Category: David Bowie


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!

Bowie’s In Space!

Bret and Jemaine

I was spending a weekend in the Boston area back in 2007 or so. A bunch of us were hanging out when my friend Nancy said I just HAD to see something. She got her laptop and went to YouTube, excited as a schoolgirl, and searched for “Flight of the Conchords.” Then I saw Bret and Jemaine performing “Robots” live. My first thought was that it was a little hard to take seriously (it’s a parody, so you’re probably not supposed to). I rolled my eyes infuriatingly, looked at Nancy with smirking condescension and said, “Really?” She ignored me, bless her heart, and just laughed hysterically.

Nancy’s always been on a different wavelength than me, which makes her completely indispensible. She’s more than a friend; she’s a sister. Even though you may disagree with your sister over some pretty big things, your relationship never disintegrates because you love each other, and nothing is big enough to change that.

It took a little while, but by the time their TV show had finished its first season, Flight of the Conchords were my favorite musical comedy act behind Weird Al. Without question, my favorite song of theirs is “Bowie,” a moment where David Bowie (played by Jemaine) comes to Bret in a dream to guide him with his out-of-this-universe wisdom – while suspended in mid-air, ‘cause it’s awesome. The song is a trip through the ever-shifting styles of Bowie’s prodigious career, and the lyrics are about Bowie traveling through space to meet his doppelganger, hitting the most ridiculous aspects of his personality (spaceships, jumpsuits, “that’s pretty far out”) in a mocking yet reverential and adoring way. It’s great.

this is David Bowie

I’ll admit that Bowie’s an entity that I still don’t completely understand. Recently, my wife asked me, “So why do you like David Bowie?”, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer. His weirdness and spacey mysticism are at once bizarre and appealing to me. A large part of that is his androgyny. He challenges the conventions of gender in a complicated way, not like his imitators who think gender-bending means simply a man wearing makeup or a woman shaving her head. For him, gender seems to melt away, becoming of no consequence. He’s almost a third gender, one that sees no distinction between male and female, or at least sees the differences as not important.

This androgyny is just a piece of what 70s Bowie was really about, which was transcending his humanity to become something greater. Bowie (or at least his public character) didn’t fit in with any of the “normal” people; it got to the point where he started asking himself some fundamental questions. He somehow went from being an “abnormal person” to not a “person” at all. If not a person, what was he? That question is what he spent the entire 70s trying to answer.

this is also David Bowie; I know, right?

He’s not the first person to explore this theme. Friedrich Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and Franz Kafka are all cited by Bowie as influences during this period. He takes it to a different place then them, though, because his presentation is more visual, easier to grab hold of. His conclusions are different, too. Kafka, for instance, saw the transformation of man to end with something gruesome, but Bowie has a more open-ended outlook.

During the 70s – and even beyond – Bowie was on a journey to discover who he was. That journey’s most dramatic period is in ’72 to ’73, when he was playing the character of Ziggy Stardust. But it begins with The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, where we see Bowie at war with his own humanness. More than this, though, is that he made some astoundingly good music during this period. Strip away everything else and that still remains.

Thursday: the many phases and faces of Bowie