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LaughingGnoome
(crash course raver)
08/14/03 09:26 PM
TMWSTW Interpretation Thread  

I think TMWSTW is one of the most interesting albums to interpret (along with Scary Monsters and Hunky Dory), so i have started this thread to include some interpretations of the songs on this album.

To start with...

After All

The name of the song After All, refers to the after life, belief in what happens after we die. I suggest that young Bowie's beliefs differ from those of greater society (ie the believers) in this regard, and this song is an account of his own beliefs which appear to border on nihilism.

Please trip them gently, they don't like to fall, Oh by jingo
There's no room for anger, we're all very small, Oh by jingo
We're painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies, from paradise
But they think that we're holding a secretive ball.
Won't someone invite them
They're just taller children, that's all, after all


This song is about Bowie discussing his own beliefs and the beliefs of humanity, the lyrics are touched with scorn and resignation. "Please trip them gently" refers to greater society (who are presumably not as 'enlightened' as he in terms of his philosophy of free will), ie greater society restricting their own behaviour out of fear of metaphysical consequences perhaps, the words "please trip them gently", means wake them up enlighten them, but not too harshly - "gently" because people will become angry and obstinate when their religious beliefs are ridiculed. "Theres no room for anger" - "anger" lives in the mind, so this means our minds are too limited ("were all very small") and if he doesnt "trip them gently" then anger will take up too much of their tiny minds and there will be no room left to absorb the message. Outsiders see him and his kind as a sort of secret society "secretive ball", but in reality anyone can join. Several times in this song, he refers to greater humanity as children "they're just taller children". "We're painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies from paradise" - "dressing in thoughts from the skies from paradise" means they are enjoying themselves, the 'thoughts' they are entertaining concern their own pleasure here on earth, ie "from paradise".

Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown, Oh by jingo
So hold on to nothing, and he won't let you down, Oh by jingo
Some people are marching together and some on their own
Quite alone
Others are running, the smaller ones crawl
But some sit in silence, they're just older children
That's all, after all


"Man is an obstacle" means that people are walking obstacles, they impose conditions and restrictions on themselves. "Sad as the clown", this does not bring happiness "sad", describing a human as a 'clown' is derogatory of course, clown = fool. "So hold on to nothing and he wont let you down", here God is referred to as "nothing" which these people are holding on to, "he wont let you down" is something religious people say to describe God watching over them. There is another way of viewing this line, ie if Bowie is advocating that people should hold on to "nothing", then they cannot lose, because "nothing" will not condemn them when they die "let you down". "Some people are marching together and some on their own, quite alone" - "marching" means marching through life, some people march with other people, some are loners, Bowie suggests there is no God or other presence watching over these lonely people "quite alone". And then there is the notion of equality, or rather inequality, some have more ability than others "others are running", while there are those are limited in terms of their ability "the smaller ones crawl". Bowie then dismisses the inactive thought-obsessed people as "older children".

I sing with impertinence, shading impermanent chords,
With my words
I've borrowed your time and I'm sorry I called
But the thought just occurred that we're nobody's children at all, after all
Live your rebirth and do what you will, Oh by jingo
Forget all I've said, please bear me no ill, Oh by jingo
After all, after all


"I sing with impertinence", yes impertinence means he speaks out of place, he challenges higher authorities. "Ive borrowed your time and im sorry i called" This is a parody of a religious person knocking on your door (eg Jehovah's W) trying to convert you, however his message is the opposite, "the thought just occurred that we're nobody's children at all", all throughout the song the religious believers are described as 'children' presumably of God, here Bowie denies the existence of a heavenly 'father' for these 'children'.
"Live till your rebirth" is Bowie's advice, enjoy your life, live it to the fullest, because you will be reborn (rebirth is most typical in the buddhist belief) anyway. "And do what you will" means do what you like, ie there is no absolute morals, morality changes with time, so there is no point trying to keep up, form your own personal morals as you are comfortable with (This is a teaching of Nietzsche, and also Crowley used it "Do what thou wilt"). "Forget all ive said please bear me no ill" is a peaceful tolerant message from Bowie, he isnt insisting that others believe what he is telling them, unlike the real-life religious caller.




strangeDivine
(cracked actor)
08/14/03 11:25 PM
Changeyourmind-change-your-mind-changing new [re: LaughingGnoome]  

I like you interpretation quite a lot. I think it is also interesting that "jingo" is a Basque word that means "god." I had no idea what jingo meant until I came across it in a list of words borrowed to the English by other languages. The phrase "by God" could be taken in literally an infinite number of ways, and could suggest a hell of a lot of possible meanings. I've heard it used simply as an exclamation "by God I think he's got it." Or, it could be used in a religious context. "By the grace of God..." Just some fodder.

