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.
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.