And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
There’s a great scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth when Mary Lou [Candy Clark] takes Thomas Jerome Newton [Bowie] to church with her down in Artesia, NM. The pastor announces that a song sheet for a special hymn is in the pews which the congregation will sing in honor of their special guest who has come all the way from England. Mary Lou beams, and Tommy, the alien — but not the Englishman — squirms. He should know “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s words set to music by William Parry, but he doesn’t. And when he tries to sing, well, no, it is best he tries just the tiniest bit.
At the turn of the 19th century, “dark Satanic mills” were already part of the English scene, but an idealized vision of a pastoral England lingers. And through the 1970s, this persisted even in rock and roll lyrics by guys who had grown up in some of the least pastoral spots on the island, Liverpool, for example, or post-war London. Consider:
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed ma’am/It’s just the sprinkling of the May Queen”
“Jennifer Juniper, rides a dappled mare,
Jennifer Juniper, lilacs in her hair.”
“Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun. . .”
“In the sunshine of your love. . .”
“Out here in the fields/I farm for my meals/I get my back into my living.”
You would never mistake any of these lines for a Bowie lyric.
Bowie doesn’t do the pastoral thing. He doesn’t compare girls to rainbows and he isn’t lamenting the loss of days at Strawberry Fields.
In his earliest days he tried it on. In “Memory of a Free Festival,” “The children of the summer’s end/Gathered in the dampened grass,” but it just didn’t fit.
Away with the wavy locks and on with the paint and spandax.
He never did look quite right in blue jeans. Charcoal jeans, yes. He could wear anything that stretched, tailored suits, socks with sandals, Alexander McQueen — but never blue jeans, especially not bell bottoms. And when he tried to look outdoorsy, Bowie looked like a demented Von Trapp brat, kept hidden in the cellar, a problem not even Maria could solve.
The animal world is different for Bowie than for his immediate predecessors. No “Sheepdog, standing in the rain/Bullfrog, doing it again” no “swans that they live in the park,” not even any wild horses.
Instead, there’s a “pink monkey bird,” “tigers on vaseline,” diamond dogs, and if you insist on real beasts, you get “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.” There’s one exception that comes to mind, and trust Bowie to do the best animal image in English rock and roll: the dolphin of “Heroes.” (I have to qualify that so I can exclude Patti Smith’s “Horses.”)
The natural world is best viewed from a distance: “Here am I, flashing no colour/Tall in this room overlooking the ocean”; but much has been lost: “Once there were mountains on mountains/And once there were sunbirds to soar with.” Far more to Bowie’s taste is the perfect interior [internal?] environment:
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Oh yes, there is the album Outside, which has not a thing to do with the great outdoors, and its song “A Small Plot of Land” about the one who “swings through tunnels,” clawing his way. This album’s world is about as far from Blake’s “Jerusalem” as you can get.
But then again, Bowie is not just a post-pastoral Englishman, he is the reluctant Earthling, the post-terrestrial man.
I’ve written before about Bowie’s train trips. Would he not have seen a great deal of loveliness crossing the USA in the mid-1970s, the years he refused to fly?
Only if he had been awake during the day. But nights are his. And from the observation car of the Super Chief, what Bowie would have seen were stars. Stars and stars and more stars. From Chicago to LA there is a whole lot of nothing — no towns, no lights — just stars.
That’s where Bowie’s imagination is grounded: in the heavens, or emptiness of space, infinity, where none has gone and from where we came.
It’s one of the great constants in his work. Shall I count the stars?
The stars are out tonight. Moondust will cover you.