“Speck of dust settles in my eye.
Doesn’t matter, I’ve seen everything anyway.”
There are a few people scattered about, sitting on foldout chairs or leaning on things. I run toward an unlit portion of the deck. As I approach it the people thin out, then stop altogether.
The wind is getting stronger with each step, and my speed slows noticeably. I look to my left, where lightposts illuminate the edge of the ship. Small waves peak and churn, hurling specks of water onto the deck. The rubber soles of my shoes feel uncertain on the wet wood.
I approach the bow, but the strength of the wind increases exponentially with each step.
I struggle against it, but am reduced to walking pace. I turn around, walk back, pivot, and run into it again with more resolve. My feet advance only a few steps before I am again slowed to a walk. If I want to run, I’ll have to do it on a treadmill.
There is an endless sea ahead of me, and in the two minutes I’ve been out here I’ve grown attached to the idea of seeing it, however slowly I have to move. When I am close enough to see the side of the ship curve toward its twin, the wind picks up to a critical point. I attempt to pick up my back leg, but the slickness of the deck convinces me that I will slip if I compromise my centre of gravity.
In the sage (and suddenly applicable) words of the Lonely Island, “this ain’t sea world, this as real as it gets. I’m on a boat, motherfucker, don’t you ever forget!” And I won’t.
There is a gym downstairs, so I make my way there and select a treadmill. I turn it on and stand on either side of its moving platform while I scroll through my phone for Tin Machine II. It opens with Baby Universal, a track that totally violates my “Bowie is awesome at opening tracks” mantra.
First, Bowie says the word “baby”, then we hear the jarring open strum of a distorted guitar, then he says “baby” again, then the guitar again. This unfortunate series of events recurs for about ten seconds until eventually he says “universal”. It’s Bowie’s second and final collaboration with the band, and ten seconds in it feels that it may be one too many.
As the song continues to suck I pay more attention to my surroundings. In front of me is a window and, although it is dark out, when I squint sufficiently I can see through my reflection in the glass to the waves which surround me. They are larger than the size I personally would have chosen, and as they churn against the ship the room shakes disconcertingly.
Several years ago, my girlfriend went on a cruise to the Bahamas with a couple of friends. Her sisters were coming over, and – having seriously enjoyed it – she arranged to go on another with them and asked whether I would be interested in going myself. The promise of a brief escape from the brutal New York winter was sufficient to pique my interest, and the proximity of the departure-point to the theme parks of Orlando was enough to seal the deal. We booked the cruise and our flights, and went back to our usual lives.
Winter, with its polar vortex, seemed to last forever, and so the trip was unfathomable until we arrived at the Orlando airport. Suddenly, I found myself entirely displaced, knocking back Butterbeer, eating Krustyburgers, and indulging various impulses my childhood self would have been bitterly jealous of.
We began our adventure at Disneyworld, where we quickly learned that certain things are better experienced through the eyes of a child. The experience was a brilliant case-study in consumer culture, but – with the obvious exception of the teacup ride – it was largely devoid of excitement.
When we were finished with the rides, we staked out a spot to watch the Electric Light Parade, situating ourselves behind the wheelchair accessible section to ensuring a clear line of sight when the rest of the crowd inevitably rose.
To our left sat a group of Argentinian teenagers led by a man named Tikko, who danced in front of us in a bikini for almost an hour. The way he interacted with those children gave the distinct impression of a sex-pest who had happened upon his own personal nirvana. We began to boo him, but his disciples scolded us, which served only to strengthen his resolve. Perhaps he thought we were saying Boo-urns?
We left with muted spirits – defeated by the popularity of this potential pedophile. But while Disneyland did not provide us with the thrills we naively expected, it did provide us with something much more rewarding: a poignant segue into the discussion of Shopping for Girls.
The track is inspired by a piece Sara Terry – Reeves Gabrels’ wife – wrote on the child sex trade in Thailand. Gabrels was given the incomprehensible task of soliciting children to be interviewed, effectively putting himself as a member of one of society’s most reprehensible groups of criminals.
The track itself is quite good. It would never stand up on its own as a single, but it’s certainly decent enough that it might have drawn mainstream attention to the issue if it had been placed on an album that was capable of garnering any. Which is sort of a shame.
Tikko had unsettled me, and I worried that the events of that day would colour the next. Thankfully, when morning came the sun was shining, and the promise of a more age-appropriate theme park filled me with hope.
We walked along the side of the highway for a few kilometers until we came upon a travelator – a surface that has long constituted my favourite mode of transportation. We stepped onto it and were bombarded by neon and music as we coasted towards Universal Studios. Passing through the entrance, it became immediately apparent that the mildness of Disneyworld had no place here.
