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Lyrics: first in a new series

I’ve been meaning to post about some of Bowie’s lyrics that have been meaningful to me. I’ve been thinking about it as a top 10 list, but reflecting again on Adam Steiner’s analysis of “Up the Hill Backwards” (see yesterday’s post), I continue to be blown away by how rich some of Bowie’s lyrics are. His most meaningful words deserve more than placement on a list.

I’m also still shocked at the extent to which I specifically didn’t understand the lyrics of, “Up the Hill Backwards.” The opening line— “The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom.” I have been listening to this song for years and heard, “the vacuum created” as “back to creation.” What I thought Bowie was singing makes even less sense than what he actually was singing, but now I see more coherence in the next two lines:

And the possibilities it seems to offer
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it

I remember something Leah Kardos either wrote or said in answer to the hypothetical question of whether Bowie knew what he was doing when he’d, say, mention one thing that was evocative of something else. She said that he had been writing songs for 50 years and knew exactly what he was doing. That said, he had also repeatedly said that the meaning of his songs or art in general should be left to those experiencing it. He didn’t want to explain too much because he saw his own intentions as less important than what his audience thought he meant. Though not the only time, I recall him specifically talking about how fans read much more into the Ziggy Stardust story than he put into it. But he wasn’t complaining. He was talking about it like the fan-infused meaning stood on even keel with whatever was in his mind when he wrote the songs in the first place.

Much like, “Up the Hill Backwards” I relatively recently heard someone talk about the song, “Glass Spider.” On the surface, the song seems to be goofy. Bowie named his 1987 tour— the first one I attended— after the song and designed his stage to be engulfed by a giant glass spider. Anyway, the most memorable part of the song is the refrain, “Gone, gone, the water’s all gone. Mommy come back ‘cause the water’s all gone.” This whole tale of baby spiders being abandoned by their mother, having a lack of water and being in the dark was set up by this Spinal Tap-style opening spoken word fairy tale. Everything about the song points to it as actually being about mythical glass spiders.

So, what I heard was, whoever was saying this, point out a line that I never discerned before— “If your mother don’t love you then the riverbed might.” This is a reference to suicide. Woah. What is this song about? It’s one of the lyrics I was going to highlight, but weeks after having my eyes opened, I haven’t really worked out— what is Bowie singing about here???

Anyway, with that, I’m going to kick off an occasional series where I discuss lyrics. This post is kind of a precursor, and maybe I’ll “start” with the line from “Glass Spider” or yet another reflection on something from, “Up the Hill Backwards.” But thought I never posted it as such, I have a list. So, stay tuned…

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