In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World (1970)


The cover art for David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World

David Bowie is a musical “renaissance man” who’s dabbled in a bit of everything, including ambient, folk rock, glam rock, goth rock, industrial, jazz, soul, and yes, even heavy metal. (Keep in mind thst not everyone who does a metal album is necessarily a metal musician for life.) As far as metal is concerned, I’m talking about 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World, which sounds almost as if Black Sabbath temporarily fired Ozzy Osbourne as their vocalist and hired David Bowie to take his place. It’s a truly unique entry in Bowie’s canon; he never created another album quite like it.

David Robert Jones was born in Brixton, England on January 8, 1947. When he was nine years old, his father brought home a crate full of rock and roll records that included Little Richard’s single, “Tutti Frutti.” Upon hearing the song, little Davey “heard God.” He started his first band, the Konrads, at age 15; then he joined a couple of blues groups called the King Bees, the Manish Boys and the Lower Third. In the mid-1960s, Jones felt compelled to change his name by the fact that he was so often confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees. He eventually settled on calling himself after Jim Bowie, the 19th century American frontiersman and inventor of the Bowie knife. David Robert Jones then released his first single – “The Laughing Gnome” – and his eponymous debut album under the name of “David Bowie” in 1967.

The first David Bowie album failed to chart, but his commercial breakthrough came two years later when he released the single for “Space Oddity.” This led to the release of his second album (which was given the same name), but it was with his third album – The Man Who Sold The World – that Bowie finally started to achieve recognition. The album was a radical departure from Space Oddity‘s acoustic folk rock sound; with its heavy and distorted guitars and bass, it more comfortably fits with contemporary material by Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. It was also recorded in Bowie’s home at the time, which was an Edwardian mansion in Haddon Hall, Beckenham. (One visitor is said to have described the place as having an ambience “like Dracula’s living room.”)

To understand some of the themes on this album, we need to take note of what was happening in 1970. For one thing, the “hippie revolution” was coming to a close. While it definitely introduced some major changes that are still with us today, it was clear to everyone by 1970 that the world was still every bit as dangerous a place to live as it had been before the “revolution” began. There was no greater evidence for this fact than the continuation of the Vietnam War (which peace activists had utterly failed to stop) and the Manson Family (which took the very worst aspects of the hippie subculture to its most dangerous extremes). These things left a lot of Western youth feeling very disillusioned with themselves, and since nature abhors a vacuum, they rushed to fill the void in their lives with something else. One of the things that became popular during this period was the darker mysticism of men like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant and Anton Szandor LaVey (whose Church of Satan enjoyed its greatest period of success from 1966 to 1975).

The thing about “left-hand path” mysticism is that it really has the same goal as the “right-hand path”: to transform the self into something better than what it currently is. Both paths agree that the human species is its own worst obstacle and that it must be transcended by itself; the true difference lies in their theories as to why we are the way we are and how self-transcendence is best achieved. “Right-handed” mystics believe the problem is rooted in our desire for things and that we must detach ourselves from that desire to move forward. They emphasize altruism, peace and selflessness. “Left-handed” mystics, however, believe we’re held back not by our desires but by our fears. According to them, we must willfully break various moral, political, sexual, social and spiritual taboos to conquer our inhibitions. They also emphasize lust, power and the destruction of their enemies. While “right-handed” mystics seek to become like Buddha or Christ, “left-handed” mystics seek to become Friedrich Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

If people can’t work together to save the world as a global community, then maybe they should just ignore each other’s needs and focus strictly on their own selfish goals. If peace and love aren’t strong enough to change the world, then maybe “might is right” instead. And if the old Gods to whom people submit are doing nothing to help them, then perhaps people should just become their own Gods instead. These are the kinds of thoughts that led disillusioned 1970s youth to embrace some of the darker forms of spirituality that were thriving at the time. After being disappointed by the hippie movement, guys like Aleister Crowley just seemed to have all the answers. These were also the kind of thoughts that inspired David Bowie to explore the fantasy of becoming an occult ubermensch in his own imagination. This arc not only begins in The Man Who Sold The World but is continued through Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973) and Diamond Dogs (1974).

