The Enemy Is Fragile

gns

The Enemy Is Fragile.

The centerpiece of the Leon suite it (allegedly) titled, “The Enemy Is Fragile” is sung by a character who Bowie discarded when converting Leon into Outside. Pompous, vaguely academic, speaking in an exaggeration of Bowie’s “typical” voice, he’s Leon‘s narrator, its ringmaster. This was Bowie acting out the role Eno had assigned him: a member of an early 21st Century “Art and Language” band, one who makes incantations, permutations of something between speech and singing…a melange of several languages, since most of your audience now speak a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof…Your audience regards you as the greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry. Samuel Beckett is a big influence.

Bowie structured many of his early vocal improvisations around this character, who’s the dominant voice of the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite and who appears in the other two Leon movements. But as he developed more interesting (or at least more fun) voices, like Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone, the narrator’s use diminished. And as Bowie tried to make his “storyline” more open-ended, more disassociated, there was little need for an “author.” Leon‘s first voice had become a hindrance. So the first murder victim in Outside isn’t poor Baby Grace but this figure: a narrator who’s been killed and earthed before the album begins.*

Fanned across the “Fragile” suite are a few characters, like face cards in a hand. First the narrator, then Adler and Stone (they’re mirrors: art criminologist/artist, detective/suspect, etc.), later Baby Grace and old Touchshriek. But it’s mainly the narrator’s show, whether with his bizarre CD-ROM endorsement (while Ramona warns that the developing Internet is like a web, the narrator is a clueless booster) or his performance in the “Fragile” song itself, the hub of the sequence. Heralded by a tangle of percussion (Sterling Campbell’s kick drum, congas, synthetic “beaters”), Bowie starts the song off by gleefully naming the prime suspect of Grace’s murder:**

Hullo, Leon! Would you like something…really fishy?

The chorus kicks in with a sliding Erdal Kizilcay bassline, soon agitated on the top end by a whirling Mike Garson piano figure. The track’s rhythmic base is a stew of influences: Eno’s work with the Talking Heads (especially “Born Under Punches”) and, in Gabrels’ case, Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. (“A Small Plot of Land” has a similar ancestry.)

The narrator soon gets to work, channeling voices and playing roles: Henry II ordering the murder of Thomas Becket (“who has seen this FURIOUS MAN”? Who will rid me of this shaking head?“), a somber exorcist (“the enemy has always been here“), a murder detective. The latter finds a “fading photograph” in a sofa “forgotten by the last tenant” (Touchshriek’s tenant? and Baby Grace said she felt “like a fading photograph“), and soon enough he’s going over Grace’s corpse. “There’s something in her mouthsomething between patois and Becket(t)**…I bet it is a speech.” He probes into a corpse’s mouth and finds something lodged in her throat, but instead of the moth pupa of Silence of the Lambs, he extracts an accent.

Halfway through his “investigation,” he snaps, ordering his suspect to dance. This triggers the highlight of the track, a fantastic 16-bar break: Campbell bludgeoning his snare as if it had done him wrong, Kizilcay roaming on the loose, Gabrels playing an air-raid siren obbligato worthy of the Bomb Squad. Afterward everyone takes a breath, allowing for a message from sponsors—a return of the CD-ROM spiel that the narrator gave earlier in the sequence. “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st Century… Phase techniques, and rich 21st Century Spanish incantations.

For the last section, the band kicks into life again, Campbell now accenting his furious kick beats with constant sizzle from his ride cymbals. The narrator unspools into a string of words, tearing apart whatever structure he’d tried to build. You ARE: a permutation! You ARE: a patois! You ARE: speech delay! You ARE: fighting to the death! And so he dies: “Enemy Is Fragile” collapses into a spittle-spray of language. It ends with one of the survivors: Garson, airily pursuing a flight of thought across the high keys of his piano.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Westside Studios, London. Unreleased.

* In a few interviews to promote Outside, Bowie name-dropped Barthes’ Death of the Author.

** Another possible influence on Bowie’s writing was the set of grim UK police shows of 1992-1994, esp. Prime Suspect and Cracker, each of which used serial killers of young women as staple villains.

*** Words taken directly from Eno’s summary, with Bowie also playing off the earlier Thomas Becket reference and Samuel Beckett’s dialogue (a modernist patois).

Top: Ron Aviv, “Kids Play Soldier,” Sarajevo, 1994.

