A Dance to the Music of Time — “Golden Years”

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. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: “Golden Years”
from the 1976 album Station to Station by David Bowie
reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100

I don’t know what my favourite song is. I just know that it comes from David Bowie.

Not anything from the Beatles: forever my favourite band, but too blissful and content with their current girl; not anything from ELO, despite all those pretty melodies and starscapes. No, it’s a song by the forever changing Davy Jones, the lad insane, the Thin White Duke himself. And it’s not anything from his glam rock days either: of his cold and distant spaceboy days, only “Life on Mars” and “The Jean Genie” strike me as being particularly inspired; the rest is Bowie being a poseur amongst the stars, trying too hard and falling to earth. For a long time, I loved, perversely, Let’s Dance — the 1983 album where he put on his red shoes and danced the blues. It might have signalled the beginning of his pop sell-out, but everything in it felt sleek and smooth, from “China Girl” to “Let’s Dance” to even the watered-down version of “Cat People”. I loved its exaggeration, its ridiculous grandiosity, all from a man who was — for the first time in his life — trying to get the world to take him seriously. But my other candidate “Modern Love”, fun as it is, occasionally proves a little too basic, a little too gung-ho for my tastes. I want something a little more complex, something layered. Something like “Golden Years”.

“Golden Years” catches Bowie just as he was beginning to transform: fresh from the success of Young Americans and playing the alien in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was still noodling around in Los Angeles when he began his next project in September 1975. Mind you, “noodling around” is a bit misleading: he was coked up so badly that he could barely remember making it afterwards. (“I know it was in L.A. because I’ve read it was”, he said later.) Yet it’s an anomaly on its parent album: not only is it the shortest track on Station to Station by far (at barely four minutes, it’s a quickie compared to the ten-minute long title track that precedes it), but everything else on that album sounds like it comes from a hard-edged hellscape, all futuristic and inhuman and claustrophobic. “Golden Years”, unlike the rest of his 1975/76 product, still contains vestiges of Bowie’s humanity, a bit of humanity shining out from the Starman Who Fell to Earth. You can’t even sing along to the rest of Station to Station, but you can dance your heart out to “Golden Years”.

A bit of humanity? Actually there’s a lot of warmth and fun to be found in the track. I find most of it in its irreverence: on his preceding album, Bowie carped his diems and sang a godawful rendition of “Across the Universe” with its composer (learning from the master, as always). The moment you hear this song, you know that it’s the same story: the opening riff is seductive and sleazy, a groove that gets you on your feet; Dennis Davis’ drums slither underneath right into your brain, an earworm of epic proportions. Yet over those intricate layers, Bowie has overlaid a melodica. You can’t expect street cred when you play melodicas. It’s a kiddies’ instrument. In his hands, however, that kiddies’ instrument becomes a siren call, a lookback to our childhoods bathed in the warm golden glow of nostalgia — the sound of return, of Old Americans, if you will. Legend has it that Bowie offered this song to Elvis himself, only to get turned down because Colonel Tom was once again asking for more money, and it’s a shame that we never got to hear the King sing it — the ultimate veteran of showbiz would have had a field day with all that quasi-philosophy. (The first time I played it to my parents, my dad exclaimed, “oh this is good — I never liked Elvis before!” Considering that he doesn’t like Bowie either, I’m seeing this as a win.)

But there’s another angle where Bowie’s song aligns with Elvis’ discography. There’s a hint of chauvinism in a lot of the latter’s songs: from the infamous death threat in “Baby Let’s Play House” to the entitled begging in “Always on My Mind”, there’s always an undercurrent of anger powering his narrators: theirs is a petulant cry for satisfaction, a frustrated gasp for recognition. There’s nothing quite as toxic as that in “Golden Years”, but it’s very much there — that pang of jealousy as he sneers about opened doors and pulled strings, brushes all that success off as luck and looking in time. Every now and then there’ll be a howled prayer of anguish out of nowhere — “once I’m begging you, save her little soul!” A barely coherent shriek, hurled out on impulse for a couple of lines, and then he goes back to murmuring about golden years and bygone nights. He still cares, maybe a teensy bit, but it’s a relationship running on fumes, on memories and emotions long since vanished, and he can’t even bring himself to sustain the illusion. All that’s left are venomous jibes, and indecipherable lyrics: I’ve known this song for more than two years now, and yet I still wonder: what does “once I’m begging you save her little soul” mean? Is it a young day or a warm night right now? And is it “come get up my baby” or “come buh-buh-buh baby”? (I like to think it’s the first one, even when I know it’s the second.) It’s a word salad of fame and fortune, a confused swat of the hand masquerading as an empty shell of a love song.

That said, though: what a gorgeous, lovely shell. If you picked up on any of that venom the first time you listened, then you’re a much more attentive listener than I am, because all that crosses my mind when I listen to it is how lovely and welcoming it all sounds. The guitar with its little riffs, the synthesisers buzzing away in the background, all of them so warm and golden with their little variations and their constant presence. And above that all is Bowie, coating his razorblades with his honeyed voice: don’t you know that that’s the most beautiful sky you’ll ever see, don’t you know you’re doing alright but you’ve got to get smart? He’s smooth and elegant throughout, reassuring too, telling you how he believes in you and him — oh Lord, he believes all the way — even as he cries out for a relationship that no longer exists, for cliched promises that he doesn’t even want to keep.

And at the back of our minds, we know too. We know it’s dying, we know he doesn’t mean any of it. We know that this is, in the words of his biographer Marc Spitz, “the kind of love song you write when you have no love in your own life”. It’s a cynical, vicious snarl from a man too coked up to even string out a coherent sentence. But we don’t care. Even in his drug-filled haze, he’s so suave, so easily seductive — the way he croons that “angel” is an angelization in itself — that he’s roped us into his fantasies, too. How can we say life’s taking us nowhere when Bowie’s at the wheel? We’d put ourselves through any amount of grief, of cold-hearted neglect, if only he was there to give us that warm, warm feeling. He tells us to “run for the shadows”, but we won’t do it unless we can take him with us, because we’ve fallen for his words, hook line and sinker. When he tells us that “nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years”, it’s my absolute favourite line in a song chock-full of them: we don’t care if he means it or not anymore, cause he’s so convincing that we believe him. And in that moment, we are invincible. We’ve found our Golden Years.

But it’s an illusion. It’s all an illusion. There’s no such thing as “our” Golden Years: we were miserable then, and no matter how much we want to believe him, we’ll still be miserable after we finish the song. Bowie’s life didn’t magically improve after “Golden Years” either: he turned to the Kabbalah, performances of fascism, heaps of cocaine washed down with peppers and milk. But he is nothing if not generous, so he turns his despair into a funky disco tune, layers it with sweet nothings, and tells us to find our own bliss — run for the shadows before it’s too late, find your own happiness and don’t mind me. That’s why I love this song so much: even in his darkest, most mindless moments, he still managed to give us everything, a whole constructed reality where we can let ourselves go and simply dance, clicking our fingers and clapping our hands, our tears and fears completely forgotten in that young dreamlike night. Somewhere between that silky elegant voice and that impossibly warm soundscape, you’ll find tenderness, you’ll find joy. You might even find hope.

(Cover by RCA Records. “Golden Years”, written and performed by David Bowie, utilized for criticism and review purposes.)

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