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(Analyzing Bowie: The Man Who Sold the World (album

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Let's begin with the infamous cover. Even prior to listening, the album already provides the (quite considerable, in 1971) shock of seeing the male artist sprawled in a femininely alluring pose, adorned in a woman's dress. This provocative image is a portent of things to come, but androgyny was not part of Bowie's art yet. His inspiration, he stated later, was a Rossetti painting which he was trying to reproduce. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a 19th century English painter who started a new school in British art, with paintings that went against the traditions that existed since the Renaissance and had a startling effect on their viewers' perception. And not only the style but also the content scandalized the Victorian mind, offering a blend of eroticism and spirituality that went head-on against the prevailing Puritanism of the times. A new mixture of eroticism and spirituality is of course what The Man Who Sold the World album is all about, and it is understood why Bowie would want to invoke Rossetti.

But if we try to locate the specific Rossetti painting that inspired the cover, we will not find it. I believe that Bowie made a mistake and ascribed to Rossetti a painting that actually belonged to one of his disciples. The actual inspiration is surely this painting, 1871's 'Sleeping Beauty' by Edward Burne-Jones:

The 'Sleeping Beauty' is, of course, that comatose princess from the fairytale, who has to be awoken. But Bowie is wide awake in the photo, signifying someone who has already awoken from his slumber, someone representing a new kind of human awareness. One wonders if Bowie realized that exactly hundred years have passed since Burne-Jones made the painting, and according to the fairytale, it is time for the sleeper to wake up. But I believe Bowie is playing a deeper symbolic game here, one that requires some knowledge in the history of art. Burne-Jones' painting definitely owes something to 'Sleeping Venus', a Renaissance masterpiece by Giorgione.

In this painting from 1510, the nude female body is idealized and seen to be in harmony with nature. We the spectators are voyeurs who gaze upon this image, not as something sexual but as something harmonious and beautiful. That is not the case with the even more famous (and infamous) painting that was directly inspired by it, Titian's 1538 'Venus of Urbino', in which the image becomes eroticized. Here, the naked goddess is moved into domestic settings, into our world, and alluringly looks directly at us, enjoying the sexual arousal she creates in us.

Of course, 19th century bourgeois culture, with its Victorian values, would not admit this arousal. People went to art galleries mainly to gape at pictures of naked women, but they pretended to come for the art. To cater this hypocrisy, nude paintings always depicted divinities or mythological figures, to distance them from our world and help the spectators pretend there is nothing sexual going on. Into this reality Edouard Manet dropped the bomb with his 1863 painting 'Olympia'. Once again we see the reclining nude female, obviously imitating Titian's painting, but the figure is not a goddess but rather a contemporary Parisian whore, staring at the viewer mockingly as if saying "this is what you came here for, isn't it?" Around the same time that Edward Burne-Jones returned to the original non-sexual sleeping Venus figure with his fully-covered sleeping beauty, Edouard Manet prostituted her completely, to ridicule his era's hypocrisy.

Bowie's album cover, I believe, aims to be for Burne-Jones' 'Sleeping Beauty' what 'Venus of Urbino' and 'Olympia' are to 'Sleeping Venus' (his right hand is obviously modeled after 'Venus of Urbino', while his left hand takes after 'Sleeping Beauty'). While we think that we come to the album as spectators, voyeurs of the artist's inner world, he gazes at us mockingly, knowing that it is actually our inner world that will be affected by the confrontation (we have encountered a similar sentiment in 'Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed'). The new feature added to the picture is a card held delicately between Bowie's fingers as if he is about to throw it, and other cards scattered all over the floor, suggesting that he was the one who dealt them, presumably to us. Cards are a symbol of chance, and a card-dealer is someone who controls chance. The image suggests that Bowie is the man who is not going to let chance dictate his fate, but intends to master his own destiny, and ours. The album's title starts to make more sense now.

As early as this album, then, Bowie is already settling into his artistic worldview, in which the artist does not just portray a certain ideal through his art but aims to become it. Glaring at us from the cover as if he was himself the very thing that 19th century painters aspired to represent, Bowie assumes a transcendent figure that refuses to let us, "the world", master his fate and deal him his lot, but rather deals his own cards to us. Even before we unsheathe the vinyl and give it a spin, we are already encountered by an image of someone who pretends to break away from the past and offer a new kind of spirituality, replacing the dying spirit of the sixties counter-culture. Now let's go in and see if he lives up to his pretensions.

