“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.
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”).
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:
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.