Family Living in “Hunky Dory,” David Bowie’s Lover’s Story
By Stuart Mitchner
If someone in the strange sad days since January 10 were to ask what David Bowie means to me, I’d say two words, Hunky Dory. From all that I’ve read online since the ongoing event of his death, I’m not alone in thinking Bowie’s fourth LP is his best, not an album so much as the creation of a mood, a state of mind my wife and I associate with the best, brightest moments of the 1970s. We lived in the music much as we lived in our consciousness of England and our two years in Bristol, the city we came to know and love. The songs from that haunting, stirring, and most companionable of records evoke the country of Shakespeare and Chaplin, of Hampstead Heath and Kate Bush’s “old river poet” the Thames. Much more than a none-too-sturdy piece of black vinyl, Hunky Dory was a very special, pleasant place to be for a father, mother, and the child who was born five years after its 1971 release and who, on hearing the news of the death of his “biggest hero” four decades later, said “It’s like losing a member of the family.”
While the tracks we found most fascinating and challenging were “Life on Mars,” “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” and “The Bewley Brothers,” the song that we felt closest to as a family (we and no doubt thousands if not millions of other families) was “Kooks,” which may be the most charming thing Bowie ever wrote. Composed on the occasion of his son Zowie’s birth in May 1971, it’s been dismissed by some as a sentimental trifle, and no doubt it comes off as comparatively lightweight with its Burt-Bacharach-flavored arrangement, but if you happen to have a newborn in the house try not loving lines like, “Will you stay in our lover’s story?” and “If you stay you won’t be sorry ‘cause we believe in you” (the emotional lilt Bowie gives the last four words is love set to music), and “Soon you’ll grow, so take a chance with a couple of kooks hung up on romancing.” No less endearing are details like “We bought a lot of things to keep you warm and dry and a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry.” Then after some more of the basics (“I bought you a pair of shoes, a trumpet you can blow”), Bowie turns to the reality of a future on the far side of society by adding the gift of “a book of rules on what to say to people when they pick on you, ‘cause if you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty kookie too.” But of course any child’s favorite line would be “And if the homework brings you down, then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.”
Superman for Breakfast
“Oh You Pretty Things,” another song parents are helplessly susceptible to, opens in the everyday: “Put on some clothes, shake up your bed, put another log on the fire for me.” Then, after making “some breakfast and coffee,” Bowie takes a visionary leap: “Look out my window and what do I see — a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me. All the nightmares came today and it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Except Bowie’s nightmares are “gay” as Yeats means the word in “Lapis Lazuli” where “Hamlet and Lear are gay; gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” It’s still hard to believe that Herman’s Hermits covered a song that refers to “books by the golden ones written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned what we were here for,” but then what makes this music magical is its tuneful accessibility and the singing of the chorus in which Bowie’s diction somehow mates music hall and mysticism: “Oh you pretty things, don’t you know you’re driving your mamas and papas insane!” And who else but Bowie would work in a nod to Nietzsche: “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior.” And finally the last couplet: “All the strangers came today, and it looks as though they’re here to stay.” Again, a line that may look ominous on the page is essentially saying, yes, good, let the strangers stay! Like Hamlet and Lear they’re gay — “gaiety transfiguring all that dread.”
“Life On Mars”
One of the songs most often cited in the media in the wake of Bowie’s passing (not in the euphemistic sense but as in a comet’s passing) has been “Changes,” which makes a nice opener for Hunky Dory. A far more significant and Bowie-centric composition, however, is the one that proved to be such a favorite at live performances that RCA released it as a single two years after the album. In fact, “Life On Mars” was the closest any Bowie single got to the top of the charts (number 3 in the U.K. in 1973) — until “Blackstar,” Bowie’s first number one.
