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Divine Symmetry I 20 I The Tea Party’s “Empty Glass” (2004)

The Tea Party was a fairly major Canadian rock band that I wasn’t familiar with before learning that this song existed thanks to William Shatner’s Seeking Major Tom. Sure enough, this is not only another Major Tom song, but one that makes references to other Bowie songs– “Golden Years,” “Starman” and “Diamond Dogs,” as well as a more oblique reference to The Man Who Fell to Earth. I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed something else.

With all that woven into the lyrics, the song is a lament, a plea for help to Major Tom because “nothing’s making sense.” In a world of chaos, “we’re losing our soul,” and maybe Major Tom can help. The way I hear it, this band is actually looking to Bowie, or Bowie songs for guidance for navigating time, chaos and the search for meaning. I get that.

Unlike most of the other songs I’ve commented on in this series, I had never heard this song, or heard of it until the day I began writing this entry. In trying to find the original version, I pulled up an apparently better known song called, “An Empty Glass,” which I also had never heard. The glass in the context of that song is as literal empty glass— the song’s setting is a bar at closing time. In this song, the empty glass is an allusion to the cliche about seeing a glass as half empty or half full— the narrator here is in a bad way and sees an empty glass. This is clever. The Tea Party managed to use the Bowie trick of employing a term with more than one meaning to express a sentiment that is shared by many Bowie fans. The whole idea of Bowie appealing to the weirdos, those feeling all alone and different is summed up in that phrase. In a sense, this song is about the why of being a Bowie fan, and I think would only make sense to a Bowie fan.

“Glass” is not necessarily a word especially associated with Bowie (unlike “star” which makes it in here a few times, too), but it does have some Bowie connections. There’s “Breaking Glass,” which is thematically if not lyrically similar to this song, and the line, “Steel on the skyline; Sky made of glass; Made for a real world; All things must pass” from “Heathen (The Rays)”, which similarly expresses a kind of existential dread and disorientation. “Glass Spider” is another song about disorientation, disguised as a goofy pop song (“ Gone, Gone the water’s all gone; Mummy come back; ‘Cause the water’s all gone”). More tangentially, there’s Phillip Glass who turned “’Heroes’” and “Low” into anxious, minimalist symphonies. All of this is to say that I think the band was very deliberate in naming this song, choosing an evocative title rather than something like, “An Ode to David.” Indeed, this is kind of the opposite of Phish’s “David Bowie,” which, despite the use of his name has nothing else whatsoever to do with David Bowie.

So, I like this song. I like the sound of it, too, not just the lyrics, but I like that the words leave us with something to think about. The Bowie references are not just clever Easter eggs— they carry with them meaning that connects the worry of the narrator to the cathartic effect of listening to and contemplating Bowie’s music. This was my first encounter with The Tea Party, but I intend for it not to be my last.

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The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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