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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Changes

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Listening closely to Hunky Dory, we realize that Bowie was going through a serious crisis. From his previous albums, we already learned that he felt that life could be more than the mundane existence in modern society, and was trying all sorts of doctrines that were supposed to take him higher, but none of them really satisfied him. Now, in `Life on Mars?`, he tells us that he has run out of options, and every way of life out there looks the same to him; and `Quicksand` shows that this realization leaves him stuck, not knowing how to act, and feeling like he is slowly sinking into oblivion. He must find something to cling to, something solid that he can use to pull himself out of the quicksand. But where can he find it?

Well, if the outside world fails to provide solutions, there is one more option he can try. Ever since Descartes, Western thinkers who felt skeptic about existing dogmas turned to self-reflection, to find out what it is about their own existence that they can be certain of and use as a building block for a new system of thought. The self is always going through changes, but, most people believe, beneath all these changes there is also a core that remains constant, a "soul", a "real self" that is the essence of who you are. So if you can find that "real self" and form a way of life based on it, you will live an authentic and happy life. Or at least this is what the modern school of thought known as "Existentialism" believed. If nothing else worked, maybe this type of existentialist self-reflection can show Bowie the way?

Still don`t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets
And every time I thought I`d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet

Bowie begins by telling us that he was waiting for something, but he doesn`t know what. Meaning, that he felt that life should be different, but didn`t know how. This made him feel alienated to the life he was leading, and when you are alienated you feel like the things you do are not connected to one another and form no coherent whole. You don’t know what future you want to be heading towards, and so you have no controI over time – it is "running wild" in all directions. In order to regain controI over your time you must be part of a system of thought that tells you where you`re coming from and where you`re going to, but Bowie tells us that every system he tried has led to a dead-end and left him dissatisfied. Therefore, he turns to self-reflection, to find his "real self" and create a new system based on it. However...

So I turned myself to face me
But I`ve never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I`m much too fast to take that test

Turning to look at himself, Bowie finds that there is no such thing as a "real self", a core that remains constant through all the changes. Everything about him is subject to change, and these changes happen so fast that the attempt to use self-reflection to find your "real self" is akin to trying to turn around to look at yourself – in other words, an absurd notion. He acknowledges that other people believe that they can identify the "real self", but brands what they see as a "faker". The Existentialist search for the "real self", then, is another dead-end. The only constant thing he can find about himself is the fact that he is constantly changing.

And this, of course, is also the answer. If the only thing he can be sure of is that he will keep on changing, then the change is his first truth, the certainty he can use as a building block to create a new way of life. Self-reflection revealed no "real self", but it did reveal the essence of human existence, and that essence is…

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don`t want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can`t trace time

Bowie tried to "turn myself to face me", to find the constant "me" beneath all the changes, but discovered that there was no constant "me" to be faced. So instead, he turns to face the strange changes and find out what are the laws that govern them. Western culture teaches us that we should work for a better future where we would be richer and happier, but Bowie rejects this perception of happiness and poses a new one: happiness is not something that will come in the future but something that can be ours in the here and now, and it comes from changing oneself. His answer to the problem of not being able to controI time is to accept it as a given: indeed, he cannot trace time, cannot determine the future he should be headed to, so there`s no point in trying. But what he can do is focus on the present and try to figure out the kind of change that will make him happy in the here and now.

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence
And so the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same

Bowie equates existence to a stream, ever-flowing and ever-changing. He is certainly not the first to use this metaphor, and he probably got it from Buddhism, although it exists in Western thought as well. Many philosophies and doctrines have pretended to take us out of the stream and present a truth that is eternal and stable, but Bowie deems them nothing but ripples in the stream. Some of those ripples may be bigger and last longer than others, but eventually they will all be washed away, back into the stream of impermanence. And yet, the days seem the same, as if nothing new ever happens. How come? How is it that even though everything is ever-changing, everything still seems the same? Because Western thought conditioned us to think that only one type of change is a real change, and that`s the type of change that will take us out of the stream. Almost all of Western thought (and Eastern thought, for that matter) preaches that Man cannot find happiness in an ever-changing reality, and should aspire to transcend it, to become part of something that is eternal. Therefore, the changes that happen within the stream are seen as meaningless. But Bowie overturns this picture: the stream of impermanence isn`t all bad and miserable; it is rather warm and habitable. Happiness should be sought within the stream.

