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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Ashes to Ashes

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The seventies were Bowie's decade, the decade to which he was what the Beatles and Bob Dylan were to the sixties. He ended the seventies with the album Lodger, which showed him in a happy place, seemingly solving all the problems he dealt with and settling into his identity as a changer and a mover. And yet, the album that opens the next decade introduces a new crisis. Scary Monsters shows him feeling like he is no longer part of youth culture, like he doesn't understand the musical scene of 1980, like he doesn't know where to go next. When you dig deeper, you realize that his triumph is also the source of this crisis: since he is now content with his existence, he no longer feels that drive to break out of it. He no longer feels alienated like he did when he was younger, and that is why he can no longer connect to the feelings of the alienated youth. As we know, when Bowie encounters such a crisis he turns to self-reflection, to see what it is in his mind that he has to change. As we further know, the records in which he does it are often amongst his greatest classics, and 'Ashes to Ashes' is no exception.

The music gets you first. Tony Visconti's instant flanger transforms Roy Bittan's piano into a strange phrase of wobbly sounds that opens the track and throws us right into outer space, and the staunch trio Alomar-Murray-Davis then picks it up with another inspired performance, keeping us in the futuristic landscape with the help of Andy Clark's synthesizer. It sounds good, but the wobbly piano riff hints that not all is well. When Bowie starts singing, his voice sounds strenuous.

Do you remember a guy that's been
In such an early song
I've heard a rumor from Ground Control
(Oh no, don't say it's true)

"Do you recall a girl that's been in nearly every song" sang Buddy Holly in 'Peggy Sue Got Married', "I just heard a rumor from a friend / I don't say that it's true /…/ Peggy Sue got married not long ago." Peggy Sue is of course the girl from Holly's earlier hit record, his old flame, but now we are heartbroken to hear that she went and married someone else. This was one of the earliest sequel records in rock'n'roll, where we got a report on a character we met in an earlier record. Bowie's paraphrasing of Holly gives us a hint that we're now about to meet a character from his early records. Who could that character be?

Well, if the rumor comes from Ground Control, there can be only one answer. After eleven years of desolation, Ground Control has been awoken, because Major Tom reestablished contact. Major Tom was Bowie's first mythical creation, and 'Space Oddity' was the first record to express his desire to leave the alienated and meaningless suburban existence in favor of a more exciting existence. For eleven years, Major Tom has been doing his thing in outer space, taking Bowie and his fans on a fantastic voyage through different otherworldly places. But now he reconnects with Ground Control, reconnects with mainstream society. What does he have to tell us?

They got a message from the Action Man
"I'm happy, hope you're happy too
I've loved all I've needed to love
Sordid details following"

Apparently, he is happy. He managed to live the life he wanted, went through many exciting phases, experienced all the wild experiences the time had to offer, and scored incredible artistic triumphs. Now he comes back to tell us about it, and we can't wait to hear all the sordid details of his affairs and deeds.

The shrieking of nothing is killing
Just pictures of Jap girls in synthesis and I
Ain't got no money and I ain't got no hair
But I'm hoping to kick but the planet it's glowing

This is not what we expected to hear. He told us he was happy, but the deion doesn't sound happy at all. It sounds like he is living in a vacuum where everything is fake and meaningless, and he is nothing but a lonely bum who is falling apart. How do we settle this contradiction between "I'm happy" and this abysmal deion?

There can be only one answer: Major Tom is lying to himself. That part of Bowie's psyche that is convinced that the only way to happiness is to live outside of society and go from one total existence to another does not feel real to him anymore. As long as Bowie felt alienated, Tom was still relevant, still the figure behind all the other figures he created. But now, Bowie feels complete, happy with where he is at, so Major Tom loses his appeal and his meaning. Bowie himself is happy, yes, but this happiness now comes from being part of human society, the very thing Major Tom stood against. So Major Tom's claim to happiness is not something he can identify with at the moment. Now, his old hero looks to him like a lonely miserable sod drifting in a sea of nothingness.

