Tuesday, December 15, 2020

I'm on this sci-fi kick... Five Years




For this writer, Ziggy Stardust was the reason I do this today and why, for me, music is more than incidental. And while there is music that I appreciate more, even Bowie that I appreciate more (Hunky Dory, Diamond Dogs), Ziggy is the catalyst of my rapture. It's difficult to pinpoint why my choice wasn't Sgt. Pepper or The Monkees' Headquarters (or for that matter Bobby Vinton's Greatest Hits when I was five years old); these were the essential albums of my youth. I will venture to say that it was with Ziggy that I became introspective about music; that I began to analyze songs like this: 


Of all Bowie’s dystopic and apocalyptic songs, "Five Years" is the most explicitly unsettling. One of the positive criticisms I get in my fiction (Yeah, yeah, Jay and the Americans) is that it's more about what is left unsaid; that it's all about the in-betweens. And so, we don't know why five years is all we've got, only that the planet has received a terminal prognosis and has to get its affairs in order. Ziggy's limited warning keeps his perspective on the street, on the masses who, having got the news, unravel. And yet there's an odd relief in the refrain of the track as if the misery-laden struggles of the mankind are finally over, indeed there is near celebration.



That Jubilation echoes "Memories of a Free Festival" from Space Oddity. While that song is a reflection of a Bowie performance at the Beckenham Arts Lab Free Festival on the day that his father died, there is a dystopian angst associated with it that alter the lyrics in a Five Years kind of way: "The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party."

In "Five Years," Bowie tapped into a current of pessimism and resignation that would define 1970s Britain in novels, films, music and real life. The Flower Power optimism in the 60s
transmogrified into a 70s funk of hippie disillusionment amidst population bomb ecological nihilism - oh, oh, mercy, mercy me... 

Bowie's tome mimicked a dystopian poem from 1967, Roger McGough's "At Lunchtime - A Love Story:

The buspeople, and there were many of them,
were shockedandsurprised and amused and annoyed, but when the
word got around that the world was coming to an end at
lunchtime, they put their pride in their pockets with their bustickets and
madelove one with the other.


The poem is set on a bus whose riders, learning the world will end at lunchtime, start having random sex. Watch it, a facsimile anyway, or read it here


In "Five Years" the world has similarly turned upside-down. A "newsguy," forever emotionless and divorced from the everyday calamities of the world, openly weeps as he announces the impending catastrophe. Upon hearing the news, a policeman kneels to kiss the feet of a priest; we only had, after all, "five years left to cry in."

The inspiration underlying this philosophy had come from a dream Bowie had had in which he witnessed the reversal of the earth's electromagnetic field somewhere around the year 1977. For this reason, David refused to fly anywhere.



Assorted reactions to the impending disaster are observed and related humble narrator.  Ziggy relates the plight of those around him: the fat-skinny, fall-short, nobody-somebody black soldier queer people. And yet, like in McGough's poem, the end, being nigh, brings a feeling of great optimism of what could and should be done. Bowie’s narrator makes his way through the desolate streets chronicling whatever he sees and only despairs when he remembers a friend (a former lover?) in an ice-cream shop, a moment of insignificance made unbearably poignant.

Consider the historical context of a world facing the real possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, and the tale of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars begins to sound far less absurd. A suspenseful yet celebratory tone permeates the song, as though he and his band, the Spiders, had resigned themselves to their fate. The implication is that we should too. It's coming, they seem to proclaim, so why not enjoy it?

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