The Last Push

June 19, 2014

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Well, I’d wanted to get another post out but in all honesty, I cannot do anything else until I finally finish this manuscript. I go on vacation the week of July 7, so it’s got to be done by then, because I just want to finally finish Wolf Hall and read some Kieron Gillen comics and not think about Bowie that week.

So: last leg. Bear with me, and once this is over, we’ll get back to a weekly or even a semi-weekly (imagine!) pace.

And if you’ve a yen to talk about something Bowie, talk about some of the er, utter absolute classic Bowie songs that have like 10 bloody comments on them!

Here’s “Space Oddity”!
Here’s “Quicksand”!
Here’s “The Man Who Sold the World“!
Here’s “John I’m Only Dancing“!

Have at it. See you on the other side. I think you’re going to like this book.

all best

C.O.

Top: 1915 Irish Great War propaganda poster, via WWI Propaganda Posters.


Heathen (the Rays)

June 10, 2014

after

Heathen (the Rays).
Heathen (live, 2002).
Heathen (live, 2002).
Heathen (Later With Jools Holland, 2002).
Heathen (live, 2003).

I was young, fancy free, and Tibetan Buddhism appealed to me at that time. I thought,  “There’s salvation.” It didn’t really work. Then I went through Nietzsche, Satanism, Christianity, pottery, and ended up singing. It’s been a long road...

Bowie, to Ellen DeGeneres, 2004.

As chance (?) had it, I was making last revisions to “Word On a Wing” and “Station to Station” while I clunked together this entry. “Heathen (the Rays)” is the muted sequel to those vast, troubled pieces of Bowie’s mid-Seventies. Songs that said there were answers to be found, if hidden away somewhere; that there were systems to run, sects and schemes to examine, whether talismanic Christianity (“Word”) or cabbalist coke Gnostic occultism (“Station”). Ever more books to read.

He dug through Aleister Crowley, Nietzsche, the lie-riddled accounts of Nazi occult operations, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Theosophy, even hints of est and Scientology. His was the work of a receptive, often credulous mind, a mind hungry to believe. He is what he reads, his down-to-earth (and Pentecostal Christian, the son of a minister) guitarist Carlos Alomar recalled of his employer. And at that time he was reading so much bullshit. All of this contending with strange powers persisted, if wanly, well into Bowie’s Nineties: see Leon and Outside, with their blood rituals and pre-millennial terrors.

It’s not a great thing, just a belief or let’s call it the usual force. Or God? Yes, sure. It’s a lukewarm relationship at the best of times, but I think it’s definitely there.

Bowie, to Timothy White, 1978.

So Bowie was, in his odd way, a religious songwriter. In 1973, at the peak of Ziggy Stardust mania, he told a reporter he “always felt like a vehicle for something else, but then I’ve never sorted out what that was. I think everybody, at one time or another, gets that kind of feeling that they aren’t just here for themselves…there’s a feeling we are here for another purpose. And in me it’s very strong.”

By the end of the century he was identifying as a sometimes Buddhist, sometimes Gnostic. He had inherited his father’s skepticism of organized religion, especially “Henry’s church” (of England). His own religious beliefs had turned out to be a run of tests, like an alchemist putting various bits of stone and quartz to a flame. The singer in a typical Bowie piece was a closed perspective set against the backdrop of an open one: the spiritual world, the ten stations of the sefirot, nightly visitations by extraterrestrials, astral projections, the Order of the Golden Dawn. Something. There was something else, grand if inexplicable, in the world.

In 2001, Year One of a new, unhappy century, Bowie offered that it had all been bunk.

look down your back stairs buddy somebody's living there he really don't feel the weather

The voice of “Heathen (the Rays)” is that of an unbeliever, a man who spies death on the road ahead and who knows once they meet that nothing will remain of him, that he will go nowhere else. It has the sodium-lit mood of one of Philip Larkin’s last poems, “Aubade“:

…the sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…

Or as Bowie put it to Der Spiegel in 2002: “Why now, when I [finally] understand myself and others, should I die? What a shit game. Is there no one with whom you could revise the rules?”

“Heathen” doesn’t begin as much as it coalesces. Two guitars (David Torn and/or Gerry Leonard, even possibly Bowie—it’s hard to determine who’s playing what on this record) entwine, each attempting to undermine the other. Then two grand chords, sounded on synthesizer with what sounds like baritone saxophone mixed in: a D-flat and an E-flat 7th, repeated again and again. A dance of two lonely giants. Only upon the appearance of an A-flat (“made for a”) and an F minor (“real world”), swept in with girl-group drums and a rockabilly guitar riff, does the song start to orbit around A-flat.*

The song is just three verses (they’re like three bridges of a song whose refrain has gone lost). There’s the opening build in A-flat, whose lines offer Buddhism translated via George Harrison and some modern-day Ecclesiastes, with Bowie regarding a skyline of steel and glass as a collective vanity, a world open to be destroyed. Bowie swore that he wrote the lyric before 9/11; he was unnerved at his prediction. The words had just poured out of him one morning at Allaire Studios, he recalled. He didn’t want to write it, but there it was, the bile of late middle age.

A move to G-flat: a “celestial” feel via synthesizer and chimes, a frantic human heartbeat racing beneath. By the last verse, death finally approaches, cheered on by the music as if it’s a boxing champion entering the ring. The parenthetical “rays” of the song title are the distorted light rays of a dying sun. Recall that at the moment of sunset, the sun has already gone, slipped below the horizon while its last rays delude us into believing it’s still day.

As ominous and grand as all of this is, with Bowie as consumptive diva (“I can SEE it NOW! I can FEEL it DIE!”), there’s a goofiness there as well, a sense that some of the players got the wrong script. The jovial drums, which keep derailing the lyric’s black mood like an antic boy at a funeral. There are even handclaps towards the end. The Stylophone makes a cameo appearance. The guitars seem to be trying to escape into a livelier song.

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The spiritual ferment of the Sixties and Seventies wasn’t going to be the world of the 21st Century, Bowie said. This would be a century of a cold, refined barbarism, a world fit for fanatics of all stripes. Freelancers now: no longer members of the incorporated tyrannies of a Hitler or Stalin.

Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any God’s presence in his life. He is the 21st century man,” Bowie said in 2002.

The CD booklet offered some visuals. There were defaced religious paintings of the Renaissance: Duccio’s Madonna and of Dolci’s Mary Magdalene were blinded, whether via semen-like splats or gouged out with a knife. Raphael’s St. Sebastian was slashed to pieces, martyring him pre-martyrdom. Reni’s horrific Slaughter of the Innocents was given hearty blots of encouragement. Rubens’ roly-poly pagan Christ and John the Baptist were quadrisected.

Desecration becomes a kind of moral necessity—something that must be constantly performed, and performed collectively, in order to destroy the things that stand in judgment over us.

Roger Scruton, The Face of God.

Then three sticks of dynamite on a shelf. Nietzsche’s Gay Science, which offered that God is dead and man should stop worshiping His ghost to walk freely in the sun (“We philosophers and “free spirits” feel ourselves irradiated as by a new dawn by the report that the “old God is dead”; our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger“).

Beside it, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, in which dreams are the “royal road” to the cellar of our unconscious (which is where Bowie seems to be going in a Heathen photo (see above). As Iggy Pop once sang—look down your back stairs buddy: somebody’s living there and he don’t really feel the weather). In dreams, Freud said, “each night every man is a superman…dreams expose us ‘as ethical and moral imbeciles’ and are ‘the blessed fulfillers of wishes.’” As Peter Conrad wrote: “That is what gods were supposed to be…If we can gratify our own wishes, the gods and even God himself are obsolete.”

Lastly Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity: time and space aren’t absolute and constant, the world isn’t the work of any celestial clockmaker. The writer Ortega y Gasset believed Einstein had turned reality into cinema—now time could be cranked to Keystone Kops speed, could move in slow motion. (The theory also posited the existence of black holes, a favorite hobbyhorse of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie). So in short: God is dead, our dreams hint that we are all secret monsters and tyrants, and the very fabric of time can be folded and stretched. A world fit for heathen, apparently.

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Heathen kind of felt right, in as much as it was about the unilluminated mind. It was an idea, a feeling, a sense of what 21st Century man might become if he’s not already: someone who’s lowered his standards spiritually, intellectually, morally whatever…someone who’s not even bothered searching for a spiritual life anymore but who’s completely existing on a materialistic plain. But just using the word “heathen” is kind of less preachy than explaining all that. ‘Cos if you wrote all that on the front of an album cover, nobody would bother buying it, would they?

Bowie, electronic press kit interview, 2002.

Bowie was playing on the word “heathen” (one who worships idols or many gods; someone outside the Christian faith; someone regarded as rude, illiterate, barbarous or irreligious),* which is at root a mistranslation. It’s derived from a 4th Century Gothic bishop’s version of the Book of Mark, where the bishop used the Gothic haiþnô (woman of the heath) in place of the original word: the person referred to in Mark 7:26 was a Greek woman, hellēnis.

The bishop was just bringing the New Testament up to date for his parishioners. The foreign unbelievers were no longer the pantheistic Greeks but the “wasteland dwellers,” i.e., the barbarians living out in the heaths and who increasingly were threatening the fragile Roman Empire.

The booklet photos suggested a further revision of the word. Bowie played a new character whose look was possibly inspired by a photograph of the naturalist Jean Henri Fabre (and in turn Bowie’s look rather creepily predicts the Slender Man).*** An immaculately-dressed barbarian, shredding books, striking out words, defacing paintings. In the cover photograph his eyes are both blind (milked-out, like the vandalism done to the paintings) and have “sight”–Christian fish-symbols in lieu of irises. You could call this hedging one’s bets.

heathen

Another song had worked in this grim field. But “Modern Love” was a Top 10 hit, brassy and insistent. A man gleefully ticks off everything that’s failed him, from marriage to “God and man.” There’s no sign of life: it’s just a power to charm. When there’s nothing of value, one must accept nothing, and work hard at it. No more confessions! No religion! Don’t believe in modern love! (You can hear the party noise of “Modern Love” coming through the walls at times in “Heathen.”)

