The first Bowie song I ever knowingly responded to was “Beauty and the Beast,” an album track off HEROES that, upon its release, was briefly on medium rotation on an album rock station I listened to while growing up. I would have been in middle school at the time. The song, with its distorted electonica and dangerous propulsive beat, was unlike anything I’d heard. Until then, I’d been nurtured on a diet of Beatles albums and—gag—Captain and Tennille.
In my adolescent reading of the song, “Beauty and the Beast” was about chaos and civic unrest:
Something’s in the way
There’s slaughter in the air
Protest in the wind
Someone else incited*
Someone could get skinned
There’s a disjointed lyrical sense throughout the whole song, as if the singer’s thoughts were refracted through a prism. He’s experiencing the ominous present moment of “weaving down a byroad.” Danger lurks in every lyrical crevice—“Someone fetch a priest”—and yet the singer seems to be struggling with his moral compass.
“I wanted to be good/I wanted no distractions/Like every good boy should.”
Back then, in my early teens, this was exactly what I was feeling, and yet I had this conclusive sense that by merely stating this wish for goodness, I was in fact admitting that the quest for goodness could never be entirely successful. Within the song’s menacing musical background, evil lurks, infecting everything and everyone within its soundscape. The singer sings, “Nothing will corrupt us,” but it’s more of a wish than a promise. Beauty lies within the beast of this song. And a beast lies within the song’s beauty. Both are alluring, tugging at our attention, and like the song says, “you can’t say no” to either.
I grew up in a chaotic household. My father would disappear for days only to re-emerge as a drunken howling figure at three in the morning, berating me for not being stronger, smarter, more industrious. Apparently, in his eyes, I was doomed for failure. And then, still reeking of alcohol, he’d demand that I’d hug him and he would weep maniacally, saying he was sorry he wasn’t a better father.
He, too, my father, couldn’t say no to the Beauty and the Beast.
I wanted so bad to believe there was beauty, and goodness, within the chaos of my household.
*Only now, decades later, as I’m double-checking these lyrics online, do I realize I’ve been misinterpreting them for all these years. According to several online resources, this line is really “Someone else inside me.” All this time, I imagined them being, “Someone else incited.” As in, incited a riot. But now I’m realizing my mistake.