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zigbot
(cracked actor)
07/21/04 02:22 PM
Revisiting Mr. Ed  

In a wonderful thread started by joe_c_ lion =>here, there was the beginning of a great discussion about one of my favorite Tin Machine songs, Goodbye Mr. Ed.

Anyone have any new thoughts on who Mr. Ed is, and what the song is about?

I have the sense that joe was on to something when he said the song was about painters and art.

I got to thinking whether it was about our misuse, abuse, neglect, or failure to recognize and reward art for what it adds to our lives.

The ghost of Manhattoes
Shrieking as they fall
From AT&T
Someone sees it all
Goodbye Mr. Ed

Andy's skull enshrined
In a shopping mall near Queens
Someone sees it all


"Manhattoes" was the name of a painting by Eric Fischl, and the Manhattoes were a native tribe that inhabited NYC. I also agree with joe_c_lion that the reference to "Andy's skull" is a reference to Andy Warhol and perhaps his painting of a skull, which joe provided a link to in the earlier discussion.

These first few lines of the song I see as art trying to break free of how we humans limit or abuse it. I picture the "Manhattoes" painting hanging in a board room of some sterile corporation housed in the AT&T tower, where no one recognizes the art as anything more than a wall decoration. I picture the art becoming animated, incarnate, and jumping to its death/escape just to get out of this sterile environment. It's shrieking as it falls--shrieks of pain and release.

Meanwhile, Andy's skull painting is "enshrined in a shopping mall in Queens." Again, an odd place for art. It is "enshrined" and probably displayed somewhere with some reverance and care, but it's in a damn shopping mall for God's sake! No one there probably appreciates it.

These works of art, simply by being placed in irreverant settings, are being ignored. But, Bowie warns "someone sees it all," letting us know that someone IS seeing through the corporate takeover of art and recognizing it for what it is.

Icarus takes his pratfall
Bruegel on his head
Goodbye Mr. Ed


This is my favorite set of lyrics from this song. Icarus takes his “pratfall.” Interesting phrasing, that. In Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape With The Fall of Icarus, which is used with such great effect in the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth, we see a pastoral scene of rural life-as-usual. There are people stirring about and tending the land, animals grazing, a quiet body of placid water. Nothing spectacular—until you notice, in the lower right corner, a small splash in that otherwise still water. Icarus has fallen. Only his legs remain visible, as he falls head first into the water. Yet his fall is undetected. A great and sorryful thing has occurred, yet no one seems to have noticed it at all.

In The Man Who Fell To Earth there is a scene where the camera focuses on an art book with the Bruegel painting on the right page, and the following notation on the left page:

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to do on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

But in Bowie’s recounting of the story in Goodbye Mr. Ed, Icarus is taking a “pratfall.” He is not only drawing attention to himself, but doing so deliberately, flamboyantly, and perhaps with a sense of irony or artistic expression—performance art, if you will. By taking his dramatic pratfall, Icarus turns “Bruegel on his head,” giving the painter’s version of the undetected fall the big middle finger. “Fuck you, Mr. Bruegel,” Icarus personified seems to be screaming, “if I have to die, I will do so in grand, melodramatic, and show-stopping fashion.” Art will be heard. Art will be seen. Even though many a man’s real fall from grace may go undetected, turn it into art and the fall will be noticed, remembered, and applauded.

You will recall that in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Newton splashes down in a similar fashion, and assumes his fall to Earth was undetected. Yet "someone sees it all"--a strange, shadowy man did see Newton, and his having been seen eventually led to his betrayal. The somewhat ominous refrain of "someone sees it all" throughout Goodbye Mr. Ed reminds us that someone is watching, and that there will be accountability at the end of the day.

Four and twenty black kids
Some of them are blind
Someone sees it all
Tolerance of violence
By the fellows with no heads
Goodbye Mr. Ed


I haven't really analyzed this part yet. But I agree with joe_c_lion's observation that Bowie is paraphrasing of the following children's poem:

Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn't that a dainty dish,
To put before the king?
The king was in the counting-house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlor,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird,
And bit her on the nose.

This amazing blackbird pie is brought for the king, yet he doesn't even appreciate it. He is too busy counting his cash. The queen is stuffing her face with food, and the lowly servant is going about her chores. Everyone is either too pompous, pampered, or downtrodden to bother to notice beauty, art, or a scene as surreal as singing blackbirds emerging from a pie. Art and beauty go undetected yet again, but in the limmrick, one of the blackbirds takes revenge. It bid the maid's nose! "I will not be ignored," the blackbird personified seemed to say.

