Goodbye Mr. Ed

Goodbye Mr. Ed.
Goodbye Mr. Ed (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1992).

This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn’t look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did.

Carl Perkins, on Elvis Presley.

Here those which Fortune hath frowned upon in England, to deny them an inheritance amongst their Brethren, or such as by their utmost labors can scarcely procure a living, I say such may procure here inheritances of lands and possessions…That I must needs say, that if there be any terrestrial Canaan, ‘tis surely here, where the Land floweth with milk and honey. The inhabitants are blessed with Peace and plenty, blessed in their Country.

Daniel Denton, A Brief Relation of New-York, 1670.

Goodbye to what, really? Not America, where he would come to live, or American music, particularly black American music, which he would emulate (passive-aggressively) on his next record. Not his youth: that was already gone. Not spectacle, not celebrity: he’d already tried to enroll himself into witness protection with Tin Machine. It wasn’t even meant to be goodbye to the Machine, with whom, but for the 1991 tour, he may have been cajoled into making more records. (As it turned out, “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” sequenced to close Tin Machine II, proved the band’s tombstone after all.)

But the song was a farewell of some sort. If not to America itself, then it was the snuffing out of some last spark of the imagined America of David Jones, suburban misfit and aspirant. America became like a dreamland to me, Bowie had said in 1974, while nodding off in a documentary about himself. His relationship to America—the fable-America of his youth; the Nixonian snipers-on-the-roofs madhouse that he snaked through as Ziggy Stardust; the bloated, sated country that he had finally conquered through television in 1983—always had been a sort of estranged fascination. Now he dug at the roots of it, envisioning the start of America which, for Bowie, meant the start of New York: Dutchmen and Indians, 1626.

Bowie recalled an episode of Tony Brown’s Journal about the former inhabitants of Manhattan island who, according to American legend, were the biggest suckers in U.S. real estate history. American history is, in great part, a history of con men and their marks. The Lenape were king marks, royal dupes: the people who had sold Manhattan to the Dutch for sixty guilders worth of baubles. Bowie saw the ghosts of “the Manhattoes” standing on the roof of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, the latest capitalist tower-shrine erected upon what had once been a farm or burial ground. The Manhattoes taking the view, then hurling themselves off the tower, screaming. The name was wrong—the Native Americans who had lived on Manhattan island were the Lenape. “Manhattoes,” Bowie’s word, had been coined by white colonists, taken up centuries later by Washington Irving and Herman Melville. So the Lenape are suicidal ghosts denied their own name. Their defiance, jumping off a landmark skyscraper, eerily predicted a NYC catastrophe a decade later, the death to come.

With that as a founding image, Bowie wrote the rest of “Goodbye Mr. Ed” by “juxtaposing lines which really shouldn’t fit, free-association around the idea of ‘bye-bye ’50s America,'” he said in 1991. The reoccurring figure is “someone”—the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger,” the blank eye of the television tube, a bored God—seeing it all, watching the wrack of a civilization piling up. The lyric is a stroll through a ruminative mind: Andy Warhol’s skull, housed in a shrine in a Queens shopping mall; Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (possibly reached via WC Williams’ poem); a soured nursery rhyme. It ends with the Sex Pistols and their inheritors, the former seeding demon eggs, the latter left to hatch them. A gnomic end to a gnomic lyric—the Pistols as the end-stage cancer of rock music, the acrid revenge of Britain on the music of its lost colonies.

Bowie’s vocal is a studied exhaustion, keeping to a narrow range, with his strongest vocal melody nicked from Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (cf. the descending “shrieking as they fall”; h/t Nicholas Pegg). The song’s structure is a set of irregular verses, three brief solos and a repeated bridge. In the verses, Bowie’s lines are a loose iambic trimeter, each phrase generally five or six syllables with a strong-beat/weak-beat rhythm (“AN-dy’s SKULL en-SHRINED”), while Bowie sings the title line flatly, giving the same cold intonation to each of the five syllables, letting the stop (“ed”) quickly expire.

The vocal mutes the accumulation of bizarre images in the lyric, Bowie’s delivery suggesting that nothing in the ruined landscape of his imagined America holds any ability to surprise anymore. The miraculous and the uncanny have become bric-a-brac. My brain hurt like a warehouse, he’d once sung, when he was nothing but voice, color and ambition. Now he was absently sorting through it, wondering why he’d bothered to fill it up in the first place.

