I Have Not Been to Oxford Town

April 22, 2013

95staten

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (rehearsal, fragment, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (first live performance, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1996).

It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.

Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable—long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’

There was a simple G major harmonic structure to work with: the verses held on G, with a descending turnaround through F and A minor; the refrain just shifted between G and its IV chord, C major; the bridge finally introduced the dominant (V) chord, a D major. As per Eno’s account, Bowie seems to have sewed together a vocal out of rhythms (one likely starting point was using the F-Am turnaround to underpin the two-note backing vocal melody: “all’s…well“), auditioning meters, playing with vowel alignments and consonance: e.g., my attorney seems sincere, with the little internal rhyme of “ney” and “seem” and the four consecutive “ess” sounds. There’s a severity to his verse phrasings, with their short vowels and Bowie’s curt appraisal of each syllable, letting some pass, haranguing others (Baby Grace is the victimm). And it’s countered by the almost jovial lightness in the chorus, one long dancing line of melody, with its easy phrases and rich rhymes: take “toll the bell,” both a consonant rhyme and onomatopoeiac (& the tolling’s echoed by the “all’s well” hook two bars later).

The fact that Bowie came up with the lyric (and top melody?) in a half-hour is witness to his creative strength at the time. Working at a steady pace since Buddha of Suburbia, gaining the confidence and insight to abandon most of one idea (the Leon suites) in favor of, at the relatively last minute, new, improvised material, it’s as if Bowie had physically willed himself back into an earlier state of creativity. It couldn’t, and it didn’t, last for long. But it produced “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is a marvel, the best song Bowie wrote in the Nineties.

oxfrd

As a rhythm guitarist, I do my stuff knowing a lead guitarist will come in. So I stay away from certain frequencies, concentrate on making a sturdy frame.

Carlos Alomar, 1995.

It’s all just paint, right?

Nile Rodgers, on making recordings.

“Oxford Town” isn’t the end of Carlos Alomar’s work with Bowie: he would play on the subsequent Outside tour and he’ll turn up to take two last bows in the early 2000s. But “Oxford Town” is his finale, his last great accompaniment.

Reeves Gabrels is in the mix as well: he’s likely playing the distorted, seething line, mixed left, that lingers throughout the first verse and chorus like a bad conscience. Alomar’s first unmistakably heard* in the second pre-chorus, playing a little dancing line, mixed center, that jabs against the verse melody, and then, gathering confidence, he starts conniving against the beat in the main chorus. There’s the nervy arpeggios in the bridge and then, when the verse returns, Alomar stays on, riffing, converting Gabrels in the process (or is it another Alomar track? Whoever’s responsible, the distorted guitar stops sulking and begins dancing as well).

And the coda is a last duet, Bowie and arguably his finest collaborator. By the last forty seconds of the track, there are at least three Alomar guitar dubs, talking to each other, making filigrees around the sturdy, constant melody that Bowie sings. Alomar, either on his Parker Fly or, even more fitting, his classic Alembic Maverick, plays bright, hook-filled lines, mainly keeping to the top three strings. The last few seconds of “Oxford Town” are Alomar alone, a sideman having taken the spotlight by force, hooked into a riff that seems like it will never end until it drops dead.

dbb

There’s a ghost in “Oxford Town,” too. Bowie’s vocal echoes someone who he’d never acknowledged before: David Byrne (compare Bowie’s “lord, get me out of here” to Byrne’s phrasing on lines like “wasting precious time” in “Found a Job”).

Bowie and Byrne had kept to separate worlds, with Eno as their only nexus point (edit: “DJ” is allegedly Bowie imitating Byrne, as per a Talking Heads bio—see comments). But as Outside was supposed to be an American album, Leon Blank an alleged American suspect, this gave Bowie a way to use Byrne, particularly his vocal on “Once In a Lifetime,” as a thread in his backdrop. And Bowie and Byrne’s takes on America were fundamentally similar. Byrne was born in Scotland, grew up in Ontario before winding up in Maryland. For him, America would always be a foreign country, especially the vast heartland that he spied from airplanes or bus windows (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,” he’d later sing.) This alienation gave him a way to appreciate “native” American artifacts as works of art: he transcribed game shows and acted them out, and in the late Seventies, he became fascinated by radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers.

Like “Oxford Town,” “Once in a Lifetime” had started as a rhythm track, anchored on Tina Weymouth’s alternating three-note bassline. What Bowie mainly took from “Lifetime” was Byrne’s patter in the verses, a chant-like phrasing Byrne himself had taken from evangelical radio**: You may find yourself! in another part of the world! Hectoring repetition, mainly keeping to one note (“you may find yourself”), balanced with elated, upward-tugging, rhyme-heavy phrases (“behind the wheel of a large automobile!“) You can hear Byrne in Bowie’s last verse, the repetition and rhythmic variations as”Leon” confesses/denies his crimes, sounding as if the words are ripping out of him. If I had not ripped the fabric…if I had not met Ramona…

There’s also a similarity in the two songs’ refrains, which offer a way out from the claustrophobia of their verses. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the exit’s through water: whether metaphor (the aridity of materialist America in the verse met by the communist bounty of water) or religion (Christian baptism, the Islamic ideal of submission to God) or just signalling the freer, more rhythmically dense music (Byrne was referencing Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy”) that the Heads had started playing.