When you're trying to free yourself from a certain worldview, you attack it at the source, and the source of much of the counter-culture's mentality was Beatnik philosophy. The premise of this philosophy is that our minds are conditioned by a technocratic-industrial-militaristic culture that erases our spiritual side, so in order to free our spirit we must first of all "beat" our mind, destroy our thought processes. That can be done in several ways - drug intake, meditation, shock treatments, hobo life, uninhibited sex, wild music – all designed to throw our mind into another zone, so that it can no longer repress its spirituality. The moniker "Beat" comes from this technique of "beating" the mind, but also from the word "beatific", designating the pure and joyful state we supposedly reach when we manage to free ourselves. The influence of Beat is felt in the subject matter of most of the album that takes us through some of these consciousness altering states, but in 'All the Madmen', we find that the Beatnik logic is a sham. The hero believes he is liberating his mind through shock treatments, living a spiritual and free life, when in fact he's only descending into the pits of madness and incarceration. Bowie, then, continues the Beatnik search for a higher spirituality, but criticizes the Beatnik dogmas and brands them to be just as false as the dogmas of the culture they're rebelling against.

Bowie's attack on the counter-culture focuses not only on its techniques to achieve a higher spirituality but also on what it believes the human spirit to be. What the Beatniks (and subsequently the Hippies) believed was that all entities in the universe are constantly moving and grooving together in harmony. The problem, according to them, is that our rational consciousness detaches us from reality, turns us into onlookers instead of participants, so we are out of this harmony, out of the groove, and cannot enjoy it. When you "beat" the rational mind, you let your irrational side – instincts, drives, intuitions – take over and lead the way, and you become part of the universal harmony. Their model was the small free jazz combo, where every musician is carried on the wings of spontaneous improvisation and still they are tuned to what the others are doing and play together. The belief was that if we can make the whole world groove like that, our lives would become harmonious and happy.

Bowie presents a different picture. He also shows humans as driven by strong irrational forces, but rather than leading to harmony, these forces lead to chaos. The counter-culture believed that in a peaceful world everyone would be happy and groove together, but in 'Saviour Machine', Bowie envisions a peaceful world and comes to the conclusion that it will not satisfy humanity's innermost drives and will therefore lead to disaster. And in 'Running Gun Blues', when "the peaceful" (the anti-war movement that sprang out of the counter-culture) finally manage to end the Vietnam war, the soldier-protagonist is left unsatisfied, so he goes out on a killing-spree. The universe just isn't what the Hippies believed it to be.

This, then, is Bowie's first truth: that the universe is not harmonious at its core, but rather violent and chaotic. How should we deal with this truth? We could succumb to it, like the soldier in 'Running Gun Blues' who "promotes oblivion" and turns chaos into his ideology, but that way will surely lead us to our doom. Another way must be sought.

And so, Bowie seeks the answer in philosophies that view the universe as irrational and chaotic, such as the writings of Aleister Crowley, who chose black magic as the path for a better way of life. Crowley believed that we are driven by the Will, an inner powerful force that is suppressed in Western culture and should be released. Liberation of the Will, he believed, would connect us to supernatural powers, which will take us to a higher plane of existence. Crowley's influence is felt throughout the album, especially in the attitude towards sex, that seems to adopt Crowley's view that through sex we are releasing the Will. In 'She Shook Me Cold', the hero is a womanizer who thought he knew everything about sex, until an encounter with some fiendish woman teaches him that that purely physical intercourse that he called "sex" is not the real thing, and truly powerful sex is an expression of the Will, an inner force inside him. Here, too, Bowie is putting a spin on the beliefs of the counter-culture: he carries on the call for sexual liberation, but doesn't do it in the name of love and harmony like the Hippies, but in order to release the Will and take us to another level. Similarly in 'Width of a Circle', we hear of another mystical intercourse that takes the hero to the heavens and connects him with a supernatural being, like Crowley promised. But the end of the track finds the hero in hell, in a much lower state than the one he started from. Bowie, then, seems to take from Crowley the idea that we are driven by our Will and that sex is one of the ways of liberating it, but to reject Crowley's appeal to the supernatural. The Will should be directed elsewhere.

If not the Supernatural, then perhaps the Superman? With this album, Bowie begins his dalliance with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the Superman. Nietzsche theorized that the whole universe is imbued with a force he called "The Will to Power", a force that moves every entity and drives it to overcome other entities. There is no order in the Nietzschean picture of the universe – there is only chaos and struggle, and any semblance of order in it is merely temporary balance. Humans are also driven by the Will to Power, but since they also have intelligence, they can channel it in positive directions that will bring happiness and beauty instead of violence and oblivion. By nature, said Nietzsche, humans are driven to overcome one another; but they can redirect this drive and employ it to overcome themselves, to constantly recreate themselves in a way that is more powerful and joyful. The end result of this gradual overcoming, he prophesized, would be the Superman, a being who derives joy from every aspect of Earthly existence. These ideas also saturate the album and reach their peak in 'The Supermen', in which Bowie envisions a quasi-Nietzschean Utopia of Supermen and comes to the conclusion that it isn't all that good. So Nietzsche's ultimate message (or what Bowie thought was his message) is also rejected, but Bowie does absorb some of his ideas into his own developing worldview.

