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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Watch that Man

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In September 1972, Bowie brought his Ziggy show to America, and RCA threw a gala party in his honor in New York, with the city`s glitterati in attendance. From things that he said later, we can gather that this party was the inspiration to `Watch that Man`, the opening track of his next album, Aladdin Sane. It`s a new experience for us Bowie listeners: not the contemplative sound of a young lad seeking for meaning, but a hectic, dense and wild atmosphere, that almost drowns his voice completely. We find that Ziggy has taken Bowie into the jet set world, where he attends those famous rowdy and glamorous parties thrown by the bohemian New York scene. How does Bowie feel about all this?

Shakey threw a party that lasted all night
Everybody drank a lot of something nice
There was an old fashioned band of married men
Looking up to me for encouragement
- it was so-so

So-so, apparently. The opening lines convey a sense of emptiness, and the party turns out to be an event where grownups are boozing it up to feel young again. And Bowie, the new star on the scene, feels that he is required to provide them with the assurance that their life is actually exciting. He doesn`t seem to like this position.

The ladies looked bad but the music was sad
No one took their eyes off Lorraine
She shimmered and she strolled like a Chicago moll
Her feathers looked better and better
- it was so-so

Luckily, some of the weight is lifted off his shoulders, as someone who`s even more glamorous saunters in and all eyes are turned from him towards her (referred to as "Lorraine", she is reportedly the model Cyrinda Foxe). We already get the main theme of the record: watching. The credo of the sixties counter-culture parties was that everyone should "do their own thing", celebrate their personal freedom. Here, it seems that no one is doing their own thing, but rather watches what the others are doing, looking at them to find reasons for their own existence.

Yeah! It was time to unfreeze
When the Reverend Alabaster danced on his knees
Slam! So it wasn`t a game
Cracking all the mirrors in shame

Finally someone manages to do something that gets the people to relax and have some fun. But Bowie defines this fun as "cracking all the mirrors in shame": these people don`t want to look at themselves, as they don`t like who they are. Bowie often defined his art as presenting humans with a mirror-image to help them understand themselves better, but these people don`t want him for that – they just want to be entertained, so that they can forget themselves.

A Benny Goodman fan painted holes in his hands
So Shakey hung him up to dry
The pundits were joking
the manholes were smoking
And every bottle battled with the reason why
The girl on the phone wouldn`t leave me alone
A throwback from someone`s LP
A lemon in a bag played the Tiger Rag
And the bodies on the screen stopped bleeding

In this verse, we get a sense that the party takes place on the mouth of hell, which threatens to devour it and seeps into it via the smoking manholes and the bleeding bodies on the screen. The mention of Benny Goodman and the Tiger Rag shows us that some of these attendants are completely out of touch with contemporary music and don`t belong there, and it also throws us back to the thirties, insinuating that these people are partying while the world around them is about to collapse. They are just drinking themselves into oblivion to forget that there is no reason to their life, and make the bleeding bodies on the screen look prettier. Salvation is being forgone and ridiculed, as one attendant paints holes in his hands (with a drug needle?) and the host proceeds to hang him up in a mock-crucifixion. The earlier image of the reverend dancing on his knees now seems like a symbol of piety turned into something raunchy. While our hero is being nagged by some girl, it throws him back to a line from someone`s LP, and we can even deduce which LP it is: it is John Lennon`s first solo album (the "lemon in a bag" is Lennon, known for his bagism), and the track is `I Found Out`, which contains the line "the freaks on the phone won`t leave me alone". In that track, Lennon addresses all the people who look up to him and expect him to provide them with the solution for their problems, and tells them that they should think for themselves, for only they can find their way to happiness. Bowie is reminded of this song because these people are now demanding solutions from him, but it seems he doesn`t exactly remember which song it is and therefore does not follow Lennon`s example. Or maybe he simply doesn`t have Lennon`s guts to tell all those hangers-on to fuck off.

Yeah! I was shaking like a leaf
For I couldn`t understand the conversation
Yeah! I ran to the street, looking for information

Finally, he can`t take it anymore, and admits he doesn`t belong. He runs out of this fake world, to look for something more truthful.

Watch that man! Oh honey, watch that man
He talks like a jerk but he could eat you with a fork and spoon
Watch that man! Oh honey, watch that man
He walks like a jerk
But he`s only taking care of the room
Must be in tune

So, who is that "man" that we are asked to watch? I believe he is the assemblage of all this crowd put together, the prototype for the personality that is revealed at this party: someone who lives only in the eyes of other people, who always has to be in tune with what is going on around him, who does not have any existence of his own. And for Bowie, he seems to be a mirror-image to what he has become.

In the final leg of the Ziggy tour, in 1973, Bowie would start the show with `Hang onto Yourself`, continue with `Ziggy Stardust` and then segue into `Watch that Man`. The message seems obvious: `Hang onto Yourself` is that moment in the Ziggy story when stardom beckons, and the hero warns himself to hang onto who he is and not let himself be taken over by his stage persona; `Ziggy Stardust` shows him failing, and starting to think of himself as the "special man", elevated from all the rest; and `Watch that Man` is Bowie telling himself that this is actually happening. The character called "Aladdinsane" is Bowie looking at himself and feeling that Ziggy has become the special man who behaves like a jerk just to take care of the room, and is liable to eat Davy Jones up with a fork and spoon and leave him an empty shell who lives only for the entertainment of others.

Every Bowie album of that period opens with a song that conveys a sense of crisis, which the rest of the album then deals with. In his previous albums, the crisis came from a feeling of being at a dead-end, not knowing what he should do with his life. Here, we have a different story: Bowie already found his way, already "made it", but now that he is at the top, he feels that he is losing himself. This is a different problem, and will require a different solution.

The last leg of the Ziggy tour would also be more theatrical, as if Bowie is playing Ziggy, not being him. Here is how he performed this song.

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