Waiting For The End Of The World.
Waiting For The End Of The World (Pathway demo).
Waiting For The End Of The World (live at the Nashville Rooms, 8/7/77).
Waiting For The End Of The World (Rockpalast, 6/15/78).
In 1971, David Bowie had a dream and he turned it into a song.
As he slept, the world ended. It was a world inside his head, but it looked just like the one he moved through by day: men read the news on television; people of all vocations congregated in the village square; beautiful girls sat cross-legged on stools in ice cream parlors, their lips puckered around straws as if they were waiting to be discovered and cast as femmes fatales in black-and-white movies. But this world had been given a death sentence: it would be gone in “Five Years.” Society was crumbling, three-hundred-sixty-five-times-five days away from complete annihilation. The nature of armageddon was unspecified, in the song at least – perhaps it was articulated in the dream, but Bowie spared us the pain of hearing the diagnosis: the “news guy” explained nothing through his tears save that “earth was really dying,” and you get the sense that for the masses the end was simply a looming shadow, a gathering darkness, creeping chaos that would fray and unshackle the innate bonds and hatreds of society until children were being attacked by adults, law-and-order types submitting to the uncertain faiths of religion, steadfast soldiers contemplating throwing themselves beneath lumbering vehicles to conclude it all before the true end could arrive. Bowie himself, he tells us, meandered through this madness in a daze. His head hurt; he felt an overpowering need to be with other people; he walked through the rain and felt like he was in a film, like none of this was real, and he thought about his mother. He thought about a girl, about the color of her skin and the sound of her voice, about kissing her and reveling in the simple pleasures of watching her move. He thought about those five years that lay ahead, and about how five years were all that was left, and presumably about how little time that was, and about how much, and about what he might do with it. And then, we assume, he woke up.
“Five Years” became the first track on Bowie’s breakthrough 1972 album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. He played it live with the Spiders through 1973, then dusted it off for shimmering versions on 1976’s Station To Station tour and the sprawling 1978 world-jaunt captured on his live album Stage, then eventually breathed new life into it as a triumphant encore number on what proved his last tour behind 2004’s Reality. It’s worth wondering if it was ever considered for inclusion in his final work, last year’s stage musical Lazarus, based on the character he played in the 1976 film version of The Man Who Fell To Earth. It would have fit comfortably in at least the bleak first half of that very strange jukebox of Bowie classics. As the calendar flipped over one last time, to 2016, during Bowie’s waning days, perhaps he thought of the song again, and about how strange fate can be, that it had allowed him to live a full forty years past the five his dream had allotted.
The seventies were the end times. Oh hell, maybe it’s always the end times – it certainly seems, today, like we’re fast approaching a precipice, in Thelma & Louise fashion, with no sign of slowing down. But people in the seventies, as in so many other ways, embraced the idea with a real sense of style: their despair, as it’s been handed down to us in the form of the decade’s cultural production, was marked by a thrilling grit and verve. Just look at the era’s sci-fi films: once nuclear winter came, it would be in widescreen technicolor, grime-encrusted but beautifully lit, and it would force us all back to some sort of rugged, masculine self-sufficiency that would be the obvious inverse of flouncy sixties hippiedom. Mad Max, say, would laugh at the flower-power sentiment behind “All You Need Is Love” – he knew that love is trumped by gasoline any day of the week – and in a few short years Charlton Heston went from experiencing the apocalypse as an almost-funny inversion of society that elevated apes to become the masters of humans, to a one-man battle with a cult of mutant zombies stricken with albinism, to a pointless prowl of neo-noir city streets investigating unsolvable crimes in a world sustained by a corporation that’s turned us all into cannibals. The impending end would be the result of environmental crisis, of political pettiness sure to hurl us into planet-annihilating war, of savage responses to overpopulation that would callously terminate anyone over the age of thirty. It would come because the younger generation was too soft, or it would come because the older generation was too selfish: it would come because, well… not to put too fine a point upon it, but it would come because we deserve it.
Bowie offered no prescription for how we might avoid this sad fate. As an aside, though I’m sure it exists, off the top of my head I can think of no other cultural material from the decade that suggests solid courses of action for avoiding the world’s destruction – much the preponderance of apocalyptic art from the seventies, at least that which we celebrate today, seems to have followed Bowie’s lead in simply submitting to the inevitable. And he does submit, the way Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange declares with untroubled satisfaction that he’s been “cured.” If anything, “Five Years” is a quiet exhortation telling us not how to avoid the apocalypse, but how to deal with it: the chorus, delayed to the very end of the song and then bursting forth in an explosion, sounds almost joyous: “Five years! That’s all we’ve got!” Bowie sounds happy: the death sentence is not so much a condemnation to oblivion as a release from sustained misery. Indeed, a connected song – Bowie would claim it stemmed from the same dream – will describe “all the young dudes” who are sent out to spread the word of the coming day of reckoning, having a big rock-soundtracked party along the way full of drinking and mayhem and sex: “We can love,” Bowie will have Ian Hunter sing, “oh yes, we can love…” This, after all, is the best response available to us in dark times – one that maybe we should take a cue from, right now, as we face similar darkness on the road ahead. We can love each other. Isn’t that, anyway, what we’re supposed to be doing all the time?
