Heathen at 20

“Heathen” kind of felt right, in as much as it was about the un-illuminated mind. It was an idea, a feeling, a sense of what 21st Century man might become, if he’s not already: someone who’s lowered his standards spiritually, intellectually, morally, whatever. There’s a kind of someone who’s not even bothered searching for a spiritual life anymore but is completely existing on a materialistic plain. But just using the word “heathen” is kind of less preachy than explaining all that. ‘Cause if you wrote all that on the front of an album cover, nobody would bother buying it, would they? 

At the start of each month I put up on Twitter photos of albums turning fifty, forty, thirty, etc. Recently, upon noting that Heathen will turn twenty (today!), I got a few responses along the lines of “you’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s something: you turn around and 2002 has scurried off into the past.

Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.

Heathen‘s distance doesn’t feel that jarring, though, because it was born old—a record built for posterity, a deliberate Late Work (Bowie described the album in 2002 as “serious songs to be sung”), with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs claimed as a primary influence on it. (As always, possibly an influence that emerged after Bowie made the record.)

There’s a severity in it, down to Bowie wearing a somber tweed suit for the album photos (recall that he wore sandals for the previous one). The carnival of the Nineties is over; Lententide now. The album’s central theme, as per its composer, is a life after God, after the expiration of the last, frailest hope of transcendence—“white as clay” mornings, deserted train stations, slashed-up paintings in empty museums.

There are no yearning ambitions any more. There are things I’d like to do but none are crucial. I have a sense that I’ve become the person that I always should have been. It’s been a kind of cyclical, almost elliptical, journey at times, but I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young—there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store.

I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it—hopefully—like Strauss, at 84.

It now seems like an early draft of Blackstar—a Bowie/Tony Visconti collaboration whose funereal tone is brightened with a few weirder pieces (“Gemini Spaceship” etc.; “Girl Loves Me”). While it continues the moods of its immediate predecessors—the melancholy of ‘hours…’; the sense of lost time in Toy (and of course, two tracks cut during the Toy sessions were remade for it)—Heathen was also crafted as a division point, dressed to be autumnal. The opening of the last section of the book.

Its creation was out of a Don DeLillo novel: its backing tracks were recorded in a mansion atop a mountain, accessible only via a winding, private switchback; its overdubs were done in a New York stunned by terrorist attacks, the smell of the burned towers still in the air. Bowie said he wrote the songs (“there’s fear overhead…steel on the skyline…nothing has changed/everything has changed”) before the planes hit, but he was a bit defensive in a few interviews, as if to say you couldn’t blame him, he’d always expected the worst. Remember, he says, the nightmares came to stay quite a few years ago.

Driveway to Allaire Studios on the left (Shokan, NY; summer 2021)

The emphasis on instability which has dogged my life and my own personal feelings of instability make me focus more than the average on looking for some sense in all this. I’d love to believe in something. But I can’t. I won’t. Really, we’re just animals. Very few people can say: ‘I love humankind.’ You have a possibility of loving your immediate family and maybe widen that to a few friends, but that’s it.

Was Heathen Bowie’s response to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, an album that he liked enough to cover a song from it in 1998? Similarities in tone, in tempo, and, notably, in critical responses—both albums were hailed as returns to form for legacy artists, both seemed to address mortality in the way that anyone over fifty is supposed to (regularly, with grace and time-weariness).

That said, TOOM has a more coherent, unified sequencing. Heathen can seem as if a few tracks got shuffled in during its latter stages to make it less weighty: Pixies and Legendary Stardust Cowboy covers; cheery songs about death and departure (“Everyone Says ‘Hi'”) and an arbitration hearing with God (“A Better Future”).

Recording at Allaire, late summer 2001

I had a sense of the sonic weight that I was after, a sort of non-professional approach, a kind of British amateur-ness about it. And I mean amateur in that dedicated fashion you find in a man who, only on Sundays, will build a cathedral out of matchsticks, beautiful but only to please himself and his family and friends. I went in very much like that. I wanted to prove the sustaining power of music. I wanted to bring about a personal cultural restoration, using everything I knew without returning to the past. I wanted to feel the weight and depth of the years. All my experiences, all the questions, all the fear, all the spiritual isolation. Something that had little sense of time, neither past nor present. This is the way that the old men ride. 

