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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Silly Boy Blue

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In 1959, China invaded Tibet and annexed it, claiming it a historical part of itself. A society that for centuries had been under the rule of Buddhist lamas was taken over by a secular Communist system, which regarded these old traditions as superstition that must be rooted out and overcome. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan society, became an exile living in the West, and many other monks dispersed in Western countries as well. In these new surroundings they developed different ways, among them was translating some of their clandestine texts and popularizing them among the masses. This was much welcomed among some Western youngsters, members of the counter-culture that was budding in those years, who were looking for a spiritual alternative to the rational and functional thought they claimed had overtaken the West. Tibetan Buddhism was an inspiration for Beatniks and Hippies, and for psychedelia. And it played a special part in the life of a young Mod named David Jones, even before he changed his name to Bowie.

David became interested in Buddhism around 1964, when he was seventeen. He sought the Tibetan community in London, befriended a lama called Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, and thought about becoming a Buddhist monk. He gave it up rather quickly, but Buddhism continued to be an influence on his art and thought throughout the years. The first expression of it was the majestic 1967 track `Silly Boy Blue`, arguably Bowie`s first great record.

Mountains of Lhasa are feeling the rain
People are walking the Potala lanes

The beginning of the record puts us in the Potala Palace in Lhasa city, the historic residence of the Dalai Lama before he was banished from Tibet.

Preacher takes the school
One boy breaks a rule
Silly Boy Blue
Silly Boy Blue

Bowie is fantasizing the place as it was, still a spiritual center. Surely it`s not just nostalgia – he also believes that this is how the place should be, and hopefully will be again. However, Bowie is already displaying his artistic freedom and original thought. This is not a hymn glorifying Buddhism, but a story about an individual who doesn`t really belong, just like most other tracks on David Bowie. We get a picture of a place where disciples are learning to become monks, but the record focuses on one disciple who breaks the rules. He probably thinks he is cleverer than his teachers and can reach enlightenment without them, but the chorus brands him as silly.

Yak butter statues that melt in the sun
Cannot dissolve all the work you`ve not done

Statues made out of yak butter are common in Tibetan culture. What this passage suggests is that the silly boy blue made them as offering, but like the golden calf in the Bible, such offerings cannot repIace true religious devotion.

A chela likes to feel
That his overself pays the bill
Silly Boy Blue
Silly Boy Blue

In Tibetan Buddhism, the belief is that every individual soul descends from and is part of the oversoul, the soul of the world. The oversoul dwells in happy oneness, but a soul that is born into the physical world is severed from this happiness (although it is still connected to the oversoul) and as a result it is miserable and yearns to return to its source. The soul of a chela (disciple) who achieves enlightenment can return to this unity in the afterlife and be part of it forever, but if he fails it will be reborn into this world of misery. Our boy seems to want to achieve enlightenment, but doesn`t really seem to understand what it means. He keeps thinking in terms of "self", and grasps the oversoul as an overself, a more powerful reflection of his individuality. He doesn`t realize that the self is the cause of his misery, and that his aim should be to achieve a selfless state. It appears that he sees the "overself" as some sort of deity and creates butter statues as an offering to it, thinking that by such payments he can make his way to merging with it. In a Buddhist context, he is gravely mistaken.

You wish and wish, and wish again
You`ve tried so hard to fly
You`ll never leave your body now
You`ve got to wait to die

Achieving enlightenment can bring you happiness not just in the afterlife, but in this life as well. Once you transcend the self, you are not bound by your body any longer. The silly boy imagines that it would be like flying, and really wishes and tries to achieve it, but wishing and trying are both acts of the self and can never get him to his goal. He is a failed Buddhist, and his only hope now is to be reborn after death as someone cleverer who will get another chance.

One wonders if Bowie is mocking those Western Beatniks who took Buddhism to their heart and tried to achieve enlightenment, but remained too tied up in their Western individualistic logic. There is definitely something Western about the Boy Blue, not just his egotism but also his reluctance to work hard to achieve the goal that other Buddhist monks dedicate their entire time to. The record's title is surely a reference to 'Little Boy Blue', the nursery rhyme about the lazy shepherd who sleeps on his job. This leisurely approach to Eastern mysticism was quite characteristic of sixties counter-culture folks.

Child of Tibet, you`re a gift from the sun
Reincarnation of one better man
The homeward road is long
You`ve left your prayers and song
Silly Boy Blue
Silly Boy Blue

In the end, it seems the boy has left the temple, and walks the road that leads back to earthly life. And yet, this is the most inspiring part of the record, the moment Bowie's voice takes off together with the music. It appears that this is actually the moment that Bowie identifies with the most. It is possible that he sees himself as the boy who left the temptations of the oversoul to express his own soul and self.

What we are seeing here, I believe, is the Bowie knife in action. While he cuts those who try to go the Buddhist way without truly committing to it, he also cuts Buddhism and finds fault in its denial of the self. There is a middle path, and the end of the record sees Bowie setting out on its way to find it.

`Silly Boy Blue` was the first Bowie song to be recorded by a well-known artist. In the end of 1967 came this version from Billy Fury.

Bowie remained enamored with the Tibetan culture and bothered by the plight of the Tibetan people. In the 1990s he started to take part in the concerts arranged by the Tibetan House in NYC, an organization dedicated for the preservation of Tibetan culture and for fighting for the rights of Tibetan people. For his 2001 concert, much to the delight of his fans, he dug up `Silly Boy Blue` and performed it for the first time in more than 30 years.

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