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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Please, Mr. Gravedigger

The carnival of bizarre characters that populate Bowie's first album reaches its climax in the final track, the morbid 'Please, Mr. Gravedigger'. The title seems to be paraphrasing 'Please, Mr. Postman', the cheerful Motown track which was also a hit for the Beatles, but the content is a long way away from Motown or the Beatles.

There's a little churchyard just along the way
It used to be Lambeth's finest array
Of tombstones, epitaphs, wreaths, flowers all that jazz
Till the war come along and someone dropped a bomb on the lot

Right away, Bowie aims a shot at society's attitude towards death, describing the cemetery as a commercialized and glamorized place. Or at least it used to be. Ironically it was war, the bringer of death, which destroyed the commercial vitality of the place and reminded us what death is really like. Now it is still a cemetery, but it is gloomy and desolate.

And in this little yard, there's a little old man
With a little shovel in his little bitty hand
He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves
He hates the reverend vicar and he lives all alone in his home

The record focuses on the gravedigger, describing him at his work. But he is not the only character in the play. We hear the rain falling and the singer sneezing and muttering to himself, and we realize that he is also in the cemetery, skulking in the shadows and watching the gravedigger. He seems to derive voyeuristic pleasure from watching this theatre of death, and the record becomes creepier.

Please Mr. Gravedigger, don't feel ashamed
As you dig little holes for the dead and the maimed
Please Mr. Gravedigger, I couldn't care
If you found a golden locket full of some girl's hair
And you put it in your pocket
Her mother doesn't know about your sentimental joy
She thinks it's down below with the rest of her toys
And Ma wouldn't understand, so I won't tell
So keep your golden locket all safely hid away in your pocket

Creepier and creepier. The gravedigger, it turns out, keeps souvenirs of the bodies he buries. He thinks no one notices, but he is unaware that someone is watching his every move. There is no explanation why he does it – it is just another one of the myriad of human fetishes, and the many quirks surrounding humanity's attitude towards death.

Yes, Mr. GD, you see me every day
Standing in the same spot by a certain grave
Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh so gay
And I was the wicked man who took her life away
Very selfish, oh God

Just as we thought it couldn't get any more macabre, it turns out that we haven't heard anything yet. Our narrator is not just someone who stalks the gravedigger and knows his secrets, but someone who is aware that the gravedigger sees him sometimes as well and might guess his secret, and that scares him. That is because his secret is that he murdered a little girl. Again, there's no explanation or justification. He did it because he enjoyed it, and he got away with it, too.

No, Mr. GD, you won't tell
And just to make sure that you keep it to yourself
I've started digging holes myself
And this one here's for you

Finally, this necrophilic nightmare comes to its logical conclusion, as our narrator himself becomes a gravedigger, digging a grave for the hero of his song, which he is planning to murder to cover for his previous crimes. We realize now that he was stalking the gravedigger as part of some sick ritual in which he studies his victim before killing him, and what makes it more chilling is the matter of fact way in which he goes on about it. Once again, like many tracks on the album, Bowie manages to create a false impression of the subject matter in the way he sings it and take us by surprise.

Apart from the subject matter, the record is also notable for its soundtrack, comprised solely of sound effects. 1967 was the year when young rock'n'roll acts started to rummage through the recording studio libraries, looking for exotic sound effects which were meant for radio shows, but which they used to spice up their music. Bowie was no exception, and along with producer Mike Vernon and technician Gus Dudgeon he compiled some scary sounds to give the record the right atmosphere. It works, generally. 'Please, Mr. Gravedigger' is not a great pop record by any means, but it is quite original, and displays Bowie's willingness to travel into the heart of darkness to create his art. In that, it is yet another glimpse at the future.

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