It’s a Pretty Good Song: Reflections on Five Years

Note: this was originally written for Dana Rossi’s Soundtrack Series, a wonderful event that you should all go to every month forever.  The website is:

David Bowie’s Five Years is one of those songs that when you hear it, it sticks its hand into your chest, grabs your heart, wrenches it sideways and YANKS.  And then it cries WITH you as you lie prostrate and burbling, covered in your insides, because it feels just terrible about the whole ordeal, and isn’t life just a cruel joke anyway, with little pockets of love and wonder punctuating the hurt like a safety pin poking holes in a bin liner.  And then you just die, but you’re totally reborn as a FUCKING HAWK with flaming wings and a beak of pure, blazing truth, piercing the souls of everyone in your wake with a sound that is equal parts weeping, wild laughter and the sound of two beautiful aliens having sex on a bed of thunder.

It’s a pretty good song.  And the first time I heard it, it decimated me.

An English gentleman preparing to head out for his morning constitutional.

So I was in high school and there was this punk rocker named Evan.  Compact, muscular little guy with a mohawk and 43 body piercings, all self-performed.  Including one in the nameless flap of skin between his thumb and forefinger.  After hours we would all hang out in Tyler’s dorm room I think, and play cards, or dice, and lots of music.  Vodka, on this one particular night, was passed around, as was orange juice.  I stuck mainly with the orange juice, as I do to this day, due to a terrible vomiting incident that has left me unable to even sniff vodka without my cheeks beginning to ache.  Evan, on the other hand, was consuming alarming quantities of the clear stuff, and I was realizing that although I found women pretty great, I also had a growing attachment to the guy who looked like the guy from The Prodigy (interestingly, his eventual rejection of me coincided with The Prodigy breaking big in America, which meant every magazine I picked up essentially had the guy who’d turned his back on me giving me the finger).  One thing led to another, and we were sitting on the couch, and I’m sure it seemed very romantic at the time, but I jacked the guy off and he came onto his own chest.

And that’s when I first heard Five Years.

Nah, just kidding, that wasn’t the night I first heard Five Years, though I did listen to it later that night.  But I listened to it every night in high school.  I think they were blasting Sublime in that dorm room, or possibly 311.  Either way, it was fucking terrible and I wish it hadn’t been playing.

Two freshmen in the corner of the room were watching all of this in wonderment, but the rest of the guys treated it like we were playing Genesis golf or something.  Which is one of the eternal mysteries of boarding school.

It all relates, so bear with me.

So I’m in a car with my dad a couple of weeks after this, and I’m feeling kind of weird, because there’s something I want to tell him, but I’m not entirely sure how best to approach it.  And it’s one of those moments where you feel like the paradigm is about to crack wide open and all sorts of shit is going to come pouring out like a pinata of TRUTH, and nothing will ever be the same.  We’re sitting in silence and the time passes in a way that feels agonizingly distended, but the minutes tick by as I try to just strap on a sack and tell him.  And he’s there at the wheel, driving in that relaxed, benevolent, fat and jolly Jewish Santa Clause kind of way.  And I’m sinking into the seat and praying even though it’s been years since I believed in God, really.  And it slips out.  Not my penis, but words.



“I just wanted to…I’m going to…look, let me just say this because I’m…”


“I’m bisexual.  Okay?  I’m bisexual.  So if I bring a guy home, don’t freak out or anything.  I’m bisexual.  Guys and girls.  I like them both.  Bisexual.  I’m bisexual.”

“Oh, well, I thought you might be.”

FUCK YOU, DAD!  I don’t SAY that, but I’m astonished and slightly annoyed that my little family apocalypse hasn’t gone as planned.

“You…you did?”

“Yeah, sure, I just thought you might be.  As long as you’re safe, it’s fine.”

So I’m sitting in stunned silence, my mouth agape, unable to form the words to express how FUCKING IRRITATED I AM that my dad has stolen my shock thunder.  He’s NEVER understood how little I want him to understand me, I think.  FUCK YOU, DAD.

And that’s the moment that Five Years comes on the radio.

No, it wasn’t.  But it came on during a different car ride that makes more sense of things.

About four years previously, my father was taking a quick afternoon’s drive to meet some breeders of Staffordshire Bull Terriers.  He asked if I’d like to come with him, and being, at this point, 13, I was thrilled to be included in such official business.  I hopped into the car with all of the giddiness of youth, when things that are small and kind of dumb feel epic and great.

