A lyrical interpretation
by Jonathan Greatorex
During an interview with `Creem' magazine, Bowie placed forward suggestions that all aspects of the media, from direct advertising, through to `factual' news reports, were processes of `consciousness manipulation'. This concept was also inherent, as a form of inspiration to Bowie, in the works of the author, William Burroughs,
Comparisons of the way such manipulation operates by referring to the Mayan culture of South America, before their eventual usurpation by the Toltecs.(Later the Toltecs were in turn disenthrowned by the Aztecs.)
Burroughs and Bowie were of the belief that any form of communication through language was politically disarming and unjustifiable as a form of transmission, other than as a distortion of reality. Their assumption was based upon the inferred use of `code words' which procure set responses in certain people and therefore distract from any form of reality beyond these people i.e. We only know what we think we know, from the limited range of vocabulary in our knowledge.
As seen in the discussion of `we Are The Dead', Orwell too believed that consciousness was restricted and controlled utter dependence upon words. As exemplified in `Nineteen Eighty Four', this form of restriction was carried to extreme levels by a virtual elimination of vocabulary, resulting in total loss of consciousness.
Any form of conceptual writing, for example the above paragraph, are statements which an author,(in the majority of cases), wishes to be interpreted in a certain context. What Burroughs sought to do, was an escape from this form of presentation to one which challenged the reader's awareness in a unique manner. He attained such responses by taking a pre-written piece of prose, literally cutting the written sentence in to several sections by using scissors, and then randomly rearranging the pieces of segmented language to form some new, unintentional thought. Bowie had a similar feeling towards language and message in his own medium, as shown by this 1972 statement:
`You see, the emphasis placed on what people are saying, and whether they're profound or not annoys me a little because I don't want to be profound. The aim of an artist is just to investigate. That's all I want to do; investigate and present the results.'
He incorporated Burrough's ideas into much of his lyrics, making the process of interpretation a fascinating study. However, Bowie's use of `cut-up' technique was not as overt as the originators. He purposely fractured much of his writings, taking three or four statements and inter-relating them. Where he differed from Burroughs was in his method of assemblage, He preferred to write sentences down and then think of juxtapositions to the initial idea.
Perhaps this form of writing was at it's most random on `Low', As will be seen later, his collaboration with Brian Eno produced an even more interesting variance on the theme. Eno incorporated the Burroughs technique beyond language, introducing it into a musical context on the second side of `Low', producing various `systems' of sound.
Despite Bowie's reservations concerning the `commercial' feeling of `Station To Station', it received favourable reviews, and the album was taken on the road in February 1976. Because Michael Lippman had been unable to procure rights for Bowie's soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth he and the singer argued and fell-out. Due to managerial ties with Lippman, Earl Slick also had to go, being replaced on the tour by Canadian guitarist, Stacey Heydon,
In addition to the Alomar/Davis/Murray trip, Tony Kaye was enlisted on piano. The stage lighting was entirely of monochrome design, producing various intensities of white light.
The prelude to each performance was a selection of Kraftwork's `Radioactivity', and the surreal Dali/Bunuel film - `Un Chien Andalou',
While Bowie was on tour, `The Man Who Fell To Earth' was unveiled in London, Angie attending the opening in Bowie's absence,
It was during his return to Britain, in May, that brought about considerable controversy concerning his alleged `fascist salute' to the crowds at Victoria Station, Defending his action, Bowie accused the press of scandalising the incident by photographing him in `mid-wave'.
If the film of the incident were to be analysed, he performed a `conventional wave' with his left hand, before raising his right arm, saluting, and quickly withdrawing it with a look of expectation on his face, A later statement seems to comply with the original motivation suggested by the media. Bowie reflected that `The whole Station To Station tour was done under duress. I was out of my mind totally, completely crazed.'
