1. Mirror Contract

The photograph shows a room in a flat in West Berlin—155 Hauptstraße, Schöneberg. David Bowie lies on his side on his bed. Thirty years old, his face is that of a beautiful sleeping child.

This is Bowie-in-Berlin, in a stolen moment (or was it? was the photograph staged for possible use? I don’t know who took it). A man gone from the world, hiding in his bedroom. The headboard is a wooden sunrise. All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall is an enormous canvas: Bowie’s portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

One of Bowie’s favorite paintings, arguably his best, it’s a severe crop of Mishima’s head, which seems carved from stone. The almond eyes have a penetrating sadness.


Well before he first toured the country in spring 1973, Bowie had immersed in Japan (he always did the research). He loved its art, photography (Sukita), fashion (Yamamoto), food, music (Toru Takemitsu), kabuki (Bando), film (Oshima), temples, and likely more than a few of its citizens. Perhaps above all, the work of Mishima, whose last books were being translated into English in the early Seventies.

For Bowie, Mishima was the extremity of Japan’s artistic culture. He stands most openly in Bowie’s “Berlin” songs. A tributary of “Heroes” is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, of whose sailor Mishima wrote “he was perfectly aware he would leave [his lover] in a day yet he was ready to happily die for her sake” (and recall that “sailor” was Bowie’s internet handle in the Nineties).

The sailor washes up in Lodger (“Red Sails”), an album with a Mishima counterpoint in “Fantastic Voyage” (Mishima, of the samurai: “there is dignity in serenity, there is dignity in clenched teeth and flashing eyes”; Bowie: “dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too”), Mishima’s decayed angel in “Look Back in Anger” and reference in “Yassassin” (“Look at us—sun and steel“). “Because You’re Young” and “Teenage Wildlife” tick to the quickened pulse of Mishima novels like Thieves, with their passionate, beautiful young suicides.

Consider Mishima’s description of a samurai preparing for seppuku (“the sense of beauty was always connected with death…the samurai was requested to make up his face by powder or lipstick, in order to keep his face beautiful after suffering death“) and Bowie’s makeup for the last Ziggy Stardust shows.

At dinner with Arcade Fire in New York in 2005, Bowie talked of his love of Mishima’s work and said he’d been in Tokyo when Mishima died. Like many Bowie stories, it was a perfect synchrony and quite untrue: on 25 November 1970, Bowie was likely sitting at his piano in Beckenham while Mishima stabbed himself in an army commander’s office in Tokyo.

2. Entrance to the Stage


I had a desire to turn myself into my own opposite, even in real life…I cannot be certain whether I actually created my own opposite or merely an aspect of myself which until then had been ignored.

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

Like David Bowie, Yukio Mishima is a stage name. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, to a family of samurai heritage. Fifty days after his birth, his formidable grandmother essentially kidnapped him, having his cradle moved into her sickroom. He lived in her house, rarely seeing his parents or siblings, until he was 12 years old.

Allowed dolls and origami for playthings, his few friends (all girls) severely vetted, he was left alone to dream and read fairy tales. When his grandmother determined she finally was going to die, she returned him to his parents. His siblings saw him as a lodger; his father considered the would-be decadent scribbler a disgrace.

During World War II, Mishima was in college, waiting to be called up for the last battles of the Pacific. “A genius destined for death,” he described his 20-year-old self. “It was a rare time when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of the age perfectly corresponded.” His memory of 1945, the year of the atom bomb and surrender, was of merciless sunlight. “The summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before.” A sympathetic army recruiter rejected him (Mishima had played up a recent bout of tuberculosis), so Mishima never fought. The world gained a writer who wished he’d died a soldier.


What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my own true nature. And it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was masquerade.

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

By the Fifties, he was Japan’s best-selling author. His books, full of death, scandal and glamour, were so popular that slang for an adulterous woman, yoromeki fujin (“lady misstep”), came from his novel A Misstepping of Virtue. He wrote and directed plays; he wrote, directed and/or starred in dozens of films (he liked playing toughs and gangsters) and once sang a film’s theme despite being tone deaf. “How wonderful to be a star!” he once said while sprawled upon a sofa backstage at one of his plays.

In whatever little compartment—as a clown (which he liked to be), as an actor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—every little thing he tried be, he also resisted,” the writer Nobuko Albery said. To the actress Hideko Muramatsu, Mishima said human beings are made of opposite halves: love and cruelty, tenderness and hatred. “Try to express both sides at the same time. Then the personality you create will be more profoundly expressed.”


He was a gay man who married a woman and had two children; a Europe-loving aesthete obsessed with restoring traditional Japanese culture, the sovereignty of the emperor and the Japanese army (now with nuclear weapons). His dogged, precise work schedule was that of a banker while he dressed, as his biographer John Nathan described, in a “blend of Hollywood cool and Roman drugstore cowboy,” favoring shades, loud sport shirts, black pegged trousers, gold chains. (Nathan, who went to discos with Mishima in the Sixties, said “it was like watching a studied imitation of a dancer; he always looked horrifyingly sober“). Within his Western-style house with a statue of Apollo in its garden (“my despicable symbol of the rational“), Mishima wrote on a metal desk in a small, spartan room. At parties, he’d roll on his back to do impressions of a dog treeing a cat, would imitate Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Then he’d dismiss everyone before midnight so he could get in his writing hours.

Frail in build after the hothouse years of his childhood, driven by his shame of failing the draft (and being kidded in gay clubs about being so skinny), Mishima began exercising and weight-training until he had the body of a lean Charles Atlas. He seemed to have custom-designed each muscle as he had each room of his house.

In Sun and Steel, he wrote that he began life as nothing but mind. “I was to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language.” Once he’d learned it, he knew he would lose it—the idea of his body’s inevitable decay appalled him. “I was the final heir to the tradition of Japanese beauty.”


By the mid-Sixties, he’d set upon two goals: he would write his masterpiece and would die by ritual suicide. At first he thought these irreconcilable, but found a means to entwine them and bring them to fruition.

While writing Spring Snow, the first of his quartet of novels The Sea of Fertility, he befriended a group of nationalist students, whom he’d incorporate into his next book, Runaway Horses. He joined the Army Self-Defense Force (roughly Japan’s equivalent to the National Guard), going to boot camp at age 42. As he wrote The Temple of Dawn he created a civilian counterpart to the ASDF—-a private 90-man army called the Shield Society (he wrote their theme song). He debated left-wing students, starred as a terrorist in a film, hoped a leftist uprising would cause his civilian army to be activated.

He was playing war, which had a special excitement for him because he hadn’t been allowed to do so as a child,” his brother later said.


On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society disciples went to the ASDF headquarters and held the commander hostage. Mishima stood on the balcony to orate to the soldiers. He called on them to overthrow the Japanese government and restore the emperor; they mostly jeered him: “Stop trying to be a hero!” “We can’t act in common with fellows like you!” He’d contacted the media to be sure the news cameras were there. Returning to the commander’s office, he knelt and drove a foot-long dagger into his left side, then drew it across his abdomen. His disciple fumbled the killing blow, failing twice to decapitate him as Mishima shook in pain and gushed blood and intestines. Another would-be hero finished the job.

