My Favourite Albums of All Time (Part Two)

This is the second part of my favourite albums of all time. You can find the first part here My Favourite Albums of All Time Part One.

6. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison


Astral Weeks is unique like many of the albums on my list. I’m not that much of a Van Morrison fan. I find most of his records fairly bland and stylised. I’ve heard most of them and am not that impressed apart from his early work with the seminal rock band Them. Here Comes The Night  is a genius three minutes of pop and Baby Please Don’t Go is the essence of R&B. Astral Weeks was recorded and released soon after Them split up. As already said, it is unique and genre busting. Yes, it’s kind of jazz, kind of folk and kind of poetry but more of an amalgam of all three with a dose of unintentional classical music thrown in. How it ever came to be recorded by a major label is one of the wonders of the late sixties when good music came to be commercial. Or was it? It was quite a long time before anyone heard it or was aware of it. However, it ranks as one of the most creative records released by a commercial record company ever.

Without knowing the full details behind the creation of this album I feel that it contains the essence of a real sadness and sense of loss. I don’t know this, I feel it! It is like a folk/jazz equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with it’s evocative phrases and overwhelming sense of sorrow and psychic pain. This really IS the blues. Not the black American blues of the southern plantations and urban ghettos but the white blues of a psychologically dislocated Brit in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. To add to the sense of alienation it was recorded in New York in 1968.

You know you’re in a different creative universe right from the word go. The first song Astral Weeks tells the listener that he is nothing but a stranger in this world and would like to be born again. The final song Slim Slow Slider describes a woman who has a brand new boy and a Cadillac but who is dying and every time I see you
I just don’t know what to do. The song ends in a blast of free jazz. Pretty bleak stuff!

In the meantime we have various shades of misery apart from The Way Young Lovers Do which is surprisingly upbeat and even optimistic. The real standout track is Madam George which in his Belfast/American drawl seems to sound like Madam JOY. He seems to plaintively be singing say goodbye to Madam JOY, wonder why for Madam JOY while the violins weep and intertwine around the three chord riff . Amazing stuff!!

7. Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan


Blonde on Blonde is a truly amazing album. The first double album in history with a price tag to match. How did anyone afford to buy it? I don’t know but I certainly couldn’t. I had to make do with the single releases until years later when I had a girlfriend who owned it. No, it wasn’t her only attraction!

This record continues the surreal imagery of Highway 61 Revisited but his voice has changed and the playing seems thinner and less aggressive. It was a thin, mercurial sound. When I first heard I Want You on a radio in Glasgow I thought it was a joke, a bad imitation of Dylan but I was wrong. I bought the single and soon realized it’s brilliance. The B side contained the rarely heard since version of Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues recorded live in Liverpool 1966. With screaming feedback and yelled lyrics it’s a complete contrast to the studio version.

Dylan in the 60s never stood still and he was a complete enigma. Not only did his voice change with each record so did the way he looked. It was like he was trying to stay one step ahead of everyone but he couldn’t, especially the growing army of crazies who were hanging on to his every word and before long were going through his garbage in search of even deeper meanings.

The real standout tracks on this album in my opinion are Visions of JohannaSad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Just Like a Woman and I Want You but the rest is incredibly interesting. The anger has been dissipated and he is investigating relationships and general absurdity. He’s like the bastard offspring of Albert Camus lost in an absurd universe. In fact, throughout the album there is an expressed desire not to have to go through all of these things twice. A really brilliant record!

8. White Light, White Heat by The Velvet Underground


Dylan had the thin, mercurial sound but the Velvet Underground had the loud, distorted, grating  sound delivered to perfection on this second album. Nico is no longer present and the soft, folky ballads have gone apart from the song Here She Comes Now. The rest of it is self-consciously anti-beauty. According to Lou Reed the producer, Tom Wilson ( who also produced Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone), was so pissed off with the cacophony of Sister Ray that he left the studio and showed them the record button and told them to do it themselves. Fantastic, it’s one of my favourite tracks. Although, Andy Warhol was no longer involved with the Velvets his influence is still felt with the extremity of the lyrics and the overall sound.

Although it sold few copies when first released it became one of the biggest influences on British Punk Rock. Apparently The Buzzcocks formed  after members followed an advertisement looking for musicians who could collaborate on a Sister Ray cover.

Apart from the title song another truly great track is I Heard Her Call My Name which features uncontrolled guitar feedback accompanied with the cry of And then my mind split open by Lou Reed. It seems the band were disappointed with the recording of this because it didn’t match the energy or intensity of their live performance. Mercy!!

I actually bought this record when it was first released but I couldn’t convince many of my friends to share my love of it. In fact most of them thought it was terrible. How wrong they were!! Interestingly, Lou Reed was a very reluctant hero of Punk and, in fact, he had no time for it even though he is often presented as the ultimate Junkie Punk Persona. Many of his songs are quite complex both musically and lyrically and don’t fit into the simplistic barbarism of Punk. Okay, White Light, White Heat is the exception!

9. Hunky Dory by David Bowie


White Light, White Heat leads neatly into this album because David Bowie was a big fan of the Velvets. He featured that song in his live sets and even recorded it twice. He also references the Velvet Underground on the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory as an influence on the song Queen Bitch.

Hunky Dory didn’t sell much when it was released in 1971 but people in the right places were aware of it and liked it. Bowie says that it was the first album he made that other people talked about and were interested in. Until then he was a promising singer/songwriter who had had one big hit with Space Oddity. His record company still had a lot of confidence in him, obviously.

