It happens every time. Now, David Bowie can’t really be classified as macho (it’s really hard to classify him at all), but the pattern holds true that once he becomes a father, the gushiness starts flowing.

As always, though, he does it with a particular glam flare. “Kooks” is deliciously kitschy on the surface, but it strikes me as being honestly kitschy, which I’m aware is a contradiction in terms. The camp in this song doesn’t really seem campy; it just seems cute. Bowie is gushing over his son, but he’s also explaining to his child, “I’m weird; your mom’s weird, too.” Growing up with David and Angie Bowie as parents, little Zowie Bowie (or Duncan Jones, according to his birth certificate) was bound to be different, or “kooky” as the song puts it.

Besides the revelation of obvious love for his son in honesty that makes you go “aaaawwwww!”, Bowie also gives us insight into his projected parenting style. “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads / ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” Bowie wants his son to be cautious with the whole my-dad-could-beat-up-your-dad thing; he must have been aware that as a stereotypical male specimen, he’s lacking in some areas. I know the feeling. “And if the homework brings you down / Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.” School isn’t everything, and following the rules isn’t as important as being true to oneself. Provided he was actually fully present and there for his kid, I think David Bowie would make an extremely cool dad.

Next comes “Quicksand,” closing the side. The song’s a little hard to interpret because there’s so much name-dropping (Aleister Crowley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill, and Juan Pujol Garcia, codename Garbo), but the base of it has to do with what Bowie has been talking about all along. He wants to get to the future where he’s much more than he is now. Crowley and Nietzsche talk a lot about transcending humanity to a higher form of existence, and the reference to “Himmler’s sacred realm” is talking about a perfect, master race. I have a feeling he wanted to sing “Hitler,” but went with “Himmler” because it was less provocative, more obscure, or both. He didn’t want to look like a Nazi sympathizer, and he had to be asking himself if he actually was one.

Bowie had a fascination with Hitler and Nazism. The seeds of it are here on Hunky Dory, though it wouldn’t enjoy full fruition until the mid-70s with Station to Station and Low. At first glance, this is disturbing. However, Bowie’s life doesn’t bear out a single iota of the hatred or evil that Hitler’s philosophy drove him to on the world stage. Bowie’s fascination with him could be just intellectual, like that of a biographer. Or if it’s not (and I find this to be more likely), it focuses on the aspects of his thought which benefit this world, or rather that don’t destroy parts of it. Even as malignant as I find the “master race” thing to be, I must admit there’s hope in the outlining of a progression of humans into something better.

Zowie & Bowie in 2009

And my previous statement still stands: Bowie would make a cool dad, even though he had sympathy for the devil Hitler. After all, Duncan hasn’t grown up into the 2nd coming of Josef Mengele, or anything close. He’s actually a filmmaker, director of the lightly sci-fi action movie Source Code. The movie was every bit as good as critics said it was (Rotten Tomatoes gave it 91%). Goob job, Zowie.

Missing Link

Hunky Dory – David Bowie – 12/17/1971

The music video for “Life On Mars?” is as simple and low budget as can be. The whole thing is just Bowie in a white, unadorned room. You might not know he was in a 3-dimensional space. There are some camera pans and some close-ups, but that’s the extent of photographic acrobatics. All the focus is on Bowie himself; quite on purpose, he looks like an alien. He has near-white skin, baby blue eye makeup with accentuated eyelashes, and a nimbus of bright orange hair. He’s impeccably dressed in a blue sequined suit with a stripy tie. To top it all off, he’s talking about Mars.

Okay, he just mentions Mars. The song has Mars in the title, but it’s not really about Mars. It’s about a disaffected youth who wants to escape the confines of literally everything in this earthly life. There’s no space alien conceit or ridiculous drama about the world ending (that comes later). But there is a continuation of Bowie’s longing for transcendence, existential quandaries and frustration with his own human body, just like on The Man Who Sold the World. But the difference from his 3rd album to his 4th is the complete musical turnaround. Goodbye dreary doom rock, hello over-the-top glam.

Hunky Dory is the missing link between David Bowie’s confused and dark lurking on Sold the World and his focused blast of “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” on Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. There’s a wide gap there, and the jump from his gothic French man-dress persona to the wild and flashy Ziggy makes absolutely no sense, lyrically or musically, without Hunky Dory. But thanks to the transitional form from fossil to fossil, Bowie crystallizes, and what a glorious crystal it is.

In a way, Hunky Dory is a slight backpedaling, harkening back musically to the Space Oddity days. “Changes” is vaguely reminiscent of “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” though much more ironic and kitschy. It was just a toss-off for Bowie, but went on to become on his most enduring and famous songs, covered more than any other Bowie song. It even closed the show on his last concert before he officially retired from public performance.

From about age 12 to today, one of my favorite movies has been The Breakfast Club. Besides being very witty and well-written, it’s an intensely interesting sociological study. The first time I saw it, I snuck downstairs when my parents were showing it to the youth group they lead (I think they knew I was there). After the opening credits, there’s a title card before the movie actually starts. It reads:

And these children that you spit on / As they try to change their worlds / Are immune to you consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

the younger you are, the dumber you are

I had no idea this was from ”Changes,” or even who the heck David Bowie was. So when I heard “Changes” for the first time years later, I thought, “hey, it’s The Breakfast Club!” It only took me a second to realize I had reversed things. When I saw the quote in The Breakfast Club, I should have said, “hey, it’s David Bowie!” I kinda give some credence to the theory that the younger you are, the dumber you are.

“Oh, You Pretty Things!” has even more kitsch and camp to it, but the bouncy and ironic music hides a sinister undertone in the lyrics. It speaks of the “Homo-superior;” for the first time, Bowie is announcing the transcendence of humanity he yearned for on Sold the World, triumphantly announcing the demise of the human race. And don’t mistake him; he’s definitely not suggesting that we can all become something greater in a fluffy, “everyone is beautiful” way. No, he’s laughing about there being a new form of life on the planet, a greater form, and all the rest of us are going to die out. Great for Bowie, not so great for us.