Years had passed since I was forced to confront my fear of heights, but apparently said fear refused to lay dormant when faced with a trigger, and so it presenting itself as an immediate need to pee. The nearest bathroom was a substantial walk, so I convinced the group of the urgency of the situation, buying myself about twenty minutes to process my surroundings. Unfortunately, my girlfriend and her sisters countered this by suggesting that we go to the single-rider line of the most terrifying ride I have ever seen in my life.
This set the theme for the two days we spent here. Whilst I fairly clearly exposed myself as a sissy, not only did I overcome my fear, I made it my bitch. In our last few hours I was casually riding the Harry Potter dragon ride after the less badass patrons had left. When we left for the hotel, I felt untouchable.
In the morning, we split the cost of a car and drove to Miami, where the Majesty of the Sea awaited us. Final call for boarding was 3:30pm, and we made it to the airport at 3:00pm. Separating us from the Madge (I call her the Madge) was a 12km drive and three obstacles: return the rental car, take a bathroom break and find a cab.
Our speed was impressive, and due to our driver’s lack of regard for speed limits/human life, we arrived at the dock with a solid fifteen minutes to clear customs and get on the boat. An auspicious start, but the obstacles which followed proved more overwhelming than I had anticipated.
I handed our bags to a man wearing a lanyard, trying to convince myself that the accoutrement was too sacrosanct to be abused by hustlers. We entered the building where the customs office was situated, late enough that there was no line for the security check. We took off our shoes, put down our carry-on bags, and I went through the hazing ritual of having my genitals brushed with an electronic wand.
It was 3:20 when we got in line to have our passports checked, and there were only a few people in front of us. My girlfriend’s sisters were ahead, and they cleared almost immediately – filling me with confidence. The customs officer greeted us:
“Where are you travelling from?”
“And will you be travelling back to Australia from Miama when the ship returns?”
“No – we’ll be heading back to New York.
“Couldn’t get enough?”
“Actually we live there right now.”
She flipped through our passports to the visa page.
“Do you have your DS2019 forms?”
My mind flashed back to few minutes before we left our apartment in New York, as we hurriedly packed the last of our things. It did in fact occur to us to bring these documents, but I could only one and we recalled a piece of advice from our visa-sponsor that we did not need them when travelling on trips to places in close proximity to the states. Our car-service arrived and tooted impatiently until we left.
The woman behind the counter stared at us, waiting for a response.
“Do… I didn’t think we needed those?”
“I’m sorry, but you need that form any time you leave the country. We can’t let you on the ship without it.”
“We, ahh, we have them in email somewhere.”
“We can accept that-”
”-but we’d need to print it first.”
“Can we send it to you?”
“That should be okay.”
About five minutes passed as we searched frantically through our emails for the forms. Eventually, my girlfriend located a pdf with both of them conveniently scanned. I found it as well, and we both emailed the forms. We were then directed to a seating area to wait until the email was received. During this time we began to argue about whose fault it was, reconciled, then realised that we should be more proactive about the situation at hand.
At 3:29pm our names had still not been called, so we walked to the counter and asked them whether they have received the email yet. They informed us that they had not. I had used all of my data downloading Hardcore History podcasts, and had been throttled to super slow speeds.
As the boarding time approached, the staff gathered behind the counter to discuss whether anything could be done:
“So they have the forms?”
“And they emailed them?”
At that point we told them that we had it open, and pass the phone. They look over the documents.
“Okay, if I witness you sending the documents to the email address, we can let you board”.
Relief overcomes us.
After complying with the request, they usher us through the last terminal. The boarding time has passed, and we are the only people left. The staff wait patiently at the gangway, but we hurry along out of courtesy.
As we walk onto the suspended surface, I put my arm around my girlfriend – the gravity of what almost happened finally sinking in. She begins to cry – tears that indicate happiness that we made it, but also suggest her disappointment at our inability to do so without argument.
We are then directed into the atrium to listen to a safety announcement, and for the first time I appreciate the grandiosity of the ship. Around us there are stores, cafes, restaurants, bars and spas – a bizarre experience that the word “ship” does not begin to convey.
When the announcement is over, we make our way to our room, but I catch a glimpse of something which stops us in our tracks.
“No fucking way.”
“Look over there.”
There, by the stairs, walked a seedy looking man in his mid-late twenties, surrounded by a group of teenagers; Tikko and his underrage harram had made their way onto the ship.
