Seven Years in Tibet

saltmen

Seven Years in Tibet (first performance, fragment, 1996).
Seven Years in Tibet.
Seven Years in Tibet (single edit).
Seven Years in Tibet (Mandarin version).
Seven Years in Tibet (with Dave Grohl, 50th Birthday Concert).
Seven Years in Tibet (The Rosie O’Donnell Show).
Seven Years in Tibet (acoustic, radio broadcast, 1997).
Seven Years in Tibet (live, 1997.)

So much of what first appealed to me about Buddhism has stayed with me. The idea of transience, and that there is nothing to hold onto pragmatically, that we do at some point or another have to let go of that which we consider most dear to us, because it’s a very short life.

Bowie, interview, Daily Telegraph, December 1996.

Lhasa

time51

Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, had been in a British prisoner-of-war camp in India for the length of the war. While he’d escaped in 1944, he didn’t try to join the Nazi army but instead ventured into Tibet, spurred by curiosity about a country considered off limits to the West. He was acting as a remnant of old Germany, the land of mountaineers and mapmakers, of the Wandervogel, the German naturalist movement which the Nazis had plundered for members and imagery, then banned. Crossing the Himalayas by foot and yak, Harrer spent the late Forties in Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, befriending and tutoring the young Dalai Lama, designing structural improvements for the city and chronicling in journals and photographs life in the last years of independent Tibet. He fled just before the Chinese came in 1950.

At the time, Harrer offered the prospect of a “clean” German/Austrian, a man who had the moral stature to depict Communist abuses. As is often the case, he wasn’t that clean. After Austria had been absorbed by Nazi Germany, Harrer had joined the SS in 1938 and had asked Himmler permission to marry, certifying that he and his fiancee were pure Aryans. So Tibet wasn’t just an appealing curiosity for him—it was one of the few countries bordering India that Harrer could have gone to in 1945 without facing the implications of his past. From most accounts, Harrer seemed primarily guilty of ambition in his youth: there is no evidence of him committing atrocities. Joining the Nazis was a good career move for him in the Thirties, much as how obscuring his Nazi past was a great career move in the Fifties.

His memoir, Seven Years In Tibet, was published in 1953 and was an international bestseller. Regarded as a paean for a lost country crushed by the Communists, Tibet is more hard-headed than its reputation suggests. Harrer balanced the beauty of the Tibetan landscape and of its culture with the sordid reality he found: filthy bodies, filthy streets, high rates of venereal disease, appalling levels of child mortality, and a cultural passivity mixed with occasional spates of chaos, like palace coups and monk rebellions. The Chinese, when they conquered Tibet, claimed to be modernizers. They abolished serfdom, paved roads, brought sanitation and political order, and suffocated an ancient culture in the process. Tibet became, among many things, a parable of modernity: life made easier and cleaner at the cost of the inconvenient past. Old Tibet was a culture the modern world had no more time for.

Bromley

In Tibet, one is not hunted from morning till night by the calls of ‘civilization.’ Here one has time to occupy oneself with religion and to call one’s soul one’s own. Here it is religion which takes up most room in the life of the individual as it did in olden days in the west.

Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet.

David Bowie discovered Buddhism in his early teens, thanks to his step-brother Terry’s beatnik leanings, the novels of Jack Kerouac and a few Penguin paperbacks that gave him the basic schematics of the religion. It was Harrer’s book that set him a-boil: “When I was about nineteen I became an overnight Buddhist,” he recalled in 1997. “At that age a very influential book for me was called “Seven Years In Tibet”…[Harrer] was one of the very first Westerners to ever spend any time in Tibet; in fact, one of the very first Westerners actually to go into Tibet and discover for himself this extraordinary existence and this incredibly sublime philosophy.”Silly Boy Blue,” Bowie’s first Buddhist song, was inspired by Harrer’s descriptions of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama’s winter palace of Potala, the song opening with the yak-butter statues made for celebration days.

What resonated with Bowie was the figure Harrer cut in his memoir. Though he was accompanied on his trip by another German national, Harrer comes across as a classic existentialist hero—a solitary man, unburdened by religion, nationality, politics or family (he doesn’t mention his wife once in the book)—making his way into a hidden kingdom where everyone is holy. There, the Outsider falls in love. The book was a preview of the Beat Fifties giving way to the psychedelic Sixties. “Religion is the heart of the fabric of the State,” Harrer wrote. “Prayer wheels turn without ceasing; prayer-flags wave on the roofs of houses…the life of the people is regulated by the divine will, whose interpreters the lamas are.”

Though Harrer was quick to describe the Tibetans’ shortcomings, his enchantment with the life he found in Lhasa permeates his writing, and he closed his book sounding like a man exiled from a dream.

London

I managed to cope with most things when I worked with David—except the Buddha.

Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s manager in the late Sixties.

For a young, irreligious British suburbanite in 1966, Harrer’s Tibet wasn’t any heaven on earth or a mystic theme park, as some weekend Buddhists considered Tibet to be. It was a culture where spirituality, and maintaining the health of the soul, was far more important than making money, than acquiring fame and attending to family.

So Buddhism took root in Bowie. Though some of his colleagues and friends in the late Sixties considered Bowie’s Buddhist leanings to be hip affectations, others saw a more fervent side of him. The journalist George Tremlett and Bowie’s housemate/lover Mary Finnigan attested that Bowie was serious about Buddhism, speaking to them for hours about it. Whether he truly meant to join a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland, which he visited in late 1967, is very questionable.1 What’s not is that the symbols of Buddhism, its sutras, its concepts like reincarnation (see “Quicksand”), the Oversoul and astral projection (see “Did You Ever Have a Dream“), were essential to Bowie’s growth as a songwriter. Buddhism gave him a reservoir of imagery to use: it gave him a spiritual scaffolding.

And the status of Tibet in 1966-7 made him, for one of the few times in his life, publicly political. After a decade of ‘tolerance,’ the Chinese government, now in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, was cracking down on Tibet. The 1959 uprising had been snuffed out by a vicious repression, in which possibly 80,000 Tibetans were killed, and the brutalities continued into the Sixties. The Dalai Lama went into exile, along with a number of other Buddhist lamas. Some of the latter made their way to London’s Buddhist Society, where they encountered an eager teenager from Bromley with a myriad questions for them (see “Karma Man,” his 1967 song about a Tibetan exile lost in the funfair of the West). Stories escaped of horrors: Tibetan monks tortured, sexually degraded, murdered; monasteries and holy places sacked and burned.

A friend of Bowie’s at the time recalled him being “filled with anger” about Tibet, which began to appear in his art. His mime Jet-Sun and the Eagle, which he performed in 1968 and 1969, in part depicted a Chinese boy under the foot of Chinese Communists (it drew the indignation of a student Maoist, who reportedly heckled one performance), and his song “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” was a thinly-disguised rewrite of the scenario, in which a “wild boy” brings down the wrath of ancient Nature upon a village of dreadful occupiers.

New York

7years

When you’re kind of young and idealist we were protesting the invasion of Tibet by China. And thirty years later they’re still there. Nothing has really moved. And more than anything else it was the lectures that the Dalai Lama has been doing over the last couple of years that really prodded me a bit. Made me feel quite guilty that I’ve known about this situation quite well and quite intimately for many, many years—that I hadn’t actually come out and made my stance on what I feel about it. So I guess that song in a way was to make some kind of amends.

Bowie, radio interview, 1997.

It had been a long time since Jet-Sun and the London Buddhist Society. It was the summer of 1996, in New York City, where Bowie was dashing out a new record.

During the Earthling sessions, Reeves Gabrels introduced a piece he’d written earlier, provisionally called “Brussels.” Bowie didn’t think much of it. The song seemed, he said, “incredibly hack, with a very predictable self-serious quality. I said, ‘dump this one, Reeves.’ “But Mark Plati recalled Gabrels being obstinate. He kept revising it, and with Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to bounce ideas off of, he eventually worked it into a compelling piece, its dreamy guitar work in the verses inspired by the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross.”2

Bowie came round on the track, began to call it his favorite on the album. For a lyric, he began by improvising a verse in the booth. An image came to mind: “a young Tibetan monk who’s just been shot. His last experiences in the snow as the Chinese helicopters fly over.”

‘Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains,’
The old woman said…

The lyric was a death mumble. A monk bleeds out in the snow, watches the sky fade, gets off a last prayer. Bowie’s voice in the verses was processed through a ring modulator, which gave it a crackly, papery sound, making it sound as if he was heard murmuring through an old radio. The landscape of the verse was filled with ‘past’ signifiers: Gabrels’ “Albatross” guitar; Mike Garson’s Farfisa organ; Bowie’s alto saxophone riff, meant to suggest “a Stax influence…the sort of sound you might imagine behind Al Green or Ann Peebles,” a line that’s eventually taken over by a second guitar. The rhythm was a set of loops that sounded like kettle drums and distorted tympani beats, and an agile foundation supplied by Dorsey, who had space and agility enough for quick, descending fills during turnarounds (for instance, at 1:18).

This was all a feint. The A minor verses were “the Sixties” as sonic brand, a shined-up, loop-filled edition suitable for Britpop, with the dying monk of its lyric also a Sixties affectation—the monk as fallen revolutionary student. “It’s sometimes good to be able to conjure the emotions we automatically associate with classic guitar sounds, but all those tones are sounding more and more like beer commercials,” Gabrels said. “I deliberately evoked a Fleetwood Mac “Albatross” feeling, but mainly so I could oppose it to the ton-of-bricks chorus.

