Lady Grinning Soul

June 30, 2010

Lady Grinning Soul.

The gorgeous “Lady Grinning Soul” seems written for an imaginary film. As James Perone notes, Bowie’s song is melodically similar to Quincy Jones’ “On Days Like These,” which opens The Italian Job, while his vocal’s initial upward leap and step-by-step descent echoes Max Steiner’s main theme for Gone With The Wind. Most of all, “Lady Grinning Soul” is Bowie’s lost James Bond movie theme song, seemingly paced to accompany a Maurice Binder title sequence. Even the last line, “your living end,” sounds like an Ian Fleming title (one far better than, say, “Quantum of Solace”).

The lyrical signifiers—Volkswagen Bugs, canasta, Americard (Visa’s original name)—don’t really connote glamour or mystery, though. If anything, they suggest my late grandmother, and possibly yours. Perhaps Bowie wanted a cultural mishmash, with French perfume, Uruguayan card games, German cars and American credit used as shorthand to indicate the Lady is pure cosmopolitan: stateless, rootless, all-conquering. Or maybe it was just Bowie taking delight in savoring the strange words, the tripping syllables of “canasta,” the melodious depths of “cologne.”

It’s said to be about the singer Claudia Lennear, and it’s more tasteful than her other alleged tribute, “Brown Sugar.” But there’s a vagueness to the Lady’s character, with the cinematic feel of the music and the lyric’s oddities lessening the sense the song’s about a specific person. “Lady Grinning Soul” is more the glory of a perfect symbol, one through which someone trapped in life can find release, false or no. The key line is “how can life become her point of view?,” liberation from the self by submission to another, possibly ending in death. (For Bowie, this is a love song.)

Everyone on the track seems dressed to the nines. It’s the closing number, after all. Mike Garson’s piano intro gives a taste of the verse vocal melody and adds a Spanish tinge. His piano cascades through much of the track: in the verses, he spins out repeated arpeggios with his right hand while Bowie sings, as though he’s trying to upset Bowie’s timing. “French, with a little Franz Liszt thrown in,” Garson described his playing to David Buckley, adding that he also took cues from Liberace. So the avant-garde piano of “Aladdin Sane” is replaced by something that comes close, at times, to vintage European schlock—Garson’s performance is the biggest clue that “Lady Grinning Soul” could actually be something of a parody.

Mick Ronson plays a Spanish-style acoustic guitar solo against Garson’s arpeggios (with Garson eventually echoing Ronson’s playing), and finishes off the track without artifice, his electric guitar playing soaring, vibrato-saturated notes as the lights dim. Bowie’s saxophone arrangement and his vocal are the finest on the record, with Bowie sounding like a man who swallowed a dream. “Lady Grinning Soul” ends a sordid, urban and often-cynical record with pure delusive romance.

Recorded ca. 20-24 January 1973. “Lady Grinning Soul” was the last song written for, recorded for, and sequenced on Aladdin Sane (Bowie scrapped a remake of “John I’m Only Dancing,” which was intended to be the album closer, possibly because it spoiled the LP’s closing mood). Bowie has never performed it live.

Top: Francis Bacon, Triptych, May-June 1973.


Let’s Spend The Night Together

June 28, 2010

Let’s Spend the Night Together.
Let’s Spend the Night Together (live, 1973).

The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is stranger and more complex than its reputation as one of the Stones’ most primal dance and sex songs. It’s a product of the Stones’ psychedelic era (the band was stuck in London, unable to perform live, and so spent their days throwing parties, taking drugs, getting busted and making Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request); so while written to be a single, it’s a murky and even experimental record. Keith Richards wrote most of it on piano (considering it a remake of “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby”), and his repeated piano line and a droning organ dominate the track, nearly swallowing up the guitars. As Richards pointed out years later, the backing singers are basically vocalizing piano chords. Charlie Watts seems to be slipping behind the beat, while the monotony of the track only breaks with its odd middle section, when there’s a swirl of vocals and, underneath, clattering sticks (allegedly by bobbies visiting the studio for a drug raid).

And Mick Jagger’s vocal isn’t as much a lecherous come-on as it is a desperate teenage boy’s plea, someone whose ambition far outweighs his experience. Take the way Jagger hems and haws in the opening verses, filling in spaces with “my my my my”s and other nervous tics, getting caught up on vowel sounds (“fooling around, and ’round and ’round…”), even admitting “this doesn’t happen to me everyday!!” As the song builds, the kid tries to psych himself up to ask the question, and when Jagger finally hits his mark after the final moment of doubt (the ominous bridge), he sings his last lines with delight, the backing singers cheering for him.

