Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 116, David Bowie, “Changes”

My Philosophic Interpretation of the Song, and Steve Turner’s Critical Interpretation of the Career

Around the internet over the last couple of weeks there surely have been contributions by various scribblers who agree with me that David Bowie mattered, although most of them would probably reject my argument that he mattered most of all for symbolizing some of the unhealthier tendencies of our modern autonomous freedom, ones glimpsed more than two millennia ago in Plato’s intriguing account of the change-loving Democratic Soul

I haven’t searched systematically for such essays—readers are invited to make recommendations—and the only truly substantial contribution I’ve come across is “The Hole in Bowie’s Soul” by the great (and Christian) rock journalist/critic Steve Turner.  Originally an unpublished response to Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day, the piece was put out there by StereoSubversion’s Matt Conner. Turner used the occasion to reflect on Bowie’s entire career—he presented him as an astute but essentially non-committal lyrical artist:

…[Bowie] was very keen on the ideas of Andy Warhol who purported to want to distance himself from his art by eliminating personality and viewpoint. “It’s not what you are that counts,” Warhol once said. “It’s what they think you are.” …

This very lack of opinion became, I believe, the key to Bowie’s art. Near contemporaries like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen developed style that was consistent with their political, moral or spiritual substance. Bowie just developed style. He made such a virtue out the packaging that conversation about him centered on costumes rather than content.

(I’m reminded of this sour lyric from one of Bowie’s sorrier songsI am a DJ, I am what I play…I’ve got believers, believing me.)

His lyrics reveal little of what the author believes, thinks or feels. They are opaque not because of profound and complex poetry but because they are fragmentary and imprecise. In the mid-1970s he latched onto the cut-up method of composition pioneered by artist-poet Brion Gysin and beat novelist William Burroughs. This involved physically slicing up texts and putting the pieces back together in arbitrary sequences.

This suited Bowie well because it avoided the demands of linear logic and enabled him to bury his thoughts. He cut up his own lyrics and rearranged them in random order so that all of the original meaning was destroyed.

A very interesting interpretation.  RTWT.  I trust Turner’s instincts (his respectful and yet quite insightful book The Gospel According to The Beatles taught me much about Lennon’s views on religion), and thus am prepared to accept his reading as to some degree correct.  Correct, that is, about much of Bowie’s work, and especially from the mid-70s on.  But if it’s completely correct, then my own efforts to grasp what Bowie was up to are something of a waste of time.  And I find it hard to square it with a number of insights I think one can gain from his songs, including a number of the later ones, and with the fact that the song he actually wrote about Andy Warhol is largely a criticism. 

The song’s first stanza is not about generational change, but about that experienced by one’s self—the song’s “narrator” reflects upon his life:

I still don’t know what I was waiting for,

and my time was running wild,

a million dead-end streets.

Every time I thought I’d got it made

it seemed the taste

was not so sweet.

So I turned myself to face me,

but I’ve never caught a glimpse

of how the others must see the faker,

I’m much too fast to take that test

The first ch-ch-changes chorus goes on to disclaim wanting to be a richer man and to resolve to just be a different man, and concludes that

Time may change me,

but I can’t trace time

While the song can be taken as prophesying Bowie’s entire career, in this stanza the narrator appears to fit Bowie’s pre-Ziggy situation rather well.  He is very ambitious, wanting the “sweetness” of “having it made,” but then denying that his ambition can be reduced to a desire for wealth.  He is trying out various things that prove to be “dead ends,” is worried about “waiting” too long, and apparently knows he is regarded by some as a “faker” due to his experiments.

The narrator takes this charge of inauthenticity seriously, and not as an unavoidable price of show-biz.  His self-respect is at stake, his person apparently intimately linked to the roles he plays on and off stage as an aspiring star.  He “turns to face” himself, using the language advocated by the chorus, and acquits himself.  Or does he?  One on hand, what the others “must see” is slurred enough to sound like “miss-see,” and he never catches “a glimpse” in himself of fakery; but on the other hand, since he apparently refuses to slow down for a thorough self-examination, it may be he deliberately hasn’t looked carefully enough.  The suggestion seems to be that such scrupulous introspection is unhealthy.  It will cause one to miss one’s chances, to fall behind one’s “time…running wild,” as indeed the 60s/70s were.  More fundamentally, it is fruitless, because the self’s changes are caused by “time” which “can’t be traced,” so that, as the Heraclitean/quasi-Buddhist stanza quoted above teaches, there is no permanent self which one can remain true to.  One can only be authentic to the self that honestly reflects where the times are leading it. 

