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Lyrics Series I 13 I From “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” (1969)

I’m a Phallus in pigtails

I mentioned this line in two recent posts, one about Bowie’s funny lines and one about his outrageous claims of identity. It surely is a weird thing to say. So, I thought I’d take a closer look as to what he was getting at.

Perhaps disappointingly, the line makes a little bit of sense within the context of the song. The song begins and ends with a somewhat coherent description of an upper class girl gazing down out of her father’s window at a messy looking guy of a lower class. That’s what I take from it, anyway. In between, Bowie strings out a series of bizarre, Dylanesque images that on the surface make no sense. But what he’s getting at is that this is what he imagines the girl sees. This is not meant to be literal, but by describing a series of messy and disconcerting images, he’s using the mess of words to project the idea that she sees a mess.

This is actually an early version of something Bowie would attempt in future songs using such methods as his “cut up technique” and Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies,” as well as sometimes just randomly swapping out words for other words that make less sense but sound better. Think, for instance, of his version of “Kingdom Come,” in which he incongruously sings “the voice of Doom is shining in my room.” How can a voice shine? Tom Verlaine‘s original lyric was, the “face of Doom is shining in my room.”

Often, though, Bowie used nonsensical lyrics to invite the audience to insert its own meaning, or in the hopes that new, unintentional meaning emerges from the wreckage. Or, in this case, that the chaos is the point.

Considering what would come later, “a phallus in pigtails” is a somewhat crude attempt at using the literal meaning of the words as misdirection. Add to the effect that Bowie’s articulation is somewhat muddled. I didn’t realize what exactly I was hearing until I heard the song many, many times. And then, of course, what entered my head was an image consistent with the literal meaning of the words. But here already Bowie left two breadcrumbs to follow. This is not supposed to be a one-and-done song. We’re supposed to listen to it a few times, try to figure out what we’re hearing, and then try to figure out what it means. Later, Bowie would be more agnostic about where we end up than he is here— this is a Lady and the Tramp story. Nothing really more to it than that.

But “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is also a forerunner of songs ranging from “The Bewlay Brothers” (1971) to “If You Can See Me” (2013). Interpreting Bowie is one of the most fun things about his music. This is as good a place as any to start.

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