I’d Rather Be High


I’d Rather Be High.
I’d Rather Be High (Venetian Mix).
I’d Rather Be High (Louis Vuitton ads).

Promoting Lodger in 1979, Bowie said his intention (which he’d only realized after he made the album) had been to create new situations by jarring together different elements. So you had Turkish stage-folk with a reggae base, or an Errol Flynn sea pirate scenario set to a Harmonia backing track. Something of the same is found in “I’d Rather Be High,” which shoehorns in Berlin reveries, Beatles vocals, Waughian satire, war reportage, Nineties neo-psychedelia and, in a later incarnation as the soundtrack of a Louis Vuitton ad, New Romantic trappings. It’s a traffic jam of references and signifiers.

Over a progression that plays three-card monte games in its D major key,* “I’d Rather Be High” has a dense lyric whose opening verse alone references Vladimir Nabokov’s last Russian-language novel, The Gift, which Nabokov wrote in Hitler’s Berlin from 1935 to 1937. As Roger Boylan wrote, The Gift is Nabokov’s “homage to the world that was,” his farewell to the Russian language and “the gift” of Russian literature, and “in its ambiguities, its poetry, its wordplay, and its structural originality, a road map to the rest of Nabokov’s work.”

One hot summer’s day, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (a barely-disguised self-portrait of a young Russian émigré aristocrat and writer in Berlin), goes to the park district of Grunewald, one of a mass of hearty Berliners. “The sun licked me all over with its big, smooth tongue. I gradually felt I was becoming moltenly transparent, that I was permeated with flame and disintegrated and dissolved…My personal I…had somehow disintegrated and dissolved…assimilated to the shimmering of the summer forest with its satiny pine needles…and spermy odor of sun-warmed grass.” Or, as Bowie sings more prosaically, “brilliant and naked/ just the way that authors look.”

What’s interesting is that Bowie may not have read The Gift at all, as the passage which I quoted is included in a book that Bowie very much had read: Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. Friedrich’s survey of Weimar Berlin, along with Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novellas, fueled Bowie’s conception of Berlin when he moved there. Friedrich was one of Bowie’s maps to an imagined Berlin, and whenever Bowie wasn’t content with the depleted, heroin-filled West Berlin of 1977, he could escape into pre-war fantasies: bicycling around sporting Isherwood’s Weimar-era haircut, going to the Brücke Museum, rereading Friedrich’s book over breakfast at the Anderes Ufer.

“I’d Rather Be High” has a similar feel of timelines overlapping and collapsing, like a floor of a tenement giving way and crashing down into the lower flats. The second verse, set in some grim tea room in a vague wartime London, references Evelyn Waugh’s WWII novel Officers and Gentlemen (“Clare” could be Ivor Claire, a soldier facing desertion charges) while “Lady Manners” suggests Lady Diana Cooper (née Manners), muse and patron of a World War I group of intellectuals who mostly died in the trenches.** Onward and outward the cracked storyline spins. Clare turns up in Cairo to join his regiment, winds up back in England at his parents’ gravestone.

Set against all of this time flux is the “present day” of the refrains: a soldier on a battlefield somewhere (it could be Gallipoli or Fallujah), shooting at men in the sand, wishing he could be tripping on something just to get out of the hell of reality. Tony Visconti had an oddly specific take on the lyric: “the lament of a demobbed Second World War soldier who would rather succumb to base emotions than be a human being.” (He also took pains to note that “Bowie does not want to be high. He is clean and has been an AA member for years.”). “Indifference, miasma, pressgang,” was all Bowie has had to say.

