Reality

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Reality.
Reality (live, 2003).
Reality (live, 2004).

I prefer the enormous risks. There were indeed errors, there were inaccuracies, because a book that’s worth living with is the act of one voice, the act of a passion, the act of a persona.

George Steiner.

George Steiner was born in 1929 into an established Viennese Jewish family, the sort of multilingual, culturally distinguished clan (his mother’s great uncle had discovered a manuscript of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck) that often wound up being murdered and dispossessed during the war.

The Steiners were luckier than many. On a business trip to New York in early 1940, his father was tipped off by an old Viennese friend (now procuring oil and equipment for the Nazis) to get his family out of France, where they’d moved in the Thirties. There had already been anti-Semitic marches on their street. Steiner recalled “the parades of people out there shouting, “Death to the Jews!” Papa comes home and says, “Up with those shades!” and takes me by the hand to look outside. I was fascinated, of course; any child would be. And he says, “You must never be frightened; what you’re looking at is called history.” I think that sentence may have formed my whole life.” They fled “in the last of the American boats” to New York.

He became a novelist, poet, professor and critic, shuttling from American to European to British universities and writing for the New Yorker. Thirty years after his family had escaped their possible slaughter in a concentration camp, he was asked to deliver the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Collected in book form, Steiner’s four lectures became In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. Here Steiner ranged from the weight of the past on the present day to the argument that, post-World War I (“decisive reserves of intelligence, of nervous resilience, of political talent, had been annihilated“) and the Holocaust (“[Walter] Gieseking was playing the complete Debussy piano music on the nights when one could hear the screams of the people in the sealed railway cars at the station in Munich, on the way to Dachau“), the long, knotted chain of Western high culture that had extended back to the Athenian Greeks was now broken.

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The past became a lost country. Pindar, Virgil, Theocritus, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Auden and Yeats share a frame of reference, a common pool of metaphor and imagery. Steiner used Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem whose analogies are hard for today’s reader to untangle without a handy page of references and copious footnotes. In the first stanza alone, “ivy,””myrtle,” and “laurel” all have specific traditional meanings, for which a ‘common’ reader immersed in “high” culture would’ve required no explication. Today only an academic would know them, and even then perhaps not. Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Steiner’s book, said “laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [the poem] intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a “vague musicality,” Milton’s references might as well be to Mars.”

We were in a “post culture,” Steiner wrote. This wasn’t necessarily a tragedy. The grand sweep of Western civilization had required the subjection of entire cultures and the annihilation of vast numbers of animal species and environments in the name of “progress.” It might have been an evolutionary mistake: maybe we should have stayed in the trees. Leonard Cohen’s description of Mozart and Shakespeare as being merely “the nail polish on the claws” can seem apt enough most days.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing,” Steiner concluded. Instead, one should enjoy the fact that “it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs…It may well be that our post-culture will be marked by a readiness to endure rather than curtail the risks of thought. To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction, yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.”

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We feel ourselves tangled in a constant, lashing web of crisis.

Steiner, “Tomorrow.”

We don’t have a God. We don’t really have a trust in any kind of politics. We are completely and totally at sea, philosophically. And I don’t think we want new things. I think we’re kind of scrounging around among the things we know to see if we can salvage some kind of civilization which will help us endure and survive into the future. We don’t need new. We are fucked. We’ve got enough new. Enough!…There is no structure, there is no plan. We are not evolving. We have to make the best of what we’ve got.

Bowie, Filter interview, 2003.

Why the long digression about Steiner and the death of Western civilization in an entry about a Bowie rock song? Well, it’s Bowie’s fault. He named In Bluebeard’s Castle one of his top 100 books, and in interviews for Reality, he kept bringing up Steiner to frame what he intended with the title track.

Steiner “was the first thing I read on post-modernism,” Bowie told Ingrid Sischy. “That book just confirmed for me that there was actually some kind of theory behind what I was doing with my work…I have an undiminished idea of variability. I don’t think there’s one truth, one absolute.”

What he found in Steiner was a vocabulary to explain his innate catholicity of taste, his love for Anthony Newley and Lou Reed, Little Richard and Steve Reich, The Beano and William Burroughs. There was never a “high” or “low” culture for Bowie, who’d absorbed the whole of Sixties London, steered by his brother Terry’s love for Beat novels and jazz, his former manager Kenneth Pitt’s access to the London theater scene and the influence of various showbiz pros like Lindsay Kemp, Lionel Bart and Lesley Duncan. Bowie ate up America in the early Seventies; in Berlin in 1976-78, he dressed as Christopher Isherwood and spent much of his free time in museums and night clubs.

