David Bowie’s been in the news a bit recently, with his final album Blackstar having been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and a new play featuring his music set to debut soon. I loved his music, even though I only really started to listen to it in my twenties. I was quite sad when he died, and the world still feels like a more boring place without him.
His surname always sparked some debate: is it Bowie, as in toe, or Bowie, as in cow? Rather than getting into a complicated analysis of the difference between the /əʊ/ and /aʊ/ sounds, I’ll just say that’s the former. Like a Bowie knife. Or showy. However you feel about it, that’s how he pronounced it.
Anyway, like any great writer, he left his mark on the English language, even if it’s not always obvious. I mean, how about moonage daydream? Isn’t that so perfectly 70s, so perfectly glam, whatever it actually means? Or a leper messiah?
And of course there’s the word gazely, which he may or may not have coined. Have a listen to The Man Who Sold the World:
At 1:38, do you think he’s saying I gazed a gazely stare, or I gazed a gazeless stare? I hear gazely, but I’ve been told it’s obviously gazeless and don’t be so stupid. And I can understand how in that sentence, being sung, in his voice, gazeless could sound like gazely. Trawling websites of song lyrics, I’ve found both noted as the lyric. Whatever it is, without the song, I’d never have considered what the word gazely might mean. I assume it to be the opposite of gazeless: basically meaning full of gaze. As in, he gazed in a way that…well, he couldn’t gaze any more than he was already gazing, so full of gaze his gaze was… anyway, it doesn’t have to make complete literal sense!
In Oh You Pretty Things! he also used the term homo superior outside of its more common sci-fi/fantasy context, to refer to the upcoming generation of beautiful young people the song foresaw.
Probably the most poetic of his songs is Future Legend, the short spoken-word opening track of the album Diamond Dogs, which I think is worth recreating in full:
And in the death,
As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy
The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building,
High on Poacher’s Hill.
And red, mutant, eyes gaze down on Hunger City.
No more big wheels.
Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats,
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes,
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers,
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue.
Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now leg-warmers.
Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald.
Any day now,
The year of the Diamond Dogs.
It helps to listen to it of course, but it’s so evocative of a specific scene of post-apocalyptic urban decay, the way he enunciates those wonderful words with such relish really provides a sense of detail, of reality. And peoploids! What a great word, whatever on Earth it might mean.
But I think my favourite bit of Bowie English is a simple one. It’s the peculiar way he pronounces the word peculiar in the song Space Oddity:
And I’m floating in a most a-peculi-ar way-hay!
He really drags the word out to its full potential. It should sound weird, and it does, but in the context of the song, it works. It’s recognisably normal but there’s something unique about it that it’s hard to pin down, just like David Bowie.
Hopefully you’re a fan, and you might think about some of the great work he gave us.