Seven (Omikron: The Nomad Soul version).
Seven (Marius De Vries mix).
Seven (Beck Mix 1).
Seven (Beck Mix 2).
Seven (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Seven (Musique Plus, 1999).
Seven (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Seven (TVE, 1999).
Seven (live, 1999).
Seven (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
I’d be so unhappy if I’d got myself into a…rut, as my mother used to say. My dear old mum. (Loudly) “You’re in a bit of rut, aren’t you?” She said it about herself. “I’m in a rut.” I think I probably thought then, “I’m never gonna be in a rut if that’s how you turn out.”
“Seven” also mentions both your parents and your brother…
They’re not necessarily my mother, father and brother; it was the nuclear unit thing. Obviously I am totally aware of how people read things into stuff like this. I’m quite sure that some silly cow will come along and say, (adopts silly cow voice) “Oh, that’s about Terry, his brother, and he was very disappointed about this girl back in 1969, whenever he got over her…” That sort of thing comes with the territory, and because I have been an elliptical writer, I think people have—quite rightly–gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am.
Bowie, interview with David Quantick, Q, October 1999.
Silly cow voice: “I forgot what my father said…” he begins, then quickly has to remind himself he’s still forgotten it. “I forgot what my mother said, as we lay on your bed.” The same goes for his brother. Of course, it’s presumptuous and dully literal to argue that Bowie has to be referring to Haywood and Peggy Jones (the latter causing grief as far back as “Can’t Help Thinking About Me“) and Terry Burns here. Of course, he is, in a way. He knows, if you’re a deep fan or a lazy journalist, that the words may call up long-gone Haywood and Terry (well, your ideas of them, of these people whom you’ll never know). So he plays with it: the family as a set of blank faces; the song an orphan’s.
Peggy Jones would die in 2001; Haywood and Terry had been dead for years, or decades. Losing your parents is the last act of becoming an adult: it’s as though you look up one day to find there’s no roof on your house. The gods forgot they made me/so I forgot them, too. It’s one of Bowie’s most Gnostic lines. God’s forgotten that He made our world; the archon ruling in His place has forgotten that he isn’t God; people on the sad earth have forgotten to believe in any of them. The latter line’s tense is key. Bowie forgot them a while ago: is he regretting it now?
Memory, they say, is fate’s shorthand. I do recall at some time in the Seventies the revolutionary Abbie Hoffman saying to me over a drink: “Tomorrow isn’t promised.”
Bowie, introducing “Seven” on VH1 Storytellers, 1999.
There’s a disenchantment in “Seven”; something about it feels half-finished. There’s arguably no final version of the song: its “demo” can sound more ornate than the album mix in places (the demo has Reeves Gabrels’ slide guitar hook in the intro, while acoustic guitars and organ are pushed up), as does the Omikron mix, with its thunking bassline. A Marius De Vries mix, pushed up in key, was the lead track on the single.
The singer has seven days left, so he plays in churches (graves of the gods), wanders through empty cities trying to remember what his parents sounded like. It’s a world as a set of monuments, honoring forgotten ghosts. His movements resound in the verses’ simple C major progression: he starts alone on C (“I forgot what my“), strikes out to G (“father said”), spends a wistful moment in A minor (“I forgot what he..”), uses an F major chord as a means to avoid going back home (“..said..“). And then he goes back home, alone, to start over again.
“Seven” also answers “Five Years,” which Bowie had written when he was 24, back when he seemed to welcome the apocalypse. “That’s all we’ve got!” he’d choked out, weeping in the vocal booth. But catastrophes can lose their charm with age. Life can seem a run of disappointed apocalypses. So the song he wrote on acoustic guitar in Bermuda at the close of 1998 was what he called, in its debut live performance, “a song of nowness.”
“Seven days to live, seven ways to die,” he told Quantick. “I’d actually reduce that further to twenty-four hours to live. I’m very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I’m going through. I’m not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I’ve just come through. The present is really the place to be.” Five years would’ve been nice, but seven days are enough. (Given the references to gods, these might be the seven “days” of biblical creation, each of which could’ve been eons. So Bowie may have some time to kill.)
As if to frustrate his “nowness” intentions, he used as a central image “seven,” with its millennia of signifiers—the deadly sins and holy virtues, the seals and veils and hells and penitential psalms, the days (and ‘hours…‘) of the week. He once called “Seven” a “hippy dippy” thing, too: a song for Hoffman, who hadn’t made it out of the Eighties (in one mix, Bowie sang lines from “Sorrow” in the outro). A subtle bit of wordplay—the city “full of flowers” has a bridge full of “viole(n)t people“—offers that the hippies have let down the side as well; they turned out to be just another lost cause.
David Bowie: see you in the new year!
David Bowie: happy hols from all of us to all of you…
David Bowie: from over here to over there… happy trails, sweat dreams, good luck, you’ve got a lucky face… the drinks are on me…
David Bowie: …do you know where your children are?
David Bowie: do you know who your parents are?
David Bowie: Good night from David, and the man with rusty hair
Bowie’s last public words of the 20th Century, BowieNet, 23 December 1999.
He was supposed to end the millennium on stage in Vienna with Brian Eno, performing some massive conclusion to the Outside project. That idea shuffled off. Undeterred, he decided he’d go to the Antipodes. He was slated to headline the Gisborne 2000 “First Light” Festival, to be held in the most easterly city on the globe to greet the new millennium, along with a reunited Split Enz and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He said he would write a new song to welcome the new era. The promoters grossly overpriced the show: in August 1999, with only 1,000 of a proposed 35,000 seats sold, Bowie pulled out.
So after chatting with fans on BowieNet the night before Christmas Eve 1999, he saw off the century in private. Maybe just watching TV like the rest of us, to see if the lights would go out in Gisborne City or Sydney or Hong Kong once 2000 began to sweep westward. But it was just another year. No Bowie millennial song, either, which is as just well, as he’d already written one. Quiet and lovely, ash-emptied out, “Seven” was as good a way as any to close a chapter. A goodbye to the already-forgotten, it rang with the sound of Gabrels’ slide guitar, sustaining notes just long enough that it seemed as if they could break, then bending them anew.
Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released on ‘Hours’ and as the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a disc that led off with the DeVries Mix and included the demo, the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC, on 19 November 1999 (another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue.
Top: Aaron Miller, still from “December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000.” (“We got power! The lights are on!”)