Over the last week or so I made a series of Facebook posts featuring eight David Bowie songs. They’re not necessarily his best known or most acclaimed tracks but they are the songs that have resonated with me the most – the ones that have gotten me through the hard times, connected with my interests or sparked a new way of seeing the world.
Because I’m still sad and because the music helps even while it reminds me why I’m sad, I propose to do a series of posts on Bowie Songs and What They Mean To Me. Aladdin Sane was the song that turned me from a girl with a crush to a true fan. I remember listening to it over and over in the dark when I was meant to be asleep. There’s the rhythm section driving it relentlessly forward, but the vocal line wavers, uncertain, full of mystery and questions. And then there’s Mike Garson’s tremendous piano, manic and off-kilter, weaving round the saxophone. It’s beautiful and exciting and not at all comfortable.
My next Very Important Bowie Piece is Warszawa. It’s slow and solemn, underpinned by what sounds like the toll of a distant bell, the melody lifts briefly but never quite takes off, there’s hope here perhaps but the vocals, which are sparse and in no human language, are anguished. This was the perfect soundtrack for teenaged brooding and is still a place I like to lose myself in. Turn up the volume, close your eyes and let your mind go.
Word on a Wing has always intrigued me. It’s a prayer, a hymn, a cry for help, and, unusually for Bowie’s work at that time, can be read as deeply personal. The song starts off hesitantly, just anadorned piano, before the rhythm section join in, pushing it along to something approaching purpose. At first blush the lyrics sound like a supplicants prayer “My prayer flies like a word on a wing/ Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?” But there’s not a lot of submission going on here as he goes on to sing “I’m alive in you…and I’m ready to shape the scheme of things.” This sounds like neither an acceptance nor rejection of faith but of a man embroiled in the messy business of figuring out where he stands.
Strangers When We Meet appears, in different versions, on two of my favourite albums (The Buddha of Suburbia and Outside). With it’s riff straight from Gimme Some Lovin’ it is, far and away, the most accessible track on the wonderfully odd Outside. This is the song I played on repeat when I was working on getting over a particularly ill-considered love affair. The line “All your regrets ride roughshod over me” was particularly resonant.
This is the song that got me through my teenage years and the song I want played at my funeral. Rock and Roll Suicide starts with musings about mortality set against suspiciously folky guitar before rising on soaring strings to bring a message of hope and comfort. Listen with tear-streaked cheeks and outstretched arms. I promise it will make you feel better.
Oh no love! you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone
Two Ziggy Stardust tracks in a row and it’s not even my favourite album! Reportedly written about Marc Bolan, the appeal of this one is simple – it captures the feeling of being a fan. Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name.
When I was 12 and starting to show an interest in science fiction my father dragged me to the library and made them fetch two books, Brave New World, and 1984 out of the stacks for me. Both books fascinated me and have stayed with me ever since. Diamond Dogs arose, to an extent, from an attempt (foiled, I believe, by the author’s estate) to write a musical based on 1984. We Are The Dead is the track which contains the most traces of the source material. It features weird, cut-up lyrics, an odd structure that consist of two different verse shapes and no real chorus, and a whole lot of atmosphere.
It seems fitting to conclude this series with a track from Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.
I’m pretty sure I would have come to the Kubrick directed films (and their associated novels) 2001 and A Clockwork Orange by myself or with my father’s guidance, had there been no Bowie connection but knowing the profound influence these works had had on my hero meant that experiencing them for myself became a matter of urgency. One of the few rows I recall my parents having was over my Dad’s wish to take 15 year old me to a screening of the R rated A Clockwork Orange. Mum’s pleas to legality meant I had to content myself with rereading the book for a few more years. One of the chief pleasures of A Clockwork Orange, for me, is its use of the invented argot Nadsat, where the reader or viewer is forced to learn the language to follow the story. Girl Loves Me is written in a mix of Nadsat and Polari (a British slang mainly used by homosexual men) and contains a 1984 reference to boot, all of which delights me. It might be a stretch to say this song brings full circle a career that took off with the Kubrik inspired Space Oddity, but I am quite pleased to see those early influences resonating right to the end. The sensitive should note that this song is spiky, urgent, and contains several fuck words.