… social democracy has been unable to fill the vacuum left by the failure of the great communist hope. Does this mean, as many predict, that the hour of the churches has come? If this should turn out to be the case, I hope that there will be left on the earth at least a small handful of human beings—as at the end of antiquity—who will resist the temptation of divine omniscience, as others, in our day, have resisted that of revolutionary omniscience.
Octavio Paz, 1982, from One Earth, Four or Five Worlds
As indicated in songbook #20, the 9-11 interregnum, which I delineate as extending from that horrid day to around early 2004 (with the David Kay WMD report serving as the best bookend), was a time in which rock’s voice sounded hesitant, awkward, and particularly so about its normally ballyhooed radical tendencies.
The album that best captures the feeling of those days, particularly as it was felt by sensitive cultural progressivists (the term is James Davison Hunter’s), seems to have been David Bowie’s 2002 effort Heathen.
Musically, the album is on the weak side…kinda boring. The sound is a sort of textured techno, that while not as bleak as full-bore electronica (here it’s tempered by strings, choral backdrops, and a rock band) still feels like music from ultra-modern anywhere, albeit blended with certain distinctive tics of Bowie’s and a certain religious/angelic undertone employed for thematic purposes. And, bottom line, the songs are not very memorable(“Slip Away” and “5:15, Angels Have Gone” being exceptions ).
(Over at the Front Porch, you can find a fine examination of a much more popular –in part because more musical–“9-11 album,” Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, an album I was never very interested in.)
Lyrically, however, the album showed Bowie in fine form, subtly seeking to look back upon his own mythologized career and its relation to our cultural development, and much more obviously, seeking to meditate on what the post 9-11 situation should mean for us. The “us” in question here is not Americans, but moderns living anywhere—the setting is New York City, one of the main capitals of cosmopolitans, and yet a place genuinely dear to Bowie—a place where he learned what he needed to back in the day from Warhol, the Velvets, and drag-queens too, and a place where he spent a good deal of his more settled—as in off drugs and married–life in the 90s and 00s.
Unlike many rockers, Bowie always seemed alive to the fact that rock’s political impact cannot be a leftist one, not at least in any consistent way, but is more a matter of psychic/sexual liberation. One should enable as much compassionate left-leaning politics as one can, but there are limits to that politics, limits which caused Bowie and other rock stars to flee into Swiss tax asylum, for instance. The real revolution, the real cause and legacy, is the cultural one, which can be called “libertarian” (or liberal-tarian) in its devotion to individual autonomy above all else.
9-11 looked like it might deliver, coming at the heels of somewhat sick-making decade of self-indulgence, a serious set-back to that larger revolution, that had only just been consolidated. The attraction to the Nation, and more portentously, to God, had returned. The time was one of flags being flown and hymns being sung. And so Bowie was afraid, I think—one of the two chant-stanzas he put into his most explicitly 9-11-adressing song, “Sunday,” went as follows:
In your fear
Of what we have become
Take to the fire
Now we must burn
All that we are
Through these clouds
As on wings
From “take to the fire” on, that’s not Bowie speaking, but this 1st chant stanza, which is immediately answered by a 2nd on:
In your fear
Seek only peace
In your fear
Seek only love
So the first two lines interpret the rest of the 1st chant stanza’s message as being the result of fear. And what is the message? And who gives it? And who is it addressed to? Take the last question first. It is not the Islamist terrorists themselves, for this is a “we” that has reason to fear what it has become. That does not sound like the Al Qaida fear. Moreover, this same “we” in earlier verses has alluded to New Yorkers rushing to the site of the collapsed towers to look for survivors.
The message itself is one of repentance that involves purifying fire, perhaps meaning only fire-like pains, but very likely suggesting Savonarola-like bonfires of vanities. This repentance and purging is to be of a sort that will bring us together, that will allow us (angel-like, and perhaps phoenix-like) to rise above our currently frighteningly unhealthy way of life, the what we have become. Perhaps there is room for a more positive interpretation, but the likely Savonarola reference indicates that Bowie fears a revival with a puritanical and broadly anti-liberal impact. The hour of churches may have come.
As for the question of who gives the message, it is from a “you” that is part of the same “we” that the song refers to, and that Bowie really includes himself in. These are not foreign puritans, but our own puritan instincts bubbling up to the surface in a time of fear.
We can see there are some predictably condescending liberal-boomer notes sounded here, but I find a certain sincerity as well. Bowie is worried about 9-11 being a moment for new Savonarolas, but he is willing to address himself directly to those who might feel the pull of such repentance-preachers, as persons who really do have plausible reasons to fear what we have become. Persons who really are his persons, his “we.” 9-11 seems to have actually shaken Bowie a bit, to have made him wonder whether something about us had changed, whether the pattern in place since the late 60s might be about to reconfigure.
Of course, the most prominent verse of “Sunday” is a deliberate throw-back to the solid (or should I say “fluid”?) Heracleitean wisdom of Bowie’s most archetypal hit, 1971’s “Changes,” via a bank-shot off the clichés of late 2001:
For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed
That’s very much Bowie the elder statesman of the Counter-Culture*, calmly reminding us (yes, via that annoying pomo-avant employment of the simultaneous affirmation/denial ) of the way things are. Despite the pretenses made all over Heathen, especially through its packaging’s artwork, to ironically undermine both sides of the Culture Wars, one side is always ultimately affirmed. It can be no accident, for example, that the voicing of “everything has changed” sounds rather like “everything is change.” For that is Bowie’s philosophy.
Still, I can’t help returning to that what we’ve become line, and thus can’t help thinking that the “official” Bowie response to the 9-11, in some ways as smug as can be, was not quite as confident as it acted. As Paz feared “the hour of the churches” with the vanishing of the communist hope in 1982, I think Bowie may have similarly feared it in sensing how utterly petty the 1990s “liberal-tarian” lifestyle now seemed under the shadow of 9-11’s clouds. Rock had no torch to carry anymore, but only the elder’s duty of advising us to not overreact.
The album feels weary. Resigned. It’s as if we can hear Bowie saying, “I might come to be a symbol of a Heathen remnant. So it goes. But, probably not. I myself feel the longing for a change towards purity, towards the angelic, but, my head tells me that nothing will really change. The sort of Changes I championed and helped establish, but have long been bored with, will remain the status quo. I think.”
Let’s just say it’s not an album to inspire the youth by.
*Nowadays, either the establishment culture, or, if one goes by the Culture War paradigm, one half of the establishment culture in America.