Quicksand

Quicksand (demo).
Quicksand (LP).
Quicksand (live, 1973).
Quicksand (with Robert Smith, 1997).
Quicksand (live, 1997).
Quicksand (live,2004).

Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

David Foster Wallace, 2005.

“Quicksand” is sugar-coated poison: a lushly-arranged, lovely tune about despair and delusion, with Nazi references, and whose chorus tells its listeners to give up all hope. Compare it to another song recorded in 1971—John Lennon’s hippie standard “Imagine,” of which Lennon later claimed “[it’s an] anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.” True enough, but “Imagine” also flatters its listeners by inviting them to be part of the elect, those who have no need of God or countries, those who have transcended the pettiness of life.

“Quicksand” offers no such assurances and has no community. Its singer could be a madman on the verge of total collapse, or someone (like the heroine of “Life on Mars?”) sitting a theater seat and being bombarded with ceaseless, awful images. The lyric suggests that life’s not only an illusion but one whose purpose will never be revealed, regardless of your religion, your guru or your imagination. “Knowledge comes with death’s release” is its only positive statement.

The lyric is also a look into the cluttered mind of David Bowie, age 24, as we get references to Aleister Crowley, The Order of the Golden Dawn, film stars*, Nietzschean overmen, and Buddhism (“you can tell me all about it in the next Bardo). What’s new, and what seems a natural if unpleasant progression from Bowie’s Nietzsche obsession, is the reference to Heinrich Himmler (and the odd line about “Churchill’s lies”) and the “sacred” Nazi realm of mythology. This will culminate in Bowie’s open flirtation with Nazi imagery in the mid-’70s and in Station to Station, which is arguably his fascist record.

Still, the lyric’s coldness and sense of despair are kept in check by the song’s structure (it moves from G in the first verse up to A in the second, where it stays for the chorus) and the gorgeousness of the recording. Compare Bowie’s studio demo to the finished track, and you hear how much Bowie, Mick Ronson and producer Ken Scott softened the song: Bowie moderated the harsh acoustic guitar strumming of the demo to a quieter, more intricate performance (for example, Bowie now arpeggiates two lines of the verse), while vibes now accompany Bowie’s guitar from the start. Ronson’s string arrangement and Rick Wakeman’s piano alternate in providing counter-melodies in the verse and in linking choruses and verses together.

Hunky Dory was Scott’s first job as a solo producer, and he would stay on to produce most of Bowie’s glam-era records (the two had only a professional relationship, with Bowie later describing Scott as being a “suit and tie” type who went home to his wife every night). Scott was part of the generation of producers who had cut their teeth at Abbey Road under the Beatles and George Martin (along with Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick, Chris Thomas). He had just come off George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which he engineered under Phil Spector, and took from that record the Spectorian trick of massively overlaying instruments (both live in the studio and via overdubs)—so there are something like seven acoustic guitars alone on “Quicksand.”

Recorded June-August 1971 (the studio demo was included on the Ryko reissue of Hunky Dory). Bowie played “Quicksand” as part of a medley in 1973, and then retired it for over two decades until 1997, when he recorded a new version for the BBC and began performing it on stage again.

*Like everyone else, I’ve assumed the “Garbo” referenced in the lyric is Greta, but Wikipedia, citing a Mojo article that I’ve not read, says that it’s actually a reference to the WWII British double-agent Juan Pujol, code-name Garbo. If true, this wins the most obscure reference to date in Bowie’s catalog.

Top: Sean Hickin, “Mouth organist, Tottenham Court Rd., ca. 1971.”

20 Responses to Quicksand

  1. Maj says:

    What a great, depressing song. I agree the arrangement is grand but still, even if you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, the song just sounds really SAD.
    Years ago when I set up my last.fm account I couldn’t think of anything better to write in the “about me” column than “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with the potential of a superman. I’m living on.” and whenever I thought I should update this I just couldn’t think about anything else that would sound as pretentious as this but at the same time as fitting. Nietzsche and Nazis aside, this line is pretty true of everyone’s life (of course it gets more depressing from then on & it scares me how much I understand & relate to the lyrics of this song the older I get).
    For years and years I thought Bowie sang abt Brigitte Bardot but couldn’t make out any sense in that. I know very little abt buddhism, so I guess that’s why. Also the Garbo reference might have thrown me off.🙂
    Anyway, one of the best songs Bowie’s ever written, pretentious Nietzsche & buddhism references, and all. It’s a shame he hasn’t played it more.

