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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Joe the Lion

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"Heroes" is an album about heroism, and Joe the Lion is a hero of our times. But who is he? Well, the chorus tells us that he is "made of iron", so we are talking about a tough character, a character who can take a lot. Joe's iron-hard nature is immediately represented to us through Robert Fripp's metallic guitar which roars like a revved engine, and with the help of Alomar's driving riff dominates the track and sounds like it can cut through anything. All that's left for Bowie is to howl the lyrics and glorify this hero. But who is he singing about?

Joe the lion
Went to the bar
A couple of drinks on the house and he said
"Tell you who you are
If you nail me to my car"

The beginning already provides us with a hint to find the identity of our hero. It seems he's singing about Chris Burden, a performance artist who became famous in the seventies for his shocking pieces in which he put himself in danger and went as far as intentionally injuring himself. In his 1974 piece 'Trans-fixed', Burden had himself crucified with nails to the back of a Volkswagen beetle which was then driven to the middle of the street and left with a screaming engine for several minutes. Many criticized it as pseudo-art, but Bowie appears to be lionizing him, praising him as an artist who is willing to suffer for his art. Indeed, he is made of iron.

On second look, however, it seems that Bowie is once again singing about himself. His interpretation of Joe's art is that it will "tell you who you are" - in other words, he understands Burden's shocking pieces as being aimed at presenting a mirror-image to humanity through which it can see its dark sides. This is what Bowie has been trying to achieve throughout the seventies as well, so Joe the Lion is apparently a combination of Burden and himself.

Boy
Thanks for hesitating
This is the kiss off
Boy
Thanks for hesitating
You'll never know the real story
Just a couple of dreams
You get up and sleep
You can buy god

The person the artist is talking to in the bar, however, refuses to indulge him and nail him to his car. Human society doesn't have the stomach to look into the frightening mirror-image that artists like Burden and Bowie present to it, and so it will "never know the real story", it will remain ignorant. The price, says the artist to that person, is that you will now be doomed to a boring life of nothing but sleeping and getting up to work, with just a couple of dreams to sustain you. You could have been more, you could have bought god, but you preferred to remain in your little safe existence.

It's Monday
Slither down the greasy pipe
So far so good no one saw you
Hobble over any freeway
You will be like your dreams tonight
You get up and sleep
You get up and sleep
Joe the lion
Made of iron

We feel a shift, as Bowie switches from the painful howl into a calmer, almost talking tone. The artist continues to describe the life of his unfortunate counterpart, and it kind of reminds us of the way Bowie described the life of the peoploids in Hunger City, with Halloween Jack having to slide from his apartment down to the street. He describes this "regular" human as someone who wakes up to a week of work on Monday morning, skulking through the streets in the hope that no one will notice him since he hates human company, and getting drunk at nights to imagine he's living his dream. He sings calmly and assuredly, sympathetic to that person even as he tears his life apart, but when he gets to "Joe the lion, made of iron" the howl returns. No, it's more than a howl: he actually screams in shock. And in one moment of clarity, the entire premise of the record is flipped on its head.

What has happened that gave the artist this shock? Well, what happened was that he realized he got the story wrong, very wrong. Who is the hero of modern times, who is "Joe the Lion"? Is he really the artist, the nonconformist, the one who lives a dangerous and unconventional life? No, he isn't. Joe the Lion, as his name discloses, is the average Joe, the same person the singer was mocking. As he was busy explaining to that guy how much his life sucks, he realized what a hero he is, what an iron will he has to keep getting up in the morning and go on living his life, go on dreaming. Instead of shocking this average Joe into awakening like he planned, it is the singer himself who is awakened.

Joe the lion
Went to the bar
A couple of drinks on the house and he was
A fortune teller he said
"Nail me to my car
and I'll tell you who you are"

The artist now realizes that while he thought he was playing society's mirror-image, it is actually the average Joe who is his own mirror-image, as he too spends his life getting drunk in bars and dreaming that he is doing something heroic. The artist is also called "Joe the Lion" in this record, but that's not because he is doing something special but rather because he is not that different from the average Joe. Bowie now defines him not as an artist but as a fortune teller, which sounds like he's putting him down. The artist thinks he is showing us some truth about our existence, but he is no more right than some fortune teller you meet in a bar.

You get up and sleep
The wind blows on your cheek
The day laughs in your face
Guess you'll buy a gun
You'll buy it secondhand
You'll get up and sleep

Once again he pretends to tell his counterpart what his life must be like, and this time he suggests to him that he is probably thinking of buying a gun. Surely he means that the average Joe spends his life thinking of committing suicide and ending the unbearable routine he is stuck in. But he knows he is wrong, because this is simply not the case. The fact is that the average Joe does not put a bullet in his own brain, and does not nail strangers to cars even if he has the chance. He is a basically decent person, who finds ways to be happy even in his mundane life. The mirror-image which describes him as suffering from a meaningless existence is a twisted image, and he is right not to look at it.

Bowie's early seventies art was dominated by the feeling that mundane human life is tragically boring and meaningless and he must create an alternative. The ethics he created decreed that one should overcome the boring routine by constantly changing oneself into new heroic and larger than life identities. He began to doubt this way of life in his album Station to Station, and in Lust for Life he and Iggy Pop came to the realization that average human life is actually a basically good thing. 'Joe the Lion' puts it all together. The life of the average Joe is actually OK, while the outsider is the one who lives a tragic existence. If Bowie wants to create a new ethics of heroism, he must base it on the realization that the daily existence in a Western society is a good one, and carry on from there.

In 1995, as Bowie finally gathered a band that could do justice with the "Heroes" sound, 'Joe the Lion' got some awesome performances.

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