Sex with the Devil and “Man Who Sold the World”, 1970

An earworm, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, is basically a song or part of a song that gets stuck in your head (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm). As an auditory learner (so spake my fifth grade teacher), I get mad earworms. Usually it’ll last a couple of hours or a day, maybe a couple of days, and go away. Usually my earworms aren’t “cured” by listening to the song in question (although I hear that works for most). No matter how many times I listen to an earworm song, it’s just there until it’s done with its residency in my brain and then it moves on.

 

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Official album cover for the UK release

A couple times a year, I’ll get a Bowie earworm that persists for weeks or even months. I become obsessed with a song, consumed by it, distracted in my everyday life by it. It’s like a kind of fever, almost— at times I do feel almost ill, during brief moments of clarity where I realize that what I’m doing is a benign kind of madness, but I don’t care. I’m in love with the song and that’s just how it is. I play it on repeat, over and over and over, for the duration of every trip in the car, while I’m cleaning my apartment, while I’m cooking. The radio becomes unbearable because it’s not “that song.” I think about “that song” constantly when I’m not listening to it.

 
“Width of a Circle” was “that song” for a time, the first of many Bowie tracks that would grip me mercilessly and refuse to let go until they’d had their way with my auditory cortices.

 
I don’t mind.

 
“Width of a Circle” is the opening track on “Man Who Sold the World,” a ten-minute long epic psychedelic hard rock fusion about… well… sex, drugs, and rock n roll. It starts out as a kind of dreamy vignette, evoking hints of Eastern mysticism with references to Kahlil Gibran and the suggestion of introspection in the beginning (”I looked and frowned and the monster was me”) which might mean meditation. The song becomes increasingly psychedelic as it goes on, with the narrator talking to black birds and seeing or hearing small, yellow prayers and talking a sort of nonsense to himself (”Well I said hello and I said hello, I asked why not and I replied I dunno”). The “meditation” of the opening verses leads the narrator to an epiphany that he is not so different from God, thwen the song takes off into a rollicking, pulsing riff that accompanies about five verses detailing a wild and intense sexual encounter, where the narrator starts out making love with a man and winds up screwing the devil (”Spitting sentry, horned and tailed”).
It’s an interesting comment on many things but two themes in particular I find interesting: occultism and sexual fluidity. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of a young man who’s waking up to new ideas and new experiences— for occultism and gay sex were scarcely mentioned on the preceding albums, if memory serves.

 
Occult themes informed his work for years to come, especially during the mid-late seventies. In this piece, the occult serves as a window into the self, revealing ugly truths to the narrator about himself (”The monster was me”). As a recovering addict myself, I know all too well that these kinds of realizations can fuel a drug addiction, and I think it’s telling that this album preceded and coincided with Bowie’s burgeoning drug problem. Interestingly, years later, Bowie would turn to religion and the occult to “protect” himself from the terrifying figments of his paranoia during the years of his most serious drug use. In this sense, spiritualism is a kind of yellow brick road, leading Bowie into the “Oz” of his darker self, then leading him out of it, back to Kansas with a spirit full of new awarenesses.

 
Sexual fluidity became Bowie’s trademark for a while, and is still one of his more famous (but arguably less interesting) qualities. He wore a dress on the cover of the album (although the version with the cartoon cowboy was the official U.S. release because we Puritans couldn’t handle a gorgeous man in a fabulous dress playing psychedelic heavy metal music), and the cover of “Hunky Dory” would feature a portrait of Bowie’s face which hearkens to glamorous portraits of Hollywood actresses in the early twentieth century— and so on, right up until Blackstar. Many assumed Bowie was gay back then, but he was not— he was sexually and intellectually liberated. In this sense, we see “Man Who Sold the World” as a daring leap in the direction of the fearless, free-thinking, self-re-inventor we all know and love. While the first two albums were both good and interesting in their own ways, I think they still had at least one foot firmly rooted on that side of “normal.” On “Man,” Bowie abandoned himself to androgyny and occultism wholeheartedly, set precedent for future thematic obsessions musically and otherwise, and also set precedent for allowing himself to constantly change and evolve as an artist. Anyone who listens closely to “David Bowie” and “Space Oddity” and then “Man” shouldn’t have been surprised when Ziggy was “killed off” suddenly at the zenith of his popularity.

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American release version

The rest of the album is a blend of themes from war (as in Vietnam, as in “Running Gun Blues”), sexual braggadoccio (”She Shook Me Cold”), mental illness (”All the Madmen”). Tellingly, four of the other tracks on a nine-track album are occult themed. These tracks are also, in my opinion, the most musically imaginative, which I think is interesting. In particular, “The Supermen” is one of the most haunting, bafflingly epic songs I’ve ever heard. The low, demented “wahhh” sound, which is clearly a vocalization but not directly human; the prominent, pounding timpani; the eerie chorus behind Bowie’s strident voice proclaiming truths beyond time; it gives me chills no matter how many times I hear the track. (Side note: I also really enjoy the less-weird but equally epic version included as a bonus track on one of the reissues of “Hunky Dory”.)

 
To me, “Man” is the first album where we see Bowie in full bloom. Gone are all traces of the somewhat sleepy, folky mood of the first album, even on the slowest track of “Man” (”After All”, which is a haunting dirge about Aleister Crowley). Even the songs that use acoustic or folky sounds, there’s a vibrant new energy, a new liveliness, that infuses the music, and I think this stems from Bowie completely unleashing himself from social expectations and social acceptability. In this sense, Bowie himself is the man who sold the world: He “sold” or cast off the world he knew and loved, in order to be free as an artist to make the music he needed to make.

 
The second half of “Width of a Circle” betrays a fascinating sort of shame around sexual fluidity, by casting the male sexual partner as the devil (or vice versa). There’s something Puritanical about it, for sure, but I don’t see the narrator in the song balking at having sex with the devil. In fact, he seems to really enjoy it,  so much so that he invites the listener to come along (”Spitting sentry horned and tailed… waiting for you”). It’s almost an acknowledgment that Yes, we’re going on this ride, and it’s gonna be trippy and maybe a little scary, but it’s also gonna be awesome. And, like the mime piece from “Love You Til Tuesday,” it’s eerily prescient of the coming years of Bowie’s career and personal life.

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