He accepts that the main thing he was functioning on was the mythology surrounding Hitler and Rightism, The aspect concerning racism and the purity of the Aryan breed had not actually occurred to him. He supports this by declaring that he and the black musicians he worked with had discussed together the Arthurian enigma and the whole magical side of the Nazi campaign. (See `Quicksand'). He also spoke of his difficulty in exposing and rejecting the Thin White Duke character along with the insidious nature of the material he had been reading,
During one of the Wembley concerts, he met Brian Eno backstage and requested that he accompany him to Berlin in order to inflect new musical techniques into Bowie's music. It was obvious to Bowie that there pervaded an overbearing feeling of anguish in the European East, "the particular `Zeitgeist' of the waves of fear and desperation.' Bowie remained adamant that he was always placing himself open to such feelings. What he does is `strictly feel in the older, detached things. It stems from just a feeling of what's actually going on around me; nothing I can particularly put my finger on.'
He felt that the period prior to 1976 was auto-destructive. He had come out of America with crumpled ideals, justifying Berlin as the perfect place he could have gone to escape Jumping from one point of view to another without taking account of the consequences. To that effect, both `Low' and `Heroes' possessed an emotional Consistency albeit one of distraught, withdrawn desperation.
Arriving in Berlin he had to face up to the fact that his pre-'76 defined viewpoints of how society was constructed and represented were a microcosm of his own fragmented and broken self, hence he felt like a society unto himself. The friends he acquired in Berlin were of his own age whose fathers had been SS men. This latter fact proved beneficial to ebbing fascistic leanings, as the majority of them were extreme left-wingers. He accused Los Angeles of being the instigator of,(By Bowie's standards), the `trap of referring back to rock all the time. I had blinkered myself to all the other musical possibilities..
..'Low' was a reaction of having gone through that peculiar dull green-grey limelight of American rock n' roll' He felt that if anyone who had anything to do with contemporary rock music went to live in Los Angeles, then they were just heading for disaster.
Apparently, even Eno, of whom Bowie had immense respect, couldn't last more than six weeks there despite his ability to adapt. And as Bowie laments: `But he was very clever: he got out much earlier than I did.'
In order to remove the shackles of Los Angeles, Bowie sought an environment which had to be a complete social reversal, and one of the most arduous city's he could think of was Berlin. `I think it's a very good therapeutic city for an artist to go to.'
In Berlin Bowie could become anonymous. He elected to live in the desolate and run-down section of Neukoln, above a small car spares shop. He and Iggy then pursued a tour of the place in order to immerse themselves in the West Berlin culture. Folk clubs and art-museums took precedence over the debilitating effects of prolonged exposure to Los Angeles and cocaine. RCA released `ChangesoneBowie' in May 1976. They are a profit- making organisation, oblivious to Bowie's sensitivity. In Tony Visconti's words: `Bowie was absolutely tired of being RCA's sure-bet. He felt he was losing his pioneer spirit.' According to Eno:'(Bowie)'s a terrific sponge, and, despite fame's insulation he knows whets going on.' `Low' was recorded primarily during September 1976, and represented Bowie's faith in himself, and not his record company's idea of a `megastar'. The pioneer spirit had returned, and he could cleave himself from the safe niche of a recording `superstar'.
Bowie's first instrumental recording. The music is of bleak, throbbing forbodence, demonstrating the cold, alienated attitude which is to dominate the rest of the album. The rhythm is transient, but not for the dental surgery. `Low' was to have been titled `New Music : For The Night And Day', which perhaps would've been more appropriate.
Speaking of the album's depressive nature, Visconti said: `He couldn't come up with any lyrics when he was doing the music and thus that's why everything seems to fade.'
On `Speed of Life', one is given the impression that Bowie was beginning to mellow with age. Gone is a blinkered, frenzied dash through existence at break-neck speed. More control is felt. The onus is on a gradual realisation of self- confidence, than paranoiac drive. The piece may be without lyrics, yet the workings of the rhythm section provide a pumping, steady beat. The statement seems to be one of `slow down, keep in control, and don't try to by-pass life by moving too fast.' This provides an odd juxtaposition; on one hand he is gaining greatly in self-confidence by being able to realise a position Steve Harley, a contemporary alluded to as "Being here, there and everywhere's fine, but do you have to be so swift all the time ?", Yet on the other, his solipsism acts like a cannibalistic threat.
