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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Five Years

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'Five Years' is the opening track of the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and this location is significant, since this is an album that has a narrative. When I analyzed the tracks of the previous albums, I treated them both as stand-alone records and as part of the overall concept of the album, but I didn't pay much attention to the track's place within the album. With the tracks of Ziggy Stardust, I will also treat them as part of a sequence, and follow the story that Bowie is telling. On the other hand, it should be emphasized that this is not a rock opera like the Who's Tommy, where all the tracks revolve around the same characters and tell only part of a bigger story. Rather, every track on Ziggy Stardust is an independent piece, and there's nothing to indicate that the characters in it are the same as in the other tracks. Plus, each track deals with a different subject, and contains elements that shed light on that particular subject and have nothing to do with the rest of the album. So every track is a story in its own, and retains its meaning even if you hear it apart from the album (which isn't the case with many of the tracks on Tommy). But when you put them together, a definite overall story also emerges, a parable with morals and conclusions. Our analysis will have to keep an eye on each story as it unfolds.

So what is the story of 'Five Years', the opening track? We get it right off the bat:

Pushing through 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

'Five Years' is one of those records that split the history of rock music in half. In the fifties and sixties, rock was celebrating the never-ending Present, or dreaming of a utopian Future. Here, suddenly, comes a rock record that suggests that the Future doesn't exist and that our Present is about to end. The idea that the world might come to an end was quite common in sci-fi at the time, at an age that was coming to terms with the dangers of the A-bomb, the population explosion and the deteriorating ecology, but not in the inherently-optimistic realm of pop music. If it was discussed, like in the apocalyptic visions of Bob Dylan, it was a warning against what would happen if we don't change our ways. Bowie is offering something else, a doomsday scenario where Earth is going to die in five years and there is nothing we can do about it. The record doesn't even tell us why it is dying, and it doesn't matter – what matters is the inevitability of this death.

I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and TVs
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people

They say that when you are about to die, your entire life flashes in front of your eyes. What would happen if we learned that the world is about to die? According to Bowie, the entire world will flash in front of our eyes. All those people, appliances, songs and places that previously seemed mundane and meaningless, now suddenly become dear to the singer. He tries to remember them all in all their wonderful diversity and contradictions, to store them in his head. On the verge of losing it, he realizes that he loves this world and its inhabitants.

A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children
If the black hadn't a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them
A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac
A cop knelt to kiss the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that

But while he discovers his love for the human race, he also watches it go to pieces, as the ties that hold humans together unravel. His voice starts to break as he tells us how they behave in this time of crisis, how everything seems to disintegrate. The image of the young girl hitting tiny children says it all, while around her, the symbols of authority break down – the soldier seems to be contemplating suicide, the policeman gives up on earthly authority and turns to faith – and the only ones who seem to keep a level head are rather the ones who were always thought of as unruly – the black and the queer. It seems uncertain that we will survive even the remaining five years.

Why is it so? Why does society crumble in the face of this news? Because in modern society, everything is based on the future. The modern mind is directed towards creating a perfect future society, and its ideas of morality and happiness are based on this ideal. Take the future away from the modern person, and it would be like taking God away from a religious person – their whole belief-system would collapse, and they would lose the basis for their ethical and behavioral code.

I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor, drinking milkshake, cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
Don't think you knew you were in this song

In one of Bowie's most brilliant passages, the singer turns directly to the listener and makes him part of the story. And here is where we realize that this isn't just some fancy sci-fi story – this is happening now, all around us. That doesn't mean that the world is really going to end in five years, but what it does mean is that our society is crumbling, because there is no more future goal. After the sixties overthrew the old dogmas we seemed to have lost our faith in the perfect future, and that means that the basis for our morality is gone. Pretty soon, the horrors described in the previous passage will engulf us, and there will be no way to hold them back. But we (the people of 1972) are oblivious to this reality, and don't realize the danger we're in. While we are busy drinking milkshakes and worried about looking fine, the logic that ensured the wellbeing of our society is melting, and slipping from under our feet. This is one of the records in which Bowie's old artistic ideal – to place a mirror in front of society and make it see its true face – manifests itself most strongly. Like a prophet standing at the gates of the city, the singer is trying to wake us up to the danger, to scream it in our ears. Maybe the impending doom he prophesizes has nothing to do with ecological or astronomical reasons, but is what he foresees for us if we continue our current ways.

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

With no future to look forward to, the world becomes meaningless, and the singer feels alienated to it. He feels as if he is an actor playing a part, not someone who actually lives in this world. He yearns to go back to a time when things were simpler and warmer, and it almost sounds like he wants to go back into his mother's womb. What he means, probably, is that he wants to bring back a world where existence has meaning.

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

Once again, the singer expresses his love for the human race, but here there is also something else: the line "I kiss you, you're beautiful, I want you to walk" brings to mind a fairytale story, where the hero, with the power of his kiss, saves sleeping beauty from her paralysis and makes her walk again. It hints that Bowie may have found the way to save the human race, a new code that we can build a new world around.

But that is a mere hint, and the reality of the record allows no such hopes. The awakening to and acceptance of the fact that we are doomed finally sinks in with all its resonance, and his voice, which kept breaking throughout the record, reaches its climax in a shriek of terror:

We've got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We've got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that's all we've got

However, as the haunting drumbeat takes us out of the track, the terror seems to subside. Nowhere else on the album is it mentioned that the world is going to die in five years – this vision is specific to the opening track alone. What does it have to do with the rest of the story, then?

The importance of 'Five Years' to the album's narrative is that it sets the stage on which the Ziggy saga will play. It announces that the old ideologies, those that were based on the belief that we can create a better future, have no more ground to stand on and can no longer satisfy our crave for meaningfulness. We must find another solution, another meaning for our existence. This is where Ziggy comes in.

On February 1972, Bowie performed 'Five Years' on the TV show Old Grey Whistle Test. Fittingly, it was the first track the world heard off the upcoming album, and the first time it saw Bowie in his Ziggy guise. It set the stage for the dazzling year-and-a-half to come.

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