Why now was the idea of an spiritually empty world such a drag? Wasn’t all of this getting a bit tiresome? These long gloom-and-doom numbers, these songs of ashen men mourning their wasted youths? These dirges, these late November still-lives? These landscapes of departing angels and empty trains and defaced books in empty libraries? Was this how Bowie would expire: in a grey mist of pity and regret?

indriani1

After saying, for much of his life, that rock ‘n’ roll was just one medium for him, one trade among many (and not a very good trade at that), Bowie was still playing rock music in 2002. The films hadn’t quite worked out, though he was still adept at making cameos. The paintings were fine amateur works. The plays had stopped with The Elephant Man. The books had never (will never?) come. He was still, at 55, riding the merry-go-round. He was still indentured to a circus: album-press-tour, album-press-tour. And now the circus was in shambles.

He didn’t bother making videos for Heathen because he knew they wouldn’t be played. “I’d like to believe I’m a realist and I don’t believe an artist of my age group will get either radio play or TV,” he said in an Early Show interview. “So I thought it rather asinine to spend money on those particular areas….my best ways [of promotion] are commercials, Internet, talking to you.” And sure enough, few noticed the album apart from fans and a few British critics. Heathen failed to make the year-end lists of everything from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, the Pazz and Jop to the NME. It was a respectable album, a suitable work from an aging man. It was reviewed kindly, condescended to and quickly forgotten. [CO: well, maybe not: see comments]

So he aimed to take apart “David Bowie,” once and for all. There wouldn’t be any farewell tours or Last Waltz or Abbey Road. First he would turn himself into a Grand Old Man, a Pierrot figure once again, some weary old crock wandering in the wilderness. After that he would make himself disappear: quietly and slowly, a long campaign.

So how do you begin to dismantle a house? You start with the roof. To dispatch the man, start with his god.

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Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* If the song’s in D-flat, the verse progression is I/v-of-V7/V/iii/I/v-of-V7 (Db-Eb7-Ab-Fm-Db-Eb7), which is pretty straightforward as such things go. While the two other verses feel like there’s been a move to G-flat (Gb-Ab7-Abm7-Db7-Gb-Eb7-Ab-Fm), you could argue they’re still in an estranged relationship to D-flat. [A very compelling claim for the song actually being in Ab is in comments]

** Definitions from Webster’s New Twentieth Century Unabridged, 2nd. ed., a tome so thick it could stop a bullet. More on the birth and travels of the word “heathen” in Joshua Rood’s “Heathen: Linguistic Origins and Early Context.”

*** An inspired suggestion by Alan Titschmarsh on the Bowie Wonderworld board, members of which also identified most of the paintings (all but one: does anyone know?) (solved: see comments, it’s Raphael’s “Angel” from the Baronci Altarpiece—thanks “rebel yell”)

Top: “Vincent From France,” “The Empty Submarine Base—Lorient, 2001″; Markus Klinko and Indriani, photographs for the Heathen booklet; Jonathan Barnbrook, defaced art/design.


5:15 The Angels Have Gone

May 27, 2014

senbombay2001

5:15 The Angels Have Gone.
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (live, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (Live By Request, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (live, 2004).

The tattered end of a baggy trilogy (“Look Back in Anger,” “New Angels of Promise“), “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” is also a curtain-raiser for “Heathen”: it’s a world deserted by God, or at least a world whose inhabitants have gotten rather sick of Him. “A man who could once see his angels—hopes and aspirations, maybe?—can’t see them anymore,” Bowie described the song to Billboard in 2002, “and he blames the crushing dumbness of life for it.”

Bowie’s angels had done little more than look for exits. “Look Back In Anger” has Bowie encountering a bored, low-level bureaucrat (one who’s long given up hope of promotion to arch-angel) who taps at his watch and tells him it’s time they should be going. The “new angels of promise” were just avatars in a video game most computers can’t play today. Now even the glum last intermediaries between man and God are gone, leaving us to steer our lives with railway timetables (the same time Pete Townshend’s Jimmy had caught a train to Brighton)* and astrology columns.

Like “I Would Be Your Slave,” “5:15″ is a love ballad in which one party is an estranged god: “weeee never TALK an-ny-more!” Bowie pleads in the refrains, which makes you wonder if Cliff Richard was having his own doubts in the late Seventies. But even Cliff had some bravado in his despair: “I ain’t losin’ sleep! ain’t countin’ sheep!” Bowie’s numbed, dulled, concerned only with what he can see before him. He’s in a foreign station, being rained on, the train’s late (this could well be death, or at least Belgium).

A few colors appear here and there: Bowie’s choir, summoned by the keys of his Chamberlin, swirling in eddies and hockets of sound; a piano that scampers through the refrains; Matt Chamberlain’s drum break, a loud, unresolved argument between crash cymbals and whacked kick drum, which foreshadows Chamberlain’s “live” drums ruling the second verse; Tony Visconti’s little grudging nods on his bass.

And there are some past Bowie lives buried in it—Mr. Norris Changes Trains, “A New Career In a New Town,” even “Station to Station”—which adds to the weary circularity of the whole business. There’s the guitar riff, a small shrug of a melody confined to a guitar’s three low strings—one line starts and ends on notes sounded on an open G string, the other just cuts off, disappointed. Or the drum loop, sounding like a man tattooing a pattern on an anvil (with a shaker for company), that keeps on through the C major verses/breaks, which give way to F# minor refrains. Numbed grief gets interrupted by brief spasms of anger.

Go back to Townshend’s “5:15″ for a moment (he’ll show up again soon in this survey). Bowie’s departed angels here seem like Mods: thin on the ground, all legs and wings, strange sandy eyes. The Mod could “pass”—in their sharp suits and neatly-cut hair, they could sit on a train and not draw attention, not bother the old with the impropriety of being young, even though (like Jimmy) they may have been bonked out of their heads on amphetamines or be dreaming about setting fire to the train. The Mod were the last angels in our midst, and now they’re gone. Caught the last train for the coast. Bowie’s left among the squares, a fate that his teenage Mod self would have considered worse than death.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* Also likely used for the tactile pleasure of singing “five-fifteen,” one of the more glorious collection of numbers in the English language (two quick nasally syllables cleansed by a deep long vowel; the alliterative push of “five-fif,” with its furtive romance of the lower lip and teeth). “Five-twenty-five” or “five-forty” doesn’t work half as well.

Top: Surya Sen, “Bombay, 2001.”


I Would Be Your Slave

May 19, 2014

01psy

I Would Be Your Slave (debut performance, Tibet House Benefit Concert, 2002).
I Would Be Your Slave.
I Would Be Your Slave (live, 2002).
I Would Be Your Slave (live, 2002).

The first original composition from Heathen performed live (during Bowie’s set at the Tibet House Benefit Concert of February 2002), “I Would Be Your Slave” was crafted as a vehicle for grand voice, guitar, percussion loops, bass and string quartet. The latter were the Scorchio Quartet, a freshly-formed quartet who’ve since become the “house band” for Tibet House’s annual benefits.

Loosely fitting in the “Four Last Songs” sequence (see “Sunday“), “I Would Be Your Slave” is addressed as much to God as another human being (so, a typical Bowie love song). Like “Word On a Wing,” it’s prayer as labor negotiation: open up your heart to me, acknowledge my existence and maybe then I’ll worship you. The overarching theme of the album, or so Bowie claimed, was a world that had dispensed with its gods (see “Heathen”). The singer here, however, is a paranoid believer, one convinced that God is laughing at him somewhere, up in the quietude to which He’s retreated in a sulk. “An entreaty to the highest being to show himself in a way that could be understood. Too disturbing,” as Bowie described the song to Livewire in 2002.

Bowie’s grand concession, sung to close each of his four verses, is that he “would be your slave” (note the conditional tense: he’s not committing yet). It’s love as submission, or even Bowie offering himself as the slave drive to a master computer processor, working at whatever task the master assigns him. And of course, recall Jareth’s last temptation to Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) in Labyrinth: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”* It’s tempting to call “I Would Be Your Slave” Sarah’s long-delayed reply.

The first two verses were built on a repeating chord progression, semitonal moves downward (F-sharp major to F major “let me…understand”) and upward (F# major to G# major “drifting down a..silent path,” with a Tony Visconti bass fill always following the move to G#, descending to establish the floor of the upcoming F# chord). There was a gorgeous feint to B-flat minor (“show me all you are!”) that foreshadowed the more turbulent harmonic rhythm of the latter two verses. There a provisional A minor key soon fell under siege, with jarring moves from B to B-flat minor (“I don’t see the point at all”) and F# to F minor (“a chance to strike me down!”).

The Scorchio Quartet heightened the acrid flavor of Bowie’s chords (there’s a sting in their G-sharps). The scoring was mostly Bowie’s work, written on the Korg Trinity keyboard, hence the very chordal scoring—there are few solo passages, mainly just the four instruments clinging together as if for comfort (there’s a guttural drone of a cello line that looms up in the third verse). The quartet ennoble Visconti’s bass fills and build to slow, ruminating peaks in the latter halves of the verses. A few other flavors were salted in during overdubs: an arpeggiated guitar figure mixed right, a constant loop of what sounded like a rheumatic robot breathing, a distant cymbal (mixed left) kept exiled.

Scorchio recorded their parts in the weeks after September 11, having to make their way up to Shokan from New York City despite Metro North and Amtrak lines running irregularly and even some roads closed. “As they pointed out, it was the necessary break that was so needed by all of them,” Bowie said. “I will always thank them for that.” Critics and fans may have parsed Bowie’s lyrics for references to the attacks but the most open, stunned mourners were the strings.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals, strings) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* Visconti recalled that during their scouting trip to Allaire in June 2001 Bowie rented Requiem For a Dream to see how his former co-star was doing (he also was a fan of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi). The film’s lurid depiction of heroin addiction, and the debasement that Connelly’s character endures, was so unsettling that it killed the mood for the rest of the night.

Top: Andry Fridman, “Psy-Trance party in Club Friday,” December 2001.


Sunday

May 12, 2014

01amciti

Sunday.
Sunday (Visconti mix).
Sunday (Moby remix).
Sunday (live, Meltdown Festival, 2002).
Sunday (live, 2002).
Sunday (live, 2003).
Sunday (live, 2004).
Sunday (live, 2004).

It’s long been Bowie’s habit to rewrite his albums in the press once he’s made them. The Ziggy Stardust “storyline” wasn’t cooked up until 1973, when Bowie described it to William S. Burroughs. So in 2002, a year after having composed the songs on Heathen, Bowie began giving them a narrative structure. Some of Heathen was his version of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, or so he claimed.