`Breaking Glass' does contain lyrics, although the mood of the music appears as a central theme. These lyrics are unlike any Bowie had previously recorded, being far more simple and direct. There is little, if any, subtlety. This could have been due to, as Visconti suggested, Bowie being too low to think properly, or that he felt a concession to the Burrough's philosophy that clever expressionism was pointless: "Lately I've been breaking glass in your room again. Listen, don't look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it, see ?" Whatever the explanation, it seems clear through the very nature of the structure of the lyrics, that Bowie was in the depths of some metaphysical state within which he, and he alone, existed.
In accordance with the notes on `BowieNow', (RCA's promotion disc), `Breaking Glass' is an urban time bomb. It is a song which stabs deeply into modern western living: "You're such a wonderful person, but you've got problems."
The collapse and decay is appearing very personal.
The friends and hangers-on close to Bowie during his stay in Berlin, often remarked that his recent infatuation with-the city coincided with a segment of his life fraught with frustration and alienation. While trying to re-establish his own identity in the music industry, he was constantly aware of the legal problems associated with his litigation proceedings against Lippman.
This situation proved detrimental to his creative ability, the product of which was `Low', recorded at Hansa-by-the-Wall in West Berlin, and The Chateau in Paris. He had utterly eschewed the position of narrator, which had pre-occupied his earlier songs, and moved towards a more obscure position. Certain elements of Station To Station remained, which were to reach maturity in Low.
He wanted now to be depicted as an isolated being, living alone in a room, bathed in the most depressive of colours-blue. "Blue, blue, electric blue, that's the colour of my room where I shall live. Pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to read, nothing to say-Blue, blue."
`Sound and Vision' was, in Bowie's mind, the ultimate in human retreat songs. It was the first written for the album while in France, and marked an initial response at leaving America. In Bowie's own interpretation:
`It was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.'
Listening to the song, one can almost perceive a psychotic celebration of this withdrawal syndrome. This does not mean that there are streaks of masochistic inclinations, but moreover an acceptance of the solipsism as a means of shutting-out the previous American infused years.
The song has extreme proportions, but it should be understood that it was the first penned for the album, and therefore at it's heart holds a central theme. "Drifting into my solitude, over my head. Don't you wonder sometimes ?".
Bowie verified this by a statement released shortly after `Heroes' came out:
`It's something that's derived from method and process, with absolutely no idea of the consequences, and no pre- conceptions of any kind.'
Bowie views the provision of communication as an inspiration to be drawn from an external source, "Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.", in the same way in which he hoped love would have on `Station To Station.' Hearing the remainder of `Low's' lyrics, any form of communication is rendered sterile.
Always crashing in the same car
An allegorical song:-'constantly repeating the same mistakes' is a natural analogy to draw from the title of this track. "Every chance, every chance I take, take it on the road." The song certainly has a self-pitying theme, even suicidal, considering the envisaged distance from the `end'. "It's kilometres from the red-light." The idea for the song came from one of Bowie's vivid dreams. It's suicidal elements can be associated with his cleft from America. "I was always working left and right, but I'm always crashing in the same car."
Existence in the United States was considered destructive to his own interests and continuation. The repercussions of living there, and the difficulty of extricating himself painted a surreal dream-state. The re-evaluating experience included an awareness of the insipid colour his life was taking. "Jasmine, I saw you creeping."
Unfortunately, in this metaphorical dream, each time he tried to escape the circle,(In his room..'lost in his circle' as indicated on Station To Station), he found an increase in speed accompanied by a complete lack of motion. "as I put my foot down to the floor, I was Coins round and round the hotel garage. Must have been touching close to ninety-four." The suicide is therefore of an artistic nature. By praying on self-sympathy, he was pitifully attempting to explain the dull and repetitive pit into which his artistic leanings had fallen.
`Be My Wife' has a more universal application. There is a great deal of mental pain at stake, anguish which Bowie insists is sincere and non-affective. "Sometimes you get so lonely, sometimes you get nowhere ..please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife."
The plea for simplistic romance by using such naive requests epitomises the `feeling' of the concept. Here is a character devoid of love and spiritual fulfilment, ensconced in a small, motive-free room. In many respects it pinpoints the shedding of the last skin, for on a conceptual level it marks the first steps of `A new career in a new town'. Charades and theatricals dispensed with, the mature man emerges.
