My partner in the top 100 is my friend Kelly, who started her list several weeks after I started mine and still managed to beat me to the #1 post by a couple of weeks. Upon posting her favorite David Bowie song, she declared “Panic in Detroit” off of Aladdin Sane” a very basic choice. I starkly fail to see this as a basic favorite Bowie song nor album and in fact it struck me as fairly esoteric and on-brand for her. In fact, I found Aladdin Sane really difficult to like at first and “Panic in Detroit” seemed a rather arbitrary choice to me, even for that album (“Time” and “Drive-In Saturday” are my favorites and to my ear, the obvious choices). Kelly concluded that one’s favorite Bowie song/album is a very personal calculation and that there’s no basic answer.
Perhaps. I think there are some very, very obvious choices for favorite Bowie tunes. “Heroes” is probably king. “Young Americans” and “Modern Love,” along with “Changes” seem to fall into a similar category of well-known and exceptionally likeable tunes right below “Heroes” and I’d put these in the pantheon of favorite Bowie tunes among non-Bowie fans. Then there are perennial favorites among Bowie fans, which I would guess would include “Ashes to Ashes,” “Starman” and my personal favorite “Life on Mars?”
I *love* this song. I have loved it for a very long time. It isn’t a complicated love. I love everything about it. I have no reservations, my love is unequivocal. There’s no fraught relationship, it is just quite simply the best song I have ever heard. It has everything I need in music. It was written and lovingly performed for more than 40 years by the artist who has inspired me most. There was never any doubt in my mind that this masterful work of musical art would land solidly in the #1 spot on this list I’ve lovingly cultivated since posting #100, “Tennessee” by Arrested Development on July 8, 2020. I take enormous pleasure in concluding this journey here, with “Life on Mars?”
My Bowie Origin Story* begins in the year of our lord 1986, when at seven years old, I rode the city bus with my mom, en route to a movie theater. My mom did not take me to the movies often and it was 1986, the year that brought us the original My Little Pony and Care Bears II: A New Generation (?). In other words, it was during an era in which they did not make kids’ movies to entertain adults. So going to the movies was a rare treat and I loved movies so much, it almost didn’t matter what we were going to see. It stands to reason that I didn’t even get around to asking until we were already on our way. She informed me we were on our way to see Labyrinth, which did mildly disappoint because I’d never heard of it. I asked her what it was and she may have even name-dropped Jim Henson, basically informing that it was a puppet movie, which was plenty of information to satisfy me. Then, for whatever reason she added, “David Bowie is in it.” I’d maybe even heard that name before, but she had to know full well it meant nothing to me. I asked the obvious question, “Who is David Bowie?” and her response, following a noticeable pause was “He’s a rock star.” You could almost hear the opening chords to “Rebel Rebel” swell as the camera pulled back from my desperately curious seven-year-old face.
*This is at least the third time I’ve posted about this, most notably the day after he died, but it makes me happy and is wholly relevant to the larger story of this song, so I’m going to post about it again.
I loved Labyrinth, eventually came to own a copy on VHS (which took more than its fair share of wear throughout the years), but didn’t get around to investigating David Bowie’s pop output until high school. I bought a copy of ChangesBowie--honestly--because I thought it sounded like a cool thing to do. Nobody that I knew was really listening to Bowie in the 90s, he struck me as acceptable from a credibility standpoint despite I guess technically being considered Classic Rock. I enjoyed the collection, particularly “Suffragette City” and “Fame,” but failed to really catch fire, with so many songs jumbled together out of context. I understand that now--the albums really provide needed context to even the best-known singles.
Then in college, Pete and I hosted a weekly college radio show and like most deejays, used mostly music from our own collection. Because KTUH’s primary format was jazz (the majority of the daytime slots were jazz shows, but our slot was a “rock” format), they didn’t have a solid selection of any non-jazz artists, but did have a funny array of stuff that interested us and we would often borrow* discs we weren’t sure we wanted to purchase right away. One night, we stumbled upon Hunky Dory by David Bowie, the title of which did not ring a bell, but I think we were both entranced by the cover art, featuring a long-haired David, head tilted to the sky, looking somehow stripped down but glam as ever. The effect was enhanced by Rykodisc’s signature green-tinted jewel cases they’d use for reissues**. Upon reviewing the track listing, we assumed it might be a compilation because it was so packed with recognizable titles.
*The collection of hardcopy CDs and LPs was so vast and so disorganized, you could easily take stuff home for a week or two and literally nobody would notice. It was a great system. We could audition albums to consider for our permanent collection such as Relationship of Command by At the Drive-In or just to jack certain songs from compilations such as the one that included “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand.
