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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Future Legend

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Diamond Dogs is an LP with a narrative, and unlike the loose narratives of Ziggy Stardust and Outside, here it is quite distinct, pervasive throughout the album. We must therefore consider every track not only as a standalone piece but also take into account its place in the sequence and its relation to the overall storyline. When we come to the opening number, 'Future Legend', we still don't know much about the narrative, except that it started out being close to the story of Orwell's 1984. But 'Future Legend', I believe, already tells us that there is at least one more novelist that we ought to count as a major influence on the story, and that novelist is William S. Burroughs.        

Burroughs was quite infamous at the time. Born in 1914 to a wealthy American family, he could have led a normal and comfortable existence but instead chose to turn his life into a quest for the truth, for a way to free his mind from the dogmas and lies that society is based on. The first step to escape the lies, he believed, was to live outside of straight society, in the world populated by criminals, prostitutes, junkies and hobos, and he moved into these circles. The second step was to alter his consciousness through the use of narcotics, and Burroughs spent years in trying out any drug and any possible drug cocktail, to enter different states of perception and see what they can reveal. The outcome was that he developed a heroin habit that lasted fifteen years and turned his life into a living hell, but he also gained some insights into human existence, which he put into his books.

Another outcome was that he became godfather to the Beat movement, a movement that believed that the human spirit is being thrashed in the technocratic-industrial world of postwar America and we must find ways to emancipate it. Burroughs' model of living on the outskirts of society and opening your mind with drugs was a major influence, although his writings display an essential difference from those of the rest of the Beats. His first book, Junky, candidly describes his life as a junky, drug-dealer and petty thief, and was still quite close to the writings of Kerouac et al. But his next book, Naked Lunch, takes a different direction altogether. Largely written while under a drug psychosis, it combines an autobiographical account with insights about human existence and with frightening hallucinations, and creates a story in which reality blends with fantasy to form a funny and horrific world inhabited by monstrous part-human part-animal part-machine mutations. The difference between this world and the world of the Beats is that in Burroughs' world there is no "spirit" to be emancipated: humans are described as mere mechanical organisms, each addicted to something that gives them pleasure and constantly striving for that something. Because of that, they are also highly susceptible to domination, and the nature of society as it is revealed in the book is a pyramid of power which pretends to grant freedom but actually controls everyone. Since this is also an autobiographical piece, the resulting mood is very paranoid: while Orwell put his authoritarian dystopia in the future, Burroughs imagines that he's already living in it, controlled by clandestine forces that maintain their power through the use of modern technology and drugs.

He continued to develop this worldview in his subsequent novels, Soft Machine and Nova Express, and there he presented another way of trying to escape this control. Since we are thinking in phrases that have been instilled in us by this controlling society we grew up in, we must find a way to break up this control by breaking up these phrases, and the solution is to employ what he called "cutups": a series of techniques to take existing texts, written either by himself or by others, chop them up and rearrange them in a different way, hoping that a new logic will arise in the process. The experience of reading these novels is quite different to that of any other book, and compels the readers to open their mind to a different kind of text-perception.

Bowie, naturally, was intrigued by this writing style. After all, he was doing something quite similar in his own art, stealing from everyone and rearranging it all to create something new. In his meeting with Burroughs at the end of 1973 he admitted that he only recently started to read him in earnest and mentions the immediate affinity he felt to Nova Express, with its cutup style. This new infatuation will find its way into Diamond Dogs, to imbue the Orwellian story with another dimension.

Nova Express is written as a long juxtaposition of short phrases, only loosely connected to each other, linked together by hyphens to create long chains of paragraphs with dubious meaning. This is very much what we have in 'Future Legend', and it looks like Bowie was trying his hand at Burroughs-style writing. But, of course, there are other influences that we must consider.

My working hypothesis while analyzing this album will be that Bowie is doing what he always did: criticizing the youth culture of the day and commenting on the history of rock. The novelty is that this time, the criticism also comes with awareness to his own role in this culture and history and his own responsibility for the situation. He tells it all through a science fiction allegory, an allegory that starts out as essentially reflecting the world of 1974, but with a paranoid twist, imagining, like Burroughs, that there are evil dictatorial forces manipulating us. And finally, it warns that if things keep on going in the same direction then we will end up, by 1984, in the fulfillment of Orwell's prophecy. Let's see how the story plays out.

And in the death - As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare –

In his previous albums, Bowie hinted at an upcoming apocalypse, perhaps of a nuclear nature. In this album, he already imagines the aftermath of an apocalypse that will have happened in the very near future. This, I believe, serves two purposes. First of all, it is a way to get us to the world of 1984 by 1984: when Orwell wrote his book, 1984 was thirty five away and things could slowly evolve into the world he described. For Bowie it is only a decade away so he needs to speed up the process, and a nuclear holocaust can do the trick.

But, I surmised, this album is also supposed to be an allegory about the youth of the day. So the nuclear holocaust serves the purpose of taking this youth and throwing it into a different kind of world, which reflects our own in an allegorical manner. In this context, the "death" which Bowie talks about would be the death of the sixties, of the hope that rock'n'roll and the youth are going to change the world. Ziggy and glam kept rock'n'roll alive a while longer, but now that Ziggy died as well, all that is left is the corpse of a once thriving youth culture.