It is a surprisingly mature piece of work for someone who is still finding his voice. It ranges from total all out pop to introspective gloom. He includes songs about Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol which are hard to fathom. Are they hero-worship or sneering sarcasm? There seems to be a bit of both there. Andy Warhol looks a scream hanging on my wall, Andy Warhol silver screen can’t tell them apart at all. The sleeve is interesting in that he deliberately creates an androgynous image, based on a picture of Marlene Dietrich apparently. He is developing and extending the kind of cross-dressing and gender-bending that had already begun with Mick Jagger who wore a dress at the Hyde Park Free Concert in 1969. Bowie also wears a dress on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold The World.

This really is a seminal album that throws up all kinds of interesting things. When William Burroughs interviewed Bowie he said that he thought the 8 Line Poem was referring to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bowie professed to know nothing about T.S. Eliot but, almost certainly, went away and found out about him because he was so in awe of William BurroughsBurroughs describes The Waste Land as the first cut-up poem, a technique that Bowie used in many of his songs.

One of the standout tracks is Life On Mars which along with O You Pretty Things illustrates one of the aspects I find most disturbing about Bowie’s work i.e. his flirtation with Nietzscheanism and the idea of the Superman. This idea features in many of Bowie’s songs e.g. The Man Who Sold The World, The Supermen etc.  I’m not saying he is a Nazi but he comes dangerously close at times, especially when he gave a Nazi salute in Berlin in the mid 70s (he blamed it on the coke!). Oh you pretty things don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane let me make it plain, you’ve got to make way for the Homo Superior! Hippie ideology this aint!! And it’s all wrapped up in a fluffy pop package.

This is a brilliant record, though and gets better with each play. I particularly like the Bewley Brothers. This song has a sense of mystery and loss about a musical group who obviously make a big impact but maybe were never famous (or were they like the Beatles?). Like all good poems you can draw your own conclusions and read many different things into it.

This album became a hit after the success of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy made Bowie a big star but the standout record of this time, I think, is Hunky Dory.

10.  GP/Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons


I discovered this record in 1975 about the first time I met Ric Grech. I was running a folk club in the top room of the Town Arms, Leicester the time where many aspirational songwriters turned up. One night Ric arrived in his Ferrari with a violin and joined in. He had recently arrived from America having just made a record with super-group KGB. Okay, why he left LA and came to Leicester I don’t know but he was in awe of Gram Parsons and was interested in forming a country group with Leicester musicians playing his ( Ric’s) songs which were actually very good. He had collaborated with Gram on his two solo albums before he inconveniently died (Parsons that is. Ric inconveniently died some time later!) and two of the songs are written by him Kiss the Children and Las Vegas. He also had Gram’s guitar, a Gibson Dove, with him.

Gram Parsons had a big effect on people he met. English musician and hippie doctor Hank Wangford became a country singer because of his influence. By proxy, through Ric, he became a big influence on the local Leicester scene where many people turned to Country which had previously been a much maligned genre and was considered reactionary, corny and simplistic.

Parsons is considered the inventor of Country Rock but this isn’t apparent from his solo records which are actually quite traditional in many ways. He certainly didn’t like the sound of the Eagles who were becoming very successful at the time, members of which had played in various groups with him. What really stands out in his records are the ethereal quality of his songs, his voice, the brilliance of the band that included many top musicians like guitarist James Burton and the duets he sang with Emmylou Harris. In fact, after his death Emmylou Harris became a major star in her own right and continued Gram’s ideas for many years.

These records don’t leap out at you like Astral Weeks and others on this list but they definitely grow on you. Standout tracks include $1000 Dollar Wedding and Love Hurts. Gram and Emmylou are outstanding together, something that Bob Dylan picked up on when he hired Emmylou to sing on the Desire album. He also makes you aware of some really great country singers and songwriters that were not well-known at the time like The Louvin Brothers.

Definitely worth listening to, but give it time!

My Favourite Albums of All Time (Part One)

This is a tricky one. I’ve never been that impressed with ‘best of’ lists but I found myself sitting in a hotel room listening to music on my phone and I began thinking about what my favourite (and most influential) albums of all-time were. I say influential because, as some of you know, I am a musician and song-writer who has followed in the footsteps of numerous greats. It’s a hard choice but here’s my favourite 10. I’ve limited myself to two albums by the same artist or else they would probably be all by Bob Dylan ! I also realise, having completed the list, that, with the exception of the first 5, the rest are in no particular order. I’m also aware that there are countless others that could, and probably should, be included. Alright, it’s a stupid idea but here it is!

1. Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan.


Okay, what can I say about this album apart from the fact that it is probably the most inspired piece of work I have EVER heard (notice the Dylanesque emphasis) and I’m not just talking about music! I have read reports about the session and all participants agree that something very special happened here. It contains, in my opinion, the greatest rock song of all time “Like a Rolling Stone” but this is not really the essence of the album. It stands apart and, indeed, was produced by a different person from the rest of the record. The remainder contains Dylan at his most aggressive and elusive best. The most interesting song, again in my opinion, is Desolation Row, a surreal trawl through 20th Century culture and ideas. “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower, while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers”. This isn’t just poetry and music it is an assault on the senses and intellect! “The Agents” and “The Superhuman Crew” check to see that no one is escaping to Desolation Row. The famous voice that people either love or hate is at it’s expressive best. Like many albums on my list this one is unique. There was nothing like it before and there’s been nothing like it since. Even the titles of the songs were a new departure with weird names like “Queen Jane Approximately”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” that seemed to have nothing to do with the lyrics of the songs but probably did have. Pop music had found Symbolist poetry and the kids loved it!! (Well, this one did). It stands alone and sounds forever modern and archaic at the same time. Dylan himself has said that he had no idea how he wrote the songs and wouldn’t be able to do them now. The musicianship is impeccable especially the electric guitar playing of Mike Bloomfield and the acoustic lead of Charlie McCoy imported especially from Nashville for just one track!

