Waterloo Sunset

October 21, 2014

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Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, 1967).
Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, live, 1973).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie and Ray Davies, live, 2003).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie).

At his final (to date) Tibet House benefit concert in February 2003, Bowie duetted with Ray Davies on the latter’s “Waterloo Sunset.” Soon afterward Bowie recorded a cover of the song, at first slotted for Reality and ultimately issued as a bonus track. Apart from his cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” on Pin Ups, it’s Bowie’s only overt Kinks homage,* but Davies was far greater an influence than this suggests. He was a fundamental element for Bowie; he’s in the bedrock of Bowie’s songwriting.

Bowie had met Davies in 1964, when the former’s King Bees were on the same bill as the Kinks for a brief tour of southern Britain, and for a time Bowie and Davies shared a producer in Shel Talmy. But Davies existed more as a guide on records for Bowie, teaching him how to structure songs, write top melodies, set up riffs, spin lyrical scenarios. You see it anywhere you look in Bowie’s Sixties work, from how the lovelorn “Baby Loves That Way” answers the Kinks’ “Nothing In This World” to how “See My Friends” haunts “The London Boys,” from the Davies-esque third-person character pieces of Bowie’s debut LP to the melodic and harmonic flavors from Kinks songs that turn up in later Bowie pieces (e.g., Iggy Pop’s “Baby,” which Bowie co-wrote, has bits of “Dead End Street” and “Sunny Afternoon” in it).

Yet covering “Waterloo Sunset” was still rather ambitious for Bowie: it would be like attempting to finally crack “A Day In the Life” in late middle age. “Waterloo Sunset” was a Kinks masterpiece, a capstone for an era. “I started writing a song about Liverpool that implied that the era of Merseybeat was coming to an end, but I changed it to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ not only because that gave me a bigger canvas to work on but because it was about London, the place where I had actually grown up,” Davies wrote in his “autobiography” X-Ray.

He’d felt possessive of the song as he wrote it, refusing to let his bandmates hear his lyric until backing tracks and backing vocals were cut.** “Even when the record was finished, it felt like a secret,” Davies wrote. “It was like an extract of a diary nobody was allowed to read.” When asked by a critic what the next Kinks single was, Davies pretended to have forgotten the song’s title.

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It came from a teenage memory: Davies standing on Waterloo Bridge, watching the brown Thames flow beneath him, having a vision of the river cresting its banks and submerging the Houses of Parliament.*** Many of his great Sixties songs share the sense that an older, homelier England is getting washed away by a fresh tide, leaving the “common” British man or woman stranded and wondering how to get home (if home’s even still there). While often using his large, ructious family as characters (Rosy, or his brother Dave as his swinging sister), Davies used for his lead actors in “Waterloo Sunset” the actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, beautiful gods of Swinging London (if there was a Wicked + Divine set in Sixties London, they’d be in the pantheon for sure). He cast himself as narrator, a shut-in who spends his days in his flat, watching life go by, turning the nameless people he sees into stories.

So “Waterloo Sunset” is a songwriter’s workbook. The composer sits at home alone, watching the young go about the business of life as he scratches out ideas in his notebook. There’s too much relentless life out there: the dirty river, flowing ever eastward to the sea (counterpoint to the lazy old sun, ever ballooning westward). The millions of people entering Waterloo Station, pooling from all across London and streaming in veins outward to the suburbs. Waterloo Bridge itself (the opening and closing scene of Alfie), its name Britain’s fading glory, now a commuter’s walkway and a meeting place for lovers, a still point for old dreamers.

Davies was often depressed in the Sixties, worn down by band and managerial politics, struggling with financial problems (he was writing #1 hits yet was often broke). He said he felt he was supposed to have given up years before. The Kinks were just meant to get a few top hits and break up, letting the record company move on to brighter things. But he kept at it. In 1967 he was still writing songs in the shadow of the favored likes of the Beatles. The Beatles promised the world could be new; Davies stayed home to keep a record of what was being decommissioned: steam trains, china shops, Victoriana, palais halls, dance bands. Must you keep flowing? As long as you have one corner of London to claim, you’re not dead yet. Sunset’s the end of the day, but it lingers for a while in the summer.

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The Kinks’ recording of “Waterloo Sunset” was marked by happenstance and their typically erratic studio habits. After puzzling how to process Dave Davies’ lead guitar, they wound up piping it through tape delay (“almost like a Fifties-type ‘triplet’ delay,” Dave recalled) while Ray’s rhythm guitar was a scrappy undercurrent in the mix, barely audible at times. The song’s beautiful melancholia was in the backing vocals–the Davies brothers and the essential Rasa Davies, the grace of many Sixties’ Kinks tracks—which soar upward while the chromatic bassline trudges downward.

Having sung “Waterloo Sunset” as a joyous full-band piece at the Tibetan concert, with Bowie serving as the high end of the harmonies, Bowie crafted a bright, even peppy version of the song in the studio. Why he felt the need to chase away the blues of the song, to make essentially a “Waterloo Sunrise,” is another question. There was something of a precedent: a Kinks TV version from 1973 with horns and a host of singers, where the refrains were a carnival retort to Davies’ humble verses.

But Bowie mainly just scrubbed away the soot, his embellishments including a nagging two-note synthesizer riff, a handclap-fattened Sterling Campbell hitting on every beat in the intro, and a “theremin” squiggle to transition back to verses. The song hustled, sparkled; it pushed you along. Bowie discarded most of the Kinks’ harmonies, only doubling himself at the octave in refrains (one of his voices was almost conversational). He wrote a new set of backing vocals for the last verse, some “ooh-LA-las” in slight debt to the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me.” Only in the coda did he finally bring in the echoing, plangent harmonies of the original. He sounded as if he was in competition with himself.

The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” offered that in a world consumed with movement, often going nowhere, sometimes you could find an escape hole, like Terry and Julie do (were they catching a train out of town?) Bowie’s version has no need for hideaways. It’s the sound of a winner’s Sixties, a flattened Sixties; it seems intended as cheery in-flight music for Virgin Airlines.

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Bowie and Davies’ performance was at Carnegie Hall, 28 February 2003. Bowie’s version was recorded ca. January-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 November 2003 as a “cyber-single” download in the UK (some BowieNet members got the track earlier on a promo CD), and also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in Sept. 2003.

* Bowie also played Kinks hits on stage with the likes of the Manish Boys and the Lower Third in the mid-Sixties, and he’s thrown in bits of “All Day and All of the Night” in a few live performances over the years.

** Likely some poetic license here on Davies’ part (X-Ray is far from an “official” autobiography), as his brother recalled Ray playing the developing “Waterloo Sunset” to him and “we started ad-libbing vocal parts around the chorus.”

*** Davies described the Thames as “bright brown, almost red…like blood flowing through a great vein,” which does suggest another lament for a “lost” England, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech from 1968.

Top: “Gadget (Ben),” “London, Mayday 2003;” “Waterloo Station, 1967“; Waterloo Sta., still from John Schlesinger’s Terminus (1961); dirty old river, still flowing under Waterloo Bridge, 2003 (Bruno Girin).


“Sue” Open Thread

October 11, 2014

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We won’t be getting to “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” on the blog until late in summer 2015, most likely. So here’s a place to record for your first impressions, once the song debuts tomorrow on Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour at 2 PM UK time.


