Things That Are Nice: Day 5
There's kind of a story behind that song.
In 1995/6, Bowie was on a European tour, and for some life/family-related reason, his opener -- I think it was Morrissey, but don't quote me on that -- had to bail on him. So he rummaged through a pile of demos and pulled out "Nancy Boy", later one of the singles off of Placebo's self-titled debut. He decided he liked it, and got his people to phone their people (i.e., probably somebody's flat), and somehow or another... things happened. And they went.
You can't not learn a lot about someone when you go on tour with them. They apparently learned that Bowie was as fantastic to work with as reputed, and also, amazingly, that he was a human being. He drank beer and had headaches and read a lot of books and missed his wife. And he also talked to them, because for God only knows what reason he actually liked the crazy mixed-up kids on tour with him, and cared what they thought.
It is obvious from listening to them that Molko and Olsdal are grateful to have had Bowie a friend and a mentor. He gave them a hell of a lot of support, not just professionally, but also as a person. Everyone kind of assumes Bowie liked them so much because they reminded him of himself at that age. Molko was even perspicacious enough at the time to say so when asked. Molko would have been at most 25 and I think Olsdal is younger; it's entirely possible that Bowie was the first well-established, successful adult they'd ever met who was fundamentally like them in a lot of ways, and seemed happy with himself. He was by all accounts a hell of a guy, so no one really questions that he'd want to make a point of being supportive for them, because they were young and frankly kiiiiiiiind of weirded out by the whole rockstar thing, and it was the right thing to do.
Bowie grew up in post-war England. This was not a time or a place noted for encouraging things like emotional expression, sexual experimentation, or boys in skirts. He ultimately turned out pretty cool, but he had to get there by himself -- he wouldn't have had someone to look up to, because that kind of uncloseted weird didn't exist in his environment.
Being that alone for that long leaves scars. If my experience is any indication, they're always going to be there, and they're always going to twinge from time to time. There's no way to go back and fix it for yourself, but sometimes the next best way to make all that quiet down is just to keep your eyes open for kids who are in that same hole, and do your damndest to be the person you needed so badly when you were that age. Sometimes, you even succeed. Bowie was lucky enough to run into a couple of kids who gave him the chance to personally make things better, at least a little bit. It goes a long way.
"Without You I'm Nothing" is the title track from Placebo's second album. The original has only Molko on vocals, but after hearing it Bowie, phoned them up and asked if they'd like to do a duet version, Molko played it very nonchalant when asked about this in interviews, but it covered up a whole lot of squee -- his expression in one of the publicity photos for the single pretty much says it all.
There's another photo of that moment in the booklet for their 20th anniversary album. It's a snapshot taken off-angle, from somewhere off to the side of the official photographer. That wasn't just a day at work; it was a moment someone wanted to remember. That song is something they want to remember, and they still play it in concert, in memoriam of the person who helped make it possible.
Molko and Olsdal have kids of their own now, a third generation of likely-weirdos, growing up with parents who are going to be totally unfazed by wah-wah pedals and alien hair and cross-dressing. I like the idea that it gets a little bit better every time we go around the cycle.