I think one of the bravest things Bowie did in the last seven years was to perform “Wake Up” with Arcade Fire on September 8, 2005, during the televised “Fashion Rocks” awards show not 15 months after his heart attack.
It’s not that Bowie is more than 33 years older than Arcade Fire’s lead singer and founder, Win Butler, who, even though David is in two-inch or so heels, towers over his guest.
It’s that Bowie did not look like Bowie that night. He didn’t look well. I don’t think Bowie cares as much about his appearance as we do. But the Bowie who sang that night looked fleshy — and Bowie isn’t a fleshy guy. Maybe he had put on weight, but is someone with his bone structure likely to add the pounds to his face and neck? He was puffy, perhaps as a side effect of multiple heart medications.
So it is chilling when Bowie takes the lead at 4:10 into “Wake Up” — an incredible song in which the seriousness of its lyrics is matched only by the sheer joy and lust for life of its music — and sings these lines:
“With my lightnin’ bolts a glowin’
I can see where I am goin’ to be
when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand.”
(And if you don’t know the lyrics, it is very easy to mishear that first line as “When my life is over…”.)
Back to July 2004
One of the most widely quoted remarks Bowie made following his heart surgery was,
“I tell you what, though, I won’t be writing a song about this one.”
My thought was, then you won’t be writing much at all. We all wish otherwise, I expect, but there are some experiences that cannot be denied. And keeping silent about them means keeping silent. Period.
Today and The Next Day and the next
We had the title before we heard the song and some time to consider the difference between “tomorrow” and “the next day.” Tomorrow, we know, never comes. When it arrives, it is today. But the next day and the next day — that’s different, somehow.
“Here I am
Not quite dying
My body left to rot in a hollow tree
Its branches throwing shadows
On the gallows for me
And the next day
And the next
And another day”
Is this about Bowie’s mortality? No and yes and no and yes. “Here I am/Not quite dying” — a great let’s-get-this-clear-from-the-start line.
It needed saying. And brilliantly Bowie delivers the news with great high energy in The Next Day’s title cut, a vibrantly vital upbeat melody with lyrics bleaker than “Wake Up’s.”
The not-quite-dead guy continues, “My body left to rot in a hollow tree.” That’s not Bowie: maybe it’s one of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Merlin who once was imprisoned in a hollow tree.
Is the tree the Old Norse Yggdrasill, the Tree of the World, which takes its name from “Odin’s horse”, meaning “gallows,” and where Odin, the wise old wanderer, god of wisdom and poetry, and master of the magical use of sound, sacrificed himself to himself ?
There are other mentions of death on The Next Day, and by the time you reach the eleventh track, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” you aren’t worried about Bowie any longer, just wondering why he gave such a lackluster title to an interesting song and if there is a link between she who unseen moves “through the dark/Leaving slips of paper /Somewhere in the park” and he who “fashions paper sculptures. . . /Then drags them to the river‘s bank in the cart” (“The Next Day”).