Afraid

00nairobi

Afraid (BowieNet demo, 2000).
Afraid (Toy).
Afraid (Heathen).
Afraid (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2003).
Afraid (live, 2004).

[where were we?]

The plan at Looking Glass Studios in October 2000 had been just to cut overdubs for the Toy tracks—backing vocals, some Lisa Germano colors, “lock[ing] up a few things” (Mark Plati)—but by mid-month, Bowie and Plati were recording new tracks and mixing them as they went along, the sessions now extending through early November. Plati had cranked out two tracks a day when mixing Bowie’s BBC recordings “so I figured I’d try and have the same sort of work ethic for this project,” he wrote in his web journal.* And Bowie kept writing new songs.

Reading Andrew Loog Oldham’s memoir Stoned at the time (Oldham had managed the Rolling Stones in the Sixties—he’d done a quick assessment of David Jones and had passed), Bowie was tickled by an anecdote in which Oldham had locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a flat until they came up with a song. Oldham knew the band was going nowhere unless they started writing their own material. With the Stones’ ostensible leader, Brian Jones, incapable of delivering the goods, the task fell on the singer and the rhythm guitarist. Oldham returned to be greeted with either “It Should Be You” (Jagger’s recollection) or “As Tears Go By” (Richards’) (my vote’s “It Should Be You,” which sounds written by someone trapped in a kitchen for an hour).

As a joke, Plati said Bowie should follow the Oldham approach. Hey, it got results. “So I sent him off to the Looking Glass lounge and told him not to come back until he had the goods!” Plati wrote. This being Bowie, he actually did come back with a fresh song, which he called “Afraid,” debuting it to Plati on the latter’s mini Stratocaster.

“Afraid” had some affinities to the Toy “new songs in the vein of my old songs” conceit, with Bowie hinting at “Heroes” (“I…wish I was smarter“), “Conversation Piece” (“if I put my faith in medication” has a touch of “I’ve spent a lot of time in education“) and “I Can’t Read” (esp. its mid-Nineties revision, whose revised lyric Bowie all but quotes in the last chorus). A few other ghosts kicked around in it: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sings through the last refrain. And Bowie went back, yet again, to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. In that album’s “God,” after dispatching a run of false idols (Jesus, Buddha, Bob “Zimmerman”), Lennon ended his purge with the Beatles. Grow up, the dream’s over, make a new life for yourself. I have. I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.

“I believe in Beatles,” Bowie sings in “Afraid.” He doesn’t want reality. He also believes in aliens and/or in God (“we’re not alone”), in reincarnation and/or spiritual betterment (“I believe my little soul has grown”**). There’s another old Bowie song shifting deep beneath all of this: “Cygnet Committee.” “Cygnet Committee” is an ambitious young man trying to will himself into an artist, escaping from being a dilettante into the sort of man who could write “‘Heroes'” and “Station to Station.” It’s a long flagellation, building to a near-screamed final set of refrains: “And I want to believe!/in the madness that calls ‘Now’/and I want to believe!/that a light’s shining through/somehow.” It’s a man opening himself up to life, exposing himself to the blows of experience.

“Afraid” is the other end of the telescope. It’s a numbed (maybe via Prozac or lithium) perspective, a man recalling the heights and depths of a past life (“I used to walk on clouds”) but now desperately trying to be “normal,” to live a flattened life, to conform in any way imaginable so he can sleep at night. Even his hopes—in God, aliens, “classic” pop music—are compromised. They’re beliefs he hopes are shared, or are at least common enough (in the language of social media, they’re “trending”). He’s outsourced even his aspirations to society.

In an interview in 2002, Bowie took pains to distance himself from the character: “I don’t see it as being representative of me.” He described the narrator as someone who does what society expects him to, striking a bargain of spiritual conformity for a sense of security. “An interesting deceit, but not mine,” Bowie clucked.

