The only (released) studio recording that Bowie cut in 1998 was a collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti for one of the Red Hot compilations. Badalamenti had scored David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for which Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” had been used, and Bowie was a fan. Sometime after Bowie finished shooting a trio of films, most likely in July, the two worked in a New York studio on a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day.”
This was his first recorded jazz standard since “Wild Is the Wind.“* The move suggested, on its surface, a growing conservatism, a sense that he was finally acting his age. If you were a rocker in your fifties, recording “the Great American Songbook” was something you were supposed to do, like having a prostate exam. (Starting in 2002, Rod Stewart would go to the bank with a seemingly endless sequence of “Songbook” albums). You were too old to rock and roll, so you had put on a tie and sing the music of your parents to your peers. For some rockers, purging one’s sins in purgatory begins in one’s temporal life.
Happily, Bowie and Badalamenti’s take on “Foggy Day” is so brooding and weird that it escapes the trap of reverence and taste: if you played this track as background music in Urban Outfitters, it could possibly irritate a customer. This is partly due to Badalamenti’s ambition: he had the gall to incorporate two of his own compositions, “Overcast” and “The Rainbow,” into George Gershwin’s music, opening the piece (officially titled “Suite for a Foggy Day”) with a minute-long suite with a rising four-note motif, massing his strings on one note for Bowie’s entrance.
The Gershwins had dashed out “A Foggy Day” for a Fred Astaire film, Damsel in Distress. Ira was sitting up at 1 AM reading when his brother came in from a party, sat down at the keyboard and said “how about some work? Got any ideas?” Ira offered the idea of doing a song about fog in London and in an hour they had the chorus worked out. The next day they wrote “an Irish verse” for their London song, and that was that. Astaire sang it on film and recorded it, and George died of a brain tumor a few months later: “A Foggy Day” was one of his last pieces.
“A Foggy Day” was a Gershwin musical fingerprint: the repeated notes in the melody; the rich chords for jazz players to feast on (e.g., the B-flat minor sixth on “town”); a feel of melancholy lifted by sudden jumps of fourths and fifths (take the elated leap on “for su-ddenly”), paralleling the sun breaking through the fog in the lyric; the unusual structure, with the song escaping its expected 32-bar confines with two additional bars, full of harmonic movement and melodically winking at the folk tune “English Country Gardens.”
In the Bowie/Badalamenti version, the moody “Irish” verse is lighter in feel, with an oboe line suggesting that the sun is breaking through early. When it’s time to transition to the chorus, night and fog descend: ominous low strings and winds (bass clarinet and bassoon), a drooping line on fretless bass. Bowie sings the chorus as if he’s walking into a headwind. He valiantly keeps the Gershwin vocal melody aloft while getting little support from the instruments—if anything, they seem to be retarding his progress, undermining him. Finally, there’s a feeling of movement: Bowie sees her, the fog lifts and for a moment the song breaks open. But in Bowie’s voice, the final line “through foggy London town, the sun was shining” has a weary sadness in it: it’s a moment of long-departed happiness, remembered now as a brief break in the battle. He’s still, and always will be, a stranger in the city. One of his finest covers.
Recorded ca. July 1998, National Edison and/or Excalibur Sound, New York. Released 6 October 1998 on Red Hot + Rhapsody (Antilles 314 557 788-2).
Bonus: recommended Foggy Days: Charles Mingus (beep! beep!) (1956), Oscar Peterson (1959), Billie Holiday (1957), Joe Pass (1988), Sarah Vaughan (1957), Petula Clark (1965), Frank Sinatra (1953), Judy Garland (1963).
* You could argue for “Volare,” I suppose.
Top: Steven V-L Lee, “Penny for the Guy,” Columbia Road Market, London, November 1998,