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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Across the Universe

On the same day David Bowie and John Lennon collaborated to create `Fame`, they also recorded this reworking of Lennon`s late Beatles era song. `Across the Universe` is one of Lennon`s most mystical offerings, and apparently one of Bowie`s favorites. Lennon, however, was never very pleased with the original recording, so he was happy to try again. The original was a psychedelic number. This version is in the blue-eyed soul style of Young Americans.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

The singer`s stance here is completely passive. He is trying to shut off his individual will, letting the words and emotions come freely into his mind in the order that they choose. It is a very Buddhist stance, and in the original record Lennon adds the mantra "Jai Guru Deva, OM" for good measure. His singing is appropriately soft and cosmic, like waves washing to the shore. Bowie changes it completely. His singing is assertive and bellowing, he dispenses with the mantra, and he basically introduces individuality back into the song. The music, too, is not the psychedelic fluff of the original, but something much funkier.

Nothing`s gonna change my world
Nothing`s gonna change my world
Nothing`s gonna change my world
Nothing`s gonna change my world

In Lennon`s version, this is an expression of complete passivity. He is in a state of nirvana, of complete bliss, and nothing that happens will be able to shake his world and destroy it. But Bowie isn`t about nirvana. His whole lifestyle revolves around changes, so in order to bring everything to a halt he must be active about it. Again, his voice is assertive, forcing himself into this stance. This is another change, a change into a state where nothing changes.

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe

Sounds of laughter shades of life are ringing through my open ears
Inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on, across the universe

The singer now opens up to the entire universe, letting it wash through him. This is a complete loss of individuality, the collapse of all boundaries between the self and not-self, a total immersion in the cosmos. It brings to mind Timothy Leary`s book The Psychedelic Experience, which is based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and describes similar experiences and visions. But what does it have to do with Bowie`s soul period?

Well, soul is also about loss of individuality, about realizing that you are part of something bigger. The entire Young Americans album is about Bowie coming down from his individualistic Superman trip and trying to be part of a collective. In interviews at the time he expressed weariness with the game of shifting identities, and belief that he has found happiness in "being himself" and part of a community. Being in this state of mind, it is also easy to open up to the universe and want to become part of it.

But, as mentioned, in Bowie`s case it does not entail just becoming passive, but rather actively seeking this unification. And it seems that Lennon, at that time, was also in this state of mind, because he joins Bowie in this part and the duo starts to hammer away, shouting about how they are going to achieve mystical unity. It isn`t bad as a rock-soul number, but from a mystical point of view it sounds like failure. It sounds like they are trying to convince themselves that nothing`s gonna change their world, but know it isn`t true.

The Beatles` 1968 psychedelic-Indian original:

The recording was remixed for their 1970 album Let in Be. Producer Phil Spector added a choir and made it sound even more cosmic:

Bowie and Lennon`s version:

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