This question occurred to me thanks to the shuffle switch on my ipode, which, on a long, lonely drive through Vermont in a wet snowstorm, presented me, all out of context, with “Memory of a Free Festival”: the distantly trippy, elegiac-in-the-face-of-joyful, seven-minute final track off David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Ostensibly, it’s a jangly-organ folk ballad celebrating free love and boundless hippie optimism, with a hint of the wonderful irony for which I so love Bowie:
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day
But all that stuff trails off around the three minute mark, and for the final four minutes we get a wild cacophony of toy-piano tinkling, trombone-kazoo-clapping and distant fairy laughter, over which Bowie and a chorus of euphoric voices chant, over and over:
The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party
Which I presume we are to interpret as a return to our regularly scheduled glammed-out alien space messiah Bowie. Take the green acid so when Ashtar and the Aquarians get here, they’ll know you’re one of the enlightened and you’ll get to ride off with them on the crystal ship.
Goofy velour pantsuit cliche notwithstanding, however, this was kind of a revelatory moment for me. Growing up, I had a completely different association with the term “sun machine”, based on a Percy Hill song of comparable epic length, but a very different aesthetic: a white boy jam-band soul-funk anthem, which goes like this:
I don’t care if the world may end
I’ll be just fine inside my sun machine
I cannot say my friends
when I’ll put down this foolish game
I hope it never ends
And time will never tell
Hallucinogens and benevolent alien abductions? Yeah, maybe. But that’s not what I thought at the time. I always assumed it was a reference to Ray Bradbury. In Dandelion Wine, a loving suburban husband, father of two, and inventor cribbed straight from the American Dream, sets out to build a Happiness Machine in his garage, basically a phone booth full of visions of everything you most desire. It nearly destroys him and his family.
His wife was quieter now. “Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made. While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever almost, the air smells good, the temperature is fine. All the things you want to last, last. But outside, the children wait on lunch, the clothes need buttons. And then let’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else. People are like that, Leo. How could you forget?”
But Dandelion Wine is about time and memory and regret, not neon angelic visions. In 1957, when Bradbury wrote it, LSD existed and was legal, but I don’t think it was nearly the pop phenomenon it would have needed to be for Bradbury’s readership to get the reference–particularly in the context of the half-remembered halcyon summer 1928 suburbia of the novel.
So I don’t know. Maybe there’s no connection between Bradbury, the Bowie song, and the impossible dreams of my youth.
Or maybe, just maybe, this is another one of those monumental metaphors that has always been and will always be waiting somewhere in the back of every human consciousness, waiting around for the dawn or the re-dawn of the industrial age so it makes sense again, waiting for somebody to write a song or a story to invoke it so it can share its universal, esoteric wisdom with the world.
Because I go and google “sun machine” and look: there’s a band, three different albums by three other bands, a computer company, a german heating company, and look, even a grandiloquent hoax perpetrated at the 1904 St. Louis World fair, all operating under that name!
Jeez, I wonder if everybody else is referencing this thing?
Wouldn’t that be cool.