I was young, fancy free, and Tibetan Buddhism appealed to me at that time. I thought, “There’s salvation.” It didn’t really work. Then I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity, pottery, and ended up singing. It’s been a long road...
Bowie, to Ellen DeGeneres, 2004.
As chance (?) had it, I was making last revisions to “Word On a Wing” and “Station to Station” while I clunked together this entry. “Heathen (the Rays)” is the muted sequel to those vast, troubled pieces of Bowie’s mid-Seventies. Songs that said there were answers to be found, if hidden away somewhere; that there were systems to run, sects and schemes to examine, whether talismanic Christianity (“Word”) or cabbalist coke Gnostic occultism (“Station”). Ever more books to read.
He dug through Aleister Crowley, Nietzsche, the lie-riddled accounts of Nazi occult operations, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Theosophy, even hints of est and Scientology. His was the work of a receptive, often credulous mind, a mind hungry to believe. He is what he reads, his down-to-earth (and Pentecostal Christian, the son of a minister) guitarist Carlos Alomar recalled of his employer. And at that time he was reading so much bullshit. All of this contending with strange powers persisted, if wanly, well into Bowie’s Nineties: see Leon and Outside, with their blood rituals and pre-millennial terrors.
It’s not a great thing, just a belief or let’s call it the usual force. Or God? Yes, sure. It’s a lukewarm relationship at the best of times, but I think it’s definitely there.
Bowie, to Timothy White, 1978.
So Bowie was, in his odd way, a religious songwriter. In 1973, at the peak of Ziggy Stardust mania, he told a reporter he “always felt like a vehicle for something else, but then I’ve never sorted out what that was. I think everybody, at one time or another, gets that kind of feeling that they aren’t just here for themselves…there’s a feeling we are here for another purpose. And in me it’s very strong.”
By the end of the century he was identifying as a sometimes Buddhist, sometimes Gnostic. He had inherited his father’s skepticism of organized religion, especially “Henry’s church” (of England). His own religious beliefs had turned out to be a run of tests, like an alchemist putting various bits of stone and quartz to a flame. The singer in a typical Bowie piece was a closed perspective set against the backdrop of an open one: the spiritual world, the ten stations of the sefirot, nightly visitations by extraterrestrials, astral projections, the Order of the Golden Dawn. Something. There was something else, grand if inexplicable, in the world.
In 2001, Year One of a new, unhappy century, Bowie offered that it had all been bunk.
The voice of “Heathen (the Rays)” is that of an unbeliever, a man who spies death on the road ahead and who knows once they meet that nothing will remain of him, that he will go nowhere else. It has the sodium-lit mood of one of Philip Larkin’s last poems, “Aubade“:
…the sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…
Or as Bowie put it to Der Spiegel in 2002: “Why now, when I [finally] understand myself and others, should I die? What a shit game. Is there no one with whom you could revise the rules?”
“Heathen” doesn’t begin as much as it coalesces. Two guitars (David Torn and/or Gerry Leonard, even possibly Bowie—it’s hard to determine who’s playing what on this record) entwine, each attempting to undermine the other. Then two grand chords, sounded on synthesizer with what sounds like baritone saxophone mixed in: a D-flat and an E-flat 7th, repeated again and again. A dance of two lonely giants. Only upon the appearance of an A-flat (“made for a”) and an F minor (“real world”), swept in with girl-group drums and a rockabilly guitar riff, does the song start to orbit around A-flat.*
The song is just three verses (they’re like three bridges of a song whose refrain has gone lost). There’s the opening build in A-flat, whose lines offer Buddhism translated via George Harrison and some modern-day Ecclesiastes, with Bowie regarding a skyline of steel and glass as a collective vanity, a world open to be destroyed. Bowie swore that he wrote the lyric before 9/11; he was unnerved at his prediction. The words had just poured out of him one morning at Allaire Studios, he recalled. He didn’t want to write it, but there it was, the bile of late middle age.
