Slow Burn (Top of the Pops, 2002).
Slow Burn (The Today Show, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Show With David Letterman, 2002).
Slow Burn (A&E Live by Request, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Slow Burn (VMC, 2002).
Slow Burn (live, 2002).
Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime…Wars are never cured, they just go into remission for a few years. The End is what we want, so I’m afraid the End is what we’re damn well going to get. There. Set that to music.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.
“Slow Burn” was Heathen‘s lead-off single. Well, it was in Japan, Europe and the US. Not in Britain, which by 2002 was the only reliable country for a Bowie chart placing. (He’d ceased troubling the US charts in the mid-Nineties: “Slow Burn” proved no exception). Scheduled for a July 2002 UK release, “Slow Burn” never appeared. There was no British single released until September, when “Everyone Says ‘Hi‘” finally arrived to barely break the UK Top 20. Another curious thing was that Bowie quickly stopped performing “Slow Burn” live. He sang it only twice, its last performance at the Meltdown Festival in June.
His label had decided to pull “Slow Burn” from the UK (Bowie had diligently sung “Slow Burn” on seemingly every American talk show in June, and had taped a session to air on Top of the Pops), but its disappearance from Bowie’s live sets as well suggests perhaps a collective realization that “Slow Burn” wasn’t going to do the business. Was it too familiar-sounding, coming off as a generic public conception of a Bowie song? A soaring vocal with a few condor cries (the ninth-spanning “slooooooow BURRRRRN!”); a “Heroes”-esque rhythm track; a guitar line that set out to trump Reeves Gabrels; a doomy lyric.
There’s no evidence that the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere played a role in shelving “Slow Burn” (for one thing, it was a single in America). Bowie said he’d written his lyric before the attacks and that his lines unnerved him, as he’d managed to predict the feel of life in downtown Manhattan that September. There’s fear on the ground. “The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears,” a faint Biblical reference (see Luke 12:3: “whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops”), offered a preview of our national security state. The most damning, most prophetic lines were in the refrain, written years before the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib and all the numbing rest of it:
But who are we
So small in times such as these…
Bowie had been writing about doomed societies since “We Are Hungry Men,” with his descriptions of America as being full of killers, his clay model recreation of Seventies New York as Hunger City, the Five Years left to us, and so on. Apocalypse could be a joyful thing for him—“Five Years” meant five years of carnival before the End. At least the End was more interesting than “normal” life.
“Slow Burn” is a bled-out, bummed-out apocalypse, a recognition that after living on this earth for a while, you come to realize doomsday predictions have the frequency and excitement of commuter trains. In “Slow Burn” the nearly-static harmonic rhythm of the verses (shuttling between tonic and mediant chords, F to Am/E),* the rounds of Visconti and Bowie backing vocals (“on and on and on and on and on…” “round and round and round..”), suggest there’s nothing new under the sun despite this latest catastrophe. Even the return of the Borneo Horns (Bowie’s brass section from the Eighties) is rather muted: the likes of Lenny Pickett nose their way into the second verse and later mainly work in support of the bassline. Kristeen Young offers a piano line that goes lost in a loop. Doomsday once meant the End at last, but now even the End wasn’t going to end: it would just keeping come around, again and again, its colors fading with each trip.
There’s one vein of anger in the track: Pete Townshend’s lead guitar (unlike the lyric, this was a post-9/11 response). Offering an intro hook by answering a long-sustained chord with strings of bent, distorted notes, Townshend reappears after the first refrain for a run of sirens and shockwaves and then hangs on through the second verse, playing the same choppy chord as a counter-rhythm; it’s as if he’s itching to cut Bowie short, that he fears being caught up in the endless cycle as well.
Townshend’s been one of this blog’s minor supporting characters, partly because the blog came close to being a Townshend song-by-song survey: he was the other top contender (if I’d gone with PT, the blog would’ve been called Another Man’s Life). So I found it fun to use Townshend as an ongoing check on the Bowie experiment.
