I Can’t Read

I Can’t Read.
I Can’t Read (rehearsal, fragment, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
I Can’t Read (Bridge School Benefit, 1996).
I Can’t Read (Bowie and Gabrels, acoustic, radio broadcast, 1997).
I Can’t Read (remake, 1997).
I Can’t Read (remake, video, 1997).
I Can’t Read (live, 1999).

Bowie, a keen judge of his own work, singled out “I Can’t Read” as the best song on Tin Machine: he brought up the track in mid-Nineties interviews as an example of what Tin Machine had gotten right, and he revised it in 1996, keeping it in his live sets for the rest of the decade.

As Tom Ewing wrote about “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie’s pop was always at its strongest when it was him alone in his house of mirrors, and “I Can’t Read” is the Beckettian epilogue to Bowie’s run of songs-of-songwriting: “Quicksand,” written at the early vertiginous height of Bowie’s compositional powers; “Sound and Vision” where a weakened Bowie summons a possibly-departed muse; “Ashes”, where Bowie entombed himself in his work. “I Can’t Read” is the end of the line—a man bled clean of inspiration, left only to mutter curses at an audience that inexplicably wants something more from him.

“I Can’t Read” came out of Bowie’s summer 1988 demo sessions with Reeves Gabrels (who co-wrote the music) and it stings of the wounds left from the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider debacle. With that record and tour, Bowie had thought he’d ended his creative drought: Never was supposed to be his grand counter-move, his third-quarter rejuvenation. But the critics had disliked it, the public had been indifferent to it. He had played for stakes and lost. In the past, even when he felt dried up, he had tacked down and delivered. This time it just didn’t work, he had failed to eclipse himself; he faced the hard prospect that he could no longer write well.

As always with Bowie, there are mirrors reflecting mirrors—it’s a mistake to consider “I Can’t Read” being directly autobiographical. Rather, “Bowie-the-composer” had been a reoccurring character in his songs, whether as a central figure or popping up in Hitchcock-esque cameos (as in “Life on Mars?,” whose last verse ends with the camera rolling back, revealing “Bowie” as the director giving cues to his mousy-haired lead actress (“it’s about to writ again/as I ask you to focus on…“)). If Major Tom had been Bowie’s symbol of the lost promise of the Sixties, Bowie-the-composer had been his aesthetic surrogate, as “Nathan Zuckerman” was for Philip Roth, the vehicle through which Bowie showed the struggles of a belated artist, of being an inheritor wandering through an abandoned property, or, as here, being an emptied man in a dry season.

In “I Can’t Read” Bowie has illiteracy stand for creative barrenness—it’s a latter-day illiteracy, as a facility which had once come so easily is now lost. “Bowie” tries to capture a melody he’s come up with, but finds he can’t read music anymore, that he can’t play it, that even the constituent parts of music—the flats and sharps, chords, guitar tones, vocal phrasings—no longer make any sense. Much of the track is howling waves of feedback, as though noise is the only sound that Bowie can still find any meaning in. He watches TV, flicks from cop show to newscast. Going for a jog, he sees himself on a magazine cover. He’s a man reduced to his famous face, a mask with nothing behind it.

There are tastes of his former glories in the lyric: “countdown” calling back to Major Tom, or another reference to the buried “Shadow Man.” And Andy Warhol, having died in 1987, appears as a ghost. The obvious reference is Bowie’s tribute to Warhol from nearly two decades earlier. There Bowie had held all the power, dancing Warhol through his song like a marionette, using Warhol’s maxims about art and fakery to build his own plastic rock singers. Now Bowie’s reduced to arbitration: Andy, where’s my fifteen minutes? If all that remains open is a cheap celebrity high, come, let’s have it.

The only means forward is to move at a crawl, with a song that sounds like it’s going to collapse after every verse. “I Can’t Read” takes nearly a minute to get started: a basic 4/4 drumbeat, an occasionally querying bass, squalls of feedback. Finally Bowie begins to sing, keeping on a single note (just above the chord, E minor’s, root note) until he sinks a step down to close each phrase (“I-can’t-read-and-I-can’t-write down“). It’s a voice drained of any audible emotion, just a blank, observational tone; it’s like a man who’s survived a car crash calmly recounting the details to a policeman. Each meager vocal phrase trails off, leaving empty bars for Gabrels to fill—first with a primitive grinding riff, like a car stuck between gears, then even more inchoate lines.

