The Man Who Dies Every Day

Someone stood beside me for a moment in the rain
A silhouette, a cigarette and a gesture of disdain
I felt a dark door open, saw a sudden ghost come through
A spark leap from my fingertip and I knew it must be you

Ain’t you the man who dies every day?
You’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man

We never saw you walk in
We never saw you leave
You flicked the ashes of a laugh
On everybody’s sleeve
You always play that funny pack
of cards without an ace
And every street you ever walked
is mapped out on your face

‘Cause you’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man

You always kept a sunset behind your lonely shoulder
You never showed on photographs and you never grew much older
You flicker like a shaky shadow, move in like a thief
You never drop your facade and you never seek relief

‘Cause you’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man who dies every day
You’re the man

 

Lyrics © John Foxx.

Thoughts on the text © Martin Smith and translated from birdsong.
Link to the post by all means, but please don’t reproduce the content without permission.

Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. William Burroughs called it ‘creative observation.’ John Foxx calls it ‘songwriting’ :

“I don’t like to be too specific… That’s the wonderful thing about words. They seem to be specific, but they’re not really… I especially like to find words that can easily be specific to different interpretations. Everyone brings their own experience to them, and I find that tremendously exciting.”

As far as examples of finely worked observational songwriting goes, Man Who Dies Every Day is John Foxx at his creative finest. He has honed the lyrics to a perfect cutting edge, balanced on which is a ghost, walking unseen on a crowded street; the eponymous lead figure in a low-budget second feature horror movie. His title would look just perfect on a poster in the great B-Movie tradition of The Thing From Another World, The incredible Shrinking Man, Robot Monster or the legendary H-Man.

third_man_xlg

The verses he has created in which to set this Imaginary Man are structured in a form known as iambic heptameter, which sounds horrifically like some kind of oozing, flesh-eating jelly. It’s a technique popular with poets in the 16th and 17th centuries, using fourteen syllables to a line, a meter that was later favoured by Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe.  Rhyming couplets can be presented in two lines, or broken into four – literally known as ballad stanza. Foxx lyrics to this song can be presented in both forms, and the second verse is shown here broken into four lines as an example. See how the eighth metric foot of the first ‘line’ is a pause, allowing him to repeat ‘We never…’ to extend the dramatic effect; and how the title itself comprises seven feet?
Poetic craftsmanship.

The way in which this lyric scans makes it among my favourites in John Foxx entire catalogue. It has clearly been shaped, but with so much care and attention that the effects of the labour are smooth, rhythmic and flowing, rather than trite and forced.

Right from the first line we are taken to the scene from a dream cinema, the opening sequence from a short film. You know I hate to ask, but who is this mysterious figure, cast in shadow? Shrouded in a long coat and grey hat. Smoking a cigarette. Could it be Carol Reed’s Third Man – acclaimed as one of the great masterpieces of film-noir cinematography. This is well-spun poetry, evocative songwriting. Is there just one, perhaps two different men being described in the narrative. Or more? Just who is the Man Who Dies Every Day?

In William Burroughs 1953 novel, he is a junkie, running on junk time. Out of synch. A man who lives only between each fix. When the supply of junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. A man who has become all that he is ever going to be and who has reached his point of endless departure.

“When you stop growing, you start dying”

Or is the junk instead some kind of static energy? Is this the half-finished boy from one of John Foxx own stories, a figure ‘assembled’ from bits and pieces of memorabilia, junk, electricity and hope? Fuelled into the vaguest of un-lives by the spark of electroflesh generated from bits of metal found in overgrown laboratories.

Whoever he is, we know him. We all know him well, and he features somewhere in the imagination of each of us. That is what makes him indefinably real. We don’t know where he came from and we did not see exactly when he left. His movements defy any kind of location or chronology. Time itself is not linear, it drifts around us like smoke casting us back and forth through our timelines. Marching across our own screens, our future’s not returning
He cuts a familiar, yet threatening figure and we are uncomfortable in his absence / presence. Perhaps he is not a man at all, but a memory? Consider that for a moment. Call to mind an experience to which you would rather not admit; a relationship you prefer not to acknowledge. A secret, whose mystery is clearly written in the lines mapped out on your face?

There are countless interpretations of who he is and what he represents. To a young Gary Numan for example, himself a by-product of Burroughs creative observation, the Man Who Dies Every Day became a teenager whose ‘junk’ is masturbation –  “I unstick pages and read…”

In being different to each one of us, he becomes a fictional truth.
And when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?

As Victor Frankenstein relates in Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, “The whole series of my life appeared to me as a dream; I sometimes doubted if indeed it were all true, for it never presented itself to my mind with the force of reality.”

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