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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Lady Grinning Soul

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After all the musical and lyrical horrors of Aladdin Sane, the closing track of the album offers a certain catharsis. Over a sweet and sentimental orchestration, Bowie croons a simple love song, and the result is sheer magical beauty. And while it was his meeting with the dark side of America that caused Aladdinsane's anguish, it is apparently the US that provides this solace, as the song is allegedly inspired by American soul singer Claudia Lennear. Can the arms of a lady from another grinning soul be the remedy to Aladdin's sorrows?

The story that the song is about Lennear (chiefly a backup singer, whom Bowie met on the US Ziggy tour) is well-known, but should be regarded with suspicion. However, it is interesting to compare it with another song rumored to be inspired by her, the Rolling Stones' 'Brown Sugar'. Even if these stories aren't substantiated, she must have been some kind of woman to be credibly cast as a muse to these classics. The two songs she supposedly inspired are very different from one another, and the disparity between them can teach us something about Bowie's attitude towards love. So, just to sharpen the point, I will play them against each other.


Claudia Lennear

'Brown Sugar' is the kind of record that only the Stones, the designated naughty boys of rock, could get away with. It is a song about the lust of the white man for the black woman, and the singer, looking at his object of desire, goes back in his mind to times when men like him could have their way with women like her, and gets hornier by the thought. As usual, the Stones draw from the darkest wells of the human psyche, this time from racism and misogyny, to produce the ecstasy needed to create soul-shattering rock'n'roll. The main sentiment here is domination, and the pleasure derived from it. Bowie's sentiments are very different.

She'll come, she'll go
She'll lay belief on you
Skin sweet with musky oil
The lady from another grinning soul

The line about the sweet skin reminds us of 'Brown Sugar', where Jagger howls: "brown sugar, how come you taste so good?" Both songs rejoice in the woman's sexuality, but while 'Brown Sugar' treats her merely as an object of desire, brown sugar to be gobbled up, 'Lady Grinning Soul' regards her as a whole person, another soul you can fuse with for a while. In 'Brown Sugar' the singer wants to have his way with her, to mold her according to his wishes; in 'Lady Grinning Soul' it is the fact that she is her own self, a self that is different from his, that so endears her to the singer. This lady is a free spirit, who comes and goes as she pleases. Actually, she reminds me of a lady from another Stones number, a lady who also "comes and goes". Ruby Tuesday is celebrated because she never remains chained to one place or lifestyle, but always keeps changing when it becomes stale, and pursues a new dream. Lady Grinning Soul is the same, and because she is so free, her spirit remains viable and happy, a grinning soul who can lay belief on your own soul, and revive it.

Cologne she'll wear, silver and Americard
She'll drive a beetle car
And beat you down at cool Canasta

In just a few lines, Bowie captures the unique essence of the lady, portraying her as independent, classy and cool. She is her own woman, with her own wealth and her own style.

And when the clothes are strewn
don't be afraid of the room
Touch the fullness of her breast.
Feel the love of her caress
She will be your living end

But after he dressed her up so nicely, he then strips her down to make love to her. They are two different persons, each of them independent and unique, but they can also disrobe and come together in soul fusion, and Bowie tells us not to be afraid to lose yourself in this experience. You lose yourself only for a while, and when you come back to yourself, your soul is revived and enriched.

"She will be your living end" is one of those inspired Bowie lines that can be understood in several ways. It can mean that in her he finds the borders of his own self, and learns that there are other worlds beyond it. Or it can be "end" in the sense of death, meaning that in her arms he "dies" (loses his own self) for a while, but then comes back to life. And "end" can also mean goal, making her the thing in which he finds completion.

She'll come, she'll go
She'll lay belief on you
But she won't stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view?

But this bliss can last only a while, because this lady, being the free spirit that she is, moves on and leaves you behind. Unlike those who dedicate their life to a certain love (to a person or an ideal), and thus make life subservient to that love, she makes the loves serve her life: once she gets what she wanted from them, she moves on. Life itself is her point of view, her love, and everything else is secondary. She is, of course, a female version of Bowie (even if Bowie, perhaps, didn't realize it at the time).

Lady Grinning Soul also brings to mind another lady, Lady Stardust. She, too, entered the singer's life, kindled love in his heart, and transformed him into a believer. But the hero of 'Lady Stardust' only knew one half of the story. The tale of the Ziggy Stardust album is of people who follow their newfound faith to the end, believing it would bring them eternal happiness, and falling hard as a result. Aladdin Sane, a post-Ziggy character, is more aware. He knows that love is fleeting, and the belief that the lady bestows on him can bring happiness only temporarily. The utopian belief that we can create a world of eternal love is false, and Aladdin documented the cracking up of the sixties dream. But his final message is one of hope, and enables us to envisage a world in which everyone is a grinning soul, fusing for a while with another soul to revive itself, and then moving on, enriched, to the next fusion.

If we go back to our initial comparison, we would say that for the Rolling Stones the black woman represented a dream of wilder sex, while for Bowie the unexplored land that she represented was centered in her black soul. And a year and a half later, it would indeed be the fusion with black soul that would revive him once again, and set him on a new way. Ultimately, David Bowie ended up being the lady from another grinning soul, and his grinning soul keeps shining, laying belief on souls all over the world.

Too sweet? Try some brown sugar.

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