Like a Rocket Man

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Like a Rocket Man.

Given the new direction revealed in “Blackstar” and (possibly) its upcoming album, the Next Day Extra tracks now seem, particularly in the winning “Like a Rocket Man,” as a last (?) winking goodbye to the past, to the point where they barely exist as songs. They’re more bright coalitions of memories, in which everything from lyric to title to vocal to chords has an analogue somewhere back in the dead 20th Century.

“Like a Rocket Man” ticks off more boxes than even the other past-obsessed songs of The Next Day. The title’s a dig at an Elton John single Bowie had groused about being a “Space Oddity” ripoff from the day it charted; the verse melody is a near-actionable steal of the Beatles’ “Help“; the lyric references (again) the Kinks’ “Days,” while much of it’s a brutal recollection of what it was like to be a cocaine addict in the mid-Seventies.

As in “Fascination,” Bowie personifies cocaine (quite literally: “Little Wendy Cocaine”) as the consuming passion of his life in the Young Americans/ Station to Station years. His sunny top melody shines up his lines describing the joys of coke, its delusions, its agonies (“I’m lead, oh, I’m sand…I’m crawling down the wall: I’m happy screaming, yes I am!…I have no shape nor color, I’m God’s lonely man…I don’t want to die but I don’t want to live”). Of course, it’s easy to get lost in Bowie’s house of mirrors here: he’s playing openly with his own myths, tweaking the Coke Dark Magus Bowie tabloid image that gets drummed into service whenever a new album, single or biography is released.

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“[It] has a deceptively bouncy beat but lyrically it goes to more dark places,” Tony Visconti said of the track, “and this time David sings it with a cheeky smile.” And Bowie savors his rhymes: the consonance of “shaking hips and cuckoo eyes” and the title line; the triple runs of “doxy/ trolly/ poxy” and “anything/ dealing/ heaven sings.”

The feel, musically, is a brief tour through a shadow Sixties via the Nineties, with a latticework of guitars: a brisk acoustic matched to the dry snare/cymbal drum figure; a low-mixed bass; ominous David Torn atmospheres heard in the middle distance; Gerry Leonard’s wistfully arpeggiated opening riff (packed off after being played once) and the groaning, retorting twin-guitar riff (Torn) that stamps itself on the coda.

Bowie provides his usual backdrop of “commenter” backing vocals (Elvis-like low asides, a few Ronnie Spector tics), while his lead vocal, particularly when single-tracked, has the nasally timbre of a fledgling work like “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” with some raw-sounding grazed notes left in the mix (see the high notes on “just tooo-ma-row” at 1:25) . It’s a fitting performance for a slight bonus track that wound up being a secret wake for a half-century’s worth of personae and memories.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.

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Pictures: From various chapters of Casanova: Avaritia (Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá), 2011-2012. Things have come full circle: this book of Casanova was partially inspired (so Fraction says) by a look at “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” some years ago (Bowie fans will have a field day with the amount of references piled into this comic). So here we have it: the blog using for illustrations something that the blog itself played a (very) small role in. Yet another sign my work’s almost done. Thanks, Matt!

Also: don’t forget there’s a poll going on. And Happy Thanksgiving.

22 Responses to Like a Rocket Man

  1. Maj says:

    I sort of hear the Help steal, if I try hard, but I definitely never heard it on my own, no matter how many times people mentioned it.

    It’s a fun song, but self-or-otherwise-referencing jokey lyrics notwithstanding I wish Marc Bolan wrote it about 38/40 years ago…Something tells me I would have enjoyed it even more with an actual post-glam 70’s production (ala Dandy in the Underworld.).

  2. scarymercedes says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter:

    I always noticed the “Battle for Britain” pre-chorus manifesting as this song’s chorus much more than I’ve noticed the “Help” verse lift, although now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t un-hear it.

  3. roobin101 says:

    Easily the best Extra. All that Nex Day compression finally works – it’s a bright, bright tune very well played. But you can hear why this got dumped on a buy-the-same-album-twice EP. If you’re about to clear the decks for the ‘weird’ album you promised for 2005 you don’t want this hanging round.

  4. colincidence says:

    “was just tomorrow and | I could squeeze” is a pretty blatant vocal track cutoff, but forgivable given the playful use of vocal tracks.

    Props to that coda riff; song could be middle-of-the-road without this elevation.

  5. s.t. says:

    I love this one. Another rare case of unqualified enjoyment of a Next Day era track. I personally think it would have made the album stronger. Toss Boss of Me and World on Fire, and do retro with some impish glee.

