In this week’s Lattice of Coincidence: I found a spooky clip of Bowie performing his song “Five Years” on British television about a month after I was born when searching for cultural landmarks of 1972. Then The New York Review of Books arrived with an illustration of Bowie as Ziggy on the cover and an interesting article called The Invention of David Bowie by Ian Baruma inside, which discusses the artist in light of the David Bowie Is exhibit at London’s V&A Museum. Then this morning, I woke to my husband listening to this record downstairs. He didn’t play the whole thing because it seemed to be making the baby edgy. (The baby prefers the smooth sounds of reggae.) But I woke up to the song “Five Years” and decided to listen to the whole record again tonight, since I’m alone in the house and the baby is asleep.
I picked out this at a used record store in Royal Oak, Michigan, in 1989; can’t remember the name of the place, though I could find out. I think my friend who worked there also gave me a promo tape of Doolittle by The Pixies in the same visit. (He described The Pixies as a “college rock” band that sang about eyeballs.) I eventually also bought Bowie’s Low and Hunky Dory, both of which I played more than Ziggy. But this record still reminds me of my first year at university, of the weird dorm room I shared with a high-school friend who was already on her way to becoming a former acquaintance. I was broke, so she bought us matching black bedspreads so that our room would like nice. We had a tiny fridge that always had some stinking leftovers in it. (Mine, I’m sure.)
It also reminds me of the last months of living at home, at the end of high school and the summer that followed. I watched The Graduate twice in a row and thought Mrs Robinson was a hideous monster. I rooted for pretty Katharine Ross’s character, probably, I realize now, responding to the struggle between the dutiful daughter and her sexually competitive mother. I also became obsessed with Manhattan. In one scene Woody’s character defends his age-inappropriate relationship with a teenager to Diane Keaton’s character. After she finds out his ex-wife left him for another woman, she cracks, “That explains the little girl. What is she — 16?” He sputters, “She’s 17 and she’s going to be 18 soon….” I could tell that the joke was that this correction is meant to be seen as an absurd distinction, so irrelevant to the fact that Woody’s character is, as he reveals in another scene, older than his girlfriend’s father. Sixteen, 17, almost 18 — what’s the difference? But to me — 17, about to leave the home I shared with my beautiful, youthful single mother — I thought, fuck, that’s a huge difference. I was really focused on the fact that I would be turning 18 in a few months and I would bring this up to my mother all the time as a way of intoning, “Your reign of tyranny will soon end.” We fought a lot then, but I’d have to look at my diaries to find out what we were yelling about. She hated the guy I was dating. She probably wanted me home at a certain time. Normal stuff.
And this record, especially the song “Five Years, “ it was dark in a way that felt good to me. I had spent a lot of time listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue by myself moping that I didn’t fit in with the people who didn’t fit in. Ziggy Stardust was weird and sinister and closely connected in my mind to the boy who killed himself when were juniors. There were a number of suicides in my time at Berkley High School, but this was the guy I knew best of that unfortunate group, even if I still didn’t know him very well. He was friends with my friends. He was magnetic and funny. He left a big hole in our landscape. And he had been a massive Bowie fan. I remember once being in his bedroom after school one day with a girlfriend of mine who he had been messing around with off and on. He played “The Bed” off of Lou Reed’s Berlin — “this is the place where she lay her head…. And this is the place where she cut her wrists….” — and asked us, “Isn’t this sad?” I thought about that afternoon a lot later.
“Five Years” is devastating to me now when I listen to it, though I don’t think it really hit me so hard back then. It opens the record with a declaration of doomsday, describing an emotional city scene as a crowd responds to the news that “Earth was really dying” and “we’ve got five years — that’s all we got.” The song begins and ends with such a steady, cold beat. It’s so well written. And now that I am one, I understand the power of its haunting second line: “so many mothers crying.”