“Under the moonlight,
the serious moonlight”
Leaves of red and brown lay thick across the park, obscuring the path I rely on to guide me through the maze that is Prospect Park. I listen to them crunch, but run otherwise in silence. It must be the sixth or seventh time I’ve run without music through this place.
My mind races from thought to thought. Short sections of songs (with lyrics I’ve made up) play on maddeningly repetitive loops, triggered by some sadistic inner DJ. This time it is Royals by Lorde, and each time she sings the line “You can call me queen bee” my mind changes it to “You can call me Greensleeves.” I try to force it to come out right, but there’s just enough time between each cycle to forget what it was I was supposed to be correcting. The mind under pressure is an odd thing.
Despite the unpleasant experience I have described, I believe there is merit to running in silence. Even though there are entire runs where I am unable to escape these thought-loops, the uncontrollable repetition can be cathartic. I rationalise it like this: the thoughts, words and melodies are in my head already, influencing me on some subconscious level. The running simply brings my attention to them. The mind, after all, reveals itself most strongly when bored. And then there are those times when I can escape the loops, and engage in an utterly immersive inner dialogue that is completely uncontrived. Running and writing are the only times I think in words.
But this is not why I run in silence today. Rather, it is because – after more than ten listens to Let’s Dance – I simply had nothing to say. I had acknowledged that I was dreading my runs. I was even finishing them prematurely – I only twice made it all the way through the album. I needed space, and so I allowed myself the privilege. Silent run after silent run, I began to feel like I would never go back. And then, without any real cause save for the passage of time, I felt ready. And so I strapped my phone to my arm, scrolled awkwardly through the thick transparent film that protected my device from the elements, and began to run.
I’ve said it before, but if there’s one thing that Bowie consistently does well, it’s open an album. Five Years; Changes; Space Oddity – the albums don’t always start with a hit, but they always feel like an opening track. They use their chords sparingly and their silence cleverly. They build the instrumentation progressively, while Bowie punctuates the delivery of each line in some unique way to drive the point home. There are exceptions to this rule, but Modern Love is not one of them.
While the verses beckon, though, they don’t take you anywhere worth going. The chorus feels distinctly like it could have played alongside the intro to a TV show of the 1960s, and makes for a disappointing climax in a song that had great potential. Regardless, the tempo sets a strong pace, and the brisk air makes me feel that I need to stick with it to keep warm. Shorts and a tee-shirt are fine for autumn in Melbourne, but in Brooklyn I look like a madman.
China Girl is next, which I have to admit I’d skipped a number of times before. I think it’s my aversion to the distinctly eighties feel of the track, but I know I need to cast this aside – lest the remainder of the album feel like torture. I’ve heard it enough times now to listen to it as an actual song, rather than the parody of an era. Even so, I get little from it musically. Contextually, however, it does make clear something I had never before understood: how Bowie was able to etch out a niche as a sex symbol.
It’s probably clear that I have a boundless level of respect for him as an artist, but the sex symbol thing has always confused me. Now I get it. It’s in the husky vocals, the imagery, and the alluring nature of the other. It’s a clever way to show that the unfamiliar is often a close partner of the attractive – and here both Bowie and his China girl are “others” to one another. Others to another mother.
Interestingly, Bowie parodies the contribution he can make to the relationship (as a stock-standard white guy) and only casually mentions the detail that distinguishes him from any other white guy: “I’ll give you television. I’ll give you eyes of blue. I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world.” We’ll watch telly together, you can parade your blue eyed-man about town, but then I’ve got to go off and be a fucking alien rockstar, okay?
One of my favourite parts of the track is the bassline which immediately precedes the chorus. It stops just before you expect it to, but works fantastically. If there’s a theme in the composition of this album, it’s punctuation (and perhaps, more generally, “the eighties”). The title track Let’s Dance comes on next, and there are more than two minutes of music before Bowie ever lets forth that famous suggestion (or command) “Let’s Dance!”
When he finally does, I am about a third of the way through my run. I have always considered this intro a failure – an attempt to imitate the successful buildup on Station to Station, but without the feeling. For the first time, however, I find some value in the intro: it’s actually a great beat to run to, and it has a sense of urgency, even without the cocaine induced spontaneity of Station to Station.