  6. MC says:

    I love this one too. In the hierarchy of sci-fi themed tracks on The Next Day Extra, this for me would be Number One with a bullet (with the mildly enjoyable Born In A Ufo in second place and Atomica a very distant third) I always felt that the apparent Buddy Holly-isms in the vocal (“highlights in her ha-ha-hair,” etc) linked it to a certain earlier meditation on the failed Space Age. Could this, rather than Loving The Alien or Hallo Spaceboy, be the belated sequel to Ashes To Ashes, Major Tom’s sad junkie comedown repeated as farce?

    With it’s wailing guitar outro, it’s bouncy rhythm, and its impossibly infectious vocal performance, Like A Rocket Man is a worthy companion to Valentine’s Day (which just made my Top 30). It’s joyous riff-rock married to scenes of squalor and despair – my kind of pop music!

  7. BenJ says:

    There’s something likably perverse about slapping an Elton John title on a song that catalogs all your favorite Beatles tunes. Well, that plus the “God’s lonely man” pull from Taxi Driver.

    You’ve got me interested in the Casanova comic. I’ve really only read Matt Fraction’s Marvel work up till now, and I’ve enjoyed it. I really should take a look at his independent stuff.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Chris!!

  9. James says:

    Easily my favorite of the TND bonus tracks, and among my favorite from that era. Literally laughed out loud the first time I heard the “rice and beans” line.

    I know it’s just another narrative that will likely shift even more with time, but with all the excitement about Blackstar brewing I find myself agreeing with the emerging sentiment that TND and Reality were a bit too pro forma. Interesting ideas everywhere, and some absolutely great songs, but the production/arrangement of some of the songs could be too “easy to please,” like Bowie/Visconti were preparing the songs for a different audience. That kind of gauzy 2000’s high-budget-indie-rock sound. Don’t know if that makes sense. I think Bowie avoided this to a great extent with Heathen, which only gets better with age and remains among my favorite albums.

    That said… it works so well with this song. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

  10. comicalArchitect says:

    So, are you intentionally leaving “Heat” for last, or did you forget about it? (I heavily doubt the latter, but I just wanted to make sure.)

  11. Momus says:

    1. David Bowie sounding a bit like The Beatles. It’s got a history, hasn’t it? The way all those big sing-along endings, starting with Memory of a Free Festival, hark back to Hey Jude. The Twist and Shout intro to Let’s Dance. The way the “It’s Monday” section in Joe The Lion reminds you of the mid-section in Day in the Life. Or how the “mice in their million hordes” in Life on Mars recalls those “four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire”. Or, you know, the Lennon collaborations.

    2. This song — my favourite amongst the Extras, and in my top 5 of Next Day-era songs — has some great lyrics: “She’s a drunken doxy off her trolly / Sent before her time into this poxy world”. It’s a dizzy evocation of the ridiculous relationships you get into when you’re a coke fiend.

    3. I am not a coke fiend. The one time I snorted a half-line (at a film producer’s house, naturally) I had to go and lie down, because my poor little Momus heart couldn’t take it. But then, I can’t even take strong coffee. And while you might expect that someone who worshipped David Bowie would develop, at the very least, an imitative Gitanes habit, I somehow never had the slightest interest in taking up smoking. However, I must be addicted to something, because tragi-comic songs about addiction do touch me. “Cocaine” here might stand in for sex, or for making ten-point comments on blogs, or whatever else I do in a driven, self-destructive way.

    4. It’s still one of the top things people who don’t know much about David Bowie do know: “Oh, yes, in the seventies he was just living on red peppers and milk, so much of the naughty white powder was he chucking up his nose, hur hur!” I’m never quite sure why this is supposed to be so interesting, but I guess it’s to do with the fact that self-indulgent excess is a much more accessible thing — much more universal in an age of consumerism — than genius. It’s easy to identify with self-destructive self-gratification, not so easy to identify with Nietzschean artistic ambition or a Zelig-like ability to assume the form of… well, whoever’s impressing you this week.

    5. Some of the language in this song connects to ’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, in that it seems inspired by the bawdy, violent pyrotechnics of Jacobean drama. Here’s a bit, for instance, from Dekker and Middleton’s play The Roaring Girl (1611): “I have by the solomon a doxy, that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben booze, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, and a quacking cheat.” (Wow, it’s almost Nadsat!)

