Bowie’s best song written to spite Sinatra

Bowie's Thin White Duke persona, smoking a Gitanes cigarette, 1976.

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. Just two days prior, the beloved titan of music celebrated his 69th birthday by releasing Blackstar, his final album. The album was a complete creative overhaul: Bowie seemed on track to begin an entirely new journey. This must surely have made the loss of one of the most profoundly brilliant musicians the world has ever known all the more painful.

Plenty of people have written far more and far better words on Bowie’s death then I am capable of, but his music is so very important to me and I couldn’t let his passing go by unobserved. Rather than focus on his music though, I want to talk a little bit about the man behind that music: buried behind numerous personas and larger-than-life stage shows, Bowie himself was something of a mystery until he became a little more open in the 21st century. It’s no surprise that a man like Bowie would have incredible stories to tell. His appearance on VH1 Storytellers is an excellent example of this (if you haven’t heard it, it’s available on Spotify and it’s one of the coolest things he ever did). There’s a poignant moment therein where he recalls an evening his friend Iggy Pop spent in a punk club in 80s Berlin. As it turns out, he was there on the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s creation. A replica of that wall stood in the middle of the club: at the stroke of midnight, all the punks in the venue tore it to pieces and then burst into tears amongst the rubble.

There are other stories abound online as well: one that’s hysterical, but unfortunately difficult to verify, is that Bowie had a troll account on his own fan forums and routinely mocked people who went on there to complain about him. My favourite, though, is the story of ‘Life on Mars?’, the song that made him a star. In the late 60s, a then-unknown David Jones (not even Bowie yet) was working for a music publisher, creating English lyrics for songs in foreign languages. He was handed a song called ‘Common d’Habitutde’: by his own admission, the translation that he turned in was a poor effort. He titled his work ‘Even a Fool Learns to Love’, handed it in and thought nothing more of it. His publisher handed it off to someone else to translate and it was given a new title: ‘My Way’.

If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because Frank Sinatra became one of the most famous singers in the world off the success of that song; not, however, with the translation that Bowie turned in. You can imagine his elation when he heard those familiar chords coming out of the radio: he’ll tell you himself how infuriating it was to hear someone else’s translation being sung by Frank Sinatra. He might not have put much effort into his translation, but it still got to him.

Not to be outdone, Bowie had another crack at the song and sang it himself. That version became ‘Life on Mars’ and his effort turned him into a superstar. David Bowie created one of the best songs of the century – no, the millenium – simply to spite Frank Sinatra. No wonder he was one of the coolest people to ever walk the Earth.

 

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