Sometimes I felt the whole world was converging on this little room. And as I became more intoxicated and frustrated, I’d throw open the bedroom window as the dawn came up…I wanted my life to begin now, at this instant, just when I was ready for it.
The Buddha of Suburbia.
I spent so much time in my bedroom [in Bromley]. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player. Going from my world upstairs out onto the street, I had to pass through this no-man’s-land of the living room, you know, and out the front hall.
David Bowie, 1990.
Over seven minutes long, consisting of washes of synthesizer and slowed-down, reverse-tracked, treated piano and acoustic guitar passages that occasionally resemble melodies, “The Mysteries” likely prompted the FF button for some Buddha of Suburbia listeners. I admit I did this throughout the Nineties. It wasn’t until some depressive evening in the past decade when I heard this track again after a long absence; only then its humble, rationed beauty, its meager war against silence, finally caught me.
In the context of Buddha, “Mysteries” is an aural portrait of a suburban dreamer, a Hanif Kureishi or David Jones stuck in his room on some dreary Sunday, reading, staring at the magazine pages taped to the wall, listening to records on headphones, waiting for something to happen, thoughts floating and expiring like soap bubbles. Those who leave them call the suburbs soulless places, hives of conformity, and there’s some truth to the charge (but the same could be said for your typical urban hipster neighborhood). But this ignores a nourishing side of suburban life for the young: the freedom, time and space it provides for the imagination. Deprived of external stimuli, lacking anywhere to go, stuck in a small house where you can hear the rumble of your parents’ television through the wall, one outlet is daydreaming, idling the mind, planning fanciful escape routes and then, sometimes, turning to creative work.* It’s no coincidence that so many pop musicians have been suburban kids: the suburban misfit welcomes the future; he or she is nocked like an arrow towards it.
If the secret police ordered you to live in the suburbs for the rest of your life, what would you do? Kill yourself? Read? Almost every night I had nightmares and sweats. It was sleeping under that childhood roof which did it. Whatever fear of the future I had, I would overcome it; it was nothing to my loathing of the past.
So “The Mysteries” is a mind at roam, with its bed of synthesizer loops (making a constant double-tracked wash of sound, with some high whistles and “foghorns” appearing in the later minutes—another, lower-mixed loop sounds like a choir) as the droning background of everyday life. Bowie slowed the original tape, which, like “South Horizon,” was derived from a motif used on the Buddha TV series. This “open[ed] up the thick texture dramatically,” leaving room for Erdal Kizilcay to “play the thematic information against it.” The information was phased or reverse-tracked piano and, after two minutes, acoustic guitar: on “Mysteries” these lead instruments offer just brief forays of thought, fraying strings of sound, never developing or expanding on any initial observations; their progress always falls back after a handful of notes, repeating a pattern again or starting a new one just as tentatively, just as fruitlessly.**
Of Bowie’s past work, “Mysteries” is closest to “Moss Garden” (the acoustic guitar here in place of the koto), an instrumental track that seems symphonic compared with the melodic aridity of “Mysteries.” But there’s a lovely yearning in the latter’s absences and in its few presences. The descending three-note motif that appears five times on the track becomes, with each repetition, increasingly more powerful and resonant—its last appearance, late in the track (5:52), rings in triumph.
The title could have come from anywhere: for example, it could be a reference to Philip Glass’ Mysteries and What’s So Funny (1990). I’d like to imagine it calls back to a wonderful line Bowie said in The Man Who Fell to Earth: “[Television] shows you everything about life on Earth, but the mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s the nature of television.” The mysteries aren’t shown, but just are; they are simply whatever falls between what we do: the corpuscles of our imaginations.
Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Misprinted as “The Mysterie” on the most recent US CD issue of Buddha.
* I realize this statement dates me as someone from the last generation to grow up without the Internet.
** Paul Trynka’s bio said the track was sampled from “an Austrian classical work,” which doesn’t really narrow the alleged source down too well: Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, the Strausses and Schoenberg all could fit the bill. I’m guessing the reference is to the Second Viennese School of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, but even their starkest pieces have more flesh on the bone than “Mysteries” does. Any ideas?
Top: Olga Schlyter, “Moscow, November 7, 1993.”