David Bowie, “Life On Mars?”

Written by January 21st, 2013 at 7:00 am

Music fans had reason to rejoice earlier this year when David Bowie dropped a dreamy single entitled “Where Are We Now,” ending a long recording hiatus from which many feared he might never return. The sweeping ballad might have surprised those who can only picture Bowie as a glam-rock icon, but his pre-Ziggy Stardust era is full of songs with stately tempos, high-drama melodies, and lyrics that seem to tumble down from outer space even as they show extreme empathy for the folks stuck on this planet.

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No Bowie ballad exhibits these characteristics better than “Life On Mars?” The song was included on Hunky Dory, a 1971 album which lacks the thematic bent of some subsequent masterpieces but might show off David’s songwriting better than any of his other LP’s. “Life On Mars?” is a florid yet forlorn anthem, one that was inspired by some unusual sources.

In 1968, Bowie wrote English lyrics to a French song called “Comme d’habitude,” but this project never went anywhere. Instead, American songwriter Paul Anka fell in love with the same tune and wrote lyrics to it with the intent of having Frank Sinatra perform them. That song became “My Way,” the definitive performance of Sinatra’s twilight years. Bowie was frustrated at this turn of events, and used “Life On Mars?” to get his subtle revenge; as he told BBC Radio about the song, “There were clutches of melody that was definite parodies of ‘My Way.’”

But rather than painting a self-aggrandizing self-portrait, Bowie uses the song to tell a “God awful small affair” of a young girl whose reality is so tormented that she seeks out the empty heroes of the movies to find some sort of salvation. Yet even the silver screen is all too painfully familiar: “But the film is a sadd’ning bore/For she’s lived it ten times or more.”

In the second verse, Bowie’s view widens to survey the broken promises and crumbling dreams running rampant on both sides of the pond, using incisive wit worthy of Lennon and Dylan to skewer patriotic views and cultural icons. The scary thing is this nightmare of a scene keeps repeating itself: “It’s about to be writ again.”

As the song builds from Rick Wakeman’s dramatic piano part to a swirling string arrangement by Bowie’s musical partner-in-crime Mick Ronson, the singer unleashes a torrent of surreal images in the chorus that ostensibly belong to the movie-within-the-song but come out sounding like snapshots of actual urban tumult. With Earth looking so bad, what else can one do but cry out, “Is there life on Mars?”

It’s doubtful that Ol’ Blue Eyes would have recognized the song as an indirect tribute. But he should get some credit for firing up the songwriter to create one of his most heartfelt odes to societal outcasts. “Life On Mars?” is a thrilling example of David Bowie’s brilliance as a songwriter; it’s good to know he’s back to bestow that brilliance on us once again.

“Life On Mars?”

It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show

Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on Amerika’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again

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

But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show

Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

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