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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Cygnet Committee

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This is another key Bowie record. But to really understand it, we must first remember the time it was recorded in.

When youth culture hatched in the fifties, with the rise of rock'n'roll, there was something fresh and innocent about it. The young believed they were creating a better culture, free of the staidness, self-repression and hypocrisy of the adults. Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones determined the attitude, Bob Dylan gave it words. But by 1967, youth culture became more than that: it became a revolutionary ideology, as the Hippie counter-culture set in with its belief that the youth is going to change the world and create a perfect society. The Hippies disavowed the old games of politics and wars, and believed that change would come through dropping out of the system and focusing on altering and freeing your own consciousness. Then, the new consciousness will spread and free everybody else's mind, and a utopian society of love and unity will prevail.

By 1968, however, a new mood set in. In some quarters, the Hippie ideology merged with old Marxist dogmas, and many youngsters no longer believed that a peaceful changing of minds is enough. It was now preached that society is ruled by an evil capitalistic-industrial-militaristic system, and utopia could be achieved only if this system would be brought down, by any means necessary. Instead of peace and love, the year was ruled by violence and assassinations.

Even worse, there were those for whom the chaos and violence of the times was simply a way to express their murderous tendencies. The exclamation mark came in 1969, as Charles Manson, a psychopath who formed a "Hippie community" which was actually a cult obeying his commands, got his people to perform acts of sadistic, ritualistic murders in Hollywood. He did it by teaching his followers that in order to bring about the utopia there first has to be an apocalyptic war between the blacks and whites of America, and to precipitate this war, they should murder rich white folks and blame it on the blacks. And this was only the most extreme case, which shows how, in a couple of years, the Hippie dream deteriorated into bloodshed, hate and narrow-mindedness.  

The rock'n'roll heroes, whose records fueled this charade, all had different ways of dealing with it. Bob Dylan viewed the radical politics of the counter-culture with contempt and withdrew from the music world, hiding in Woodstock and waiting for the whole thing to blow over. Also cynical about it was Pete Townshend, whose rock opera Tommy told the story of a failed messiah and essentially mocked Hippie messianism by showing how dumb the whole idea of messianism is. Townshend and the Who followed that with the record 'Won't Get Fooled Again', in which the singer tells us of a revolution that actually did succeed, but when he comes out of his hiding to check out what has changed he notices that "The parting on the left / Is now a parting on the right" (meaning, that nothing essential has changed, and society is still parted, only in a different way than before; or, even more cynically, that the only thing that changed are the haircuts), and concludes: "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss!"

The Rolling Stones had a different take on things. In 67, while the Hippies were painting the world with a colorful psychedelic palette, the Stones were painting it black, showing that what's inside the human mind isn’t that good and benevolent like the counter-culture claimed. And in 68, they were drawing from the chaos of the time to empower their music and create great rock'n'roll. Their records exposed the human subconscious as full of barbaric tendencies, violent fantasies and attraction to evil, thus belying the belief that the nature of man is good and only the system is responsible for the problems of society. They, too, remained aloof and refused to commit to the "revolution".

But there were those who were truly part of the Hippie dream and took its collapse to heart. First and foremost was John Lennon, who wrote some of the peace/love movement's biggest anthems and was one of its main spokesmen. But he was also a painfully honest person who hated hypocrisy, and he became increasingly disillusioned and critical of the direction the movement was taking. In the record 'God' (1970), he angrily smashes all the failed idols of the sixties and announces that "the dream is over". Lennon would overcome this crisis of faith with next year's 'Imagine', in which he puts the counter-culture dream on the shelf as something that may come true one day in the distant future but not right now. This enabled him to go back to political activity, but a more pragmatic and realistic one, focusing on what could be achieved in the here and now.

But there was someone who preceded Lennon in documenting the crash of the sixties dream, and that someone was David Bowie.

The Space Oddity album is an album that criticizes different aspects of the Hippie counter-culture from within. In 'Cygnet Committee', Bowie provides what is arguably the harshest indictment of the counter-culture's revolutionary ideology.

