Sunday, November 1, 2015
David Bowie "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)"
As I say a lot on here, I am the type of person who is particularly sensitive to the changing seasons. This also means that because I first heard certain songs during a change in the seasons, that those songs remain associated in my mind with certain times of the year. These associations also seem particularly acute when it comes to autumn.
Because I have spent my adult life working in education after years of grad school, I have faced a lot of transitions with the beginning of school in the fall. One of the toughest was moving to Chicago right after college to start my master's degree. I loved being in the big city, but I was there by myself, and without a lot of money. The worst was that my graduate classes were very challenging, and the university treated the students in my master's program like orphans. We were neither undergrads or doctoral students, essentially caught up in a revolving door that was quite lucrative for that particular university. I really and truly felt alone, the only consolation was that one of my college friends was living on the other side of the city, and that we could get together from time to time. (I would find a good gang to hang with, but that was a few months away.)
I passed many nights in my lonely studio apartment trying to work while the particularly harsh autumn nightfalls came crashing down on the South Side of Chicago. For the first time I could remember, I was studying my favorite subject (history) but not automatically "getting it." Those months of difficulty and loneliness happened to coincide with my David Bowie phase. I went with my aforementioned college pal to see Velvet Goldmine that autumn, which only piqued my interest in Bowie's glam rock era that much more. That's where I was when I picked up a used copy of Diamond Dogs at the record store around the corner from my apartment.
It's a somewhat maligned album, coming after Bowie had decided to leave glam and the Spiders From Mars (his old backing band) behind, but before he had jumped off into his more daring experiments of the mid and late seventies. He had wanted to write a musical based off of Orwell's 1984, but couldn't get the rights. For that reason, the Diamond Dogs album doesn't quite cohere. It has stuff from that failed project, a daft concept-album plot about a post-apocalyptic London that seems to go nowhere, and radio-friendly singles like "Rebel Rebel."
In the middle of this is a three song suite, "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)." It has some beautiful singing from Bowie, who was finally learning how to use his lower register and screech less. The suite ping-pongs between high and low, fast and slow, with some of his best sax work providing great texture and a gorgeous guitar solo. According to a Bowie interview, these songs were reworked remnants of the Orwell musical, and evoke very well the mix of dread, paranoia, and hope in the novel.
To me, because of that tough autumn seventeen (!) years ago, I come back to this song cycle on a day like today, when daylight savings time is over and night falls early and dark. It's at this point, around Halloween, that I begin to realize that winter is around the corner and relentless. Just as in the song, hope coexists with dread, but the latter seems poised to dominate.