People Have the Power/ Get Up Stand Up

October 9, 2014

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People Have the Power (Tibet House Benefit 2001: Patti Smith with Bowie, Tony Visconti, et al).
Get Up Stand Up (Tibet House Benefit 2003: Ziggy Marley with Bowie, Lou Reed, Ray Davies et al).

Among the most sublime live performances Bowie gave in the early 2000s were at a trio of concerts for the Tibet House Benefit. Held annually at the end of the long New York winter at Carnegie Hall, the benefit shows have had the likes of Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and Bowie as performers and arrangers.

Bowie’s three consecutive appearances (2001-2003) produced the most striking arrangements of his later performing years. “Silly Boy Blue,” sung with the Tibetan monk chorus that he’d always envisioned for the song, was a marvel, one of the song’s finest performances, while the Scorchio Quartet-dominated version of “Heroes” is one of that warhorse’s more haunting interpretations.

In 2002, Bowie sang the as-yet-unreleased “I Would Be Your Slave” with the Scorchios and Tony Visconti on bass, then offered a colossal “Space Oddity” driven by the combined Scorchio and Kronos quartets, Philip Glass on piano and the late Adam Yauch on bass (if one’s to make any criticism, it’s that Sterling Campbell’s drums are a bit leaden).

And for his last (to date) performance at the Tibet House benefit, Bowie played “Loving the Alien” for the first time since the Glass Spider tour, with just Gerry Leonard for accompaniment, and Bowie wending back into the song as if trying to catch sight of its first inspiration. “Heathen” was the now-standard gorgeous interpretation with the Scorchio Quartet. He also sang a duet with Ray Davies (see next entry).

At the end of each show, Bowie showed up at the close for the group sing-a-long. These tended to be somewhat ragged affairs, with a happy touch of Christmas pantomime to them. Twice Patti Smith took the lead with her “People Have the Power,” while in the 2003 show, the finale was a group-sung version of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s “Get Up Stand Up,” the great third-world anthem whose righteous anger seems more justified with every passing year.

If Bowie ever does return to live performance, I wouldn’t be shocked if it starts at Carnegie Hall one winter.

Performed (“People”) 26 February 2001, 22 February 2002; (“Get Up”) 28 February 2003, Carnegie Hall.

Top: Andreas Neumann, “Tibetans Playing Dice on the Street,” Lhasa, 2001.


I Feel So Bad/ One Night (2002 Tour)

October 2, 2014

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Part 1: Taxidermy

Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11 June 2002).
Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Meltdown, London, 29 June 2002).
Half-complete Low (live, E-Werk Festival, Cologne, 12 July 2002).
Near-complete Low (live, Montreux Festival, 18 July 2002).

The closest Bowie has come to being the curator of himself was the 2002 tour to promote Heathen. This was first intended as a minor tour of the European summer festival circuit, with a few TV dates between gigs, but soon Bowie’s theatrical instincts kicked in and he devised the most fannish set-list of his life.

He would perform all of Low in sequential order, wearing a (slightly) looser version of his Thin White Duke outfit. Then, after a change to Burberry tweed, he would perform all of Heathen in sequential order. The albums “feel like cousins to each other,” he said. “They’ve got a certain sonic similarity.” His recent work with Lou Reed (see “Hop Frog“) may have been an influence, as Reed had performed full-album live sets for New York and Magic & Loss.

But Bowie was also doing a bit of trend-chasing. Around 1998, it became increasingly common for bands (especially older bands) to play their “classic” LPs in sequential order live. The trend ballooned in the 2000s once live performance became a primary way for musicians to make a living. (“You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen,” Bowie told the New York Times in June 2002). You could see why the “play your whole LP” shtick worked: get the old fans who’d stopped buying CD reissues out of the house to hear It Takes a Nation of Millions or Fun House or Entertainment! on stage.

Was choosing Low a cynical touch? The album had little to do with Heathen besides some superficial resemblances (it’s as if Bowie recalled Low being eleven variations on “Warszawa” and had forgotten the little fractured funk tracks on its first side). But 2002 was the apex of Low‘s critical reputation: it was now considered, in the Pitchfork age, to be his masterpiece and most influential release. So there was some ad man’s hustle (“Heathen is the new Low“) and keyed-in nostalgia in the mix.

The full performances of Low were tailored to what fans wanted (on the Montreux tape, you can hear some guy lose his marbles when “Breaking Glass” kicks in)—the performances were sung well and played well, with Earl Slick tracing over his old nemesis Carlos Alomar’s guitar lines, Gail Ann Dorsey singing “Warszawa” like a muezzin and Sterling Campbell as a dynamic foundation (he’s a monster on stuff like “Speed of Life”). The guitar-heavy arrangements (Slick on lead, Mark Plati on rhythm and acoustic, Gerry Leonard on what Bowie termed “atmos”) and the supplemental vocals of Catherine Russell and Dorsey gave a density to the sound.

But there’s a constriction in some of the performances: there’s a sense that Bowie’s working with a common audience memory of each song and feels unwilling to challenge it. This was most noticeable in the instrumentals, which cried out for some sort of revision, some fresh improvisation or just an instrument swap. Instead Bowie kept reverent, a tour guide pacing his audience through an old cathedral of his making.

The track-by-track album live homage also suggested a sad endgame for Bowie: to be doomed, ever so often, to trot out another classic to showcase to fans. The Second Year of the Diamond Dogs. Major Tom’s 40th Birthday Party. Hunkier Dorier 2011.

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Boredom (the most constant of Bowie’s muses) soon put an end to it. After playing Low and Heathen in their entirety at a BowieNet-only show at the Roseland in NYC, he began monkeying with the song order, first jumbling the Low songs to break up the run of instrumentals. By his 1 July 2002 performance in Paris, he’d made a salad of the set-list, also throwing in oldies like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fame.”

On he went, through Horsens and Oostende, from Manchester to Cologne to Lucca, earning the sort of reviews that had become de rigueur by now. “The hits were pitch perfect” (Daily Star). “An incredible rebirth as a performer” (Daily Telegraph), “More relaxed than he’s been for years” (Manchester Evening News), “His voice: that indispensable sound which ricocheted against the square’s walls like some operatic singer” (Sunday Times of Malta). Having done enough, he sailed home to New York on the QE2.

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Part 2: Theology

I Feel So Bad (Chuck Willis, 1954).
I Feel So Bad (Elvis Presley, 1961).
One Night (Smiley Lewis, 1955).
One Night (Elvis, 1958).
One Night (Elvis, 1968).
I Feel So Bad/ One Night (Bowie, live, 2002).

[Elvis was] a kid who was monstrously acquisitive, but also fundamentally passive, looking to be counselled and led. In his own wholly pragmatic way, Col. Parker foresaw several future directions that showbiz would take. He saw how Elvis, the real Elvis, with all his moods and problems, could be left to sit at home and do whatever he did, while the spangly, malleable Elvis image could be sent out into the world to work…

Ian Penman, “Shapeshifter,” London Review of Books, 25 September 2014.

