Reissues: Word On a Wing

A good place as any to close the “reissues” series, which I hope you’ve enjoyed or tolerated. This is one of the essential Bowie songs of the Seventies, and as such it’s weird, beautiful and a touch over-the-top.

As the man said at the end of the past century, “1975, 1976, and a bit of 1974, and the first few weeks of 1977, were singularly the darkest days of my life. I found myself up to my neck in such negativity. And it was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh on impossible, certainly painful…unwittingly this song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure it was a call for help.

Back “live” at some point this month. Have a good rest of the summer.

Originally posted on 16 December 2010, it’s “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 more of an opening negotiation, Bowie attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme. Hence its warring moods, suppliant and audacious (see Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ or the petulant tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well”). As in his love-as-confusion “Stay,” Bowie denies himself from achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, he’s playing for greater stakes.

He was only nominally Christian. When John Lennon said the Beatles had meant more to British kids than Jesus Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about.* This didn’t mean Bowie was spiritually empty: he’d spent his twenties looking for some sort of God figure that met his high standards, a path that took him from Beat existentialism to Tibetan Buddhism to whatever brew of cabbalist Gnosticism he was imbibing in 1975 (see “Station to Station”). “I had this religious fervor,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force.”

“Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, was Bowie’s (apparently) open plea for salvation from God. He’d been tempted at the time by some sort of evangelical Protestantism, into which Bob Dylan would dive headfirst a few years later. As Bowie began writing “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, there was 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’d become. In an NME interview in 1980, Bowie regarded his dalliance with Christianity as a 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.”

This sounded similar to how he’d described past relationships to journalists at the time: as an all-consuming passion that had threatened his sense of self. To bend the knee to God, to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, required humility, an acceptance that there are higher powers beyond your ken, to have faith and to not try to learn the trade secrets of the cosmos. Ultimately this wasn’t enough for Bowie; it was taking the sucker’s bet.

So like his reference to the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there was a touch of blasphemy in “Word On a Wing,” with Bowie using the imagery and musical trappings of Christian art for occult ends. Bowie crafted the song as white magic to set against the dark “Station to Station,” the two tracks spinning in parallel on an LP side, yin and yang in grooves (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, keeps them apart). The song was 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.”

He felt he needed protection. He’d been under siege by “dark forces” since 1974 (once throwing away a doll his cousin had given him for fear it was a Satanic totem), a predicament worsened upon moving to Los Angeles. When his wife Angela found a house on North Doheny Drive, Bowie wanted it cleansed. Following the instructions of the New York witch Walli Elmlark (which required “a few hundred dollars’ worth of books, talismans and assorted items from Hollywood’s comprehensive selection of fine occult emporia”), Angela performed an exorcism on the house, including the indoor swimming pool, a natural repository for demons.

Bowie was using Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense as a bulwark. Fortune, a British mystic of the early 20th Century, wrote that man had two Angels, a Dark Angel (which she likened to the subconscious, “a dark temptation from the depths of our lower selves…we think thoughts, or even do deeds, of which we never would have believed ourselves capable”) and a Bright Angel. The mystic’s goal is to summon the latter angel in times of “spiritual crisis, when the very self is being swept away,” she wrote. “The Higher Self comes to the rescue, ‘terrible as an army with banners’.” If successful, one has an expanded consciousness, a sense of calm, “like a ship hove-to, securely riding out the storm.”

Compare this to Bowie’s various public statements about “Word On a Wing,” that it was “something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself” or “I wrote [it] when I felt very much at peace with the world….I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?” “Word on a Wing” was his protective talisman encased in a song, much like the small crucifix he’d wear around his neck for decades.

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” starts in somber opening verses, which Bowie sings in his low register (on stage in 1976, he sang-spoke the lines, sounding like Lou Reed); it’s in B major, an unusual and remote key for a rock song. He cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again” as if he’s consoling God. All at once comes a jolting move to D-flat major (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”) which continues for over a dozen unsettled bars until the song steadies in D (“Lord! Lord, my prayer flies…”). The latter section builds to the ornate rise-and-fall phrase that closes the refrain, with Bowie and Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. And then a swift fall down to earth, back to B major to start another verse. Only after further struggle is “Word On a Wing” content to stay in D major, concluding on the home chord as a celestial soprano bears the song away from its fallen creator.