Turner reports that he “interviewed him at his home in 1972, just as Ziggy Stardust was birthed, and when I asked him about it he seemed to view himself as a mere product of the times and happy to be so. His skill, as he saw it, was to faithfully reflect changing mores. ‘I’m carried along,’ he told me. ‘I’m carried along by the current of energy I feel in the environment in which I exist.’”  

Or as the only stand-alone couplet of the song puts it:

Strange fascination, fascinating me.

Changes are taking the pace I’m going through.

So the paradox at the center of “Changes” is this combination of restlessness with passivity. This suggests several things. Since the combination cannot but bring to mind Plato’s picture of the Democratic Soul letting itself be led willy-nilly by its various desires, we see that “Changes” does not challenge my application of Plato’s teaching to Bowie so much as fill it out, by showing us that democratic man is naturally drawn to Heraclitean and pantheistic philosophy, and that such philosophy fits well with the Warholian suggestion that all the world is, and ought to be more obviously so, a stage for role-playing. 

Could a song in which the singer suggests why he is given to role-playing be itself another instance of his playing a role?  It’s not impossible, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  Thematically, “Changes” is structured in three parts, the first taking the personal perspective on change, the second the philosophic, and the third the generational.  But the couplet above and the final reprise of “I can’t trace time” show that the personal perspective remains interwoven throughout.  It is most unlikely that this confessional side of the song was essentially a pose, which is what a ham-handed application of Turner’s interpretation of Bowie’s whole career to this one song might assume. Turner himself only speaks of what Bowie’s art became under the influence of Warhol and then the cut-up method.

What is most obvious is that the song is meant to be reassuring, to rest our troubled 1971 souls beside a “stream of warm impermanence,” even as it also means to deliver us from various hang-ups and hesitations into a truer acceptance of freedom.  The singer knows that many of us know he’s the guy who posed for an album cover wearing a dress, and that some of us familiar with his albums and publicity would know yet more about his suggestions regarding sexual experimentation.  He’s telling us we have to embrace such freedom, strange and threatening as it presently seems.

And yet, the song is also rather deterministic.  The times change you, not you the times.  Lou Reed once said that Andy Warhol taught him that “you could be anyone.”  But the Heraclitean Warholian would say we are free, and yet we are not free, to take on any role.  What I mean is that according to the philosophy hinted at in the song, Bowie’s changes had to be—he tried to and really did “change his world,” but his actions and changes occurred only in the way his body/brains/times preordained.  He was “carried along.” As were the many other thousands of his generation who caused the Revolution.

How odd, then, that in “Changes” Bowie is judgmental towards anyone who tries to better her world by calling upon others to resist a change—he portrays such a person as one who “spits” on the idealistic young.  But isn’t such a person’s stance, which if purged of any purely reactive or envious motives we might call the “conservative” one, also preordained?  Why judge her for it?  And if, as Bowie suggests here, such a stance cannot be separated from reactionary bile, where is our license to judge even that, if it also is preordained?  Now of course, the free-will v. determinism issue is one that can make any of us throw up our hands, but still, we can easily see that the determinism present in “Changes” is tilted to one side, ratifying Bowie’s and his generation’s pursuit of change but condemning others’ resistance to it. 

Isn’t it appropriate to label such a tilt as “democratic” in the sense indicated by Plato?  And aren’t we democratic in this sense too, insofar as change really proves to be our highest value?  And if we endorse a philosophic stance similar to the Heraclitean one, regarding the self as, say, “a centreless web of historically conditioned beliefs and desires”(Richard Rorty), doesn’t this fascination reveal a desire to “act out” freedom while actually regarding it as an illusion?  If so, however much we warm to slogans like Love and Imagine and Question and Change, our real maxim proves to be this:

Pantomime Freedom!