“Goodbye Mr. Ed”* began as what Tony Sales recalled as a “tuning-up thing” from the Sydney sessions, an instrumental studio jam to loosen everyone up (so it may have been similar to something like “Exodus”). The Sales brothers wrote the music with Bowie, and the final track has some of their finest performances. Tony plays parrying, unsettled basslines throughout, making a wistful ascent before the first bridge, while there’s a loneliness in his querying notes in the solo between the bridges. Hunt deftly handles the swift, erratic changes of tempo, varying the buildups to start each verse, jabbing in sharp little snare fills throughout, giving thundering kick work in the bridges.

Reeves Gabrels spent 1990 chasing Bowie, using down weeks in the “Sound + Vision” tour as opportunities to overdub the provisional Tin Machine II tracks. “‘Goodbye Mr. Ed’ was just a rhythm track until we got to Miami,” Gabrels said. “Mr. Ed” appears to have been finally completed during the last sessions for the album in March 1991 (see endnote).

But where on other TMII tracks Gabrels had dubbed dozens of new guitar lines, with vibrator vibrato and shards of feedback, his contributions to “Mr. Ed” are more spare, more precise. Take the intro, where a rapidly-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel is joined, two bars later, by an electric guitar playing a shrill version of the same riff, while another electric, first only heard as a distant echo in the left channel, quickly emerges as a rival voice. Another electric guitar dub offers a flourish, then Tony Sales’ bass and Hunt’s cymbals arrive with Bowie to propel the song to its early climax (midway into the first verse). It’s Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” in miniature, a guitar symphony condensed to 20 seconds.

Throughout the track Gabrels offers new melodies, new agitations—a nagging ostinato, the singing phrases in the space before the first bridge. After Bowie’s final goodbye, the song sinks into itself, imploding, the players fading out and creeping back in, warring to be heard: the last thing that you hear is a repeating busy signal via feedback.

Despite its wayward creation, having been pieced together over years and continents, “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was one of the best group performances that Tin Machine ever recorded—within its brief span, they were the band they were always intended to be. It’s also one of Bowie’s most inspired vocals of the era, the musings of a dry man idly watching TV. “Mr. Ed” answers and augments the frustrated, spent figure who sang “I Can’t Read” (the corpse of Warhol exhumed again)—here it’s a man unraveling a myth that he once needed to live. Despite the chaos of its lyric and the brief surge of contempt heard in the bridge (Bowie giving sharper emphases to his lines in the repeat), “Mr. Ed” is another retreat, another surrender in a season of them, a man closing down another wing of some grand abandoned house, further reducing himself (it’s telling how many of Bowie’s best songs of the Eighties are resignation letters). One of the peaks of the Tin Machine era, and its worthy epitaph.

Recorded ca. October-November 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney; (vocals, overdubs, poss. retakes) ca. April 1990, Miami; ca. October-November 1990, London; March 1991, Los Angeles. Performed on the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Tokyo, February 1992, on Oy Vey, Baby.

* I love to imagine that Bowie got the title from this headline in the 16 October 1990 Weekly World News.

An endnote on chronology, suitable only for obsessives: As EMI had rejected releasing another Tin Machine album, by the end of 1990 Bowie no longer had a record contract. Throughout 1990, Bowie and Gabrels worked on the Sydney tapes to make them more “commercial” to EMI, and latterly to lure another label. Sessions were held during rare off weeks for “Sound + Vision.” So the Miami session that Gabrels mentioned likely coincided with the S&V stops in Florida, around 27 April- 5 May 1990. There’s another documented dub/mixing session, with Tim Palmer engineering, at Eel Pie Studios in London, in late October-November 1990 (Matt Rescinoff, from Musician, attended the Eel Pie session and then visited the Machine again in LA on 18 June 1991 (which he said was “eight months later” from the Eel Pie session). The March 1991 sessions in LA, where the master version of “Mr. Ed” was likely completed, were at the behest of Bowie’s new label, Victory—we’ll get into that more when we reach “One Shot.”