**Rykodisc started using these jewel cases in 1988 but stopped at some point before becoming part of Warner Music in 2006. Prior to this, you were able to buy replacement green jewel cases for $9/dozen. I was able to find an old Ebay listing from October. Price was 2 for $22. There is a copy of Rykodisc’s 1990 Hunky Dory reissue on Ebay for $17.99, but it doesn’t specify whether it comes in the green jewel case, which may have prompted me to consider thinking about ordering it.
Hunky Dory caught our imaginations and the following Christmas, Pete gifted me a copy which I listened to frequently, with specific interest in “Changes,” “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Andy Warhol” and “Quicksand.” The latter of which we were somewhat familiar with. Dinosaur Jr performs a rough cover of “Quicksand” with significant lyrical adjustments on the Whatever’s Cool with Me EP, which believe it or not, was mine and Pete’s first* song, as he happened to be listening to it when we admitted we were crushing on each other long-distance. The J Mascis lyrics are particularly ill-fitting for a song to represent a healthy relationship and possibly even more ill-fitting as a senior quote for a fairly well-adjusted high school student like myself, but here we are. I attributed the lyrics to Dinosaur Jr which was technically true, but I’m mad that I missed the opportunity to fulfill my cool-kid destiny by quoting David Bowie in my 1997 catholic school yearbook.
*Because it’s so inappropriate, it’s hard to call it Our Song, but we do listen to it and dance together every May 17 to observe the occasion.
Pete had been independently listening to Hunky Dory as well and was actually the first one who identified “Life on Mars?” as a standout. I don’t honestly know how I missed it initially, except to say that Pete has an A&R man’s ear and is much better at picking out a notable song in a crowd than I am. I gave it another listen and was immediately smitten. As I type this, I just went through this quick thought train in which I was going to say that it’s all you would ever want in a David Bowie song (true), mentally corrected myself that it’s everything you’d ever want in a glam-rock anthem (truer), and corrected myself to The Truth, which is that “Life on Mars?” is everything you’d want in music itself: the aggressively unique arrangement, brilliant and bizarre songwriting and structure, expert musicianship, virtuoso performance, and at once ambiguous but instinctively relatable lyrics.
In the 2013 BBC documentary Five Years*, Rick Wakeman of Yes (also the pianist on “Life on Mars?”) gives us the musical-theoretical explanation of why “Life of Mars?” is so compelling and it’s as close to an objective scientific explanation of why art is good I have ever heard. You can get a taste here, recorded shortly after David passed, in which Wakeman recalls retiring to a pub after the session and telling friends he’d just finished work on the best song he ever had the privilege of playing on. He’s less eloquent here, but mentions the right-turns David wrote into the melodies and structures. Much pop music is good because it’s intuitive. It sounds like you’ve heard it before. David does this often but particularly well in “Life on Mars?” in which he writes a conventional melody, but adds a twist, where he will move into an unexpected but still wholly *correct* and harmonious note. It does something to your brain akin to swooning. In “Life on Mars?” this occurs most notably just as the transition to the chorus starts, in which in the first verse lyrically we hear “but the film is a frightening bore.” The combination of the unexpected turn and the lyrical turn (precise use of the word “but”--oh, it’s magical!) is an artfully subtle but unmissable cue to the listener to understand that what’s about to happen is _fucking important_.
*I’ve mentioned this documentary before and am not shy about saying it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I watch it at least once a year and I don’t get tired of Camille Paglia calling David Bowie’s self-disemboweling mime work “hilarious” (it is not) nor Tony Visconti’s recount of suggesting Bowie and Eno try the Eventide Harmonizer because “it fucks with the fabric of time.” Most of all, I do not get tired of journalist Charles Shaar Murray reading aloud from his own critical review of Low in which speaks directly to David, declaring provocatively “David you’re a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems.” The way Murray closes the yellowed pages of the vintage newspaper, looks directly into the camera and says “yes, I wrote that” is a top-ten televised moment for me.
“Life on Mars” was one of the last songs recorded during the Hunky Dory sessions and was arranged by Bowie’s longtime guitarist and collaborator Mick Ronson. Mick Ronson I guess was rightfully pretty nervous working with BBC session orchestral musicians, who were known to have sticks up their arses with regard to rock n’ roll. As yet another tribute to the power of this song, the session players were actually a joy to work with because they were so into the song itself. “Life on Mars?” also taught me to appreciate such subtle contributions to song recording as arrangement--really well done, Mick. The version of “Life on Mars?” that appears on Legacy, the compilation released shortly after David’s death is nothing less than an abomination. If you must, listen to it here, if only to demonstrate how well-arranged the original was. As far as I can tell, the lovely lower-end is de-emphasized, which minimizes the lovely bass tones and makes the whole thing more instrumenty and less of a *whole*. I actually just noticed that--holy shit--David’s voice breaks at 1:20. You can’t hear it on the original arrangement but in the Legacy version it’s quite audible. My world has shifted.
I need a minute to recover and maybe a shot of whiskey.