We spent the next three days floating around the Bahamas before making our way to Key West. There, I sampled my first legitimate Key Lime Pie and walked around the house that Ernest Hemingway lived in. The heat, even in winter, was stifling – and I wondered how he ever got any writing done without air conditioning.
It is a fact of the human condition that a person’s holiday is interesting to that person and that person alone, so I’ll bring you back to the treadmill where You Belong in Rock and Roll plays. It is the first track I would listen to by choice, and although lyrically it’s almost the same song as Crack City from the first Tin Machine record, the music is truly impressive.
To call it “jangly” – or even “super jangly” – would be a colossal understatement. It conveys the sense of being in a room whose walls are constructed of Fender Reverb Deluxe amps projecting an orchestra of 12 string guitars. It is a beacon in a great dark expanse, and just as I begin to feel that I am enjoying the experience of listening to music again, it is over. I try to maintain my attention as the next few tracks go by, but I’m fighting a force of nature. I look out the window to see if there is anything more interesting to focus on.
At the edge of the ship, some teenagers are leaning over the ocean, tapping each other on the shoulders and pointing to things. One of them notices me running, and convinces the others to turn in my direction. After consulting for a moment, they stick their tongues out and do their impressions of guy on a treadmill. Perhaps concerned it was too subtle, one of them points to me in a clarifying motion, as if to say “this is what you are doing!”
My lizard brain urges me to raise my middle finger, but years of living with a younger brother have taught me better. I choose instead to confront the situation calmly, directing a stoic gaze in their general direction. They fake-run a little harder to get a reaction. I look at the architect of the plan, and see desperation in his eyes.
If you have ever followed someone’s lead on a slow clap only to realise that the moment was wrong, you know that there are two feelings that come in quick succession: a brief period of embarrassment at your own lack of integrity, and a strong sense of anger toward the initiator.
I see something like this manifest itself in front of me now, as the pace of the second and third adopters begins to slow perceptibly. They look at the instigator for hope, but he seems unsure of what to do in the moment. Perhaps he considers cutting his losses. Whatever his thought process, it culminates in the execution of his swan song: he takes a breath and begins running faster and flailing more intensely than ever before.
It is futile. After what seems like years, a mutiny occurs. The first of his followers stops and looks at him with disgust. The others follow suit, leaving their former leader to wave and flail by himself. He watches them sadly, then looks back at me – his eyes asking “why?” Eventually, he scuttles away, leaving me to ponder the vastness of the ocean and the remainder of the album.
Stateside is next, and it’s the first track that doesn’t feature Bowie as the primarily vocalist. The liner-notes credit Bowie and Hunt Sales as songwriters, but the repetition and lack of a meaningful message hint that it’s mostly Sales; Bowie has written some shitty songs, but he’s never been this lazy. The trend of mediocrity – albeit more Bowie-centric mediocrity – only continues.
The low point is I’m Sorry, which may well be one of the most worthless songs I have heard in my life. It’s all Hunt Sales singing “I’m so soooooorrryyyy”, because apparently stating a feeling over and over constitutes songwriting.
The final track (ignoring the instrumental outro) is Goodbye Mr. Ed. The wikipedia article about the album provides some serious insight into this cut:
The track “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was started as a jam the band used to tune up one day. Tony Hunt (sic) recalled “We all came back from lunch and David had written a whole sheet of lyrics for it, and then he put the vocal on later with the melody.” Bowie described the meaning of the song this way:
[The song] is very much juxtaposing lines which really shouldn’t fit, free-association.
This explains it perfectly – it’s a jam track with a bunch of lyrics piled on top. In fact, this problem applies at some level to the album as a whole. It’s a bunch of songs that feel like they’re written for the purpose of an enjoyable jam.
This could work if there were a discernible melody underlying the tracks, or sufficient space for one to be overlaid, but the tracks are too busy to allow for any of this. To me, jam bands have always felt self-indulgent, but I suspect that even the strongest enthusiast would be unsatisfied with this album – there is simply no new territory reached.
With the exception of a couple of anomalous tracks, it’s a collection of relatively boring rock songs with none of the flavour that Bowie brought even his disco work, nor of the raw enthusiasm displayed on the first Tin Machine record.
On the plus side, Bowie’s flirtation with collaboration is over. It’s a big moment, marking both the crossover into Bowie’s second solo phase, as well as my entry into a realm of almost total unfamiliarity.
I have heard very little of Bowie’s post-Tin-Machine work, but I get the distinct impression that there is nowhere to go but up. It’s beginning to get light outside, so I leave the fitness centre to watch the sunrise. It’s beautiful, and although I feel dread at having to describe what I have just heard, It’s hard not to be taken by the promise of the new day.