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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: It ain`t Easy

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'It ain't Easy' is a song written and recorded in 1970 by American singer/songwriter Ron Davies, which became an instant classic among white blues musicians. It was already covered by several artists before Bowie got around to it, and was also allegedly performed live by the Rats, the Hull band that Bowie hired and turned into the Spiders from Mars. Bowie picked it up and started to perform it with them in 1971, and a glammed up version made it into the Ziggy Stardust album. A controversial choice, no doubt, especially when you consider that original songs like 'Velvet Goldmine' were left out. But when you judge it on its own merits, you realize that the track fits right into the album, musically and thematically.

Nevertheless, it is still a cover, and when you interpret covers, it is important to follow the changes that the artist makes in the original, because that is where he brings his personal take on the subject. Our interpretation, then, will have to heed the original record and focus on Bowie's changes.

When you climb to the top of the mountain
Look out over the sea
Think about the places perhaps, where a young man could be
Then you jump back down to the rooftops
Look out over the town
Think about all of the strange things circulating round

It ain't easy, it ain't easy
It ain't easy to get to heaven when you're going down

The first verse changes some of Davies' lyrics, but not the meaning. The chorus is also essentially the same. The singer climbs the mountain and gets to a vantage point where he can look beyond his town, and thinks about the wondrous other places that there are out there which offer a different type of existence. But then he comes back down, and realizes he is stuck in his little town and has to settle for the strange things he can find in it. Spiritually, it is an allegory of our wish for a heavenly existence which is at odds with our imperfect earthly life, a theme which Bowie already dealt with in 'Life on Mars?' and other records. On the album, it comes right after we had a taste of heaven, and now we are coming down from the ecstasy of 'Moonage Daydream' and 'Starman' and wondering if it can be reached again.

Well all the people have got their problems
That ain't nothing new
With the help of the good Lord
We can all pull on through
We can all pull on through
Get there in the end
Sometimes it'll take you right up and sometimes down again

This verse deals with the daily struggle to come to terms with this earthly life, when you realize that reaching Heaven is not easy. Davies sings: "Well the people they got their problems / That ain't nothing new / Tell you, patience and understanding / They can get you on through / They can get you on through / They can take you to the end / They can take you up, and let you down again". For Davies, the realization of being stuck in this world is the end of the story, and all we can do is learn how to make it through life, up until the end of it. Patience and understanding can help you form the psychological mechanisms that give you the strength to carry on, although sometimes they can also bring you down.

Bowie has a different message: Heaven is reachable. He isn't looking to get to the end, i.e. live until you reach the end of your life, but get there in the end, i.e. get to Heaven. He is not looking for patience and understanding, but for divine intervention that will take us all the way up there, and the Heaven he seeks is not to be found in the afterlife, but right here on Earth. But it still isn't easy: spiritual ecstasy can indeed take you all the way up, but it can also take you back down again.

Satisfaction, satisfaction
Keep me satisfied
I've got the love of a Hoochie Koochie woman
She's calling from inside
She's a-calling from inside
Trying to get to you
All the woman really wants you can give her something too

Davies sings: "Satisfaction, satisfaction / Tell me who is satisfied / When she take it / And she hold it deep inside / And she hold it deep inside / And she trying to give you too / And then all the woman wants, she can give you something too." Sex is described as an incomplete solution: it ain't easy, but when we're going down on each other, we can sometimes take each other to a temporary Heaven. Bowie's version, on the other hand, focuses on spiritual liberation. The woman he describes has something in her that calls to be liberated, and you can liberate it and take her to Heaven. But again, it ain't easy.

The original version is a typical blues number, and keeps to the maxims of blues: we are living in a hard world where there's no salvation, and we have to pull ourselves through it, although it ain't easy. Bowie maintains the blues basis but gives it a glam sound, and changes the message: salvation on Earth is possible, although it ain't easy. We cannot reach it on our own, but with the help of other people and of divine intervention (which in this album would mean the alien Ziggy that comes from the sky), we will get there. The previous tracks already gave us a slice of Heaven, but to make it a true salvation, we will have to find a way to make this Heaven sustainable, not just a fleeting moment. This will be Ziggy's challenge.

The original, by Ron Davies:

Ziggy's version:

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