Also, I think the "hold on to nothing" lyric, is one of the most central lines in the song. In fact, it is quite a Buddhist thing to say. The idea is that to find peace that transcends individual situations, which are completely dependent on circumstances that one can't control, one must sever attatchments and desire, as desire is the foundation of suffering. You must accept the constant passing of all things. Also, it fits in with this existential Nietzscheian philosophy which he seems to be proclaiming here. You have to be willing to change and accept your reality as it is presented to you and not feel utterly controlled by the things you were taught and the predjudices which you are still hanging on to. He is telling you that you should be brave and be able to leave things behind and change your mind, change-your-mind-changing. Which is, not surprisingly, one of the only constants that has marked the man's career and life.

Perhaps I will have some more ideas later.

Don't go near the audience. Leon, can you hear?

Blooby
(kook)
08/15/03 07:23 AM
Re: TMWSTW Interpretation Thread new [re: LaughingGnoome]  

Good interpretation. I think the major theme is really nihilism i.e. the belief in nothing which he restricts at the same time by mentioning "rebirth" and "forget all I've said" as if he wasn't sure himself about his own thoughts ("the though just occured that we're nobody's children").

In reply to:

Please trip them gently, they don't like to fall, Oh by jingo
There's no room for anger, we're all very small, Oh by jingo
We're painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies, from paradise
But they think that we're holding a secretive ball.
Won't someone invite them
They're just taller children, that's all, after all


Here I would interpret a little bit differently.

Instead of saying "We're painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies, from paradise" means that humanity is enjoying itself and the pleasures on earth, I would say that it stands for their (in his view) silly beliefs in another better world.

The comparism with "children" means that humanity isn't wise at all or doesn't know much.
On the other hand "children" are a kind of symbol for unlimited faith. They believe nearly everything you tell them. Jesus said about children that you have to become like them to get to heaven. When you see it like this, to be a child is quite a good thing.

In reply to:

Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown, Oh by jingo
So hold on to nothing, and he won't let you down, Oh by jingo
Some people are marching together and some on their own
Quite alone
Others are running, the smaller ones crawl
But some sit in silence, they're just older children
That's all, after all


Here I would say that everyone of us is going through life in a different way but that, in the end, it doesn't really matter how you do it. Just to sit in silence seems to be "wrong", though.

Hmmm, and finally:

In reply to:

"Live till your rebirth" is Bowie's advice, enjoy your life, live it to the fullest, because you will be reborn (rebirth is most typical in the buddhist belief) anyway. "And do what you will" means do what you like, ie there is no absolute morals, morality changes with time, so there is no point trying to keep up


For me the line "Live till your rebirth and do what you will" suggests more that Bowie has thought about the sense of life and didn't find any. So he recommends to do what you will because it doesn't matter anyway. For me it has nothing to do with "enjoying life" but with nihilism again.





Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well

zigbot
(kook)
08/15/03 01:43 PM
Re: TMWSTW Interpretation Thread new [re: LaughingGnoome]  

Great interpretation, LaughingGnoome. I had to laugh, though, thinking back to the FIRST time I ever heard this song (over 20 years ago). For the longest time I thought it was only about young people and old people, the young being the "small" ones and the aged ones being no more than "taller children." LOL. I thought it was a plea for youth to be patient with the older generation, for they, too, are children, just "taller" ones. I don't think that's what the song is about at all, but my early simplistic interpretation makes me realize how Bowie's lyrics work: they can be as deep as you want them to be.

Beautiful song.

Zigbot

LaughingGnoome
(crash course raver)
08/15/03 05:16 PM
Re: Changeyourmind-change-your-mind-changing new [re: strangeDivine]  

In reply to:

Good interpretation. I think the major theme is really nihilism i.e. the belief in nothing which he restricts at the same time by mentioning "rebirth" and "forget all I've said" as if he wasn't sure himself about his own thoughts ("the though just occured that we're nobody's children").