With little warning, the track shifts to a distortion-fatted wall of guitars and keyboards (meant to evoke the Pixies, Bowie said). The first go-round doesn’t even have a lyric; it’s just 10 bars of bludgeoning. In its next go-round, a double-tracked Bowie offers a simple invocation: I praise to you, nothing ever goes away. And on the song goes, shifting between a preserved past and the loud, graceless present, with Bowie’s mantra caught up in the works. There’s a dark sense of humor in places: Bowie’s first verse lyric reads as a bit of black comedy, while the second has lines like “the yoga zone” and “pigs could fly.” There are velociraptor shrieks, mosquito buzzes and gruesome baby cries scattered in the mix, while Mike Garson’s B-movie Farfisa organ solo occupies the middle of the track (Garson even gets the last word, closing with a droning E major chord).3

Hong Kong

time

The subtext of the song is really some of the desperation and agony felt by young Tibetans who have had their families killed and themselves have been reduced to mere ciphers in their own country.

Bowie, 1997.

What inspired Bowie to revive the old passion? There was one obvious fact: two months before he cut the track, the first Tibetan Freedom Concert was held in San Francisco. While Bowie didn’t perform at any of these annual events, the Tibetan Concerts featured most of the top alternative acts of the Nineties (Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, etc.). They were a regular feature on MTV, and succeeded in making Tibet the hippest political cause of the era. So a cynic would note that Bowie’s renewed interest in Tibet was acutely well-timed.4

The Free Tibet movement was a protest lodged against a country whose idea of handling dissent was crude, if efficient: black out the newscasts and send in the army, a situation that only worsened in the past decade. Today, China holds much of the West’s debt, has too great a grip on the world’s economy: the idea of it somehow being coerced into making Tibet independent seems akin to the United States agreeing to give back Florida to the surviving Seminoles. Worse, “Free Tibet” became a cliche, the favorite political cause of the affluent white hipster (Tibet was entry #124 in Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like), a cause that required nothing from its advocates but a pleasant afternoon spent watching alternative bands, and a few bucks to buy rugs and amulets.

Still, this makes light of the blood on the ground, and denies the Tibetan cause its agency: the 2008 riots, the protests of the late Eighties happened despite any hipster affectations. And Bowie wasn’t just a revived dilettante. After cutting “Seven Years,” he became more involved, publicly and privately, in Tibetan causes, playing at benefits for New York’s Tibet House, speaking out in the press. And he recorded a version of “Seven Years” in Mandarin Chinese, hoping, perhaps, it could be heard in Lhasa somewhere. It was the last #1 song of British-controlled Hong Kong, topping the charts in June 1997 as the Union Jack was lowered and the red flag raised.

“Seven Years In Tibet,” as with much of Bowie’s Tibetan Buddhism, was an Eastern culture filtered through the eyes of the West: a lyric (and a sensibility) inspired by a book by an Austrian Nazi, later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Still, the core of Bowie’s last Tibetan song, the sequel of his youthful religious infatuation, kept true to Buddhism: that there is something eternal in us that can’t be destroyed, something that will outlast the depredations of conquerors and debasements of advertisers. It’s in Dorsey’s voice, suddenly heard in the final chorus, singing “nothing!” as a triumph, offering that Tibet, despite the world’s best efforts, is still free.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. An edited version of the track was issued as the fourth UK single from Earthling, in August 1997 (RCA/BMG 74321512542, UK #64), which included the Mandarin version and a live version of “Pallas Athena.” “Seven Years” was debuted at the Avalon, in Boston, on 13 September 1996. An acoustic version was taped at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, on 8 April 1997.

1 In yet another parallel, a fame-weary Scott Walker visited a monastery (a Christian one) around the same time.

2 “Albatross” inspired John Lennon and George Harrison for “Sun King” the following year.

3 It’s a fairly minimal chord structure, with the sharpening of minor chords driving  harmonic momentum (Am-A#m-Gm in the intro and verses, for instance, or the Gm-G#m move at the end of the chorus) and a chorus that seems to be in a hidden F major (Gm-Am-Bb).

4 The film adaptation of Harrer’s book, with Pitt making a convincing Aryan, was released in October 1997, well after Earthling was recorded and released. So the fact that there was a “Seven Years in Tibet” song and movie released in the same year seems to be simply coincidence, though it’s possible Bowie knew they were filming the book when he wrote the lyric.

Top: The Saltmen of Tibet,(Koch, 1997); Harrer’s article on Tibet for Time, 1951.

59 Responses to Seven Years in Tibet

  1. Mr Tagomi says:

    I played the Mandarin version of this to a Chinese friend at the time, curious as to what her reaction would be. She did not like what she was hearing at all, and deemed it ‘not Chinese’.

