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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: All the Madmen

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In my analysis of 'Black Country Rock', I conjecture that the track serves as an invitation to the entire album, to a unique new space that Bowie is going to explore. But he cautions us that it isn't for everyone, and that "some say the view is crazy", warning us that it is mad to get into these places. If we are still willing to come along for the ride, it means that we must be prepared to face madness. 'All the Madmen' takes us into the realm of the crazy people.

Again, Bowie is far from being the first to take this trip. There were always those who romanticized the insane, and in the Modern Age, when rationality and science reign supreme, madness is perceived as a form of rebellion against it. Some believe that rationality and science, which attempt to portray the universe in exact mathematical terms, are suppressing the spiritual sides of human existence and leading us on a path that robs humanity of its soul. And for the latter, the mad people represent a closer link to reality, one that isn't twisted by rational concepts. So while science attempted to find the causes of insanity and cure it, there were those who actually saw science as the "disease" that we must be cured from.

This battle reached its apex in the nineteen-fifties, when the science of psychology was at the height of its renown and pretended to have a cure for every mental problem. It was part and parcel of the stifling conformism of those years: anyone who was slightly deviated from the norm was seen to have a mental disorder and sent to be examined by psychiatrists, who prescribed cures such as shock-treatments and lobotomies. For those who thought there was something wrong with the scientific way, this of course seemed like the worse form of oppression, and their reactions, naturally, were equally extreme.

One of the most extreme examples to the latter was Carl Solomon, an intellectual prodigy who was expected to become a brilliant scientist, but he didn't believe in science. Instead, he believed that the way to connect to the truth is to free oneself from the rational side, so he started to behave erratically and got himself committed to an asylum, where he demanded to be lobotomized. The doctors, instead, prescribed shock-treatments and kept him in the mental ward. There, he met someone else who had himself willfully committed, a young poet called Allen Ginsberg who came there in hope to be "cured" of his homosexuality. Solomon dissuaded Ginsberg from his attempt to conform to "normality", and instead helped him find his spiritual path. When Ginsberg was released from the ward, he went to San Francisco to try and make it as a poet and eventually broke through with a poem that was dedicated to Solomon. 'Howl', the poem that effectively kick-started the Beatnik era in poetry, is a damning portrayal of contemporary society, accusing it of being a technocratic-industrial-militaristic-capitalistic system that drives its "best minds" to madness and destroys their souls. It also offers a way to salvation from it, and it is Carl Solomon's way: passing through madness to destroy the logic imposed on your brain by this society, and releasing the soul.

This became one of the myths that the Beatniks bequeathed to the counter-culture of the sixties. The Beatniks regarded Western society as an oppressive society that uses psychiatry to subjugate the spirituality of its citizens, and aspired to break free from it. They indicated several techniques to do so, one of them being to commit yourself to a loony-bin, mingle with mad people, get some electric shocks to the brain, and find the joy that society is trying to deny.

The myth was still around in 1970, when Bowie wrote his own version of it in 'All the Madmen'. But Bowie was no stranger to insanity himself, coming face-to-face with it through his half-brother Terry, and he knew it isn't that romantic. His record, as usual, carves the subject with a new kind of knife.

Day after day
They send my friends away
To mansions cold and grey
To the far side of town
Where the thin men stalk the streets
While the sane stay underground

The singer is expressing one of the main tenets of the Beatnik philosophy: the ones who are truly insane are not those locked in madhouses, but actually the "normal" people, those who lead their grey lives and go on a daily routine of work and home. They think that they are normal, but actually they are letting themselves be programmed by a system that uses them for its own means and prevents them from reaching true happiness. In his ironic tongue, the singer uses the same terms usually used to talk about the insane to talk about the "normal": they don't "go to" their homes, they are "being sent to" their homes and factories. And in this reversed picture, the truly sane are naturally those who live underground, those who refuse to be part of this system.

Day after day
They tell me I can go
They tell me I can blow
To the far side of town
Where it's pointless to be high
'Cause it's such a long way down

The hero, we begin to realize, is hospitalized in a mental ward, but he isn't held there forcibly. The doctors tell him he is sane, and want to send him back to the world of "normality". But he sees no point in being part of this world, because you cannot reach a "high" in it, and if you occasionally do, the disparity between that and the rest of your life is so great that it makes you feel even worse. He wants constant high, an existence of permanent joy.