There’s a certain sense of universality in those songs that Strauss wrote at the end of his life when he was 84…they’re the most terribly romantic, sad, poignant pieces that I think have ever been written,” he told Interview in 2002. “I kind of used them as a template.” (His preferred recording was Gundula Janowitz‘s performance (with Herbert von Karajan, 1973), which he described as “ach[ing] with love for a life that is quietly fading.”)

His own Four Last Songs were the album’s bookends, “Sunday” and “Heathen (The Rays),” and two mid-sequenced songs, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” and “I Would Be Your Slave.” These were end-of-life musings, thoughts on death, parceled regrets, “hard questions.” He’d reached the point, he told Interview‘s Ingrid Sischy, where he felt was no longer growing. “Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.” In another interview he said mid-life was a time of no longer becoming, but simply being.

For a man who’d staked his life on continually becoming, wasn’t this state essentially death? Bowie’s Four Last Songs are barren landscapes, a set of departure lounges, wings of abandoned houses, empty train stations, beaches without footprints.

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Of course, the grand old man persona of Heathen was as much a fictive personality as Ziggy Stardust had been. Recall that Bowie was only 54—an age when things start to get creaky and the weight of memory is more of a burden, but generally an age still fat in the middle of life. There’s far more pain, loss, resignation, bewilderment and brutal aging to come (my dear acerbic great-aunt, at age 80 or so, once sighed wistfully to me: “ah, to be 50 again!”).

Bowie was playing with our perception of how pop stars age in dog years: if you’ve been kicking around for 20 years (or nearly 40, in his case) in pop music, you might as well be Methuselah. So if the world saw him as an old man, he’d play the old man: someone so bogged with life that he can barely move.

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Richard Strauss was a true old man, one who’d lived too long.

American soldiers driving through Bavaria days after Hitler’s death, looking for a house to commandeer as a base of operations, came upon a stately villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. An ancient man strode from the front door, announced he was Richard Strauss, composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, and told them to leave. Kind fate allotted one of the soldiers to be a classical musician, who gave Strauss the cover of deference and defused any chance that Strauss would’ve been hauled into a collaborators’ prison. Soon enough, troops had spilled into Strauss’ villa, asking “Hey Maestro! Who’s this guy?” when seeing a bust of Beethoven. Classical Germany fell to gum-cracking Americans at last.

By now, the 20th Century seemed a colossal joke to Strauss. Born in 1864 in a Bavaria still ruled by its mad emperor, Strauss lived through Bavaria’s absorption into grey Prussia to form Germany, the whirling spree of Kaiser Wilhelm’s lost empire, four years of catastrophic war, Germany’s subsequent fall into fascism, genocide and thuggery (which Strauss, to his great discredit, partly condoned), another horrific war and now, in 1945, utter defeat. He would even see the carving up of Germany into capitalist and Communist halves. “I have outlived even myself,” he said in 1949, upon which he finally died.

Strauss didn’t intend his Four Last Songs as a last statement: the title wasn’t his, for one thing. In 1948 Strauss scored three Hermann Hesse poems and one by Joseph von Eichendorff. Only after his death, when the four songs were grouped as a single work and re-sequenced by Ernst Roth, did the songs become his Four Last.* But the songs obviously shared a sense of reminiscence (they were scored for soprano, as if Strauss was writing songs for the memory of his wife’s singing voice) and cyclicality: in one, he quoted from a tone poem of his youth, Tod und Verklärung.

And as much as the songs spoke of resignation, death and transformation, there was a thick vein of defiance in the music. Their beauty could be smothering (Hesse, hearing Strauss’ adaptations of his poems, said they “were full of well-crafted beauty but lacking in core, merely an end to themselves.”), their vocal lines cathedrals to a woman’s voice, their brass-and strings orchestration that of a royal court. The songs proposed that the mad century had never happened: it was Strauss willing away history in the last of his music.  The Songswere so potent as to render the idea of relevance irrelevant,” Alex Ross wrote in 1999. “They destroyed, single-handedly, the modernist imperative of progress—the notion that music must always be made new. Strauss, in fact, had gone neither forward nor backward…A progressive had become a reactionary by standing absolutely still.

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Bowie was looking out a window of Allaire Studios early one July morning in 2001, drinking his first cup of coffee. He saw two deer grazing on the mountainside and beyond them, a car slowly passing along the Ashokan Reservoir to the south. “There was something so still and primal about what I was looking at outside,” he recalled. He began to weep, began to write.

What had the image triggered? Not simply the idea of a depeopled world, one left to the deer and the crows to forage. The man or woman in the car was part of it. Were they, for a moment, in harmony with the plants and animals, or were they in the usual role of oblivious despoiler? Or did the view suggest how the world’s oblivious to our comings and goings? We depart from life one morning and the animals take no notice, the sun keeps on its paces. The slight absurdity of a man in a luxurious recording studio built in a plutocrat’s mansion weeping over the thought.

“Sunday” begins on a remote E-flat minor chord, and over a long, looping vine of a verse it tentatively grounds itself in A-flat minor. There are few voices at first: a treated guitar playing the same birdsong figure again and again; the occasional bass note, like a man quietly sounding the depth of a wall; a bed of voices to cushion the lead vocal and establish the chords, rising and ebbing in volume with each loop (the vocals were mainly Tony Visconti, who taught himself to sing “two notes at once after singing Tuvan and Mongolian music”).

The lead voice could be a man who’s survived an apocalypse, offering instructions to fellow foragers. Watch out for drifters and cars (an echo of the Mekons’ “Trouble Down South,” with its England as an American war zone: look out for wires…stay underground). It’s equally the voice of an animal, one making its way through a world ruled by indifferent nature and malicious homo sapiens. Watch for shafts of light on the road: they mean death. Crawl under the bracken for safety.** Run when the rain lessens. Follow the sun (where the heat goes). Man and animal are no different. The world is no place for either of them. A song from decades before plays in an empty room: when the rich die last, like the rabbits running...

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Yet just as “Sunday” seems lost in its meander of a verse, the song gathers force. There’s movement. An elevation to F minor; the guitar is loosed from its trap; a bass drum pattern sets a floor. A paradoxical declaration: nothing has changed, everything has changed, so everything is nothing? “Nothing” is an active force: it has a beginning, it remains, it’s mutable.

The song becomes a chant. A mantra chorus of Bowie and Visconti voices is mixed right (“in your fear seek only peace…in your fear, seek only love”) while mixed left is Bowie’s lead vocal, in grand Scott Walker register, offering hints of resurrection—burning in the pyre, rising through the air, off to do it again. The associations with the fires and the smoke of the World Trade Center were unintentional, Bowie said: he’d written the lines before the attack (though he crafted the track in the studio in the months afterward). At 3:09 the track skips, resets itself.

Something has changed, though. The second verse is shorter, Bowie’s voice now harried by an electronic drum pattern. This is the trip (a lifetime), this the business we take (our souls, our baggage of dreams and fears). Then another ghost: Hush little baby, don’t you cry. You know your mother was born to die. It’s the refrain of the folkie standard of the Sixties, “All My Trials,” as sung by Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk and Nick Drake, and maybe even Bowie himself on stage with John Hutchinson and Hermione Farthingale in 1968. All my trials, Lord, soon be over.*** This world’s spent out: I’m going home. But Bowie sings that his trials will be remembered (by who?): he’s still in love with the world he’s leaving. Strauss would have approved.

His last word is a last defiance, Bowie hanging onto “chaaaaaanged” as long as he can while Matt Chamberlain roars in, brutally chastising his snare drum. Visconti’s bass is a jungle line. On stage, Bowie let his guitarists play “Sunday” out for minutes, letting his audience bask in the triumph, but on the studio version the heroics get faded out quickly, the rebirth hardly mattering. Sunday may be a day of resurrection, but night falls without fail on it.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. There were alternate mixes by Visconti (included on the European “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” single and the Canadian “I’ve Been Waiting For You” single) and Moby (included on the 2-CD version of Heathen). The former managed to make “Sunday” into a pop song, its undercarriage now a jogging loop of “ah ah ah ah” voices a la “O Superman”; the latter was pointless.

* Strauss also orchestrated an 1894 song, Ruhe, mein Seele!, in 1948 and was working on another piece—it’s arguable he was considering the songs as discrete units (the Hesse poems as one opus number, the von Eichendorff as another, etc.) and never would have classed them as a single work.

** Probably the only time “bracken” has been used in a rock song. [edit: no, "bracken" turns up in Robyn Hitchcock's "No, I Don't Remember Guilford" and XTC's "The Meeting Place" and likely others---thanks crayontocrayon & Casey W.] The phrase “under the bracken” is in D.H. Lawrence’s “A Fragment of Stained Glass” (a narrative with some similarities to Bowie’s lyric here) and Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs.

*** “All My Trials”/”All My Sorrows” is a fascinating piece of American ersatz folklore. Though often claimed to have been derived from a 19th Century slave spiritual, the song is likely a cuckoo’s egg—a piece cobbled together ca. 1955, its lines a hash of cod-spirituals and John Bunyan-esque imagery over a melody nicked from a Barbadian lullaby.

Top: Catherine Opie, “Untitled #5 (Wall Street),” 2001.


I’ve Been Waiting For You

May 5, 2014

2001oyos

I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, 1968).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (The Pixies, 1990).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Tin Machine, live, 1991).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, live, 2001.)
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Bowie, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Live By Request, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2003).

The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!

Neil Young, 1973.

Sometime in June 2001, David Bowie drove up from New York City to West Nyack, where Tony Visconti had a modest studio in a modest house. His girlfriend cracked that Bowie would step out of his limo, take one look at their place, say that he’d forgotten something in NYC and head home. Instead, Bowie was Visconti’s lodger for a few days.

Since the late Nineties, the two had planned to make an album but Bowie had felt the times, and his moods, hadn’t been right. Now he’d cooled to a proper degree. He was in the vestibule of life, an eye on each door. That April, his mother had died at 88. A month later, Freddi Burretti, his former project, muse and costume designer, had died of cancer at age 49. And he was a father again at 54, with an infant daughter at home.