    I personally do like it.

    • col1234 says:

      that’s interesting: “not Chinese” as in “DB’s accent is atrocious” or in terms of lyrical content?

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        I’m pretty sure she meant that his accent was terrible, but her dislike of it was so strong that I didn’t press the point.

      • Maj says:

        I was just gonna ask…if what he sings even makes sense to people who speak Mandarin.🙂 Got the answer already.

        To be fair, his accent is terrible whatever foreign language he tries to sing in. I’ll never get over his “strazze”. He lived in Germany for a bit, he should know better.😉

      • s.t. says:

        Yes Maj, his Japanese version of “Girls” is perhaps the worst attempt at Japanese I’ve ever heard.

        Thanks goodness he didn’t try to do the spoken bits in “It’s No Game” himself!

      • Steve Mallarmy says:

        His French version of Heroes isn’t much cop either…

      • col1234 says:

        poor DB, eager attempter of second languages, master of none.

        what have there been up to this point? all failures?

        the German “When I Live My Dream” and “Love You Till Tuesday,” aptly described somewhere as Bowie “sounding like Rosa Klebb”

        the Italian “Space Oddity,” which is dreadful (and yet I get a comment every 3 months complaining I didn’t mention it in the bloody entry)

        the French “Heroes” which is indeed just the pits

        but “Helden” is pretty great

        the Spanish “Day In Day Out,” described by a commenter as one of the worst things he’d ever heard

        the Indonesian “Amlapura”: ok?

        the Japanese “Girls,” just now pilloried

        and the Mandarin “Seven Years” which made a native speaker nauseous

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        On the subject of DB and languages, when he played The Point in Dublin in 2003 (I was there), he shouted “Tiocfaidh ar la!”, which elicited a slightly nonplussed cheer from the audience.

        This Irish phrase means “our day will come” and is most closely associated with IRA violence in Northern Ireland.

        I assumed for years that someone had given him very bad advice on what to say to the crowd.

        But it turns out that Gerry Leonard mischievously gave him the idea.

        See the end of this story:

        http://www.herald.ie/entertainment/around-town/bowie-gave-allclear-for-rtes-april-fools-joke-on-eurovision-29169399.html

      • Zak says:

        Did his Italian get any better with Volare? 🙂

      • Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

        ‘Helden’ only sounds OK if you don’t speak German. All of my German friends burst out laughing when they hear it – one of them said that it sounded like Bowie had wet himself halfway through but carried on valiantly anyway.

        The translation of ‘Heroes’ into German, undertaken by Antonia Maass, was described as a “catastrophe” when ‘Helden’ came out by the German writer and singer Heinz Rudolf Kunze. Amongst other things, Maass chose the wrong word for ‘shame’ in German, and thus ‘Helden’ claims that ‘the sense of embarrassment was on the other side’.

        Don’t get me wrong, Berliners are very proud that Bowie lived in the city, but can’t work out why he’s so slapdash with the language – see also the misspelling of ‘Neukölln’ and in the video for ‘Where are we now?’.

      • Maj says:

        Thanks for this Portsmouth Bubblejet. I learned German for 8 years and at one point I could understand it pretty well but had trouble making out the lyrics of Helden until I looked them up online. The pronunciation is tragic in some cases.🙂
        I do have a friend in Germany who is not a Bowie fan per sé but listens to some of his stuff and she loves the German version even if it’s not a shining example of the use of the German language. She’s not even from Berlin but still proud and happy Bowie gave German a shot for one of his best songs.
        Hell, whenever an artist attempts a Hello in Czech it gets a cheer at gigs, so I guess that’s where most foreign fans are coming from when an artist attempts to sing in their language and is not entirely successful; it’s cute, no big deal.

        On subject of Heroes/Helden – the version that mashes the two versions together is my favourite, even if it might kill my Bavarian German teacher.🙂

        Was any other British artist more successful at singing “foreign”? I personally can only judge German and Czech. The two that pop into my mind:
        The Beatles recorded Sie liebt dich, it’s adorable…and I suppose their time in Hamburg left its mark on them, I can at least understand them.
        I thought the German bit in Roxy Music’s Bitter-Sweet is pretty good, Ferry sounds convincing. But I never asked a German native about it.

        So I suppose Bowie really could do better, especially considering he lived there for a while.

      • s.t. says:

        Maj, yes, Bryan`s French in “Song for Europe” also sounds decent to me (I can`t comment on his Latin). It may be that he gets more of a pass than David because his style in the early days was more exaggerated and quirky. So, his French sounds ultra flamboyant, but since it sounds intentional, it works.Or else he really is as uber cosmopolitan as he`s advertised to be.

