Clearly, David Bowie is not the “homo superior” he once claimed and many believed him to be. That claim and belief were based on Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, two records of startling genius which will be among the great albums of the Seventies. But since then Bowie has disappointed even his most rabid devotees. Aladdin Sane was frustratingly uneven, Pinups was trivial, and now comes Diamond Dogs, perhaps Bowie’s worst album in six years.
It would be presumptuous to pretend to explain Bowie’s deterioration — he is a remote man whose mind remains mysterious — but two considerations are worth entertaining. First Bowie’s earlier records did not sell particularly well in the U.S. despite his successes in England, which certainly must rankle so vainglorious a man. And this may have prompted Bowie to hope that if America didn’t eat him up when he was good, it might when he was bad.
From Aladdin Sane on, Bowie has tended to pander to what he thinks the public wants and to imitate those who have been more successful than he — Alice Cooper and Mick Jagger, for instance. He has deliberately cheapened himself and his music.
Secondly, as it continues to elude him, Bowie has become more and more obsessed with superstardom and its trappings, which is why he has dropped his forename and now styles himself, in emulation of Garbo and Brando, simply Bowie. Hunky Dory and Ziggy were conceived with care in solitude; since then Bowie’s energies have been directed toward stardom at the expense of his music, which he now seems to regard almost with contempt.
Why else would he elect to play lead guitar on Diamond Dogs? Guitarist Mick Ronson was always one of the best things about Bowie and for Bowie to replace him is like Mick Jagger filling in for Keith Richard.
Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust were great because of the challenges they presented. Bowie dared listeners to confront a novel and alien sensibility; dared them to reexamine their smug sexual assumptions; dared them to question their comfortable relation to rock ‘n’ roll, which had become merely a commodity little different from mayonnaise or aluminum siding. He promised that music could again matter, as it had before Dylan, the Beatles and so many others maundered into what was at once middle age and second childhood. In short, Bowie challenged us and our music, both mired in a deathly complacency, to change:
Look out you Rock’n Rollers
Turn and face the strange
Pretty soon you’re gonna get a little older.
Bowie was never very specific about the nature of these changes, but at least he saw their necessity, and the proof seemed in the pudding — in the zest, energy and originality of Hunky Dory and Ziggy. What made the challenge so inviting were Bowie’s prodigious talents as a writer, arranger and producer. His best songs were deft, vivid constructions, utilizing all the tricks of the Sixties trade and recharging them with the force of his personality and imagination, pushing them into the Seventies. While Don McLean sang that the music had died and almost every major figure of the Sixties seemed intent upon proving McLean right, Bowie was giving them all the lie.
But unfortunately, it was a lie, for Bowie led his followers into the desert and left them there. No sooner had he proclaimed a new age than he turned his back on it and retreated to nostalgia. Aladdin Sane pined for the good old days, “when people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored,” and Pinups travestied mid-Sixties pop. “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie’s most recent single and, typically, a hit in England but not here, is an attempt at a 1964 smash. So much for ch-ch-Changes.
On Diamond Dogs Bowie shouts, “This ain’t Rock’n Roll — this is Genocide.” Suicide is more like it, for it’s Bowie, not the listener, who’s in trouble. First the guitar: Maybe Bowie plays it himself to get a raunchy, untutored feel the more polished Ronson couldn’t capture, but the result is merely cheesy. When debuted on The Midnight Special, “1984” was a powerful song, most of whose strength and sweep Ronson provided. The version on Diamond Dogs, without Ronson, is sickly, and a fluttery string arrangement cannot beef it up. And there’s his voice: Once Bowie’s high, dry vocals, brittle and angular, were remarkable for their wit, phrasing and credibility. But now he’s withdrawn to his anonymous lower register, and when he strays from it he sounds campy and forced, never compelling. Finally, where Bowie’s songs used to be signalized by their rich complexity and, simultaneously, their sparkling clarity, Diamond Dogs is at once simplistic and murky. Once heard, the songs on Hunky Dory and Ziggy were almost impossible to forget: The melodies were fascinating and sharply defined. But these tracks are muddy and tuneless, and their sloppiness cannot be rationalized as spontaneity.
Diamond Dogs depicts a not-too-distant future in which the remnants of the human race live out their dying days in frantic pursuit of sleazy sex. What seems to interest Bowie here is not the future but the sex. Most of the songs are obscure tangles of perversion, degradation, fear and self-pity, whose night-marishness occasionally recalls The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie’s most frightening album. It’s difficult to know what to make of them. Are they masturbatory fantasies, guilt-ridden projections, terrified premonitions, or is it all merely Alice Cooper exploitation? Unfortunately, the music exerts so little appeal that it’s hard to care what it’s about. And Diamond Dogs seems more like David Bowie’s last gasp than the world’s.