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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Bewlay Brothers

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And so the story goes, we read the prose, we sussed the things that made it seem probable. But now we come to 'The Bewlay Brothers', and here is the moment I was dreading. With every record I analyzed so far, I had a pretty good idea beforehand where I was going with it, although once I started I was always surprised by where the analysis took me. With 'The Bewlay Brothers', I haven't a clue what it's all about. As I write these words, I'm getting prepared to dive into it, and I have no idea what I'll come up with. Are you ready? Let's do it.

One thing that seems obvious is that this record is meant to be elusive. To begin with, the style is quite different from Bowie's other records of that period. In those other records, you can always find the main narrative or themes it revolves around. Here, the picture is muddled by fancy words, enigmatic images and wordplays, and it is very hard to extract a story from it. The Dylanesque poetry slithers in unexpected directions, and Mick Ronson's wonderful electric guitar takes us through many moods, its beauty contrasting with the nauseating acoustic guitar strumming. Some have postulated that this record has no meaning at all, that Bowie is simply making fun of those who take him too seriously, providing them with an impenetrable lyric to bash their heads against. But that doesn't compute with the way Bowie treated this record over the years - it seems to mean something very deep and personal to him, and that seems to be the reason for the masquerade. This makes the role of the interpreter very hard, but we can try.

A quick first glance at the lyrics reveals that they contain many images that bring to mind the themes he was dealing with in other records from that period, like religion, insanity, drug use, homosexuality and transvestitism. It is tempting to see the Bewlay Brothers as a couple of hustlers who go through all sorts of adventures together. But it seems to me that this is just the outer-shell imagery, and the things that we should focus on are the identity of the brothers and the relationship between them.

Many years later, Bowie revealed that he took the word "Bewlay" from a brand of pipes of that name, and that it actually stands for "Bowie". That certainly clears the smoke a little. Let us think of the record as "The Bowie Brothers". Next we should ask: who are the Bowie Brothers?

The easy solution would be to suggest that he is talking about his mentally ill half-brother, and many, indeed, regard the record as a tribute to Terry Jones, expressing the soulful connection between the two. This would account for the personal feel of it, and there are images in the record that support this interpretation. But I am not going to go in that direction. One thing seems apparent: these guys are together through everything - in the feeble in the bad, in the devil may be here, in the blessed and cold, etc. So the way I see it, the two brothers aren't two persons, but two sides of Bowie's own personality.

This would correspond with the other bookend of Hunky Dory. In 'Changes', Bowie tells us that when he tried self-reflection it produced a duality in his being: the "myself" was facing the "me". And we have encountered this duality elsewhere in his work, most notably in 'Width of a Circle'. But what is the nature of this duality? Are there two distinct persons, living in the same body? No, not unless you suffer from a multiple personality disorder. In a regular case, this duality would mean that your identity can never encompass all parts of your being: if you define yourself in a certain way, there will always be parts of you that will be left out of this definition, and they will become the "other side" of your personality. And since 'Changes' defined identity as a fluid thing, this duality must also be fluid: one moment you think of yourself in a certain way, and it splits your being accordingly, and the next moment you think of yourself in a different way and your being is then split differently. This fluid duality, I feel, is what we find in 'The Bewlay Brothers'. There are no two distinct personalities throughout the record, but rather a process of splitting, operating within the resulting duality, and then splitting in a different way. This fluidity is one of the things that make the record so hard to grab onto.

So we have a certain picture in mind, of a fluid process of splitting and re-splitting. Armed with this picture, let us proceed to dissect the record.

And so the story goes, they wore the clothes
They said the things to make it seem improbable
The whale of a lie like they hope it was

This portrays people who have put on a spectacle, a fancy lie which they knew was false, but made it so seductive in its improbability that other people fell for it. But who are "they"? Hard to tell, but judging by his other records of the period, I'm led to think that he's talking about the counter-culture again. The sixties youth wore fancy clothes to distinguish themselves from the adults, and pretended that they were going to create a new world, but it was all just a fabulous lie.

And the Goodmen of Tomorrow
Had their feet in the wallow
And their heads of Brawn were nicer shorn
And how they bought their positions with saccharin and trust

Of course, not all the youth were members of the counter-culture. "The Goodmen of tomorrow" are those kids who conform to society's norms, comfortable to stand in the wallow of mediocrity, to not think too much, to comb their hair according to the rules, to use false sweetness to win the trust of employers and advance in society. They are the opposite of those in the opening passage.

So we have two sides here, and if we go by our reading, we will say that they are two sides in Bowie's personality as well. He also has a rebellious side and a side that wants to conform. He sees parts of himself in both groups.

And the world was asleep to our latent fuss
Sighing, the swirl through the streets
Like the crust of the sun

But apparently, he didn't feel he belonged to any of the groups. There was a part in him that wanted something else, which was not provided by them. It remained latent, fussing below the surface, but not reaching the ears of the world. He was showing a false exterior to the world, an exterior that was like the crust of the Sun – that is, something that can hardly contain the inner burn.

The Bewlay Brothers
In our Wings that Bark
Flashing teeth of Brass
Standing tall in the dark
Oh, and we were Gone
Hanging out with your Dwarf Men
We were so turned on
By your lack of conclusions

Finally, he found a way to express the latent fuss, to create his own identity. Seems that here he recalls breaking away from those two groups, both conformed society and the counter-culture, and establishing himself as David Bowie. Which of course immediately split his personality differently, producing the Bewlay Brothers. The following images are vague, but they seem to represent a certain attitude, standing alone in the face of the world and making noise to rattle it. He dropped out of society and went hanging with its "Dwarf Men", with the castaways. It suggests that he joined a circus, and that brings to mind his decision to become the clown, the Pierrot that plays mirror-image to society. In that position, society's "lack of conclusions", its inability to find any lasting truths, did not depress him but rather turned him on – it gave him room for artistic expression.