26 Responses to The Enemy Is Fragile

  1. Patrick says:

    These are outakes , and they sound like outtakes so far.
    There’s not quite the snarl but there’s a hint of John Lydon in the vocals and the form is similar is PIL.
    This could almost have been a PIL song (but not necessarily a good one)

    • s.t. says:

      I second the PiL comparison. It sounds a good deal like Fodderstompf, though that had Jah Wobble on vox. Also, in terms of Eno/Byrne collaborations, the music reminds me more of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts than Remain in Light.

  2. Stuart Gardner says:

    Bowie’s enthusiasm for Twin Peaks comes into play; Laura Palmer’s murderer, who sees his work as art, hides a clue not in her throat but under her fingernail.
    Fascinating detective work of your own, Chris.

    • stuartgardner says:

      I had wondered why that reply posted without my avatar. Now I see that I entered my name as Stuart Gardner rather than stuartgardner, but it’s odd that the system allowed the error, as I don’t recalling registering with WordPress more than once.
      I do wish the software gave us the options of previewing and editing our posts, which seem simple enough things to expect.

      • stuartgardner says:

        Hey! Why did I use this forum to complain about WordPress?
        I haven’t got the slightest idea, but I wasn’t thinking clearly, clearly. If I had been I’d have emailed the programmers instead of grousing in our living room.
        Sorry, all!

      • I don’t know why you’re apologizing, I feel the same way since my posts are riddled with typos and dropped words due to my dodgy smart phone and I would love the chance to edit once I am back on a trusty keyboard. I shall take your cue and dash off a letter to WordPress.

  3. Diamond Duke says:

    Well, it’s certainly…interesting, if nothing else! In a way, I think Bowie’s decision to record additional songs and use only part of the Leon sessions – whether at EMI’s behest or just a change of heart – ultimately proved to be the correct one. These outtakes do have a certain fascination and they definitely offer a great deal of insight, but with certain exceptions (such as OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome) they’re all rather inchoate and unformed. I think the atmosphere of these sessions lends itself really well to the vibe of the Outside album, contributing in no small part to its smoky, futuristic noir theatricality, but the outtakes don’t necessarily hold up well as individual pieces.

    That’s just my opinion, for whatever it’s worth… ;)

  4. Momus says:

    Concur with DD. Where are the pop ‘ooks?

    It does sound PiL-ish at times.

    You have to admire the Beano team for putting all the extra work in — how many albums come with sketchbooks full of preparatory material? — but in the end a familiar and relevant complaint against Eno arises: is it possible that he places so much emphasis on process because he’s terrified of being bored in the studio? And is it possible that what’s interesting for performers is boring for listeners, and vice versa?

    Eno has come back to vocals-based songs at various points in his career, and proclaimed them — at that moment of return — much more difficult and interesting than improvised instrumental music. It’s a kind of arable rotation (“Let’s not do songs” “Now let’s do… songs!”) in which the obvious and the obscure keep changing places, and you can hear it happening on Outside. They fiddle around until the idea of writing a pop song actually starts to seem like the freakiest, most experimental thing they could do.

    Then, refreshed by the detour, they write Heart’s Filthy Lesson and Hallo Spaceboy. BAM BAM BAM!

    • bam bam thank you, mom

      can i get a coffee? and a drummer

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Momus hits on why I am less than thrilled by the Outside material, in spite of some strong material in it. Reading about the backstory reveals Eno’s fascination with process, not result. I’m sure he had a ball making this album, but it’s work for me to listen to, and unfulfilling work at that. Stuart Gardner pointed out Bowie’s fascination with Twin Peaks. That’s telling, because I’m sure Bowie looked at that show and thought “bloody hell – he’s making a TV series like I make albums!” But Lynch did it by juxtaposing humor and horror cheek by jowel for a bracing, transformative effect. Humor was rarely Bowie’s strong suit. It’s there, but he’s used that sparingly over the years and I detect none in the “Outside” stew.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Oh I don’t know about that. I always found the line “Oh Ramona, if there was only something between us, other than our clothes” pretty funny.

      • MC says:

        Yea, I always found the whole Outside enterprise had a certain unhinged humour about it. A friend of mine and I used to crack each other up by solemnly intoning, “Ramona is soooo cold.” (On the other hand, some of the comedy may have been unintentional…)

        I’m really enjoying this survey of the Leon tracks, none of which I’d heard before. We’ll Creep Together, in particular, would have been profitably included on the final album over some of the songs that did make the cut.