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There were several of us dealing in this newly-found pluralistic vocabulary,” he recalled of the glam era to Ken Scrudato (Bryan Ferry and Eno were the other obvious examples). “This whole George Steiner-ism of life, you know? But I think that the world caught up really quickly and everybody is so totally aware of the kind of vocabulary that we were throwing around at the time, that one feels kind of superfluous now. I still enjoy what I do. But I don’t think what I do is terribly necessary…at all.”

So “Reality” is Bowie crediting his performing self in helping to create a world. When he was young, he’d enjoyed playing the vanguard of a civilizational collapse. At a press conference in 1972, he said he and Lou Reed “were probably predicting the end of an era….any society that allows people like Lou and I to become rampant is pretty well lost.” “They’re in the Seventies,” Neil Young had admired at the time. Bowie and Reed “don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care.”

He enjoyed admitting to being a fraud. I’m not a real musician, he’d say. I’m not a real singer. He called himself a pastischist, a collagist, someone happy to throw up things he’d dug out from the ruins, not concerned with how long they’d stand upright. His songs were readymades, genre-mucks. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” married Jacques Brel to a Fifties doo-wop ballad, then threw in Peter Pan and James Brown. He nicked lyrics from short stories and films, scripted films from his songs, cannibalized the lost films into new songs. “I hid among the junk of wretched highs,” as he’d sing in “Reality,” punning on the idea of cultural detritus as being cheap dope. This was life in the post-culture: you’ll have live off the land more, so learn to compost.

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In 2003, Bowie said he’d done his job perhaps too well. Millennial culture had beaten him at his game. “Over the last 20 years, many of our ideas of the absolute, the ideas we all have held sacred, have been taken apart,” he told the New York Post. The reporter pushed back, saying “that seems slightly superficial.” To which Bowie smiled. “It’s flippant in a post-modern way.” And in a privileged way. “If you’re struggling to find a job and get food and shelter for your family, you’re going to have a very accurate idea of what reality is.”

But for the middle-class Westerner in the 21st Century, your life could be an anodyne version of David Bowie’s in 1972. You make a mash-up of X-Files dialogue over “99 Luftballoons,” post it on YouTube, maybe get picked up by Buzzfeed. David Bowie “is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions,” Bowie had said in 1976, to get a rise out of People magazine.* Today much of our cultural life is the property, and the workings, of a literal conglomerate of statements and illusions: Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook, what have you. “David Bowie” is an algorithm.

Or an avatar. The cover of the CD is a saucer-eyed “anime” Bowie that, once you flip the cover open, is replaced by the “real” Bowie. Who is, of course, also a fake—it’s just the latest magazine cover that David Jones has made to represent himself in 2003. “There’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines” its title, Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis. “It’s the old chestnut. What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.”

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If we accept that we live in absolute chaos, it doesn’t look like futility anymore. It only looks like futility if you believe in this bang up structure we’ve created called ‘God’ and all. [But] all of these structures were self-created, just to survive, that’s all…It wasn’t handed down to us from anywhere…What people are beginning to feel, is that there’s a transition taking place. We’re leaving those old structures behind, whether we like it or not; they are all crumbling.

Bowie, to Ken Scrudato, 2003.

There was also a conservatism in Bowie’s statements. For all his fluid mercurial qualities, there was also an internal consistency to his work and a literate depth that he’d tried to disguise with flip interview statements. In 1995, he contrasted his filmmaker son Duncan’s dealings with art to his own:

He seems to be able to scan things so much quicker than myself. He can make sense of the surface of things. It gives him some foundation. My natural inclination, coming from a different time, is that I don’t just want a surface image; I want to read depth into everything,” Bowie said. “And that isn’t part of the vocabulary now in quite the same way as when I was young. My son can just whiz around it and get what he needs to get on to the next place. And it looks like lethargy. But there again, he’s now doing a doctorate in philosophy. (Laughs). So what I presumed was lethargy is not—it’s all being internalized. He just doesn’t assimilate things the way I think you’re supposed to.”

