The Loneliest Guy

The Loneliest Guy.
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (Parkinson, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2004).

A very despairing piece of work,” Bowie said of “The Loneliest Guy” in 2003. Its subject is “a guy qualifying his entirely hermetic, isolated existence by saying ‘actually I’m a lucky guy. I’m not really alone—I just have myself to look after.'”

This type, a man cooped in his room and subsisting on art and memory, is a constant in Bowie’s writing. Go back through the songs and his sad face keeps turning up. The failed artist/academic who lives above an Austrian grocer; the man who carries a razor in case of depression; the coked-up magus trapped in his circle, overlooking the ocean; the assorted shut-ins of Low, like the girl with grey eyes and the man in the electric blue room; old Algeria Touchshriek. If one end of the Bowie spectrum is the charismatic on stage, the “Loneliest Guy” is the other: Bowie’s deep ultraviolet range. An isolate, a man unable to communicate, to get out of his head; one who expires for lack of an audience.

This wan, lonely character was as “real” as any Ziggy Stardust archetype, and as much of an autobiographical figure that Bowie ever offered. Talking to Anthony DeCurtis in 2003, he said that finally, in high middle age and having become a parent again, “[I] don’t have that sense of loneliness that I had before, which was very, very strong. It became a subtext for a lot of the things I wrote.”

So “The Loneliest Guy” sloughs off an old self, or does it? The man who said everything was in its place, who was utterly content, was perhaps projecting a bit. The “loneliest guy” here flicks through old pictures on his hard drive, poisoned by brighter memories (“the notion that our ideas are inhabited by ghosts and that there’s nothing in our philosophy—that all the big ideas are empty containers” (see “Reality”)). Had he really been boxed up at last? If so, what would it mean for Bowie’s songwriting, when the self closest to his muse was no longer in service?


In the same interview (with Interview), Bowie began to ramble through his thoughts, offering a taste of the sort of thing he tells his musicians, like “think Impressionism” to a saxophone player. He said his loneliest guy lives in a decayed, empty place, “a city taken over by weeds.” In particular, he lives in Brasilia, the modernist artificial city, built from scratch in the Sixties to be the center of Brazilian government and commerce. The city of a future that never quite came, its neighborhoods built in grids, its squares full of modernist stadiums and concert halls. It was Godard’s Alphaville in the Brazilian highlands. For art critics like Robert Hughes, Brasilia was “miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.”

Brasilia was “the perfect standard for an empty, godless universe,” Bowie said. “The architect Oscar Niemeyer designed all these places thinking that they were going to be filled with millions of people and now there are about 200,000 people living there, so the weeds and the grass are growing back up through the stones of this brilliantly modernistic city. It’s a set of ideas…being taken back over again by the jungle.”

This wasn’t really true about Brasilia.* It suggested more Bowie’s old rotting Hunger City, the modernist grid turned dystopian playground, or the capitalist wasteland of “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes.” This aside, the metaphor of a rotting Brasilia, a great modernist plan being eaten by nature, works as a description of the track itself. “The Loneliest Guy” is a song collapsing from within, moving as if sleep-stung, occasionally rousing to life, then guttering out again. Take how its remote E-flat minor key is woken by bright intrusions from E major (“steam (E) under floor (Ebm)”). The song yearns to pull free in its third verse (“all the pages that have turned...”) until a Eb minor chord snuffs out the coup (on a precisely-timed “oh”).

It’s such a lugubrious song, and Bowie’s character is such a colossal sad sack, that its miseries border on the darkly comical. It calls to mind Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy, set in a New York where lonelyhearts congregate on city roofs to holler their exes’ names, who eat dinner alone with a spotlight trained on them and who politely queue on the Manhattan Bridge to jump into the East River.

Flavored by waves of David Torn’s atmospherics (it’s possible Bowie thought of the Pretty Things’ “Loneliest Person,” built on arpeggiated acoustic guitar), the song was built on Mike Garson’s piano. During the Reality sessions in New York, Garson played Yamaha digital piano (owned by Bowie, and loaned to Garson during the 2003-04 tour), then went home to California with the MIDI files to re-cut his parts on “my 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier, recording as [the MIDI] played back,” Garson recalled to Mix. So at mixing, Bowie and Visconti could choose between “synthetic” or “real” Yamaha on each track and picked analog for this one.

It was one of the most gorgeously-recorded of the Reality tracks, with the guitars serving as a string section, Garson’s chords resounding into deep space and Bowie hanging upon every note he sings, as if he can’t bear to let them go.

Recorded: (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York; (piano) ca. March-April 2003, Garson’s home studio, Bell Canyon, CA. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live in Brasilia, making it the fourth-largest city in the country.

Top: Konstantin Maximov, “Copenhagen,” 2003; Jordi Colomer, Anarchitekton: Brasilia (2003).

27 Responses to The Loneliest Guy

  1. Momus says:

    1. Quick, don’t think of an elephant with the tail of a lobster! Ha, you thought of one, didn’t you? In rhetoric, that trick is called apophasis. “Now, no-one is suggesting killing X” does actually put the idea of killing X on the table, without the speaker getting the blame for it.

