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Loving the Bowie Voice(s) Playlist 7a: Mini1984

December 9th, 2018 | by Sandra Flowers
Loving the Bowie Voice(s) Playlist 7a: Mini1984
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I’m doing Orwell’s 1984 on television; that’s a political thesis and an impression of the way in another country. Something of that nature will have more impact on television. I don’t believe in proper cinema; it doesn’t have the strength of television. (David Bowie in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview with William Burroughs)


WITH A NOD TO DUNCAN & THE BOOK CLUB

Bowie fans have been reading selections from Bowie’s Top 100 Books–the complete list together since the end of 2017 when his son Duncan invited fans to read along with him. Two novels on the list—George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange —deserve places of honor on the list because of their ties to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Diamond Dogs, and ★. For that reason, this edition of Loving the Bowie Voice(s) Playlist takes the form of a three-part series which includes the works shown below.

Playlist 7a: Mini1984
(Nineteen Eighty-four)

Playlist 7b: Miniculture
(A Clockwork Orange)

Playlist 7c: Minilovers
(Both Novels)

1984 Candidate Rebel Rebel
Big Brother/Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family Future Legend Suffragette City
Diamond Dogs Girl Loves Me
We Are the Dead Sweet Thing (When You) Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me

A couple of logistical notes: 1) Playlist links are activated as their blogs are posted. 2) Nineteen Eighty-four page numbers (in parentheses) are from the Berkley-Harcourt Brace paperback edition, 2016.

With that, let’s move on to Playlist 7a: Mini1984, beginning with a summary of the novel.


SUMMARY OF NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, THE NOVEL

It is 1984, and the world’s three major powers–Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia–are constantly at war. In Oceania, where the Party is in power, the Thought Police unearth every act of dissent, and Big Brother is always watching. Winston Smith, a dutiful citizen of Oceania, works for the Ministry of Truth as a propaganda writer who rewrites history to suit the needs of the authoritarian government. But when Winston falls in love with fellow worker Julia, they begin to question the very system they work for, placing them in immense danger. Pursuing their forbidden love affair, Winston plans a rebellion against the Party in order to regain the freedom to shape his own future. But the ever-watchful Big Brother will not tolerate opposition, and for those who speak up against the system or dare to think what the Party does not want them to think, Room 101 awaits. . . (From GoodReads summary)



SO YOU WANT A JOB AT MINITRUE, HUH?

Early in the novel, we are introduced to Oceania’s four governing bodies–the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue),  the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), the Ministry of Love (Miniluv), and the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty). All four Ministries are complicit in the brainwashing that keeps the citizens stumbling through life in a daze, but Minitrue is the most lethal of the four, possessing the power of the written word as well as any images or sounds that accompany it. Minitrue is that place where ‘Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date’ (41).

Fed up with this practice, Winston furtively writes in his secret diary, ‘what is done cannot be undone’ (28). While writing this, he either forgets or chooses to ignore that every day, he and his Minitrue colleagues engage in a deadly race against each other to see who can undo the most the fastest. No wonder an occasional cup of that vile-tasting Victory Gin is so welcome throughout the day. And no wonder there’s great need in Oceania for a warning like Bowie’s ‘1984‘.

FROM NOVEL TO STAGE

The ‘Chant’ part of Diamond Dogs’ BIG BROTHER/CHANT OF THE EVER CIRCLING SKELETAL FAMILY has been interpreted as Winston’s  joyful acquiescence to Big Brother after being ‘cured’ by surviving physical and mental torture and, on the brink of being eaten alive by rats, offering Julia up in his place (296-97). Afterwards, Julia confesses to him that she’d given him up as well–though to what fate, she doesn’t say.  Winston eventually makes peace with his past and concludes that ‘He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother’ (308). This is, indeed, cause for joy, as a Minitrue report might put it.

