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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Man Who Sold the World

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We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn`t there
He said I was his friend

The record`s opening stanza paraphrases Hughes Mearns` famous poem `Antigonish`, which begins: "Yesterday upon the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there / He wasn’t there again today / I wish, I wish, he’d go away." The poem is apparently about a haunted house and "the man who wasn`t there" is a ghost. But here, the protagonist himself is the one who "isn`t there", which surely means that he feels like he`s living a false existence, as if he was merely a ghost of a man. The other man is apparently an authentic person, and unlike the man in the Mearns poem he is not frightened by the non-entity he meets but speaks with him at length and assures him that he is his friend.

Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long long time ago

The protagonist has grown up in a culture that has taught him that it is useless to try to go your own way and that it is better to conform and accept the identity that society imposes on you. This culture is full of stories that provide examples of people who did go their own way and ended up miserable or dead. Therefore, he is surprised to find this man before him, a man who did not bow to society`s dictations and still managed to stay alive and well for so many years. But the answer comes:

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You`re face to face
With the man who sold the world

What this man tells him is: yes, it is possible. You can go your own way, not selling your soul to the system, and still survive and remain happy. You can fool them all, and you can keep doing it for many years, maybe for the rest of your life.

The name "The Man Who Sold the World" is most probably inspired by Robert Heinlein`s 1950 sci-fi novella The Man Who Sold the Moon. Heinlein`s story is about a man obsessed with reaching and controlling the Moon, who builds a financial and technological empire to realize his ambition only to be held back eventually by his obligations to this empire and having to forgo his dream. He wanted to own the Moon, but he ended up being owned by the organization he built. The man Bowie meets had similar dreams of "owning the world", but he understood that in order to remain in control, the way to go is not to buy the world but rather to "sell" it – that is, not to become part of the system and try to reach its head, but rather to find a way to remain on the outside. This man is thought to be dead by conformed society because he never let himself belong to any of its categories and always kept himself under the radar, unbound by society`s conventions.

I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home
I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed

The protagonist is merely amused at first, and goes back to his regular life after their conversation is over. But the meeting plants a seed in his mind. He wants to be as free and happy as that man and he begins to search for the secret of that life. He looks for something solid – a form of happy living, a land of happiness – but years of search produce nothing.

I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here
We must have died alone, a long long time ago

Looking at society, it now seems to him that it is actually we, the "normal" people, who are dead, even if we don`t realize it. We live in our predetermined boxes, conforming to society`s norms, and we think that this is "real" life when actually we are living a fake existence. It seems that we are all dead. Or are we?

Who knows? not me
We never lost control
You`re face to face
With the man who sold the world

No, not all of us are dead. The hero now talks about a different kind of "we", not society at large but a group of people who managed to remain free and real. And he himself, we now learn, belongs to this group as well. After all these years of searching for form and land, he finally found them. Or maybe he didn`t, but actually realized that it is the fact that he never committed himself to any form and land that brought him freedom? He doesn`t tell us, and leaves it for us to figure out for ourselves. But be it as it may, he is now the man who stops us as we pass him upon the stair and tells us that there`s another kind of life out there.

In `The Man Who Sold the World`, I feel, Bowie is beginning to come out of his songwriter/storyteller guise to adopt the stance of a prophet and a leader. Until now his writing was the knife that cuts through every argument, attacking both sides, suggesting that there might be a third way; now, he wants to become the knife, not committing to any side, living out the third way and setting the example. Until now, in the collective consciousness of youth culture, it was thought that a young person has only two options: either burn out, or rust. In other words, either conform to society`s norms and live a long but dull life, or rebel and live an intense and authentic existence, but an existence that cannot last for long. Bowie`s records are full of people of the second kind, but this record, I believe, reveals that his intention is to be smarter than them: he wants to live an intense and free existence, remaining in control of his destiny, and drag it out as long as he can. `The Man Who Sold the World` will become one of Bowie`s trademark songs throughout his career, and I believe the reason is that it is one of his personal manifestos, expressing what he aspired to achieve.

As one of Bowie`s anthems, this song had some various and interesting performances over the years, as well as some great covers. In 1979, after a decade in which he pretty much lived out the ideal he posed in it, Bowie came back to deliver its most definitive performance to date.

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