Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event, that when they were in the wood they had met their dead father and had a game with him.
J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy.
You’ve had your chance, and now the doors are closed, sir.
“There is a Happy Land.”
Once when I was around 24, I was sitting in a Manhattan subway car across from a kid who seemed irritated by his nattering mother. I gave him a raised eyebrow and a smile of sympathy and he stared at me coldly for a moment, as if I was absurd and possibly evil. I realized I was just a grown-up making a weird face at him. We were no longer allies. I had crossed the border and there was no going back; I wearily consigned myself to adulthood.
“There Is a Happy Land,” for me the best song on David Bowie, is Bowie’s attempt to convey the common mind of childhood. He wasn’t alone: psychedelia was in part a means of burrowing back into childhood, whose mindset was seen as being akin to LSD-inspired visions. Think of Syd Barrett’s early songs like “See Emily Play,” recorded a few months after this track.
Bowie’s “When I’m Five” and “There Is a Happy Land” are two of the better depictions in pop music of how a child regards the world, and as such they can be unnerving. In “Happy Land” there’s the sense of childhood being a separate order, with its ranks and guilds, its legends and factions all unknown to adults. The song is set in a field near dusk, the hour just before dinner, when the empire of children is at its height.
“There Is a Happy Land” is ironically named—childhood is rarely purely happy, but is rather tumultuous, epic, hilarious, terrifying and so surreal that the best attempts of artists only come halfway close to capturing it (maybe Jean Vigo or Lewis Carroll came the closest). The lyric has classic fictional children like Tiny Tim playing alongside Bowie’s own creations (perhaps even his memories of Bromley neighborhood kids), much like how kids often blend their lives with stories, as well as how they constantly appraise their world, assigning values and colors to their playmates: Jenny whose sister died, Billy with the limp. A child’s reasoning can be both straight and capricious: I recall being convinced that my dog Jip could talk, but chose not to, for mysterious reasons of his own.
The track has one of the LP’s more ambitious arrangements, opening with a 16-bar instrumental section, with an initial solo by what sounds like a celesta but could be a treated piano, a second by a distant-sounding French horn (again, my guess—could be a trumpet) that ends a bit discordantly. Pieces of the solos recur as motifs, along with several other themes (e.g., a tiny waterfall of piano notes on the penultimate bar of each bridge), which cycle through the rest of the song. Bowie sings much of the lyric in long, slow phrases, though the asides to adults are sung curtly, often in four-note phrases seemingly tacked on to the ends of verses. The two bridge sections are in constant harmonic churn, sometimes with a new chord for nearly every beat (the line “Tiny Tim sings prayers and hymns/he’s so small we don’t notice him,” for example, dips and rises like a seesaw, going (acc. to this chord chart) F/Em/Am/C/Am/C/F/Em over four bars).
The title is possibly derived from “There Is a Happy Land (Far, Far Away),” the 19th Century Scottish hymn, which begins “There is a happy land, far, far away/where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day.” Which fits well, for childhood is something of a storm-cloudy heaven.
Recorded on 24 November 1966; on David Bowie.
Top photo: Terry Fincher, “12 October 1966: Children playing outside 10 Rillington Place, London, the home of the mass murderer John Christie.”