A move to G-flat: a “celestial” feel via synthesizer and chimes, a frantic human heartbeat racing beneath. By the last verse, death finally approaches, cheered on by the music as if it’s a boxing champion entering the ring. The parenthetical “rays” of the song title are the distorted light rays of a dying sun. Recall that at the moment of sunset, the sun has already gone, slipped below the horizon while its last rays delude us into believing it’s still day.
As ominous and grand as all of this is, with Bowie as consumptive diva (“I can SEE it NOW! I can FEEL it DIE!”), there’s a goofiness there as well, a sense that some of the players got the wrong script. The jovial drums, which keep derailing the lyric’s black mood like an antic boy at a funeral. There are even handclaps towards the end. The Stylophone makes a cameo appearance. The guitars seem to be trying to escape into a livelier song.
The spiritual ferment of the Sixties and Seventies wasn’t going to be the world of the 21st Century, Bowie said. This would be a century of a cold, refined barbarism, a world fit for fanatics of all stripes. Freelancers now: no longer members of the incorporated tyrannies of a Hitler or Stalin.
“Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any God’s presence in his life. He is the 21st century man,” Bowie said in 2002.
The CD booklet offered some visuals. There were defaced religious paintings of the Renaissance: Duccio’s Madonna and of Dolci’s Mary Magdalene were blinded, whether via semen-like splats or gouged out with a knife. Raphael’s St. Sebastian was slashed to pieces, martyring him pre-martyrdom. Reni’s horrific Slaughter of the Innocents was given hearty blots of encouragement. Rubens’ roly-poly pagan Christ and John the Baptist were quadrisected.
Desecration becomes a kind of moral necessity—something that must be constantly performed, and performed collectively, in order to destroy the things that stand in judgment over us.
Roger Scruton, The Face of God.
Then three sticks of dynamite on a shelf. Nietzsche’s Gay Science, which offered that God is dead and man should stop worshiping His ghost to walk freely in the sun (“We philosophers and “free spirits” feel ourselves irradiated as by a new dawn by the report that the “old God is dead”; our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger“).
Beside it, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, in which dreams are the “royal road” to the cellar of our unconscious (which is where Bowie seems to be going in a Heathen photo (see above). As Iggy Pop once sang—look down your back stairs buddy: somebody’s living there and he don’t really feel the weather). In dreams, Freud said, “each night every man is a superman…dreams expose us ‘as ethical and moral imbeciles’ and are ‘the blessed fulfillers of wishes.’” As Peter Conrad wrote: “That is what gods were supposed to be…If we can gratify our own wishes, the gods and even God himself are obsolete.”
Lastly Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity: time and space aren’t absolute and constant, the world isn’t the work of any celestial clockmaker. The writer Ortega y Gasset believed Einstein had turned reality into cinema—now time could be cranked to Keystone Kops speed, could move in slow motion. (The theory also posited the existence of black holes, a favorite hobbyhorse of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie). So in short: God is dead, our dreams hint that we are all secret monsters and tyrants, and the very fabric of time can be folded and stretched. A world fit for heathen, apparently.
Heathen kind of felt right, in as much as it was about the unilluminated mind. It was an idea, a feeling, a sense of what 21st Century man might become if he’s not already: someone who’s lowered his standards spiritually, intellectually, morally whatever…someone who’s not even bothered searching for a spiritual life anymore but who’s completely existing on a materialistic plain. But just using the word “heathen” is kind of less preachy than explaining all that. ‘Cos if you wrote all that on the front of an album cover, nobody would bother buying it, would they?
Bowie, electronic press kit interview, 2002.
Bowie was playing on the word “heathen” (one who worships idols or many gods; someone outside the Christian faith; someone regarded as rude, illiterate, barbarous or irreligious),* which is at root a mistranslation. It’s derived from a 4th Century Gothic bishop’s version of the Book of Mark, where the bishop used the Gothic haiþnô (woman of the heath) in place of the original word: the person referred to in Mark 7:26 was a Greek woman, hellēnis.