The chorus finally comes, summoned by Hunt Sales’ table-rapping. Bowie, roused momentarily from his stasis, soars up a fifth and sounds light-headed. “I—can’t read shit anymore…I just can’t get it right, can’t get it right,” delivering the latter lines in a mocking sing-song, as though he’s taunting the listener. You want a melody? Here: blah blah blah. (The chords are also meat-and-potatoes rock & roll, just I-IV-V all the way through). And then, as if he can feel pain in his bones again for a moment, Bowie suddenly closes the chorus in exasperation: I CAN’T read SHIT, I CAN’T READ SHIT.

There seems nowhere to go next. The players meander, decide on running through the long intro again, but there’s the sense that anyone could just stop playing and let the song expire. You wonder if Bowie’s done with the thing too, but he comes back for another verse and chorus. After the last I CAN’T READ SHIT, the song is finally allowed to die.

For once Tin Machine makes sense, as the players’ indulgences, their lack of a common language, act out the song’s mood of self-loathing and resentment. The hiss of Hunt Sales’ ride cymbals in the chorus, his intrusive fills, add a cracked joy to Bowie’s admission of defeat. Tony Sales’ bassline hook in the chorus suggests Trevor Bolder’s jaunty line that drove “Suffragette City”: it’s as if the sound of Bowie’s past triumphs is eating through the recording. Kevin Armstrong, again low in the mix, adds perspective and nuance, sometimes paralleling the barely-there vocal melody on guitar. And the exuberant noise that Gabrels crafts is the counterpart to Bowie’s dispassionate vocal. It’s the way out, staring in Bowie’s face the whole time.

Bowie revised “I Can’t Read” as soon as he began playing it live. He told an interviewer that the Tin Machine tracks were works in progress, that the album versions of the songs were just initial attempts to capture them, and that the songs would be developed further on stage.

So in their short 1989 tour, the Machine slowed the tempo (the original “Read” goes at a fairly fast clip), letting it brood, as if to make the song more purgatorial, with Bowie throwing in lines from Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” (which they were covering at the time). In 1991, the Machine flayed “Read” open on stage, letting Tony Sales’ bass sing through the intro. They gave it pantomime—Gabrels played a police car wail over the “watch the police car” line, Bowie mimed being crucified while singing “when you see a famous smile”—especially in the chorus, which they trashed up, making it sound like a piece of a Ziggy Stardust outtake, killing it off as it crested.

Bowie’s studio revision of “I Can’t Read,” recorded during the Earthling sessions in mid-1996 (he gave a preview of the new version at the Bridge School Benefit in California later that year), was intended to give the song a second chance to find an audience, so he sweetened it, gave it a studied melancholy, anchoring the verses on acoustic guitar strums, with Gabrels having an elegant acoustic solo midway through, and calming the mood with washes of synthesizer. The new “I Can’t Read” was tasteful (“I can’t read shit” had already been replaced by “I can’t reach it” during the live Machine shows): it was somber, proper music for exit titles, which it literally became, for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Bowie altered the lyric, moving the second verse to the last, while in his new second verse, he replaced lines that had the soreness of memory with those filled with empty abstractions: Can I see the family smile? Can I reach tomorrow? Can I walk a missing mile? Can I feel, can I please? It was dull and false, an odd misreading of his own work. Even Warhol had gone missing.

Bowie rallied, though, restoring “I Can’t Read” to its original form for the “Hours” tour in 1999 (Bowie sang the Warhol line with venom this time, as if cursing over Warhol’s grave) and the chorus had a quiet majesty to it, a sense of faded glories being collectively recalled.

Yet none of these rewrites and rethinks surpassed the original, merciless Tin Machine version of the song. Recorded in under an hour one night in Nassau,* the original “I Can’t Read” is a singer dully picking at a wound while his band ignores him, screaming to themselves around him. Bowie’s long bid to reclaim his title in the Nineties is inconceivable without him having first made “I Can’t Read”—it was a reckoning, an exorcism, a confession; a song in which failure became a muse.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The live version recorded on 25 June 1989, at La Cigale, Paris was a B-side of the 12″ single version of “Tin Machine.” “I Can’t Read” was remade during the Earthling sessions in August-September 1996: it was released as a single (Velvel Records/ZYX 8757-8, #73 UK) in December 1997 and also appeared on The Ice Storm soundtrack.