The next leg was an alternating-headline slot Moby’s Area 2 Festival, a three-week cross-country North American tour that also included Busta Rhymes (sometimes a no-show) and the Blue Man Group. (“What’s most striking about this collection of acts is the lack of novelty,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his review of a Holmdel, NJ, stop.) Bowie said he didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Moby on some nights, as it let him cut out early and (if he was in the Northeast) get home to say goodnight to his daughter.

The set-lists were essentially the same as the latter European shows: a mingle of Low and Heathen tracks, with some popular oldies for seasoning (“Fashion,” “Life on Mars?” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance”). Bowie was drawing the sort of crowd for whom the appearance of “Stay” in the set-list “generated a bit of puzzlement,” according to a review of a Toronto gig. “Bowie devoted two-thirds of his set to songs that were 20 or even 30 years old. But the move didn’t seem like a surrender to the commercial reality that fans want to hear the familiar,” wrote Robert Hilburn, reviewing the LA stop. On and on it went, in the pages of American and Canadian papers: Timeless perfection. A still-commanding voice. He’s still beautiful. As steely as sinuous as ever. A nearly flawless musical time capsule.

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On the last night of the Area 2 tour, at the Gorge Amphitheatre east of Seattle, Bowie did something different at last for the encore. He noted that it was the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death (which he’d learned about while on safari in Kenya in 1977). He mock-griped that Presley’s birthday had always eclipsed his own. “He gets all the birthday shit and nobody knows that I ever got born…Jimmy Page was born on the 9th: you can make something out of that. But the 8th of January? You lose out, innit.” And he sang two Presley songs in commemoration.

Like any British rocker born in the Forties, Bowie was fascinated by Elvis, who’d seemed like an extraterrestrial to him at age 10. Elvis was a swiveling mass of American bad intentions. There’s even a touch of Elvis in Bowie’s singing at times, in the swagger of “Janine” and, oddly enough, in some of his “Song For Bob Dylan.”

At first Bowie seemed to be paying tribute to the pantomime Elvis, the dead Elvis of common tabloid memory. Fat, pilled-up Elvis, the sweaty kung-fu-chopping “thankyouverramuch” Elvis: rock and roll in its buffoonish red giant phase. But the songs that he chose were a fan’s picks.

“I Feel So Bad,” which Presley cut in Nashville in March 1961, was Presley’s take on a Chuck Willis R&B number. It was fitting for Elvis at the time, about to vanish into a morass of cheap, endless movies and soulless soundtrack LPs (“sometimes I wanna stay here/then again, I wanna leave“): its moroseness chased away by an alliance of Floyd Cramer’s piano and Hank Garland’s guitar, and capped with a Boots Randolph saxophone solo that Presley walked over to cheer during the take, as if he’d bet on Randolph in a horse race.

“One Night” was a dirty Smiley Lewis song, an open account of a man caught in an orgy (“the things I did and I saw/would make the earth stand still“), that Elvis cleaned up (slightly) in his 1958 take, a minor hit. Elvis went back to “One Night” in his 1968 TV special, where he tore into the song, retrieving the original Lewis lyric. You can see in the clip what made him maddeningly, exotically Elvis. He’s joking around, mugging for the camera and his friends, parodying himself, not seeming to give a shit about the song and then suddenly in a breath he’s there, committed like a zealot, screaming BEEN TOO LONELY TOO LONG! like he’s confessing to a killing. He lurches up, forcing one of his buddies to rig up a mike for him, and he stands there, balancing his weight with his foot, slashing at his guitar as if he wants the strings to snap off in a pack.

Bowie’s versions of the songs (respectful, even modest) couldn’t compare. Elvis was too high a cliff to climb, to even consider climbing. He paid his respects and called it a tour.

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Part 3: Cartography

The New York Marathon:
Music Hall at Snug Harbor, Staten Island, 11 October 2002.
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 12 October 2002.
Colden Center at Queens College, Queens (queen borough of the 5), 16 October 2002.
Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, Bronx, 17 October 2002.
Beacon Theater, Manhattan, 20 October 2002.

Well, not yet. Bowie seemed unwilling to stop playing. He went back to Europe in September for more TV and radio spots, some record store signings. At a Radio 2 concert he filmed some of the audience with a handheld camera (“to show my daughter exactly what sort of person I associate with”). He offered more prizes for lucky winners, like the first-ever live performance of “Bewlay Brothers.”

On 22 September he played Max-Schmelling-Halle, his first concert in Berlin since 1995. The hall, built in 1996, was at the edge of the Mauerpark, near where the Wall once had cut through Prenzlauer Berg. “Half the audience [that night] had been in East Berlin that time way before [in 1987],” Bowie told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “So now I was face to face with the people I had been singing to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together.”

It was as if his tour had become a leyline of his past lives. A stop in Munich, where he’d recorded some of The Idiot. A return to the once-Hammersmith Odeon (in 2002 it was “the Carling Apollo”; it later became the “HMV Hammersmith Apollo” and is currently the “Eventim Apollo”), with Eno, Bowie’s old schoolfriend George Underwood and his once-drummer John Cambridge in attendance. This gig, finally, was supposed to be the finale.

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But back in New York, Bowie realized he still had some TV appearances booked for October, so why not keep the band together a bit longer (“before they drifted off to family and friends for the winter“)? Bowie credited a friend “Bill” (likely his financial adviser, Bill Zysblat) with the idea of doing a set of shows that roughly followed the route of the New York marathon. It would be a tribute to his still-recovering adopted city, with Bowie playing clubs.

First Snug Harbor, a park two miles west of the Ferry terminal on Staten Island (“Earl Slick country,” Bowie wrote. “Earl was freaked and excited at the same time. ‘Oh God, I’m gonna see some really old faces. We’re gonna get Joey Bag-a-Doughnuts…And then there’s family. I’m never gonna survive this.”). Then up to the rapidly-gentrifying DUMBO (one sign of gentrification: getting an acronym like “DUMBO”) neighborhood of Brooklyn, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I’d seen Joe Strummer play there earlier that year: he’d been late, complaining his cab didn’t know where to go, then ripped into “Bank Robber,” singing it like Elvis.

Colden Center at Queens College, which the band likened to a high school hall. Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, visited by everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby (and which would close its doors in 2004). Finally the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. Bowie closed with “Ziggy Stardust.”

When Gail Ann and I slow-danced through ‘Absolute Beginners’ that night…it didn’t seem like the end of a long and grueling year, but a new time with a horizon that went on forever,” Bowie wrote in 2003, when he was making a new album and planning a global tour. Was this hyperbole? Of course not. It would go on forever. Wouldn’t it?

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“One Night” and “Feel So Bad” were performed 16 August 2002, The Gorge, WA.

Photos: “Elvis Bombay” and “Vigil One: Elvis Death March, Memphis,” Ted Barron, 2002; Giacomo Pepe, “Bowie in Lucca,” 15 July 2002; Adam Bielawski, “Bowie in Chicago,” 8 August 2002. The other shots of Bowie in NYC, mid-October 2002, are from David Bowie: Live in New York, a fine photo collection by Myriam Santos-Kayda.


Saviour

September 25, 2014

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Saviour (Kristeen Young with Bowie).