To that end: “Five Years” is intimately linked to a 1967 poem by the British poet Roger McGough. (I am indebted, as I am in all things with regard to this blog, to Chris O’Leary, who pointed this out in his pitch-perfect “Five Years” post on Pushing Ahead Of The Dame.) Like another fellow who we’ll discuss in a moment, McGough was a Roman Catholic Liverpudlian of Irish descent, and he was loosely linked to the Beatles – he played in a band with Paul McCartney’s brother, and contributed dialogue punches to Yellow Submarine, and appeared briefly in the Eric Idle/Neil McInnes mockumentary All You Need Is Cash. His chief claim to fame, however, is as a rather wonderful midcentury poet with a somewhat eccentric approach to spacing between words. He’s a CBE nowadays, but at one point he was a counterculture hero, and Bowie in his pre-rock period recited a McGough verse at a 1968 cabaret audition; it clearly stuck in his mind. The poem was “At Lunchtime – A Story Of Love.” It’s about passengers on a bus, which stops suddenly during the morning commute, thereby prompting a brief discussion of the impending end of the world – the apocalypse is due, the poem’s speaker assures his would-be paramour in the next seat, at lunchtime – which leads to some spontaneous and exuberant coupling:
When the busstopped suddenly to avoid
damaging a mother and child in the road, the
younglady in the greenhat sitting opposite
was thrown across me,
and not being one to miss an opportunity
I started to makelove
with all my body.
At first, she resisted saying that it
was tooearly in the morning and too soon
after breakfast and that anyway she found
me repulsive. But when I explained that
this being a nuclearage, the world was going
to end at lunchtime, she tookoff her
greenhat, put her bus ticket into her pocket
and joined in the exercise…
For a time it’s just the two of them, boinking blissfully on the bus’s bucket seats, but before long word spreads that the world is near its terminus, next stop oblivion, and others decide to join in:
The buspeople, and therewere many of
them, were shockedandsurprised, and amused-
andannoyed, but when word got around
that the world was coming to an end at lunchtime,
they put their pride in their pockets
with their bustickets and madelove one with the other.
And even the busconductor, feeling left
out, climbed into the cab and struck up
some sort of relationship with the driver…
After the initial shock at the news that the end is nigh, this seems like more or less the only rational response to what lies ahead. “I never thought I’d need so many people,” Bowie sings in his reworking of the idea, shorn of makeloving – as McGough might phrase it – but with just as much shockandsurprise, and with, in those song-capping “Stuck on my eyes”es and “What a surprise”es, an equal amount of excitement, dangerous though the anticipatory quiver may be, about the electric possibilities lent to life by the imminence of total disaster. When you realize that the end is coming, McGough and Bowie each suggest in turn, it can crush the spirit, but it can also transform it and make it new again.
The poem goes on from there: the speaker relates a bit of embarrassment, later in the day, when the commuters see each other again on the way home, the world not having ended at lunchtime or even at teatime or supper; one imagines Bowie felt, at least occasionally, a similar sheepishness when he sang “Five Years” in 1978, five-years-plus-one after its release. By then you could claim, of course, if you were a pedant – and I don’t use that word disrespectfully, being an unabashed pedant myself – that Bowie in 1972 hadn’t been singing about the end of the world at all, but about the end of the world he was living in, and perhaps even of the one he was about to create. He’d been, when he wrote the song, on the threshold of crafting a glammy brand of music that would, in 1976 or 1977 – five years exactly after he made “Five Years” – be torpedoed into yesterday by the emergence of young guns playing punk music and sneering at all the ornate musical confections and styles that came before. They dressed different; they sounded different; they wanted to pull down the structures of song and raze it to its foundations, and build everything anew. They were the great disrupters of their day. Maybe the end of the world isn’t a fiery apocalypse, four horsemen astride white steeds, heralding destruction and death – maybe, indeed, it’s less the obliteration of the old world than the emergence of a new one; maybe the birth of the “New Wave” that at the time lay far ahead, full of music just as delicately joyful as those closing bars of “Five Years” – “My brain hurts a lot!” – but channeled through different sonics and in an entirely different spirit, was the climactic curtain-drop that Bowie had foreseen in his prophetic 1971 dream. He did a million things in the five years that followed, between 1972 and 1977 – but perhaps all of it was, in its way, just waiting for what was to come next.
II. “WAITING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD”
In 1977, Elvis Costello was fucking with us.