The gist of Bowie's new manifesto, then, is a call to move on from the Hippie worldview and set a new goal for the counter-culture: the revolution should be done not in the name of bringing peace and harmony to the world but in the name of empowering the human race. For this new message he needed a new sound, something more powerful than the playful flower-power music of the Hippies, and he found it in the fledgling style of heavy metal. Heavy metal was not about musical harmony but about musical power, and its subject matter was darker, sometimes foraying into the same realms of black magic that Bowie was exploring. Mick Ronson's guitar and Mick Woodmansey's drums delve into the possibilities opened by Cream and Jimi Hendrix, conversing with the new musical language that was being developed at the time by bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin (the riff to 'The Supermen' was given to Bowie by Jimmy Page, heavy metal pioneer and a Crowley disciple himself). Another feature that distinguished heavy metal was its love for the power of technology, an infatuation that went against the grain of the Beatnik/Hippie anti-industrial stance. This is accentuated on the album by Ralph Mace's innovative use of the synthesizer and Tony Visconti's equally innovative production, which give it a futuristic feel that goes well with the sci-fi content of some of the tracks. While Hippie music was now veering towards country-rock, a style that celebrated nature and rejected urbanity, Bowie retorts with 'Black Country Rock', inviting us to his dark and industrial musical land.  

And all this is built upon the two concepts that were already the leading guidelines in Bowie's art. In his first album he presented himself as the Bowie knife, which cuts both sides of any argument and tries to reach a third way that lies beyond. By his second album, he already added the perception of himself as the Pierrot, the clown who presents a mirror-image of society through his art and exposes humanity's shortcomings. Supplementing the Superman concept, Bowie (mainly in 'After All') redefines his role: through his art, he will be the clown that presents humans who try to reach a better form of existence but fail due to Man's fallacies; but by telling their stories, he will cut through these fallacies to try and create a Superman mentality, a mentality that will not fall into the same traps. He already started to present those false messiahs in his previous album, in tracks like 'Space Oddity', 'Cygnet Committee' and 'Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud', and now he adds 'Width of a Circle', 'All the Madmen' and 'Saviour Machine'. These tracks all present characters who fail, but by going through their tragedy, we might find new possibilities for happiness.

With hindsight, we can see that at least one of these records already contains the seed of what was to grow and become Bowie's essential truth. In 'Width of a Circle', the hero realizes that "God's a young man", that the most divine feeling is to be found not in a fixed and eternal form but in rebellion and transformation. The hero then has intercourse with an alien being that brings about a transformation in his soul and causes a temporary divine sensation, but then he succumbs to this being and it drags him to losing himself completely. In time, the realization will come that what brings about the joyful sensation is not that particular being you are copulating with, but the fact that you are copulating with an alien being, and the trick is to break away in time and hook up with another alien.

It is unclear how much Bowie was aware at the time of this intuition. But what we can deduce is that he no longer sees himself merely as a knife that cuts other people's outlooks, but already starts to believe that he has found a path to form a unique outlook of his own. The title track suggests that he intends to succeed where all those heroes of his records have failed, that he is going to live a heroic way of life and manage to keep it up for years and years, not letting himself fall.

This, then, is what the figure on the cover is telling us. Casually holding the King of Diamonds between his fingers as if he is his master, he sends the message: the highest rank of existence you could come up with in your materialistic mind is the king of diamonds, but I represent something that is higher, and I can play with your heroes and turn them all into cards in my own game. I intend to be the man who sold your world, in exchange for something better.

Width of a Circle
All the Madmen
Black Country Rock
After All
Running Gun Blues
Saviour Machine
She Shook Me Cold
The Man Who Sold the World
The Supermen

The album was ready by mid-1970, but went through a few trials before it was released. Bowie was in the process of changing managers and record companies, and long months passed before he could finally put it out. The original cover was actually different and consisted of a pop art painting made by Mike Weller, one of his friends in the Beckenham Arts Lab. It depicts a cowboy with a shotgun (inspired by 'Running Gun Blues') standing next to the Cane Hill Hospital, a mental institute where Bowie's half-brother was committed (and which was of course the inspiration to 'All the Madmen'). This was the cover of the album when in was first release in the US in November 1970, and this cartoonish, violent and dark image was perfect for America.

In Britain the album came out only in April 1971, and in the meantime Bowie had created, along with photographer Keith Macmillan, the provocative dress photo that became the official cover. But the album flopped badly, at least until it was rereleased a year and a half later in the wake of Ziggy's success. The effect of the album upon this rerelease was perfect, since it dealt with similar theme to the Ziggy Stardust album but was its opposite in many respects, and it showed the crowd of new Bowie fans that behind the glamorous star they fell in love with there was a more thoughtful and somber man. Aptly, this new release had a new cover that showed Ziggy in black and white, making the album appear like a noir version of Ziggy.

In time, the album would revert in successive rereleases to the celebrated dress cover, and would earn its stature as a classic masterpiece. With hindsight, we can see that all the themes which Bowie will develop in his career are already contained in this album.

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