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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Absolute Beginners

***This post is the last in my 'Analyzing Bowie' project, at least for now. After this record, Bowie's art turns to other themes and becomes significantly different. I may analyze it in the future, but for now, this is the final installment. I hope you've enjoyed***

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Absolute Beginners is a 1959 novel written by British author Colin MacInnes, one of the first books to take a positive outlook on the new generation of rock'n'roll kids. As other authors were writing about the decline of Great Britain, MacInnes (who was forty five at the time) took to heart the youthful energy and zeal of the budding youth culture. His book revolves around a young London kid, and early Mod, who sees his generation as the harbinger of a new and better world that will replace the stale and boring world that previous generations have created. But it ends in a sense of failure: the race riots of 1958, when white working-class kids (mostly Teddy Boys) attacked black immigrant kids, destroy that sense of camaraderie that he feels to his entire generation. It becomes a lost opportunity to create something better.

In the mid-1980s, at the height of Thatcherist Britain and Reaganist America, many in pop culture felt the same sense of bitter failure. The promise of the sixties turned sour, and seemed to have only brought a more egotistical and cynical world. What was worse, rock seemed to have lost its way, to be unable to change the situation it helped create. Several movies of the time went back to the 1950s, to figure out where the rock'n'roll generation went wrong and how this outcome could have been avoided. Young British director Julien Temple found the story of Absolute Beginners relevant again, and created a movie that took place in the fifties but was actually conveying the feeling of 1986. When Bowie was offered to take part in the project he enthusiastically jumped in, contributed his knowledge of the era, played a small but significant role and wrote a couple of songs for the soundtrack. The end result is a bit of a mess, a movie that has a bit too much youthful energy to the point where it loses coherency and emotionality, and wasn't a successful film. But it was all worth it for one thing, and that is Bowie's theme song. Because 'Absolute Beginners' is not just a classic Bowie record, it is also one of the greatest turnaround records of his career.

I've nothing much to offer
There's nothing much to take
I'm an absolute beginner
And I'm absolutely sane
As long as we're together
The rest can go to hell
I absolutely love you
But we're absolute beginners
With eyes completely open
But nervous all the same

Bowie takes the title "absolute beginners" to write about something else than the subject matter of the movie, but something that we have heard from him many times before: the fleeting nature of love. We have seen Bowie finding a solution to all the conundrums his art dealt with since his youth, except for this one. The discrepancy between the wish for love to last and the knowledge that it never does has always imbued his art with a strong tragic feeling, and he could never find a way to resolve it. In his work from 1977 onward he seemed to have just accepted it, and it seems to be the case here as well. His protagonists, like those of '"Heroes"', are aware that their love is doomed, but they don't care: they are a couple that just fell in love, absolute beginners of a new relationship, and they are determined to commit to it. Their eyes are open to the fact that their love will eventually die, but they don't care. They are going to try to make it work.

If our love song
Could fly over mountains
Could laugh at the ocean
Just like the films
There's no reason
To feel all the hard times
To lay down the hard lines
It's absolutely true

Their love has enormous obstacles facing it, but the boy is not deterred. We've heard this sentiment before, but the romantic language that the boy is using is one we've never heard Bowie use before when he sang about love. Love always seemed so precious and feeble when he sang about it in the past, but here he sings about its power to climb mountains and traverse oceans. The boy believes that if they stay together they can face anything and defeat it.

Nothing much could happen
Nothing we can't shake
Oh we're absolute beginners
With nothing much at stake
As long as you're still smiling
There's nothing more I need
I absolutely love you
But we're absolute beginners
But if my love is your love
We're certain to succeed

What's this? This is something we've really never heard before. Is Bowie actually telling us that love can succeed??

If our love song
Could fly over mountains
Sail over heartaches
Just like the films
There's no reason
To feel all the hard times
To lay down the hard lines
It's absolutely true

The final chorus leaves no doubt: Bowie has changed his mind. True, it is possible to read these words as another slice of irony – love can win only in films, not in real life. It is possible that Bowie even wrote it this way. But as he sings it, all traces of irony disappear. We are hearing Bowie opening up his heart, riding the pathos of the music, embracing the power of love. It is one of the most moving performances of his recording career.

Why this sudden change? What is the intellectual solution that Bowie has found that made him believe in eternal love again? There isn't one. Contrary to all the other existential problems we've seen him overcome in the past, this one seems to have been solved not by his intellect but purely by virtue of his emotional maturing. He always regarded love as youngsters do, as the powerful infatuations you feel when you first connect with someone. Those infatuations don't last, so Bowie's conclusion was that love doesn't last. But once he matured and started to appreciate steady growth more than radical ch-ch-ch-changes, he opened up to a different kind of love, a love that can grow. Such a love can withstand the changes that lovers undergo and find ways to always bridge the gaps that sometimes form between them, it can sail over the heartaches it sometimes causes and keep on going. When love is strong, it can last a lifetime.

And so, Bowie goes back on everything he said about love in the past, against all those times he claimed love is a fleeting thing, against 'An Occasional Dream', 'Soul Love', 'Aladdin Sane', 'Sweet Thing', 'Young Americans', '"Heroes"', 'Let's Dance' and all those other records that told us love never lasts. If our love is strong enough, it can withstand everything. It can last forever. It can win.

'Absolute Beginners' brings to resolution the final problem that still remained from Bowie's early work. From here on he will struggle to find new themes, and for a while stay away from his classic material. He will not sing this song for years. But then, in 2000, he resurrected 'Absolute Beginners' in performance, and it was so good to hear these chords again.

 

The End

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