David Bowie’s development into the beast he was in 1970 was pretty rapid when you consider where he was a mere 3 years before. His self-titled debut album is the work of a child, sounding kinda like old English folk tunes spun by a kid with licorice in his teeth. His look was kid-like, too, since he was only 19 when he was recoding it. In my opinion, David Bowie isn’t David Bowie, at least not in the way that the world would perceive him on his next release. He was almost 23 when his 2nd album came out. Its name is complicated; it was called David Bowie in the UK (almost as a repudiation of the first David Bowie), and Man of Words/Man of Music in the US. When RCA rereleased it in 1972, they renamed it after its lead single, Space Oddity, and then changed it back to David Bowie in 2009.
“Space Oddity” the song would be Bowie’s first hit, and the album it was on bridged the vast gap between his ’67 and ’70 albums. By the time The Man Who Sold the World was released in November of 1970, ‘67’s David Bowie may as well have not even existed.
For one thing, TMWStW is as close to a heavy metal album as Bowie ever made, a far cry from the folk parody of David Bowie and the introspective weirdness of Space Oddity. The distorted electric guitar that starts “The Width of a Circle” marks a new beginning for Bowie. Out with the old, in with the awesome. The song is the first place where Bowie is really facing himself and questioning his very nature. In the first half, the narrator’s search for answers takes him to sex, to drugs, and to rock and roll. He finds them all to be unfulfilling. And then, the second half begins, in which the narrator has sex with Satan. If you can explain that part, go right ahead.
“All the Madmen” is doomy and weird. It strikes just the right balance of weight and playfulness. His half-brother, Terry Burns, was diagnosed as mentally ill and put in an asylum in Surrey; this song is about that. The roles of sane and insane have been reversed in this dystopian future, and the narrator wants to appear insane because a life among the “madmen” would be far preferable to the apparently normal life he lives now. From Bowie’s perspective, who’s to say Terry’s crazy? Aren’t we all a little crazy, to varying degrees?
Next is “Black Country Rock,” a crunchy and fairly straightforward rock and roll number. Bowie can’t resist displaying some vocal weirdness in the last verse, impersonating Marc Bolan from T. Rex because he ran out of lyrics. His vibrato sets it off-center, much like the album in general, and the song is a breath of fresh air before taking a plunge into the black water of “After All.”
In movies, the best horror is created when we see a little and imagine what more horrible things we might see. They succeed when they keep our imagination one step ahead. When the psychotic killer is stalking the teenage girl through the house, the terror is always at its best before he finds her, when she’s crouching in the shadows trying to be silent. “After All” is like a good horror film; the sense of unease this demented circus waltz has mastery of is heightened by its restraint, elevating it from unusual to creepy.
It details Bowie’s dissatisfaction with his own humanity. He longs for a transcendence beyond his human body, both in the physical and the spiritual sense. It’s reminiscent of Nietzsche and his Übermensch philosophy. Indeed, this whole album is about Bowie hoping beyond hope that there’s something beyond this temporal life. He’s right in his thinking; God has something much greater for us after this life. Where he trips up is where Nietzsche tripped up before him; he thinks some of us are destined to become greater than God, rendering God unnecessary, or impotent, or “dead.” Also, it doesn’t seem like the best thing for Bowie to be constantly at war with his own humanness. He never did get rid of that whole space alien thing, but today he seems more comfortable with just being a person.
Besides Nietzsche, “After All” also draws inspiration from Aleister Crowley. The line “Live till your rebirth and do what you will” echoes Crowley’s famous “do what though wilt” saying. At first glance, this philosophy may seem like libertinism or license, but “do what though wilt” doesn’t refer to satisfying the everyday desires of the id, but fulfilling your ultimate divine purpose. I agree with Crowley there, but where we disagree is the source of that purpose. In a general sense, I think everybody’s purpose is to bring glory to God, but on the individual level, that purpose is given to us gradually by God, and we need to stay attuned to God’s voice everyday to get an idea for what it is. I’m not sure what Crowley thinks, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t believe in God, considering his whole Aeon of Horus thing. Perhaps if there are any Thelemites out there who read my blog (if any exist…) they can educate me about his position on that. Not holding out a whole lot of hope, though…
More about The Man Who Sold the World tomorrow!