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I Can’t Read ‘97 (new?) video

This is the latest “discovered” video— Bowie singing the Tin Machine song, “I Can’t Read” years after Tin Machine broke up. I think this is the same version that appears on the posthumous collection, Is There Any Wonder?. Although the production quality is low, this is an actual video of Bowie singing, backed at least by Reeves Gabrels and Gail Ann Dorsey. I’m fairly sure that this video was not released during Bowie’s life, and might have been a kind of rough draft of a video that was never finished.

The video features yet another iteration of Bowie playing with the idea of Bowie projecting his face over his face, this time using a Phantom of the Opera mask as his screen. The other visually interesting aspect of the video I noticed was that Bowie’s Union Jack coat can be seen hanging in the background, linking this video to the time of the album, Earthling.

I like this version of the song better than the original. It’s slower, more contemplative, and not surrounded by the other moralistic songs of Tin Machine’s first album, such as “Crack City” and “Under the God.” Bowie’s tendency to leave a lot to the listener was mitigated on that album by a series of straightforward songs commenting on a series of societal ills. For years, I thought “I Can’t Read” was of that sort, commenting on illiteracy.

A closer listen reveals that the song is not straightforward at all and is almost certainly not about illiteracy. The key was never that hard to discern— the narrator “can’t read shit anymore.” Did he become impaired, in which case “shit” means, “anything?” Is he fed up? In which case, “shit” means things that he no longer can stomach? Whatever the meaning, the narrator could not use the word, “anymore,” unless he had the ability to read at one point, in which case he is not illiterate. The narrator “just can’t get it right,” suggesting that even the word, “read,” might have a non-obvious meaning. Maybe he can’t read a situation. Nicholas Pegg suggests that Bowie is ruminating about trying to get back on track, artistically, after a series of misfires.

Anyway, as the video illustrates, “I Can’t Read” is probably the Tin Machine song with the longest life. Despite half the band (Bowie and Gabrels) continuing to perform together for years, most of the other Tin Machine songs were retired when Tin Machine ceased to be. But Bowie thought highly of this song and continued to perform it, as did Gabrels apart from Bowie.

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