Reality is Bowie’s open revision of past missteps, having another go at sounds he’d heard in his head in 1987 or 1991 that he hadn’t quite captured on record. So some of the album’s “public” songs, the various 9/11 pieces, come off as Never Let Me Down or Tin Machine tracks as revised by a more mature, or at least more tasteful, artist.
There were also a few “character” songs in which Bowie revived a lyrical conceit of “…hours.” The latter was intended (or so he said at the time) as a midlife malaise album, with songs whose perspectives were those of “friends” who’d lost their way, disappointed men facing 50 with little to show for it.
Reality offered a pairing of desperate husband (demoted to a bonus track, see next entry) and enraged wife. “She’ll Drive the Big Car” concerns a former free spirit, now barnacled with husband and kids, who speeds along Riverside Drive in Manhattan, wondering if she should just cut the wheel and plunge into the Hudson River.
“All her plans have been disassembled by her thoughtless boyfriend,” Bowie told Interview. The cad was supposed to “take her back to the old bohemian life,” back to the street life. But instead he stands her up, like the “friend” of the girl in “Life on Mars?” At least that girl still had the movies. Here, the woman’s left stranded at home (introducing the song live, he said of its protagonist: “she lives in the wrong part of town but she wants to live in an even badder, wronger part of town”) “She’s stuck with this middle class family and is absolutely, desperately unhappy as she’s peeling along Riverside Drive,” he said. “In my mind she just swings it off to the left,* and takes the whole lot down.”
Her trap’s reflected in the verse’s chord structure. (As opposed to his usual way of rigging a song together in the studio, “She Drives the Big Car” was “specifically a written piece,” Bowie said.) The home chord, F major, is limbo. The verse starts on the dominant chord, C major (a hope of escape: “back in millennium/meant racing to the light”), slides down to the subdominant chord, Bb major (things don’t work out: she “melt[s] home”) and ends with her circling yet again on Riverside (F).** The refrains escape to A major until, in the last bars, the F chord returns her to stasis again. It’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car“: life as a perpetual JG Ballard car crash, every day in the same car.
As with most Bowie third-person studies, there are some autobiographical asides (a cardinal Bowie rule is that no one is as interesting as him, particularly fictional people). Take the shaky falsetto in which he sings “sad, sad soul”: an uncanny throwback to the cocaine-frayed vocals on Young Americans. And the refrain of the song-within-the-song, the track blasting on the radio station as the woman drives like a demon on Riverside, is the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (just a little bit LOUDER NOW! …a little bit softer now…), lines that Bowie had sung as a kid in his cover of “Louie Louie Go Home.” (Bowie also plays his “amateur” harmonica for the first time since the Eighties). If the depressed wife is blasting the song to distract herself (“she’s turning the radio up high so she doesn’t have to think anymore,” Bowie said), it’s also Bowie bewitching himself with an old lost voice.
In the early 2000s, Bowie kept telling interviewers how happy he was in his current life. That said, this was a man who’d given up drugs, booze, cigarettes and (apparently) extramarital relationships, and whose life now revolved around child-raising (he joked that his most-heard song of ’03 was “The Wheels on the Bus”). So it’s not difficult to imagine some little part of him wishing he could chuck it all away and move back to Berlin, take up with an art collective of mad, attractive young people and drink champagne for breakfast. Unlike most of us, Bowie still could do this. If his is a life of quiet desperation, it’s of his own design.
With some of the more striking images of his later years (“love lies like a dead clown***/on a shabby yellow lawn,” or the way Bowie plays with the name “Riverside Drive,” turning it into a sylvan place with “cormorants and leaves“), the lyric keeps itself open, disclosing little. Who’s the “Jessica” that the woman keeps thinking about? Her daughter, who she might kill in a car crash, or herself, staring back at her in the rear-view mirror? Who’s sitting behind—her husband or her lover? Is the big car a hearse?
The track was built like a dollhouse, rooms within rooms, each piece set in place: brisk acoustic guitar work, esp. in the verses, and a snaky, twanging figure mixed left in refrains (and little feedback burst at 3:22, like a rip in the song); the synthesizer bed that sounds like a harmonium, and the yearning counter-melody in the second verse; the marimba fills; the snare drum hiccup Sterling Campbell plays to signal the refrains, and how his cymbals are mixed to sound as if he’s shaking chains (also, the perfectly-timed handclaps in the refrains). There’s even Bowie’s baritone saxophone, barely noticeable in the verses, just a dark layer in the foundation.
Most impressive were the harmonies, one of the finest vocal arrangements on a Bowie track since Young Americans. It was a tapestry of Bowie, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, with Bowie as frantic advocate and Dorsey and Russell, with their long-held notes and their vaults up an octave, as ecstatic assurance.
Tracks like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” made it seem such a shame that Bowie “retired” after Reality, as he sounded as if he still had a smoldering heap of unfinished business. In 2013, he proved he did.
Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.
* She’s driving up Riverside from downtown and, if she goes for it, she’ll aim for the river by cutting across oncoming traffic. The first verse notes she’s “northbound on Riverside,” but the second refrain mentions the Lower East Side intersection of Ludlow and Grand St. and going “south along the Hudson.”
** Both C and Bb chords shift to major sevenths (“sick with fear,” “melted home”) before giving way to the succeeding chord.
*** Yeah, yeah, I know the printed lyric says “cloud” but “dead clown” is such a superior image that I refuse to believe he didn’t sing it.
Top: Thomas Struth, “The Richter Family,” Koln, 2002.