By Sean L. Sullivan
When I was a teenager, I frequented a place next store to the movie theater where I worked called the ‘Paperback Exchange.’ Old Books, old records, generally things people would never find at the mall nearby. They also had video games like Road Blasters and Galaga, so any time spent waiting to play a game, I would walk the stacks of paperbacks, LPS, and old comic books. The Paperback Exchange also sold a variety of imported cassettes. The cassettes were always lesser known. Polydor under a foreign issue would release ‘The Story of The Who’ or ‘The Story of Jimi Hendrix’ These releases were jam-packed. It wasn’t long before, I came across two Bowie tapes. One was the RCA release of his soundtrack for “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, which included live covers of The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” and the Stones, “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Well worth the listen, but the other album was the one that I couldn’t shake. Another soundtrack – “Love You Till Tuesday.” Not really a soundtrack but a compilation of his early stuff. I knew “Space Oddity” for sure and the rest, well I never heard the rest. I figured I would have the same find as I did on other tapes I took home from the ‘Paperback Exchange.’
I was floored. There was no definition or any category for what these songs were. The most striking of all was a song called “When I’m Five” where Bowie mimics a 4 year old wishing he was five. What starts out as a lullaby, goes to orchestral and then back to lullaby again.
When I'm five
I will catch a butterfly and eat it and I won't be sick
When I'm five
I will jump in puddles,
laugh in church
and marry my mum
And I'll let my daddy do the washing-up
Over the years I would play this for anyone willing to listen. This wasn’t Rock. This was too tender, funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. This was better. It was simply Bowie. It went somewhere else. And that is often what Bowie did better than anyone else - he took you places. And when people throw down that moniker for an artist they quite can’t place they say they are a trip or the songs are trippy - Only one other artist does trippy which is Hendrix - great company for sure.
Bowie, much like Hendrix, did what came natural. Sure, there was music out there that was trippy, Like Hendrix, I imagine when Bowie was composing these songs - he just did what felt right. He tried on different sounds. He was testing himself, developing himself almost like a photograph, trying to see how he would turn out, allowing himself to be part of the canvas. Another track,“The Laughing Gnome” is not a Rock song. It is campy, even silly.
I was walking down the high street
When I heard footsteps behind me
And there was a little old man (hello)
In scarlet and grey, shuffling away (laughter)
Well he trotted back to my house
And he sat beside the telly (oaah..)
With his tiny hands on his tummy
Chuckling away, laughing all day (laughter)
Oh, I ought to report you to the gnome office (gnome office)
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee "I'm a laughing gnome and you don't catch me
Ha ha ha, hee hee hee “I'm a laughing gnome and you can't catch me"
Said the laughing gnome
Puns and Gnomes? Not your typical fare for any musician. If creative risk is a thing, than it was his thing. He was out there and for all the freaks, weirdos and kids who couldn’t relate to anything - they could relate to him. He created a portrait that had no bounds.
The closing track is another anomaly: “When I Live My Dream.” Again, far from the world of rock, more of a song one might hear in the West End. When friends of mine would give it a listen, they would always ask "That’s David Bowie? Weird.” Yeah, that’s Bowie. Weird. Early Bowie. More like a place than a sound.
Tell them that I've got a dream
And tell them you're the starring role
Tell them I'm a dreaming kind of guy
And I'm going to make my dream
Tell them I will live my dream
Tell them they can laugh at me
But don't forget your date with me
When I live my dream
Years later, my tape of “Love You Till Tuesday” would wear out. I would perform a minor operation, twisting a ballpoint pen ever slightly to try and unravel the magnetic strip that held it all. It didn’t work and it was gone. No tape. No Paperback Exchange. But still there is Bowie. An artist’s artist. Always out there. And the reason why all of us can wish we were five years old or making puns with a gnome or singing a song fit for a stage – He showed us how.
Sean L. Sullivan lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. His previous work has appeared in BULL and Saw Palm.