        Kate Bush`s French in “Games Without Frontiers” was fine as well, but that was only three words, so not as challenging. Still, better than David Byrne`s attempt in “Psycho Killer.”

  2. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Not a good song per se but it realy took off live. I loved the version at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert, with Bowie, Dave Grohl, and Gabrels hammering away at the guitars.

  3. Diamond Duke says:

    When I first heard this song, the first thing that jumped out at me was how closely the beat replicated that “artificial respirator” rhythm of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, and I seriously doubt that I’m the only person to notice that. Yet another example (along with the V1 Mix of I’m Afraid Of Americans) of the mutual Bowie/NIN influence continuing from Outside.

    As for the song itself, however, it grew on me very quickly. I forgot about the rhythmic similarity to NIN’s Closer almost as quickly as it occurred to me. Although many of the musical elements manage to evoke the ’60s (the Albatross guitars, Bowie’s Stax-influenced sax riff), that certainly wasn’t the first connection to pop into my head. (In fact, I can honestly say that this is one of my favorite tracks on Earthling for the simple reason that it doesn’t date quite as much as some of the other tracks.) The whole song is quite eerie and dramatic and filled with a strange tension, and while that whole Pixies-influenced soft verse/loud chorus thing (made famous in the meantime, of course, by Nirvana) had gotten a bit old-hat by this point, when the bludgeoning chorus kicks in it it’s definitely startles and grabs one’s attention. The choice of instrumentation overall doesn’t sound retro-’60s at all, in my opinion. For example, Mike Garson’s Farfisa keyboard tone somehow manages to be weirdly avant and futuristic-sounding even though it’s an instrument very much associated with a ’60s garage-rock sound.

    (BTW, Patti Smith is another musician who became very fascinated by Tibet in her youth, to the point of even doing a school report about it at a time when the American public by and large had little awareness of the political situation. She has also consistently been supportive over the years, playing many Tibet House benefit shows.)

    • s.t. says:

      The beat does sound a lot like Closer, but Trent’s beat sounded a good deal like “Nightclubbing,” so I think this is another instance of Bowie paying tribute to a Bowie-tribute. I do remember reading articles around the time that noted both comparisons.

      • NiggyTardust says:

        It is a common knowledge in NIN community that Trent in fact sampled that beat directly from Nightclubbing. Hence the obvious similarity

  4. Ramzi says:

    Maybe my favourite song on Earthling, even if it is the less Earthling-like song. The distortion does it for me, I really dig it. Would it be fair to say that this is (Tin Machine aside) the hardest rock Bowie’s ever done?

  5. s.t. says:

    Another good song that doesn’t reach its potential for greatness. Yes, the verses are great (as usual for Earthling), the buildup of tension is magnificent, and yes, it channels the loud-quiet dynamics of Pixies tracks like “Tame,” but the “payoff”in the refrain is so stiff and perfunctory, thunderous though it may be. It’s Pixies-as-ceremonial procession, rather than something truly cathartic.

    I agree (once again) that it sounded much better live, which seems to be the running theme for Earthling. Not surprising, since the album was inspired by the chemistry of Bowie’s current band, but it seems that the studio versions don’t quite capture the magic that they managed on stage. Maybe it was simply a case of Practice Makes Perfect…

    • s.t. says:

      I should note, though, that Gail Ann Dorsey’s singing at the end is a truly wonderful moment of emotional release, a dash of spontaneity to end the song on an effectively moving note. A rare treat, since Bowie didn’t use Gail nearly as much as he should have.

  6. Maj says:

    My favourite song on the album. Everything on it just works, it doesn’t go on too long as most songs on the album. A great song and a great track.

    I even have the single, signed. But no idea who actually signed it.😀

    Thanks for the entry, Chris. I learned a lot from it, actually. The fact that it was no. 1 in Hong Kong before it joined China is pretty chilling and made me a bit emotional.

    As usual, thanks for all the links. The acoustic version is lovely but while I tend to love acoustic versions of songs I think the assault of the chorus is really needed in SYIT.

  7. MC says:

    The Tibetan Book of the Dead was also, I gather, the basis for John Lennon’s lyric for Tomorrow Never Knows.

    Amazing track, btw, all the more so after reading this fantastic piece. I also recommend that everyone see Martin Scorsese’s masterful film (also released in ’97) about the Dalai Lama, Kundun.

  8. fantailfan says:

    Who inspired who? “Albatross” (recorded October 6, 1968 at CBS Studio, London) was released as a single on November 22, 1968, the same day as The White Album and The Kinks Are the Village Preservation Society (and my eighth birthday). It sounds remarkably like another 1968 white man blues band instrumental, “Song for Our Ancestors” by The Steve Miller Band. That song, released in October 1968, was recorded at Wally Heider Studios in Los Angeles by – to stretch the Beatle connection to the breaking point – Glyn Johns.

