Ballad of the Adventurers

Ballad of the Adventurers (6:16 in).

I’m not a rat. It must be lighter out there. My dear Baal, you’ll get to the door. You still have knees. It’s better in the doorway…

Brecht, Baal (his last words).

“Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s last will and testament. After years of living out in the woods, he and his friend Ekart return to civilization, only to find that the bars have grown filthier and everyone’s grown older, shabbier and drunker. But Baal’s older and more pathetic as well (“nothing’s changed here…only you, it seems, have grown more refined,” a barfly sneers at him).

Asked for a song, Baal offers a final tribute to those “who were flung out alike from heaven and from Hades” (like the cursed harlot Evelyn Roe, of Brecht’s early poem). Regretting ever having left the womb, they wander across “absinthe-green oceans,” solacing their tortured minds with the image of a little meadow with “blue sky overhead and nothing else.” The adventurers of Baal’s song are the last bohemians, tearing through their short, appalling lives, hungry for sensation, settling for violence.

Ekart paws at a barmaid while he baits Baal (“why shouldn’t I have women? Am I your lover?“) until Baal, enraged, stabs him to death. Baal flees town for the last time, heading north, “following the underside of the leaves.” Sick and weary, he winds up in a logger’s camp, where the loggers jeer his impending death; one even spits on his face. Baal dies as he had lived: in mockery, curses and rebellion. His last act is to haul himself outside, so he can expire in the open air. “Stars—hmm,” he mutters as he crawls.

The least melodic of the Baal songs, “Adventurers,” far more than the rest of the EP, sounds like an exercise, an overly ambitious attempt to do an art song. Still, could Baal have been a beginning, rather than a footnote?

As a goof, I once wrote an alternate Bowie history (“Love You Till Tuesday”) in which Bowie’s jaunty, irritating pop singles of the mid-Sixties were smash hits, setting him off on a life much like Englebert Humperdinck’s. So what could Bowie’s Eighties have been, had Baal been an initial foray into, for lack of a better term, the commercial avant-garde? Bowie collaborations with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Laurie Anderson or John Zorn? A run of art-rock soundscape records like Tom Waits’ mid-Eighties trilogy? Minimalist synthesizer instrumentals? Bowie scoring Jarmusch or Wenders films, producing Sonic Youth?

Some of Bowie’s moves in the Nineties hint at this sort of revision: it’s as though Bowie beat his way back to the fork and peered down the other path, wondering where it could have led him. But he wouldn’t have been “David Bowie” had he gone the other way. The David Bowie of Let’s Dance is also the world’s Bowie; in a way, his vast commercial success became his final, most enduring incarnation. So Baal remains forgotten; it’s just a trace of a world in which Bowie was a lesser, if greater figure.

A Prologue on Money and Ambition

In 1982, Bowie was looking for a new record deal. His current label RCA was battered: it had lost $14.5 million in 1981 alone, with its bet on manufacturing videodiscs proving, with the advent of VCRs, to be a disaster. For its record label, RCA’s main pop acts remained Elvis Presley (unfortunately dead since 1977) and Bowie (who, in RCA’s eyes, was in much the same condition). In a few years, RCA would be eaten up by General Electric.

So RCA, in its last days as a stand-alone company, had neither the desire nor the capital to humor an artist who was their Bob Dylan: great press, great prestige, mediocre to poor sales. With his contract up, Bowie now wanted Michael Jackson-level, Fleetwood Mac-level money, but his past performance was nowhere in their range. As of June 1983, Bowie’s total global album sales were as follows (according to Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust, figures rounded up/down):

Three top sellers: Ziggy Stardust (1.38 million units moved), ChangesOneBowie (1.33 million), Young Americans (923,000). A few gold records: Diamond Dogs (745,000), David Live (598,000), Station to Station (552,800), Aladdin Sane (533,000); a few mid-list sellers: Space Oddity (455,600), Hunky Dory (445,600), Pin Ups (421,250), Scary Monsters (347,400). With the “Berlin” records, a complete cratering: “Heroes” (279,000), Low (265,900), Lodger (153,360), Stage (127,350). Between 1977 and 1983, one of every two new Bowie LPs was returned unsold by retailers. By contrast, Michael Jackson sold over a million copies of Off the Wall between August and December 1979 alone.

