While Bowie claimed he’d written the lyrics for Heathen before the 9/11 attacks, it’s easy to imagine the B-side “When the Boys Come Marching Home” coming out of the dark autumn of 2001, with the Afghanistan invasion, a nation afraid to open its mail thanks to the anthrax scare, routine color-coded terror freak-out alerts, the Department of Homeland Security established and plans for the Iraq war underway.
It’s not as if the song would have been out of place anytime in the past century, though. The somber refrains, Matt Chamberlain’s snare pattern and the song’s title suggest the endless military cycles of history (“There’s nothing to learn from history. As we’ve repeatedly shown,,” Bowie told the Daily Mirror in 2002. “We’re not willing to learn. We’ve slipped straight back into what we usually do—we’ve fallen for a religious war.“): an obvious reference was the U.S. civil war song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and its British counterpart “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”
But the lyric, one of Bowie’s most gnomic works since Hunky Dory, offered more than antiwar sentiments: there are “outsider” artists as bellwethers and court jesters (“I love him in his craziness, his tatters and his courage“), wanderings through some lost battle-numbed Europe of the imagination (“I love the little cars at dawn“). Cities and countries as prostitutes; collectives of mean townies; Aldous Huxley nods. Bowie casts himself as the moon (“my cloudy face will be gone, high-tailing it out of here” and there’s a lovely bit in the second verse where the moon in turn becomes a fisherman, using the tides to “pull up its net of souls“) and Don Quixote (“I and the cobbled nag I ride/stumble down another weary mile“).
A descending synthesizer line, following the footsteps of the Laughing Gnome, appears in the first verses and then gets packed off; florid margin commentaries of violins and viola, courtesy of the Scorchio Quartet, color the refrains; Jordan Rudess plays a nimble piano line towards the close that seems about to break into stride or boogie-woogie. The vocal melody in the bridge is one of Bowie’s loveliest, seemingly building to a dramatic payoff that never comes (that we don’t deserve?): the refrains sound beaten into submission. One of his more indecipherable songs, it’s been all but forgotten today.
Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” single.
Top: Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly, “A U.S. Marine with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit leads others to a security position after seizing a Taliban forward-operating base, Afghanistan, 25 November 2001.”