I'm the type of person who will read the first book in a book series, or the first episode in a TV series, and then have to continue to the end of the series, no matter how badly the story might deteriorate. I've got to have the sense of closure. I need to get to the last word of the last page of the last book to really feel like I can make up my mind whether it's
a) genius, and I can think of ways it's made my understanding of life better
b) an entertaining use of my time
c) a waste of my time, because I didn't get anything from it.
Which is why I've always found David Bowie a real challenge, because there are so many things to prevent a person born 15 years after his first album was released being able to grab it all in their arms and get it into focus. (Different phases, personalities, genres, not to mention 26 albums spanning nearly 50 years, weaving into very different parts of time, place and opinion).
Over the years, I've realised that the fun with Bowie is that you can just jump in at any point and see what you find. The main Bowie bays I've been floating around in have been the 70s Bowie (Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane) and the more recent albums of the late 90s onwards. Both highly rewarding. Both very different eras.
Being a teenage Nirvana listener, the first time I heard The Man Who Sold The World was on the musical door-opening MTV Unplugged album/video. And later, through my exploration into Bowie's back catalogue I was able to hear and appreciate the original. I always enjoyed the way the song sounded in my ears, and the mood it created with the music, but up until recently I have always somewhat unfairly had the song pegged as a "pre-genius" Bowie song (released in 1970), as it's from before what I think of as the period when Bowie's songwriting went into the stratosphere.
Last night, I saw this video of Michael Stipe singing The Man Who Sold The World and it made me think about the song again in a fresh way, as is generally the case when listening to a cover version of a song. And what I realised was that I'd never really listened to the words of the song and thought about what they meant. So I went and found them and they were these:
We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when.
Although I wasn't there, he said I was his friend,
Which came as a surprise. I spoke into his eyes.
"I thought you died alone, a long long time ago."
"Oh no, not me.
I never lost control.
You're face to face
With The Man Who Sold The World."
I laughed, and shook his hand. And made my way back home.
I searched for form and land. For years and years I roamed.
I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions there.
We must have died alone. A long, long time ago.
Who knows? not me.
We never lost control.
You're face to face
With The Man Who Sold The World
Then, I was ready to listen to the original David Bowie recording of the song again. With headphones on, of course. (Don't every try to listen to something seriously through laptop speakers. You're not doing yourself or the music any favours). The chord progression is interesting, as it gets you thinking that it's going to be just the two opening chords repeated, but as the story in the lyric unfolds, the chords get much more complex as they move off into an unpredictable direction until the refrain (and title) is sung.
And as I listened, I realised that, though I'd head the song a hundred times before, I'd never listened to the instruments. Every sound in this recording is interesting, from the weird chorus/doubling effect on the vocal, to the murky fuzz of the bass, to the crispness of the acoustic guitar, and repetitive, hypnotic, unrelenting lead guitar line.
Combine the words with that music, and you get the unsettling, haunting fantasy that is The Man Who Sold The World. Grab your headphones.