When David Jones was 17 or so, he started the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. It’s a rather infamous (in certain circles) clip, available on YouTube; David, earnestly or facetiously — it’s somewhat hard to tell — rallying against such cruelty as being called “Darling” and receiving offers to “carry your handbag.” For the man who eventually became Ziggy Stardust, there’s a tremendous irony here, or a preview of the young artist who eventually gained significant notoriety for wearing a dress.
(There may also have been an honest desire on behalf of Jones and his comrades for people to just Be Nice. In the clip, David qualifies his criticism by saying we’re all pretty tolerant — subtext, “as we should be,” — but…)
More than all this, perhaps, it’s a view of the David Jones who, by common accounts, wanted out of a dull childhood. By the time 1969 rolled around, Jones was David Bowie, and he’d released Space Oddity. Letter to Hermione is sung by an earnest 22-year-old whose words are rooted in the most significant of adolescent experiences: the breakup. And aftermath.
One commentator noted recently that the number of autobiographical Bowie songs can be counted on one hand. (Or words to that effect). Maybe true, maybe not. Besides the obvious — which is that with Bowie you can never really tell — it’s true that over the 44 years that eclipsed between Space Oddity and The Next Day — and Space Oddity wasn’t even his first record — David Bowie lived A Life. Letter to Hermione is heartfelt, and innocent. Listen to it, as I did, quite by accident, after yet another stream of The Next Day and the new record comes into sharper focus: you can feel the intensity not only of experience, but of having Lived A Life, not only in the words but in the tone, the rhythm, the very energy of the music.