I was Stone and he was Wax
So he could scream, and still relax, unbelievable
And we frightened the small children away

The nature of the new split revolves around animation vs. in-animation. One side is stable and solid, like a stone, while the other side is flexible and changing, like wax. He identified himself with the solid side, while the flexible side was reserved for his characters. That's the way I understand these lines: Bowie is talking about the aesthetic position he took in the years 67-71, when his "self" stood apart from society as a songwriter, while his characters were the ones who dove into the stream of everyday life, putting on faces and frightening the children.

And our talk was old and dust would flow
Thru our veins and Lo!
It was midnight back on the kitchen door
Like the grim face on the Cathedral floor

But then he felt that this position was making him gather dust. The image of dust flowing through his veins invokes images of drug use, and is probably meant to do so, but I feel the main meaning is something else. I think it is another comment on the passage of time, of the feeling that his time is "running wild" and that he is wasting his life away instead of living it like it should be lived. The stroke of midnight reminds him that he is constantly moving towards death (the grim face on the Cathedral floor), and that he should find a way to utilize his life better.

And the solid book we wrote
Cannot be found today

This sounds like a direct reference to 'Oh! You Pretty Things', where he's telling us that the books he writes today will be found by the golden ones, the race of super humanoids of the future, and only they will be able to understand it. I think Bowie is saying that the albums he made so far present a solid worldview, but they cannot be understood by his contemporaries. He needs to find a way to connect better.

And it was Stalking time
for the Moonboys
The Bewlay Brothers

Seems to me that here the other "brother" is taking over, that brother that is about action and change. From his point of view, the kind of art they have been producing until now is nothing but stalking, portraying the actions of humankind without taking part.

With our backs on the arch
In the Devil-may-be-here
But He can't sing about that

For this other brother the scenery of midnight in the cathedral, with the sense of impending death and the devil close at hand, is not frightening but rather presents options. But he knows that his brother cannot sing about such things, cannot take these options, and that's why he took over. I think Bowie is hinting at his Crowleyan stage, where he opened up to the darkness. 

Oh, and we were Gone
Real Cool Traders
We were so Turned On
You thought we were Fakers

And so he moved on from being a clown to being a Satanist, trading one lifestyle for another. The other brother, the one that believes in stability, felt that they were being fakers for changing so dramatically, but this brother holds the belief expressed in 'Changes': the self is always a "faker", there is no such thing as a real self. Therefore, realness should be defined differently: you are real when you follow the thing that turns you on at the moment, and change yourself accordingly.

Now the dress is hung, the ticket pawned
The Factor Max that proved the fact
Is melted down
And woven on the edging of my pillow

Until now, he was talking in past tense. Now, he talks about the present. It seems that the other brother, the one who is more stable, is back in the driver's seat. And from his point of view, that period when the other side was in controI was nothing but an act. Well, this act is now over, he has removed the dress and makeup, and the Max Factor stains on his pillow suggest that it was nothing but a dream.

Now my Brother lays upon the Rocks
He could be dead, He could be not
He could be You
He's Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature
"Shooting-up Pie-in-the-Sky"
The Bewlay Brothers
In the feeble and the Bad
The Bewlay Brothers

The other brother, he tells us, is dormant for the moment, but he knows that he might wake up. He describes that other side as chameleon (denoting his flexible, changing nature), comedian (denoting his Pierrot nature), Corinthian (probably denoting his evangelic nature, in bringing to mind St. Paul's epistles), and caricature (again this has to do with the Pierrot, who caricaturizes human nature. This is why "he could be you", that is, anyone of us). That other side is also "shooting-up pie-in-the-sky", filling their combined being with dreams of a better existence, while the more stable side sees no escape from the feeble and the bad.

In the Blessed and Cold
In the Crutch-hungry Dark
Was where we flayed our Mark
Oh, and we were Gone
Kings of Oblivion
We were so Turned On
In the Mind-Warp Pavilion

This passage hints that they were prostituting themselves to someone or something. But now they are gone again, setting out on another mind-warping adventure.

Lay me place and bake me Pie
I'm starving for me Gravy
Leave my shoes and door unlocked
I might just slip away
Just for the Day, Hey!
Please come Away, Hey!

Once again he goes through a transformation. The brother that is in controI now is that brother that enjoys change, shoots for pies in the sky and wants to ride the gravy train. He is calling for the other brother to join him, to "come away" on the new adventure. But there is also a new awareness: this is going to be temporary. The phrase "just for a day", which will play a crucial role in Bowie's art, makes its first appearance here. He knows that this new transformation is only a phase, and the day will come when another side of him will take over his being and have a different view of things.

So 'The Bewlay Brothers', in my analysis, tells the story of the transformations Bowie the artist went through, ending in the here and now. Moreover, it shows him getting ready to make another change. He is now ready to put on the costume and makeup once again, because his journey made him realize that there is no stable truth but rather that truth is found in the process of creating and recreating yourself. What you have to do is find something that turns you on, create a whale of lie based on it, and then you'll be GONE, on a wondrous adventure. But you also have to remember that it is only temporary, and the lie will eventually blow up. Therefore, you have to stay connected to that other side of your being, the other "brother", and occasionally check up things from his perspective, to see if the lie still holds or if it is time to move on.

With this realization, Bowie slips away from the passive-songwriter stance of his previous albums, and enters a new phase in his career.

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