“Be elusive, but don’t walk far”
It starts with a prologue atop some pretty ominous background music. Welcome to Hunger City, the Orwellian dystopia that is the home of Halloween Jack. If the album seems more than a little Nineteen Eighty-four-ish, that’s because it is. For Diamond Dogs is an album born out of a failed vision.
Originally, Bowie wanted to put together a theatrical release based on Orwell’s influential tale. That didn’t quite work out, as the author’s estate wouldn’t give him the rights. Instead, he took three tracks written for the play Sweet Thing/The Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise), and used the trilogy as a base for this album.
I didn’t know this when I began my run. So when I noticed the references to 1984, I thought I was a little clever. I later realised that my self-confidence was unfounded: these allusions were…less than subtle. Okay, so there’s a track called Big Brother. It still meant I had to have read the book…
After last night’s exhausting 10kms, I figured I might be in for a short run. I started off a little faster. If my legs seized up, at least I could make good time. As I began, the album was a welcomed change from the disappointing Pin Ups. Diamond Dogs, I later learnt, was the first album for which Bowie used the cut-up technique. What’s that, you ask? It’s something he learnt from William S. Boroughs. In Bowie’s words:
“You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ‘em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
Creativity is strange. I have some trouble getting my head around the technique, but for Bowie it works incredibly well. If I had known he used it before I listened to it, I would have approached the album hesitantly. How could you use a technique like this, and not end up with something as incoherent and meaningless as The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Zephyr Song? I don’t know the answer, but Diamond Dogs is proof that you can.
It made for some good running too. I fully intended to go a shorter distance than yesterday, but forgot to turn at the cemetery. Consequently, it was a total of 10.22 kms. Not particularly impressive on it’s own, given yesterday’s run. What I completely did not expect was the speed – I capped it off at about 9.7 kms per hour.
Of course, this isn’t bragging speed. But it’s a huge improvement over the last run, and incredibly close to my sub-goal of 10kms in 1 hour. As indicated by my inability to navigate myself, I paid far more attention to the album than my destination. But that’s because it’s interesting.
Wikipedia seems to think that it marks a reprisal of Ziggy Stardust, but I’m not buying it. For one thing, it’s not nearly as character-driven as his early work. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to be an album that is more about feelings, or situations, than it is about people. It’s less a story, and more a tonne of observational statements. And when it is a story, it’s so stream-of-consciousness that it feels incredibly removed from the characters.
Beyond the introductory line “Halloween Jack is a real cool cat”, Bowie eschews the kind of tell-don’t-show storytelling that took place on Ziggy. No-one divulges to you on Diamond Dogs that we’ve only got five years; or that Ziggy played guitar. There is no one to explain why the Starman won’t come and meet us. And that’s its strength.
Speaking of which, We are the Dead is one of Bowie’s finest tracks. It’s far more understated than most of his previous, with its mild keys and understated chorus. But there’s definitely something about the track that grabs you.
Lines like “Something kind of touched me today” are glorious contradictions. Usually (probably correctly) we see being fascinated, or touched, as binary conditions – you either are or you aren’t. You’re never “kind of” touched by something. But Bowie at least makes it seem like a condition that should exist. And then there are lyrics like “Because of all we’ve seen. Because of all we’ve said. We are the dead” that go so much further, showing the significance of our history to our dispositions and opportunities.
The track 1984 is a little more on the nose. You’ll be shooting up on anything, tomorrow’s never there. It’s very theatrical. Big Brother explores the human need to be led: “Someone to blame us, some great Apollo. Someone to shame us, someone to follow. Someone to fool us, someone like you.”
It’s a solid album, with some stand-out moments, and overall I’m pretty impressed. Beyond the distance, I was on auto-pilot during the run, so there’s little else to say about that. I don’t think about it much, either. Things are becoming automatic, which is great fitness-wise. At the start this running thing was my whole week. I ponder that, as I take a cold shower to cool down, then think about the “plastic-soul” to come on tomorrow night’s album.