Heathen (the Rays).
Heathen (live, 2002).
Heathen (live, 2002).
Heathen (Later With Jools Holland, 2002).
Heathen (live, 2003).
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.
A fine entry, with the exception of one point.
Quite a few people noticed Heathen when it arrived. Over two million, in fact, with his highest American chart appearance in nearly 20 years. It spent almost half a year in the English charts.
And keep in mind, this was after …hours failed with the tried and true methods: The videos, radio remixes and what-not. That album was the first in nearly 30 years to not make the American top 40.
While it may not have appeared on many year end lists, Heathen was certainly celebrated upon its release, at least here in the states, as his true return to form and best post-Scary Monsters album until The Next Day surprised everyone in 2013.
yes, I overstated the case to make a larger and possibly quite wrong-headed point. but keep in mind it likely would not have spent half a year in the album charts of 1994 or 1984: it was able to do so in part because sales of new CDs were in freefall. & it got zero airplay, at least in NYC. I think it was different in the UK, certainly
CDs weren’t yet in free fall: this would start to happen the following year and especially 2004, after which they haven’t recovered. The Eminem Show till managed to ship eight million in the U.S in 2002-2003.
One of your most provocative pieces yet, Chris. Fascinating stuff. For me easily the finest closing track on a DB album in years, with some spooky thematic similarity to the last one I really liked, Goodbye Mr. Ed. on TMII, with its Manhattoes tumbling from AT&T.
As big as I was on the album, I found it really underappreciated myself. It did seem to make more ripples than its precursor, certainly in the UK (where I believe it made Q’s year-end list, if not NME’s), and it also ranked in the year-end top 30 poll of Canadian rock critics done by NOW Magazine in Toronto.
An excellent piece, great food for thought.
I might have to disagree with part of your interpretation though.
“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.”
Based on the quotes from Bowie from around this time that you have supplied, I get the impression that “Heathen (The Rays)” is his lamenting or fearing the death of the sacred, not declaring it to be bunk.
With Outside, he seemed to (semi)-optimistically assume that everyone would bask in a sort of post-modern take on religious ritual. As time passed, he realized that he had been right, but that the rituals of our society were blind, meaningless, materialistic, superficial. In other words, ours is a new religion of the profane. “Heathen” seems to me to be a continuation of his Dialectic of Enlightenment, last heard on “Law (Earthlings on Fire).” Our light is dimming, our supermen are flabby and tired, and we’re too distracted to notice or care.
Interesting tidbit about the etymology of “heathen” The gospel of Mark can be thought of as one long argument for the spread of Christianity from the Jews of Israel to the Gentiles of the surrounding lands, and that passage about the Syrophoenician woman encapsulates the theme perfectly. While Mark regarded the “heathens” as potential future torch-bearers of the growing Christ movement, Bowie seems less than happy that we are throwing our crumbs of divinity to the dogs.
So it goes.
Yeah, I tend to go along with your reading of that aspect of the song.
Fascinating complement to Chris’s fascinating article.
And a fascinating song too. DB found a rich seam with this sort of stuff.
Great entry. However your comment about Heathen passing unnoticed and being all but forgotten must be a very American-centric one.
Over here in Ireland (and the UK) Heathen is anything but forgotten – with as many reviews favourably comparing The Next Day to it as there were reviews comparing TND to Scary Monsters. In fact Heathen caused the biggest Bowie splash – album wise – since Let’s Dance. It was a big seller and made most, if not all, end of year lists.
Heathen garnered a lot of attention for Bowie when it was nominated for a Mercury Prize – the music award coveted by ‘hip’, ‘young’ bands.
Heathen was also the only Bowie I saw that was advertised with boasts of it’s sales as an in-point – “The TWO MILLION selling album from David Bowie”, etc.
The video for Everyone Says Hi also made some MTV shows. And it was shown on Top of the Pops too. It garnered decent radio play here in Dublin.
Without a doubt, Heathen made Bowie very cool again over here and it’s still a well known Bowie album amongst the music hoi polloi.
fair points. thanks!
Just to add (again from a UK perspective) that publicity-wise came made of Visconti’s working with Bowie again. And Bowie curated, and performed in the annual ‘Meltdown’ festival on London’s South Bank. – A bit of a double whammy.
How odd that this and “Strangers When We Meet” are my favorite Bowie closers.
Who was making his clothes at this point?
As this entry helped to remind me, i really think it’s a shame he shied away from videos for a time – the design of the album and Bowie’s look were so strong, for the first time perhaps in quite a while, that it’s a shame we never saw more of the character he seemed to be developing. – though I do appreciate that leaving it oblique fits somehow. A great big void he returned to a decade on.