    2. “I’m the luckiest guy, not the loneliest guy” is apophatic, especially when sung over minor chords with a dangerously slow vibrato. A vibrato which, if it were a bicycle, would lose all forward momentum, wobble, and crash to the ground.

    3. “Life does not live.” This mysterious aphorism opens Adorno’s most mysterious and beautiful book, Minima Moralia. How can life not live? Well, for Adorno — keen to repudiate the overly positive Hegelian idea that history is using the dialectical impetus to move ever onwards and upwards — there is an ontological insufficiency in life, a hole rather than a whole. This was particularly easy to believe in 1944, when the book was being written during an American exile, because what is a war but a negative dialectic, a way of revealing the hole where the whole should be?

    4. This might be the moment to say: It’s “War-hole” actually. As in “holes”. Andy Warhol. Andy War Hole Hole Hole. Shot through with holes by his antithesis, Solanas. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The sun shines right through. Bear with me.

    5. Quick, try not to imagine this song not tucked away at the end of Low or “Heroes”! You imagined it, didn’t you? It sounded a bit like Some Are. It held up rather well, didn’t it, in the ambient part of the Imperial Period?

    6. My other favourite quote from Minima Moralia (which I was mostly reading when Lodger came out; Bowie at this time preferred Kierkegaard) is: “In the end, soul itself is the longing of the soulless for redemption.” This idea obviously works well with the rhetorical device of apophasis. The very absence of something creates its presence, via desire or need.

    7. In Hegel’s Phenomenology, identities are like Bowie’s eyes: they do not match themselves. “Identity,” said Hegel, “is the identity of identity and non-identity.” In order to be themselves, things must also contain their opposites. So a successful rock star might contain — and most fully realise himself in — a failed middle-aged man.

    8. For Hegel, the dissonance built into identity (that it must contain its opposite) is sweetened by the idea that things do make sense when you look at the whole picture, which is to say, reality.

    9. I’m thinking about this not just because the album we’re discussing is called Reality, but because last week I was in Berlin, and I attended an informal — but very serious — seminar held in a silent rock club in Kreuzberg (it’s now called Northern Europe, but it’s gone by many names). The musician Holger Hiller led us through a discussion of Walter Benjamin’s writings, and we came to his dispute with Adorno, summed up in Adorno’s essay “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening”.

    10. In a sense, both Holger and Momus are exactly the sort of not-Bowie that Bowie is being Even-More-Bowie by imagining in this song: middle-aged, failed versions of Bowie, sitting with some philosophy students and some artists in a club he might even have visited on one of his Kreuzberg evenings. And yet, just as Bowie becomes most fully himself by becoming us, we become most fully ourselves by becoming him. “I don’t stand in my own light,” he once said. But, in our darkness, we can, and do.

    • Champiness says:

      Hello again, Momus (well it’s “again” for me, not so much for you). I saw a copy of “Ping Pong” at the Princeton Record Exchange yesterday and felt compelled to purchase it on the merit of posts like this. Hope it holds up to that high standard.

      • Kento says:

        This is a weird thing to post, but “The Age of Information” from that album makes me cry.

  2. stuartgardner says:

    Wonderful work, Chris, as always.
    I wasn’t aware of Brasilia. That photo looks like one of the locations in Orson Welles’s film of Kafka’s The Trial. I’m thinking of the scene with Anthony Prrkins carrying on a long conversaton with a vexed woman who’s dragging a heavy burden. I think it might be the exact spot; I’ll have to check.
    Terrific job of connecting the track with Bowie’s other incarnations of this character. Thanks.

  3. roobin101 says:

    Apologies if this is too OT. I’ll get onto the music later but what a fatuous observation. That sort of critique of modernism gets my goat. There’s been decades now of traditionalism dressed up as postmodernism. Not that Bowie has to think anything I do but its one of my pet peeves.

    • col1234 says:

      just to be clear: whose observation is fatuous? mine? Hughes? Bowie’s? (I don’t agree w/ the latter 2 for what it’s worth)

      • roobin101 says:

        Apologies I meant Bowie`s point about Brazillia. No offence intended, I love the post as usual. Having listened to the song now I may even learn to like it. It’s more striking than lovely though.

  4. crayontocrayon says:

    Though the themes of the song are not uncommon for Bowie, the fragile, shaky and reflective vocal performance is somewhat different. In that regard ‘Where are we now’ feels similar (and perhaps ‘without you’ also). It’s certainly a bit of a put-on when you compare it to the singing on the rest of the songs.

    Love the mix of Garson’s piano and Torn’s atmospheric guitar – could almost be something off No Pussyfooting at times.

  5. KING GOD says:

    This is one of the best articles you’ve produced so far Chris – up there with “Heroes” and “Station to Station” in its own way (Which is of course the only way it could be up there). It surveys a heretofore unlit chamber of Bowie’s heart and sums it up beautifully – consummates it. Fabulous work!

  6. Mr Tagomi says:

    I don’t really like this one. “Sad sack” just about sums it up.

    I like his delivery of it on the Reality tour live album a bit more, but not enough to make me very enthusiastic.

  7. Galdo says:

    Wow. I never would expect Brasilia having something to do with this song. It’s the capital of my country, actually. I love this song. The atmospheric guitar and Bowie/Garson deliverance makes this track so simple and gorgeous. I love the article, very interesting the associations on past characters. We can find it in so many songs.

  8. Deanna says:

    It’s always seemed to me that Bowie is/was keen to point out inner parts of himself before anybody else could do it for him. Perhaps it’s a way to express his weaknesses on his own terms rather than waiting for somebody to come along and be far more brutal about it.

    I sort of sense that with this song. Bowie seemed to be very happy around the time of Reality, certainly the happiest we’d ever seen him. But you can’t kill every bad experience inside of you. He must have, from time to time, recalled a certain darkness from his past–after all, he admits to being a very feeling, sensitive person. This darkness is different than ‘Fly’, as that song is an urgent, stressful pain. It’s different than ‘Bring Me The Disco King’, as that one is not pathetic, it’s dignified.

    I guess the best way to sum it up is that it’s his Dorian Gray painting, getting old and sad so he doesn’t have to.

  9. Patrick says:

    You know that idea that there’s a track (or two) in each DB album that suggests an approach in the next album? Well, there feels like a hint in the vocals of the pathos of Where are we now? even if that track tuned out not to be typical of the album when it arrived. Most of Reality leaves me cold with its “rock by numbers” sound but this works better than the rest.

  10. Maj says:

    This song sounds like a sigh of an old man.

  11. s.t. says:

    A very interesting counterpoint to Bowie’s “what if I were miserable” approach here is the Bjork album just released today, which documents the end of a long-term relationship with Matthew Barney with a chronologically assembled song set. Needless to say, Bjork’s album is a much harder listen; a seemingly formless mass of raw emotion and numbness. It’s true that there’s real pathos to be found in “Loneliest Guy,” but as Chris says there’s also the feel of parody. In that respect, this feels like the “Royal Tennenbaums” to Bjork’s “A Separation.” A touch of the Hermione letter, but mostly sad pierrot.

  12. MC says:

    I’ve always found this track to be beautifully sung, arranged, and recorded, but a faint wisp of a song besides. It never resonated much for me, emotionally, even with the stunning melancholia of the visuals that accompanied it on the Reality tour. Great piece, though; the links to older Bowie sad-sacks and the whole Brasilia connection certainly make me appreciate the thing more.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      Yeah – I think everything is delivered beautifully, but the song itself is just a little bit over the line sad sack-wise.

      It sort of makes me think of stuff like Send in the Clowns.

  13. johnobject says:

    A couple months ago I was walking home late at night with this song in my headphones and I actually realized that this feels like something sung by an apocalypse survivor. A last man on Earth, literally. I feel like this would explain the green clouds, warm streets, weeds, shards etc.. The writer is lucky to have survived a (chemical? nuclear? extraterrestrial?) cataclysm somehow. I feel like ever since late 1990’s the end of the world has been a popular topic in art (Y2K bug, apocalypse predictions, 2012, wars etc.). Perhaps I’m taking things too literally, of course, but this interpretation really stuck with me, so I’ve been waiting for your post on this song to mention this idea.
    This is my first comment here, so I’d also like to thank you for these essays, they are very entertaining and often open a new perspective on an old favourite. I’ve been a Bowie fan for years, but when I discovered your blog I realized I, frankly, don’t know shit about him or his songs. Also, congrats on the book!

  14. StevenE says:

    this song serves as a preamble to she can (do that) in a lot of ways. a ying and yang thing.

  15. humanizingthevacuum says:

    My least favorite song on the album after the Harrison cover. It isn’t the least bit persuasive.

  16. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    The songs which I like on this album are:
    New Killer Star
    Never Get Old
    Fall Dog Bombs The Moon
    Try Some, Buy Some
    Reality, and
    Bring Me The Disco King

    The songs which I’m not so fond of are,
    Pablo Picasso (easily the worst cover version here, the jumping off a big log etc. refrain is extremely irritating)
    Looking For Water (ho-hum)
    She’ll Drive The Big Car (“Car’s” ignition doesn’t work)
    Days (maudlin schmaltz) and
    The Loneliest Guy – which, for me is the most tedious, and unconvincingly self-pitying thing that Bowie has ever written.
    Even when I had a front row and centre seat for the Reality show in 2004, when he performed this number, I was impatient for it to end and get onto the next song. It really seemed at odds with the relaxed, chatty and seemingly happy Bowie on show that night.

  17. Anonymous says:

    and it’s a riff on this;

    by the pretty things

    • Anonymous says:

      can’t tell if that link works.
      the loneliest person by the pretty things. final track on sf sorrow.

      apologies – a novice to wordpress.

      and out.

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