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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Weeping Wall

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In Jerusalem there is the Wailing Wall, the only remnant of the Jewish Temple, a place where Jews go to pray and lament the loss of their spiritual center. In the Berlin that Bowie found in 1976 there was a different kind of wall, but it too was a symbol of sadness and loss. After WWII, the powers divided Germany between them and Berlin fell in East Germany, in the Communist zone. Unwilling to let the Soviets have sole control over this symbolic cultural place, the West secured part of the city (known henceforth as West Berlin) to belong to the democratic West Germany, with a safe corridor connecting them. This served as a door for millions of East Germans to flee to the West, and the Communists realized they will eventually be left with no people. In 1961 they built a wall around West Berlin, separating it completely from the other parts, tearing families and friends apart. So the people of West Berlin were encircled all around by a wall and living under constant fear of Communist takeover, and yet, they were actually the ones who were better off, as the people of East Berlin were living under increasing oppression. The Berlin that Bowie found was a sad place, where people who were once together could communicate with each other only through a barrier and under the watchful eye of the guards. Like the Wailing Wall, the Berlin wall became a symbol of extreme sorrow, and this sorrow can be heard in 'Weeping Wall'.

But the way I hear it, it is not the residents of Berlin who are weeping by the wall, but the wall itself that is weeping for the city. The weeping is represented by xylophones, vibraphones and other percussive instruments that create the effect of falling tears, but at the bottom of it all there is a steady synthesizer pulse, which in the language created by Eno and Bowie represents not humans but the urban environment. Listening to the music, you can almost imagine yourself standing by the wall and seeing it shedding tears, and you can hear the scream coming from somewhere inside it. It is a sad piece, but also cathartic and cleansing.

The effect is achieved by bringing together influences from the two musical worlds that Low traverses. The instrumental texture is clearly indebted to the works of minimalist avant-garde composer Steven Reich, such as 'Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ', while the combination of a repetitive keyboard chord with the anguished screams of an electric guitar is reminiscent of Roxy Music's 'Chance Meeting' (another record that deals with alienation). The "screaming" melody, first played on the electric guitar and then howled by Bowie, sounds like it is based on the traditional folk ballad 'Scarborough Fair', a resonance which infuses another symbolic layer into the record. The most famous rendering of that song in pop was done by Simon and Garfunkel, who combined it with another song called 'Canticle'. 'Scarborough Fair' is a song about a man who sends a messenger to his former lover to ask her to perform some impossible tasks for him, telling her that if she succeeds he will take her back. 'Canticle', written by Paul Simon himself, is a song about soldiers going to war for a reason they long forgot. The song also indicates that it is against our nature: the war is set against a beautiful natural background that is alien to anything that has to do with war. But humans, instead of loving each other and living in harmony according to nature, hurt their loved ones and build walls between them. The message seems to be that it's this type of stupid petty things we hear in 'Scarborough Fair' that leads us to the war of 'Canticle', not some grand causes. In 'Weeping Wall' it seems that it is not nature but the city that wants to be united in harmony, but is instead divided by the humans that populate it. The Berlin Wall feels the sorrow of the people on both its sides, and weeps for them.

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