It’s That ‘Am I?’ That Gets Me

Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: The Man Who Sold the World, 1970
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Almost nil
Three-Word Review: Piercing, melodic, menacing

The Sixties are dead with Bowie’s third album, though he, unlike some contemporaries, hasn’t just discovered cynicism. The insight into human nature communicated in songs like ‘Saviour Machine’ is dark but undeniable, a worldview that will come into greater focus as the Seventies progress (or decline).

Bowie and Bolan

The former Faces strain to upstage each other

I burst out laughing about two and a half minutes into ‘Black Country Rock’ when Bowie busts out the froggy vocal shimmer made so famous by his best frenemy, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan.

Marc does it:

David does it:

But put ’em away, boys: the Queen of Ululation is…Yoko Ono. Here she brings the frog a full year before either of the above songs.

The keeper from this album, though, is the bizarre and heartbreaking ‘All the Madmen.’

It’s generally thought that the song was inspired by the experience of Bowie’s big brother, Terry Burns, who fostered little David’s love of music. Burns was diagnosed schizophrenic and intermittently institutionalized from the late 60s.

Now a different artist might’ve written a song confessing that he’s messed up because his brother is crazy. Not Bowie. He jumps on the chance for both searing empathy and maximum weirdness. What must it be like to be mad, to be perceived as mad, and to be among others who are mad?

Here I stand, foot in hand, talking to my wall
I’m not quite right at all… [spoken] Am I?

Maybe he’s putting words in the mouth of someone who should be permitted to speak for himself – but it’s a darn sight better than society’s default choice: reducing his brother to a skeleton in the family closet.

I wonder, irrelevantly but irresistably, how alike Terry and David were. They were half-brothers, nine years apart, on their mum’s side, but we’ve all known half-siblings, or even cousins, who could be twins. And while I wouldn’t call Terry on twinhood if I didn’t already know who he was, I do think there’s a faintly familiar cast of face there.

More relevantly, I wonder what Terry sounded like. Was his voice like David’s? When David sings ‘All the Madmen,’ is he doing Terry the way he was doing Anthony Newley not long before and the way he might be doing Marc Bolan above? Or would that be a step too far even for this skilled and empathetic playactor?

As is well known among fans, Terry Burns committed suicide in 1985, presumably unable to cope any longer with the voices in his head. His influence on his brother, including this stunning song, is probably his greatest monument.

Also see this brilliant article about ‘All the Madmen.’

Favorite sentiment spotted online: “RIP, David. I hope you and Terry are together somewhere on Mars.”

Next: Don’t lose hope. It’ll all be hunky-dory.



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