Since these are Bowie's own thoughts and feelings, and he is sort of intelligent, i dont think we can squeeze him into a single bracket like Nihilism (and then say that he ascribes to everything a nihilist would ascribe to), i think he was partially influenced by this as with lots of thought schools, Buddhism, Crowleyism etc (perhaps even Christianity). For the most part... 'true' nihilists would probably be folk who read a book concerning what Nihilism is, and then followed its 'teachings' like a religion. For most of the rest of us, some of our beliefs might overlap with this philosophy, but they would never be fixed upon it completely, particularly Bowie, who was interested in Crowley, who advocated indulgence and the importance of doing what you want, to give yourself pleasure.

In reply to:

I like you interpretation quite a lot. I think it is also interesting that "jingo" is a Basque word that means "god."


Well spotted, i would never have guessed that (Hell a professor of European languages probably wouldnt have guessed that ). And its interesting because, i think the phrase "By Jingo" has common usage as well (or had). Sort of like a really polite upper class swear word. "By Jingo youve done it" - something like that.

As for the rest of what you wrote, i agree with it very much, good perspective on that way of thinking.

In reply to:

I had to laugh, though, thinking back to the FIRST time I ever heard this song (over 20 years ago). For the longest time I thought it was only about young people and old people, the young being the "small" ones and the aged ones being no more than "taller children." LOL. I thought it was a plea for youth to be patient with the older generation, for they, too, are children, just "taller" ones. I don't think that's what the song is about at all, but my early simplistic interpretation makes me realize how Bowie's lyrics work: they can be as deep as you want them to be.


Its that sort of song, it probably can be interpreted in many different ways, its not like hes relating the circumstances of a specific real-life event, hes just giving us some of what he is thinking at the time, he was young, and young people like to think they know it all! So that sort of comes across as well with some of the lyrics "taller children" etc. Young people desperately need solidity, to view the universe in a stable way (particularly after the chaos of adolescence), so their views are often well...strong.

But i dont think your observation about "taller" children etc, is coincidental as i thought the same thing. It may be part of what he means, after all (pun unintended) children are unburdened by the same restrictions and cares as adults. They "do what you will" without even thinking about it. Then calling adults "children" could be advising them to learn from children in this respect, or something like that.




LaughingGnoome
(crash course raver)
08/15/03 06:20 PM
Width Of A Circle new [re: LaughingGnoome]  

The Width Of A Circle

Introduction

The title Width Of A Circle, may be a sexual/anatomical reference as i learned in another thread:). However the title also has a hidden meaning, in Bowie's view (at the time) we are all subject to rebirth, we live we die and are reborn (see After All - "Live till Your Rebirth and Do What You Will"), this is the "circle". Now the "Width" of this circle represents the value your life has here on earth and while you are alive, Bowie argues that we should just do what we want, to enjoy our lives while we have them, not to get hung up on guilt or to impose restrictions upon ourselves based upon how we imagine God wants us to be. Thus the "Width Of A Circle" means how much enjoyment and experience you fit into a single life here on earth. Since religion (as an example) teaches that we control our behaviour for the sake of were we go to in the afterlife, the probable message here is that even if this were true (which he doesnt believe anyway - "When God did take my logic for a ride"), it would be better to spend the afterlife with fellow sinners.

Update: This song is a comical parody of the story of how man came to be tempted by the 'devil' in the Garden Of Eden, only here the narrator (who doesnt believe in 'sin' as being a force working against God - ie the Devil) is portrayed as both devil and Adam simultaneously. There may be heavy Milton influences at work here also.

In the corner of the morning in the past
I would sit and blame the master first and last
All the roads were straight and narrow
And the progress small and yellow
And the rumour spread that I was aging fast
Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping
By a tree.
And I looked and frowned and the monster was me

He is young and innocent. He is unhappy with God "master" because a devout life is boring "all the roads were straight and narrow", he refers to progress (the TW lyrics are wrong, progress? is the best i could do - darnit i wish i had the 'actual' lyrics) as being "small and yellow" yellow means cowardly, meek. He is also aware of his mortality, saying "and that rumor spread that i was ageing fast" is the same as saying, 'my time on earth is short'. He encounters himself (or a manifestation of his own character - a less pious side of his own nature), simultaneously the 'monster' may be thought of as Satan, or Satan taking the form of another version of himself, discovered inside himself. Though i feel these lyrics are affirming the inseparability of the temptation to do things in life which contravene 'gods laws' and one's own natural character, 'monster' is how religion views this side of him, but he realises that its just him. This point represents a divergence of opinion in his character, he realises he would like to try something new and 'forbidden' by religion. This new side of himself is the monster sleeping by a tree. The 'tree' here is where the Garden Of Eden imagery really begins, for this 'tree' is the tree of Knowledge, who's fruit was forbidden.