2. The Songs of Leonard Cohen220px-SongsOfLeonardCohen

If Bob Dylan in the mid sixties was on an amphetamine fueled creative voyage into oblivion Leonard Cohen was on a quietly mannered journey back from it. This album emerged in 1968 and gradually became a bedsit legend as many sad young men and women took the songs to heart. Okay, it has been called music to slit your wrists to and Cohen’s voice has probably been even less complimented than Dylan’s but to those in the know this is an album of beautifully crafted songs whose underlying message is surprisingly optimistic completely unlike the eternal whinging of say Morrissey and the Smiths who actually DID create music to slit your wrists to. Cohen’s songs deal with ideas that had seldom been dealt with by popular music before. Despair, spirituality, sexual love and he wrote like a real poet which of course is what he was. He was also a well known novelist before he became a singer and a songwriter. A very different pedigree to most of the pop singers and rock and rollers at the time. He was a remarkable performer though and managed to follow Jimi Hendrix at 4 in the morning at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and still get a standing ovation. Producer Bob Johnson was so impressed with him that he gave up producing and joined his band as a keyboardist. This was his first album and contains classics like “Suzanne” and “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”. My favourite is “The Stranger Song” that manages to evoke feelings of loss, alienation and redemption. ” And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind you find he did not leave you very much not even laughter. Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he’ll never need to deal another.He was just some Joseph looking for a manger”. It also has his trade mark guitar ripple which is quite difficult to do. The perfect song for existentialists.

3. The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Warhol Banana cover is more well known but this was the original cover in the UK.

The Warhol Banana cover is more well known but this was the original cover in the UK. The record label is wrong. It should be black.

If Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of despair and alienation the Velvet Underground were like a sound track to the heroin drenched ravings of William Burroughs in “The Naked Lunch”. Here we have tracks like “Heroin”, “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Waiting for the Man” complete with drones and excruciating feed back. This is like the antithesis of pop music, both disturbed and deranged. Not surprisingly it was neither played on the radio nor bought in any quantity by the general public at the time. It has since of course been cited as one of the greatest records of all time and was a massive influence on punk rock. Famously produced by Andy Warhol (or should that be non-produced as he knew nothing about music or record production!) it also contained some sweet ballads dealing with wholesome events like “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Femme Fatale” and “Venus in Furs” that reference both mental insecurity and sado-masochistic sex. Not your typical pop song.! This is a truly adorable record that managed to both scare and make me smile. Lou Reed thinks that if it had NOT been produced by Warhol it might have sold a lot more as he was so universally detested at the time (Warhol that is. Lou Reed has only become detested more recently!) and his name on the record put people off. On the other hand it would never have been released as it is without his influence. Some PROPER record producer would have cleaned it up and totally ruined it.

4. Strange Days by The

You may wonder why this record by the Doors is so high up the chart and not their dazzling first LP. Well, the answer is simple. Apart from a couple of singles like “Light My Fire” I missed the first one and went straight into “Strange Days” which I think is absolutely brilliant. The sound of the Doors is wonderful and the quality of Jim Morrison’s voice is just perfect. He described it as “sick crooning” as he had based it on the sound of Frank Sinatra. Mind you, he doesn’t sound much like Frank when he bellows out “Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection!!” He was a great lyricist who raided the poems of William Blake and created something new. The final song “When the Music’s Over” is monumental and gives the impression of spontaneity and improvisation. Morrison introduced performance poetry to pop music and created the way for great artists like Patti Smith. I just love the line “Before I sink into the big sleep, I want to hear the scream of the butterfly”. It has been said by some critics that this album is not as good as the first and they used up all their best songs on that one. I disagree, I think this is just as good and,in my mind, perhaps even better. Mind you, I also love “Waiting for the Sun” and even the song “Hello, I Love You” which attracted some derision at the time because it was seen as cynically commercial (and plagiarised The Kinks)! I guess the Doors can do no wrong for me!

5. Revolver by The Beatles220px-Revolver

In a similar way that I missed the first Doors album I also missed “Rubber Soul” by the Beatles. If I hadn’t have done it would probably have been my favourite Beatles record. As it is, I didn’t listen to it in it’s entirety until years later! However, “Revolver” still stands up as the most ambitious Beatles record until that date. “Sgt. Pepper” is probably more ambitious but it is not as interesting, in my opinion, with the exception perhaps of “Day in the Life”. “Revolver” totally knocked my socks off. From the opening count-in of “Taxman” to the wailing drones of “Tomorrow Never Knows” I was captivated. This was music I had never heard before and I loved it! It also had the first real use of Indian music. Sure, George had used the sitar on “Rubber Soul” but here we have a full Indian ensemble including tabla with George crooning mystically over the top of it. Totally brilliant!! There is also the first use of experimentation with the recording of reverse guitar tracks and tape loops. The Beatles are growing up and trying new things! This record probably has the Beatles playing together at their best. George’s lead guitar playing has improved and changed considerably. Ringo’s drumming has never been better. John and Paul’s voices are perfectly matched. It is interesting that in the same year that they gave up playing live they produced their tightest recordings ever. Songs like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “She Said, She Said” are miniature gems of great writing and playing. Oh, and the sleeve’s pretty cool as well!

‘Thought-tormented Music’: David Bowie’s Low and T.S. Eliot

Fragmented language, Nietzschean elitism, and disillusionment with art: could Bowie’s Thin White Duke era have been inspired by The Waste Land?

-Kathryn Bromwich


Submitted for MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture, University College London, 2009. 