As a character in Bowie’s play, Townshend moves from being a lofty, cutting rival in 1965, lording his powers over Bowie’s shabby band playing Who knock-offs in Bournemouth (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving“), to a fellow Sixties self-mythologist in 1973 (“I Can’t Explain“) to 1980, when a depressed, alcoholic Townshend shows up as a ghost from Bowie’s abandoned England, playing a bitter lead guitar on “Because You’re Young.” The latest reconnection came about when Bowie and Townshend met at a wake, the Concert for New York City in October 2001. Returning to London, Townshend got an MP3 of the rough “Slow Burn,” added his lines via Pro Tools, which Bowie and Visconti imported back in New York. So the most bloodless of their interactions yielded Townshend’s most resonant (and final) contribution to Bowie’s work: he’s the song’s blood infusion. Soon afterward Townshend, in an unfortunate mix of idealism and stupidity, would bring down the whirlwind on himself.
Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (lead guitar) ca. November 2001, Townshend’s home studio, London; (horns) 29 January 2002, Looking Glass. Released 3 June 2002 in the US and Europe (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2); only released as a promo single in the UK.
* Moving from the tonic (I) to the mediant (iii) chord means there’s only a one-note difference in the chords. So in our case, it’s F major (F-A-C) moving to A minor/E (E-A-C) and back. Bowie’s just swapping F for E as a “foundation” tone. It’s the same type of progression as Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a possible influence? (More here). The refrain shakes things up a bit with D minor (vi) chords (the opening “slow burn”) and a B-flat IV chord (“but who are we”) but it’s soon back to the F-Am dance.
Top: Peggy Lee, “Munich, 2001”; Townshend, Concert For New York City, 20 October 2001.
Curiously topical David Mitchell quote as he is currently busy making the publicity rounds for his latest, ‘The Bone Clocks,’ whose final section brings us an all-too-believable doomsday not too far from now in which Humanity has seemingly lost everything and is headed back to the social structures from whence they sprang. When queried about how much he thinks we have to worry about this sort of thing, Mitchell has made it clear that he sees it as far, far closer to ‘when’ than ‘if.’ To paraphrase ‘Ghostbusters,’ we simply have got to get these two together.
As generic as it may be (and I can offer precious little in the way of a literate defense of it), I have to admit to a huge fondness for this track, not merely from where it sits in ‘Heathen’ but from the entire repertoire. I don’t mind the condor cries a bit, nor the horn lines that seem to have wandered in from ‘V-2 Schneider.’
I’m fond of it too: Bowie by numbers that was a relief after …hours. He was in good voice too.
Excellent post. I’ve been looking forward to this one. This is a favorite song- there’s something in the lyrics. A kind of triptych, following Heroes, and Teenage Wildlife.
The way he croons “But ‘who knows'” sends shivers. On the SACD, the piano is much further up in the mix, lending a strange playfulness. In that mix, there’s also an ending, instead of a fade, where the song just kind of putters out.
The promo shot for it is especially nice, and I tend to think it was meant to be a full blown video. This is the best copy I could find.
thanks! forgot to add that one
Thanks for posting the A&E version. It’s my de facto version on “Live” Heathen comps.
Interesting emergence of a fuller music video for this in August on Youtube – if I could only figure out how to embed it, I would! Same little girl and setting but monochrome (and that spacesuit again with echoes of Blackstar). This from the otherwise video-less Heathen album.
I love this song. The vocal. The Townshend guitar. Why it is so little thought of is beyond me.
This is one of those songs where I know I shouldn’t complain, I should be happy with what I’m given, but I still get that itch once in a while.
The song has an ominous drama to it; Bowie’s in fantastic voice; Pete’s guitar delivers what Reeves only sometimes hinted at; it’s quite catchy. All great things. Clearly better than most of the songs on ‘…hours.’
But it still comes across as half baked. “Bowie-by-numbers,” as Humanizing the Vacuum put it. Other than the vox and guitar, it’s just stiff and predictable rock. Like “Heroes,” as Chris notes, but minus the sprawling structure and interesting textures. “New Killer Star” at least brought in some “Pretty Pink Rose” energy to it. “Slow Burn” has two incredible performances backed by a band that’s about to fall asleep.
While the lyrics are mostly good, I never like the transition “But we’ll dance in the dark/and they’re playing with our lives.” Its disjointed nature reveals how rote such writing can be. Like Orwell boilerplate.
