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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: She Shook Me Cold

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The Man Who Sold the World, the album that introduced the talents of Mick Ronson to Bowie's universe, is close in spirit to the heavy metal genre that was beginning to take form at the time. One attribute of heavy metal was a cruder approach to sex, as the relentless beat and the power grindings of the electric guitars were sometimes used as a musical representation of a sexual intercourse. These were the years of the sexual revolution and the sentimental approach of the fifties gave way to hardcore sex, in records that were sometimes called "cock rock". The cock rockers took the sexual prowess of R&B singers and intensified it even further, singing about mind-blowing sexual experiences with women who were out-of-this-world shags. With 'She Shook Me Cold', Bowie blasts his own version of cock rock, but, as always, things are not what they appear to be at first. This seemingly simple and vulgar story of a sexual encounter, told with the aid of explosive metal guitars, is about a lot more than just sex.

We met upon a hill, the night was cool and still
She sucked my dormant will
Mother, she blew my brain, I will go back again
My God, she shook me cold

The word "shake", in R&B (and subsequently rock'n'roll), was one of the euphemisms for sex. You can hear it being used in fifties R&B/rock'n'roll records like 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' and 'Whole Lotta Shaking'. 'She Shook Me Cold' undoubtedly owes to Willie Dixon's R&B classic 'You Shook Me', which just a year earlier was given a full cock rock treatment by Led Zeppelin. But this encounter takes place on a hill, which takes us back to 'Black Country Rock', to the idea that we are not in usual bedroom settings but climbing up a mountain to get something that is above our world. And "she sucked my dormant will" hints what it is he found on top of this hill.

It is the word "Will" that should prick up our ears. How does "Will" get in here? We can find the answer if we introduce the two figures whose spirit saturates this entire album: Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, and Aleister Crowley, the infamous magus. These are two very different thinkers, but there are some similarities between them as well. For one thing, they both liked mountains, but while Nietzsche only climbed spiritual mountains Crowley was actually known in his day as one of the premier mountain-climbers in the world. But more importantly, they both deified the Will, an inner force within Man which, so they asserted, can overcome anything and take him to ever higher grounds. While most religions and philosophies tell us that we should obey an outside law, Nietzsche and Crowley demanded that we liberate our Will and let it determine our actions. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law", wrote Crowley.

It is important to understand that "do what you will" doesn't mean that you should simply follow your cravings. That won't be freedom, because when you crave something, your Will is enslaved to that external thing that you crave. The Will is more than that. It is an inner force through which you can transform and create yourself, and determine for yourself what it is you want. It is also a very powerful force, and the feeling of it surging through your being is the highest form of joy. But Western civilization, blamed Nietzsche and Crowley, repressed this inner force, and so we are unaware of it and talk of will only in the sense of willing something external.

We can now begin to suss what it is that the record's hero found upon that hill. He found that he has a force within him, his Will, which was dormant until now but came alive through intercourse with that fiendish woman, and the feeling of it surging through his being completely blew his mind.

I had no time to spare, I grabbed her golden hair
And threw her to the ground
Father, she craved my head, Oh Lord, the things she said
My God, she should be told

Ok, so after she sucked him, she craves his head. Fair enough. But again, that's only one level of the story. We see that our loverboy is not much of a lover and thinks of sex in very physical, animalistic terms: he just wants to throw her to the ground and get his rocks off as quickly as possible. But he's in over his head with this woman, who knows how to turn sex into a spiritual experience. "She craved my head" is a double-meaning: "head" can designate oral sex, but also mind. She wants to take over his mind, to transform it. And the simple-minded boy is easy prey to her beguiling dirty talk, which affects his spirit forever.

I was very smart, broke the gentle hearts
Of many young virgins
I was quick on the ball, left them so lonely
They'd just give up trying

The boy now goes back, and tells us how he was before he met her. He was a very proud rooster, a Don Juan who believed sex was about seducing as many chicks as he could without obligating himself to any of them. Until…

Then she took my head, smashed it up
Kept my young blood rising
Crushed me mercilessly, kept me going around
So she didn't know I crave her so-o-o

That one encounter smashed his old identity beyond repair. He knows now that there is a higher form of sex, a higher form of joy, and his old ways just aren't satisfactory any more. He wants that spiritual experience again and won't rest until he finds it.

I'll give my love in vain, to reach that peak again
We met upon a hill
Mother, she blew my brain, I will go back again
My God, she shook me cold

To the end, the boy remains ignorant as to what really happened to him. He thinks it was the woman who gave him that joy, and so he is desperate to find her again, thinking that this is the only way to relive it. But through his words, Bowie is transmitting a different message: joy is reached through liberation of the Will, letting it smash your old identity and creating a new one. The woman helped him do it, but she was merely an agent, not the source of the joy – the source is within him, lying dormant, and it can be re-awakened in many different ways. The song's hero doesn't get it, so he remains a slave to his desires, looking for that woman instead of looking within. But the songwriter does, and it will be a lesson that will resonate through his work for years to come.

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