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.