The title also referred to a common source of newspaper complaint at the time—the surge of “reality” television (Bowie wasn’t a fan, mocking American Idol as being “cruise ship entertainment”). “The word has become so devalued, it’s like it’s been damaged,” he said. “Reality TV” was, of course, nothing like “reality”—its contestants were often would-be actors, its conflicts were scripted and spun out of crafty editing. What reality TV represented—replacing unionized writing jobs with freelance “creators,” and using unpaid non-actors instead of unionized actors requiring scale payments—reflected 21st Century economics as much as it did any new cultural coarseness.

But again, this showed a growing sophistication among the public. If the glam era was the first pop era meant for kids fluent in the language of pop, the popularity of reality TV suggested that TV viewers had grown bored with the old cop/office/family life TV show scenarios. They wanted to see “real” people, who were playing to the cameras, at least for a novelty.

For Bowie, all of these qualms reflected the old generational terrors of “Kooks” and “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The kids keep coming, keep crowding you up. No matter how hard you try, you wind up obsolete. Even David Bowie?

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As for the song itself, among the first he wrote for the album, “Reality” seems too flip, loud and pummeling a track to have to embody all of this cultural hand-wringing. Built on a typical Bowie volley between two major chords (D and E for verses, C and F# for refrains) and given a lyric that mashes “Teenage Wildlife,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “Beat of Your Drum,” it sets up Bowie as an aging rake, lusting for youth in the mirror. There was a touch of Monty Python in it: tragic youth was going down on me! Well, I swear—hoo! hoo!–Yes I swear!

Deeper in, the song starts shaking open—the guitars seem in open warfare against it, the beat is remorseless. The refrain’s a boast of a man about to walk off the set—whatever you say kids, I got there before you—with Bowie’s vicious run of ha-ha-ha-has feeling like slaps to the face. And then he gives as much of an epitaph as he may ever offer:

I still don’t remember how this happened
I still don’t get the ‘wherefores’ and the ‘whys’**
I look for sense but I get next to nothing

Then in a brief acoustic aside that reminds you of the pause for breath in “Big Brother,” just before the final conversion:

I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong
Now I’m back where I started from…

A drum fill, and the guitars knock him off into space again.

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Once upon a time, when “Reality” was sequenced near the end of Bowie’s ‘last’ album, the title track could seem the work of a man trying to settle his long-overdue accounts, and finding that he was just as broke as when he started.

That a life of perpetual movement and change is just as pre-determined and fruitless as one where you stayed in one place and hunkered down. That the David Jones who stayed in Beckenham, watching Survivor with his grandchildren in his living room in 2002, may have regarded post-modern life much the same as the pop singer who was promoting his 23rd album and talking about George Steiner.

But Bowie’s having a blast in “Reality,” both in its guitar-crazy recording and its raucous live performances —throwing himself around in the song, clowning, making an ass of himself, refusing the dignity that the aging are supposed to take up, like a post-retirement hobby. If he’s never done good things, bad things, or anything out of the blue, he doesn’t give a toss. In a post-culture, “progress” is for suckers, and Bowie always played the grifter.

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Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York.

* People, regarded by the likes of George Trow as the vanguard of a surface-level celebrity culture being hatched in the Seventies, now seems quaint whenever you see it in the newsstand, desperately trying to catch the eye with some Kardashian headline. It’s another pioneer made obsolete by the world it discovered.

** A possible Steiner-esque joke. “Wherefore” means much the same as “why,” but as anyone who’s seen an American TV commercial referencing Romeo and Juliet can attest, the former word is often taken to mean “where are you?,” with the Juliet actress peering off her balcony, looking for her beau.

Top: Bowie, a life in press conferences and interviews: 2004, 1977, 1983, 1987, 1972, 1999, 1974, 1976.

30 Responses to Reality

  1. SoooTrypticon says:

    I do love that break in the middle. It gives the song a minute to think about what it’s done (:

    A fine write up as always. The content on Steiner is fitting, given what Bowie put together for the Reality short film on the dual disc.

    This song has always reminded me of Yoko’s “Move On Fast,” and I wonder if you have any thoughts on the matter. Do you think Bowie was referencing it, given Yoko’s mention of “reality” in the first bit of lyric?

    • col1234 says:

      oh yeah, I can easily see DB being a fan of this one

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        Thanks. You’ve really put a wonderful spin on “Reality.” It’s an album that I first heard at a very Bowie-centric time, and loved… but as the years began to pile up- the album took on more and more baggage that perhaps it was never meant to have.

