As a musician, one of my most poignant memories is of an interaction I had with a cultured European woman after one of my early shows. I was performing Cole Porter songs with a pianist. Was it Stellenbosch or Somerset West? I can’t remember.
I can’t say from this distance whether we did justice to Porter’s show-stoppers, but in the slower, sadder songs – Love For Sale, Get Out of Town, Miss Otis Regrets – I remember feeling for a moment as if I could be someone else, held voices inside my voice of which I knew nothing.
After the show the European woman approached me. “You have a nice voice”, she said to me, “But tell me – do you also do serious music?”
I can’t remember what I said to her – probably I muttered something to the effect that Porter’s music is serious, too. What I should have done is told her about the day when I came home from a boring day at school at the age of eleven or twelve and heard David Bowie’s Life on Mars? for the first time.
From the first notes of the piano intro I knew I was going to like the song. It sounded folky, like the songs I listened to at that time. Then Bowie started singing. What can I say?
To begin with I didn’t think it was a man’s voice. Those high notes in the choruses didn’t sound like a man singing falsetto – I knew what that sounded like. There was something subversive about this voice. I understood that before I had deciphered the lyrics. I already knew some songs that challenged the authorities – mostly anti-war songs from the Woodstock era. I knew where I was with those songs. This challenge was in the voice itself. David Bowie actually became that unfortunate girl with the mousey hair, and somehow at the same time he managed to be David Bowie. Nothing ever sounded more radical to my ears – before or since.
Later I had a similar – though necessarily less powerful – epiphany when I heard Laurie Anderson’s The Dream Before from her wonderful Strange Angels album. In this song, Anderson describes Hansel and Gretel, “alive and well / And living in Berlin”, a bickering, disenchanted couple who “sit around at night now / Drinking Schnapps and gin.” The harrowing lyrics are softened by the way her voice slips into their drunken, disgruntled voices. The song ends in Hansel’s voice, a low harmony underneath Anderson’s own, quoting from a lovely passage by Walter Benjamin about the angel of history wanting to fix things that have been broken, but being blown back into the future.
If that sounds immensely over-educated, let me reassure you: the effect is one of playfulness, even generosity. Anderson, like Bowie, plays with her voice, manipulates it to enable her to become somebody else for a moment. It is this daring to play which startled me as a boy, and still moves me to sing and write today.