Drive-in Saturday: David Bowie's Tale of Fallout Saturation

Let me put my arms
around your head
Gee, it's hot, let's go to bed
Don't forget to turn on the light
Don't laugh babe, it'll be alright
Pour me out another phone
I'll ring and see
if your friends are home
Perhaps the strange ones in the dome
Can lend us a book we can read up alone

And try to get it on like once before
When people stared in Jagger's eyes
and scored
Like the video films we saw

His name was always Buddy
And he'd shrug and ask to stay
She'd sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid

And turn her face away
She's uncertain if she likes him
But she knows she really loves him
It's a crash course for the ravers
It's a Drive-in Saturday

Jung the foreman prayed at work
That neither hands nor limbs would burst
It's hard enough to keep formation
amid this fallout saturation

Cursing at the Astronette
That stands in steel
by his cabinet
He's crashing out with Sylvian
The Bureau Supply
for aging men

With snorting head he gazes to the shore
Which once had raised a sea
that raged no more
Like the video films we saw

David Bowie wanted his music to be more than just three minutes of singing on a stage. He wanted it to be three-dimensional sound and vision, multimedia, literary and theatrical. He attracted a broad audience, from teenyboppers to punks, dopers and avant garde artists. For those who didn’t want to follow the complex narratives, the music had, as they said on American Bandstand, “a good beat and you could dance to it.” Some admirers could see it was richly layered with connections to philosophy and art, but for the most part fame obscured the intelligence and thought that Bowie was putting into his work.
Bowie had a great interest in dystopian, surrealistic science fiction, an interest he shared with the novelist who inspired him, William S. Burroughs. In 1972, he recorded the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The songs on this album told a story of aliens who came to earth in the dying days of civilization, and Bowie performed as the main character during the tour that accompanied the album. He had become a master in telling a complete story within the limits of a three-minute pop song, or the two hours of a stadium rock concert. He cited Burroughs’ The Wild Boys and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as influences. In 1974, Bowie and Burroughs sat together for a long three-way interview with Rolling Stone journalist Craig Copetas.
One song from this era that stands out as a masterpiece of Bowie’s science fiction, one that has come to seem more ingenious as the years pass, is Drive-in Saturday, written in 1973. Like Ziggy, it is set in the near future, a post-apocalypse from which the characters look back at the present (late 20th century America) longing for the golden years of an empire that collapsed, a time that they can glimpse only when they are fortunate enough to read old books and view the old films that young couples used to see at drive-in cinemas.
In the song there is one reference to fallout, so it is clear that the setting is the years following some level of nuclear warfare that forced people to live under domes or the “Astronette.” When he first performed the song, Bowie told the audience that he wrote it on a train while traveling between Seattle, Washington and Phoenix, Arizona. At some point in the journey he saw some eerily glowing domes which inspired the song.
He was likely aware, as was common knowledge then, that the American West was the birthplace of the nuclear age. His train route would have taken him nearby the Hanford Reservation, the place where plutonium was made for nuclear weapons. From there it would have gone through Idaho, Nevada or Utah where the fallout from hundreds of nuclear weapons tests came down. Bowie told the audience that the song is about young people trying to survive in this future after something horrible has happened. Somehow, they have forgotten how to make love, so they look to old films and books to learn all about it.
Thinking about this story now, knowing the damage that was done to the human genome by the Soviet and American nuclear disasters (Chernobyl, Mayak, Semipalatinsk, Hanford—see the review cited below of the documentary film After the Apocalypse), we can look at these young people in the story in a different light. Perhaps it is not a matter of them forgetting how to do it but rather of them not wanting or not being able to do it.
The Japanese, Chinese, French and American nuclear disasters undoubtedly left their marks on the health and the genes of their victims, but the Soviet disasters have left the most vivid record of birth defects, disease and reproductive failure. Even before the disasters happened and photojournalists went to record the aftermath, artists were writing stories of a mutant human race that would come after a nuclear disaster. It is hard to know what was in Bowie’s mind when he wrote this song, but there are clues that he was consciously suggesting a darker scenario than a typical pop-music audience would expect. In fact, few people would catch all the lyrics as they listened or try to understand how they told a coherent story. It was a minority of die-hard fans who gave it any thought while they sat on floors intently listening and reading the lyrics in the LP artwork.
The song begins with the line “Let me put my arms around your head.” Kind of strange, that line. Lovers put their arms around shoulders and waists, but not heads, so we are dealing here with a very large head or very short arms in order for this to be a good fit. From the very first line there is an image of mutants awkwardly trying to figure out how to embrace each other.
There is an interesting philosophical and scientific question to ask about whether people afflicted by the fallout in utero would grow up to have a longing for emotional attachment or even normal sexual drives. It was perhaps the artist’s conceit to assume they wanted to make love and had merely forgotten how. There is plenty of evidence in our real world to suggest that the toxic environment we live in has altered the genome, endocrine functions and even human psychology. One just has to consider all the news reports about rising rates of autism, declining sperm counts, or the hand-wringing editorial writers who complain that young people these days aren’t interested in relationships and raising the next generation. Perhaps the apocalypse has come upon us in slow motion. Nevertheless, no one can say what post-nuclear-war people would feel. The lament of the Chernobyl liquidators was “Radiation made it so that I can’t, so why didn’t it make it so that I don’t want to?” Like the characters in Drive-in Saturday, a longing was still there.
To satisfy their curiosity, the young people of Drive-in Saturday read old books and watch old films, the kind where the hero was a good old American boy named Buddy. The heroine is “uncertain if she likes him, but she knows she really loves him.” In its simplicity, this line succeeds in stating exactly what might challenge the young mutants’ understanding. They could figure out the mechanics of the act by looking at the old books, but all the ambiguous gestures--the shrugging, the sighing, the looking away, and the uncertainty might seem intriguing but incomprehensible to the mutants. Or courtship might be just a luxury that is now beyond reach. The social intelligence necessary to fall in love would be something to study with detached formal analysis in a “crash course for the ravers” every drive-in Saturday.
The only other character in the story is an older man, Jung the foreman, someone who remembers what the sea looked like in days of old. He prays that his limbs will hold together because in the “fallout saturation” sometimes they don’t. He gets through life on a government-issued anesthetic called Sylvian. It may be therapeutic, but the lyric says only that it he “crashes out” on it. In the final lines Jung gazes to a shore that no longer raises a raging sea. Like the young couple in the story, the sea too is barren and impotent.