Meeting in NYC earlier that spring, Bowie and Visconti spent a day listening to recent albums (Beck’s Midnite Vultures, among others) and “looking for little creative tags to incorporate for the new album,” Visconti wrote in his autobiography. Struck by how Bowie had harnessed old addictions into socially acceptable habits, brewing pot after strong pot of coffee on the hour (he was even trying to shake cigarettes), Visconti wrote: “I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that we’d survived the indulgences of rock ‘n’ roll. We were alive and sober.”

Alive and Sober could’ve been the new album’s title. Visconti found in Bowie, with whom he hadn’t worked on an LP since the Carter administration, a new deliberateness that could pass for maturity. “His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure had vastly improved,” he said. “This had already been good when I last worked with him, but now there was more depth to his melodic and harmonic writing.”

Aware that “Bowie and Visconti” would generate scads of expectations for fans and the aging portion of the music press, the pair figured that some measure of grandiosity was inevitable. So Visconti proposed a “magnum opus” concept: a group of songs sharing an autumnal feel, fattened with “layers of layers of overdubs,” which suited Bowie’s introspective mood (he was still expecting Toy to be issued any month). But Bowie was adamant that he wanted the album to sound fresh, not to traffic in expected memory. It would be compared to Scary Monsters, sure, but it shouldn’t sound like Scary Monsters. It would be old age made new.

In West Nyack, they cut four demos in Visconti’s loft studio. Visconti had started using Pro Tools and Logic Pro, and he took pains to show Bowie how the software worked. “I cut up beats and sections of a song, made beat loops and pasted them in other places.”

The next day they drove north, up to the Catskill mountains, where there was a recording studio called Allaire.

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A swath of the Hudson River Valley and the hunched shoulders of the Catskills is something of a rock ‘n’ roll historical theme park. The Band’s “Big Pink” house is in West Saugerties; Steely Dan’s Annandale-on-Hudson and Barrytown are across the river; Mercury Rev‘s Opus 40 is off the NY Thruway; the former Bearsville Studios (Todd Rundgren, etc.) is near Woodstock, where Dylan once crashed his motorcycle on Striebel Road. Off to the west is Bethel, where the Woodstock Festival took place (its 1994 sequel was in Saugerties, the catastrophic 1999 edition farther upstate, in Rome).

Southwest of Woodstock is Mount Tonche, atop whose crest the Pittsburgh Plate Glass heir Raymond Pitcairn built a summer manse, Glen Tonche, in 1928. Pitcairn, a devoted enemy of the New Deal and foe of indulgences like child labor laws, erected an 18,000-square-foot hideaway with a commanding view of the Ashokan Reservoir. Its fleets of rooms were garnished with what Bowie described as “very American but aristocratic pieces of work,” like sections of yachts: it’s as though a tide of wealth had ebbed through the house, leaving behind a wrack of costly toys.

The Pitcairn family sold Glen Tonche in the mid-Nineties to the musician Randall Wallace, who converted some rooms, like a dining hall blessed with 40-foot-high ceilings, into recording studios.*

Bowie and Visconti, who’d been tipped off about Wallace’s Allaire Studios by the guitarist David Torn, were on a reconnaissance visit. They were stunned by the place, by its imposing isolation. “This is not cute, on top of this mountain: it’s stark and it has a Spartan quality about it,” Bowie recalled. Though not far from Woodstock, Allaire seemed to exist in another sylvan dimension: a luxurious human colony nestled in a wood-world of black bear, wild pigs and deer.

It was almost an epiphany that I had,” Bowie told Interview in June 2002. “Walking through the door, everything that my album should be about was galvanized for me into one focal point…I knew what the lyrics were already. They were all suddenly accumulated in my mind.”

As we’ll see, the area’s feeling of refuge appealed to Bowie. In the following years, he’d buy a whole side of a mountain in the area, and he’s still up in the Woodstock region, an occasional sight at local coffee shops.

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At Allaire, Bowie and Visconti ran into the drummer Matt Chamberlain, who was recording an album with Natalie Merchant and T-Bone Burnett at the time, and they quickly decided to recruit him. Having booked their drummer and their studio, the pair began work in July 2001, with Bowie settling his family in a cottage on the grounds.

The album that became Heathen was (initially) one of the more sparsely-assembled works of Bowie’s recorded life. It was The Buddha of Suburbia in a grander key. For the first sessions at Allaire, the players were only Bowie (guide vocals, guitars, keyboards, Stylophone, even occasional drums), Visconti (bass, guitar, recorder) and Chamberlain (drums, loops). A routine fell into place. Bowie rose at 5 or 6 AM to work on songs in the studio or write lyrics, while Visconti and Chamberlain woke at a more civilized hour, exercised and showed up around 10:30 AM, upon which Bowie would present them with their “songs of the day,” Visconti said. As dinner at Allaire was 7 PM sharp, that marked the cut-off point. Bowie would keep working at night while Visconti and Chamberlain watched DVDs or sacked out early. “This certainly wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll life, by any stretch of the imagination,” Visconti wrote.

Still, the pace was vigorous enough that in roughly two weeks the trio cut basic tracks for 19 songs. Bowie wrote a sequence of brooding, lengthy pieces early in the sessions, so as to get the heavy stuff out of the way first, he said (see the next four entries). But he’d also drafted a list of prospective covers that he’d wanted to try.

Over the years, this blog hasn’t been very kind to Bowie’s covers. The likes of “Across the Universe,” “God Only Knows,” “Bang Bang,” “Kingdom Come,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “It Ain’t Easy” and so on form a rather grim canon. But now there was an urgency, a lightness to his covers on Heathen (and Reality). Maybe all of his lyrical dwellings on cyclicality and fleeting time played a part; maybe, rather than just singing over some track that his musicians cooked up, actually working out songs on guitar or keyboard let him take firmer root in the compositions. Something had fallen away, some bitter strain of ambition, some habit of overthinking that had hobbled so many of his earlier takes of others’ songs. He became an inspired interpreter at last; he sounded at home singing someone else’s lines.

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The three covers on Heathen, along with being spry lightweights set against the slab-like big bruiser tracks, were memory tokens. So start with Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” This was Bowie paying a debt to an old influence (he’d been consumed with Young while writing Hunky Dory: you can hear Young’s melodies and phrasings in “Kooks” and “Bombers,” even “Bewlay Brothers”) as well as a nod to his departed collaborator Reeves Gabrels. Tin Machine had played “I’ve Been Waiting For You” during its 1991-92 tour, with Gabrels on lead vocal and wearying lead guitar.

On Earthling‘s “Dead Man Walking,” Bowie had toyed with the image of Young and Crazy Horse converting rock and roll into some earth-worshiping religion; old men stomping about on stage like Tolkien’s Ents. Bowie also used Young as a map of how to age in a music where old age is a personal failing. As he told the Kansas City Star (9 May 2004):

When things go bad, I’ve always looked to my peers and, in a way, my musical mentors to see what they’ve done in similar situations. Neil Young and Bob Dylan have done similar things: They have both made a few disastrous albums, but they always end up coming back to the point of what they started in the first place. You’ve got to go back to what you were doing when you were rooting around with experimentation, ideas that are going to work for me, not my audience.

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Singing “I’ve Been Waiting For You” had another angle. The track was from Young’s 1968 debut album. Much like Deram’s David Bowie, Neil Young is a first impression of a mutable performer, the work of an ambitious, dreamy man who’d struck loose from a band and wanted to sound out his whims. So Young and David Briggs had rotated through Los Angeles studios during summer 1968, cutting overdubs, playing games in the mixes (a favorite move was to shimmer guitars back and forth across the stereo spectrum) and spending days on guitar tones (“that record is a masterpiece of tones,” Briggs later told Jimmy McDonough. “We got tones nobody’s ever got except Hendrix.”). Young’s debut has an piece for string quartet, dolorous folkie ballads, unending folkie ballads, a Western movie theme and a few beautiful obsessional songs devoted to a typical set of unattainable, mystifying women.

The latter songs channeled Jimi Hendrix, of whom Young was in awe (“there was no one even in the same building as that guy,” he later said of Hendrix). In particular there was “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” with its “Foxy Lady”-esque heavy breathing and its squall of a guitar solo, for which Young’s guitar was sent through an organ’s Leslie speaker and then piped directly into the soundboard.

Anchored in A minor, the song’s reappearing D9 chord (“for a woman,” “with the feeling“) is a liberation declined: instead of using the D9 as a means to brighten into A major (or move to D), the song sinks back into A minor. It reflects how Young’s been passively waiting for some life-redeeming woman, who’s always just about to appear and never does. (Also take how the intro/later chorus opens with a D suspended 2nd chord that aches to resolve to D major but the sequence instead cools into, naturally, A minor). A brief obsessional, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is a single verse, a refrain with a descending chromatic bassline for drama (“waiting for you...and you’ve been coming to mee“) and Young’s piped anguish via guitars.

On Neil Young, the track was the future: the Neil Young of the Seventies (and 2000s) roamed around in its confines. Everything Young would become was corked in it; the feel and the weight of his grand old age was there already, summoned up in a track that a 23-year-old cut in summer 1968, happily oblivious to what would become his life.

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Bowie knew the track from his days listening to Young, but “I’ve Been Waiting for You” was also one of Kim Deal’s favorite Neil Young songs. During the Bossanova sessions, the Pixies knocked off a version of the song and issued it as a B-side. They dumped the loping bassline/clopping drums of the Young original (the rhythm section was Poco, basically) for a drum track that was all hard business. Black Francis and Joey Santiago warred over it. Deal sang blankly, indulging in none of Young’s mystics; there was a cold rasp in how she delivered “a woman with a feeling…of losing once or twice.” Though playing the searcher, she had some sympathy for the pursued.

So for his cover, Bowie used the Pixies’ structure of recycling half the verse after the solo and halving the solo’s length, and he added a few Tin Machine flavors, like the wailing harmony vocals that he’d sung to buttress Gabrels on stage (here, they were a distorted-sounding synthetic “choir,” an effect he’d use on “Sunday,” among other tracks).

He recruited for lead guitar Dave Grohl (it was a mailbox transaction: Bowie sent the tapes to Grohl, who recorded his parts and sent them back), who was working up his current role as genial Gen X ambassador from classic rock. Grohl’s playing was fine if not memorable, with Grohl worrying the solo’s underlying chords in a less cheeky way than Santiago had on the Pixies version. Bowie should’ve had a go at the guitars himself (for all we know, he did): his whining Diamond Dogs tone would have been an nice spice in the mix.

