Blog #1 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]
THE POSTMAN delivered about seven kilograms of highly concentrated personal backstory this week. Poor guy got drenched for his trouble. I’d barely lowered the needle in my cosy basement vinyl bunker when the cold front sliced through.
This rain hit the glass with perfect timing, blurring the here and now to insignificance. As I lay on the couch, watching the garden bounce and the droplets dance sideways, it occurred to me the record spitting at my shoulder had always existed in its own bubble.
As far as I knew this anxious, wistful ’60s comedown had only ever mattered to me and two or three friends who had ventured beyond the obvious charms of the title song into the psych-folk darkness within. Their secret insights drifted back like voices in my head as the less-travelled tracks rumbled.
Larry had his theories about Cygnet Committee—or maybe that was me. I know I tried to verbalise them in an English poetry class: the sheeplike demise of the hippie dream, gleaned from several bitter angles. Like the counter culture, I failed—according to a less empathetic friend. Cruel but fair, his critique hurts less now that I know where our respective lifetimes of enquiry have led.
Years later, Larry reminded me I’d written out the heartsick lyrics to Letter To Hermione and posted them to an ex-girlfriend. If you can call a girl I kissed once, rang up twice and never much liked a girlfriend. I don’t remember doing that. But it sounds like me. Without that desolate sigh of a melody though? Without those silk sheets of 12-stringed chords? What was I thinking.
We had a bash at God Knows I’m Good on acoustic guitars. A nice old lady shoplifter gets caught. Unlike the street-shouting cacophony of Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, this had chords we knew and words we could sing. So we did, in the back of his kombi parked on the Black Mountain Peninsula on a Saturday night when the freest thing in the world was to stay up late away from home and maybe smoke a cigarette.
It was Colin (he loaned me the record, I taped it crackling and skipping on a rose-tinted translucent cassette) who understood Memories of A Free Festival. Its soporific glow of communal ecstasy wasn’t for us. No, it was about “how things used to be,” Col surmised with a finger raised. He was right. Paradise has to be lost, like a dream, before the truth can be sung.
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud was the jewel of side two. I worked out the crestfallen chord cycle—D major, major 7th, 7th, 6th; G minor, A—but the story remained a conundrum. Like a dark Tolkien fragment with the ending opaque. I wonder if we twigged back then that that immense orchestra was telling us as much as the words.
The one I rediscovered during the storm was An Occasional Dream, with its lonely canons and trills of recorders and flutes: a song of youthful elation cloaked in the melancholy of past tense. “The ‘other’ Letter to Hermione,” is how Tony Visconti describes it.
It was a letter to me, too. The whole album was. A letter from one young man to another, each teetering from innocence to disillusionment. A letter he’ll read again and again, to feel the timeless comfort of a shared thought.
Yeah, I had to peek at Visconti’s notes in the accompanying book (mmm, hardback), even though I promised myself I’d keep attention wholly on the remastered goodness of the 180 gram vinyl (mmm, heavy). I did resist the temptation to pore over the artwork to the next nine records in the box. One at a time is good fishing, as my dad used to say.
The Man Who Sold the World is next. I wonder whose voices will fill my head this time. I hope it rains today.