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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: African Night Flight

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In 1978 Bowie took his son on a safari trip in Kenya, where they met the Masai people. This meeting with tribesmen had a profound effect on him, as this was the most alien culture he ever encountered. Another strange thing he met there was a group of German pilots, some of them survivors of WW2, who hanged out in Mombasa bars and would rent their services to anyone who wanted to fly into the bush areas. They were strangers in a strange land, and that naturally intrigued Bowie. These encounters have inspired the weirdness that is 'African Night Flight'.

As always when Bowie encounters something alien, he tries to emulate it. 'African Night Flight' is his response to the local music he heard in Kenya, although it sounds nothing like African music. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this is Bowie's attempt to describe how African music felt to him. The music is polyrhythmic, as in Africa, but the percussive sounds are made by experimenting with technology in regular Bowie-Eno-Visconti fashion. There's a piano that has been tampered with to make weird sounds, there's a strange cricket noise produced by Eno messing about with the drum machine, and there are other oddities. Bowie's vocal is also percussive, coming through like rapid fire from a machine gun, but is more in the tradition of the Gilbert & Sullivan patter song than anything African.

African nightmare one-time Mormon
More men fall in Hullabaloo men
I slide to the nearest bar
Undermine chairman
I went too far
Bent on a windfall
Rent a sony
Wonder how the dollar went down
Gotta get a word to Elizabeth's father
Hey no, he wished me well

These lyrics don't make sense, and were probably chosen mainly for their tongue-twisting quality. Something of a story does come through, though: the singer is in a bar, recalling a past life which he had to escape from. Maybe he's a celebrity who fell from grace because of a media hullabaloo, maybe he's a political dissenter on the run after undermining Chairman Mao, or maybe he's a stock-market broker who lost everything as the dollar went down. It doesn't matter. The point is that he ran away to Africa to start a whole new life. He wants to get a word to a friend he left behind to let him know he's alright, but apparently he can't do that because he's in hiding.

The friend is referred to as "Elizabeth's father", which invokes another association. In 1952, British Princess Elizabeth was in the midst of a vacation in Kenya when she got the word that her father had died, making her Queen Elizabeth II. Sometimes, by going to a different land you might undergo a transformation.

Seems like another day
I could fly
Into the eye of god on high

This is somewhat reminiscent of "once there were sunbirds to soar with" from 'Station to Station'. Bowie is recalling times when he could fly to the highest highs, but he has left this life behind. Or has he?

His burning eye will see me through
One of these days, one of these days
Gotta get a word through one of these days

Seems like he believes he can fly into the eye of God again, and that this will help him get through anything. Then he once again thinks about the friends he left behind and how he would like to get a word to them. This is a lot like Major Tom, fascinated by deep space and being drawn to it while trying to get a word through to his wife. Ten years later Bowie is still caught in this tension, on the one hand wanting to fly into the unknown, on the other hand feeling the loss of what he leaves behind.

Asanti habari habari habari
Asanti nabana nabana nabana

Some greetings in Swahili, as he becomes part of his new world.

Getting in mood for a Mombasa night flight
Pushing my luck, gonna fly like a mad thing
Bare strip takeoff skimming over Rhino
Born in slumber less than peace
Struggle with a child whose screaming dreaming
Drowned by the props all steely sunshine
Sick of you, sick of me

So the singer ran away and became a pilot in Mombasa, living a dangerous lifestyle with which he could "fly into the eye of God on high" again. Bowie was just then overcoming his fear of flight, and some of this struggle might be echoed in these lyrics.

Lust for the free life
Quashed and maimed
Like a valuable loved one
Left unnamed

But it seems his plane crashed, and his lust for a free life left him a cripple. Once again, then, he has to leave the life he has chosen, and leave his loved one behind.

Seems like another day
I could fly
Into the eye of god on high
Over the bushland over the trees
Wise like Orangutan that was me

So now he is once again reminiscing about the glorious past, the time when he was a pilot in Kenya. This is a bit like 'Always Crashing in the Same Car': he keeps going for those dangerous lifestyles, and they keep ending badly.

But while 'Always Crashing in a Same Car' was autobiographical and describing his situation at the time, 'African Night Flight' is more of a theatre piece. As a matter of fact, we have to consider that this is all merely a dream: the first line tells us it's a nightmare, another line tells us of a "struggle with a child who's screaming, dreaming" (as if the dream has taken us into a primordial baby state), and the jumbled-up images are very much like a dream. This is a "night flight", a dream that shows Bowie something about the life he chose to live. The fact that he describes it as a nightmare shows that, even in the midst of an album that celebrates a life of wandering and exploring new worlds, he's already thinking of changing and adopting a more stable lifestyle.

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