The guitars came under fire from the drums, with Chamberlain’s dominant position in the mix seemingly won in battle. In the verse, Bowie sounded more callow than Young had in 1968 but in the refrains, a second vocal sunk down an octave gave his hopes a dimension of menace. How long has he been waiting, after all? In the closing refrain, Bowie sang “long time now” as if he could taste every hour of every wasted year. Having thrashed and wailed for three minutes, the track gave up the ghost with an unmoored bassline, a guitar clanging like a ship’s bell and the choir of bottled voices snuffed out in a breath.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (guitar solo) Dave Grohl’s home studio, ca. October 2001; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and also as a Canadian-only CD single (Columbia 38K 3369).

* The Glen Tonche estate has been up for sale for years: it’s yours for $4.5 million.

Top: Vassilis D. Gonis, from series “Christina Hoyos at Lycabetus Hill Theater,” Athens, 2001. (“I started this blog…to send my photos out there to the world with the hope of communication and as a motivation to keep clear away from the depressing feeling that comes along with the economic crisis in Greece.”); Walters-Storyk Design Group, Allaire Studios, New York (from without; from within); Neil Young at Roskilde Festival, 2001; Bowie’s philtrum as CD single art.


Liza Jane Redux

April 18, 2014

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Just a quick note: the blog’s taking a break until around May 2 or so. So have a happy rest-of-April.

I’m going to be in Seattle for the EMP’s 2014 Pop Conference, where I’ll be offering “Liza Jane: a Mongrel’s Ramble Through the 20th Century” on Saturday 26 April, at 10:45 AM (unfortunately, I’m scheduled directly against a friend’s presentation that I was quite looking forward to hearing: such are the minor cruelties of life).

This presentation is an elephantine version of the first entry of the book. It’s a recounting of the odd, twisted history of the song “Liza Jane” or “Little Liza Jane,” a tale whose supporting actors include Bowie, Huey “Piano” Smith, Fats Domino, Edward Everett Hale, the Countess Ada de Lachau, Nina Simone, Jean Toomer, Stepin Fetchit, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Ruth St. Denis, Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, Duane Eddy and Levon Helm, among others.

Looking forward to finally digging into Heathen once I get back. All best.

Plus (for those attending):

A Liza Jane discography


Nature Boy

April 7, 2014

01cheneyball

Nature Boy (Nat King Cole).
Nature Boy (Nat King Cole, live).
Nature Boy (Bowie).
Nature Boy (Bowie and Massive Attack).

When I was young I dreamed of a boy searching for God. Now I am old and dream of God searching for a boy.

eden ahbez, 1977.

One spring night in Los Angeles in 1947, a strange man on a bicycle tried to go backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. Thwarted, he gave Cole’s manager Mort Ruby a soiled, rolled-up score which Ruby passed on to Cole, noting that it came from a man who, with his shoulder-length hair and tunic, resembled Jesus Christ.

Cole read the score, was taken with the song, began singing it live. As it played well with audiences, Cole wanted to record it but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address. After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR copy) found ahbez camped underneath one of the “L”s of the Hollywood sign.

As Space Age Pop notes, Cole perceived that beneath the vaguely-mystic parable of the lyric was a catchy Yiddish tune (ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle, a Jew in Brooklyn in 1908). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, allowing Cole to leisurely scale ahbez’s wide intervals (e.g., the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”), Cole recorded ahbez’s “Nature Boy” on 22 August 1947. By the following summer it was a #1 pop hit, covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra and parodied by Red Ingle’s Unnatural Seven. Cole made “Nature Boy” a standard and it in turn made him. Thanks to its success (and that of “The Christmas Song,” cut around the same time), Cole was no longer the sharp leader of an adventurous modern jazz trio but a mainstream crooner, a figure too easily written off in jazz histories.1

The Wild Eyed Boy lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life. He loves the mountain and the mountain loves him. I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure.

David Bowie, on “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” 1969.

“Nature Boy” made ahbez as well, got him written up in Life, Time and Newsweek. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was the first postwar media hippie, a transition figure between Wandervogel nature cults and the gestating counterculture (in the Sixties, ahbez would hang out with Donovan, have his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attend Beach Boys Smile sessions). He was one of a group of bohemians (“Gypsy Boots” was another) living around LA at the time, promoting vegetarianism, health food and outdoor living and basically drafting modern California. Ahbez’s look, his “Eastern” philosophies and his live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos were a primer for at least one generation (some say R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him).

After selling a few more songs to Cole, ahbez (he said only God was entitled to capital letters) recorded his first album in 1960: Eden’s Island, the sort of beatnik exotica that the young David Jones of Bromley treasured (see another of Bowie’s teenage favorites, Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz albums). Ahbez’s East Coast counterpart was Moondog, a jazz composer who dressed up as a Viking warrior and stood on the street in midtown Manhattan (Bowie was delighted to see Moondog upon first visiting New York in 1971). But though ahbez and Gypsy Boots and Moondog were reduced to jokes, cast as court jesters for the space age, their mere appearance on a TV talk show or in some Time feature, or even just the slow, questing melody of “Nature Boy” on yet another recording of it, was a rebuke for a culture consumed with death, sex and merchandising. You don’t have to live like you think you have to.

Ahbez lived in LA for the rest of his life, watched it become the world he’d offered in the Forties, watched that world fade away in turn. He spent his last years preparing a final statement, a book and an album, both of which he never finished. He died at the age of 86 in 1995, reportedly after being struck by a car.

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Like most songwriters worth their salt, ahbez had a magpie’s ear. For “Nature Boy,” he took his melody from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 and probably from “Shvayg Mayn Harts,” a Yiddish pop song from 1935. The latter’s composer, Herman Yablokoff, sued ahbez, who called to protest, saying the melody had come to him while he was up in the California mountains, “as if angels were singing it,” to which Yablokoff replied that if angels had been singing it, “they must have bought a copy of my song.” (They settled out of court.)

“Nature Boy” had no refrains, just two 16-bar verses, with only slight harmonic and melodic differences between the latter. Its D minor progression offered a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roaming over land and sea in the middle bars and feinted at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Despite its legendary first appearance on a soiled piece of parchment (as though ahbez had written “Nature Boy” up on a mountain like some Epistle to the Californians), the song showed evidence of more painstaking craft, of ahbez spending nights at a piano to assemble the song: take how most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on).

What Cole and later interpreters like John Coltrane and Bowie found was that the song, already rhythmically free, allowed freedom of movement on other fronts: you could twist and belabor the vocal melody all you’d like, or you could stick to ahbez’s notes over an assault on his chord structures (if you were Coltrane, you did both). For Cole, a hip musician who’d become the voice of Brylcreem America in the Fifties, singing “Nature Boy” was a way of letting his inner hipster self out to play for a few minutes. For Coltrane, who recorded the song twice in 1965, “Nature Boy” served notice that he was done with the earth and was off to annex space.

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That’s why we’ve got audiences who clap and cheer at the songs in cinemas. They’re not cheering the projectionist. What they are doing is communing with everyone else in the room and saying, ‘Ha ha ha. I get it, too.”

Baz Luhrmann.

As Bowie was recording Toy in 2000, the Australian director Baz Luhrmann was filming Moulin Rouge, a musical in which Belle Epoque France bohemians sing Elton John, T. Rex and Labelle songs.

Luhrmann, never low in ambition, said he aimed to reinvent the musical and restore it to its former populist role. Take Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in Saint Louis, he said.The film’s set in 1904 but its music is mostly Forties big-band Hollywood. “In an old musical, the audience had a relationship with the music before they went in [the theater],” Luhrmann said. They’d heard the songs in other contexts, in a stage musical or on the radio or in another film. So in Moulin Rouge when Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman fall in love by singing the refrains of a dozen pop songs (“I Will Always Love You,” “Silly Love Songs,” “I Was Made for Loving You,” “Love Is Like Oxygen” etc.) to each other, it’s pop as a common emotional language, the sequence is a love song meant more for the audience than the characters. And the mash-ups of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge sequences, with “Lady Marmalade,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Offenbach’s “Can Can” overlapping on the soundtrack, predicted the anarchy of a random YouTube playlist.

Luhrmann originally wanted to use Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” to open his film but Stevens turned him down, citing religious objections. Bowie, who’d already agreed to let Luhrmann use “Heroes” and “Diamond Dogs“, offered to sing “Nature Boy” as a new opener. As it happened, Stevens’ rejection helped Luhrmann clarify his film. “Nature Boy” became Moulin Rouge‘s theme song, its last line a motif for his storyline.

Yet the bohemians of Luhrmann’s film (John Leguizamo as a grotesque caricature of Toulouse-Lautrec, McGregor as a sunnier Frédéric Moreau) were far from the world of eden ahbez. This was bohemia as a visual shorthand—ratty clothes, cold-water flats, tasteful drug use, tasteful sex, noble pure-heart characters set against corrupted squares—and it owed an unacknowledged debt to Jonathan Larson’s Rent (both musicals had used Puccini’s La Boheme for their plot). You could say ahbez’s Life profile in 1948 had begun this, the sense of fashioning a bohemian life from a few magazine features and well-chosen songs. Moulin Rouge suggested any viable counterculture was gone, was now kitsch, was just one color in a catalog, a specialty TV channel. It was play-acting by beautiful people, which perhaps bohemia always was.

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Still, there remained “Nature Boy,” odd and unassimilable. Neither of Bowie’s takes on the song were integral to the film (Leguizamo sang “Nature Boy” in the opening; McGregor sang its last line throughout). Bowie’s “orchestral” version was only heard, mixed distantly, in a few shots, while the take that he cut with Massive Attack, slotted for the end credits, was ditched because “Bowie and Massive ended up being so dark [while] we had to resurrect the audience during the credits,” Luhrmann said.

In Bowie’s “orchestral” version of “Nature Boy,” he tinkers with the melody in the expected way, alters a few phrasings, changes a few emphases: he sidesteps the expected rise on “very far,” stresses fools rather than kings. It’s “Nature Boy” as a European art song, Bowie gravely responding to the various scarlet moods of Craig Armstrong’s orchestration. Yet just when the song’s about to tastefully wind down, Bowie gives a pole-vault for a last note: “RETUUUUURRRRN!” It’s a welcome grand dame moment, up there with “Lady Grinning Soul” in Bowie closing grandiosities.

