“Diamond Dogs” is not my favorite David Bowie song. That honor would probably go to, depending on the year you asked me, to “Golden Years” or “Life On Mars” or “Andy Warhol” or “Young Americans” or “Heroes” or . . . well, the list would go on for at least another ten or twelve songs. But “Diamond Dogs” is a song that has the distinction of always fooling me when I hear it. Tripping me up. I never expect it to be as long as it is. I’m always waiting for the cool dog howl that Bowie does. Ha-hoooooo! Is it right after this chorus? No, the next one.
It also has one of his most impenetrable lyrics. But sometimes when Bowie is impenetrable, he’s at his best. I can’t tell you why exactly, but when I sing along with the lines “The Halloween Jack is a real cool cat, and he lives on top of Manhattan Chase / The elevator’s broke, so he slides down the rope / Down to the street below, go Tarzan, go man go . .” I feel like a rock star. Or more precisely, I feel like I’m twelve years old again imagining what it would be like to be a rock star. Which is probably better than being a rock star.
The song is full of those oddball, probably drug-influenced, maybe William Burroughs cut-up inspired, lines, but they’re just so evocative and resonant. And Bowie sells them. Having read many books about Bowie, I know that the song was intended to depict a kind of future post-apocalyptic world populated by wild youths, like Clockwork Orange meets The Omega Man, with a little Oliver Twist thrown in.. “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch . . .” goes the opening line. How couldn’t you keep listening after that? I first heard “Diamond Dogs” the week it came out, and have listened to it hundreds of times since. Only last week, I finally figured out that he was singing, at one point, “Tod Browning’s freak you was . . .” a reference to the director of the infamous movie Freaks. That’s what I mean about the song still being able to fool me.
From a musician’s standpoint, the song is not terribly complicated. It’s mostly a I-IV-V blues. But just try playing that opening riff on guitar and getting it to sound right. What the heck is going on? It almost sounds like the tape is warbling between speeds. The guitar sounds sickly, but cool. Like Keith Richards with the flu. Like a guitar that’s melting, Salvador Dali-style. The whole song has a kind of melty influenza. If “Diamond Dogs” was a color, it would be that kind of bruised yellow-gray the sky turns before a thunderstorm roars in.
Logically, this song shouldn’t still hold such a spell over me, but like so many of Bowie’s songs, it does. I hear a lot of great pop music today. New stuff that I like. To pick something at random, I think the songs on The Divine Comedy’s latest Bang Goes The Knighthood, are brilliant. But none of them have the weird, deep fathoms of “Diamond Dogs.” Why is that? Maybe because the Bowie song was woven into my youth, and I first heard it with more innocent ears. Or is there just something inherently weirder and deeper in the song itself? I’ll let you know if I figure it out. In the meantime, here’s a TV commercial for the album, with a bit of the song playing in the background.