All this nuance went out the window when Bowie covered “Let’s Spend the Night Together” six years later. Bowie unfurled it as a show-opener for his return to Britain in late December 1972, then quickly cut a version for the Aladdin Sane LP. There’s a sense that the band is just tarting the song up—it’s moved up in key (from the original G (I believe) to A), sped up in pace, and filled with Mick Ronson and Mike Garson at their most indulgent: guitar sneers, spiky piano, synthesizer washes.

And where Jagger’s vocal can be hesitant and wry, with Jagger singing the title phrase by emphasizing “night” then falling off, slightly, on “together,” Bowie is manic and confident, as though he’s so sure of this conquest he’s already got his eye on another one. He delivers the chorus like a royal edict, keeping on the same note for most of it, and sprints through the verses as if someone’s got a stopwatch in the vocal booth. His breathy, spoken “our love comes from above…let’s make….lurve” bit is just irritating. Some have interpreted Bowie’s version as a gay liberation of the Stones’ heterosexual original, but if so, it was done at the expense of the original’s humanity—a bit of a cruel bargain.

As a cover song in a Ziggy Stardust show, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” worked well enough; as a filler track on an LP that’s already a bit padded (the second side of Aladdin Sane also has a remake of “The Prettiest Star”), it’s loud, tacky and pointless. Still, Bowie won the game at the end, as subsequent Rolling Stones performances of the song (they didn’t play it live again until the late ’70s) seemed to take his version as inspiration, with Jagger becoming a parody of a glam spoof of himself.

First performed by Bowie on 23 December 1972, opening his grand return to the Rainbow Theatre, and recorded around the same time. Performed throughout the last Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973, and issued as a single in the US and Europe (RCA 41125 c/w “Lady Grinning Soul”).

Top: Bobby Douglass in the field, Chicago, 1972.


Aladdin Sane

June 24, 2010

Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1973).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1974).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1996).
Aladdin Sane (Bridge Benefit Concert, 1996).
Aladdin Sane (ChangesNowBowie, 1997).

Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity.

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.

Bowie was scared of airplanes so he took a ship, the R.H.M.S. Ellinis, home to Britain in mid-December 1972. During the trip he read Waugh’s Vile Bodies and found, he thought, similarities between the novel (completed months before the 1929 crash, and whose narrative ends in a near-future with WWII already underway) and his own times. He soon got a song out of it.

At a London press conference in the summer of 1972, just as Ziggy Stardust broke, Bowie seemed unnerved by his success, though he had been trying to be a pop star for nearly a decade. Something disturbed him about his rise, he said, along with Lou Reed’s new prominence (“Walk on the Wild Side” would hit the Top 10) and the Glam boom. Once there had been well-groomed boys in matching suits on Top of the Pops. Now there was Roxy Music, who looked like extraterrestrials in a witness relocation program, or Slade and Roy Wood, hill trolls in Halloween costumes, or The Sweet, a bubblegum group who leered at their audience and seemed to be sharing a private joke. It was a sign that modern civilization had reached the point of absurdity—its entertainments had become bizarre and sordid, even menacing.

It is hardly surprising that they were Bolshevik at eighteen and bored by twenty…There was nothing left for the younger generation to rebel against except the widest conceptions of mere decency. Accordingly, it was against these that they turned.

Waugh, “The War and the Younger Generation,” 1929.

People like Lou [Reed] and I are probably predicting the end of an era. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people—absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.

Bowie, 1972.

In Waugh’s novel, ridiculous young people dress up in costumes, sleep with each other, have treasure hunts on city streets at midnight, drink and drug themselves to oblivion; it ends on a battlefield. “Aladdin Sane” was Bowie’s parallel sequel: a premature epitaph for his own lost generation. Though this time the party would end with a nuclear holocaust (hence the song’s (1913-1938-197?) subhead—Bowie seemed to really think that the world would end before 1980).

There’s a sadness and frailty to “Aladdin Sane,” set in B minor, with its lyric a meager collection of fragmented images—glissando strings, bouquets of faded roses. It’s as though Bowie realized the decadence of Waugh’s era had a panache his own time lacked. Bowie had just come off a months-long rock tour of America in 1972, and had endured/enjoyed the debauchery, the loud fashions, the noise, the bad food. It was a flyblown existence and Bowie wanted a nobler victim: in “Aladdin Sane” he invented a more glittering world to snuff out.

Bowie built “Aladdin Sane” out of sets of nine—there’s a nine-bar intro, two nine-bar verses, a nine-bar chorus, then another nine-bar verse and chorus, leading to the centerpiece of the track, and the album: Mike Garson’s 45-bar piano solo (or five nine-bar choruses).

