DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE ROOM
"And I hide under blankets or did I run away. I really can't remember last time I saw the light of day."
Scream Like A Baby - David Bowie (1980).
In the following exploration of David Bowie's lyrics I attempt to render intelligible the coded and implied meanings of his words. Bowie is a master of allusion. He thrives on insinuation. The topic I chose appears repeatedly in Bowie's songs. It is the motif of space. Not space as in "space-age" or "intergalactic." The investigation of the subjects of the alien, the extraterrestrial, and the unearthly have already been noted in other popular critiques of his work.
I investigate the theme of space from another angle entirely, from the eccentric (often bizarre) viewpoints of Bowie's transient lodgers and spaced-out inmates (hopped-up on drugs supplied by the state) unsafely ensconced behind institution walls. These very switched off but quite earthbound inhabitants reveal themselves in unexpected ways throughout David's songwriting.
What I discover is that the "stranger" dwells among us in very familiar "places of habitation." Occasionally he is the outsider, a refugee in exile within the borders of his own country. At other times he is the mental defector, the derelict orphan of asylums, a fugitive fleeing internal demons, or a member of a secret society of runaways, but frequently he is a castaway of love.
These prisoners of time and space cower and cringe behind the fortress walls of their hearts. The limitless void of countless galaxies is the least of their anxieties. They have no cell-mates to keep them company nor do they desire any. Bowie's sketches portray "small plotters on the edge of time", hostages of seedy motels, and banished prophet-supermen languishing in loveless rooms.
David Bowie exploits the metaphors of space in illuminating ways: The radiant halo spaceboy whose custody still calls. His crown of light fading as he waves goodbye to love.
Bowie suggests and foreshadows, by the use of the word "custody", the spaceboy's impending imprisonment, an isolation and confinement seemingly predestined by the actions of the dope fiend Tom.
The storylines of the earlier 'Space Oddity' and 'Ashes To Ashes' confirmed the spaceboy's inevitable descent into an "all time low." David cleverly revisits these metaphors of drug use and the highs and lows of the junkie recluse. Bowie's other zeroic loners travel the avenues of inner space and attempt to escape their small lives but often they "map out a passage to ruin."
The debate still rages for wild and mad ravers. How much room did Major Tom have inside his tin can? And if you were cast out into the infinite universe in a tin machine tomb, wouldn't you be afraid of the room!?
In the late 60's David Bowie wrote a song called 'I Dig Everything' in which he intimated his preference for the inaccessible and secluded spaces where a thinker could remain apart from the rest of the society at large. At the time his detachment and distance was deliberate. He was playing the role of the young artist: "I got a backstreet room in the bad part of town and I dig everything."
In the song 'An Occasional Dream' from 1969's Space Oddity album, the peculiarities of Bowie's living quarters invoke the elusiveness of a dream: "I recall how we lived on the corner of a bed. And we'd speak of a Swedish room of hessian and wood." His sleeping compartment is located in a specific country and it inspires a particular presence of mind, the self-possession of the artist-dreamer.
In 1971's 'All The Madmen' from the album The Man Who Sold The World, David Bowie characterizes the dazed and deranged thinker sitting alone in a cold and grim sickroom. In this song the "super brainy" artist has been deposed. Genius is bound and trapped within the confines of the insane asylum "on the far side of town." His carnal appetites and intellectual curiosity disconnected by lobotomy.
Minds not indoctrinated by a "free society" (natural, impulsive, child-like prodigies unburying occult secrets) "hide in dark cellars." Likewise the presumably sane, enlightened men, products of the civilized, "modern world" linger underground. Perhaps in search of safety and protection?
Unplacated prisoners of sanitarium rooms "talk to their walls." Still the "screaming dreamers" refuse to be released from their cold mansions to fade away with the dispirited, domesticated men drifting freely along the borders of exile. Helpless and unprotected, they would "rather stay with all the madmen."
In the song 'After All' also from The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie alludes to a "secretive ball" (perhaps a masquerade, a carnal carnival held in some mysterious meeting room or some dark underground ballroom). Bowie asserts again that "Homo Sapiens" (Society, Humankind) are an encumbrance, a burden, a race of tragic fools who will surely dash all hope: "Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown. So hold on to nothing, and he won't let you down."
Furthermore Bowie simultaneously consoles and disturbs us by reminding us that we are all very impertinent and irrelevant in the larger "scheme of things." He eerily suggests that we are "nobody's children" whether we are running, marching, crawling or merely sitting in silence in some secluded room.