In the vacuum that Major Tom is floating in, his voice becomes multiplied and creates echoes in his head. This echo mostly just repeats what he is singing, but occasionally it becomes independent and adds other things. When he sings "the shrieking of nothing is killing" the voice is saying "you shrieking nothing killing", which raises the suspicion that the voice is Bowie's voice, a kind of super-ego that berates his creation Major Tom and tells him that he is the problem. In one part the voice goes "no everlasting aesthetic... songs that please the ear and leave the mind alone", blaming Tom for driving Bowie to write songs that have no substance because they no longer represent what he feels inside. And in the end it concludes "an outdated concept of falling", showing that Bowie has now completely divorced himself even from the logic that made Major Tom possible. The concept of "falling" is a Christian concept, representing the belief that the human condition is the condition of someone who fell from a higher world to a lower one and is driven by the aspiration to return to the higher plane of existence. Bowie, it seems, believes now that Major Tom sprang out of this urge to escape society and find the supposedly higher world, and that this concept of "falling" is outdated and should be discarded. Being an integral part of human society is not a "falling" state, but a happy and content state; which means that Major Tom had no reason to exist in the first place.

The problem is that Tom is still a major part of his psyche, and thus a hindrance to his current happiness. He still has that urge in him to discover new worlds, he still sees other planets glowing in the distance and beckoning him to try and reach them. But now, suddenly, this urge no longer feels to him like a positive driving force, but like an unsavory addiction. He hopes to kick this habit, but Major Tom is still such a powerful part of him that he finds it hard to resist.

Time and again I tell myself
I'll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh no, not again
I'm stuck with a valuable friend
"I'm happy, hope you're happy too"
One flash of light
But no smoking pistol

This verse expands on the idea that Major Tom, the "valuable friend" he is stuck with, is no more than a dangerous addiction. Bowie draws from his experience as a drug addict to depict this condition, singing like a man who is in a really anguished and pathetic state. He used to think that trailblazing a path in outer-space, in a place where no other man had gone before, was the key to happiness. Now he sees it as nothing more than misery and loneliness. The glowing planets turn out to be nothing but flashes of light with no substance behind them.

I never done good things
I never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue

Tom's singing sounds a little more confident now. Actually, I don't think it is him singing – it is Bowie, as the man behind Major Tom. And Bowie is assuring us that he never did anything out of the blue: all of his character changes were calculated, part of his chosen lifestyle of ch-ch-ch-changes. But now that he looks backwards and judges what he achieved in his decade of flying in outer-space, he deems it as neither good nor bad – in other words, it was meaningless. Life outside of society now seems hollow to him. And so…

I Want an axe to break the ice
Wanna come down right now

Bowie is through living outside of society, flying above or below the human race – it just doesn't excite him anymore. He wants to break out of his cool detachment, he wants to come down to Earth and live among other people. But this will require violent action: he will have to kill part of his psyche in order to be a sociable person. And that part of his psyche has a name.

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom's a junkie
Strung out in heaven's high
Hitting an all-time low

Every Bowie character dies at the end, and now Major Tom's time has come. But when he killed Ziggy and the other characters, it was Major Tom who was the assassin: he killed those other characters because he always wanted to move on and explore other worlds. Major Tom has been Bowie's formula to a happy life, his most enduring character. But now, to remain happy, he must get rid of him. Major Tom is branded a junkie, a person strung in a vacuous existence, and therefore as someone who should be killed and buried.

My mama said
To get things done
You'd better not mess
With Major Tom

Bowie realizes what it means: by denouncing Major Tom, he has come over to his mother's side, he has become a grownup. It's not that messing with Major Tom was a mistake. The kind of lifestyle he chose was the correct lifestyle for the age of youth, the age when you are still searching for your place in the world and struggling to assert yourself. But once you have reached the stage when you feel comfortable with who and where you are, it's time to stop running away from yourself. The identity crisis of Scary Monsters was the result of him refusing to accept that he is no longer a youth, that he has finally reached the moment he once warned of: "look out you rock'n'rollers / Pretty soon now you're gonna get older". For someone who grew up in rock'n'roll, getting "older" than youth seemed like the most awful thing that could happen. But it has happened, and Bowie realizes that to solve his current identity crisis he must accept it and embrace it. At the age of thirty-three, Bowie has finally become an adult.

'Space Oddity' ended with Bowie's stylophone representing Major Tom's drifting away into outer space. Here we have a similar effect, provided by Chuck Hammer's guitar ending. Hammer, whose expertise was playing guitar manipulated by synthesizers, was recruited by Bowie to provide the lines that close the track and serve as Major Tom's requiem. As we hear his magical notes, it sounds more like the spirit of Major Tom leaving Bowie's body, rising into the heavens, getting further and further away from us, and then gone.

'Ashes to Ashes' is one of Bowie's most momentous records, and rightly considered one of his best. The only thing that could make this record any better was a groundbreaking video that would revolutionize pop music's visual side. And, guess what…

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