        Reading these posts have in a way restored a bit of its color for me.

        I can’t wait for you to get to the silent years, and what may lie there in. “(She Can) Do That” is of particular interest.

    • Galdo says:

      I’ve never heard this. I just loved!!! Thanks!

  2. Vinnie M says:

    What a lovely track.

    I like the comment,

    ” We don’t need new. We are fucked. We’ve got enough new. Enough!…There is no structure, there is no plan. We are not evolving. We have to make the best of what we’ve got.”

    This perfectly describes Bowie’s post-83 sound. Make the best of what we’ve got, because there’s no need to innovate anymore. And Bowie hasn’t been on the ‘cutting edge’ of sound since the late 70s. (Or, if you ask Brian Eno, since “The Electrician” was released).

    Bowie’s sound for Heathen and Reality are just fine. Bowie’s not pretending to be anything new or different. He’s not trying to be Trent Reznor or the Prodigy or a folk musician. He’s just David Bowie releasing a new record that sorta draws on the whole of the DB experience.*

    (*Except, these two records suffer from the unfortunate quirks of early-2000s engineering. I’d love to hear them mixed and mastered like Aladdin Sane, or STS, because why not?)

    • Dave L says:

      “This perfectly describes Bowie’s post-83 sound. Make the best of what we’ve got, because there’s no need to innovate anymore.”

      That’s an interesting point. Though with his last two song releases — “Sue” and “Tis a Pity She was a whore”, I wonder if he isn’t trying to innovate again. Or just following a natural tendency to innovate, not so much “trying to,” as just following his muse which has led him in the direction of innovation again.

  3. billter says:

    Compare/contrast with Devo’s “Peek-a-Boo” (circa 1982):

  4. Kikouyou says:

    This song is one of the truly worst. Everything on Tonight or NLMD is better than this. Cant’ understand your indulgence for this one.

    • Claws-on says:

      Give me a “T”! – “T”
      Give me an “R”! – “R”
      Give me an “O”! – “O”
      Give me an “L”! – “L”
      Give me another “L”! – “L”

      What have you got..?

      • col1234 says:

        let’s not impugn motives here. I imagine every Bowie song is someone’s least favorite Bowie song.

      • NiggyTardust says:

        The funny thing is if you read comments for any Tonight or NLMD songs (at lastfm for example), it;s always someone’s “best song on otherwise bad album”

  5. Sykirobme says:

    I really like this one. The band’s energy is fantastic, Bowie doesn’t sound mannered at all. A straight-up rocker that’s in no way straightforward.

    And, as a bass player myself, I have always loved the fuzzy bass tone and bouncy playing on this track.

  6. Mr Tagomi says:

    What a fantastic song. Probably my favourite on this album. I find the contrast between the sound and the subject matter pleasingly bracing.

    And what a great write-up too. If DB is aware of this project, and surely he is, he ought to be grateful to Chris for creating all these brilliant companion pieces to his songs.

    In relation to the sections that go “I built a wall of sound…” etc, does the chord at the end of each of those lines qualify as one of the “diminished passing chords” discussed by Momus recently?

    • Dave L says:

      Totally agree. Great track, maybe my favorite on the album (which is solid start to finish), and great write-up, fascinating stuff on Steiner/Bowie connection.

      I love this track because it sounds like Bowie really, finally, just cutting loose, kicking down the walls with some good old fashioned, sloppy, rock n roll rage. Thanks in large part to Slick’s vicious guitar (reminds me of the equally vicious guitar on the Stones’ You Got Me Rockin’ from Voodoo Lounge).
      Is there another track in Bowie’s catalog where he lets loose with such … what’s the word… explosiveness?

  7. DLR says:

    Thanks Chris. This perfectly encapsulates many of the ways in which I think about and enjoy Bowie’s music and – more specifically – its legacy and cultural relevance to the last 50 years or so. That sounds awfully pretentious, but suffice it to say, you’ve said it better than I ever have.

    The song? It’s just okay – mildly entertaining and fluffy which, I think, is precisely what Bowie intended. It seems like a somewhat conscious deconstruction of the “grand old man” Bowie persona that accompanied “Heathen,” and that in and of itself means that it performs its duty as an anti-absolutist statement.

