Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Canon #8


David Bowie - "Five Years"

I fondly recall every time in my life that I converted a friend of mine into a Bowie fan by simply playing this song for him or her. I rememeber the joy I felt every time I saw a knowing smile of recognition creep across his or her face - the unblinking eyes staring back at me seeming to say "This is David Bowie?! Now I see what you were carrying on about!" Hell, the first time I heard this song, I had to play it on repeat 5 or 6 times.

"Five Years" begins minimally - a steady drumbeat presents itself, then a beautifully elastic bassline and stark piano chords enter the scene. Bowie's apocalyptic alien persona describes a town that has just found out the Earth is dying. With some of his most poignant lyrics, Bowie creates a living, breathing grief-stricken microcosm in your head:

Pushing thru the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying

Gradually, the song gathers steam and builds momentum. The drummer quickens his pace, the triumphant piano line emerges, Mick Ronson strums his guitar, and the string section sets sail. The song rushes onward - as if the band is trying prolong the inevitable. Before the song enters into its soaring coda, Bowie belts out these parting lines to a girl he notices in an ice-cream parlor:

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
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk

For the coda, the piano and strings keep ascending into space while Bowie pleads and sings "We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot! We've got five years, that's all we've got!" I know there are some non-fans out there that claim Bowie was pretentious and theatrical. However, Bowie succeeded not in spite of these things, but because of them. Before Bowie, you'd be hard-pressed to find a musician who injected such drama and tension into his or her musical compositions. This "drama" resulted in a body of work that is utterly unique and incredibly influential on everyone from The Talking Heads and The Smiths to Radiohead and The Arcade Fire (and hundreds of other bands in between).

As I mentioned earlier, I distinctly remember the joy I felt upon hearing "Five Years" for the first time, and I still feel that way everytime I hear it. All of you friends that I turned on to Bowie through this song - you know who you are; and I know that everytime you listen to the end of this song, you're shouting "We've got five years!" with your hand out-stretched.

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