Bowie tended to consume books by the barrelful and he’d raided the likes of Alan Sillitoe for plotlines as early as his debut album in 1967. But something like “I’d Rather Be High,” so thickly-settled with literary references that there’s little room to breathe, conjures a world primarily existing in books and old memories of books. Nile Rodgers told the story that Bowie, having invited Rodgers to his home in Switzerland in 1982, spent hours showing him things—paintings, treasured records, books—so that Rodgers could get a sense of how Bowie’s mind worked. There’s something like this in “I’d Rather Be High,” which dares listeners to puzzle it out—it’s Bowie indicating that much of his “lost” years were spent lost in old books, and it could be as close to a portrait of his current mindset than anything else on the album.

In November 2013, Bowie showed up in a Louis Vuitton ad, directed by Romain Gavras. It starred the model Arizona Muse, who worked the Vuitton merchandise while Bowie and a Louis XVI court setting provided her with a lavish, slightly surreal backdrop. There are nods to the ball scene in Labyrinth (Bowie as another aging satyr ogling a young woman), Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming,” Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and so forth. Creepy doubles, a festooned man who looks like a plague victim, a set of levitating monks: it comes off like a budget-bursting episode of Russell T. Davies’ version of Doctor Who.

For the ad, Bowie offered a new mix of the song with prominent harpsichord (played by Henry Hey, as per the Next Day Extra credits, which suggests the “Venetian” mix was planned for the Vuitton ad early on, or that perhaps it was a scrapped earlier mix of the track that Bowie earmarked for the ad—some versions of the ad used a harpsichord-only variation in spots).

Hey’s harpsichord complemented Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar riff, which, in the track’s original mix, dulled itself through repetition (that said, the original mix better showcased Zachary Alford’s tricky shuffle pattern). While the “Venetian” mix couldn’t salvage the song’s grating bridge, which pops off with Bowie shouting “teenage sex—YEAAH!”, it added batteries of new vocals to the gorgeous outro, whose long-held “flyyyyying”s (in debt to John Lennon’s lysergic vocals on “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”) were some of Bowie’s finest performances on the record.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day. The “Venetian mix” was included on The Next Day Extra.

* Mainly by moves to avoid going “home” to D major. See the verse (Bm-D-Bm-G-A), the refrain (A-Em-A-Dm-F#m-Dm-D) and the bridge (D-A-E-C7-A). There’s also another possible Nabokov nod in the intro: A-D-A.

** The connection’s likely owed to a character in Waugh’s novel, “Mrs. Reginald Stitch,” whom Waugh reportedly based on Lady Manners.

Top: Miley Cyrus, NYC, 2013.

42 Responses to I’d Rather Be High

  1. dmac says:

    “just remember duckies everybody gets got”
    one of my favorite lyrics

  2. Tim says:

    The British class system in full starched severity, reminds me in parts of Lumet’s ‘The Hill’ I agree with the above also.

  3. Maj says:

    Thanks for the literary references. My understanding of the song sort of stopped with soldiers and drugs.

    The Beatly vocals really are nice aren’t they. Hm

    I don’t dislike this song, but I do sometimes lose my patience with it. It’s a bit plodding. And the Venetian version even more so. On the one hand the harpsichord is lovely, on the other hand it’s a bit jarring to my ears, in combination with the band.

    I think my favourite version of the song would be harpsichord + vocals only, as it’s featured at the beginning of some of the ads. But there sure is a chance I’d ended up hating that.

    • SoooTrypticon says:

      This is certainly a dense one. Thanks for tacking all the bits together Chris.

      I wish the vocals/harpsichord version had been made available as a single or something. You could listen to it on the app for the commercial campaign- but I could never figure out a way to extract it… Now that version of the app no longer exists.

  4. David says:

    One of the wonderful things about Bowie watching, are when he transplants literary references in his songs, although I remember Iggy once bemoaning a suggested lyric about Baudelaire.

    I also recall someone on a message board saying that Lady Manners once lived at Haddon Hall-which adds another layer.

    As for the song itself, Its a tune rich and dense with beautiful imagery and a chorus so catchy, that it beavers its way into your ear, but somehow it still misses something.

