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Bowie, 9/11 and “Sunday” (Moby Remix)

It has often been written that Bowie’s 2002 album, Heathen, seemed to be a reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001. Bowie himself talked about the coincidence, but it was a coincidence. Most of the songs, including the opening track, “Sunday,” had been written before 9/11. Nonetheless, the album captured a sentiment at the time of unease and dread. The lyrics to “Sunday,” from the opening, “nothing remains,” to the last line, “everything has changed” are indeed an incredible coincidence. The song, and much of the album can be experienced in light of 9/11, even if not explicitly about the event and what followed.

It has felt tough to digest how people born after 9/11 are, and have been adults for some time now. Their entire existence has been within a world where people have had a reason to feel threatened by terrorist attacks at home (even if the threat seems greater from home-grown terrorists in recent years— the fear has remained a constant). The United States had been in war for most of their lives in reaction to the events of 9/11. The Patriot Act has long-since ceased to be a hot topic (though in a bizarre way it spawned the Oath Keepers). Crossing the border into Canada has never seemed to people born after 2001 like going to another neighborhood, as it did for most of my life in Buffalo. Rudolph Giuliani has, for most of their lives, been a kind of evil clown rather than America’s Mayor. They also probably don’t have a good sense of how terrible and consequentially bad a president George W. Bush was, especially in light of the even worse age of Trump, which again was partially a reaction to Bush. Everything has changed, indeed.

Bowie was living in Manhattan at the time of the attacks and participated in the Concert for New York shortly thereafter, where he performed “Heroes” but also Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” This performance of “America” is my single favorite live performance by Bowie, at least of those I heard as a recorded rather than experienced in concert. It is also one of my favorite covers performed by Bowie. It couldn’t have been a better contribution to the city and nation trying to cope with what just happened.

And, although Heathen wasn’t explicitly about 9/11, as one of the earliest post-9/11 pieces of art, it helped too. Bowie would more directly address the topic on his next album, Reality with songs such as “New Killer Star,” which contained the lines, “See the great white scar, over Battery Park,” as well as, the song, “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” which was partially inspired by the Iraq War and the person of Dick Cheney (“I’m Goddamn rich; An exploding mad; When I talk in the night; There’s oil in my hands”).

Going back to Heathen, for me, “Sunday;” “5:15” and “Heathen (the Rays)” all could easily be about 9/11, especially since, as with “Fall Dog,” Bowie takes inspiration from something concrete and distorts it to the point that few of his songs are explicitly and linearly about anything. He was at his best when he was evocative rather than literal, and he was near the top of his game in this respect on Heathen.

I wasn’t around for the Kennedy assassination and, unlike my sister, I wasn’t in Manhattan at the time of the attacks (she saw that big white scar in person). But I think for those of us who were old enough to remember the attacks, like those who remember where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, we too remember. But we don’t and can’t remember everything that happened then or what happened after. I think here is where art comes in. More than walking us through the facts, what Bowie does on Heathen is remind us how we felt. At least I’m reminded how I felt.

Nothing has changed.

I don’t usually do this, but I think this is a case where it’s appropriate to include the entire lyrics of the song in question, “Sunday”:

Nothing remains
We could run
When the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes
Look for the drifters
We should crawl under the bracken
Look for the shafts of light on the road
Where the heat goes
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing
And nothing has changed
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
And everything has changed
In your fear
Of what we have become
Take to the fire
Now we must burn
All that we are
Rise together
Through these clouds
As on wings
In your fear, seek only peace
In you fear, seek only love
In your fear, seek only peace
In you fear, seek only love
In your fear, in your fear
As on wings
This is the trip
And this is the business we take
This is our number
All my trials, Lord
Will be remembered
Everything has changed

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