When I’m Five


When I’m Five (demo, 1968).
When I’m Five (BBC Top Gear 1968 recording; promo film).
When I’m Five (1969 demo).

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 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.

7 Responses to When I’m Five

  1. s.t. says:

    Hi Chris, I recently came across a demo apparently from ’67 called “C’est la Vie.” It sounds like it’s actually Bowie on the recording, but I couldn’t really find any info on it, and didn’t see a post on your site. Is it not legit?

    I wasn’t sure where to post this query, so I chose a song from around the same time. Thanks!

    • col1234 says:

      yes, it’s legit–it just leaked long after it would have come chronologically on the blog. But it’s in the book (so is “April’s Tooth of Gold” and some others) and perhaps i’ll do an entry for it as an addendum once i’m done w/the blog

      • s.t. says:

        Ah, I see. Thanks for the info. I didn’t realize that leaks were still in progress. Now I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the remaining “Leon” suites…

  2. I always think of ‘When I’m Five’ as a sort of childhood death disc. Headaches in the morning, daddy crying for no reason, everyone terribly worried when the narrator falls and cuts himself – from first listen I took it as read that the kid singing would never make it to five, no matter how much he implores the photo of Jesus.

  3. […] Lennon was arguably one of Bowie’s musical heroes although Bowie’s 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups was notable for the absence of Beatle covers. By 1973, Bowie had covered songs by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Pink Floyd, The Pretty Things, and The Who on vinyl but never The Beatles. Having said that, two Beatle songs did play a small part in his concerts between 1972 and 1974. Most notably, The Beatles very first British single ‘Love Me Do’ was often played as a medley with ‘The Jean Genie’. (On the 1990 Sound and Vision Tour, a snippet of ‘A Hard Day’s Night‘ was also sometimes incorporated into ‘The Jean Genie’). Bowie also occasionally covered ‘This Boy’ (the b-side of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, their fifth British hit single in his concerts) as part of the early ‘Ziggy Stardust’ shows. (I’m probably one of the few people in the world that has this song on bootleg). Speaking of bootlegs, the Chameleon Chronicles CD featured a cover of the 1967 single ‘Penny Lane‘ allegedly by Bowie along with The Monkees song ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ (written by Neil Diamond). Although these songs sound like 1960s Bowie, they were actually from a 1967 LP (Hits ’67) and sung by session singer (Tony Steven). Nicholas Pegg (in his great book The Complete David Bowie) also noted that Bowie’s late 1960s group Feathers included ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘ in their live set and that Bowie performed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four‘ in his 1968 live cabaret show after his own song ‘When I’m Five‘). […]

  4. john gage says:

    yes, ‘when i’m five’ is from the perspective of a terminally-ill child. ‘mummy said, if i’m good i could go to school in august— daddy shouted out at mummy’… the ending, praying to jesus, yawning… maybe the child won’t wake up. it’s pretty obvious, & brilliant.

  5. Miranda says:

    A dog named “Bonzo”? Aww. Someone watched “Do Not Adjust Your Set”, then, huh? I have a DVD of what managed to survive from that series, and I love it. It’s wonderfully imaginative. I’m not at all surprised that so many young adults watched it. I wonder whether Bowie listened to “The Goon Show” as a child, also. He had to have. He seems to have had a similar comedic sensibility.

    Maybe Bowie thought for a minute he might become a Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band sort of performer himself; he was creative enough, if not exactly a true eccentric like Vivian Stanshall. And if “I’m The Urban Spaceman” could become a top 10 hit out of nowhere for a band of talented weirdos in 1968, well, then, maybe their surprise success gave a struggling young musician an idea…

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