It also was close to ahbez’s intended reworking of his song. Up until his death, ahbez had recorded tracks with the engineer Joe Romersa, including a new version of “Nature Boy” that reflected what he’d taken in over the long haul. “He said to me, ‘Joe, that lyric, ‘To love and be loved in return’… it’s too much of a deal. There’s no deal in love.’ He wanted it to say, The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just love and be loved,’” Romersa said in an interview. “The final recording would’ve also altered the melody slightly, with “Nature Boy” rising up in a grand Ben Hur-like cadence that reflects love’s ultimate triumph.” As ahbez’s version has never been released, Bowie’s should suffice.

The Bowie/Massive Attack “Nature Boy,” mainly the work of Robert “3D” Del Naja, starts like a machine waking itself up. A repeating two-note bassline becomes a pulsebeat and a few other characters appear: a three-note phrase on plucked strings, an ebb-and-flow synth figure. Bowie’s set back in the mix. His voice sounds sped up, thinned out, reduced to a texture. He’s a gear in a clock; his phrasings and his melodic choices are minor colors in the mix. His “he passed my way” is now somber, his rise on “many things” is washed out by the roar of a guitar loop. And his last line’s drained of any drama or triumph. It’s just Bowie slowly singing the words as if he’s trying to piece together a memory. It’s enough; the song still shines in the box Del Naja built to house it. In its last seconds comes Kidman’s whispered “I love you.” As ahbez said, just love and be loved.

Recorded (Bowie vocal) ca. February 2001, Looking Glass Studios?, prod. Visconti; (orchestra) ca. late 2000, Sydney, Craig Armstrong: conductor/arranger; (Massive Attack version) (Bowie vocal) February 2001, New York; (music, mixing Del Naja) London. Both versions were released 8 May 2001 on the Moulin Rouge OST (Interscope 06949 3035 2).

Sources: Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island”; Jack Gottlieb’s Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish; Life, 10 May 1948; Harvey Kubernik’s interview with Luhrmann (collected in Hollywood Shack Job); Brian Chidester, “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.

1: That said, Cole made the occasional great jazz record well into his mainstream days (see “I Know That You Know,” with Stuff Smith, from 1957).

Other recommended naturals: Etta Jones (1963), James Brown (1965), Peggy Lee (1948), Miles Davis (1955 w/Mingus, Teddy Charles, Elvin Jones), Big Star (1975), Milt Jackson Big 4 (1975), George Benson (1977), Kurt Elling (1996).

Top: The new vice president and his wife take a spin, 20 January 2001; ahbez and Sinatra, ahbez and Cole (both 1948); McGregor and Kidman, Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann, 2001).


Uncle Floyd→Slip Away

March 27, 2014

Unca-Floyd

Uncle Floyd.
Slip Away.
Slip Away (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Slip Away (Live By Request, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2003).
Slip Away (live, with the Polyphonic Spree, 2004).

Deep in the Heart of Jersey!

Hanging out with Lester Bangs & all
Phil Spector really has it all & all
Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV…

The Ramones, “It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World),” 1981.

The Catholic Church no longer believes in limbo, but they’re wrong: it exists, and it’s in New Jersey.

Floyd Vivino was a showbiz kid (“show people are show people, and that’s where I’m from,” he told the New York Times). Two of his brothers are in Conan O’Brien’s house band, his niece was in the original Les Miserables. Vivino tap-danced at the 1964 World’s Fair, worked as a sideshow barker, honed his comedy act at burlesque shows and amusement parks. He sang, played piano, did impressions. Like other vaudevillians, he found refuge in television.

When he was 23, he launched a kid’s show that, by the end of 1974, was on WBTB in West Orange, Channel 68 (a channel New York City aerials could pick up). An upstart UHF station like WBTB had to devote a percentage of airtime to children’s programming, so they took on The Uncle Floyd Show to fill the requirement (also, Vivino agreed to sell ads for it).

Compared to the child-psychologist-approved Sesame Street, The Uncle Floyd Show was weird, unsettling, a shaky transmission from some backwater. Uncle Floyd (all kids’ TV hosts were Uncles or Misters, Vivino figured, so why not be an Uncle) wore a loud plaid coat, bow-tie and porkpie hat; he played an upright piano and cracked off-camera to his crew and sidekicks, who laughed at odd, inappropriate moments (in part because the show didn’t rehearse, so crew members were seeing skits for the first time).

The show’s production values consisted of lighting and microphones. Vivino often used food as a prop because he could buy it cheap at the local Pathmark. His puppets included Oogie, a wooden ventriloquist’s clown that Vivino had found in a Times Square magic store, and Bones Boy, an ill-tempered skeleton whose catchphrase was “snap it, pal!” His co-stars included Looney Skip Rooney, gangster Don Goomba, the musical parodist Mugsy and Netto (a genie’s head in a box). There were celebrity parodies, from Floyd’s Julia Stepchild (who cooked corn dogs) to, in a nod to Jersey royalty, Mugsy’s Bruce Stringbean.

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Most of our characters fell into two categories, con men and idiots. And on the Uncle Floyd Show the con men were often outsmarted BY those same idiots. Floyd has often correctly explained the theme of the show as a frustrated host constantly being interrupted by an endless parade of pests.

Mugsy, 1999.

Much of Uncle Floyd‘s allure for early fans like Robin Williams and John Lennon was its shabbiness. It was children’s television done sincerely, with the right materials (puppets, singalongs)—Vivino wasn’t running some acidic spoof; he wanted to entertain kids while cracking up their parents—yet seeming to get it wrong. Although Vivino would bring on New Yorkers like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper as guests, he was more devoted to the eccentrics and irritants that he seemed to have found on the roadside somewhere. Uncle Floyd was the only place in America that these people were allowed on television.*

Here’s an example: R. Stevie Moore playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly tells Floyd his guitar’s wrapped in newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king. This was television fulfilled: the rules of civilized society didn’t apply here. Television was a world made from collisions of random elements, held together by a man in a plaid coat.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a cleaned-up and vaccinated version of Uncle Floyd; The Howard Stern Show is its coarse descendent.

floyd82

I’m a man removed from this time zone. I would have liked the 1910s to the 1930s but now the only thing I like is “60 Minutes.”

Floyd Vivino, 1982.

John Lennon, who spent his last years in New York watching television, recommended Uncle Floyd to Bowie, who got hooked during his run on The Elephant Man in 1980. Iggy Pop became a fan, too. “We used to love falling around watching this guy,” Bowie said in 2002. “The show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.” (Close enough—it was filmed in an old house built on the site of a burned-down circus). Bowie, wearing an Uncle Floyd button, went to a live taping at the Bottom Line and told Vivino how much he loved his work. Vivino didn’t know who Bowie was at first and wanted him kicked out of backstage. (You can see why Bowie enjoyed the Sales brothers, whose background and attitude were the same as Vivino’s).

By 1982, Uncle Floyd was on enough radars that a syndication agreed to air it nationally in some 17 markets. NBC stations considered Uncle Floyd a good fit to follow Saturday Night Live (Vivino agreed: “It’s Saturday night, 1 AM. Half the audience is drunk and the other half is stoned.”). For Uncle Floyd, it was the big leagues (Vivino had only started getting paid, $125 a week, in 1978); the show even got an upgraded set. It had relocated to Newark, which meant the studio now had an air conditioner.

Syndication also meant Uncle Floyd was “cleaned up.” The syndicate brought in a former Sesame Street director, who was appalled by the lack of rehearsals and the anything-goes culture. Mugsy recalled having to shoot a single sketch 30 times. Then the finished shows were cut to bits by various stations, both to remove “weird” skits while also, in some cases, trying to make the show more salacious to appeal to the stoned post-1 AM college crowd.

It didn’t work. A few NBC affiliates soon revolted, one calling the show “garbage,” while Vivino got sued by Joe Franklin for defamation after doing a “Joe Frankfutter Show” skit. The syndication deal was over after a single season, despite good ratings in New York and Philadelphia and sold-out live shows.”Why then were we preparing to tape the final episode? Because that’s how the business works,” Mugsy wrote. “Besides we had gone from a small UHF station to national syndication in a profession that usually chews up and spits out people, programs and plots faster then the life expectancy of a bottle of beer at a ballpark.

BowieUF

So Uncle Floyd went back to Jersey, and Oogie and Bones Boy didn’t become the next Kermit and Fozzie. For the rest of the century, Uncle Floyd would air on local channels, first on the public New Jersey Network until Vivino started making barbed political jokes about his home state (in West Orange, he “lived on top of a radon field, and as a taxpayer I have a right to laugh about it in public,” he later said), prompting complaints to NJN about the show’s alleged bias and its “lowbrow” humor. Then came the sunset years: a stint at the Cable Television Network of New Jersey, who wound the show down in 1992, and a brief millennial revival on Cablevision.

Interviewed in 2002, Floyd was stoic about his fortunes—he’d made a decent career in supporting acting roles (he’s in Good Morning Vietnam) and he’d never compromised on a show that he’d managed to keep alive for a quarter of a century. And around 2000, he’d gotten a phone call from David Bowie. “He said he was thinking of doing a song about me, and wanted to know what I felt about it.”

Let’s Dance, Bones and Oogie

uff

He still looks remarkably fit at 54 (“I’m just a year older than President Gore: one of us has had work done,” he winks), hardly changed in appearance from his career-defining role as Caligula in “I Clavdivs.” And his schedule’s never been busier: he’s starring in Boy Child: The Songs of Scott Walker, which opens at the Majestic on April 1, as well as promoting a new album, Toy (Nonesuch). It’s going to be his last, or so he says.

“The record industry and I have always been on rather estranged terms,” Bowie says. “I’ve put out an album every half a decade and each time I’ve come to regret it. The stage is where I like to be, or making a film [he's rumored to be the baddie in the next James Bond film], or back at home painting. Standing in some recording studio, where it’s just you against a microphone, can feel like such a primitive art. I feel like I should be singing through a megaphone, like Rudy Vallee.” Still, the new album has personal resonance for him. “These were my first songs, back when I fancied myself a pop singer. No one heard them at the time, and with good reason! I wasn’t cut out for the ’60s.”

New York Herald Tribune, 22 March 2001.

