Blog #3 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]
“IT TOOK ME four years to paint like Raphael,” quoth Mr P. Picasso, “but a lifetime to paint like a child”. Funnily enough, it took Mr D. Bowie four years to make Hunky Dory too. Coincidence? Hmm.
It’s easy to forget that his first album arrived (and sank) on the same day as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: June 1, 1967. You know, the music hall one; the Laughing Gnome one. Easy to forget because of its routine omission from retrospective box sets like this.
Four years on, the strings-laced jazz piano chords that introduce Changes announce a work of art as classically crafted as pop music gets. The sophistication of the ch-ch-changes is Broadway-esque. The sentiment is a manifesto of Climb Every Mountain grandiloquence. The arrangement (wow Mick Ronson, gosh Rick Wakeman) is an act of perfect symmetry, right down to those same jazz chords elegantly bowing out backwards.
Look out, you rock’n’rollers.
I recently interviewed a rock star who had a minor hissy fit because Bowie doesn’t make songs like Life on Mars? anymore. Like, how dare he possess that kind of classical aptitude and then refuse to milk it for our ongoing gratification?
Well the trouble with classicists, as Andy Warhol was once quoted as saying, is they look at a tree and that’s all they see; they paint a tree. Andy was an accomplished painter too, by the way. But nobody would have written a song like Andy Warhol if he was just another jobbing post-Raphaelite.
Hunky Dory flagrantly stands on the shoulders of Warhol, Sinatra, Dylan and Lou Reed, as referenced in Dave’s hand-scrawled back cover. The audacity of that gesture blows my mind from way over here in the future, where we know everything’s been done but we’re desperate to cover our tracks and claim reinvention.
“The actor,” he calls himself in said scribbles. He insists it’s just a role he’s playing, even at the very point where he suspends all disbelief with a confession as erudite as Joni Mitchell (oh, Quicksand) and a grave riddle as beguiling as Dylan in his languishing prime (oh, oh, oh, The Bewlay Brothers).
At its heart, this is a music hall album too. Oh! You Pretty Things oom-pahs like a panto matinee. Kooks is all jaunty elbows and knees and thumbs behind braces. The token cover, Fill Your Heart, swings ’round the lamp-post between sides one and two like Tony Newley just been kissed.
But Hunky Dory is the ultimate tilt of that old hat, an homage to old-school songcraft meticulously hand-tinted for the times like the colorized Hollywood glamour shot on the cover. Give or take the doily-ruffling Queen Bitch, it’s the Bowie you take home to meet your mum. The one with the classical strings and impeccable manners and an Eight Line Poem sitting up like a Hallmark card in a neatly poised bouquet. (Actually it’s 16 if we count Ronno’s intro. And we must).
The point, from here on the bunker couch on a balmy spring Melbourne evening 45 years after the fact, is that this marks the end of the young Mr Jones’s growing up, and the beginning of an endless childhood of discovery.
This flawless singer-songwriter’s masterpiece might have been the springboard to his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or his Blood on the Tracks; his Harvest or Court and Spark. But this painter saw the wood beyond those trees. Within the year he’d be watching it all burn from a great height: a Starman adjusting his thrusters for limitless horizons.
The thing I love is the clue to all this in the last, crackling grooves of the album. Barely have The Bewlay Brothers shared their last pastel sunset from the Mind-Warp Pavilion when the freaky multi-tracked and vari-speeded coda slices in like nails down a blackboard.
“Lay me place and bake me pie, I’m starving for me gravy
Leave my shoes and door unlocked I might just slip away…”
Ah, so soon? Thanks, geezer. We’ll always have Mars.