This voice was generated by the Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron, whose appearance here is similar to its role on the instrumentals of Bowie’s next two albums, Low and “Heroes.” In particular “Sense of Doubt” on the latter, a track that ends ambiguously, either to “resolve itself via faith into religious commitment or be left unresolved, freestanding and wordless,” as Momus once said. It would be a wary response to “Word On a Wing.”

The Chamberlin’s just one of the gorgeous touches, along with the left-mixed vibraphone that’s a counterpart to Roy Bittan’s piano or the acoustic guitar fills. The heart of the song, however, is a work for voice—see the astonishing harmonies by Bowie and MacCormack in the refrains—and piano. Whatever led to Bittan playing on Station to Station, his presence on “Word On a Wing” seems ordained. There are the child’s steps of melody Bittan plays in the intro, his steady chording in the verses, the cascading notes under the “sweet name” section, the sprightly two-note punctuation of the “word on a wing” prayer. A fellow pilgrim, Bittan’s piano has a grace that Bowie desperately craves, much as he spurns it.

Recorded October-November 1975, Cherokee Studios, LA. 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.”

40 Responses to Reissues: Word On a Wing

  1. Mr Tagomi says:

    An absolutely world-class bit of writing, this.

  2. Phil Obbard says:

    “…which I hope you’ve enjoyed or tolerated.” For me, it’s ENJOYED — and looking forward to the upcoming entries, too (admittedly, with a marked sense of sadness). Thanks for everything, Chris.

  3. greg says:

    Really looking forward to the new posts Chris.

  4. leonoutside says:

    Yea, agreed. Nice one Yankee. Great track and deserved nothing less. Bloody hell. Good Job.

  5. Waki says:

    Ha! A good place to close any Bowie chapter indeed.
    It’s a very, very ambiguous song for me –possibly just like the lyrics can reflect a lot of ambiguity. The lyrics are actually quite plain faithful in a modern way. But the music and voice… Nah. To me this is obviously just another character singing among hundreds if them, this is not the actual voice of the very secret David Jones. Of course he certainly tapped into his own spirit to fetch words and such. But the voice and singing sounds quite fake to my ear. Also Bowie doesn’t fit into any of the hypothetical conventional “scheme of things” he mentions and for sure he knew he did not fit and did not have to fit into schemes. He was all about freedom and exploration, experimentation, movement forward and in all durections. He owned his sexuality and creativity very boldly. I am not sure we can take at face value what he said about him actually praying. Willingness to communucate with God at that stage of his life? Sure and why not. But possibly willingness to communicate with puritain America too. Wasn’t that era his time if greatest seduction?
    This song certainly has many layers, and its reflective and spiritual and inquisitive theme is quite emblematic of Bowie, so thank you for bringing it up. It’s a very cool, hopeful and sweet way to close a chapter if you so desire.
    But this song for me is not a major Bowie piece at all for the reasons I hopefully managed to put across. Or basically i don’t find his singing here compelling. Maybe God or Christ did? The actual prayer was happening somewhere else i believe, though this song like all of them can be seen as a part of the whole of Bowie Deeds, a Grand Hymn to mankind in this time of delusion, spirituality and all included.

  6. JW says:

    Really enjoyed revisiting some of these songs and looking forward to the new posts.

  7. Vinnie says:

    Cheers, Chris.

    Only recently have I been able to listen to Bowie, regularly, again. Before this post, I hadn’t listened to any from Station to Station except for “Golden Years” since January.

    “I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force.”

    Reading this entry at this moment in my life is funny; I’ve come to realize I’m on a spiritual quest as well. TM was the beginning. And since, what a delightfully bizarre year (2016). Nootropics? Tried them. Cleanses too. Taking a break from my vegan diet and eating whale in Iceland. I briefly dated a woman who was into crystals and stones.

    As in his love-as-confusion “Stay,” Bowie denies himself from achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it.

    I had to stop dating a woman who was in love with me because she was too-in love with me. I found myself asking, “Did I really do that just now?” And answering, “Yes, I did.”

    Onward, upward? David Robert Jones, now departed; Bowie, still around, always to provide a soundtrack.