In “Oxford Town,” the escape is through sound: tolling bells, collective hums, chants (and after all, only sound can escape a prison cell). But who’s in the cell, anyhow? Time for Leon Blank to speak.

six

Manager: I should like to know if anyone has ever heard of a character who gets right out of his part and perorates and speechifies as you do. Have you ever heard of a case? I haven’t.

Father: You have never met such a case, sir, because authors, as a rule, hide the labor of their creations…Imagine such a misfortune as I have described to you: to be born of an author’s fantasy, and be denied life by him; and then answer me if these characters left alive, and yet without life, weren’t right in doing what they did do and are doing now to persuade him to give them their stage life.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Act III.

Outside was the first time “in 20 years” (or so he told Billboard) that Bowie had played characters. It was different from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, where he’d gone too deep into the characters, tailored their costumes too tightly to his “real” self, he said. On Outside, Bowie would play a more traditional narrator/author role.

But the characters couldn’t even attain the depth of cartoons. Those that had the most signs of life were those that had something akin to Bowie: the alternate-life suburban dreamer in Algeria Touchshriek and the all-conquering artistic ego in Ramona Stone. The nebulous narrator figures, the Artist and Minotaur, were just Bowie “doing the police in different voices.” The rest were press-ganged from movies that Bowie liked: Baby Grace was Bowie imitating David Lynch’s Laura Palmer, while Nathan Adler was a private-eye mingle: Rick Deckard, Philip Marlowe (more Elliott Gould than Bogart), Gary Oldman’s Jack Grimaldi.

This left Leon Blank, accused killer. Leon began as Bowie riffing on Tricky (with a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat thrown in) but the character was reactive, passive, only seen through the eyes of others. Then Bowie, dashing out the lyric that became “Oxford Town,” finally gave Leon a monologue. The character took on life, began pushing back against its erstwhile creator.

“Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s song, some last words from a jailhouse, which had been a favorite scenario of Bowie’s youth (see “Bars of the County Jail” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”). The first verses find Leon pacing his cell, giving a sketch of his confinement: the food’s foul, the bedsheets are decent, his attorney means well, the priest seems willing to listen. The cold, slightly hectoring tone that Bowie uses makes Leon’s report seem like a man ticking off a list before he goes on a trip.

Then there’s a bridge, and Leon stops reading his lines and starts talking to his author:

This is your shadow on my wall…
This is what I could have been.

I have not been to Oxford Town isn’t just an alibi, it’s a criticism. Bowie failed to give his creations life, stuck them in ridiculous situations, gave them nothing to feed on. Leon kicks against the cheap story that he was folded into: If I had not met Ramona (who was Ramona anyhow?)….If I had not ripped the fabric. “Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s retort: yes, look at the blankets and the priest you gave me—they’re just cheap props. What did you really give me? Nothing. Here, this is what I could have been.

On stage in Paris a year later, Bowie gave one possible ending. Someone threw a white scarf on stage and Bowie, with his old mime’s instincts, played with the scarf, twining it around his neck, making a sling with it for his arm. Then he strung it into a noose, and, while singing the end choruses, aped hanging himself.

lb

[Outside] is only symbolically anguished. I think we are in for a very good time when we get to the next millennium.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

There would be no sequel albums to Outside, no 2. Inside or 3. Afrikaans or A Night in Oxford Town. No more clues or red herrings or murder revelations or narratives. No grand concert with Eno to mark the millennium in Vienna. No more work (ever?) with Eno. Outside was, arguably, a failure. The album that came out of the implosion of the Leon project was hard to digest: even its die-hard fans may admit it’s overlong and oddly sequenced.

Still, perhaps this unwieldy apparatus, this compilation of role-playing games and Verbasized cut-up lyrics, of computer-generated portraits and vocoded voices, Minotaur paintings and barely-readable “diaries,” was what Bowie needed to finally work on a grand scale again. It’s as if a man who’d once been able to fly now needed some great jerry-rigged dirigible to get him off the ground. But he was still flying. If this was the price paid to get “Oxford Town” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,“The Motel” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” well, it wasn’t that dear a price.

In Bowie’s promotional interviews for Outside, he kept saying that his millennial obsessions, the blood and mayhem and piercings and scarifications of the Nineties art world and pop culture, were a purging. We needed to burn the dross and relics of the old century to clear a way for the new one, which would be a calmer time. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Nineties can now seem like a soap bubble, a playtime in which a world that could have gone anywhere scared itself with trifles and serial killer stories and “art murders.” Despite the murdered girl at the heart of it, Outside generally sounds optimistic, open. It was of its time: the Nineties sometimes felt like they were the gangway to the future we’d imagined, certainly not the future we got.

All’s well. A town crier’s words, after all. Let the old century die, move on. Bowie did: he went on tour to promote Outside, fell in love with his band, made his next record a tribute to them. Pay off Nathan Adler, write him out of the series. Toll the bell, strike the set, say goodbye, baby, and amen.

Recorded 17-20 January (poss. overdubs in February) 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Covered as “I Have Not Been to Paradise” by Zoe Poledouris on the Starship Troopers soundtrack in 1996.

* I’m thinking that Alomar also plays the sliding hook that begins in the first verse, but it could’ve been Gabrels.