At the end of 2001, Bowie broke with his current label, Virgin (it helped that Virgin hadn’t picked up its option on a new Bowie album—they were all but daring him to leave) and formed his own record company. This was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of frustration with the music industry and in particular with Virgin, who’d rejected both a live Bowie album (liveandwell) and a studio one (Toy). “Many times I’ve not been in agreement with how things are done and as a writer of some proliferation, frustrated at how slow and lumbering it all is,” he told Billboard.

So at age 55, Bowie was finally an indie recording artist. His new label, ISO, had one client, himself: there were reports ISO had signed a band and another solo act, but nothing apparently came of this. He signed a distribution deal with Columbia for Heathen, a structure that remains at the present day (Columbia’s issuing Nothing Has Changed in a few months).

One sign of Bowie’s contractual freedom was a growing penchant for guest-starring on others’ albums: these would be his only moments on record in the late 2000s. It helped that he was able to use Tony Visconti for his field research. Visconti had already gotten Bowie on a Rustic Overtones album and now he introduced Bowie to a St. Louis songwriter and pianist named Kristeen Young.

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A half-Apache, half-German child adopted by fundamentalist Christians, Young endured adolescence as a series of pitched battles (her mother would smash her Prince records; Young later described herself as “an imprisoned child”). She took refuge in punk and indie music, becoming pen pals with Jello Biafra (who once taught her to parallel park); in the Nineties, she formed and discarded bands, worked as a waitress and began recording solo records with a drummer, “Baby” Jeff White (the set-up was a reversed image of the White Stripes). She was an acquired taste: the CMJ, reviewing her debut in 1997, began with “What is it about playing the piano that encourages young women to become crazy, screaming banshees?

She sent Visconti a copy of her second album, Enemy, in November 1999 (she’d reportedly found his name in a music industry directory). Taken by what he described as her “part rock, part Bartok” music, her cover photo and her four-octave “gutsy voice…with its high soprano register,” Visconti agreed to produce Young’s next album. As she had no record deal, Young and Visconti worked up a collection of demos in New York in 2001-2002, around the same time Bowie was recording Heathen. She wound up singing and playing piano on a few tracks, Bowie in turn offering to sing on one of hers.

This was “Saviour,” which Young later said was in part a tribute to her friendship/mentorship with Visconti. Bowie took the second verse, savoring the line “American landfillLAAND-fill,” and kept pace with Young for the rest of it, mostly content to let Young out-sing him. It’s a piece of bizarre, affected, fairly catchy art-rock. Should Lady Gaga and Bowie get together at some point, “Saviour” could even be something of a template.

Young went on to have a contentious, sibling-like relationship with Morrissey, who sacked her from a 2007 tour for “salacious language” but soon mended fences. Earlier this year, the Morrissey camp accused Young of giving Moz a “horrendous cold” that resulted in yet another tour cancellation. If Bowie ever tours again, Young should perhaps consider switching allegiances.

Recorded: Looking Glass Studios, ca. late 2001/mid-2002: (Bowie vocal retake) February 2003. Released 13 June 2003 (November 2003 in the US) on Breasticles (N Records ZM 00103). (Reflecting the chaos/implosion of the music industry in 2003, this record was released as a CD only in Portugal, and later as a web-only release in the US/UK). The promo version of Breasticles, which Young self-distributed in 2002, featured an earlier Bowie vocal.

Top: “The king stay the king“: D’Angelo lectures Wallace and Bodie on chess strategy, “The Buys,The Wire, June 2002; Young, ca. 2002.


Hop Frog

September 19, 2014

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Hop Frog (Edgar Allan Poe, read by Nick Gisburne).
Hop Frog (Lou Reed with Bowie).

You write in the liner notes [to The Raven] that Poe is more attuned to our century than he was to his own.

I think that we can relate more to him now than then. Recent world events seem to have a real Poe turn to them.

Lou Reed, to Larry Katz, January 2003.

Sometime in December 1966, David Bowie heard the voice of Lou Reed for the first time. Bowie put on an album that his manager had brought back from New York. First came a sweet, haunting “Sunday Morning,” then, out of nowhere, another voice breaks in: flat, unimpressed, working up the details. Up to LEX-ing-TUN: ONE-TWO-FIVE. Hey WHITE BOY. Here he cooomes..he’s all dressed-in-BLACK. Everybody’s pinned you but NOBODY caaaares.

Entranced, Bowie decided to devote the rest of his life to the song.

In August 1972, Bowie produced a record for Reed. At the brink of exhaustion (he was rehearsing with the Spiders From Mars in his downtime), Bowie had to contend with an icy Reed, barely talking and taking in the whole enterprise as if he was a critic silently watching a faltering stage act. Reed had offered some skeletal songs on acoustic guitar. Mick Ronson dressed them up, Bowie did vocal arrangements. There was a delicacy to Bowie’s work that belied the strain he was under: the little dancing motifs in “Satellite of Love,” the girl-group “spoke spoke” in “Wagon Wheel,” the acidic queen harmony in “New York Telephone Conversation.”

At last, despite the occasional public dust-up, the two settled into being friends, living within walking distance of each other’s NYC homes. In the months after 9/11, Reed was working on an album based on Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems, and he asked Bowie if he wanted to sing on a track. Bowie chose “Hop Frog,” a little rant under two minutes long.

That’s him, not me,” Reed told Venice magazine in 2003. “He chose that part. I was pretty astonished myself, because I thought he would have picked one of the other parts. I thought he would go for one of the power ballads, but it turns out that he was a perfect Hop Frog. I realized that David wanted to have some fun, and have some fun just being Bowie. He did the kind of background vocals on this that I really like, all the way back to my Transformer record when he did those kind of things. I liked it then and I still love it now.”

It would be their last collaboration.

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Reed had been asked to write some Poe-related songs by the stage director Robert Wilson for a show, “POEtry,” which played in Hamburg and Brooklyn. “Bob thought this is something that could occur easily, without any weird rubbings going on,” Reed told the New York Times. “I saw it as a can’t-win situation. I knew people would say, ‘How dare he rewrite Poe?’ But I thought, here’s the opportunity of a lifetime for real fun…It’s accessible, among other things. And I felt I was in league with the master. In that kind of psychology, that interest in the drives and the meaning of obsession and compulsion in that realm Poe reigns supreme. Particularly now, with the anxiety and everything else that’s permeating our lives right now.”

He turned the project into an album, realizing it would also serve as a grand Viking funeral for his recording career. One last enormous folly: a 2-CD, 36-track album of rewritten Poe and reconfigured Reed, guest-starring Ornette Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Laurie Anderson, Antony Hegarty, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Bowie.

Can you imagine what it took to do that?” Reed asked Uncut. “I mean, I’m serious. Imagine! Even now I can’t believe that we’ve done it. This might be a nice way to say ‘Goodbye’, a good way to go out…it’s like ‘Pheww!’ Really. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll get a chance to make records like this with people downloading their music… unless you take the viewpoint that there’s only one good track on it.”

The Raven was also a farewell and tribute to the late 20th Century “pop” bohemian New York, the NYC of The Performance Group and The Knitting Factory, the Kitchen and St. Ann’s Warehouse. Reed cut “Fire Music,” a piece of extended feedback, a few days after the WTC attacks. On the album, it’s preceded by Amanda Plummer screaming “Burn, monkeys! Burn!” (why? see below).