- The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building high on Poacher's Hill, and red mutant eyes gazed down on Hunger City

Now he starts to outline the new order that settled in after the apocalypse, and we hear echoes of Orwell. In the world of 1984, the citizens of London are living a life of poverty and hunger and are constantly being watched by the authorities, which have eyes everywhere through their technological devices. The ruling totalitarian party is headed by a figure called Big Brother, and in the opening page of the book we are told that his "face gazed down from every commanding corner". So the "gazed down" bit seems to be cut out of Orwell and reassembled into the piece. Then there's the "Temperance Building", which reminds us of the four giant buildings, the four ministries, which tower over Orwell's London. These ministries are where the work of the authorities is being done and they all have names that are contrary to what they actually do: the Ministry of Truth is brainwashing the public with lies, the Ministry of Peace is conducting a perpetual war, the Ministry of Love is spreading fear to keep the people docile and the Ministry of Plenty sees to it that people don't have anything but minimal necessities. We can imagine, then, that the Temperance Building's job in Bowie's world is to keep the people inebriated, to prevent them from uprising. Unlike the puritan society that Orwell portrays, the dwellers of Bowie's Hunger City are busy partying and boozing, thinking that they are free when they are actually being controlled.

I'm suggesting, then, that Bowie is once again attacking what he regards as the delusions of the time. The Hippies believed that they created a freer world, but actually, we are still ruled by the authorities and doing their bidding. However, I do not think that at this point of the story there is total control like in 1984. It is rather more like the post-apocalyptic world of Bowie's own 'Drive In Saturday', where the ones in the dome have all the knowledge and power while those who are out of it are left to their own devices. The authorities in the Temperance Building are supervising and working behind the scenes, but they don't force themselves on the public. As the guitar is beginning to play the melody of 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered', we are shown a world in which the population is being bewitched by the authorities and can't figure out what is wrong.

- No more big wheels –

The "big wheel", a kind of a tricycle, was quite fashionable in the early seventies. When Bowie tells us that they are now gone, he shows us the bereft nature of this world to come, a world that will be devoid of many of the toys and pleasures we take for granted. This is another artistic purpose served by putting the story in a post-apocalyptic world: it strips our world to its bare essentials, allowing Bowie to show us the truth about it.

- Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats –

Along with the "red mutant eyes" from the preceding sentence, this line paints a landscape filled with mutations caused by the fallout, a world that looks as though it came out of Burroughs' nightmarish writings. It may also be a comment on the rock world, which by 1974 mutated into a freak show with lots of outrageous style but very little content.

- And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes - Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue –

Apparently, the only place where you can be safe from the fallout is the top of the skyscrapers, supposedly because they are above the fog (the Temperance Building, situated high on a hill, is of course one of them). The few remnants of humanity all wish to get there, and they are split into groups who fight one another for the privilege. This is the reality that Bowie sees: in the sixties, we thought that humanity is marching together towards utopia; but by now it revealed itself to be split into tribes that fight one another, not for utopia but for mere survival. Youth culture wasn't exempt: while in the fifties and sixties there was a feeling that the youth is united against the old generation, now it was divided into many tribes – hippie, skinhead, glam, metal, soul, reggae etc. – that had very little rapport with one another.

- Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox - Now legwarmers - Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald –

There is nothing new anymore: the people are just recycling the old stuff, and everything gets gradually devalued in the process, until things that were once dear are now seen merely as functional. Considering that "ripping and rewrapping" could also be a good summation of Bowie's art and of the cutup style, this could be seen as a self-deprecating remark about his own place in the devaluing of culture.

- ANY DAY NOW –

Something is coming. Things cannot go on like that for much longer, and the peoploids of Hunger City cannot be content with living in the muck. Something will come along and change things. The narrator's voice is filled with fear of what's coming, but also with anticipation – whatever it may be, it's got to be more exciting than this.

- The year of the Diamond Dogs

What's coming are the Diamond Dogs. We don't know yet who they are, but some things can already be sussed. First of all, they are from those who live on the ground, not in the skyscrapers, as they are one of the "packs of dogs". Secondly, the image of the dog should be considered. Looking at the album cover, and listening to Bowie's Burroughsian prose, we imagine that these Hunger City dwellers are actual half-human-half-dog mutants, but we can also take it metaphorically. The dog is an animal that can be tamed, like the tamed citizens in Orwell's world, but it is also an animal with wild roots and under certain circumstances it might pounce. Thirdly, we were told before that the peoploids are busy ripping and rewrapping animal fur (mink and silver fox) and precious stones (sapphires and emeralds), to create something else. The diamond dogs may be something different, a combination of animal and precious stone (the strongest of stones) that cannot be ripped and rewrapped, cannot be turned into something else, but retains its pure essence. They were not tamed.

Finally, there is a hint that what is coming will not last very long, merely a year. But it is coming, and we better brace ourselves. The Year of the Diamond Dogs is about to unfold.

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