**Byrne was taping broadcasts of these preachers around 1979-1980 for what later became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Top: Andreas Freund, “Staten Island Ferry,” 1995; Jean-Baptiste Mondino, back cover of David Byrne, 1994; Ian McKellen, Alison Prior, Margaret Drabble and John Fortune rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 1959; “Oxford Town” lyrics (in theory); Bowie/Leon.


Thru’ These Architects Eyes

April 10, 2013

ny95

Thru’ These Architects Eyes.
Thru’ These Architects Eyes (live, 1995).

Effect before everything.

Philip Johnson.

1. Reeves Gabrels urged Bowie to scrap a revision of “Hearts Filthy Lesson” that had a lyric about English landscape painters. An undeterred Bowie got his art history piece onto Outside anyhow with “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” where he name-checks the architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers.

Johnson was an American Modernist: the man who imported the International Style to the US in the Thirties, the man who built a glass house in a Connecticut suburb. The British Rogers savored interiors: take his Centre Pompidou or Lloyd’s Building, where the “guts” of the building, its pipes, elevators, gas lines and cables, form a barricade against the street. By the time Bowie wrote this song, Johnson and Rogers had entered the red giant phase of their careers, forever winning commissions, being flattered for worn-out designs, their buildings seemingly cropping up everywhere you looked in a Western city.

Bowie may have recognized a fellow traveler in Johnson—a brutal aesthete who was dedicated to his whims. Johnson’s biographer Franz Schulze wrote that Johnson’s “genius was that of a singularly gifted harlequin who forever changed the masks of style on his own work and conducted his personal relationships with comparable whimsicality.” Johnson had been in a Bowie song before, indirectly: recall the “Manhattoes” jumping from the roof of Johnson’s AT&T Building in “Goodbye Mr. Ed.” A building that was, according to architecture critic Carter Wiseman, “a unique fusion of aesthetic rebellion and corporate commerce… less architecture than it was logo, less work of art than hood ornament.”

2. Consider the title’s odd punctuation: the superfluous apostrophe after “thru,” the lack of apostrophe in the (apparently) possessive “architects.” The song’s title is a tiny piece of architecture. The apostrophe after “thru” ornaments that word. The lack of punctuation on “architects eyes” means to hook the eye, like a glass door that leads nowhere: you feel that “architects” should own “eyes,” but instead the two words just stand together alone, their “natural” relationship denied.

3. Bowie walks through a city, past great steel and glass towers designed by great architects for great multi-national companies. He feels like a stowaway. A city has great reserves to humble you or to drive you mad with inspiration. The character that Bowie sings here believes he’s a greater designer than either Rogers or Johnson, than any of the faceless men who had drafted the grid he walks along. Like Bowie’s old Starman, he’ll blow our minds if only we met him.

This is the Nineties. Capitalism has won out, history is over: all that’s left is a long revel. We’re living in the golden age, the golden age, as the song begins [edit: or it's digging for gold and it's the goal..."]. There’s so much galling promise lying around. The singer’s working in a job he hates but he doesn’t have the guts to quit. His cowardice makes him boil with envy: These summer scumholes/This goddamned starving life. The song is bled through with resentment. It has the clammy taste of insignificance; it’s a man cursing while he walks in the shadow of Johnson’s Lipstick Building (which housed Bernie Madoff’s office), upon seeing Rogers’ Millennium Dome blight his view of the South Bank.

4. What city is he walking in? If you take the lyric literally, you’ll need a Johnson and a Rogers within eyeshot of each other. So it’s not New York, where there are no Rogers buildings, nor London, where there are no Johnsons (one guess is that it’s Madrid, where you could look out from Johnson’s Puerta de Europa towers and spy Rogers’ terminal at the Barajas Airport). Also, Bowie is “stomping along on this great Philip Johnson,” but Johnson never designed a bridge or a walkway. Perhaps Bowie’s gone King Kong, swaying with menace atop a skyscraper.

rr

5. “Richard Rogers” is not the architect, but the composer. The creator of Oklahoma! and Carousel is Bowie’s ally against Johnson, as “Architects” concerns Bowie, songwriter, fitfully comparing his mental landscapes, the Hunger Cities and Suffragette Cities, the Crack Cities and Oxford Towns of his own imaginings, to the concrete (a word that Bowie puns on later in the song) realizations of mere architects.

Bowie, the architect who took his cities on tour with him. This goddamned starving life: the life of an artist, insatiable, constantly having to feed on the word and to spew out new ones.

6. “Architects Eyes,” along with “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” is the implosion of the Outside storyline, where the anti-narrative consumes itself. Everything breaks down. See the stagehands flailing, trying to hold up the collapsing backdrops, while the cast walks off in disgust. Even the prompter’s booth is empty. “Oxford Town,” as we’ll see, is a character’s rebuttal. “Architects” is an author’s requiem for his failed work, of which he’s still defiantly proud. Bowie is like Buster Keaton in One Week, staring at the crazed house that he built by trusting to his wayward sense of direction. He thinks it’s beautiful.

7. If Bowie is the most Gnostic of rock musicians; this is one of his most Gnostic songs (see “Station to Station” for another one). A core Christian Gnostic heresy, to boil it down to a sentence, is that the world we live in was not created by God, but by a lesser being—that man is a fallen god himself, that gnosis (literally “knowledge”) will reveal this condition. This is the underground stream that fed the 20th Century. Bowie came to it through Buddhism and his obsession with Aleister Crowley. The unlocking of the self, the knowledge that we are not what we are, is the key that Bowie played in since he began writing songs, his changing costumes merely outward manifestations of this. It’s the promise he’s always offered his fans. But he was always aware of the darker implications of this promise: how the search for God within oneself can lead to the fascist will to power, the bewitching cult of mass celebrity, the Thatcherite liberation from “society” in favor of the “socialism of the self.”

