A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.
Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.
“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.
The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.
“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.
The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.
“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.
Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.
Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.
Would really like to know who’s were the voices in the background “he followed me home mummy can we keep him”
I was supposedly born in Paisley in Scotland, but my real birthplace is this song.
brillantly put – I feel similarly
I have only just found time to wonder away from where I originally first arrived on this blog. Thought I’d start with one of my all time favourite special Bowie songs, one which has been an inspiration for ideas, and also now reminds me of someone sadly departed.
They used it well in ‘Cracked Actor’ documentary.
I always hoped he might revive it live, but maybe there is still time…?
Don’t know why, but this is one of his early songs that I’ve always adored. And I don’t like most of TMWSTW album – but this one rises above most of the album. Good stuff.
I’m an amateur folk singer, and one of my reactions to the news was to wonder if I could mark it with one of his songs the next time I’m out. But I sing unaccompanied, which works fine for traditional songs but rarely works well for contemporary material. Of all his songs – at least, up to Tonight, which is where I tuned out – this is probably the one that would work best. I’ll see how it goes.
This song is beautiful.
Beautiful, tender, sad, elusive depth or obscure hindsight…
Another Bowie gem.
It just haunted my mind at a time when a friend of mine who loves her only child, a 18 years old son, struggles with the fact that he came out as gay. She grieves her never-to-be grand children and feels she did something wrong. I heard the chorus “after all” playing in my mind and had to play it loud a few times to release my sadness –I love my friend.
By the way, the expression “by Jingo” may be traced as far back as to at least the 17th century in a transparent euphemism for “by Jesus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_Jingo