Top: Lucian Perkins, “A Survivor of the Gulf War,” 1991 (William Meyers: “yellow fires flare up across the horizon of al-Burgan oil fields south of Kuwait City. The ground to the horizon is sand dotted with small shrubs, and the sky above the horizon is blue and black with smoke from the fires. A donkey in the left foreground rears upon its hindlegs, almost vertically, as if dancing. The donkey has some bedding from an Iraqi trench in its mouth“); US Air Force, “F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm,” Kuwait, 1991.

19 Responses to Goodbye Mr. Ed

  1. Momus says:

    Great entry, and I agree it’s a strong song, though I would have preferred a more muted production.

    The Fall of Icarus features in The Man Who Fell To Earth, where it’s seen in an art book beside lines from Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts: “the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky”. Without wishing to stir Atlantic tensions, I think the Auden poem about Icarus is better than the Williams one, and more likely to have been in Bowie’s mind.

  2. david says:

    “…My brain hurt like a warehouse, he’d once sung, when he was nothing but voice, color and ambition. Now he was absently sorting through it, wondering why he’d bothered to fill it up in the first place.”

    Readers may come to mark your ‘Station to Station’ entry as one of the best chronicles of a Bowie song, but I prefer this one, beautifully erudite, swimming with reference and pathos for an artist looking down the fag end of his career. Wonderful-one of the best critiques I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  3. ori says:

    Really love the blog. Based on no interview evidence whatsoever I always thought the song was a kiss-off to Ed Koch, whose run as mayor ended (I think) about a year before the song was released. A lot of the song’s imagery (Po-Mo ATT building, Warhol’s death) seems to be of touchstones from that era.

    My first reply and it’s to a Tin Machine song!

  4. MC says:

    Another superb entry on a great song: along with I Can’t Read and a few others, Exhibit A in the case for Tin Machine. Arguably one of DB’s finest album closers as well.

    I wonder if the lines about the Pistols’ demon eggs (“Others came to hatch them,” etc.) can also be connected with The Year Punk Broke and the rise of grunge/alternative. Is this Bowie giving the nod to a new generation of upstart rockers?

  5. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I discovered this song, with considerable reluctance, after years of reading in Buckley and Plegg about its charms. It would have worked in the “Outside” sequence that includes “I’m Deranged,” “Thru These Architects’ Eyes,” and “Strangers When We Meet.”

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    Regarding MC‘s comment: That connection with 1991, punk and grunge had occurred to me, too! As it turned out, Nirvana’s Nevermind (;)) would turn out to be the most profitable of these “golem eggs”! Granted, the track was probably initially conceived before then…

    I agree with pretty much everyone else’s comments above regarding this song: It’s definitely one of the high points of Tin Machine’s erratic, uneven career. Quite interesting that Bowie co-wrote it with the Sales brothers, who so often find themselves on the receiving end of haters’ invective (or Hunt, anyway). And Bowie’s coolly neutral, blank vocal delivery recalls the late ’70s Eno/Berlin period (in particular Repetition – wow, how many times have I actually referred to that particular track in reference to a Tin Machine number?? :D)

    col1234, thanks for the enlightening history lesson! I was always wondering about what that opening “ghosts of Manhattoes” line referred to…

  7. Interesting to hear someone else’s interpretation. This has long been one of my favorite Bowie songs… but with no real reason.

    I’ve always considered it an ode to the 50’s and the folly of humanity. Mr. Ed is a horse, and much of the show was about him commenting on how silly the social mores of the time were. Andy Warhol did much the same in the 70’s, and now he’s an icon for telling us we suck.

    I always though of the opening line as a way of saying that the original “Manhattoes” would have hated what had become of their land, as well as an indictment of the American genocide. “Tolerance of violence by the fellows with no heads / Never mind the pistols that laid the golden eggs” The “fellows with no heads” must be a reference to the nobles of the French Revolution. Our current corrupt nobility never talks about the 18 million American Indians, the slave trade, etc… That has led to the American prosperity.

    “Icarus takes his pratfall” implies a certain comic aspect to to flying too close to the sun. “Breugel on his head”… Does he imply that Icarus was only doing it to someday be in a (famous) painting? (Mind doesn’t rhyme with Ed) Any Warhol held up as an Icon, his prints being sold in in some crappy mall, the very parts of Generica he despised.

