Reggie Ponder: Remembering Bowie, ‘Under Pressure’

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I’m not sure anything has made me feel as old as hearing the news this week that David Bowie had died.

Bowie always seemed to me to be a kind of perpetual youth, someone who would never grow old.

But he grew older, became very sick and died.

Although this column is a tribute of sorts, I suppose I should disclose early on that I am not really much of David Bowie fan, nor am I a big fan of Queen.

What I do love is “Under Pressure,” the record that Queen and David Bowie recorded together. There’ll be more about that later.

When I was in the eighth grade one of my friends was crazy about Queen, but I just never got it. I’m not saying they might not have been a great band. It’s just that their songs never really were my cup of tea.

And throughout the 70s David Bowie practically defined what it was I didn’t like about certain sub-genres of rock music. He was essentially a symbol for me of what I didn’t like about any number of experimental or avant-garde movements within rock.

But then in the early 1980s, “Under Pressure” happened.

The joint venture between Queen and David Bowie began with an infectious bass line that Queen had been playing with for a while in the studio. (The bass line later became an inspiration for Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby,” but that’s another story and one I try to avoid.)

Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury had taken to singing nonsense syllables over the bass line, and the band had invited their friend Bowie to drop by the studio for a collaboration.

When Bowie arrived, as the story is told, the mood in the studio changed because of Bowie’s preoccupation in that era with urban poverty in England, which he blamed on the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

You needn’t agree entirely — or even at all — with Bowie’s political analysis to appreciate his compassion for those left behind in the British economy of the early 1980s.

What he saw was people living on the streets, and apparently very little being done to help them. So Bowie stepped into the studio where Queen was improvising what they thought was going to be a silly, superficial ditty, and he started composing lyrics on the spot that addressed his sociopolitical concerns in an eloquent way.

At least that’s how the legend goes. He talked about the temptation to turn one’s eyes away from it all, or to sit on the fence in non-commitment. And then he issued a challenge to respond with love, of all things.

“Why can’t we give love one more chance?” he asked.

Answering his own rhetorical question, he added “love’s such an old-fashioned word, and love calls us to care for the people on the edge of the night.”

I can’t help associating that last line with Hebrews 13, particularly verses 12-16.

I really hope I live to see the day when “Under Pressure” makes it into the latest edition of the United Methodist Hymnal.

I’m not sure that would work, of course, since it’s a rather difficult song to sing. But then one can always dream.