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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Blackout

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The anxious, doubt-ridden, schizophrenic vibe of "Heroes" reaches its peak with this volatile track. The heart of it all is Dennis Davis' zany drumming, and it is a heart that has lost any kind of regular beat. Robert Fripp wraps his blood-curdling guitar lines around this irregular rhythm, and Eno's synth is the heart-monitor that's gone berserk. Bowie breathlessly tries to stay on top of the music and sounds like he's about to fracture at any moment, and the entire thing is quite terrifying. But what is it about?

The lyrics are quite vague and do not provide a clear answer to this question, but I will pose the theory that 'Blackout' is Bowie's reply to Iggy Pop's 'Some Weird Sin' - a record that deals with the problem of being torn between keeping your non-conformist individualism and being part of human society. After the passivity and solitude of Low, "Heroes" marks the reawakening of the will to be part of the world and fight to change it, but with that, some of the old agoraphobic fears come back as well.

Oh you, you walk on past
Your lips cut a smile on your face (your scalding face)
To the cage, to the cage
She was a beauty in a cage
Too, too high a price
To drink rotting wine from your hands
Your fearful hands

The singer is someone who lives on the outskirts of society, and he is passed on the street by a high-society woman. She sneers at him, thinking she is superior, but from his point of view she is living in a cage. On the other hand, he too wants to be part of society and enjoy all its riches, so he is tempted by this woman. But the price – losing his freedom – is ultimately too high for him.

Get me to a doctor's I've been told
Someone's back in town the chips are down
I just cut and blackout
I'm under Japanese influence
And my honor's at stake

But then, someone comes back into our hero's life, someone whom he was once connected to, someone who links him to the society he is trying to escape. Moreover, it is someone whose presence distresses him to such an extent that he blacks out. He excuses it by saying he is "under Japanese influence", under the influence of a culture where honor is very important, so the presence of someone who might bring him dishonor caused this extreme reaction. But it seems that this person is linked in his mind to a deeper trauma, and that's what made him lose consciousness. 

Bowie might be recounting a recent incident in which his wife Angie (who refused to relocate with him to Berlin and remained in their home in Switzerland) came to visit him in Berlin, a visit that ended in a massive blowout that was the final nail in the coffin of their marriage. Angie was his connection to the world outside of the secluded city, a world he was trying to forget in order to regain his own sound-mindedness. But her presence brought this world back, and that might have been the cause of the trauma. He (or at least the character he plays in this record) is unable to deal with society at this point.

The weather's grim, ice on the cages
Me, I'm Robin Hood and I puff on my cigarette
Panthers are steaming, stalking, screaming

Once again he detaches and takes an outsider's look on society, at the people living in their cages. He tries to convince himself that he is Robin Hood, a rebel who is free and merry. But the line about the panthers gives a strong sense of self-doubt and existential fear.

If you don't stay tonight
I will take that plane tonight
I've nothing to lose, nothing to gain
I'll kiss you in the rain
Kiss you in the rain
Kiss you in the rain
In the rain
Get me to the doctor

In previous records like 'Stay', Bowie sang about his need for a human anchor, someone who will stay with him and be his companion in the cold nights. It seems that this anchor is leaving him now, but he pretends it doesn't matter much. He seems to be glad to have his personal freedom back, and tells the anchor that he will kiss her goodbye and then just hop a plane to wherever he wants. He repeats it several times, trying to convince her (and himself), but each time it seems harder for him to say and the moment she leaves he collapses once again and needs to be rushed to the doctor. So we find that our hero can't take it either way: he blacks out from the need to face up to other people, and he blacks out from the thought of being all alone.

Get me off the streets (get some protection)
Get me on my feet (get some direction)
Hot air gets me into a blackout
Oh, get me off the streets
Get some protection
Oh get me on my feet

"Get me off the streets" is ambiguous. It either means he wants to run away from the populated streets and hide in a place where there are no people, or that he is an outsider (someone who lives "on the street") who can't take it anymore and begs society to find a place for him in its midst. Hard to tell which of the two he means, and it doesn't seem like he would know the answer to that either.

While the streets block off
Getting some skin exposure to the blackout (get some protection)
Get me on my feet (get some direction)
Oh get me on my feet
Get me off the streets (get some protection)

Bowie later claimed that the record was inspired by the total electricity blackout that struck New York City in July 1977. As far as I can see, those are the only lines that seem somewhat connected to that event. With the city in total darkness and the social order breaking down, our hero suddenly has a place he belongs and he wants to go out and bask in the blackout. Finally, the outside world matches what he feels inside.

But this, of course, is no solution at all. The lights will eventually come back on, social order will be restored, and our hero will once again have no place to go. The spiritual crisis at the heart of "Heroes" is here brought to its extreme, and depicted as a crisis that Bowie's mentality cannot cope with. If he doesn't find the solution, the only way out will be to black out permanently.

Unsurprisingly, the song was dynamite on stage.

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