Philip Johnson, who built great glass towers for capitalists to play in, had a long infatuation with fascism in his youth. He went to a Nazi rally in Potsdam and got turned on (“all those blond boys in black leather,” he later recalled). He wrote an admiring article on “Architecture and the Third Reich” in 1933 and even once the war had begun in 1939, he was still writing pro-Hitler articles for American magazines: “Hitler’s ‘racism’ is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of ‘we, the best,’ which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures.”

We, the best. Who else is an Architect? Ask St. Thomas Aquinas: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.” But in Bowie’s song this is a lesser god, a poor architect. A bungler, a god who left tectonic plates to crack against each other, who condemned vast swathes of the globe to ice and desert. The steaming caves, the rocks and the sand. Note the shoddy workmanship.

pjba

8. There’s an old legend in which an architect has his eyes gouged out upon finishing his work. It happened to the designer of the Strasbourg astronomical clock, they say. Or the designer of Prague’s astronomical clock, who had his eyes ripped out upon the cathedral’s unveiling. Ivan the Terrible used a poker to put out the eyes of the man who built St. Basil’s Cathedral. None of these stories seem to be true, but they served our purpose. The designer of something beautiful deserves to be maimed for it, to be denied the chance to build something colossal for another. There’s a sadistic pleasure in knowing that a maker will never see his creation again.

9. What city is this? The man walks alone through it, barely visible when seen beneath the great structures that some other, grander figure designed. He’s estranged from a shoddy creation, which houses the strong at the expense of the weak. Is it a city he made? Is he planning another one? Mind your eyes.

All the majesty of a city landscape
All the soaring days in our lives
All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye
All the joy I see
Thru’ these architects eyes

There’s contempt and anger in how Bowie sings these lines, a man screaming that everything he sees, even the very filaments of his dreams, have been wrought by some other power, who he resents (see Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”: “I was born here and I’ll die here—against my will“). Bowie’s voice sounds strained in the chorus, it’s a muscular push against the song’s harmonic movement, the track’s busy arrangement of guitars and synthesizers. But there’s also pride and grandeur in his phrasing, the way he seems entranced with the bounding melody he’s written: it’s a songwriter listening to the final run-through, the happy end of a weary task.

“Architects” hangs between the bright youth of A major (the verses) and the weariness of B minor (the bridges), clashing the two keys in the chorus (the choruses closes in A major, but it’s a tentative victory). The weave of guitar tracks is a secret Tin Machine reunion—Kevin Armstrong and Gabrels, battling each other one last time. Mike Garson closes the show, ending his solo with a decelerando three-note figure that, if it wasn’t for the fade, sounds as if it would’ve slowed to an utter crawl, each note sounded alone, not linked by any melody, like the “architects eyes” of the song’s title.

10. Is there concrete all around, or is it in my head?

Recorded possibly late 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and January-February 1995, at the Hit Factory, NYC. Only performed during the Outside tour in 1995-1996.

Top to bottom: Pedro Ramos, “MOMA, New York, November 1995.”; Richard Rogers, Channel 4 Headquarters, London (1994); Philip Johnson, Chapel of St. Basil, Houston (1992).


No Control

April 8, 2013

95berlin

No Control.

“No Control” came together quickly, at the tail end of the last Outside sessions in New York: it was possibly the last track completed for the album. In his diary, Eno said much of the track was done in an hour, including a Bowie vocal that left him in awe: “Watching him tune it to just the right pitch of sincerity and parody was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in a studio.”

Bowie starts with an octave-doubled vocal for the verses; it’s a warning to a collective “you” from someone already condemned, the melody confined to a handful of notes and tethered to the song’s basic harmonic progression (A major moving to its flattened VII chord, G, on “deranged“). He shifts to a wider-ranging, ascending melody in the bridge, with a loftiness in his now-single-tracked intonation (“If I could control…tomorrow’s haze“), over the same progression in G major (a move to F on “darkened shore“).

But in the second bridge, Bowie introduces what Eno had noticed him fine-tuning: a blend of camp and “realism.” You’ve gotta have a scheme, You’ve gotta have a plan! It’s as if a minor character from Oklahoma! has turned up in Oxford Town, trying to impart some homespun common sense (is he exhorting the likes of Leon Blank or Ramona Stone to plan their murders more thoroughly?). Repeating this move in the final bridge, which extends into the coda, Bowie concludes in a run where he scrapes out every vowel he comes across: “I caaan’t be-lieeeve…I’ve noo con-trool…it’s all de-raaaaaanged, DE-raaaaaanged.”

This was an old Bowie trick, going back to “I’m Not Losing Sleep” and “London Boys”: setting up a lyrical scenario (often a “street” scene) and then pulling back to reveal the stage lights and scrim, ending with a Judy Garland moment in the coda. (Garland’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” an interpretation of which Bowie used to close sets in 1966, was the godmother of all of this.) The arrangement of “No Control” at times parallels Bowie’s vocal strategy—the purling synthesizers in the intro and verse are disrupted by Reeves Gabrels’ distorted, singing guitar and a squalling keyboard that crops up in the bridge, eats into the following verse and finally gets an eight-bar solo. Bowie’s move to “Broadway” vocalese in the second bridge comes during a feeling of dislocation in the music, as the harmonic “pad” on keyboard vanishes, leaving only Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar to tack things down.

