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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: White Light, White Heat

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The Velvet Underground's 'White Light / White Heat' is a song that Bowie never actually recorded in the studio, but it is a song he started to perform in the Ziggy period and continued to perform over the years. His interpretation is unique and distinct, and should therefore be considered a legitimate Bowie creation. However, since he changes the lyrics from one performance to the other, as he is prone to do with every song, there are no official "Bowie lyrics" to it. We shall therefore interpret the original Lou Reed lyrics, and then see what Bowie does with them in general.

Lou Reed was born and raised in New York. As a teenager he displayed homosexual tendencies, which prompted his parents, like all good parents would do in the nineteen-fifties, to send him to a psychiatric treatment to cure him from it. The treatment involved electroshocks – strong electric currents sent into the brain, making you lose consciousness for a while, but somehow supposed to get your synapses rewired right. It didn't work, though: Lou emerged from the treatment only more rebellious, and affected a dark and sinister identity. The sedatives he took after the shock developed into a drug habit, and by the early sixties he was doing hard drugs. These habits led to a familiarity with the junkies, pushers, hustlers and sexual deviants that populated the underbelly of Ney York City, and he began to write poetry about them. In 1965 he met avant-garde musician John Cale, and the two decided to form a rock band that would combine Reed's poetry with Cale's weird sounds and orchestrations. Thus, the Velvet Underground was born.

'White Light / White Heat' was released in 1968. It was the lead single and the title track of their second album.

White light, White light goin' messin' up my mind
White light, and don't you know it's gonna make me go blind
White heat, aww white heat it tickle me down to my toes
White light, Ooo have mercy white light have it goodness knows
White light, White light goin' messin' up my brain
White light, Aww white light it's gonna drive me insane
White heat, Aww white heat it tickle me down to my toes
White light, Aww white light I said now goodness knows, do it

This seems to be Reed recalling the experience of electroshock treatment. The electricity melting his brain, spreading warmth to the rest of his body, making him feel for a moment like he is about to go out of his mind.

Hmm hmm, White light
Aww I surely do love to watch that stuff tip itself in
Hmm hmm, White light
Watch that side, watch that side don't you know it gonna be dead in the drive
Hmm hmm, White heat
Hey foxy mama watchin' her walk down the street
Hmm hmm, White light
Come up side your head gonna make a dead end on your street

The chorus, however, sounds more like a junky getting his fix, and then getting fantasy flashes of foxy mamas walking down the street. All in all, it sounds like Lou is saying that the electroshocks have left him with a craving for mind exploding ecstasies, and the drugs are helping him achieve them.

White light, White light moved in me through my brain
White light, White light goin' makin' you go insane
White heat, Aww white heat it tickle me down to my toes
White light, Aww white light I said now goodness knows
White light, Aww white light it lighten up my eyes
White light, don't you know it fills me up with surprise
White heat, Aww white heat tickle me down to my toes
White light, Aww white light I tell you now goodness knows, now work it

Hmm hmm, White light
Aww she surely do moves me
Hmm hmm, White light
Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak everybody gonna go and make it every week
Hmm hmm, White heat
Aww sputter mutter everybody gonna go kiIl their mother
Hmm hmm, White light
Here she comes, here she comes, everybody get 'n gone make me run to her

What drug is he talking about? Well, "white" usually means heroin, but here it sounds more like he's talking about speed, methamphetamines. It's probably a combination of smack and speed, to achieve the effect of searing light and heat.

Bowie was fascinated with the Velvet Underground ever since he got his hands on a rare acetate of their first album, back in early 1967, before the album was even released. The Velvets were regarded as sick and obscene by most of the flower power generation, but Bowie found in them a goldmine of alternative perceptions to the dominating Hippie worldview, something he could build on to present himself as a new and different kind of phenomenon. 'Queen Bitch' already said it all, and on the cover of Hunky Dory it comes with the dedication: "Some V.U, white light returned with thanks". Now that he actually turned himself into a figure taken out of the world of the queen bitch, it was time to turn this white light on the rest of the world. Bowie takes the Velvets' droning, mind-numbing masterpiece and turns it into a full glam-rock attack, a vehicle for the thundering guitar of Mick Ronson. The humming in the chorus is replaced with howling, the drug references are dropped, and the verses remain basically intact but describe the ecstasy of a rock show. Bowie has taken the Velvet Underground and made them glam, thrusting them right into the mainstream.

The Velvet Underground's original record:

Ziggy's version:

Under the influence of Bowie, Lou Reed became glam for a while, and reclaimed the song, showing his ability to rock it out even harder than Ziggy and the Spiders.

In 1997, as part of Bowie's 50th birthday bash, the two legends met on stage, to drive everyone insane.

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