Monday, January 4, 2010

An Occasional Dream

This is one of Bowie's little known gems, a truly gorgeous piece. But listen closely, and under the beautiful and soothing veneer you will find sorrow and darkness. The themes discussed here will accompany Bowie throughout his career, and will have a major effect on his art and life.

I recall how we lived
On the corner of a bed
And we'd speak of a Swedish room
Of hessian and wood
And we'd talk with our eyes
Of the sweetness in our lives
And tomorrows of rich surprise...
Some things we could do

The record starts out prettily enough: the singer recalls how he and his lover, in the morning of their love, were planning their future together, dreaming of the joy it will hold. At that point, the options seemed endless, and love and happiness seemed like they would last forever. But then we move into the next section:

In our madness
We burnt one hundred days
Time takes time to pass
And I still hold some ashes to me
An Occasional Dream

The line "time takes time to pass" is the first of many Bowie puns that try to capture the confusing nature of time, especially its tendency to change things. In the course of time, their love had subsided, and when he looks back, he realizes they wasted it. It was madness to spend that period dreaming of their future, when they should have employed it to actually do something together, to enjoy their love while it lasted. All that is left of the dreams now are their ashes, which he still holds onto, hoping to rekindle the happiness they once held.

And we'd sleep, oh so close
But not really close our eyes
'Tween the sheets of summer
bathed in blue...
Gently weeping nights
It was long, long ago
And I still can't touch your name
For the days of fate
were strong for you...
Danced you far from me

And so he keeps on reminiscing, but we now realize that the love had not only diminished, but his lover broke up with him altogether, and memories are all he has left. We also get a hint the lover was a dancer, which identifies her as Hermione, Bowie's old flame. There is a lot of pain involved – he can't even bring himself to "touch her name", to utter it out loud. Our boy is wallowing in his broken dream, unable to deal with it properly, unable to move on and go back to his life.

In my madness
I see your face in mine
I keep a photograph
It burns my wall with time
An Occasional Dream
Of mine
An Occasional Dream
Of mine
An Occasional Dream
Of mine

In the previous verse, he spoke of "our madness", the madness of dreaming about the future instead of enjoying the present. Now he speaks of "my madness": the madness of dreaming about the past, instead of facing up to the present. The image of a "wall" (or a "room") usually appears in Bowie's songs as a metaphor for his inner world, which no one else shares. He is locked in his inner world, gazing at her mental picture, and in this world, where he sets his own rules, he can carry on living the dream.

But he is not alone in this world. All along, there is a second voice, a voice which until now was just an echo in the wilderness of his lonely thoughts, but just before the end it suddenly gains a life of its own, and startlingly whispers "Time!", like a voice in the back of the boy's mind, reminding him that his time is running out, that he is dreaming his life away. Is this "the sniper in the brain", whom Bowie referred to in another record? You sense that it is telling him to snap out of it: you cannot regain happiness by blowing on the ashes of its memory. If he doesn't let go and return to the world of the living, he might descend into real madness.

So this lovely little ditty already contains a couple of the main themes which Bowie will develop in years to come: first, the realization that good things don't last forever. And second, the understanding that because of that, one should not waste their time by dreaming of the future or the past, but make the most of the good things the present has to offer. This resolution will become a major driving force in Bowie's later work.

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