The first track on The Man Who Sold The World – “The Width of a Circle” – is a “left-handed” occult metaphor. It’s about a young man who comes across a monster that’s sleeping under a tree. To his surprise, the young man realizes that (1) this monster is actually himself and (2) it is also “God.” The young man and the creature then share a sexual encounter and are transported to the depths of hell, where the young man surrenders to the beast in violent ecstasy. The idea of meeting a “monster” that is also “God” and yourself at the very same time is part and parcel of Thelemic and Satanist philosophy. The narrator is essentially saying that man is his own God – a diabolical beast-God, to be sure, but a God nonetheless. The creature he meets tells him that we should “never go down to the Gods again” (i.e., any Gods that are not the self), which means we should consider worshiping external Deities to be “beneath” us. Finally, the sexual union of the narrator and his demonic self represents the idea that we should simply let ourselves be dominated by our desires and passions; in fact, we should “take it up the ass” from them. As such, this song would have made a perfect anthem for the Abbey of Thelema or for a Satanic mass at the Church of Satan.

This is followed by “All the Madmen,” in which a man pretends to be crazy so he can stay in a mental asylum (where it’s “safe”). He believes the other patients are perfectly sane as well, and that those who live in the outside world are the really crazy ones. There’s even a hint that the society in which this asylum exists may be controlled by a totalitarian regime; the asylum’s patients seem to be political prisoners who’ve been declared “insane” simply for voicing dissent. This was a common fate for political dissidents in such totalitarian countries as the Soviet Union (and it continues to occur today in the People’s Republic of China). To question the regime is more than just an act of treason in such countries; it’s an act of questioning “reality” as it is perceived (and regulated) by the state. Anyone who questions this “reality” is declared insane and treated accordingly.

Many of the people in David Bowie’s generation felt that the actions of Western governments during Vietnam and other contemporary global events were really more similar to those of their totalitarian counterparts than most people wanted to believe. And when it became clear that the “hippie revolution” wasn’t working, some hippies started becoming paranoid about what might happen to them. Would they be declared insane and thrown into mental asylums, too? Would it become safer to live in such facilities than it is to live in the outside world? And would their entire philosophy and way of life – with all its emphasis on peace and free love – be written off in the history books as an epidemic of mass psychosis?

“Black Country Rock” is about a traveler who’s camping somewhere with his horse. He’s apparently looking for something that he “might find” at the place where he’s camping, and Bowie mentions that “some say the view is crazy, though you may adopt another point of view.” The narrator seems to be searching for some mysterious truth that’s never described or explained, but which will apparently change the way he views reality. Here again we run into the idea of having a mind-altering experience that other people might dismiss as “crazy,” but which may actually be more sane than conventional attitudes and beliefs. In the next song, “After All,” Bowie discusses how hippies believed they were bringing a message from the heavens to Earth. He expresses the frightening possibility that maybe that message was never true in the first place; perhaps the hippies were “nobody’s children.” Then he asks us to forget everything he’s just said, which reminds me of a quote by Aleister Crowley:

Until the Great Work has been performed, it is presumptuous for the magician to pretend to understand the universe, and dictate its policy. Only the Master of the Temple can say whether any given act is a crime. . . “Slay the ignorant child?” (I hear the ignorant say) “What a horror!” “Ah!” replies the Knower, with foresight of history, “but the child will become Nero. Hasten to strangle him!”

There is a third, above these, who understands that Nero was as necessary as Julius Caesar.