By “Elvis Costello,” of course, I only partially mean Elvis Costello. What I really mean is a weird and ramshackle machine, the conglomerate formed by the singer/songwriter Declan MacManus and his manager Dave Robinson and the head of Stiff Records Jake Riviera. They had come up with this name, and then they’d come up with this character, and they were determinedly shoving him down record-buyers’ throats. In part, paradoxically enough, they were doing it by not shoving: “Costello” refused almost all interviews, which created a mystique, and the apparatus around him took a sort of belligerent attitude toward journalists, which might have been at odds with MacManus’s true personality – he doesn’t seem to have been, by any stretch, the complete asshole he was playing onstage – but which probably accorded with his feelings about a press that hadn’t given him the time of day while he was playing out under his own name in Flip City or trying to get noticed as a folk singer called D. P. Costello. Oh, did you want to read about him? Were you a fan, who wanted to learn about the guy behind stellar singles like “Alison”? Were you curious to know more about this obviously intelligent and articulate new voice on the scene? Maybe you were intrigued by the poster included in the first pressing of My Aim Is True, which asked you to send Stiff the address of a friend, who would receive a free copy of the disc. Maybe you were thinking, therefore, that you were welcome to be a part of getting the word out on this guy, which meant you should know a thing or two about him. Maybe it had drawn you in that Stiff had specifically invited you to “become a potent factor in El’s future.” Well, said MacManus/Robinson/Riviera, fuck you.
I’m not exaggerating: they almost literally said “fuck you.” Costello granted exactly two interviews to promote My Aim Is True: one to Allan Jones, for Melody Maker, and one to Nick Kent, for New Musical Express. Both were prickly and confrontational, full of comments intended to outrage. A few highlights: Costello encounters a woman who comes onto him, and she receives the terse assurance that she’s wasting her time: “I’m thoroughly despicable,” he tells her, with a drunken leer; he claims almost proudly to have no friends; he slags Bruce Springsteen and insists he’s never heard Van Morrison. As if trying to top himself for loathsomeness, he eventually displays for Kent a bent steel nail, “the kind of oppressive-looking affair that would be ideal for pinning whole limbs to crosses at a human crucifixion,” which he claims ominously he’s eager to use on the boyfriend of any woman who balks at his rude dismissals. The nice version of Elvis Costello – the one he’s matured or mellowed into, or perhaps reverted to in his old(er) age – has written us a book, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, in which he seems horrified by much of this stuff: “My managers maintained tight control of my appearance and public image,” he notes, sloughing off his own responsibility in the thing, though he concedes that alcohol too played a role in the way he came off in these tête-à-têtes:
I was inclined to be talkative yet confidential, but I didn’t enjoy answering questions, so… when I did give interviews, I usually did so while drinking to a degree that seemed to sharpen my answers into a mythic précis of my true feelings.
Fair enough: we’ll take the man’s comments in these and other sitdowns with a grain of salt. He was playing a character, after all. But I would suggest that his insistence to Kent that Kent himself was the inspiration for “Waiting For The End Of The World” was probably less a “mythic précis” and more of an out-and-out taking-the-piss.
“Like even I’m in an Elvis Costello song,” Kent notes. “El reckons he saw me one night on a tube bound for Osterley and…” He then slips into a direct quote from Costello, who’s speaking to Kent with thick slurring audible even in the transcription:
You were obviously pretty ‘out of it’ ’cos you didn’t even notice all the other people in the compartment staring at you. I was just amazed that one person could draw that much reaction from others. After I saw you there, I came up with ‘Waiting For The World To End.’ You’re the guy in the opening verse…
“I touch my forelock at the imparting of this factoid,” Kent says then. “After all, being in a Costello song is a deal more prestigious than being a name in this little black book he carries around, [which is] full of these names of folk who have crossed our El, who have hindered the unraveling of his true destiny these past years…” The “black book,” Costello will later insist in Unfaithful Music and elsewhere, is a myth; the idea that he was keeping a list of marked men would feed directly into a famous quote about “revenge and guilt” later in Kent’s piece. I won’t rehash that here, save to say that the suggestion was that those were the only emotions “Elvis Costello” ever felt – nevermind that “revenge” isn’t really an emotion, but you get the idea. Unfaithful Music wryly laments that the sentiment, issued in the contrarian spirit of a guy performing the role of a cantankerous dick for the benefit of a nosy reporter, “followed me around like a mangy cur or a gypsy curse” for the rest of his life. There’s something to that – I myself have referred to the quote in at least three or four essays already on this blog, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t come up again. The point is, everything Costello said to Kent during that boozy night – including the assertion that Kent is the star of one of his songs – was probably a load of horseshit.