The closing “I’m deranged” line suggests that “No Control” came out of that slightly-older composition. As with his other last-minute songs for Outside, Bowie sharpened his writing by ditching his Verbasiser cut-up lyric generator and, in most cases, his art-murder “narrative.” Instead he trusted his instincts, free-associating lyrics, even at times in the vocal booth: lines like “stay away from the future” or “don’t tell God your plans” have the aphoristic oddness of the best of his Seventies songs. “No Control” is one of the Bowie tracks that sum up his career in miniature (which is also to say if you hate Bowie, it will remind you why). But it got lost in the over-heaped platter that is Outside, Bowie never played the song live, and “No Control” became a footnote.

Recorded 20 January-February 1995. An instrumental mix appeared on a Dutch promo CD in 1998.

Top: Ted Sherarts, “March 29, 1995, Berlin.”


Hallo Spaceboy

April 2, 2013

chloe95

Hallo Spaceboy.
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys remix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Lost In Space mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Double Click mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Later With Jools Holland, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Det Kommer Mera, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (Karel, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, TOTP, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, Brit Awards, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with the Foo Fighters, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys, live, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (BBC, 2000).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2003).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2004).

Brion Gysin died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, July 13, 1986. He was the only man I have ever respected. I have admired many others, esteemed and valued others, but respected only him. His presence was regal without a trace of pretension. He was at all times impeccable…Brion was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. He knew he had only a few weeks to live. I was preparing to go to Paris when Brion died. I have this last glimpse through a letter in her own English, from my friend Rosine Buhler:

“…After occurs a dreamlike talk about to have a large house by the sea in August, the shadowed room where all is burning hot outside. Brion said he knew he would sleep well and was really happy of that good day. He wanted no help to lift himself up from his green armchair, and went to his room. I was watching his tall straight way to walk, his secure path…only kings and wild people have this way.”

William S. Burroughs, introduction to Gysin’s The Last Museum.

Brion Gysin liked to say he was a man from nowhere. Even his name was a mistake: his mother had christened him John Clifford Brian, but a passport clerk, misreading Gysin’s crabbed handwriting, swapped in an “o” for an “a” in the latter name (“like the famous wine of Bordeaux, Haut Brion,” Gysin said.) Born in London during the First World War, which claimed his father, he lived in Canada, New York, where he was a ship welder and Broadway costume designer, Tangier, where he ran a restaurant called The 1001 Nights, whose house band was the Master Musicians of Joujouka, and Paris, where he died.

In life and art he was transient—he was Bowie’s world-roaming Lodger in the flesh. Gysin could never commit to one spouse: he was a poet, historian, mystic, painter, filmmaker, musician, inventor (of “the Dreamachine,” a trance-inducing flickering light-box that he thought would make his fortune and didn’t). He had a habit of leaving a city soon before something occurred—an exhibit, a new publisher—that could have “discovered” him.

For Bowie, Gysin was most obviously influential as being the creator of the cut-up method in 1959; a method that came about, Gysin said, when he tried to apply the techniques of painting and film (collage and montage) to the assembly of words, He started by slicing through a stack of newspapers and making poems out of the shreds. By the mid-Sixties, Bowie was cutting up his lyric sheets, throwing pieces in the air and seeing what came from picking them up; three decades later, he had custom-made software to do the equivalent. But Gysin also served a symbolic role for Bowie, as an image of an unrefined creativity. Gysin made being a dilettante into a noble calling. Life is a game, not a career, as he said.

He might’ve lived a much more traditional artistic life, but he was always outside of that, and that was very much to his advantage as an artist.

John Geiger, on Gysin.

“Hallo Spaceboy” is, among many other things, a eulogy to Gysin: a tribute to a force of motion that was stilled only by death. You’re so sleepy now…your silhouette is so stationary…Don’t you want to be free? Even if Bowie hadn’t consciously intended to reference Gysin (“If I fall, moondust will cover me” (a line heard in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Spaceboy”) were rumored to be Gysin’s last words*), the latter’s ghost still possessed the song. The Pet Shop Boys remix used Gysin’s cut-up to rip a hole in the song, transforming it into a sequel to “Space Oddity,” much to Bowie’s initial dismay.

Unlike friends like Burroughs and rivals like André Breton (who had Gysin’s paintings yanked from a surrealist exhibit in 1935), Gysin left no definitive works; there was no Naked Lunch or Surrealist Manifestos to his name, only a series of pieces scattered across various mediums: scripts, sound poems, novels, calligraphic paintings, the Dreamachine. A body of work treasured by a few, and remaining fundamentally obscure. Gysin’s most public legacy was a method used by rock stars like Bowie and Mick Jagger to write pop lyrics. But Gysin had lived his entire life as a performance. Lacking commercial ambitions and any desire for a mass audience, Gysin was a free agent, a man who spent decades on this planet without having any sort of “proper” occupation (his stint as restauranteur was as domestic as he ever got); he was a figure who earned respect by keeping in flux.

