Als das Kind Kind war,
erwachte es einmal in einem fremden Bett
und jetzt immer wieder,
erschienen ihm viele Menschen schön
und jetzt nur noch im Glücksfall.
(When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again,
many people seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by chance.)
Peter Handke, “Lied vom Kindsein.”
Thereafter all his dreams and plays were inspired by the magic words, “When I’m five an’ can see.” The sentence served as a mental spring-board to jump his imagination off into a world of wonder where he could see “dest—dest as good as big folks.”
Margaret Prescott Montague, “What Mr. Grey Said.”
“When I’m Five” is a sung by a child who wants to be a child. Or to be more precise, a true child, a child of five or seven, one who seemingly has the business of childhood sorted out. Age is the most salient of childhood’s hierarchies; age truly matters, each year has its own weight and presence, in a way it never quite does again. To a four-year-old, a seven-year-old (the first climacteric year, the year of permanent teeth) is an aspiration, a 10-year-old is a high master, while those over 13 belong to the Great Otherwhere, a sullen land full of dark, awful mystery.
Bowie’s “When I’m Five” is a thematic sequel to “There Is a Happy Land” (not just thematic—Bowie reuses “Happy Land”‘s bridge). Where the latter was sung by an all-seeing narrator who occasionally took the voice of the children he observed, “When I’m Five” is entirely first-person. It’s both endearing and embarrassing—Bowie sings in a pinched, awkward voice (matched visually by his mime-like performance in the promo film Love You Till Tuesday) and performs without a trace of self-consciousness. It feels quite personal for a Bowie lyric, which up until now have rarely been autobiographical: there’s a reference to “my Grandfather Jones,” as well as a crying father and a mother who keeps secrets tucked away in a drawer.
While “When I’m Five” is embedded deep in the mind of childhood, there’s also a flavor of departure in it—the child wants to grow up, if at first just to be a greater child, but escape and adulthood are his final aims. The adult world, with all its worries, pettiness and wonders (spitting tobacco, marching in army parades, marriage), has come flooding in. After a period in which British pop music had been besotted with childhood, a change appears to be coming, darkness and strife on the horizon.
Bowie cut a demo of the song in early 1968, while the only proper recording he made of it was at a BBC session on 13 May 1968—the BBC version was the soundtrack to the “When I’m Five” sequence in Love You Till Tuesday. The Beatstalkers were somehow convinced to cover the song, and released their bewildered version on their last single, c/w, appropriately, “Little Boy” (CBS 3936). It marked the end, both of the band’s connection to Bowie’s music and of the band itself.