  9. Bruised Passivity says:

    I agree that this is the track on Earthling that best transcends the album’s very ‘90s-centric sound. While the other tracks now sound dated, this track still holds its strength 16 years later. This is definitely my ‘go to’ track on Earthling (closely followed by Dead Man Walking).
    Has anyone been able to find the direct Mandarin to English translations for this song? I’ve spent some time hunting online but haven’t yet found them.
    Interesting story Mr Tagomi about you playing the Mandarin version for your friend, I’m not at all surprised that a native speaker found Bowie’s attempts at singing in their language repulsive, especially if (as Chris suggests) he’s deliberately using it as a platform to push a westernized ideology; I’m sure react the same way. And yet, I adore Bowie’s Mandarin version despite knowing that he’s singing phonetically and likely butchering the significant tonal inflections that are so vital to any language’s subtle meanings. LOL For me it’s the added textural rhythm of the language I find so pleasing. However, I’ve always suspected that, if I knew the words he’s was actually singing in this version, that I may not enjoy it nearly as much.

    Speaking of rhythm, I like your observation Diamond Duke about this song’s rhythmic similarities to NIN’s Closer; you have a good point there. In both songs this rhythm reads (to me) as a primal pulse, a heartbeat, that creates a primitive, hypnotic feeling.

    I think Reeves outdoes himself here; while the rest of the musicianship is strong on this track, I feel his guitar work really does steal the show. s.t. I agree with you that Gail Ann’s vocalizations near song’s end are the cathartic moment. For me her “Nothing!” has always sounded like the narrator’s soul’s final release into the next plane of existence. Powerful stuff.
    Another great entry Chris, your writings are always a highlight in my week. 

    • zappuccino says:

      A highly enjoyable entry!

      Apropos Bowie’s chinese version of this song, when living in Taiwan some years back, I was encouraged by Taiwanese friends to learn a chinese pop song as an “easy” introduction to speaking Mandarin (Putonghua). This is because the four tones of Mandarin can’t be utilised at the same time as singing a melody, so all you have to do is memorise the words without having to worry about inflection.
      In fact, native Mandarin speakers will often check out the published lyrics to a new song because without the tones, the meaning of the lyric will be highly ambiguous (as Mandarin uses many homophones, the tones and context are vital for comprehension).
      I’m in total agreement that this is the standout track on a curate’s egg of an album.

  10. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Aaah, good old “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac, one of the first batch of singles I ever owned. I still remember little details like, it was issued on Blue Horizon records, and the B-Side was “Jigsaw Puzzle Blues”. I would never have made the connection to Seven Years In Tibet though – it doesn’t sound at all similar to my non-musician’s ear. And for some reason I can’t escape the image of John Cleese in drag stomping through a crowded cinema screaming “It’s bleedin’ seabird bleedin’ flavour”….

  11. Alex says:

    Not to nitpick, but the verses are not in Am; they’re in D minor (which makes the chorus’s F major much more sensical as the relative key). Am-Gm is a simple minor blues V-IV move in this case, leaning toward the resolution in the chorus, whereas justifying the verse in A minor makes the Gm chord particularly thorny.

  12. Champiness says:

    Love the balance of elements on this one – in fairness the whole album seems like it’s a contrast between the “pretty” melodies (well, prettier in comparison to something like Outside) and the jungle and industrial influences but this one in particular meshes everything really well.
    Also, is it just me or does that acoustic version send the song straight back into the 60’s?

  13. xianrex says:

    On the Teenage Wildlife message boards, a native speaker translated the lyrics to the Mandarin version, which don’t seem to have quite the same pro-Tibetan flavor. On the other hand, there is a kind of poetic lean in that direction:

    Are you OK?
    You lost your hair / The hair that you lost
    The reincarnation of the scars / The scars are reincarnated
    and the flowers to grow
    If this theory is true / If you believes in this
    Why you made no reply / Why don’t you reply
    The snow was falling
    Forgotten the spring and summer
    The clouds was became a monks
    to search / find the theory
    If the world are false
    Don’t be surprise / upset / shock
    and made no reply
    I prayed to you / I praise to you
    A fleeting moment of life / Life is short
    I prayed to you / I praise to you
    A fleeting moment
    I prayed to you / I praise to you

    http://www.teenagewildlife.com/Interact/cp/showflat.pl?Cat=&Board=news&Number=402567&page=37&view=collapsed&sb=9&vc=1

    • Bruised Passivity says:

      Thanks for the link xianrex, I had forgotten about the Teenage Wildlife site. This translation answers my question “Why the mandarin single release was specifically titled ‘A Fleeting Moment’ “?😉

  14. TWDuke says:

    Hmmmm. Can you accept some constructive criticism? Your blog is starting to lose my interest somewhat and I often find myself skimming past whole paragraphs whereas I used to read (and enjoy) your every word.