  2. Cespinarve says:

    “mortal with the potential of a superman”

    The lyric is “MORTAL”? And here I’ve been hearing “model” all this time.

  3. EEG TV says:

    I love your work and analysis. This song with “The Man who sold the world” make think of the deep influence of the Hitler’s life and the fantasies of Bowie over him. And I have a line that it suggested me while I listen the song after the “knowledge comes when death release”, terrible words Bowie perhaps record in any pre-version.

    Me encanta tu trabajo y análisis. Esta canción junto con “The Man who sold the world” me hace pensar en la profunda influencia de la vida de Hitler y las fantasías de Bowie sobre él. Y tengo una línea que esto me sugiere mientras escucho la canción después de “knowledge comes when death release”, palabras terribles que tal vez Bowie grabara en una versión previa.

    Un saludo.

  4. Rufus Oculus says:

    There is a theory that a least part of this song relates to Hitler contemplating his suicide in his bunker which interpretation makes more sense of the mention of “Churchill’s lies” and possibly the reference to Himmler and the spy Garbo (some hear it as Goebbels).

  5. fluxkit says:

    I think he sounds a bit like Neil Young singing in the demo. I was assuming that to be intentional on Bowie’s part.

  6. anjelwire says:

    he sings – ‘you can tell me all about it on the next bardo”. the bardos as explained in tibetan buddhism states that there are six traditional bardo states known as the six bardos, they represent the after-death states, followed by transmigration, into the next life…..

    surely surely, this is what he means….”you can tell me all about it on the NEXT bardo. think about it!! on the original lyrics insert sheet it’s typed “bardo”!!!! it has absolutely nothing to do with ‘garbo’…it would not make any sense at all….what could be the next ‘garbo’???? c’mon guys!!!

    • col1234 says:

      a spot of confusion here: the “Garbo” i’m talking about is in the line “twisted name on Garbo’s eyes”. I agree DB’s absolutely talking about the bardos of Tibetan Buddhism in the other line.

  7. danglewood says:

    I wasn’t really into this song until the 50th Birthday Bash with Robert Smith. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it before, but I guess it was the combined power of these Rock Gods that finally opened my eyes to the power of the song. In some ways, I also think Smith’s voice is a a bit better suited to the song than Bowie’s.

  8. Vassilis says:

    It is one of the songs that I particularly like from Hunky Dory, which I discovered late from Bowie’s albums and still listen, either due to being so good, or because it hasn’t received as many spins as the others. And I still wonder why the commenteers don’t press like as well!

  9. I agree with the comment about the similarity to Neil Young. I first heard this song on Dinosaur Jr’s The Wagon EP (1991) and didn’t realise it was a Bowie cover until a few years later. The style of the song matched J Mascis’ iconic vocal and guitar style so well I assumed it was a Mascis composition, and if I had suspected it was a cover version I would have thought it to have originated from Neil Young. Of course there are a few changes to the lyrics on the Dinosaur Jr version which further obfuscate its origin, but I should have suspected something after the tell-tale intro which incorporates the riff from Andy Warhol. This version of Quicksand is well worth a listen if you are not familiar with it,

    • Diamond Duke says:

      There are many similarities between David Bowie and Neil Young – more than most people might realize on the surface. Understandably, those fans who look upon their favorite rock or pop stars as some sort of representative avatar of some desired ideal – or just whatever they think is cool – may scoff at the comparison. And in many ways, they are opposites, at least in a superficial sense: American/British, grungy/glamorous, organic/synthetic, sincere/ironic, etc., etc.

