“I submit that the tension between science and faith should be resolved not in terms either of elimination or duality, but in terms of a synthesis.”
Teilhard de Chardin
If heaven was ever a place on earth by 1980 David Bowie had yet to find it. Adopting “Kingdom Come” a song written by Tom Verlaine, as his chosen cover for Scary Monsters, Bowie elevates the lyrical struggle with God and the search for an afterlife into a new realm of spiritual angst.
[Cover image – by Peter Strongwater, 1981]
Bowie explained his selection as one the most appealing cuts from Verlaine’s eponymous 1979 solo album, suggested by Carlos Alomar on the strength of the song’s swinging rhythm Bowie was quick to acknowledge Verlaine’s talent as “one of the best writers in New York.” When asked about the notion of grace present in the song Bowie couldn’t help but nod towards his recent past: “The song just happens to fit into the scattered scheme of things, that’s all.” the track seems to contain as much musical value for him as it did spiritual engagement.
[This post is an extract from my new book on Bowie’s year of fear 1980 and the Scary Monsters album, Silhouettes And Shadows – Summer 2023]
In comparison to Side A, the second half of Scary Monsters is unloved by some Bowie fans with the cover of Kingdom Come often criticised for the singer’s vocal performance. Bringing more verve and melody to the original’s angular chiming notes, Bowie’s version intensifies the moody reserve of Television but escalates Verlaine’s music to richer, more open-ended arrangement; swooping and soaring, to his needling and gouging away. Where on “Ashes To Ashes” Bowie had sung mangled lines torn from the book of common prayer, he now exploits his voice to make deranged shapes from Verlaine’s words. Although Bowie edited and shuffled some phrasings from the song – perhaps muddying its meaning – his version was largely faithful. Bowie’s powerful vocalisations jump light years beyond Verlaine’s shrill lament that sits within his more narrow range, while the lyrics are rich in power and resourceful imagery. He retained the central pivot between punishment and the possibility of absolution, we hear sacrifice in loyalty to god—but does the second coming demand the death of the faithful— while the lack of redemption offered seems a forgone conclusion, there is only judgment.
Verlaine never states any crime explicitly – if there ever was one – we’re left to wonder if the voice in the song is, like so many others, looking for meaning in an empty and lawless universe; or trying to return the god grace of good, to make themself whole in some way—but deep in his heart he knows it’s all in vain—the song rips the roof off the church of good hope, now caved-in, heaven collapsed into hell.
A voice like lightning speaks to him, breaking through the walls behind which bowie had sought to keep himself alone and aloof from the world. The song’s return to the act of breaking rocks carries the weight of heaven collapsing down upon him, Bowie cries out for just one more day; to escape or be given another chance, like an addict he tries to force back the boundaries for change, always tomorrow, never today. But stood before of God he finds he has nowhere left to run.
Like so much of Scary Monsters, Bowie’s singing runs from blood into honey, and back again; as if stamping on the face of Jesus Bowie goes screwing his vocals under the twist of his heel. Pin-pricked by falling rain, a reminder from above, Across the verses of “Kingdom Come” Bowie agonizes at being held tight in the gaze of others; life under the eyes of god like a prisoner guarded by an ever-present watch tower, yielding an intense light that becomes the power of renewed conscience as second sight, so that the righteous christian as good citizen would live checking themselves under the imagined moral thumb.
Like “Teenage Wildlife” the image of breaking rocks in a chain gang speaks to paying his dues in the music industry, i the old bluesman’s sense this meant having come through hard times, for Bowie this line now carried deeper meanings of achieving artistic success at the cost losing himself to drugs and reaching a point of psychic breakdown.
In this period drugs became Bowie’s private place to which his mind could escape, a blacked-out room of negative space, aside from recording sessions at Cherokee Studios. Bowie threw all of his waking life into this void of negative space, a dark hole he could fall into. Even the making of Station To Station would only return to him as a distant history, recounted by others, Bowie claimed to have little or no memory, whether blocking it out or he was genuinely unable to recall it was foreign time to him, he only felt the aftershocks that followed it to be recorded on Low, and Station To Station the surviving artefact.