There’s what Bowie described as a deliberate “amateur-ness” to Heathen (what Pete Townshend, guest guitarist on “Slow Burn,” described as “Kafka meets Ed Wood”), which is at its base the work of an isolated trio: Bowie, favoring broken-in instruments like a battered headless Steinberger from the Tin Machine days and a few old synthesizers (Eno’s EMS; the Stylophone), Visconti, and the excellent drummer Matt Chamberlain, whose drums, miked booming around the 2,000 sq. foot Allaire “great room,” give the album its foundation. (Apart from the bass, “Cactus” is entirely Bowie in overdubs, down to the shaky hi-hat). So much depends on a few textures. Visconti’s Tuvan “throat” harmonies on “Sunday”; David Torn’s glitch guitar, a stream of encrypted information; Townshend wringing sustained notes across “Slow Burn” as if trying to patch up a broken song; the Scorchio Quartet’s tense elaborations of lines that Bowie wrote on his Korg keyboard.

And Bowie gave one of his finest sustained performances as a vocalist on record. It’s as if he’s playing the character he offered in interviews for the album—an older man drained of the potential to be surprised, a settled man, one content within his twilit world and accepting of barbarity—but the character keeps breaking script. While he begins in his lower registers, does the occasional Scott Walker-esque plummet (“Sunday”), at times he sounds needy (“5:15”), lusty (“Cactus”), sappy (“Everyone Says ‘Hi'”), until on the closing track he’s out on the wire. A few years ago someone isolated the vocals from the SACD mix, giving it a new life as an eerie a capella suite.

As some of the strongest tracks from the album sessions were consigned to B-sides, I once tried my hand at sequencing a “hardcore” Heathen, pillaging some more from Toy:

Side 1
Conversation Piece
I Would Be Your Slave
When the Boys Come Marching Home
Slow Burn
Slip Away

Side 2
Wood Jackson
5:15 The Angels Have Gone
Shadow Man
Heathen (The Rays)

Maybe too gravid; too much like a month of Ash Wednesdays. Better to have a disco Legendary Stardust Cowboy knocking around in it.

Why now, when I [finally] understand myself and others, should I die? What a shitty game. Is there no one you could revise the rules with?

Twenty years on, how does Heathen sound? Prophetic, in places: of Bowie’s future works, at least. Does it move with too heavy a step? I understand why some prefer its louder, brash successor Reality, an album that makes fewer claims.

A charming thing about Bowie was his refusal to take his various doomsdays that seriously. Heathen is ominous, wind-swept, herald of a bleak future, yes, but it’s also strange, homespun, sometimes clunky, even goofy in places. Bowie once said that he put “Slip Away” on the album as a memento of happier times, which at the time weren’t so happy: we were dumb, but you were fun, boy.

A generation’s distance away from us now, Heathen‘s end of the world scenarios were staged for a world that was. Its futures, like all futures, never came to be. As the man sang, nothing changed, then everything changed, even at the center of it all.

“One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless,” Paul Bowles once said, around the time Bowie made “Heroes”. “What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead.”

We all feel very alone, don’t we: often. Too often: that’s why we make such a thing about being with people…It’s very scary to know that in those last moments we’ll be absolutely alone.

All quotes by David Bowie, from 2002 interviews.

15 Responses to Heathen at 20

  1. Mark Brabazon says:

    After the “meh” of hours….if toy had been released then I may have lost faith…but thankfully heathen came and ironically restored mine. Full restoration wouldve been achieved if your track listing wouldve been there (or at least replacing the too dizzy-like better future with wood jackson). Good piece Chris.

  2. Lynda Fisher says:

    Chris, beautiful as always, this time sombrely so. I was about to write “like a salve for our weary battered souls” but realize there is no salve. Beyond weary and battered we are festering now. No salve for that. But your words bear witness and for a moment I felt less alone; like I remember Heathen bearing witness when I first heard it. “Lententide” indeed! Looking forward to listening to the isolated vocal track you linked.

  3. James LaBove says:

    Great write-up, Chris! Heathen will always be special to me – it was my first “new” Bowie album after becoming a fan, and I loved it from first listen. I actually had the opposite reaction to Reality as what you noted – I loved plenty of individual songs, but overall I missed the dour, searching, atmospheric mood of Heathen.

    Some of my favorite songs can be found in the tracklist, and the (wonderful, as you noted) b-sides. Perhaps I’ll give it a spin today to mark the anniversary.

    I can’t pass up a chance to offer my unsolicited thoughts on alternate Bowie tracklists, and since you cracked that door open – here’s mine:

    Side 1:
    Uncle Floyd
    Heathen (The Rays)
    Shadow Man
    A Better Future

    Side 2:
    5:15 The Angels Have Gone
    Gemini Spacecraft
    I Would Be Your Slave
    Slow Burn
    Wood Jackson
    When the Boys Come Marching Home

    Hope all is well and thanks again for the great post, Chris! All the best to you and your readers!

