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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Lust for Life

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In 1975, Bowie found out that his buddy Iggy Pop is in a really bad way. All these years of walking on the wild side have finally caught up with rock's wildest man, and he became a suicidal heroin addict. Iggy hospitalized himself in a mental institution in California, where Bowie came to visit him and helped put him back on his feet. From here on, the two were inseparable for a few years, working and touring together. At the end of 1976 the two worked on a couple of albums that reflected the spiritual crisis they were undergoing: Iggy's The Idiot (produced and co-written by Bowie), which showed him turning into some sort of mechanical zombie, and David's Low, which showed him withdrawing from the world and becoming autistic. The albums were mostly recorded in France, but then the two relocated to West Berlin, finished the albums there, and decided to settle in it for a while.

The idea was that in the secluded city, away from the craziness of the rock world, the two will be able to heal from their drug addictions and other ailments. The problem with that plan was that Berlin, as Bowie laughingly admitted years later, was "the smack capital of Europe", so they did not exactly get away from the drugs. Nevertheless, Berlin did offer them a place where they could retain their sanity. Without all the hangers-on that Bowie had in L.A., he started to live like a regular person, doing his own shopping, making his own breakfast and walking down the street in broad daylight. Living this way, he and Iggy managed to reconnect with the world, and their dependency on drugs decreased sharply. They were beginning to enjoy life again.

Berlin also provided lots of artistic inspiration, sometimes from unexpected sources. The two would regularly watch the American Forces Network News since it was one of the only things on their Television that was in English, and one evening as the news came on Bowie got the groove from the intro which was a kind of a Morse code beat. He picked up a ukulele and started to imitate it, and the rhythm soon developed into a whole song. Iggy added the lyrics, and 'Lust for Life', the title track for his next album, came to be.

It's all about the opening: a bash of tribal, exuberant and sexy rhythm, full of lust, humanity and life. It lasts a little over a minute, and that's enough to blow away the inhumane coldness of The Idiot and Low and put us back in the world of humanistic, optimistic rock'n'roll. Iggy's vocal then comes in, not in the nihilistic shriek of his previous albums, but in a voice full of warmth.

Here comes johnny yen again
With the liquor and drugs
And the flesh machine
He's gonna do another strip tease.
Hey man, where'd ya get that lotion?
I've been hurting since I've bought the gimmick
About something called love
Yeah, something called love.

"Johnny Yen" is someone from his old life, still into the lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. But Iggy is tired of that. There is something else he fancies now, something that puts color back in his cheeks and makes him feel love.

Well, that's like hypnotizing chickens.
Well, I'm just a modern guy
Of course, I've had it in the ear before.
I have a lust for life
'cause of a lust for life.

What is the new love of Iggy's life? It is life itself. He and Bowie spent years trying to figure out how to make life meaningful, but it turns out that loving life is as easy as hypnotizing a chicken: you simply have to do it. Enjoying life is natural to us, and it's only because we're being told we need to aspire to something more that we think it is meaningless. Iggy and David had to go through hell and back to realize that they have lust for the simple things of daily life, that it is enjoyable to simply live.

I'm worth a million in prizes
With my torture film
Drive a GTO
Wear a uniform
All on a government loan.
I'm worth a million in prizes
Yeah, I'm through with sleeping on the sidewalk
No more beating my brains
No more beating my brains
With liquor and drugs
With liquor and drugs.

But Iggy can't help being ironic. With the admission that he loves life, he sees himself as succumbing to the world he once rebelled against. By taking a positive stance on life, he is affirming the existing order, and so he imagines himself now as a servant of the government, wearing a uniform and accepting lucrative rewards for his acquiescence. Nevertheless, he reaffirms his lust for life, and Bowie joins him, celebrating the joy of human existence.

"You can't hurry Love / No, you just have to wait" sang the Supremes in 1966, in a classic record whose rhythm is heavily echoed in 'Lust for Life'. Iggy and David did finally find love for life, but that presents a new problem. Are they now simply to become stooges for the existing order, or can they still present an alternative? This tension, the tension between enjoyment of life and fear of becoming too content, stands at the heart of the album Lust for Life.

The record received new life when director Danny Boyle used it brilliantly for the soundtrack of the 1996 movie Trainspotting. Shortened to single length and with a video to match its awesome primordial frenzy, it finally became the hit it deserved to be

...and Bowie was quick to capitalize, performing the song in his own way.

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