Barely eating, except his quoted diet of milk and green peppers, he relied upon cocaine as mental fuel; he could sleep late and stay up all night, keeping vampiric hours, his weight plummeted. Submerged in his LA exile, Bowie would wake up with an aching jaw from talking constantly, he would later remember nothing of the conversation, as if had been speaking alone and could no longer hear himself. Addiction became its own form of isolation, a silence with nothing left to fill it. Angie remembers Bowie pushed to the very limits: “There was nothing sociable about it – this was a deep dark pit.”
While Station To Station laid bare Bowie’s physical and emotional crises, the cri de coeur of “Word On A Wing” more gently conveys Bowie’s declaration of belief and call for deliverance from his worst self, born out of grace under pressure. Where previously Bowie was only interested in pursuing the ideal of the Niezstchean ‘ubermensch’, an aesthetic idea of self-attainment with man as his own god, “Word” is equal parts the lament of shook faith and an attempt to reignite his frozen heart, implicitly connecting to the album closer of “Wild Is The Wind” forlorn sense of romance. As Station To Station reaches for spiritual touchstones east to west, Bowie was mentally (later physically) zig-zagging across the Atlantic for an explosive return to the European canon (read also: continental) straddling the stations of the cross and torn between the dialectic rule of heaven and/or hell. His song comes as some kind of defense of religious curiosity, where belief doesn’t demand a lack of imagination or rational curiosity, but its very opposite (Chris O’Leary 2017).
From the mind-scrape that unfolds across “Station To Station” Bowie noted: “It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth”. He confessed to Angus MacKinnon: “Word On A Wing I can’t talk about. There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing.” Bowie was reaching for some form of spiritual resolve, he was bounced back and forth between the stark dichotomy of heaven and hell as the song became a talismanic protection against the white heat of doubt. In L.A. which John Rechy calls “The City Of Lost Angels” Bowie had failed to answer his own big question and in his calling the same hollow echo bounced back to find him out, telling him what he already knew – this was not the place. He would continue his search beyond America, and beyond the stilted figure of David Bowie as Thin White Duke of 1976. Despite “Kingdom Come” being a cover there remains the empathetic, wounded spirit of Bowie in the song: “Terse, rocky and didactic, Bowie’s compositions cut away all illusions of dignity in isolation, of comfort in crowds” finding himself there, dragged back down to earth with a bump (Cohen 1980).
Speaking in 1980 it became clear that the wounds of the Station To Station-era were still fresh in his mind: “The passion in the song was genuine. It was also around that time that I started thinking about wearing this (fingers small silver cross hanging on his chest) again, which is now almost a left-over from that period.” As Chuck Hammer remembered it Bowie was wearing a a large wooden crucifix, but since the post-Ziggy seventies The little crucifix about Bowie’s neck would remain for many years, lazing off his chest in interviews, that in spite of <<<its size seemed to bear some weight upon him where it crowned his chest and leather jacket as Bowie swayed and swooned on the spot for the “Heroes” video.
Bowie was more than ready to make his own leap of faith, he just doesn’t know how. on “It’s No Game No.1” his scratchy screed-driven voice yells “no more…/free steps to heav-eeeeeen” breathing fire into the line. The use of the word ‘free’ in the song is up for debate, but in the straight Japanese translation by Stephen Ryan, Bowie is still walking on air:
“mo tengoku no jiyu no kaidan wa nai”
(free [without restrictions] steps of heaven are no longer there/here)
This reading also suggests liberty as freedom-to and freedom-from, whereas Bowie’s anglophone side teases us that even religion bears its price upon commitment of the soul, not just kindly acts. Kingdom Come later wrestles with the tension that we cannot enter the gate of heaven for free, we must each of us endure the wages of our own sin. The road to heaven is paved with wayward intentions of sacrifice and reward, the open way through the eye of the needle is never a sure thing. On “Kingdom Come” , getting closer to God demands climbing a brittle stairway that is only supported by blind faith, where belief must also carry the weight of doubt within it.
