A Dance to the Music of Time — “Sound and Vision” / “Tightrope”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music. It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. This one is more just a random jumble of thoughts that I had while working yesterday night — but if you have thoughts like mine, feel free to sound out too.

The Song: “Sound and Vision”
from the 1977 album Low by David Bowie
reached #3 on the UK Singles Chart

but also

from the 1976 album A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra
album cut, not released as single

There are days, let us admit, when the silence gets all too overwhelming. You have a room or a house all to yourself, and all you hear is the hollowness of space, a space broken only by your presence. That empty infinity collapses upon you, nagging on your mind, just slightly out of your consciousness yet refusing to really leave. You look out the window, see the verdant hills and the soft golden sunlight, and you want to run. You want to find somebody, hug them till you feel their warmth. Yet still you sit there, not moving, barely lifting up your head. It’s just too much energy to freshen up, walk out the door, find somebody to love. The silence grows, threatens to swallow you. Perhaps it has already.

And so you turn on the music, like I did the other day, and you find something to fill up the void. It doesn’t have to be epic, anything that’s got a beat will do, anything that lets you escape that all-consuming fear, lurking in the back of your mind that your best days are over and you’ve got very little to look forward to except daily life, that drudgery that mundaneness that ordinary gasp. My drug of choice is Bowie these days, simply because everything he does reaches into my soul: “Golden Years”, “Modern Love”, this very song, all of them tear into a despair I barely know. The Beatles, genius as they are, are all about being happy and content in romantic bliss, and I’ve worn out “Strawberry Fields Forever” enough that the gentle heartbreaks of John Lennon no longer seem as raw as they used to be. Low, Bowie’s seminal album released 45 years today, feels more like it: a harsh, desolate landscape filled with nothing but synths and inhuman wails and loveless lyrics, nothing comes closer in describing the beginning of an already dreary year for me. But yesterday evening I put on ELO’s “Tightrope”, and I heard Jeff Lynne’s wails of despair, heard a melancholia that segued so perfectly into that despondency that David Bowie had lately been drilling into my head. I wanted to find out more. Perhaps the silence would go away.

They were made the same year: ELO released A New World Record in September 1976, just as David Bowie was putting Low together. Two artists, both arguably hitting their artistic peaks that year, both making music in an attempt to purge themselves of the little voids that they had inside of them. Though they didn’t know it, they’d both chosen Germany as their artistic stomping grounds: Bowie was in Berlin, the most contradictory and open city on Earth, where you could find artistic inspiration just by standing by the wall; Jeff Lynne in Munich, that austere conservative city where beer flows more freely than conversation and smiles. Yet the music they made was the reverse: Low is the album that shows you the clouds and the raindrops; A New World Record is the one that reminds you of the sun peeking out behind. Bowie is the brooding loner who’s shut himself inside his room, Lynne is the infectious girl coaxing you out of your hovel. Isn’t it usually the other way round?

It’s no secret Bowie was much more outgoing than Jeff Lynne: there’s a whole cottage industry of writings, academic and otherwise, on the former, whereas Wikipedia doesn’t even know how many wives Jeff Lynne has. We say, we know that Bowie was willing to push himself into deep thoughts that troubled him — he got back out, didn’t he? He completed the trilogy and did Let’s Dance and became a literal star and all that. Yet the hollowness in his voice doesn’t show us any of that — it shows a man who’s in stasis, in shock. Nobody says anything in the first half of “Sound and Vision”: it’s just Dennis Davis’ drumbeats pounding into your head, carving a route through your brain and your skull, with a drum snare that sounds suspiciously like a machine letting off steam or firing its pistons. There’s quite a bit of empty vocalising from Mary Hopkin and Brian Eno, and they talk so much yet mean so little. It’s like being in a machine room, and you’re just sitting there watching the machines move, every little revolution transfixing you, yet despite all that staring at them your mind’s not really there, you’re just having your head slowly kicked in, inhaling the intoxicating fumes of the motor oil. Behind you, in the shadows, a voice, quietly muttering the words “don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” It’s less of a question, more like something said to pass the time. Predictable, steady rhythms have a way of showing you just how mind-numbing infinity can be. I do wonder, I really do, but then what? What comes after wondering?

I like wondering. Wondering at the intricacies of human relationships, wondering how you and I got here… perhaps at the mysteries that accompany that mothership descending on “Tightrope”. It’s a huge moment, the strings build and build, layer upon layer, until at last the smoke clears away and suddenly you’re seeing everything in colour, glorious Technicolor. It’s a moment that always fills me with wonder and intrigue, that sudden discovery of hope and light. In those moments of wonder, you forget everything and just dance to the music — in effect, the wonder of the music keeps you busy, saturates the void and plugs all the gaps. Instead of the isolation Bowie’s going through in “Sound and Vision”, here you’re being actively encouraged by all the instruments to sing, to join in the fun, and I can’t help belting out the last line of the chorus every time I hear it: “won’t somebody throw me down a line?” Then I realise what I’ve just said, and the psychedelia flickers. For just one moment, the grimdark truth appears behind the forced jollity: you’re spiralling towards the bottom. You better turn around, you gotta save me now. The fun continues to rage all around you, everybody’s out there making time, but a voice inside insists it’s not for you. You’re still on your tightrope in the darkness, outside the mothership. You think it’s much cosier there.