This was similar to how he’d prefaced ‘Hours’: that he was using the perspectives of other men his age who’d been less favored by life. And you could argue the desperate soul of “Afraid” is a photo negative of the man who sang the song, who was established, famous, rich, happily married and a new father. But in the context of Toy, “Afraid” took on different colors. There the track was surrounded by those in which an older man revisited his first songs, the songs he’d written before he became ‘David Bowie.’ As weak or as scattered as these songs were, what united them was a sense of movement. They were building blocks which the singer of “Cygnet Committee” had needed before he could try to scrabble up higher. “Afraid” suggested the man had fallen back down, that the dreams had proved too much for him, that he was settling for shopworn ones. It gave a new, bitter flavor to a sadness that permeated the album.

ben_stiller_david_bowie_owen_wilson_zoolander_001

Plati and Bowie honed “Afraid” through late October, debuting the song on a livestream on BowieNet (on 2 November). By this performance (just Bowie on acoustic, Plati on electric guitar) “Afraid” had crystallized: its subsequent revisions, for both Toy and Heathen, would mainly serve to add or sift a few layers. Even in its “demo” stage, Bowie had the downshifting intro guitar riff and the G minor verse progression. Nearly all of his lines were in place as well as essentially the whole song structure.

The version cut for Toy ornamented and weighed down the song: while Sterling Campbell’s drums were lively, the wall of harmony vocals pasted in the choruses clotted up the melody, suggesting some extended community of the deluded. Then “Afraid” was packed off to EMI as part of the Toy tapes, and (as we’ll see next entry) wound up stranded in the void.

By the time of the sessions for his next album in 2001, where he was working with Tony Visconti, Bowie had abandoned hope that Toy would be released and set about pulling a few things from the wreckage, including “Afraid.” Unlike another Toy original Bowie retrieved (again, see next entry), he kept some of the basic tracks of “Afraid,” with Visconti adding a new bassline and a string arrangement. “I had always liked the version of ‘Afraid’ that I did with Mark Plati, so Tony and I got him to do a little more work on his guitar parts so that it would be more in line with the rest of the album, Tony again playing bass,” Bowie said in an interview. “Then Tony mixed it. I think it could be a great live song. Of course, it’s kind of sardonic in its assertion that if we play the game everything will be alright.”

Visconti’s “Afraid” was a paring back, a realignment, and his changes worked to sharpen the song’s unsettled mood. He gave space and perspective. Take the first verse: where on Toy it had been carried by acoustic guitar, now the dramatic weight mainly falls on a right-mixed electric guitar, while the left-mixed acoustic is confined to making jarring interjections, jabbing off-beat as if trying to wake the singer up. Then the acoustic’s shuffled to the center and quickly submerged in the mix (a conscience smothered) while a new voice takes its place in the left channel, a low, arpeggiating guitar figure. Visconti’s strings emboss the delusion of the refrains, where Bowie’s quavering lead vocal is at first left starkly exposed.

Now sequenced in the middle of Heathen, “Afraid” was strengthened by its new surroundings. Other Heathen tracks were brothers to it, whether thematically, harmonically or melodically. It was home at last, it was among adults. Did it lose anything from being stripped from its original context? Or was it good for Toy to die so that “Afraid” could live?

[to be concluded]

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (overdubs) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004, up until the last shows of the aborted summer ’04 tour.

* For gear heads only: Plati rented two Universal Audio Teletronix LA2A compressors: “[they] still had the warmth one would associate with a classic LA2A but with a much clearer and open top end…I went back and remixed previous tracks with them.” He also had the Apogee PSX-100 analog-digital converter, which he used in conjunction with a Tascam DA-88 to make 24-bit mixes. For guitars, Plati favored a Fender Stratocaster “done over with Sperzel tuners, a graphite nut and saddles…up a gauge to .11s.”

** Possibly a wink at Emperor Hadrian’s alleged tribute to his departing soul: animula, vagula, blandula

Future days dept.:

The next two months will be quieter than usual for the blog, as I’ll be consumed with a few things, including speaking at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference in Seattle (see here) in late April. So don’t be surprised if two weeks and change go by without a fresh entry. We should return to a brisker pace once all of this is over, sometime in May.

Top: Domitilla Asquer, “Farncesca Waiting for Gasoline,” Riruta (Nairobi), Kenya, March 2000; Bowie briefing Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson on the rules of battle, Zoolander.

