“It’s So Hard For Us
To Really Be
And Really Me”
I was 17 when I decided to download Bowie’s discography. That means it was around 1999, Los Angeles. My family was a late adopter of the Internet. I had to haul them to a tech store to buy a modem and then install a free AOL CD for access to the internet. Having only 1 phone line meant that using the Internet caused all of our phone calls to be blocked.
So you can imagine my nightmare scenario: being a rampaging teenager attempting to download a torrent of all of Bowie’s albums in a house full of latina women who didn’t like missing calls. I remember it taking days to even set up the procedure for even starting the download, days for the download to fail, and days to regroup and start the download up again. It ran overnight like beef in a slow cooker.
All the albums wouldn’t fit into a CD so I had to trim. I decided to delete most of the tracks off of Space Oddity the album, but chose to keep Space Oddity the song.
I realized my mistake around five to six years later while living in Harlem. I purchased the Ziggy Stardust Movie on DVD from a Tower Records inside Trump Tower (a Trump Tower Records is a thing that is as weird as it sounds) and I listened and watched David Bowie sing Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud
The performance is from 1973, but the first song is from the Space Oddity album. I completely fell in love with the song when I watched this while sitting on the floor of my Harlem bedroom. I didn’t have cable then. I had a television on a wobbly wooden nightstand, a dvd player, and this film.
I’m just now really appreciating the Space Oddity album as a whole. Many themes are present here that will continue to be present all the way to Blackstar:
The dread of living in the world, but also the momentary joy of revelation.
Space Oddity, the album and song, are a lot more menacing than they sound.
Tracks of Note
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud
I want to focus on the method of storytelling in this song. The characters are the villagers, the wild eyed boy, the mountain, and their struggles. The story unfolds with some great lyrics, and then you hit the middle crescendo. The wild eyed boy, and maybe the narrator himself, sings to the villagers, and the listener, “It’s so hard for us to really be, really you, really me.”
This use of “us” and “you” will return in Ziggy Stardust (“I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour…don’t think you knew you were in this song”) Heroes (“We can be heroes”). A lot of singers address listeners directly, but only a few do it by building a world that is recognizably unfair, cruel, or dying. This gives many Bowie songs a touch of what you would call salvation, though religion itself is largely rejected. The salvation is never put as simply as it is in this song: To really be.
Bowie spins a little yarn, positions the Wild Eyed boy as a messiah, and has him fail. Whatever message of peace he brought with him (“to really be”) is lost with the town threatening to execute him and the mountain destroying the town. The messiah fails. The people aren’t saved. This happens a lot in Bowie music. The characters in the story may fail, or may be doomed, but we can at least experience a momentary joy or revelation through them.
Check out the original version of Space Oddity and the revised version below which was actually shot in space.
Commander Chris Hadfield’s version is lovely, but I have to be a downer at the party and remind everyone that the original Space Oddity is a story of death, a metaphor for drug addiction, and most importantly a song that ponders the dangers and the allures of the infinite. I don’t blame Commander Chris for changing the lyrics because I would do the same if I was literally in orbit.
Space is a place that holds death, addiction, but potential salvation in the growing mythology of Bowie’s music. Ziggy Stardust comes from space. The girl experiencing an existential bore pins her hopes on whether there is life on mars in the song Life on Mars? And Major Tom’s flight into space in Space Oddity starts with hope and curiosity, but ends in loss.
We as mostly sane people know that we shouldn’t self-harm or self-destruct, but we also have a tendency to struggle against a life that is safe, boring, and oppressive. Without exploration we wouldn’t have gay people, trans people, artists, interracial relationships, and most of life would just be an internal struggle instead of a path to happiness and honesty.
But there is danger in exploration. There is AIDS, homelessness, drug addiction, abuse. If we travel far enough into the infinite then we are in danger of losing our individual “ground control.”
I was supposed to live in New York while working for XY Magazine. After my business trip to London, I went to New York, and the magazine started going under, and my job fell through. I made the decision to stay in New York. I think I was 21 years old. I crashed on the couch of a writer friend, and survived on savings for a month while I looked for work and an apartment.
There were a lot of factors to my decision to live in New York, and I’ve forgotten most of them, but the most important ones are still with me: I didn’t want to live home anymore, I felt welcomed by the city because I was a weirdo and it was full of weirdos, I wanted to be gay here, and I wanted to be alone.
I think Space Oddity makes a literal connection between the impulses behind space exploration, drug addiction, and experimenting with your own life. It explains our hopes of finding salvation in exploration, but doesn’t lie about finding ourselves utterly lost.It is sweet and strange, and it may be one of the most mysterious songs I’ve ever listened to.
Memory Of A Free Festival
Memory of a Free Festival is amazing and I just discovered that now. I always skipped this song until I listened to this album. I should know not to do that with any Bowie track. I heard it described as his “Hey Jude” and I can see that, but also note how it totally isn’t “Hey Jude.”
For one thing, the chorus sounds joyous at first, but goes on for so long that it starts to sound threatening. What is the sun machine exactly, when is it coming down, and what’s going to happen to us when it does?
It also sounds like gospel music, which is completely out of left field. It sounds like something from his Young Americans album. Bowie was never secretive about his love for black artists like Little Richard. On the day he died this story of him defending black artists to MTV went viral This track is the first time I can see him incorporating (or appropriating) some of that sound.
Finally, the track is a blazing closing track to the album. It’s a great ending. Endings are something we’ll continue to see Bowie nail to a T in almost every one of his albums. Remember, that his soul is a writer’s soul, and there’s nothing more important to a book than the first line and the ending. The last track of the album feels like an end of an era.
There are a lot of great tracks in this album that start tying together to larger themes in Bowie’s works. Cygnet Committee is a good example of an early Bowie track dealing with mental illness, but I didn’t choose it as a track of note because–in my opinion–it doesn’t grab me as much as the songs about mental illness in his next album (Oooooh boy there are some good ones).
Still, a very solid album and worth a listen.
Here is the original music video for Space Oddity.