– Aleister Crowley, Magick in Theory and Practice (1929)

The narrator falls into the third category as described by Crowley: he’s aware that the entire hippie movement was doomed to failure from the start, but that its existence was nevertheless necessary. Therefore, we should forget everything he said. “Live till your rebirth” invokes the idea of the Eternal Recurrence as espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche; everything that has happened, is happening and will happen has already happened an infinite number of times before (and will happen an infinite number of times again). “Do what you will” is taken from Crowley’s “Do what thou Wilt,” which is the Thelemic way of saying “Follow your destiny and fulfill your higher purpose.” Bowie is effectively connecting the idea of failure with fate and cyclical time. If all of history is a cycle that will never stop repeating itself, there’s nothing anyone can do to escape what they’ve done, what they’re doing or what they will do. Furthermore, it makes no difference whether we’re made aware of this secret or if we remain ignorant thereof.

The album’s second half is opened by “Running Gun Blues,” a chilling tale about a Vietnam veteran. The Vietnam War has been brought to an end by protesting peace activists, and the narrator has been brought back home. Yet the horrifying experiences he had in Vietnam still haunt him, and they drive him to sneak out at night with a gun and shoot civilians. He even claims to have “cut twenty-three down since Friday,” and his only reason for committing the murders is “to promote oblivion.” Here, Bowie proposes a future in which the hippie movement is actually successful in stopping the Vietnam War. But despite this global victory for love and peace, the more destructive and anti-social aspects of humanity continue to assert themselves.

A similar theme is explored in “Saviour Machine,” a science fiction story about a futuristic society that’s invented the perfect computer. At first this machine dutifully takes care of everything for its human creators, but then it then goes insane and decides to engineer a global holocaust out of sheer boredom. In effect, the very same thing that helps us to achieve true justice and happiness on Earth is also what leads to our extinction. “She Shook Me Cold,” in turn, is the only song that doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the album’s subject matter; it’s about receiving a blow job at the top of a hill in the dead of night. (Perhaps the song is meant to suggest that in a world where salvation and extinction may really be the exact same thing, perhaps sex is the only distraction that can prevent us from going completely insane.)

Then there’s the enigmatic title track, “The Man Who Sold The World” (yes, the song that was famously covered by Nirvana during the 1990s), which is about a man who meets his doppelganger on a stairway. This is the second song on the album to mention a doppelganger (the first one being “The Width of a Circle”), but there’s no apparent sexual or theological content here. Instead of meeting for the first time, the narrator and his other self appear to have already met and to have been separated for quite some time. The narrator also seems to be on drugs (i.e., “Although I wasn’t there” and “I gazed a gazely stare”) and is under the impression that his double “died a long, long time ago.” The doppelganger laughs, saying “Oh no, not me, I never lost control; you’re face to face with the Man Who Sold The World.” Then the narrator addresses the people in David Bowie’s audience, saying “We must have died, a long, long time ago.” Then he identifies himself with the doppelganger by referring to himself as “the Man Who Sold the World.”

David Bowie has mentioned in interviews that this song was partially inspired by William Hughes Mearns’ spooky poem “Antigonish,” which goes like this:

Last night I met upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

Bowie circa 1970

In my opinion, “The Man Who Sold The World” is about a jaded rock star who’s addicted to drugs, whose life has become a lie and who tries to reconcile himself with his earlier sober and authentic self. Ironically, this is exactly the situation in which David Bowie would eventually find himself in the mid-1970s (during his “Thin White Duke” period). By then he had become a completely deranged and paranoid cocaine addict, and he said and did a number of things that were a little too crazy (even for him). He tried to smuggle some Nazi paraphernalia across the Russian/Polish border for one thing, and he made all kinds of weird pro-fascist comments in his interviews. Fans are divided as to whether this was just the cocaine talking or if Bowie was just playing another one of his infamous character roles; I personally think it’s a little bit of both. (If you’ve ever seen 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth – in which Bowie plays an earthbound alien who becomes completely disassociative and who loses his true identity and purpose to various human addictions – you should know that he wasn’t really “acting.”) Thankfully, he eventually broke his addiction and came back to his senses (during what’s called his “Berlin” period), and he’s been pretty level-headed ever since. “The Man Who Sold The World” appears to have predicted this event.