31 Responses to Afraid

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    My least favorite Heathen track. I know Bowie’s playing a character but his vocal sounds querulous. Those strings in the chorus are a chintzy touch.

    • gcreptile says:

      I agree with you (but apparently, it’s a minority opinion). I think the song would have been served better by a cold, sober and dark voice. Not the raspy groaning to be heard on heathen. There is a shape and an impulse to that song and it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the album (Visconti’s achievement), but in the end, I get easily annoyed by it.

      • Maj says:

        While I like the song a lot I agree with you about the vocal, which for me is the only wee issue I have not only with this song, but with the whole album, really.

    • s.t. says:

      See, these vocals I’m okay with. The affectation clearly comes across as “character” to me, so I’m fine if it’s a little whiny. With Hours I wasn’t quite sure what he was going for, but here I feel he’s gone back to his Deram/Space Oddity days (fitting, of course, given the nature of the Toy project).

  2. crayontocrayon says:

    This is one of my favourites on Heathen. One of the best lyrics of the time absolutely chock-full of nods and winks. I get reminded of Iggy’s ‘Five Foot One'(I wish I was taller), as well as Rock n Roll Suicide( I believe we’re not alone) as well as the Lennon references.

    • BenJ says:

      Ooh, that’s a nice catch on the Iggy thing. Mr. Osterberg is actually 5’7 but I guess he can identify with the emotional conditions of shortness. This is one of my favorites on Heathen too. One thing about it is that Heathen as a whole is heavy on ballads and meditative numbers. Aside from the hit-or-miss covers this is about the quickest paced piece.

  3. s.t. says:

    Yes, to me he’s continuing his creative writing experiments on everyday characters from his last bout of original songs, and that’s true for most of Heathen. While some of these newer “homework assignments” don’t quite work for me, I think of “Afraid” as a successful refinement of his earlier approach.

    That line “I believe in Beatles” is brilliant…it conveys with great economy the desire to abandon irony for optimism yet establishes an ironic distance from the narrator. So we can bask in the character’s plaintive need for simplicity while still remaining aware of the existence of cynicism and cultural awareness via an inversion of famously cynical song lyrics.

    This delicate balance of themes–irony and earnestness, wist and whimsy, childlike wonder and layers of experience–encapsulates the best of Heathen.

    Great song, great post, and good luck at the conference!

    • Maj says:

      The Beatles line, he won me over with that one reference back when I listened to that album for the first time. I think this was probably one of the first pop culture sort of lyric I met. Well versed in The Beatles discography and biographies (but not yet well versed enough in the 20th century Britain stuff TB themselves referenced) this was probably the first clever lyric that I got in all its shades back then.
      I know I shocked some round here not listing Bowie as one of my favourite lyricists but this line (and most of his 2000+ work, really) I count among the better he’s written from a lyric-content point of view.

  4. stuartgardner says:

    I won’t have time to read this for a day or two but I’m throwing in to say how excited I am on “our” having reached the wonderful Heathen, albeit with one foot still firmly in Toy.
    And I’ll add that “Afraid” claims a special place for me as a high spot on Heathen and as a great, great song. I’m eager to find how our estimations square up, but time is tight.

  5. SoooTrypticon says:

    Welcome back Col, and thanks for the update!

    I like the more frantic elements of the mix on Toy. The strings on the Heathen version seem clunky to me. I suppose it’s a matter of taste. The “creepy voices” on Toy, to tell you “this is a creepy song.” Or the “speedy strings,” to tell you, “whoa, look how fast we’re going.” Both are flourishes to a pretty good song, that may not need them.

    Col, do you think this mix for the XM Radio commercial, with the “X-Files” style intro, was done for the commercial? Or is this mix a transitional form of the song.

    I kinda wish he kept the intro on one of the versions.

    • col1234 says:

      good question. Pegg says that commercial came out in November 2001, so it precedes Heathen by about a year (if you guess the commercial was probably produced summer ’01). so maybe a transitional early take from the first Heathen sessions?

  6. SoooTrypticon says:

    Thanks. That seems possible. It is missing the trilling guitar line that runs under the Toy version- and the stylophone(?), is more forward in the mix.