Finally free from having to pay his former manager mechanical royalties, and feeling unappreciated and (relatively) underpaid by RCA, Bowie wanted, essentially, to cash in at last. So he needed an album that, when shopped around, would get a label excited enough to provide his payday. According to George Tremlett, Bowie first had his staff write profiles of all of the major labels, “detailing their commercial strengths and weaknesses, their key personnel and their willingness to invest in promotion” (the latter a key point for Bowie, who felt RCA had bungled the promotion of his Berlin albums.) He finally targeted EMI, aiming for a 3-LP deal reportedly worth $17 million ($36 million, inflation-adjusted).

In late 1982, Nile Rodgers flew to Switzerland to stay at Bowie’s house in Lausanne. The two had recently met and Rodgers had agreed to produce Bowie’s next record. Bowie sat down with his 12-string acoustic guitar (Rodgers recalled being baffled that Bowie only had six strings on it, though) and ran through a batch of new songs: they were mainly sketches, sometimes just chords, top melodies, a few choruses. Before he started to play one song, Bowie told Rodgers he thought this was the hit. It was a folky piece that reminded Rodgers of the Byrds. “I was like, ‘that’s not happening, man,”” Rodgers recalled to Paul Trynka. “It totally threw me. It was not a song you could dance to.”…

Top: Don Hudson, “Detroit, MI 1981.”

26 Responses to Ballad of the Adventurers

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    I haven’t read the Trynka book yet. I’ve read so many bowie books that I thought – not another one! But I borrowed the book from the library I work at and opened at random and read the part you just described and thought, ok I’ve got to read this book. Stuff I’d never read before. Let’s Dance was a smart thing for Bowie to do – why not reach as many people as possible and introduce a new generation to his music. Hook them with the commercial stuff and then a proportion of them would get into his edgier stuff and get a great musical education. Hey, I just described what happened to me, but I think it applies to a lot of Bowie fans who got into him in the mid eighties. Sure some of it sucked, but it did have a good outcome for some people.

    Great write-up once again.

  2. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Not sure whether Bowie’s version is ‘an overly ambitious attempt to do an art song’, but you’re right, it doesn’t quite work, does it? Ernst Busch’s version of the song, accompanied only by a guitar, is much more powerful for me and captures the mood of the end of the play more effectively.

  3. ian says:

    I loved this bit of Baal. I’ve listened to it before, but for some reason skip over it far too often.

    And also, if Stardust is to be believed, those sales figures are really interesting, in particular how high Diamond Dogs and David Live are. David Live I can imagine attributing to high european sales since he didn’t tour there. But I guess it’s just intriguing to compare those figures to their current amounts of adoration (and really surprising to see Station to Station so far down the list?). I’m curious to see where the list stands now (I’m sure Let’s Dance is wayyy on top).

  4. Remco says:

    The Nile Rodgers anecdote says it all really. Bowie needed someone to guide him in the world of commercial pop because, judging by his record sales, he just wasn’t very good at ‘commercial’.
    Maybe that’s my problem with ‘Let’s Dance’, it doesn’t feel like Bowie’s in the driver’s seat, like he’s just going along for the ride hoping Rodgers knows what he’s doing.
    But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself….

  5. diamond dog says:

    Superb prologue the sales figures show how behibd in sales he was , fascinating stuff and he was very much in need of an album to draw the younger audience into the web. Far from not being in the driving seat I feel he needed someone to bounce off to give it a commercial touch. Let’s face it he deserved a pay day and I love the title track , it oozes class , it takes out its old chap and pees allover the copy cats ,soundalikes etc and leaves em looking old hat and tired. Roll on the review.

  6. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Let’s Dance is a great single and a good album. Looking forward to reading about it.

    I know it’s not your domain to comment on Bowie’s personal life, but will you by any chance be dedicating any words to the infamous “DAVID BOWIE STRAIGHT” Rolling Stones interview, as sort of a bookend to his “I’m gay and always have been” interview you covered in “John I’m Only Dancing”? It might not flow very well but it is an important part of his commercial homogenization in the 1980s.

    • col1234 says:

      Pinstripe–

      yes, certainly. I think the public repudiation of his gay past is critical to what DB became in the mid-’80s (the “all around entertainer” of the MTV age) & ties in, unfortunately, with the homophobia of the period

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Very interesting sales figures. I think Bowie’s lack of commercial success pre-Let’s Dance is an over-simplification. The fact that this EP could chart in the UK is testament to his huge commercial appeal. If I remember rightly post-Scary Monsters, Hunky Dory and ZIggy Stardust charted again, as well as a very successful K-tel compilation
    Of course, it was a very different story in the US, as witnessed by the fact that his ‘gay past’ was an issue in 1983. (I think if we take the US out of those figures, he’d probably have been a lot closer to Michael Jackson than Bob Dylan.)
    I think the same goes for the all-round entertainer point. He always had a streak of that in him. Nothing he did post-Let’s Dance was much of a departure from duetting ‘Song Sung Blue’ with Cher or singing Christmas songs with Bing.

