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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Panic in Detroit

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In 'Panic in Detroit', Bowie goes back to take another look at the leftist revolutionaries of his time, which he already blasted back in 1969, with 'Cygnet Committee'. Since then, however, the Left has taken a turn for the worse, and another look was in order.

To understand the ideology of the revolutionary Left, we must go back to the 18th century, to the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau claimed that the nature of Man is good, but the systems he formed were structured wrong and created an unnatural state of things in which humans exploit and hurt one another. If the system would be fixed, he mused, a happy existence for all humanity will naturally prevail. This philosophy led to the French Revolution and to a general upheaval in the decades that followed, and yet, although the systems in many countries have changed to look more like what Rousseau envisioned, people kept doing bad things to one another. In the middle of the 19th century, Karl Marx claimed that he found the root of the problem: the economic system was wrong. The capitalistic system, he said, has created two classes: the employers, who hold all the power, and the working-class, who are not getting paid nearly as much as their work is worth, and therefore cannot live a natural and happy life. Marx saw economy as an evolutionary process, in which one system is replaced by a better one, until we will reach the ideal system. Capitalism replaced the feudal system and thus brought more freedom to more people, but kept many others in an exploited position. However, capitalism is also increasing humanity's wealth and creates enough means to satisfy everyone, setting the stage for the next, and final, step. At some point in the future, the working-class will rise in revolt, overthrow the capitalist system and create a system that is not based on profit, but on sharing the wealth. When this will happen, the benevolent nature of Man will finally have a chance to manifest itself and utopia will prevail.

And so, when the nineteen-sixties came with all their rebellious glory, Marxists believed that the long-awaited revolution was finally around the corner. Pop music was always considered by Marxists to be one of the methods by which the capitalistic system is instilling its values into the heads of the masses, but when pop produced opinionated working-class heroes like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, it appeared that the masses were now using the means of capitalism to fight back. This rock'n'roll music also contained many "wrong" elements, but the spirit was there, and could be harnessed to bring the revolution. From the mid-sixties onwards, the Left tried to capitalize on the youth rebellion, and steer it in the desired direction.

So while Marx believed that the revolution will happen sometime in the future, and the human race still had some maturing to do before it would be ready for it, the Left of the nineteen-sixties believed that Humanity was already ripe for the next step, and that the only thing holding it back now were the evil power systems. If the systems were somehow brought down, utopia will immediately ensue. The result of this belief was that the Left had changed its tactics: in the beginning of the decade, up to 1967, it believed in peaceful protest; from 1968 onward it opted for violent action, aimed at creating chaos and anarchy that would bring down the system. And by the early seventies, this violent action has evolved into a full-blown terrorist campaign, as young people all over the world formed terrorist groups and murdered many innocent civilians while claiming that they are bringing a better world.

Marxist thinking usually focuses on industrial cities, which it regards as the place where the exploitative nature of capitalism manifests itself most clearly, and in America, no city comes as more industrial than Detroit, the motor city. In the sixties, Detroit also became famous for Motown, the music company that worked like a well-oiled factory, churning out perfect pop-soul records. It was a tribute to the power of America, where even poor black people can find fame and success through initiative and hard work. But if you listened more carefully to the sounds of Detroit, you could hear other voices.

One of these voices was John Sinclair, a left-wing activist who formed the White Panther Party, a white group mirroring the African-American revolutionary activism of the Black Panthers. Recognizing the power of rock'n'roll, Sinclair also became the manager of a local rock band called MC5, who became a voice for his views. Fusing the explosive attack of rock'n'roll with the unbounded spirit of free jazz, MC5's music was chaos incarnated, a thrilling form of rebellious power. Their anthem 'Kick out the Jams' remains one of the most exciting and anarchic rock records of all times, and Bowie references it in 'Cygnet Committee'. But it was the bluesy 'Motor City is Burning' that exposed the revolutionary dream at the heart of their music, describing a scenario where Detroit burns down as a result of a popular uprising. "Well, there were fire bombs bursting all around, people / Ya know there were soldiers standing everywhere / I said there was fire bombs bursting all around me, baby / Ya know there was National Guard everywhere / I can hear my people screaming / Sirens fill the air, fill the air, fill the air." It may sound like the blues, but the yearning and excitement in the singer's voice as he portrays this dream is unmistakable.

Working alongside MC5 was another local band, considered as their "little brother band", called the Stooges. Musically they sounded very similar, but their lyrics showed an essential ideological difference. Like MC5, the Stooges celebrated chaos and anarchy, but while the former regarded it as the first stage in a revolution, for the latter it was the goal itself. The stooges had no ideals, no beliefs, no dreams of a better future. All they had to offer was the exhilaration and joy of wild and fierce rock music, brought to unprecedented heights on stage through the fanatically extreme performing antics of their front-man Iggy Pop. While MC5 were busy turning pop music into a tool for promoting anarchy and revolution, Iggy, as his name suggests, was taking the anarchic and revolutionary tendencies of the time and channeling them into making ecstatic and powerful pop music.