But in Bowie's retelling, the blackbirds are now black kids, and some of them are blind, although "someone sees it all." He also notes it is "tolerance of violence by the fellows with no heads." Not entirely sure what this means, other than perhaps a commentary on the white elite ignoring the plight of minorities and being blinded to their struggle and their reality. Instead, the rich would rather count their money, stuff their faces, and buy art they don't even like, notice or understand, just so that they can possess it. A sad, hoarder's mentality driving their fat, empty lives.

Some things are so big
They make no sense
History's so small
People are so dense
Someone sees it all
Goodbye Mr. Ed


I think this is a comment on how history only selectively records the human experience. Dispite all the "big" incomprehensible things we all encounter in our lives, we don't understand most of them, so we never record them properly. Consequently, recorded history remains "so small," for people are "so dense." Again, though, Bowie ominously warns us that the facade is not perfect. Some CAN see through it. "Someone sees it all."

Never mind the Pistols
They laid the Golem eggs
Others came to hatch them
Outside the pale
Someone sees it all
Goodbye Mr. Ed


As joe_c_lion noted, the word "Golem" means embryonic or primitive matter. So, here we are told to "never mind the pistols," which is clearly a reference to The Sex Pistols, because although they laid the eggs of a new musical style, "others came to hatch them." Other artists appropriated what the Pistols had started to germinate, and it seems Bowie is saying the later artist improperly got the praise that should have gone to the Pistols. I think this is another statement about the abuse of art, sometimes by artists themselves. They steal from one another, appropriate each other's ideas, take all the credit, and forget to thank their inspirations. But "someone sees it all," they will be accountable.

Which leads us to the final--and unanswered--question: Who the Hell is Mr. Ed? I can't imagine it's the horse from the old TV show, or maybe it could be. I (thankfully) was born in the 60s and did not have to endure the 50s, a decade I view as unbearably obcessed with creating an image of perfection and domestic bliss while under the surface all the bile that would erupt into the 60s was festering. I despise the fake perfection of 50s images and 50s values. So maybe Bowie is kissing all that b.s. goodbye, in the form of Mr. Ed.

Or, I was wondering if the "Mr. Ed" might be an artist whose first name is Edward. I got to thinking a bit about Edward Hopper, a NY-born American realist painter. Maybe Bowie is saying goodbye to realism at a time when the world--and the art world--is embracing a more chaotic, and more "realistic" view of itself as expressed in surrealist or impressionistic art. Was "realism" really real? Or was it all a fake veneer, kind of like the 50s images of wholesomeness. Isn't "reality" more like surrealist images than it is like the serene still-life depictions the realist painters once produced?

Goodbye to Edward Hopper. Goodbye to realism. Goodbye to the corporate takeover of art by those least equipped to understand and be moved by it. Goodbye Mr. Ed. Your end is near. The facade is breaking. "Someone sees it all," and your lies will be exposed and you will be betrayed.

Did any of this make sense? LOL

zigbot

I'm Bowie's "Publicist"

schizophrenic
(crash course raver)
07/21/04 02:35 PM
Re: Revisiting Mr. Ed new [re: zigbot]  

I actually think it is a reference to the Mister Ed TV show. By saying Goodbye Mr. Ed, he's sort of saying goodbye to the era from which he sprang, as well as the values and naivité that era represented. The lyrics seem to sketch out a sort of dystopian landscape where the head of a famous artist like Warhol would be put on display like some sort of tacky museum piece, in a shopping mall no less.

Eno Is God.

zigbot
(cracked actor)
07/21/04 04:56 PM
Re: Revisiting Mr. Ed new [re: schizophrenic]  

Hi, schizophrenic, yeah, that is my best guess as well. As I mentioned in my post, I see the 50s as a very disingenuous time, with hollow, hateable values. And Bowie saying "goodbye" to all that in the personage (or, is it horse-anage?) of Mr. Ed makes some sense.

I also wonder if it has a connection to a painter named Edward also, though, because Bowie has a knack for duality in his referential work.