    • Chambre says:

      Are you the Momus of the Where are we now cover fame?

    • Oh, I disagree entirely about Bowie’s sense of humor and sense of play. You can see his sense of play all over this album, and I agree that I find some of the lyrics and some of his readings quite funny, and I believe intentionally so. His wit is detached, ironic, and very, very, dry, but there is wit. He is also a pretty damn funny comic actor -check out his appearances on Dream On or Extras for proof.

  5. Patrick says:

    Yeah it may well have felt a liberating process for the musicians , a bit like the Tin Machine diversion.
    But a work of art doesn’t necessarily have to entirely “be” (and often is not) the qualities and ideas it is trying to express. eg you don’t have to be entirely fragmented to express or suggest fragmentation or entirely murky to express confusion etc . In practice often expressing the opposite, for contrast, helps.

  6. Chambre says:

    This song is one of my favourites from the 90s by Bowie. Avant Garde but strangely catchy.

  7. The Pataphysical Me says:

    i’m coming one more time with my “process” thing; i love that way of composing, in terms of asking good musicians (open minded ones) to try to create together weird climates which has got nothing to do with pop tunes made to chart or jamming & improvising de blues. There’s a bridge between Bowie’s outside, these Outtakes & Lynch’s movies; then: pop on the cherry: The truth is that Bowie was never there during this era; with the help of “the little Man from Another Place…, he did the whole thing as Phillip Jeffries; i’m sure, sure of that!

    • Diamond Duke says:

      “Well now…I’m not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all, we’re gonna keep her out of it!” ;)

      • The Pataphysical Me says:

        the fact is that… i’m deranged, really!
        mad mad Judy can or cannot dance??
        outside in, inside out; Artaud (in French):
        “L’homme est malade parce qu’il est mal construit. Il faut se décider à le mettre à nu pour lui gratter cet animalcule qui le démange mortellement, dieu, et avec dieu ses organes, oui, ses organes, tous ses organes… car liez-moi si vous le voulez, mais il n’y a rien de plus inutile qu’un organe. Lorsque vous lui aurez fait un corps sans organes, alors vous l’aurez délivré de tous les automatismes et rendu à sa véritable et immortelle liberté. Alors, vous lui réapprendrez à danser à l’envers comme dans le délire des bals musette et cet envers sera son véritable endroit.”
        Should Artaud be seen as an Outsider??? he’s a Huge Figure of the French Literature, one of the greatest Poet & i think Bowie knows about it…

  8. Remco says:

    I have to disagree with the Eno criticism above. It’s hard to tell what Leon would’ve sounded like had it been released, especially since most of us have only heard snippets of it. I quite like what I hear though, there’s some silliness in there, sure but there’s also some very very strong moments. These Eno-led sessions yielded some of his finest songs so I’m all for process-based recording

  9. The Pataphysical Me says:

    … “so I’m all for process-based recording”; nice to read that!!!

  10. Maj says:

    Well this went right over my head. Blah blah blah. Sorry guys. :D

  11. One thing I find puzzling about the Oblique Strategies methodology used in this session (and I mean this not in a bitchy way because I admire Eno and I love 1.Outside) is the necessity for Eno to actually be there. If you can biy a pack of the cards, why exactly do you need to hire Brian Eno to shuffle them and assign you your tasks?

  12. 2fs says:

    Christopher: That seems like a good question…but I think that, if nothing else, Eno’s presence *as Eno* changes things. I mean, even if a musician has worked with him before, there’s an awareness that the work coming out of these sessions will be on “a record produced by Brian Eno” – there’s a certain cachet there, I’d argue. Beyond that: I don’t get the impression that Eno just sat there reading about perfume and bells after having shuffled a few OS cards – that’s a motivating part of the process but not (I assume) the *whole* process.

    In a way I’m pointing at a mysterious aspect of creation: *who* is involved changes things. You take three musicians, they work together: something happens – you take the same three musicians, add a fourth; something different happens…even on the tracks where that fourth musician isn’t playing. (This is, perhaps, another reason Fripp gave Bill Bruford a composition co-credit on “Trio”…even though/because Bruford chose not to play a single sound on that track.)

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