Because it is such a familiar song, I lose track of my thoughts, and examine the area which surrounds me. I pass the Prospect Park Zoo, and peer into the courtyard. It is a large, circular area – and it reminds me of the area in Skyrim where I first found myself with the weapons and skills necessary to slaughter all of the city guards (a challenge I had set myself before the game ever came out). The thought brings a smile to my face which is quickly eliminated by the cold air on my teeth. I become nostalgic – I want to play that game. But it, and the xbox I played it on, are all in Melbourne. I remind myself where I am, and jettison my first world problems.
Ricochet begins to play as I round the half-way point. It is an unusual track, with a slightly mathy feel. The timing is odd, and I feel for a moment like I’m at one of those shows – you know the ones. The musicians are clearly talented; the faces around you indicate that your mind should be imploding with musical joy.
There are horns, and the drummer looks like he/she (you can’t really tell) might explode. You know you’re supposed to like it, but your ears can’t find any pattern to latch onto. To a musician’s musician, perhaps it is glory – but secretly you wonder if it’s not just a bunch of incoherent musical masturbation. There are some fairly ominous spoken words beneath the music, and the generality of the following line made me laugh:
“Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep/Dreaming of tramlines factories pieces of machinery/Mine shafts things like that”.
Apparently Bowie was paying “embarrassingly low fees” to his session musicians, so perhaps that last phrase is what happens when you’re voiceover guy just ceases to give a fuck.
Criminal World is a much stronger cut. If you removed it from the album, it probably wouldn’t stand up very well, but in context it hits that sweet spot between dance and rock that Bowie was reportedly aspiring toward. The choppy guitar line which follows the chorus is one of my favourite pieces of music I’ve heard from Bowie. There’s also a blazing solo from the then relatively unknown guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I’m running quickly when the song finishes. I check my phone, and it confirms that I’m making great time. The uphill stretch looms ominously before me, but I barely slow down as I begin to climb. Clearly, I have hit Super Saiyan. Then the song Cat People comes on – and I start to lose faith entirely. Am I going to be left with this mediocre track as my final impression of the album? If I’d purchased it when it first came out, the answer would be yes.
Hungry and deprived of the musical sustenance I so desire, I see something hopeful in the distance. Is it a trick of the mind? I move closer, expecting the mirage to disappear. It does not. I think that’s… another track included only on the 1995 reissue. Divine merciful intervention (on the part of Virgin Records) is bestowed upon me, and a familiar bassline begins to play – doom doom-dhdhdhoomdoom. Doom doom-dhdhdhoomdoom. Then Bowie speaks says the word, and I know that I will be okay: PREEEESSSHHHHUUUUHHH.
I am at nearing my finishing point as the song begins – a round post across from the movie theatre that I obsessively tap at the completion of each run. I decide to circle around another part of the park, and come back to it from the other side. I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately after finding this, but I managed to forget that it was on this version of the album. Despite its ubiquity, it still maintains a catchiness that is rarely matched. Unlike much of Bowie’s work, they lyrics have little to do with my love for it. Rather, it is the gibberish that accompanies the words that is the primary selling point of the song. There are moments when Bowie and Freddie Mercury compete for time at the mic in a way I imagine highschool students might – seemingly pushing one another in the vocal booth, trying to deny the other their chance to shine.
There is no point in the track that illustrates it better than here, where Bowie seems to be humming louder and louder, trying to silence Mercury. He might as well be blocking his ears at the same time, interrupting the noise only to add “what’s that? I can’t hear you over all of this humming.” But, because of the musical greatness of these two men – and no doubt amazing retrospective take-selection – it never feels crowded. Instead, it comes across as one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and to my mind perhaps the greatest duet in the genre of pop-rock.
I am happy to finish on this, and it makes the whole experience worthwhile. I check my phone again: 7ks. This is the farthest I’ve run since I got to New York, and at my fastest time yet. And while I enjoyed my runs in silence and the meditative act of letting my mind unwind, there’s really nothing quite like finishing something you’ve been putting off – even if you do feel a little… under pressure.