Reissues: Word On a Wing

September 1, 2016

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.”


Word On a Wing

December 16, 2010

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.