Calling Moonage Daydream a documentary doesn’t begin to cover it. I saw the film two weeks ago on opening day on an IMAX screen and was properly overwhelmed. Directed by Brett Morgan, the film is a dense overload of overlapping sound and image. It seldom slows down to let you catch your breath. It was hard for me to keep up with, to keep everything sorted. Finally I just gave up and let the film rush over me. Moonage Daydream takes us into Bowie’s life and work in a way that seems to randomly ricochet from one point to another, like a pinball game. It can feel chaotic, but I don’t think it’s random at all. This is far from a traditional movie biography As someone said, it’s not about facts and stats. There’s no narration, no on-screen titles or talking-head interviews to guide us. We hear Bowie in voice-over and clips from various interview shows over the years. He tells his own story. There’s a loose progression from the early years to the later, but it’s not strictly chronological. David Bowie was continually changing his appearance, persona, and musical styles. He’s been frquently called a chameleon. Moonage Daydream shows us Bowie as a writer, artist (painting and sculpture), actor, and most importantly, as a musician. There’s always been something otherworldly about Bowie, as though he was just visiting. That’s what made him perfect casting for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which he was literally an alien from outer space.
It took me a while to get into David Bowie. I had a slight awareness of who he was, but hadn’t heard any of his music. In 1973, while I was still in Iowa City in the last throes of earning a college degree, I saw Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album in a record store. The cover and especially the inside foldout seemed very freaky to me, and not in a good way. There was a sexuality to it that I didn’t like, or maybe was just imagining, and probably found frightening in some way. I clearly wasn’t ready for this, not at that time. Whatever, based on my reaction to the album cover, I decided I would have nothing to do with David Bowie.
That September I moved to Minneapolis, where I found work in a motion picture lab. I became close friends with many of the people who worked there. We shared interests and frequently got together outside of work. Later that year or early the next, I went to the house where a few of them lived. Music I hadn’t heard before was playing on a stereo in the living room. It immediately got my attention. “What’s that?” I asked. I was quite surprised when they said it was David Bowie. The album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and the cut that was playing was “Suffragette City.” This album had come out in June of 1972, nearly a year before Aladdin Sane. In the space of a song, I was totally sold on David Bowie. “Suffragette City” is great. It has drive and energy, and really rocks. It’s still one of my favorites. I especially like the line, “Don’t lean on me, man, ’cause you can’t afford the ticket…”
At some point after that I picked up Hunky Dory, an earlier album which had come out in December 1971. The first track, “Changes,” is one of Bowie’s signature songs. The third cut, “Eight Line Poem,” has an incredible lyric I’ve never forgotten, “Tactful cactus by the window…” Until working on this post, I’d forgotten the song title and anything else about this cut, but that line had stuck in my head.
If I found the cover of Aladdin Sane freaky, I wonder what I would have made of the full cover of Diamond Dogs (1974) if I’d been in the same mindset. As it happened, when I did see it, I thought it was freaky, yes, but in a good way, and very cool. The American release, however, removed the dog genitalia, so we were protected from that.
“As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent
You asked for the latest party
With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump
Dressed like a priest you was
Tod Browning’s freak you was…”
This imagery reflects the sideshow vibe of the album cover, with some post-apocalyptic science fiction and a reference to Tod Browning’s notorious film Freaks thrown in for good measure.
Also on this album is “Rebel Rebel,” a more straight forward rocker that received significant radio play. It became another signature song for Bowie; he has many.
While I was still living in Minneapolis, I saw Bowie in concert at the St. Paul Civic Center on October 5, 1974. It was great seeing him live, though I’d been drinking before the concert, so my memory of it isn’t all that sharp. I do remember working my way close to the stage. Don’t recall the song, but when he leaned forward and reached out his hand to the audience, I found myself reaching back. Yeah, I know. I was also sure he’d sung “Young Americans” that night, but the Young Americans album wasn’t released until March 1975, so I couldn’t have heard it in ’74. Young Americans is a great album. It reflected yet another change in his look and music.
I’d seen Bowie on stage in New York in The Elephant Man in 1980, but the second time I saw him in concert was at Madison Square Garden on July 26, 1983, where I paid $60 for scalped ticket outside the venue. The guy I got it from assured me it was a “good seat.” The good seat was up in the rafters (of course) where I would have benefited from an oxygen tank. But it was still a great show. Bowie’s sense of choreography and drama was such that even that far away, I felt like I got my money’s worth.
The Let’s Dance album had been released in April ’83. The title cut is the one that everybody remembers. The album also features Texas blues musician Stevie Ray Vaughn on lead guitar. He was not widely known at the time.
Heroes had been released in October 1977. Brian Eno collaborated with Bowie on this album. His influence is considerable in this phase of Bowie’s career. The title cut is a standout. It’s inspirational and feels like an anthem. It’s yet another signature song for Bowie, one of his best known.
David Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016, two days after his sixty-ninth birthday and release of his final album, Blackstar. His death came as quite a shock, mainly because his illness has been kept very private. Few knew he was sick. He was working right to the end. I felt a deep sense of loss, in the way that you can for someone you didn’t know personally but who was an important part of your life. At the time, Tony Visconti, a producer and arranger who’d worked with Bowie off and on through his career, said this: “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.” Visconti is also a music producer on Moonage Daydream.
Moonage Daydream doesn’t include Bowie’s death. In the film, he’s still alive. Near the end of the film Bowie says, “I’ve had an incredible life and I’d love to do it again.” This took my breath away, especially after having just seen the evidence of that life for over two hours.
That’s it for now. I’ll be back. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks
Supplemental: Interview with director Brett Morgen