  4. postpunkmonk says:

    I played “Hours…”enormously on release and felt that the subsequent two albums were diminishing returns and about 15 years ago the rise of “Heathen” in my esteem began. Better late than never. Now I consider it the dark gem in the variable late period sandwiched between “The Buddha of Suburbia” and ★. An album that certainly laid the groundwork for the latter. And in “Slowburn” Bowie managed to craft the sort of Rock song that he no longer seemed interested in making. 20 years earlier it would have been a big radio hit. It irks me that I’ve not yet gotten any of the singles from this period since normally I’m all about the B-sides such as the ones you cite. Memo to self.

  5. jbacardi says:

    Heathen was the album that brought me back to Bowie; I was shocked at how much better it was than the last few albums (I’ve come to love Earthling though, for what that’s worth).

    Excellent post as always, but once again you kinda sell “Everyone Says Hi” short. I don’t find it sappy at all- for me, anyway, there’s a sense of melancholy and sadness about it. Maybe that says more about me than what Bowie was on about, but that’s my perception anyway.

  6. Kurt says:

    I recall in one interview Bowie stated that he did use a new keyboard on the album, but made no alterations to it after unboxing, just leaving the factory settings “as is.” His point being, it seemed to me, that the project was approached in a very chill manner.

    I definitely hold HEATHEN in higher esteem than REALITY.

  7. Zim de Bee says:

    Do you hear the heart pumping sound during ‘ I would be your slave’? Do you also wonder why the writer has no ink on heathen , hope he had ink in his ‘believers fountainpen ‘ writing lazarus which is about being resurrected in heaven after death ( being born which is upside down on the day one dies….)

  8. Maj says:

    Twenty years of being a Bowie fan.
    Bloody hell.

    I’m gonna go and have a mid-30s crisis somewhere else though…

    The album is great. Absolutely holds up. But these days perhaps a bit too dark and melancholy for me. I don’t feel nostalgic about about the early 2000s. (I slightly envy people who can look back at being 15 and feel all warm and fuzzy.)

    Looking back, perhaps even more than back then, the album feels very of its time. Which I don’t mean as a criticism. The mood is of its time. Yet, somehow, the mood is of the current time as well. Whenever I listen to Slow Burn, I’m thinking “bitch, you had no idea.” Slow burn indeed.

    Kind of glad he’s not around anymore. He just somehow doesn’t belong in the post-2016 era. Too sophisticated.

  9. Boy your “hardcore” Heathen is absolutely spot on and it’s amazing and so right on the money. I am so glad I was alive when Bowie was on this earth. He’s the gift that keeps on giving. His band at this time are so spot on and hardcore professional. It made me feel at the time that we got Bowie back again! Being mainstream and completely relevant again. I love seeing young kids digging his work again and discovering him.

  10. Greg says:

    There’s a sadness to this album that even comes through on something like “Everyone Says Hi”, a song I love. I think I’d take issue with the description “sappy” for that one, going more for “heartfelt.” The lyrics sound, to my ear, much like the internal “conversations” i have with those no longer here. Wistful, goofy, but with so much longing…

  11. MC says:

    Wow, 20 years! Thank you for this fine appraisal of what is, for me a neglected late near-masterpiece. I’m thinking about your line about how the album’s futures never came to be; personally, I never thought we’d live in the world seemingly envisioned in the first Tin Machine album.

  12. HD London says:

    Nice read… always learn something from Chris O’Leary interpretations on Bowie’s music. This post will make me think abit more on Bowie’s philosophy. Thanks Chris.

  13. I’ve been reading this blogs for so many years now (my fav blog, hands down), I got your two books and I consider yourself a great music writer, so it was for me an enormous and pleasant surprise to find out you linked my SACD vocal extraction of Heathen. Thank you so much and I’m really happy that somenthing I did mostly for fun and love for Bowie was so apreciated for you and other Bowie fans. That’s how this blog and books came out to be, I guess.
    For those interested, I also did “Reality” from the SACD mix. There are other full acapellas, but not from that kind of mixing.
    As for Heathen, I never understood why so many people love it so much, neither why the dislike to “hours…”. The album wasn’t an instant hit for me, but I grew up to like it, specially because one dear girlfriend bought me the first edition on vinyl as a gift, and I got the 2 CD special edition as I wandered around Barcelona. Besides the music, there are good memories around this album for me.
    Thank you again and keep writting this blog. It is truly inspiring.
    P.S: Sorry for my english, I’m not a native speaker.

  14. Trevor Mill says:

    I finally got a vinyl copy of Heathen (nearly bought a weird 12″ cardboard sleeve and cd at the time it came out). I always knew it would work best like this. It is a proper ‘record’, not a group of songs. It could handle a few scratches. Great writing as ever, your books are well thumbed on the shelf etc…

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