Camp and Excess on Diamond Dogs: A Conversation Between Glenn Hendler and Rick Moody

After finishing my 33 1/3 volume on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, I’d had enough ruminating about the album on my own. Now I wanted to hear what other people had to say. So I wrote to some of the smartest and most interesting people I know to ask them for their thoughts and feelings about Bowie and Diamond Dogs. One result was a long and engaging (at least to me) email exchange with the writer, Rick Moody, author of many moving works, from 1994’s The Ice Storm to last year’s The Long Accomplishment. Moody has also written a good deal on David Bowie, perhaps most notably an essay in The Rumpus riffing on a list of forty-two words that Bowie sent him after releasing his 2013 album The Next Day. This is a small piece of my exchange with Moody:

GH: In your piece on The Next Day, you quote the entirety of the opening track of Diamond Dogs, “Future Legend,” using it as your example of “the weird, dark campy quality of the early canon of Bowie.” I really like the word you coined for that quality: malodrama—. I think that gets at the tone extremely well. In my book, I wrote about the aural qualities of “Future Legend” in similar terms. There’s something, I said, kind of “cheesy” about the sound, right from that opening howl. And yet, it’s also actually scary. Maybe it’s just that I first heard it when I was still a kid—12 or 13—but I found it authentically creepy. And for a long time my own kid would make me skip “Future Legend” because it scared him. So I guess I’m asking: how did Bowie do that? How did he make something simultaneously “campy” and “weird and dark,” in both sound and lyric? I mean, this is not Rocky Horror, where the camp completely dominates and there is nothing to actually be scared of.

RM: I agree with you that there is a sort of ambiguous discourse in that opening section of “Future Legend.” It’s like there are two different aesthetic layers happening at once. I suppose when I wrote about it, I was using “campy” in the sense that Sontag used it in her celebrated essay on the subject. Camp can be the Rocky Horror or Charles Busch sense of things, the de trop version, where the laughable quality is, according to Sontag, a really important assault on “straight” aesthetic values (think about Warhol’s disdainful remarks about the straight abstract expressionist painters, e.g.), but it can be deeper than that too, even while carping about heteronormative “depth,” when the camp gesture can also be full of affect and clarity.

The way this camp gesture plays out in Diamond Dogs is sort of everywhere, all the time. Remember that many of the songs were originally conceived of for a stage play, a musical, and that is exactly consonant with Bowie’s music (and I mean here his music, his writing of melodies, his approach to chorus and verse), because lots and lots of earlier Bowie sounds like stage music. “Oh! You Pretty Things,” with its passing chords, sounds a lot like stage music to me. “All the Young Dudes” sounds like stage music. “Time” on Aladdin Sane sounds a ton like Kurt Weill, and so on. Stage music is really often excessive, or course, although maybe if a form is always excessive, it’s inadequate to say it’s excessive because anything routine can hardly be excessive. In that circumstance, the beholder, the critic, is misapplying the terminology.

So the origins of Diamond Dogs in stage music are preserved in the finished product, and the big melodic guitar finish on “Future Legend” is an indication of this. The guitar (played by Bowie himself, I believe) is an indication of some super performative stagey quality that I associate with a stage play idea of the album.

At the same time, there’s another layer in Bowie that has to do with horror, with bio horror, with apocalypticism, with eschatology, and in this layer of his enterprise, I think Bowie is not being “campy,” because I think, actually, he really believes in this horror material. He might really believe in the stagey quality, too, might think that stage music can be earnest, genuine, “authentic,” but he clearly likes the campy gesture too.

“Future Legend” deploys this eschatological layer on top of the stage musical bedrock (and there’s more going on, too, because at the beginning the synth squiggles play against a bass note that makes, if I don’t miss my guess, a diminished chord, or something even more non-consonant, or maybe the synths are de-tuned and there’s a real non-pop icky dissonance there that’s lovely and creepy).The two things are a bit allied, in the sense that the speculative fiction eschatology is sort of excessive, too. Two kinds of excessiveness. Which bleeds over into the beginning of “Diamond Dogs,” the song, when Bowie makes his quite astonishing declaration: “This ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide.” Which I thought was funny as a kid, and which now I find genuinely unsettling. It indicates the possibility that at any point the “excessive” qualities of apocalyptic or eschatological imagery can become dreadfully sobering. 

GH: That last “genocide” line would take us into another conversation, about Bowie’s relation to fascism, which I write about a lot in the book. But to stick to the rest of “Future Legend” for the moment: What you say about how the album’s excess, camp, and connection to musical theater rings true, and takes the conversation in directions I didn’t go in the book. I do note (as others have) that the guitar melody he plays on “Future Legend” is from “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” from the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. In fact, it was credited on the initial inside label of the vinyl record but for some reason never has been since. But yes, there’s so much excess on the album (an excess of excess?)! And that excess draws from lots of different aesthetics of excess: the ones you list, definitely, but even my half-joking reference to Alice Cooper points to another tradition of excess (grand guignol?).  It’s camp in that it’s unembarrassed by its excess; as you say, he “really believes” in … well, in kind of everything he does. And really believing in things that you know, at the same time, are artificial makes them even more campy in Sontag’s definition, right?

I mean, I make the case in the book that “Big Brother” is kind of a prog rock song, and that he drew (without embarrassment) on elements of Emerson Lake and Palmer for that one (listen to the interplay of Moog and Mellotron there and then go back to In the Court of the Crimson King, or the way the synthesizer interacts with acoustic guitar on “Big Brother” and listen to “Lucky Man”). The difference is that with ELP there’s just sincerity (or just insincerity, if you don’t like them) and with Bowie there’s the doubling of sincerity and artificiality that is a hallmark of camp. I think you’re exactly right on that.

RM: It’s interesting what you were saying about Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Bowie, the sort of hidden prog thing in Diamond Dogs. Obviously, he knew Rick Wakeman and played with him (Hunky Dory and “Space Oddity,” right?), and then he really liked guys who were technically great players like Garson and Fripp and Belew. It bears mentioning that I listened to a lot of that music before I came to understand and love punk and post-punk, and I still feel like a lot of prog gets at feeling without stating feeling in the obvious, melodramatic way. For instance, listen to King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part I” or Henry Cow’s “Nirvana for Mice.”

I also think Bowie obviously believed in great songwriting. He recorded a lot of great covers that indicate what kinds of songs he liked, and he patently imitated certain songwriters, like Scott Walker and Iggy Pop, and we can get a handle on what he loved in that way, too. Bowie almost always put that great musical talent in the service of pathos and psychic density, and that makes many of the songs especially powerful, exceptionally so, and maybe this power is antithetical to camp, or maybe it is directly adjacent. It may have a lot to do with what songs are for, why people listen to them, and listen to them repeatedly. Maybe his songs are just a particularly good example of that, an example of earnestness, parody, sincerity, camp, apocalypse. 

Want to revel in all the camp? Grab a copy of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs here!

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