That morning, Mishima had left home wearing his dress uniform. On his desk was the finished manuscript of the last book of his quartet, The Decay of the Angel, and a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune


Then we saw
Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall

The first lines of “Heat,” the last song on Bowie’s The Next Day (the last next day), refer to a scene early in Mishima’s Spring Snow.

Mishima’s quartet is the life of Japanese man, Shigekuni Honda, and his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies each novel to be reincarnated in the following book. Kiyoaki, dead of heartbreak and illness in 1914, is reborn as Isao, a nationalist fanatic who commits seppuku in 1931. Isao is reborn as Ying Chan, a Thai princess who barely seems to exist in the world until she no longer does (snake bite, 1952). She reincarnates as Tōru, an arrogant shipping clerk whom an aged Honda adopts in 1970.

Honda—rational, dull, slave to routine, dedicated worker, faithful husband in a loveless marriage, reader, voyeur, survivor—is the control. The experiment is his reincarnated friend, whose various lives embody passion, beauty, bravery, depravity, improvisation, a will for death. Honda “was certain he had played a part in the crystallization of Kiyoaki and Isao’s transparent lives…he was a kind of harbor and not a ship,” (The Temple of Dawn). The quartet is Mishima’s life of opposites split into two beings—one continual, one reoccurring, each needing the other.


Spring Snow begins with Honda and Kiyoaki as teenagers on the latter’s family estate in 1912. They’re part of an entourage walking to a waterfall on a hill overlooking the manor. “It’s a beautiful day,” Honda says. “In all our lives, we may not have many like this.”

Though the hill has been sculpted to provide a gently-flowing waterfall, water is being diverted midway up the slope. A black dog that “probably had been mortally sick or wounded when it came to the stream to drink, had fallen in. The force of the current had wedged the corpse into the cleft of rocks at the top of the falls…[Honda] felt oppressed by the sight of the dog hanging dead in the falls under a bright sky only faintly flecked with cloud.” The party gives the dog a burial, an abbess leads the funeral blessing.

A water-washed corpse of an aimless dog spoils the careful designs of human beings. It harbingers Kiyoaki’s death, his subsequent deaths, and the slow corruption of his various reincarnations; it foretells the Kiyoaki estate being bombed to pieces by American planes during the war and Honda’s sad withering. It is time and doom.

Bowie uses “we”: his perspective both Honda and Kiyoaki, Mishima’s halves in a single eye. But the oppressive mood of “Heat” is far from that of Spring Snow, whose setting is a jewel of a prewar Japanese world. “Heat” is more a blasted landscape.

Referencing a Mishima novel was in keeping with how Bowie wrote much of The Next Day. His circle reduced, since the mid-2000s, to his family and a few friends, Bowie seems to have retreated into books (in a way, he lived Mishima’s childhood as an older man). So lines from Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh turn up in “I’d Rather Be High,” Carole Anne Duffy and Svetlana Alliluyeva in “How Does the Grass Grow?,” Robert Palmer (writer, not singer) in “The Next Day,” Mishima here.

It was an older type of songwriting—he’d written many of his first album’s songs by taking stories and characters from Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. But it’s done far more obliquely and disjointedly here: a traceable reference links to an untraceable one, forming a lattice of broken images. The dog in the waterfall is the first square on the board; the rest of Bowie’s words are a series of jumps.

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky


So in the first verse of “Heat,” after the Mishima lines, come some purgatorial images—songs of dust, the night always falling. Then “the peacock in the snow,” suggesting a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord (a film about children growing up in a surreal Fascist Italy):


Which in turn, as the artist Tanja Stark noted, has echoes in one of Jimmy King’s photo shoots of Bowie, from winter 2013:


And jump-cut to Scott Walker’s “Jolson and Jones,” from 2006’s The Drift:

Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted
Where dead children were born

It’s not that Bowie set out a map and said, “all right, x will take you to y, from which you can find z.” He’d always worked at angles, in shadows, never spelling things out (even to himself), making the listener do the work. It was a holdover from his glam rock years. The crowd had made Ziggy Stardust; here, the crowd (no longer a crowd, but a group of solitudes listening to his songs on computers or phones) decides which path a song like “Heat” takes.

There was a parallel in the work of an old influence. The later songs of Scott Walker are full of lines with little to tether them but their being sung by the same keening voice. Walker wrote bloody histories via arcane words quarried from the OED or from art movies, set to apocalyptic music.

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John


The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

This blog’s gone at length into the connections between Scott Walker and David Bowie (see “Nite Flights” and “The Motel”; pack a lunch). For Walker, Bowie was of interest while he was making his 1978 album Nite Flights. For Bowie, Walker was nearly a lifelong influence.

A pop star in the Sixties, Walker spent much of his artistic life on the margins, while Bowie remained a genial mainstream presence (with some exceptions) whose secret ambitions were to be something like Scott Walker. In 1997, Bowie exhibited a painting titled The Walker Brothers Triptych. The three “brothers” were x-rays of himself, bracketed by then-collaborator Reeves Gabrels and the artist Tony Oursler. It’s a remnant of his most Walker-esque avant-garde period, the years of Outside and Modern Painters.

Then a funny thing happened in the 21st Century—the two swapped places. Bowie grew furtive, was out of the public eye; his life became speculation. Walker was, by his standards, a public figure.

Walker cut a song for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film, soundtracked Leos Carax’s Pola X, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2000, produced Pulp’s final album We Love Life, recorded a song with Bat For Lashes. He participated in a documentary about himself which he said he’s never watched, and let cameras into the studio as he recorded The Drift. Thanks to a sympathetic generation of music journalists, there are more interviews promoting The Drift and Bish Bosch than there are for the whole of his solo career pre-2006. He patiently explained what his intentions were, how the albums were recorded, how he was using his voice.


He’s become, at 73, something of a cultural institution. While a few older fans may still harass him on the tube because “the stuff you’re doing now I fucking hate,” he’s mostly escaped at last being the glamorous Mod London Scott. Sporting skinny jeans and caps like a Williamsburg grandfather, he makes inscrutable albums that critics generally like.

Signing with 4AD in the 2000s, Walker was free to do whatever he wanted (if anything, 4AD pushed for “weird”). His late albums are as much a brand identity as the Scott albums of the Sixties. Their covers have muted colors, with photographs that could be lunar surfaces or microbe slides; tracks have titles like “Epizootics!” and “Psoriatic” and “Herod 2014.” You come to expect the sudden shifts in dynamics, esoteric percussion as primary rhythmic pulse, keening lead vocals that follow melodic lines unsupported by the backing music (or noises), abstract violence as organizing principle.

