Lady Grinning Soul

Lady Grinning Soul.

The gorgeous “Lady Grinning Soul” seems written for an imaginary film. As James Perone notes, Bowie’s song is melodically similar to Quincy Jones’ “On Days Like These,” which opens The Italian Job, while his vocal’s initial upward leap and step-by-step descent echoes Max Steiner’s main theme for Gone With The Wind. Most of all, “Lady Grinning Soul” is Bowie’s lost James Bond movie theme song, seemingly paced to accompany a Maurice Binder title sequence. Even the last line, “your living end,” sounds like an Ian Fleming title (one far better than, say, “Quantum of Solace”).

The lyrical signifiers—Volkswagen Bugs, canasta, Americard (Visa’s original name)—don’t really connote glamour or mystery, though. If anything, they suggest my late grandmother, and possibly yours. Perhaps Bowie wanted a cultural mishmash, with French perfume, Uruguayan card games, German cars and American credit used as shorthand to indicate the Lady is pure cosmopolitan: stateless, rootless, all-conquering. Or maybe it was just Bowie taking delight in savoring the strange words, the tripping syllables of “canasta,” the melodious depths of “cologne.”

It’s said to be about the singer Claudia Lennear, and it’s more tasteful than her other alleged tribute, “Brown Sugar.” But there’s a vagueness to the Lady’s character, with the cinematic feel of the music and the lyric’s oddities lessening the sense the song’s about a specific person. “Lady Grinning Soul” is more the glory of a perfect symbol, one through which someone trapped in life can find release, false or no. The key line is “how can life become her point of view?,” liberation from the self by submission to another, possibly ending in death. (For Bowie, this is a love song.)

Everyone on the track seems dressed to the nines. It’s the closing number, after all. Mike Garson’s piano intro gives a taste of the verse vocal melody and adds a Spanish tinge. His piano cascades through much of the track: in the verses, he spins out repeated arpeggios with his right hand while Bowie sings, as though he’s trying to upset Bowie’s timing. “French, with a little Franz Liszt thrown in,” Garson described his playing to David Buckley, adding that he also took cues from Liberace. So the avant-garde piano of “Aladdin Sane” is replaced by something that comes close, at times, to vintage European schlock—Garson’s performance is the biggest clue that “Lady Grinning Soul” could actually be something of a parody.

Mick Ronson plays a Spanish-style acoustic guitar solo against Garson’s arpeggios (with Garson eventually echoing Ronson’s playing), and finishes off the track without artifice, his electric guitar playing soaring, vibrato-saturated notes as the lights dim. Bowie’s saxophone arrangement and his vocal are the finest on the record, with Bowie sounding like a man who swallowed a dream. “Lady Grinning Soul” ends a sordid, urban and often-cynical record with pure delusive romance.

Recorded ca. 20-24 January 1973. “Lady Grinning Soul” was the last song written for, recorded for, and sequenced on Aladdin Sane (Bowie scrapped a remake of “John I’m Only Dancing,” which was intended to be the album closer, possibly because it spoiled the LP’s closing mood). Bowie has never performed it live.

Top: Francis Bacon, Triptych, May-June 1973.

10 Responses to Lady Grinning Soul

  1. David says:

    Interesting to find out the true spelling of Claudia Linnear’s (sic) name. I remember seeing her (wearing hot pants) as a backing singer for Leon Russell on Disco 2 or similar at a very impressionable age. She made Tina Turner look ordinary. I’m surprised that even more songs weren’t written about her…

  2. Annie says:

    I don’t know why, but after reading Amanda Lear’s book /L’Amant Dali/ I thought it could be for her. She drove ‘a beetle car’, and also I think they had something around that time. Or at least I’d like to think that it’s so. ;)

  3. I play in the UKs top Bowie trib and this is my favourite one to perform and a real challenge,its so delicate,the trance like ending is outrageous and Bowie’s vocal is amazing:)www.absolutebowie.net HJ

  4. Maj says:

    Lady Grinning Sould is beautiful, especially Mike Garson’s piano on it. But I, too, can’t shake this feeling this record is partly parody.
    On the other hand which Bowie song is not? there’s such a thin like bewteen him being honestly theatrical & basically him laughing at his audience & himself…
    He’s The Laughing Gnome. ;)

  5. Pierce says:

    Masterpiece.

    Brilliant album closer.

    Brilliant album.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Maybe I’m being totally wrong about it but for me it always felt like this song was about luck!

  7. [...] lost James Bond movie theme song’, zoals Chris O’Leary op zijn uitgebreide Bowie-blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame schreef. Lady Grinning Song is een liefdesliedje. Er wordt gezegd dat het over de soulzangeres [...]

  8. Your “James Bond” theme insight is nothing I’ve heard before but really spot on. As one of my favorite Ziggy-era songs I should have realized how sonically similar it is to, say, Goldfinger (which coincidentally was rcorded by Anthony Newley before being given to Dame Shirley).

    I think it’s remarkable that Bowie has never performed this live. Any inisght as to why?

  9. Diamond Duke says:

    This truly is a wonderful song. Mike Garson’s piano playing conjures up a beautiful 19th-century atmosphere right from the intro, and Mick Ronson turns in a gorgeous Spanish-flavored guitar solo. And the chord changes the song goes through contribute strongly to its bewitching vibe.

    Christopher Stansfield,
    Not to mention the fact that David’s falsetto is pushing right to the top of his range. I imagine that would be one hell of a performance for Bowie to sustain on night after night of a tour, especially considering the wear and tear of the mid-’70s cocaine years. That’s probably why he’s never ever performed it live. And while he’s certainly no slouch in the vocal department, even at 66, I reckon it would now be an even greater challenge. Yeah, I imagine he could lower the key of the song nowadays (assuming he ever performs live again), and Garson would probably have no difficulty with that.

    However, Bowie seems to have always had a high regard for this song, in spite of his never having performed it live. It did make the cut on the 2008 iSelect compilation…

    ALADDIN SANE (My #1 favorite David Bowie album!)
    The songs listed in order of personal preference:

    01. Time
    02. Cracked Actor
    03. Lady Grinning Soul
    04. Panic In Detroit
    05. Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
    06. The Jean Genie
    07. Drive-In Saturday
    08. Watch That Man
    09. John, I’m Only Dancing (Sax Version) (30th Anniversary bonus track)
    10. The Prettiest Star
    11. Let’s Spend The Night Together
    12. All The Young Dudes (30th Anniversary bonus track)

  10. tinmachine says:

    A minor and speculative aside, but from a link posted by the official Bowie facebook page to a cover by Leah Kardos, while she doesn’t sound like Kate Bush it made me realise just how much it feels like a Bush song.

    Lyrically speaking,

    And when the clothes are strewn
    don’t be afraid of the room
    Touch the fullness of her breast.
    Feel the love of her caress
    She will be your living end

    would really slot in nicely with her first two albums – L’Amour Looks Something Like You cuts particularly close. Perhaps too the way the guitar and piano are woven here proved a major influence in her early writing.

    Kate’s spoken of Bowie as an influence (and for my money of all his children she’s come the closest to capturing what makes him so great – even to the point of becoming his effective surrogate in the mid-80s, as Chris notes in a later entry) and I’d certainly imagine that this song was on heavy rotation in the first year of her career.

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