If you don’t read anything else, skip to the end and read the extended quotations about Heathen — and mortality and music.
These are a few of the passages from Sailor’s Journals I found particularly affecting. Some I have written about before.
On Grief & Empathy: One of the very earliest entries, 9/4/1998, was posted two days following the crash of Swiss Air 111, a route Bowie used to travel from New York to Geneva. He commented on the mood at JFK International Airport:
“There has been enough sadness in my life for me to at least measure the depth of grief the surviving families must be suffocating in.”
On Love: A beautiful tribute appears on October 14, 1998, the anniversary of the first time he met Iman.
We’ve so grown into our love that I think we both feel that we’ve also grown up. And the feeling that our relationship being so joyous that we’re getting away with something has transformed into the realization that despite all odds we actually were meant to find each other. Hey, gentle vanities are the domain of the older man. Darling Iman, I can’t imagine life without you. I’m reluctantly grateful that I hadn’t known you before as I know I would have lost the best, most stabilizing thing in my life. I was a dumb guy for many years but I’m only stupid now. I love you. Happy anniversary.
On Music: November 27, 1998, Bowie was sorting his piles and came across this:
“What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analyzed, or taken so seriously. I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium. The music is the mask the message wears – music is the Pierrot and I, the performer, am the message.’ Los Angeles Feb 1971. This was printed in Rolling Stone in April of that year. That was said nearly 28 years ago, and I really don’t think my approach to music has altered very much at all. What say you?”
The journal entries for December 20 to 26, 1998, “The Early Ears,” recall Bowie’s earliest musical memories, as well as the slow erosion of spirit that comes with a mother’s litany of, had it not been for you, my life would have been so much better. See [No Longer] Crashing in the Same Car: Mothers.
On the Potential of the Internet: Bowie posted this September 8, 1999. He introduces the entry by saying he “dropped a really obvious mistake into my speech for the benefit of the press, but, so far not one report has noted it!!!” [There are two good answers, the most obvious being that the “man is born free” quotation is Rousseau’s; the other is that although born in England, Paine was a Revolutionist in the War of Independence. Likely a deliberate mistake about a deliberate mistake: how Bowie!]
…I’m delighted to be here with everyone to give some profile to Net Aid. The existence of any one of the so-called ‘pillars of poverty’ creates walls. And these walls create, not a certainty of security and comfort, but a prison. Both psychological and real.
The English radical Thomas Paine wrote: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” It’s stupefying that 200 years later those words are still applicable. And stupefying is, unfortunately, the appropriate word here. We so often feel incapable of contributing to our future world. All this, it seems, is in the hands of others.
That is why I’m so enthusiastic about the involvement of the internet in such an event as this. Because here is a positive initiative that can be accessed by all. Apart from the obvious streams of constant information, you’ll be able to link direct with agencies and charities.
Stricken communities will be able to advertise for urgent requirements, a water pump say, or particular medical supplies. And if you’ve got ’em you can act.
Suppliers of commodities will be able to talk one-on-one with sales outlets, cutting out the middle man. A signature ability of the Net and a positive sign of things to come.
Becoming-Being-Surviving: Finally, three passages on the creation of Heathen. From October 2001 to May 2002, Bowie discusses the making of this album at Allaire Studios (formerly Glen Tonche), not far from Woodstock, NY. There is a lot about the writing and recording of the songs, and many pictures, but these passages were the ones I found, especially from the viewpoint of 2017, the most moving of the journals. They are also the last of any substance.
5/14/02 [The studio is] just outside of Woodstock, remote, silent and inspirational. We couldn’t believe what a find it was.
I just knew exactly what lyrics I was to write as I stepped into the room although I didn’t yet know what the words themselves were.
Now someplace like that can set me off two ways. I either get super euphoric or darkly depressive, misery being my default position. My soul flies erratically on the wings of what I would imagine is a feeble bi-polarism. Not the all out kind. I’ve encountered that and I’m not that. However, something akin to that brushes past me in my quietest hours.
5/15/02: One reads about encountering epiphany, a Damascene experience. Giddy at the tranquility and the pure gravitas of the place, everything that I had written became galvanized somehow, into an unwavering focus.
5/24/02: I didn’t like writing Heathen. There was something so ominous and final about it. … these words were just streaming out and there were tears running down my face. But I couldn’t stop, they just flew out. It’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it.
On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts. There, I’m using that old language again. I don’t believe in demons. I don’t think there is such a thing. Or evil. I don’t believe in some force outside of ourselves that creates bad things. I just think of it as all dysfunctionalism of one kind or another. No satan, no devil. We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.
5/27/02: For the purposes of this album, Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any Gods presence in his life. He is the 21st century man. However, there is no direct theme or concept behind Heathen, just a number of songs, but somehow there is a thread that runs through it that is quite as strong as any of my thematic type albums. . . .
I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I’m not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me, it really does. There, in the chords and melodies, is everything I want to say. The words just jolly it along. It’s always been my way of expressing what for me is inexpressible by any other means.
What is very enlightening for me right now is that I sense that I’m arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I’ve never experienced before. I think I’m going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever written in the coming years. I’m very confident and trusting in my abilities right now. But I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy. Robert Johnson only had one albums worth of work as his legacy. That’s all that life allowed him.