  8. Carl John Hall says:

    Once again, thank you.

  9. StupidintheStreet says:

    For the longest time I found Word on a Wing just too over the top. Now, even as an atheist, I think it’s beautiful and full of sincere emotion. Although, probably, it’s that “touch of blasphemy” that appeals to me most.

    I’ve really enjoyed the reissues, Chris. I found your blog so very late (in December), so it’s nice to catch up. It’s become my favourite place on the internet, and your book travels everywhere with me. Thank you.

  10. Matthew says:

    Thanks Chris for the reissues its been a focus since January, looking forward to the remaining chapter but tinged with sadness too.

    ‘It’s safer than a strange land
    But I still care for myself
    And I don’t stand in my own light’

    My favourite lines in the song, layers of meaning could be read into them.
    It’s (traditional christianity) safer than (a stranger in) a strange land, homo superior, esotericism and such.
    Then there’s a but which, like a child arguing with an adult, suggests a negotiation with God.
    Is the light his fame and he’s being humble or is he not standing in the way of illumination.
    All in all fascinating as ever and a song I appreciate much more than when I was younger.

  11. SV says:

    Hi Chris, first post here. I really appreciated the reissues.
    I discovered Bowie last year (I´m probably one of your youngest readers) and this blog and your book really helped me get into him, who I consider now my favorite artist. Thanks a lot.
    On the song: I do think the emotion is sincere, but the faith not at all, being instead symbol for something more abstract, like security and protection. It just sounds too desperate to be real to me, altough as an atheist I am subjectively inclined to this interpretation.
    Looking forward to Blackstar!

    • Waki says:

      Right, i think we hear it differently depending on our own relationshionship with God, prayers, religion and stuff. In addition for many of us theses are not fixed grounds but subject to change and evolution.
      I am a believer and even more much than a mere agnostic. Alhough i am not fond of dogmatic boxes i see the value of formal religions and religious acts like prayer whenever they do rely on the heart’s deep spiritual matter.
      Matthew you might be right about “safer than strange land” and i would like to add to “strange” occultism and the like the foreign lands Bowie would live in or visit or be interested in at these times like Japan and Kenya –and certainly this included spiritual interest too or at least curiosity.

      I can’t see however how Bowie could value “safety” over “strangeness”. But his own nightmare then in LA may explain this line. Plus playing the Man Who FTE was an extra layer of strangeness that we can believe was maybe an unnecessary layer fir his sanity.
      In the first issue of this post, there is comment from a guy who found himself cocain addicted while wirking in the middle of Amazonia and although atheist ended once praying God. It’s very interesting how and when we may end up praying and I found that story very relevant. Bowie in LA -a city he didn’t like and called “a pustule on the backside of humanity”– suffered from quite serious paranoia regarding evil spirit attacks (i have read he even asked to be admitted in a psychiatric medical department at some point and went there –that wad after he exorcised Satan from his swimming pool… because he had to do the exorcism himself alone as he would not allow people in according to Angie who was there). Such a jungle like situation could well lead him to try a shallow praying act that however sounds like a negociation.

      As he said, much later as a senior artist advisor, “when it itches, play it”. So obviously something was itching. I won’t go further into the possible sincerity of this talisman –i don’t see much depth there but i understand he had to give it a try. He brilliantly “played the itching” in a way that many people can relate to, wherever they come from in terms of belief. That’s one of his usual talents (or tricks).

      Again this song is an epitome of Bowie –being elusive and resorting to cryptic lyrics and intricate music in a creative process he would say later he doesn’t remember anything about. He was so bold!

      As for the “BUT I still care for myself”, in the 1976 live video, you can see he is beating his chest when he sings these words.
      Astrologically Bowie had 3 planets in the Leo sign (of impressive self roar) including the Moon (shining at night). That –or whatever else– made him quite self-conscious and nearly obsessed with his own image and spotlights. And boy! wasn’t the image of the Thin White Duke one of the most stunningly beautiful and sexy ever created? So yes he cared for himself. Selflessness in the narrow conventional sense was not for him. His thought of once becoming a monk could not withstand his need for spotlights on his creativity.

