INTERVIEW – Glenn Hendler on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs

Glenn Hendler is the author of a 33 1/3  book on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album. This interview follows on from my initial Bowie research for my book Silhouettes And Shadows. I ask Glenn about his listening experiences of Scary Monsters and his thoughts on terror, super freaks and thwarted love across Bowie’s discography.

What was your main goal in writing a book about Diamond Dogs?

I had a lot of ideas, in the end I had to cut down from 60,000 words, edited into 30-40,000! Like Bowie I was aiming for a non-linear approach, looking to mix up the major themes and see how they interrelate. I wanted to reach Bowie fans, with less of an academic focus, but still applying my academic skills for research and close reading as a literature scholar. I’m not a ‘music person’, I don’t play an instrument, though I spoke to friends who do play, and brought what they said into my own voice. Perhaps above all,  I gave a lot of careful listening to the Diamond Dogs guitar tones! 

I really enjoyed the section where you go into depth on the use of ‘I’ and ‘You’ in Bowie’s music; shifting between audience member and subject of the song, as with the powerful call of “Rock And Roll Suicide” on Ziggy Stardust. I found a similar trend in Nine Inch Nails music–do you think this is something common to all music?

Maybe not all music, but the social phenomenon of address is not unique to Bowie, certainly. I drew on the ideas of the French Philosopher Louis Althusser, who tells a little story about  being addressed where a police officer  calls out ‘you’ in the street – and the right person turns, but everyone feels addressed. It’s as if they had some kind of internal guilt, a knowledge that they’ve done something wrong and are therefore, potentially, criminalized by the police officer . In the context of Bowie, I noted that at crucial moments the “I//you” dynamic—which is central to every love song-often turns into a moment of “we.”  Bowie himself shifts between being the narrator and the lead character of his songs. In every successful love song ever written, there is the listener identifies both with the “I” and the ‘you” even though we know we are neither. My argument is that Bowie messes with that dynamic in interesting ways in every song on Diamond Dogs.  

So, are there any true ‘love songs’ on Diamond Dogs?

For me, no. Maybe “Rock And Roll With Me” using some of the tropes of the love song – but it’s not really about or to anyone. Even “Sweet Thing” – again not a love song – it’s more a cut-up, and “Candidate” is more about a kind of tyranny. The whole triptych ends like a dark Springsteen song – “we’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands…” On the Scary Monsters album you write so well about, “Scream Like A Baby” continues this messing with the “I/ you” dynamic by alluding to a twisted relationship we can never quite unravel; it could even be someone talking to themself, the singer is ‘Sam’.

What other research did you get into for this book?

The book is mostly just about listening to the album; the research was otherwise all based on things that were in print. Since publishing the book I’ve connected with people who were around Bowie at that time, backing singer and best friend Geoff McCormack; Bowie’s backing singer and girlfriend Ava Cherry; and the pianist Mike Garson. That’s been really interesting. Bowie always had lots of people gravitating around him, and they’ve been generous with their time and memories. I have more to write about Bowie!

Though I spend a lot of time with the lyrics—I am an English professor, after all!—I also paid a lot of attention to the music and sound on the album, from the Rodgers and Hart melody in the background of the opening spoken word track to the very weird and shifting time signature of the final track. Perhaps above all I was interested in the guitar sounds on the album. Bowie had relied heavily on Mick Ronson’s guitar heroics on previous albums, but he deliberately renounced that on Diamond Dogs, and he says he practiced on the guitar for that album more than he ever has before or since. He did hire a very good session guitarist, Alan Parker to do some things he could not do himself (the choked “waka-waka” guitar sound on “1984” and the very Stones-like guitar riff on “Rebel Rebel,” which many people think Bowie played himself but was clearly produced by Parker. But I was even more interested in moments like when Bowie “constructs” a duet between his own guitar and his own sax playing on “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise), and the strangely scratchy and dirty sounding guitar on several other songs, all of which Bowie did himself. None of it is the technically best guitar playing ever, but it works on the album brilliantly, adding another layer of sleaziness and dirt to the world he creates there. 

[Bowie’s short-lived soul trio with McCormack and Cherry, The Astronettes, demoed the track “I Am A Laser” which contained the original chorus melody that would become “Scream Like A Baby”.]

Yes, and it’s very much too bad The Astronettes project didn’t get any further. He started it at the same time he was constructing Diamond Dogs. And it was very much ‘constructed’ by Bowie, who spent a lot of time alone in a room with a stack of tapes, cutting and pasting, piece by piece. He had recordings of himself, and of session musicians, and Tony Visconti came in at the end to do production work. This is true even of the the songs like “Diamond Dogs” itself that sound like a band in a room. And in Bowie’s personal life, it remained a very sociable family time, busy being a rock star and having Christmas with Mick Jagger – before he left the UK for his American exile. 

