Wild Is the Wind

Wild Is the Wind (Johnny Mathis, 1957).
Wild Is the Wind (Nina Simone, 1964).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, 1976).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, single video edit, 1981).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, live, 1983).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 2000).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, live, 2006).

I used to run into Warren from time to time during the 1970s. Once, at a nightclub called Reno Sweeney, we watched an entertainer named Genevieve White. This was just a few years after the Fillmore East had closed. Maybe Warren and I had thought the Fillmore, and all it represented, was going to be definitive for our generation, and here we were in a nightclub. Genevieve White had just sung a song called “Romance Is On the Rise.”

“Romance is coming back, Warren,” I said.

“You know what’s coming back?” Warren said. “Everything. And then it’s going away for good.”

George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context.

Station to Station is sometimes described as the work of a Howard Hughes-style obsessive, with Bowie locking himself in the studio and, fueled by cocaine, driving his musicians to play for days on end. The stories, some of which are even true, have inspired the album’s reputation of necromancy and manic isolation. Yet Station to Station wasn’t a secret black mass either: it came together fairly quickly (two months of work at most) and often seems to have been a typical Hollywood rock star production, with occasional studio visits by the likes of Ron Wood, Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe, Bobby Womack and Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra, recording at Cherokee Studios in the same period*, came by and heard some Station to Station playbacks, and his reported enthusiasm for Bowie’s version of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s “Wild Is the Wind” likely ensured its inclusion on the album, though Bowie already was justifiably proud of his performance. He’d been wanting to record the song since 1972, he told Crowe at the time. “This has a good European feel,” he said, listening to the finished track. “It feels like a bridge to the future.”

Bowie later called his lead vocal on “Wild Is the Wind” one of his finest vocal performances, and the track does seem like the culmination of Bowie’s decade-long efforts to determine how best to deploy his voice: the reedy, sometimes-Cockney singer of David Bowie seems leagues away from the apocalyptic crooner of “Wild Is the Wind.”

By comparison, the original version of “Wild Is the Wind” by Johnny Mathis, used on the soundtrack of the same-titled 1957 Anthony Quinn Western, is a lark. Barely two minutes long, the Mathis version is working to keep a timetable, with Mathis tumbling through the verses; his vocal, fine but without much nuance, chases the melody and is kept aloft by lush waves of strings.

Bowie saw potential for obsessiveness and grandeur in “Wild Is the Wind”: the essential moodiness of Tiomkin’s music, with its constant shifts from major to minor, and the desperation in its lyric (“with your kiss my life begins”) deserving of an equally extravagant vocal. He found his inspiration in Nina Simone, who had performed “Wild Is the Wind” at Carnegie Hall in March 1964. There Simone (who Bowie had met in Los Angeles during his exile) snakes and burrows through the song over seven minutes—where Mathis had sung “my love is like the wind” as though he was reading a greeting card, Simone intends to embody the element for a time.

Bowie seems determined to outdo Simone’s renovations to the vocal: there’s a three-bar tortuous “you—ooo—oooh—ooh kiss me,” he hollows out vowels and elongates consonants into trills of sound (“willlllllllld is the winnnnnnnnnd”), there’s the dramatic plunge into the depths on another “you kiss me,” and Bowie’s final, increasingly manic, repetitions of the title line, the last ending with a sustained high B eventually subsiding to A. The vocal is on such a grandiose scale that no actual human being seems deserving of its efforts—it’s a monumental performance seemingly intended for a monument itself.

The accompaniment is as restrained as Bowie is over-the-top; it’s centered on multiple-tracked acoustic guitars (reminiscent of “Quicksand”) and features elegant lead work by Earl Slick and fine support by George Murray and Dennis Davis (whose tom fill after Bowie’s a capella “don’t you know you’re life itself?” gives the propulsion to move into the final choruses). Magnificent stuff—the best cover Bowie recorded in his life.

