Word On a Wing

Word On a Wing.
Word On a Wing (rehearsal, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1999).
Word On a Wing (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).

With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of two bears in one den.

Maxim Gorky, on Tolstoy.

The heart and hymn of Station to Station, “Word On a Wing” is a petition to God, though as prayers go it’s rather opaque and quietly defiant, more of an opening negotiation tactic than a submission to a higher power. As much as he’s considering giving himself up to God, Bowie also seems as though he’s attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme.

Hence the warring moods of “Word On a Wing,” which is in turns suppliant (“I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things,” “‘just as long as I can walk, I’ll walk beside you, I’m alive in you”) and audacious (Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ, or the argumentative tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well“). Like the other love songs on Station to Station, the icy “Wild Is the Wind” and the love-as-confusion “Stay,” the singer seems to deny himself achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, though, Bowie’s playing for far greater stakes.

Bowie, like many of his era, class and country, was only nominally Christian*; when John Lennon said that the Beatles meant more to British kids than Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about. Bowie’s only spiritual efforts had been his brief dedication to Buddhism in the mid-’60s. So “Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, seemed a mild shock at the time. It’s the fruit of a period when, for the first time in his life, Bowie seriously thought about God. He told the NME that he wrote “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, so there’s a parallel to Lennon’s “Help!”—both songs are pleas for deliverance, written while their composers were stuck on a movie set, paranoid and depressed, wondering what they had become.

And like Bowie’s use of the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there’s even a blasphemous tone to “Word On a Wing,” with the imagery and musical trappings of Christian culture being used for occult ends. “Word” is white magic set against the necromancy of “Station to Station,” with the two tracks circling around each other on a single LP side, like yin and yang (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, separates them).

Bowie once called “Word On a Wing” a “protection…something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.” Bowie thought he needed protection. Around this time he allegedly hired a white witch in New York to help him combat what he described, in a paranoiac moment, as a coven of Satanic witches trying to steal his semen in order to breed a devil child (the perils of doing cocaine and watching Rosemary’s Baby once too often). The witch, one Walli Elmlark, came to Los Angeles and performed an exorcism on Bowie’s house (including the pool, a natural repository for demons) and gave him a list of counter-spells and protective incantations. “Word On a Wing,” a talisman encased in a song, was another buttress.**

In 1975, at the depths of his isolation and despair, Bowie had considered converting to some form of evangelical Christianity, as Bob Dylan would do a few years later, but at some point Bowie pulled back. Recalling the period in the NME interview five years later, Bowie seemed to regard this temptation as one would a failed, if nearly-consummated, romance. “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking…finding the cross as the salvation of mankind.

Still, Bowie would wear a crucifix around his neck for decades to come, and he left as his solitary witness “Word On a Wing,” a song whose ironies and compromised origins don’t detract from its beauty (along with “Life on Mars?” it’s one of the most melodically gorgeous pieces Bowie ever wrote) and the sustained commitment of Bowie’s performance. The song moves from the somber, weary acceptance of the early verses, which Bowie sings in his low register, to move to lovely assurance, the way Bowie cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again,” to the ornate, rising and falling phrase in the final chorus (“my prayer flies like a word on a wing”), with Bowie and his fellow singer Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. The track ends with a celestial soprano bearing the song away from its fallen creator (it’s actually a Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron).

Bowie’s brand of fascism, while it embraced irony, was basically serious; or was taken seriously by a certain hermetic compartment of his mind, wherein it dwelt. The rest of him…was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station to Station a song, “Word On a Wing,” which semi-seriously kept a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Ian MacDonald, “White Lines, Black Magic.”

“Word On a Wing” offers ascension via key changes: the song starts in B major, an unusual and remote key, for two verses (perhaps to counter the odd choice of key, the chord progression is straight I-IV-V), with Bowie initially singing the root note, B, and so paralleling the bass. With the chorus, there’s a move to D-flat (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”), then a shift to D major for the second part of the chorus (on “Lord, Lord, my prayer flies…“), then a slip back to B major at the start of the final verse, whose lyric is a medley of the previous verses. (There’s far more to come, with a move back to D for a bridge, then another spell of D-flat, with the song finally ending in D, concluding on the tonic.)

As lovely as the accompaniment on “Word On a Wing” is, the song is essentially a work for solo voice and piano. Whatever random elements had led to Roy Bittan playing on Station to Station (no one remembers how it happened—Earl Slick, who had played with Bittan, once said he had suggested him, while other reports have it that Bittan happened to be staying in the same LA hotel as Bowie), Bittan’s presence on “Word On a Wing” seems destined. From the child’s steps of a melody in the intro to the steady chording in the verses, from the cascading notes flowing under Bowie singing the “sweet name” section to the sprightly two-note interjection that caps the “word on a wing” prayer, Bittan’s piano is Bowie’s guide, confidant and fellow pilgrim; it’s granted a divinity that the singer craves as much as he spurns. A beautiful struggle, a wondrous song.

Recorded October-November 1975. Performed on the 1976 “Isolar” tour, and revived in 1999.

Top: Close-up of Elizabeth Frink’s Shepherd and Sheep, 1975 (Photo: Steve Rutherford.)