    6. Since I like to assign arbitrary inspirations and origin points to Bowie songs, I’m going to say, just for fun, that this song comes out of a little aside in one of Bowie’s most coked-up interviews, the one filmed in Holland in October 1977. The crew keeps stopping to reload the film. Bowie is chirpy and stroppy, playful and bored, jumping around, glugging milk. “Alright David, maybe this is the past for you, but I’d like to talk about your experiences in show business,” ventures one of the Dutch interviewers. Bowie cuts in, suddenly adopting a Cockney roadie accent and cupping his hand over his mouth confidingly: “Well, there was this girl…uh, carry on…” The interviewers crack up. That’s not the kind of experience they had in mind, but it’ll certainly do.

    7. There was this girl, and we were both wound up tight as cuckoo clocks. Her eyes were going booiiing, out on springs, when she sped by. We met on the ceiling, by the strip-light bulbs. She fed me rice and beans and liberal lashings of the powder. It was Lulu. No it wasn’t, it was Candy Clark. I was a rocket man, and I’d fallen to earth, and just riding the elevator gave me a nosebleed. The blood came out white. I didn’t want to die and I didn’t want to live. I was succeeding and then I was failing. I did good things, bad things. I can’t remember anything at all from that year, because the stuff that winds the cuckoo clock also Swiss-cheeses your brain. I only remember things by singing about them. I tried to get back into my rocket but they didn’t let me.

    8. Today I called Blackstar “dad-avant” on Facebook. I was pointing people towards a new Simon Bookish EP that consists of a single 16-minute track that “makes Blackstar sound like dad-avant”. But there’s nothing wrong with dad-avant; it’s better than dad rock. The Next Day’s problem is that no matter how compelling the songs are, they’re trapped in this efficient, sterile rock box, a sonic coffin full of echoes of the 1960s and 70s. I don’t really care that Like A Rocket Man references a 1972 Elton John song, but I do care that the music is stuck in a boring 1972 box. (In 1972 it would have sounded a lot more compressed and dirty.)

    9. I’ve been reading Anthony Reynolds’ book Japan: A Foreign Place, and listening to Tin Drum again. Sylvian is a Bowie clone at this point (1982), but takes care to play the influence down in interviews. Listen to Visions of China, though, and you get lyrical references to Yassassin, Stay, Beauty and the Beast, Wild is the Wind, Blackout, Up the Hill Backwards, and Heroes. All in that one song! It’s easy to imagine Bowie just thinking: “These guys are taking the piss!” Just as he might have done when he first heard Rocket Man, ten years before.

    10. I do like this song, even if anticipation of the new material has eclipsed its virtues somewhat. But that was always Bowie’s way, wasn’t it? In tiring of his old schtick a year or so before the rest of us, he had just enough time to get us ready for his new schtick in anticipation of its street date. Happy Thanksgiving, Bowiephiles! Save some drool for the dad-avant.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      re: point 9 – I know Tin Drum is generally considered to be Japan’s masterpiece, but I personally much prefer Gentlemen Take Polaroids. As well as the title track, it has the sublime Nightporter, Methods of Dance, My New Career and Taking Islands In Africa, all of which I adore. Of course, for me the album is inextricably bound up in memories of the early 80s.

    • david says:

      Their maybe nothing wrong with ‘Dad Avant’ as you call it, but maybe it comes across as the most ageist thing I’ve heard levied at the man since Earthling.I mean at 68 and still straddling the spectrum, has he earned that?

      I don’t get the Bookish thing either, sounds like a bad Lexicon of Love outtake, but maybe I need to hear more of his stuff.

      I will join you in my revere of Sylvian though-I don’t know if he’s ‘Dad Avant’ either, but ‘Random Acts of senseless violence’ might be at least the weird offspring of a Bowie/Walker conception.

  12. crayontocrayon says:

    First time I heard it, I wasn’t much of a fan. The obvious Help rip-off, the strained high notes. It didn’t seem as polished as most of the other extra tracks. Over time it’s won me over, more for it’s charm than it’s content. I can’t not love a Bowie song with a space reference

  13. postpunkmonk says:

    I’ve been listening to “Extra” a lot lately and the “Help” steal on “Like A Rocket Man” was driving me batty. It sounded like an iconic 60s pop hit and I could not for the life of me remember exactly what. What would I do without this blog? I also noticed that while there was a whiff of Dylan in the lyrical references, and perhaps even the vocals, what really stood out for me when listening to this was The Return Of Anthony Newley®, for perhaps the last time, in Bowie’s vocal performance.

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