The Beggarman On The Shelf

One who begs; one who asks or entreats earnestly, or with humility; a petitioner.

One who makes it his business to ask alms.

One who is dependent upon others for support; - a contemptuous or sarcastic use.

One who assumes in argument what he does not prove.

One must keep in mind that the "beggar-slave" as he appears in some of Bowie's songs is more than a mere clown-fool. He is the seducer-sycophant who lures and entices the gods. His voice is the voice of the tempter. He bribes and baits the higher powers with his ironic and sardonic power to charm: Please make sure we get tomorrow. All this pain, all this sorrow. I demand a better future or I might just stop needing you; I might just stop needing you.

Cajolery and flattery are the tools he uses: "When you talk, we talk too. When you walk, we walk too." This level of sarcasm is typical of the wheedler who coaxes and deceives his target. In the song "A Better Future" he throws a sop to the higher powers, then baits the hook with threats in order to get what he wants: Please don't tear this world asunder. Please take back this fear we're under. I demand a better future or I might just stop wanting you.

He refuses to slobber over the gods. In "I Would Be Your Slave," he will pander but he won't drool: "I don't sit around and wait. I don't give a damn. I don't see the point at all. No footsteps in the sand." If he doesn't get what he wants he might just "forget the whole thing, and move on."

The beggar-slave takes on the roles of the inveigler-coquet and the parasitic yes-man who will say anything to get his demands met: "Open up your heart to me and I would be your slave." Like any other candidate, he is willing to make a deal. He uses this same strategy with his lovers as well: "Let's take what we can. We used what we could to get the things we want but we lost each other on the way." Forever the charmer in the song "Something In The Air" he salivates and overpersuades: "I know you'll hold your head up high and I guess you know I never wanted anyone more than you."

But these are more than the mere blandishments of the suitor-solicitor. They are the petitions of a desperate man who will do anything to procure the object of his desire including the "loafing gods" who demand his servility and submission. Especially them!

Yet he knows he can not count on them. The higher powers are asleep at the switch, procrastinating, keeping their wards slowly burning. Bowie brilliantly conveys that these "dormant gods" deserve to be tricked and deceived by the beggar-slave, a true snake in the grass if there ever was one.

On 1991's Tin Machine II David Bowie introduces us to the pauper in the form of a disposable child with scrawny limbs and toothy grins. Bowie intones: "He lies on a mattress in a rat infested room talking about his family and the cold back home." David also depicts the broken fortune and destitution of a nameless girl with dull cold eyes.

The beggarly protagonist of 'I Can't Read' from 1989's Tin Machine I does not care which shadow gets him. His money goes to Money Heaven. Bowie takes a snapshot of the low-lifer that we will never forget even if it lasts only fifteen minutes!

In 1987's 'Shining Star' from 'Never Let Me Down' Bowie reveals the bereaved Tessie who turns tricks with a soul like ice cause love left holes and four swell kids breaking her heart. David confesses: "I've got windows, I've seen much vice, I've touched down with vermin, cowardice, lice." There's a wolf at the door in 'Shining Star' and he's very hungry!

We meet another downtrodden "Never Let Me Downer" in the song 'Day-In Day-Out.' A freeloader with a ticket to nowhere. Out of money and out of time. Bowie unmasks an angry gal protesting her obscurity: "Nobody knows her, or knows her name. She was born in a handbag and left on a doorstep." Hooking her way to an early death, living by her wits within the vulgar herd, she steals for that one good rush. There is a thin line between the beggar and the thief and this "woman of the street" walks that line. An abductee herself, (She's in the pocket of a home boy) the light-fingered derelict shoplifts her way closer to prison. In the promo for 'Day-In Day-Out' predatory angels videotape her every move but dare not interfere and the police take her house by storm prepared to snatch away her one and only child.

The 'Neighborhood Threat' from 1984's 'Tonight' album lives a hand to mouth existence. Nobody can help the homeless beggar with crazy eyes. The pauper goes by many names: hobo, bum, and tramp but in this song the mendicants are a baby bleeding and a mother needing. And they're living down your backstairs buddy!

The forgotten pauper is an unemployed factory worker in 1983's 'Ricochet' from 'Let's Dance.' David sings: "Men wait for the news while thousands are still asleep dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery, mine shafts and things like that." Damp eyed and weary they make unfulfillable promises to their children. Bowie depicts the hard core unemployed on a corner waiting for jobs.

The beggarman reveals himself as an enslaved child laborer in 1980's 'It's No Game Part 2' from 'Scary Monsters And Super Creeps.' He warns: "Children around the world, put camel shit on the walls. They're making carpets on treadmills, or garbage sorting."

On 1979's 'Lodger', the poor soul appears in the guise of the farm and field worker, a simple man living from hour to hour in a complex world. In the song 'Yassassin' Bowie drones: "We came from the farmlands to live in this city. We walked proud and lustful in this resonant world. You want to fight but I don't want to leave or drift away." The migrant working man knows that something is wrong and he doesn't want to be reduced to beggary.

From 1975's 'Young Americans' comes the slinky vagabond. Here the beggar takes the form of the wastrel lover. Perhaps this young American is an outcast of the capitalist empire, a refugee fleeing poverty and despair. Bowie reveals the freak: "He coughs as he passes her Ford Mustang, but Heaven forbid, she'll take anything." Her bread-winner begs off the bathroom floor. There is not a myth left from the ghetto for the pimp, the hustler, or the American Zero.

The great unwashed, the dregs of society appear again and again in David Bowie's work. The groundling, the working class hero, the people from bad homes, the man nobody knows - they are all here from Space Oddity to Heathen.

Nevada Kerr
30th January 2003.

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