The bishop was just bringing the New Testament up to date for his parishioners. The foreign unbelievers were no longer the pantheistic Greeks but the “wasteland dwellers,” i.e., the barbarians living out in the heaths and who increasingly were threatening the fragile Roman Empire.
The booklet photos suggested a further revision of the word. Bowie played a new character whose look was possibly inspired by a photograph of the naturalist Jean Henri Fabre (and in turn Bowie’s look rather creepily predicts the Slender Man).*** An immaculately-dressed barbarian, shredding books, striking out words, defacing paintings. In the cover photograph his eyes are both blind (milked-out, like the vandalism done to the paintings) and have “sight”–Christian fish-symbols in lieu of irises. You could call this hedging one’s bets.
Another song had worked in this grim field. But “Modern Love” was a Top 10 hit, brassy and insistent. A man gleefully ticks off everything that’s failed him, from marriage to “God and man.” There’s no sign of life: it’s just a power to charm. When there’s nothing of value, one must accept nothing, and work hard at it. No more confessions! No religion! Don’t believe in modern love! (You can hear the party noise of “Modern Love” coming through the walls at times in “Heathen.”)
Why now was the idea of an spiritually empty world such a drag? Wasn’t all of this getting a bit tiresome? These long gloom-and-doom numbers, these songs of ashen men mourning their wasted youths? These dirges, these late November still-lives? These landscapes of departing angels and empty trains and defaced books in empty libraries? Was this how Bowie would expire: in a grey mist of pity and regret?
After saying, for much of his life, that rock ‘n’ roll was just one medium for him, one trade among many (and not a very good trade at that), Bowie was still playing rock music in 2002. The films hadn’t quite worked out, though he was still adept at making cameos. The paintings were fine amateur works. The plays had stopped with The Elephant Man. The books had never (will never?) come. He was still, at 55, riding the merry-go-round. He was still indentured to a circus: album-press-tour, album-press-tour. And now the circus was in shambles.
He didn’t bother making videos for Heathen because he knew they wouldn’t be played. “I’d like to believe I’m a realist and I don’t believe an artist of my age group will get either radio play or TV,” he said in an Early Show interview. “So I thought it rather asinine to spend money on those particular areas….my best ways [of promotion] are commercials, Internet, talking to you.” And sure enough, few noticed the album apart from fans and a few British critics. Heathen failed to make the year-end lists of everything from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, the Pazz and Jop to the NME. It was a respectable album, a suitable work from an aging man. It was reviewed kindly, condescended to and quickly forgotten. [CO: well, maybe not: see comments]
So he aimed to take apart “David Bowie,” once and for all. There wouldn’t be any farewell tours or Last Waltz or Abbey Road. First he would turn himself into a Grand Old Man, a Pierrot figure once again, some weary old crock wandering in the wilderness. After that he would make himself disappear: quietly and slowly, a long campaign.
So how do you begin to dismantle a house? You start with the roof. To dispatch the man, start with his god.
Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.
* If the song’s in D-flat, the verse progression is I/v-of-V7/V/iii/I/v-of-V7 (Db-Eb7-Ab-Fm-Db-Eb7), which is pretty straightforward as such things go. While the two other verses feel like there’s been a move to G-flat (Gb-Ab7-Abm7-Db7-Gb-Eb7-Ab-Fm), you could argue they’re still in an estranged relationship to D-flat. [A very compelling claim for the song actually being in Ab is in comments]
** Definitions from Webster’s New Twentieth Century Unabridged, 2nd. ed., a tome so thick it could stop a bullet. More on the birth and travels of the word “heathen” in Joshua Rood’s “Heathen: Linguistic Origins and Early Context.”
*** An inspired suggestion by Alan Titschmarsh on the Bowie Wonderworld board, members of which also identified most of the paintings (all but one: does anyone know?) (solved: see comments, it’s Raphael’s “Angel” from the Baronci Altarpiece—thanks “rebel yell”)
Top: “Vincent From France,” “The Empty Submarine Base—Lorient, 2001”; Markus Klinko and Indriani, photographs for the Heathen booklet; Jonathan Barnbrook, defaced art/design.