Sunday, September 9, 2018

Drive-in Saturday

Bowie, throughout his career, would never venture far from the oddities of space and sci-fi. From the Man Who Sold the World to "Oh, You Pretty Things!" there was always a glimpse into another dimension. By Aladdin Sane, the B-Movie 50s had invaded 70s pop with odd misconception. In essence, the style and content of 70s Glam was rooted in rock stars as mutants from the future trying to "blend in" by assembling "authentic" versions of period clothing and getting it wrong. They had 50s shoulder pads and Elvis lamé suits (check), eyeliner and lipstick (so much for blending in); the lyrics drummed up the clichés of 30s gangster flicks, spaceships, motorbikes, aliens and jukeboxes. Indeed a new 50s were invented in the off-kilter 70s. American Graffiti was a box off smash; Elvis, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson topped the charts; The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Roxy and Grease on Broadway. The actual 1950s, in all their shadow, were elevated to Eden: a sparklingly innocent contrast to the weariness, grime and open sexuality of the early ’70s.

"Drive-In Saturday" is Bowie's 50s-pop pastiche, though as typical with Bowie there's a twist: "Drive-In Saturday" is a 50s song celebrating the freedoms of the subsequent decade, with Mick Jagger and Twiggy serving as erotic household gods. The premise is that a post-apocalyptic civilization, through fear or reactions from fallout, has forgotten how to have sex, so the kids watch Rolling Stones promos and old films to see how it's done.

It's the first Bowie song to reflect the challenge of Roxy Music, whose first LP (and hit single "Virginia Plain") had come out in the summer of '72. The phased synthesizer lines owe a debt to Brian Eno's squiggles and groans, while Bowie's approach to the material — parodic, subversive, yet done entirely straight-faced — is similar to Bryan Ferry's fractured takes on country-western ("If There Is Something") and torch songs ("Chance Meeting"). We don't often acknowledge Roxy as a Bowie influence, often mistakenly mixing it up.

Bowie wrote "Drive-In Saturday" during a train ride from Seattle to Phoenix in early November 1972. He was unable to sleep and, looking out the window at night while the train was somewhere in the desert, saw a row of nearly 20 enormous silver domes off in the distance, moonlight dancing on their roofs. It intrigued him: what were they? Government post-nuclear-war prep facilities? Secret laboratories?

As with "Oh! You Pretty Things," Bowie"s sci-fi narrative is a cover for a more basic human predicament—how kids, who typically have no idea about sex, have to improvise and fake their way through it, often using film stars and pop music as cues and instructional guides. The idea of groups of teenagers in cars, watching erotic films at a drive-in, as if attending church, is one of Bowie's more melancholy and haunting images. As much as the past can be warped to serve the present's needs, it is equally toxic.

Let me put my arms around your head (dum-do-wah)
Gee, it's hot, let's go to bed
Don't forget to turn on the light
Don't laugh Babe, it'll be alright (dum-do-wah)
Pour me out another phone (dum-do-wah)
I'll ring and see if your friends are home
Perhaps the strange ones in the dome
Can lend us a book we can read up alone
And try to get it on like once before,
When people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored,
Like the video films we saw
His name was always Buddy
And he'd shrug and ask to stay
She'd sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid
And turn her face away.
She's uncertain if she likes him
But she knows she really loves him
It's a crash course for the ravers

It's a drive-in Saturday.

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