I am, of course, terribly biased. Chris O’Leary is doing the copyediting on the first Tom Baker book, has written a guest post for me, and is solidly a friend. But, look, I like to think I have taste in my friends. In any case, Chris just shared some of the opening chapters of the book version of his blog with me, and they’re fabulous, so I thought I’d go do a “everyone should go read this” post on his blog.
The word “psychochronography” is one I invented, but the concept of talking about a larger swath of history through obsessive coverage of one idiosyncratic route through that history is longstanding. Which is to say that what Chris is doing over at Pushing Ahead of the Dame, his song-by-song analysis of the work of David Bowie, is firmly in the spirit of psychochronography.
But what Pushing Ahead of the Dame does isn’t to trace the arcs of history, at least not primarily. There certainly is a sense of history as you move over the thirty years the blog has covered at this point, but it’s not a blog about the history. Instead what Pushing Ahead of the Dame offers is a portrait of how a creative mind evolves over time.
A large part of this is picking the right creative mind. David Bowie, as it happens, is perfect. Few people are going to straight-facedly claim that Bowie is the greatest songwriter or musician of his era – of any of his eras, really. Equally, few are going to deny that he’s one of the biggest of most of them. And nobody is going to deny that there’s an absolutely shockingly large number of eras David Bowie belongs to.
Bowie, at his core, is motivated primarily by a desire to be a pop/rock star. He wants to write and record hit music. As it happens, he’s terribly good at this, and so an ongoing study of his creative progress amounts to a look at how a pragmatic and talented mind responds to new influences. In some eras the answer is “by figuring them out just before they hit big and riding the wave.” In other eras the answer is “spectacularly poorly.”
Either way, the result is in many ways a musical version of Doctor Who – a musician who absorbs influence after influence and attempts to make his version of them. But again, instead of tracing the history of the influences, Pushing Ahead of the Dame traces the material process of engaging with them: how songs come together, change over the years, and, more broadly, how they fit together into the development of albums.
What is perhaps most interesting is that I’m not a particularly big David Bowie fan. I mean, I’ve, you know, heard a fair amount of it and can identify most of the major David Bowie songs, but I’m nothing like a die-hard fan. But the blog still reliably works, and not just because he scrupulously links to YouTube versions of the tracks at the top of every entry. No, it works in a large part because it’s tracing something other than just the history of the songs. In many ways unfamiliarity is a bit of a bonus, as it lets you approach the material not as reviews of known quantities but as the meandering production of a creative mind.
(I often wonder, on a similar note, whether TARDIS Eruditorum is more satisfying for the readers who are hardline Doctor Who fans who have seen all of the things I talk about, or more satisfying for fans with incomplete or spotty knowledge. I consciously write it with the intention of it being intelligible to the latter, and I know readers of that sort exist, but I always wonder who has more fun.)
In any case, Pushing Ahead of the Dame remains one of my favorite ways to kill an hour or two on the Internet, whether by picking a song I know and reading in the space around it, or by picking an album, preferably one I’ve heard about more than I’ve actually heard, and reading through the posts. Also fun is reading the entries that span the gap between two albums, watching as Chris tears down the scaffolding around one era (typically by showing where and why Bowie gets frustrated with a given direction) and transitioning gamely into the themes of another. Or some other reading method. Personally, I should probably try actually reading the blog linearly from start to finish, actually – the one approach I’ve not ever attempted (though I suppose I’ll just wait for the book version there). But however I approach it on a given day, it remains one of my favorite places to park my brain for a while and explore.