Category: The Man Who Sold the World


I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “I’m not schizophrenic, and neither am I.” While clever, this joke is horribly inaccurate. Schizophrenia is a wildly misunderstood thing, being more of an umbrella term than an actual diagnosis. Saying “he’s schizophrenic” is kinda like saying “this book has a red cover.” It doesn’t actually tell you very much about the book. Psychologists must be beating their heads against boards every time they hear this joke.

It should actually go, “I don’t have dissociative identity disorder, and neither do I.” Just doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way, does it? The DSM defines DID as “the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behavior.” There’s usually memory loss; one personality doesn’t remember what the other one did.

Ed Norton in Primal Fear

A semi-famous example is the movie Primal Fear, where Edward Norton plays a young guy on trial for a murder that his other personality committed. He’s a mild-mannered and scared boy on the stand, but in the climax, his lawyer goads his killer personality into revealing himself. The switch is very sudden and startling.

Bowie didn’t exactly have DID, but he did have a sense of their being multiple shades of himself, with different Bowie-shades having more of the forefront at different times. The seeds for his Ziggy Stardust persona, the Thin White Duke, and all his shifting public faces first get planted on The Man Who Sold the World, but particularly on the title song.

The key to interpreting “The Man Who Sold the World” lies with a poem by Hughes Mearns. Here’s the last stanza:

Last night I saw upon the stair / A little man who wasn’t there / He wasn’t there again today / Oh, how I wish he’d go away

Mearns speaks of a splitting of the self, an evil twin you know intimately but have no control over. People sometimes say “I’m not myself today.” That‘s a glib and miniature version of this phenomenon.

While not even close to diagnosable, Bowie is having a dual-personality moment on “The Man Who Sold the World.” Like the one/two guys in the poem, each Bowie is aware of the other, which cancels out the “dissociative” part. The journey he’s been on for the almost-rest of the album (it’s track #8) has lead him through disconnect after disconnect with society and normalcy, eventually ending here where he truly meets himself. He thought he had killed his evil twin long ago, but it was there all the time. Eventually it stopped mattering where one Bowie ended and the next began. This disintegration of the self can only result in rebuilding it, which is what the rest of Bowie’s career is all about.

The cap is a rather epic and gothic piece of metal-pop crunch, “The Supermen.” The prodigious use of the timpani recalls Also Sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss’ musical interpretation of the Nietzsche book of the same name. To quote Bowie himself:

“I was still going through the thing when I was pretending that I understood Nietzsche… And I had tried to translate it into my own terms to understand it so ‘Supermen’ came out of that.”

This gives me a little chuckle. “Pretending that I understood Nietzsche” seems a lot like what every early 20s college graduate does with any philosopher. A cardinal rule: when it comes to philosophy, you don’t have to know what you’re talking about; you just have to know more that the people you’re talking to.

The Man Who Sold the World, like every David Bowie albums, exists outside of time. You really can’t hear the time period intruding into the music, and there’s almost no indication of what era it belongs to. His 40+ year-long career has taken him to all sorts of weird places in the musical world (German sythpop and drum-and-bass and new wave and “plastic soul”), and few of them have been where there were a lot of footprints before his. There are only a handful of musical acts that have been around as long as he has, and none of them have aged as well. Age doesn’t seem to have any meaning for Bowie, nor does time. He’ll probably be around when history catches up to his visions.

Being born in 1981, my experience with anything that happened before then can only be theoretical and historical. This includes the Vietnam War, and my only experiences with it were reading The Things They Carried in college and watching the movies Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Add to that the numerous protest songs written during the 60s, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Fortunate Son” and “Revolution.” But perhaps the strangest song about Vietnam I’ve ever heard is David Bowie’s “Running Gun Blues.”

Distinct from the more obvious tunes in this genre, “Running Gun Blues” takes a more cynical and disturbing tack. The narrator is a deranged Vietnam soldier who’s not in it for God or country or glory, but for killing. His childlike mirth at murder that you get paid to do and his utter disrespect for life may not do as good a job at generating action as the “stop the war!” anthems, but it definitely makes you squirm in your seat. Bowie’s voice lends happy madness to what is somewhat victorious music, not dark or foreboding like its predecessor “After All.” The song fits right in with Bowie’s motif of deconstructing our society till we see the simple, the ugly, what needs to change.

In “Saviour Machine,” things take a turn for the epic. There is a quick and nervous rhythm perforated by horns, and Bowie takes on a slightly more operatic quality to his voice. The lyrics tell of a dystopian future – there’s that phrase again; Bowie’s all about the dystopia – in which citizens are completely reliant on an intelligent, self-aware supercomputer. I’m picturing thousands of people in orderly rows and dressed in the same white smock, bowing down prostrate to a monolithic metal structure 80 stories high, with blinking lights and 50s bleeps and bloops, perhaps with a mondo antennae on top in the center sending out buzzing magnetic waves that look like Zs or lightning bolts.

In the song, the “savior machine” is programmed to do whatever it takes to serve the continuation of the human race, but people have become so dependent on the machine that it starts killing people to get them to start living again; essentially, it’s creating a common enemy by becoming it.

For some reason, “Saviour Machine” calls to my mind Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A supercomputer was constructed to calculate the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything; it came up with 42. Another supercomputer had to be constructed to figure out what the question was, and that was the planet Earth. Just before it was supposed to spit out its findings, the Vogons blew it up to make room for a hyperspatial express route and… You get the idea. Don’t panic.

Then comes “She Shook Me Cold,” a very metal and bombastic song. It goes for the extremely heavy and turns out too sludgy for its own good. It’s little more than an opportunity for Bowie’s guitarist of choice, Mick Ronson, to show off his shredding skills. The Bowie/Ronson combination was right up there with the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter, Oreos and milk, hydrogen and oxygen. Ronson was Bowie’s secret weapon, a juggernaut backing up a brilliant star. He’s one of the most underrated guitarists of the 70s, as well as one of the best. Ronson stayed by Bowie’s side for 5 albums, making his exit after Pin Ups and transitioning into a brief solo career.

David Bowie was the leader of a revolution, one complete with adherents like T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. It’s called glam rock, a reaction to the hippie free love and social activism. It used the trappings of 1930s Hollywood glamour and spacey science fiction stuff and combined them with the sexual liberation of the hippie movement. But in 1970, it was still a little ways from happening. 1970 was a very interesting year, one between settings, a pause in the cycle of rock and roll. The hippies were either becoming businessmen or Jesus People, being disillusioned by Altamont. The guard was in the process of changing. David Bowie and his ilk were right there waiting when it did. And the whole stinking world would be theirs.

David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World – 11/4/1970

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.

Aleister Crowley

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!