“One day I’m gonna write a poem or a letter.
One day I’m gonna get that faculty together.”
It’s cold now – should be wearing gloves cold. I break a personal rule and jogdance at the traffic lights to keep warm. I always err on the side of too little gear; there is nothing worse than suffocating while you’re running. This time, though, I worry that I’ll have to go back, robe up, and start again. I decide to give it a few more minutes.
Were I standing still in these clothes, I would get hypothermia, but by the time I hit the park- save for maybe my fingertips – I realise that I’m no longer freezing. I’ve been concentrating on my body, I’ve missed lyrics. I crank up the volume and start the opening track again. Perhaps another of Bowie’s killer opening tracks will warm me up even further?
It does not.
Instead I am presented with Loving the Alien, a song that feels as soulless as it is long. It’s strange, because Bowie has described it as “deeply personal”. I suppose the vocals are delivered passionately, but there’s something lacking in the music. Sometimes soul comes as much from the composition of a song as it does from the vocalist – from the brass section as much as it does from Aretha – and here the composition feels austere.
This is indicative of Tonight as a whole. If you look up the Wikipedia article on the album, the first line is a quote from Bowie: “[it was] an attempt to keep my hand in.” I don’t think I can describe it any better. When Let’s Dance garnered the commercial success that it did, Bowie was surprised, and wanted to hold onto this unexpected audience. The idea sounds desperate, and the music follows suit.
The second track is a reggae-feeling song called Don’t Look Down. It is interesting, in that it’s a reggae song written by David Bowie. I appreciate the experimentation – it’s the sort of frolic that discerning musicians flirt with in private all the time, isolating the aspects that work for them, eschewing the parts that don’t.
The fearless experimentation with other genres is central to originality. You blur existing boundaries and hopefully come up with something that transcends genres in a way that changes the musical zeitgeist. In order to get there, though, need to surpass the phase of emulation – the period when you haven’t quite found your feet yet. That’s the difference between great art and art that has potential: refinement and selection.
Potential is found in the experiment, greatness in the result. The shitty parts are thrown out, while the good parts are improved. As brilliant as bowie can be, his career is spotted with periods of shamelessness – times during which he does not appear to have the patience to select or refine. The tracks written in studio are the tracks that make it to the album. Good or bad, everything gets used and nothing thrown out.
As the track finishes, I run past the playground. It is eerie in the darkness, so I move rapidly toward pullup bars about a hundred feet in the distance. When I get there I stop – flex my arm in an awkward pose, allowing me to see the screen of my phone without removing it from my armband – and pause runkeeper. I am ready to bust out my newly acqured “white chocolate” routine.
Weeks earlier, I had stopped to do some pullups. In between reps, I found myself observing an interaction. There was this one white guy working out by himself, and a group of black gymnasts practising their moves. When the man who appeared to be the coach of the group saw the white guy attempting a particularly gymnastic feat, he began showing him some moves.
He was suspending himself on the parallel bars, and kicking his legs back and forth while swinging until his legs were at a ninety degree angle to his body. Then he tried to hold it as long as he could. The white guy struggled to get his coordination at first, but after a few tries he clearly excelled at the movement. Obviously impressed, the coach turned to the others in the group, shooting them all a quick smile. He aimed his gaze quickly back at the white guy, and again at his friends. He flicked his fingers like Chris Traiger, and loudly proclaimed him: “White Chocolate”. It was brilliant, but I felt deep sadness. Why couldn’t I be white chocolate?
When I next returned, the spot was empty except for a man on the phone in the distance. I decided to try out the moves I had seen, discovering quickly that I did not possess the skills to be considered a confection – even a pale one. I decided to keep trying, working through partial movements. I had slowly built up to a single pullup years ago using this method, by jumping to the top of the movement and slowly letting myself down. It took almost a month until I was strong enough to do one, but then the next month I was able to do seven. Beginning truly is the hardest part, so I decided to get it over with.
Lost in my thoughts, I did not notice that the man on the phone was finished his conversation, and had been watching me struggle. He had long dreadlocks which he tucked under the back of his jacket. They were so long that they protruded again below his waist, and I only realised then who he was – it was the coach.
“I see what you’re trying to do there. Why don’t you try this to start with instead.”
He held himself up on the parallel bars, and began lifting his legs toward his chest, stopping just above waist height. He did that five times, then walked forward using his arms, and did it again. He went to the end of the bars, and came back.
“Now you give it a try.”
And thus began my sub-quest: before I left New York I, too, would develop the skills to be called white chocolate. This was several weeks ago – now I could almost make it to the end.
When I leave the bars to continue on my run, the best song on the album has passed and the second best is beginning, both of which are written by Iggy Pop. The title track has a vaguely reggae feel, but it’s interesting in a way that Don’t Look Down is not. The backing vocals are a huge part of it – with their staccato “ahh -ah-ah-ah” alternating from left ear to right. Later (at 3:46) it switches to violin, and sounds amazing.
Neighborhood Threat is the other Pop song (as in, written by), and despite Bowie’s stated distaste of the recording, it really stands out. Sure, the intro sounds like the title sequence to a japanese animation, but that’s part of the charm. The backing vocals are, once again, one of the primary reasons the track works so well, and the line “Look at those eyes. Did you see those crazy eyes???“ always makes me laugh.
The remainder of the album is mediocre. Bowie has talked about Dancin’ with the Big Boys as the track that got closest to the transcendent moment he was looking for on this album. For me, it’s not really a standout. As with Let’s Dance, if this were the original release (rather than the 1985 reissue), the album would end with an uninspired track. But because it isn’t, it doesn’t, and This is Not America – with Pat Metheny on guitar – helps improve the album somewhat. As the World Falls Down (this track from the movie Labyrinth) is even better; despite it’s Casiokey choir, it’s actually quite beautiful.
The album wraps with Absolute Beginners, written for the film of the same name in which Bowie played a supporting role. Again, it’s better than the majority of the album, but it’s also fucking eight minutes. It’s not a bad closing track, but I’m left feeling empty. After all, the best songs on the album were either added after the fact, or not written by Bowie. Unlike Let’s Dance, however, there is no Under Pressure to save this album from mediocrity. Overall, it’s a pretty major disappointment, and truly sounds like an attempt simply to stay in the market. But I ran fast, so at least I have that.