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Divine Symmetry I 12 I Did Bowie secretly write “Stranger in Paradise?”

I was listening to Tony Bennett sing “Stranger in Paradise,” which doesn’t sound anything like a Bowie song, but was listening more intently to the lyrics than maybe I have in the past and noticed…certain similarities.

What stood out to me at first was this lyrical sequence, from right in the middle of the song: “somewhere in space I hang suspended.” It doesn’t sound like Tony Bennett was paraphrasing “Space Oddity,” but those words seem like something that could have come from Bowie.

So I listened to the song again…it’s uncanny. The opening line is actually, “take my hand.” I’m sure it’s a phrase that appears in other songs, but my mind goes to “give me your hands” from “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.” Then there’s the line, “won’t you answer this fervent prayer?,” which makes me think of “Word on a Wing,” which has a few lines about prayer, including, “Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?”

Actually, “Word on a Wing” might have the most parallels. Consider the opening of “Word”:

In this age of grand illusion
You walked into my life
Out of my dreams

And now think about this imagery from “Strangers”:

All lost in a wonderland
A stranger in paradise
If I stand starry eyed,
That’s a danger in Paradise
For mortals who stand beside
An angel like you

Don’t see it?

What about this, from Bowie’s “The Wedding” (1993):

These are floating clouds
Angel for life
Dreaming alone and I feel that someone
Listens to me
Angel for life

Going back to “Word,” consider the use of the word “stranger” in both that and ‘Stranger.” “Stranger in Paradise” is, of course, repeated in that song. But Bowie repeats, in his song, “It’s safer than a strange land.”

It doesn’t take long to get from “Stranger in Paradise” to “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which, while not a phrase used by Bowie, is the title of the classic Robert Heinlein book about a Martian who comes to Earth. The book almost certainly influenced Bowie, and certainly presaged The Man Who Fell to Earth. Moreover, the phrase, “stranger in a strange land” comes from the Bible, in which Moses identifies himself as an immigrant and a traveler. These are not only themes used by Bowie throughout his career, but also intertwines “stranger” with religious significance, much like the term, “stranger in paradise.”

Staying with the religious implication, I’m guessing the phrase, “Stranger in Paradise” shares its linage with “Stranger in a Strange Land.” The song mentions angels and other celestial imagery and conveys, overall, a sense of transcendence. It was originally written for the musical, Kismet. The word, “kismet,” which means something like, “destiny,” itself has religious connotations.

Bowie, too would often intermingle religious imagery with science fiction as well as mundane feelings and experiences. The commonality is to convey the exaggerated sense of an individual’s feeling.

“Stranger” goes on to use Bowie-like words like “mortals,” “dark despair” and “hunger.” And much as Bowie would sometimes do, it sneaks these rather bleak words into what sounds like an uplifting song.

To be clear, I don’t think Bowie intentionally borrowed from this song. But it would have been familiar to him. Bowie, born in 1947, would have naturally encountered popular music from the time of his youth (“Strangers in Paradise” debuted in 1953). He wore 1940’s style zoot suits in the 1980s, updated and covered early 20th Century songs such as “Alabama Song” (1927) and “Wild is the Wind” (1957).

Also, he enjoyed words that have multiple meanings. “Star” (“starry” appears in “Strangers”) is the best example, but so too is the word, “stranger.” Actually, Talking Heads use the word’s double meaning most explicitly in “Burning Down the House”— “strange but not a stranger.” But its also a favorite word of Bowie’s— think of “Changes,” which uses both meanings of the word in the lines, “turn and face the stranger” and also “strange fascination.” (Add to that Bowie’s propensity to use phrases that just happened to be names of movies from the 40s and 50s— yep, Strange Fascination is a 1952 noir film).

There’s also a faint hint of a connection to Bowie’s 1993 song, “Strangers When We Meet.” The phrase conjures up a similar image to that of “Stranger in Paradise,” in which the narrator describing himself as a stranger upon meeting an angelic figure. Bowie’s song uses the phrase more ironically, in describing an encounter between former lovers who at the point where they feel like strangers. But I don’t put it past Bowie to also intentionally be suggesting that it’s “stranger when we meet,” which is a very relatable sensation for anyone who runs into a former romantic partner.

But no, I don’t think Bowie had “Stranger in Paradise” in mind when composing any of these songs. This is a case of similar ingredients used in the hands of different chefs.

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The attached video is of Tony Bennett singing the song as a duet with Andrea Bocelli from his Duets II album. Its not the version that inspired me to write this post, but it was deliberately made as a video, so its better suited for this blog.

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This is also an instance where I think it’s worth including all the lyrics of “Stranger in Paradise.” What do you think? Do these look like Bowie lyrics?

Take my hand,
I’m a stranger in Paradise
All lost in a wonderland
A stranger in paradise
If I stand starry eyed,
That’s a danger in Paradise
For mortals who stand beside
An angel like you
I saw your face,
And I ascended
Out of the common place
Into the rarest somewhere in space
I hang suspended
Until I know
There’s a chance that you care
Won’t you answer this fervent prayer?
Of a stranger in paradise
Don’t send me in dark despair
From all that I hunger for
But open your angel’s arms
To this stranger in paradise
And tell him that he need be
A stranger no more

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