Much as I like Outside, it’s this vibe and project I feel could have sustained three albums – even if all we really got was five tracks across just one.
With regards his lack of ‘proper’ videos around this time – I remember reading that this had something to do with his then record deal which revolved around distribution rights only (or something like that). The bottom line was that, due to his deal, the record company had nothing to gain from funding his videos. So if Bowie wanted a video, he would have to finance it himself. And so for both Heathen and Reality, no proper videos were produced.
In the years, arguably, before MiniDV/digital was cheap enough to reasonably do while still looking as good as film. Making a music video of any grandeur would have been quite an expense. And I doubt Bowie in 2002 would do anything visual, cheaply.
Easily one of my favourite Bowie songs, and one that defines his late period for me. I always think there is a touch of Ballard in the
architectural observations here and in New Killer Star.
When I first heard the recorded version I became obsessed and played it to many slightly bemused friends in an attempt to spread wider enthusiasm for late Bowie. I love the tired, end-of-civilisation atmosphere of this one – and I love rock music that turns against rock music’s fundamental principles of sex and escapism to present such a morbid vision – especially from such a storied FM icon as Bowie. Nick Cave’s Abbatoir Blues feels like a second cousin of this song, albeit featuring a more literal depiction of a godless world.
I saw him play this one in Perth, Western Australia. I hadn’t heard Heathen at the time and was stunned by the quality of the songs from the album, and cheered by Bowie’s obvious confidence in the material (for a “legacy act” tour, songs from Heathen and Reality made up a significant chunk of this show and the one I saw in Sydney a few weeks prior).
Heathen (The Rays) was performed with Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey acting out the “blindness” bit of stage business that I think originated on the 2002 tour – it was pretty clunky but, again, great to see Bowie indulging in a touch of “arty” stagecraft.
Oh, and if one can be ahead of the curve regarding a retro tendency, I think this album was definitely ahead of the curve in the resurrection of “celestial” synth voicings – I remember thinking they sounded quite awkward and dated at the time (although not ineffective in this way) – but 10+ years later, in the wake of various Oneohtrix Point Never-style synth voyagers, it sounds pretty on point.
Youd probably love Neon Bible by Arcade Fire if you don’t already
Just been watching Bowe and Gail Ann doing the stage exit on the Jools Holland show. Very powerful, this late in the day.
Col, a lovely write up. The interesting bit about the word origin of “heathen” as a re-purposing, or possibly misinterpretation… or, “ripping and re-wrapping” seems to be Bowie “catnip.” Wonderful.
Will you touch upon the 30th reissues though? Not the content as much as the embalming/exhuming? I remember the Heathen era being an exciting time, as there was a huge amount of Bowie product in the stores. The Ziggy reissues, the film in theaters, the singles with the Toy b-sides. The “Best Of” DVD. The Moby tour.
It all seemed to be leading up to something, and maybe that something was an ending… and maybe not.
This is a fascinating entry, complex and multi-layered. The Hamlet (?) reference is apt – “an antic boy at a funeral”, and I particularly like the suggestion that there’s a “sense that some of the players got the wrong script”.
It’s the sombre closer to the album, but the players set off at a jaunty high tempo (around 120), an insistent bass drum driving everything along, even a Hang Onto Yourself guitar riff kicking in, perhaps at odds with the singer’s dark introspection.
By the mid-point of the song, “you say you’ll leave me” there is genuine anguish in his voice, life itself is leaving, and there’s nowhere to hide now, not even under the bracken.
Any feeling that the singer and the players are somehow out of synch has gone. They carry the song to its end on a warm wave of atmospherics, as if they were about to give us a new version of the second half of Low.
It’s a wonderful closer to Heathen.
Fascinating song, a culmination of his artistic rebirth post Tin Machine. His heathen persona was the last time he projected something or somebody else. As the album closer ‘heathen’, the song, leaves one in desperate silence. As if God had written the sense of life on a sheet of paper, sent it down from the sky, Bowie touches it, but the wind blows it away. The album reached nr. 4 in the german charts. But I would still say that it’s underappreciated.
Super review as always…one of his best tracks of the decade.
Thank you for that great entry. Very interesting background story. I think Heathen (The Rays) is really a grand song of sublime beauty. However, I tend to the overall interpretation s.t. did above: “I get the impression that “Heathen (The Rays)” is his lamenting or fearing the death of the sacred, not declaring it to be bunk”. For me, too, it always seemed that the “Heathen” state of mind is something Bowie is lamenting about rather than embracing it.
