Released: 23 January 1976
David Bowie: vocals, Chamberlin
Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick: guitar
Roy Bittan: piano
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums, vibraslap
Geoff MacCormack: vocals, congas
‘Word On A Wing’, a devout and profound plea to God, was the spiritual heart of David Bowie’s 10th studio album Station To Station.
I think we are due for a revival of God awareness. Not a wishy-washy kind of fey, flower-child thing, but a very medieval, firm-handed masculine God awareness where we will go out and make the world right again. I’m feeling more and more that way.
Rock & roll has been really bringing me down lately. It’s in great danger of becoming an immobile, sterile fascist that constantly spews its propaganda on every arm of the media. It rules and dictates a level of thought and clarity of intelligence that you’ll never raise above… Rock has always been the devil’s music. You can’t convince me that it isn’t.
Rolling Stone, 12 February 1976
In 1975, during the making of Station To Station, Bowie was immersed – at times to the point of obsession – in the occult, dark magic, and religious and mystical texts. He read widely, including the works of Aleister Crowley and Russian occultist Helena Blavatsky, as well as works on the Tarot, Kabbalah, black magic, numerology, the Third Reich, and other treatises on religion and conspiracy.
Almost hymnlike in its devotion and earnestness, ‘Word On A Wing’ is a counterpoint to the darkness that enveloped other parts of Station To Station. The aphorism “There are no atheists in foxholes” perfectly encapsulates Bowie in the mid-Seventies: the song was a naked appeal to God for help, a cri de coeur from a time of huge personal turmoil.
‘Word On A Wing’ I can’t talk about. There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film [The Man Who Fell To Earth] that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing.
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. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine. It was also around that time that I started thinking about wearing this (fingers small silver cross hanging on his chest) again, which is now almost a left-over from that period.
I wear it, I’m not sure why I wear it now even. But at the time I really needed this. Hmmm (laughs), we’re getting into heavy waters… but yes, the song was something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.
NME, 13 September 1980
In 1967 Bowie considered becoming a Buddhist monk, and studied for some months at Tibet House in London, but chose instead to follow a career in music.
I was studying Tibetan Buddhism when I was quite young, again influenced by Kerouac. The Tibetan Buddhist Institute was accessible so I trotted down there to have a look. Lo and behold, there’s a guy down in the basement who’s the head man in setting up a place in Scotland for the refugees, and I got involved purely on a sociological level – because I wanted to get the refugees out of India, for they were having a really shitty time of it down there, dropping like flies due to the change of atmosphere from the Himalayas. Scotland was a pretty good place to put them, and then more and more I was drawn to their way of thinking, or non-thinking, and for a while got quite heavily involved in it. I got to the point where I wanted to become a novice monk, and about two weeks before I was actually going to take those steps, I broke up and went out on the streets and got drunk and never looked back.
Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974
Although he remained skeptical of organised religion, and in 1993 described himself as “not quite an atheist”, he retained vestiges of faith and devotion throughout his life. He described 1997’s Earthling as showing “the abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of gnosticism”, and in 2016 his ashes were scattered in Bali in accordance with Buddhist rituals.