      But I think he was smart enough to know that spotlights on the Thin White Duke was shallow light -dim light compared in the light of spiritual truths. After studying Tibetan Buddhism he must have heard about Buddha’s words such as “be a lamp for yourself” and he had met some rather enlightening teachers. He was not *that* deluded. He knew he did not stand “in his own light”. And he knew and told us all the traps of Fame lights.

      I am fascinated by Bowie and his creative life and would say he was very rarely deluded if ever he was. Even Satanic darkness in the pool was not necessarily crazy. What was crazy was –has he himself explains when he introduced this song in the late 1990s– his obsession with it.

      I am so glad he went back to Europe. Low (especially B-side) possibly was a more sincere prayer and effective exorcism.

      But again, we only know about some of his scratching gestures when we listen to his music and lyrics. The actual itching and inner life are hidden from our sight. Acting and playing was his money business too. After all when he divorced Angie a few years later only, the deal was that she would shut up about him for at least 10 years. (Maybe he thought she would lose interest after 10 years? Or he could not offer more than 10 years silencing?)

      I often like *not* to analyse his lyrics. To me he was a poet and a man skilled at casting nebulous spells. I enjow falling under many of his spells –and when i am not in the mood i switch off or move on.
      This song casts no spell on me. I never fell in the jungle he was in then maybe.

      However, with Blackstar, that is another story alltogether. No minor passing itching. It’s about facing death and the very real one and going through it. He both played and acted and died. He put his skill and experience at *scratching publicly* right there in front of us quite loudly. The video with all these dancers and ritual shakings are now no mere shallow scratching. We die. And the Station to Station dress on Lazarus video might recall the evil in the pool —and the way out.

      “In the middle of it all”, our (?) eyes.

      Thank you Chris for all these posts and for the comment space. At such a time when we miss or remember or discover the artist, it’s a fabulous gift –true and up to his standards.

      So I will keep on reading and await Blackstar too!

      • BenJ says:

        His thought of once becoming a monk could not withstand his need for spotlights on his creativity.

        I’m kind of reminded of George Harrison here. One of the Beatles’ biographers – wish I could bring which to mind – noted that the time he was making his more outlandish statements about his newfound Hindu faith in 1966-67 coincided with the period when traditionally a Hindu convert would have been taking a vow of silence. At the end of the day that wasn’t an option for a Beatle, even “the quiet one.”

        The parallels between the title of this song and “Wild is the Wind” are so close that I can’t believe Bowie didn’t fashion the new song as an homage to the older one. It’s a song of passion, ultimately self-controlled passion, rather than wild religious fervor. Not sure about Johnny Mathis, but I can definitely see this song in Nina Simone’s repertoire.

      • Waki says:

        Oh yes, BenJ, the two titles’ wording sounds very much alike! (In fact I usually forget Word on a Wing but never forget Wild is the Wind, so that there is only one left, standing for both…)
        That may –maybe — mean something (or he may just have had fun with that). If so, then what? Ha, another enigma or us to have fun with…
        I believe the “passion” of Bowie in Wild is the Wind does not reflect any deep real love for anyone at that time. It is a mere sensual passion. The David did have lovers (many a that time like at other times!), but he said in an interview –and there I tend to believe him– love was not a personal thing, more of a distant fantasy, lacking the depth of actual intimacy, which we can guess he later was able to live with Iman. Iman said their love story essentially worked because they had a long past that allowed them both to have maturity. I mean, he was not mature at the time of Wild. He was a sensual and sexual freak –in love with excasy, not with a full person.
        I think he was no fool and new this was fleeting, not The Passion. And so is his Word on a Wing. Fleeting, light, carried away by a wing on the wind, and gone. So, that’s no religious passion, self-controlled or not. I maintain 😉 ! (while listening to it.) And by the way, how can religious passion be self-controlled? Either you surrender, or you don’t. If you don’t, there is no religious passion. And you are right, this is a very self-controlled song. Which support my sense that it’s not David’s heart prayer. It’s either a character, or an itchy coke delirium and whatever inbetween.
        The only part where I hear him being quite sincere (if that is what we should to expect from Bowie when he sings), is “I am ready to shake the scheme of things” –my favorite part in the song by far!
        But again, that’s just me.