May I add a very interesting musical analysis of the song I have read recently in a blog on BowieWonderworld. It is so brilliant it just needs to be added to this discussion, sorry for just copying and pasting:
“I agree it’s an incredible song. So moving. It’s because of the chords that break down the pattern in the song about 3 or 4 times, so they’re a little unexpected and work brilliantly with the vocal melody.
It’s in the key of Ab, and oscillates between Db and Eb with an absolutely majestic yet ambient guitar solo intro shimmering over the extended opening bars on the live version. That alone makes it beautiful enough, but the addition of the accidentals makes it one of my favourite ever Bowie songs.
The main pattern is a slow Db then Eb , back and forth, with Ab Fm resolving and completing the cycle after (Coldplay’s Viva la Vida uses that exact progression for the entire song) but then with the “waiting for something” section, Bowie drops in a Gb, and the Ab goes from major to minor before it reverts back to the normal pattern (Gb) waiting for (Ab) something (Abm) looking for (Db) someone. It sort of pulls you out of your comfort zone and adds a wonderful kick to the song.
Then it does a similar thing, but slightly differently “(Gb) Is there no (Eb) reason? (Ab) Have I stared too (Fm) long?”, almost the original progression, but a Gb displacing the Db in the 4 chord cycle.
‘(Db) oh oh (Eb) oh (Db) oh oh ( Eb) oh…’
And I agree, the next part is perhaps the most moving. Bowie drops in that Gb again, but sings higher, reaching Eb, which augments the chord to make it sound like a Gb6, (or a Ebm with Gb on the bass). So it’s a major chord that ends up feeling like a minor one. Imbuing the song with even more emotion.
‘You’ll say you (Gb) leave me (Ab) (Fm) (C7)’ A new chord added, C7, twisting the song even further from where it was originally, and another progression to wrap your ears around.
Then it reverts back to the original Db Eb Am Fm progression, but reordered to give a different emotional resonance, for when Bowie sings “and the rays high” the note is Eb on ‘rays’ and, combined with the chord at the time (Db), it gives a temporary feeling of optimism, as though the Sun shines into the song as a glimpse of hope.
‘And when the (Ab) Sun’s low (Fm) and the (Db) rays high (Eb)’
I can (Gb)feel it now (Ab) I can (Fm) feel it die (C7) (Same as the ‘you’ll say you’ll leeeeave me’ section) Bowie singing feel it die over a minor chord
Then the wonderfully understated Db Eb progression returns and Bowie slowly claps before being led away like a blind man by Gail as Gerry’s guitar completes the outro.
So, throughout the song, Bowie keeps on changing and reordering it, yet not to the point of it becoming an incoherent mess, but a slowly shifting and moving song. So moving that Bowie said he had tears streaming down his face when he wrote it. I really had to listen to it 20 times to properly appreciate it as there was so much to take in.”
(Entry by user Rodriguez on BWW message board, 23 April 2014)
Despite the somewhat bleak lyrics I have always considered this quite an upbeat song. The comparison with modern love works really well in that context. An excellent closer to a pretty strong album.
As for the album art, it is among my favourites. Barnbrook would apply the same icon defacing tricks on The Next Day, only now Bowie was the sacred one. There is a quite interesting interview with Barnbrook on the V&A website that was part of the ‘David Bowie Is’ show where he also goes into what the spiral image represents and how the title appearing upside-down on the cover was a mark of a heathen being anti-establishment.(the best part of the interview however is how after going into depth regarding Heathen and TND, his involvement in the Reality cover art is hurriedly glossed over in the post-script with a cough and splutter).
yeah – the look and feel of Heathen so strong it’s still a mystery to me why it was ditched so comprehensively on Reality. It’s an album I love a lot (and Bowie’s Slimane suits remain a stunner), but part of me can’t help but think it’s a shame it seemed to have come at the cost of a development of Heathen’s themes. But then came The Next Day.
“Mark Barnbrook?” Surely you meant Jonathan Barnbrook, the famous type designer? As for glossing over the design of “Reality,” I completely understand that! The anime-derived illustration style kept me from buying that one for a few years! Definitely the runt of the Barnbrook/Bowie litter. Actually, the design was made in conjunction with Rex [The Residents] Ray and I suspect that the illustration may have to be placed at Ray’s feet. It has the whiff of the 3D graphics that Ray over uses for his Residents cover art.
yes: the perils of having no proofreader on this thing.
Jiminy! That was fast! At least your postings are clearly written with some forethought and deepvconsideration, unlike my own hastily contrived scrawlings! If I ever get to retire [not likely] it may be fun at that time to expand all 12,486 entries on Post-Punk Monk beyond their first draft status.
