Tag Archive: Nietzsche

Father & Son

Fatherhood has a tendency to turn the most macho of men into blubbering softies. One baby enters their lives and they instantly go from tough and uncrackable to teary messes totally in love with their child. It happens every time. Now, David Bowie can’t really be classified as macho (it’s really hard to classify him at all), but the pattern holds true that once he becomes a father, the gushiness starts flowing.

As always, though, he does it with a particular glam flare. “Kooks” is deliciously kitschy on the surface, but it strikes me as being honestly kitschy, which I’m aware is a contradiction in terms. The camp in this song doesn’t really seem campy; it just seems cute. Bowie is gushing over his son, but he’s also explaining to his child, “I’m weird; your mom’s weird, too.” Growing up with David and Angie Bowie as parents, little Zowie Bowie (or Duncan Jones, according to his birth certificate) was bound to be different, or “kooky” as the song puts it.

Besides the revelation of obvious love for his son in honesty that makes you go “aaaawwwww!”, Bowie also gives us insight into his projected parenting style. “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads / ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.” Bowie wants his son to be cautious with the whole my-dad-could-beat-up-your-dad thing; he must have been aware that as a stereotypical male specimen, he’s lacking in some areas. I know the feeling. “And if the homework brings you down / Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.” School isn’t everything, and following the rules isn’t as important as being true to oneself. Provided he was actually fully present and there for his kid, I think David Bowie would make an extremely cool dad.

Next comes “Quicksand,” closing the side. The song’s a little hard to interpret because there’s so much name-dropping (Aleister Crowley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill, and Juan Pujol Garcia, codename Garbo), but the base of it has to do with what Bowie has been talking about all along. He wants to get to the future where he’s much more than he is now. Crowley and Nietzsche talk a lot about transcending humanity to a higher form of existence, and the reference to “Himmler’s sacred realm” is talking about a perfect, master race. I have a feeling he wanted to sing “Hitler,” but went with “Himmler” because it was less provocative, more obscure, or both. He didn’t want to look like a Nazi sympathizer, and he had to be asking himself if he actually was one.

Bowie had a fascination with Hitler and Nazism. The seeds of it are here on Hunky Dory, though it wouldn’t enjoy full fruition until the mid-70s with Station to Station and Low. At first glance, this is disturbing. However, Bowie’s life doesn’t bear out a single iota of the hatred or evil that Hitler’s philosophy drove him to on the world stage. Bowie’s fascination with him could be just intellectual, like that of a biographer. Or if it’s not (and I find this to be more likely), it focuses on the aspects of his thought which benefit this world, or rather that don’t destroy parts of it. Even as malignant as I find the “master race” thing to be, I must admit there’s hope in the outlining of a progression of humans into something better.

Zowie & Bowie in 2009

And my previous statement still stands: Bowie would make a cool dad, even though he had sympathy for the devil Hitler. After all, Duncan hasn’t grown up into the 2nd coming of Josef Mengele, or anything close. He’s actually a filmmaker, director of the lightly sci-fi action movie Source Code. The movie was every bit as good as critics said it was (Rotten Tomatoes gave it 91%). Goob job, Zowie.

Eric & Duane

August 26th, 1970. Producer Tom Dowd was in Criteria Studios in Miami, doing a record for Eric Clapton’s new band, something Eric formed out of the ashes of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. He had gotten together with D&B keyboardist Bobby Whitlock for some easy jamming over brews and joints, and they had been quickly joined by Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, D&B’s rhythm section. Dubbed Derek & the Dominos, Tom was recruited to man the boards for them after his success recording Idlewild South for the Allman Brothers Band.

That prodigious August afternoon, Tom received a call from Duane Allman, the Skydog himself, letting him know that the Allman Brothers Band would be in Miami playing a benefit concert that night. When Eric found out, he wanted to go.

“You mean that guy who plays on the back of ‘Hey Jude’?” (Wilson Pickett’s, not the Beatles’) “…I want to see him play… let’s go.”

The bunch of them went to the Allmans show that night, and managed to score seats in front of the front row barricade. When the Dominos came in, Skydog was playing a solo, eyes closed and lost in the glory of the blues. When Duane opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, a famous name and godlike presence in the guitar world. And he was staring right at him. Duane froze. Luckily, the Allmans’ other lead guitarist Dickey Betts was right there to pick it up, but when Dickey followed Duane’s gaze to see what he was gaping at, he had to turn away to keep from freezing himself.

Clapton and Allman were two guitar Supermen, transcendent beings Nietzsche would have been proud of. If they had been different people with bigger egos, I think all of Miami would have sunk into the sea with the weight of their posturing, not to mention their talent. But that wasn’t how it went down. Instead, they each had an admiration and giddy excitement at seeing the other one play. Instead of arching their backs and showing their fangs, they both said “oh man, it’s Eric Clapton!” or “I can’t believe this… it’s Duane Allman!”

Slowhand and Skydog met after the show, talked some shop, and Duane said he’d love to come by the studio to check out what they were doing. Eric excitedly said, “Bring your guitar! You gotta play!” And like that, a musical brotherhood was born. Duane became an official member of Derek & the Dominos, and the two were inseparable for the entire recording of Layla. They talked shop, swapped guitars, and showed each other techniques. But the best thing was that they traded licks, calling and answering with their guitars in a fantastic partnership; and it’s all caught on tape for the generations to enjoy and learn from. Pay attention, you blooming guitarists; this is how it’s done.

“Key to the Highway,” the last track on the first half of this double album, contains the glory, beauty and excellent freedom of blues music in its Platonic form. Blues is all about having a basic progression that’s repeated, and improvising over it to creating a unique sound and musical experience not just with each song, but with each repeat of the form of a song. “Key to the Highway” is only 8 measures played over and over again. Yet no set of eight measures is the same because of the splendid element of the guitarists having no idea where they’re going, what comes next, or where it will end. They only know that when the 8 measures are up, the song will start over again, and so can they.

The recording of it came by happy accident. 60s camp artist Sam the Sham was recording “Key to the Highway” in the studio room next door for his album Hard and Heavy. The band recognized it (it’s an old blues standard first recorded by Charles Seger in 1940), and they just started playing it improv-style. After they got going, Tom Dowd started recording. The jam apparently goes on for about 15 minutes before what’s on the album actually starts.

I can imagine “Key to the Highway” going on forever; no beginning, no end. The musicians never tire, never sweat, never get bored or let their minds wander. It’s a picture of heaven for me. I’ve heard lots of things from lots of people about heaven, but my  mom’s description is the one that sticks with me. She says heaven will be all God’s children singing endless praise to him, ceaselessly giving him the glory due his name in a progression that never stops. To complete that picture, I use “Key to the Highway.” When we get to heaven, we will never get tired of playing those 8 measures.

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.

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