Recorded September-October 1975, and sequenced to end Station to Station. Released as a single in November 1981 (RCA BOW 10, #24 UK) to promote the sorta-hits compilation ChangesTwoBowie. Performed occasionally on the 1983 tour and in 2000, where a performance was taped on 23 June for TFI Friday. A performance from the Black Ball charity show in New York in November 2006 is also Bowie’s last public musical performance to date.

Top: Mary Ellen Mark, “Henry Miller and Twinka, Los Angeles, 1975.”

Echoes of the wind: Cat Power, George Michael, TV On the Radio, Bat for Lashes.

* According to this Sinatra sessionography, it seems most likely that Sinatra’s visit coincided with his 24 October 1975 session, where the Chairman recorded a John Denver Christmas song. Also, according to Marc Spitz’s Bowie, DB sang harmony on a Sinatra track during these sessions, though I’ve seen no other reference to this.

9 Responses to Wild Is the Wind

  1. post it says:

    I like the way on the black and white video the sax player just sways moodily from side to side but never actually comes in — but yes one of Bowie’s absolute bests

  2. jg says:

    this song and word on a wing. too overwhelming. can’t listen often.

  3. David L says:

    “The vocal is on such a grandiose scale that no actual human being seems deserving of its efforts—it’s a monumental performance seemingly intended for a monument itself.”

    Very well said. Unfortunately, this is why I’ve never been able to enjoy this track — its excess borders on unintentional camp, for me. And the way he strangles the final line would make Mariah Carey proud. So I wouldn’t agree that this is his best cover; though I’m not sure what is. He’s done quite a few good ones.

  4. Bowie Lover says:

    Bowie is certainly no stranger to camp, intentional or otherwise. Ziggy, Aladdin and many other Bowie incarnations walk that fine line between pompous self indulgence and sublime performance. Isn’t that part of the appeal really?

  5. F. Lagnab says:

    This is one of the best pieces of short music criticism I’ve ever read. Looking forward to scrolling through the rest of the posts here.

  6. Maj says:

    I don’t listen to this very often. It’s too OTT even for me. I have to agree with David L. on this one.
    Also agree with “jg” it indeed is an overwhelming song…but so is Heroes in many aspects…I have to be in the right mood for Heroes but that happens quite often. :) Yet I’m very rarely in the mood for this over the top braying. I could agree that Bowie’s on top form here vocally but at the same time I’ll take his shouting in It’s No Game Pt 1 over this any time…

  7. An outstanding review, thank you.
    Just a hint to replace one of the Youtube links (Bowie/Garson 2000 Yahoo Awards), which has been deleted, by this one:

  8. postpunkmonk says:

    Bowie’s take is undeniably impressive but since 2001, this song has been owned by the late Billy MacKenzie, in my mind. MacKenzie committed suicide in 1997. For several years afterward, many of his unreleased recordings filtered upward to release status thanks to the efforts of his family and friends. A recording of “Wild Is The Wind” from the posthumous album “Eurocentric” was issued as a CD EP in an edition of 500, along with two B-sides. The music is similarly intimate as on the Bowie version. Nothing garish, primarily Steve Aungle’s piano accompaniment. Billy’s performance of “Wild Is the Wind” on this recording is such that he makes David Bowie sound like a street person in comparison. No, really. Bowie ends up sounding like a punch drunk stumblebum compared to the vocal MacKenzie cuts loose with here. Billy MacKenzie is the proverbial man who could sing the phone book and make us all weep. He’s Scott Walker in the same skin as Nina Simone as MacKenzie’s androgynous vocal range is capable of almost anything. He holds the final “saaaaaaaaaaad” for as long as it takes to break your heart.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I agree the wonderful Billy MacKenzie delivers a stunning version of ‘WITW’, with his octave leaping gift of a voice. But let’s not forget that Billy could often over-sing and camp a song up more than a truck full of diva’s.

      He had more charisma in one raised eyebrow than any band of the last thirty years, but a few more tunes would have helped the songs of The Associates reach the heights their talent deserved.

      His legacy is still impressive – sadly missed.

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