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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Sister Midnight

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Written by Bowie, Iggy Pop and Carlos Alomar shortly after the cessation of the Station to Station recordings, it is the perfect bridge between that album and what followed. Performed first by Bowie in the 1976 White Light tour, it was then picked by Iggy who furnished it with some more lyrics and recorded it for his next album, with Bowie producing. Bowie himself never recorded it (although he did recycle the music for `Red Money`), but it is still an essential Bowie song.

Calling Sister Midnight
You`ve got me reaching for the moon
Calling Sister Midnight
You`ve got me playing the fool
Calling Sister Midnight

Calling Sister Midnight
Can you hear me call
Can you hear me well
Can you hear me at all

Once again, like all tracks on Station to Station, Bowie is calling for someone. It is a woman he calls "Sister Midnight", and the chorus takes us back to `Can You Hear Me`, the first time we saw Bowie claiming that he needs a long-term companion in his life. She seems to be getting more and more away from him, though. In `Can You Hear Me` he was talking to an actual spouse and asking her to believe in the relationship, and so it was in `Golden Years` too. But `Stay` is already from the point of view of a single man who can`t muster the courage to ask women for a serious relationship, and in `Sister Midnight`, it seems he can`t even reach that woman. She is a fantasy, a dream woman, and he hopes he can reach her but knows it`s as hard as reaching the Moon.

Calling Sister Midnight
Well I`m an Idiot for you
Calling Sister Midnight
I`m a breakage inside
Calling Sister Midnight

This fantasy prevents him from facing up to actual existence and turns him into what he calls "the fool" in the first verse and "an idiot" in the second. His life is meaningless without her, and he feels the breakage of his soul. This feeling of inner emptiness that can only be saved by some wild fantasy will be the center of Iggy Pop`s next album, and its title, The Idiot, is duly taken from this verse.

It`s hard to hear this record and not think of the Rolling Stones-Marianne Faithful composition `Sister Morphine`. Hearing it this way, "Sister Midnight" would be a euphemism for hard drugs. It is the total neediness of the addict that makes him play the fool.

Calling Sister Midnight
You know I had a dream last night
Mother was in my bed
And I made love to her
Father he gunned for me
Hunted me with his six gun
Calling Sister Midnight
What can I do about my dreams?

This verse is based on an actual dream Iggy had in his drug haze of 1975. Like on `TVC15`, his dream inspires a song, but while the latter was a modern technological nightmare, this nightmare is the most primordial of them all and takes him into Oedipal territories. Sister Midnight is the only one who can save him from these nightmares, and that is why he needs her so bad.

Listen to me Sister Midnight
You`ve got me walking in rags
Calling Sister Midnight
You put a beggar in my heart
Hey where are you Sister Midnight
Can you hear me call
Can you hear me well
Can you hear me at all

…and the final verse completes his fall into a state of total dependence and despair. 

The hook that holds it all together is another great guitar riff created by Carlos Alomar. In Bowie`s version it is popped out on a bass to an incredibly funky effect which sits in well with the cool funkiness on the Thin White Duke, but its repetitiveness takes him one step closer to soulless mechanism. The searing guitar solo from Stacey Heydon injects some variety, but it is still no match to the power of the riff.

Amazingly, Iggy`s version is even better. The opening track of The Idiot, it sets up the chilling state of mind that will be developed throughout the album. A lot of it has to do with Bowie`s production, and it feels like he is using Iggy to express his own personal crisis. The riff is played by the rhythm guitar and is completely cyclical, and the addition of synthesizers and electronic bleeps makes it all sound like an electric circuit. Iggy sings in a low, blood curdling, mechanized voice that makes him sound like a robot, and Bowie`s falsetto backings makes him sound like a psycho-robot. As the track progresses the guitars sound ever more screechy, as if the circuits are melting and the robot is malfunctioning in front of our ears. After he dives into the Oedipal goo of his dreams the Iggy-robot does find some emotions, but they sound more animalistic than human, and the record ends with some primal screaming. The fear of losing your humanity and being taken over by technology, a fear which we saw in Bowie numbers like `Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family` and `TVC15`, finally becomes reality. The cyclical nature of life from station to station, the numbness caused by drug addiction and the inner-emptiness resulting from loss of meaning in his existence have turned him into a machine.

Performing it in 1977, with Bowie on keyboards:

Bowie, too, would go back on perform it, and his performance would be closer to the Iggy version.

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