  5. ERayLankester says:

    I do love that bridge though…..YEAHHHH!!!

    Cuts through the density of the (fine) lyric

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, I’m torn– it is a nice break from the rest of the track, but its cheesiness is a bit much (not that I mind Bowie being cheesy)

      • Ofer says:

        But don’t you think it kind of has a context? The whole point is the anachronism – a cheesy sixties homage that`s about the polar opposite of the sixsties. A bit like placing cat people in a world war 2 movie. The cheese here is rather self aware, and works ironiccaly. which makes it work perfectly for me.

      • col1234 says:

        oh yeah, completely. hell, who knows, maybe by the time I revise this for the book I’ll be in total love with the bridge (and I do love the ridiculous backing vocal on the “teenage sex!” line, sounding like DB’s yelling through a megaphone.)

  6. Mike says:

    My favorite of the TND tracks I skip.

  7. Dave L says:

    For me it’s a pretty straightforward anti-war song that reminds me of Red Badge of Courage, more than anything else … told through the eyes of a young, terrified man sent to war by the aristocrats, etc. referenced in the first two verses (the Nabokov connection I haven’t figured out). A young man who’d rather be anywhere else, doing what teenagers should be doing (getting high, etc.), not killing some stranger. I find it fairly powerful, actually, and love the Beatle-like melody. One of the best on the album.

  8. gcreptile says:

    “spermy odor”? Sounds like Nabokov was aware of the “carnal” history of the park (that continues until today).

    I consider this song to be a clear success of trying to recapture the free 60s spirit, albeit warped through Bowie’s fatalism.
    Why Cairo? That actually sounds more like WW 1 than WW 2, and the most excessive parties in the Grunewald Park happened during the Second Empire where it was the favorite orgy place of the aristocrats.
    Ah well, the young and not extremely rich always have to suffer in the wars of the pluto- and aristocrats.

  9. SylvieD says:

    I find it quite extraordinary that a song about young people getting killed in stupid wars ended up in Louis Vuitton commercials. Especially as I happened to watch the Bridge Benefit concerts not a long time ago. After singing Aladdin Sane Bowie explains that the song was about “people going abroad to kill strangers”, and there we have lady Diana Coopers, who, the web tells me, saw most of her friends killed in the Great War. But to use this song for a Vuitton commercial ? And with a French royalty setting ? What were they thinking ? What was Bowie thinking ? It must be the irritating, yet strangely haunting melody. Or it’s telling us something about the commodification and annihilation of just about anything in this day and age, including scathing lyrics about the state of the world by our favorite not-knighted alien.

    • Dave L says:

      I heard that Bowie also agreed to retroactively change some of his Lodger lyrics as part of the deal.

      Sometimes I feel
      The need to move on
      So I pack a Louis Vuitton bag
      And move on

  10. Mr Tagomi says:

    There comes a point in the song when the riff becomes wearying and you just want the song to end.

    The song is kind of like the album in itself in miniature, in that it’s crammed full of good stuff, but in fact too crammed with it.

  11. s.t. says:

    “There’s something like this in “I’d Rather Be High,” which dares listeners to puzzle it out—it’s Bowie indicating that much of his “lost” years were spent lost in old books, and it could be as close to a portrait of his current mindset than anything else on the album.”

    That’s true enough of the lyrics (which I love), but the music is so trite and repetitive, it’s absolutely punishing. Zeroes was bad enough with its “60s-by-way-of-the-80s” sound, but this is like 80’s-style 60’s by way of Reality. A blanched copy of an already poor copy.

    Miley’s unironic stoner anthem “Doo It” is not much better than this, but there’s a very good single LP trapped in that 90 minute vat of stuff.

    • col1234 says:

      I like “Space Boots.” am hoping in about 5 years that Miley clears her head a bit and does some killer LP—I think she’s got it in her

    • Galdo says:

      Miley Cyrus gave me reasons to pay attention on her. She has potential. I liked some songs on her album. But some moments are embarassing.