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Reed’s “Hop Frog” has little to do with Poe’s story, a lurid revenge piece in the line of “Cask of Amontillado.” (The following tracks, “Every Frog Has Its Day,” “The Courtly Orangutans” and “Tripitena’s Speech,” are the narrative). Hop-Frog, a dwarf who walks with a limp, is the slave of a cruel king, for whom he’s the long-suffering court jester (you get the idea George R.R. Martin may have read this story). Offended by the king throwing a drink in the face of fellow dwarf Tripetta (renamed “Tripitena” here), Hop-Frog devises a scheme in which he has the king and his ministers dress up as escaped orangutans for a masked ball. Their costumes are made of pitch and flax, the “orangutans” are chained together to further the illusion. Hop-Frog sets them ablaze, leaving the king and his party as torched ape-men corpses. He escapes after announcing “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest.”

Reed’s “Hop Frog” essentially plays off that last line. It’s a strut, a boast, savoring the clash of “ahp” and “ahg” sounds in the title. Its backdrop is a vein of feedback, a vicious, cycling Reed rhythm guitar and Tony Smith’s heavy-mixed drums. Bowie holds back a bit in the first verse, creeping in to echo, then top Reed’s voice. Then he sets about taking over the song.

Now dominating over Reed’s voice, Bowie devised a set of background harmonies, a funfair ride of rising and falling phrases (“I love David’s background parts that he does, when he goes up really high: I love his voice,” Reed told Australian DJ John Faine) and outfitting an army of Bowies for the final verse. Bowie’s having a whale of a time. You can see me in the ballroom! You can see me in the BED-room! You can see me in the WOODS! Hap!-HOP FROG! He closes with a last, plummeting trademark “wail” note. Reed pays him homage with a fanfare on guitar. Exeunt omnes.

Everything ends. Reed and Bowie went out with a noisy nose-tweak of a track starring a vengeful, murderous Poe dwarf. Sounds about right. See you, Lou.

Recorded October-early November 2001, New York. Released 28 January 2003 on The Raven (released in single and double-CD versions. If you have Spotify, unabridged version’s here.)

Top: Julian Schnabel, “Lou Reed,” 2002; Bowie and Lou, approaching the end of the game, 2007; Arthur Rackham, “Hop-Frog, Trippetta, the king and his councilors,” 1935.


America

September 11, 2014

01wtc

America (Simon and Garfunkel, 1968).
America (1-2-3, live, the Marquee Club, 1967).
America (Bowie, the Concert for New York City, 2001).

Those towers were almost human for me. I was in love with them, and that’s why I married them with a tightrope.

Philippe Petit, 2014.

When the first tower was hit, there was a long rumbling. Take an oil drum, turn it on its side and play a tattoo on it with mallets, amplify this, give it heavy bass. Something like that. It was an extended sound—it went on for three, four seconds.

I was working in 195 Broadway, a block east from the Trade Center (it was an older, far more distinguished building; it likely considered the Towers parvenus). I went to the window to see if a truck had overturned on the Brooklyn Bridge, my first guess as to what had happened, but there was nothing but traffic.

Kevin came in. He was the sort of loud, overgrown boy who makes a good reporter on Wall Street. He wore blue nearly every day, great bright blues. “Plane hit the Trade Center,” he said.

“What kind of plane?” I said. “Some kind of Cessna?”

“Probably out of Teterboro or something.”

“How do you hit the Trade Center? How bad a pilot must you be?”

“Like JFK Jr. bad.”

He went back down to the street. I looked out at the Bridge again (still traffic), then crossed to the other side of the office, where a small window, a foot wide and two feet high, offered our only rear-facing view: a little rectangular frame of Church Street and the base of Trade Center 2. There was a grey and black plume of smoke in the air, with bits of paper raining down. “How big was the plane?” a woman behind me asked. “It was a real plane?”

A man came on the intercom and said that everything was under control. No need to leave. Kevin came back, his bluster drained out of him. People were starting to jump, he said. “It’s worse than you think.”

I sat at my desk, sipping coffee, constantly refreshing a news website that said nothing. It felt like I was sitting in a room with a corpse. I kept walking to the small window, watching the dark cloud grow darker, the papers whirl and scudder in the air. I could see they were memos, photocopies, manila envelopes, pieces of folders. I looked at the desk next to the window and saw the same, only neatly stacked.

When the second plane hit, there was a long, loop of fire and what looked like embers flung high into the air. The building shook; there were screams, murderous screams coming from the street. The man on the intercom, sounding unshaken, said that we should leave.

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In 1996, I’d worked in 2 World Trade, on the 18th floor. The towers were often empty-feeling buildings, as if they’d been built for some municipal folly (say, if NYC had hosted in the Olympics in 1968) and had been left to fend for themselves. The guards wore maroon jackets. There was so little light. Our office rationed it out to the bosses and editors, each of whom had an office with a tiny window view, leaving the rest of us clustered in semi-darkness. It could feel like working in a mineshaft.

On the ground floor there were a set of halls and small lobbies that linked the two towers with the lesser buildings of the Trade Center complex. At Christmas, they set up a shabby-looking electric train set. There were statues—Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as stockbrokers, their feet up on their desks—in one shop window (I recall seeing Bugs covered in grey dust in a newscast post 9/11). A dyspeptic Indian man ran a narrow, almost vertical newsstand. There was a bagel stand whose manager would catch your eye and yell “Yes! what are you having today!” He was the brightest soul in the whole place. There was a Duane Reade outpost whose aisles, especially in the winter, were full of lunchtime coughers and snifflers. I still try to recall faces sometimes, of anyone whom I saw then. If I can, I wonder if they made it out.

Tourists came to the Towers but they just took the elevator up to the observation decks, snapped photos and left. No one who didn’t work there hung around the neighborhood, which was full of winding, scaffold-filled streets whose main businesses were small-time importers, rug dealers and people who seemed to cadge a living out of repairing toasters and radios. You could walk around at lunchtime and know that someone in 1924 saw much the same view as you. Except for the Towers.

So when the men playing “God Bless America” on boomboxes began selling souvenir atrocity postcards, and the busloads of people wearing American flag T-shirts began to show up to gawk at the ruins, it was hard not to be resentful, as petty as that may sound. This gritty little old neighborhood, visited by few, loved by fewer, had been burned and gouged, had been turned into a mass grave and now it was a theme park. What was once a real, and happily anonymous, place was bought by history.

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On Broadway that morning, there was broken glass everywhere—the windows of Au Bon Pain were shattered, as were those of a Mrs. Fields cookie shop (its owner hurriedly pulling down the grating). People were standing in the street and sidewalk, staring up at the towers. I stood with them for a few minutes. There was a sudden fluttering down along the length of Trade Center One: someone had just fallen. I couldn’t stand there and watch any more.

I decided to walk to my girlfriend’s office in Chelsea, declining to take my chances with the subway. I took Church Street up. I tried to process what had happened—had there been a second plane? Had the first tower caused the other to catch fire? When I first had moved to New York, to help myself get the lay of neighborhoods, I’d come up with little mnemonics. The one for Church’s cross-streets came back into my head for some reason: Judge Murray Warren will see you in his Chambers. Thomas doubts the Worth of Leonard Franklin. A van pulled up sharply and out spilled six or seven FBI agents. I knew this as they were in windbreakers marked “FBI” in great yellow letters. One of them, a woman younger than me, seemed excited. She sported an FBI hat as well. Perhaps she had a desk job and suddenly here she was, pulling an X-Files. I couldn’t blame her for looking a bit eager.