* Either during a “gothic deluge” of a tropical storm (Trynka) or “under a full moon” (Buckley). Or perhaps on a less dramatic evening.

Top: Jim Kasson, “Paddington Station, London, 1988.”

31 Responses to I Can’t Read

  1. david says:

    Bravo sir, I’ve been waiting for someone to use this song to make the case for Tin Machine since its inception, and you just did it succinctly and entirely with your review. Quite rightly too, because I’ve always felt that I can’t read has always been pivotal classic ‘Bowie’ in what was his then diminishing cannon, justifying any other shortfalls within the band (with the possible exception of Stateside and I’m Sorry). Its the sound of man tearing out his insides and yet completely resigned to his hollow fate.
    Give me I can’t read over Modern Love any day.

  2. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Gosh, I’d love to know what this article says, but I CAN’T READ!
    ………………
    ………………
    …I’m sorry.

  3. MC says:

    This is the track that make me think at the time that this was the real stuff, finally: definitely Tin Machine’s greatest. Agreed that the various live and studio revisions don’t come close, though the ’99 live version is probably the best, sort of a wistful revisit 10 years on, more in sorrow than blind anger.

    David Fricke in Rolling Stone compared the album to The Man Who Sold The World. That was the album I heard when listening to this as well, what with Sales’ bass suggesting Visconti’s in places, the doomsday forecasting, the band fighting the lead singer for control. This track also always put me in mind of the world of Low, with its alienated protagonist: as you point out, here uncomfortably close to the author’s real-life situation. It’s occurred to me that DB’s later albums all mix and match elements of earlier albums, starting probably with NLMD’s harking back to Diamond Dogs.

    Another great, insightful writeup. Cheers!

  4. princeasbo says:

    “I don’t know a book from Countdown” i.e. the author can’t tell the difference between reading and watching TV, assuming the line alludes to the long-running British quiz show. It might.

    • col1234 says:

      very good! that makes a lot of sense.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      It only just occurred to me now, but one could interpret that line as being Bowie’s own deflation of the self-described “snob factor” which he once described as a factor in so much of what he does, being a popular artist who’s made many references to art and high culture in his work…

    • PH says:

      “Countdown” was also a long-running pop music show in Australia, hosted by Ian “Molly” Meldrum. Bowie was interviewed by”Molly” many times, and the show also provided world premieres of his videos for “Let’s Dance” and “China girl”.

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    A brilliant summation! This sums up quite precisely and concisely what I’ve always felt about this song. “A song in which failure becomes a muse”, indeed… ;)

    In addition, your description of Bowie’s vocal as “drained of any audible emotion, just a blank, observational tone…like a man who’s survived a car crash calmly recounting the details to a policeman” also resonates with the imagery of Always Crashing In The Same Car from Low, with which this particular song also shares much in common in terms of tone and feel.

  6. nijinska says:

    One of the better tracks and certainly heads above all the rest, but still an agonising could-have-been moment for me. The later chapters of this blog (and this entry in particular) offer a fantastic account of a man recognising the vanishing of his former powers and of the pain that recognition must have brought: this song’s the sound of Bowie himself admitting he’s lost his demon.

    But it’s precisely because of this tension between Bowie and his muse that I find “I Can’t Read” so disappointing. He’d previously managed to take artistic dry-up as his theme and produce desert blooms: “Sound and Vision” and “Ashes to Ashes” being the two most victorious responses. Listening to this again (for the first time in years) I can’t help but suspect that his previous recoveries happened because he’d used such excellent partners, incredible musicians who’d delivered sufficient musical inspiration to tempt his demon back. They inspired him because they were better than him at so many things: Ronson was more romantic; Carlos was more funky; Eno was more dangerous. Here, I really struggle to see what inspiration either the Saleses or Reeves Gabrels were providing to a man who desperately needed it. Instead, by all accounts, they bullied away any vision he might have had and choked it at birth. I suppose that’s a tragedy which Bowie himself has to take responsibility for – but a tragedy nonetheless.

