Four Lyrical Gems from David Bowie


Videos by American Songwriter

Photo by Jimmy King

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”

At the end of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie gave the titular character the spectacular death he deserved. Yet the song is more than just the climax of the Ziggy Stardust story; it’s Bowie’s empathetic plea to all of his fans who felt as alien and lost as his fictional creation. A litany of maddeningly mundane events attempt to take the spirit away from the person he’s addressing, but he desperately tries to reach out. “If I could only make you care,” he sings, before desperately screaming, “You’re not alone!” It might be the most moving moment in his entire catalog.


John Lennon contributed the title and some typically cheeky one-liners, and Carlos Alomar came up with the shivery guitar riff that drives this funkified song from1975’s Young Americans. But Bowie’s frustration with his management was the main impetus for this track that featured some of his pointed, sarcastic lyrics about the trappings of success. “Fame” is “where things are hollow” and where “what you like is in the limo.” “Bully for you, chilly for me,” Bowie sings, as sound effects stretch the titular word beyond all recognition and render it a grotesque creation. How tellingly ironic that this vocal tirade against celebrity became his first #1 hit in the United States.

“Absolute Beginners”

Of all the words one might use to describe David Bowie’s songwriting, “romantic” might not jump to the front of the line. But he puts his heart beautifully out on his sleeve on this theme song from the 1986 movie of the same name. Fronting a band of ringers that included his Hunky Dory-era piano player Rick Wakeman and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve, Bowie soars into the buoyant choruses “With eyes completely open/ And nervous all the same.” In those refrains, he wonders what would happen “If our love song/ Could fly over mountains/ Could laugh at the oceans.” A love song this stirring could certainly achieve those feats with no strain whatsoever.

“I Can’t Give Everything Away”

The last song on his last album, it’s impossible not to think of it as Bowie’s farewell epistle in song. If that was what he intended, he left us with some brilliantly vivid imagery (“The blackout hearts, the flowered news/ The skull designs upon my shoes”) and some undoubtedly foreboding lines (“I know something is very wrong.”) And his final verdict: “Seeing more and feeling less/ Saying no and meaning yes/ This is all I ever meant/ That’s the message that I sent.” The harmonica line borrowed from an old Low track is a bit of winking nostalgia; the wondrous way he sings the word “Away” lets us indulge in the belief that his journey continues.


David Bowie: The Songwriter