The Drift is a slasher film as art rock record. Listening to each track, you wait for the blow to strike—Satanic Donald Duck voice, horse-massacre horn, winter armies, massed strings summoned like ringwraiths. Walker’s voice is the only constant in a sequence of rapid set changes, his plaintive, haunted phrasings fall over telltale-heartbeat drums or gales of atonal strings. The Drift is the culmination of what he’d been moving towards since “The Electrician.” His masterpiece, it’s a brutalizing album to endure from start to finish.


Bish Bosch, from 2012, works along the same lines, but there’s a growing sense of absurdity, as if the Walker project has reached its red giant phase (the title, Walker said, meant in part “job done, sorted”). Songs are longer, more ridiculous, goofier—the dog barks, fart and piss noises in “Corps de Blah” or how Walker’s ode to the fall of the Ceaucescus, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died,” has a lyric of multiple-choice personality test questions and ends with a snatch of “Jingle Bells.” At the same time, there’s a paring down—fewer strings, diminished basslines. “We just need to find silence and stillness to experience it,” Walker said.

Its gonzo peak is the 21-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an oblique history of a 5th Century jester dwarf, stuck on a pole, who becomes a brown dwarf star. Much of the lyric is a historical catalog of insults, from Catullan digs like “for gross Gauls, who won’t leave our sheep alone” to Don Rickles jibes like “does your face hurt? Cause it’s killing me.” What best survives the long centuries? The put-down jokes.


After decades of frustration, Walker had found a way of working that suited him. Keeping to a tight budget (he had to record all the strings in a single day, would have to wait months for a few days of studio time to open up), he would use a small group of studio pros who knew what to expect from him, and could process his instructions quickly. Machetes as percussion? Electroshock guitar? Crickets? It got done.

His albums sold enough to justify their production costs; he got enough press. He was as free as any artist can be in the 2010s. So he could sit at home and write his dark Saturday-crossword-clue lyrics (there’s a similarity to Mishima’s prose: Mishima “knew the exact word for everything,” friends recalled, and loved archaic and obscure terms, making his books difficult to translate). Then he’d map out chords on his keyboard, get much of the song set in his head, go to the studio and have his musicians give the rest of it to him.

A workable aesthetic. One that Bowie followed as if using a blueprint when making Blackstar.

6. The First Step Toward Salvation


Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip.

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

As I write this, on a nearby table is Mick Rock’s photo collection of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The book is the size of a small tombstone. It’s a public life in glam stills, whether Bowie applying makeup backstage, on a train somewhere, or out on stage. A record of Bowie assembling a grand personality, as if building a temple, then walking around in it.

The critic Donald Richie once said of his friend Mishima: “He knew one of the great and best-kept secrets of being alive is that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it. You become who you are by practicing it and, little by little, you will turn into who you want to be.”

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period was him rigging himself into being a star. For the rest of his life, he’d tear down the stage dressing and do it again, and again. It wasn’t the way of Mishima, who’d spent the whole of his life building to his suicidal climax. His books, films, plays, interviews, actions feel aligned in a single rising movement, a unified performance, all his halves fusing to form the man standing on the balcony in 1970. When he killed himself, the Japanese were stunned; he had acted. “Mishima has gone and actually done what these rightists only talk about,” a Japanese policeman told journalists. “And it is not only the rightists who are stirred. Here in Japan, there must be thousands of frustrated people. They have no outlet for their pent‐up feelings.”

Mishima doing karate, practicing kendo, flying in subsonic aircraft, plotting revolutions, gutting himself, making sure the camera caught his right profile. For Bowie, he existed as image: heat and light, sun and steel. By contrast, there was Scott Walker, hiding in London studios, having drummers thwack sides of meat. Existing, as he had since the early Walker Brothers singles, as voice, as form without being, artist without biography. “I’m just trying to be a person singing without any personality or anything else particularly,” Walker said.


‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

In 1982, in the months before he made Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had been Mishima’s leftist political rival in the Sixties. Bowie said he once saw a TV interview in which the two fervently argued with each other for what boiled down to the same ideals. “I qualify that by saying that the Japanese left and right are quite different from Western ideas of left and right, where it is estranged left and estranged right,” Bowie said in 1983. “In Japan both would have probably have roots in the same source than they might have over here. They both say, let’s stay Japanese. And when you’ve got that, you’re almost cancelling out everything else!”

In Mr. Lawrence, Oshima cast the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, head of a World War II prison camp for British soldiers. Sakamoto essentially plays Mishima (call the movie a battle for aesthetic supremacy between Bowie and Mishima, a war fought via actors). Yonoi is a pop star out of time, obsessed with his own honor and Bowie’s character, the prisoner of war Jack Celliers; he’s consumed by Celliers’ blond purity, his beauty, his refusal to obey. Both characters are driven by past shames: Celliers’ betrayal of his younger brother, Yonoi failing to die honorably after the failure of a coup he participated in.

At the film’s climax, to prevent the POW commander from being executed, Celliers breaks ranks and walks up to Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks. Yonoi, outraged and in love, can’t act. He collapses in disgrace. Celliers is killed by being buried alive; Yonoi is executed at the end of the war, perhaps with the lock of hair he’d cut from Celliers still in his pocket.

7. The False Account and the True


With its austere F-sharp major key, “Heat” seems like an outpost when compared to the rest of its loud, compressed album. It seems to play the curtain-closing role that “Bring Me the Disco King” did on Reality.

It’s a mix of Walker tropes. The usual “Electrician” moods, the Climate of Hunter fretless bass (Gail Ann Dorsey, playing an instrument she was unfamiliar with), the blurred instrumentation and semitonal shifts in melody and chords. The latter’s been a Walker trait since the Sixties—his hope of making “new chords” by binding contrasting tones together, strings hovering between tones.

The chord structure of “Heat” is sparse: a long stay on the home F# chord, then moving to the IV chord (B major, “songs of dust”) to a D major refrain (“I tell myself”); it’s a shift between E and F# for the coda (“I am a seer..”). But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C). It creates tension throughout the track; it’s as if a landscape is being shrouded in mist, then uncovered.

Bowie sings a handful of notes, making pawn’s moves (rising only by second or third intervals). He does this often on The Next Day, hunkering down on a few notes instead of writing his usual octave-spanning lines, as if unwilling to stray out of his confines. A movement repeats like Morse code: a two-note rise for each phrase, F# to G# (“Mi-shima’s dog,” “tell my-self,” “love is theft“)). He only moves to a third note to close a section, whether circularly (“blocking the water-fall” is F#-G#-F#) or ambiguously (“pea-cock in the snow” ends on an A note).


The arrangement clouds things further. The rhythm is a brusque acoustic guitar (Bowie?), the drums embellish (cymbals hiss on the chord changes), Dorsey’s bass is a softly persistent querying voice. Despite Bowie’s dominant position in the mix, the background—meshes of keyboards that hold on a wavering chord, guitars making solitary gestures, vocal loops, wary strings that finally burst into flight in the coda—is as much central to the track.