There are a lot of theories about what this song is about. I’ll first cover the popular but incorrect theory that comes from people far too fixated on the “girl with the mousy hair” identified in the first verse. I am fairly certain the identity of this person isn’t at all important, but it’s been said over and over again that the identity of this person is David’s first great love, Hermione Farthingale, a fashionable REDHEAD and glamor girl who comes off mildly offended in interviews when she pooh-poohs the connection between she and the anonymous woman identified in the first verse of “Life on Mars?” The song is supposedly about their breakup but makes no sense at all, so let’s not spend any more time on that.
Theory Two: It’s a suburban lament, as told from a soul yearning for something beyond what’s available in a fairly small world. This one is more plausible and I think definitely fits when you consider the title and look at the lyrical content of the first verse. The theory falls apart in the second half of the song, which I’ll get into in a minute. I don’t particularly favor this explanation either because it seems a little too *small* for this song. I’m not just saying that because it’s my favorite. I get the impression that David Bowie basically emptied the contents of his brain into this song as if to say “this things I believe.” It’s global. He’s speaking for himself but he’s also speaking for his movement. More on this in Theory Four.
I’ve discussed Theory Three, which as far as I know I invented, with my good friend Emily McGlynn, who I’ve mentioned several times in these posts and she’s totally on board. I’ve since left the ship. The whole thing, per Theory Three, is a critique of capitalism. To wit:
It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lenin's on sale again
The cow, which Mickey Mouse has grown up is a cash cow, where entertainment is monetized since America basically cornered the market. And in this environment, demonstrative action is entertainment, and therefore monetized, including the labor movement to its own detriment. Where this theory fails to hold water is that at this point in history, Bowie didn’t give two shits about the labor movement. The whole idea behind glam rock is essentially inventing drama where it didn’t exist, so I think if anything, this verse is a critique of both contemporary entertainment and features of civilization that should have a higher spiritual purpose such as economic equality. It’s all so boring, David thought.
Theory Four is much more complex, again mine, and the dead-correct one. It takes themes from Theories Two and Three with the additional subtext pointing to the crumbling British empire, which is really a mistake to ignore, following up on Lenin’s being on sale:
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
So to summarize, the girl with the mousy hair is bored with everything, including the mass-produced fantasy presented in film, her family and her prospects. Anything with greater humanistic value, such as labor movement activity is just posing. His current place in history as a Briton is even a fading mirage of legitimacy. Nothing on earth is real or important, interesting or inspirational, so what’s left? Maybe Mars? This is the essence of Glam Rock itself. Everything real is boring, so let’s make up something more interesting.
In my post about “Young Americans,” I mentioned briefly that I was very affected by David Bowie’s death. I know a lot of us were and I’m hard pressed to compare it to the death of any other notable public figure. Though not particularly young, he died of an illness which he kept secret, so it was a sad and dull shock instead of a maddening injustice if he’d been assassinated or had committed suicide for an unchecked mental health issue for which he could have gotten help. I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths, but this one had an import to me that is difficult to describe. It felt like if David could die, any of us could--an obvious concept--but one that’s very difficult to truly grasp. I have also mentioned that we all found out about it on the day before my birthday, which was crazy coincidentally, a birthday for which Pete had already gotten me a ton of David-related stuff, including the Labyrinth blu-ray*, which he gave to me early, the day he died to make me feel feel better. Labyrinth remains the movie that I watch when something terrible happens because it brings me that ease and comfort everyone loses as they leave childhood.
*This replaced my Labyrinth DVD, which replaced my copy on VHS. Labyrinth and Clue remain the only movies I’ve had on all three formats common in my lifetime and I still have all three copies of each.
David’s presence in Labyrinth is also a source of comfort, as is David Bowie himself in any context. I’ve been known to listen to Hunky Dory on repeat if I’m having a particularly upsetting day. We’ve postered our walls with David Bowie’s face in the hallway leading from the dining room to the bedrooms and I never get tired of looking at him. He’s not just a comfort, but also an inspiration. I love reading about him. I love reading other obsessives’ takes on his career, especially Rob Sheffield’s emotionally raw On Bowie, which he spat out in a matter of months after David’s passing. I also enjoy more academic takes on his work, particularly Nicholas Pegg’s voluminous The Complete David Bowie which picks apart every song he ever recorded, every album and collection ever released, every tour, film--you name it. And though not specifically about Bowie, I *loved* Simon Reynolds’ very complete Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-first Century and gave me a lot of inspiration for the artistic direction of Cancelled, the Electric Grandmother’s 2017 album, from which we borrowed a ton of ideas from Bowie on production value, costuming, mixing mediums as part of an album launch, and million other intangible inspirations I can’t hope to explain here.
He *is* postmodern art. He left an indelible mark on popular culture we can’t possibly quantify. He shifted it to a better place and we are all in debt for this. He is the consummate original and the greatest artist of all time.