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Analyzing Bowie: Memory of a Free Festival

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'Memory of a Free Festival' was apparently written to commemorate the festival staged by Bowie's Beckenham Arts Laboratory in August 69, but it actually can stand for any one of the "Love-ins" of the late sixties. The Love-in was an important aspect of the counter-culture, as it presumed to present a microcosm of the perfect society it aspired to bring. The Love-in was an open air happening, in which youngsters would gather for two-three days to enjoy musical performances and other cultural activities, forming a self-contained mini-society for the duration. It aimed to show that people can live together in peace and harmony, in which everyone gives of his own to the community. Within the Love-in, you were supposed to free yourself from the shackles of the materialistic world in favor of a society based on spiritual exchange, and be engulfed by a feeling of brotherhood and love towards your fellow humans.

The Children of the summer's end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played Our songs and felt the London sky
Resting on our hands
It was God's land
It was ragged and naive
It was Heaven

The first verse describes the wondrous feeling in a Love-in, the heavenly utopian state you enjoy. But Bowie is playing us here: if you listen more closely, you realize that things aren't as rosy as they appear to be on the surface. The song is in past tense, talking of a love that has dissipated. When he talks of "the children of the summer's end", he could simply be referring to the fact that the festival was in late August, but he could also be hinting that the "Summer of Love" is over, and its children, the Hippies, are living an illusion if they think they are still on the way to the ultimate utopia. And "gathered in the dampened grass" means either that the children gathered on a wet field, or that they gathered their drugs that are no longer as potent as they used to be. Right away, it infuses the whole piece with a heavy sense of irony.

Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn't, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

Feeling the unity and love between them, the festival's participants feel like they are also touching the source of life, that they are expressing an eternal truth. This was also a common perception in the sixties: the Love-in was also called "Be-in", to show that through it you achieve authenticity, that you are the way you ought to be, that lovin' is also bein'. Why did they feel this way? Because this is how we are conditioned to feel. Our mind is shaped by the Christian tradition, which claims that all souls emanate from God and that God is Love. Therefore, when they felt love surging through them, they automatically assumed that they are in connection with the eternal source (although they generally substituted God with "the universe" as that eternal loving being that we're all part of). This is the assumption that lay at the heart of the Hippie ideology: the belief that they have managed to unlock the door to the source of eternal Love, and now that they did, this Love will spread and unify the entire human race in one big brotherhood of man.

But Bowie is bursting this bubble. He assumes the rhetoric of the Hippies, but then he says that it was all an illusion. The fact that you feel love doesn't mean that you found any eternal truth. This is the sham that Bowie is exposing. It's not that he thinks that the Hippies' love is unreal – he does indeed believe that they felt love, and there is no irony in his description of it. But what he doesn't accept is the belief that through it they connected to any universal and eternal truth. Love exists within the confines of human interaction, and does not connect them to any external "source of life" which others can feel as well. A loving spirit can unify a certain number of people for a certain amount of time, but others will remain impervious to it, and eventually it will die.

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love upon a white balloon
And fly it from the toppest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something just the same

As we've said, Bowie discards the belief that the love they felt is a manifestation of any eternal truth, but that doesn't mean it wasn't real. Love is wonderful, and he wants to capture that joyous experience for us, but he doesn't find the words: ecstasy, by its nature, is beyond description, beyond logic. If only he could succeed in capturing it logically, it would be a breakthrough, a new level of consciousness. And here, I believe, lies the crux of Bowie's position: he doesn't just expose the error of the Hippie perception of love, but he's also trying to create an alternative. He wants to uncover the secret of Love, the thing that generates this feeling, so that he can revive it. If he succeeds in this task, he imagines it would be similar to Satori, the moment of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, a moment of recognition that transforms your existence into a joyous one. But he is unable to reach this recognition.

We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size
We talked with tall Venusians passing through
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared
Climbing through the ivory vibrant cloud
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And We walked back to the road, unchained

"We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes" seems like a Wizard of Oz reference: they were looking for the place over the rainbow, a different kind of existence which is more beautiful than their own Londoner life. What they saw instead were aliens from outer space, who were drawn to their love and came to join the party. The aliens represent a higher level of consciousness and knowledge, but they refuse to share it with the humans – we'll have to get there ourselves. And so the festival ends, and its participants go back to their everyday life, but for the moment they feel unchained, as if the experience had freed their minds. And so they sing:

"The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We're Gonna Have a Party…"

The Sun has always been a symbol of enlightenment, and in sixties psychedelic records it represented the thing we aspire to reach, the moment we are waiting for – take, for instance, the Doors' 'Waiting for the Sun', the Beatles' 'Here Comes the Sun' or Pink Floyd's 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'. Bowie closes his record in the same vein, with a rousing ode to the coming of the Sun. However, it is not the Sun that he's awaiting, but a Sun Machine. And this, I believe, hints that Bowie surmises that the thing that will bring us love is not something natural which we are supposed to discover, but something that we are supposed to create. And in that, too, Bowie is providing us with a glimpse to his future work.

So, in my interpretation, Bowie did share the Hippie yearning to bring love to the world. But he rejects their perception of how this love should be reached, and formulates a different perception. The Hippies believed that Love is already part of us, that it is the natural order of things, and the reason we don't feel it is because Western civilization went against nature and severed our connection with the source. So to live a true, free and happy life, we simply "got to get ourselves back to the garden" - that is, we have to free ourselves from technology, from the ego and from Western logic, and go back to the primal state of unity with nature and with each other. Bowie, on the other hand, believes that love has to be generated, that it is the result of certain actions we take. To bring it about, we must therefore explore and find out what generates it, and then create our way of life accordingly.  

So what is the key that opens the door to this joyous love state? What brings it about? To that, Bowie doesn't have an answer yet, and this would be one of the questions that will drive him on in the coming years. What he does tell us here is that it has something to do with aliens: if you can somehow generate the Love state, aliens would come and join you in it.

It will take Bowie two and a half more years to realize that the order of the last sentence should simply be reversed.

To promote the album in the US, this track was turned into a single a few months later. I find this version superior to the album take, turning it into a piece of psychedelic ecstasy that preempts the Madchester sound of two decades later. And, more importantly, this is the first appearance of Mick Ronson on a Bowie recording.

Here are both sides of the single. Get on that Sun Machine!

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