And while Walker is there in “Heat,” it’s a frozen conception of him. This is still the Scott of “It’s Raining Today” and “Nite Flights,” not the man howling and laughing on his latter records. The 21st Century’s Walker doesn’t exist here. Much of The Next Day is Bowie assessing his past, “sampling” it, playing cut-up with it. He does the same to Walker here—“Heat” feels like the end of a long admiration. A man finally packing things up, starting to look beyond the horizon.

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial


All art is like the evening glow. It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky, even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile…The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending.

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

Of “Heat,” Tony Visconti said “the lyrics are so bleak that I asked David what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer…He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind.

“Tragic, Nerve, Mystification” are the last words in the list that Bowie gave the writer Rick Moody, in what would be his only public statement on The Next Day. The 42 words, in order, seem to have a structure: each three-word set corresponds to the equivalent song on the LP sequence. If this is “Heat” in miniature, the words fit. A tragic loss of nerve. Making an end by fading into the mystic.

The violence throughout The Next Day—dying men shoved in trees, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—comes to a rest in “Heat,” which is a world bled free of killing as much as anything else. If The Next Day is a war album, the sad tale of how the 21st Century became more like the religious-war-plagued 16th Century than the world of Major Tom and the Saviour Machine, “Heat” is its tattered epilogue, its cease-fire.


It has one of Bowie’s winking self-epitaphs: I am a seer, and I am a liar. A pun: a see-er, a seer. A man who only sees what’s right before him, or a prophet. And a liar, which he always claimed he was.

My father ran the prison. I’m not guilty, but you can’t believe a word I say, mind. I never wanted to be a rock star, he said in 1974. But I was there, that’s what happened.

It became a personal song in the sense of Self. Not ego-self or knowable self but in the way of whatever the Self is,” Walker once said of his song “Cue.” Who is singing “Heat”?

If much of The Next Day is a romp with his touring band, getting the gang back together for one last caper, “Heat” points to the end of Bowie’s recording life. You could call it a dock, from which he went off on a last trip.

Or a pier, which, as James Joyce once wrote, is a disappointed bridge.

9. Grand Finale


You hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.

Bowie, “Bring Me the Disco King” video, 2003.

In 2014, Scott Walker recorded with a band, Sunn O))). The album, Soused, has the usual droning guitars and obscure lyrics but there’s something fresh in it. It’s an artist who’s been locked in his mind having to balance himself against a set of younger players (all members of Sunn O))) were born after the Scott albums were released). Though it’s a drone record, there’s a lightness of tone, a looseness of structure, that other Late Scott albums lack. It could be a one-off; it could be his future.

The same year, David Bowie was at a New York jazz club, sizing up a combo of musicians a generation or two younger than him. Donny McCaslin, after Bowie had hired his group for his new album, began exploring Bowie’s back catalog (he only knew the Eighties hits). But Bowie warned him off. “That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now.”


In the autumn of 1970, a few months before his suicide, Yukio Mishima mounts an exhibition of himself in a department store. It ranges from photographs of his stolen childhood to a recent series of homoerotic shots in which he’s posed as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows.

In 2008, Scott Walker helps create Drifting and Tilting at the Barbican, in which his post-Eighties songs are performed live for the first time. He doesn’t sing them, nor does he appear on stage. Instead singers inspired by him (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) perform his songs. Walker is at the sound desk, watching his music escape him. He notes that most of the audience is well under 50.

It’s 2015. David Bowie Is, a museum exhibition of David Bowie’s life, moves from Paris to Melbourne to the Netherlands. Among the works on display is the painting of Yukio Mishima that once hung on a West Berlin wall. Bowie’s last public appearance is at the opening night of his musical; he sits and watches actors sing his songs to him.

Clear the waterfall, let the stream go where it will.

Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!

Mishima, Runaway Horses.


Recorded: (backing tracks) May 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released: 8 March 2013, The Next Day.

Credits: (Mishima) John Nathan, Mishima-A Biography (1974); Naoki Inose, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (2013); The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (Arena, 1985); Mishima: His Life and Literature; Philip Shabecof’s “You’ve Heard of Yukio Mishima…”from the NYT, 2 August 1970, and subsequent NYT articles after Mishima’s suicide. Of Mishima’s novels, essential works include: Confessions of a Mask (1949), Thirst For Love (1950), Forbidden Colors (1951), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) and his last quartet: Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (posthumously p., 1971). The essay Sun and Steel (1968) is critical for a sense of Mishima’s philosophy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a fusion of Mishima’s biography and fiction, is worth watching, as is Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, of course! (Walker) In addition to sources listed in the previous entries (esp. No Regrets and Anthony Reynolds’ biography), I’m indebted to articles and broadcasts, 1966-2016, that I’ve listed here. (Walker, DB and “Heat”) ‘Crayon to Crayon,’ as always. Tanja Stark’s “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses,” collected in Exploring David Bowie, is a compelling analysis of mortality in Bowie’s work.

For Kevin Smith, 1972-2016. Tell me all about it on the next bardo, Kev. For Rahawa, defeater of mountains.

Photos inc.: 1. DB, 1977 (unknown photog.); Johannes Eisele, “David Bowie Is… exhibit, Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin,” 2014; 3. Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-2005); 4:  King, 2013; Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). All DB shots: King, 2013; 8: Mishima, 1968. 9: Bowie: self-portrait “D Head V,” ca. 1995; “Walker Brothers Triptych” 1996,”Head of Mishima” 1977.

70 Responses to Heat

  1. I wonder if Bowie ever saw the collaboration between Eikoh Hosoe and Mishima “Ordeal by roses”. I’m a bit obsessed by Japanese photography of the 60s & 70s.

  2. Floodsy says:

    This was my favorite track from this album, and one I’d hoped wasa harbinger of his next, future work – which I feel in part it was, but perhaps not as deliberate as say ‘1984’ presaged the work on ‘Young Americans’.

    So glad to finally read your analysis – so much new information regarding a cryptic song with such great imagery.

  3. djonn says:

    great to have you back and well worth the wait and well worth the weight of the subject. so many threads to pull together and beautifully executed. good luck with the forthcoming entries, they won’t be easy I’m sure, but all bodes well with this first of the last.

  4. Phil Obbard says:

    It was worth the wait. Welcome back!

  5. StoweTheLion says:

    Superb post.
    Really interesting little observation there about the exhibitions similarities. Two very different deaths, but deaths not wasted, but used even as an extension of life.

    I really love heat and like many songs on TND it does feel like a little vignette. Little stories that aren’t like pop music where the lyrics are there to support you, but instead to fall into, into those worlds. Like books. Its funny that photo of him with his books 2013 was shared this week, perfect for a post that suggests he was in a world of books.

    One of Bowie/visconti’s best productions as well. So beautifully arranged.

    Good to have your blog back fresh!🙂

  6. V2David says:

    My favorite song off TND. I’ve been waiting so long for your analysis & it is a thing of beauty, just as is the song. I am glad though that this isn’t the denoument for Bowie (or your blog). Looking forward to your analysis of Blackstar!