Still David declares that there should be no space in our hearts or souls for ill will. In this song Bowie plays the role of the unassuming visionary "superman", the dreaming prophet who unpretentiously foresees the future. He sings: "Forget all I've said, please bear me no ill." "There is no room for anger, we are all very small."
In the song 'Eight Line Poem' from the 1971 album Hunky Dory, Bowie admonishes us about the sprawling urban landscape taking over every last vestige of wild, untamed space: "The tactful cactus by your window surveys the prairie of your room. They've opened shops down on the West Side. Will all the cacti find a home?" Invaders from the cities are always infringing on the hinterlands.
Again an atmosphere of imprisonment reveals itself in the song 'Oh You Pretty Things' from the same album: "What are we coming to? There is no room for me, no fun for you. I think about a world to come."
David's concerns about finding room to be free would reappear almost a decade later in the song 'Yassassin' from 1979's Lodger. This time the protagonists are from the back country and they are moving into an urban landscape of sun and steel. They testify: "We came from the farmlands to live in the city. But such a life we have never known."
In the song 'Five Years' from Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, he admits he's on the edge, the brink, the fringes of sanity. The world is coming to an end and he is rummaging through his memories only to discover ephemera and scraps. He sings plaintively: "My brain hurt like a warehouse. It had no room to spare. I had to cram so many things to store everything in there." His mind has become a combination of repository and refuse heap filled to the brim with the superfluous and cherished details of a lifetime. In 'Five Years' Bowie translates the infinite distances of a fragile inner space.
In the song 'Suffragette City' from the same album Bowie explores the autonomous borders of relationship that friends must not transgress. He is seeking intimacy with a lover not a chum and warns against intrusion: "Hey man, droogie don't crash here. There is only room for one and here she comes."
From 1973's Aladdin Sane comes the song 'Watch That Man'. David describes a wild and de-ranged reception room, an anti-social gathering of cracked actors, strange and estranged misfits tuning in to crazed frequencies. The music was sad, the conversation incomprehensible. Everybody drank a lot. Even a messenger of God was dancing on his knees. The man taking care of this uncivilized room walked and talked like a jerk. (Was he kin to the Idiot Savants of 'All The Madmen' or the Poor Dunce of 'A Small Plot Of Land'?) In either case, "he could eat you with a fork and spoon."
In the song 'Lady Grinning Soul' also from 1973's Aladdin Sane, the attraction-repulsion mechanism is in full force: "And when the clothes are strewn don't be afraid of the room." In this song Bowie insinuates the perils of intimacy. Touching jeopardizes detachment as well as the fantasies and self-deceptions of the visionary dreamer. Fascination and erotic desire merge to conjure up the Phantom Dame with a twisted smile. With a lascivious satisfaction, the lady revels in her lover's woe.
In 1974's 'Rock And Roll With Me' from the nightmarish album Diamond Dogs, David Bowie confesses his longing for a new space, a different sphere of influence: "I always wanted new surroundings. A room to rent while the lizards lay crying in the heat." The "portraits in flesh" that he describes are phantasmagoric. We are transported to "Hunger City" where we can taste and feel the ambience. Here the fantastical becomes a corporeal and palpable space, an inner universe inhabited by unearthly residents - boarders on the borders and lodgers on the ledge.
In the song 'Sweet Thing' also from Diamond Dogs, Bowie alludes to a promise of hope and love. The protagonist seeks the essence or heart of things. Unlike the main characters in his songs 'The Motel' or 'Small Plot Of Land' from the 1995 album Outside, the principal oddball in 'Sweet Thing' seems to be rejecting his "small, needle-point" existence. Bowie intones: "It is safe in the city, to love in a doorway. Will you see that I am scared and I am lonely? So I'll break up my room, and yawn and I run to the centre of things."
In the 1975 song 'Young Americans,' David Bowie's main actors take refuge wherever they can, behind fridges or bridges, in cars and buses. David also portrays their desperation within certain rooms: "Scanning life through the picture window she finds the slinky vagabond." "All the way from Washington her breadwinner begs off the bathroom floor." In one particular line in the song Bowie's un-American zero turned hero gloats "I got a suite and you got defeat."
David conjures up the image of the idol-star captivating and corrupting his servants and followers. Perhaps they are all in some rented penthouse with interconnecting rooms? Did his devoted fans, the ardent faithful, an entourage of eager believers and young American lovers follow him willingly into oblivion and damnation or were they lured to his suite of sweet excess?