The verse is an intricate little thing, sewn through with a three-note motif (F-E-D) that Ronson plays in alternating bars: the motif’s first only a guitar line, then in subsequent repeats Bowie sings the same three notes (“you’ll make it,” “I’m waiting”). The verse vocal is a call-and-response, with Bowie’s six-beat opening phrases, mainly staying on one note (“watch-ing him dance a-way“), answered by three-beat phrases (“dead ro-ses,” “don’t fake it”). The seventh bar of the verse is the variable, as it’s changed chords from the intro (from E to E minor*) while the rest of the verse is exactly the same as the intro. The seventh bar is first given dummy lyrics until, in the last verse, Bowie sings the title over it.** The chorus is simpler, moving to major chords, with its machine-like rhythms driven by Mick Ronson’s guitar, bolstered by piano and bass.

All of this is prologue for Garson’s solo. Garson has already undermined the verses, playing spiky lines that crash against Bowie’s vocal and Mick Ronson’s rhythm. Now he performs a magic trick.

Garson, in Trident Studios with Bowie, Ronson and producer Ken Scott, was asked to play a solo for “Aladdin Sane” over a simple set of chords (A to G to A, repeat indefinitely). Bowie gave Garson no guidelines, just told him to play what he liked. Garson did, and Bowie shot down his first two tries (a blues and a Latin-tinged solo). Bowie told Garson to go further out. On tour, Garson had told Bowie stories of the ’60s New York avant-garde jazz scene—of watching free jazz hierophants like Cecil Taylor. That’s what I want, Bowie said. So Garson sat down and played, off the top of his head and in one take, what is likely the finest rock piano solo recorded that decade, if ever.

Garson’s solo, at first listen seemingly random and chaotic, has a structure—it moves from dissonance and disturbance to the reassurance of memory, then breaks apart again, churning and spinning, until it’s finally yoked back to serve the song. The first chorus (2:04 to 2:21) opens with Garson playing a jarring four-note pattern that disintegrates, splintering into pieces; the second (2:22 to 2:40) is mainly his long, manic runs along the keyboard. The third (2:41 to 2:57) is a list of quotations—“Rhapsody In Blue” and “Tequila,” likely others (maybe a hint of “On Broadway,” which Bowie sings a part of in the outro). The fourth (2:58 to 3:15) kills that indulgence with three bars of furiously pounded chords and ends with the saxophone wending its way back; the fifth (3:16 to 3:33) is the return to earth, as Garson, bowing to time, plays the bassline midway through.

The outro is a maelstrom of saxophone squalls, Bowie singing “On Broadway” and Garson’s piano—the music closes in on itself, slowly fading off, finally leaving Garson playing alone and humbled, reduced to a rationed set of notes. Garson’s last stand sounds like one of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. Bowie may have sung about a fallen world, but Garson’s solo is what a weary, bloated civilization sounds like when it dies.

Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. Performed a few times during the last Ziggy tour, regularly during the Diamond Dogs tour (it’s on David Live) and revived in the mid-’90s after Bowie and Garson had reunited.

*Guitar footnote: It’s officially a change (acc. to the sheet music) from Esus2 to Em11.

**I’ve seen “Paris or maybe hell” sometimes written as “Paris, or maybe Hull,”, which might be a better line.

Top: Art Spiegelman, opening page of “Maus,” Funny Animals, 1972. (Collected in Breakdowns.)


Time

June 22, 2010

Time.
Time (live, 1973).
Time (The 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Time (live, 1974).
Time (live, 1987).

During his first US tour, Bowie had written sharp, vicious rockers (“Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor,” “Watch That Man”). Yet by the time he returned to the UK in December 1972, something had changed. The final songs he wrote for the Aladdin Sane LP were sprawling, piano-centered mood pieces: the title track, “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.”

Some biographers claim Bowie found life as a newly-minted rock star maddening and constricting, so he began writing “art” songs to break out of rock & roll’s confines. That’s possible, though a more likely influence was Bowie’s new pianist, Mike Garson, who could play in any style and who had an intuitive sense for accompaniment. Unlike Bowie’s other major pianist to date, Rick Wakeman, whose relationship with Bowie was entirely in the studio, Garson first played with Bowie on the road. So Bowie became fluent in Garson’s style (the two would sometimes play in hotel bars after shows, on standards like “My Funny Valentine”) and he soon began writing for Garson as he did for Mick Ronson. (One could argue Bowie was already thinking about how to replace Ronson.)

Garson grew up in Brooklyn in the ’50s and, until his mid-teens, had intended to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a touring musician—first in the Catskills with the likes of Jackie Mason, then in New York, where he played in jazz clubs and backed Martha and the Vandellas. Bowie arrived in New York in September ’72 and put out the word that he needed a touring pianist, and one of Garson’s friends recommended he audition. Garson went into a room he later described as being full of men with rainbow hair wearing circus clothes, and got the gig after playing eight bars of “Changes.”

