Thursday, April 24, 2014

David Bowie's Apocalyptic Vision

It's hard to say when I learned that critics were not infallible and that just because a critic didn't like something did not mean that I could not like it, either.

Seems like something everyone should know in a country that has always prided itself on freedom of speech, doesn't it? But even after a couple of centuries, the concept still is lost on some folks.

I guess there are those who apply the principle only to political discussion, but it applies to anything that can provoke more than one point of view.

In "Diamond Dogs," the album released by David Bowie 40 years ago today, Bowie fused the glam rock he helped to pioneer with apocalyptic visions from George Orwell's "1984."

It was a unique album with a unique album cover that, with Bowie portrayed as a man–dog creature, earned a spot on Billboard's list of 20 banned album covers. (The original cover showed the Bowie creature's genitalia; the revised cover had that part removed.)

Ken Emerson of Rolling Stone couldn't decide if the music was "masturbatory fantasies, guilt–ridden projections [or] terrified premonitions." He only seemed to know he didn't like it. It was, he wrote, "perhaps Bowie's worst album in six years."

In Bowie's earlier works, Emerson wrote that Bowie "challenged us and our music, both mired in a deathly complacency, to change."

"His best songs were deft, vivid constructions," Emerson wrote, "utilizing all the tricks of the Sixties trade and recharging them with the force of his personality and imagination, pushing them into the Seventies."

But Bowie's album sales in the U.S. had never been as strong as they were in the U.K. Consequently, Emerson wondered if "this may have prompted Bowie to hope that if America didn't eat him up when he was good, it might when he was bad."

I wasn't old enough at the time to grasp the issues surrounding the album. I just knew that I liked much of the music, particularly "Rebel, Rebel." Earlier, I liked "Space Oddity" and "Changes." Later on, I liked "Young Americans," "Fame" and "Golden Years."

I can't claim that I liked every song on "Diamond Dogs," but I liked many.

"No sooner had he proclaimed a new age than he turned his back on it and retreated to nostalgia," Emerson wrote, dismissing "Rebel, Rebel" as "an attempt at a 1964 smash."

Diamond Dogs seems to have had a number of meanings over the years. It's been the name of wiki applications, a movie, even a dog kennel. These days, Mississippi State's baseball team is known as the Diamond 'Dogs, but it was exclusively (as nearly as I can tell) the name of Bowie's album 40 years ago.

I get the feeling, from Stephen Thomas Erlewine's review for, that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"Diamond Dogs isn't a total waste," Erlewine wrote, "but it is the first record since Space Oddity where Bowie's reach exceeds his grasp."

It was a good idea, using Orwell's book as the main theme, but, in Erlewine's words, it "evolved into another one of Bowie's paranoid future nightmares." Maybe he was right about that. I read Orwell's book some years later, expecting to see clear connections between the book and the songs on Bowie's album. Some did have such a connection, others obviously did not.

And what of the song "1984," which was so clearly inspired by Orwell's book (even if that was not so clearly the case with the other songs on the album)?

When it made its debut on TV's The Midnight Special, it was "a powerful song," Emerson wrote.

But on the album, he said, it was "sickly, and a fluttery string arrangement cannot beef it up."

Be that as it may, I liked it. Maybe I was too young to know what good music was, but I knew what I liked.

After 40 years, I suppose it is anyone's guess whether the future that Bowie sang about has come to pass — or is still yet to come.