The title itself "Buddha of Suburbia" is striking, the term 'Buddha' conjures up images of wisdom, (The "search for the truth") and rejection of gross materialism. However "Suburbia" has the opposite associations, Suburbia is associated with affluence, wealth, even greed, Suburbia is a place of quiet and peace, satisfied (The opposite of a quest for truth and knowledge - which is turbulent). Therefore Buddha of Suburbia is a sort of Oxymoron. The title obviously refers to Bowie himself (interestingly he once considered becoming a Buddhist priest in his youth). The title is self-deprecating, Bowie was trying to be commercially mega successful, yet still to put his art and message above all else. The song reminisces about his life and career in three decades (Seventies, eighties and nineties).
Living in lies by the railway line
Pushing the hair from my eyes
Elvis is English and climbs the hills
Can't tell the bullshit from the lies
Screaming along in South London
Vicious but ready to learn
Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer
Sometimes but always in vain
These first line represent Bowie's 'Buddha' phase, and the seventies (you will see later how the other lyrics refer to Buddha-Suburbia and Suburbia stages). "Living in lies....from my eyes" - refers to the young long haired Bowie. "Living in Lies" refers to the homosexuality of his image, which he was actively promoting at the time of Hunky Dory (when he gave the "im gay" interview to "Music Melody"), and "Pushing the hair back from my eyes" refers to Long haired Hunky Dory Bowie, while also hinting at a search for truth (clearing his vision) . "bullshit from the lies" - Basically the people bought it, everyone was duped, the true Bowie was well shielded, and people were believing in his falsehoods. "Screaming along in South London" - "Screaming along" means singing along, this is in contrast to "Screaming above" which is mentioned later. "Screaming along" - also refers to a metaphorical train journey, which is how those who are poorer would travel (Bowie was poorer at this point), but it also refers to a rocky Journey, filled with unpredictability, see "Screaming above" later. "Vicious but ready to learn" - "Ready to learn" indicates he is at this stage a novice, learning, early in his career or mid-career (seventies). "Vicious" - this definetely refers to seventies Bowie, young angry and with a lot to say, exemplified by TMWSTW and TWD. "Sometimes i fear that the whole world is queer sometimes but always in vain" - "In vain" is a term used when you hope something happens (or do something to make it happen), because you want it to happen, but it doesnt or cant happen. When he says "Queer" he is possibly referring to odd, deviant, different, outside the mainstream (not homosexuality), then if the "whole world was queer" - he could produce the experimental unusual music he loves and become the mega-star, because the world would want good music instead of 'Hits'. But he may also be saying tongue and cheek - 'These people actually believed i was gay at the time! Doesnt that make them all queer?' - ie Because they wanted to believe it. Because he had to pretend he was gay then to become popular. "In vain" is also him saying that his flirtation with being seen as gay was a front. Bowie once said in an interview "Im not Homosexual...The audience is Homosexual". But he has never been able to throw off the image entirely.
Of course i thought of other directions for these lyrics, namely "Railway lines" also suggested the TWD (Station To Station) and railway station salute. Also Bowie's brother was killed by a train, and some people openly criticised Bowie for not caring about him. "Pushing the hair back from my eyes" - this made me think of comical Hitler impersonations, Heir Flick, Hitler had an affectation of brushing his hair to the side with his hand, and this was used by comics and satirists. Taken together these lines probably represent Bowie's seventies period (the symobolism of a train journey suits this well).
So I'll wait until we're sane
Wait until we're blessed and all the same
Full of blood, loving life and all it's got to give
Englishman going insane
Down on my knees in suburbia
Down on myself in every way
The chorus is Bowie in "Suburbia", no longer Buddha, this Bowie in the present (nineties). Insanity is actually instability, insanity (from Bowie's point of view) is variability, deviation from the norm, insanity carries (from Societies point of view) a negative connotation, but from Bowie's point of view it is Sanity which he decries, "Blessed and all the same" is boring, whereas in the eighties and nineties he was "never bored", he is now. Generally speaking, would living be any fun if everyone was the "same" and totally "Sane" anyway? Of course not. "Englishman going insane" is his way of stating that for him insanity is not doing what knows he should be doing, what he is good at. "Full of blood loving life and all its got to give Englishman going insane" - as i said earlier sanity is stability, so if Bowie is "full of blood and loving life and all its got to give", it raises the strong question of why Bowie is "going insane" (with insanity of course being a metaphor for deep dissatisfaction). This line is him wryly commenting upon himself as literally a victim of his success, progress comes usually through hunger, when you dont have, you want, but he has no hunger - "Full of blood". This line links his own artistic decline with his 'success', which is of course extremely ironic, the worst thing an artist or innovator can become is satisfied. "Full of blood" is particularly interesting in this regard, the David Bowie at the height of his artistic success (Diamond Dogs - Low) was a pale gaunt anemic figure. "Down on my knees in suburbia Down on myself in every way". "Suburbia" represents the comfortable, satisfied living, the steady ground. Bowie misses the times when he was sculpting his music to satisfy himself (and not some Board of directors or as a stunt (Tin Machine) which is why he is "Down on Himself", because he knows he can do much better. There could also be an underhanded suggestion of fellating himself (Fucking Himself) in these last two lines - "Down on my knees... Down on myself in every way", which might be how he regarded his career recent to writing those words (Fucking Himself). "Down on my knees" also contrasts strongly with "screaming along" (seventies - train imagery) and "screaming above" (eighties - plane imagery), it is also clever to refer to the changing turbulence of his career, From Train Journey To Plane Journey to total stasis "Down on my knees in Suburbia".
