Glenn Hendler, author of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, on why he chose to write about Bowie’s dark, dystopian album
The first time I saw David Bowie in concert, he pointed directly at me. He was on his 1976 “Isolar” tour in support of the album Station to Station, and I saw him in my hometown: New Haven, Connecticut. Bowie was in his “Thin White Duke” costume and persona, and the third song he played was “Fame,” his first #1 hit in the United States.
Near the end of the song, Bowie rhymes the title with an act of direct address to the listener, asking, “What’s your name?” On the album, the vocal line echoes a few times, then the funk groove continues for a bit and fades out. In concert, the music would abruptly stop, Bowie’s voice would echo very loudly and, most importantly, he would point into the audience. And he pointed directly at me.
Actually, he didn’t point at me. At least not literally. In fact, my three friends and I were seated behind the stage, so he was pointing almost directly away from me. Bowie did this in every show, and so his gesture was highly choreographed, not personal. But at the same time, it was very specific; there was always one person in the audience who knew they were being pointed at, and that person would usually scream or even faint. And yet everyone felt pointed at. We all felt at that moment the strange erotic thrill of being directly addressed by David Bowie.
How did he do that? How could he point to an individual, and at the same time make thousands of people in the New Haven Coliseum—including me—feel as if we were personally, individually addressed? I wondered about that at the time—to the extent that an exhilarated 14-year-old concertgoer ponders such weighty questions—and I’ve wondered about it ever since.
I’m still wondering. There probably is no final answer to the question of what makes Bowie fans feel an intense personal connection to a star who spent much of his career pushing his fans away, establishing all kinds of weird distance from us and then suddenly pointing at us from afar, asking “What’s your name?” without expecting a reply, or even wanting one. Even so, the opportunity to think systematically and at length about this question was one reason I wanted to write about 1970s Bowie.
But this post is supposed to answer a different question: why Diamond Dogs? Well, it was the Bowie album that came out just before I became a precocious fan at age 11. I spent a lot of time with that record when I was a kid, and it was a pleasure to do it again as an adult. I listened to it over and over again, reading everything I could find about it, reading and watching the range of books and films that influenced it (notably George Orwell’s 1984 and William S. Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, but also Tod Browning’s Freaks and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). I listened to the even wider range of music that was in Bowie’s ears as he made it (from the Rolling Stones to Emerson Lake & Palmer; from Isaac Hayes to Neu!; from Jacques Brel to Bruce Springsteen). All the while I kept thinking less about the album as an artifact to be interpreted, and more—like that gesture of pointing to the crowd—as a performance that aimed to do something to you, to me, to us, to the audience.
Even after all that, even after writing the book, I can’t say what listening to Diamond Dogs does to you, personally. But I did spend a lot of time thinking about what Bowie means when he says the word “you” on Diamond Dogs. The more I listened, the more this simple pronoun seemed complex, nuanced, and shifty. The album’s first full song starts out by talking to you: “As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent/You asked for the latest party.” You’re right in the action, in the midst of the apocalypse and in the height of the fun. The “you” goes through all sorts of changes in the course of Diamond Dogs. In “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate,” you are seduced by a “très butch little number” and assaulted by “a gang of mutants.” In “Rebel Rebel,” you’re the “hot tramp,” and “I love you so.” You “rock ‘n’ roll with me” in one song and in the next you are ordered to “caress yourself,” and in the next “you’ll be shooting up on anything.” And in the final full line on Diamond Dogs, Bowie sings, “We want you Big Brother.”
What we often want, when we listen to lyrics, is to be able to identify, to see ourselves in either the singer or the person being sung to. But as this list indicates, to identify with either the “I” or the “you” on Diamond Dogs is often to be deeply uncomfortable. Tracing these most banal of words—the pronouns—through the album is one way I tried to figure out what David Bowie does to you on the album.
Of course, this isn’t just a book about the lyrics. I look at—or rather listen to—the obsessive constructedness of Diamond Dogs’ sound. The opening track is an almost unmusical sound collage. The album draws on the sound palette of soul and disco, but also on experimental German music. Even the title track, which seems at first to be a straightforward, Stones-style rocker, is a Frankenstein’s monster of different sounds, different takes, even different guitar styles, held together by muddy production values and an unrelenting cowbell (and I mean all that as a compliment!). Every song on Diamond Dogs is different; every song is a kind of experiment with sound. Just listening to the guitar sounds on the poppiest tunes on the album reveals wild variety: there’s a Stones-worthy riff at the center of “Rebel Rebel,” but a “waka-waka” guitar sound on “1984.”
So writing about Diamond Dogs allowed me to write about several of the David Bowie’s that fascinate me the most: the Bowie who plays with gender and sexuality; the Bowie who experiments in the studio (he hadn’t yet worked with Brian Eno, though Eno stood in the studio doorway and watched Bowie work on Diamond Dogs); the Bowie who thinks about fascism and popular culture; the Bowie who engages deeply and complexly with African American and Latinx sounds; the Bowie who is obsessed with dystopia and apocalypse; and the Bowie who can write an enduring hit that relies on little but a repeating guitar riff. It’s all there on Diamond Dogs. And I hope some of that comes through in this book.
Eager for more? You can buy David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs here!