Why do David Bowie’s songs sounds like no one else’s, right down to the words that turn up in their lyrics? Novelist Rick Moody, who has been privy more than once to details of Bowie’s songwriting process, wrote about it in his column on Bowie’s 2013 album The Next Day: “David Bowie misdirects autobiographical interpretation, often, by laying claim to reportage and fiction as songwriting methodologies, and he cloaks himself, further, in the cut-up.” Anyone acquainted with the work of William S. Burroughs will recognize that term, which refers to the process of literally cutting up existing texts in order to generate new meanings with their rearranged pieces.
You can see how Bowie performed his cut-up composition in the 1970s in the clip above, in which he demonstrates and explains his version of the method. “What I’ve used it for, more than anything else, is igniting anything that might be in my imagination,” he says. “It can often come up with very interesting attitudes to look into. I tried doing it with diaries and things, and I was finding out amazing things about me and what I’d done and where I was going.”
Given what he sees as its ability to shed light on both the future and the past, he describes the cut-up method as “a very Western tarot” — and one that can provide just the right unexpected combination of sentences, phrases, or words to inspire a song.
As dramatically as Bowie’s self-presentation and musical style would change over the subsequent decades, the cut-up method would only become more fruitful for him. When Moody interviewed Bowie in 1995, Bowie “observed that he worked somewhere near to half the time as a lyricist in the cut-up tradition, and he even had, in those days, a computer program that would eat the words and spit them back in some less referential form.” Bowie describes how he uses that computer program in the 1997 BBC clip above: “I’ll take articles out of newspapers, poems that I’ve written, pieces of other people’s books, and put them all into this little warehouse, this container of information, and then hit the random button and it will randomize everything.”
Amid that randomness, Bowie says, “if you put three or four dissociated ideas together and create awkward relationships with them, the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes, quite provocative.” Sixteen years later, Moody received a startling and provocative set of seemingly dissociated words in response to a long-shot e-mail he sent to Bowie in search of a deeper understanding of The Next Day. It ran as follows, with no further comment from the artist:
“Chthonic is a great word,” Moody writes, “and all art that is chthonic is excellent art.” He adds that “when Bowie says chthonic, it’s obvious he’s not just aspiring to chthonic, the album has death in nearly every song” — a theme that would wax on Bowie’s next and final album, though The Next Day came after an emergency heart surgery ended his live-performance career. “Chthonic has personal heft behind it, as does isolation, which is a word a lot like Isolar, the name of David Bowie’s management enterprise.” Moody scrutinizes each and every one of the words on the list in his column, finding meanings in them that, whatever their involvement in the creation of the album, very much enrich its listening experience. By using techniques like the cut-up method, Bowie ensured that his songs can never truly be interpreted — not that it will keep generation after generation of intrigued listeners from trying.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.