A possible influence on the track is Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven” from 1960. For Eddie only three simple steps towards a happy life are required: find a girl, fall in love and hold her tight. Resembling the chord structure of “Queen Bitch”, Cochran’s song reached #1 after his sudden death in a car crash, did Bowie make a nod to Cochran’s song to point out that real life is far more brutal than the sweet fantasies of young love might have us imagine, in spite of everything had Cochran’s short walk brought him a little closer to (some kind of) paradise?
For Verlaine’s sake, the blogger Paolo hears the “pseudo-spiritual lyric become a dogged affirmation that the artist is both destined and doomed to pursue his creative muse” Instead of finding religious purpose, his vocation is the craft of songwriting and performing, driven by artistic drive, rock and roll as one form of religion within a pantheon of spirituality.
Nonetheless “Kingdom Come” has a decadent air of abandonment to it that perhaps shares some influence from Bowie’s friend John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band’s “God” where Lennon acknowledged that God is merely a concept “by which we measure our pain”. for Bowie a decayed more vital and primal era, where we now that suppressed our chthonic impulses as apposite to living within society, but this only served to erase our self-definition. In the Nietzschean sense Christian orthodoxy provided a moral prison which caused people to live their lives within a rotten framework of external rules that they internalized under the illusion of a superior moral code, to become the cage within. but he remained open to spiritual possibilities, not living in denial of them, a healthy skepticism then. For Lennon, perhaps like Bowie, much of these inner spiritual pains were self-inflicted wounds.
Bowie would tour with Blondie in support when he was backing piano man for Iggy Pop, Chris Stein remembers Bowie’s enthusiasm for Television, in particular admiring Verlaine’s hair, leading Bowie to comment: Bowie said Verlaine was one of: “New York’s finest new writers…I wish he had a bigger audience.” Verlaine was invited to play on the Scary Monster sessions but after spending many hours trying to find the right sound, apparently testing out some 30 amps, plugging in and out and although he did eventually find what he was looking for, his guitar part was not included on the final album. The relationship withered and died before it started. A far lightweight ballad compared to “Teenage Wildlife” Fripp brought sonorous soaring zips of guitar to rise and fall over the top of the song, his touch is more subtle and intuitive with the demands of the track than on other songs, the tigerish savant is finally restrained, though perhaps only by volume in the mix.
“Every religion has its own madmen”
Alberto Denti de Piranjo, A Grave For A Dolphin (1956)
Since the coked-out flatness of David Live Bowie had been able to pull his voice back together. By 1980 his years of experience made him a stronger and more versatile singer, his rare natural quality of being able to hold a deep timbre and falsetto seemingly in the same note, his technical ability to hit tones remained sharp even on Station To Station – across Scary Monsters Bowie’s voice seems to go on forever becoming anthemic and filling the room, and breaking out the walls, he would never have made it as a punk singer—unable to limit himself to the short barks and snarls required.
Engineer at Good Earth studios, Chris Porter, remembers the depth and intensity of Bowie’s vocal performances as being one of his most exciting experiences in the studio: “His voice changed almost like a mimic. He was really viscerally acting out the parts to the songs […] his whole body attitudes would change while he was singing. There was a real energy with his whole body charged up when he went to sing.”
Bowie croons his way through the octaves breaking lines as if testing the limits of his voice, towards the end of the song he is met with Dennis Davis’ crackling drum fills–thump toms– dropping beats—land like rolls of thunder rippling off the drum skin topped with a splashing cymbal–some crowning glory—as Bowie vocalizes wildly over the top. He briefly breaks from the chant about rocks to deliver the line “Well pardon me-ah-he-he-he” the line shot through with urgent outcry, where the original is cast-off with typically sarcastic abandon; Bowie ends in fearful respect at God’s power; Verlaine mocks it without mercy expecting his cell door to be opened up just as he is sentenced to hell.