When I first heard the song, I honestly thought it had been rescued from the “2.Contamination” sessions (which I now know never took place), perhaps even with some Verbasizer help.
But my, does Bowie really sell that vocal. Simply gorgeous.
I was vaguely aware that the song faded from his setlists (upon buying the ‘A Reality Tour’ CD, I was quite surprised to see that this song wasn’t included), but I never realized how bluntly he stopped playing it.
It’s a shame, really, because it’s one of my favourite Bowie songs… definitely within my top five of all time. The opening is strong, the bassline is awesome, and the entire time I’m so pleased that Gabrels wasn’t doing guitar on this one: Townshend is fantastic.
The way he sings the chorus *is* typical of him, I won’t argue that, but it’s powerful and fits in perfectly with the song. I like to think that this (perhaps in conjunction with “Sunday”) is the soaring beginning of “elder statesman Bowie”. It’s got an extremely confident air about it and it doesn’t try too hard like some of the songs he wrote before ‘Heathen’ (‘hours…’ especially). All of the layers fit together so well.
I’m also in love with the lyrics; for ten years I lived in nosy, depressing, and dead-end small town that I really hated. While Bowie basically said he wrote the song about NY, I find it’s just as easy to apply the words to a sad small town like mine.
I was eagerly awaiting this entry, so thanks for making my day.
Do you ever think “man, if I’d just decided to do the Townshend blog I could have quit a year and a half ago without disappointing thousands of readers?”
This song is a good chorus hook and not too much else. I find the Townshend guitar a little bit wanky which isn’t normally something you could level at Pete – mainly it’s just that 80s whammy at the start of the riff. There is some blood to the rest but it’s not Townshend doing what he is best at. This song desperately needed a rhythm injection.
There is so little meat on the bones of the verses, it just honks along waiting for the chorus to come along and save it. I can remember Bowie doing it on the chat show circuit and thinking how clunky the lyrics were.
The chorus is good, Bowie’s voice is good, but it’s a losing battle. Also the cloud atlas quote is very ‘they never die, they just go to sleep one day’.
My theory of why the song was dropped from the setlist is that neither Earl Slick or Gerry Leonard was able to capture Townsend’s guitar lines.
The author wonderfully describes Townsend’s contribution as the song’s blood infusion, I wonder if Bowie thought (once it became evident it wouldn’t trouble the charts or be a promotional cataluyst for the album) that the song was best left in its truest and most full blooded form, documenting a successful collaboration between him and his old compadre.
The song is brilliant, and the standout from Heathen for me, why would he not want it on the setlist? Seems bizarre.
Could a reason for its exclusion from performances be that it’s simply a difficult song to perform live? The “Slow Burn” of the chorus is pre-recorded from the single, and Bowie eventually gives up trying to match it live after valiantly trying on a couple of performances. As a result it can come off as sounding a little naff, so the effort isn’t worth it.
This is also one if my favourites, but I would agree that it’s a case if a (another) great vocal performance selling the hell out of the song. And it’s fun to sing along to when no one else is around.
I totally understand why the single stiffed upon release, why it wasn’t offered up as a single in the UK and why it was quickly dropped from live set lists. What I find harder to understand is why it was the lead-off single in the US, Europe and Japan when the song is such a dull, bloodless affair with a thrice-recycled riff, and not a single hook or piece of ear candy on offer.
Even for a palimpsest (one of Bowie’s favourite words) this one has way too many layers of paint layers adorning the one canvas.
Sorry people, but I’ve never understood all the love for this one. To me it aint classic Bowie, it’s lazy, by-the numbers Bowie.
Decent track but far from a personal favourite. Teenage Wildlife is much much better and incomparable to “Heroes”. There are better songs from this period. Great write-up as always. I also love the way you tell us what the chords these songs have, throughout PAotD – from a musicians perspective this is highly interesting.
I like it quite a bit, some of my own personal history is encapsulated in this one. The double-punch of Slow Burn and Slip Away is the climax of the album, in my opinion. I didn’t know that the song basically got banished. Did its chart failure hurt Bowie on a personal level? It sounds like an appropriate single, “Bowie by the numbers” was what the people wanted to hear, I guess. But there’s some ominous power in the song, maybe accentuated by 9/11.
