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Week 32 | Live EP (Live at Fashion Rocks) (2005)

2005 was the early part of Bowie’s least artistically productive period.  He suffered something like a heart attack the year before, stopped touring and apparently stopped making new music (until he surprised everyone in 2013 with, “The Next Day”).  But we didn’t know that in 2005, when Bowie appeared at the fundraiser-concert, Fashion Rocks with the band, Arcade Fire.  Apparently, they performed three songs together that fare captured in this EP, which was used as a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina.  

As far as I know, this EP exists only as a download.  Accordingly, I have it on my phone and hear these three songs more than I otherwise would if they were on a physical CD.  The EP’s main contribution, in that it is a song that Bowie had not previously recorded, is the Arcade Fire song, “Wake Up,” on which Bowie shares lead vocals (and is one of several guitar players).  I place the song in the category of, “I’m glad it exists.”  Although I find the lyrics to be unintelligible, I like it.   But I don’t have particular affection for it.  Video footage of the performance comes off better to me than the sound alone, in part because the band’s energy level is infectious.

The other two songs are more familiar— “Life on Mars” and “Five Years.”  If you like these songs, you will have no complaints with Bowie’s performance.  I don’t have much more to say about “Life on Mars” than I have already written elsewhere, but the more I think about it, the odder “Five Years” seems as one of three songs to perform at this particular concert. 

“Five Years” is about the impending end of the world.  Bowie has several apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic songs, not to mention others about alien invasions (good and bad).  If this concert was a fundraiser in part for Katrina, was he trying to make some sort of point?  Compare this selection to what he performed at the post 9/11 Concert for New York— “Heroes” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”  Those songs and his performance of them, obviously, were hopeful, while “Five Years” is the opposite.  

I seldom listen to the studio recording “Five Years” outside the context of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” which the song opens.  On its face, there is nothing about the song that connects it to the Ziggy-theme.  Because it is so often characterized as a “concept album,” I have contorted in my mind a link that’s not actually supported by the lyrics, or the lyrics of any of the other songs on the album.  Think, for instance, about the message that Earth has five years left versus the message of “Starman,” which involves an alien that wants to tell us something but won’t for fear that he’s “blow our minds.”  If the one song was related to the other, wouldn’t the Starman’s message take on a kind of urgency that would overcome his fear of blowing our minds?

Anyway, the present question is not what “Five Years” is doing on the Ziggy Album, but what is it doing on this EP?  Bowie might have selected it as a commentary on the post-disaster chaos in New Orleans.  Although implied in the song is the question, “how would you spend your last five years if you knew the world was going to end,” Bowie doesn’t actually ask that question in the song.  Instead, he describes what he sees once the news breaks. What he sees is a combination of “Panic in Detroit” style chaos (a mother trying to kill her children) and complete indifference to the looming threat (the smiling, waving milkshake-drinking person didn’t realize she or he was in the song).  Is that what Bowie was seeing in reports about post-Katrina New Orleans?  

Or was he hinting that he was going to take a break for five years?  Could he have possible known that? The concert was performed in September 2005.  He began recording “The Next Day in 2012.  If you discount the remainder of 2005, that’s about six years…but then again this line of thinking is absurd.  Maybe he just felt like singing, “Five Years.”

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