  7. PH says:

    This has always been one of my favorites from the Tin Machine period, a bitter song as you say, about a man coming to terms with his faltering creative powers. I always sensed a punning Bowie double-entendre at work in here, like “Aladdin Sane” or “Low(profile)”. He seemed to be similtaneously singing; “I can’t read shit anymore” (and there was an awful lot of shit being written about him by the critics at the time), as well as “I can’t reach it anymore”, which is further borne out by his frustrated admission that, ” I just can’t get it right, can’t get it right”.
    Similarly, I always found the line; “Andy, where’s my 15 minutes”? a little churlish coming from a man who had spent considerably longer in the spotlight. But that was because I’d spent many fruitless years similarly trying to find fame firstly with a band that went nowhere, then as a newspaper comic strip cartoonist in a country whose newspapers don’t employ comic strip cartoonists.
    But enough about me: Yes the song ends on a very charged note, with the singer collapsing in a series of agonised, almost sexual grunts and groans.

  8. RLM says:

    It might be a little unevolved of me but I’ve always inclined to a fairly literal reading of this song – Bowie looking outside himself & attempting to portray the confused inner landscape of a lost soul, an invocation of ignorance, impotence, frustrated ambitions and failure. Somebody who never had their 15 minutes. As such it does seem to fit in a subcategory of slightly condescending “hey, what if I was just a regular Joe?” songs (Thursday’s Child perhaps?) or a more successful take on the failed attempts at social engagement of NLMD. That’s not to deny the “anguished cry of the creatively barren” resonance, which is definitely there.

    It’s interesting that this is the (only?) TM song which made it back across into the DB canon. At the time it definitely felt (to me) like the only song on the record that had a “classic Bowie” feel. Tony Sales’ bass playing definitely has a lot to do with this – mentioning Visconti is a great call, there is also a real George Murray/Dennis Davis feel to me – with Gabrels adding to the vibe with some Fripp/Belewesque skronk. T.Sales’ bass playing is an odd presence on the whole album actually.

    Mention of the canon reminds me that – in Australia at least – TM1 came out at a time when all Bowie’s RCA material was unavailable. Sitting in the racks next to Let’s Dance, Tonight and NLMD probably rather flattered TM, and the presence of I Can’t Read felt (ironically) like the most hopeful indication since Scary Monsters that he still had access to some of the old black magic.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      I Can’t Read was actually one of three Tin Machine songs (at least that I know of) which made it back into the David Bowie (solo) canon, the other two being Baby Universal (performed live in ’96) and Shopping For Girls (performed for a BBC session in early…’97, I believe?).

  9. Momus says:

    My favourite Tin Machine song.

    For me, this connects to a line of “disgust songs” (Sons of the Silent Age, Nightclubbing, Running Gun Blues, Fashion, Repetition) in which Bowie connects with a parallel possible self, one he fears and disapproves of. This parallel self is a fink, a fish, an automaton, a killer-zombie, a wife-beater, a conformist, empty and dead inside.

    In real life, we know, Bowie reads voraciously, posed once (reading The Idiot!) for a literacy campaign, and espouses liberal causes. But the fish-fink character is fascist and detached; the closest he can come to “commitment” is to utter a few piercing screams, like the ones which close this track.

    The psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer divided schizoids (and Bowie has used the word to describe himself) into two types, the hyperaesthetic and the anaesthetic. The hyperaesthetic is “timid, shy, with fine feelings, sensitive, nervous, excitable”. Of the anaesthetic, Kretschmer says: “We feel that we are in contact with something flavorless, boring… Behind an ever-silent facade… nothing but broken pieces, black rubbish heaps, yawning emotional emptiness, or the cold breath of an arctic soullessness.”

    The paradox is that to express the inner fink — and to express revulsion against him — is to exceed him. “In the end,” said Adorno, “soul itself is the longing of the soulless for redemption”.

    • Anonymous says:

      Bowie is at his best when he’s disconnected. Also count Breaking Glass, Always Crashing, It’s No Game.

  10. perchingpath says:

    “Tin Machine” is an awfully good epithet to sneer at Warhol the soup duplicator. I’m not suggesting that as a secret band name origin, mind, but I’d be surprised if it had occurred to Bowie over the years of living with that name.

    (The READ poster Momus mentions was from 1987, somewhere around when Never Let Me Down came out. If the process then was as it is now, the misguided overture that created it came from the ALA, not EMI. Despite spending quite a lot of time in public libraries in the early 90s, I don’t remember ever sighting one in the wild.)

  11. damn that incessant snare drum for ruining a good song.

  12. Jeremy says:

    Classic Bowie indeed. Great analysis of an important song. I never get sick of hearing it.