So I tell them that
I can fly, I will scream, I will break my arm
I will do me harm
Here I stand, foot in hand, talking to my wall
I'm not quite right at all...am I?

Don't set me free, I'm as heavy as can be
Just my librium and me
And my E.S.T. makes three

'Cause I'd rather stay here
With all the madmen
Than perish with the sadmen roaming free
And I'd rather play here
With all the madmen
For I'm quite content they're all as sane as me

So our hero feigns madness in order to be kept in the ward, where regular doses of drugs and electro-shock-treatments keep him on a constant high. The reversed picture is complete: while the "normal" are being "sent to" their homes, he, the one who is seemingly incarcerated away from home, is actually the one who lives in the place of his choice. And he is convinced that the other patients are doing the same, faking insanity to remain there. Together, they form a secret society, much happier than that of the "free" people.

(Where can the horizon lie
When a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar...dark and grim
They must be very dim)

From his "higher" vantage point, the hero muses about the future of Humanity, and concludes that it is very grim. We hear echoes of Ginsberg's 'Howl' here, in the perception that society is destroying its best minds and tags them as "crazy". The hero bemoans the dimness of the masses that cannot see what he sees and let themselves slide towards this dark future. But while he is lost in these thoughts, we hear another voice - a little boy is saying "he followed me home, mommy, can I keep him?" - and we realize that something else is going on here: while he thinks he's got everybody fooled, while he believes he found the formula for a happy life, while he is busy with lofty thoughts about the state of the world, our hero is slowly, but surely, going really and truly insane.

And so we are reintroduced to the Bowie-knife, the knife that cuts both sides of a debate. Bowie accepts the counter-culture's claim that there is something "insane" about conformed society, but he rejects the solution it proposes. The Beatnik myth of finding happiness through madness is also wrong, and Bowie's attack is aimed at the counter-culture as well. The hero thinks everything's perfect with his life, and doesn't realize that the drugs and E.S.T's have turned him into a zombie, a mad dog who roams the streets and wanders into people's homes. We need the unbiased eye of a little boy to see the truth.

Day after day
They take some brain away
Then turn my face around
To the far side of town
And tell me that it's real
Then ask me how I feel

Here I stand, foot in hand, talking to my wall
I'm not quite right at all
Don't set me free, I'm as helpless as can be
My libido's split on me
Gimme some good 'ole lobotomy

'Cause I'd rather stay here
With all the madmen
Than perish with the sadmen roaming free

And I'd rather play here
With all the madmen
For I'm quite content
They're all as sane as me

His condition is slowly being revealed. He keeps on repeating his same mantras, but we see that he is no longer the self-assured person he was in the first verse. After the treatment gradually ate at his brain, he lost his ability to function. It is no longer someone feigning madness that is speaking – it is someone who is simply mad. He thought he was saving his mind and soul from being destroyed by the system, but actually, he was only destroying them faster. And that is how the story ends… oh yeah, there's one more thing…

Zane, Zane, Zane
Ouvre le Chien…

Huh?

What the hell does that mean?

Alright, I'll give you two options:

1. In 'Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud', the people of the village are "pronouncing gross diversions as the label for the dog" – in other words, they are proclaiming the boy a "mad dog" that should be executed. Something similar might be happening here: the doctors finally determine that our hero is mad (zane = zany), and decide to open him up (ouvre le chien = open the dog), to see what's inside his brain. Instead of being sad that they failed to cure a patient they are rejoicing in the fact that they have another case to analyze, and so they sing: "he's crazy, let's dissect him!"

2. Or, more simply, that this piece of disconcerting gibberish marks the descent of our hero into complete madness. In this crazy world we live in, "zane" means what "sane" would mean in a healthy world.

My preferred interpretation is of course the combination of both. "Zane, zane, zane, ouvre le chien" is the descent of the whole world of the record into dementia, which engulfs both society and the non-conformist individual. The doctors are crazy, and the patient is crazy. Bowie is damning conformed society and the counter-culture alike, and blaming them both for creating a mad world. If we want to regain our sanity and save the world, a new way must be found.

 

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