“Lord, Lord, my prayer flies, Like a word on a wing.”
You could be forgiven for thinking this is a sentence from a Sunday morning sermon. Or perhaps the lyrics of a venerable Gospel song.
Instead, it was penned by one of the most creative singer songwriters of the 20th and 21st centuries, and was just one of the many prayerful lyrics filling “Word on a Wing” – classed by many as David Bowie’s “most underrated” song.
So was Bowie less “The Man Who Sold the World” and more a man of God?
Not exactly. But he was a spiritual seeker and like the Old Testament Psalmists he embedded this prayer in lyrics that creatively expressed his yearnings for God’s comfort and aid.
In a New Musical Express interview he recalled how he penned those heartfelt words during a period of “psychological terror” while filming “The Man Who Fell To Earth”.
“It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth, and ‘Word on a Wing’ was a protection,” he said.
This was not your average Sunday morning holiness. For in typically frank fashion, Bowie went on to admit the prayer was written under a coke-fuelled cloud of spiritual despair.
It is clear that despite being a pop icon and travelling the highways and byways where hedonism thrived, his spiritual journey continued.
Years later, at a time when many religious leaders were condemning AIDS sufferers, Bowie actually prayed for them – openly! Following a Queen-backed rendition of “Heroes” at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, he dropped to his knees in prayer for those lost to AIDS or battling with it.
“Heroes” starts at 5:30 and the AIDS tribute and prayer at 9:40
The 72,000-strong crowd was unusually hushed as the Lord’s Prayer reverberated around the stadium, then broke into roars of approval as Bowie rose to his feet and left the stage with the words: “God bless Queen, and God bless you!”
Interviewed by Arena Magazine about the genesis of this tender moment, Bowie toldjournalist and author Tony Parsons: “I decided to do it about five minutes before I went on stage. In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself.”
To many people “prayer” has become something of a catch-all phrase – expressing good thoughts for oneself or for others, even if they don’t believe there is a God to hear those prayers.
Yet to Bowie, at that point in his life, those prayers, flying like that “word on a wing”, were heading somewhere specific.
“On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God’s existence. For me it is unquestionable,” he told Parsons.
Maybe it was that conviction which determined the way Bowie actually articulated The Lord’s Prayer on that Wembley Stadium stage. Rather than just a simple recital of comforting and familiar words he seemed to find meaning in every phrase, as if mentally reaching for the prayer’s deeper significance.
That, to me, is the key to making such thoughts actually fly “like a word on a wing” and connect us to the Divine. Digging into the spiritual meaning of the ideas that such words convey can lift our thoughts to that spiritual level where we sense God’s comfort and healing presence right where we are.
This “one brief prayer” that “Jesus taught his disciples” invites just such uplifted thought, as indicated by an author Bowie himself read in the early 80’s. In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures Mary Baker Eddy described the Lord’s Prayer as “the prayer of Soul, not of material sense…which covers all human needs”, before offering what she understood to be “a spiritual sense” of its meaning.
When offering up the Lord’s Prayer on that April 1992 afternoon in Wembley was Bowie recalling that “spiritual sense” of it he’d read a decade earlier?
We’ll never know. Neither are we ever likely to learn where his lifelong search eventually led him. It embraced many spiritual approaches. But he once confirmed to Anthony DeCurtis that questioning his spiritual life had always been germane to what he was writing, while laughingly adding “I’m almost an atheist!” So we do know the singer’s spiritual quest consistently informed his art over the five fruitful decades of his creative output, adding a depth to his work that resonates with many.
In an “appreciation” article in The Los Angeles Times, musician and writer Sasha Frere-Jones summed Bowie up beautifully.
“You’ll see a disciplined, almost illogically sweet man who paid exquisite attention to everything.”
Yes, everything. Including God.
This blog was first published by the Huffington Post UK.