“Time,” which Bowie allegedly wrote in New Orleans during a stop there in mid-November 1972, opens with an 8-bar intro in which Garson plays what he later described as a stride piano line “a little left field, with an angle.” Stride had developed in the early ’20s —it generally meant playing a set of beats with the left hand while the right hand improvised on melody. Garson’s version of stride is overly stylized, aided by Ken Scott’s production, which pushes Garson to the front of the mix (mainly in one speaker) and emphasizes his tone’s treble qualities, so much that Garson sometimes sounds like a player piano (Scott is also responsible for mixing in two bars of heavy Bowie breathing after a verse).

The final track is an elaborate duet between Ronson and Garson. Each generally comps while the other solos, though they also strike against each other (take the way Garson’s rainfall of piano notes (after “I had so many dreams”) is followed by a Ronson waltzing guitar line). Or how, in the intro repeat midway through the track, Garson’s fractured stride piano line is answered by Ronson making three whinnying runs on his guitar. It’s a masterful dual performance. Ronson winds up quoting from Beethoven’s Ninth and Garson plays a free-time solo buried in the mix during the repeated ‘LA-la-la-la-LA-la-LA-la” outro.

“Time” is an odd composition: its chorus (if it even has one) is wordless; its bridge converts into a chorus/outro; and it has three verse variations, each of which repeat after the Ronson/Garson solo. The first set goes from “Time, he’s waiting in the wings” to “his trick is you and me, boy” and is mainly Bowie’s vocal over Garson’s stride piano and Trevor Bolder’s bass. The second variant, a more harmonically complex version of the first (it still goes from E minor to F to end in C, but there are more chords along the way), features the entrance of the full band. The third is harmonically different (going from C up to G, down to C again), and Bowie sings it at full drama (beginning with “the sniper in the brain”, or, later, “breaking up is hard”).

Then there’s Bowie’s lyric, which is terrible. You could read the most notorious lines (“time, he flexes like a whore/falls wanking to the floor”) as Bowie personifying positions on a clock’s face, but they were likely conceived more as grotesque mime imagery (one shudders to imagine Bowie performing it—his backing dancers threaten to in the 1980 Floor Show performance). The lyric is all pathetic adolescent cod-profundity—masturbation as a kind of philosophy (“I looked at my watch, it said 9:25/and I think, ‘oh God I’m still alive!’ oh, shut up).

Still, buried underneath Bowie’s dreadful language is a real sense of mourning. Bowie wrote “Time” after hearing about the death of the New York Dolls’ drummer Billy Murcia, who he had met a few months earlier. Murcia had a messy, stupid rock & roll death, asphyxiating after being force-fed coffee (his friends were trying to prevent him from sleeping after Murcia took too many barbiturates). Bowie references “Billy Dolls” being taken by “time” and in later verses seems to return to him (“perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness” etc).

“Time” worked best on stage, where it served as recitative between the hard rock songs—a moment for Bowie to take a breath, smoke a cigarette, play the weary roué. So it’s no surprise the song was central to Bowie’s two most theatrical tours—the 1974 Diamond Dogs show, where Bowie sang “Time” sitting cross-legged behind an enormous black hand (a performance which veers close to Lily Von Schtupp territory), and the 1987 Glass Spider tour, where Bowie was borne aloft to the top of the infamous spider wearing fiberglass angel wings.

Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. It led off Aladdin Sane‘s second side and RCA issued an edit as a single in the US (radio stations bleeped “Quaaludes” but let “wanking” go through), where it failed to chart.

Top: New Orleans, 1972.


Drive-In Saturday

June 17, 2010

Drive-In Saturday (first performance, live 1972).
Drive-In Saturday.
Drive-In Saturday (Russell Harty Plus Pop, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1974).
Drive-In Saturday (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1999).

The 1950s of 1970s pop wasn’t quite right and had a strange ambivalence…The style and content [of Glam] was rooted in an idea of pop musicians being mutants from the future who were trying to blend in with us by assembling “authentic” versions of period clothing and getting it wrong. They had ’50s shoulder pads and Elvis-like lamé suits, but also eyeliner and lipstick…the lyrics touched on clichés of ’30s gangster movies and Humphrey Bogart alongside spaceships, motorbikes, aliens and jukeboxes.

Tat Wood, About Time 3.

“The Fifties” were invented around 1972-1973. American Graffiti (which gave life to Happy Days) and its UK counterpart That’ll Be the Day were on screen; Elvis, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson topped the charts; The Rocky Horror Show opened on the West End and Grease on Broadway. The actual 1950s, in all their shadow, were converted into an Eden: a sparkling, innocent contrast to the weariness, grime and open sexuality of the early ’70s.