Well, I said hello and I said hello
And I asked "Why not?" and I replied "I don't know"
So we asked a simple black bird, who was happy as can be
And he laughed insane and quipped "KAHLIL GIBRAN"
So I cried for all the others till the day was nearly through
For I realized that God's a young man too

The part "and i asked "why not?" and i replied "i dont know" is as follows, he wishes to try something God forbids, so he asks himself "why cant i do this? Whats so wrong with it?" and in truth he cannot give a satisfactory answer why he he should be forbidden to do it "i dont know", these two versions of himself represent the split or divergence in his character described above, one is 'good' the other is 'bad'.. The "simple black bird" is perhaps a reference to Satan (this song is very heavy on the Garden Of Eden imagery - only here we have a black bird instead of a serpent), who is "happy as can be" - the choice of a blackbird is interesting, can fly (free) and generally associated with evil (esp black). Kalil Gibran (misspelt in lyrics) was a famous lebanese philosopher and poet, who spoke many wise words as to how you should live your life, he was the polar opposite of say Alastair Crowley, so the blackbird is mocking them (him) by calling him Kalil Gibran, ie because (like Gibran) he is showing restraint and seeking enlightenment by questioning instead of just doing. Like Adam, He indulges himself, then feels pity for the 'others' who live restricted lives in the name of God "so i cried...nearly through", because in his new understanding surely a God would permit him to explore himself and his apetites, surely God would understand... "Gods a young man too".

So I said "So long" and I waved "Bye-bye"
And I smashed my soul and traded my mind
Got laid by a young bordello
I was vaguely half asleep
For which my reputation swept back home in drag
And the morals of his magic spell
Negotiates my hide
When God did take my logic for a ride
(Riding along)

He now has 'traded' his mind with the other version of himself "the monster" - "So i said so long" is a sexual pun on what he has just done. "so i smashed my soul". He then visits a seedy district and has sex near a brothel (Bordello). His 'reputation' then became associated with homosexual acts "swept back home in drag" as a result, suggesting the encounter was homosexual. On first glance it appears that the "morals of his magic spell" is referring to the devil having cast a spell upon him, but actually it is God who is imagined as having been screwing him "negotiates my hide", not actually but in terms of perverting his 'logic', "morals of his magic spell" says it all - morals being associated with God and described disdainfully as a "magic spell". Also the prostitution imagery of 'bordello' resurfaces here as 'negotiates my hide'.

He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame
He said "You'll never go down to the Gods again"
(Turn around,go back!)

He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said "Do it again, do it again"
(Turn around,go back!)

His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil's love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said "Do it again, do it again"
(Turn around, go back!)

Breathe, breathe, breathe deeply
And I was seething, breathing deeply
Spitting sentry, horned and tailed
Waiting for you [laughs]

This last part is at its most basic a veiled account of the "ride" god took his "logic" on which is summarised in "God did take my logic for a ride riding along". It begins with a description of a sadomasochistic episode between God (master) and the narrator (slave), this relationship is also established at the beginning of the song "sit and blame the master first and last", the s&m language of "master" is deliberate and compliments the idea of a spanking, outlined here. "The gods" here means 'forbidden' sexual practices (homosexuality) and is a reference to the Roman and Greek Gods. "Turn around go back!" confirms that the narrator is 'enjoying' this so much he wishes to be naughty again. God sends him to hell as punishment for tempting himself (remember the devil and the man are one and the same). In hell then, in hell God is described as having a "tongue swollen with devils love" (Hate possibly). "the snake and i a venom high", "the snake and i" has several possibilities.. firstly it suggests the idea that Adam and the Devil are one and the same, second it is the beginning of the narrators transformation into serpent form. "The Snake" is also a sexual innuendo. Then finally the narrator is transformed into a devil himself, "breathe deeply" refers to the magical spell, to transform him into a serpent "I was seething breathing deeply". His fate is to become a serpent (this is the fate of Satan after tempting mankind) "spitting sentry horned and tailed, waiting for you". All of this 'ride' represents a parody of the screwing up of his "logic" by the classical western ideas of religion.