I bless you madly,
sadly as I tie my shoes
I love you badly,
Just in time, at times, I guess
Because of you I need to rest
Because it's you that sets the test

Who is it that the singer is blessing here? I believe it is the human race, which he is full of love for although it disappoints him time and time again. It is a test for him to keep loving humans, with the way they are treating each other and how they treated him (as we shall shortly find out). He is doing his best to hold on to his love.

So much has gone and little is new
And as the sparrow sings
Dawn chorus for
Someone else to hear
The Thinker sits alone, growing older
And so bitter

The protagonist of the record is a philosopher who believes in lofty ideals of humanism and enlightenment. We are in the midst of a revolution he supported, and a lot of things have gone down already, but he realizes that very little changed as a result. He was hoping for a new morning to dawn on the human race, but the morning that came is not what he craved. The sparrow is singing to mark this dawn, but the thinker doesn’t hear him – he is entangled in his dark thoughts.

"I gave Them life
I gave Them all
They drained my very soul... dry
I crushed my heart to ease Their pains
No thought for me remains there
Nothing can They spare
What of me?
Who praised Their efforts to be free?
Words of strength and care and sympathy
I opened doors that would have blocked Their way
I braved Their cause to guide, for little pay
I ravaged at my finance just for Those
Those whose claims were steeped in peace, tranquility
Those who said a new world, new ways ever free
Those whose promises stretched in hope and grace for me"

The philosopher dedicated all his mental and financial faculties to help the revolutionaries, those who held the ideals of peace, freedom and justice. He provided them with the intellectual means to prevail, to overthrow the old system and establish a better one. But now he feels that they have simply used him, and once they didn't need him anymore he was simply cast aside. He thought they will bring about a utopian world based on his ideals, but now he realizes that these ideals were only a means to an end, a way for them to come to power.

So it seems that the thinker's discontent is mainly a personal one: he feels that he was used and abused by the revolutionaries. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. He starts again from the top, and tells an even darker story:

I bless you madly,
sadly as I tie my shoes
I love you badly, just in time, at times, I guess
Because of You I need to rest, oh yes
Because it's You that sets the test

So much has gone and little is new
And as the sunrise stream
Flickers on me,
My friends talk
Of glory, untold dream, where all is God and God is just a word

He now turns to talk about the revolutionaries themselves, his "friends". It's noteworthy that the "You" that he blesses appears capitalized here, unlike the "you" of the first verse. Since the capitalized words in the song pertain to the revolutionaries, we can assume that it is now them, specifically, who set the test for his love for all humans.

"We had a friend, a talking man
Who spoke of many powers that he had
Not of the best of men, but Ours
We used him
We let him use his powers
We let him fill Our needs
Now We are strong
And the road is coming to its end
Now the damned have no time to make amends
No purse of token fortune stands in Our way
The silent guns of love will blast the sky
We broke the ruptured structure built of age
Our weapons were the tongues of crying rage
Where money stood
We planted seeds of rebirth
And stabbed the backs of fathers
Sons of dirt

"Not of the best of men, but Ours": the "best of men", in contemporary capitalist society, are perceived to be the rich. But the philosopher taught the revolutionaries that a human being isn't to be measured by his money. He also taught them that capitalism is what stands in the way to a world based on Love, and if the capitalistic system would be brought down, the inherent goodness of humanity will prevail. The revolutionaries took his words and used them to topple the ruling system, but already we recognize a discrepancy: where he talked out of love for humanity, the revolutionaries' tongue is steeped in hate and aggression. They are using his concepts to describe their intentions as loving ones, but their minds are not like his.

