Quicksand

Album: Hunky Dory (1971)
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Songfacts®:

  • With "Quicksand," Bowie is sinking into the madness of spiritual epiphany and occult awakening. The implications of what he's read and what he's thinking are too much, too heavy, and he's not sure he can escape before drowning. The best way to fully understand all of this is to illuminate some of the lines.

    I'm closer to the Golden Dawn
    Immersed in Crowley's uniform


    Founded in 1887 and disbanded in 1903, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was an occult organization centered in London. Aleister Crowley was a member of the group in the late 1890s and later went on to be the most influential occultist of his time (and possibly of entire 20th Century). Many musicians of the '60s and '70s were admirers or students of Crowley's teachings, including David Bowie.

    "Oh! You Pretty Things," also on Hunky Dory, is full of Crowley-inspired allusions.
  • Of imagery
    I'm living in a silent film
    Portraying Himmler's sacred realm


    This is the heaviest and most controversial reference in the song. Heinrich Himmler was one of the highest-ranking members of the Nazi party and a prime architect of the Holocaust. There is also evidence that he was a serious occultist with occult motivations for much of his "work."

    What's eerie in these lines is that Bowie is saying the movie he is living in is the reality of Himmler's occult beliefs, and this, more than anything in the song, may be why he's feeling his mind fracture.
  • Of dream reality
    I'm frightened by the total goal
    Drawing to the ragged hole
    And I ain't got the power, anymore
    No I ain't got the power anymore


    "Ragged hole" here is an obvious play on "rabbit hole." What is the total goal? Something related to the previous Himmler reference, perhaps? We can't know, but it seems as though whatever that goal is, it troubles Bowie deeply, and the more he thinks about it, the more it takes away his own vital energy.
  • I'm the twisted name on Garbo's eyes

    Greta Garbo was an American actress (though born in Sweden) very popular in the 1930s and '40s. She had weary eyes that stand out even today in still pictures, particularly for the way they seem to contradict the soft, graceful beauty of her other features.

    She started as a silent film star, so this line harks back to the ones about Himmler. Maybe Bowie was sparked by a specific silent film of hers.

    If so, he never mentioned it to anyone on record, but it would make sense because he did say that this song is a combination of "narrative and surrealism."

    Garbo was also a theosophist and occultist, bringing us back to that familiar theme.

    According to author Nicholas Pegg in The Complete David Bowie, Garbo was one of Bowie's influences for the pose he strikes on the cover of Hunky Dory.

    Rebel Rebel author Chris O'Leary suggests this reference may actually be to a World War II British double-agent spy named Juan Pujol García, codename Garbo. In the same year Hunky Dory was made, a book about Garbo was published under the title The Counterfeit Spy.
  • Living proof of Churchill's lies

    Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Connecting back to Himmler, that's more World War II referencing, which then works to connect (in ways that make no clear sense) more of this song to the 1940s, Garbo's heyday. What Churchill's lies were, we do not know.
  • I'm destiny
    I'm torn between the light and dark
    Where others see their targets
    Divine symmetry
    Should I kiss the viper's fang
    Or herald loud the death of Man
    I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
    And I ain't got the power anymore


    These lyrics start to get into some real strangeness, but they tie into the occult beliefs that Bowie seems to be grappling with (and losing his mind to). The "occult" is a broad word, but a relatively consistent idea across the Golden Dawn and theosophist types is that humanity needs to evolve into its next form, and that form has a set of morality completely foreign to our current one. Also, in the pursuit of that morality, what seems to be good may actually be bad, and vice versa. For example, sometimes from the flames of hardship, strength and resilience are born. Therefore, it may be the moral, ethical thing to inflict hardship on humanity in order to provoke its next stage of development.

    In between good and evil is "divine symmetry," and you can't get rid of one without getting rid of the other. The actual implications of that possible truth are severe. No, "Quicksand" most certainly isn't a dance song.
  • I'm not a prophet or a stone age man
    Just a mortal with the potential of a superman


    Here again we are reminded of this supposed need for humanity's evolution. Bowie has found himself in between "stone age man" and that next form, which Austrian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called the Übermensch, or "Superman," an idea that the Nazis stole and distorted for their perverse Aryan race mythology.
  • I'm tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
    Can't take my eyes from the great salvation
    Of bulls--t faith


    In his rapidly crumbling psyche, Bowie is tethered by the Christian ideals embedded in Western society. That is the "great salvation" he's referring to. Yet, he then identified this as "bulls--t faith."

    The choice of the word "tethered" is interesting in its neutrality. To be tethered to the ground is to be kept from blowing away in the wind, but whether or not that's a good or bad thing depends entirely on whether or not you want to fly.
  • If I don't explain what you ought to know
    You can tell me all about it
    On the next Bardo


    In Buddhist thought, the Bardo is the state between death and rebirth. It's where we go after we die and wait for our next incarnation. In The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg writes that many fans misconstrued this line to refer to French movie star Brigitte Bardot.
  • Don't believe in yourself
    Don't deceive with belief
    Knowledge comes with death's release


    In life, according to some spiritual ways of thinking, we are imprisoned in our egos and so are unable to see reality. That all changes when we die. This calls back to the Bardo line.
  • Bowie recorded this on July 14, 1971. He and the band did four takes, with the fourth making the album.
  • Ken Scott produced this song shortly after working on All Things Must Pass by George Harrison. With "Quicksand," he was trying to achieve a similar sound.

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