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“Uncle Arthur,” (1966)

I am in the process of writing the companion piece to the blog entry of a few days ago, “Bowie knew how to end an album,” which, of course is going to be, “Bowie knew how to start an album.” Its going to be long and I’ll probably break it up. In the writing, I realized that I never posted the first song off Bowie’s first album, “Uncle Arthur.” There’s a reason I never posted it — its terrible. So, if you clicked on the above link already— hey, I’m sorry. I wanted to make an observation about the song that is off the point that its an album-opener, which is that thematically it is almost the opposite of what Bowie was going for for much of the rest of his career. Its like the reverse of “Rebel Rebel.” The song is about a 32-year old guy (and keep in mind that Bowie was 19 when he wrote the song, so 32 might have seemed middle aged), who leaves his wife and moves back in with his mother. He is the stereotype of the comic-book loving nerd (there’s even a reference to Batman) before I realized such a stereotype existed. Contrast this to, “you’ve got your mother in a whirl, ‘cause she don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl.” Rather than rejecting the older generation in favor of forbidden love, here, an independent life with a girl is all too much for Uncle Arthur who retreats back to the protective warmth of his mother (who was right, it turned out, about Arthur’s good-for-nothing wife). Many of Bowie’s great songs explore isolation, alienation and defiance of convention. You would never guess that those topics would go on to be staples of the author of “Uncle Arthur.” The character of Uncle Arthur is not celebrated in this song— he’s clearly meant to be pathetic, but who is the audience here? Bowie doesn’t spell out the preferred alternative. Arthur’s retreat allows him to save the money he makes from his repetitive job and be “well fed.” What’s the life he’s missing out on? The only comparable song I can think of in Bowie’s catalog is, “A Small Plot of Land,” from 1. Outside, which is about a “poor soul,” but in that case the aspect of the subject of that song’s “small life,” along with the intense, pounding music, seem dire rather than ordinary. That song seems tragic and ominous rather than this one, that seems like it might have supposed to have been a novelty song but didn’t quite rise to that level. Also, a much older Bowie would write contemplative songs looking backward at misspent youth— this is the only song I know of where he paints a forward looking picture of an older person wasting his life. I’m going to go ahead and say he really didn’t have standing yet. Oh well, this is a miss, but I’m glad Bowie didn’t pack it in after this dud.

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