Can I admit something? Never listened to Reality all the way through. The notion of judging a book by it’s cover, or, in this case, a record by it’s sleeve, is important to me. I couldn’t stand how the record looks. (unrelated: Peter Saville forever).
If Bowie were to do anything else with his professional career, especially w/r/t the recent wave of 7″ re-issues in the UK (See, “Knock on Wood”), he should do himself some justice and get a better cover. Reality looks like a goddamn train wreck and it would pains me to even look at. Couple that with the thought, for a time, that the album was Bowie’s last, and I just wanted to vomit.
Vinnie M – I hear you! It’s ghastly beyond belief. The worst Bowie cover ever. Every time my wife [also a huge Bowie fan] saw it in the store with me, we’d both wince in disgust. It took over two years before we overcame our disgust to buy it used. It’s not bad. There are some great songs and a great cover of “Pablo Picasso” to recommend from it. When I first got “The Next Day” [just last month actually, I was not going to spend precious cash on the first release in March 2013 knowing that all recent Bowie albums were hastily re-issued in deluxe pressings further down the road] it sounded like what I was expecting; a continuation of “Reality,” more or less. Then after several plays I could not help but notice that the caliber of the songs was uniformly not notch in a way that can’t be said about “Reality.” For over 30 years music journalists have had a key on their typewriters [now a macro] that would dutifully print “Bowie’s best since ‘Scary Monsters,” but this time even I’m drinking the Kool-aid. But my favorite Bowie album post-1980? That’s still “The Buddha of Suburbia.”
I think you guys mean hours…, whose cover shows Bowie in his worst haircut and clothes (flip-flops!) since ’87.
Reality >>>>> Heathen
Those be fighting words.
David Bowie in poor styling is much preferable to anime David Bowie any day of the week. David Bowie with a grey box over his face is preferable to anime David Bowie. Fake, animated David Bowie from The Venture Bros. is preferable to anime David Bowie (the list goes on).
And – … hours has TWO David Bowies on the cover. Two!
b-b-but Bowie IS a cartoon!
Yes! Yes! YES!!
Reality always made me think of Mario Paint. ‘hours…’ would be passable if it weren’t for that awful hologram slip. Both are definitely bottom of the Bowie cover barrel. Who would have thought that Never Let Me Down would have such close company?
s.t. – Oh, you make a compelling argument with “Never Let Me Down!” I’d suppressed my memory of that, and like “Reality,” it’s trying desperately hard and achieving so very little; a perfect metaphor for the music that NLMD contained, actually. So in that respect it’s a perfect example of form reflecting content! In effect, a perfect cover design in that it achieves the aim of design, but yes, I’d call it the worst. ‘Hours…’ Never struck me as all that bad in comparison. The hair and sandals were a problem, of course.
It’s a lovely song, a fascinating, uncanny mix of a Spector-esque sound and a tall, ominous lyric.
Speaking of tall and ominous, your Slender Man observation has really got me thinking. He is, of course, centuries old, and spans several continents (fairly heathen too – here’s a non-definitive list of slendermen):
Any artist who traffics in the uncanny is likely to reproduce him at some stage.
The main historical themes seem to me to be child mortality and the dark forest. I’m not quite sure how this meshes with Heathen, or why Slender stories and images caught on at the turn of this decade. That said fearing for our children is very common (and very difficult to express, hence, perhaps, cultural metaphors like these), and fear for children very easily transposes into fear for the future.
Long time lurker, first time poster as they say. I know it must sound trite by now, but this is a truly wonderful blog. One of the few times that art commentary/analysis transcends its “tablecloth” limitations –an item that needs its main counterpart in order to attain any substance. By this point, Bowie’s songs seem to be pretext for some truly independent, inspiring writing –proving that a picnic can be just as nourishing as a gathering around the dinner table. Kudos.
Now, the “Heathen” song has always been evocative of a particular image for me: that of a huge, modern city during a sort of second Ice Age (not a particularly prestigious reference, but something like New York in “The Day After Tomorrow”) where the citizens have gathered to ship off their God back to the skies, like launching a giant, luminous rocket. All dressed in formal business suits, wearing Rolex watches, staring blindly. And despite the morbid atmosphere, it’s still sort of a creepy celebration, a funeral with a dance beat (the drumline, subdued but definitely danceable, reminiscent of some tribal rhythm, man returning to his most primal means of expression despite the slick appearances). It’s like the distorted opposite of that long coda from “Memory of a Free Festival”, where a bunch of joyous carnival people welcomed the heaven-sent Sun Machine as it was landing on their yards, betokening a grand party –or, at least, a decade’s worth of anxious spiritual search. Now, centuries later, there is a feast again –a pristine yuppyish gathering for heathens, worn out with the Sun Machine, returning it to where it came for. One can hear echoes of Peter Gabriel’s –glorious– “Here Comes the Flood”: “On the tall cliffs they were getting older, sons and daughters / The jaded underworld was riding high / Waves of steel hurled metal at the sky / And as the nail sunk in the cloud, the rain was warm and soaked the crowd”. There, water signified a big spiritual wave which would meld human minds together –in Bowie’s vision there is just a crowd of fish-out-of-water, spiritually empty, blank-eyed unbelievers kissing off the Gods, deserting themselves of ‘divine’ presence or, at least, any need for search.