I'm also specifically baffled by who "the fellows with no heads" are. Still trying to untangle all this.

zigbot

I'm Bowie's "Publicist"

schizophrenic
(crash course raver)
07/21/04 05:34 PM
Re: Revisiting Mr. Ed new [re: zigbot]  

Well, if someone has no head, they are blind, deaf, and brainless. So, if we were to use that interpretation, then we could see that line as a swipe at bigotry, especially when placed right next to the "four and twenty black kids" line.

Eno Is God.

zigbot
(cracked actor)
07/21/04 06:00 PM
Re: Revisiting Mr. Ed new [re: schizophrenic]  

You're probably right. Also, one who has "lost his head" is thought to be an idiot.

I also like the juxtaposition of noting that some of the "black kids" are "blind," but that the other "fellows" Bowie speaks of are far worse off--they have "no heads," which makes them blind, deaf, dumb, stupid, and even dead. They are dead to their surroundings, and clueless.

zigbot

I'm Bowie's "Publicist"

AdamAdministrator
(acolyte)
07/21/04 09:49 PM
Re: Revisiting Mr. Ed new [re: zigbot]  

This is a tremendously written interpretation, zigbot.

As you pointed out earlier, Bowie talks about the "black kids" who "are blind" and the implication that no one cares.

Now I am thinking that the 'fellows with no heads' are the people that have no 'race' or no 'opinion' about anything.

The people with no race and no opinion are the new wave of pseudo politically correct. They subscribe to the view that race does not exist and that everyone is the 'same' on all levels. These people cut off their own heads and everyone's elses heads to stay 'above' all race issues and take a moral high ground. But in doing so, they are often as guilty as the next person (or perhaps more so) when it comes to real race issues and what they are prepared to do about it.

This desire for 'sameness' by the 'fellows with no heads' is similar to how Andy's skull ends up in shopping malls because no one any longer appreciates the 'difference' and the art that made the difference.



Bowie in Australia 2004 | Join the Community

zigbot
(cracked actor)
07/22/04 02:38 PM
Re: Revisiting Mr. Ed new [re: Adam]  

Well said, Adam. Yes, the "fellows with no heads" are certainly in denial. One can "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" if one has no eyes, ears, mouth or head. And what they are in denial about is, in part, the value of difference.

I get extraordinarily annoyed when I hear anyone discuss a goal of a "colorblind society." That's ridiculous. The goal NEVER ought to be making ourselves blind to differences; rather, we should see them more clearly, understand their value, and learn to see the majestic beauty in people and things that differ from a narrow "norm."

The idea that the Mr. Ed reference is to the horse, the TV show, and (symbolically) to the 1950s in general, is strengthened by this reading of the headless fellows. I view the 1950s as a time of massive and unhealthy denial. All the strife and protest that erupted in the 60s was brewing during the 50s, yet people ignored it under a sheen of orderliness, purity, chastity, and ignorance.

As fathers came home from work and said "honey I'm home" while taking off their hats, and as mothers wore flouncy dresses and pearls while cooking the family dinner of meat and potatoes, and while their children were accomplices to the projection of happiness and banal "normalcy," a lot was going on under the surface. But people chose to ignore it.

This song is the kiss-off to that decade of pathological denial--and to any modern-day remnants of thought processes and biases that hark back to such ignorance. "Goodbye, Mr. Ed," you have been exposed! "Someone sees it all."

zigbot

I'm Bowie's "Publicist"

power2charm
(stardust savant)
07/23/04 01:45 PM
Neo-dadaism is Neo-dadaism, of course, of course new [re: zigbot]  

You have annoyed me enough with your interpretation that I will comment, right now, just to get started gathering my thoughts, later maybe with something more comprehensive.

Bowie in the early 90s was very into the fine arts scene in New York. He commented in an interview in about 1990 or '91 that modern artists had to have a good story or pitch for their work. The art piece itself was only part of the equation. This observation was not completely derogatory, but more on the order of, that's the way it's done now. Traditionally, one thinks of artists being reticent, or even irked, to have to explain what their art "means."

Some of this finds its way into Ed, I think, but like a few other TM songs, there is a larger social commentary.

The first bit has a bit of both art and social commentary - we stole Manhattan Island from its aboriginal inhabitants. Andy Warhol's art is ensconced in a shopping mall. What's the interplay, if any? We took the island from what we regarded then as little more than animals and three hundred years later the island is the center of “civilization”, one where art and sales are indistinguishable. I see the stanza as an introduction to the song’s main theme, which is gotten at more directly in the following stanzas.