In a parking lot at Canal and Greene St., I stopped to watch the towers again. They were now heavily aflame. Each had a large black wound spewing filthy clouds which the light wind was sending on to Brooklyn. These were the only clouds. Otherwise the sky was so clear and fine that you could see the sleeping moon.

I was in a small knot of people. “It’s going to burn for a long, long time,” an old man said, with shaky, if unquestioned authority. Two NYU kids were filming with handheld video cameras. “Check it out, dude,” one said to the other. He offered a view from his camera monitor as if he was sharing a flask.

Walking up Greene through Soho, I kept turning back to the towers. Felt like Lot’s wife. Two men in suits, roughly my age, fell into step with me. We heard something and turned to watch 2 World Trade fall into a pile of smoke. It made a low, bustling sound, like a train crossing somewhere in the distance. Now there was only one tower, ruling over a cloud. I looked at the shorter of the guys, said something like “can you believe this” and he gave me a why-are-you-fucking-talking-to-me face. “We have got to get out of here, it’s not safe here,” he told his friend. I crossed Houston, cut through the NYU dorms, past the Picasso sculpture no tourist has ever visited. There a woman was talking to a buildings-and-grounds man, explaining in detail what was happening, although he could see the burning tower directly over her head. In Washington Square Park, some 200 people were standing in rows near the arch, looking like they were at an outdoor concert.

Everywhere I walked, I saw people carrying children and dogs.

01ww

I went into the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and sat in a back pew for a time. As I was coming out, the crowd in the street gasped as one. The other tower was crumbling now, again into a grey, atomic cloud, again with a soft rumble. What was there wasn’t now. How many deaths was I going to witness today? For all I knew 195 Broadway was gone as well, for all I knew I wouldn’t make it out of Manhattan. “Oh God, all of those people,” a woman said, not screaming, just giving each word a long, piercing note of sadness. The air went out of me and I sat on the street.

At my girlfriend’s office on Seventh Avenue, I found she wasn’t there (she’d never made it in to Manhattan from Queens). I drank some water, took in whatever speculations were circling (Camp David was bombed, Congress was bombed, the President was missing). I figured I’d have to walk home to Queens at some point, so why not start.

Walking towards Third Avenue, trying to avoid the larger streets, I saw people in lines everywhere: public phones, bars, pizza shops, ATM machines. Was there a bank run, too? Like 20th Century Miseries, Greatest Hits this morning, I thought. A grocery store had set up an easel with draft paper, on which you could write the name of anyone for whom you wanted a prayer said. A handful of names, including “Everyone.” A man was jogging down Third, headphones on, shirtless, a blank expression. I wanted him to collide with a telephone pole.

I reached the Queensboro Bridge around noon. “We’re representin’ Queens,” a man yelled on the gangway. “This is the real Million Man March!” Cheers. It was a carnival atmosphere by now, everyone sent home early from work. The sun had gone brutal. There were no police on the bridge, as far as I could see, and the mood was edgy: it felt as if it could turn dark in a moment. A few men drinking Budweiser were ogling women, calling for them to strip. They were jumping on and off the rear bumpers of barely-moving trucks.

It was as if we were in a retreating, quickly deteriorating army. Midway across the bridge I felt, no I knew, that a plane would come and shear straight through it, and thought about how it would feel to hang in the air for a moment before falling into the East River. Death seemed so present by now, so familiar.

In Queens Plaza the crowd broke in two, the greater half heading straight onto Queens Boulevard, the lesser up towards Astoria. I followed the latter stream for a time, forked off to Sunnyside, home to Locust St. My girlfriend had believed, for an hour or two before I managed to call her, that I’d possibly been killed. A few days later, during a minor argument about the dishes, she slapped me in the face and started crying. We got married a year later; it didn’t last.

I sat for an hour with my feet in a bucket of warm water. I had no idea how I would get through the rest of the day.

01kuz

Leonard Cohen:...the terrorist position is so seductive that everybody has embraced it. The governments have embraced it, the lovers have embraced it. The same politics of the bedroom and the living room and the legislative assemblies of the world…it is the terrorist position. Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.

Vin Scelsa: Do you think the media plays a big part in all that?

Cohen: It’s way beyond that. It’s all lost… Our culture, our civilization, all this beautiful stuff from Mozart to Bukowski, as exalted or as funky as it gets, it’s just nail polish on the claws and the nail polish has begun to crack and flake and the claws are showing through. And that’s what we’re living with—a world in which the claws have been exposed. And it’s only been a tiny brief moment when they were covered with nail polish, and now the nail polish is coming off.

Scelsa: The future looks pretty grim.

Cohen: It is grim. It always has been grim.

“Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight,” NYC, 13 June 1993.

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Bowie and Tony Visconti were upstate that morning. Visconti’s son and a friend were living down by the towers; they got out. Bowie and Iman’s place in Soho was close enough that she saw the second plane hit.

A month later, Bowie took part in the Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden. It’s hard to watch this concert now, with its exhausted, nervy sense of mourning, the open anger and blood lust, the boorish antics by the comedians. The Anglo-American theme of the night, emphasized by the Union Jack and Old Glory set against each other above the stage and with Paul McCartney writing an official theme song, was reassuring then; it just seems a sad premonition of a shared disaster now.

Bowie’s performance of “Heroes” was everything the audience needed to hear that night. Many of them had lost friends, and some of them likely would contract cancer and emphysema because of their work during those weeks. Bowie cast the song up in the air for everyone to grab onto it. It seems churlish to begrudge him, or the audience, for doing the expected; doing the expected felt like a luxury then.

But he had opened the show by himself. He sat at the edge of the stage, his legs tucked under him, looking as though he’d been recruited from the Beckenham Arts Lab and asked to warm up the crowd before the real acts started. He had a Omnichord keyboard, on which he set up a waltz pattern. It was another toy instrument, like the Stylophone and the Rosedale Electric Organ, that he’d elevated.

Bowie messes up. He misses his cue with the Omnichord and he spends the whole first verse off-kilter, the keyboard racing ahead of him, which makes him rush his phrasings and he can’t quite settle into the melody. He doesn’t show a lick of concern. With the second verse he catches up with the song, falls into a lilting pattern.

The lyric, like the Trade Center, was a relic from a lost Sixties. Even as a child, I’d thought Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” was about another, much older country, like the Hardy Boys novels with their jalopies and automats. Mrs. Wagner’s Pies; men wearing gabardine suits and bowties on the bus; young people hitch-hiking without fear of being kidnapped and killed (the latter was drummed into you as a kid in the Seventies). “America” was an exile’s song. Paul Simon had written some of it in England, using his English girlfriend Kathy Chitty as a supporting character; he was missing his home enough that he turned people stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike into pilgrims.

