Meanings and interpretations

The lyrics are wacky, but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word.
Tony Visconti
Rolling Stone, 23 November 2015

David Bowie had drawn upon imagery from A Clockwork Orange since early 1972. Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel opened in London’s West End on 13 January 1972; shortly afterwards Bowie took the fledgling Spiders From Mars to see it.

I was determined that the music we were doing was the music for the Clockwork Orange generation and I wanted to take the hardness and violence of those Clockwork Orange outfits – the trousers tucked into big boots and the codpiece things – and soften them up by using the most ridiculous fabrics. It was a Dada thing. This extreme ultraviolence in Liberty fabrics.
David Bowie
Q magazine, May 1993

The film was hugely influential to Bowie. Not only did the band adopt the look of Alex and his droogs (followers), they took to the stage to Wendy Carlos’s ‘March from A Clockwork Orange’, based on the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He also enlisted illustrator Philip Castle, who had designed the A Clockwork Orange poster and soundtrack artwork, to airbrush liquid onto Bowie’s collarbone on the Aladdin Sane cover, and to touch up its inner gatefold image.

Burgess’s novel is partly written in Nadsat, an invented Russian-influenced dialect spoken by the teen gang members. Many of the words have Slavic roots, were rhyming slang, or wholly invented by Burgess.

A variety of Nadsat words were incorporated into ‘Girl Loves Me’. These include: cheena (woman), malchick (boy), moodge (man/husband), vellocet (amphetamines), polly (money), viddy (see), lubbilub (kiss), litso (face), devotchka (girl), spatchka (sleep), rozz (police), ded (old man), deng deng (money).

From this we can reasonably interpret some of Bowie’s lines. The opening verse, for example, runs:

Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say
Party up moodge, nanti vellocet round on Tuesday
Real bad dizzy snatch making all the omies mad – Thursday
Popo blind to the polly in the hole by Friday

An interpretation of this might be:

Girl so sound, so pretty up this boy, say
Party up man, no drugs round on Tuesday
Great pussy making all the men mad – Thursday
Police blind to the money in the hole by Friday

Yet this is only half the story. Polari (sometimes palare, parlare, parlary, palarie, or palari) is a form of slang dating back at least to the 19th century, and used by gay people, actors, circus folk, navy seamen, criminals, prostitutes, and wrestlers.

In Britain it entered the mainstream during the 1960s when used in the BBC radio comedy series Round The Horne, which – combined with the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 – contributed to its decline. Bowie would almost certainly have been familiar with Round The Horne, just as he was with 1960s gay culture.

Bowie weaves together Nadsat and polari in the song. The opening verse contains at least three polari terms: ‘titi’ (from ‘titivate’, meaning ‘pretty’); ‘nanti’ (not or no); omi (man). Others (dizzy, snatch, popo) may have been more contemporary slang, although ‘dizzy’ is a polari term meaning ‘scatterbrained’.

The Blackstar lyrics also misspell some of the Nadsat words, although whether this was intentional remains unclear. Choodesny is choodessny in Burgess’s novel, Libbilubbing is spelt lubbilubbing, garbles should be yarbles, and spatchko was originally written spatchka.

One of the most elliptical sections of ‘Girl Loves Me’ is the second verse, which reads:

You viddy at the cheena
Choodesny with the red rot
Libbilubbing litso-fitso
Devotchka watch her garbles
Spatchko at the rozz-shop
Split a ded from his deng deng
Viddy viddy at the cheena

An approximate translation of this might be:

You look at the woman
Wonderful with the red mouth
Kissing, face-obsessed
Young woman watch her testicles
Sleeping at the police station
Part an old man from his money money
Look look at the woman

The subject of ‘Girl Loves Me’ is broadly sexual, with occasional hints and drugs (“Party up moodge, nanti vellocet”) and violence (“Split a ded from his deng deng”). Nonetheless, some meanings remain elusive.

“I’m cold to this pig and pug show” could refer to a circus, media attention, or even the cancer treatments he was undergoing during the making of Blackstar. (Pig & Pug, incidentally is a 2015 children’s book by Lynne Berry, yet it was published weeks after Bowie recorded the ‘Girl Loves Me’ vocals.)

Bowie’s line “I’m sitting in the chestnut tree” appears to be a reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, another influential dystopian novel, and which Bowie drew upon while making 1974’s Diamond Dogs.

In the book, the protagonist Winston Smith visits the café after his release from the Ministry of Love. It is a place representing chastity, morality, and honesty, once the Ministry has destroyed feelings of love, and is where Smith returns once he has given up his feelings for his former lover Julia.

Something changed in the music that trickled from the telescreen. A cracked and jeering note, a yellow note, came into it. And then – perhaps it was not happening, perhaps it was only a memory taking on the semblance of sound – a voice was singing:

‘Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me – –’

The tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle.

George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four

The song quoted in the book is ‘The Chestnut Tree’, a 1939 song by Glenn Miller. The full verse is:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

Then there’s the repeated phrase, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” This, more than anything in ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’, is what garnered Blackstar a parental advisory sticker.

Bowie’s meaning, as so often, is unclear. As it happened, his death occurred on Sunday 10 January 2016, leading some listeners to speculate that he foretold his death and absence on the next day.

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