Do you think Diamond Dogs might be Bowie’s bleakest album? There is a lot of romance and romantic notions – but these are often thwarted, if not doomed…

The whole thing is apocalyptic – a recurring theme. 1. Outside gives it a good run for its money in terms of bleakness, where the sound really complements the lyrics. But for all that, Diamond Dogs still rocks, along with “Rebel Rebel” and “1984”, parts of it have a strutting Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street sound to it.

[A nice blog post on the album’s notorious cover art – HERE]

Your book does a great job of breaking down the lyrics on the album, I often find Bowie mashes up a lot of phrases that get misheard. Even from the title track, the man crawling on his hands and knee – singular. How big a deal do you think the cut-up was for him? After this was Bowie largely going back to more traditional forms, or trying to shift between the two modes of writing?

There’s a lot of vocal dexterity that brings those lyrics to life. As with ‘the knee”, implying the crawling person has only one leg, we mentally fill in the blanks to make it ‘knees’.  Bowie is referring to the 1932 Tod Browning film, Freaks, which features a cast of circus sideshow performers, all with a range of deformities, including one who walks on one knee. Bowie also evokes the chant near the end of the film, “gooba gabba one of us/we accept her/one of us”.  Diamond Dogs, and Bowie in general, said the same thing to a lot of listeners, accepting us all into its world, but it is a world where being a “freak” is the norm.

In your book you talk a lot about the movie and the concept of difference. Do you think Bowie was an example of the ultimate freak/outsider? Or was he just uniquely privileged in talent and looks and that made him standout?

I think both. Bowie was a voyeuristic outsider, feeding on alienation, and also the superstar celebrity, who brought together the fans, other freaks, who felt they didn’t belong anywhere. As Tilda Swinton stated in her speech introducing the ‘Bowie Is’ exhibition in 2013:

“When I think of what it used to feel like once
To be a freak who liked you
To feel like a freak like you
– a freak who even looked a little like you”

Bowie is beloved – he brought together so many collaborators who weren’t like him, very talented musicians. His great skill was finding, for instance, a guitarist whose sound he liked or was interested by, and simply encouraging them to do their thing, giving fellow artists a lot of creative freedom.

I think that Scary Monsters could have been titled Scary Monsters (And Super Freaks). Bowie always seems to veer between visions of apocalypse and the personality of extreme characters – how sincerely do you take his use of personas?

I think the “persona” thing was part of the overall aesthetic project with each album of the 1970s, but less so with each album. So a lot of his characters were paper-thin personas, because they don’t have their own complete narrative  with neat endings and clear beginnings; they are quite literally masks designed to further other himself, and to be someone else on stage. For example, Bowie often talked about The Thin White Duke [of Station to Station] in the third person. On Diamond Dogs, Halloween Jack is in the first song of the album and then doesn’t appear again, but he welcomes us into that world Bowie is bringing you into, broken tower blocks, gangs that recycle old glamour; it’s an immersive opening that draws you in. Bowie was a writer who dealt mainly in broken narratives – he could not write or sustain extended pieces.

Where do you see Scary Monsters sitting in the discography?

It was my second choice for a 33⅓ book. I still have a vivid memory of buying the album, after I saw it in the record store. I read the lyrics on a train on the way home – the words scared me on their own, without hearing a note of the music. It marked the point where he perhaps had the most leeway for experimentation, along with Tony Visconti’s really radical production, but at the same time without Eno there was more independence to go pop. Along with the sounds of Chuck Hammer and Robert Fripp, the music really stands out on this album, as I realized when I got home and listened to it. What Bowie does to his voice on that first track certainly didn’t make the album seem any less scary to me! 

The album and its singles did not chart in the way they did elsewhere. For instance, “Ashes To Ashes” was not a big hit in the US. But when I saw Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983 everyone in the crowd knew the lyrics, which was kind of surprising to me. At one point he stopped singing and the entire crowd carried on.  It was like being part of a cult among 15,000 people in Hartford, Connecticut.

Scary Monsters is in some ways the last outsider record – once Bowie tries to go back to that territory after Let’s Dance he could never go back there in quite the same way. He came back as a transformed millionaire, with new teeth and an even newer smile. I love a lot of the later music—I don’t think he ever stopped being brilliant—but he never made music from quite the same place again. 

Glenn is a Professor of English and American Studies at Fordham University, where is is currently Interim Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He is co-editor of three editions of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and has contributed an essay on the US release of “Rebel Rebel” to the collection One Track Mind and written pieces on Bowie for the LARB blog, Avidly. Find out more about his work HERE.

Adam Steiner writes about music, street-art culture, architecture and poetry. His books include Silhouettes and Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),  Into the Never: Nine Inch Nails and the Creation of the Downward Spiral and the novel Politics of the Asylum. His next book is Darker with the Dawn: Nick Cave’s Songs of Love and Death (2023) Read more about Silhouettes And Shadows

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