I find this song terribly dreary. I mean, it’s supposed to evoke dreariness and protest against it, but just ends up being doubly dreary. It becomes an iteration, an instance, of what it’s supposedly protesting against.
As a rule of thumb, whenever a Bowie song refers to “Heroes” in its opening bars it’s a clunker, a laurel-leaner. Teenage Wildlife was the first, and by virtue of its length and commitment and the deluge of new and inventive sections it does hold its own fairly well against what is, let’s face it, one of the most inspiring and anthemic rock songs ever written. But this one just chugs and squats and frets. It goes nowhere, suggests no remedy.
At least Teenage Wildlife has that defiance: “I’m NOT a piece of teenage wildlife!” Fuck off, hunters! This one is all helplessness and remedylessness. Squeezing lemons to make musical lemonade that doesn’t even sparkle. In situations like this we need threats across the board, but here we get just fretting and a fretboard.
I must say I’m excited to hear that in mid-November we’re getting a new Bowie single entitled Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), and that it’s eight minutes long. (B-side ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore takes its title from a 17th century tragedy by John Ford.) But what if it’s eight minutes of chugging and fretting in the manner of Slow Burn?
Will Sue be about a girl called Sue, or even a boy named Sue? No, I believe that Bowie will advocate a remedy for the crimes of this world: civil litigation.
Momus…I’m shocked. I thought you of all people would have seen ‘Slow Burn’ for what it really is. It’s Bowie’s last gasp as he slips under the surface of cultural relevance and rages against the dying of his previously considerable light.
His vocals, Townsend’s stricken guitar, the rolling, insistent and yes, Heroes -like, bass line all contribute to what is, I firmly believe, Bowie’s last great statement. This is the last squeezing of the pips (well, perhaps that’s Where Are We Now) and it really does feel, by song’s end, that Bowie is exhausted and spent. It’s why I love it so.
It reminds me of all the great treasures, some buried and some not, from his (and my) past. When I listen to this, and I usually play it in isolation from the rest of the album, I’m transported to such disparate and varied locations in my mind’s eye.
It takes me back to his performance of Heroes on Bolan’s Granada TV show, Marc; it takes me back to Stafford Bingley Hall where Adrian Belew’s StatiotoStation was, and remains to this day (a Television gig at the Free Trade Hall notwithstanding) the most incredible guitar playing I’ve ever witnessed; it takes me back to Boys Keep Swinging on Kenny Everett’s TV show, where Bowie jests along with Everett about his sexuality; it takes me back to Buzzcocks, and their genre defying blend of camp, melody and serious intent to speak of serious things…
You see, for me, Slow Burn takes me back to everything I’ve ever loved about David Bowie. It’s incredibly elegiac for me and I’m aware that I’m not really explaining why this is the case. I’m no Alex Ross nor even your good self, or the esteemed author of this fine memorial to one of the greatest artist’s of our time. I’m just not able to critically exam and illustrate why this song has its peculiarly powerful hold on me. I can only describe what it does to me.
It’d be impossible for me to separate Slow Burn from StationtoStation if I could only take one of these two to the Desert Island so powerful is the song’s hold on me. I know, it sounds heretical!
This is, though,his last great song and it easily holds its own place in the canon.
PS Chris, terrific as ever. You’re a gifted writer but an even more gifted researcher. It’s brilliant how you write so effortlessly and we the readers glide, as the furiously pedalling swans do, over the monumental work that must go into these pages. Not sure you, or any body else here, for that matter, will agree with my assertions about Slow Burn but you’ve done it justice. Thanks for the last two years!
I heartily disagree with your assertion that this is Bowie’s last gasp, or that he has slipped under the surface of cultural relevance. Bowie will ALWAYS be culturally relevant.
Well, Sky Possessing Spider, perhaps I should have stated that his cultural relevance is now historical as opposed to contemporaneous. I, too, believe that Bowie will always remain culturally relevant within the historical context of late 20th century popular culture.