  7. igamoore says:

    So glad to have you back.

  8. Groofay says:

    I always love it when Scott Walker pokes into the blog. What a fascinating analysis of several fascinating ideas and personalities.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Another splendid, insightful analysis–thanks yet again! Is “Heat” a cease-fire of the violent domination that takes up so much of The Next Day or is it the apotheosis of this brutality: humanity itself trapped like a dog between the rocks and imprisoned by its creator? “My father ran the prison” is such an unnerving, haunting line, and it makes me wonder if (in some sense) the entire human condition is the subject of the song (in this case, it would be not unlike the song “The Next Day” or, for that matter, the song “Blackstar”). That disturbing refrain, whatever it might mean, reminds me of a favorite passage by Madame de Stael: “Man, that exile from heaven, that prisoner on earth–so great an exile, such a miserable captive!”

  10. Iain Tweedy says:

    great post – thanks!

  11. marta says:

    Wow. This is indeed a work of staggering devotion and love, your blog is.

    For the time being, I’ve just skimmed through this post about my favourite TND song. My eye caught Elena Ferrante’s name.

    I’ve read the tetralogy during the summer and somehow kept thinking about Bowie. He’s in there, in a (elusive? oblique?) way. I can see him in Lila’s journey through life, the way she absorbs novelty and can do anything she puts her mind to, her indomable spirit, the way she chooses her own predicament and the way it all ends (I hope I’m not spoiling anything). Ferrante’s play on her own identity and that of her characters…

    I read Mishima when I was 18-20. I didn’t know then about Bowie’s interest in him. But it all makes sense, of course.

    And now I’m going to read through the whole entry, 4 or 5 times at least, before saying anything else

    In the meantime, I’ll be repeating all other readers and myself: Thank You, Chris!

  12. BenJ says:

    Ah. My favorite TND song gets an epic O’Leary post worthy of it. I’m going to read this one many times, I think.

    Just making two small observations now. It’s a funny coincidence that Mishima liked to impersonate Marlon Brando in One Eyed Jacks. On Scott Walkers album with SunnO))) there’s a song called “Brando”, which sounds a little like Queensryche’s Geoff Tate fronting a subdued Guns ‘n’ Roses. The song is inspired by all the scenes in Brando’s movies where he gets beaten up, and the sadomasochistic undercurrent. One of the films is One Eyed Jacks, where of course Brando directed his own flagellation.

    Also, I have to give props to Gail Ann Dorsey for her fretless bass work on this track, which perfectly captures Bowie’s drowned world. If it were just a matter of Bowie wanting to do a jazz album – or at least a clearly jazz-influenced one – she could easily have been part of the team. Of course he also wanted to do a fresh take with new partners, and Tim Lefebvre does a supreme job. But Dorsey stands tall for someone who only played bass on three of ;Bowie’s albums if you count Toy.

  13. Galdo says:

    I consider this song was my door to the Bowie’s work. I’ve already listened some of his major albums before (Low, Ziggy, Hunky) – in a time I wasn’t ready for them. So, when ‘The Next Day’ came out and, months after, I listened to it, this really caught me. I really liked the song, and someone said on a music site it sounded like ‘Outside’. I listened to Outside, loved the album and my interest only grewed after this.

    Somehow it looks like and epilogue to ‘Outside’ or one of the lost tracks of its continuations. What if his voice is of some lost character, ripping dimensions to send his message in a fulfilled work? It doesn’t seem likely, but I like to imagine it.

  14. StoweTheLion says:

    Why do you think it’s called Heat?

    • Paddy says:

      Maybe because the character from the song is very lonely and alienated, so he need some heat.

      • StoweTheLion says:

        Hmm. I mean, it’s open to interpretation. I feel it’s likely that was the overriding word that came to his mind, but my own interpretation is that of heat of life being the complete opposite of the death and cold imagery used in the song. Also that the swelling synth to me sounds like what hot air might sound like..

    • verdelay says:

      I take a Gnostic reading: Heat=police. We are all imprisoned and controlled by forces beyond our comprehension, and our Father (who art in heaven) runs the prison.

      See also: “Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday” (Girl Loves Me). In one reading (mine, at any rate): ‘No matter how much money I continue to pay (for cancer treatment), the Powers That Be will not permit me any more time in their world’.

      • col1234 says:

        i chose not to speculate on the title: figured it would be more fun if everyone else did & I’d already said enough.

        It’s very unusual for Bowie to have a song title that doesn’t appear in the lyric; one assumes there’s a reason. It’s more in the line of how he titled instrumentals

      • Matthew says:

        It very much sounds as if it is going to be an instrumental for the first 37 seconds. It would be interesting to hear the backing track on its own.
        Heat would seem a strange title, to me the song evokes more a sense of cold.
        Sometimes music just stirs up a feeling on first hearing before you even begin to process what it might be about. Two tracks on TND spring to mind, this one (cold, ancient) and Valentines Day which is truly unsettling even without knowing it’s story.

  15. spanghew says:

    A brilliant return.

    (I’m missing Momus’s bullet-pointed commentary – maybe he’ll show later…)

  16. Anonymous says:

    “Heat” is what Scott Walker was still trying to write in 1995, then gave up as inspiration finally dried down.

  17. So good to have you back, Chris. Wonderful writeup for a brilliant song. (And as usual, I’ll advocate for putting on Tumblr whatever was left on the cutting room floor.)

    “My father ran the prison” — the kind of line from which whole worlds spring open — may just be Bowie’s ultimate Gnostic line, in a catalog littered with them, sung by an older man half-remembering the past, muttering to himself, looking over barren, heat-scorched earth in front of him.

    In 2013, Heat sounded like Bowie looking to Scott Walker again to remember his own ambition — the final tribute to Scott’s sound before embracing Scott’s uncompromising attitude, if you will, and an an end to tributes to his own past, which is what his records after Earthling have often been.

    So he goes to The Electrician one last time (Eno: “We haven’t got any further than The Electrician. It’s a disgrace.”), purges the rockist insecurities that plagued The Motel, and the next time he emerged, he was singing in free time over Maria Schneider’s roiling band, McCaslin’s sax and his future MVP Mark Giuliana’s drums already whipping up a storm all around him.

    P.S. On a lighter note, the Gnostic thread further supports my favorite theory of yours, Chris: Kate Bush and David Bowie are really the same person, cf. Sat in Your Lap, A Sky of Honey, etc. Your move, Kate.

  18. James LaBove says:

    An astonishing return to form, coming after a worrying period where you seemed to be content with recycling past glories! Dare I say… your finest work since the Scary Monsters posts?

    Joking aside, after being away for some long (albeit thankfully not totally dormant thanks to the “reissues” posts), I wonder if there was some pressure of meeting the high expectations of your readers; a feeling not totally dissimilar to what the blog’s subject might have felt from time to time.