  8. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I don’t like Shouting Bowie much: that’s when he proves his critics right. He doesn’t have the voice to keep up with this kind of rocking insouciance. But the tempo shifts, arrangement and energy are attractive. I’ve said Reality >>> Heathen, so to me this plays like an honorable misstep.

  9. Momus says:

    1. I would say I’ve attended four “universities”: the university of life (ha!), the University of Aberdeen, the university of Bowie, and the university of the web. For a Bowie acolyte in the 70s, every interview had its “I’m feeling lucky” moments: you just had to follow the references. It always paid off.

    2. The artistic tips (Genet, Brecht, Burroughs) were always top, but the non-fiction stuff Bowie recommended sometimes made me grateful that I supplemented Bowie University with a real one. It was disappointing that he knew about Existentialism via that gadfly Colin Wilson rather than, say, Sartre. And it’s disappointing that he found out what to call postmodernism via the genial conservative George Steiner rather than, say, Barthes or Debord or Jameson or Jencks. If you think about it, it’s odd that Bowie spends a lot of the 1970s repackaging Evelyn Waugh’s anxieties about the 1920s, or Orwell’s about the 1940s. But he told us he didn’t want to be “an information bureau with red ‘air”. And those old anxieties did map and match quite well to the new ones. Boom and bust, hope and fear, they spring eternal.

    3. When I listen to this song, I come back to something very basic in Bowie, something I trace back to Kretschmer’s distinction between the anaesthetic and the hyperaesthetic schizoid types. If the anaesthetic is a turtle — quiet, vacant, long-lived — the hyperaesthetic is a chameleon, flouncing, fancy and flamboyant. In Bowie interviews there are often strong hints that he wants to push himself out of anaesthesia into the florid hysteria of hyperaesthesia. Chris’ image of the David Jones who stayed in Beckenham, watching TV, tallies with a frequent image Bowie gives us of normal schizoid vacancy: “Switch the channel, watch the police car.” But vacancy might also be dignified and Zen: a retreat to a Scottish monastery, a painter’s studio, a parallel life in Japan.

    4. How do you bust out of anaesthetic vacancy, assuming you want to? For Bowie — and for his generation — the answer is sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In his 1978 interview with Alan Yentob, Bowie claimed to have lost enthusiasm for playing the same old songs live. “You can’t fake enthusiasm. Well, there are ways…” If you can fake enthusiasm with white powder, you can also splice in commitment: in the RCA interview disk that came with Scary Monsters there’s the suggestion that the guitars chopped into Up The Hill Backwards are groping their way towards “some kind of commitment” as a way out of “the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom”.

    5. Hysterical guitars and hysterical vocals have often been the signifiers in Bowie’s music of this attempt to get from the an- to the hyper- states: from anhedonia to hyperhedonia, from no-one to someone. There are problems with this, though. Not just the lows which inevitably follow drug highs — like some sort of mood-reality insisting on reasserting itself after a binge — but also the rhetorical hyper-inflation which results from being inappropriately overwrought over, say, randomly-generated lyrics. At a certain point the audience is just going to shrug and say something like: “This is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    6. If Reality, the track, reminds us of 1980s Bowie songs like Beat of Your Drum, Zeroes, or Day In, Day Out, it’s worth remembering that the 1980s saw a general problem with rhetorical hyper-inflation in the music business: big hairdos, big special effects, big snare sounds, big megastores. Everybody had to — in Elvis Costello’s phrase — “pump it up until you can’t feel it, pump it up, ’til you don’t really mean it”.

    7. And whoops, there it is: finally, the same vacancy and hollowness underpins pumped-up “enthusiasm” or “commitment” as the empty anaesthetic states they’re supposed to be an escape from. The paradox of clipping in bits of Fripp noise with a tape machine is a canny and savvy postmodernist gesture, artily delicious in its appreciation of its own ridiculousness. But by the time — one pumped-up decade later — we get Reeves Gabrels turning every song into a hysterical car chase, we’re back to the null and void, now stadium-sized.

    8. Sure, Reality is the kind of song that energises a Bowie stadium, in theory. It hits all the bases: the frenetic backbeat, the Iggy riffs and Iggy vocalisations (blah, blah, blah!), the splinters of Because You’re Young, references to My Death, the diamond doggery, the high Mellotron choir on the fade… It ticks all the Bowie boxes. It actually does convince, in its way. He sounds furious about the charade, the cheap shaft, the full circle, the raw deal.

