Today’s Bowie song is “Heat,” which I quite like. It’s atmospheric, unsettling, and filled with gnomic utterances like “I am a seer/I am a liar.” Apparently it is highly influenced by the works of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, a fascinating human whose portrait David painted while he was living in Berlin. “Mishima is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century,” says the Wikipedia. Then also:
On 25 November 1970, Mishima and four members of his militia entered a military base in central Tokyo, took its commandant hostage, and unsuccessfully tried to inspire the Japan Self-Defense Forces to rise up and overthrow Japan’s 1947 Constitution (which he called “a constitution of defeat”). After his speech and screaming of “Long live the Emperor!,” he committed seppuku.
Like I said: an unusual cat. I’ve never read his books; I may someday if I live long enough.
But the real ur-text of “Heat” is Scott Walker’s song “The Electrician,” which appeared on the Walker Brothers’ 1978 album Nite Flights. Both Bowie and Brian Eno were huge admirers of Nite Flights — though really just of the four songs written by Scott; the ones written by the other Walkers1are forgettable — and particularly of “The Electrician.”
Bowie never covered “The Electrician” — he seems to have been intimidated by it — but you can hear its influence all over, from Lodger to “The Motel” (from Outside) all the way to “Heat.” It is a truly disturbing piece of music, even before you know what it’s about. If you’ve never heard it before you might want to listen to it once before we get into that.
OK, so: We can say with some certainty what “The Electrician” is about because in 1984 Scott Walker — who rarely talked about his songs — told a radio interviewer:
[It’s] a political song . . . having to do with . . . the Americans sending in these people, trained torturers in South America . . . I imagined these lovers in a conversation . . . if you listen the words of The Electrician it really explains itself after I’ve started.
And that’s what makes this song so brilliant, twisted, and chilling: the torture is sexy. Ominous bass notes do a romantic pas de deux with Spanish guitars; you get the feeling that the Electrician and his victim end up united in some weird moment of transcendence.
Of course, we never actually hear from the victim. Probably for him or her it’s nothing but living the rest of their short-ass life in agonizing pain. Maybe somebody out there could write their song, so we could know? (Possibly it might just end up sounding like Yoko.)
Which reminds me, I had been hoping somebody might have made a video for “The Electrician” using footage from Brazil and/or Marathon Man… but alas the above was all I could find. It’s good enough. It’s something to watch while listening, though you might be better off closing your eyes and letting your own sick imagination do the work.