The car ride was every bit as pointlessly exciting as I might have hoped.  Dad asked if I might mind if he put on some music.  I was thrilled to be consulted, and I looked at the cassettes he’d brought along.  The one that caught my eye most immediately was an oddly saturated picture of a London street late at night.  Below a K. West sign, whatever that might have been, was a man in a jumpsuit with a guitar, looking for all the world like the mathematical answer for awesome to the power of rad.  And I said, “Can we put this on?  Is this good?”

Dad smiled and popped the cassette into the car stereo, and within seconds my life was changed forever.  A quiet, loping beat lolled into view, one that sounded like the hum of a human heart.  And just as I began to feel at peace with it, one with it, a slashing, sweet chord ripped into the middle of my mind, accompanied by a voice that can only be described as pure, sweet, unspeakably sexual rock and roll.  I felt it in my groin.  For the first time in my life, my penis wasn’t that thing that piss passed through.  It was a weapon in the war for all that was right in this world, ready to pierce injustice and spray hot, steaming GOOD all over those who would keep us down, man.

Like so much sex, this was followed by tears.

Am I right?

Anyway, the story snapped into focus as the man drawled on.  The world would be dead in five years…and there was nothing to do.

I remembered vividly having been a child during the last years of the Cold War with Russia.  Many nights I couldn’t sleep with the thought that we were poised on the edge of mutual destruction.  It ached in the pit of my stomach when I thought of it, twisted me up.  And here was a newscaster dissolving into tears with the certainty that we were as good as toast.  But this was worse, this was different.  Earth itself was dying from the inside, like a broken heart with 6 billion failing arteries, every one fading slowly to nothingness.  And something twitched inside me, and I began to cry a little.

“Do you want me to turn it off?”

“NO!”  Sniff, sniff.

By this point, the song’s scope had widened a bit.  People were panicking.  Some were simply weeping.  I was overwhelmed by this mixture of pitiless contrivance and total, face-melting empathy.  Queers, blacks, priests, cops, mothers….all of us were walking wounded, uncomprehending souls with no further reason to try but the natural human compulsion to rail at certain failure.

And then the narrator saw a girl in an ice cream parlor.  A girl who didn’t even know she was part of his song.  Did he really kiss her?  Or did he simply dream it?  And that’s when I got it.  We’re all songwriters.  We’re all telling our stories.  And all of these verses are all around us, and we’re verses, too, in other people’s songs.  Human beings are simultaneously the most important and least significant creatures on earth BECAUSE we write the songs.  I thought of whales crying out into the night, calling to their families as they woke from their titanic slumbers.  I thought of earthquakes, the sound of the world trembling with something; fear, misery, laughter at our assumptions of pre-eminence?  I thought of home, and how I’d never felt part of anything but the strange tapes of decades-old radio shows I listened to devotionally, like a recorded plea for memory from the distant past.

And I wept.  I knew for the first time that I was part of the larger world, and I understood the pain and joy of belonging.  It was confirmation that life might be a chain of arbitrary bullshit linked mostly by mistakes and failure, but that there can be wonder in a God-less world.  That there can be love even when we are born and die alone.  I was elated; I was inconsolable.  My father was terribly worried, but I insisted he let it play.  And as it faded out, with the singer assuring us that this was it, and that his brain hurt at the very idea, I regained my calm.  We listened to entire album, twice through (I also cried at Starman and Lady Stardust, but they were mere after-tremors).

Dad bought me six Bowie records for my next birthday.  I was obsessed.  And looking back, of COURSE he wasn’t shocked about my sex life.  Of COURSE he didn’t mind that I was the kind of kid who gave handjobs to spurious punks.  My dad was the coolest fucking guy imaginable.  My fucking dad.  The fat Heeb Jedi who gave me a free ticket into the larger world.  I loved him deeply at that moment, and it was years before I understood exactly how much I loved my mother in the same way.  After listening to Five Years, I should have known immediately.  I was a verse in their song.  And they didn’t know if I knew they were singing about me, and on some level it didn’t matter to them.

They just wanted to sing about me.

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3 Responses to It’s a Pretty Good Song: Reflections on Five Years

  1. Anna says:

    That’s a gut wrenchingly honest read. Love the song and really enjoyed reading this, you do the song justice

    • bastardkeith says:

      Thanks, Anna. It’s the first Bowie song I ever heard, and it remains a go-to in times of stress and sadness. It’s so much more optimistic than it is fatalistic.

  2. Lucy says:

    I still wish you had been in debate team uniforms. And I’m replacing the 311 with Nirvana Unplugged.

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