But I want to talk today about “Waiting For The World To End” – er, “Waiting For The End Of The World,” which is what I’m sure Costello meant to say through the haze of a thousand Pernods. And since it’s as good a place to start as any, let’s take him at his word – it makes little difference – and assume that Kent really is “the man from the television” of the song’s horrifying opening lines:
The man from the television crawled into the train
I wonder who he’s gonna stick it in this time
Everyone was looking for a little entertainment
So they’ll probably pull his hands off when they find out his name…
Like Bowie’s “Five Years,” we start off with a celebrity – but this isn’t some sobbing “news guy.” It’s a talking head, a cultural observer, Nick Kent himself for heaven’s sake, and he’s not here to impart some crushing truth. He’s here, probably wasted given that he’s crawled rather than walked into the car, to scope out the local talent: in vulgar, almost Burgessian parlance, he’s interested in “who he’s gonna stick it in.” God help him, though, he’s among people even more slavering than he is – “a little entertainment,” the phrase set vilely against the song’s relentless and insinuating beat, feels like the sort of thing Alex and his friends anticipate as they sit in that milk bar before heading out for a night of assaulting old men and invading rural homes. It’s a good thing these folks have no idea who the newcomer is, because he’d be in for it – they’d pull off his hands! – if his identity were known. Ultraviolence does indeed hang in the air like supercooled water waiting to be vibrated into ice: sure enough, the train’s coming to an unexpected halt, just like the bus in McGough’s poem, leads to the assembled crew rising up as one, and to sexual liberties being taken with fellow passengers in the darkness of a tunnel, everybody “joining in the exercise,” to pervert McGough’s phrase:
And then they shut down the power all along the line
And we got stuck in the tunnel where no lights shine
They got to touching all the girls who were too scared to call out
Nobody was saying anything at all…
Maybe you felt – and you weren’t wrong to – a little discomfort at McGough’s dated account of sexual advance being met with resistance, which the advancer heeds not at all: the greenhatted girl initially begs off the makeloving, saying it “was tooearly in the morning and too soon after breakfast,” though in the spirit of sixties libertinism she does acquiesce intheend. Well, rest assured Costello – I’m assuming he’d read the poem; even if he hadn’t he’d surely been exposed to this sort of if-I’m-gonna-die-I’m-gonna-listen-to-my-body-2night thinking in his sixties youth – was even more disquieted by this sort of thing than you were: here he’s underlined the lack of consent in his depiction of a near-identical scene, emphasizing fear and darkness and helplessness. These aren’t people who feel liberated by the imminent end of the world. These are people who are praying for it:
We were waiting for the end of the world
Waiting for the end of the world
Waiting for the end of the world
Dear lord, I sincerely hope you’re coming
’Cause you’ve really started something…
If Bowie, in recasting McGough’s scenario, played up first the pathos and then the gleefulness of it, Costello has rejected all but the hidden ugliness at its heart. The end of the world, here, is not something that goads you into enjoying your time on earth – it’s an escape hatch that might, just might, free you from the endless suffering epitomized by being stuck on a motionless and lightless train, subject to unwelcome groping from a bunch of drooglike creeps. Costello, cruelly or helplessly, can’t even give his speaker the comfort of certainty – there’s no voice of authority in “Waiting For The End Of The World,” no news guy and no assurance that the earth is dying. Instead, the closest thing to someone who knows a thing or two about the bigger picture is nothing but a cultural critic – even worse, a rock journalist! – whose thoughts, however lecherous, aren’t in touch enough with the pulse of the world he moves through for him to know that his lechery pales next to that of everyone else. The speaker is unsure of his religious convictions, and half-doubts that the messiah will indeed come one day as promised. All he can do is “sincerely hope” that the prophecy of Judgment Day is real, because, well… Because why? Because Jesus, assuming that’s the “lord” being addressed here, “really started something,” whatever that might mean. Is this a muddle-headed reference to original sin? Is it a confusing of Jesus with Jesus’s Dad, who created the world? Is it a slang-y use of the phrase “to start something,” meaning to act on an irrational itch to fight? Has the speaker in Costello’s song drawn a line between whatever the lord did to put the universe into motion, and Costello’s own barely-suppressed nastiness, as evidenced by the desire he expressed to Kent to drive that crucifixion-worthy nail into some mouthy barfly?
Fade out a moment. The music drops away to the throbbing beat, and must build again from nothing. When next we hear the speaker telling us what’s what, it’s with the hush that comes after a night of debauchery he’s loath to talk about:
Things got back to normal as the train began to roll again
We got to the station about twenty minutes later…
Twenty minutes, like five years, is either a very short or a very long time, depending on how you spend them. But after a breath where the wheels seem to be rolling menacingly along the track, the song takes an odd turn, leaving Nick Kent and his handsy pals behind and entering into a weird, vaguely Dylanesque interlude. Rock history has seen plenty of end-of-the-world songs, but maybe the best have always been Bob Dylan’s cuisinarts of old blues tunes laced with biblical imagery and phrases lifted from Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music; appropriately enough, a character who seems like a refugee from “All Along The Watchtower” pops up in Costello’s song at this point. Given that he cruises in, checks out the scene, then vanishes again, maybe it’s appropriate that he’s a bit of railriding hobo:
The legendary hitchhiker says that he knows where it’s at
Now he’d like to go to Spain or somewhere like that
With his two-tone Bible and his funny cigarettes
His suntan lotion and his castanets
He was waiting for the end of the world…
This is delivered stiffly, the syllables of “says that he knows where it’s at” tumbling over each other and the initial consonant of “castanets” receiving a vicious little stutter. It’s either hilarious or terrifying: it’s hard to know how to read this bit of the lyric. I’m tempted to say this hitchhiker guy is some leftover from the it’s-all-good sixties, which “Elvis Costello,” and maybe Elvis Costello likewise, was so firmly rejecting the way he does McGoughian free love. Just as his speaker reacted with revulsion to a scene that McGough might have seen as aglow with liberation and hope, Costello here, revealing not for the first time an essential cultural conservatism, offers gentle mockery in his depiction of this rootless traveler, smug with self-certainty and hypocritical in his ostensible love of both religion and marijuana, embarking on shallow cultural tourism that has him looking to a distant land for nothing save sunshine and dance tunes.