Infiltrated business cesspools
Hating through Our sleeves
Yea, and We slit the Catholic throat
Stoned the poor on slogans such as
'Wish You Could Hear'
'Love Is All We Need'
'Kick Out The Jams'
'Kick Out Your Mother'
'Cut Up Your Friend'
'Screw Up Your Brother or He'll Get You In the End'

'Cygnet Committee' could be a song about any Marxist revolution, and our protagonist could just as well be a Russian philosopher of the nineteen-twenties. But Bowie plants hints to root it firmly in the sixties. As he describes how the slogans used by the revolution gradually shift from the language of love to the language of hate, he moves from "love is all we need", which is what the Beatles sermonized in 1967 in the midst of the Summer of Love, to "kick out the jams", MC5's 1968's anthem for anarchy, and from there it slips naturally into the murderous, massacring discourse of the Manson family. These slogans are used to "stone the poor", to get them to believe that the revolution serves their interest, while the revolutionaries pursue their real goals.

And We Know the Flag of Love is from Above
And We Can Force You to Be Free
And We Can Force You to Believe"

Now that the revolutionaries have come to power, they claim to represent absolute truth and they force their hateful and repressive beliefs on the masses, while still claiming that these beliefs represent freedom and love.

And I close my eyes and tighten up my brain
For I once read a book in which the lovers were slain
For they knew not the words of the Free States' refrain
It said:
"I believe in the Power of Good
I Believe in the State of Love
I Will Fight For the Right to be Right
I Will KilI for the Good of the Fight for the Right to be Right"

The philosopher realizes that in his actions, he helped to create a world much worse than before. He shuts his eyes in horror, but he can't shut his brain, and his education tells him that we are headed towards a totalitarian state in which people will be conditioned to kilI anyone who strays from the party line. There will be no true love in this world, only the indoctrinated "Love" which stands for the hateful ideals of the rulers, and true lovers will be executed.

So he cannot shut his eyes, because the images he sees are even worse. He opens them again – can he find a glimmer of hope in today's world, to show him that maybe this ending he dreads will not transpire?

And I open my eyes to look around
And I see a child laid slain on the ground
As a love machine lumbers through desolation rows
Ploughing down man, woman, listening to its command
But not hearing anymore
Not hearing anymore
Just the shrieks from the old rich

The fate he fears is already in motion. The revolutionary movement, still pretending to be a "love machine", is already killing and enslaving people. He can detect no signs of hope. The only thing he can hear are "the shrieks from the old rich", those people he used to blame for all the world's woes, which are now being tortured by the ruling regime in the name of love and freedom. Bowie also takes the opportunity to invoke another sixties hero, as he refers to Bob Dylan's 'Desolation Row'. We are not dealing with some imaginary fable here – Bowie is expressing an imminent fear.

And I Want to Believe
In the madness that calls 'Now'
And I want to Believe
That a light's shining through
Somehow
And I Want to Believe
And You Want to Believe
And We Want to Believe
And We Want to Live
Oh, We Want to Live
I want to live
I want to live
Live
Live
Live

The philosopher is trying to remain optimistic, to believe that there is still hope. He still believes that the nature of humans is good, and that they want to believe in his enlightened ideals. As he is trying to convince himself that "we" all want to believe, his talk deteriorates to sloganeering once again (all the words are capitalized), but then, he finds something even more primal than the need to believe: the will to live. As long as his life was secure, he took it for granted and busied himself with utopian fantasies, but now that his existence is in danger, he discovers the value of life. From the universal "we want to live" he moves to a personal "I want to live", feeling the lust for life surging through him, and with every time he repeats it the word "live" becomes more emphasized, more full of joy, until it becomes the only word he utters, the only word that matters. The record ends as a kind of a bolero, expressing and celebrating the joy of existence.

So 'Cygnet Committee' is very much like John Lennon's 'God', in that it is a record of disillusionment in high ideals that leads to appreciation of life itself. The difference is that while Lennon is telling his own story, Bowie is being theatrical. But through the theatre, real emotions come through, and we sense that Bowie was part of the sixties dream and experienced the pain of its shattering. And the lessons learned from it would accompany Bowie throughout the following decade. Despite what his thinker says in the end, Bowie knew that it isn't enough just to live, and that humans need to believe in something, to give direction and meaning to their life. The question is how to believe in something that can change the world for the good, while preventing it from turning sour and doing the opposite. The answers will come in Bowie's subsequent albums.

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