  8. Gnomemansland says:

    Really hard to reconcile the sales figures with Bowie’s enormous popularity in the UK during the 1970s. Lodger is not one of my personal favourites but how could it only sell 150,000 worldwide that can have hardly covered the studio costs? As you say Bowie could have just said what the heck and gone avant playing small clubs, collaborating with artists but he was always too ambitious for that and once you have tasted the luxury hotel lifestyle going back to Beckenham probably doesn’t hold much appeal.

    • unterwasser says:

      I have to say I find those figures hard to believe too. Alladin Sane was #1 in the UK for 5 weeks and and top 20 in the US. Unless sales had collapsed completelt in the 70s.

      • col1234 says:

        again, this is per a book that’s gossipy and inaccurate for a number of other areas of DB’s life. However, Zanetta/Edwards seem pretty on the ball in terms of money and sales—subsequent bios (PT’s for one) seem to consider them generally reliable—Zanetta, remember, was president of MainMan and had access to these figures.

  9. diamond dog says:

    The usa has never been able reconcile his gay outbursts and dress wearing past. I remember at school in the late 70,s not telling anyone I liked Bowie as the local heavy metal bigots would kick the fudge out of ya that was in the uk . Bowie has always been the ultimate all rounder and spent the seventies telling everyone he was an actor not a muscian. In the 80’s I think he fullfilled his acting ambition 83 was the big payout and there’s noone I wanted to see it happen to more.

    • Gnomemansland says:

      Ah I was in the UK at the same time and I remember even quite heavy metal types being into Bowie – especially the Ziggy stuff they were less keen on the Berlin and Young Americans.

  10. diamond dog says:

    In manchester most men in the street looked on Bowie as a weirdo…was different when new romantic hit big. Amongst punks he was liked , mod revivalists hated him though Weller is a big fan now and metalheads hated him. A mention of him and all they knew was “he’s a poof ain,t he ?”. Let’s dance introduced him to a massive cross spectrum and opened the back catalogue to chart again.

  11. ofer says:

    Great observation – bowie is canonized for his 70’s work but that would never have happend to the same extant if it wasn’t for the 80’s sell out. He would have been lou reed, perhaps an inch more famous (the brits don’t have much impact on worldwide fame); Instead ha became the 70’s Beatles for albums that didn’t sell a third of what the fab four had sold.

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    diamond dog, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree here. I was a teenager in Manchester in the 70s and Bowie was as mainstream as it was possible to be. He was the musical safe choice. Everybody owned a copy of either ChangesOne, Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust.
    Where I lived, the walls of the local shops, pub carpark and school were covered in Bowie graffiti. When you got a hair cut, there were three choices: short back and sides, a trim, or a “Dave Bowie”. In the centre of town, on Market St., there was a shop going by the name ‘Jean Jeanie’, and it was hardly cutting edge. Do you remember Rebel (rebel) perfume and its advertising campaign?
    I’m not sure how Let’s Dance was any more mainstream than Scary Monsters, which had a number one and 3 other chart singles. It was after Scary Monsters, not Lets’ Dance, that his back catalogue charted again. He was successful in 1983, but he was ubiquitous in 1973.

  13. diamond dog says:

    Cripes in greater manchester he was an accepted known gay star but admitting being a fan meant you must be into gay men. I remember during glams heyday he was flovor of the month but where I live it was not at all the norm. It was all metalheads.

  14. diamond dog says:

    Thank god for rupert the riley zoom beep beep.

  15. diamond dog says:

    You have us waiting excited now cAnnot wait for your take on the coming decade.

  16. jopasso says:

    Shall we dance?

  17. Teenwildlife says:

    These sales figures were for the US only not the world.Undoubtedly he was only a cult figure in the US but huge in the UK.RCA supported him in the UK and he may have been happy to stay with them if he received similar support in the US.Alas they struggled to sell him to the more conservative US public.

  18. Rufus Oculus says:

    Baal (the BBC production with Bowie as lead) was the first thing I taped on my rented (nobody could afford to buy VCRs in those days) VHS video recorder from Granada rentals. From memory he was superb and got rave reviews for his acting as he did for his stint in the Elephant Man.

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