Time

Time.
Time (live, 1973).
Time (The 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Time (live, 1974).
Time (live, 1987).

During his first US tour, Bowie had written sharp, vicious rockers (“Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor,” “Watch That Man”). Yet by the time he returned to the UK in December 1972, something had changed. The final songs he wrote for the Aladdin Sane LP were sprawling, piano-centered mood pieces: the title track, “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.”

Some biographers claim Bowie found life as a newly-minted rock star maddening and constricting, so he began writing “art” songs to break out of rock & roll’s confines. That’s possible, though a more likely influence was Bowie’s new pianist, Mike Garson, who could play in any style and who had an intuitive sense for accompaniment. Unlike Bowie’s other major pianist to date, Rick Wakeman, whose relationship with Bowie was entirely in the studio, Garson first played with Bowie on the road. So Bowie became fluent in Garson’s style (the two would sometimes play in hotel bars after shows, on standards like “My Funny Valentine”) and he soon began writing for Garson as he did for Mick Ronson. (One could argue Bowie was already thinking about how to replace Ronson.)

Garson grew up in Brooklyn in the ’50s and, until his mid-teens, had intended to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a touring musician—first in the Catskills with the likes of Jackie Mason, then in New York, where he played in jazz clubs and backed Martha and the Vandellas. Bowie arrived in New York in September ’72 and put out the word that he needed a touring pianist, and one of Garson’s friends recommended he audition. Garson went into a room he later described as being full of men with rainbow hair wearing circus clothes, and got the gig after playing eight bars of “Changes.”

“Time,” which Bowie allegedly wrote in New Orleans during a stop there in mid-November 1972, opens with an 8-bar intro in which Garson plays what he later described as a stride piano line “a little left field, with an angle.” Stride had developed in the early ’20s —it generally meant playing a set of beats with the left hand while the right hand improvised on melody. Garson’s version of stride is overly stylized, aided by Ken Scott’s production, which pushes Garson to the front of the mix (mainly in one speaker) and emphasizes his tone’s treble qualities, so much that Garson sometimes sounds like a player piano (Scott is also responsible for mixing in two bars of heavy Bowie breathing after a verse).

The final track is an elaborate duet between Ronson and Garson. Each generally comps while the other solos, though they also strike against each other (take the way Garson’s rainfall of piano notes (after “I had so many dreams”) is followed by a Ronson waltzing guitar line). Or how, in the intro repeat midway through the track, Garson’s fractured stride piano line is answered by Ronson making three whinnying runs on his guitar. It’s a masterful dual performance. Ronson winds up quoting from Beethoven’s Ninth and Garson plays a free-time solo buried in the mix during the repeated ‘LA-la-la-la-LA-la-LA-la” outro.

“Time” is an odd composition: its chorus (if it even has one) is wordless; its bridge converts into a chorus/outro; and it has three verse variations, each of which repeat after the Ronson/Garson solo. The first set goes from “Time, he’s waiting in the wings” to “his trick is you and me, boy” and is mainly Bowie’s vocal over Garson’s stride piano and Trevor Bolder’s bass. The second variant, a more harmonically complex version of the first (it still goes from E minor to F to end in C, but there are more chords along the way), features the entrance of the full band. The third is harmonically different (going from C up to G, down to C again), and Bowie sings it at full drama (beginning with “the sniper in the brain”, or, later, “breaking up is hard”).

Then there’s Bowie’s lyric, which is terrible. You could read the most notorious lines (“time, he flexes like a whore/falls wanking to the floor”) as Bowie personifying positions on a clock’s face, but they were likely conceived more as grotesque mime imagery (one shudders to imagine Bowie performing it—his backing dancers threaten to in the 1980 Floor Show performance). The lyric is all pathetic adolescent cod-profundity—masturbation as a kind of philosophy (“I looked at my watch, it said 9:25/and I think, ‘oh God I’m still alive!’ oh, shut up).

Still, buried underneath Bowie’s dreadful language is a real sense of mourning. Bowie wrote “Time” after hearing about the death of the New York Dolls’ drummer Billy Murcia, who he had met a few months earlier. Murcia had a messy, stupid rock & roll death, asphyxiating after being force-fed coffee (his friends were trying to prevent him from sleeping after Murcia took too many barbiturates). Bowie references “Billy Dolls” being taken by “time” and in later verses seems to return to him (“perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness” etc).

