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.