There aren’t a lot of covers of, “If You Can See Me,” but this is a good one. I’m posting it as an excuse to basically summarize my conclusion about the song, which really hadn’t occurred to me before (take a look at yesterday’s post).
My main revelation is that this is really one in a series of songs where Bowie contemplates himself. I mentioned several such songs, yesterday, in which Bowie turns himself to face him. He’s haunted by his past successes— Ziggy, Let’s Dance, Scary Monsters, Diamond Dogs— they are all stand-ins for what he’s already accomplished but has moved beyond. He is tempted to go back, to try on the old red dress, to steal from himself— but that would be a failure and concession that he can’t be original anymore. He’s disgusted with his past in part because it is past, almost as if the accomplishment are dissatisfying because they are history. So he wants to destroy the old, too; wipe it out in disgust.
He was more straightforward with his reflection elsewhere. Take, for instance, these lines from, “Thursday’s Child”:
“All of my life I’ve tried so hard
Doing my best with what I had
Nothing much happened all the same
Something about me stood apart
A whisper of hope that seemed to fail
Maybe I’m born right out of my time
Breaking my life in two
Now that I’ve really got a chance
Everything’s falling into place
Seeing my past to let it go
(Throw me tomorrow, oh, oh-oh)”
There he sings of a fractured life of failure and false hope. His salvation is letting go of his past. Yet in, “If I Can See You,” if you accept the premise that he’s talking to himself, he literally contemplates wearing his old clothes, stepping into a long-abandoned persona. “Seeing” is important in both songs. In the former, more hopeful song, he sees what he wants to let go. In the latter, more ominous song, he’s staring at the abyss, and the abyss is staring right back.
Kardos and Mohammad made much of the nearly comical (their word) recitation of threats Bowie sings near the end of the song:
“I will take your lands and all that lays beneath
The dust of cold flowers, prison of dark of ashes
I will slaughter your kind who descend from belief
I am the spirit of greed, a lord of theft
I’ll burn all your books and the problems they make”
Again, I can’t help but make connections to past Bowie songs. Take that second line— seems to me evocative both of the lines, “Don’t talk of dust and roses,” from “Big Brother,” and, of course, “Ashes to Ashes”.
Or the third line— makes me think of, “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief; Knowledge comes with death’s release” from “Quicksand.” In the same song, Bowie makes extraordinary claims about what he is, “I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes; Living proof of Churchill’s lies, I’m destiny.” What does that even mean? And, while less direct, his threats in “If You Can See Me” make me think of his ominous promises in, “China Girl”: “I’ll give you television; I’ll give you eyes of blue; I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world.” There are many more examples. David the Dictator; David the Destroyer.
So what I see here is Bowie, writing during a decade of seeming inactivity, struggling to move beyond his past which both defined him and disappointed him. He is tempted to regress back to what worked before, but he also wants to obliterate his past incarnations. He feels held back by what he once had been. He doesn’t even like what he once had been, but there’s a pressure to revert in order the regain lost relevance. He is tempted by “the spirit of greed,” which tempts him to put on that dress; he is also tempted to steal from himself as “the lord of theft”. What lays beneath “the dust of cold flowers” and the “prison of dark ashes” are books— specifically 1984 and, well, the Bible. “Ashes to Ashes” was from Scary Monsters, which was the album that all of Bowie’s subsequent albums would be judged against. He wants to get rid of all that and start anew.
Actually, there’s not much in the song about starting anew. Bowie just wants to resist temptation and kill off his past. The song doesn’t really offer a vision for what comes next. For that, you need to take in the entire album to get a better sense of the next day.