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Waiting for sound and vision in my room: Bowie and The Beach Boys

Continuing my “bands of the 60s” series, I saw The Beach Boys at the Chautauqua Institution last week. I had seen The Rolling Stones a few weeks ago, and, while both shows were enormous fun, the two bands are at very different points in their careers. The Stones are promoting an excellent new album (Hackney Diamonds), retain their Mick-and-Keith core, and pretty much put on the same type of show as they would have 40 years ago, except that the stage is bigger and the special effects are more spectacular. The Beach Boys are depleted and diminished. Now, largely driven by Mike Love, they tour quite a bit, play for smaller audiences, mostly perform greatest hits, and while the newer-generation backing band sounds great, Mike is past his prime. Past his prime, but like I said, the show was a lot of fun, and the 5,000 people who were lucky enough to see it seemed to be as into the show as the 70,000 who turned out to see the Stones.

But enough about the bands I actually saw this summer; let’s talk about David Bowie. Bowie’s most obvious connection to The Beach Boys is his somewhat infamous cover of “God Only Knows.” Bowie’s cover arouses genuine anger in fans*—I sheepishly have to admit that I like it. It also says something about the stature of The Beach Boys that Bowie chose to cover them in the first place, and as if that wasn’t enough, no less than the Beatles lovingly parodied the band with “Back in the USSR.”

Of course, “God Only Knows” was on the set list last week, but what really got me thinking about Bowie was “In My Room.” Not really being an expert on The Beach Boys, I kinda forgot that the song was theirs and not a Brian Wilson solo project. It sounds different than other early Beach Boys songs and more like something Wilson might have come up with after years of solitude, ya know, in his room. Or at least something from the early 70s, but no, it was a hit for The Beach Boys in 1963. Still, it has a very Brian Wilson feel, and no other song made his absence from the concert stage more present than that one.

Bowie, to my knowledge, never performed the song, and “In My Room” doesn’t sound like a Bowie song. But as Bowie himself said, if there was one theme that ran throughout his career, it was isolation, and “In My Room” is surely about that. The song opens with these lines:

“There’s a world where I can go
And tell my secrets to
In my room
In my room
In this world I lock out
All my worries and my fears”

No, the song doesn’t sound like a Bowie song, but don’t those seem like Bowie lyrics? The rest of the song goes on like that—a guy mulling over how his world is his room, away from the horrors of the wider world. It’s Major Tom drifting out in space, the girl with the mousey hair who’s hooked to the silver screen, it’s the entirety of Low.

Well, there’s one song from Low in particular that entered my mind as I was listening to “In My Room”—“Sound and Vision.” I’ve jokingly written that “Sound and Vision” is the greatest song ever about writer’s block:

“Blue, blue, ‘lectric blue
That’s the color of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to read, nothing to say
Blue, blue
I will sit right down (waiting for the gift of sound and vision)
And I will sing (waiting for the gift of sound and vision)
Drifting into my solitude”

Bowie doesn’t lift lyrics from “In My Room,” but he paints a similar picture.

I actually don’t know how much time Bowie actually spent in solitude. It seems from afar that he was usually surrounded by people. Even when he wrote “Sound and Vision,” he was at least with Iggy Pop. Brian Wilson, on the other hand, would give in to the temptation of his room and drift into his solitude the year after this song was a hit (backing “Be True to Your School,” of all things).

From there, the concert continued with songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Little Deuce Coupe.” Not very Bowie-like.

* The way I remember it, Tonight wasn’t especially reviled when it was released in 1984, but Never Let Me Down was in 1987. In the years since, Tonight seems to have supplanted the latter album as the one Bowie fans are most likely to dub his worst. Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg — perhaps inadvertently– demonstrated this growing resentment toward the album and its component songs by his evolving treatment of “God Only Knows” between the first and second editions of his Complete David Bowie. The writeup of the song in the second edition included a characterization that was absent from the first — “perhaps the worst track he ever recorded.”

Normally, I’d include a video of the song in one of these “Divine Symmetry” posts, but I wanted to include the above picture, which I took, of The Beach Boys at Chautauqua.

The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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