Love is a wonderful and amazing thing. Indeed many songs have tried to capture how exactly love is a “many splendored thing” often resorting to complex language and metaphors to capture something that is unique to each individual relationship. However, I managed to find one song that perfectly captured my emotions at the age of 17/18 in the early stages of my first real love – as shown through the wise words and simple sentiments that can be found in Iggy Pop’s 1987 single “Shades” (which was taken from his 1986 new-wave pop opus, “Blah Blah Blah”).
I have put the video towards the end of this blog, primarily because it uses a really clumsy edit so please enjoy the full song as it was found on the 1986 release of “Blah Blah Blah”:
Yes, my girlfriend did buy me a pair of shades.
You gave me a present
The paper was blue and green
I unwrapped it with pleasure
These are the best shades I’ve ever seen
You can be my girlfriend
Forever and a day
I never thought I was worth much
Or that anyone would treat me this way
Let me tell you the story..
The song was written by David Bowie as they had decided to collaborate again (after the spectacular critical success of both “The Idiot” and “Lust For Life” in the 1970s). It seemed as if Bowie wanted to gift Iggy the same level of commercial success as he had enjoyed with the Nile Rogers produced “Let’s Dance” (and then had continued with the Hugh Padgham produced “Tonight” which featured Iggy as co-writer on a couple of tracks, as well a co-lead vocals on “Dancing With The Big Boys”). Of the Bowie/Pop collaborations on “Blah Blah Blah”, “Shades” is thought to be primarily Bowie’s work, as he wrote the music and was the primary lyric writer too. The myth behind the song is that it was allegedly inspired by Bowie watching a Iggy give a present to his wife, Suchi, so the song seems to be Bowie’s interpretation of Iggy as a character; seeing him as a humble, down-to-earth guy who is delighted and amazed by what many people would consider to be a small and somewhat inconsequential gift: a pair of sunglasses.
This has significant echoes with my life at that time: in 1987, I was a sixth form student in the final months of study before taking A Level examinations in Art & Design, English Literature and Drama & Theatre Studies. As with many people who are just entering adult life, I was going through a process of re-creating myself and experimenting with the idea of the person that I wanted to become, as I imagined myself going off to live in London or New York or anywhere far away from humdrum South Wales whilst living a life of artistic and creative adventure. I was in love. We had been going out with each other since March 1986 so, when “Shades” was released as a single, we had been a couple just under a year. My image in my head was that of a full creative artist, engaged in pushing forward the boundaries of both performing and visual arts. My physical image was a jumble of what clothes I could find and afford – I had dreams and aspirations to look like Bowie in his “Absolute Beginners” phase with a trench coat and trilby but could only afford a hotch-potch of second-hand castoffs and late 80s fashion crimes from Burtons and Top Man at bargain sale prices.
I was desperately in search of a self-image that I could afford and wanted to find some sense of credibility and “cool” to help boost my not particularly great sense of self-esteem. Sally’s solution was simple: one day, she noticed me trying on a pair of Top Gun style mirror shades. I had no intention of buying them simply because, as a glasses wearer, the thought of having sunglasses for sunny weather (as much as we ever got sunny weather in Wales) simply did not even pass through my head. However, Sally took notice and decided to buy them for me.
I have no idea how much they cost – they were probably out of my price range at the time (after all we are talking either Top Man or Burtons which were the very height of cool sophistication in Cwmbran at that time… if they were from the indoor market, it may have been different) but Sally decided to get them for me because she saw them as an opportunity for investing in my sense of self-image and my developing self-esteem. I’m pretty certain that she didn’t wrap them in blue and green paper as that might have been a bit freaky to coincide with the song to that degree. However, I remember feeling exactly as Iggy expresses in the song. Funnily enough, I saw my eldest son go through a similar phase a few years ago when he seemed to be permanently wearing a pair of mirror shades – maybe it is a genetic thing?
The kind of guy
Who dresses like a king
And a really fine pair of shades
And the light that blinds my eyes
Shines from you
The lyric is one of the rare occasions when a song perfectly manages to capture exactly everything that you wanted to say at a precise moment but could not possibly find the words to express. I never have been the type of guy who “dresses like a king” although I do look pretty good in a suit (although my job currently requires me to not wear a suit which is sometimes to the sadness of my wife who likes to look suited and booted as they say). Whilst in university I adopted a proto grunge look (before grunge came about) that has evolved into a kinda grunge surf look since moving down to Newquay – I really do love a proper plaid shirt. In my first year of university, I really wanted a stereotypical punk rock black leather jacket but settled for a battered brown one that kinda reminded me of the jacket in the “Shades” video. Probably never even realised the link at that time. That pair of shades really did mean the world to me, and I did everything that I could to take care of them – as Iggy says:
These shades say something
I’ll bet they cost a lot
I hope I don’t break ’em
I hope we don’t break up
I really did take care of them – if memory serves me correctly they were eventually lost (or it would be more accurate to say stolen) when some tosspot took my bag off the coach back up to Nottingham instead of theirs. I was more upset about the loss of those shades than all my clothes and the university work that I had to completely redo.
Listening to “Shades” again, now that it is 30 years later, I’m surprised at the simplicity and commerciality of the song, whereby Bowie produces a simple structure (for Bowie) of two simple, melodic verses that are linked by a really lovely chorus. Iggy Pop’s rich baritone vocal is mixed with the backing vocal of Kevin Armstrong and Erdal Kizilcay who sing at a higher octave to give it a richness and romantic lushness that may have been lacking if it relied on Iggy’s vocal alone.
According to theories that I’ve read, Iggy wanted to create a song that would contrast with his cover of “Real Wild Child (Wild One)”, acting as a redemptive echo to the wild freedom typified by the former. Some of Bowie’s lyrics had to be rewritten to sound right coming from the mouth of Iggy’s reformed wild man character – so “I know what kind of man I am/I’m not Saint Francis of Assisi or Baudelaire’s son,” were simplified into the more direct words that have been quoted in this piece of writing.
Here is a link to the video version which annoys me because of the clumsy editing:
At this point, I hadn’t got into Iggy Pop’s seminal 70s albums, “Lust For Life” and “The Idiot”, primarily because I could only afford to buy a handful of albums, so the album “Blah Blah Blah” was my starting point for getting to know the flexible fool and punk godfather. “Cry For Love” features a blistering guitar solo from Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, acknowledging the debt that many of the original punks felt they owed to his group, The Stooges. Whilst the album has many of the hallmarks of the best and worst of mid-80s production (especially that drum sound), the songs on the album showed a rebirth and I must have tapped into that because I played it continuously on my tape deck in my bedroom. I may even gone as far as to wear ridiculously skinny jeans as worn by Iggy in the “Cry For Love” video:
As a footnote to this post, you may be interested to learn that Sal and I celebrated our 30th year as a couple in 2016, whilst this year will see us celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary – so I like to think that her investment in that pair of shades has been repaid many times over (although I also recognise that I owe her debt to her that I don’t think I will ever be able to repay). There are times when life continues to be difficult and challenging (because that is exactly the type of shit that life tends to throw at people for no reason other than it bloody well can) but we know that we make a pretty incredible team together whilst apart we may have been crushed by “stuff”.
So “Shades” is one of a handful of incredibly important songs to me that pinpoint very specific moments in my life that I want to remember until the day that I die.
Isn’t that exactly the power of music?