The album concludes with “The Supermen,” wherein Bowie invokes a scene of prehistoric beings worshiping primal Gods that have slept for countless aeons. This ancient race knows nothing of pain or joy, and its constituents “play strange games” that would probably be fatal for most normal people living today. They also share a telepathic hive consciousness and are unable to conceptualize individuality (i.e., “Life rolls into one for them”). They share nightmares that would drive mere mortal men to homicidal madness, and they have “colossal strength to grasp a fate.” This would seem to mean that while people today are victims of fate, these ancient “supermen” had the power to completely control their own destinies. Despite their greatness, however, their civilization nevertheless dies and vanishes away into the past.

This song resembles a classic H. P. Lovecraft horror story; the “supermen” themselves remind me of Lovecraft’s Elder Things in At the Mountains of Madness. These frightening creatures had everything that human beings are unable to have; they enjoyed the state of self-transcendence that all our mystics have sought to reach throughout history. Yet David Bowie makes the album’s ultimate pessimistic statement by hinting that even this mighty and enlightened super-race couldn’t save itself from destruction. The Man Who Sold The World suggests that we’re all living in an illogical universe that’s completely devoid of meaning and purpose. We’re simply existential accidents, and self-awareness is our curse. If we become too aware of what’s really going on, it’ll only drive us mad; we just aren’t psychologically equipped to accept ourselves for what we truly are. To remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that we are pointless (and that none of our accomplishments will ever amount to anything in the grand scheme of things) is our only salvation. This is the basic idea behind every story that H. P. Lovecraft ever wrote, and it truly is horrifying.

Overall, The Man Who Sold The World is basically a commentary on the hippie movement, black magical philosophy and the mutual failure of both to provide an adequate path to salvation. Neither free loving pacifists nor savage demigods can change the fact that we’re all doomed, it says; all we can do is medicate ourselves with drugs, distract ourselves with sex and try to remain as ignorant of our true situation as we possibly can. All of which is to say that this album is pretty goddamn metal; it matches the first Black Sabbath album’s disenchanted hippie apocalypticism perfectly. It’s easy to see how the album has influenced not only an entire generation of metal artists but also quite a few goth rock and industrial musicians as well.

I can’t agree with the conclusions David Bowie draws on this album (and I doubt Bowie himself really agreed with them). I believe people and the world have meaning and purpose, that we have free will, and that there are intelligent higher forces that share at least some of our human concerns. I don’t believe there will ever be a time when we won’t have to fight against evil and chaos, but there is goodness in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (preferably in the most nonviolent ways possible). I don’t consider myself a hippie (and there are certain aspects of the hippie lifestyle that I can’t bring myself to agree with), but I definitely share some hippie beliefs. Furthermore, the movement wasn’t a complete failure; it did succeed in making Western culture more liberal and open-minded than it was before. If anything, I feel The Man Who Sold The World attempts to show us how the world appears to a mind that’s been completely corrupted by the Backward Face. We’re not necessarily meant to agree with it; it’s just meant to make us think.


3 responses to “David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

  1. G. B. Marian May 14, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    Reblogged this on In The Desert Of Seth and commented:

    I’ve been in a David Bowie mood lately, anf I just wanted to remind people that this exists. Also, I haven’t had time to work on a new post lately due to work; but since no one seems to have read this review, I thought I’d send it out again. Enjoy!


  2. Laine DeLaney May 14, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    It’s one of my favorites also. I’ve lost myself in this song before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cassie Sophie Tina October 9, 2016 at 10:38 am

    That is a pretty impressive and thought provoking review. There were a few things in there I didn’t know before. Personally, while none of Bowie’s albums or singles would probably be in my own top ten, his presence and influence on the music I listen to is very significant. Of all the departures in the entertainment industry this year, his is the one that touches me most deeply. I would have loved to have met him; I have a feeling we would have gotten on well!

    Liked by 1 person

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