Is there concrete all around or is it in my head?
“All the Young Dudes,” written by Bowie but made famous by Mott the Hoople, contains many great lines. The anthemic song paints a not-terribly enticing portrait of early 70s youth culture, characterized by thoughts of suicide, shoplifting and kicking drag queens. Nonetheless, the song’s narrator would take all that over the ways of older generations, even an older brother who is “back at home with his Beatles and his Stones.” Almost unnoticed are little asides suggesting that the narrator is directing the song to “dad” (to whom the narrator twice proclaims that he is a dude).
In the middle of this vivid, if unappetizing picture, Bowie drops the line, “is there concrete all around or is it in my head?” I’m not sure I know any other expression anywhere that really tries to capture what Bowie is describing. I think of, “is it love or is it confusion” from Jimi Hendrix, or even Bowie’s line from “Station to Station,” “its not the side effects of the cocaine; I’m thinking that it must be love.”
But here Bowie is not discussing love. He’s not trying to parse confusing feelings about the object of affection (though in fairness, who knows how he concluded “it must be love” in “Station to Station). He’s also not quite saying that the walls are closing in or that he feels, well, “under pressure.” It’s hard to draw an analogy to someone else’s description of the same sensation because I can’t think of anyone else who even tried.
So what is he saying? I think what he’s trying to get at is a sense of being overwhelmed by stimuli, contradictions, general confusion, and maybe throw in lethargy or ennui. I have felt this way. I have felt overwhelmed, not by work or things to do (though I have felt that too), but just the inability to sort everything out. “Concrete” is great— an external substance freezing me in, or, “in my head,” meaning a self-imposed debility. Am I holding myself back?
Later in life, Bowie got tattoo of a Japanese version of the Serenity Prayer. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to somehow change the meaning in translation, but the most well-known part of the prayer, used in recovery from addiction, is “ God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
All that would come much later in life for Bowie. He had not yet hit rock-bottom when he wrote, “All the Young Dudes,” but embedded in the question, “or is it in my head?,” is this concept of having the wisdom to know the difference.
That also gets at a trick about the song that adds to its enduring appeal. In many ways, the song is about a very specific cohort of youths at a very specific time. Even usage of the word, “dude” has changed to the point that Bowie’s usage might seem somewhat confusing. “I’m a dude,” today, conjures up either images of Jeff Bridges in a bathrobe, or just a male person. Bowie’s use of “dad” translates today as, “Boomer,” which is somewhat ironic because Bowie’s dudes were actual Baby Boomers. But OK, that little hook suggesting a dilemma about trying to discern whether the concrete is all around or “just in my head” is a very adult, very timeless hook. I’m still figuring it out. And while, of course, “concrete” is metaphorical, its also a word that suggests that it really just is in the narrator’s head, because if he truly was encased in concrete he wouldn’t be singing.
So I’m going to go ahead and add “All the Young Dudes” to the list of Bowie’s songs that push himself and serve as a kind of pep talk, like “I can do better than that” from “Queen Bitch” or, “All you’ve got to do is win,” from “Win.”