So as we ramble along through our apocalyptic wasteland, here’s a pre-apocalyptic song of strange precision. In it David Bowie speculates on what would happen if the countdown to the planet’s end had begun:
Though “Five Years” is the opener to the brilliant but not very coherent rock-star-who’s-probably-an-alien concept album that is Ziggy Stardust, and it isn’t a terribly good fit with the Ziggy-specific songs that are the meat of the album. It’s more of an anecdote, or a series of observations: What would happen on the day mankind found out that some apparently irreversible disaster meant the end of the world in precisely five years?
On a larger scale, one imagines a couple of scenarios. First, humanity might decide to cooperate, throwing all its resources into stopping the disaster, or into some vast, heroic project — generation ships? — to ensure that, even with the home planet lost, the species might survive. Or, probably far more likely, a couple of nations would decide it’s now or never to settle old scores, provoking one another’s allies and enemies as well, and we’d all go up in nuclear flames long before the deadline.
But Bowie keeps his stories in “Five Years” more immediate, smaller and more local than that. The announcement has just been made:
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying
The lyrics are a little clumsy but full of persuasive details, starting with the narrator’s own state of mind, given weight by Bowie’s emotional vocal:
My brain hurt like a warehouse
It had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things
To store everything in there
And all the fat, skinny people, and all the tall, short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
Scenes on the street in the immediate aftermath of the announcement are described with spookily plausible, almost novelistic details as despair overtakes some:
A girl my age went off her head
Hit some tiny children
If the black hadn’t have pulled her off,
I think she would’ve killed them
And others find their priorities — honestly, or perhaps only out of fear:
A soldier with a broken arm
Fixed his stare to the wheel of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest
And a queer threw up at the sight of that
Then the narrator speaks to an unknown woman who’s simply sitting in an ice cream parlor “drinking milkshakes, cold and long” and “smiling and waving and looking so fine” as she (he doesn’t say, but it’s a she) in her own carpe diem response to the horrific announcement.
The song ends in another burst of emotion and longing:
And it was cold and it rained
So I felt like an actor
And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk
And an extended outro riffing on “Five years, stuck on my eyes” and other phrases that doesn’t do any harm but doesn’t add much to the heft of the song either; it’s already said what it was trying to say.
Ziggy Stardust is one of my favorite albums of all time, and if “Five Years” isn’t a great fit with the Ziggy story, it’s a fine bookend to the marvelous “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” that closes things out as the album swings from cosmic despair to glam burnout to a song that, despite the title, is about love, friendship, and hope.