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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Diamond Dogs

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'Future Legend' gave us an overview of the post-apocalyptic reality of Hunger City. The next track narrows it down, and focuses on the heroes of the album. And, as always with seventies Bowie, the heroes are the rock'n'rolling youth.

As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent
You asked for the latest party

The track begins at the moment when it was possible to go out into the world, with the radioactive fallout apparently down to a safe level. The survivors, who hid in oxygen tents, can now come out. So what do the youngsters do when they emerge from the tent? Do they think about building a new world, as would the survivors in all the fifties and sixties sci-fi stories? Nah, they just want to party. The youth of the mid-seventies, says Bowie, has only parties on its mind, and doesn't care about anything else.

With your silicone hump and your ten inch stump
Dressed like a priest you was
Tod Browning's freak you was

Expanding on what we have already been told in 'Future Legend', this passage suggests that the dwellers of Hunger City are all mutants. They have all become like the characters in Tod Browning's 1932 classic horror movie Freaks. If we take it in the context of the youth culture of the day, it might be a comment on the freaky glam scene of 74, which, as Bowie noted at the time, had nothing to do with art anymore and was all about looking outrageous. As the progenitor of the serious, arty side of glam, Bowie may be expressing his disgust with what it has become.

Crawling down the alley on your hands and knee
I'm sure you're not protected, for it's plain to see
The diamond dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees
Hunt you to the ground they will, mannequins with kiIl appeal

But there is another kind of youth. Some kids are not partying and dressing up, but rather grouped in killer gangs. Violent youth gangs, Skinheads and others, were becoming quite a concern in the early seventies, and Bowie tells it through a future dystopia reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange and other sci-fi novels. The gangs, termed "Diamond Dogs", are described as mannequins, a term which suggests that they have a fashion sense but no human emotions. They are also termed "poachers", a word that already appeared in 'Future Legend', and that sheds some more light on the nature of life in Hunger City: the citizens, who are part-human-part-animal, have become game for two kinds of poachers, either the authorities who are sitting high on Poachers Hill, or the Diamond Dogs who hide behind trees and hunt you to the ground. Caught between them, the regular folk have to move carefully.

(Will they come?)
I'll keep a friend serene
(Will they come?)
Oh baby, come unto me
(Will they come?)
Well, she's come, been and gone.

Come out of the garden, baby
You'll catch your death in the fog
Young girl, they call them the Diamond Dogs
Young girl, they call them the Diamond Dogs

It seems that there's fear in the city that one day, very soon, the Diamond Dogs are going to rise up in revolt and take over. The singer, however, seems to be ambivalent about the notion. The chorus can be understood in two ways. It could be that he is talking to his girlfriend who is afraid of the Diamond Dogs and hides in the garden, preferring to take her chances in the fog (the nuclear shroud) than to face them. She keeps asking "will they come?", while he is trying to sooth her fears (keep her serene) and convince her to come out of the foggy garden. Or it could be that it is the singer talking to us about the Diamond Dogs, asking in anticipation "will they come?" and calling for them to "come out of the garden" and "come unto me", i.e. to take over the city and change his boring life. The line "well, she's come, been and gone" remind us of Lady Grinning Soul, who comes and goes and lays belief on you. The singer, it seems, hopes that if the Diamond Dogs indeed do come and take over, they will provide him with something to believe in.

It can also be heard as a reference to drugs. The "garden" might be that magical place you go to when you are stoned, and where the fog in your brain can eventually kiIl you. In this case, this chorus would be Bowie's call to his generation to come out of the stupor that the late-sixties way of life has got them into, and return to the real-life rebelliousness that characterized the early sixties.

The Halloween Jack is a real cool cat
And he lives on top of Manhattan Chase
The elevator's broke, so he slides down a rope
Onto the street below, oh Tarzie, go man go

The hero of the song calls himself Halloween Jack, and he is probably the singer in the chorus (the verses are provided by an objective narrator). The nickname he chose alerts us to his nature: "Halloween" suggests that he actually feels comfortable in this reality full of freaky mutations, while "Jack" is traditionally a rebel's name. We learn that he's a "real cool cat", which in jive-talk means a cool dude, but in the reality of Hunger City may mean that he is an actual human-cat. We also learn that he is one of the privileged ones who live on top of a skyscraper (which used to be a bank, but there are no banks anymore), safe above the lethal fog, and yet, he chooses to go down to the streets and have fun with the dogs. When he does, he slides down a rope and fancies himself a Tarzan, indicating his pop culture sensibility.

Meet his little hussy with his ghost town approach
Her face is sans feature, but she wears a Dali brooch
Sweetly reminiscent, something mother used to bake
Wrecked up and paralyzed, Diamond Dogs are sableized

Down on street-level he meets his girlfriend, whose brooch he's fond of. The mention of Salvador Dali fits the surrealistic picture that Bowie paints, but more specifically, he may be referring to Dali's famous Ruby Lips brooch, a sensual mouth he created out of rubies and pearls. These stones are now easy to come by, so the kids use them to make fashion accessories. The need to resort to accessories to create a sense of sensuality arises because her natural features, while still holding vestiges of the past, have been wrecked and paralyzed, leaving her face featureless. This may be the effect of the nuclear fallout, but it also reminds us of 1984, where the people are compelled to repress their facial expressions to hide their true thoughts from the authorities. So what destroyed her features might have also been her growing up with the fear of the authorities. This is strengthened by the assertion that "Diamond Dogs are sableized", a pun on "civilized", which suggests that the authorities have managed to tame the dogs to a large extent, turning them into sables, something different than their wild and free nature. But some of this nature still remains, as those Diamond Dogs who run in gangs attest, and that is why our hero is enamored by them. They may be violent thugs, but there is also something pure about them, something that is still connected to the past, and has not been ruined by the apocalypse and the new order that came after it. Halloween Jack, who looks for that past, to those days of rock'n'roll wildness and freedom, is hoping that a Diamond Dogs uprising will bring some of it back, so he launches once again into the chorus. Then:

In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch
Sashay on the boardwalk, scurry to the ditch
Just another future song, lonely little kitsch
(There's gonna be sorrow) try and wake up tomorrow

The final verse keeps the ambivalence going. "The year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch" is the "year of the Diamond Dogs" that we were given heed of in the opening track, and there are good and bad things about that year. It will bring back style, and you will be able to sashay on the boardwalk, but it will also bring danger, and you will sometimes have to scurry to the ditch. Some people would rather sleep through it, avoid the sorrow and wake afterwards, but cats like Halloween Jack want to live through it. And there's also a fear that all of this is just wishful thinking, that this year will never come, and that this whole song is just another kitschy delusion by some lonely boy dreaming of an impossible future.

If we detach the track from the narrative of the album, and take it as a comment on the reality of 1974, it sounds like Bowie is decrying the boredom of the rock world of the time and dreams of something that will bring back the excitement, freedom and danger of early rock'n'roll. But he is also aware that in the reality of the seventies, a new rock'n'roll uprising might lead to unwanted results. It was a fear he expressed in interviews of the time, and it is a fear that the rest of the album is going to work out in detail.

The video of the celebrated and groundbreaking Diamond Dogs concert tour was unfortunately never officially released. All we have are these bits and pieces.

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