David Bowies’ iconic single “The Man Who Sold The World”, (which was reintroduced to the kids by Nirvana in the 90’s) is without a doubt is an absolutely incredible song. From the riffs to the lyrics to the ways it can be performed, it has earned its place in the history books.

 

But like any good song, the impact lies in the lyrics, and those lyrics are based off a poem by Hughes Mearns called “Antigonish.”

On a surface level, look at the words and lyrics;

The Man Who Sold The World:


We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone, a long long time ago

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With The Man Who Sold The World

I laughed and shook his hand, and made my way back home
I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazely stare at all the millions here
We must have died alone, a long long time ago

Who knows? not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the Man who Sold the World

And this is “Antigonish”:

Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

I wish, I wish he’d go away…


When I came home last night at three

The man was waiting there for me

But when I looked around the hall

I couldn’t see him there at all!

Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!

Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)


Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away…


See the similarities??

But why the great songwriter David Bowie whole draw inspiration from a professor? The song goes much deeper than that. It, along with the album of the same name, were released in 1970, two years later, ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ was released. Bowies’ albums always have a theme or story, and Ziggy Stardust was the androgynous rock star who spoke with aliens and delivered their message and music to earth. Ziggy Stardust was one of Bowies alter egos.

It’s theorized that The Man Who Sold The World arose from Bowie’s inner struggle with his own sexuality. It’s thought that the song is from the perspective of Bowie seeing himself as Ziggy, and everyone else seeing him as David. He (as Ziggy) is having a conversation with David. Like in the lyrics, “I thought you died alone, a long long time ago” – Ziggy speaking to Bowie. And when the lyrics go “Oh no, not me, we never lost control” that is the inner conflict with his sexuality. The song is a journey to him finding himself, “I searched for form and land, for years and years I roamed.”

During an interview with he BBC Radio 1 special programme “ChangesNowBowie” in 1997, Bowie was asked about the meaning of the song and he said, “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there’s some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet.”

There obviously are other theories about what the song is about, from conversations with the devil, or talking with the gods, to a man reflecting on the mistakes he’s made, it is a beautiful song. And while Bowie did comment on it, can the true meaning of a peice of art ever be truly understood by any one other than the artist?