Set against this the seeming innocence of the doo-wop backing vocals across the record harking back to the “wop wop wop” of Golden Years, Station To Station, evoking Phil Spector productions with backing singers Ronnie Spector, who Bowie knew and studied well. The extreme falsetto employed on “Teenage Wildlife” apes the more constrained to an emotional yelp on “Heroes” while channelling the darker edges of Motown (Tanaka 2021). In “Kingdom Come”, there is a “Bowie-style over-acting” that verges on “a parody, even grotesque,” of his Ronnie Spector tribute. At its extremes Bowie sinks into melodrama while his voice soars a continuing trend on future records which Bowie would quickly arrest with harsh, ironic, remove of a keen skepticism in his music of the 1990s.
There is a yearning cut through Bowie’s songs; his natural sense of isolation and outsiderdom perhaps pushes his need for connection even further. it was not something that could be repaired, like the damaged people that populate Scary Monsters, and the fans drawn to Bowie’s music, there is a sense of finding the same loneliness in each other. This the more positive edge of “Kingdom Come” like “Wild Is The Wind” (both covers) that offers a certain kind of love, like words leavened by the breeze, a breath gives final life to the falling leaves; it comes and goes and an invisible force that makes its presence felt in the heart designed to move us towards a life-affirming sensation— if we allow ourselves to hear it. I think of this sound as Bowie’s breathless “Heaven’s high” on Ashes To Ashes” that could also be heard as “heaven’s sigh”, where addiction brought him closer to death Bowie might also feel nearer to the voice of God who favors the sinner and purposefully tests the weak, where on other songs the word of the lord is love, on “Kingdom Come” a hand is offered only to extract vengeance and retribution for past misdeeds.
On “Seven” from 1999’s …Hours album, Bowie divests himself of the old gods, playing in the footprint of their graves, long dead, but still casting long shadows. Organized religion has its powerful allure and aesthetic inspirations, but like all forms of spirituality its true power rests in constant searching while he reels of the days of the week, each one a day in which to die.
Simon Critchley notes that the barbarism of the 20th century grew from man’s desire for ownership and control over the world, to enforce system-building, to create order out of faith, as if an idea could civilize human behaviour. While man on earth makes a god-head of himself in a post-religious age, the belief in absolutes of good and evil, right and wrong made a shipwreck of the lone individual splintering into common humanity. Too narrow a religious vision leaves us unable to float and drift with the inevitable chaos of the universe, to live within the constant ruin, where Bowie embraced this continual flux, he exercised a new freedoms in his music. Caught between something and nothing he grappled with the impossible, on 1995’s 1. Outside album Bowie found a kind of solace in extreme aesthetics of the new trinity of sex/death/art as pagan excess, a truer vision of spiritual attainment than prayer, forgiveness and meekness could ever hope to provide.
“We killed God – in our childhood. And so now the only appropriate remedy for mania appeared to us to be, like for Susan Hayward, the Snake Pit.”
R. D. Laing
With “Word On A Wing” Bowie defends both his own skepticism and his choice to proactively believe in spiritual powers beyond himself: “Just because I believe/Don’t mean I don’t think as well” without the controlling influence of organized religion he could think for himself. Bowie found much to admire and take away from Buddhism, freeing his mind from both doubt and outright faith that came from stiff, inherited modes of white, Western orthodox thinking. On Having No Head (1961) an account of enlightenment from Douglas Harding, a British architect who during a hiking trip in Himalayas suddenly conceived of himself as having no brain, head, soul etc; literally decapitating the ego-centered idea that we exist inside our mind, the boxed-in soul as a ghost in the machine. The author talks about a series of illustrations by Ernst Mach of the first-person perspective we all live within. Seeming to float through time-space with our hands in front of us, pointing to – and being pointed at – in this way he anchors our standard mode consciousness — directional seeing, thinking ann feeling forwards, towards things and others as objectives. Except in a mirror, we do not see ourselves in action, as others do, and in this sense it is perhaps more accurate to say we live for/in front of the minds of other people, and them for us. Dissolving the ‘I’ of the individual, the ‘me’ in society, means withdrawing from ego and away from the self, to reflect more upon others, returning to a more connected humanity and way of being. Harding describes the bizarre and shocking impact of his experience: “What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. […] Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future have dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal hood, all that could be called mine. “
The ability to remove oneself from the ‘self’ showed Bowie the potential of objectivity, the power of, seeing things in themselves as transient has creative applications in his ability to continue looking forwards, he was only ever as good as his last album, it only the now leaning towards the next day that demanded his immediate attention. Bowie would compromise the challenges of the standard Western philosophical life with the brief chant backed by tumping house music sounds that opens “Law (Earthling On Fire)”: “I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty!” In 2003 Bowie would comment that many of us were now living post-philosophically, where reality had become an abstract for most people, the value of truth had diminished. Messier lives, broken perceptions, a more complex world, this was modernity at its most striking and forceful, he had seen the first rising of the wave through many of his albums and on Scary Monsters he became swept up in its thrust.