But then – this song really is a train ride, with vistas viewed out the window that vanish before you’ve even had time to process them – we’re back on our journey. The next verse finds a bunch of new folks hopping on, and then once again there’s a lull, filled this time with an ambivalent and whining guitar solo, as if the speaker has drifted off between stations while the train rolls onward:
And then the bride, the groom, the congregation, and the priest
All got onto the train when we were three stations east, yeah…
That “yeah” is nice – it’s absent from demo versions of the song, and seems to have been added as part of the on-edge-and-yelpy vocal persona Costello was crafting for My Aim Is True, the same one that offers the signature “whoa-oh”s in “Less Than Zero” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” But after that six-string semi-solo, as the train continues on its way toward destiny, the speaker shakes off lassitude and describes these new passengers in detail:
Hiding from a scandal in the national press
They had been trying to get married since they stole the wedding dress
You may see them drowning as you stroll along the beach
But don’t throw out the lifeline till they’re clean out of reach…
Even this wedding party, a bride and groom symbolic of a fresh start with a church congregation embodying community and a priest as a stand-in for authority, is tarnished by worldly “scandal”; even the wedding dress, virginal white as an emblem of innocence, has been “stolen.” I can’t help thinking of another couple, in another song that won’t be written for decades – the one in the last verse of this year’s “American Mirror,” who “we’ve condemned [because] it makes us feel better than them…” That’s the kinder, gentler Costello of 2016 talking; this is the meaner, more judgmental, utterly unforgiving Costello of 1977, who insisted mirthlessly that he was “thoroughly despicable.” This couple has been condemned, perhaps because the lady of the pair ate an apple she wasn’t supposed to, and now they’re hightailing it out of town pretending to be respectably hitched. It’ll all end in tears, of course, but Costello viciously assures us that whatever sympathy we might feel for them is misplaced. “If they’re drowning, let them drown,” he says. “The cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest,” Bowie said in his song, “and the queer threw up at the sight of that.” Costello has, at least in terms of his revulsion, thrown in his lot with the vomiting queer.
The final chorus, which follows, doesn’t start with “We were waiting for the end of the world,” as its first iteration did; nor does it say, referring to the hitchhiker, that “he was waiting for the end of the world.” This time there’s no subject – it’s just:
Waiting for the end of the world
Waiting for the end of the world
Waiting for the end of the world
Waiting for the end of the world…
Who’s doing the waiting now? All of us? Nobody? The drowning wedding party, or the hesitating lifeline-thrower? The speaker, who shruggingly tells this would-be lifesaver to let those people die? Maybe it’s the train itself, sick and tired of its awful passengers and bushed after a long night of bearing them ostensibly closer to their destination but never really arriving there, eager to spit them out like Bowie’s appalled homosexual does his lunch. The question goes unanswered, and the song runs out, as does the record – this is the last track on side two. It’s the sayonara to My Aim Is True. “Waiting For The End Of The World,” despite all this heavy stuff, nevertheless sounds like a party, largely because the members of Clover don’t seem to have gotten the memo that Costello in his disgust was looking to scuttle the ship: as always Johnny Ciambotti and Mickey Shine on bass and drums provide a rock-solid, even cracking foundation – listen to that snap in the snares as the song rolls into its third verse – and John McFee has a field day as he uglies up his guitar lines gloriously, moaning and groaning in the background like the sufferers writhing behind Satan in a wall-sized canvas depiction of hell. It’s an extremely impressive performance – they’ve taken Costello’s original demo, built on a fairly standard bar-band figure lifted from “Gloria” or perhaps recycled from Flip City’s “Wreck On The Slide,” and reconfigured it into something significantly more sprightly – but the song will have to wait for the Attractions to get their hands on it a year later before its true apocalyptic sound will be revealed. It sounds fierce in 1977, abetted mightily by the addition of Steve Nieve’s keyboards, but like all things Costello it doesn’t hit its pulverizing height until 1978, by which time Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas have tightened it like a noose: make sure you’ve taken your heart medication before you listen to the version from Live At Hollywood High. It’s a relentless piledriver of a song, bridgeless because after all a bridge would take you from one place to another, while this song never arrives anywhere. It’s the living, pulsing sonic embodiment of seventies millennialism: the world is going to end because we deserve it, and Costello busily spotlights all the ways in which we’re so richly deserving. All we can do, under the circumstances, is wait for it to happen. Indeed: “Waiting For The World To End” was how a malice-filled and seething version of “Elvis Costello” misnamed his own song in that Kent interview – and maybe, in vino veritas, there was something sharp and correct, scalpellike, about the wording. If the people in “At Lunchtime – A Story Of Love” were energized by the idea of world’s-end as a license to truly live, and the ones in Bowie’s song by the very fact of the imminent blackout because it gave meaning to their living and having lived, the ones in Costello’s song have given up entirely, life itself being a complete waste. They’re not waiting for the end of the world, meaning the end times, in which all meaning is upended by a need to focus on the here and now – they’re actually waiting for the end itself, the dousing rather than the sputtering of the candle, because the only reassurance there is, is the fact that something that’s been started, be it a drunken punchup at a bar or the clockwork turning of the entire universe, must eventually, and with finality, stop.