        He was multi-faceted, and only he could see all the facets because he stood in the middle of it all. We see (and hear) whatever accords with our own vision…

        I don’t know if my astrological gossip makes any sense for the readers here, but I believe he knew a bit of astrology and had his chart analyzed and would follow its evolution. At the time o the Free Festival he organised in the late 1960s, there were musicians on stage but astrologers reading charts down the stage. Now, throughout the 1970s, Neptune, a slow moving planet that stands for confusion, addiction, dream, illusion, was passing exactly in the key Zenith of his personal birth chart. Ocean like Neptune knowns no structure, no borders, it deceives and inspires. When well used, it is the strength of the poet, the musician and whoever plays with illusion and dreams, such as those in the movie industry –directors, actors. You can hide behind a mask and captivate your audience if this power is in your Zenith; when people look up at you, they see mist, projections, dreams,they get mystified, fascinated. I am sure he was told this was the case. So he created characters and played this Neptune 200% and the Zenith is the place where everyone sees you, right there, which means it is the reputation you acquire, the visible legacy you leave.
        Throughout the 70s he played with images of himself with complete focus. But at birth, meaning in what he is, his Zenith does not have Neptune. It has Venus. Venus stands for beauty, and arts, and creativity. As for his natal Neptune, it was somewhere else –in the house of sex, death, and deep transformation. I think we cannot fathom much about his spirituality.
        Which brings me back to Blackstar… Awaiting!

      • stephen young says:

        oh my. the wink of the eye.

  12. Ididtheiggy says:

    Can’t remember if I said this on the original post, but this is one of my favourite pieces on the blog. Now I can look forward to Heat and I can stop bugging you about it on the Twitter.

  13. s.t. says:

    A wonderful write-up to revisit. And especially appropriate for these times.
    If only more people in the US would temper their sincere readiness to shake up the scheme of things with a counter-spell of lovely fragility, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to worry about a certain Stout White Duke throwing darts and making sure white stains…

  14. James LaBove says:

    The only song on STS that might be delivered with any degree of sincerity by the narrator; definitely an (unironic) cry for help. Lots to unpack within the lyrics, coming as I do from a queer / ex- (but maybe not 100% ex-) Catholic background. Probably a little too close to the source material. “Sweet name, you’re born once again for me,” sung against the too-cheery music (like a surprisingly catchy 70’s game show theme) cuts right through me. Great song, great write-up, and agreed that it’s a great way to close out this phase of PAotD.

    One more note of thanks to Chris for keeping PAotD operating in some fashion in these months since Bowie’s passing. Prior to Blackstar coming out, I was in Peak Bowie Fan Frenzy, and probably reading this blog to excess – going back through entries I’d read several times already, reading comments from years back – it was (and remains) my go-to source for Bowie information. And after his passing, especially in the raw weeks immediately thereafter, it felt like a lifeline some days. Looking forward to new entries, along with the TH project!

  15. Jasmine says:

    Truly, the words you write about David Bowie are some of the most intelligent and thought provoking I have ever read. This song sums that up for me so well. It’s made me think long and hard.
    I believe STS is DB singing about himself in the now, invoking the Kabbalah, paranoid, wanting to move on, to change his life from this mental prison.
    I also believe that GY is Bowie singing in the third person about himself. Help me to help myself get out of here. Look at all those showbiz-types ‘last night they loved you’ feeding off him. He needs to get away ‘doing all right but you gotta get smart’ ‘Once I’m begging you, save her little soul’. This for me seems to have a huge parallel with Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) where I also think DB is singing in the third person about himself.
    Word on A Wing then, exactly as written here, is a talisman for protection, countering STS, just in case…
    ‘And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
    It’s safer than a strange land
    But I still care for myself
    And I don’t stand in my own light’
    Standing in your own light in Buddhism, perhaps?
    I do wonder whether this is really why DB didn’t sing GY in 76 rather than it being too difficult to sing.

  16. Tangled Up In Music (by Ovidiu Boar) says:

    Great read. I’ve just written a bit about Bowie’s mid-70s period and the birth of Station to Station if you or your readers are interested:

    • Waki says:

      In his 1999 introduction to this song, he described it as coming from “the darkest days of my life… I’m sure that it was a call for help”.