I find this whole image deeply upsetting, and that from the perspective of an agnostic/atheist. So thank you Mr. Bowie, and thank you Chris.
PS. I remember you posting an article of yours on Bowiesongs regarding the last episode of a TV series, the title of which I don’t seem to remember. You appeared really proud of it, like it was your magnum opus! Could you please post a link of that cause I can’t find it since?
hello—this unfortunately doesn’t ring a bell at all: I’m curious myself as to what it was I was talking about.. Maybe one of the Hollywood posts from Locust St?
& those weren’t magnum opuses by any means. it’s early, clunky stuff for the most part.
An episode by episode analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sounds like a great post-Dame project, Chris! (hint hint) 🙂
i’ll boot that one to Phil Sandifer (never saw Buffy)
I’m a very recent convert myself. What starts off as campy, catty high school horror comedy eventually transforms into some of the best television ever produced. Its creator Joss Whedon once described it as a hybrid of X-Files, My So Called Life, Twin Peaks, and The Simpsons, and I think that’s about right.
s.t., I’m not one for vamps and that sort of thing (do love sci-fi-ish stuff tho) but I did finally cave in and watched Buffy a few years ago and agree (though I was not fond of the final season much). The Body is one of the most intense and best hours of television I’ve ever watched.
Maj, yes. The Body is crushing. One of the best artistic depictions of death and loss out there. As for Season 7, I quite enjoyed it, but I know that you’re not alone there. I think I only had a problem with a few details (the bit with Angel was kind of lame).
The unidentified mutilated painting looks like an Eve, but not a famous one.
Regarding the paintings…Yukio Mishima was fascinated with Saint Sebastian and even posed in pictures as the saint. The unidentified painting, would not surprise me if it was Saint Lucy makes for a nice visual pun.
Last painting…Raphael, Angel (fragment of the Baronci Altarpiece)
fantastic. thank you.
Took me a while, sorry, but finally finished the – as usually great – post!
What can I say, the song is great, the production is great……even if it’s all frightfully depressing (and the older I get the more depressing it becomes).
As for the album……..I became a Bowie fan because at that time I subbed to this Czech music magazine, which despite being called Rock & Pop was basically home to stuffy middle aged men who liked their rock classic or occasionally avant garde, but mostly hated pop. Heathen therefore got the best rating, so the next time I was in a record store I gave it a listen (awww those “booths”) and liked what I heard.
So I can’t speak for the UK and US press but it got enough positive talk here that a 15 year-old someone who barely heard of Bowie before got interested.
I’m not sure I’d react in the same way nowadays. I seemed to like my depressing albums when I was a teenager…nowadays I can rarely get chained to something gloomy for too long. Yet I still have tremendous affection for the album and still think most of the songs on Heathen are excellent.
1. I feel almost guilty for not liking this song, or not getting it. When I hear that Bowie wrote it with tears streaming down his face, or see the Olympia audience cheering and clapping along, I feel like an atheist at a revival meeting. I can understand lyrics like “They came down hard on the faggots” or “It’s safe in the city to love in a doorway”. But I can’t understand lyrics like “Sky made of glass, made for a real world” or “Is there no reason, have I stared too long”. To me, The Laughing Gnome is much more profound, and I mean that quite seriously.
2. What impresses me in this song is the Duane Eddy riff that comes out of nowhere, and the “Oh oh oh” bits, especially when Bowie “smudges” them in the live version. That’s his “brushstroke” thing, which I always think of as something Japanese, like the delicate yet deadly stroke of a Japanese calligrapher who might as well be brandishing a sword as an ink brush. Or something Expressionist, like a Kirchner brushstroke that’s breaking up even as it throws colour into a woman’s dress. That breaking stroke is where I recognise “Bowie”.
3. I also, of course, recognise Bowie physically when he sings these songs live in 2002. It’s perhaps the last time — or getting close to the last time — we see him looking like himself: youthful, still able to resemble, when the light hits him right, Greta Garbo on the cover of Hunky Dory. (That was Greta Garbo on the cover of Hunky Dory, wasn’t it?) Later, something funny began to happen with his mouth, which now looks somewhat turtle-like. His eyes had also changed when he came back from his ten-year hiatus.