    9. This is where I come back to the “for his generation” bit. Because I think this hollowness — or, rather, this thing where you make a big noise about how hollow the big noise is, and almost triumph over the very rhetoric you rode in on — is only a necessary evil if you subscribe to that sex, drugs, rock’n’roll thing in the first place — a secular religion threadbare as old jeans. One doesn’t need to do drugs to be enthusiastic, one doesn’t need to hammer on a drum kit or throttle a guitar to generate commitment. Someone who’d read Sartre would have a different definition of commitment anyway, a much more political one.

    10. It is possible to step away from the painted strumpet we call showbiz, to abjure its ruses, refuse its roses, do something completely different. That’s why I love filling in — rather as one might fill in the blank spaces in a child’s colouring book — Bowie’s blank years, the ones between Reality and The Next Day, with all the weird and completely non-rock things he might have been doing. Avant gardening? Building model ships in bottles with lollypop sticks? They would all have been more interesting than rock, that dribbly old dog gnawing its rubber bone.

    • Dave L says:

      “we get Reeves Gabrels turning every song into a hysterical car chase” — LOL on that.

      Regarding #10, I think we get a clue in the video for “Who Are We Now,” where, near the end, Bowie stands in a large room and admires dozens of what look like art pieces, as if to say, “this is what I’ve been doing since I’ve been gone, in case you were wondering.”

  10. s.t. says:

    Chris and Momus, beautiful entries both. Thank you.

    So much of Bowie’s work does seemed wrapped up in postmodernist despair. And so much of it explicitly deals with God and the death of the sacred. He’s right in that our societies don’t really have coherent moral orders anymore, and that life is a grab bag of possible meanings, usually driven by market forces. Still, Bowie was likely pining for some imposed order in his own life, some communion with others, some regularity. As Momus suggests, meaning can be found outside of rock’n’roll and outside of religion, and presumably Bowie was doing something of the sort in the ten years following Reality.
    —Considering the album he released last year, though, his efforts may not have been very fruitful! He seems fixated more than ever on dilemmas of meaning, morality, vitality. And little wonder. No matter how proud he is of his daughter’s Angry Birds score, or how many gnomes he buys for his avant garden, oxidation continues unabated. And so the search goes on. Struggling against reality…

  11. Tayo says:

    If Bowie called himself a pastischist, he’d be wrong. Maybe he meant to call himself a pasticheur.

  12. crayontocrayon says:

    Bowie has always been fairly self aware and has often incorporated his part of pop-culture into the other cultural references from literature, art, film and ‘low culture’. So much of Bowie’s allure is based around identity, characters, masks – as a topic it doesn’t get old.

    The ‘do do do’s’ in the second verse are a pure callback to Rebel Rebel and his delivery also reminds me a little of it. he doesn’t so much sing as command the listener to take in his words. And it suits the music which is energised and to the point.

    And a note on the album art. Reality has a pretty bad rep and often is cited as a reason people didn’t pick it up at the time. it’s a pretty hideous thing to look at but there was at least some idea behind it as you touched upon. I think for this reason it avoids being the worst of the album covers.

  13. youri says:

    Hi…firts post for me though I’v been lurking your blog for maybe 2 years…

    Hello to all ! Thaks to Chris and all the commenters !
    Congratulations !
    I wonder wether this may be one of the best post of the blog. I have learned so much from it !!! I have to read George Steiner. I didn’t even known about him.

    Reality is a very underatedsong from LP which sounds very underated, as far as I understand.

    Like Momus wrote in another post, “The Reality album finds me deep in my “meh, Bowie””, Ok; it was the same for me
    At that time, I wouldn’t have given a minute to listen to him, due to disappoinment with “Hours” and, to a lesser level , “Heathen”. Well, I must confess that I heard “New killer star” at the radio, driving the car before a family picnic (;-)); this had no consequence.

    However, later on, when I tried to listen to Reality LP, circa 2012, this song was like a gate, the one that helped me enjoy the whole LP.
    “Reality” ?:
    NLMD, without cheesy fat.
    The pixies with Bowie songwriting.
    50-years-old Bowie with almost the energy of a youngster (stooges’ energy ?… of course not, but not so far away as it seems at the first sight)

    Because of this song, I like “reality” ! I am happy to defend it .