So “Drive-In Saturday” is Bowie’s ’50s pop pastiche, though as typical with Bowie there’s a twist: “Drive-In Saturday” is a ’50s song celebrating the freedoms of the subsequent decade, with Mick Jagger and Twiggy serving as erotic household gods. The premise is that a post-apocalyptic civilization, through fear or reactions from fallout, has forgotten how to have sex, so the kids watch Rolling Stones promos and old films to see how it was done.

It’s the first Bowie song to reflect the challenge of Roxy Music, whose first LP (and hit single “Virginia Plain”) had come out in the summer of ’72. The phased synthesizer lines owe something to Brian Eno’s squiggles and groans, while Bowie’s approach to the material—parodic, subversive, yet done entirely straight-faced—is similar to Bryan Ferry’s fractured takes on country-western (“If There Is Something”) and torch ballads (“Chance Meeting”).

Bowie wrote “Drive-In Saturday” during a train ride from Seattle to Phoenix in early November 1972. He was unable to sleep and, looking out the window at night while the train was somewhere in the desert, he saw a row of nearly 20 enormous silver domes off in the distance, moonlight dancing on their roofs. It intrigued him: what were they? Government post-nuclear-war prep facilities? Secret laboratories? (Most likely feed silos.)

As with “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie’s SF narrative is a cover for a more basic human predicament—how kids, who typically have no idea about sex, have to improvise and fake their way through it, often using film stars and pop music as cues and instruction guides. The idea of groups of teenagers in cars, watching erotic films at a drive-in as though attending a church, is one of his sadder, more haunting images. Bowie also predicted that the Sixties would be enshrined, in the following decades, as the unsurpassed height of glamor and sexual freedom, and so used to belittle the kids who would grow up in the Sixties’ shadow. As much as the past can be warped to serve the present’s needs, the past is also toxic.

“Drive-In Saturday” opens with a pure period reconstruction: there’s a saxophone, swooning backing vocals, a basic chord structure in which the home key A steadily rises to the dominant (E), and it’s in 12/8 time (the standard meter for doo-wop, and used in other ’50s pastiches like The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” and Madonna’s “True Blue”). The opening lines are a feint, too, offering timeless, banal romantic sentiments (“don’t forget to turn on the light/don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright”).

Then things unsettle—a synthesizer splash in the verse’s seventh bar becomes a high, wailing note like an air-raid siren, while Bowie sings about “strange ones in the dome” and video-films. The second verse is entirely bizarre SF, with “Jung the foreman” gazing at the dried-up sea, worrying about fallout and guarding “the Bureau Supply for aging men” (Viagra?), The chorus, which changes key to G, is harmonically complex and time-shifting (so the two-bar “drive-in Sa-tur-day” alone is C/G-B/Am7/C-G/D-F#/D-E, with a move to 6/8 on “tur-day”).

The arrangement is typically intricate: take how the backing vocals often mirror Trevor Bolder’s bass (singing/playing three-note fills at the end of some verse bars, and making parallel downward steps in the long outro) or how Bowie’s vocal riffs off the saxophone, singing the same two-note pattern near the fadeout. The saxophone plays a sweet counter-melody to the vocal in the 4-bar bridges, while Mick Ronson’s guitar mainly serves as color: after his metronomic opening, he only rouses himself at the start of each chorus. It’s one of Bowie’s better vocals on Aladdin Sane, with Bowie first singing the title line softly, mainly keeping on one note, and then opening up in subsequent repeats, hitting a high G on “drive.”

Bowie introduced “Drive-In Saturday” days after he wrote it, playing it in several of his last ’72 American concerts. There are claims he debuted it in Phoenix, on 4 November, though the first surviving concert recording is from Bowie’s 17 November show at Pirate’s World, near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (Another recording, from Cleveland on 25 November, is on the 30th anniversary reissue of Aladdin Sane). He sang it alone on acoustic guitar, introducing it as “a song from the year 2033.” There are conflicting stories about whether he offered “Drive-In Saturday” to Mott the Hoople, with some claiming that Bowie soon rescinded the offer, others that Ian Hunter rejected it.

Recorded in New York on 9 December 1972, and issued as Aladdin Sane‘s second single (RCA 2352, c/w “Round and Round’). While it was one of Bowie’s highest-charting UK hits (#3), “Drive-In Saturday” was rejected as a single by RCA’s US division (which weirdly chose to issue “Time” instead). So “Drive-In Saturday” became something of a lost single for Bowie,  not included on any greatest-hits compilation until the ’90s. A shame, as it’s one of the finer songs he wrote in the period.

Top: Elvis Presley takes Mary Kathleen Selph for a ride, Memphis, 30 June 1972. (She was killed in an auto accident 18 days later.)


