A God-Awful Small Affair – One Night With David Bowie’s Songbook
Written by Josh Becker
Last January 11th, Zac Young called me up to ask if I would be interested in playing keys for his upcoming Loft Legends Series performance of David Bowie. I’d learned a Bowie tune here and there across the years in this band or that.
But I had never before taken a deep dive into his oeuvre like I had, say, Pink Floyd or Radiohead or Buckley. If I’m being honest, growing up, Bowie was always Jereth the Goblin King; thief of socks and siblings; barn owl and blind beggar; terrifyingly well-endowed singer of strange creature-choired songs and spinner of dream-captured crystal orbs.
Overtime I would become more familiar with Bowie’s chameleon body of work; Ziggy Stardust’s sacrificial rock and roll suicide; the insane lad of the Aladdin Sane years; the white-boy soul of the Thin White Duke; his industrial collaborations with Trent Reznor and performances with Nine Inch Nails.
I’ve always respected Bowie’s propensity and ability to reinvent himself, but I couldn’t help but hear his music in the same way John Lennon heard it: “It’s great, but it’s just rock ‘n’ roll with lipstick on.”
I always thought Bowie wrote straightforward, simple songs and suited them up in whatever extravagant costumes were in his wardrobe; spackling them in face paint and glitter.
I thought that his production overshone his composition; that his concepts wore clothes; that style was his substance.
I thought these things until I learned how to play “Life On Mars.”
It’s About To Be Writ Again
First, some history.
There would be no “Life on Mars” without the broken relationship between French singers Jacque Revaux and France Gall.
When their romance went pair-shaped, Revaux and writing partner Claude François wrote and recorded “Comme d’habitude,” a bittersweetly-saccharine pop bon mot relating a tedious, mundane day of two lovers spent pretending they’re still in love. Paul Anka heard the song on television whilst in Paris and for some reason thought, “ You know who would own this song? Frank. Sinatra.” So, he bought the song. For Frank. For a dollar.
Anka re-wrote the lyrics, Frank dropped the vocals, and he did it: “My Way.”
The thing is, David Bowie wrote his own English lyrics to “Comme d’habitude,” titled “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” a full year before “My Way” was released. I’m still unclear as to why Bowie’s manager at the time, Tony Defries, rejected his version; but considering the vast artistic chasm between “My Way” and “Mars,” perhaps the latter was too noticeably anachronistic for 1968.
Whatever the cause, the effect was revenge. “It was a sense of revenge,” admitted Bowie. “I was so angry that Paul Anka had done ‘My Way’ that I thought, ‘Right, I’ll do my own version!’”
Which brings us to “Life on Mars?” It’s not the first diss track, but it is arguably among the most anthemically beautiful.
As I Ask You To Focus On
For some, music is math; surefooted science with time-tested theories. These are the musicians that actually read music, for whom notes are GPS coordinates that guide digits and limbs with pinpoint precision from home, across the verse, around the chorus, over the bridge, through the turnaround, to come crashing to the tag or floating into the fade out.
I’m not that kind of musician. I play by ear. So, for me, music is magic; an alchemy of flesh, bone, and breath with brass, wood, ivory, and string that through simple vibration charges the air around me and changes me; influences me; transports me to another place. Hopefully that place is together with my fellow musicians at the fade out or the tag.
I preface this not to say one approach is better than the other; rather, I wanted to state upfront that when it comes to reading music, I never graduated too far past “Everybody Poops.” So, don’t expect much in the way of theory.
It’s clear from the opening chord sequence that Bowie is doing “My Way” “his way.” The similarities are even more pronounced once the chord pattern begins descending chromatically down the scale. Where things begin to get interesting is when Bowie pulls a roundabout and takes the bridge up an ascending chromatic scale. This ascension is built on a series of augmented chords that create a rising tension; a tension that swells until it explodes on a B flat that is simultaneously the final chord of the bridge and the first chord of the chorus.
Playing this progression is exhilarating. Music is like chess, in that depending on the situation there are only so many moves you can make. When Bowie pivots on the B flat in the liminal space between common song structure, he flipped the script; he created a completely new situation with modulated moves to make. With one chord, his seemingly simple progression refracts, revealing itself to be less a chromatic ladder than an Escher-esque boundless staircase.
A staircase fit for a Goblin King.
Is There Life On Mars?
Oscar Wilde wrote that life imitates art. I’ve often wondered if this was one of the aphorisms Wilde riffed on when he rocked the mic at the Springer Opera House here in Columbus. Regardless, it was true then. It’s gospel now. Whether this elevates life and/or art in any way is fodder for another author. I will say that some artists elevate themselves above the debate, above the incrimination of imitation altogether. I count Bowie in this number.
His life was art. He approached identity like Ellie Rigby approached her jars, donning and discarding faces at will or whim, whichever welded more power. When he wore Ziggy’s skin too long, he had to kill the alien so that the man could be reborn. When The Thin White Duke partook of too many thin white toots, an exorcist was brought in to exorcise his pool. There was even a time when, after years of deep character acting and “recreational feats of strength,” Bowie actually lost himself, and for a time re-invented himself as Just The Singer.
Since he placed a plastic saxophone against his lips and learned to soar the corridors between the chords, Bowie’s life itself has been art.
And true to form, his passing is playing like a piece of art, as well.
Upon waking this morning, I kissed my wife, as I always do. Then, I checked my phone, as I always do. (Yes, I am too much of this world…) And there it was: Bowie. Gone. 69. That bastard cancer.
I recalled the music video for “Lazarus,” released a mere four days ago. I pulled it up on YouTube while lying in bed and watched as David Bowie slyly said goodbye to us all.
From a hospital bed with bandaged eyes, Bowie, like Lazarus, speaks to us from beyond death.
“Look up here.
I’m in heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
This way or no way, you know, I’ll be free.”
It’s harrowing to watch. Haunting. But also awe-inspiring. What a staggering way for a strange, singular, extraordinary artist to float into the fade out.
And this way or no way, you know, he did it “His Way.”
*Photo cover by simetriamusical.wordpress.com