    Forgive the typos and mistakes with english please !

    cheers
    youri

  14. roobin101 says:

    Re George Steiner – its stating the obvious to say that WW2 was a disaster that left, amongst other things, a cultural desert, but a terminal break with 3,000 years of Greco-Roman culture is surely extending the point too far. It’s grist to the mill that postmodernism is conservatism with French Dressing.

    Re the song: I’m not keen on Shouting Bowie. He sounds too feeble to pull it off. The weaker bits of The Next Day are the shouting songs. Perhaps TND was recorded a lot earlier than it was said to be. Has Bowie stuck with the same sound for ten years?

    • s.t. says:

      On Shouting Bowie, you and HumTheVac have hit upon something interesting. I listen to this song and I think he’s simply going for a feel of desperation. In that case, the strained vocals suit the song quite well. Not too far from what he did in Architects Eyes.

      But there is the fact of his aging voice, now undeniable with his newest songs. When “Where Are We Now” popped out of nowhere, Visconti assured everyone that it was just Bowie “doing a voice” to suit the song, and that his singing was really just as strong as ever. Now, that statement was partly true: the paper thin croak of WAWN was indeed Bowie going for an emotion. The other songs he’s released since demonstrate that he has more fire than initial worries warranted. But the strain is most certainly there. Like this song, though, I think vocals really suit the emotional and conceptual fabric of the new material. His new material is filled with sadness, desperation, and petty rage. To me, the gorgeous bellows of The Thin White Duke would simply sound out of place.

      I think this is a case of Bowie knowing his vocal limitations as he ages, and tailoring his material accordingly. Maybe he’s been taking cues from Bryan Ferry, who over the years has settled into his lovably dusty croon. And quite the opposite of poor Whitney Houston, who tried to continue her showstopping anthems rather than find a style that she could actually compliment with her ragged vocals, like the blues.

      I wager that if Bowie continues to release material, it will skew toward chant-like melodies and weary croons. He could still explore some new themes and varied emotions, but he’ll have to work within his limits, and he seems to know better than to set himself up for something that he clearly cannot do.

      It may be that there is only one more moment of unqualified gorgeousness in Bowie’s career.

      ….Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…

    • Vinnie says:

      Solid conspiracy theory. Half of The Next Day sounds like it could have been recorded 10 years prior. And then, “Sue” and “Tis A Pity” come out of nowhere and sound like new. #thetruthisoutthere

  15. Maj says:

    A great post, Chris!

    “The nail polish on the claws.” Thanks for reminding me of this Cohen quote, which is absolutely spot on.

    “We don’t need new. We are fucked. We’ve got enough new.” Also absolutely spot on. Who knew Bowie had it in him.

    I always liked the verbal & visceral bitiness and who-gives-a-fuck-ness of Reality, the song.

  16. gcreptile says:

    The bit on Steiner reminded me how Bowie’s career was a sequence of apocalypses not happening. Bowie’s view of Great Britain in decay, Diamond Dogs, fear of the millenium, even the video of Let’s Dance and finally, his reaction to 9/11. But post-modernism and the millenial kind of post-post-modernism is far too sophisticated to fall for it. The internet already comes with it’s own meta-level of memes. Bowie’s son and the people from generation X on grow up with pop culture internalized which gives them the advantage in “scanning things”. The global internet public growing up right now with 4chan and reddit is probably even better than that. Pop culture has become part of the pop culture, if that makes sense.
    There was a short time, from 9/11 to, let’s say Katrina, when it seemed as if more simple times had returned, as if absolute values had returned to western culture. But the internet eventually won.
    I guess Reality was Bowie’s last glimpse at his beloved eschatological concept of the world, in its last culturally relevant moment.

  17. MC says:

    Fascinating piece on a song that I always ranked pretty low. In fact, this is probably my least favourite thing on Reality. It’s not a terrible song; I’d even say it “rocks” reasonably successfully. It’s just that it’s perhaps the only DB song that fails to stick with me, even after successive plays, other than the manic “Ha ha ha’s”. For me, it’s a pretty amorphous track, really. Like the cover of Pablo Picasso, it’s a lot of sound and fury adding up to nothing really memorable.

    These Reality essays have all been really eye-opening, as this is one DB album where very little always registered on the lyrics front. That’s partly because of my indifference to some of the songs, but it’s mostly because of the terrible font in which the words are printed in the CD packaging. I actually really like the album cover (which may make me a bit of an outlier), but some of the graphics…way too busy!

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