`A New Career In A New Town' has no words, but the impression it retains is a further enigmatic allegory. America, departed, the European Cannon is stationary. This provides time for the `career' to re-assert itself. Gone are the multiple facades, and the `personality true' can be mounded. As the opening of side two suggests, this real personality, (So frail when first exposed on Young Americans), is nourished by the presence of Brian Eno's creative force.
By dispensing with the various guises, the process of self-realisation becomes far more difficult as true personality cannot be adopted. The frustration of such an act renders the artist incapable of producing narrative articulations, as they are an integral blend of the past masks. The result is a construction of instrumental pieces of music, peppered with phonetic utterances, without meaning in any language, yet capable of providing a mood that produces `an astonishing feeling that you understand something from it.'
The often painful route to fruition Bowie accomplished in a musical sense during 1976-77, was therefore that of classicism, although his choice of medium naturally varied from that of the great composers. However, this was of little issue, and seeing that Bowie had his voracious finger in many pies during that time, he elected to call himself a `Generalist'.
Although `Warszawa' is the only track credited as being a Bowie/Eno joint effort the latter's presence is felt throughout the instrumental tracks on the second side of `Low'. As a result of this collaboration, Bowie's music had taken a radical departure from anything he had ever presented his public with before.
Conventional vocal techniques were totally abandoned, and those tracks where Bowie did indulge any form of human-voice usage were oblique, experimental phoneticisms, creating an alienated mood of extreme intensity. speaking of this music, Bowie cites;
'What he's (Eno) injected into it, is a totally new way of looking at it, or another reason for writing, he got me off narration which I was so intolerably bored with.'
`Warszawa' is about Warsaw, and the very bleak impression Bowie received concerning it's stifled atmosphere. Eno wrote the music while Bowie was engaged in the Parisian courts with Mr. Lippman. Bowie had left Eno, not with explicit instructions to compose a piece that painted a musical picture of the Polish countryside, rather, he said: 'Look Brian, I want you to compose a really slow piece of music, but I want a very emotive, almost religious feel to it.'
Bowie was naturally aiming for a certain texture in the music, and as Eno was a man disinterested in context, he was the most suitable choice.
In Eno's spontaneous, yet slow way, he began by preparing methodical `accidents' to happen. Initially he suggested laying down a track of finger-clicks on a blank piece of tape. Each of these clicks,(Four hundred and thirty in all), was allocated a dot and a number on a piece of paper. The next step was to pick out selections of dots, completely at random, from the 430. Back in the studio, Eno played chords as he hit any of the selected numbers. Bowie did likewise with his areas. Once this had been done, the initial clicks were removed, and the segments between the bars were infilled by using conventional methods. Bowie's `words' were finally added: "Sula vie dinero. Solo vie mileio. Nam-myo. Clelivenco de ho, clelivenco de ho. Malio." etc...
Moving on from `Art Decade', the name of a street in West Berlin,(and a pun on `art-deco'), through the misery of Berlin's `Iron Curtain':-'Weeping Wall', which, is attributed, along with `Subterraneans' to have been originally written for "The Man Who Fell To Earth', and based upon a motif adapted from the first eight notes of `Scarborough Fair'; we arrive at the last piece of instrumental experimentation's with it's distorted 3/4,2/4,3/4,4/4, lyrics:
"Share bride failing so. Careline, Careline, Careline, drivina me. Shirley, shirlev, Shirley own. Share bride failina star."
This vocal rendering sounds sufficiently akin to English, that the listener frustrates in a vain attempt to decipher.
Bowie dedicated the song to the people of East Berlin who were caught following the separation. This is emphasised by the wandering saxophone, alone and faint, 'representing what it was.'
As the music fades, hanging onto the last saxophone note, the listener arrives at the end of Bowie's first truly experimental album; mathematical and icy, with all the innuendo's of alienation.
As an album of experience, it became unprecedented in Bowie's mind. His introduction to the school had been successful and rewarding. He quite rightly felt proud of the album in discovering that melody can be spontaneous despite the Record Corporation of America's wolves at the door.