More Sources:

Butts, Anthony (director). After The Apocalypse. Tigerlily Films, 2010.
Copetas, Craig. “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman.” Rolling Stone. February 28, 1974.
Critchley, Simon. Bowie. OR Books, 2014.
Savage, Jon. “When Bowie met Burroughs.” The Guardian. March 9, 2009. 

“This ain’t rock and roll. This is genocide.”
    -from another of David Bowie’s post-apocalyptic tales, Diamond Dogs
While science fiction has its cautionary and educational value, it is essential to keep in mind that in some places the apocalypse has already happened. This film review describes the aftermath of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan: 

After The Apocalypse (2010) Directed by Antony Butts
Reviewed by Jennie Kermode Eye for Film UK, October 13, 2010
(reprinted with permission)

In cinematic terms, nuclear apocalypse has always had a certain appeal. If we think of the human journey as a story, it offers a dramatic possible ending, the chance (so it would seem) to go out with a bang. It's the perfect disaster that must be prevented at all costs, those who might contribute to it the ultimate villains. If we consider it survivable, then we can move on to a genre in which brave bands of survivors try to rebuild civilisation or create something new and better from out of the ashes.
So much for cinematic speculation. In 1949, the Soviets wanted to know what would happen for real. If a nuclear exchange took place between them and America, could they survive it, and what would they need in order to do so? So they set about dropping nuclear bombs. The Americans already had two test subjects, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Soviets were not at war, so they dropped bombs on their own people, in Kazakhstan; they knew a real nuclear war would involve more than just two bombs, so they dropped 256.
In 2009, a documentary crew visited the region known as The Polygon, where the tests took place. "We used to watch the bombs fall. We felt them in our bodies. Our mother covered us with thick felt," recounts an elderly peasant woman. When we see her face, the chromosomal damage caused by radiation poisoning is shockingly visible. We meet her daughter, Bibigul, who has clearly inherited this damage. Now Bibigul is pregnant and must decide what to do.
During my career as a film critic I have seen a lot of horror films and documentary depictions of human suffering, and I'm not sure that I have ever seen a film as horrific as this. If it were simply the story of an atrocious crime committed against helpless villagers by a remote government, it would be bad enough, but the real horror here is the set of problems the Kazakhstani community faces today. The Russian government has formally apologised. Special funds have been allocated for support. Ultimately, this means very little. A local obstetrician shows us his collection of mutated babies preserved in formaldehyde. I have seen babies like this in real life; they happen all over the world, for all sorts of reasons, but never with this frequency. Later we tour a ward where babies so misshapen that their parents have abandoned them are cared for by affectionate yet distraught nurses. They are the survivors, and while they're little they remain loveable, but what kind of future will they have? Our elderly heroine tells us that she has been mocked throughout her life because of her deformity.
In the face of this, medical staff who would elsewhere be devoted to assisting with pregnancies focus instead on trying to persuade would-be mothers to abort. Knowing, as they do, the risk of abandonment as well as pain and suffering, they lament that it is not possible for them to force abortions, sterilise afflicted adults, or kill the babies at birth. Frequent references are made to infanticide as practised in ancient Sparta. There is talk of giving people genetic passports, permission to breed. But you don't ask a girl to show you her medical documents before you ask her out on a date, they observe. There are no trained medical ethicists here. Disability of any sort is seen as a burden on society; the mutated are stigmatised, not encouraged to develop what talents they may have. There's also a complete absence of psychological expertise. This creates a gulf between the doctors and the patients. There's frustration and agony on both sides. It's not that Bibigul and others like her are stupid, it's just that they're human, that they want to experience the simple human joy of parenthood. Nobody seems to take this into account. Doctors speak to one another in Russian in the presence of patients who only half understand them. The cultural distance that allowed those bombs to fall remains present.
Up on the mountains, we follow a shepherd. At 45, he considers himself an old man with little left to worry about. He only has five teeth left. He drinks vodka to keep his stomach radiation-free. He enjoys living the traditional Kazakh life in these remote, snowy steppes. But the young, he says, should be afraid. We know now that the inherited problems can persist for at least four generations. Some say they're getting worse. 
There are shades here of John Wyndham's classic novel The Chrysalids, as the film crew's quiet observation brings us face to face with questions about what it means to be human, and about what it means to be a monster. "Kazakhstan is not a nuclear country," says a visiting scientist, "And we don't want to be. We don't want this."

Reviewed by Jennie Kermode Eye for Film UK, October 13, 2010
(reprinted with permission)

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