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Bowie and Politics Part 9: Wherein David Bowie nukes the hippies

This is a continuation of last week’s segment, about the political implications of the songs on Bowie’s second album, which is today known as Space Oddity. It is the ninth installment of a long form piece on Bowie and politics.
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Bowie saves Space Oddity’s greatest indictment of the crowd for two oblique songs: “Cygnet Committee” and “Memory of a Free Festival.” Both are indictments against the faddish thinking of late 60s hippies, which is to say the fashionable, popular crowd, at least from Bowie’s perspective. Though Bowie did not yet have much of a fan base, it is the first instance wherein he rejects his own tribe.

Neither song is straightforward. Bowie himself has described the latter song as being a positive note on which to end the album, however Bowie is an infamously unreliable and inconsistent explainer of his own works. The song is more generally interpreted to demonstrate Bowie’s attitude that the hippies had been deluding themselves with their talk for peace, love and revolution. Even the crowd’s claims to having discovered happiness were self-delusional — “We claimed the very source of joy ran through; It didn’t, but it seemed that way.”

Less often discussed is what happens in the second part of the song— not for the first time on the album, Bowie shifts from describing a somewhat plausible scene— the attendees of a music festival, before degenerating into surreality — the arrival of aliens from Venus. An album that opens with Major Tom leaving Earth ends with tall Venusians landing here. But they don’t stay— they take one look and leave. A hopeful but ignorant human named Peter wants to leave with them but is denied. And then Bowie begins chanting, “the sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party,” which is how the song and album end.

But what is the sun machine? There might be as hint in the song’s description of the Venusian spaceships a few lines earlier— “machines of every shape and size.” The sun machine comes down after the Venusians came and went— could Bowie be describe Earth getting blasted by hostile aliens, misperceived by the hippies as benevolent? This would be consistent with his depiction of groups of people as ignorant of what’s really going on. It would also be consistent with Bowie’s use of the word “machine,” which on this album and all future songs only has negative connotations. Atomic detonations are frequently compared to the sun. So we have ignorant masses, machines that had just come down and gone up again, followed by a “sun machine” that comes down after which nothing happens.

Bowie would use the ever-repeating chant to end Diamond Dogs a few years later following its concluding song, “Big Brother.” In that case, all that’s repeated is the unfinished word, “bro,” which itself was echoed in “Scream Like a Baby” where Bowie stutters and cannot quite finish saying the word, “society.” Certainly in these latter two cases, Bowie uses the repetition of fragmented words to suggest psychological breakage that ends in conformity. The sun machine chant is fully articulated, but once again uses repetition to suggest a kind of stasis, not unlike the shadows frozen for all time of people killed by the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Admittedly, this is not a common interpretation of the “sun machine,” however it would be consistent with characters in future Bowie songs who are oblivious to the destruction around them— the milkshake-drinker in “Five Years,” the Champaign drinking soldier is “Aladdin Sane,” the autograph seeker in “Panic in Detroit,” the oxygen tent survivor looking for the latest party in “Diamond Dogs” and so-on.

Earlier in the song, Bowie makes a drug reference with the line, “someone passed some bliss among the crowd.” No doubt “bliss” is an all-too obvious stand-in for marijuana. However, Bowie could have used any number of alternative words. He chose a word that is frequently preceded by “ignorance is,” and if ignorance is bliss, perhaps the reverse is also true.

As Bowie gavels the 1960s to a close, his verdict is that hippies are dumb. This despite having spent the last several months presenting as a hippie.

“Memory of a Free Festival” is best understood in the context of the entire album, but especially as a follow-up to “Cygnet Committee.” In many ways “Cygnet Committee” is the most prototypical Bowie song on the album— long, complex and impervious to straightforward interpretation, the song nonetheless conveys a sneering distain for the pretenses of late 60s faddish thinking. Bowie gets his points across in partially articulated thoughts, shifting perspectives and unresolved narrative threads.

Among those threads is the first appearance of the type of charismatic leader that would reappear in future songs and metathesize into the Thin White Duke. And as songs such as “Saviour Machine” and “Big Brother” focus less on what the charismatic figure does and more on his followers, such is also the case here:

“We had a friend, a talking man
Who spoke of many powers that he had
Not of the best of men, but ours
We used him
We let him use his powers
We let him fill our needs
Now we are strong”

We don’t learn what happens to the talking man, but Bowie clearly establishes that he is empowered by his followers for their use. Do they use him and leave him— did the kids kill the man? What of this feeling of strength? Well, what happens next is the idealistic talk and peace-and-love imagery of the earlier part of the song becomes militaristic and counter-cultural— “We broke the ruptured structure built of age; Our weapons were the tongues of crying rage.”

What Bowie is describing is a protest movement designed to shatter societal norms. On the surface, this might be an agenda Bowie would align with, however the revolution never works out in Bowie songs. The song’s imagery becomes increasingly violent — blasting guns, slit throats, back-stabbed fathers, stoned poor— before breaking into a string of cliched slogans and pop culture references.

Following this comes a reference to lovers slain for not knowing the “Free State’s refrain”:

“I believe in the power of good
I believe in the state of love
I will fight for the right to be right
I will kill for the good of the fight for the right to be right”

This is not simply a condemnation of belief, but of the concept of rights, which Bowie never really embraces. His imperfect conditions are more fundamental — starvation, addiction, death. Bowie would later revisit several of the concepts packed into this section of the song. The 1984-inspired “We Are the Dead” (1974) and for that matter, “Heroes” (1977) and even “Let’s Dance” (1984) focus on doomed lovers, who, at least in the first two of those songs, are threatened by a violently oppressive state.

Meanwhile, “Quicksand” (1971) explicitly, gloomily rejects belief— “don’t conceive in belief, knowledge comes in death’s release.” And “Fantastic Voyage” (1979) places life ahead of political positions — “dignity” (later, “locality”) “is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too.”

And as in the case of that song, “Cygnet Committee reaches a fevered pitch of destruction including images of a “love machine”— there’s that word again — “plowing down man, woman,” before breaking into another concluding chant expressing the narrator’s most fundamental need — “I want to live.”

This, in the end, is David Bowie’s ultimate political value— life. “Cygnet Committee” reaches this conclusion is a way that would distinguish many of Bowie’s best future songs— where its fragmentation, inferences and self-contradictions simulate the “concrete all around” the narrator’s head (this phrase taken from “All the Young Dudes” [1972] in which Bowie reflects on his dismissive views of late-60s values, “we never got it off on that revolution stuff”). Everything else — governments, leaders, laws, slogans, movements, rights and entitlements— they all get in the way and threaten that most fundamental condition of existence. Bowie sees threats just about everywhere, and he is not optimistic. The album does not end with the chant of, “I want to live,” but, “the sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” Doom is imminent and we’re at a loss to stop it, so without a better option, we might as well have fun.

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Come back next week for part 10…

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