In the song 'Somebody Up There Likes Me', the idol-star requires more than suites/sweets to fulfill his desires. He needs "space to ramble," "space to boogie."
In the 1976 song 'Station To Station' Bowie seeks his calling but he knows he must travel from one territory to another, from one level of existence to another in order to attain it. He is in pursuit of his higher cause. In the song, David also reveals to us the confusion of inner and outer spaces. The traveler is world-weary, simultaneously lost and found, secure yet uncertain. He is vulnerable and exposed but paradoxically protected within the "Center of Things." The protagonist has achieved his final purpose by exploring the spiritual depths. His room appears to be a space where he feels uplifted and in control: "Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circle. Here am I, flashing no colour. Tall in this room overlooking the ocean."
In the song 'Breaking Glass' from the 1977 album Low, the room's original occupant was displaced by a frightfully insane intruder: "Baby I have been breaking glass in your room again. Listen. Don't look at the carpet. I drew something awful on it. See. You are such a wonderful person. But you have got problems. I will never touch you." The inhabitants of this room have complicated desires to say the least. Preserving strict boundaries between the worlds of the sane and the insane has now taken precedence over any desire for emotional closeness.
The dread of leaving one's room, a place of safety yet utter estrangement arises in the songs 'Sound And Vision' and 'What In The World' also from the album Low. The desire to evacuate these rooms and relinquish one's disconnection from the larger world is supplanted by the apprehension and anxiety that ensues when one attempts to come out of one's "place of hiding". In 'Sound And Vision' Bowie sings: "Blue blue electric blue. That is the colour of my room where I will live. Drifting into my solitude, over my head." Bowie captured the same essence of confinement and alienation almost ten years earlier in the classic 'Space Oddity'. Major Tom reports back to his home planet: "Here I am sitting in my tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue and there is nothing I can do." And in 'What In the World' he indicts the little girl for what appears to be her deliberate withdrawal from the world: "So deep in your room. You never leave your room."
Futility, entrapment, spiritual emptiness, and a hellish, brooding self-enclosure are portrayed in 1978's 'Sons Of The Silent Age' from the album "Heroes". Bowie warns us about the hollowness and desolation of such an existence. He depicts a life of bondage and captivity. He sketches the contours of a prison: "Sons of the silent age stand on platforms, blank looks and no books. They sit in back rows of city limits. They lay in bed coming and going on easy terms. Sons of the silent age pace their rooms like a cell's dimensions. They rise for a year or two then make war. Search through their one inch thoughts then decide it couldn't be done." In 'Sons' the protecting room becomes a cage! That all too familiar and comfortable hiding place has become a jail.
In the song 'Red Money' from 1979's Lodger, David Bowie alludes to a typical modern metropolis and asks the question: "Can you feel it in the way that the landscape is too high?" Unencumbered space can be as prohibitive as a locked room.
In the song 'Scary Monsters And Super Creeps' from the 1980 album of the same name Bowie forewarns of imminent doom: "She could have been a killer. She had a horror of rooms." In this song the dreaded threat is depicted as a murderous woman who is afraid of enclosed spaces. Bowie goes on to describe that when she is set free to roam the city, it does nothing for her state of mind: "She was stupid in the streets and she can't socialize." Nothing mitigates her fear not even the wide open expanse of the urban jungle.
Here are the lyrics from a Tom Verlaine song David chose to illustrate his often repeated theme of the fateful room: "The voice of doom was shining in my room. I just need one day somewhere far away. Lord I just need one day." The protagonist of this song longs to escape incarceration even for a day. The isolated backwoods preferable to his jailhouse room.
In 1981 Bowie shared with us his rendition of Bertolt Brecht's "Baal". In the darkly erotic 'Baal's Hymn' the eternal expanse of sky infiltrates the womb-tomb of earth, the final resting place engulfing the "rotting Baal". Bowie sings: "And when Baal saw lots of corpses scattered round, he felt twice the thrill, despite the lack of room. "Space enough said Baal, then I'll thicken the ground. Space enough within this woman's womb."
For most of the characters in Bowie's songs either there is too much space (for some people too much space is a fearful thing) or there is not enough. In the case of Brecht's Baal there was just enough space: "The sky was lurking behind his eyes." When he's dead he'll have enough sky down there below." Baal was willing to condense and encapsulate that great expanse of sky within the microcosm of his own body, willing to absorb that immensity into his smaller self.