That, my friends, was (and is) the Revolution’s deepest imperative, and especially for those like Bowie who not only could not put fundamental faith in Leftism, but who strongly suspected, contrary to all their Jim-Morrison-like longings, that there was no fundamentally higher or deeper other side which one might in any way break on through to.

Some final speculative thoughts regarding Steve Turner’s interpretation.  I think that initially Bowie was as sincere as he could be about this quest of illusion-exploration, i.e., the quest where one throws oneself into whatever cultural currents would most allow one to “trace” the Idea of Freedom.  For Bowie, the freedom permitted and mandated by what I have called “Full Modernity” had only just arrived on the scene and was yet to be fully explored.  He signed up as a lead explorer, and from an LGBT perspective, or an experimental music perspective—to mention only two such areas–he did have a part in blazing trails to greater popular acceptance of what was once “alien.”

But what matters even more is that while surely suspecting that free will was an illusion, he acted as if hyperbolically mimicking the motions and variety of our imagistic idea of Freedom was the closest thing we had left to a quest for the Ultimate.  Bowie’s questing after this was why “Changes” was able to speak both to who we and he were becoming as the 1970s began, and why his career of change-embodiment was both culturally and personally revealing. 

However, scores of roles, and thousands of drug-highs and bed-mates later, Bowie likely was psychically drained, and perhaps did beat a retreat into lyrical opacity and non-committal observation in the way Turner’s interpretation suggests.  He had correctly seen, and before most, that the Revolution was less leftist and more fundamentally “liberal-tarian” at heart, but he had nothing compelling to stand for once he had displayed in his own art and life what its freedom was when fully realized, or at least, fully symbolized.  Part of the symbolization, to speak in Platonic terms, was taking his own life as far into the dark and tyrannical inclinations of the advanced democratic soul as might still permit a return trip to non-frenzied, non-suicidal, and dutifully egalitarian life.  It seems his escape from the darker sides of the modern soul required both the “Berlin retreat” and eventually, the monogamous marriage to the Somalian-bred (and still apparently theistic and officially Muslim) model Iman.  However, once he and we knew he would not end up as a “rock n’ roll suicide” or as a genuinely scary hero-guru of quasi-fascist tendencies, his claim to speak for our stranger desires waned, and–if the partial adjustment of Turner’s interpretation that I’m sketching here is right–once he decided he would not or could not reflect in his lyrics upon the journey he had been through, his career’s main claim upon our attention was given up. 

Against the grain of Turner’s interpretation, I say that here and there Bowie could still speak to the times in his personal key—both “China Girl’s” recourse to an embrace of the non-Western “innocent” as a balm for civilizational/personal exhaustion, and “Sunday’s” reactive response to a feared post-9/11 turning to Biblical religion come to mind as such statements—but perhaps Turner is right that he was nonetheless caught in the trap of his own making.  He had made no commitments other than to art generally, to “times-channeling,” and to a totalistic freedom that he was no longer even pretending to live out.  That, coupled with the fact that like almost every other liberal-boomer culture leader, he would not publically engage in sustained second thoughts about his revolutionary activity in the days of yore and its present-day outcomes, meant that he just didn’t have that much to say.

Maybe such an interpretation is right.  I hope not, although unlike Turner, I haven’t tried to tackle the whole body of Bowie’s work.  Until reading Turner, I had just assumed that there would be ample lyrical riches in most of the post-Let’s Dance songs which would be reflective about his life and times, whatever their musical shortcomings.  This assumption was to some degree based upon what I heard in 2002’s Heathen album.  But having read Turner’s piece, I’m not so sure of that assumption.  Turner says, “I fear that what his fans may interpret as enigmatic is merely evidence of an inability or unwillingness to articulate an argument.”  Maybe that is a judgment that should be mainly limited to The Next Day, and maybe he is just missing something fundamental, an error which began with a certain underestimation of the earlier songs. The jury’s still out for me, but something about it seems intuitively correct, even while I would highlight more than Turner does Bowie’s various stabs at big statements, such as the other ones on Hunky Dory  which I’ll be looking at next.

In any case, while it would go too far to say that “Changes” will remain “one for the ages,” it certainly will remain one that best captures the anti-committal commitment to freedom that has characterized our age.

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