  12. Mike F says:

    The music sounds like something a 15 year old would write trying to sound “trippy” and “psychedelic.” Bowie should be able to do better than this.

  13. Anonymous says:

    In many songs of this album I hear echoes of The Man who sold the world. In the vocals of this one in particular, until the cheesy bridge and chorus. TND is a weird mix of that album and Never let me down.
    PD: I love side A and the beggining of side B. But I understand that many critics use that album to ridicule and murder a great artist in a time of wonderful confusion.

  14. Momus says:

    1. I wish I agreed that I’d Rather Be High was a Lodger-like “traffic jam of references and signifiers”. To me it sounds more like a straightforward 60s pastiche in the style of Zeroes. What’s more, it sounds like a 60s pastiche by someone who wasn’t there in the 60s, which is odd, because Bowie was very much there.

    2. Unfortunately, what this song reminds me of is Oasis. Especially towards the end of the bridge. And since Bowie to me is a skinny glittering giant from the 1970s, I find it odd to see him “sitting on the shoulder of giants” and looking so small. As a 1972 inductee into the Bowie cult, I see him as the shock of the new, an eyebrowless space invader crushing 1960s values with his ultra-loud, ultra-violent clockwork orange. Take that, peace! So whenever I hear Bowie pastiching the 1960s (as if he weren’t actually there) I get a sort of cognitive dissonance.

    3. Of course, the weird amnesia — the sense that Bowie missed the 60s, and was born at the same time as the Gallagher brothers — is explained by the old chestnut that “if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there”. (Appropriately enough, nobody can quite remember who first said this. All we know is that it wasn’t said in the 1960s; it’s part of the gigantic 1960s-commemorating industry that started in the 1980s.)

    4. The idea of that quote, of course, is that people were so high in the 1960s that they destroyed the parts of their brains that would otherwise have remembered it. I was alive in the 1960s and do remember the second half, but that’s because I was a child and children don’t take drugs. We know from Apocalypse Now that American soldiers do take drugs, sometimes very psychedelic ones, and that they therefore probably don’t remember the atrocities they committed in the Vietnam war (which by the way America lost, most deservedly, to the communists).

    5. Which brings me back to the difference between this song and the songs on Lodger, which Chris so generously compares it to. As far as I know no song from Lodger has ever been used in the soundtrack of a Hollywood movie, let alone a war movie, and nor has any big international fashion brand used a Lodger song to promote its rags and fumes. I’m trying to imagine Prada “learning to live with somebody’s depression” or Dior “getting a word to Elizabeth’s father”, but hey ho, no. So for me this song is disappointingly film- and commercial- ready, and therefore can’t be separated from the whole sense of The Next Day as a branding and marketing exercise rather than a truly artistic statement.

    6. This was all forgiven at the time, of course, because we were just so damned relieved to see Bowie alive and well. The glimpse of him in the Vuitton ad was like getting a postcard saying “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”, but with “happy” scratched out and “rich” inked in twice instead. To which the answer could only be: “Actually, no we’re not rich, David. 2008 was not kind to us. We didn’t have the foresight to issue bonds in ourselves before Lehman Brothers hit. Kudos to you, though.”

    7. I do like the lyrics when I see them on the page, especially the theatrical “just remember duckies, everybody gets got”. And the literary allusions, so generously bloodhounded in this entry. But again — typical TND — they’re sung in a strained, mixed-down way that renders the lyrics somewhat moot. And that bloody drum reverb (on a pastiche drum line, Tomorrow Never Knows transformed into Yesterday Always Sounds The Same) and whistle-clean Leonard guitar sound!

    8. The harpsichord mix is marginally better, especially the last three seconds, which is just a Bowie choir. And I like the beginning of the Vuitton ad version. There’s a sense there of the kind of baroque Chamber Pop the Beach Boys and Os Mutantes were delving into, but infinitely less inspired, with less distortion and true oddness at play.