As for your hearty disagreement with me over whether Slow Burn is the finishing line or not, well, that’s merely a matter of subjective perspective. It’s absolutely possible for you and others to believe that Bowie is still capable of maintaining the standards, and producing work, that is of the same calibre as his former glories. I don’t think, Slow Burn apart, that he’s anywhere near the dizzying heights of his first two creative decades. Who would be? Certainly nobody else out there has managed it so why should Bowie be any different?Exhaustion and atrophy…it’s Mother Nature at work. We’ll just have to agree to disagree,
I sure hope he’s not going for some awkward pun like “sue her in a season of crime.”
…Or “sewer in a season of grime?”
*** BREAKING ***
New David Bowie compilation named after Heathen-era song. With shoddy cover art! http://www.davidbowie.com/news/nothing-has-changed-collection-features-new-bowie-track-53411
It would be fantastic if they re-created the Changesone cover but with a recent photo of Bowie, but I doubt he had very much to do with this one.
You missed the “Please note, the image illustrating this piece has nothing to do with the artwork for the collection, which will follow in the coming weeks”
Oh, good. Every blog I saw this posted on mentioned nothing of this not being the official artwork. (And, announcing a release without artwork – meh)
Any compilation with “Dancing in the Street” on it will have no place in my collection.
**Correction** Any *more* compilations with “Dancing in the Street” on it will have no place in my collection. (I have US Best of Bowie 2 CD.)
Stolen Guitar. Great defence of this lost classic. I too saw Television at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Twice I think. One with Blondie supporting and the other one with, I think, The Only Ones. So long ago I can not be sure but great days.
I’m surprised so many people love this song. I don’t dislike it, but I’ve never found it to be a very interesting listen. It does capture drudgery rather too effectively for me.
Great to learn out of the blue that he has some new music coming out.
This is a pretty strong song, I think. If it’s typical of what people expect of a Bowie song, it still sounds too energetic to be phoned in.
It was on Heathen that Bowie decided to stop doing videos. I wonder if that’s a factor in no singles charting much. With the Next Day singles he was back to doing them, and sales went up despite his not touring. Granted, this is when any new Bowie at all was a nice surprise.
As for the whirlwind, Townsend seems to have weathered it pretty well. You don’t get asked to play the Super Bowl with your band if your under that dark a cloud.
Not related to slow burn, but this is hilarious for anyone who knows their Bowie as well as you do…
Genius!Funny! And probably a very accurate description of what really happened all those years ago…!
Brilliant! Thanks for sharing! 🙂 I’ll share it further…
That Adam Buxton clip is fantastic, ‘Bowie’s voice is spot on
I’m on both sides of the fence with this one. For a Bowie fan, the song has a tremendous nostalgia factor, tinged with the sadness of knowing he can’t go back to the days when it seemed effortless. So I quite like the song for that.
But at the same time, there is something dreary about it, and I think it’s mainly the slower than molasses tempo. Every time I hear it, I wonder if I’m back in the Eighties listening to a cassette player that is running out of batteries. If they’d just increased the tempo a notch, it would have really made the song. But as it is, I don’t think anyone outside of an established Bowie fan can warm to it.
I agree with a lot of the comments here. The music is a bit bland, but the vocal performance is fantastic. And the lyrics are among my favorite of Bowie’s; I actually think some of his best lyrics ever are found on the albums dating from the ’90s and forward.
I would love to hear a Heathen… Naked ala the stripped down/minimalist version of Let It Be. Or: stems for remixing purposes. Bowie’s vocals on this record are great.
Apologies, Stolen Guitar, after your eloquent appreciation of the song, but I’m with Momus and Sky-Possessing Spider on this one. For me, Slow Burn is the nearest thing on Heathen to an outright dud, the album’s Because You’re Young if you will, with Townshend’s contribution again being the best thing about it. I just feel that it’s the track that veers the most into simple pastiche, being a rather stiff amalgam of Heroes and Absolute Beginners. That being said, I rarely skip the song when I play the CD. Heathen is one of the only latterday DB albums (along with Buddha Of Suburbia and The Next Day) that I play in its entirety with any regularity. I feel that every great album has a groove, a sound that keeps you listening even to the tracks that you may find substandard. Heathen is no exception, though what binds the songs together may be more accurately described as a wave of feeling. The bald nostalgia of Slow Burn therefore has its place for me. (The lyrics are another matter; I never quite got what a “slow burn” was supposed to be. Thanks, Chris, for another fascinating analysis.)