      Why did he curiously add that he was “sure” about it?

      For sure, I endlessly appreciate how the many layers and elusiveness of Bowie’s persona and creations (especially lyrics), along with his social observation and reflecting talent, allow so many people –i.e. millions of us– to get a different and very personal and even intimate connection to them.

      He was not the “chameleon of rock’n roll”, hiding while changing shapes and styles according to the background. He is our own personal chameleon, hiding in the secret of our hearts while taking the color of own individual projections, dreams, hopes, desires, fears and pains!

      With the bonus of added beauty, drive and imagination.

      Bowie Is?
      Bowie is countless –millions.

      • Waki says:

        ….and he relished the idea and fact that each of us would make his creations ours. In the 1990s he often boasted about our own responsibility as co-creators of his work.

        Bowie Is?
        Open ended

  17. Jasmine says:

    I like this a lot Waki – DB had to believe that he had an audience of course, had to keep us connected, By being vague in his art with subtle clues that could lead several ways every time, he could make himself anything anyone wanted him to be, for them. You’re correct, this helped make him meaningful to us all in a personal way. In 75 though, I think he was a desperate man and this played out in the music. I honestly believe he was ‘searching & searching’ and fled his childhood American dream to find ‘it’. And he survived it, thank goodness. Hiding in plain sight?
    [But chameleon – oh no not again!]

  18. Waki says:

    Thanks Jasmine. 🙂
    Yes, thank goodness he survived! …Thanks to his own ultimate strength and clarity, and thanks to Coco Schwab; he was smart enough to always keep her nearby and even to listen to her. (She is such a mysterious secret in the puzzle…).

    Ultimately, I see his 1970s survival and moving on as his gradual upgrading from the rank of rock star to that of ‘rock god’. Rock stars may die from their rock-star-ness, physically, psychologically, spiritually, whatever. He did not die at all then; he was something else. 😉

    I think his open ended quality was not just about his need for an audience –a need he had. We can see from his London Art Lab efforts in the late 1960s, his interest in Basquiat and NY street artists etc. in the late 1990s, and all his statements about such things, that he always really believed in each and everyone’s basic potential for greater creativity.

    His own ethics was such that he would not like to impose a closed-ended piece for us to absorb easily ‘as it is’ without going through our own individual digestion process so that it may become a genuine part of ourselves, our own stuff, not just his. It’s not mere ethics. I imagine he was unable to do otherwise.

    So what he offered to us was more about stimulating and expanding our own awareness and imagination, to almost space-like limitlessness. Didn’t he belong to the space science-fiction genre? (and more basically, the fiction genre)?

    To me, one of his lesser most admirable gifts was his openness and generosity in picking up unknown talented musicians and enhancing their creativity, skills and fame, by hiring them, or supporting other singers he believed in, or sponsoring little known young visual artists. He thrived on opening doors (some that would have blocked our ways), or at least on facilitating others’ door openings.

    Again from an astrological perspective, his chart with Aquarius ascendant suggests a thunderbolt like creator, for whom promoting individuality and individuation, awakening the uniqueness of each person, was running deep in his own manifestation to the world. (Yeah, thunderbolt… Not again?)

    He consistently stated his songs were overall about alienation (including from oneself), but alienation can also be the other side of individuation — or the other way around. This pain can get better as one matures, and he matured so wonderfully well!

    Station to Station is a curious album. I confess I am unable to hear that much darkness in it. More of tricks, while magic is not necessary black. It’s so full of life, energy, hunger, creativity, even playfulness. The front photo of him as an alien (the man who feel to earth) yet suggests its key is alienation indeed.

    I am not clear how ‘desperate’ he was in 1975 (how could I be clear about Bowie?). He was very active, and somehow still so strong and bold. Unhappy and seeking, fine–but desperate? I once wondered if he was hoping to become a Hollywood star. I think I’ve read that somewhere. Could the fact that he failed have been a cause of despair?

