Perhaps surprisingly, Thurston Moore, flannel shirted avant grunge god, has emerged as a lifelong David Bowie freak; he recently introduced ‘Early Music Videos by David Bowie’ – part of MoMA’s Looking at Music exhibition. This fictional piece imagines his early encounters and interactions with Bowie’s work.
Initially we find the teenage Moore in the mid-’70s, discovering Bowie’s music while living in Bethal, Connecticut, and being taunted by the local ‘rock bozos’ for his Bowie look and fixation. Then, we fast forward to a snapshot from the 1980s when Moore was living in Manhattan and beginning his mature musical work, playing with Lower East Side composer Glenn Branca, developing his explorations in music, art and noise – and still listening to Bowie.
Spring 1974: the evening sun is burning a dull gold between the big houses on Spring Hill Lane. Mom and Dad are out and I’ve got the living room TV to myself. Tonight, it’s the Don Kirshner Show and in between all the dross there might be something good. It’s time to steal one of Mom’s cigarettes and settle back.
Shot from above the singer walks on – guitar slung, Elvis-style, behind his back, legs apart, ready. The Spector snare hit cracks – cut to the drummer shot from above, two hands playing with orchestral beaters – nothing Don Brewer would ever use. Bowie is in a petrol blue-black plastic leather jacket; big fake fur collars, unnatural carrot hair; the band, static and shadowy, behind. He’s singing, talking, a lip-curled first verse. It sounds a bit like Jagger, creepy English – no idea what he’s saying, but he’s moving like an alien. After the first line he looks back, like he’s spitting out meaning over his shoulder. Now he’s starting his words again. Like Bruce Lee coming in, taking aim; eyebrows lift, his shoulder ticks up, then the eyes fix you and the hands come off his hips and up – zapping us, wheeling to the side and the voice hardens and rises: “Oh no dear, oh no dear / You know I neeeeeed to know dear”, hugging his skinny self. “Move me, touch me”, he continues, the last word really high. Cut to the drums again – a straight roll on the tom and cut to Bowie, still and serious now: “John, I’m only danc-ing / She turns me on.” Man, he’s got an anchor tattooed on his cheek! And he’s talking to his boyfriend, saying: don’t worry, I’m yours but I like girls too. Bowie’s bi and beautiful, he’s Rock and Roll and he’s now. He comes from another place and I want to go there.
It’s December 26th and I’ve got my new Koss K6 headphones on, plugged into the stereogram, watching family stuff happen, far away. I’m listening to ‘Five Years’. It starts with just the drums, bass drum answering snare, two hits, bap-bap, bap-bap; then the piano chords, then the voice; thin, serious: “Pushing through the market square / So many mothers sighing. The news had just come over / we had five years left to cry in.” It’s so far from the Marrakesh Express and all the kids in Bethal rolling up on copies of Sweet Baby James. ‘Five Years’ takes place in a realer world where the cop kisses the feet of a priest – a world where the dark heart of now is coming through. Bowie’s voice is speaking to those that can hear, telling us how we’ve got five years, five years, stuck on our eyes. When he sings about the glimpse of his girl “in an ice cream parlour, drinking milkshakes cold and long” and his voice goes hard and sharp, “smiling and waving and looking so fine”, you’re there, in the damaged, resigned voice of the narrator. Things are breaking apart but there’s a doomed beauty there for all of us who don’t fit into this place with its daily milk floats and football games and a life mapped out forever in real estate, assurance policies and family comfort.
It is winter 1980 on the Lower East Side. Our friend Cathy came back manic from her summer in Europe, telling us how Bowie is Jesus and is talking to her. She says he knows; he told her all about what was happening. She says everyone understands there. On her last night in the UK five teenagers on main street did the thing the people do in front of the digger in the video, bending down, kinda like priests or something, touching the ground, walking slowly towards her. The words have it all mapped out; he’s writing about everyone, all the lost souls. He knows: “I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things/ I’ve never done anything out of the blue” with that Sinatra “whoa-o-whoa” at the end, as he’s going down. We’re all drowning, she keeps saying, there’s nowhere to go in these times.
The clip’s all over the US now, too. That alien beginning, like The Man Who Fell To Earth, the rust over everything, Bowie by the sea holding a memory window to himself in a future padded cell. And the voices: “The shrieking of nothing is killing us / Pictures of Jap girls in synthesis / And I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no head.” And the whispering voices of the ones round the fire, burning remains, after the bomb. “And he wants to kick but the planet is glowing, we know, we know, we know / Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out in heaven’s high / Leading an all time low.” The fit of those words to the tune, the major to minor chords, the descent, the images, the people, the story of Bowie himself; it pulls at your eyes, your ears and your fucking soul.