drive-in souls

When I was younger, I didn’t much care for Bowie’s “Drive In Saturday“: I think I took its musical ’50s pastiche impermeably, rather than reading through it as, if I’d been paying closer attention (or, uh, not been only a teenager when I discovered it in the mid-seventies). Anyway, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of Bowie’s more clever songs – in part due to hearing a few bootlegs in which Bowie explains the elaborate backstory, which isn’t terribly apparent in the song’s actual lyrics.

The song is one of Bowie’s science-fiction lyrics (that much is fairly obvious), but the background, hinted at in the second verse’s disappeared sea, and implied beneath the humor of the awkwardly inaccurate “romantic” behavior of the first, is roughly this: a future society has more or less dispensed with the necessity for messy and unpredictable sexual reproduction, but some sort of catastrophe (radiation-related, it seems) has ruined whatever high-tech means had been used to reproduce…so “the strange ones in the domes” (from the perspective of the lumpen first-verse narrator: they’re either aliens, or a technology advanced elite so beyond the proles as to nearly constitute another species) decide to reintroduce good old-fashioned sexual reproduction to the populace. Only problem is, people have forgotten how. One imagines high-tech bread and circuses to distract the proles from everything they don’t have, and young people content to virtually travel through space, fight killer robots, and drink Mountain Dew (wait a minute: maybe Bowie did predict the future) rather than bother with icky sex – which, after all, is far less predictable and compartmentalized than more advanced modes of leisure. Anyway: the “strange ones” decide to help the proles along by distributing smutty literature and magazines and playing old romantic movies at drive-ins, hoping to reproduce the lovely and romantic 1950s notion of love and romance. (In 1972 when Bowie wrote the song, fifties nostalgia was in its first bloom – and setting this lyric to a classic doo-wop chord progression, with backing vocals to match but odd synth squeals and dips to evoke the science-fictional dystopia, is a masterstroke – one which, as I said, I was too young or too dim to perceive.)

So the first verse presents our befuddled narrator, not quite getting the romantic vocabulary down pat (“put my arms around your…head”? “don’t forget to turn on the light”?) and not exactly acting as the smoothest loverman. Then again, both romantic movies and porn always made this stuff seem so much simpler anyway… (Incidentally, I’m more amused than I should be by the notion of Mick Jagger as the sort of romantic hero into whose eyes our heroine stares…in 1972 especially, I imagine Jagger’s notions of sexual protocol to be a bit less romantically indirect.)

The second verse (less successfully) sketches bits of the “strange ones'” lives (I think) – there’s just enough detail to get across that we’re in a world both technologically advanced but falling apart. I should probably make something of the fact that the “foreman”‘s name is “Jung”…but I’ll leave that, as they say, as an exercise for the readers.

But as usual with Bowie, even the only-hinted-at depths underlying the lyric make up only half the story: it really is not too hard to read this song as a rather cynical comment on just-barely-post-hippie notions about love and nature. Lord knows Bowie at this time knew plenty about the workings of the so-called sexual revolution at its peak…and he’d been burnt out good and plenty by this time. It’s not at all difficult to read the science-fictional paraphernalia as stand-ins for the death of not just romance but any sort of interpersonal interaction: “love” is either a mere purposeless pastime, or it’s simply instrumental (“follow the instructions in these books and films”) and imposed from culture above.

That note connects “Drive In Saturday” to an earlier Bowie song – one of his better, more underrated lyrics, I think – “Soul Love.” Another song with a chord sequence inspired by fifties rock, “Soul Love” presents several vignettes of different kinds of love. All of them have either failed or seem doomed to fail, but the language and situations yoke the various ideals of “love” to church and state. The first verse (“stone love”) presents a mother at the grave of her son, presumably a soldier, who “gave his life to save the slogan” – and while that literal lyric is cynical enough (a nation is essentially the same as an ad jingle writ large), the way Bowie sings it, it sounds more like “gave his life to save the slow gun”: soldiers’ lives are just slow bullets in the slow gun of a nation’s perpetual war, a threat to impose its will upon others by violent force. The second verse (“new love”) gives us young lovers, convinced they’ve invented something new (we know better), something so powerful it utterly distracts them, diverting them from their potential (“it tears their hearts to sleep through the fleeting hours of morning”). The third verse (the titular “soul love”) makes explicit the religious vocabulary deployed throughout the song (about which more later), describing a priest: Bowie’s syntax rather falls apart here, so it’s hard to render a literal meaning, but the key notions are that the priest “tastes” this divine love primarily because it’s what he’s been told: He’s been told that “God on high is all love,” but he’s blind to others’ loneliness (or so the narrator implies), a loneliness which “evolves” through that medium of “blindness.” Bowie’s unclear as to the course of that evolution…but I think the chorus can help us out a bit there.

First, despite the sketchy third verse, much of the song’s lyric seems rather carefully chosen and composed: there are the internal rhymes, the parallelism of each verse beginning with a different kind of “love,” and a set of verbs implying slightly mysterious, gravity-free motion: “hovers,” “fleeting,” “sweeping,” “descends,” “reaching up,” and perhaps “sparks” and “flaming” might be related. Bowie’s chorus explicitly evokes the Holy Spirit – and in fact, the “love” of this song might be regarded as a false Holy Spirit, deceiving rather than inspiring. Again, the chorus is fairly explicit: “Love is careless in its choosing” (as opposed to “available to any who choose”); “sweeping over cross and baby” (a rather brilliant line in its compression and vividness: this “love” obliterates competing ties of church or tradition and of family); “love descends on those defenseless” (like a predator bird swooping down from above for the kill); “idiot love will spark confusion.” Bowie’s narrator further notes that he’s utterly lacking in “inspiration” (literally, an indwelling spirit or breath) and instead (and this is the key to the song) mistakes the gesture for the meaning: “just to touch the flaming dove.” “Flaming dove” is a very intriguing image: the dove is a long-standing image for the Holy Spirit, as well as of peace, and while “flaming” might connote the divine, it might also suggest destruction. Regardless, the narrator robotically tries to “touch” the dove (when you touch something flaming, you get burned), rather than, say, be inspired or enthused by it or understand it. The last line of the chorus couldn’t be more direct: “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” The narrator loves love, the concept. That concept is not at all the same thing as actually loving, which is an action, motivated by a feeling of compassion.

The “stone love” of the first verse is dead, literally a tombstone. The “new love” of the second is infantile, unable to speak or communicate except in bedazzlement. And the third verse’s “soul love” is illusory, invisible, and a vain hope. (A stretch – but one might imagine these images as parodic inversions of the Christian trinity: the Dead Father, the Idiot Son, and the Clueless Spirit.) All three protagonists (the dead patriot; the young lovers; the priest) chase after “love” as a concept, without actually taking in the fellow-feeling of loving.

I’ll note in concluding that Bowie’s lyrics (especially at this time) are full of references to doubling, false identity, religion and spirituality, and transcendence: these are two more.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “drive-in souls

  1. jonder

    This was always one of my favorite Bowie songs, but I never paid much attention to the lyrics before.

  2. Victor

    Very interesting.
    I’ve been searching the lyrics of this song, and in all cases, the phrase “sweeping over cross and baby”, is writed “sweeping over cross a baby”.

    When Bowie sings it, it seems that is saying “..and”. This made me a confusion. But your explanation resolved the doubt.

    At first, taking the “lyrics” shared in the most sites of the internet, I understand that “love has sweep a baby over a cross” doing reference to the Jesus dead.

    Excuse-me my poor English

    Thanks

    Victor

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