For Bowie, Iggy was what it was all about, and when he got to America he sought him out. Learning that Iggy had trouble with getting the next Stooges album out, as his record company considered it too feral, Bowie took him into his own record company, remixed the album and released it. The result is Raw Power, one of the definitive manifestos of the time, and the main archetype for the nihilistic spirit of punk. While MC5's 'Motor City is Burning' shows the hero taking to the streets to throw bombs and bring down the system, Iggy takes to the streets to absorb the bombs and make their explosiveness part of his being. "I'm a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm / I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb / I am the world's forgotten boy / The one who searches and destroys / Honey gotta help me please / Somebody gotta save my soul / Baby detonate for me!" It was a look into the darker regions on the American psyche, and Bowie was right there for it. Around that time, he also wrote 'Panic in Detroit'.

And the influence of Detroit's wild music is definitely felt in this record, although it doesn't sound like MC5 or the Stooges. Instead of unrestrained guitars, the wildness here is initially contained, but always keeps fermenting, in what sounds like a jungle beat pounding under the surface of industrial modern life. The music is well-structured, and it gives the impression that the human race managed to sublimate its primitive instincts and form a civilized world where everything is in order. But then…

He looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van
Kept his gun in quiet seclusion, such a humble man
The only survivor of the National People's Gang
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

The person who arrives at the protagonist's door is a fugitive who belonged to a leftist terrorist group. The protagonist notes his resemblance to Che Guevara, the hero of the Left in the sixties. He is the "only survivor" from the group, which suggests that they already mounted their terrorist attack and paid with their lives for it. But they also managed to break the order of things, cause panic in Detroit, and now, according to the Marxist plan, this panic state is supposed to make the people take a look at their life, realize that they are living a false existence, and take to the streets to overthrow the system and form a better one. That is the theory. What will actually happen, according to Bowie?

Well, it seems that our protagonist is not exactly driven to take a look at his existence. He rather wishes someone would phone, so he can wallow in prattle and forget about the situation. Instead of asking the revolutionary about his ideals, he asks for his autograph, as though he was a pop star. So while the Marxists believed that the rebellious tendencies displayed in the pop culture of the day showed that the people were finally waking up, and once they were shown the way to a "real" revolution they would leave pop behind and embrace Marxism, Bowie shows that Marxism merely became grist for pop culture's mill. Just like Che Guevara became more famous for his iconic portrait than for his ideals, so does this revolutionary get treated like a star, not like someone who acts "for the people".

He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

The terrorist's reaction reminds us of MC5's 'Motor City is Burning', the mirth that fills the revolutionary's heart when he sees the police running about to try and quell the chaos caused by his actions. He laughs, because he believes that "the people" will prevail, and the police will be blown away. What actually happens, it seems, is that the police and authorities are using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to enforce harsher measures, and shoot down the people who take to the streets. Instead of giving more power to the people, this incident only takes more away.

Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And found my teacher crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights

Finally, our protagonist springs into action, and takes to the streets. It is time, indeed, to take advantage of the chaos and display his real human nature. What is his nature, as it is revealed to us? Selfish, violent and greedy, not exactly what Rousseau had in mind, not exactly the basis to form a Marxist Utopia. The image of the teacher (a symbol of enlightenment) in his overalls (a symbol of working-class) is what the Marxist have in mind when they envision the nature of man, but the result of their actions did not make him prevail but rather hide in the corner.

Having scored a trillion dollars, made a run back home
Found him slumped across the table, a gun and me alone
I ran to the window, looked for a plane or two
Panic in Detroit
He'd left me an autograph
"Let me collect dust"
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

The revolutionary realizes that he has failed. The world did not react like he believed it would, and all the death and destruction he and his friends have wrought only succeeded in making things worse. When the protagonist returns home he finds that the terrorist had committed suicide, but not before he left him an autograph, as though acknowledging that he was nothing but a pop figure. And with his death, the last traces of humanity die as well. The music breaks up, the beat spills over, the guitar yells like police sirens and the backing vocals turn into horrified screams, as the veneer of modern order collapses and the jungle that is at the heart of Man celebrates its victory.

The final verdict on the sixties Left, then, is that it got it all wrong. The modern system does not subvert "the good nature of Man", but rather organizes things so that his wild and violent nature is kept in check. Using terrorism to cause chaos and anarchy will therefore not lead to the rise of a better order, but rather to an outbreak of brutal mayhem, which will most probably be followed by the constitution of a police state. The leftist revolutionary tendencies of the sixties and seventies have led nowhere, and the only good thing that came out of them was that they inspired some great pop records. Like 'Panic in Detroit'.

'Panic in Detroit' was performed many times over the years, but the intensity of the original recording is hard to recreate. My favorite is the 1976 version.

Finally, some Detroit anarchy rock. Here's MC5:

And the Stooges:

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