“Time” worked best on stage, where it served as recitative between the hard rock songs—a moment for Bowie to take a breath, smoke a cigarette, play the weary roué. So it’s no surprise the song was central to Bowie’s two most theatrical tours—the 1974 Diamond Dogs show, where Bowie sang “Time” sitting cross-legged behind an enormous black hand (a performance which veers close to Lily Von Schtupp territory), and the 1987 Glass Spider tour, where Bowie was borne aloft to the top of the infamous spider wearing fiberglass angel wings.

Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. It led off Aladdin Sane‘s second side and RCA issued an edit as a single in the US (radio stations bleeped “Quaaludes” but let “wanking” go through), where it failed to chart.

Top: New Orleans, 1972.

20 Responses to Time

  1. Andrew Tucker says:

    The lyric “I Looked At My Watch it said 9:25, and I think ‘Oh God I’m Still Alive'” is a steal from/tribute to Chuck Berry’s Reelin’ And Rockin’
    “Well I looked at my watch, it was 10:05
    Man, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive”
    Great work by the way.

  2. col1234 says:

    hey, great call–that’s definitely a Berry steal.

  3. Diamond Dog says:

    My least favourite of all Bowie compositions on one of my fav albums , you can tell the album was rushed to include this over the top glam spinal tap moment, the newly compiled david live features a slightly more ridiculous version with GArson again working this one to death.

  4. Joe says:

    I love your blog but I disagree about this song.I don’t have a problem with the flexing like a whore or wanking to the floor lines… I think they do a great job of painting and bringing to life the deviance and perversion of time. The lines sound crude and tasteless, but I think they were SUPPOSED to.

    Many people that don’t have any idea what “Life On Mars?” is about still love the song, and its lyrics, solely on the grounds of mental imagery. Using that line of thinking, regurgitating brain and sniper in the brain are a marvel of mental imagery.

    The You are not a victim/ you just scream of boredom/ you are not evicting time section is electric and really brings the song to life.

    And the lyrics after the heavy breathing, I don’t know what you don’t like about them.

    Chimes! Goddamn you’re looking old/you’ll freeze and catch a cold/because you left your coat behind/take your time I think these lines are n

    I thought this was great nostalgia.

    The rest of the lyrics I really don’t think I need to justify. Breaking up is hard but keeping dark is hateful. I’ve had so many dreams/I’ve had so many breakthroughs/But you my love were kind/But love has left you dreamless… are downright inspired, in my opinion.

    • Pierce says:

      I agree Joe, it’s not often I disagree with what’s written in this blog but Time is faultless chamber, caberat, stylized pop …. whatever, it’s absolutely superb. The lyrics are brilliant too. One of Bowie finest tracks.

    • s.t. says:

      Agreed! The lyrics are classic camp theater decadence. Same with many of Depeche Mode’s lyrics, talking about taste is beside the point.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      Yeah, Chuck – do ‘shut up’ with your ‘terrible’ lyric! Lol!!

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I agree Joe. And like, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, ‘Time’ was clearly recorded in a form perfect for the stage. I always liked the the description of this song as Bowie ‘making a clean Brecht of things’.

      I know col has noted Bowie’s apparent obsession with ‘Waiting For The Man’, but I think db mainly liked it because it was a bit, ooo-er, missus – naughty! As Warhol told Lou at the time of recording the first Velvets album, ‘keep all the dirty words in’.

      As a wannabe bad boy star in the early days, ‘WFTM’ gave Bowie underground kudos, and on later tours when he wasn’t fellating his guitarist, wearing a dress or singing songs like ‘Time’, Bowie used ‘WFTM’ as his ‘still naughty badge’. When he cleaned up and singing about drugs was let appropriate, ‘White Light/White Heat’ became his Velvets song of choice to remind people of where he came from.

      Rock ‘n’ Roll wasn’t meant to be tasteful, and there were a lot of guys competing with each other in the outrage stakes. The Stones were forced to continue the ‘out grossing’ with ‘Starf***er’ on their next album.

      ‘Aladdin Sane’ is an album about an outrageous, decadent rock star pushed to the amoral limit; cold eyed, with a handful of pills in one hand, a ten inch stump in the other, and a lecherous grin on his lips.

      P.S.

      I also think WFTM was/is inspiring because it’s the ultimate garage band song, like an up-dated ‘Louie Louie’. Everything seems to be on the down stroke only, with bad/simplistic drums and bangy piano. Lou does a, pervy NYC Rex Harrison, talky vocal. Yet it sounds great.

      What insecure, mixed ability teenager/band isn’t going to take inspiration from something that sounds that good, yet achievable. That’s why so many kids find ‘TVU & Nico’ more inspiring than Sgt Pepper. Simplistic and dirty.

      P.P.S.

      Wm S. Burroughs thought the WFTM lyric – and Lou – ridiculous.