On Outside, Bowie was trying to reconcile, as he’d done time and time before (see the Glass Spider tour), his ambition to be considered an avant-garde artist with his more prosaic reality: that he was a pop star who was still on a major label, and who was still mainly known for singing about Major Tom and dueting with Mick Jagger. So figures like Scott Walker and Gysin wound up in the sediment of Bowie’s art-rock album, as potent but discarded influences, especially in the last stages of recording Outside, when Bowie had scrapped his Leon song-montages in favor of a fresh run of hook-filled pop songs like “Spaceboy.” If he was burying Gysin, he’d do it to the sound of slamming drums.

gysburr

“Spaceboy” is a negative of “Moonage Daydream.” “Daydream” opens with Mick Ronson’s slammed power chords and Bowie’s solo vocal, a double-hook (“ALL-i-GAH-tor! BAM-BLAMMM!”) so captivating that the rest of the song is a homage to it. “Spaceboy” begins with 16 bars of suspense: a swirl of synthesizer loops, an ominous chopping loop mixed right, a distorted guitar line. There’s a sense that something’s coming to break this into pieces, a tornado glimpsed on the horizon, and thirty seconds in the hook finally arrives. Instead of the expected guitars, it’s a moving wall of percussion, a cannonade of electronic beats and crushing 4/4 drums undergirded by a low-mixed bassline and dirtied by static bursts of distorted guitar. It’s a sonic cancer at the heart of the song, perversely giving it strength.

The “Moonage Daydream” intro hook was glam in miniature: here, dream this: go! “Spaceboy” wasn’t open, but an imposition—the hook found you out, hunted you down, and all you could do was submit to it and bang your head. BAMBAMBAMBAMDUNNADUNNADUNNA (there’s a bit of “Detroit Rock City” in it). In the choruses, two distorted guitars spit and tear, shifting from a B to a G chord and back (that’s the main harmonic sequence of the song, which also moves to a brief A major progression in the bridges). When Bowie comes in for the first verse, “Spaceboy” shifts back to its initial state of dread. The beat’s out there, and it’s coming back. By the second verse, a muted strain of it pounds beneath Bowie’s vocal, triggered by “Spaceboy!”; before the second chorus, Bowie holds off the onslaught for a few bars, whispering “moondust” before the door is kicked in. Everything in the mix serves as a counter-rhythm: there are ping-ponged electric guitars, snapping riffs back and forth; later, there’s a mouse-chase across Mike Garson’s piano. A muttering Bowie curses across the spectrum, his inaudible syllables sounding like crash cymbals.

One starting point was Eno’s “Third Uncle” (esp. via Bauhaus); another was the Swiss industrial band the Young Gods, who were as much an influence on Outside as the more-hyped Trent Reznor. Particularly the Gods’ T.V. Sky (1992): “Skin Flowers,” for instance, with its buzz-swaths of guitar and its relentless beat, is an ur-”Spaceboy” (the hollered “OUTSIDE!” also might’ve attracted notice); see also the juxtaposition of guitar loops and percussion fills on “Dame Chance.” (And Bowie’s 20-minute Leon suites seem in part inspired by T.V. Sky‘s closer, a 20-minute song-churn called “Summer Eyes.”)

Conjured up in a handful of days in the studio, “Spaceboy” was a liberating track for Bowie, who rode its beat and reveled in the trash. This chaos is killing me! he screamed, sounding delighted to die, mocking his past selves with “do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” And some of the song was due to Reeves Gabrels, uncredited.

sapce

In mid-1994, a few months after the first Leon sessions, Gabrels returned to Switzerland to work on overdubs and new recordings with Bowie. No other musicians from the Leon sessions were around (including Eno) except for an occasional visit by Erdal Kizilcay. Towards the end of a month-long stay in Montreux, Gabrels played Bowie an “ambient” instrumental piece, which he then recorded as a demo. Bowie recited some lines over the track, including “moon dust,” which Gabrels said Bowie had found in a book of poems he was reading in the studio (he speculated the poet was John Giorno).

After [Bowie's] vocal/spoken word tracks were done, I did a bunch of long sustain guitars thru a vocal formant patch from an Eventide 4000 signal processor (which makes it sound like a human voice) and I used a slight variation on the ava rava middle eastern scale,”** Gabrels wrote on his website. That was the end of it. On a subsequent visit to Montreux in late 1994, Gabrels asked about the track, provisionally called “Moondust,” and Bowie said “he didn’t feel there was anything special going on with that piece and that he’d pretty much forgotten about it.”

However, Bowie seemed to have remembered “Moondust” during the final Outside sessions in New York, in January 1995. On 17 January, using Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron, Bowie broke the song down to a handful of chords, reducing the original track “to almost nothing,” Eno recalled in his diary. “I wrote some lightning chords and spaces…and suddenly, miraculously, we had something.” Bowie quickly came up with the “hallo spaceboy” vocal hook, and the track was completed within days.

Bowie played “Hallo Spaceboy” for Gabrels when the latter turned up at the Hit Factory. “When I pointed out the similarities in harmonic motion [to "Moondust"] and the lyrics (etc.), there was zero interest in doing what the writers I continue to work with would have done, what I have done in this situation, and what I consider to be the fair, honest, and right thing,” Gabrels wrote. Having already fought Bowie and Eno to get co-credit for himself, Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell for Leon songs like “Hearts Filthy Lesson” and the segues, Gabrels felt he couldn’t win on a new front. “Because…I will always owe David a debt of thanks for dragging me into the music major leagues…I eventually dropped the subject.”

