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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Subterraneans

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In 1975 Bowie starred in his first feature film, Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, playing an extraterrestrial alien. He was also asked to do the soundtrack, and he decided to create a series of weird instrumentals that would accentuate the strangeness of the hero. Unfortunately it did not materialize in time, and Roeg eventually decided to go with a different soundtrack concept. But the grain of the idea apparently remained with Bowie, who was looking for music to express his own alienation, and finally bloomed in side B of Low, where it is reworked and developed with the help of Eno and Visconti. Reportedly, however, only one track on the album actually contains some of the music he created for the Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack, and that track is 'Subterraneans'.

The place that inspired 'Subterraneans', confided Bowie, was East Berlin. So, like 'Warszawa', the track represents the Eastern Block. And like 'Warszawa' it is a gloomy piece, which is typified by Bowie singing in what sounds like the chant of Gregorian monks, infusing the record with a strong religious feel. It is as if the oppression and drabness of the East makes one draw inside and find his spirituality there. In Warsaw we had to roam a while before we began to hear it and feel it, but here it starts almost immediately, as if the entire city of Berlin is humming under the surface, wanting to come alive again. But the rest of the music is cold and foreboding, and we feel like a stranger in a strange land. A melancholy saxophone starts to play, lamenting the thriving city that once was, making the track even more soulful. Eventually Bowie starts to sing like he does in 'Warszawa', syllables that sound like words but aren't, although here it sounds even closer to the English language, as though he is close to finding a way to express himself again. He never does form an intelligible word, though. The track just slouches towards the end of the album.

Bowie's ethics always involved finding a stranger to identify with, someone alien to his current way of life which can take him on a ride to another world. The closing track of Low leaves the impression that he might have found the alien he was looking for, beyond the Berlin Wall. The people of East Berlin live in a system that is alien to the people of West Berlin, and yet they are both parts of the same city, wanting to come together and create a new fusion. East Berlin holds the key to a new spirituality, a spirituality that can take us to the heavens once again. But 'Subterraneans' doesn't take us anywhere. The music never takes off, never manages to break away and become joyful. Whatever is hidden there remains subterranean, unable to make its way to the surface. The task of finding the answer is left for the next album.

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