    Now, the whole Blackstar event and achievement is positively and arguably greater than what any Hollywood star ever achieved.
    And now we are all left with it… Amazed, moved, pondering, imagining, exploring. Each of us again on a unique personal path he triggered again –paths of grief, of awe, of learning, reflecting, (re) discovering…

    Someone said Blackstar’s line
    “in the middle of it all, you eyes”
    is about our own eyes, as his audience.
    He left putting each of us, with our distinctive eyes and views, as open eyed presence to the world, to death, life, cosmos, mysteries, and the possibility of an unconventional, individual beyond.

    A grand last stroke of thunderbolt to awaken us if we choose (to listen, swallow, digest…)

    I would not say his ‘final stroke’. Bowie is… not finite or final. Bowie is indefinite.

    And so are we.

    (but I should but an end to my endless comments! With a bow…)

  19. Jasmine says:

    Waki – if ever DB sang a line which summed him up, for me it’s ‘she opened strange doors that we’d never close again’. How many people from all walks of life believe that it was hearing him that sparked some creative urge in them…

    STS – I don’t hear desperation directly, I listened to the entire album yesterday after reading your comments. I sense a man who has ambitions (human as much as career) who is trapped in a cycle of drugs and paranoia. His ultimate strength drove him to Europe and salvation. I don’t know if DB thought of himself as a failure, but that is an interesting point. I think his belief in himself was immense and the world he had lived in around this time stifled that. He didn’t want to live like that.

    My partner enjoys listening to DB. I’ve been re-purchasing vinyl albums recently and so he heard Diamond Dogs for the first time as a full album yesterday! How exciting to be able to hear these albums for the first time, I was a bit jealous! Anyway, I was struck with what he said; ‘that’s just like Blackstar’. I asked what he meant and he replied ‘the songs are similar, the way he sings and the ideas coming out of it’. Well I have gone back to Dollar Days lyrics today and am struck by this verse…
    ‘I’m dying to
    Push their backs against the grain and fool them all again and again
    I’m trying to
    We bitches tear our magazines those oligarchs with foaming mouths phone
    Now and then
    Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you
    I’m trying to
    I’m dying to’
    …compared to this one in We Are the Dead…
    And the streets are full of pressman
    Bend on gettin’ hung and buried
    And the legendary curtains
    Are drawn round baby bankrupt
    Who sucks you while you’re sleeping
    Its the theatre of financiers
    Count them fifteen round the table
    White and dressed to kill

    Evergreen is a type of finance product as well as a tree…we all know what DB thought of his managers in the 70s.

    The man constantly surprises and inspires me. And he never stopped believing in his true core values or artistic thoughts (your word was ethics) which drove him to develop and create further. And I agree, he couldn’t do anything else.

    Of course you’re correct – how can we be clear on Bowie, but I find it fun to think!

    • Jasmine says:

      And Coco, yes, she was his constant in life, smoothing the path to those oligarchs and financiers amongst others, helping DB to continue with his urge to ‘shape the scheme of things’.

  20. billter says:

    I seem to remember that at first I was put off by DB singing such an overtly religious song. It sounded like a desperate man trying to cover all his bases (I love that McDonald line about “[keeping] a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.”)

    And there is some of that, sure. In the depths of druggy despair, people will reach out for any lifeline they can think of. It’s interesting to note that Bowie did not get finally, completely sober until more than a decade after this. He never talked about it much, and it doesn’t get much play in writing about his life, but it seems pretty certain that he did go through AA. In that context, “Word on a Wing” seems like a first, tentative attempt to conceive of a higher power that he might be able to talk to.

    The “Lord” being addressed here, thus, can’t help but be a reflection of Bowie himself, with all his peccadilloes and contradictions. I still scratch my head over some of these – David, do you want to fit in with the scheme of things, or shake it? Surrender or take over? I keep thinking of Lucifer, who maybe really wanted to serve his God, but just couldn’t do it – it wasn’t in his nature.

    Some of us just have a hard time submitting, even when we think it might be good for us. I’d love to learn more about this aspect of Bowie’s life, but it seems to have been one of those areas of his life he was especially private about.

    As for “Word on a Wing”…it’s become one of my favorite Bowie songs. How a man in the depths of such misery produces a work of such transcendent grace and beauty, I’ll never know. It’s humbling and inspiring.

    He was a seer, he was a liar, he was a genius.

    Looking forward to the new posts….