But a few years after an apparently sharp breakup with Bowie, Gabrels was ready to let it rip. “The track “Spaceboy” follows the chord changes of my original “ambient” track which was dismissed as just being “ambient” and not really a song or contributing to the existence of “Spaceboy” (which if it did contribute, writing credit should be shared). At its most basic level, [if] I hadn’t come up with the ambient track, that ball would would never have rolled itself into a song. I found it odd to have my original piece of music treated as though ambient music has no chord changes or melody and that people who write ambient music cannot copyright their songs to protect their ideas as it isn’t really writing music. (Someone should tell Eno.) What I really wonder about is the poet who wrote “Moondust”…his name isn’t in the writing credits either. But then again those are just words in a certain order, right?

Bowie has never commented on this claim, and to be fair we only have Gabrels’ side of the story, from ten years ago; Gabrels has never released “Moondust” for people to make their own comparisons. From Eno’s diary entry, it seems that the track was pretty heavily overhauled, from new guitar riffs to new chords, and one can see Bowie’s perspective: “Spaceboy” was a new song he had alchemized out of an unpromising ambient jam track. But this begs the question of who actually “authors” rock songs, as Bowie’s songwriting credits can seem arbitrary: Mick Ronson never got a single credit for songs that he obviously contributed riffs and melodies to; Dennis Davis and George Murray are credited for “Breaking Glass” but not “Stay,” and so on.

But God can be an ironist sometimes: Bowie’s “stolen” song was soon enough stolen from him.

boyspace

Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? ‘Your very own words,’ indeed! And who are you?

Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” Brion Gysin Let the Mice In.

Neil Tennant had started as a music journalist, so he had an eye for a lead. When Outside was released, he saw an obvious interpretation of “Spaceboy” that its author apparently hadn’t considered, or had deliberately avoided. In none of the dozens of interviews Bowie gave to promote Outside did he say that “Spaceboy” was connected to “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” (He even directly denied the connection during a press conference: “I only used [the word] ‘space’—there’s nothing about it that’s even remotely like ‘Space Oddity,’ frankly.”] When the Pet Shop Boys offered to remix “Spaceboy,” Bowie quickly agreed, as he seemingly let anyone remix his songs. But when Tennant told Bowie he was going to sing new lyrics and would use “Space Oddity” to get them, Bowie was taken aback by Tennant’s “nerve.” He went into the studio with Tennant, allegedly to get the performance right, but one wonders if he was irked about it.

After all, Outside was supposed to be his fresh, pre-millennial record, crafted to speak to a new audience, and now here was Major Tom/Starman come back again. The revised “Spaceboy” threatened to convert the project into yet another spew of Baby Boomer nostalgia, to throw Bowie back into his past. What saved “Spaceboy” from being cheap audience-bait was Tennant’s use of cut-up. He broke the well-worn words of “Space Oddity” into strange, fresh alignments:

Ground to major bye-bye Tom
Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong
Planet Earth is control on?

Still, the remix shifted the song’s axis. Bowie had written off Major Tom on “Ashes to Ashes”: he’d drifted off into the inexplicable and was content to stay there, roll end credits. Now, with Tennant’s new verse in “Spaceboy”, Bowie had been cast as Major Tom again, against his will; he was a fly caught on wax paper. This chaos is killing me! now became the words of Major Tom, strung out in heaven, worn through with transcendence and longing for death. Bye bye love! No longer just Gysin, dying in Paris, but Bowie’s own legend, being exhumed only to be buried again.

All Bowie could do was play along. The remix was issued as Outside‘s third single and it nearly broke the top 10 in the UK—it was Bowie’s highest charting post-1995 until “Where Are We Now?” this year. In the two performances Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys gave of it, Bowie looked immaculate and ageless, thrashing about on stage, but he also looked trapped. Tennant calmly sang (or mimed) his interrogation, while Bowie struggled against a song that now seemed to confine him.

It was a fitting ending, or as fitting as you get these days. “Spaceboy,” one of the last great Bowie pop moments, never quite seemed his own property; it was fluid, a coalescing held together by a beat that seemed to invade it. Bowie spent the last decade of his performing life singing “Spaceboy” again and again, trying to get it back under his thumb, sometimes succeeding (using three drummers to beat the song into shape at his 50th birthday party), sometimes seeming as though he was covering it.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Released, in its Pet Shop Boys form, as a single in February 1996 (BMG/RCA 74321 353847, #12 UK). A 12″ remix, the Lost in Space mix and the Double Click mix were included on a promo 12″ and later on the 2-CD Outside reissue. “Spaceboy” was played on seemingly every TV show in Europe, including Jools Holland (2 December 1995); Det Kommer Mera (Sweden) 19 January 1996; Taratata (France) 26 January 1996; Karel (Dutch) 29 January 1996, and a broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre on 27 June 2000. A recording from the Phoenix Festival in 1996 was issued on a bonus CD single that came with the French edition of Earthling. “Spaceboy” was a regular in most of Bowie’s last decade of touring.

Sources: Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (ed. Jason Weiss); John Geiger, Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted (pretty much the only Gysin bio).

