It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…
George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1
The past, it almost shimmers down
What happened in 1998?
The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.
He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.
Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.
He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.
Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.
Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.
As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.
Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.
“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.
The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.
So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”
It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.
So what did he think about Glam being big again?
“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”
Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.
When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4
Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.
You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.
That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.
This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.
It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).
Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”
(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)
Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.
The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”
So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.
“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-’Bowie’” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:
…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…
Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi’” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.
The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.
1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.
2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.
3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.
4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.
5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.
6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.
Top: Dante Busquets, ”Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998″; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).