Bowie’s own version of true enlightenment became learning to let go — in his personal life, not just for creative open-mindedness. After his initial shift of perspective he aimed to free himself of things, ideas, the body, even life as bound to existence. In I’m OK, Thomas Antony Harris was keen to point out: “Zen Buddhist philosophers use the same Greek word as is used by Western theologians to describe a process which experience – in East and in West – has been found to be a principal route to the consummation of personal fulfillment. The word is kenosis, that is, self-emptying”. In the song “After All’ Bowie sings lines that switch from stark and severe to the nonsensical ridiculous: “Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown (oh by jingo)” this offers both the overcoming of the human condition and physical transcendence to; engage with the flux and flow of life as a constant force of pure energy.
Bowie seemed to embrace Buddhist conceptions of transcendence: “the self as a figment, a will-o’-the-wisp illusion. … [T]he true self is the no-self, a positive emptiness that is distinguished from the puffed-up ‘substance’ of the public persona.” (Reynolds 2017) This perspective locates the physical realm as illusion, magic and dream; life is an act, an ongoing show, which meant as blank slate, empty vessel of Bowie could play host to any number of characters and images, even to his real identity of David Jones, and know that it was all fleeting, a clash of light captured in mirrors that would dissipate as quickly as it had shone brightly (Jones 2018).
This open-minded approach defined Bowie’s life towards the late 1980s, who found himself free to circulate through global cities with managed anonymity and seemed to have found an inner calm that let him float in his own private world, to Rolling Stone he professed satisfaction at his overall situation: “”I’m happy that I am going the way I considered I would be going when I was eighteen years old, which is holding onto nothing, no one; continually in flux.”
During the Scary Monsters sessions at Good Earth studios in London Bowie was briefly reunited with his former Buddhist teacher Chime Youndong Rinpoche, an echo from the recent past, when Bowie had known him he was a Tibetan Lama, one of only four in the UK in 1969, he later derobed and worked in London’s natural history museum. Mary Finnigan mentioned that Bowie had reached out to Rinpoche in his worst times of LA excess but in the end made the physical trip of leaving for Berlin instead.
Perhaps from his days of addiction recovery Bowie would later find spiritual comfort in the serenity prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes. It works as an incantation of freeing yourself from the enduring pains of the world while embracing responsibility for our capacity to grow and develop: ”God grant me the serenity (power) to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Less of a compromise, more the removal of ego-driven self ego from the realms of impossibility; learning accommodate change as a force of constant flux, and in doing so, not to fear it, even though its untold consequences may yet be challenging or even disastrous.
Bowie had the prayer tattooed on his calf in Japanese, inked in February 1992 while touring with Tin Machine in Kyoto. Rarely seen, it also shows a man riding a dolphin holding a frog in his hand next to Iman’s name. Bowie said this was a confirmation of his love and his “knowledge of the power of life itself.” Referring to the words of the prayer Bowie was both philosophical and utilitarian, noting a spiritual meaning and the rhythm of maintaining sobriety, telling Arsenio Hall in 1993: “I think the Serenity Prayer is something that keeps me back onto that course, very much so, yeah. I was very lucky.” For the image Bowie took inspiration from one his chosen books A Grave For A Dolphin, merging folk story with real-life love affair, the book contains an account of a young Italian officer’s love affair with a Somalian woman who can swim with dolphins,their lives become intertwined finding a freedom in the sea that transcends the merging of cultures in the colonial setting of Africa shortly before World War Two . One day the woman dies from a fever while simultaneously the dolphin arrives bleeding on the beach, the two are buried side-by-side. In his introduction to Iman Abdulmajid’s book, I Am Iman, Bowie claimed this story inspired the “swim like dolphins can swim” lyric in “Heroes”, the collective meaning of the story, the song, and the dolphin become symbolic of the transcendent power of love.