The Icarus stanza does reference a piece of art, but I don't think zigbot or joe has adequately gotten at Bowie's intent. The Icarus myth is about human hubris - that man could think himself capable of flying to the sun. Of course Icarus fails. Breugel's painting suggests that, rather than being ambivalent about the attempt, people fail time and again to learn from their mistakes or to temper their hubris.

I think zigbot's emphasis on the word "pratfall" to inform her interpretation is incorrect. Pratfalls are done for comedic effect. Our hubris is amusing to Mr. Ed.

The four and twenty black kids stanza is all social commentary, as is the song's bridge ("Some things are so big..."). Except for the first line's obvious appropriation, I discount the blackbirds nursery rhyme as being useful to looking at this stanza. Bowie had in two or three other songs over the two TM albums commented on the relationship between economic blight and race relations in the US and the apathy at the highest political levels to address the two, inter-related problems.

Simply put, the poor tend to be black and the poor tend not to vote as a block for their interests ("some of them are blind"). Therefore, there is no reason to worry about the poor. In Under the God Bowie calls the government "rightwing dicks in their boiler suits" and here they are "fellows with no heads."

The bridge could be read to support my guess on Bowie's use of Bruegal/Icarus. We can't learn from history. It's too big and our minds are too small to process it and use its lessons to correct social injustice.

So instead, we descend again and again into violence and chaos, as represented by the Sex Pistols in the final part of the song. Bowie always seemed to disdain punk rock, and I think it was for political as much as aesthetic reasons. Chaos isn't an answer, says Bowie. Golems were Frankenstein’s monsters – so laying Golem eggs suggests the cycle of human hubris, of men trying to be god and creating only havoc in the attempt.

Someone sees it all. Who? Mr. Ed, I wager.

But why Mr. Ed, a talking horse sitcom star from the 1960s? I never watched a full episode of this program - it wasn't funny. But the idea was that Mr. Ed was about as smart as his human owner. The typical plot revolved around the owner’s ongoing effort to keep Ed and his extraordinary communication ability and intellect hidden from the rest of mankind. “Alf” did the same one-note trick in the 80s, replacing a talking horse with a space alien. The comedy in both programs was to make the human characters look like oafs who take themselves too seriously and have an undeserved sense of self importance. The horse and the alien acted as observers, humorists, who pointed out and gently mocked our foibles.

That Bowie ever sat through an episode of this show is dubious, but if he's seen 15 minutes of it, he got the idea. And so he uses Mr. Ed, in this song, as the observer of humanity’s unfortunate drama. In the song, Mr. Ed has seen enough and is leaving us to our own folly, and ultimately, our own destruction.

"Once in Germany someone said 'nein'!" ~ Jeff Tweedy


zigbot
(cracked actor)
07/23/04 05:44 PM
Re: Neo-dadaism is Neo-dadaism, of course, of course new [re: power2charm]  

Wow! I'm glad I "annoyed" you enough to write such a thoughtful analysis.

zigbot

I'm Bowie's "Publicist"

EuropeanCanon
(crash course raver)
07/23/04 08:18 PM
Goodbye Mr Ed Koch new [re: zigbot]  

In reply to:

Who the Hell is Mr. Ed?


Now, for the life of me, I can't remember where I read this or who said it, but I seem to recall that the Mr Ed from the song was stated as being the former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch who, I believe, ended his tenure emboiled in some sort of scandal or corruption at around the time that Bowie composed the song.

When I sober up sufficiently or if I actually remember writing this post, I'll check to see if I can provide any sources otherwise, my sincere apologies for my rambling nature and complete lack of evidence to support my claim. At least there's another potential name entered into the hat alongside that of a talking horse.


Edit: I've just realised that I've written "emboiled" instead of "embroiled". I think I'll leave it in, however, because maybe Mr Ed was, or, should have been emboiled. Actually, I can't be that pissed if I noticed that. Or perhaps I am? Who knows? Sorry if I've just ruined your thread, zigbot. Incidentally, have I told you about my Bowie tattoo on my arse? Whaddya reckon, Rob, they should call me power2charm with lines like that.



Ich heisse super fantastische

Edited by EuropeanCanon on 07/23/04 08:23 PM (server time).




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