Like many of Bowie’s most seemingly out-there compositions (the BBC remarked its “surreal images” and compared it to Salvador Dali), “Life On Mars” is about love. He used to introduce it at concerts by saying, “You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song.” Of course it’s much more: it’s a movie about a movie, could be a sci-fi flick true to the title from the man who would go on to play the lead in The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the protagonist of the song is “the girl with the mousy hair” whose mummy and daddy told her not to go: “Now she walks through her sunken dream/To the seat with the clearest view/And she’s hooked to the silver screen/But the film is a saddening bore/For she’s lived it ten times or more.” In the amazing last long verse (with the great line “See the mice in their million hordes from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads”), Bowie takes over: “Cause I wrote it ten times or more/It’s about to be writ again.”
In a 2008 interview with the Daily Mail, Bowie described how and where he wrote “Life On Mars”: “Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (“William Morris” I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”
Layers of Ghosts
Over time listening to Hunky Dory involved a major adjustment in that we skipped the American group on Side 2 (“Queen Bitch” Song for Bob Dylan,” Biff Rose’s “Fill Your Heart,” and “Andy Warhol”) so we could go straight from the last lines of “Quicksand” (“Don’t believe in yourself/Don’t deceive with belief/Knowledge comes with death’s release”) straight to one of Bowie’s most complex compositions, “The Bewlay Brothers,” whose moody, enigmatic lyrics were written for the U.S. market because “the Americans always like to read things into things.” In the same interview with the Daily Mail, Bowie comments, “I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it.” The primary “ghost” was his schizophrenic half-brother Terry, “one of the bigger influences” in his life who introduced him to authors like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and e.e. cummings and who killed himself in 1985.
Bowie Live in ‘72
David Bowie’s holding out his hand to us, coming down among us, singing, dancing, pulling everyone into the dance, the room spinning, whirling to a blur.
It’s March 1, 1972, the amps are blasting, we have electricity again just days after the end of the miner’s strike, no more timed sector power cuts, no more candles on shop shelves, no more walking the streets of Bristol holding lanterns. We’re at the University student union, sitting on the floor like children, Bowie towering over us in his red lame Ziggy Stardust outfit, shiny high red lace-up boots, his hair cut short, punked up, carrot-colored, he’s doing singing the “bipperty-bopperty hat” chorus of “Queen Bitch” chin to chin with white-bloused blond-maned Mick Ronson.
Coming down to our kiddie level holding the mike, Bowie lifts everyone to their feet with his free hand, singing “Five Years” (“all the nobody people and all the somebody people … I never thought I’d need so many people”). Up close a Dorian Gray-handsome 25-year-old leads the dance, alive and clear and insistent, get up, get up, dance, and suddenly he’s way way above all us nobodies and somebodies, riding the shoulders of the band’s big roadie, like the hero who just saved the world.
What David Bowie has managed to produce, virtually with his dying breath, reminds me of the breakthroughs we used to expect of the Beatles when through the seeming predominance of their role in the universe of popular culture they took everything to another level. I’m thinking of the soaring chaos of the orchestral orgasm that ended “A Day in the Life” and Sgt Pepper. In the spring of 1967 only the Beatles, with the wind of fame and fortune in their sails, could have put something that mad, that adventurous, that extravagant in the American mindstream.
It’s not necessary to know the forces and influences impacting the production to be moved by the title song on Blackstar. Close your eyes and listen to the melodic crescendo (“Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside”) after the dirge-like opening and there’s an emotional depth-charge not unlike the music on Hunky Dory that makes those two words my first response to the question “What does David Bowie mean to you?”
Remember the “girl with the mousy hair” for whom Bowie wrote “Life On Mars”? Her name was Hermione and it’s said that she broke Bowie’s heart. Of their romance, he once said: “We had a perfect love — so perfect that it burned out in two years. We were too close, thought alike and spent all the time in a room sitting on the corner of a bed. She was a brilliant dancer and I was a struggling musician.”
That was in 1968-69. In 2016, Hermione is alive and well and living in Bristol.