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פ.י.מ.פ.

(Analyzing Bowie: Sweet Thing, Candidate, Sweet Thing (Reprise

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This epic piece is one of the most complex and cryptic things that Bowie has ever recorded. The images are highly metaphoric, and it`s hard to get a grip on the meaning. Musically, too, it is a very liquid piece, reminiscent of the kind of theatrical-poetry introduced into rock music by the Doors. There`s nothing we can do but jump in the river, and try to swim.

It`s safe in the city to love in a doorway
To wrangle some screams from the dawn

We are still in Hunger City. In the preceding tracks we`ve learned that there are citizens who are more fortunate and live in sterile skyscrapers, but then we saw that the hero actually prefers to go down to street level and dwell in the nuclear shroud. Now, we hear that he actually feels safer here, in the foggy streets, safer than in the sterility of his own abode. We also learn that he finds this safety when he`s in the arms of someone else, and in places that are passageways: in the doorway between two places, at the moment between night and day. It suggests that there is no place where he feels at home, so he has to live in a twilight zone.

And isn`t it me, putting pain in a stranger?
Like a portrait in flesh, who trails on a leash

One of the main themes of the piece is revealed: alienation. Throughout the piece, the hero will be trying to find his real "me". He felt safe for a while as he had sex in the doorway, but after it`s over he looks at his actions and realizes that his partner is a stranger to him and he was merely pouring his pain into her for a while. There was no love here, just a sexual encounter between two aliens. Moreover, he is a stranger to himself. He is a "portrait in flesh", sketched by society, and he just plays the part ordained for him. This fake identity that he carries is of a trained dog, which is pulled by a leash. He feels that this is not what he really is inside.

Will you see that I`m scared and I`m lonely?
So I`ll break up my room, and yawn and I
Run to the centre of things

After the indifferent way he sang the opening lines, Bowie breaks into a howl of pain. The hero wants something more than sex – he wants a relationship where his partner can actually see him for what he is. But he can`t find it, and being alone, he is scared, lonely and bored. So he "breaks up his room" – destroys his inner sanctum – and runs to the "centre of things", to a place where he can be in the company of many and lose himself in the crowd.

Where the knowing one says:
"Boys, Boys, it`s a sweet thing
Boys, Boys, it`s a sweet thing, sweet thing
If you want it, Boys, get it here, thing
`Cause hope, Boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing"

In that centre of things, there`s someone who sells hope, hope that there is something else, something sweet and real. It is probably someone that our hero idolizes – a religious figure, a political figure, a rock star, a DJ. Bowie`s vocal turns seductive, as this "knowing one" is promising hope for a different kind of reality. But this kind of hope, this dreaming about a different world, is actually just another way for our hero to not face up to himself. It is a sedative, a sweet thing that makes life more bearable.

I`m glad that you`re older than me
Makes me feel important and free
Does that make you smile, isn`t that me?
I`m in your way, and I`ll steal every moment
If this trade is a curse, then I`ll bless you
And turn to the crossroads of Hamburg, as in
"Boys, Boys, its a sweet thing
Boys, Boys, its a sweet thing, sweet thing
If you want it, Boys, get it here, thing
`Cause hope, Boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing"

The hero continues to find himself in the eyes of others. He is a teen rebel, flouting the rules of the adult world and enjoying every moment that he stands in their way. "Isn`t that me?" he asks, thinking that he finds himself in those moments when he distinguishes himself from the crowd, but actually, he`s merely defining himself by way of negation, not by something that comes from within. Bowie seems to be debunking the whole sixties myth of the generational battle, of the young generation`s struggle for freedom, seeing it now as nothing but a pose. When he turns to look for something more authentic in "the crossroads of Hamburg", he is invoking two pop myths: the crossroad, the place where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil, the place that for bluesmen came to signify those moments in life when your fate is decided; and the Beatles, whose year`s stint in Hamburg was where they gained their special sound and look that gave them the edge over other English bands. That crossroad, where the Beatles found their way, was a turning point in the history of pop and in the history of Western culture, and, some believe, in the history of humanity. However, Bowie now presents it as merely another "sweet thing", another false hope in a capsule. Did we really find our way in the crossroad of Hamburg, or did we sell our soul to the devil?

Now, the music changes and becomes even darker, and we slip into `Candidate`. This song, whose original recording surfaced only years later, started out as a rather simple tune, probably part of the ditched 1984 project. Lyrically, though, it is quite ambiguous, and it seems that the singer is a rock star in a repressive society who is moving into politics and trying to convince us to vote for him. He sells himself as a rebel, but it seems the whole thing is ironic, and we get that he is also just a cog in the machine. For Diamond Dogs, the song is cut up and reworked, and inserted into `Sweet Thing`, becoming something quite different.

I`ll make you a deal, like any other candidate
We`ll pretend we`re walking home `cause your future`s at stake

These two lines are a cutup from the original `Candidate`. In the original tune, he offers us a deal: "I`ll make you a deal / I`ll say I came from Earth and my tongue is taped / I`ll make you a deal / You can get your kicks on the candidate / I`ll make you a deal / For your future`s sake, I`m the candidate / Let`s pretend we`re walking home." He is offering himself as our candidate, a semblance of a rebel, a semblance of a political figure who is going to change things, someone who we can get our kicks on for a while and feel like we have power. But actually, it is just a game, and we have no power at all – the system calls all the shots. The "pretend we`re walking home" line, which repeats several times in the original song, brings to mind the characters in 1984, who are seemingly free to go wherever they want, but know that if they just roam aimlessly they will arise suspicion and be eliminated by the all-powerful system. So wherever they go, they see to it that it would seem like they are on their way home.