“Waiting For The End Of The World,” a product of the very beginning, looks forward with dark eagerness to the end, telescoping all of revelation into three-and-a-half desperate minutes. If there was any accuracy to Costello’s New Musical Express account of its genesis, then he was sitting in a subway – utterly anonymous because no one, anywhere, gave a flying fig who Declan MacManus/Elvis Costello was – when a local notable stumbled into the car, and he watched grimly as Kent was recognized and fussed over and as Kent, secure in his place and blissful in his cups, paid no mind to being paid attention to. “You didn’t even notice,” Costello told Kent, “all the other people in the compartment staring at you. I was just amazed that one person could draw that much reaction from others…” It was burning, barely-disguised envy, from a guy who thus far nobody had noticed at all; it was a desire to escape obscurity, to “draw a reaction,” that jumpstarted Costello’s contemplations of armageddon and resulted in “Waiting For The End Of The World.” The song would be a standard in his sets for his entire career – it was most recently played last year at a show in Los Angeles, which is fitting because that may be the place where the end of the world is likeliest to arrive first. An infinity of things have changed in the decades since it was written, not least perhaps Elvis Costello himself: those quotation marks I threw around his name earlier are decidedly absent now, the distance between EC and the character devised to bear his name reduced almost to nothing. And yet somehow, every time the song is played, in every city and in every context, that repellent fellow, drinking in the corner with his bent nail, returns if only for a moment to remind us, to menace us, to reassure us that we can rest easy: this will all be over soon enough.
III. THE END OF THE WORLD
In 2011, David Bowie got a phone call and he turned it into a song.*
It’s vulgar to imagine it, so I hope I won’t give offense when I do so. “Mr. Jones,” I imagine the doctor saying, “I have bad news…” And then he, or she, said the words, and Bowie staggered. Surely he’d been anticipating the possibility – that was why they’d had the tests performed, the samples taken, the biopsy or the x-ray or the CAT scan administered. Still, it was a shock: he dropped his phone; it clattered to the floor as he reeled at the prospect. In time he gathered himself, and went back on the line. One imagines he asked the question we would all ask: how long? “With aggressive treatment,” the doctor probably said – and I’m guessing here, as I am about all of this, but the timeline seems reasonable to assume given that it turns out the cancer did indeed kill Bowie in 2016 – “you have five good years left.”
Five years. That’s all he’d got.
What do you think Bowie did, after he hung up? We can’t know for sure, but for some reason it pleases me to imagine him walking outside, onto Lafayette Street and maybe down through the Village, or up towards NYU. Maybe he bent his steps west, and pushed through Washington Square Park, past the mothers pushing their babies in carriages; he heard one end but not the other of countless cellphone conversations; he saw billboards or bus ads for new Met Opera productions of Simon Boccanegra, Don Pasquale, Nixon In China. Songs he loved and songs he hated assaulted his ears, playing from the radios of passing cars or tinnily over the PAs in various shops, full of phones for sale, and appliances, and television sets, which he passed as he strode the sidewalk. Maybe he saw some fat-skinny or tall-short people, there being lots of both in Manhattan; maybe he spied someone he recognized, not in an ice cream parlor – because it was 2011, and there aren’t any of those anymore – but instead eating pizza in the window of that Italian place on 8th, or slurping down noodles through the dark glass front of Uncle Boons just off the Bowery. Maybe he thought of his mother; maybe he thought of his wife; maybe he thought of his daughter. Surely he thought about five years, and about what you can do in five years, how much and how little. I like to think it was that very day that he came up with a plan, ambitious beyond all reason. Surely his brain started to hurt with how much he wanted to do.