    There’ve been a half-dozen, perhaps a dozen, more recent entries where I feel like you’re overwriting. Part of what made your blog so good was that you were interesting yet fairly succinct up until about BTWN. Sure you need to frame a song a bit to analyze it, perhaps give a bit of history or bit of background, but I’m a busy guy and don’t really come here for 3 long paragraphs and 2 photos about yaks and the Himalayas.

    Also, are you not doing more and more pure conjecturing these days in some of these entries? (“What resonated with Bowie was…”; “[One obvious fact] inspired Bowie to revive the old passion”). Really???

    • s.t. says:

      I personally love the writing style in these entries, but everyone has different preferences and expectations for such a blog. If you’re just looking for a weekly dose of background info per Bowie song, then perhaps a post like the last one could prove cumbersome to sift through.

      It does raise an interesting question about the book revisions: Assuming that the blog posts have been growing more and more adventurous both in style and approach to interpretation, will the approach to the book entries be more or less be a constant throughout?

      I’m waiting for the epic re-write of Love You Til Tuesday! 🙂

    • col1234 says:

      I honestly do appreciate this, and agree with you in part. The blog has been very hard to write since I began the final round of revisions for the book, and I fear my editing muscles are sore & strained from what I’ve been doing on the revisions, thus leaving the new material slacker and more rambling than perhaps I would’ve allowed a year ago.

      but I made a decision. To be frank, the book has suffered and been delayed because I kept spending time updating the blog, and I don’t get a red dime from the latter. I considered putting the blog on hiatus for a while, but have compromised by devoting a day or two every other week to the blog. But this means less time toying with and revising blog entries, as in the past.

      Right now, the blog is a first-draft of something that hopefully will be improved upon revision at some point. It’s free: take it and get something out of it, or stop reading for a few months. Your call.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        While it’s certainly a legit bit of criticism, I like the current style.

        It’s interesting and introduces thoughts to me that would never have occurred to me otherwise in a million years.

        Your interpretations of the songs sometimes involve some apparently lateral thinking, but always seem on the money.

    • col1234 says:

      & an addendum. Some constructive criticism for you as well:

      “I’m a busy guy and don’t really come here for 3 long paragraphs and 2 photos about yaks and the Himalayas”

      really rankles me.

      • Bruised Passivity says:

        I’ve read nearly every entry you’ve written on this blog over the past few months and you have NOTHING to be criticized for. To me your writing quality has remained consistent throughout (despite your having to split your focus on the book adaptation, which is very impressive by the way) and your hard work is evident in every posting. I feel privileged to read your high quality blog and I’m sure many of your other readers agree with me.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        In my head I tend to classify those “I’m a busy guy”-type utterances as Internet boilerplate, and hardly notice them any more.

      • Dr. Urk says:

        I guess I recognize the looseness, but I quite enjoy the longer entries. I came here after finding and then losing and then finding the archives of Locust St., which is still just about my favorite music/etc. blog ever. (Seriously–I enjoy this a lot, but I wish someone would give you a pile of money to turn that into a book!) Its the longer entries here that really pull me in and I thank you for them. I guess that, when I’m in a noticing mood, I do worry aobut the suppositions as to Bowie’s feelings/motivations, etc. when they aren’t directly sourced. it’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy in most music writing. But I think that your feeling for and knowledge of your subject, and the strength of you writing makes it all work very well. thanks for still putting in the work here. I look forward fondly to the book.

    • Maj says:

      While TWDuke does have a point, whatever fair criticism he (I assume) expressed got completely killed by the busy guy comment.

      There are some things in life you make time for. It’s different things for everyone…Chris doesn’t make us read these at gun point. It sometimes takes me days to find the right time to read these entries, especially if I see they are longer, but the time spent reading always pays off for me.

      I came on board with the Heroes entry (I think), and that one wasn’t exactly short either, so nothing ever surprises me here ;)(except for the epic Walker entries, the second of which, I have to confess, I never finished…but many loved them so why the fuck would I bitch about them when, as a Walker non-fan, it’s not really my place).

      I know from experience it takes time to write a blog, and the scope and quality of my writing doesn’t even approach half of the level Chris’s writing here has. Writing is hard. Writing is endless rewriting. It takes time. Bitching about the time it takes someone to read these is just not fair because the time it takes someone to write something like these entries (research, compilation, analysis, own thoughts etc. etc.) doesn’t even begin to compare.

      I loved this particular entry. It really depends on which of Bowie’s inspirations and interests you connect to more and to which less, and I think it’s amazing how much of it Chris has covered here, and in depth.