    Mr. Ed was a non-human who could see us outside of our own trappings and tells us we were being stupid. “Outside the pale, Someone sees it all… Goodbye Mr. Ed.” The “pale” means outside the standards of decency, and even more so, outside of the safe fenced area. Again, another line delivered with a wry ironicism. What is “decent” about the human condition as Bowie sees it in this song, What is safe about it?

    As the music “falls apart” at the end of the tune, you hear the busy signal… No one is listening. Too busy to get the message.

    The common thread of the Tin Machine catalog was a resigned horror at what mankind had become. “I can’t read”, “Video Crime”, “Shopping for Girls”, etc… Mankind driven by their base instincts. Media that caters to the stupid and base within us. As Tin Machine reached it’s inevitable end, as EMI told Bowie “No one wants to hear that stuff”… Goodbye Mr Ed is a resigned farewell. The problems are too big, people are too stupid, Mr. Ed is so “small” that he can’t make a difference. Where the song “Tin Machine” was angry, “C’mon and get a good idea, c’mon and get it soon”, Bowie has given up by this time and only has a sarcastic goodbye to an outside third party who could give us the power to see ourselves more clearly.

  8. One other note… This track was from around the time when CEO’s were jumping out of windows because they lost their job in a hostile takeover…Perhaps the term “Manhattoes” is used to denote the CURRENT people of Manhattan… These were people offing themselves because they wouldn’t be obscenely rich anymore. More commentary on the folly of mankind.

    • David L says:

      That was my original interpretation of the Manhattoes line, also … the three-syllable “Manhattoes” fitting in the verses better than “Manhattanites” … rich Wall Streeters throwing their lives away as AT&T stock plummeted … But Chris’ interpretation also seems plausible … I didn’t realize “manhattoes” was the actual term for the natives who one lived there, and the word “ghosts” indicates persons already dead from long ago. Either way works with the “nothing matters and nobody cares” theme.

      Unlike the painting, in which Bruegel seems to say “yes terrible things happen, but life goes on” as a statement of fact, rather than a protest of that condition of human life, Bowie seems to be protesting it. We should care more but we don’t and I’m too tired to fight it any longer.

      Very interesting post above, too, Jason

  9. tin man says:

    Great song !!! deals for me with a certain nostalgia, maybe the end of the tin men collaboration, the end of an era, the split of TIN MACHINE.

  10. Mike F says:

    Bowie sounds enervated and world-weary on this with an intentionally trite sing-song melody. Sort of interesting but not inspired or great (which could sum up Tin Machine as well as this song).

  11. Maj says:

    Oh yeah, I love Bowie’s vocal on this track. Great song, too – and well recorded and produced.
    Goodbye to Tin Machine…tiring at times but I did find some surprising gems along the way.
    Thanks for the write-ups, Chris!

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Agree 100% about the great write-ups. Not sure that any of the songs really deserved them.
      We must be getting close to Black Tie White Noise and the welcome return of diamond dog.

      • Momus says:

        There’s still One Shot to go, about which Chris will be — necessarily — so scathing that David Bowie (declaring himself to a close friend both “devastated”, “heartbroken” and “uncontrollably furious”) will throw his laptop across the room and stop reading this blog altogether, which will be a great pity, because he’ll miss all the extremely positive things we’ll be saying about his 1990s renaissance.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        God, I hope not. One Shot‘s actually one of my favorites! :(

  12. Momus says:

    And if anyone doubts that Bowie reads Pushing Ahead of the Dame, here he is papped with his laptop bag, hurrying into a New York taxi on August 2nd, clearly impatient to read the entry on Hammerhead which Chris has just posted:

    http://thecount.com/2012/08/03/david-bowie-spotted-in-nyc/david-bowie-hails-cab-in-nyc-020812/

    I mean, what else would he be doing with a laptop, for God’s sake?

  13. Actually, after One Shot I think there are still a coupla live covers to go as well… which, you know, is great if you’ve ever wanted an in-depth analysis of Tony Sales-sung versions of Moody Blues and Pixies songs.

  14. Patrick says:

    You’re probably now aware, but in his autobiography Morrisey mentions being offered this song , with the threat that if he didn’t cover it, DB would “never speak to him again”. Moz listens to the song by tape in the studio, but “nothing within the song shouts out to me”

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