01wtc (2)

Why sing “America”? Well, the title was a good applause line. And he “was looking for something which really evoked feelings of bewilderment and uncertainty, because for me that’s how that particular period really felt. And I really thought that Paul Simon’s song in this new context really captured that,” Bowie said in a November 2001 web-chat.

It was also an old memory of his, as he’d been a fan of the Scottish band 1-2-3 (later Clouds), who had a residency at the Marquee Club in 1967. One of the songs in the 1-2-3’s set was by a composer that no one in Britain had heard of, some New York folkie who’d crashed in London in the mid-Sixties. Somehow 1-2-3 had gotten hold of one of Simon’s then-unreleased songs and turned “America” into a nearly ten-minute progressive track, full of time and key changes (Yes would all but steal the 1-2-3’s template for their cover a few years later).

The song felt as if it could be opened: each of its verses is a self-contained little world, each line could fork off somewhere else. Bowie takes his time with it, he gives each line enough room, he stresses the preposition “for” over the crowd-pleasing “America.” There’s a sense that he’s trying to recall a world that’s fading just as he’s singing. Michigan seems like a dream to me now. Saginaw’s in another country. A bus full of sleepers drives East, and the night inks in the fields and towns that it passes. What was it like, he asks on behalf of all the lost kids at the Marquee, to have lived in such a place? And what will be there when it’s gone?

The Chrysler Building was talking to the Empire State.
The Twin Towers were talking to each other,
Saying, “All is forgiven, I love you still”

Luna, “Going Home,” 1994.

There’s a story about Nabokov and his family, sailing to America in May 1940. They had fled the Soviets and Nazi Berlin and now they were leaving Nazi Paris. Here they were, Vladimir and Vera and Dmitri, washed up on a pier in mid-Manhattan. A small porter and two large customs men opened their traveling trunk; on top were two pairs of boxing gloves. The customs men slipped on the gloves and began sparring, whirling in a dance around Nabokov; another inspector examined Nabokov’s butterfly collection and offered, gratis, his newly-coined name for a species.

Where would that happen?” Nabokov would say when recounting that morning, delighted by the strange young country he’d come to live in. “Where would that happen?

Performed 20 October 2001, Madison Square Garden. Released (edited) 27 November 2001 on The Concert For New York City (Columbia C2K 86270). Bowie performed “America” again on 30 May 2002 for a charity show at the Javits Center, a performance I’ve never seen, nor care to.

Top to bottom: Jamie Squire, “New York City,” 5 September 2001; Julien Menichini, “NYC,” 5 September 2001; Monika Bravo, “View From the 92nd Floor, WTC 1, During a Storm,” 10 September 2001; David Officer, “View of NY Skyline from the Empire State Building,” 10 September 2001; Evan Kuz, “World Trade Center,” 10 September 2001; Mike Horan, “9-10-2001″; “Oberon Watchman,” 8:22 AM, 9/11/01.


Slow Burn

September 8, 2014

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Slow Burn.
Slow Burn (Top of the Pops, 2002).
Slow Burn (The Today Show, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Show With David Letterman, 2002).
Slow Burn (A&E Live by Request, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Slow Burn (VMC, 2002).
Slow Burn (live, 2002).

Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime…Wars are never cured, they just go into remission for a few years. The End is what we want, so I’m afraid the End is what we’re damn well going to get. There. Set that to music.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

“Slow Burn” was Heathen‘s lead-off single. Well, it was in Japan, Europe and the US. Not in Britain, which by 2002 was the only reliable country for a Bowie chart placing. (He’d ceased troubling the US charts in the mid-Nineties: “Slow Burn” proved no exception). Scheduled for a July 2002 UK release, “Slow Burn” never appeared. There was no British single released until September, when “Everyone Says ‘Hi‘” finally arrived to barely break the UK Top 20. Another curious thing was that Bowie quickly stopped performing “Slow Burn” live. He sang it only twice, its last performance at the Meltdown Festival in June.

His label had decided to pull “Slow Burn” from the UK (Bowie had diligently sung “Slow Burn” on seemingly every American talk show in June, and had taped a session to air on Top of the Pops), but its disappearance from Bowie’s live sets as well suggests perhaps a collective realization that “Slow Burn” wasn’t going to do the business. Was it too familiar-sounding, coming off as a generic public conception of a Bowie song? A soaring vocal with a few condor cries (the ninth-spanning “slooooooow BURRRRRN!”); a “Heroes”-esque rhythm track; a guitar line that set out to trump Reeves Gabrels; a doomy lyric.

There’s no evidence that the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere played a role in shelving “Slow Burn” (for one thing, it was a single in America). Bowie said he’d written his lyric before the attacks and that his lines unnerved him, as he’d managed to predict the feel of life in downtown Manhattan that September. There’s fear on the ground. “The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears,” a faint Biblical reference (see Luke 12:3: “whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops”), offered a preview of our national security state. The most damning, most prophetic lines were in the refrain, written years before the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib and all the numbing rest of it:

But who are we
So small in times such as these…

slowburn

Bowie had been writing about doomed societies since “We Are Hungry Men,” with his descriptions of America as being full of killers, his clay model recreation of Seventies New York as Hunger City, the Five Years left to us, and so on. Apocalypse could be a joyful thing for him—“Five Years” meant five years of carnival before the End. At least the End was more interesting than “normal” life.

“Slow Burn” is a bled-out, bummed-out apocalypse, a recognition that after living on this earth for a while, you come to realize doomsday predictions have the frequency and excitement of commuter trains. In “Slow Burn” the nearly-static harmonic rhythm of the verses (shuttling between tonic and mediant chords, F to Am/E),* the rounds of Visconti and Bowie backing vocals (“on and on and on and on and on…” “round and round and round..”), suggest there’s nothing new under the sun despite this latest catastrophe. Even the return of the Borneo Horns (Bowie’s brass section from the Eighties) is rather muted: the likes of Lenny Pickett nose their way into the second verse and later mainly work in support of the bassline. Kristeen Young offers a piano line that goes lost in a loop. Doomsday once meant the End at last, but now even the End wasn’t going to end: it would just keeping come around, again and again, its colors fading with each trip.

There’s one vein of anger in the track: Pete Townshend’s lead guitar (unlike the lyric, this was a post-9/11 response). Offering an intro hook by answering a long-sustained chord with strings of bent, distorted notes, Townshend reappears after the first refrain for a run of sirens and shockwaves and then hangs on through the second verse, playing the same choppy chord as a counter-rhythm; it’s as if he’s itching to cut Bowie short, that he fears being caught up in the endless cycle as well.

Pete Townshend Performs At The Concert For NYC

Townshend’s been one of this blog’s minor supporting characters, partly because the blog came close to being a Townshend song-by-song survey: he was the other top contender (if I’d gone with PT, the blog would’ve been called Another Man’s Life). So I found it fun to use Townshend as an ongoing check on the Bowie experiment.