I also briefly explored the possibility that "Full of blood loving life and all its got to give Englishman going insane" - is him commenting upon media speculation about his own alleged 'fear of insanity', he rubbishes this with "Full of blood loving life" - ie - 'cant they see im really enjoying my life?'.
With great expectations I change all my clothes
Mustn't grumble at silver and gold
Screaming above Central London
Never bored, so I'll never get old.
Firstly let me say that these lines represent the transition from "Buddha" to "Suburbia", these lines represent his eighties career (Buddha suggests giving to others, Suburbia suggests greed, pre-eighties Bowie was certainly a lot more 'giving' to his fans than 'Suburban' Bowie). "Great Expectations" is an reference to the novel of the same name, where the main character seeks his own escape from poverty to fortune, ie goes from rags to riches "I change all my clothes" - this line could refer to Bowie (avant guard artist) becoming Bowie (jet-set multi-millionaire). "Mustn't grumble at silver and gold" - "Silver" is associated with betrayal, "Gold" with greed, there is perhaps something of the 'Lets Dance' period in these lyrics, and possibly they represent his eighties. "Screaming above Central London" - "Screaming along" being a humble position to take, as opposed to the possibly arrogant (though more likely to mean merely superlative -Superstar) "screaming above". Im not sure about London locations, but "Central London" is in contrast to "South London", (Bowie lived in South London in the early seventies) but at the very least it is suggesting a different stage of his life, also possibly "above" means being more successful than "along", or possibly self-criticism, with "above" being more arrogant than "along", as mentioned above in the "Buddha" part, "screaming along" suggests a train journey (Bowie's early career), but "Screaming above" refers to a plane journey, more commonly used by the wealthier, smooth it is, and the view is great, and you go far, but its less turbulent (and turbulence fuels art) and less exciting.
Zane, Zane, Zane
Ouvre le chien
Zane, Zane, Zane
Ouvre le chien
"Day after day after day..." broadly seems to suggest Boredom. Bowie was "never bored so ill never get old" during the Buddha (seventies) and Buddha-Suburbia (eighties) periods, but he no longer feels that way now in Suburbia (nineties). "Zane Zane Zane Ouvre le Chien" is obviously from All The Madmen, the line means express yourself, explore all regions of your imagination, its a mantra of creativity. This part of the song is also Bowie wistfully remembering the highs of his career, when his music was consistently brilliant, when brilliance was routine...."Day after Day after...Ouvre Le Chien".
In reply to:
(Bowie lived in South London in the early seventies)
And in some of the 40s, all of the 50s and most of the 60s (if you count Bromley as South London, which it is, more or less). Hanif Kureishi went to the same school as Bowie (though later), in Bromley
In reply to:
i too was thinking it may have been written with two themes in mind, bit of a coincidence if not, i think
Not so much. Kureishi was at the same school as DB, but a few years later and the novel itself is semi-autobiographical. Hence his schoolmate, Charlie Kay, becomes first a glam pop star, then as time progresses a punk (just like many others of that generation), changing his image with the times - just like someone we know.
In reply to:
and he does sing..."Down on my knees in Suburbia"
I'd always interpreted that as specifically referring to the scene in the book/TV show when Karim is having sex with the suburban couple and the guy invites him to fellate him, and he does (there's an interesting parallel here with the famous Mick Rock photo(s) of Bowie/Ziggy and Ronno on stage).
Of course one could also interpret it as a reference to the religious themes of the story, kneeling being a tradition position of supplication during prayer, both in Buddhism and Christianity. Sex and the Church, indeed.
Who knows what evil lurks in the knees of men?
The Shadow knows