    Regardless, this entry is a tour de force – it’s really incredible. The amount of research, thought, and empathy that went into its creation is evident. Like a lot of songs on The Next Day, once the “honeymoon” was over, Heat didn’t get much attention from me, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve heard it. While reading this entry, I played it on repeat – and found myself enjoying it immensely. As has been the case many times previously, this blog made me reconsider a Bowie song that I’d previously come close to writing off.

    What also helped was a recent interest in Scott Walker’s music (again prompted by Chris’ writing on him). I’d never heard of Scott Walker before discovering this blog, and somehow I’d managed to avoid ever hearing anything he’s done prior to shortly before Bowie died. I heard “Shutout,” and I was in awe of it. After Bowie’s passing, I listened to the rest of Nite Flights. It’s such a wonderful album – obviously Scott’s songs steal the show, but the rest of the album is great too. I thought I’d discovered a Bowie surrogate (which I guess I did in a sense)… until I heard more of his catalog. What a rabbit hole that is! I’m still trying to wrap my head fully around his later work, but it’s a fun ride. Erm, mostly, anyway. Climate of Hunter and big handfuls of his earlier material are easy to love, though, and all of this certainly paved the way for me to reconsider Heat.

    This post also made me realize that I had heard of Mishima before – I came across his Wikipedia page a few years back (no clue what led me there), and was touched by the story of his life and death. I never made the connection that the Mishima mentioned in Heat was the same person, or that there was a Bowie connection.

    Anyway, thank you again for the phenomenal work, Chris! I join everyone else in welcoming you back, and I can’t wait to hear your take on the Blackstar tracks, whenever they come. I hope we didn’t drive you too crazy asking for updates!

  19. KenHR says:

    Just want to say welcome back. Wonderful post.

  20. Christopher Williams says:

    I know it’s not autobiographical but children’s homes could be prisons?

    • Christopher Williams says:

      And welcome back – enjoyed the reissues, looking forward to the next batch. Must also say I am enjoying Michael C. Hall’s “Lazarus” – have tickets for London!!

      • Christopher Williams says:

        I always link Barnardo’s with The National Children’s Homes because my mother worked in one, obviously Barnardo’s is a charity and doesn’t have homes.

  21. Good lord! What an entry! A good one!

  22. Gareth Power says:

    I think “fading into the mystic” seems like the key to this song, without a doubt one of the top songs on the album.

    It seems like someone giving up on a search for truth about existence, what we are, etc, resigning themselves to never knowing or understanding. Or quailing from the idea of being subject to a godless, mechanistic cosmos.

    “My father ran the prison”: Maybe an image of a god who has trapped us in a prison where truth is always beyond us.

    Or perhaps the prison is the narrator’s inability to commit to a world of empirical knowledge over one of philosophical or spiritual intuition.

    “I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty” is maybe another angle on the same thing.

    Well anyway, there are things in the song that seem to support that sort of interpretation, and things that don’t.

    On the article itself, it really is superb. For what it’s worth, its mood and the quality of the writing sent me off on a productive tangent last night on something of my own that I’m working on.

  23. Stolen Guitar says:

    Bloody hell… well, that’s my reading sorted for the next term!

    Great to have you back and clearly on a mission. Can’t wait to savour this as my inroad to Mishima came through my teenage obsession with The Stranglers and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel way back in the golden years. He was a ‘fan’ of Mishima and all things martial and Japanese. Didn’t really get it then, so looking for some elucidation from your post. Still have an unfashionable soft spot for The Stranglers, though. Burnel really was a terrific bassist and had an incredible stage presence that wast half Baryshnikov and half Bruce Lee!

    Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence saw Mishima resurface in my consciousness once again, and by that time I was also a regular visitor to Japan. Fascinating and impenetrable in equal measure, well, certainly for me, I’ve always struggled to understand what goes on… it’s a seemingly unending scene of culture shock for me. I’ve been to many, many places around the world but I’m still none the wiser about Japan and it’s culture.

    Well, I’m sure I’m going to learn something now!

    Great to have you back, Chris.

  24. Stolen Guitar says:

    Oh! And Heat was a taste of things to come… and more.

    Really, still can’t comprehend that he’s gone. Playing the records more than I’ve ever done since my first immersion into his world in the 1970s. This site and Morley’s book providing essential and fitting commemoration.

    If Dylan is, and I absolutely believe he is, a worthy and deserving Nobel laureate, then Bowie, too, is, as Morley describes him, the man who shaped an age. No Nobel prize, perhaps, but like Elvis, the Beatles and the Pistols, Bowie altered and immeasurably improved the landscape. When traces of life are eventually found on the Red Planet, it’ll inevitably be celebrated by a ‘disposable’ pop song from the early 1970s. Ha! Now that’ll be a ‘prize’ indeed!

    Congratulations to you, Robert Zimmerman.

  25. SamB says:

    Speaking of Dylan, this amazing write up of Heat made me think of Dylan’s appropriation of Junichi Saga’s ‘Confessions of a Yakuza’ throughout his album ‘Love and Theft’: see here http://dylanchords.info/ and here: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/12/books/critic-s-notebook-plagiarism-in-dylan-or-a-cultural-collage.html?_r=0

    This is brought home also by the lines ‘love is theft… the theft of love.’


  26. crayontocrayon says:

    I wonder if ‘I am a seer’ could be Bowie’s take on Isherwood’s ‘I am a camera’ line (which goes on to talk of a woman in a kimono because Japanese influence seemingly cannot be escaped here).

    I really like Heat but also I am glad that the whole of TND wasn’t in the same vein. As an album closer it’s kind of the anti secret life of arabia – a reminder that he can still be weird after a string of pretty conventional songs

  27. Rebel Yell says:

    “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
    The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”
    William Blake
    The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

  28. billter says:

    A lovely and illuminating post — well worth the wait.

    The Mishima stuff is all new to me, and quite fascinating. After reading this, I have to think that Bowie had Mishima in mind when it came to stage-managing the end of his life.

    Chris (I assume intentionally) avoids bringing this up, and maybe it’s vulgar to spell it out, but the parallel is certainly there. Bowie may not have chosen the means or exact day of his death the way Mishima did (and I’m not interested in hearing euthanasia conspiracy theories), but he did manage to arrange things so that he would get to see his birthday and the release of his last work, then make his exit. And so that many people would literally be listening to his new album when they heard he was gone.

    As last acts go, it may not be quite as dramatic as committing ritual suicide with the manuscript of your last book sitting on your desk, but it’s certainly an impressive way to leave the stage.

    I look forward to discussion of “Blackstar” (the song and the album), which offers lots of cryptic material to chew on. This is all just as David planned it.

  29. Ann K says:

    Another detailed, beautifully articulated essay. As I’m a late-comer and still have lots of reading to go, this was a nice “diversion” from the rest. I appreciate you including the link to the video for “Bring Me the Disco King” in this post. The lyrics, read through lens of the “Lazarus” video, take on new meaning, don’t they? Of course, literalism only goes so far with Our Man. “Labyrinth,” indeed.

