I Can’t Explain

I Can’t Explain (The Who, 1965).
I Can’t Explain (Bowie).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Pete Townshend checked Bowie at every turn. In 1965, when the two first met in Bournemouth, Townshend gave Bowie some condescending criticism about the latter’s songwriting, which Townshend noted was rather blatantly ripping off his own songs, and badly (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”). The two had had little contact since. Then in the summer of 1973 Bowie covered two early Who songs on his new record, while Townshend was revisiting the ’60s as well, finishing up his Mod opus Quadrophenia.

The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can’t Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them—these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing…via [Roger] Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you—and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen.

Marcello Carlin, on Who’s Next.

“One of the things [Bowie] does very well is find the strong parts of other artist’s “acts” and appropriate them into his own persona,” wrote an insightful, anonymous person in this ILM thread on Bowie. But Bowie never could figure out Townshend. Townshend was a playwright as much as he was a songwriter, with bizarre, first-person psychodramas that required a group to act out, whether it was a cad dumping his pregnant girlfriend (“A Legal Matter”) or a kid so fraudulent he may not even exist (“Substitute”), or masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding (“Pictures of Lily”) or the utterly bizarre and wonderful “I’m a Boy,” a rock single Philip K. Dick could’ve written. Townshend’s perspective was usually that of another, whether it was lyrics for Daltrey to sing or stories for an audience to piece together. The vocals on Who tracks—Daltrey’s growl, Townshend’s reedy tenor, John Entwistle’s near-soprano (or basso profundo)—sounded like the pieces of a single voice, joined together for a few minutes.

The group is a fairly simple form of Pop art. We get a lot of audience this way. Off stage, the group get on terribly badly.

Townshend, ca. 1966 (interview clip from The Kids Are Alright).

Did anyone believe in rock and roll as much as Townshend did in his youth? He was an evangelist whose audience had converted him, so much that he ended Tommy, his record about false messiahs, by submitting to the crowd, the true religion. He nearly had a breakdown writing a rock opera in which the audience would input their vital stats—climacteric charts, personal appearance, beliefs, etc.—into a computer, which would then convert the data into personalized musical signatures, with the hope that all of these signatures, played at once on quadrophenic speakers, would form one final, “universal” note or chord.

Townshend’s hope for the ecstatic universal in rock music was as far removed as you could get from Bowie, who, despite how much he relied on creative partners (from Mick Ronson to Eno to Reeves Gabrels), remained entirely singular. His songs could be empathic, but they were also unmistakably his perspectives. At the end, you always find yourself outside his songs. Bowie and Townshend were of irreconcilable minds, of irreconcilable worlds, and perhaps that got to Bowie, who had so capably absorbed so many other of his influences.

Is that why Bowie’s cover of The Who’s first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” is such a disaster? It’s an act of vandalism, as though Bowie intended to strip the song of everything that gave it power—Keith Moon’s whirlwind drumming, which is the track’s lead instrument; the surf group backing vocals in the verses; the pilled-up beat—and then watched it die. Ronson, rather than trying to one-up Townshend’s guitar solos, sounds neutered.

The most perverse misreading is in Bowie’s vocal. “I Can’t Explain” is sung by a kid who has never been in love, maybe he’s never even been attracted to another person before in his life, and suddenly it’s happening, and his life no longer makes sense. As with most of the early Who singles, “I Can’t Explain” is entirely of the present, with the singer trying to trap something unknowable and new into words—he should rush out the lyric, push against the flow of the music, sink under it. The vocal should be dizzy and frantic, and far from sensual. Instead, Bowie sings “I Can’t Explain” slowly, coolly, teasing out the lyric, lingering on phrases like a cabaret vamp: he’s appalling in his confidence.

Recorded July-early August 1973. Bowie performed it on his 1980 Floor Show TV special in October 1973, and he brought “Can’t Explain” back a decade later for his “Serious Moonlight” tour. The song still eluded him.

Top: Keith Moon conquers London, 1973.

12 Responses to I Can’t Explain

  1. The Docker says:

    I know its not the best of Bowie albums, but it is well liked and I can’t understand that. If I listen to it, I want to end asap and I am not disappointed. Bearing in mind Aladdin Sane was a ‘filler’ which kinda out shines Ziggy Stardust in many ways, Pin-ups actually looked and sounded like a filler. I Can’t Explain was on of my favorite tracks on that so-so album, being only vaguely aware of the original, I bought Pin-ups about 1982 then bought a dodgy bootleg tape of the 1980 Floor Show called ‘Dollars In Drag’ and Saw that Bowie could actually make it sound better live. Seeing Bowie for the first time a year later in Milton Keynes Bowl, I heard I can’t Explain again and yes, your right, its a bit duff.

    I like your stuff, by the way.

  2. Steve Ison says:

    Wonderfully insightful and illuminating into the differences between Bowie and Townshends personalities..
    ” masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding”…Is just brilliant and v funny lol

  3. martyn watson says:

    Recorded at a ‘normal’ tempo and slowed down. Old Beatles trick. Works a treat.

  4. Sport Murphy says:

    Perhaps it’s less a “perverse misreading” than a deliberate recasting of the song… a kid contending with the realization that he’s gay. In a lot of his work at that time, Bowie seems to treat such themes with lavish campiness: a wink to the hip and a flip of the bird to the philistines. I don’t think that makes it a great recording, but it gives it some conceptual validity; Townshend pioneered pop songs with similar themes, so maybe that could be regarded as the actual “tribute”.

  5. Rufus Oculus says:

    I think describing PU as filler is a little harsh. More a catch of breath and a bit of fun before moving onto the next work perhaps?

  6. Rufus Oculus says:

    Not a disaster by any means. This is a glam record remember so I think Bowie is entitled to neuter the earnestness in the original playing and vocal. Ferry does similar on TFT by democratising his approach so that a heavyweight like Dylan receives the same arch delivery as, say, Lesley Gore.

  7. Freddy Freeloader says:

    They met in 1965, then “The two had had little contact since. Then in the summer of 1973”

    In his book PT says that in 1969 he entrusted his 8 year old brother to Bowie’s care during a Who concert, which suggests something beyond such a casual acquaintance.

    • col1234 says:

      yes, in his book, published 2 years after I wrote this entry. I’ve revised the entry in my book.

      • Freddy Freeloader says:

        Fair enough.
        I actually prefer this to Anyway, which seems to consist largely of Mick Ronson demonstrating that, excellent sideman as he is, he has his limitations. I remember a comment from Jeff Beck about Ronson trying to do things and not managing it (I did a quick google but couldn’t find he exact quote). It does seem a bit mean to give him Anyway and Shapes to play without giving him as much freedom to do something different as Bowie allowed himself.

  8. I heard Bowie’s version first, and I must say that I like both versions. Bowie’s recording subordinates the lead guitar and drums to the riff, which I think serves the song rather well. His vocals also sound great, and bring a more adult sensibility to the song.

  9. Adam Franklin says:

    Far from being “neutered”, Ronson’s solo is taken from Shakin’ All Over, a rather nice touch on a ‘tribute to your heroes’ album.

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