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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Word on a Wing

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`Station to Station`, the opening track of the album by the same name, shows Bowie coming out of a quagmire and experiencing some sort of spiritual awakening, although it doesn`t really specify what it is. `Word on a Wing`, the third track on the album, provides at least part of the answer.

The record begins by setting a church-like atmosphere, which against the mechanical nightmares of `Station to Station` and `TVC15` sounds angelic and pure, overwhelming in its magnificence. What is the cause of all this beauty? Bowie soon tells us.

In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams
I don`t need another change, still you forced your way into my scheme of things
You say we`re growing, growing heart and soul
In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams

Once again, an alien infiltrates Bowie`s life and offers a strange fascination. In the past he would have enthusiastically welcomed such an invasion and see it as the beginning of a new exciting change, but this time he is more pensive, claiming that "I don`t need another change". It doesn`t help him, though: the invader is too strong and forces its way in, bringing a promise of new growth to his life. Who is this new alien?

Sweet name, you`re born once again for me
Sweet name, you`re born once again for me
Oh sweet name, I call you again, you`re born once again for me

It is Christ. After all the months of cocaine and black magic, of going through a spiritual hell, the name of God brings light and sweetness into his life, giving him something positive to cling to. In records like `God Knows I`m Good` and `Soul Love` Bowie presented an existence in which we can no longer connect to God. Now, in the pits of despair, he finds him again in his heart.

Just because I believe don`t mean I don`t think as well
Don`t have to question everything in heaven or hell

His new found faith, however, does not mean he adopts any religious dogma. He maintains his right to be a free thinker, to explore everything in existence without accepting any given answers or warnings not to traverse human boundaries. Faith for him is a matter of the heart, not the mind.

Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I`m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It`s safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don`t stand in my own light

When he disavowed God, Bowie opted for the Nietzschean solution: turn himself into a Superman. His glam period showed him trying to impose his order on the world, make it dance to his tune. He came crashing down in the Diamond Dogs album, where he suddenly feels that he is merely a pawn in a bigger game, and now he accepts it and tries to become part of the biggest order, the scheme that is set by God. He sings of the mystical experience of becoming part of this order and feels safer knowing that there is a bigger force he can rely on, but he still maintains his individuality.

Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

The prayer he is talking about is of course this song, and it is somewhat different than usual prayers, where the person praying completely submits to God. Bowie doesn`t submit completely, and he wonders if this stance fits in God`s order.

In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams
Sweet name, you`re born once again for me
just as long as I can see, I`ll never stop this vision flowing
I look twice and you`re still flowing
Just as long as I can walk
I`ll walk beside you, I`m alive in you

This is mysticism. The image of a flowing divinity is what we find for instance in Kabbalah. In such mystical beliefs, the world does not stand apart from God, but is an extension of it. God is a flowing thing, and the more you get away from it the more the power of the flow diminishes and becomes more material, until it becomes our material world. But it is still a part of God, and we who live in this world can open ourselves and feel the flow within us and around us. This recognition, says Bowie, makes him feel more alive.

Sweet name, you`re born once again for me
And I`m ready to shape the scheme of things

Conservative believers say that we must not try to change the order of the world, as it was ordained by God. But Bowie has a different perception of belief. Feeling God inside him, he believes he has the right to change the scheme of things, as doing so is also part of the divine order. He repeats it several times, as though it is a resolution he is going to live by. This has a personal meaning: with his life in disarray, he intends to take this conviction and use it to straighten himself out. But it also has an ideological meaning: he is going to continue to try to be the hero that shapes the world.

Bowie now launches again into the chorus, singing with growing conviction and spiritual ecstasy, letting his prayer fly. He then sings the chorus once again with even greater devotion and we start to hear angels singing around him, as if his soul soars into the heavens. In the last two lines, however, he returns into his own skin, singing sweetly but with self-control, as if to remind God that he is still a free individual. When the prayer ends, only a lonely angel keeps singing, and his voice seems to be ascending away from us until it fades away, like a word on a wing.

`Word on a Wing` remains one of the most beautiful and interesting expressions in pop of the relationship between a man and his god. It is, however, a one-off. Bowie would later claim it was the result of the cocaine-addled depression he was in and would never again kneel before any god. It was regularly performed on the Station to Station tour, but was then put on the shelf for many years until it was finally revived in 1999, as part of his performance on VH1`s Storytellers.

Bowie kept singing this song during this period, with growing passion. This was an early signal for his upcoming album Heathen, whose celestial sound and spiritual content finally go back to explore the field opened by `Word on a Wing`.

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