We’re back with round two of our soundtrack series, this time with a song from an artist that I feel like I discovered all too late – or at least too late to appreciate while he was still living. The first time I can recall consciously hearing and enjoying one of David Bowie’s songs was in 2015 while watching Ben Stiller’s remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with some friends in Durham, NC (Bowie’s 1969 song “Space Oddity” is featured quite prominently in several scenes). At the time I knew of David Bowie the phenomenon (the guy with the lightning bolt face paint) but had no acquaintance with him as a musician, and it was a number of months before I realized that the catchy song about Major Tom was actually his. Bowie died in January of 2016, and it was only then that I began to listen to more of his music; in the year since I’ve hardly scraped the surface of his sprawling body of work.
But enough dithering around! Time to get down to business. Of all the songs that Bowie could contribute to our Lenten soundtrack (and there are many), it seems inexcusable not to include this one: the 1980 hit “Ashes to Ashes”.
While a song with the word “ash” in the title might seem like low hanging fruit for something Lent themed (Ash Wednesday and all), there’s more that makes this song a fitting addition than a superficial word association (and the requisite wacky music video).
“Ashes to Ashes” returns to the story of Major Tom, the enterprising hero of the aforementioned “Space Oddity”, which ended with the protagonist leaving his space capsule and floating into the uncharted reaches of the solar system (much to the consternation of the folks at Ground Control). The song was perhaps written as an extended metaphor for the drug fueled optimism of the late 1960s, but in “Ashes to Ashes”, recorded over a decade later, the optimism has faded; it is a song from the other side, full of anxiety, disillusionment, and addiction. It is about the universal experience of the “all time low”.
As such, the song is an apt depiction of the human condition and is shot through with Lent-themed significance. The pursuit of happiness (“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”) is followed, as it always is, by the “sordid details”: Major Tom (now the Junkie) is no longer riding his high but is coming down hard. Try as he might to rectify his situation (“Time and again I tell myself, ‘I’ll stay clean tonight'”) he is unable to escape. The “little green wheels” of his addiction spin relentlessly onward, always close behind. Tom’s cry that “the shrieking of nothing is killing,” is a poignant description of the acute alienation that plagues all addicts – individuals whose exquisite pain derives precisely from the fact that the substance to which they turn for comfort (their “valuable friend”) is the very thing which robs them of the hope of any lasting relief. In short, what seemed like the limitless expanse of interstellar space, promising total freedom and utter release, has instead become a prison as smothering as the music video’s padded cell.
Addiction – this one word provides a clear window into so much of what the New Testament has to say about human beings: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). The picture of humanity that John paints (and the one Jesus has just affirmed in his conversation with Nicodemus a few verses earlier) is much the same as the one portrayed in “Ashes to Ashes”: unlike a person evaluating her options at a buffet, humans are not neutral, rational creatures seeking “the good life” in an unbiased manner. Rather than the buffet, a more scriptural (and realistic) representation of our lives would be Stockholm Syndrome, the famous scenario where a kidnapped person falls in love with their captor. We seek release but are simultaneously enthralled by the very things that entangle and poison us. According to the Apostle John (and David Bowie), we are like Jesse Pinkman from the TV show Breaking Bad: so ensnared by our compulsions that we cannot abandon them, even as they rob us of all that we care about. Eventually, all that is left for us to love is the addiction itself. Of course, it should be noted that sin entails far more than just addiction – sin also involves personal culpability and bondage to external forces of evil. But like addiction, sin is a state that is comprehensive; ultimately, this is what it means to say that human beings are fallen. Far beyond committing any number of discrete transgressive acts, it is to say that we are simultaneously victims and victimizers, that we live as ones who are dead.
In the song’s bridge, the plight of Bowie’s addicted astronaut reaches its most baleful point: “I never done good things/I never done bad things/I never did anything out of the blue.” Even more troubling to him than physical dependence is his internal torment, the thought that in spite of all the suffering, his life may not count for anything at all, good or bad. He is painfully self conscious, dreading that he has never once acted spontaneously, sheerly from free desire that is not constrained by compulsion or the opinions of others. There are echoes here of St. Paul in Romans 7 as he describes the inner conflict that exists due to sin, leading him to cry out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The tragic absurdity of this situation is underlined by Bowie’s Clown character in the video – performing obscure religious rituals, trying not to drown as the water rises. Is it all just a bad joke?
When taken as a part of the larger whole of the two track Major Tom saga, “Ashes to Ashes” possesses the same Newtonian logic of a space mission: what goes up must come back down. This is the same logic that confronts us daily as we seesaw back and forth between success and failure, hope and disappointment – a ride that will one day end with a final and decisive confrontation at Death’s door. Lent is meant to bring us face to face with these unhappy truths about ourselves: our addictedness, paralysis, and mortality. However, the journey is not meant to end there, for the magic of Lent (which is to say, the gospel) is this: when you and I stop attempting to resist the truth about ourselves but simply give up and die, something new begins to stir beneath the surface of things. The music video gestures towards this near the end: as Clown Bowie walks along the beach with his mother, we catch a glimpse of a new possibility. What all of our Major Tom hearts hope for is a word of unexpected comfort, a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” (C.S. Lewis) that, like maternal kindness, pierces to the heart of all our sorrows. We are looking for grace: the revelation of an unspeakably gentle Love that will reach into the depths of our addiction, sorrow, and entrapment, embracing it all in order to embrace us. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). In the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, this is what is opened to us; the stone is rolled back and like so many Lazaruses we are free to stagger forth, blinking in the sun, able to dance at last.
In case you missed it, you can click here to read Part 1.