      But for me, both Young and Bowie represent a certain kind of artistic archetype: “He Who Will Not Be Pinned Down” (for lack of any better descriptive!). Both musicians started out in the mid-1960’s, and they both achieved their greatest early success (artistic and commercial) in 1972 (Harvest and Ziggy). They’ve both gone through a great deal of stylistic metamorphoses (and haircuts) over five decades, confounding those people who would prefer that they stayed in one place. (As such, Young and Bowie can perhaps be considered “sons” of Bob Dylan.) And while this has certainly proved an artistically rewarding path for both individuals, it’s also proved frustrating for many of their fellow musicians and collaborators. There have been many players who have hoped to have long-term professional relationships with both, but ended up left in the lurch when the artists’ mercurial streak rears its head and they go off in a completely different direction.

      While Young perhaps possesses a certain “redneck” quality (particularly with regard to his country-music influence) which definitely sets him apart from people like Bowie and Bryan Ferry, neither performer can exactly be described as conventionally “butch” in terms of their singing styles, both voices possessing a strange, otherworldly, androgynous quality. (And speaking of Ferry, have you heard Roxy Music’s cover version of Like A Hurricane?) And both Young’s and Bowie’s lyrical sensibilities cannot always be described as straightforward or literal, both men capable of an almost offhand surrealism and taste for the fantastic. (The sci-fi imagery of After The Gold Rush‘s title track is not a million miles removed from the end-times scenario conjured up on the Ziggy album.)

      And while Bowie certainly has a deserved representation as one of the most theatrical of rock performers, Young himself has certainly given audiences his share of theatrical conceits over the years – for instance the Rust Never Sleeps tour from 1979, with its roadies (or “road-eyes”) dressed like the Jawas from Star Wars and its oversized props. (Young attempted to do a sequel to the Rust extravaganza in 1986 with Crazy Horse, the Rusted-Out Garage tour, and from what I’ve read described in books, it was kind of the Glass Spider to Rust‘s Diamond Dogs!). And even in a lot of Young’s acoustic performances early in his career, he made a deliberate point of fumbling about with his instruments (tuning the guitar, adjusting his harmonica rack) and chatting and joking with the audience, maintaining the audience’s interest with some contrived bit of “business” that wasn’t exactly “real”!

      Also, try listening to After The Gold Rush and Hunky Dory back to back. You can definitely hear the influence of the former on the latter, particularly that of Till The Morning Comes on Kooks (that jaunty French horn in particular!).

      • Tommy Cherry says:

        I once read, that when Bowie received the phone call from the hospital, to say that his son had been born, he said he was at home listening to Neil Young…

      • David Sokol says:

        I’m sure I read somewhere that Bowie was a big fan of Neil Young and he almost sounds like him in the Ah-ah-ahs following “knowledge comes with deaths release”. The similarity of these two seminal artist is striking as you have brilliantly pointed out. Ironic seeing that both artists are thought of as incomparable.

  10. Great analysis of a great song from a great album.

    I’ve always wondered if Lennon ever called DB on swiping his “Kick ’em in the teeth with a pretty tune” concept. If he did, it was probably over laughs and a mound of cocaine.

  11. Jasmine says:

    I’m posting here, under ‘Q’ as this is driving me round the bend; Pegg has tweeted that Bowie wrote 4 songs beginning with ‘Q’, 2 from HD obviously. I know Queen of All the Tarts but what’s the 4th? I thought Qalisar from Omikron, but that wasn’t Bowie, was it? If anyone picks this up & can help, please please put me out of my misery! Thanks!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Ah, ya…Hunky Dory, you know that already. Got me thinking too now…

  13. Jasmine says:

    Thank you for this Chris. (I had always believed Qalisar was by Xavier Despas). Of course, new discoveries would be wonderful too but for now I am much relieved🙂

  14. leonoutside says:

    Great job on this one Chris. Really great read in the book. As you do with so many. Spent last night listening to Ron Davies, “Silent Song Through The Land”, on your prompting. Shameful not to have heard before. Loved it. Then, woke up this morning and “Ron Davies” (UK Labour MP) was on the radio. A sign sir. A sign.

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