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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: After All

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`After All` is remarkable especially for its atmosphere. The 3/4 waltz time, the sinister vocals, the psychedelic overdubs, the use of the archaic "oh by jingo" as a refrain, all turn it into a disconcerting, foreboding slice of noise that feels like it doesn`t really belong in rock`n`roll but stems from the darker regions of 19th century romanticism. The lyrics have roots in those regions as well, but they could have only been written by Bowie, and it is a key record to the understanding of his development as an artist.

In `The Supermen`, we see Bowie painting a utopian world based on the Nietzschean concept of the Superman. And although this world turns out to be a bad one, there is definitely something alluring about the powers that those Supermen possess, something more exciting than our own existence. So Bowie may reject Utopia, but not the idea that humankind has inner powers that can take it to a higher level. In `After All`, Bowie sets forth on his mission to direct us towards a different way of life.

Please trip them gently, they don`t like to fall, Oh by jingo
There`s no room for anger, we`re all very small, Oh by jingo

Once again, we hear echoes of Nietzsche, who claimed that the people of his day and before it were all "small" in comparison with what humankind can be and that our smallness is bound to bring calamity upon us if we don`t change. Therefore, he believed that we need to actively destroy our contemporary consciousness so that a better one can emerge. “Whatever totters, ought to be pushed over,” he said about Western civilization, and he set out to refute all the foundational truths that it is based on. Similarly, Bowie here says that we should "trip" the small people (and he includes himself in that definition), to clear the way for something better to come in their place. But he says it in a merciful and compassionate way, indicating that his intention are noble and he is attacking our way of life because he wants something better for us.

We`re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies,
From paradise

And here, for the first time, we find Bowie taking on the role of spokesperson for his generation. The "we" he speaks of are obviously the Hippies, who used to paint their faces and think mystical thoughts. While on the Space Oddity album we saw him setting himself apart from his generation and heralding the death of the Hippie revolution, here he reconnects with them and tries to save the revolution by rewriting its ideals. What Bowie is doing here is basically hijacking: his Nietzschean viewpoint is radically different from anything the Hippies believed in, and yet he presents himself as their voice.

But they think that we`re holding a secretive ball.
Won`t someone invite them
They`re just taller children, that`s all, after all

Bowie stresses that the new message is inclusive. It doesn`t belong just to the "we" who believe in it now, but anyone is invited to join in. "They", the adults who berate the young revolutionaries, think that they have the advantage of maturity and know better, but actually they are also children, only a bit taller. But the fact that they are children means that there is hope for them as well – they still have the chance to grow and become Supermen. Therefore, they are invited to join in.

Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown, Oh by jingo
So hold on to nothing, and he won`t let you down, Oh by jingo

"Man is an obstacle" is again a Nietzschean line. Bowie tells us that the only way we won`t be let down by Man is if we hold on to nothing - i.e., believe that Man has no destiny, no ideal to aspire to. But this line is sung in irony, as this sort of nihilism doesn’t suit Bowie: he does believe that there is a better destiny for us. But in order to reach that destiny, we must first of all realize that "Man" is merely an obstacle to be overcome and replaced by something better. This is vintage Nietzsche: Man is a hapless and hopeless creature and must be seen only as a bridge to the Superman, the next step in evolution. The "sad as a clown" line, on the other hand, comes from another strand in Bowie`s world. It connects us to the idea that he got from Lindsay Kemp, the idea that the role of the artist is to be the sad clown, the Pierrot that acts as a mirror image to society and exposes humankind`s faults. Merging Kemp with Nietzsche, Bowie comes up with a new concept, a concept which is going to be pivotal to his work in the seventies: the role of the artist is not to display Man`s faults so that humanity can learn from it and better itself, but to display Man as an essentially faulty being, in order to help us transcend him. "What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment," Said Nietzsche. By presenting Man as a laughingstock, Bowie believes he can develop the consciousness of a Superman. In other words, the role of the artist is not to caricaturize Man`s weaknesses, but to show Man himself as a caricature, a mere shade of what he can become.

Some people are marching together and some on their own
Quite alone
Others are running, the smaller ones crawl
But some sit in silence, they`re just older children
That`s all, after all

Bowie now turns to describing the human race as it is today. The people are marching towards what they perceive as Humanity`s destiny, and they have different ways of doing so, but these ways lead them nowhere. This image leads us straight into a musical break, which is nothing but a circular, mechanical waltz, bringing to mind those fancy clocks that have little human figures moving around in a spherical track and making repetitive motions. It suggests a society of clockwork people, who think that they are advancing while they`re actually just going around in circles. This is the world that the singer is trying to save us from.

I sing with impertinence, shading impermanent chords, with my words
I`ve borrowed your time and I`m sorry I called
But the thought just occurred that we`re nobody`s children at all, after all

"We`re nobody`s children" is another way of saying "there is no God". In other words, Bowie is telling us that we have not been created for any special purpose. Reality is impermanent, and there`s no eternal truth to be figured out. Words and concepts are creations that shade this impermanent nature of reality, and may create a joyful way of life for a while, but not forever.

Bowie knows that what he exposes for us is very troubling, and we can`t digest it all at once. So he apologizes for borrowing our time and allows us to go back to our lives, leaving us with these final words:

Live till your rebirth and do what you will, Oh by jingo
Forget all I`ve said, please bear me no ill, Oh by jingo
After all, after all

If we are too afraid of the message, Bowie tells us to forget about it and just carry on living our lives and doing whatever we want. But even here, he says it in a way that is meant to afflict our minds. "Live till your rebirth" tells us that we keep getting born into the same world, so unless we do anything to change it, we will never escape our mediocre existence. Alternatively, it hints that we can be reborn in our own life when we adopt his new message, and when we do, we will live according to Aleister Crowley`s dictum “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law!”, meaning that we will let our own inner will direct us to a higher kind of existence, like Crowley and Nietzsche preached.

`After All` has something about it that sets it apart from all but two tracks on the album (the other two are `Black Country Rock` and the title track). In those other tracks, when referring to the person speaking, I call him "the hero". According to my interpretations, Bowie isn`t speaking for himself there, but adopting a certain character, and the record should be understood as a theatrical piece. In `After All`, I believe that the language is polemic and Bowie is the speaker who puts forth his artistic manifesto, emphasizing with the recurring "Oh by jingo" that what he says here is important. His goal, the record tells us, is to be the Pierrot who will show us that Man, as he is today, is unable to find salvation. In the coming years, Bowie will act out a series of characters who all start out believing that they found the way to happiness, but end up as failures. But through the telling of their story, he will clear out the road for a new consciousness, which may offer a more permanent happiness.

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