Tuesday, June 5, 2012

occasional dream, seventeen

This ain’t rock ‘n roll, this is GENOCIDE! …Until about two or three years ago, Diamond Dogs was not an album that resonated with me at all.  I dismissed it as the bloated and pretentious corpse of glitter rock.  But then I had a moment of clarity and it’s since become one of my favorite Bowie records precisely because it’s the bloated and pretentious corpse of glitter rock. And it’s so much more than that, too.  It’s really hard to categorize.  One of the things that’s fascinating about the album in developmental terms is that, far as I can tell, it’s the first time we hear Bowie sing with the Soctt Walker-esque croon that subsequently became such a distinctive part of his sound.  The loose concept / story organizing the songs is some kind of apocalyptic dog-man sci-fi thingamajig.  It doesn’t really matter.  It’s obviously the product of the overambitious bombast that inevitably walks hand-in-hand with cocaine addiction. But in Bowie’s hands, overambition is not the same thing as overreach, and bombast is not the same thing as pretentiousness.  And even if the album is a bit pretentious, it’s ok because it’s David Bowie and David Bowie is allowed to be pretentious…

The vibe on Diamond Dogs is exceedingly dark, a perfect signpost for the post-Viet Nam cum Watergate malaise of 1974.  When I think of 1974, I think of life as an episode of Kojak, knee-deep in sleaze and disillusionment and cities crumbling under the dead weight of the Great Society.  It’s a world in which the economy is almost as stagnant as the overall socio-moral rot permeating the air.  But there are pockets of vitality within the grimness.  Inside that huge Lincoln Continental you're driving, for example, there’s an eight track player, and among the tapes you can play on that player - along with the Ohio Players, the Stylistics, Barry White, the Spinners, the Ojays, and the Chi-Lites – is Diamond Dogs.  At first you may think that Bowie is an outlier among all this soul music.  But actually, while Diamond Dogs still has the residue of glitter here and there (Rebel, Rebel being the most obvious example), the record also marks the point at which Bowie begins the process of re-fashioning himself into a white soul singer. The history of rock ‘n roll is filled with white attempts to be black.  Many if not most of these attempts have had cringe worthy results.  But this is Bowie we’re talking about.  He gets it.  The guitar that powers 1984 is all the proof you need.  It’ll make you feel like you’re a character in Shaft, afro and all.  Shut yo mouf!

…Bowie took black motifs and made them his own.  It doesn’t sound forced.  He knows he’s white. He’s not trying to be black. He’s just a white guy who loves black music.  Bear in mind that Mods loved American R&B in the 60s, so Bowie is in a sense reconnecting with his roots, and he’s doing it in a way that’s so much more convincing than his covers album.

 …Diamond Dogs is a remarkably diverse record as well, and yet it coheres.  This coherence is no mean feat when you stop and consider that this is also where Bowie begins to fall down the rabbit hole of coke-fueled psychosis.  Bowie’s singing inexplicably got better the more blow he did.  I guess things like that were possible in the nihilistic atmosphere of the 1970s. You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there.  That pretty much sums up the lurid ethos Diamond Dogs expresses so masterfully…

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