Here, however, we find a different picture, as it is put into the broader context of `Sweet Thing`. Our hero is still looking for himself, still looking for someone else who can see him for what he is, and this "candidate" is just someone that, he fancies, could be the one that gives him what he wants. The "pretend we`re walking home", I think, is just a game: Hunger City is not Orwell`s London and no one will eliminate you if you roam around, but the kids like to pretend that their future will be at stake if they do, so they play the Orwellian game.

My set is amazing, it even smells like a street
There`s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friend

Our hero, as we mentioned above, likes to be part of the "street" scene, so he is drawn to this set that gives a smell of a street. In that hidden bar, he can meet with others who feel like him, and form a little "secret society", pretending to be revolutionaries.

Someone scrawled on the wall "I smell the blood of Les Tricoteuses"
Who wrote up scandals in other bars

The `Candidate` segment is laced with French words, connecting us to the revolutionary spirit of French youth. "Les Tricoteuses" (French for "the knitters") is a name given to a bunch of women who would sit by the guillotine in France during the reign of terror and, while knitting away, would determine whether the people who were brought before them should be executed. So the thing that is scrawled on the wall of the bar is a seditious slogan, predicting the fall of the current power system.

But the slogan only heightens the irony in the situation: Les Tricoteuses, after all, were supposed to be part of the revolution, part of what we want to be. And then we hear that those same "Tricoteuses" are the ones who wrote seditious slogans on the walls of other bars, and we realize that we are caught in a vicious circle, and there`s really no way out: any revolution would only create a new power system.

I`m having so much fun with the poisonous people
Spreading rumors and lies and stories they made up
Some make you sing and some make you scream
One makes you wish that you`d never been seen

The sense of futility is enhanced, as this "secret society" that convenes in the bar is branded by our hero as "poisonous people". It is a double-edged term: they think they are the poison in the machine, spreading rumors and lies in order to destabilize it, but they are actually just filling their own lives with venom.

But there`s a shop on the corner that`s selling papier mache
Making bullet-proof faces; Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay
"If you want it, Boys, get it here, thing"

To defend themselves from the poison, the kids hide behind masks of countercultural heroes. It is another damning comment on pop culture, with its idolization of heroes, which here is described as nothing but escape from facing oneself.

So you scream out of line:
"I want you! I need you! Anyone out there? Any time?"
Tres butch little number whines "Hey dirty, I want you
When it`s good, it`s really good, and when it`s bad I go to pieces"
If you want it, Boys, get it here, thing

Occasionally, someone tries to break out and ask for something more authentic. But then this too is made into a slogan, and sold as a sweet thing.

Well, on the street where you live I could not hold up my head
For I put all I have in another bed
On another floor, in the back of a car
In the cellar of a church with the door ajar

In a growing spirit of desperation, our hero recounts all the times he tried to find something real while giving himself to others. But it was all just meaningless sex, and it only made him lose more and more of himself, and even lose his beloved streets, for he`s too ashamed to walk in them.

Well, I guess we must be looking for a different kind
But we can`t stop trying `til we break up our minds
`Til the sun drips blood on the seedy young knights
Who press you on the ground while shaking in fright

Despite all his past failures, he just keeps on trying, doing the same things over and over again, hoping he will find a different kind of experience. He can see no end to it, and reckons he and his peers will just keep on going until "the Sun drips blood" – probably a metaphor for the end of days. However, when he realizes how futile it is, he decides that there is only one way to break out of this routine:

I guess we could cruise down one more time
With you by my side, it should be fine
We`ll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands

The true nature of the deal is finally revealed. The candidate he was looking for was a candidate for a suicide pact: let`s play the game of sex, drugs and rock`n`roll one more time, and then throw ourselves into the river and end it all.

But then, after their resolution to "buy some drugs", they find a pusher, who sells his merchandise in the exact same way that everyone else does, promising a sweet thing. And so we are back into `Sweet Thing`, and the moment of clarity fades into a drug haze:

"If you want it, boys, get it here, thing
`Cause hope, boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing"
Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?
Do you think that your face looks the same?
Then let it be, it`s all I ever wanted
It`s a street with a deal, and a taste
It`s got claws, it`s got me, it`s got you ...

In a drug stupor, he forgets about the decision to end it all. He feels that he found what he wanted, something that has the taste of the streets, something that feels like a good deal. It`s a dead-end street, and he knows it, but he doesn`t care. He feels like he finally found himself, found a better existence. And so he drifts into the snow storm, becoming a junkie.

The youth culture of the sixties aspired to present a meaningful alternative to the meaningless world of the adults. In the face of a drab society they dressed up colorfully to present a distinct identity, and in opposition to the puritan, industrial world they presented the way of life of sex, drugs and rock`n`roll that was supposed to be more free and spiritual. Bowie, in his Ziggy Stardust guise, tried to carry on this legacy and appropriate it for the seventies. But now, `Sweet Thing` damns it all to hell. The dressing-up game is described as a meaningless masquerade, the sex & drugs & rock`n`roll lifestyle is shown to be a tired routine that doesn`t do anything for the spirit anymore except drag it down, and the "revolution" is nothing but mean-spirited poison. `Let it be`, the Beatles` message of hope, here becomes an expression for giving up on life.

And so, the system continues to grow stronger. With the youth rebellion biting the dust, there`s nothing to stand in its way for ultimate power. The music changes into a grinding sound, propelled by a rhythm lifted from Neu!`s 1972 track `Negativeland` (one of the starting points of electronic and industrial music), as the system is grinding what is left of the human spirit into dust, in an increasingly faster pace. Our hero, after all his ordeals, has been rendered powerless to resist it, and his song is taken over by the machine.

But then, out of nowhere, a new sound comes in…

Performed only during the Diamond Dogs tour, it is one of the highlights on the show and the main reason an official release of the video is one of the sweet things Bowie fans crave the most...

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