I’m fascinated by the reverse chronology on the upcoming DB box set, from the new song to Liza Jane. The only other compilatipn I know of to do that was one of the more recent Roxy Music singles collections. Does anyone know of any others?
The reverse chronological tracklisting caught my attention too. The only other collection I could think of which does that is an old Pulp compilation called Countdown 1992-1983.
If I were going to skip a song on Heathen it would more likely be “A Better Future”, which sounds enervated and whiny to me. Still, I think it could be argued the album doesn’t have any outright duds.
Too fucking late – and I even retweeted the link to this entry pretty much right after Chris tweeted it…and then I got distracted and…days later I was thinking…there was a new entry wasn’t there. Ugh! Senile at (almost) 27!
Right. I love this song, everything about it. Its majesty, its truth, the guitar, the murmur-y pulsating stuff in the background, the Bowie Bellow, everything.
It was this song & Hi that even got some airplay here back then. Whenever either of them came on it felt like an event.
Great choice of opening quote, Chris! That book, or really quite a few SF books in general, or studying history, really, shows you that no end, no Big Change was ever properly sudden and/or final. Hell, not even an atomic bomb will really kill everything right away. Slow burn indeed (British readers will probably remember Threads). With this song Bowie’s apocalypse stopped being a melodramatic showpiece and became mundane reality. (and….off we go to the next album! ha ha ha ha!)
Was listening to this last night in the car, just after going through a bit of “Heroes”, and I noticed that the ’round and round, on and on’ backing that Chris mentions seems like a nod to the ‘sons of sound’ backing vocal on Sons Of The Silent Age.
I may or may not be the last person on (Bowie’s) earth to notice this.
I suspect that the decision to stop performing “Slow Burn” had more to do with the amassed chorus of intermixed lead and backing Bowie vocals in the actual chorus. A quick listen to one of the few live renditions makes that all too clear–the chorus hook depends too much on that.
The Police faced a similar dilemma during live performances of “Roxanne”, where Sting’s multi-layered vocals provided the song’s key hook by sounding almost like a horn section–Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers had no way to replicate that. Likewise, an “army of Bowies” was impossible to recreate live.
As a small addendum, consider also the difficulty of replicating Pete Townshend’s guitar part in the song. I’ve never heard anyone “do Pete Towshend” properly.
Is there any chance that that “echoes in tenement halls” could be a discrete nod to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”? There are some thematic similarities in the two songs, what with the town imagery and somewhat dystopian feel – and “tenement halls” isn’t a phrase I hear in many songs.
I didn’t “offer a piano line”. I played what they told me to play. They needed someone to play their piano line and I just happened to be at the studio. If it was up to me…I would have played something different as it’s not my style of playing.
Great work, Chris. Kristeen: Thks for posting Demo of “She Can Do That” -awesome sleeve art too! Slow Burn: I’ve been puzzled by the lack of release “over here” in UK, and having to pick up on import. But since Blackstar: even more so. Slow Burn has a limp space suit in the corner of the room. “At The Centre of it all”, appears in lyric of both tracks. And heck, the sentiment in your review of Slow Burn, resonates in a similar way to how I’ve come to think of Blackstar.
I think this song is about New York. As a former resident myself, this resonated.
New York attracts people who are chasing dreams. For many, this means living shoulder-to-shoulder in “tenement halls”, working a lot to make ends meet, while trying desperately to remember the dream that brought them there. And this can go on and on for years or decades, while your friends back home age and get married and move on, but the dream keeps you hanging on. That’s the slow burn.
“Here are we, at the center of it all” (NY is the center of the world in many minds)
“Where the price for our minds shall squeeze them tight like a fist” – the cost of living keeps you tense
“But we’ll dance in their dark and they’ll play with our lives” – “They” might be the landlords, the wallstreet brokers, the wealthy powers all around that seem to own the city, the building, the museum, the cultural institutions… It’s their town, we’re living in it, and they play with our lives.
Bowie was probably wealthy enough to avoid some of the pitfalls described in the song, but maybe absorbed the atmosphere of the city and the feelings of the people around him. I think this does a great job of capturing the exhaustion and stress of living in that city for many people.