Who Wrote the Stirring Song “The Man Who Sold the World”?

For fans of the iconic grunge band Nirvana, the group’s 1994 MTV Unplugged in New York album remains influential and impactful. Some even believe it’s the best Nirvana album there is, ahead of Nevermind and In Utero.

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Those rankings aside, the unplugged record includes a number of songs that the band didn’t write, songs like “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” by The Vaselines and “Lake of Fire” by the Meat Puppets.

Another one of the songs that the record helped make famous through the globally-popular grunge band was the lesser-known song, “The Man Who Stole the World.” But what are the origins of that song and who originally put it to paper?

David Bowie

Released in 1970 on the album of the same name by the British-born avant-garde artist, Bowie recorded his outer-space-like vocal for the song on the final day of mixing for the album. While the center of the song may be the guitar riff from Mick Ronson, its lyrics are heady and simultaneously create a sense of impending doom.

For Bowie, the feeling of the song has a sense of annoyance with himself for letting his world be rocked by fame. He’s given up his privacy, his control. His private life is public now. In this way, he’s the man who sold himself out.

According to musician Chris O’Leary, Bowie wrote the lyrics for the song in the reception area of the recording studio while bassist Tony Visconti waited in the mixing booth. Once finished, Bowie quickly recorded his verses with Visconti adding a “flange” effect and then mixing the song right then.

“This was the beginning of [Bowie’s] new style of writing—’I can’t be bothered until I have to,’” a frustrated Visconti said in 1977 of the last-minute writing. “When it was finished, on the last day of the last mix, I remember telling David, ‘I’ve had it, I can’t work like this anymore—I’m through.’ … David was very disappointed.”

Visconti’s frustration wasn’t creative as much as practical, worrying about budget and schedule. Of the sessions, Bowie told BBC in 1976, “It was a nightmare, that album. I hated the actual process of making it.”

Poetry

Bowie has said the lyrics for the song were inspired by poetry, including the 1899 offering by writer William Hughes Mearns, “Antigonish,” which reads,

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

And sings Bowie to start the song,

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

Nirvana

Despite its popularity now, the song was largely forgotten after its release in the early ’70s. It was never released as a single by Bowie. In 1973, the song was covered by the Scottish artist Lulu and that 1974 version, which was produced by Bowie and Ronson and had a more vaudevillian feel, hit No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart.

In 1993, however, Cobain and Nirvana covered the song in the band’s now-famous MTV Unplugged release, featuring acoustic instruments. The song’s original recording also featured an acoustic, with Bowie playing acoustic guitar, Ronson on electric, Visconti on bass, Woody Woodmansey on drums, and Ralph Mace on synth.

Seattle drummer Chad Channing introduced Cobain to the Bowie record. Later, the MTV version from Nirvana peaked at No. 3 on the music television channel’s most-played videos in 1995.

Bowie on Nirvana

Bowie further discussed the cover in the 2016 book, The Complete David Bowie, by Nicholas Pegg. “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’” Bowie is quoted saying in the book. “It was a good straightforward rendition and sounded somehow very honest.”

He added, “It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”

Bowie also said the song was “heartfelt” and “until this [cover], it hadn’t occurred to me that I was part of America’s musical landscape. I always felt my weight in Europe, but not [in the U.S.].”

Bowie later shared that he would play the song at his shows and younger fans would say it was cool he was playing a Nirvana song. “And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’” said the British-born former Ziggy Stardust.

Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

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