Saturday, January 27, 2024

Don't lean on me man

Scribbled notes on a scrap of lined paper sold for £89,000 the other day. They were the draft lyrics for Rock n Roll Suicide and Suffragette City – complete with the added revisions ‘Hey man!’, ‘Don’t lean on me man’ and ‘Outasight’. The everyday nature of the materials and the rather unremarkable addition of those words might seem trivial or even banal if it were not for the huge impact of Bowie’s songs on popular culture. That scrap of paper, those hastily scribbled jottings are like visible traces of a creative process in vivo. Those songs echoed around bedrooms and shared houses, bedsits and squats, family homes and student flats. They were sung along to, played, replayed and performed time and again, spooling outwards, as it were, from those hastily scribbled lines. Of course, it wasn’t just the lyrics, it was the voice and the music too, the distinctive sound of that particular recording, distributed on vinyl, in its instantly recognisable cardboard sleeve. And it goes without saying, the RCA supply chain ensured that copies were there, ready and available in the racks and trays of LPs that like-minded people habitually flicked through when they went to their favourite record store, back in the day. Matter of little significance has, over time, become a much sought after collector’s item - the value of that scrap of paper far outstrips the value of the raw materials it’s made from, and the ways in which the words themselves wound their way around the feelings and impulses as well as the hopes, beliefs and dreams of a generation of listeners is difficult to capture because of its inevitable multiplicity. It may well have been the soundtrack of many people’s early lives - but then what lives? How did the lyrics come to mean in different contexts, how were they understood - how were they heard, misheard, disliked, detested? Material history can be a bit like that, for although we might agree on the importance of a particular artefact, its meaning is fundamentally unstable inviting interpretation, re-interpretation and misinterpretation. Music in popular culture seems to inhabit the outer reaches of such instability because of the way in which it is often woven into significant personal events, stitched in to one’s particular state of mind, the recreational drugs, relationships, lifestyles and ambitions of the time. Perhaps music in general does this, seamlessly attaching itself to the memories and affects, the distinctiveness of a life. After all this is key to the success of Desert Island Discs, now 81 years old. The 8 track format is such a convenient hook to tell the story of one’s life - or at least a version of it. With an aspiration to be a writer, poet or wordsmith and a nascent literary sensibility I was drawn to the words that punctuated the soundtrack of my early life. That soundtrack was made of vinyl. Singles and EPs that span around at 45 rpm, LPs at 33.3 rpm. Mostly I first heard stuff on pirate stations, on a transistor radio, on Top of the Pops or round at friends’ houses. But the LP soon became something to own. The record sleeve had the all-important supplementary information. The aesthetic of the art work, the names of the musicians, the way they looked, the way they dressed and how they had their hair - the instruments they played, who sang, who wrote the songs and of course, the lyrics themselves. No longer inaudible or misheard, there they were, nearly always on the back of the sleeve or on a pull-out, and you could read them, sing along or just pour over their meaning, if you could fathom it out. Some were more self-consciously poetic than others, some were just rubbish, but nonetheless huge clouds of creativity billowed out of that early flowering of rock music. It seemed at the time that the lyrics carried valuable messages. If they were not poetic they might gesture towards expressions of lifestyle, of taste, of belief and in doing so fashioned the habits of mind of a generation. Whimsical and romantic, uncompromising and rebellious, conceptual, quirky, hedonistic, we were served up with a range of possibilities, a wardrobe of identities that might distinguish us from the mainstream. Only a few at the time saw how the subtle threads of capitalism were part of this, establishing a marketplace in which even the costumes of anti-capitalism could be bought. And now, just the words remain – like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan (it’s all there somewhere, even if the melody is hard to sing!). Skeletons, threadbare outfits. At an earlier auction the lyrics for Bowie’s Starman sold for £203,500. Unlike Suffragette City, these look like neat copy – presentable handwriting on graph paper with misspellings corrected, probably provided for publication of the official lyric sheet. They don’t have quite the same feel as the Rock n Roll Suicide and Suffragette City lyrics – they’re more polished, more self-conscious, but their market worth is still interesting, and given that an early demo of the song went for £41,000, a fifth of the price, it seems like the material trace of writing is an important marker for the collector, being closer perhaps to an autograph than a ghostlike voice, written by the hand of an icon, don’t lean on me man.