  13. Frankie says:

    One of my all-time TM songs and its nice to have a variety of it. I loved it immediately upon first impact. Something about it reminded me of Always Crashing In The Same Car – that detached, bereft feeling. The haunted atmosphere made me think I was gonna meet some ETs. I mentioned in my comments for the song Tin Machine, in reference to Chris’s hardcore theory, about how my band The Belligerents was actually formed to do fake hardcore music. Posters like Diamond Duke found that interesting and asked to hear some. I’ve been exceedingly busy lately and if I don’t add this now I never will but go to Acid Planet and in the search type The Belligerents to hear a few samples. There’s far more stuff that hasn’t been transferred to digital yet. I might post more stuff at some point. Hope you enjoy what there is!

  14. Maj says:

    haha…and here I’ve been wondering why he sings “I can’t reach it” when the song’s called I Can’t Read. Never bothered to look up the actual lyric. Shame on me.

    *I read a bit further and I see my ears were not completely wrong. Good to know what the original lyrics, those that actually make sense, were. :)

    This song would sit comfortably on Heathen, with some minor sonic tweaks. But it’s pretty good as it is, I actually really like Gabrels’s guitar on the original version.

    Great write-up, btw.

    • Maj says:

      The 1999 version is quite great TBH. Not sure if I’ve heard it before. Definitely have not seen the video…so thanks for the link.

  15. princeasbo says:

    The more I think of it, I could imagine a situation where Bowie originally sang “I can’t reach it” (which sounds like a more likely first-run lyric) and one of the others (Gabrels?) mis-heard (or affected to mis-hear) it as “I can’t read shit” and queries this. Hilarity ensures and the song direction is changed in the democratic/anarchic spirit of project.

    Latter revisions represent Bowie abandoning the frat house japes in favour of the original, less concrete (but ultimately more prosaic) concept.

    (Pure supposition, of course.)

    (Sorry about all the parenthetics.)

  16. andy says:

    I think Tin Machine 1 is fun (again, after some slightly less exciting stuff), deliberately flawed here and there to make it sound like some raw power. As to this song, superbly described, I believe the Warhol context should be emphasized. The song seems to be a response to Warhol’s Diaries, published a bit later, but known to Bowie at the time. A bitter response it is, a serious disappointment. So this would be the “shit” that he can’t read anymore.

  17. diamond dog says:

    The sound of an intelligent talent finally choking under the weight of his own yearning for his muse ‘s return. Tin machine bullying our once fragile voyeur into boardroom corporate idea of rock. Surrounded by musicians not worthy of even standing near such a genius pummeling him into a pissed off hater of drug dealers , protesting a world he no longer connects with . The most telling track on the album bar none , he could no longer channel his art and shoe horn it into pop. The delivery by Bowie is by the same passionless entity in breaking glass who is no longer able to report what he has seen without finally cracking a scream of pain as he comes toward the abyss …. Its been nearly a decade since its no game and this much pain.

  18. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Another beautiful essay — certainly the best of the TM entries — despite not being able to agree with the conclusions. Bowie’s “mock sing-song” is precisely what prevents me from appreciating it. When I used to play the tape for friends in my car in the nineties, Bowie singing “I can’t read shit anymore” provoked hysterical laughter no matter who was passenger.

  19. Extremities says:

    ONE OF THE BEST POST-MODERNIST SONG EVER WRITTEN & PLAYED. LISTEN TO THEIR 1989 VERSION (ESP. PARIS, LA CIGALE); IT’S QUITE PERFECT !
    IT IS DAVID, REEVES, HUNT, KEVIN & TONY WITH A TOUCH OF BRANCA. I ADMIRE THEM A LOT & AM IN LOVE WITH THIS AMAZING SONG (I REPEAT: THE TIN MACHINE WAY OF DOING IT NOT THE PALE COPIES LATER PLAYED BY BOWIE !)

  20. crayontocrayon says:

    The high point of Tin Machine, middle-life angst at its finest.

    Reeves recently posted this on his facebook regarding his set up for this song: ” An Ibanez HD1500 harmonizer set 1/4 sharp on left and 1/4 flat on the right. The distortion was from a Mesa Boogie quad preamp and stereo 295 power amp. 2 single 12 speaker cabinets. Left was open back cabinet with a Mesa Black Widow speaker, the right was a closed back cabinet Thiele Design with an Electro-Voice speaker. And it was a full moon.”

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