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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Breaking Glass

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'Breaking Glass' is hardly a song. One of the shortest records Bowie ever made, it feels more like a fragment. The lyrics and the singing are tortured, and one feels like Bowie is giving us a momentary glimpse into a dark and painful place in his soul while disguising it in metaphors. Can we piece the broken glass back together and find out what he is talking about?

Baby, I've been, breaking glass in your room again
Listen
Don't look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it
See

So, what was that awful thing that he drew on the carpet? Years later, Bowie revealed the answer: the drawings he is referring to are pentagrams and other markings that belong to the world of black magic. In 1975, as his mind was so drug addled that he could hardly tell reality from illusion, Bowie would shut himself for days in his Los Angeles apartment and dabble in witchcraft. When he was younger he was fascinated with the philosophy of the dark magus Aleister Crowley and gave it some expression in his 1970-71 records, but that was only out of curiosity. In 1975 he went all the way and actually dove into Crowley's world, imagining all sorts of dark forces surrounding him. Here Bowie describes this habit as "awful", which indicates that he is now attempting to leave it behind.

Alright, so that gives us half of the answer, but what does the "breaking glass" metaphor stand for? Is it also a black magic thing? It could be, but I have a different theory. I believe it represents a memory even more painful.

In his Diamond Dogs album, Bowie starts to look at the youth rock'n'roll rebellion of the sixties as something that is being manipulated by clandestine powers scheming to take over. In records like 'Big Brother' and 'Somebody Up There Likes Me' he describes the human psyche as subservient in nature, wishing for a strong figure it can worship. From interviews he gave in the years 1974-76 we can ascertain that he didn't mean that every human is like that, but most humans are. "People aren't very bright, you know," he said in one of those interviews, "they say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler." This insight led him to reinterpret his previous artistic projects, and now he looked at his Ziggy period as a case study into the relationship between a demigod leader and his worshippers. In late 1974, when discussing 'Somebody Up there Likes Me', he said: "what I've said for years under various guises is that 'Watch Out, the West is going to have a Hitler!' I've said it in a thousand different ways. That song is yet another way." By 1975, with his psyche in cocaine induced paranoia and imagining dark forces running his life, he started to talk a lot about the possibility that this new Hitler will rise very soon.

His main argument was that since most people want a strong leader, the type of permissive liberalism that prevailed in the seventies would not satisfy them and they will soon look to replace it with "someone to follow, some brave Apollo". As way back as 1969 he already said about his homeland England: "this country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it's not careful it's going to end up with a Hitler. This place is so ready to be picked up by anybody who has a strong enough personality to lead." The Hippie counter-culture, which was even more liberal and permissive than mainstream sixties England, only magnified the danger in Bowie's mind. In the same year, we recall, Bowie put out his epos 'Cygnet Committee', which warned that the sixties revolution could only lead to a totalitarian state. Bowie continued to criticize Hippie culture for its permissiveness in the next few years, and when he came to California, the Hippie bedrock, it only compounded his fears. "I think the morals should be straightened up for a start. They're disgusting," he said in mid-75, "this whole particular period of civilization … it's not even decadent. We've never had true decadence yet. It borders on Philistine really… There's some form of ghost force liberalism permeating the air in America, but it's got to go, because it's got no foundation at all." This complete lack of any discipline or taste, believed Bowie, was the very thing that would lead people to choose the diametrically opposed poll. When asked by the interviewer what he thought the next step for this society would be, he answers: "dictatorship. There will be a political figure in the not too distant future who'll sweep this part of the world like early rock and roll did. You probably hope I'm not right. But I am. My predictions are very accurate … always." This, in a nutshell, was his state of mind at the time.

But then, in the same interview, Bowie goes a step further. If the rise of Fascism is inevitable, as he believed, he starts to think about what positives we can draw from the situation. Coming back to the subject, he says: "you've got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can get a new form of liberalism… so the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right Government to come. It'll do something positive at least to cause commotion in people and they'll either accept the dictatorship or get rid of it."

So here, Bowie actually wishes for a Fascist leader to take over. But we should note that it is not because he has Fascist leanings. He is still thinking like a liberal, but to save liberalism from the wrong direction it took and put it back on the right track, he says there must first come a Fascist period that will straighten things up. It's the old dialectic reading of history, the belief that humanity advances through opposites and that "things must first get worse before they can get better again". In the context of the interview it is quite obvious and raised no eyebrows, but months later, when Bowie arrived in England in May 1976 to tour his Station to Station album, these comments were dug up and taken out of context, and a media storm ensued. Bowie was branded a dangerous rightwing nut, commanding his army of fans and plotting a Fascist coup. His protests that his words were merely a reflection on the state of things, a mirror-image to contemporary society, were swallowed in the hubbub. Only when he entered the studio to record Low could he finally break away from it and find some peace.

What does all that have to do with 'Breaking Glass', you ask? Well, broken glass has a certain important place in the history of Fascism. 'The Night of Broken Glass', Kristallnacht, is a notorious night in 1938 when a large-scale pogrom throughout Germany led to so much destruction that the streets were littered and glowing with shattered glass from the windows of Jewish stores, homes and synagogues. It was the moment when Nazi Germany revealed its monstrous face to the world, the first portent of the Jewish Holocaust that came a few years later. When Bowie says he was breaking glass, I believe he means to say that he allowed himself to appear as a Fascist monster himself. It is Bowie's own cryptic way of admitting: I messed up, big time.

You're such a wonderful person
But you got problems oh-oh-oh-oh
I'll never touch you

In the 1971 album Hunky Dory we saw Bowie describing himself as living in isolation, closed in his room and looking out the window at a world he felt alienated from. His next albums were attempts to break out of this isolation, to get to know other rooms, to find a society he could be part of. 'Breaking Glass' announces his failure. The woman he sings to represents human society, and he realizes that his attempt to be part of her room ended in him breaking her glass and drawing awful things on her carpet. He acknowledges that human society can be wonderful, but has problems that he cannot handle. And so, he decides not to try and make contact with her ever again. This fragmentary piece, ending so abruptly, is a painful admission of this failure, and a farewell to us. For the time being, until he finds a way back, Bowie is going to turn his back on society, drop out of the public's eye, and lay Low.

'Breaking Glass' was performed many times over the years, never better than on this grainy recording from 1995.

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