Cracked Actor

June 15, 2010

Cracked Actor.
Cracked Actor (live, 1973).
Cracked Actor (live, 1974).
Cracked Actor (live, 1983).
Cracked Actor (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Cracked Actor (Live at the Beeb, 2000).

Bowie spent two weeks in Los Angeles in late October 1972. His manager Tony Defries said you had to spend like a star to become one, so the Bowie entourage, roadies and all, stayed at the 5-star Beverly Hills Hotel. Everything was charged to RCA. No one had enough cash to take a cab, so they charged limousines to room service. Afternoons by the pool, nights at Rodney’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip. To complete the LA experience, some of the Spiders took a course at the Scientology Celebrity Center (pianist Mike Garson was a Scientologist; he converted Woody Woodmansey by proselytizing on the tour bus). By the time they left LA, Bowie and company had burned through $100,000.

Sometime during his stay (allegedly after touring Hollywood Boulevard), Bowie wrote a song about an aging, debauched film star. The actor was once Hollywood’s golden boy, or so he claims, and now lives a twilight existence in Hollywood’s mortuary era, reveling in his fall. Life’s been clarified down to a series of coarse transactions, with the actor leveraging his fading fame, and depleting what’s left of his fortune, to poach young boys (and girls). These could be desperate, aspiring actors, or kids he’s hired off the street—it hardly matters so long as they’re on their knees. It’s one of the most brutal lines Bowie ever wrote: “Forget that I’m fifty, ’cause you just got paid.”

“Cracked Actor” is crude and louche, its lyric a collection of barely-double-entendre lines (“stiff on my legend,” “give me your head”). The chorus is hammered through with harsh, plosive sounds (“crack,” “smack,” “suck”—mirrored by Mick Ronson slamming on each beat), while Ronson smears guitar over every corner. The track’s centered on Ronson’s power chording and Bowie’s harmonica, the latter played through a cranked-up guitar amp and pushed high in the mix. While the song basically ends at 1:40, the guitar and harmonica extend the track for four more 12-bar choruses, starting a fifth as the track fades out, suggesting the Hollywood nightmare will keep repeating itself.

Recorded ca. 20-24 January 1973. For the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie removed “Cracked Actor” from its back-room origins and staged it entirely within an actor’s fevered mind: he wore a cape and sunglasses and sang to a skull in his hand, a la Hamlet, then French-kissed the skull. He did the same, with even more artifice, during his 1983 tour. A curse on Los Angeles, “Cracked Actor” would rebound on Bowie: it became the title of a 1974 documentary chronicling Bowie living in LA at his lowest state, reduced to a jittery husk of a human being.

Top: Anthony Friedkin, “Vice police interrogating two men, Hollywood, 1972.”


Panic In Detroit

June 10, 2010

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976, with the King Kong of drum solos).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
.
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

“Panic In Detroit”‘s leading man is a revolutionary/sex symbol who “looked a lot like Che Guevara,” as the singer remembers him (Bowie predicting the hipster Che t-shirt, and even better, the Che store). His old group, the National People’s Gang, has been wiped out, so instead he signs autographs, leads a few riots, and finally shoots himself, though he graciously leaves one last autograph for the singer.

The fall of the last revolutionary hipster is set in a post-riot, even post-apocalypse Detroit, with the lyric partially inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots. Yet just as influential was Bowie’s backstage encounter in New York with a former classmate from Bromley Tech, an unassuming, middle-class British kid who had become a drug dealer based out of South America. Bowie was taken with the idea that anyone, through stylish violence, could reinvent themselves into a famous counter-cultural figure. It was the glittering devolution of the American Left, epitomized in the Patty Hearst saga, the greatest show on TV in 1974 (Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening”).

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s instant snapshot of the America he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late ’72: a country of empty spaces, fallen cities and sporadic violence. He told Musician in 1990 that one image that had fascinated him was of a sniper perched on a rooftop, dispatching random people on the street below him. “There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” Bowie recalled (there weren’t, really, but Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film picking off a woman in her rooftop pool).

For Bowie, this America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. “It was really happening,” he said. “Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place.”

The power and drive of “Panic In Detroit” owes as much to Mick Ronson and the backing singers Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin as it does to any of Bowie’s scenarios. Lewis and Franklin’s long-held notes in the choruses give way to a series of sharp, echoing wails and shrieks in the coda. Ronson opens the song’s 8-bar intro with a fairly simple riff, but that’s not his game here—he shades Bowie’s vocal lines with menace, often pitting two guitar tracks against each other (like the minimalist solo he gets after the bridge), and plays sets of rapid descending scales, like the shift from D to E that ends each chorus. Woody Woodmansey’s Bo Diddley tribute (one of the densest, murkiest rhythm tracks Bowie’s had to date) is bolstered by congas and shakers. Bowie sings long arcs of melody in the verses, culminating in the title phrase—the verses and choruses bleed into each other, separated by a single bridge and a repeat of the intro riff. After Bowie’s last lines, Ronson and the rest of the band descend into madness.

