Meaning of The Man Who Sold the World

The history of modern music is replete with cases when a successful cover of a song becomes so much more popular than the original that many listeners no longer remember its author and first performer.

Something similar happened with The Man Who Sold the World, which many modern music lovers consider to be a Nirvana song.

The history of the creation of the song The Man Who Sold the World

Not everyone remembers or knows that David Bowie wrote it. He sang The Man Who Sold the World back in 1970 and made it the title track of his self-titled album. Kurt Cobain, who performed the song at MTV’s New York Acoustic Concert in 1993, was only three years old at the time of the first release.

But we will return to Nirvana, but for now let’s figure out what feelings or ideas Bowie wanted to express in the text of the composition.

The meaning of The Man Who Sold the World

Speaking of the title of the song, one cannot help but recall Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel The Man Who Sold the Moon (“The Man Who Sold the Moon”). Bowie is said to have read it. It is possible that the coincidence is accidental, because the plot of this literary work has nothing to do with The Man Who Sold the World.

Much more explicit are borrowings from Hughes Mearns’ poem The Psychoed. Check out the literal translation of the quatrain and compare it with the first verse of the song:

Climbing up the stairs
I met a man who wasn’t there
Today he wasn’t there again
What a pity, what a pity that he does not leave

Some critics believe that in The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie talks about the problems of perceiving his own personality, that he does not recognize himself, and therefore suffers. The photograph of David in a woman’s dress on the album cover partly confirms this version.

In addition, on the second time he sings the chorus, David Bowie sings, “We never lost our temper,” although on the first occasion he sings the same words in the first person singular. In this, you can see David’s struggle with his inner double, or his attitude towards himself as before.

However, who can guarantee that the song The Man Who Sold the World is not just a beautiful, but not having a deep meaning set of rhymed words, written under the impression of the works of some writers (the same Hughes Mearns).

Cover versions

Many artists have since sung The Man Who Sold the World, but Nirvana’s version from the live album MTV Unplugged in New York is currently the most famous. She was very fond of the fans of the group, who willingly performed it at live performances. The song can still often be heard on the radio and the video clip can be seen on music channels.

Whose version of The Man Who Sold the World is better?

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Interesting Facts

  • The first acoustic version of “The Man Who Sold the World” was recorded by Richard Baron in 1987, ahead of Nirvana by several years.
  • Lulu’s cabaret cover was produced by David Bowie himself.

The Man Who Sold the World Lyrics David Bowie

We passed upon the stairs
We spoke and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long long time ago

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed and shook his hand
And made my way back home
I searched for form and land
For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazeless stare
At all the millions here
I must have died alone
A long, long time ago

Who knows?
not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

The Man Who Sold the World lyrics by David Bowie

We climbed the stairs
We talked about different things
Even though I wasn’t there
He said I’m his friend
What came as a surprise
I told him right to his face
I thought you died alone
A long time ago

Oh no not me
I never lost my composure
You stand face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed, shook his hand
And headed home
I’ve been looking for outlines and ground
Year after year I wandered
I gazed with unseeing eyes
For all those millions
I must have died alone
A long time ago

Who knows?
Not me
We never lost our composure
You stand face to face
With the man who sold the world

Song quote

… the guys come up to me after and say: “It’s cool that you sing a Nirvana song.” And I think: “Go to hell, you little nerd!”

David Bowie

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