Released: 10 June 2002
David Torn: guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar, vocals
Matt Chamberlain: drums, loops
‘Heathen (The Rays)’ is the final song on David Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen.
‘Heathen’ is about knowing you’re dying. It’s a song to life, where I’m talking to life as a friend or lover. I virtually couldn’t change a word the moment I sung it into a tape recorder.
Interview, June 2002
Several songs on the album, most notably ‘I Would Be Your Slave’ and ‘A Better Future’, contain a dialogue with God. ‘Heathen (The Rays)’, conversely, is addressed not to a deity, but to Earth and existence.
It was the first song on the album to be written, and it was titled ‘Heathen’, that song, because the narrator is obviously making a plea to… he’s having, or trying to create, a dialogue with life itself. Not with a god, not with some universal intelligence. He’s having a word with life, which felt kind of pagan, but I thought ‘pagan’ was overused so I looked for a new word. I felt ‘heathen’ was better.
‘Heathen (The Rays)’ was written at Allaire Studios in Ulster County, near Shokan, New York, where the bulk of Heathen was recorded. Allaire was part of Glen Tonche, an estate situated atop Mount Tonche in the Catskill mountains. Established in 1928 by American businessman Raymond Pitcairn, it was bought in 1998 by musician and photographer Randall Wallace, who set up Allaire Studios. Following renovations it reopened in 2001, the year before the recording of Heathen.
Strangely, some songs you really don’t want to write. I didn’t like writing ‘Heathen’. There was something so ominous and final about it. It was early in the morning, the sun was rising and through the windows I could see two deer grazing down below in the field. In the distance a car was driving slowly past the reservoir and these words were just streaming out and there were tears running down my face. But I couldn’t stop, they just flew out. It’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it.
On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts. There, I’m using that old language again. I don’t believe in demons. I don’t think there is such a thing. Or evil. I don’t believe in some force outside of ourselves that creates bad things. I just think of it as all dysfunctionalism of one kind of another. No satan, no devil. The devil only really appears in the New Testament. He makes a couple of casual appearances in the Old, but only as an irritating obstacle. We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002
David Bowie performed ‘Heathen (The Rays)’ 118 times between 2002 and 2004.
The first two occasions were concerts at which he performed the Low and Heathen albums in their entirety – on 11 June 2002 at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, in a show for BowieNet subscribers, and 29 June at the Bowie-curated Meltdown Festival at London’s Festival Hall.
The song remained a fixture of Bowie’s set throughout the Heathen Tour and A Reality Tour. A live version from November 2003 at The Point in Dublin, Ireland, was included on the DVD and album A Reality Tour.
On 18 September 2002, Bowie and his band recorded a session for BBC Radio 2 at London’s Maida Vale Studios. Broadcast on 5 October as David Bowie – Live and Exclusive, it featured a 10-song set: ‘Sunday’, ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Cactus’, ‘Survive’, ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’, ‘Alabama Song’, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi”, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, and ‘Heathen (The Rays)’.
Two days later Bowie made a final appearance on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland. He played ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’, ‘Heathen (The Rays)’, and ‘Look Back In Anger’.
On 28 February 2003 Bowie performed ‘Heathen (The Rays)’ with backing from guitarist Gerry Leonard and the Scorchio Quartet, in an arrangement scored by Tony Visconti, at the Tibet House Benefit Concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Also performed at the show were versions of ‘Loving The Alien’ and the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’.
The real heavy hitters on that album, like ‘Sunday’ and the track ‘Heathen’, marked a new departure in his writing. It was super-deep, very complex, very lyrical, almost like prose or something. It was very evocative. I thought it was really powerful. I loved that side of David. I love the hit songs, but I love it when he gets super deep and takes us on more of a journey.
I love the record. I thought it was very moody and somewhat introspective but thoughtful. ‘Heathen’ and ‘Sunday’ were real operatic kind of works. It was very strong.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)