A track that seems as if Bowie used a Waring blender to make it, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s yet has a garish rock-show arrangement. Its title is a would-be manager’s promise of fame but it’s also advice given by St. Catherine of Siena (another sign Bowie had a yen for medieval saints—see “The Next Day”).
The presence of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (all hanging out in the same club, like a folkie Justice League of America) comes off more as stage-dressing, as if Bowie had just read Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s Mayor of MacDougal Street (also used for the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis) and figured he’d litter the song with characters from the book.
Because rather being than any sort of homage to American folk music, “Set the World On Fire” is far more a “Broadway” song, with Bowie doing a camp take on a self-serious music—its closest ancestors are “Star” and “Zeroes,” his music-hall stage takes on rock ‘n’ roll.
The figure at the center of the song (“the black girl and guitar/burn together hot with rage”) is most likely the folk singer Odetta, who was represented by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager (Grossman could be the refrain’s narrator) and who sparked everyone from Janis Joplin to Dylan himself. So the reference to St. Catherine (who allegedly dictated her visions while writhing in orgasmic ecstasy) is Bowie casting the Sixties folk scene as a medieval order.
But using Odetta as the hub of the wheel here also seems like a feinting maneuver, as the only figure who came out of MacDougal Street who could sell magazines and get Top 10 hits was Dylan himself (“manipulate, origin, text,” Bowie winked in his description of the song to Rick Moody). I’d argue that the song is Bowie’s sly tribute to Dylan, the consummate thief, charismatic and manipulator of his era, who left all of his peers far behind by 1965 (“you’re in the boat, babe/ we’re in the water”). Here Dylan’s shown perched off stage, watching the hot new singer’s moves and maybe planning to nick them; the parallels with the shark-like young Bowie seem obvious, if unintended.
It’s a pummeling, somewhat disjointed track, with its E major verses rammed along by Earl Slick’s power chords, over which Bowie offers some spidery phrasings, while its E minor refrains are flooded with guitar dubs (some of which sound like they were originally scored as string lines), harmonies by Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey and some enthusiastic tambourine by Sterling Campbell. After some Slick fireworks for a rising major-chord break, the song finishes off with cannon-blast refrains, where Bowie pushes to the top of his voice’s range, as if trying to sound young and untried again by force of will. As St. Catherine said, “labor to increase the fire of your desire.”
Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.
* From Letter 368, one of her epistles to Stefano di Corrado Maconi; it’s variously translated as “If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder” or “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!”
Top: Oscar Isaac and cat, Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens, 2013).