On the other hand, the ‘Chant’ section of ‘Big Brother’ might also serve as the stage equivalent of the Two Minutes Hate. As Bowie’s publicist at the time, Cherry Vanilla, said, ‘I don’t know how closely David will follow the [1984] script. It might be quite unrecognisable from the original’ (Bowie 1984 AD). That’s a realistic projection, since few of a novel’s scenes can be used in a staged adaption. Many might be conveyed to symbolism, incorporated with others, or simply omitted.

This reality brings to mind two staging considerations. First, while Winston’s capitulation is essential to the story, it could be delivered with a less frantic (not meant pejoratively) song as far as staging goes. Second, not using the ‘Chant’ for Winston’s joy frees it for something far more consequential, something that might give greater return on each measure of stage real estate investment, something like, for instant, The Two Minutes Hate. To get a sense of how that might have worked,  re-read the novel’s first depiction of the Hate (11-17) and then have a listen to the ‘CHANT’   by itself.

WE ARE THE DEAD

Orwell uses the live-person-being-dead metaphor four times in the novel. The first time depicts Winston hiding in a corner of his apartment and writing about himself in his diary, “He is already dead’ (29). The second occurrence finds Julia and Winston in their love nest declaring themselves dead ( 138). The third time the expression occurs, it is in recognition of Winston and Julia’s taking the dangerous step of joining the resistance–or so they think (180). The final time marks their capture by the Thought Police and the end of their love affair (227).

In applying his ‘We are the dead’ metaphor to a doomed couple in a forbidden relationship, Orwell brings the political theory of totalitarianism up close and personal to the reader. Bowie does something similar for his musical audiences in his ‘We are the Dead’, except that the love story in his song isn’t tied to political doctrine. Instead, Bowie wins the listener’s empathy for the couple with romance-infused lyrics such as ‘I looked at you and wondered if you saw things my way’ and ‘Why don’t we pass it by? / Just reply, you’ve changed your mind’ (‘WE ARE THE DEAD‘, David Bowie, RCA US). Truth be told, these lyrics might even work quite well in a love scenario set in a  political context.

THE LONG ARM OF MINITRUE

As we reach the end of this first installment of Loving the Bowie Voices(s) Playlist 7, one unresolved issue remains. Specifically, legend has it that as executor of George Orwell’s literary estate, the second Mrs. Orwell, Sonia, denied Bowie permission to create a musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-four. As many times as this story has been printed over the years, it always manages to get by without its origin being identified.

That said, it is true that the story is more or less attributed to Bowie himself in the Diamond Dogs section of Glen’s Fabulous Freaks website. which says, ‘”Mrs Orwell refused to let us have the rights, point blank,” Bowie told Circus a couple of years later.’

In the same paragraph, Glen qualifies the quotation by adding, ‘Not unusually for his mid-1970s period, David was embroidering the truth here – he had not, in fact, met Sonia Orwell in person – but he was far from alone in experiencing the bluntness with which she rejected every application to adapt or licence her late husband’s work in the wake of a film and two television adaptations, all dating from the mid-1950s, which she had intensely disliked’.

So the question goes unanswered: What is the origin of this story? Lacking verification from key parties or their representatives, it seems best (or at least a good idea) to leave these allegations in the ‘legend has it’ category. (Even though this strategy is reminiscent of a Minitrue moment.)

A final note on this part of our Diamond Dogs/Nineteen Eighty-four discussion: While Nineteen Eighty-four the novel has passed into the public domain in some nations, it may take years for that to be the case worldwide. In the meantime, there’s comfort in knowing that the eye of Big Brother lives on in the form of a very active George Orwell estate, from which one can obtain an authorized yea or nay on petitions to adapt.


Thanks for checking out Playlist 7a: Mini1984.  Keep an eye out for Playlist 7b: Miniculture, in which we’ll continue celebrating DB’s achievement in creating musical responses to two literary classics at once. And please do visit some of my other posts and playlists in the blogs section of David Bowie News. I’m also on Twitter @revisingmyself and would love to meet you there.  Be safe, God bless.

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