4. There’s a bit of a conflict set up by the fact that the music and stage-lighting from 2002 is alienating, whereas the physical condition of pre-heart-attack Bowie is outwardly alluring. The much-mentioned digital synth pads join the horrible blue stage lighting in persuading me that 2002 was not music’s finest hour, and yet Bowie’s body is pretty much undiminished, at this point, from its peak thirty years before. He looks beautiful, and happy.
5. “I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity, pottery, and ended up singing” is a much better line than anything in the song. It’s funny because it’s true, and because of “pottery”, which isn’t strictly a religion. (Of course, he could also have mentioned pantomime, piracy, disco, sci-fi and his column in Mirabelle magazine.) “What a shit game” is also a great line, like his other one about how “I’m not going to enjoy being dead much”.
6. I suppose nebulous spiritual grandiosity that carries you along if you suspend disbelief is what U2 have based their whole career on, and Bowie has been fairly friendly with Bono at various points.
7. When I was in Berlin a couple of weeks ago I took the opportunity to see the Bowie museum show for the second time. I think what struck me this time was how formatted by the fashions and notions of the time Bowie always was: pages from Nova or Queen magazine might as well be Ziggy, and 1975 Bowie sometimes looks a lot like Mary Tyler Moore that same year. In other words, the Nietzschean superman angle has been overplayed. Far from being resonant because he was forging his own strange destiny, Bowie has been resonant because he’s gone through the same stuff as the rest of us.
8. In 2002, that was of course 9/11 (and, more prosaically, certain kinds of digital lighting rigs and synth pads, and of course the internet). I was in New York on 9/11, and have my own memories of what it felt like. Bowie’s performance of Paul Simon’s America did actually resonate with me quite a bit, but the Heathen record was something I skipped at the time. (I liked Everyone Says Hi a lot, though.) So far, coming back to it forensically, I’m not feeling that I made a big mistake.
9. I was elsewhere altogether that year: the record that resonated with me most, post-9/11, was Holger Hiller and Thomas Fehlman’s 1982 version of Hindemith’s children’s opera Wir Bauen Eine Stadt. Emotionally, what I needed was a strong, childlike positivity about the possibility of rebuilding.
10. I wish I had commented more (at all, really) in the early days of this blog, because I feel so many lukewarm responses give a lopsided impression. I’m only “meh” because David Bowie has been such an extraordinary artist for me, and I slightly resent this “Last Temptation of Bowie” period where he gets to live a happy, relatively normal life and make perfectly adequate Dad Rock. I don’t resent it on a personal level, but on an artistic level I do, because I can imagine him having become a more powerful artist in later life. Bowie once said that “after 40 you either sink or swim”, and the implication was that he was very much swimming. And artistically, I’m really not so sure. There seems to be a lack of risk-taking.
Wonderful comments, thanks for sharing.
Re: 10. I agree. Bowie makes rock and roll/music that is too safe. The experimental/boundary pushing nature just isn’t there. For as good as Heathen and The Next Day are, they’re not great. “Dad rock”, unfortunately, is accurate.
(Without meaning to go in another direction entirely,) Bowie’s “post-40” output pales in comparison to Scott Walker’s “post-40” and I wonder how that makes him feel even today.
Especially considering, much like Tilt‘s release only 4 months before 1. Outside, Walker’s own surprise release Bish Bosch 4 months The Next Day was announced. (Had Bowie been planning to make a grand statement for months about the release? Had Bowie’s team anticipated another Scott Walker record so close in time to Bowie’s? Is this even relevant? Who cares? Etc).
The only reason I use Scott Walker for benchmarking, is that Bowie has, too. Walker consistently couldn’t care less about sales, and continues onward, making records that sound new, fresh, and are exciting.
Re: 10 I disagree. In later life Bowie tried making edgier, riskier music, such as Outside and Earthling, and was roundly ridiculed as an old grandad trying too hard to be down with the kids. See the reaction of the NIN fans when her toured with Trent Reznor, or the way the rock press universally vilified Outside as being too strange, busy and overblown, while simultaneously lapping up Radiohead’s Ok Computer which dealt with the same issues of pre-millennial angst.
And don’t even get me started on the derision that came his way for having the audacity to try his hand at drum’n’bass on Earthling.
Oh, but I will get you started.