First up: that album he’d been half-assing for a couple years now, off and on in sessions at the Magic Shop. It was an odd collection, pensive numbers like “Where Are We Now” and storming rockers like “Love Is Lost” sitting alongside mood pieces like “Heat” and throwaways he was half-sure would never make the final track list, like “So She” or “God Bless The Girl.” Suddenly, though, and in an instant, it had sharpened in his mind into something urgent, something pointed – not that anyone would know, until much later, what the urgency was. Maybe he thought, suddenly, of that Roger McGough poem he read once – at an audition, was it? – a lifetime ago. Back then, he’d liked the first part, the idea that knowing the end was coming lent a pizzazz to life, a vitality, a charge – it gave you a good reason to have sex with everyone you could, which was pretty much the most important thing back in the sixties and seventies. But now, walking through New York in a new century, Bowie thought of the poem’s second part. It starts with the homeward commute, the reunion of those eager sexual partners at the end of the day, after the end of the world hasn’t come. And it goes on from there:
Thatnight, on the bus coming home,
wewere all alittle embarrassed, especially me
and the younglady in the green hat, and we
all started to say in different ways howhasty
and foolish we had been. Butthen, always
having been a bitofalad, i stood up and
said it was a pity that the world didn’t nearly
end every lunchtime, and that we could always
pretend. And then it happened…
Quick asa flash we all changed partners,
and soon the bus was aquiver with white
mothball bodies doing naughty things…
That’s the trick of the poem, isn’t it? To the young the appealing idea is that if you think the end is coming, you can live in a way you can’t if you’ve forgotten it’s on the way; to the old it’s far more energizing to remember that the end is always coming, and always has been, that you should live not like it’ll come in five years, or whatever, but like it’ll be here at lunchtime. You should always live, Bowie might have thought, like the world is going to end at lunchtime. McGough’s poem, perhaps he recalled then, concludes with the realization that this way of living makes every new lunchtime another chance:
And the next day
People pretended that the world was coming
to an end at lunchtime. It still hasn’t.
Although in a way it has.
The important part, as McGough makes clear, is the next day. A good title, that – and, suddenly, Bowie might have remembered something his much-missed old pal Mick Ronson said once, in an interview back in 1993. Mick, Bowie probably thought a little sadly, would be on this new record, if he were still here, but he was diagnosed two decades ago and left us not long after. The diagnosis – Mick’s version of that phone call Bowie had taken today – hadn’t stopped him, as he was quick to note:
The doctors tell me I shouldn’t be here now. But I don’t go to the doctors for chemotherapy or anything anymore. I just put one foot in front of the other, and the next day is the next day, and you do your best. I’ve still got so much to do.
That cinched it: the record, Bowie decided perhaps in that very moment, would be called The Next Day. He should write a title track, he thought. Maybe those leftover lyrics he had lying around, about the burial practices of African griots, could be incorporated into it.
But surely, even as Bowie took that walk, he was already planning much more: another album, beyond this one, maybe with a whole new set of musicians who wouldn’t know his work and wouldn’t enter the sessions with any preconceptions; that stage musical he’d been contemplating forever, perhaps with that trendy Belgian director who’d crammed his recent production of Angels In America with Bowie songs. Maybe, if time allowed, he’d go back to those hours and hours of tapes he made with Brian Eno back in the mid-nineties, and finally produce 2. Contamination. Wouldn’t that just blow everyone’s minds? Hell, if he lived long enough, he’d make a second musical, and another album, and, and, and…
But then, Bowie thought, at some point the time would be up. It’s only five years. Three-hundred-sixty-five-times-five days. Once, long ago, he’d sung a song about only having five years, and then he sang it six years after he wrote it. What would it be like, six years from now, after he was gone? That, he thought, might make a good song too: a “Five Years In Reverse.” It would be like coming back to life, looking down at the world after the world has ended. Indeed, as I say, he would eventually write that song, packing it with details no one would understand until later – “nothing left to lose”; “dropped my cell phone” – and he would make it the title number for his musical, calling it “Lazarus”:
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now…
He’d be in the afterlife, probably, by the time anyone heard it, or anyway by the time anyone heard it properly. Whatever the treatment would do to him, ravaging his body, those effects would be invisible once he’d moved on. The anguish, even of this very moment, here on the streets of New York, would be both erased and eternal – his alone, unstealable from him. He would be everywhere, and nowhere, and everyone would know him, or nobody would – it would barely matter, then.