Down in space it’s always 1982. Uncle Floyd‘s pivot year was also Bowie’s. In 1982 he recorded Let’s Dance. Like Uncle Floyd, Bowie was put on a larger stage than he’d ever played before; unlike Bones Boy and Oogie, he made the big time.

Bowie had been a proper pop star in the mid-Seventies, with gold records and Madison Square Garden shows to his credit, but he’d spent the rest of that decade trying to break himself down into a cult figure again. Let’s Dance and Glass Spider and Labyrinth and Sound + Vision put paid that conceit: Bowie had become globally syndicated. Years later, whenever he’d try to be a marginal figure once again, the clothes didn’t quite fit him.

So on Toy he dug out some of his oldest songs. These were the work of a man who never charted, whose shows had never sold out, whose name barely got into the music trades. The David Bowie of 1968, the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome” and “We Are Hungry Men,” was the Uncle Floyd of his day. The hipsters (John Peel, Penny Valentine, Pete Townshend) knew who he was but the radio wanted nothing to do with him. It was tides and cross-tides of history: what if these songs had been hits? Or what if Bowie in 1968 had given up music, had gone off into cabaret, and Toy was just an actor’s indulgence, a tribute to a lost, failed youth?

Toy‘s finest song used Uncle Floyd‘s lost chance at fame as a way to frame the album. Imagine a ghost world where Bones and Oogie star in films (promoting Uncle Floyd’s Big Adventure, Amy Adams gushes in an interview about how much she loved Bones Boy as a child. “I can’t believe we’re working together!”), a New York where Oogie is inflated to the size of a city block as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float.

“Once a time they nearly might have been,” Bowie sings, giving a delicate weight to the last three syllables, as though if he pressed any harder, the bubble would pop. “Bones and Oogie…on a million screens.”

What Would You Do, Uncle F?

l

It began its life with a semi-out-of-tune piano and some grainy synth strings which sounded like they were pulled off of an old 78 rpm record,” Mark Plati wrote in his web journal in 2000. “Both sounds gave the effect of someone playing in a basement of some small, sad, lonely house.”

In October 2000 at Looking Glass Studios, Bowie and Plati were working on a new song. It had come together from a few pieces, its sound owed to a few new contributors. The Irish-born guitarist Gerry Leonard came in for some overdub work and Bowie bonded with him over stories about old coin-operated electric meters back in the UK. Lisa Germano was there to add some violin parts.

As with “Afraid,” another new song that Bowie composed during what was supposed to be a mixing/overdub session, he went off on his own to write some of it. Plati started working on a rough mix of the backing tracks. By the time he was done, Bowie had returned with a full lyric, cutting most of his vocal in a single take. For the chorus he roped in Corinne Schwab, Sterling Campbell, Holly Palmer, a few Looking Glass staff and Stretch Princess, a British alt-rock band recording in the adjacent studio.

For an intro, there was an opening routine with Oogie. It went on for a minute and a half, becoming increasingly unsettling; it reminded Germano of “a Mark Ryden painting…sweet and strangely disturbing.”

cyndiuf

Oogie crooks his round head. His empty eyes consider us through the camera, then he looks over at the unseen crew. Didja ever stop and think if there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd show what everyone on the show would be doing? Uncle Floyd says he does. A few laughs and hoots come at odd moments; they sound slightly menacing. Oogie plays with the idea, blows it up like a balloon. Netto wouldn’t even notice the show was off the air!…Scott would sit home all day and wait ’till silent movies came back. Then Oogie turns to Uncle Floyd, looks up at the man who lends him his voice: what would you do, Uncle F? What would you do if you didn’t exist anymore? There’s no answer. A Stylophone fades in.

The old toy instrument, a supporting actor of “Space Oddity,” retrieved from Bowie’s attic, sings in its small nasal range, with its crablike moves up and down a tone. Bowie sings the first verse over it; he’s a man singing along to a music box, as he would do, in mourning, on a Madison Square Garden stage a year later.

Mike Garson’s piano comes in on the second verse to settle the song down, establish its chords. The verses are long, meandering journeys off the ground (F major, “Once a time..”) up into the air, out into the orbit of a G major diminished (“Bones and Oogie”) and then slowly falling back to earth. Sterling Campbell’s drums and Gail Ann Dorsey show up to give the song its confines; Leonard’s guitar, whose tone has a touch of Mick Ronson in it, plays against Germano’s violin, two satellites in orbit. The last verse, with Germano as lead mourner, seems about to fade away, drift off into space. Then Campbell stops time with his hands, in a slow revolving fill across his toms.

Don’t forget to keep your head warm…twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd. It’s a gift from one performer to another. Bowie won’t let the Uncle Floyd Show die. In this cavernous refrain, in this melody that he seems to have pulled out of the air, which he sings with a pack of friends and strangers, Bowie mourns the show and he saves it. Here, within the confines of his song, Uncle Floyd is a legend. Here there are stars named after Bones and Oogie. You can see them from the beach on Coney Island, just above the World Trade Center.

The last irony: his keepsake of a song was then lost.

Toy Slips Away

3a

Plati and Bowie finished mixing Toy during the 2000 election, taking breaks to see which candidate had the better claim to be president at the moment. “We figured it’d all be sorted out by the time we woke up the next morning,” Plati recalled.

The completed mix, allegedly with some Tony Visconti tinkering, was sent off to EMI. On New Year’s Day 2001, BowieNet announced Toy “was already in the can awaiting release and scheduled for March.” A month later, Toy‘s release date was pushed back to May. On 5 June, in a web-chat, Bowie said “I’m finding EMI/Virgin seems to be having a lot of scheduling conflicts this year which has put an awful lot on the back burner. Toy is finished and ready to go and I will make an announcement as soon as I get a very real date.” A 4 July Bowie journal entry mentioned now “unbelievably complicated scheduling negotiations.” The summer passed.

EMI had lost 40% of its market value in a single year, thanks to the onset of digital song swapping, the mild (by today’s standards) recession and some wildly ill-considered actions. The label had bet the bank on Mariah Carey’s Glitter, a colossal flop, and wound up paying Carey $28 million to end her contract. Executives quit and were sacked, divisions were folded, the label was a mess.

So you’re an EMI executive trying to stop the bleeding in 2001. Across your desk comes David Bowie’s new album…which is mostly self-covers of songs that no one has ever heard before and which leads off with an odd six-minute song about…puppets? At a time when EMI desperately needed another Let’s Dance or at least a Black Tie White Noise, they got the most self-indulgent album of Bowie’s career. And there are stories in the music press that Bowie’s recording with Tony Visconti again, making tracks that, for all you know, could be the second coming of Ziggy Bloody Stardust at last…

Snapshot video sequence

On 29 October 2001, Bowie announced EMI was going with an album of “new material over the Toy album. Fine by me. I’m extremely happy with the new stuff. (I love Toy as well and won’t let that material fade away),” he said on BowieNet. “I won’t let Toy slide away. I’m working on a way that you’ll be able to get the songs next year as well as the newie.”

He stripped some jewels from the corpse. He refitted “Afraid’ and “Uncle Floyd” for Heathen. “Shadow Man” and “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves That Way” were B-sides. The title track was an online-only bonus; pieces of “The London Boys” were offered on his website. “Conversation Piece” was on a Heathen bonus disc. But the rest of Toy, including “Uncle Floyd,” faded away.

Bowie’s musicians were crushed (Visconti told Dan LeRoy that Bowie would never talk about Toy, but hinted that Bowie had taken it hard). Despite all of his wranglings with his labels over the years, he’d never had an album rejected before. It was a sign that the old order was crumbling, that labels had become more unforgiving (around the same time, Reprise rejected Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Soon he’d leave EMI and form his own label.

By 2003, the idea of rescuing Toy had lost urgency. He’d parceled out about half of the album, which had “become a reservoir of B-sides and bonus tracks,” Bowie said. While the idea of releasing Toy still appealed to him, he was frank. “You know what? New writing takes precedence. It always does.” As Mike Garson said, “[Bowie] does know the meaning of the words ‘move on’,” he told LeRoy. “You bring up Toy a few years later and he’s like, ‘Toy what?’ It’s not even in his world.”

Slip Away

vUF01

Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey baby, come on let’s slip away

Lou Reed, “Street Hassle.”

It was as though Bowie had shot a second pilot episode, remaking “Uncle Floyd” a year later with Visconti.

No puppets here. No Stylophone, either, at first. “Slip Away” instead opens with artificial harmonics played on electric guitar. It’s the other half of the “Space Oddity” intro, a part originally played by Mick Wayne: the brittle movements of Major Tom out in orbit set against Ground Control’s droning bass signals.

Instead of Stylophone, a piano (probably Jordan Ruddess, possibly Bowie) is placed front and center in the first verse, while the second verse is in the grip of Tony Levin’s fretless bass and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops, which offer solidity in exchange for Campbell’s dynamics (compare Chamberlain to Campbell on the refrain—the four rebukes of Campbell’s crash cymbal on “sailing over Coney Island,” the punishing snare fill just after it). Bowie sings cagily, more affectedly: he seems to be hedging his bets.

The biggest revision was to bring up the chorus to hit right after the second verse, and dispensing with the guitar solo. You can see why Bowie and Visconti did it—why hold back your biggest hook until four minutes into the track?—but the move ruined the glorious slow arc of “Uncle Floyd.” The operation wasn’t fatal, “Slip Away” still rang with mourning and triumph—you couldn’t do much damage to a melody that sturdy (there was a bit of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” in it toward the end). But there was a loss of nerve in the remake, or an impatience, a refusal to allow the song to build at its own speed. Something like what had happened to Uncle Floyd when the syndicators tried to improve it.

Pete Keppler, who engineered Toy, said he believed “Uncle Floyd” “was way cooler than the one that came out on Heathen. The mix that Mark did on that song was so much more haunting.” Still, “Slip Away” still had enough presence to make it an anchor-piece of Heathen, and Bowie made the song work on stage. As if reconsidering his revision on Heathen, his last live versions in 2003-2004 restored some of the “Uncle Floyd” framework, bringing back the puppet dialogue intro. On stage at Jones Beach in 2004 (one of his last concerts in the U.S.) he brought on the Polyphonic Spree for the last refrain to restore some of the Christmas party spirit of “Uncle Floyd.”

david_bowie_slip_away

On Sunday, 20 March 2011, an MP3 version of Toy (of what apparently were its rough mixes, not the final EMI mix) appeared on torrents. There are a few theories as to who leaked it and why: one logical-sounding scenario was that someone had acquired Toy through dubious means and was selling CDs of it on eBay, so someone in the Bowie inner circle dumped the album onto a torrent to essentially devalue the thief’s prize.