In 1983's 'Let's Dance' the protagonist prefers a solitary place for his lover and himself: "Sway through the crowd to an empty space." He is even willing to depart secretly, run away forever if he must: "If you say hide, we will hide."
Bowie's obsessions with space and crowds, as well as the displaced lodger come up again in 1984's 'Dancing With The Big Boys' from the Tonight album: "Too many people. This dot marks your location." He alludes to the impediments of overpopulation and the struggles to find free and open space in a "free society" where only loneliness keeps you in sync. Bowie describes the places we inhabit as pin-points on a map. Mere specks we are in these swarming and bustling cities.
In 1987's 'Shining Star' from the album Never Let Me Down Bowie depicts the lives of low life losers, drug addicts, prostitutes, ex-cons, and gangsters and how they still search for happiness despite their lives of wretchedness. Bowie goes on to describe a horrible room: "Dean was seen with a two bag purchase. He was lying dead on his mother's bed." For the protagonist of 'Shining Star' there was no escape from this fatal and fated room.
In the song 'Tin Machine' from the 1989 album of the same name, the room becomes the location of an explosive struggle between confinement and freedom, refuge and escape: "Raging, raging, raging, burning in my room. I'm waiting on the fire escape."
In the song 'Video Crime' from the same album there is no opportunity or aspiration for grace or atonement, no suitable time for escape or even diversion: "I ain't got no room for charity. I ain't got no room for Hollywood. Me, I'm crawling with no cash." There is no room for humanity for this homicidal maniac. He can not entertain mercy and compassion. The antagonist of 'Video Crime' must allow no concessions, no bargaining, no margin for error if his fatal plans are to succeed.
Bowie is forever invoking enclosed spaces on the edge of the world (bar-rooms, motels, seedy basements, the cellars of churches...)
The room in 1991's 'Shopping For Girls' from the album Tin Machine II becomes it's occupant's prison yet again. It is surely an asylum for the doomed. Only this time it appears that the fated ones are truly innocent: "He lies on a mattress in a rat infested room, talking about his family and the cold back home." There are no accommodations in these torture chambers.
The victim in the song 'One Shot' can not find refuge, even in her own home: "Looked out on a green world, no bedroom to run to."
In 1993's 'Miracle Goodnight' from the album Black Tie White Noise, the room beckons future hope and grace: "Morning star you're beautiful. Spin you around my little room, miracle goodnight." But in the song 'Strangers When We Meet' from 1993's Buddha Of Suburbia Bowie depicts a scene of absolute displacement and banishment. The "Stranger" is exiled, afraid, and forlorn to the point where even affection is disaffecting. David portrays an utter emotional distance and a sense of the protagonist's relief despite his loss of friendship and love: "Your embrace was all that I feared. That whirling room."
In the segue 'Algeria Touchshriek' from 1995's Outside album, the isolation transforms itself into a profound exile, a fear of touching. The protagonist becomes completely walled off, deaf, and dumb to the world around him. And in a wonderfully comic turn Algeria's boarder even gets rejected from the infinite expanse of cyberspace. In this short segue 'Touch-Shriek,' Bowie says so much so chillingly: "I am thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr. Walloff Domburg, a reject from the world wide intellect. He is a broken man. I am also a broken man."
I am reminded again of the room or rooms occupied in the song 'The Motel' also from the album Outside. Bowie makes a reference to safety or a "safety zone". He sings in a low murmur: "For we are living in a safety zone. Don't be holding back from me. We're living from hour to hour down here and we will take it when we can."
These lyrics only highlight the feeling of despair and banishment that pervades all of Outside. The Outsider of course being the ultimate exile. And the sanctuary he describes in 'The Motel' sounds more like a liability. The rooms the outsiders occupy sound more like small cramped prison cells than motel lodgings.
In 1997's 'Earthlings On Fire' David specifies an obscure but fateful room in the house of author Samuel Beckett's father, a room that would soon become his deathplace. Bowie simply states: "In a house a man drops dead. As he hits the floor he sighs "What a morning."
In the song 'Survive' from the 1999 album 'hours...' Bowie makes a request. He sings: "Give me wings, give me space." He also goes on to describe noisy rooms and the moans of passion emanating from them. These rooms are light and airy.
But in the song 'Something In The Air' from the same album despair and isolation tears a relationship completely apart: "We lay in each other's arms but the room is just an empty space. I guess we lived it out." Bowie is religiously precise in his depiction of the ominous and inescapable room!
By Nevada Kerr
19th November 2001.
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