    It would be fascinating to hear Iman’s perspective on all of this as the person (presumably) closest to him and to his heart – though I doubt we ever will. I wonder what she thought of it all – especially the work after his first brush with mortality during the Reality tour. Something changed in him, or at least it would seem from what he said – and stopped saying – and the music he made. It feels both like closing ranks and breaking free, if that makes sense.

    Anyway, thank you for all of the thought and attention you put into this post, and all of your writing. It’s a pleasure to read, even when the content is emotionally and intellectually “challenging.” “Blackstar” should be quite something!

  30. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for writing this. I bought “Spring Snow” after reading it. Absolutely gorgeous literature.

  31. LowProfile says:

    You open up whole avenues of mind! “All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall” in the opening paragraph instantly had me thinking of the self-titled debut – also known as “the blue and yellow” by… This Heat (who were probably struggling with the recording of this very album while the Berlin photograph was taken).
    Until today, I’d never consciously realized the similarities between Scott Walker’s The Electrician and This Heat’s Not Waving, and now it’s staring me in the face.
    And even though there’s no direct line between This Heat and Bowie, both have been massively influenced by Neu at some point.
    This Heat’s Deceit is still one of my all time favourite album titles, together with Low (yep, the profile pic). “Deceit”, could be a Bowie theme. And indeed “Don’t deceive with belief. Knowledge comes with death’s relief”.
    High time I dust off that shelve with Mishima novels.

  32. leonoutside says:

    Bloody hell Chris, good job. Heat. White Hot. The equation on the Blackstar poster is for Nuclear fusion. Read Forbidden Colours in mid 80s. Found it hard work at 17. It still lurks on my bookshelf now. A re-read perhaps due. Sea of Fertility quartet worthwhile? I think I’d need to get in to training – re-reading this review for starters. Perhaps there’s a Lambs Shakespeare equivalent. Heat is a damn awesome track – as I ping up and down the M11 – I’d wondered what you’d make of it.

    Did anyone suggest to Bowie the books he might steer towards? D’you know? Was there a particular book reviewer he favoured? (Mines “The Economist’s). That on its own must have been quite a task – the book selection process.

    • leonoutside says:

      Oh, as I’m sure y’know The POW camp in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was not just for British prisoners, but for prisinors of The British Empire (so Kiwis, Ozzies, South Africans too)

      • col1234 says:

        yes. Bowie’s character is South African. at some point there’s just too much detail & i didn’t think we needed to go that deep

        in re reviewers, there’s a story about some tour where DB would get the NY Times Sunday book review and go through a few of the books reviewed each week.

  33. s.t. says:

    Lovely post, Chris. It’s going to take a few readings to fully soak in.

    I actually got to take a class taught by Donald Richie, on cinematic depictions of Japanese history and how they evolved throughout the years. He was 80 at the time, but even then it was clear that this guy had lived a really full life (and was far cooler than anyone else in the room). He was also, even then, clearly shaken by the dramatic death of his friend and lover Mishima. Thankfully, Bowie’s commitment to performance and image control were powerful without veering into extremism. Although in the mid-70’s he certainly seemed to be headed that way.

    As for “Heat,” it’s a deliberately jarring album closer. It smothers us with the gloom that had been lurking within The Next Day’s preceding rock tracks.

    Thinking back, though, it follows a pattern that Bowie had used since Heathen, and even Hours to some extent: to cap off his albums with an epic, ruminative work that channels Scott Walker. Disco King, Heathen (The Rays), and The Dreamers…kind of. I do agree with commenters here that Heat in some ways signaled the direction to come, but the styles and structures of Next Day also seem like a refinement and reinforcement of what Bowie had been doing during his “Neoclassical” period. Because it decisively breaks from this pattern, I Just Can’t Give It Away feels like the bolder closer, despite being a gentle acid jazz revamp.

  34. Mike F says:

    A masterful post. It’s a shame we are in our last lap on the blog but we can at least go out on a high note.

    I hadn’t heard of Mishima before and this doesn’t make me want to read his books. Suicide is a tragic waste, not something to be romanticized.

    “Heat” is a fine track and easy to overlook in the mixed bag of TND. Of course, it could not exist without Scott Walker’s influence. Whenever David wanted to do some serious, adult art rock, he had a tendency to go into Scott Walker mode. His voice sounds great here. “His handsomest voice” is a great description. Unfortunately, catchy melody is apparently not permitted in serious, adult art rock so songs like this are a limited pleasure. You can admire them while they’re playing but they don’t linger for long in the mind or beckon to be played again and again.

  35. SoooTrypticon says:

    A really beautiful entry Chris. You’re setting the table.

  36. Paddy says:

    Is there a date on the horizon to see something about blackstar? Your articles are amazing.

  37. Phil Obbard says:

    Like all great entries on this blog, a few days after reading this I find myself playing “Heat” over and over with newfound appreciation. As others have commented, it does tend to get lost at the end of TND.

    One of my favorite lines on this blog is about “Secret Life of Arabia”, and how its surprising placement at the end of HEROES could be seen as saying “David Bowie will return in LODGER!”. The same argument could be made about “Heat” and what was coming next.

  38. type40ttc says:

    Welcome back and thank you!

  39. Lux says:

    Chris, the way you bring ideas together here is brilliant and thought provoking. (As usual) The images you select to illustrate each essay adds a depth that leads to more insights and further mysteries. That opening photo! Bowie seems so vulnerable and intimate here. I doubt it wasn’t posed but when have we seen him laying on his own bed. That utilitarian brown coverlet and his workman like clothes. Plain, tidy, German, the antithesis of Glam. But probably closer to his childhood home than luxury hotels and rentals in NY, LA and Switzerland etc. His everyday life in Berlin is less known because for the first time he was ordinary and anonymous. Maybe my favorite thing at the David Bowie Is exhibit was the keys to his Haupstrasse apartment.

    Am I the only one who sees a bit of Lou and Iggy in that portrait of Mishima?

    I try to separate the work of Mishima from my initial shock and confusion on seeing the Life magazine coverage of his death when I was 12. My parents couldn’t really explain it other than the article. Mishima wasn’t a mainstream figure (yet, if ever) so in later years I’d learn about him slowly. Now with the internet kids know all the sordid details about anything instantaneously. Knowing everything I know now doesn’t lessen the weirdness and mystery that surrounds him and his work. A natural that Bowie would find him interesting.

  40. MC says:

    The sense of melancholy finality I was beginning to feel a year ago, as we were headed for the homestretch of The Next Day, was nothing compared to right now. That wistful sense of things coming to an end is more than mitigated, however, by the excitement of new entries. Welcome back, Chris. Another excellent piece. I was wondering how you were going to tie Walker and Mishima together, and you managed it with great elegance. A beautifully structured essay.

