Warszawa (David Bowie, from the album Low, 1977) chosen by Dene October


PLAY: Śląsk - Helokanie


[i] Seabrook, Thomas Jerome. Bowie in Berlin: A New Career In A New Town London: Jawbone. 2008: 128

[ii] While 'Heroes' (1977) was recorded at Hansa studios Berlin, Low (1977) was partially recorded in France, while Lodger (1979) was recorded in Switzerland and New York.

[iii] Hear it for yourself: see link above

[iv] See Deleuze’s writing on Lewis Carroll.  Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Translated by Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, Edited by Constantin V Boundas,  New York: Columbia University Press, 1990

[v] Roeg claimed that Bowie possessed absolute qualities with ‘a different pace and rhythm’ that marked him out for the part of Newton. Davidson Dalling Associates ‘About the film’, Davidson Dalling Associates Information Folder, Davidson Dalling Associates 1976: 11

[vi] According to Bowie, in film ‘you are evoking a spirit within yourself’ whereas ‘the stage performances are more ceremonial’ Davidson Dalling Associates, ‘Long Star Biographies’, Davidson Dalling Associates  press pack, Davidson Dalling Associates  1976: 19

[vii] Bowie had finished with character writing and focused on writing ‘descriptive observation of any environment that I happened to be in.’ White, Timothy. 1978 Turn And Face The Strange, Crawdaddy, February 1978.

[viii] Paul Buckmaster worked with Bowie on the soundtrack and insists 'Subterraneans' was the only track re-recorded. Buckley, Strange Fascination, 1999: 278. But Brian Eno, who worked on Low, has suggested that 'Weeping Wall' originated in the project. Wilcken, Hugo. David Bowie's "Low" (33 1/3), Continuum International Publishing 2005: 16. Eno also believes that the track added when Low was reissued in 1991, ‘Some Are’, was also conceived during the project. Seabrook, Thomas Jerome. Bowie in Berlin: A New Career In A New Town, London : Jawbone. 2008: 130


Sula vie dilejo

On the cover of his eleventh studio album Low Bowie is pictured in profile against a grainy amber alien sky, the low profile a visual pun reporting his efforts to sidestep fame and retreat into art. His new project had the working title ‘New Music Night and Day’, mixed fast funky tracks with slow ambient instrumentals and was unabashedly avant-garde. But Bowie was feeling low too, both physically and mentally, caught up an acrimonious breakup with wife Angie and a legal fight with ex-manager, Michael Lippman. Indeed, his long trips to attend court in Paris meant that Brian Eno, hired due to his pioneering work in ambient music, was left to himself at the Château d’Hérouville studios, writing the track that would become ‘Warszawa’. Bowie gave vague instructions that it should have a religious feel[i] recalling an episode when the Zurich-Moscow train he and Iggy Pop were travelling on stopped briefly in Warsaw. For Bowie this was a profound confrontation with the reality of the Cold War, witnessing people wasted by war and Communism, and it would shape the three albums of his so-called 'Berlin' period[ii].

When he got back from Paris, ‘Warszawa’ was all but written, and Bowie quickly penned some phonetic lyrics, earning himself a co-writing credit. Having bought some albums by Poland’s traditional Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble, he exploited one track ‘Helokanie’ as a template for the hymn-like sounds he was after[iii]. This may have offered him a therapeutic way to write and overcome his lowliness and writer’s block. For it is notable throughout Low that Bowie’s communication is at its most autistic, as if it really is the icy Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), which the cover art references, retreating into a private language-free alien world. Low kicks off with the frenetic but wordless ‘Speed of Life’ and when lyrics are attempted, as in ‘Breaking Glass’, they are feverish and fragmented, or repetitive and bored as in ‘Be My Wife’ or anxious about writing as in ‘Sound and Vision’. By the time Side B’s instrumental tracks get underway, it is almost a relief that the strain to make sense is surrendered for the undulating chorus of ‘Weeping Wall’ and the secret language of ‘Subterraneans’ (‘Share bright failing star’ only pretends to make sense). Meanwhile, the words of ‘Warszawa’ don’t come from the head but from deep within the body, somatic language that seeks affect rather than intelligibility. It is sense as opposed to sensible, or common sense, and like the nonsense words of Lewis Carroll, conveys sense without being shackled to a referential function[iv].

‘Warszawa’ is the love song of Thomas Jerome Newton. Bowie  just couldn’t cut that guy out of his head. In the film,  Newton is the emotional loner whose heroic quest to acquire water for his dying planet falls apart when confronted by human greed, lust and alcohol. If Newton already sounds like Bowie before the clapperboard has even announced action, then you are thinking just like the shrewd director Nicolas Roeg who knew the singer wouldn’t be called on to do any real acting[v]. During filming,  Bowie connected with Newton to an emotional depth that he hadn’t managed even with his own character creations[vi]. Indeed, so complete was the illusion, he actually convinced himself that he had given up on characters, like Ziggy Stardust, to write sonic-studies about landscapes[vii].

The aural space of ‘Warszawa’ is certainly not one drawn from any detailed observation of the city Warsaw, which  Bowie had only glimpsed. Like ‘Space Oddity’ (1969), place is inner directed, a solipsistic taste percolating through the grains of time-space sensations, memories and experiences. In 1975, Bowie had intended to score the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, but contractual wrangles left his project incomplete. The track ‘Subterraneans’ is the one he admits to, but there is a good chance that other material found its way onto Low[viii]. Warszawa is clearly not among them but this doesn’t mean it didn’t filter through the film and the profound impact Newton had on Bowie.

Cheli venco deho


Those strange lyrics do make sense, to Newton that is. They are words strung out across the universe, an apology to his estranged alien relatives and the dreams he betrayed for gin.