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me…
The musical, he thought, would be about Thomas Jerome Newton, the Man Who Fell To Earth. He’d still be stuck here, but he’d be eager to leave: he’d want to be Lazarus. He’d be waiting, as Bowie himself was as of today, for the end of the world. He’d be frustrated that the end was coming so slowly, or that it wasn’t coming at all. He’d resolve some unfinished business, and he’d abandon hope of resolving unfinishable business, and then he’d hop on a rocket ship – maybe, Bowie might have chuckled, it would be nothing but a set of pieces of masking tape attached to the stage floor, which he would lie in like a coffin or a hollow tree, and then he’d be lifted off through simple stagecraft into the heavens, soaring through the sky, this way or no way, free…
And at this point, maybe, Bowie laughed. I like to imagine him on a New York street corner, surrounded by people bustling past, going about their business, far too concerned with right now to worry about tomorrow. Nobody would be going off her head; nobody would be fixing his stare to car wheels; nobody would be kneeling and kissing anyone – these people had too much to do. If anyone noticed the old man standing among them, giggling to himself at the darkest of private jokes, the notice didn’t last long: aging sods on New York sidewalks, evincing madness, are a dime a dozen. But Bowie had remembered the point of that McGough poem: that the value of living like the world is going to end is that it lets you live with no plan at all – hey, that’s another good title! – because planning is pointless, and because the best way to live is in a constant state of loving everyone, and everything, physically if possible but at least spiritually, like that bluebird. And here he was planning so much that if he carried out even half of it, it would make these last five years the busiest he’d had in decades; it would be a fury of activity, enough to reduce a healthy man to collapse, much less someone stricken with cancer; it would be, could be, a magnificent last act in a career already full of impressive highlights, but it would also be quite a tightrope walk.
What he needed, Bowie might have thought, was someone like McGough, or the speaker in McGough’s poem. He needed a “bitofalad,” someone full of piss and contrariness, who would stand up every day on the bus, so to speak, and remind him that the world was going to end at lunchtime. What an unpleasant person that would be, in real life! He would be as obnoxious as a real-life madman standing on the corner, gesticulating wildly and preaching the end times. He would be like a surly drunk in the corner of the bar, always looking for a fight. But he would be essential, because when the world really is ending, and it always is, you need to be reminded of it. You can’t grow complacent. You have to work, and you have to remember to work, and you can’t forget the urgency of working. “The next day is the next day,” Ronno had said. And then he’d said, rightly and beautifully: “I’ve still got so much to do.” Bowie, I imagine, stayed in this reverie of thought for a while, there on the corner with the world moving all around him. “Five years, what a surprise…”
And then, we assume, he woke up, so to speak. He shook it off; he checked his watch. Had it really gotten that late already? He’d been sure as he spoke on the phone earlier that the world was coming to an end, and now it was past lunchtime, and it hadn’t. Although, as McGough would say, in a way it had.
Recorded: Pathway Studios, London, late 1976-January 1977. EC: vocals, guitar; McFee: guitar; Ciambotti: bass, backing vocals; Shine: drums. (If Sean Hopper contributed a keyboard part to the recording, to my ears it’s been mixed out.) Producer: Nick Lowe. Engineer: Bazza Farmer. Released: My Aim Is True, 1977. Played live throughout EC’s career.
* I should concede that the news may well have come earlier than 2011, and moreover I imagine it was imparted in person, because that seems like the way this sort of thing is handled. I give the chronology I do, obviously, because the math works nicely for the “five years” thing I’m hung up on – but also because the first sign released to the public of the cancer diagnosis, even if we would only understand it in retrospect after Bowie’s death, was the appearance of The Next Day, whose title track was recorded in May 2011, meaning that’s as good a date as any to assign to the diagnosis itself. As for my assuming it was a phone call, that comes entirely from the lyric in “Lazarus” about dropping the cell phone, which is utterly inscrutable to me otherwise – perhaps O’Leary, when his blog project gets to “Lazarus,” will be able to shed some light on the matter. It’s true that the song “Lazarus” is as much about Newton, the character from The Man Who Fell To Earth revived for Bowie’s musical, as it is about Bowie himself – the bridge that begins “By the time I got to New York…” in particular, feels entirely like the character rather than the musician. But the distinction between Bowie and Newton had been blurring since at least 1974, as the actor sat in the backseat of that limo cruising through the desert and singing idly along to Aretha Franklin songs for Alan Yentob’s cameras. That, it became clear once we realized Lazarus was a farewell, may well have been the point of revisiting the character in the first place. All this is to say, I think it’s safe to assume we can disregard the dual nature of the speaker in the song, for the purposes of this essay, and regard it as being firmly, if not entirely, about Bowie himself.
Top to bottom: Sophia Ann Caruso and Michael C. Hall in the New York production of Lazarus, 2015; Bowie, with Trevor Bolder and Mick Ronson of the Spiders (Woody Woodmansey is on the drums in the background), playing “Five Years” on Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972; promotional flyer included with the first pressing of My Aim Is True, 1977; Osterley train station, present day, courtesy of Wikipedia – an unlikely place for a train bound for the end of the world to be heading; a wedding party on the beach (I think this is a stock photo, grabbed at random in a Google image search; if I’ve accidentally identified your wedding with one Elvis Costello is on record as hoping ends with a mass drowning, I apologize!); Bowie in his “The Next Day” video, 2011; Bowie in his “Lazarus” video, 2015.