“I had to phone someone, so I picked on you, Hey that’s Far Out so you heard him too.” – David Bowie.
Words such as spaceman, alien, androgynous, hero, legend, demigod, herculean lord of art and culture are all synonymous – bar the last few where I got carried away – with David Bowie. The singular thread that links them is a notion that the Starman was cut from a different cloth. The fact of the matter is that he was indeed a freak. A freak in the most laudatory way, a creative freak, an aesthetic freak, a talent freak and in general just an otherworldly life-giving freakazoid.
Without the songs, however, this extra-terrestrial artistic gestalt would’ve come crashing to Earth in a hurry. He wasn’t just happy being a creative alien from outer space, he had to come in peace with something to say. As a result, his songs were chocked full of wisdom, poetry, imagery and more. He might have had his head in the star most of the time, but he wrote with sagaciously grounded prose.
Below, we’re looking at the ten times when his words were at their best. With influence from the literature that he poured over, this collection of lyrics looks at the genius of his golden wordplay, from ‘Cygnet Committee’ right up until the end with ‘Lazarus’.
David Bowie’s ten most incredible lyrics:
“I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa comin’ for you!”
What better place to begin than perhaps the greatest opening lyric ever written? Only Bowie would have the daring bravura to begin a song with a line that hits like an unexpected kiss. It’s as rousing as they come and absolutely original.
The introduction of Ziggy Stardust is befittingly bombastic. With the influence of William S. Burroughs clearly in the mix, Bowie usurps usual rock lyric standards to bring forth the colour and imagery of the words themselves. It’s a crazy sonic handshake and it seduces in an instant.
‘We Are the Dead’
“Oh, dress yourself, my urchin one, for I hear them on the rails,
Because of all we’ve seen, because of all we’ve said,
We are the dead.”
In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, the last words that the protagonist Winston Smith says to Julia as the Thought Police descend are, “We are the dead.” Bowie was so enamoured with the book that Diamond Dogs is just about a musical remake, but nowhere does the literary prose land with quite as much brilliance as on the chronically underrated ‘We Are the Dead’.
There is clout and genuine poetry to Bowie’s transposition. From the colourful turn of phrase of “urchin one” to the building grandeur of the final line, Bowie swirls through a lyrical kaleidoscope that only he is capable of.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen,
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen,
Everybody knows me now.”
With Blackstar, Bowie faced mortality like no other. His unflinching artistry in the face of his fate was a force to behold. On ‘Lazarus’ he boldly reflected on his entire career and retained all of the colour and creativity that led millions of us to love him.
The day after Bowie died, his producer and friend Tony Visconti, wrote: “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” With verses like this one, and the equally brilliant: “This way or no way/You know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now ain’t that just like me,” he ensured that parting gift was a poignant one.
“Now my Brother lays upon the Rocks,
He could be dead, He could be not,
He could be You,
He’s Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature.”
Bowie was a trailblazer in a million different ways; one of which was his totally unique songwriting. Back in 1971, when Hunky Dory was released, such avant-garde lyricism was very much a rarity.
It’s not easy to know what the hell he is talking about on ‘Bewlay Brothers’ but for many youngsters upon its release that was all part of the fun – its obfuscated façade proved to be a beguiling come hither into the bohemian world that lay beyond.
“And it was cold and it rained, so I felt like an actor, And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there.”
While there may be more poetic or poignant lyricists in the world of music, few have Bowie’s brilliant ability to conjure imagery into his tunes. Coupled with the moody melody and gathering storm of the song, these lines are among the most visceral in any back catalogue.
The main triumph of ‘Five Years’, however, is Bowie’s uncanny knack of being able to impart something universal from a tale as creative as they come. The song might be sci-fi but with this little couplet, there is a wonderful touch of everyday realism.
“I absolutely love you.”
Four words might seem a little slight to make it into a best lyrics list, but subtlety is overrated in art and there is something profoundly brilliant about the simple sincerity that rings out with the word absolutely amid the three most famous words in art. Simply put, it elevates the tired trio to the level of a paean that needs nothing else to act as a crutch.
The track, which was written for a film of the same name based on Colin MacInnes’ novel, charts an embryonic love and Bowie skilfully rams the head-over-heals feeling home. For the most part, it’s a standard love song, but Bowie being Bowie ensures it comes with bells on it.
“I, I can remember
Standing by the wall
(By the wall)
And the guns shot above our heads
(Over our heads)
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
(Nothing could fall).”
There is a brilliant story behind how this verse came into being. As the tale goes, according to producer Tony Visconti: “David couldn’t concentrate with us in the studio so he said [to Visconti and backing singer Antonia Maas] ‘would you two mind taking a walk?’ but it wasn’t a great place to walk around.”
“So, we walked around the back of the studio and we could see the control room and I guess we were visible too because Antonia and I shared a little kiss by the wall. We go back to the studio and David is smiling. He had a sort of cat who ate the cream sort of smile and I said, ‘what’s up?’ and he said well we saw you kiss by the wall and it made it into the song.”
Thanks to that kiss, one of the most memorable verses in music was triumphantly brought into existence.
“And the road is coming to its end
Now the damned have no time to make amends
No purse of token fortune stands in our way
The silent guns of love
Will blast the sky
We broke the ruptured structure built of age
Our weapons were the tongues of crying rage.”
While I’d be more than happy to espouse the ingenuity of ‘Cygnet Committee’ myself, the highest praise for the song comes from Bowie himself. “I wanted this track out as a single but nobody else thought it was a good idea,” he told Disc and Music Echo upon the release of the record.
Adding: “Well, it is a bit long I suppose. It’s basically three separate points of view about the more militant section of the hippy movement. The movement was a great ideal but something’s gone wrong with it now. I’m not really attacking it but pointing out that the militants have still got to be helped as people – human beings – even if they are going about things all the wrong way.” He eventually concluded that his poignant societal lambast was even better than ‘Space Oddity’.
‘Life on Mars’
“It’s on America’s tortured brow,
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow,
Now the workers have struck for fame,
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again.”
Once more, Bowie turned a mirror to his own work and reflected on ‘Life on Mars’. The song carries the weighty sense of being fished from the ether. It seems bigger than itself, as though there is something profound shrouded within the obfuscated lyrics.
Bowie says the song is about “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media,” and added: “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality… that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.”
With the song, Bowie would concoct his breakthrough album Hunky Dory, and thereafter he continued to do it his way forevermore.
‘Ashes to Ashes’
“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky,
We know Major Tom’s a junkie,
Strung out in heaven’s high,
Hitting an all-time low.”
In truth, although they aren’t worlds apart, lyrics and poetry are two separate fields. Bowie seemed to realise this fact more than most. As a result, his verses benefitted wildly from being freed from the fear of how they might look written down, thus, they soared when they were sung.
“Strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low,” is a couplet that could belong in an anthology, but what really transfigures it, is that its gilded poetry that you continue hum for the rest of your days owing to the magnificent hand-in-glove melody that it rides home on.