Allegedly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the b-side of “Knock on Wood,” and it’s on later versions of David Live). Bowie remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan (with a cameo by the Speak and Spell) in December 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show, but their remake of “Space Oddity” replaced it—the revised “Panic in Detroit” later turned up on reissues of Scary Monsters and, currently, Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972. ” Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).


Watch That Man

June 8, 2010

Watch That Man.
Watch That Man (live, 1973).
Watch That Man (Lulu, 1973).
Watch That Man (live, 1974).

Lester Bangs, while calling Bowie “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much,” admitted in the same article (Creem, December ’73) that Bowie had outplayed the Rolling Stones with “Watch That Man,” Bowie’s annexation of their sound. The Stones settled matters by issuing their first utterly mediocre LP, Goats Head Soup, in response. (Things were catching up to the Stones—during the Soup sessions, producer Jimmy Miller was carving swastikas onto the recording console, while Keith Richards once tried to play a lead guitar solo on a bass and didn’t realize his mistake for 15 minutes.)

“Watch That Man”‘s mix is blatant Exile on Main St.-vintage murk, Bowie’s vocal submerged beneath Mick Ronson’s guitars: at times Bowie sounds like a trebly part of the horn section. Ken Scott, trying to get a wall of sound, pushed all the instruments up in the mix, drowning Bowie’s vocal in the process. MainMan, Bowie’s management company, balked and asked Scott to bring Bowie’s vocal up front. A few weeks later RCA (or Bowie) overruled them, finding the new mix lacked a punch, and so asked Scott to bring back the mud.

Written in the last days of September 1972, while Bowie was holding court in New York before resuming his American tour, “Watch That Man” reflects Bowie’s new A-list status while recounting his initial round of decadence when visiting New York the previous fall. It’s set at a celebrity party where most of the game is being seen by the right people (“No one took their eyes off Lorraine/she shimmered and she strolled like a Chicago moll,” Bowie sings, likely referring to Cyrinda Foxe (cf. “Jean Genie”).

It’s a typical rock & roll party song, as the music’s loud, the champagne bottles and cocaine mirrors are on the table and a gaggle of drunks are hanging together in a corner of the room, stealing glances at the imperious singer arranged on the couch (Bowie seems to be watching TV most of the time). With Bowie, though, it usually comes down to who has the best angle, and by the chorus you realize there’s someone hipper than him in the room. Whether it’s the party host, Shakey, or a drug dealer, or a record exec (maybe he’s all of the above), the “Man” of the title unsettles Bowie, takes him off his game. Finally, he flees the party, heading down to the street. As much swagger as “Watch That Man” has, it ends with Bowie losing face.

The song’s all forward motion—the verses move from A to F#m, while the chorus begins with a slap, three big steps up (“Watch! That! Man!”, over A/D/G). Ronson uses both speakers to dominate the room, Woodmansey gives one of his meatier performances, Bolder keeps the swampy tide of sound moving. Newcomers include pianist Mike Garson, who breaks into Ronson’s flow of conversation, and the backing singers—Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin. The latter head out the door with Bowie, but they sound as captivated by his rival as he is.

Recorded ca. 20-25 January 1973: it was the natural lead-off track for Aladdin Sane. Lulu recorded a version later that year, which became the B-side to her “Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie retired the song after his 1974 tour, with a Philadelphia concert recording collected on David Live.

Top: Garry Winogrand, “Untitled,” New York City, 1972.


The Jean Genie

June 3, 2010

The Jean Genie.
The Jean Genie (live, 1972).
The Jean Genie (live, TOTP, 1972).
The Jean Genie (live, with Jeff Beck, 1973).
The Jean Genie (1980 Floor Show, 1973).
The Jean Genie (live, 1974).
The Jean Genie (rehearsal, 1976).
The Jean Genie (live, 1978).
The Jean Genie (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
The Jean Genie (live, 1987).
The Jean Genie (live, 1990).
The Jean Genie (live, Bridge Benefit, 1996).
The Jean Genie (live, 1997).
The Jean Genie (live, 2000).
The Jean Genie (live, 2003).

David Bowie’s first United States concert was in Cleveland on 22 September 1972 and somewhere between the next stop, Memphis, and New York, Bowie began to write “The Jean Genie.” Either Mick Ronson or Bowie’s old friend George Underwood (depending on which interview you read) was in the back of the tour bus playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs on an acoustic guitar, which devolved into variations on the “I’m a Man” riff (“Bus, bus, bus…we’re goin’ busin’!” was the refrain). Bowie took the idea of playing off the “Man” riff and had a song in a few days.