    9. In my perverse way I made a little video pastiche (hunt “Analog Bowrock” on YouTube) imagining a super-austere Bowie song accompanied by harpsichord. It’s actually Thursday’s Child chopped up and set to Bach. Would I have preferred a Bowie album that was entirely him singing over austerely frilled, digitally re-edited Handel suites? Damn right I would. The ancillary marketing opportunities would have been screwed, but screw the ancillary marketing opportunities.

    10. This song is the place where Scott Walker lyrics meet Noel Gallagher arrangements. In other words where glorious snobbism hobnobs with unashamed populism. But come on, would Scott Walker ever be seen dead — let alone high — with Noel Gallagher? Not on your Nelumbium Speciosum 0.3899995267 Celan / Clown / Martyr (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).

    • ERayLankester says:

      To be fair, Bowie was doing bad 60s pastiches in the 60s. Maybe that’s his secret musical vice. Hasn’t Bowie always been a populist though?

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        Got to say, I don’t really hear the 60s-ness either. Is it the chords?

      • col1234 says:

        for me, it’s just in the last section, vocal-wise. agree w/Momus that the end of the bridge is very Oasis, ca. “Be Here Now”

      • s.t. says:

        To me the guitar hook equally suggests a lazy approximation of sitar and of bluesy guitar rock. “The 60’s” in shorthand.

    • David says:

      I guess if there is a token sixties-ism (which to be honest didn’t seem evident until I read these entries saying there was), its in its as a throwback to things like Little Bombardier and Rubber Band, but with a world weary redress over the fashionable nativity of wearing military jackets and waxed mustaches.

    • I rather be Hiiiiiiiiigh,
      like a champagne supernova
      in the Skyyyyyyyyyyyy

  15. billter says:

    That seems, um, a bit harsh?

    First off, this song doesn’t sound sixties to me at all. The production is too clean, too precise, too compressed. And to call it “commercial- ready” seems entirely off. OK, it does mention teenage sex, but in the context of lyrics about Nabokov and Gruenwald, and generals full of shit. It’s more like Louis Vuitton wanted to use a song from the new Bowie album and threw a dart at a track listing. Almost any other song from the album (save “Heat” and “WAWN”) would have made more sense as a commercial.

    Momus, I always enjoy your insights and admire your wide-ranging knowledge. But sometimes it seems like you’re too caught up in your idea of the Bowie That Should Be. The Bowie we have is the Bowie we have.

  16. roobin101 says:

    This is the best of the second half of the album. I like it. I like The Beatles sound that The Beatles never sounded like. On the album it sounds too much like the wearying tracks around it to stand out.

    On the harpsichord mix, it sounds like the aural contradiction of this album, it is simultaneously plush and rough, cheap and expensive. It’s like they got the harpsichord in the studio to bolster the chorus but said “gosh, now it’s here we better use it for the whole song…”

    The stuff about the lyrics is a delight, part of the reason why I love this blog, finding out about the myriad tributaries that went into making even solid latter-day album tracks.

    • Dave L says:

      “The stuff about the lyrics is a delight, part of the reason why I love this blog, finding out about the myriad tributaries that went into making even solid latter-day album tracks.”

      Yes, well said.

  17. s.t. says:

    Speaking of duckies, what’s up with the varispeeded backing vocals? I guess the intention was something “druggy” to compliment the character’s desire for narcotic escape that doesn’t itself provide any real feeling of bliss. It makes the character more pathetic and tragic in that sense, although I’d say it even leans toward derision with that impish duck sound.

    And any thematic power the sound effect has on this particular song is dulled by its use throughout the album—most prominently on If You Can See Me. I guess we’ll cross that gnome’s bridge when we come to it.

  18. Rebel Yell says:

    Every time I see that video I think of the Grady twins from “The Shining” standing next to Bowie. And then Arizona Muse seems to have a shining moment and sees them older (Elizabethan collars, one wears glasses). So that really adds to the creep factor for me.

  19. MC says:

    I think the most striking thing about I’d Rather Be High is perhaps too obvious to point out: the antiwar theme. The song is for me a brilliant companion piece to How Does The Grass Go, the stridency of the latter matched by the catchy/annoying hook of the former (which is why the Venetian mix doesn’t do it for me; the song needs the nagging earworm riff). IRBH is a pop song with a wink, but there’s real anger beneath the tangle of literary references and the 60’s tropes. It’s the middle ground between the larkish character studies of the debut album and the wracked first-person narratives of The Man Who Sold The World (All The Madmen in particular).

    That’s why for me its pileup of 60’s signifiers makes perfect sense, have real pathos even. I would agree that it sounds more like 90’s neo-psychedelia than the 80’s pastiche of Zeroes. (If it has a later precursor in DB’s work, I would say it’s We All Go Through, or even some of the Toy reworkings, though it’s vastly more successful than the latter.) And the bridge for me is one of the highlights of TND: “I’d rather smoke and phone my ex/Be pleading for some teenage sex…yeaah!” knocks most of Oasis into the proverbial cocked hat! It’s the most rock&roll moment on the album, which I should stress is for me still a Good Thing.

    It should not be forgotten that the song was written against the backdrop of DB’s home and adopted countries both mired hopelessly in the war in Afghanistan. Given that, and the hopelessly anodyne pop culture of today, writing an angry, antiwar pop song that endorses however ironically, “getting high” as an alternative to killing is for me a radical act, one not cancelled out by Louis Vuitton. And as Rebel Yell underlines in his comment above, that is some creepy ad. I’m not sure a commercial can be “subversive” in this day and age, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the spot did for LV’s bottom line what the Boys Keep Swinging video supposedly did for sales of Lodger.

  20. Kenneth Holzman says:

    Actually, I really like this one. What does it say about me that this and “The Next Day” are two of my favorite tracks on TND? I’m sure that says something about my mindset at present, but not sure I want to know what that is.

  21. crayontocrayon says:

    It’s far more interesting lyrically than musically. “Just remember duckies, everybody gets got” is one of the lines of the album and I am fully in favour of the teenage sex section, you can hear the sneering smile when he sings ‘Yeah’.

    Bowie was surely paid a fortune for the Vuitton ads to the point where he probably didn’t mind too much what they did. I’m not a fan of the hapsichord versions but I’m surely Visconti had his fun with them.The Hingston video seems like a half-hearted effort to reclaim the song from the memory of the ad.

  22. Mike says:

    Ugh. Most of TND sounds tired and forced — Bowie struggling with something that once came naturally and seemed almost effortless. I’d Rather Be High is a real chore to get through, and it seems about as far from peak Bowie as a song could possibly be.

  23. Tyrell says:

    Chris, a little correction to the music part, I think there is a typo there: there is no C7 in the song, in the bridge he goes with E7-D7 back to A. And I think he uses richer harmonies in the song (I listened to the Venetian Mix), so e.g. in the refrain rather Em7 and Dm7 than a simple Em and Dm.
    „Mainly by moves to avoid going “home” to D major” – I am not sure about this, D is present in all three parts of the song – even in the intro – and prominent in the bridge.
    Anyway, a great article as always.

  24. princeasbo says:

    Intentionally or not, IRBH’S main riff is an almost straight cop from Mighty Baby’s “Same Way From The Sun”. Mighty Baby was the psychedelic outgrowth of class UK Mod band The Action. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfGkcdtTmag

  25. Stowe says:

    Thanks for the insight into the books. I find so much of the album seems like a man who was devouring books. Maybe the track is a little tough when playing the album in full, but individually I like it.
    A late Bowie highlight included,

    Just remember duckies, everybody gets got.

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