Shorter, snappier version here.

T.S. Eliot’s early work, particularly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land(1922), and David Bowie’s Low (1977), are considered to be ground-breaking in their respective genres of poetry and music. Both antagonise the reader or listener with fragmented language and obscure references, and are united by a similarity in tone: disillusionment with art and distrust of language. Through a discussion of the influence of Eliot on Bowie, this essay will examine the motivation behind the aesthetic choices in both artists, and the ways in which they strive to bring about ‘newness’. The trend in 1970’s rock towards experimentation and intellectualism is well exemplified by Bowie’s interest in literature in 1977; the link between him and Eliot appears to be considerable, and can be seen as a symptomatic example for a wider movement of innovation in music. The focus will be on Low, in relation to Eliot’s early poetry and the critical writings of Eliot and Ezra Pound, in order to illustrate the ways in which Modernist ideas, themselves incorporating musical aspects, function when applied to the field of music.

The disciples of Eliot are numerous, but one who is not often discussed is David Bowie. Passing through William Burroughs, it is possible to establish an indirect influence of Eliot on Bowie. Hugo Wilcken, in his extended analysis of Low, states that Bowie’s lyrics were often composed in a ‘cut-up writing style, derived from William S. Burroughs,’[1] who in turn referred to The Waste Land as ‘the first great cut-up collage’[2] and ‘terrifically important […] I often find myself sort of quoting it or using it in my work in one way or other.’[3] However, there is also a more concrete link to Eliot. Three years before Low was released, Burroughs interviewed Bowie and remarked:

Burroughs: I read this ‘Eight Line Poem’ of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

Burroughs: (Laughs) It is very reminiscent of ‘The Waste Land.’[4]

Given that Bowie considered Burroughs to be ‘the John the Baptist of postmodernism,’[5] it appears likely that this encounter would have encouraged Bowie to read Eliot.

Momentarily leaving aside musical and poetic aesthetics, it is worth noting the similarities between Bowie and Eliot from a biographical point of view. Bowie constructs different ‘characters’ in relation to the music he is creating, and during the recording of Low assumed a persona that bore striking similarities to Eliot’s early characteristics: the ‘Thin White Duke.’ Bowie’s new character, much like Eliot, was interested in mysticism and the occult, and both entertained a certain amount of quasi-Nietzschean intellectual elitism, coupled with conservative views. Eliot’s biographer Peter Ackroyd relates that the reactionary poet, in his early years, ‘despised democracy’[6]; similarly, in 1976 Bowie claimed to ‘believe very strongly in Fascism […] a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny.’[7] Nervous and eccentric behaviour is another point in common: Eliot is known to have occasionally worn green face powder and to have demanded to be called ‘Captain,’[8] and there are rumours that Bowie preserved his urine in the fridge to avoid being cloned by aliens.[9] The Thin White Duke’s fashion sense also seems to be modelled on Eliot’s dandyish appearance: pale, thin, with slicked-back hair, austere black and white clothes, a fedora hat and black overcoat (see photos). It is impossible to say what came first – whether a longing for newness, or the interest in Eliot – but both Eliot and Bowie showed similar signs of frustration with contemporary poetry and music.

Both The Waste Land and Low were composed in volatile political times. In the chaotic aftermath of World War One, it has been argued that experience was fractured by factors such as shell-shock, loss of faith in progress, fear, grief and apathy. In poetic circles there was an increasing distrust of language: in his essay ‘The Perfect Critic,’ Eliot laments the ‘tendency of words to become indefinite emotions,’[10] and symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé criticises language’s ‘”pedestrian clarity” full of “plagiarism” and “platitudes.”‘[11] Paul Fussell argues that there was also a gap between a reality that had been wrecked by modern technologies and a language that had been ‘used for over a century to celebrate the idea of progress.’[12] At this time, poetry was mainly discursive, in traditional verse forms, and reliant on a clear understanding of its semantic meaning. Given the fragmentation of post-war consciousness, this traditional form of poetry was felt to be unsatisfactory for commenting on the new world.

In the late 1970’s, Bowie was in Berlin, perhaps the place in which the escalating tension and anxiety of the Cold War were felt most keenly. Due to the concrete separation of East and West comprised in the Berlin Wall, the city was considered ‘a microcosm of the Cold War.’[13] The atmosphere was austere: Bowie described West Berlin as ‘a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution,’[14] and Tony Visconti said that ‘you could have been on the set of The Prisoner.’[15] The dominant form of music was largely guitar-based narrative rock, and Bowie, claiming that he was ‘intolerably bored’[16] with narration, says that his objective for Low was ‘to discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact, a new musical language.’[17] However, after the ‘classic’ era of Elvis and early Beatles, the music scene had already undergone several movements towards experimentation in the late ’60s. There were concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Who’s Tommy (1969), the prog-rock movement emerged, there was an interest in virtuoso performances such as Hendrix, and in Germany the electronic movement was gaining momentum. Bowie, at a stage in music when everything seemed to have been done before, felt that ‘rock ‘n’ roll is dead… It’s a toothless old woman.’[18] His endeavour to achieve novelty, therefore, seems to operate simultaneously with a fear that nothing new can be done.

In addition to the problematical outside world, Eliot’s and Bowie’s psychological conditions were far from stable. Eliot was diagnosed with ‘some kind of nervous disorder’[19] and composed The Waste Land ‘in a state of extreme anxiety.’[20] Wilcken argues that Bowie was suffering from paranoia[21]and borderline schizophrenia.[22] Both outer and inner worlds became increasingly difficult to express through language: this posed the problem of conveying ‘non-verbal awareness by verbal means.’[23]One of Bowie’s and Eliot’s main preoccupations is a distrust of semiotics, lamenting the impossibility of precise utterance. In Prufrock, the speaker attempts to talk, although ‘it is impossible to say just what I mean,’ and what comes out is ‘not it at all, that’s not what I meant at all.’ The ‘overwhelming question’ that Prufrock cannot articulate, becomes in Bowie a need to say something that seems inexpressible: ‘What you gonna say to the real me, / Ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhh’  in ‘What in the World.’ What is said, if indeed something is, is never revealed. If art were to express the fragmented idiom of shell-shock and war, and of drug-induced, nervous consciousness, music and poetry needed a new ‘language’.

In order to avoid semantic imprecision, both Eliot and Bowie’s work becomes increasingly non-linguistic. The focus is brought towards aspects other than the words. Eliot juxtaposed obscure references and worked through association, making his words deliberately obfuscating:

Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images (The Waste Land Part I, 20-22)

There is a move away from blank verse and iambic pentameter towards free verse, and Eliot concentrated on the poem’s visual and spatial elements, bringing attention to the form of the poem. Lines and stanzas are of different lengths, unevenly spaced and sometimes indented; different sections are divided by lengthy ellipses (the ‘…..’ in Prufrock) and visually alarming capital letters are used, for example ‘HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME’ (II, 141). Similarly, Bowie attempts to eschew words: his collaborator Brian Eno claims that one of the aims of Low was ‘to get rid of the language element.’[24] The music in Low is mainly instrumental, with occasional chanting, and the few lyricsare fragmented and enigmatic. The opening song ‘Speed of Life’ was Bowie’s first instrumental track, and ‘Side B’ is almost wordless. ‘Warszawa’ is in a made-up language, using voice as texture rather than as a vehicle for meaning: ‘He-li venco de-ho/ Che-li venco de-ho/ Malio.’ This recalls Eliot’s ‘Weialala leia / Wallala leialala,’ (III, 290-291) which in turn returns to Dadaist sound poetry. Bowie also foregrounds the artificial procedure of studio intervention: Low relies on synthesisers and distortion of traditional instruments with the Harmonizer, an electronic pitch-shifting device. The relevance of the songs’ linguistic meaning is minimised, while attention is drawn to the process of creating art: the form, indeed, becomes the content.

Bowie and Eliot also draw attention to style by subverting expectations, making us aware of clichéd artistic formulae. In Prufrock, Eliot leads us to expect a romantic poem, but the Laforguean mood change is abrupt:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table

Many of the songs on Low also defy convention: in Wilcken’s words, they ‘fade out just as the riff is starting to sink in. Just at the moment you think it might be leading somewhere, it’s gone’ (78). ‘Sound and Vision’ starts off in a loop, suggesting another instrumental song like ‘Speed of Life’: however, Bowie’s vocals appear halfway through, change pitch and intonation between lines, and refuse to develop into a structured refrain. The lines ‘drifting into my solitude/ over my head’ are sung in a crescendo, intimating a chorus or climax; on the contrary, the song fades out and ends, creating a sense of unfulfilled frustration. Form begins to merge with content, echoing Eliot’s statement that in poetry ‘we cannot say at what point “technique” begins or where it ends.’[25]

In The Waste Land, the empty spaces on the page suggest an implied score, a harmony that could perhaps unify the inchoate fragments of the poem: it seems to be yearning for a unifying key, perhaps music. The poem moves away from an emphasis on clear semantic denotation, and the form itself creates its meaning. In this respect, Eliot’s poetry can be said to approach ‘pure form’ and therefore, in Walter Pater’s words, ‘aspire towards the condition of music.’[26] Bowie also removes the non-musical elements of lyrics and narrative from his work, instead conveying his meaning through the tone and structure of his instrumental songs, thereby approaching a purer form of music. Given Eliot’s and Bowie’s distrust of language, music is an appropriate form to turn to.

The dialogue and mutual influence between music and poetry is an ongoing one, and has given rise to numerous disputes as to whether music can ever portray emotion exactly. Brad Bucknell points out that there has traditionally been a ‘romantic belief in the expressive potential of music’ (2) notably in Arthur Schopenhauer’s dictum that it is ‘a direct image of the Will itself.’[27] Pound stated that ‘poets who will not study music are defective,’[28] and that they can achieve ‘an “absolute rhythm” […] which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed’[29] by incorporating musical elements in poetry, thus communicating at a pre-verbal level. Eliot believed that, though technical musical knowledge was not necessary, ‘a poet may gain much from the study of music’[30] in terms of rhythm and structure. Musical technique can be used to convey meaning through melody, rhythm, tone, tempo and through what Roland Barthes would term ‘the signifying opposition of the piano and the forte.’[31] However, the signification of a polysemic medium such as music is intrinsically imprecise. The more recent critical consensus tends to be that music is important due to its ability for open signification: Mallarmé valued it precisely for ‘its imprecise, evocative effects.’[32] Eliot’s and Pound’s poetry most resembles music in its calculated ambiguity and its emphasis on impressions: their poetry could be seen, in Kevin Barry’s words, as an ‘activity of response as opposed to notions of description or specific naming.’[33] Eliot, Pound and Bowie approach the form of ‘pure music’ in their move towards polysemy, adopting music’s resistance to state anything as ‘truth’.


Instead of attempting to offer a single, clear message and being misunderstood due to the imprecision of language, the works are imbued with multiple unfixed meanings. Several denotations are condensed into single words: Winn states that the poet ‘alters the meaning of a word by multiplying its secondary associations in order to drown out the dictionary definition’ (332). There is an emphasis on polysemy and logopoeia, taking into account secondary meanings and word connotations. Eliot stated that ‘in The Waste Land, I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying’[34]: Ackroyd praises it for providing ‘a scaffold on which others might erect their own theories’ (120). The preface to The Waste Land suggests that there is a message hidden in the poem’s fragments, like the Sybil of Cumae’s riddles. Eliot underlines the importance of ambiguity: ‘poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult […] the poet must become […] more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.’[35] Similarly, Bowie’s often-abstract lyrics are held together by association and alliteration:

Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room

Bowie’s collaborator Brian Eno stated that ‘the interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.’[36] Paradoxically, the mimetic method can be seen as more accurate for describing a chaotic modern consciousness than a diegetic one. In order to convey thought processes, Eliot wrote ‘What the Thunder Said’ ‘at one sitting in a kind of delirium, rather like automatic writing, aiming to replicate a free-associational structure.’[37] Bucknell argues that ‘the text’s very disruptions are meant to be the sign of continuity with our mode of perception. They are intended to be mimetic of our process of knowing the world’ (109). The works’ deliberate ambiguity, and their reluctance to offer a final truth, reflects the uncertainties of perception and thought processes in real life.

Defying the notion of a single message, Bowie and Eliot also challenge the idea of a single, fixed identity. Eliot maintains a ‘tension between performer and performed,’[38] echoing poet Arthur Rimbaud’s paradoxical ‘Je est un autre’. Both Bowie and Eliot hide their own personality by giving a voice to numerous different characters. In Prufrock, Eliot writes that ‘there will be time/ to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,’ suggesting a deliberate creation of identity. The Waste Land, originally entitled ‘He Do the Police In Different Voices,’ provided an outlet to the thoughts and speech of ”characters’ which seemed to exist within the personality of Eliot.’[39] These include men, women, and a synthesis of the two: Tiresias, ‘old man with wrinkled dugs’ (III, 228). A voice is given to both the aristocracy and the working classes, ‘O is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said’ (II, 150). Bowie, known for his ‘chameleonic character,’[40] has impersonated alter-egos such as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke. In the guise of the Thin White Duke, he splits into further additional characters on Low: ‘Be My Wife’ is sung in a theatrical cockney accent, ‘Warszawa’ suggests someone from Eastern Europe, and ‘Breaking Glass’ is performed in a terse, unemotional voice. It is difficult to gauge the artist’s true intention, or which character voices the views closest to his own.

Often, attribution of speech to any one character is problematic: Eliot’s speakers and the characters they refer to are not clearly differentiated. In passages such as ‘when we came back […] / your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / speak’ (I, 36-9) it is up to the reader to decide who ‘we’, ‘you’ and ‘I’ are. In Bowie, lines like ‘you’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems,’ and ‘deep in your room, you never leave your room’ could be spoken both by and about his paranoid persona. It is often difficult to assess whether Eliot and Bowie are to be taken seriously or in jest. In The Waste Land, Eliot’s verses ‘veer close to parody or pastiche,’[41] occasionally indicating his lifelong fondness for the music-hall.[42] In Bowie, the passage ‘please be mine/ Share my life/ Stay with me/ Be my wife,’ could be a parody of traditional pop songs, yet Bowie has stated that ‘it was genuinely anguished, I think[43] (emphasis mine), further reinforcing the sense of ambiguity. The polyphonic juxtaposition of speakers undermines the idea of one central voice or of one ‘correct’ meaning: we are never sure who the ‘real’ Bowie or Eliot is.

In The Waste Land and Low there is a move away from a portrayal of the self or of the poet’s own thoughts: their feelings are projected onto their surroundings and other minds. Eliot states that ‘the progress of art is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’[44] This is demonstrated in his endeavour to depict the ‘Unreal City’ (I, 60) that was post-War London: Eliot ‘agonised over the fate of Europe represented archetypally in the image of London.’[45] Robert Schwartz has seen this as Eliot ‘transmut[ing] personal experience into something of greater dimension while obscuring its autobiographical origins’ (46). The songs on ‘Side B’ of Low are, on the surface, about places: Warsaw, West Berlin, the Berlin Wall, and East Berlin. The tone becomes bleaker, reaching its darkest moment in the final song ‘Subterraneans,’ in which ordinary language creates inscrutable sentences: ‘Care-line driving me/ Shirley, Shirley, Shirley own/ Share bride failing star,’ defamiliarising normal English words and generating a sense of unease. The beginning is slow, juxtaposing violins and synthesisers, and later a lone saxophone is set against a background of muted electonica; the feeling is one of isolation, appropriate for the living conditions in East Berlin. However, according to Wilcken Bowie saw the outside as ‘a reflection of the self, until you lose sight of where the self stops and the world begins’ (77). On the album cover, Bowie’s hair blends into the orange background, ‘underlining the solipsistic notion of place reflecting person.’[46] The self is effaced with the intention of making art that is universal rather than personal; however, the distinction between outside and inside is not as clear as it first appears.


The interest in place rather than the individual is especially relevant in the light of Eliot’s and Bowie’s locations. They were both on self-imposed exiles: Eliot emigrated from America to England, and Bowie moved to Germany after a few years in Los Angeles. This move towards Europe involved an increase in erudition to culturally distance themselves from America, where according to Eliot ‘the [intellectual] desert extended à perte de vue, without the least prospect of even desert vegetables.’[47] Eliot rejected the increasingly democratised American art scene of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, whose poetry was ‘in plain American which cats and dogs can read.’[48] Eliot’s poetry is laden with literary allusions, often foreign: at the end of The Waste Land, Eliot references Dante, Kyd, Gérard de Nerval, the Pergivilium Veneris and the Upanishad. Bowie left Los Angeles, moving away from the euphoric escapism of the glam, punk and disco, and embraced Europe’s avant-garde music scene. His years in Berlin were a time of intense intellectual study: he ‘amassed a library of 5000 books and threw himself into reading them […] it became something of an obsession.’[49] Infamously, the feeling of intellectual achievement gave rise to elitism and Nietzschean delusions in the young Eliot and the Berlin-era Bowie. Ackroyd relates that Eliot ‘divided human beings into ‘supermen,’ ‘termites’ and ‘fireworms’ […] there is no doubt that he felt a certain intellectual superiority’ (96). In 1978 Bowie dubbed himself and Eno the ‘School of Pretention.’[50] This sense of self-importance resulted in a propensity to showcase their erudition through extensive referencing.

In their reading, Eliot and Bowie both encountered occult rituals, oriental religion and Eastern philosophy. While writing The Waste Land, Eliot contemplated ‘withdrawal into the hermitage of a Buddhist monastery;’[51] and ”psychic’ phenomena held a certain fascination for him.’[52] The methods of the occult are related structurally to the open-ended meanings of The Waste Land: Madame Sosostris gives out knowledge in fragments out of which we hope to construct meaning, but there are things which she, too, is ‘forbidden to see’ (I, 54). The poem ends by referencing the Upanishad: ‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih’ (V, 433-4). The Modernist interest in mysticism filtered through to ’60s and ’70s musicians, famously the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and features prominently in Bowie. He had an ‘interest in Buddhism,’[53] a fascination with Aleister Crowley,[54] and his work abounds in allusions ‘to Gnosticism, black magic and the kabbala.’[55] The cryptic lyric ‘don’t look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it’ in ‘Breaking Glass’ is a reference to the Tree of Life. Although the interest in Eastern culture and occult rituals is not exclusive to Eliot and Bowie, it underlines their sense that conveying certain thoughts and feelings in standard English was impossible. In their work, they therefore incorporate different perspectives on the world, drawing inspiration from external sources.

One of the most striking similarities between Eliot and Bowie is the abundance and openness of their references to old, foreign, and ‘low’ sources. Another, possibly more conventional way of bringing about change, would be to embrace the new entirely and make a clean break with the past: Frank Kermode states that ‘the urge to be radically new is itself part of an ongoing history.’[56] The manifesto of Futurism in the 1910s was to reject classical art and ‘demolish museums and libraries’[57]; the American Modernist poetry of Stevens and Williams in the 1930s concentrated on ‘the local.’ The ‘robot rhythms’ of Krautrock in the mid-1970s ‘were in the process of eliminating the human altogether from the beat.’[58] Conversely, and perhaps counterintuitively, Eliot and Bowie both allude to traditional forms of their particular art in their attempt to modernise themselves. Eliot argued for a need of the timeless in addition to the temporal, stating that the artist cannot be valued alone but ‘must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past.’[59] Perhaps motivated by a disillusionment with the modern, Eliot and Bowie turn towards their predecessors.

Eliot frequently references classical literature in his work. The Waste Land starts with a reference to spring weather, recalling Chaucer’s ‘Aprille with his shoures sote.’[60] In ‘so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many’ (I, 62-3), Eliot translates Dante almost word-for-word: ‘io non averei mai creduto / che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.’[61] Direct quotes are included as well, from Shakespeare (‘those are pearls that were his eyes’ I, 48) to Baudelaire (‘hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frère!’ I, 76). Myth was also important: in his essay ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’ Eliot states that Joyce’s use of the Odyssey ‘has the importance of a scientific discovery […] instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.’[62] Along these lines, The Waste Land is often said to be based on the quest for the Holy Grail.[63] Bowie, in turn, alludes to old, traditional and foreign music in Low.These include chanting in ‘Warszawa,’ a harmonica in ‘A New Career in a New Town’, a ragtime riff in ‘Be My Wife’, and a saxophone in ‘Subterraneans’. In ‘The Weeping Wall’, xylophones that Philip Glass compared to Japanese bells[64] are used to create ‘the flavour of Javanese gamelan (traditional Indonesian orchestras).’[65]


The allusions to older forms of poetry and music, however, are set against innovative techniques. Eliot’s untraditional versification is at odds with the classical poets he references, and Bowie’s synthesiser sounds especially futuristic when contrasted to ragtime piano jingles. In returning to the past rather than rejecting it completely, Bowie and Eliot seem to question the concept of innovation itself. The method of referencing old and foreign sources differs from other methods of modernisation in its admission that it does not function in a cultural vacuum, and that is not – and cannot be – original. Experimental music combining old and new genres had been done before Bowie, notably in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); however, Bowie is set apart from their intentional experimentation by his attitude of disillusionment with art and originality. His creation of personas and unremitting self-reinvention distances him from his music; his embracing of commodified, commercial pop in the 80’s with hits such as ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘Let’s Dance,’ could be seen as indicating a sense of ironic detachment.

The assertion that originality is a myth is a constant source of frustration in both works, and, in itself, becomes a central subject. Eliot believes that he has nothing new or momentous to say: he talks of ‘Nothing again nothing. / Do / You know nothing? Do you see nothing? […] Is there nothing in your head?’ (II, 120-126) and Bowie laments that there is ‘nothing to do, nothing to say’ in ‘Sound and Vision.’ Ackroyd posits that Eliot ‘was immensely susceptible to [the ideas] of others – the act of creation was for him the act of synthesis’ (106). Brian Eno suggests a similar idea: ‘some people say Bowie is all surface style and second-hand ideas, but that sounds like a definition of pop to me.’[66] In Barthes’ terms, rather than projecting themselves as ‘authors’, entirely original lone geniuses, they are ‘scriptors’, in whose work ‘a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.’[67] They place themselves in the context of past artwork, with no pretence of ‘pure originality.’

The apparently unrelated fragments, however, cohere: the fragments are arranged according to meaningful associative links, even if these are left unclear. Eliot said of Saint-John Perse’s poem Anabasis that ‘any obscurity of the poem, on first readings, is due to the suppression of links in the chain, of explanatory and connecting matter, and not to incoherence’[68]: as Schwartz points out, this description is also appropriate for The Waste Land. No matter how innovative the method, Eliot believes that ‘to conform merely [to any one method] would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art.’[69] Eliot and Bowie therefore bring together ‘particles which can unite to form a new compound’[70]: a synthesis of old and new. Both works, bringing to light the impossibility of originality, are characterised not by an intrinsic ‘newness’, but by a Modernist yearning for the new.

In conclusion, it seems likely that Bowie had first-hand contact with the works of T. S. Eliot. The music inspired by Low could therefore be seen as obliquely descending from literary Modernism. When applied to music, Eliot’s aesthetics result in a disjointed, evocative, largely instrumental effect: a new musical language. Both works are marked by disillusionment with language and a move towards ‘pure form,’ aiming to minimise their dependence on semantic meaning or narrative. They work through associative and mimetic techniques: the content is made ambiguous, giving priority to the form. Different views are expressed through a polyphonic variety of voices, signalling a move away from any single meaning and encouraging a subjective interpretation of their work. The use of old and foreign sources reminds us that art must be considered in its context, drawing our attention to the inspirations that allow it to come into being: the myth of ‘originality’ in art is dispelled. The eclectic fragments in both The Waste Land and Low, then, are held together by a desire for newness, which is nevertheless tempered by a belief that originality is impossible.

[1] Hugo Wilcken. Low. (NY and London: Continuum, 2005), 82.

[2] William Burroughs. The Third Mind. (London: John Calder, 1979), 3

[3] John May, ‘Meeting with Burroughs at the Chelsea’ (2005) <> [accessed 03-01-2009]

[4] Craig Copetas, ‘Beat Godfather meets Glitter Mainman,’ from Rolling Stone (February 1974) <> [accessed 03-01-2009]

[5] David Bowie, ‘David Bowie Remembers Glam,’ The Guardian (02-04-2001) <> [accessed 03-01-2009]

[6] Peter Ackroyd. T. S. Eliot. (London: Abacus, 1984), 109

[7]Sarfraz Manzoor, ‘1978,’ The Guardian 20-04-2008, quoting Bowie in Playboy (September 1976) <> [accessed 03-01-2009]

[8] Ackroyd, 136

[9] Wilcken, 11

[10] TS Eliot. The Sacred Wood. (London: Faber, 1997), 8

[11] In Brad Bucknell. Literary Modernism and Musical Aesthetics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 31

[12] Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 169

[13] Wilcken, 58

[14] In Wilcken, 119

[15] Ibid. 112

[16] In Thomas Jerome Seabrook. Bowie in Berlin. (London: Jawbone Press, 2008), 112

[17] In Wilcken, 14

[18] In Seabrook, 35

[19] Ackroyd, 113

[20] Robert L. Schwartz. Broken Images. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1988), 34

[21] Wilcken, 52

[22] Wilcken, 82

[23] Aaronson in Bucknell, 2

[24] In Seabrook, 114

[25] Eliot 1997, xi

[26] Walter Pater. The Renaissance. (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), 86

[27] In Bucknell, 22

[28] Ezra Pound. The Literary essays. (London: Faber and Faber, 1954), 437

[29] Ibid. 9

[30] TS Eliot. On Poetry and Poets. (London: Faber, 1957), 38

[31] Roland Barthes. Image Music Text. (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 151

[32] In James Anderson Winn. Unsuspected Eloquence. (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1981), 326

[33] Kevin Barry. Language, Music and the Sign. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 2

[34] In Schwartz, 32

[35] Eliot 1921

[36] In Wilcken, 68

[37] Schwartz, 32

[38] Keith Alldritt. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’ (London: Woburn Press, 1978), 38

[39] Ackroyd, 118

[40] Seabrook, 22

[41] Ackroyd, 117

[42] Ibid. 105

[43] In Wilcken, 97

[44] Eliot 1997, 44

[45] Schwartz, 24

[46] Wilcken, 127

[47] Eliot in James Miller. TS Eliot. (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2005), 139

[48] Marianne Moore, ‘England’

[49] Wilcken, 38-39

[50] Bowie 2001

[51] Schwartz, 241

[52] Ackroyd, 113

[53] Wilcken, 80

[54] Seabrook, 36

[55] Wilcken, 7

[56] In Bucknell, 14

[57] Stanley Payne. The History of Fascism. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 64

[58] Wilcken, 33

[59] Eliot 1997, 42

[60] The Canterbury Tales <> [accessed 03-01-2009]

[61] Inferno III, 56-57

[62] Eliot in The Dial, LXXV (November 1923), 482

[63] Schwartz, 14

[64] In Wilcken, 19

[65] Wilcken, 124

[66] In Wilcken, 101

[67] Roland Barthes. ‘The Death of the Author’ in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. (NY and London: Norton, 2001), 1468

[68] In Schwartz, 37

[69] Eliot 1997, 42

[70] Eliot 1997, 45


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― ‘David Bowie Remembers Glam,’ in The Guardian, Monday 2 April 2001. Accessed at on 03-01-2009.

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― The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber, 1997.

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‘Thought-tormented Music’: David Bowie’s Low and T.S. Eliot.