And so you sequester yourself instead. You coop yourself up in that room, that electric blue room, cut yourself off from the rest of the world. I’ve heard “Sound and Vision” countless times since discovering it late last month, in that cold, dark shoulder season between Christmas and New Year’s where everything and nothing simultaneously happens at once. Time moves so slowly, so slowly, and then all of a sudden it’s New Year’s Eve and you have to start again even though you’re not even ready to do all of it with a slightly feebler body. So you make vague, non-committal promises, promises that you make more to yourself than for the benefit of anyone who happens to be listening, “I will sit right down/ Waiting for the gift of sound and vision”. Whatever that means — those two things mean so little when you’re drifting into your own solitude, when all you are noticing is the colour of your room. What you do know, or what you think, at least, is that sooner or later everything will be alright, when the slate has been wiped clean and the gift of sound and vision has been restored to you.

It feels a lot more constructive on “Tightrope”, where you’re constantly being coaxed into the light, into making yourself part of the soundscape. Everyone’s telling you to loosen up and have a little fun. Or is it “everyone”? Is this a conversation, or am I doing all the parts? It sounds like it could be a guy saying all these things, mouthing all these platitudes while they themselves lie in the darkness, unwilling to step forward and embrace the very things they’re preaching. The switches between optimism and despair is almost schizophrenic: “the change from night to day is only hours away, it’s just along the line” one second, “when I looked around, I was heading down” the next. It’s a desperate last gasp, a regular oscillation into forced optimism that never really stays. I feel all the time when I sing this song, keep on imagining that there’s someone else I’m singing to: “roll it over and you will see”, “get off your tightrope”, but God knows how much I’m feeling it. I wouldn’t know: I’m too busy throwing myself into the song, imploring that imaginary somebody to throw me down a line. If I sing it loud enough, I might just convince myself: I look myself straight in the eye, I feel the wheels turning round, and I find myself with just enough courage and happiness to make it onto the next song.

David Bowie seems to also be up on the mend when we check in on him in his own little place: contemplating the bare walls, he nevertheless sits quietly, thinking about his recent cocaine withdrawal and fragile state of mind. I got that from eminent Bowie scholar Chris O’Leary, who wrote about how “Sound and Vision” got him through his wife leaving him, made him think more about minutiae. Perhaps that spirit of contemplation helps, that way of looking at the most mundane things in life to stop your mind from thinking about that extraordinary devastation you just passed through. But I have no real comparable experience to speak of, and perhaps it’s precisely because of that that the numbness comes even more acutely, a dull throbbing pain that just refuses to go away. Everything mundane is amplified, and that’s when I know that both “Sound and Vision” (and “Tightrope”) aren’t really happy songs, even if they sound like the sweetest, most exciting melodies in the moment. There’s no real resolution to “Sound and Vision”: Bowie just asks you, again, “don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” but this time he sounds a little more urgent, his voice pitched up a little more in a renewed quest for an answer, something that will actually give him what he’s looking for. And we have no good answer this second time round either: after all, it’s just a question hanging there in the awkwardness of the firmament. Anything we can give him seems rote, too ordinary for a Starman like Bowie. The band plays on, the drums continue to pound. Nobody speaks.

It’s the same situation on “Tightrope”. You’re so desperate to look people straight in the eye, tell them how you really feel, yet every person you look at seems to be having so much more fun than you that you hesitate. They’ve got so much of their shit figured out that they can afford to party; you, on the other hand, look around and find that you’re still heading down. The silence sits in the corner, a serial killer on the loose, waiting for you to notice it. Every time you think somebody’s thrown you down a line, the classical strings return, forbidding and haunting, and you back away uncertain. So when the music fades away, the strings fade out and the drums quieten down, the noise simply returns. The memory of the sweet, joyous music is still reverberating in your ears, yet it’s exactly that which makes the silence afterward so much more devastating, the gnawing darkness that fills your room (your electric blue room) so much more painful. The mothership has ascended into the night, that cold cold night, leaving you stranded on the ground. The only thing left is the tightrope from which you barely descended, but it’s the only viable option, so you get back on it to do your silly little balancing act. It’s better than doing nothing.

It feels cold tonight. Outside the city streets are full of people jostling against each other, laughing and singing, making time. Inside the room where I live it’s cold, the only sound and vision coming in from my laptop, by far the warmest thing with its slowly draining batteries and its overworking fans. I like it here, in this mind-numbing sinkhole of endless letters, but both of these 1976 songs — one from the Spaceboy Major Tom, one from Mr. Blue Sky — are a reminder of just how real the struggle can be these days. Both depict introverts who want to get out and go; both do nothing despite their vehement protests of loneliness (it’s not solitude, however much Bowie says it is). They’re songs that fill the void, but they’re also songs that leave such a bitter aftertaste because the comedown is extra hard, because they remind you of just how desperately lonely you can be. And what is there to do, really? What is there to say? Yet every extra day I stay in is one more day where the walls move in just a little more, one more day where this apartment, this block, these city streets feel like a prison filled with only depression and boredom. I miss hearing people laugh, the touch of someone else’s hand, the thrill of simply being able to go out and come back with no real consequences. I miss being able to run, and revelling in the joy of hearing my scrunching footsteps on the hard brick roads. I miss my friends, I miss being loud with my friends. I miss being loud, really.

I think I’ll give it one more go.

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