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They`re quite aware of what they`re going through

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don`t tell them to grow up and out of it
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Where`s your shame?
You`ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can`t trace time

Once again, Bowie does what he does in several other records from that period: pretending to be the spokesperson for his generation, while actually presenting his own unique view. He speaks to the older generation who believe that they know where Humanity is heading (back then, the belief in modern "progress" still reigned supreme), and think that the only meaningful changes are those who take the world towards that goal. So when they talk about "changing the world", they mean changing society to make it compatible with some eternal ideal, and they dismiss the kind of "meaningless" changes the youth are going through and tell them to grow out of it. Bowie`s reply is that it is actually the adults who are clueless, because they delude themselves that they can trace time and because they don`t realize that the youth simply has a different perception of what it means to "change the world". In this new perception, the emphasis is not on `the world`, but on the `change`. In other words, the happiness that comes from "changing the world" does not come from the fact that the world is better, but from the joy you feel while changing it. Bowie no longer speaks of "The World", but of "worlds": every one of us has his own private world, and everyone`s world is different; but we have one thing in common, and that is that we can gain happiness when we change it.

Bowie pretends to be speaking for the youth, and that the view he expresses here is what stands at the basis of the counter-culture`s rebellion. But actually, he is radically redefining its maxims. In 1963, Bob Dylan sang: "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don`t criticize what you can`t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly agin` / Please get out of the new one if you can`t lend your hand / For the times they are a-changin`", and it is rather these words that were what the counter-culture was about. Dylan here still believes that he can trace time, that he knows where the changes are taking us, and that the difference between the generations is that the young generation is the one going in the right direction. Bowie`s words are reminiscent of Dylan`s, but his concept of change is fundamentally different. Dylan`s song still belong to the old way of thinking, the thinking that believes that we should swim to solid land (or we will "sink like a stone"), and that the changes we make should be aimed at that direction. For Bowie, it is exactly this way of thinking that has "left us up to our necks in it". Instead, we should keep on swimming in the stream of warm impermanence, and focus on the nature of the changes themselves.

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Ah changes are taking the pace I`m going through

His ever-moving existence, then, would not derive its meaning from the direction of the movement, but from its rhythm. The changes set the pace of this rhythm, and his mission is to make it groovy and joyful. The question then becomes: what kind of changes are changes that induce joy? Bowie already gives us part of the answer: joyful changes come from being taken over by a strange fascination, a fascination to something that is alien to your current identity. While most people fear the strange and would rather hang on to the familiar, Bowie decrees that you should turn and face the strange, let it take over you and change you.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Ooh, look out you rock`n`rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you`re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can`t trace time

The final chorus reminds us of the Who`s `My Generation`, with the famous assertion: "I hope I die before I get old". What is so bad about getting old (which actually means "adult")? Bowie`s reply would be: being an adult means that you can no longer change yourself, that you are stuck in one identity. So before time changes him and turns him into an adult, he is going to try to change himself into someone who masters his own changes. If he succeeds in that, then maybe, just maybe, he can remain young forever.

The performance says it even louder than the words. The verses are like a slow meandering through the banality of everyday life, but then comes that fluttering of the excitement of ch-ch-ch-changing and everything accelerates and becomes more dynamic and fun until it falls back into sluggish routine, only to be revitalized by another ch-ch-change. The music shifts tempo and keys, but Bowie stays on top of it, proving to be up to all the changes and singing with the confidence and verve of a man who has regained controI over his life. Bowie has found the key to happiness, the way to pull himself out of the quicksand and up to Mars. From now on, he is not going to look for others to give him the answers. When he will emulate the work of others, it will be to create something of his own, something that is alien to his current identity, something that can ch-ch-change him and take him out of his world.

As Bowie`s unofficial anthem, `Changes` was performed many times over the years. And of course, it was always changed. Here is Ziggy in 1973...

...and the Thin White Duke, in 1976:

Bowie himself in 1990...

And again in 2002:

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