As much as I love Bowie, there are a lot of people who claim he’s nothing more than a great-con, who takes his personas and sounds from others. Whether its minor glam stars, black musicians in Philadelphia, Iggy Pop at various points, Scott Walker or Lou Reed, his ability to crib particular styles, add a twist, and say “voila!” is bar-none.
Later day Bowie may have been taking the sound of Scott Walker and Trent Reznor in places for 1. Outside, and then Prodigy for Earthling, but neither should have been shocking to anyone who was a consistent David Bowie fan. (“Isn’t this the guy who made ‘Let’s Dance’?!”, &c.) Take what’s popular, see how it fits, move on to the next thing.
However, … hours, Heathen and The Next Day are probably Bowie at his purest (I can’t speak for Reality). Not trying to emulate anyone too much (except maybe himself [Toy]) he made music with musicians he was comfortable with, and made a genuine go at it. They’re just fine as albums. But, for a man over 50, making Dad Rock wouldn’t be hard, and for Bowie, it isn’t. (“I’d Rather Be High”? Really, now? Take a mountain of cocaine and make another album with the ferocity of Station to Station)
For the record, I hope he makes more music, just to test fans like myself who say he hasn’t made a great record in 30 years. (Or, 20, Buddha of Suburbia is nearly there). Or, at least, for the genuine thrill of hearing a new Bowie record, with the occasional great track slipping out (“Where Are We Now?”)
RE: Radiohead. Don’t bother bringing in a red herring here. I’m not biting.
We could debate the merits of later DB music till the cows come home, but whatever its flaws may be, it’s certainly not the kind of thing I think of when I hear the term “dad rock”.
I’ve just remembered another term: “millionaire rock”.
DB’s certainly been guilty of perpetrating millionaire rock at times.
I love Bowie’s last three albums, but I would like to hear something different. I see Reality written off all the time, but it has Bring Me The Disco King on it. I liked The Next Day but was thrown slightly the first time I heard it, after a period of 10 years, and it hewed to such a similar template as what came before.
Not immediately clear what a more experimental or adventurous Bowie might sound like in 2014 – I don’t think he ever will release a Tilt, or something similar, because it just feels as though it wouldn’t convince somehow. Likewise, working with someone like Otomo Yoshihide is probably off the table, because David Sylvian got there first. Probably one of the difficulties Bowie’s faced making music late in life is that so many of his pretenders have been, quite consciously, trying to outpace him for so long – Sylvian probably now foremost among them. Small Metal Gods is probably the best song late-period Bowie never wrote.
I’d love a new team on his next album (but not james murphy, please), and hopefully something both left-field and – moreover – young. I’d like to hear him working with Arca, ideally. One of the songs he made with FKA Twigs last year, Water Me ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFtMl-uipA8&feature=kp ) is more or less my favourite song of the decade. And it’s a sound I could imagine Bowie inserting himself into.
Or someone like Hudson Mohawke to throw a more obvious name in there.
If we take someone like Bjork as a benchmark, I liked Biophillia a lot but I thought the remix album, bastards, was extraordinary. The Virus remix by Hudson Mohawke is basically the type of music I’d like to see Bowie making https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVwuEUpjcNo&feature=kp – A new Bowie album with Death Grips collabs, These New Puritains as a backing band? There’s probably not much I’d want to hear more.
Back in 2004 and 2005, when a bunch of great music was coming out, and Bowie was being seen at various shows of these newer bands (i myself spotted him and Lou in the audience at an Antony & the Johnsons concert)–I would daydream of a “final” album that would at last go for something new and edgy. Collaborations with Animal Collective (when they were still good), Cocorosie, Antony, Matmos, Dave Sitek, etc. Aside from a great guest spot on a TVotR song, it was not to be.
But…Death Grips and Bowie? I shudder to think what that would sound like (and I say that as a fan of DG). James Blake perhaps, or Oneohotrix Point Never, maybe the Knife.
So here we are, over 40 years since Bowie first burst onto the world stage, and we’re still having to counter these arguments that he’s an essentially hollow being who simply synthesises (ie/ rips off ) his influences.
These criticisms were first put forward by the creaking remnants of the 60s, with their prevailing ethos of “authenticity”, because they were suspicious of a talent who chose to present himself in outlandish costumes instead of down home denim, and -gasp- worse still didn’t adhere to any style loyalty.
First up: That entire wave of so-called “genuine” stars like the Stones, the Yardbirds et.al who first appeared were all in thrall to the delta blues men. Yet no one’s ever accused them of cribbing and twisting a particular style.The only difference between them and Bowie is, they ploughed the same ground over and over their entire careers, while Bowie chose to move on to the next thing that intrigued him. Which in my books makes him far more interesting.
The fact is that no artist creates in a vacuum, except maybe someone who lives on a desert island and has had no contact with the outside world.
