I knew the moment my grandmother was gone. I woke up one morning to find that she had fashioned a spear out of a curtain rod, a kitchen towel, and a butcher knife. It was leaning against the wall over my little sister who was calmly eating cereal before school. When I asked my grandmother why she had constructed the weapon she told me that it was to keep our neighbors from sneaking around in our vents.
My grandmother went “crazy” when she was older–the doctors told us she had a mixture of dementia and alzheimers–but I always felt that this alleged mixture wasn’t the full story, that the doctors did the bare minimum, and to this day I’m not sure what it is exactly that killed her.
Before my grandmother’s illness I recognized how madness and violence worked together. In 1986 “going postal” was the phrase used to describe postal workers shooting up innocent people. My mother would have a very hard time explaining to me what it meant to lose it or to suffer a mental breakdown, and I’m old enough now to understand why she couldn’t explain it: It’s because we don’t know.
The problem of madness had a partial explanation in science and a partial explanation in art for me. Artists felt a little more in tune with the experiences of poor people who suffer from undiagnosed mental illness and violence. I think all of this helps explains why this album — The Man Who Sold The World– initially drew me in more than Bowie’s more universally recognized albums like Ziggy Stardust.
As a 17 year old, with an ipod full of Bowie albums, I think I listened to The Man Who Sold The World more than any other album. While I thought the Ziggy Stardust oeuvre and all the Berlin albums were good, I thought that this particular album was something that was so strange, and so unlike any other album (either Bowie’s or of that time) that I needed multiple playthroughs to unravel it.
And just as my mother couldn’t completely communicate to me what “going postal” meant; I don’t think I can completely communicate what this album means, and that may be because it is itself looking for answers to the unknown.
Bowie would become a hero of mine the more I saw him dip into androgyny, and here we see him wearing a luxurious dress, long hair, and lying almost seductively on a chaise lounge. It’s a bit of a butch queen look because Bowie would later commit to even more feminine looks (as in the next album cover for Hunky Dory). I’m only now noticing that cards along the table in front of him implying a house of cards that has fallen, or that Bowie himself has destroyed the house of cards by pulling one of them out.
I think it’s a safe way for Bowie to present as feminine. If the theme of your album is madness and you want to depict madness, why not a man in a dress whose knocked over his own house of cards? I’d be very suspicious that Bowie was just using queer iconography if not for the rest of his career which shows that Bowie was loyal to presenting as femme, woman, sissy, faggy even. As we’ve seen in his last album, Bowie isn’t interested in utopia, but he is interested in consequence. If you are free, and you can wear a dress, then what is the price?
Had Bowie worn a dress on an album about mental illness and never again then I wouldn’t be writing about him. Madness, sexuality, and gender have been tied together historically, and particularly at the time, with the APA removing gay as a mental illness category in America only two years after the release of this album. I often think this album is about the doubts in the artist’s mind due to his presentation. Calling yourself mad before anyone else does is a defense mechanism, and it allowed Bowie to delve further into his own concepts of gender and sexuality.
Tracks of Note
The Width Of A Circle
First: What a heavy bass and crunchy sounding track. I’m not a musical historian but if I were to make an educated guess then I would think that Bowie was kind of into psychedelic rock like this and opted to tweak everything further into a much harsher sound and introduce paranoia–and voila–gives birth to heavy metal. It hurts my brain to think about how out of its time this sounds like.
The lyrics from the front half of the song are the most interesting to me, in particular
Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree.
And I looked and frowned and the monster was me
Well, I said hello and I said hello
And I asked “Why not?” and I replied “I don’t know”
This is the concept of the album and of what Bowie would start to really think about in all of his work: The question of his identity, and the concept of identity itself. If one piece of information can reveal us as frauds, or as other beings, then how much trust can we put in identity and reality itself? This is the world of literature like Philip K Dick novels and not so much your typical rock song content. I think of this album as the prequel to Hunky Dory, which finds Bowie as strangely at peace with his role as a changeling, but in this album he isn’t comfortably there yet, and so everything seems like a threat.
This is the first time I was really drawn into a Bowie epic. A Bowie epic is typically more than 5 minutes long and sounds like its 2 or 3 songs mashed together. He would make an album that was all Bowie epics called Station to Station (can’t wait to talk about that one).
Here is the best performance of The Width of A Circle from the Ziggy Stardust Movie that is 14 minutes long because Mick Ronson has an amazing solo in it
All The Madmen
How much did Bowie as an artist worry about his own mental health, how much do I? And you?
When I listen to All The Madmen I feel like Bowie is embracing this fear. By making madness his subject, it can be temporarily removed from his anxiety, and he can study and explain it.
If you listen to the track, there is laughter, broad caricature, but also a genuine fear, and an understanding that the listener has the same fear. The way Bowie deals with mental health issues in All The Madmen will be how he deals with death in Blackstar.
The Man Who Sold The World
In 1994, Nirvana covered The Man Who Sold The World for MTV’s Unplugged
21 years later, on September 1 2015, Metal Gear Solid V is released. When you press a button to begin the game, you’re treated to the following cutscene:
There are more famous songs in the Bowie canon, but The Man Who Sold The World is the one track we keep coming back to. I imagine little Bowie acolytes spawning continuously, discovering the song, and being moved by its strangeness, and plugging it into their art.
Why does this song persist among weird creatives? I think it’s because the song itself is a little bit of a feint. It sounds like a typical Bowie story wrapped up in a song, only it isn’t. I always have a hard time remembering the lyrics to this song because it actually isn’t a story. There aren’t characters and there isn’t a plot. The song is about the experience of losing yourself, in life, and in your head. It has the qualities of a vaguely remembered nightmare.
The track trails off and we’re left wondering what the hell that was about. I think this quality is the track’s strength. It refuses to supply us with answers, but is generous enough to allow us to imagine answers. In other words; it’s immortal.
Listen to She Shook Me Cold. I don’t know about the content of the track, but it confounds me as to how this track sounds like a Black Sabbath song. Why is Bowie singing that way? Why are the guitars going in so hard? Was this really made in 1970? Really? I don’t believe it. I’m starting to believe he was a time traveler. It’s awesome.
Running Gun Blues is an ironic happy little song about a war vet who guns down innocents. People who hurt innocents return throughout Bowie’s career like in his album 1.Outside or the track Valentine’s Day from The Next Day. It’s dark dark stuff. This album clearly marks Bowie’s intention of always living with the dark stuff even as he becomes an 80’s megastar.
As an aside, do you know the track Black Country Rock? I used to impress my friend by perfectly imitating Bowie’s little trilling dolphin sound at the end of the song. I can still do it.
I went on a little longer than I expected for this album because I think it cracks my top 10 favorite albums. I listened to it over and over again as a kid, and I listened to it over and over again for this. I think I can finally put my analytical glasses down and just enjoy the damned thing.