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    I really must say that this is – and probably always will be – my all-time favorite David Bowie song ever. It’s so sinister, stately, sad and elegant, evoking feelings of remorse, waste and regret – and I honestly don’t think anyone with a heart or a brain could resist chanting along with the La-la-la-la” parts.

    Although…I certainly think there’s a slight humor factor in the notion of all the lyric’s existential angst and regret all ultimately being just a hardcore case of butterflies and pre-stage jitters! (“Well, I look and my watch, it says 9:25 / And I think ‘Oh God, I’m still alive!’ / We should be on by now!”) But, y’know, I think that’s just a part of the song’s overall charm.

    I can also definitely say that Aladdin Sane is beyond a shadow of a doubt my favorite David Bowie album ever. I suppose it’s often regarded as a pale sequel existing in the shadow of the previous year’s Ziggy Stardust album. But if the sequel analogy does apply, then Aladdin is definitely on par with The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back, particularly since it’s nothing if not darker and deeper than its predecessor.

    The hiring of Mike Garson to the Spiders From Mars lineup was ultimately one of the all-time greatest personnel decisions that David Bowie ever made, because I think the man is definitely a genius. The man adds so much stylistic depth to the songs – from the lush 19th-century Romanticism of Lady Grinning Soul and the dissonant avant-garde jazz frenzy of Aladdin Sane itself. And while the 1920’s New Orleans stride piano style was certainly a starting point for the Time‘s composition, I also hear more than a hint of pre-World War II German cabaret in the song’s vampy vibe! It’s definitely Garson’s influence which makes Aladdin Sane so much more than a sequel to Ziggy, and my love for the later 1.Outside also has a lot to do with Garson’s inimitable contribution.

    • Eivind says:

      Its one of my favourites too, even though I am not that fond of the album itself.
      I love the way the song starts slowly and builds up to the climax which is the “all I had to give, was the guilt for dreaming” line following by Ronsons wailing guitar.

      Its wonderful, just wonderful.

  6. Pierce says:

    That being said Diamond Duke, I would also say that the firing of Mick Ronson was another all-time great personnel decisions that David Bowie ever made. As much as I love Mick, there would be no Diamond Dogs and beyond…

  7. Mark says:

    But Ronno wasn’t fired. Over on Bowie Wonderworld it was discovered that in the 29th March 1975 issue of Disc, Ronson said that Bowie asked him to ‘go to America with him’ in 1974. According to Mick, Bowie phoned him up and said he wanted to tour America with Ronson but with a different backing band. But Mick didn’t want to do it:

    “Disc: It must have been a difficult decision to make – to turn down a tour with Bowie who was, at that time, the hottest property in the music business?

    Ronson: ‘I would have liked to play in America with David…I guess I owe a lot to him. When he asked me if I would go to America with him and I said no, it was only because I had one or two things to do myself. At the same time, I was thinking, would I really like to go with him? Then the feeling of guilt came into it. You think, you owe this person something, you don’t kick it all back in their face. It was hard for me to say no. But he understood why’. “

  8. apologia pro sua vita says:

    The idea of time as a whore with us all merely his ‘tricks’ sounds about right to me. I don’t think it’s cod-profundity, rather a picturesque expression of anger and disgust at the dear old 4th dimension.

  9. Rufus Oculus says:

    I have always read this song as a plea for gay liberation (as it would be termed in 1973). ‘To keep this dark is hateful’. ”We should be on by now’. Even if DB is playing a role. Much like a companion piece to Lou Reed’s Make Up on Transformer.

    • s.t. says:

      The “Billy Dolls” line, even if it was a coded reference to his dead friend, was certainly a nod to gay culture.

      • Shaggy Dog says:

        How?

      • s.t. says:

        Actually, I must retract the above statement. The Billy doll I was thinking of (an openly gay doll character) came out decades after this song. When I saw them in ’97, I thought they were revivals of a classic doll from the 70’s. In fact, that original gay doll was Gay Bob, but Wikipedia tells me that even Bob came out after this song was written (’77). So, I stand corrected.

  10. dm says:

    Is it too obvious to mention that the chorus is essentially identical to All The Young Dudes (I didn’t notice this till I was playing it and my girlfriend started singing the ATYD chorus over the top, it even has a very similar vocal backing)

    • col1234 says:

      good catch! thing is, some of the song was written in 1971 for George Underwood, so it’s possible actually DB rewrote the “time” chorus for “all the young dudes”!

      • dm says:

        Dudes/Time must be at least tied with Heroes for the most plundered song in the Bowie songbook…

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