Bowie was once asked his view on the purpose of life, delivering another of his eminently quotable lines: “To try to make each moment of one’s life one of the happiest, and if it’s not, try to find out why.” If the answer sounds rich with mysticism and spirituality it’s because it came directly from a Buddhist monk. “I was told that by a Tibetan friend of mine, Chime Youngdon Rinpoche,” Bowie explains, unable to take credit but happy to pass on the learned wisdom of others. Bowie suggested that he might eventually find true happiness in a world of eternal suffering, would be to disappear into a buddhist monastery, perhaps in Scotland, or Kyoto, somewhere far removed from the cities, and later when he was very old erase himself [suggesting suicide] disappearing into an opium haze.
If there was an absolute answer to religion that offered heaven either as a place or just a spiritual place of mind, “Kingdom Come” was the door slamming closed. Perhaps it is a man in need of prayer left outside the gate on judgment day, or else finding himself locked-in, trapped in the realm of God’s glory as faith’s reward; where surprisingly the narrow end of existence offers a pale imitation of all the purgatory that has gone before it. However the hammer comes down, it meets Bowie refusing to be broken under its weight. Although he might find more enclosed systems of religion too demanding, Bowie would enact his own spiritual reimagining in the graceful stage-managing his own end, creating Blackstar in secret and orchestrating its release as a final goodbye, with his private farewell dedicated to his family and friends, for a direct cremation (one where no one is present) and requested that his ashes be scattered on the Indonesian island of Bali “in accordance with the Buddhist rituals”.
Author’s Note: Television’s Marquee Moon was one of the first CDs l bought on my arrival at university way back in 2000, a futuristic album that seemed to predict the present of New Rock Revolution as it was then christened by the NME (the Strokes are to this day lambasted for stealing Television’s sound – I don’t really hear it – Television are still light years ahead) and I fell in love with the ten-minute long title track and its melifluous guitar solo at the centre that blew away the cobwebs from punk’s flat, dead-headed tone and classic rock’s distorted guitar. Verlaine was a master of cutting, jilted and angular guitar tone, as with his acerbic singing voice, that often masked inspired searching lyrics rich in melody and radically fractured dsijuncts of ;language, way more the serious artist than new wave flakes of his contemporaries. His skills as a writer are further exemplified by the naturally anthemic Kingdom Come, a powerful track that Verlaine’s solo album almost seems at pains to downplay. Here is a chapter from my forthcoming book on David Bowie’s year of fear in 1980 and his cover of Kingdom Come. Rest in Power, Tom Verlaine.
[This post is an extract from new book on Bowie’s year of fear 1980 and the Scary Monsters album, Silhouettes And Shadows.]
Silhouettes And Shadows: The Secret History of David Bowie’s
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) [Summer 2023]
1980 — David Bowie stands at the crossroads of the decade where avant-garde pop, new wave and post-punk meet to confront the ghosts of his past and fear of the future.
With the Blitz Kids and the New Romantics emerging in his wake Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) bids farewell to Bowie’s golden years of the 1970s. Entering a world of paranoia, alienation, and state terror racing towards the end of history, Bowie faces up to brute realities of the emergent Eighties society and doomed romance of fading youth
This is David Bowie as pierrot clown of everyday romance, suffering and song — when the mask finally slips to reveal David Jones, the man within. Featuring exclusive interviews with close collaborators discussing the making of the album and hit singles “Fashion” and “Ashes To Ashes” Silhouettes And Shadows explores the songs, the times and the sounds of Bowie’s new decade.
Check out my blog for more on my Nine Inch Nails book – Into The Never