As a character in Bowie’s play, Townshend moves from being a lofty, cutting rival in 1965, lording his powers over Bowie’s shabby band playing Who knock-offs in Bournemouth (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving“), to a fellow Sixties self-mythologist in 1973 (“I Can’t Explain“) to 1980, when a depressed, alcoholic Townshend shows up as a ghost from Bowie’s abandoned England, playing a bitter lead guitar on “Because You’re Young.” The latest reconnection came about when Bowie and Townshend met at a wake, the Concert for New York City in October 2001. Returning to London, Townshend got an MP3 of the rough “Slow Burn,” added his lines via Pro Tools, which Bowie and Visconti imported back in New York. So the most bloodless of their interactions yielded Townshend’s most resonant (and final) contribution to Bowie’s work: he’s the song’s blood infusion. Soon afterward Townshend, in an unfortunate mix of idealism and stupidity, would bring down the whirlwind on himself.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (lead guitar) ca. November 2001, Townshend’s home studio, London; (horns) 29 January 2002, Looking Glass. Released 3 June 2002 in the US and Europe (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2); only released as a promo single in the UK.

* Moving from the tonic (I) to the mediant (iii) chord means there’s only a one-note difference in the chords. So in our case, it’s F major (F-A-C) moving to A minor/E (E-A-C) and back. Bowie’s just swapping F for E as a “foundation” tone. It’s the same type of progression as Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a possible influence? (More here). The refrain shakes things up a bit with D minor (vi) chords (the opening “slow burn”) and a B-flat IV chord (“but who are we”) but it’s soon back to the F-Am dance.

Top: Peggy Lee, “Munich, 2001″; Townshend, Concert For New York City, 20 October 2001.


A Better Future

September 1, 2014

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A Better Future.
A Better Future (live, 2002).
A Better Future (Air remix).

Maudlin and petulant, “A Better Future” is yet another Bowie conversation with God on Heathen. Here he treats God as a girlfriend who’s disappointed him of late; he’s even considering ditching the relationship unless God gets his act together.

In one of his more bizarre revisits, Bowie referenced a verse of his never-released “Miss Peculiar (How Lucky You Are)” in the bridge of “A Better Future.”* “Miss Peculiar” was something of Bowie’s attempt at “Under My Thumb” (it was offered to Tom Jones): when you walk, you follow: two steps behind! Its ghost, turning up a generation later, turned the tables: now it’s a man resenting that he’s under God’s thumb: When you talk, we talk, too (or “to you”).

What bred this irritation? Fatherhood and terrorism, it seemed. “I had rosy expectations for the 21st Century, I really did,” Bowie told the Observer in 2002. “The whole idea was lifting my spirits quite a lot during 1998 and 1999. But it has become something other that what I expected it to be. And it’s obviously a pretty typical parental concern to wonder what type of a world you have brought your child into.

So “A Better Future” was meant as a plea “to whoever that higher spirit is…because I want a place where my daughter can grow up safely, walking open-eyed into her ambitions—not having to dodge bullets.”

Built over a ceaseless three-chord progression in A-flat (Ab-Bbm-Eb), “A Better Future” is a run of verse/refrains interrupted by a bridge. There’s a singsong lead vocal, doubled at times down an octave; a synthesizer hook that seems a mild reworking of the descending vocal tag from “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” The drum loop isn’t much; the guitars are better, both David Torn’s clouds and gales and the raucous, often stereo-scoped acoustic guitar (Bowie, most likely) that hustles through the track.

It’s Bowie at his most sincere, seemingly (see the opening lines of the third verse), but you can’t be that sure: there’s a sense he knows how ridiculous he’s being, that prayer is nothing more than a refined act of solipsism, and that he’s really got nothing to bargain with. It’s a man going all in with a pair of deuces. The sudden appearance of “Heathen“-esque loftiness in the bridge (“down therrrrre below/nothing is moooooooviiiiiiing“) offers a cameo by an indifferent God.

L’Avenir Postlude

There’s a little film that’s haunted me for a long time: Louis Lumière’s Repas de Bébé, one of the first Lumière films, shot in 1895. On an idyllic spring afternoon in France, an infant is fed and doted over by Lumière and his wife. Lumière was rich: this child, unlike a great many French infants in 1895, lacked for nothing. And what a marvelous world she stood to inherit! Her birth nearly coincided with those of the telephone and the motion picture, the airplane and the phonograph; she would be part of the first 20th Century generation. Would that we all could have had her future.

But that child, Andrée Lumière, was twenty years old in 1914. She likely lost friends and possibly lovers to the World War. She would die in 1918 in the global influenza pandemic that killed nearly as many as the war did. And had she lived, she would have been 40 years old in the depths of the Depression. Forty-six when the Nazis tromped through Paris.

By contrast, take a child born in the middle of World War II, in Nazi-occupied Paris. What sort of future does she have? Why bother having children? But Françoise Hardy grows up in a world of free higher education, nearly-full employment and general prosperity, which in turn creates a global pop music boom, to which she contributes. Today she’s 70, having lived through some of the brightest years for common people in the entire history of France.

So complain to the almighty all you’d like: having kids has always been a crapshoot.

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. The Air remix was included on the 2-disc version of the album; the SACD cut lopped off 15 seconds.

*He’d already recycled its coda in “Revolutionary Song.”

Top: Michael Schmidt, from series Irgendwo, 2001-2004.


When the Boys Come Marching Home

August 21, 2014

Marineshumping2001

When the Boys Come Marching Home.

While Bowie claimed he’d written the lyrics for Heathen before the 9/11 attacks, it’s easy to imagine the B-side “When the Boys Come Marching Home” coming out of the dark autumn of 2001, with the Afghanistan invasion, a nation afraid to open its mail thanks to the anthrax scare, routine color-coded terror freak-out alerts, the Department of Homeland Security established and plans for the Iraq war underway.

It’s not as if the song would have been out of place anytime in the past century, though. The somber refrains, Matt Chamberlain’s snare pattern and the song’s title suggest the endless military cycles of history (“There’s nothing to learn from history. As we’ve repeatedly shown,,” Bowie told the Daily Mirror in 2002. “We’re not willing to learn. We’ve slipped straight back into what we usually do—we’ve fallen for a religious war.“): an obvious reference was the U.S. civil war song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and its British counterpart “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”

But the lyric, one of Bowie’s most gnomic works since Hunky Dory, offered more than antiwar sentiments: there are “outsider” artists as bellwethers and court jesters (“I love him in his craziness, his tatters and his courage“), wanderings through some lost battle-numbed Europe of the imagination (“I love the little cars at dawn“). Cities and countries as prostitutes; collectives of mean townies; Aldous Huxley nods. Bowie casts himself as the moon (“my cloudy face will be gone, high-tailing it out of here” and there’s a lovely bit in the second verse where the moon in turn becomes a fisherman, using the tides to “pull[] up its net of souls“) and Don Quixote (“I and the cobbled nag I ride/stumble down another weary mile“).

A descending synthesizer line, following the footsteps of the Laughing Gnome, appears in the first verses and then gets packed off; florid margin commentaries of violins and viola, courtesy of the Scorchio Quartet, color the refrains; Jordan Rudess plays a nimble piano line towards the close that seems about to break into stride or boogie-woogie. The vocal melody in the bridge is one of Bowie’s loveliest, seemingly building to a dramatic payoff that never comes (that we don’t deserve?): the refrains sound beaten into submission. One of his more indecipherable songs, it’s been all but forgotten today.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” single.

Top: Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly, “A U.S. Marine with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit leads others to a security position after seizing a Taliban forward-operating base, Afghanistan, 25 November 2001.”


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