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פ.י.מ.פ.

(?Analyzing Bowie: Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197

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On his way back from the US to England in the beginning of 1973, taking a ship due to his fear of flying, Bowie spent part of his time reading Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies. The novel is a carnivalesque romantic comedy about the lives of the "bright young people", which was the preferred moniker for the time's young generation. The heroes are young Britons who live a frivolous lifestyle, on a constant merry-go-round of partying, drinking, gossiping, winning and losing money, and treating romantic attachments in the most flippant way. However, we sometimes get hints that something bad is brewing on the horizon, hints that are ignored and repressed by the characters. In the final pages on the novel, a war suddenly breaks, and the heroes are whisked away into "the biggest battlefield in the history of the world". Waugh was obviously still under the impression of WWI, and yet he prophetically envisioned that an even bigger war was coming. But how do his heroes react to it? Even in the middle of the battlefield, they carry on behaving in the exact same way, drinking champagne and prattling nonsense while the war around them rages on. 

Bowie, naturally, felt an affinity. The songs he'd been writing of late had the same duality, on the one hand celebrating the success and glamour of himself as it was inflated by the success and glamour of America, but on the other hand sensing that there was something wrong under the surface. 'Watch that Man' is a wild New York party that sounds like a lot of fun, but hellish scenes seep into it and it makes the hero feel fake and hollow; 'The Jean Genie' relishes in the individual freedom of its hero, but also emanates a stark sense of alienation; 'Cracked Actor' shows a Hollywood star who has made it to the top, but lost himself in the process; and 'Panic in Detroit' depicts the urban jungle infesting under the facade of successful industrial America. In all these songs, the truth ends out breaking to the surface, just like it does in Vile Bodies. It occurred to Bowie that Waugh's ominous hunches reflected his own, and that the devil-may-care attitude he experiences in the US was also hiding a reality that was about to break to the surface. 'Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)' dramatizes this insight.

The name already says it all. Aladdin Sane lives in the twilight between being Aladdin sane and a lad insane, although you have to wonder which part of him is insane: the one that sees the horrific truth, or the one that goes about merrily without caring about it? And the parenthesized dates show that we are, once again, on the eve of a catastrophic world war. From this twilight zone, the song slowly creeps into our psyche.

It starts rather pretty, actually, with a lush piano setting up a romantic mood. Bowie comes in like a crooner, although there is irony in his voice.

Watching him dash away, swinging an old bouquet - dead roses
Sake and strange divine, uh-hu-hu-uh-hu-hu - you'll make it

The hero seems to be on his way to or from a romantic meeting. But his bouquet is old, and the roses are dead. It brings to mind an image of someone who is so poor that he cannot afford new flowers as he goes on his romantic pursuits, an image that would fit in the thirties, but sounds rather out of place in the seventies. My conjecture is that Bowie is referring to spiritual poverty, and that our hero is quite dead emotionally, unable to produce fresh love. "Strange divine" is an odd phrase, and the only antecedent I can find for it is in James Hogg's 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner', in which a "strange divine" comes into a little Scottish town and preaches a sermon that grips the people who believe him to be an angel from Heaven, but eventually he is revealed as the Devil. It kind of fits here, as the hero believes he's living the divine life, drinking sake at parties and dreaming of making it big, but he's actually just a slave to the Devil, who will eventually reveal himself.

Passionate bright young things, takes him away to war – don't fake it
Saddening glissando strings
Uh-hu-hu-uh-hu-hu – you'll make it

This part points at Waugh's Vile Bodies (originally meant to be called "Bright Young Things"), where the heroes are suddenly taken to war, and their romantic string music turns to notes of sadness. This time, the "you'll make it" sounds not as a promise of "making it big" in the jet set life, but rather as "making it out alive" from the war. But he can only make it if he stops faking it, and faces the reality of his existence.

Who will love Aladdin sane?
Battle cries and champagne, just in time for sunrise
Who will love Aladdin sane?

The nature of Aladdin's life is war and destruction, combined with partying and drinking to hide that nature from his eyes. The "just in time for sunrise" reminds us of 'Rock'n'roll Suicide', where the hero hurries home so he won't have to face the Sun and see the truth of his existence. The only way to transcend this existence is to find someone or something to love, but Aladdin, swinging the same old bouquet as he moves from one romantic interest to another, just can't find it.

The line "who will love Aladdin sane?" becomes more clear when we remember that Bowie's initial idea was to call his hero Aladdin Vain. That would have made the name into a different pun, depicting Aladdin as a vain rock star, or as someone who leads his life in vain. And the line would have then become another pun still, as it asks who will love this hero Aladdin Vain, or who will love this lad in vain. "All true love's in vain" once sang Robert Johnson in one of his blues classics, and went on to tell us that "when the train left the station, it had two lights on behind / well, the blue light was my baby / and the red light was my mind". So here we come back to insanity, back to Aladdin Sane, and the memory of Johnson's song makes the picture even darker: even if one finds true love, it will end up being a love in vain, and cause him to lose his mind.

Motor sensational, Paris or maybe hell - (I'm waiting)
Clutches of sad remains
Waits for Aladdin sane – you'll make it

The glamorous/horrific duality is strengthened as we wonder if we are going to Paris or to Hell. "Motor sensational" sound like something fabulous, like Grand Prix races (in Vile Bodies, the heroes join a car race, which serves as an allegory for their lives, constantly running around in circles), but it is probably just a pun on motor sensation, the feeling of movement in our bodies. It is all just movement, with no real meaning. Meanwhile, Aladdin still waits for something meaningful to happen, a love that will descend on him, but the narrator tells us that all that awaits him is the possibility to clutch some sad remains of things that were meaningful in the past. It reminds us of 'Drive In Saturday' and some other Bowie songs that suggest that we have passed our prime and can only hold on to what has been. The music, up to this point, retains its dreamy romantic atmosphere, as we still dream of making it somehow, but then, the piano goes into convulsions, and violently destroys the mood. While the lyrics remain vague throughout, Mike Garson's piano is assigned the job of transferring the horror of contemporary existence, in a series of dissonant chords that won't let go until they shatter every shred of the romantic illusion that Bowie was weaving. By the time Bowie returns, our nerves are shot to pieces.

Who will love Aladdin sane?
Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise
Who will love Aladdin sane?

The final blow: Aladdin must find love quick, because there might not even be a tomorrow. Bowie's anxiety goes much deeper than Waugh's. We are in the nuclear age now, and the next world war will probably be the end of it all.

'Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)' rehashes themes we already met many times before in Bowie's songs: the fear of impending doom, the feeling that all meaningful paths have already been taken, and the yearning for love coupled with an awareness of its transience. The invention of Ziggy provided an answer to these problems, creating a new meaningful path, a fresh and exciting love. Aladdinsane shows Bowie looking at the world beyond the glamour of Ziggy, and discovering that all these problems are still there, and about to break onto the surface of his life once again, popping the Ziggy bubble and breaking it into tiny drops that come pouring down like piano notes from hell.

In 1974, Bowie dramatized the song with a nice mime routine, which unfortunately we have only snippets of (the full Diamond Dogs show will be released some day. Maybe. Hopefully). At that time he also started to embellish it with Lieber & Stoller's 'On Broadway', another song about the darkness that resides under the glamorous surface of America.

The record is celebrated mainly for its piano solo, Mike Garson's most famous moment. Here he is at it again.

But the piano heroics should not hide the loveliness of the song. Here's an acoustic version, with Reeves Gabrels doing some magic on guitar.

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