  21. gcreptile says:

    While listening to the new Scott Walker album (a soundtrack) I still have trouble believing that Bowie is dead.

    • marta says:

      David Robert Jones, you mean.

      • marta says:

        But, yes, me too. Still in a sort of denial… Still not able to listen to Blackstar.

        Gonna check the Scott Walker album though.

      • Waki says:

        yep, David Jones is gone, but Bowie obviously very alive and kicking
        as long as our hearts are beating
        (and internet and this blog thriving)
        and that may last for many generations

  22. tj says:

    As usual, the comments here are as eloquent, surprising and inspiring as the entries themselves. Jasmine, I love your notion about evergreens – such a great interpretation. Really wonderful thread. Can’t wait for the new posts – I’m checking the blog daily.

  23. verdelay says:

    …bring me the disco king!

  24. Thomas says:

    The “sweet name” section is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. This song is absolutely transcendent, by far one of his best.

    • Waki says:

      Yes that’s true … the “sweet names” section is sweet and delicate to my ears too.
      But transcendent? I am really not sure. Might be somehow just nostalgia evoking his childhood Christmas, you know. Or not, of course.
      Anyway childhood Christmas are meant to be quite transcendent actually. But i doubt the song is entirely dedicated to that sort of things. This is a grown up Bowie (and an unhealthy, skinny Jones) singing.
      Now, look up there, he is in heaven he says, together with all the scars and the drama and all—showing there is no need to transcend anything, after all. That’s the mature Bowie.
      I think he knew it already then, but the way to go was still unclear.

  25. Waki says:

    (There are more comments on the original issue page

  26. Waki says:

    There is a very famous book, I am quite sure David Bowie read it, but maybe not at that time. Called “Talking With Angels” it is the transcript of “angels” communication in Hungary during WWII. This work was the first of that kind, leading to the whole “channeling” movement of many New age freaks.

    At some point in Talking, the question is asked about the way to pray. The answer states:

    “It is your work that is your prayer


    I suppose Bowie was not fond of formal, traditional prayers. He would probably see his very life and work as his spiritual journey, his offering, service, surrender, whatever.
    But then, 1976-1977 was a hellish time, when he fell down (not just to *earth*) and thus lost his usual “wings”. I imagine that in that lame state, there was nothing left for him to do at some point but to put a word on a wing. Luckily he recovered, healed, continued his life and work, and did not need to resort to that kind of “wingless prayer” again in this way.

    As I wrote in an earlier comment, putting words on a wing was rather awkward and unnatural to him (at least the sound does not sound good to my ears, in terms of spiritual meaning and even musical beauty because of its very contrived form, and I don’t hear a heartfelt song –that’s me).

    Now he managed to reach “heaven” without the conventional wings, but with the scars and drama (and dolphins and all).

    To me this quote illuminate the song and all falls into place, but the curious thing is that the book was first published in French in 1976. The impact was enormous and it was later translated in 20 languages, but English only in 1979. I don’t think Bowie read French. So he probably did not refer to that sentence or he got it from “something in the air”….

    • Waki says:

      oops –improved translation


      • stephen young says:

        ahem. could he be saying an actual name? the “sweet name” of someone who will shape the scheme of things. someone who may very well be the long awaited lord.. or the man who sold the earth or perhaps is the return of the thin white duke? the Young american he so desperately wanted. what’s his name?

  27. Anathema says:

    I am fascinated by this song because it seems to me that he is consciously engaging with the concept of the divine not as a true believer but knowingly using these ideasas a psychological tool to pull himself out of his downward spiral. The lyrics start off “right” for a religious song but the stray off into areas talking about getting in his own way and shaping the scheme of things for himself that feel like “okay, I’ve got what I needed from this, moving on now”. And that’s really interesting to me because essentially that’s how I engage with David Bowie and his works. I’m a genuinely adoring fan, but there’s also part of me at a remove from it, who is using my study of his works and his life as a mechanism to unlock and break free of some my mental issues and problematic behaviors. And I know I’m doing it and I’m going about systematically. Tons of people use music or religion or various fandoms to help them through things and to make changes but I don’t think it’s very common to go into it knowing you’re using it as a way to to trick your mind into fixing itself.

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