Toy‘s time, if it even had a time back in 2000, had long gone. It was a lost relic, one welcomed by fans although its critical reception was mixed. A few wags said that EMI had gotten it right by axing it. Toy got some press, got Bowie’s name back in the headlines after some years of silence, and wound up laying the groundwork for Bowie’s grand return in January 2013.

So “Uncle Floyd” survived after all. The New York City of which the Uncle Floyd Show was a minor flavor is long gone. Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone and Lou Reed are gone. WBTB was bought by Univision. CBGB’s, Brownies, Kim’s Video, Coliseum Books are all just lost names or misused trademarks now. Is it a tragedy? Everything fades. All that’s left of your childhood are some photos, some old toys (Stylophones, skeleton puppets) and old television signals (“just waves in space,” as per Thomas Jerome Newton (who would have enjoyed Uncle Floyd). Waves of sound and pictures that, if reconstituted, would play The Uncle Floyd Show, are out in the solar system somewhere. If some poor extraterrestrial ever picks up the signal, they can see 1982. Everything dies and everything goes away, and even Oogie will crack apart one day, but a few things live, too. Or at least television does. Uncle Floyd is dead, long live Uncle Floyd.

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (remake) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004. Uncle Floyd is still on the air on the Internet. Tune in here.

* Of course there was an Uncle Floyd equivalent everywhere in America then: some strange kid’s program or prayer service or community access talk show. Yes, New York likes to make its local amusements a national concern.

Sources: Beth Knobel’s article on Uncle Floyd just as the show entered syndication in 1982, for the Columbia Daily Spectator, was a wonderful resource. There are a number of sites run by fans and former Floyd Show alum. Mugsy’s ca. 1999, is essential, as is this one and many photographs shown here are found on Bob Leafe’s site. Unfortunately there’s almost no video footage of the Uncle Floyd Show on line.

Top: Oogie and Floyd, a life’s journey (Floyd, 2009 (Chris Marksbury); Bowie at the Uncle Floyd Show at the Bottom Line, 1981.


Afraid

March 10, 2014

00nairobi

Afraid (BowieNet demo, 2000).
Afraid (Toy).
Afraid (Heathen).
Afraid (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2003).
Afraid (live, 2004).

[where were we?]

The plan at Looking Glass Studios in October 2000 had been just to cut overdubs for the Toy tracks—backing vocals, some Lisa Germano colors, “lock[ing] up a few things” (Mark Plati)—but by mid-month, Bowie and Plati were recording new tracks and mixing them as they went along, the sessions now extending through early November. Plati had cranked out two tracks a day when mixing Bowie’s BBC recordings “so I figured I’d try and have the same sort of work ethic for this project,” he wrote in his web journal.* And Bowie kept writing new songs.

Reading Andrew Loog Oldham’s memoir Stoned at the time (Oldham had managed the Rolling Stones in the Sixties—he’d done a quick assessment of David Jones and had passed), Bowie was tickled by an anecdote in which Oldham had locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a flat until they came up with a song. Oldham knew the band was going nowhere unless they started writing their own material. With the Stones’ ostensible leader, Brian Jones, incapable of delivering the goods, the task fell on the singer and the rhythm guitarist. Oldham returned to be greeted with either “It Should Be You” (Jagger’s recollection) or “As Tears Go By” (Richards’) (my vote’s “It Should Be You,” which sounds written by someone trapped in a kitchen for an hour).

As a joke, Plati said Bowie should follow the Oldham approach. Hey, it got results. “So I sent him off to the Looking Glass lounge and told him not to come back until he had the goods!” Plati wrote. This being Bowie, he actually did come back with a fresh song, which he called “Afraid,” debuting it to Plati on the latter’s mini Stratocaster.

“Afraid” had some affinities to the Toy “new songs in the vein of my old songs” conceit, with Bowie hinting at “Heroes” (“I…wish I was smarter“), “Conversation Piece” (“if I put my faith in medication” has a touch of “I’ve spent a lot of time in education“) and “I Can’t Read” (esp. its mid-Nineties revision, whose revised lyric Bowie all but quotes in the last chorus). A few other ghosts kicked around in it: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sings through the last refrain. And Bowie went back, yet again, to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. In that album’s “God,” after dispatching a run of false idols (Jesus, Buddha, Bob “Zimmerman”), Lennon ended his purge with the Beatles. Grow up, the dream’s over, make a new life for yourself. I have. I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.

“I believe in Beatles,” Bowie sings in “Afraid.” He doesn’t want reality. He also believes in aliens and/or in God (“we’re not alone”), in reincarnation and/or spiritual betterment (“I believe my little soul has grown”**). There’s another old Bowie song shifting deep beneath all of this: “Cygnet Committee.” “Cygnet Committee” is an ambitious young man trying to will himself into an artist, escaping from being a dilettante into the sort of man who could write “‘Heroes’” and “Station to Station.” It’s a long flagellation, building to a near-screamed final set of refrains: “And I want to believe!/in the madness that calls ‘Now’/and I want to believe!/that a light’s shining through/somehow.” It’s a man opening himself up to life, exposing himself to the blows of experience.

“Afraid” is the other end of the telescope. It’s a numbed (maybe via Prozac or lithium) perspective, a man recalling the heights and depths of a past life (“I used to walk on clouds”) but now desperately trying to be “normal,” to live a flattened life, to conform in any way imaginable so he can sleep at night. Even his hopes—in God, aliens, “classic” pop music—are compromised. They’re beliefs he hopes are shared, or are at least common enough (in the language of social media, they’re “trending”). He’s outsourced even his aspirations to society.

In an interview in 2002, Bowie took pains to distance himself from the character: “I don’t see it as being representative of me.” He described the narrator as someone who does what society expects him to, striking a bargain of spiritual conformity for a sense of security. “An interesting deceit, but not mine,” Bowie clucked.

This was similar to how he’d prefaced ‘Hours’: that he was using the perspectives of other men his age who’d been less favored by life. And you could argue the desperate soul of “Afraid” is a photo negative of the man who sang the song, who was established, famous, rich, happily married and a new father. But in the context of Toy, “Afraid” took on different colors. There the track was surrounded by those in which an older man revisited his first songs, the songs he’d written before he became ‘David Bowie.’ As weak or as scattered as these songs were, what united them was a sense of movement. They were building blocks which the singer of “Cygnet Committee” had needed before he could try to scrabble up higher. “Afraid” suggested the man had fallen back down, that the dreams had proved too much for him, that he was settling for shopworn ones. It gave a new, bitter flavor to a sadness that permeated the album.

ben_stiller_david_bowie_owen_wilson_zoolander_001

Plati and Bowie honed “Afraid” through late October, debuting the song on a livestream on BowieNet (on 2 November). By this performance (just Bowie on acoustic, Plati on electric guitar) “Afraid” had crystallized: its subsequent revisions, for both Toy and Heathen, would mainly serve to add or sift a few layers. Even in its “demo” stage, Bowie had the downshifting intro guitar riff and the G minor verse progression. Nearly all of his lines were in place as well as essentially the whole song structure.

The version cut for Toy ornamented and weighed down the song: while Sterling Campbell’s drums were lively, the wall of harmony vocals pasted in the choruses clotted up the melody, suggesting some extended community of the deluded. Then “Afraid” was packed off to EMI as part of the Toy tapes, and (as we’ll see next entry) wound up stranded in the void.

By the time of the sessions for his next album in 2001, where he was working with Tony Visconti, Bowie had abandoned hope that Toy would be released and set about pulling a few things from the wreckage, including “Afraid.” Unlike another Toy original Bowie retrieved (again, see next entry), he kept some of the basic tracks of “Afraid,” with Visconti adding a new bassline and a string arrangement. “I had always liked the version of ‘Afraid’ that I did with Mark Plati, so Tony and I got him to do a little more work on his guitar parts so that it would be more in line with the rest of the album, Tony again playing bass,” Bowie said in an interview. “Then Tony mixed it. I think it could be a great live song. Of course, it’s kind of sardonic in its assertion that if we play the game everything will be alright.”

Visconti’s “Afraid” was a paring back, a realignment, and his changes worked to sharpen the song’s unsettled mood. He gave space and perspective. Take the first verse: where on Toy it had been carried by acoustic guitar, now the dramatic weight mainly falls on a right-mixed electric guitar, while the left-mixed acoustic is confined to making jarring interjections, jabbing off-beat as if trying to wake the singer up. Then the acoustic’s shuffled to the center and quickly submerged in the mix (a conscience smothered) while a new voice takes its place in the left channel, a low, arpeggiating guitar figure. Visconti’s strings emboss the delusion of the refrains, where Bowie’s quavering lead vocal is at first left starkly exposed.

Now sequenced in the middle of Heathen, “Afraid” was strengthened by its new surroundings. Other Heathen tracks were brothers to it, whether thematically, harmonically or melodically. It was home at last, it was among adults. Did it lose anything from being stripped from its original context? Or was it good for Toy to die so that “Afraid” could live?

[to be concluded]

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (overdubs) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004, up until the last shows of the aborted summer ’04 tour.

* For gear heads only: Plati rented two Universal Audio Teletronix LA2A compressors: “[they] still had the warmth one would associate with a classic LA2A but with a much clearer and open top end…I went back and remixed previous tracks with them.” He also had the Apogee PSX-100 analog-digital converter, which he used in conjunction with a Tascam DA-88 to make 24-bit mixes. For guitars, Plati favored a Fender Stratocaster “done over with Sperzel tuners, a graphite nut and saddles…up a gauge to .11s.”

** Possibly a wink at Emperor Hadrian’s alleged tribute to his departing soul: animula, vagula, blandula

Future days dept.:

The next two months will be quieter than usual for the blog, as I’ll be consumed with a few things, including speaking at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference in Seattle (see here) in late April. So don’t be surprised if two weeks and change go by without a fresh entry. We should return to a brisker pace once all of this is over, sometime in May.

Top: Domitilla Asquer, “Farncesca Waiting for Gasoline,” Riruta (Nairobi), Kenya, March 2000; Bowie briefing Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson on the rules of battle, Zoolander.


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