I believe that Bowie has made much great music over the last 30 years. I would add that his work in the 90s and 00s was vastly superior to his 80s output, despite that dreck’s million-selling status.
Finally, I have to say that mentioning Outside and OK Computer in the same context was not in any way meant to be a red herring. It struck me at the time that when the former was released it was met with an avalanche of negativity in the media (translating to poor sales) for its supposed pretentiousness, while Radiohead’s every fart was gobbled up hungrily, just because they were the shiny new thing. (I like Ok Computer by the way.)An example of ageism?? You bet.
I think Bowie’s status at that point as a fallen idol made him a safe whipping boy for people interested in trying to sound knowing.
And it’s turned around completely again since the comeback. Now it’s cooler to like him than dislike him again.
@s.t I really think death grips could work! from a production side certainly, on a Bowie song – imo their remix of Bjork’s thunderbolt was better than the album cut – and it’s not much of a stretch to see them with Bowie. It’d be less weird than Leon, in any case.
Arca though, just imagine.
Momus: But I can’t understand lyrics like “Sky made of glass”.
“It was as though the surface of the glass had been the arch of the sky, enclosing a tiny world with its atmosphere complete” – George Orwell, 1984.
In 1984, Winston Smith buys a glass paperweight, with a piece of pink coral inside. Smith is much attached to it, and it comes to symbolise his affair with Julia. The paperweight is smashed to smithereens when he and Julia are arrested by the Thought Police.
What can I add to this great article? Not much really, but I do have to say that the final point about Heathen being overlooked is not that much out of step with reality (Ha! 🙂 ). I recall that this album got respectable reviews and it sold comparatively well, yet it got lost after the post-release events surrounding Reality. Heathen therefore occupies a weird place in Bowie’s discography – it is a well received record that is also overlooked. Outside is not that kind of album – it was trashed when it happened, but it has been getting better notices lately. Heathen was always seen as a return to form.
FKA Twigs, now you’re talking!
Twigs excites me – she’s the first of her ilk, maybe since Bjork, who I could see really breaking through without compromising. I’m only going on 9 songs, but since 2012 it seems like everything’s slotting into place – the look, the moves, and just great material.
I’m seeing her ICA show Wednesday, and I really hope her non-Arca material proves as strong as her EPs. Which I suspect it might.
I was just listening to Scary Monsters and thinking about this “musical syntax” thing again. SM just bursts with audacious ideas: the sound of tape machinery, a Japanese woman declaiming angrily, Bowie shouting at Fripp to shut up, Fripp playing pretty much at random, an incongruously hysterical vocal, lots of interesting electronic drum fills, Dada sound poetry, harmoniser on the snare, extreme flange on the piano…
You imagine telling Bowie and Visconti that they’d be working again twenty years down the line, and asking them to predict — based on these changes to the syntax of rock — what it might sound like. All bets would be off, but what I bet they wouldn’t say is: “Basically the same, but without any of the daring sonic ideas”.
popping back in to say that FKA Twig’s show at the ICA yesterday was a stunner. already have tickets to her next London show in July.
Not sure if her August US/Canada dates are sold out, but i’d recommend anyone who can go does go.
yeah please ignore the misplaced apostrophe
A few comments:
1) Bowie was nominated for a Grammy in the US for “Best Male Vocal Performance” for the single “Slow Burn.” The album wasn’t a huge event, but it wasn’t ignored either. I do agree, though, that “Heathen” (the song and the entire album) is one of Bowie’s more underrated works. I think it’s up there with Bowie’s best stuff.
2) I think it’s crucial to recall that “Heathen (The Rays)” was written in tandem with the album opener “Sunday.” Besides both being epic and Scott Walker-esque, I sense a connection between the “sun” imagery: In “SUN-day,” note the lyrics “Look for the shafts of light on the road/Where the heat goes,” as well as the fire imagery. I think you were more or less getting at the main idea of “Heathen” in your post, but I think it’s key to mention the connection between “Heathen (The Rays)” and “Sunday.”
3) Another minor point, but something I’ve always noticed: the percussion on this song is strongly reminiscent of a heartbeat. I’m pretty sure that’s intentional, as that fits really well with the song thematically.
4) Mainly to others, check out these interviews. In my opinion, they’re some of the best Bowie interviews out there. Bowie gets a great opportunity to discuss his thoughts behind the album:
*Sorry, Bowie was not just nominated for a Grammy. He won!
Heathen wasn’t underrated: the reviews went over the top on the best-since-Scary-Monsters cliché. Its sales in the States and America rode those reviews and the massive good will earned since the late nineties.