  7. Remco says:

    I wasn’t a big fan of ‘Heathen’ when it came out, although it’s starting to grow on me, but this one I instantly liked. Love those Visconti strings.

    Wonderful analysis, as always. Good luck with your other projects.

  8. roobin101 says:

    I think I prefer the Toy version, just… the massed acoustic guitars and whirligig organ push it forward a better. The Heathen version sounds a touch bare. Even so it’s a great song. It’s Beatles-y in that It’s got that similar knack to early Lennon and McCartney songs have of finding the right chord change at the right spot to give it that emotional oomph.

  9. Ramzi says:

    I’m surprised that Afraid was never released as a single for Heathen as for me it includes many of the different elements used in the album (such as string sections, electronic effects, the message of the lyrics) and as such represents it – certainly a lot more than Everyone Says Hi anyway (which is a bit naff).

    The song and album as a whole struck me as being quite futuristic, upon first listening in 2012 and still now (for Afraid in particular this is largely due to the electronic effects after the chorus). Funny then how the original demo sounds like it’s deliberately as old sounding as possible. My limited technical musical knowledge only allows me to say that this is due to a sound in the chorus.

    I’ll save my Heathen story for a post that isn’t also to do with Toy, but let it be known that I love this album and am excited for these posts – I’ve been waiting for them for such a long time now!
    (I hate myself for writing that)

  10. So glad we’ve finally reached Heathen!

    To me, this album is the point where Bowie really re-connects with his muse. It’s got a lot of that weary, retrospective vibe that Hours had, but it feels more emotionally open and sincere. Songs like this remind me a lot of his stuff from Space Oddity, actually.

  11. Heathen at last
    Decent track, but far from a Bowie classic.
    Nice review as always.

  12. MC says:

    I’ve always found the motivations behind Toy and the links between it and Heathen really murky, so these last few entries have been fascinating. Excellent piece: well worth the wait!

    I too am very excited to reach Heathen, and the subject of the next posting in particular: that one’s a particularly big song for me. Afraid is pretty great as well. Haven’t listened to the Toy recording yet, but I can’t imagine it besting the Visconti version, though my favourite rendition may be the Conan performance, where DB does a Beatly “Oooh!” after the “I believe in Beatles” line. (This clip was also rendered in Claymation on a special edition of the show. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yldxLZN-Fg&list=PL86D7048B2FC51ED4

  13. Mike F says:

    I am breathing a sigh of relief after those Toy clunkers. “Afraid” shows there’s still life in the old diamond dog. This is not a masterpiece but a compelling listen with Bowie finally figuring out how to write from a world weary perspective in an interesting way.

    Visconti added some nice touches. I prefer the Heathen version over Toy’s.

  14. s.t. says:

    “He described the narrator as someone who does what society expects him to, striking a bargain of spiritual conformity for a sense of security.”

    It’s touches like this that led fans to assume that “Heathen” was an album inspired by the September 11th attacks. An album too early, of course, but eerily appropriate.

  15. Maj says:

    Love the song, and actually also like its lyrics. I can even relate to some of them, in a ironic but really quite sincere way, kind of like Bowie himself, I suspect (whatever he says abt the I in the song being someone else).

    The Heathen version is a bit of an assault. But it’s the version I knew first, it’s from the Bowie album I knew first, and so it naturally remains my favourite.

  16. Jaf says:

    Chris I would love to read/see/hear your talk on Liza Jane. Will it be available to view online after the conference?

    • col1234 says:

      I don’t think there’s any official filming of panels but possibly there’s sound recording? not sure yet. The presentation is an extended version of the first entry of the book, so at some point, likely coinciding w/ book finally coming out, i’ll put the whole thing up (on the Tumblr maybe)

  17. StevenE says:

    An aside but is anyone here seeing Kate Bush? I got tickets in the pre-sale for a couple of dates. Am excited.

    PS Bowie’s turn to tour next. I’m a believer.

  18. Vinnie says:

    We’re back! I love/prefer the roughness of the “BowieNet Demo.” Perhaps that was one of Bowie’s problems with the later part of his career (let’s say like Michael Jackson or any other artist who is rich, successful, etc) – too much money that affords polish and studio time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 633 other followers

%d bloggers like this: