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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Kingdom Come

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After the three Berlin albums which consisted entirely of original material, Scary Monsters sees Bowie going back to cover other artists' material. But there is a novelty. Whereas before he would cover artists who influenced him, paying them homage, here is the first time that he covers someone from the new generation, the generation that was influenced by him. He will often do it from here on, as a way to advance these new artists and also as a way to stay connected to the current scene. The first track to do this is 'Kingdom Come', by one of the premier songwriters of punk and new wave, Tom Verlaine.

Well, I walked in the pouring rain
And I heard the voice that cries it's all in vain
The face of doom was shining in my room
I just need one day somewhere far away
Lord, I just need one day.

Verlaine paints a picture of a meaningless life which the singer is stuck in. He wishes he could have just one day in a different kind of existence, but it seems that his wishes are in vain. He is doomed to remain in this miserable existence.

The river's so muddy, but it may come clear
And I know too well what's keeping me here
I'm just a slave of a burning ray
Give me the night, I can't take another sight
Please give me the night.

His life isn't just meaningless, it is painful. He lives under a burning ray, and he wishes for night – that is, for an existence where he can no longer feel the pain and can no longer see the horrors he's seeing now. He is wishing for death, because it is better than this kind of existence.

Well I'll be breaking these rocks until the Kingdom comes
And I'll be cuttin' this hay until the Kingdom comes
Yes, I'll be breaking these rocks until the Kingdom comes
It's my price to pay until the Kingdom comes.

On top of that, it is an existence of never ending hard toil. The chorus makes it quite obvious that Verlaine is singing about what he perceives as the human condition, and he perceives it in very Christian terms. In Christian thought, human existence is regarded as a valley of sorrow which one must go through in order to get to heaven. In this view, there is no meaning to our life on Earth: you just suffer and work hard until Kingdom Come. Verlaine, it seems, it totally subscribed to this point of view.

But Bowie isn't, as we well know, so why did he choose to cover this track? Well, first of all, it reflects quite well the feeling which we find on other tracks of the album, the feeling that once he worked out all his problems he doomed himself to a meaningless existence. Bowie has become the thing he always dreaded, a grownup, and found out that it isn't so bad. This track might be his way to mock his old fears, to ironically sing a song about life being a meaningless wasteland. While Verlaine is completely serious, Bowie's singing sounds a little cheeky, as if he is making fun of the song.

There is something else in his singing. Bowie, after all, does not regard earthly existence as meaningless, and while he is very aware of the suffering and toil of life he also sees the joy and the beauty in it. So while Verlaine's performance transmits only pain and despair, Bowie's also has ecstasy and fun on top of them. More tellingly, he drops the "until the Kingdom come" refrain from the chorus, and sounds happy about the thought that he will always have to break rocks. Bowie is not waiting for salvation - he believes humans will forever have to break rocks and cut hay. But the meaning and joy of life, as he has shown in the past, come from overcoming obstacles, so the thought that we will always have rocks to break is actually a thought we should rejoice in. Rocks can be turned into crystals, hay can be turned into gold. The good in life supersedes the bad.

The sun keeps beating down, the wall's a mile high
Up in the towers they're watching me, hoping I'm gonna die

The picture becomes clearer now: the singer is in a prison, serving time with hard labor. Again, this is a metaphor for human life, which for the Christian is like being enslaved in a prison of flesh and dreaming of being free in Heaven.

But they'll open these cells when the Kingdom comes
I won't be breaking no rocks when the Kingdom comes
Yes, they'll open these cells when the Kingdom comes
I won't hear their talk when the Kingdom comes
I'm going up for a pardon when the Kingdom comes
Well pardon me, when the Kingdom comes
I won't be breaking no rock
I won't be breaking no rock
I won't be breaking no rock
When the Kingdom comes.

The singer now thinks about the day of salvation, when he will be freed and will not have to break rocks anymore. This is the thought that sustains him in Verlaine's version. In Bowie's version, it is merely an afterthought. Only as the record draws to its end does he acknowledge the possibility of kingdom come, and it isn't at all certain that he is happy about this possibility. At one part he sings something inaudible which sounds like "hope those above will pardon me", as if he is actually afraid of that day. Verlaine's version maintains the old Christian way of thinking within rock music. Bowie's cover deconstructs it, signaling that it is time we've moved on from that way of thinking.

Verlaine's original:

Bowie's version:

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