      Yes, we don’t have to agree with everything Chris writes here, and write our opinions and corrections here – something the book will lack (but then I think the book will inevitably feature some of the input from the comments here) – but I never met a book on music personalities and their work that didn’t feature any own subjective opinions or “pure conjectures”.

      Sorry for rambling on.

      LLAP🙂

    • Stolen Guitar says:

      You can’t please all of the people all of the time…but this blog pleases many, many more people than not. If you can find something better than this on Bowie would you mind letting us know, please?

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        As someone who once spent about seven – very sick – days in Tibet, the idea of seven years there fills me with horror. I can’t think of anything worse. Fortunately, the song itself isn’t that bad.
        As someone whose first involvement with Bowie culture came with the fan club membership included in the original pressing of Aladdin Sane, this is by far the best forum for views on Bowie’s work that I have ever come across. By far.
        I think Chris has been so wrong on several points: Shadowman, My Death, Weeping Wall to mention but a few. However, he has also pointed me in the direction of so many new discoveries within Bowie’s songs. And made me think again about some things: Baal, Teenage Wildlife – still don’t get it – and Conversation Piece.
        And it’s not just Chris’s insights that make this site so worthwhile. Reading the thoughts of various contributors, even those I strongly disagree with, has been a great pleasure over these past few years. We’ve all rambled on at times or said something that was ill thought out but I doubt if anybody here minds their ideas being pulled apart. However, anybody who has the time to spend on a blog about a pop singer whose greatest impact was over forty years ago cannot be too busy to show a little gratitude for the opportunity we have to share those ideas.
        The end may seem a long way off, but we’ll all miss these posts – even the long ones – when they’re gone/

      • Remco says:

        I’m sure you don’t need my moral support Chris, but here it is anyway. I always like the long entries, yaks included, best. Especially at this point where I don’t have much love for the songs in question your entries add a lot to my enjoyment of these tracks.
        Last week’s post on” Looking For Satellites” is a good example where your description of the song is actually a lot more interesting than the song itself. On top of that we get a lovely essay on the media in general coupled with a YouTube collage that illustrates the TV experience far better than Bowie’s “NOWHERE SHAMPOO” mantra does. Some might call that over-writing, I’d call it blogging above and beyond the call of duty and this is as good a place as any to thank you for it.

      • ric says:

        Mr Brendan, I’m a busy guy (sic), and now I’ve got to go back and re-read (and re-enjoy) the My Death entry. How could you!🙂

    • parsifalzero says:

      Ah the Internet, where every nice thing becomes a pissing post.

      I think the writing on this blog would be remarkable in any venue, but to have it available for free, on the web, is nothing less than a gift.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yep. Never ceases to amaze me when some dude on the Internet gets his panties in a bunch when some blog isn’t tailored to his particular sensibilities. That’s the whole idea of reading someone else’s writing, enjoying THEIR take, their thoughts. Not what they think someone else would want them to write, down that path is mediocrity.

        This blog is one of the best, because of its idiosyncrasies.

        And to get back on topic, this entry has made me appreciate this song which was usually one I skipped when listening to Earthling. Nice write-up.

    • david says:

      That might be the case for you TW, but he’s not writing for you, is he?

  15. l'âme du monde à cheval says:

    Seven years in Tibet – Closer – Nightclubbing; Bowie to Bowie…, Station to station; simply great !

  16. With regards to the lyrics the opening lines were actually inspired by something far more banal than Tibetan monks being murdered. While recording the album, Bowie received an early example of a viral email with the following attached:

    Compare this to:

    “Are you OK?
    You’ve been shot in the head
    And I’m holding your brains,”
    The old woman said.

    • s.t. says:

      I checked that on Snopes, and it seems that a mass-email variant of it started going viral in 1996, so it certainly could have served as an inspiration for Bowie when he was writing this song.

      Maybe it was a humorous song fragment that eventually served as the seed for a more serious take on existential absurdity.

  17. Reba says:

    Love this blog. Love the long entries.

  18. CosmicJive says:

    Anybody hear the translator perform A Fleeting Moment? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IEea-mUfac

    People seem to love it:) I prefer Bowie’s version though..

  19. jopasso says:

    Love this blog. Love the entries. Love its comments, because there’s always something to learn.

    The only thing I don’t get is why the entries about songs like Seven years in Tibet, are often longer than say the entries about songs like Always crashing in the same car.

    Having said that, I consider this blog a real delicatessen for Bowie’s fans

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      The simple reason that there are more comments for the recent entries is that the blog is far more widely known these days. Go back to the Hunky Dory entries and you’ll find even less comments there. There are just a lot more people reading the blog the later entries.

      • jopasso says:

        You’re right. That could be the main reason.
        In case of being published today, an entry about Life on Mars? or Stay, to name a couple randomly, would reach more than a 100 comments, I guess

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