    I was thinking about the idea that Heat anticipates Blackstar, and I would say I agree, though more in its crepuscular mood, its general sense of foreboding, than in anything going on musically. For me, its pastiche of Scott made it a fantastic closer for TND; it’s right in line with the album’s backward-looking (in Anger) tendencies, but with its eerie sense of movement – a perfect distillation of mid-period Walker – setting it apart from the preceding album, as you say in the entry.

    I agree, as well, that in retrospect Heat points pretty clearly toward The End, more than anything else on TND. I think, though, that the only Blackstar track it somewhat resembles, Lazarus, has a certain starkness, that’s quite different from Heat’s teasing, drifting quality. We’ll say more about that when the time comes. In any case. dare I say that Heat is probably the full-blown masterpiece of the Scott trilogy.

  41. Gb says:

    Beautiful entry… it’s a luxury to read this sort of stuff. I’m embarassed to say I’d never heard of Mishima before, but have now done quite alot of reading on him and watched the excellent docu-drama of his life on youtube and like most things Bowie put forth, it’s opened my world up and made my mind all the more richer..Bowie will forever be the gift that keeps giving. Maybe one day I’ll paint my own gigantic portrait of him and hang it over my bed and take a nap (or pretend to) as he watches over.
    It’s a credit to you Chris that you do alot of the work for us and point us to things that wouldn’t be so easy to figure out on our own..a small blurb of a lyric can be an universe in itself..you’re doing good by him, me thinks.

    “My father ran the prison” …the line always haunts me…even when he sung about darker or heavier subjects, which tended to be the case, there was usually a slight wink of an eye, a flash of a mischiveous grin buried underneath that comforted me a bit…Bowie was never one to take himself too seriously anyway…but this song and especially that line has nothing of that….unsettling and haunting to the core…a perfect prelude of what’s to come.

  42. Jos Vos says:

    Just in case you want to include this piece in your next book (which I greatly look forward to): the actor currently bearing the name Bando Tamasaburo is commonly referred to (in kabuki circles, and by the Japanese in general) as Tamasaburo, never as “Bando”.

  43. The Sun King says:

    I’m wondering if you’re going to be dedicating full articles to the three upcoming songs from the Lazarus cast album (When I Met You, No Plan and Killing a Little Time) or if they’re going to be put together as one bulk post?

  44. Greg says:

    I think I might be able to help with the interpretation of the lyrics to “Heat.” In Mishima’s novel “Runaway Horses” (which is, I think, the second in the four book series of which “Spring Snow” is the first), a main character is Isao, who, if memory serves, is the reincarnation of one of the characters who saw the dog in the waterfall.

    Though I might have some of the details wrong, to the best of my recollection, Isao’s story, in short, is this: He is a right-wing revolutionary and gets involved in an assassination plot, only to be arrested and sent to prison. When he is released a short time later, he learns that his corrupt businessman father had informed on him. “I’ve lived for the sake of an illusion. I’ve patterned my life on an illusion,” Isao says (or, in Bowie’s words, “And I say to myself, I don’t know who I am”). While his father wasn’t a warden per se, he was capable of pulling strings behind the scenes to “run” the prison.

    As for the title “Heat,” very possibly a reference to a line that Isao mutters after he discovers his father’s treachery: While in a disturbed sleep, Isao says, among other phrases, “Very hot.”

    So my guess is that “Heat” is, at least on a literal level, a retelling of Isao’s story, beginning with his previous life (the dog at the waterfall) and, in his reincarnated life, his imprisonment and the ego-shattering discovery of father’s betrayal.

    Much like “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” is a retelling of John Ford’s 1630 play “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” or his “1984” inspirations, Bowie seems to have continued to find inspiration in his favorite works of literature, putting his own Bowie spin in these narrative re-tellings.

    And of course, as Chris so beautifully explained, the Scott Walker tone of the song is inescapable. Bowie had managed to combine two of his heroes in one gorgeous song.

  45. tj says:

    I can’t give everything away.😉

  46. Remco says:

    So glad to have you back. Wonderful writing, as usual.

  47. gcreptile says:

    Wonderful article, and I was unaware of Mishima’s story. New food for thought. It improves my opinion on Heat a little, which, at first listen, sounds like Bowie’s (failed) attempt to surpass ‘The Electrician’, which, as Eno said, pop music has never surpassed.
    “My father ran the prison” – works literal as well, the son of the electrician.
    Personally, I though Heat was just a tiny bit too lazy.

  48. SamB says:

    Three new songs released today on the Lazarus album… I like them!

  49. tj says:

    Chris, thank you. Beyond wonderful to read this remarkable post. And a good reminder to revisit Mishima, whom I haven’t read since high school. Welcome back!

  50. WRayb says:

    Great read. I had backed away from Mishima but your comments/insights brings my interest up again. This is my first dip into your Bowie writings. Hope I have time for more.

  51. Jukka says:

    When so many of us seem to get stuck to the feelings that the songs bring you have the stamina to keep looking – it helps us all to see more. In a world that wants to have just one explanation and opinion, world that is created with snapshots, world that keeps looking things with one eye covered it’s wonderful when someone has the drive keep digging. Bowie himself of course being a perfect example of simplified interpretations – how many of the articles or publications after his death had a picture of Ziggy – who to the majority of people is just a example of ancient and almost forgotten pop star taking it going too far; some glam relic from the time between hippies and punks. Wasn’t he gay…?!?

    I really don’t want to go ahead of things but comparing the last songs of the two final albums kind of sets the final positions to the poles that he has been stretchin all his career. On one hand writing pop songs that don’t have any bigger ideas or meanings (or do they) and on the other (maybe the left one) creating the mysteries that can only be apprecieted with vast knowledge of culture and especially literature. I’m not sure if the fast lane that you lay with your fantastic work is the one that the author would recommend but at least it helps to escape the quicksand of wrong interpretations. No one can give everything away but at least some of us try. Thank you for that.

  52. Tyrell says:

    One more Outside reference:
    “But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C).” – the Outside album begins actually with the same kind of chord (ground note is E there).

  53. billter says:

    I keep hoping for some discussion of the Last Three Songs, and none seems forthcoming, so I guess I’ll start.

    Impressions after two listens each:

    “No Plan”: Lovely and seductive, if a bit meandering. Definitely fits with the aesthetic of “Blackstar.” May be a grower.

    “Killing a Little Time”: Energetic but too angular for my tastes. Sounds like (and I guess is) jazzers trying to rock out, but doing it too mathematically. Distinctly Garsonesque piano at the end.

    “Since I Met You”: Love it. An anthem with an ominous undertoe like only Bowie could do. Note the line in the chorus, “my spirit rose,” a callback to “Blackstar” (the song). Tempting to think of it as a last love song to Iman, but always wary of taking Bowie lyrics at face value. In any case, a wonderful and unexpected gift.

    If you tack these on to the end of “Blackstar” you get quite a satisfying 10-track album. (With a better ending, for my money; was always a bit nonplussed by “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”)

    Now draw down the curtain, and off into the night…

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