I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience. It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease. Hateful thing, it was.
David Bowie, interviewed by Cameron Crowe in Playboy, September 1976.
“Soul Love,” so sweet on its surface, so often interpreted as a picture of “youthful romance” (as per 1001 Greatest Albums) or as a message of universal peace and brotherhood, is rather clinical at heart. Love, whether that of a mother, lover or priest, is shown as being amoral, delusive, pointless and ruinous. (Love is “sweeping over cross and baby,” as if it was a plague or an infestation.)
The song opens with a mother at her son’s tombstone (the son likely killed in a war, having died “to save the slogan”), with “stone love” suggesting both a resolute, enduring love and a lifeless emotion. The priest kneels at the altar in bliss and in blindness. The teenagers, who are so besotted they believe they’re the first to ever fall in love, are just the puppets of instinct (“idiot love will spark the fusion”).
Blessed with a fine melody and layered with harmonies and, after the second verse, Bowie’s alto saxophone, the track gets unsettled by odd time signatures in the verse—it’s either in 7/4 time or it moves to 2/4 time on every fourth bar (the sheet music says the latter)—while Bowie again pairs major and minor chords (G to E minor and B minor, the same as in “Ziggy Stardust”).
The track begins with Woody Woodmansey’s drum pattern (a contrast to the slower, ominous beat of “Five Years,” sequenced before it), supplemented by bongos and shakers, then by Bowie’s acoustic guitar strumming and Trevor Bolder’s five-note bassline. Bowie’s vocal parallels the arrangement in part, starting as just a sung whole note (“stone”), then two quarter notes in the next bar, then six notes in the third, etc. Mick Ronson keeps to the background until the chorus. He and Bowie each take a solo verse: Bowie gives a passable alto sax solo, Ronson mainly keeps to the vocal melody.
Recorded 12 November 1971. Played in a few 1973 shows, a fixture of the 1978 tour, a rarity of the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour. It was the B-side to a re-issue of “All the Madmen,” and the Stage version was released as a single in Japan. Mick Ronson’s 1975 country-ska remake, retitled “Stone Love,” was later included on reissues of Play Don’t Worry.
Top: Alan Merrill and Yoshiko Mandai, Meiji Park, Tokyo, 1972.