The garden of Eden imagery is intriguing, i was thinking there may be something of Paradise Lost in these lyrics. What if the last four verses refer to Satan's punishment for tempting mankind to sin as described in Miltons epic poem, the punishment for the demons in hell was to be transformed into serpent form, which is exactly what happens at the end of the song. This would also be interesting, could the line.... "In a corner of the morning in the past, i would sit and blame the master first and last" refer to Adam or to Satans rebellion? Ah now i understand! There is no separate devil in this version of the Eden/Milton Story, the 'devil' when he appears is always a part of himself, "I looked and frowned and the monster was me". And in the beginning..."I would sit and blame the master first and last", and at the end which is a telling of the story of how Satan was punished for tempting mankind by being transformed into a serpent. The narrator plays the role of Devil and Adam, but there is little distinction between them. This is all because Bowie never saw the 'sins' as sins as such, ie as him being tempted by an outside force such as the devil, he sees them as aspects of his own character.

The more i think about this song, the more i feel it is a homosexualised parody of the tale of the Garden Of Eden. There is no Eve though, the one who is 'tempted' is another aspect of himself, who first appears when with maturity he realises he feels desire to do something new..

strangeDivine
(cracked actor)
08/15/03 08:41 PM
Re: Width Of A Circle new [re: LaughingGnoome]  

In reply to:

And the progress small and yellow


My 1999 EMI booklet claims that the lyric is "and the prayers were small and yellow."

I feel that his discovery that "God is a young man too" indicates that he has come to the conclusion that the "gods" and "devils" that human beings invision are reflections of our own minds rather than concrete beings who exist independently of our own psyches, whether there is a independent "higher power" or not. Good and evil are also merely different sides of the human character rather than transcendental forces fighting for supremacy in the universe, and for the hearts of mankind. So, with this view of the action of the story seen in the light of the characters as personal, albeit cross-cultural, archetypal projections, the the story takes on an utterly masturbatory psychological tone. This could compliment the physical transgression, or the transgression could be a completely mental expansion into territory that was once seen as alien and immoral by the progagonist.

One is also inclined to wonder whether Bowie had taken an interest, or was at least exposed to the concepts of gnosticism. The image of the serpent is a central theme in Christianity as a representation of evil and transgression. It made it's appearance very early in the cannon. However, in art the serpent is often depicted as having some human female characteristics, and that is usually interpreted as being a reference to Lilith. And Lilith is one of the ultimate symbols of challenging the status quo of morality. In any light, the serpent is the giver of knowledge that either sets Adam and Eve free, or, in the orthodox Christian perspective, imprisons them in the clutches of sin and death. The gnostic traditions usually see this recieving of secret knowledge as a positive experience for these two primal humans; it is gnosis itself. They are set free from the control of this inferrior creator god who is unaware of his lack of omnimpotence. The tree of knowledge is their door to slipping away to the unknowable G-d with the secret name, and away from this reality of illusion.

Update: I wrote this entire post without having read your asides concerning the Garden of Eden references. This is a bit unsettling. Most of my post was written a couple of hours ago, but I had to abandon it by saving it in a Word document because I was interrupted.

Don't go near the audience. Leon, can you hear?

LaughingGnoome
(crash course raver)
08/15/03 08:56 PM
Re: Width Of A Circle new [re: strangeDivine]  

In reply to:

Update: I wrote this entire post without having read your asides concerning the Garden of Eden references. This is a bit unsettling. Most of my post was written a couple of hours ago, but I had to abandon it by saving it in a Word document because I was interrupted.


Im sorry about that...but yes my interpretation has changed to a huge extent (especially the last four verses) since two hours ago. I usually use a word processor as well, especially with my large posts, damn computers, never know when they might crash:).

In reply to:

My 1999 EMI booklet claims that the lyric is "and the prayers were small and yellow."


Then i accept it then, it actually fits a lot better than progress anyway, i just felt that it doesnt sound like prayers, but thanks for updating me on that. However his prayers being "small and yellow" could be another sexual innuendo, ie masturbation.




strangeDivine
(cracked actor)
08/15/03 09:06 PM
Re: Width Of A Circle new [re: LaughingGnoome]  

In reply to:

I'm sorry about that


There is no reason to be sorry about. I think it is rather cool. I was just commenting on this "same wave-length" thing again.

Don't go near the audience. Leon, can you hear?

LaughingGnoome
(crash course raver)
08/16/03 06:22 PM
Re: Width Of A Circle new [re: strangeDivine]  

In reply to:

I was just commenting on this "same wave-length" thing again.


Truly :)

As for the lyric "so we asked a simple blackbird, who was happy as can be, and he laughed insane and quipped Kalil Gbran" i was thinking about this lyric.

And then i realised Blackbird is very closely related to a Crow.

Crow = Crow-ley

Its possible :)




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