Two weeks later, Bowie and the Spiders recorded “Jean Genie” over a couple of hours in RCA’s New York studios (when Bowie demoed the completed “Jean Genie” to the Spiders, they quickly picked up that the song was a blatant rewrite of “I’m a Man,” so Trevor Bolder simply played the “I’m a Man” bassline with a few runs added). It was mixed in Nashville a month later and by Christmas had become Bowie’s highest-charting UK single to date.

Its rushed creation gave “The Jean Genie” a punch and an immediacy; it’s all muscle and sinew. The song’s mainly just three chords—the verses have, in each bar, three beats on E, then one beat on A, and then back to E in the following bar (Ronson plays an Esus4, while a second guitar hits on the A chord). This creates the track’s lumbering momentum: three steps in place, one step up, a quick step back. Bowie’s vocal in the verse mainly stays on one note, then drops down for the last beat of each bar; the lyric’s word-packed and soaked with rhymes, and Bowie usually hits on the third beat of each line (“off to the CIT-y,” “ate all your RA-zors”, “talkin’ bout MON-roe”). Over this Bowie and the Spiders tracked harmonica squalls, guitar fills and rattlesnake percussion (the latter usually signaling the start of each verse).

After two transitory bars to draw out the suspense, the chorus moves up to B (the dominant of the home key, E), Woody Woodmansey slams on each beat, the harp wails, Bowie howls out the vocal. The key line is “let yourself go,” which everyone does. Third verse is different from the first, with Bowie getting snagged on “loves to be loved,” repeating the phrase until Ronson, who’s been buzzing in the background, takes over for a 12-bar solo that’s mainly a blistering run of triplets (matched by Bolder’s bass in the last two bars, which mirrors the intro). The track closes with Ronson’s guitar imitating the rattlesnake tambourine and the band raving up.

“Jean Genie” refined Bowie’s ambitions and Ronson’s skills into a sharp four-minute rock record, one with a great sense of space—take the way every instrument is cleanly defined in the mix. It’s a dance song with a taste of menace (the version taped in Santa Monica in October ’72, linked above, is brutal, Ronson’s guitar sounding like an insurrection). Building on the audience he created with “Starman,” “Jean Genie” expanded Bowie’s base—it was the song that won him the working class vote (in Belfast, Bobby Sands dressed in denim for a while in homage). The Mancunian bruiser Gene Hunt calling himself “the Gene Genie” in Life on Mars seems fitting enough.

Many have called “Jean Genie” a portrait of Iggy Pop as an authentic American Primitive, though Bowie told an interviewer in 2000 that the song’s more about “an Iggy-type character…a white-trash, kind of trailer-park kid thing—the closet intellectual who wouldn’t want the world to know that he reads.” (He’s also claimed that the obvious pun on Jean Genet wasn’t intended, blaming his subconscious). Another inspiration was Cyrinda Foxe, the model who appeared in the promo film and who was Bowie’s major fling during late ’72 (she turns up, under assumed names, in other Aladdin Sane songs like “Watch That Man”). Bowie said he wrote much of the lyric in her apartment to entertain her.

And like “Starman,” “Jean Genie” is fused from pieces of older rock & roll records, from the “I’m a Man” riff to the Mod harmonica (intended to sound like Jagger’s harp on the Rolling Stones’ first LP)—over the years, Bowie has incorporated everything from “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” to “I Walk the Line” to “Purple Haze” into long medleys centered around the song. “I’m in love with rock & roll, and I’ll be out all night,” Jonathan Richman sang in a demo of “Roadrunner” he cut the spring before Bowie’s US invasion: “Jean Genie” could be playing on Richman’s car radio.

Recorded in NYC on 6 October 1972 and released on 24 November (RCA 2302, c/w “Ziggy Stardust”). Bowie premiered “Jean Genie” the day after it was recorded, at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, and played it throughout his late ’72 US tour. A performance taped for Top of the Pops in December was later wiped [edited Dec 2011] but was blessedly found! And it rocks.

One of Bowie’s finest and most popular singles, “Jean Genie” should’ve been a #1 but was stalled in the second slot, initially by Jimmy Osmond’s “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” (likely being used to torture people in Syrian prisons as I write this), then by Sweet’s “Blockbuster,” which has pretty much the same riff in its verses. Later on Aladdin Sane and on every Bowie hits compilation ever made, it’s been a staple of most Bowie tours as well.

Top: The late Cyrinda Foxe and Bowie, filming the “Jean Genie” promo film at the Mars Hotel, San Francisco, 27 October 1972.


The Prettiest Star

December 15, 2009

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 19 March 1970.


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