NEIL ANDERSON writes ...
This depends, and songs are always open to a interpretation.
On the face of it, the song is about a man asking a girl to dance in the night air, in her red shoes, beneath the moon.
And that interpretation is fine. However, Bowie is rarely simple.
The video was made to highlight aboriginal land rights and prejudice, and many have assumed the song does this, but that isn’t reflected in the lyrics.
If we go back to Hunky Dory, Bowie’s fourth and some think best album, we find a number of references to religion, philosophy and the occult. Especially relevant is the arcane song Quicksand, which deals with the contradictions in society between culture and influences, which Bowie was interested in. Specifically we find the line
I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery.
So, to really get this song we need to drop into the rabbit hole in Bowie’s brain (only two new pence to have a go).
Are you ready? Here we go then.
Edward Alastair Crowley (1875 to 1947) was an English writer, painter, and poet, but is most well known as an occultist. He founded his own religion, Thelema, and was the self-proclaimed prophet of this. The mantra from the religion was “Do what thou wilt”, a seemingly Machiavellian world view. In fact, Thelema is a translation of an Ancient Greek word meaning something more akin to purpose or wish.
Thelema had three main points of foundation
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
Every man and every woman is a star
Love is the law, love under will
Which when distilled seem far less ominous. The phrase Love is the law, was used in a track and album title for Toyah, who also wrote I Explode about Crowley. Toyah is, of course, married to Bowie collaborator Robert Fripp.
Crowley travelled extensively, read and wrote a huge amount, was a keen chess player, who considered going professional, and mountain climber.
However, it’s his interest in the occult that he is most known for.
Rejecting traditional Abrahamic religions, Crowley was drawn towards eastern religions, initially Buddhism, and later the ancient religion of Egypt. Following an incident where he thought the spirit of an ancient priest was talking to him, he wrote a number of books on this. He joined an order, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Age, but was rejected and set up his own. He believed that the world was changing and humans were evolving spiritually into a new phase, which he thought was the Age of Horus. He practiced magick, which he spelt with a K to distinguish it from conjuring. His magick involved a great deal of sex, both with men and women, and the use of drugs. He may have been a supporter to the German side in World War 1, although it’s possible he was a spy, and he briefly dabbled with fascism in the 1930s.
Crowley was not a Satanist, but did use some imagery from it, including the number 666, and referring to himself as The Beast. This, understandably, caused outrage amongst Christians, a situation that he did not seem to object to. He was often described as the most wicked man alive.
All of this has led Crowley to be a person of interest in popular culture. It is easy to appear edgy and outside of the norm by quoting people like Crowley, and Bowie, along with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and others have done this. Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson also wrote and backed a film, The Chemical Wedding, based very loosely on him. He appears in the background of the Sargent Pepper album by the Beatles. His ideas about sex magick and blood directly influenced the choice of album title for the Red Hit Chilli Peppers’ album Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
Crowley’s poetry is highly erotic, and includes a collection called White Stains, something that should instantly be reconsider to fans of Station To Station.
So there’s many reasons that a young Bowie could be drawn to the deliberately controversial, sexually and chemically experimental, artist and writer. In Quicksand his talks of his idea of imagery and across Hunky Dory the Nietzsche ideal of a new type of human are mixed with Crowley’s ideas of spiritual change and spiritual awakening. The phrase “do what though wilt,” is echoed in After All, from The Man Who Sold The World, “Live till your rebirth and do what you will”. A line that is simultaneously subtle and terrifying in its simplicity.
By the time Bowie got to Station to Station he was immersed in much of what Crowley had said, apparently with a fear of witches, a belief his swimming pool was haunted, and a paranoia that made him keep his urine in case it was stolen, while living on a diet of red peppers and milk. The interest in Crowley’s writing included the Tree of Life, a concept Crowley took from the Kabbalah religion (it appears in many others too). The tree has 10 points on it, with one, Da’at, at the centre of it all. These points were all used in different ways in magick, and each has a different power.
The diagram is a map of Kabbalah religious beliefs, showing a route from the uppermost spiritual Kether to the earthly and created Malkuth. There is a photo of Bowie drawing this on the floor, and a reference in Low, “Don’t look at your carpet, I drew something awful on it.”
So after his cocaine induced paranoia subsided did he leave Crowley? Well, not really.
The image of Lazarus where Bowie goes in and out of a closet, or is it a coffin, shows him wearing the same outfit he wore when photographed drawing the Tree of Life. One of the spells that Crowley used had the repeated phrase that he was “in the centre of it all”. Like many parts of his career, Blackstar re-appraised his relationship with magick.
And finally, for those who saw the stage play of Lazarus, there is a part when Newton contemplates his returns to his own planet, and climbs aboard a spaceship he has drawn on the floor (or carpet?). This, to me, looks very similar in design to the Kabbalah Tree of Life, Bowie was keen on in the 70s. The whole play is, as well as sequels to the Man Who Fell To Earth, an allegory about death and the ephemeral nature of life. Bowie appears to completing the circle and going from the earthly realm to the spiritual one, and making one magical movement from Malkuth to Kether.
Crowley wrote spells and performed magick to gain power, popularity and money. He died a penniless drug addict with 6 people at his funeral. However, one must wonder, like the magic of the Monkey’s Paw in the play, did his magick give him what he wanted, just not when he wanted it? Today, further from his death than his death was from his birth, he is still talked about and remembered. He is still controversial.
And this takes is to Let’s Dance. When viewing the song knowing Bowie’s interest, if we compare it to one of Crowley’s poems we see stark similarities.
The poem, Lyric of Love to Leah, is essentially a spell, suggesting the use of sex, disguised as dance, to summon spirits, his Leah, his “crimson concubine” (remember those red shoes).
His poems were known by Bowie, and one, Lyric of Love to Leah, seems to be to be far too close to the Bowie song to be coincidence. So, think of the mad, bad, occultist, in lonely heroin-fuelled world, bereft of love and, trembling like a flower, as we remember a song by Bowie that is often thought one of his more obvious love lyrics, ask “Is this a love song? Or is it immersed in Crowey’s uniform of imagery.”
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