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Old 01-28-2016, 12:35 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Second Side of David Bowie's "Low": A Retrospective

"Sue, you said you wanted writ, ‘Sue the Virgin’, on your stone.”

This is the little miniature essay that begged to be written. This is a painful thing for me to write, but, it clamours to be set in stone. And so we begin.

David Robert Jones was a man with a perpetual fear of death. It is said that Rock and Roll Suicide, the closing track to 1972’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, was inspired by Bowie’s belief at the time that he would be assassinated on stage. Going further back, there is a clear and present terror of the void permeating Quicksand (1971, “Hunky Dory”): following an introduction of melancholic acoustic guitar, he sings, in an uncharacteristically broken voice, of the unknown – cults, war, Nietzsche’s demonology – of uncertainty, insecurity, in faith, but of devout faith in one lonely thing – fatalism.

Bowie casts himself in a “silent film” rolling inexorably towards a Nazi Final Solution. He sings of being “frightened by the total goal”, not only the goal of Nazism but also the endgame of such cults as Golden Dawn (which he directly name-drops), of the Crowley mythos (a second direct name-drop), and the predestiny which flows throughout the works of William Blake (“divine symmetry”; c.f. “The Tyger”). You may talk of a “prelapsarian Bowie”, of Ziggy and of the golden years, but the Garden of Eden was the last thing which ever crossed Bowie’s mind: in Quicksand, he plays Eve, “kiss[ing] the viper’s fang”. Bowie tears his vocal register as he sings: “don’t believe in yourself, deceive with belief, knowledge comes with death’s release”. Was Bowie ever a subscribed occultist? It seems as though he was always frightened by transcendences and drippy hippie mokshas. He was “sinking in the quicksand of [his] thought”; he was drowning in Crowley, Nietzsche, Blake, Hermeticism, and all the rest. The message of the song is simply, “don’t have a Faith: you shall die”.

Now, on to “Low”. Specifically, the second side of “Low”.

The very first thing we hear on the second side of “Low” – on its opening song, Warszawa – is the tolling of a mort. Unlike in Rimbaud’s “Ophélie”, this is no faraway funeral bell; this is extremely loud and incredibly close, straight up at the top of the mix. A choir of synthesisers and esoteric electronic instruments chant a dark symphony similar to a Requiem Mass.

Then, as the threnody marches on, the vocals hit.

Bowie’s vocals are sung in a cryptic inorganic language, inorganic, yet at the same time ringing out with echoes of Latin, Classical Greek, French, Spanish, Esperanto, Volapük. The only known words in the entire Warszawa libretto are “vie” – the French, “life” – and “sola” – Latin and, indeed, Esperanto – “only, sole, alone”. Drawing yet more similarities with a Mass, there is a “response”: Bowie’s voice, shifted up a few major sevenths and saturated with tuning-fork reverberating overlays of itself, sounding like that of some primary-school choirboy, replies to itself in plaintive, melancholy notes. “Cheli venco deho, cheli venco raero, malio.” The word “malio” evokes evil, and Hell, so strongly that it’s difficult not to draw such parallels. As for “cheli venco deho”, I don’t know whether or not it’s my synaesthesia screwing with me, but it sounds to my abstracted ears like a cry to the Heavens. "Caeli", in Ecclesiasticalm Latin pronunciation; "venco", reminiscent again of the Latin "veni", which, with a long "i", denotes a second-person imperative; "deho" follows on quite simply from there. "O Heavens, O God, come to me." The soaring synth-strings that end the song, in a procession repetition evocative of Philip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi” score or of a Palestrina plainsong, are a lament, a shattering lament for the dead, whom Bowie feared he might soon number among.

The second song on side two of “Low” is Art Decade. It’s an instrumental piece, and it feels every bit as inexorable and funereal as Warszawa, repeating the same chord progression almost to the letter until it reaches its final conclusion in a fade-to-black.

Next, Bowie gives us another instrumental piece. This time, however, it is not a formation of synths in flight. It is a child’s cast of the Art Decade mould, all music-box vibraphone and electric children’s choir. Some say that this song suffers from Eno’s absence; however, I scorn not its simplicity. Bowie did this very much on purpose. It is a faint, fainting, faltering reprise of the Bowie Child’s voice in Warszawa. The use of a folk music motif – Scarborough Fair – recalls Shostakovich’s cycle, “From Jewish Folk Poetry”, which opens with The Lament for the Dead Child.

And, finally, we have Subterraneans. Yet again, Bowie’s baritone moans and the tightly structured instrumentation give us images of votives, white lilies, an emaciated pallid duke lain down in a casket. The lyrics, which, like those on the other vocal songs, were apparently written using the cut-up-and-rearrange method, but they have significance in hindsight, and in reflecting Bowie’s thanatophobia: “failing star” – Ziggy, or Bowie, or Jones; “care-line” – drip.

It lifts a weight from my mind, paradoxically, that Bowie seemed to have finally lost his morbid fear of death in his last months. On “Blackstar”, his swansong, we have Lazarus: “oh, I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird. Y’know, I’ll be free. Ain’t that just like me?”. Bowie could always free himself – so many times: from Arnold, from Aladdin, from Ziggy, from the Thin White Duke, the list goes on – and, although David Robert Jones has passed, he was freed from his fear of death, and he is free now from pain. I wonder, what shall be writ on his stone? I volunteer, “just like that bluebird”.

- Chelly Vennicoe
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Old 01-28-2016, 02:05 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Really enjoyed reading that. Most of the songs you mention here are ones very dear to my heart. Still can't hear Lazarus without tears in my eyes. And when he sings those lines in Quicksand...one of the most magic moments in music.

Oh, and here's another, way more lighthearted, view on Warszawa. Sorry for spoiling the mood.

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