* The decline in British churchgoers, notable even in the war years, was a cause of national concern and as such the subject of several books, the wittiest of which was R.C. Churchill’s The English Sunday (1954): “The Bible itself, however, has ceased in general to be read in England. What, then, do we read instead? Apart from Sunday newspapers a good many people, of course, read nothing at all on Sundays.”

** While many of Bowie’s reported adventures in Los Angeles at this time seem, in retrospect, to have been only tall tales or bad dreams, Marc Spitz confirmed a great part of this bizarre story via interviews with Angie Bowie, Cherry Vanilla and Timothy Green Beckley.

9 Responses to Word On a Wing

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    A truly excellent analysis, particularly the bit about this song being the ‘The heart and hymn of Station to Station’. Perhaps it’s possible to go further and think of this song as being the heart of 70s Bowie: all songs either leading here or departing from Word on a Wing.

    Word on a Wing would have made a much better title for the album and I’d like to think this was the last song written for Station for Station. It’s both thematically and melodically intricate, and the performance is too easily taken for granted. (Take a look at any of the first three links at the top of the page and then try to think of anyone else who could have ever come close.) I’d like to believe that upon realising he’d mastered his craft -songwriting, production, and performance – the only thing left for Bowie to do now was to unlearn it all.

    Put simply, this is as good as it gets within the limitations of pop music.

  2. ian says:

    This song always sounded “wrong” to me somehow, when I was first listening to it. I think it was probably the key changing, and the bridge with “scheme of things” just came out so suddenly to my ears, that when I was younger, it really turned me off.

    Now I don’t feel that way, I get that it’s not jarring, it’s actually really smart. This whole song is a jarring key-change, like is said above, it’s the White Magic to the Black Magic the rest of the album has.

    I doubt that that’s really the intent about the song’s composition. It’s more built to drive up the feeling the longer the song goes on, which it does pretty spectacularly, I must now admit.

    And now, of course, I think the “scheme of things” bridge is my favorite part of the song.

  3. diamonddog says:

    Fascinating stuff and many pieces of opinion that breath life into the meaning behind this magical piece both touching in its desperation and chilling in its mythical occult leanings. Great read well done. You need these publishing.

  4. don says:

    I agree with diamonddog

  5. Maj says:

    Thanks for this entry. Since Bowie never seemed very religious to me I was very surprised when I listened to this song for the first time some odd 8 or 9 years ago.
    This being more of a talisman than a prayer definitely makes more sense. I have to say I tried to stay away from this Bowie obsession (the occult stuff), so this particular meaning of the song didn’t really cross my mind. This song being part some sort of a spell and part a prayer is probably the best interpretation, tho.

    As for the crucifix that Bowie wears, he got it from his father (according to Any Day Now)…too lazy to look up the exact citation now but basically it’s not as much of a religious thing as it is a memory of his late father who sadly passed away way too soon. It’s interesting that a crucifix became a symbol of their relationship since I don’t think the late Mr. Jones was a religious man either.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Since this is Bowie’s lifeline in an album devoted to paranormal techno-phenomena (TVC 15) and gnosticism/black magic/kabbala (Station to Station), I will let it pass. But it always made me recoil in horror how someone who spent most of the decade trying to destroy (wittingly or unwittingly) Western civilization as we know/knew it, goes back to his big imaginary friend in the sky in this lapse of judgement. I suppose cocaine and despair make strange bedfellows.

    It really is one of the most amazing ballads Bowie ever wrote, but every time da Lawrd steps in for a cameo I feel my guts contract like a boner against an icepack. Maybe that’s Bowie after all: shocking you with revulsion while getting you hot and bothered by putting his freak on you.

  7. Momus says:

    I don’t much care for this religiose song, but I will say that the appearance of the chamberlain in the last few seconds prefigures the instrumentals on the second sides of Low and “Heroes”. If a sense of doubt can resolve itself via faith into religious commitment, offering comforting words to the believer, the same doubt can also be left unresolved, freestanding and wordless. This would make the instrumentals on the following two albums secular hymns of a sort, much more brave and bleak than Word on a Wing.

    Stereotyping slightly, I’d add that America is a continent that welcomes certainty, whereas Europe prefers doubt. Station To Station may be reaching out to Europe, but it’s still very much an American album. The records to come would be European in their refusal of easy consolation.

  8. Q says:

    by skip its meaning, this song is truely beautiful

  9. Discosid says:

    A note on the meaning of the song that was missed.

    I have been fascinated by Word on a Wing for two decades mostly because it is so difficult to get a grip on meaning-wise. Really the song is great and the vocal performance is nearly transcendent but so are other songs by Bowie.

    What set the song apart for me since I was about 14 years old,(1980) wwhen I first listened closely, was that I couldn’t get a hold of it. It’s twists and turns emotionally like a fish on the line. Like he is looking for an answer to a specific question and it’s not the common ones we all ask. They don’t fit.

    26 years later, I was working on a popular tv show in the jungles of central America and I found myself alone, away from my wife for months, and growing addicted to cocaine. I was and am an atheist but I found myself against my will and better judgement praying to a god I didn’t believe in to give me the will to stop. One minute later I would be taking another hit. My prayers would fly away like a word on a wing.

    I finally understood what Bowie was going through and what the song meant. I think it perfectly describes a moment of desperation of an addict and also possibly the self destructive person who can’t break his habits.

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