* Nicholas Pegg wrote without attribution that “if I fall, moondust will cover me” was rumored to be Gysin’s last words. I’ve found no other reference to this, via the Internet and by rummaging through the libraries of Smith College and Amherst College, so I’ll conclude this claim is false unless someone points me to a source that I’ve missed. Gysin did use “moondust” in his novel The Process (1969) (“a familiar indigo rag flutters out of the sand where I look for my guide to find him, too, buried in moondust.“) I’ve found no reference to a Giorno poem mentioning “moon dust” either. The line could just as well be Bowie’s.

** I think Gabrels meant the Ahava Rabbah, or the Phrygian dominant scale. Maybe not? Ava rava, anyone?

Top: Chloe Sevigny, Kids (Clark, 1995); Gysin, Burroughs and stone-faced ancestors (via BrionGysin.com); various Spaceboys.


I’m Deranged

March 26, 2013

epiphany

I’m Deranged.
I’m Deranged (alternate mix, unreleased).
I’m Deranged (edit, Lost Highway soundtrack.)
I’m Deranged (alternate edit, Lost Highway).
I’m Deranged (rehearsal, 1995).
I’m Deranged (first live performance, 1995).
I’m Deranged (“jungle” version, live, 1997).

But if those walls could talk! [The inmates'] whole process and how they instinctively jumped from symbol to symbol in their narratives and things. One man is called the Angel Man—and in fact he turns up in one of the songs in the end—he believed he was an angel and said [German Angel Man voice], “I was exactly who I was up until the 5th of February, 1948, and then I became an angel…it was just after lunch.” And from that point, he believed that his old person disappeared and his angel took over him. He was totally reborn at that moment.

Bowie, interview with Moon Zappa, Ray Gun, 1995.

Another casualty of Outside‘s sequencing was “I’m Deranged,” the sixteenth of nineteen tracks and which, to the exhausted ear, seemed a lengthy retread of earlier songs: it had another cracked Mike Garson piano solo, another set of Brian Eno’s Nerve Net-vintage synth and drum loops, yet another Bowie salmagundi of a lyric with shadows of violence and (overtly here) insanity.

Inspired by his and Eno’s trip to the Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in 1994 (from which Bowie took the image of the “Angel Man,” see above), Bowie chopped up a provisional lyric via his Verbasizer computer program, then crafted a run of lines that followed eddies of thought and made shotgun marriages of vowel sounds (“be real” becomes “before we reel”; “blonde” quickly summons “beyond”). The lyric’s perspective isn’t that of a madman as much as someone with romantic hopes of growing mad, with an undercurrent of masochism (“I’d start to believe…if I were to bleed,” Bowie sings, gently extending his long Es) and a few phrases suggesting that Bowie had been reading John Rechy again (“cruise me baby,” “the fist of love”).

He later assigned “I’m Deranged” to his Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”) but the conceit was wearing thin by this point, and any attempt to shoehorn “Deranged” into the “Nathan Adler” storyline would devote far more time than its author ever did. Its allegiances are with two other tracks on the record—the title song, for which “Deranged” seems a counterpart, inspired by the same Gugging visit and suggesting sensory derangement and “outsider” art; and “No Control,” with which “Deranged” shares a lyrical and textural mood.

Built over a repeated four-chord progression in F minor,* “Deranged” seems mainly Eno’s work, though one ancestor was Bowie and Nile Rodgers’ “Real Cool World” (there’s also an echo of “Billie Jean” in its opening four-note synth hook), and there’s a tinniness at times to the mix: take the anemic drum machine fill at 3:31, beats seemingly generated by a Sega Genesis. Garson’s two piano interludes also lack surprise; it’s as if Eno had triggered a sampler to play “Off-Kilter Garson Solo in F Minor” at various cue marks. There apparently were some brutal revisions: Reeves Gabrels said he worked for days on “serious orchestrated guitar stuff” for “Deranged” that was eventually scrapped, while Carlos Alomar recalled a three-part harmony track that also got the axe.

Its best element is Bowie’s vocal: while there’s a somber precision to his opening lines, in the second verse, Bowie defaces his melody, weighing and sounding each word as if he can’t recall how it’s pronounced, getting mired in each syllable, building up to the last repeats of “I’m deraaaanged,” where he bloats and strangles the latter word.

The track’s harmonic stasis and ominous mood better suited the sequence David Lynch used it for on Lost Highway—scoring a driver’s-eye shot of a sped-up stream of highway center lines, a loop of ceaseless, violent motion. “Deranged” also improved in concert, once the song was prised loose from its album mix and given fresh, bloody life by the Outside and Earthling tour bands.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. A remixed and edited (2:37) version appeared on the Lost Highway OST, released 18 February 1997 (a longer edit was used for the end credits).

* The progression seems to be i-II7-v-III-i (Fm-G7-Cm-A flat-Fm), with the major chords staggering the progress of F minor to its dominant, C minor, and back home again.

Top: Ted Barron, “Epiphany,” Brooklyn, 1995.


The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)

March 21, 2013

hell

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (alternate mix).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (rehearsal, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (The White Room, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Taratata, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Karel, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1997).

Given one of the most ungainly titles in the Bowie catalog, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” also got a tough sequencing—the only song on Outside to be bracketed between character segues (“Algeria Touchshriek” and “I Am With Name”). So “Voyeur” can often be overlooked, especially by those wearied of the album by track 11, as it can seem superfluous, tilling in the same grim field as “The Motel,” “Small Plot of Land” and “Wishful Beginnings.

“Voyeur,” which Bowie wrote with Brian Eno and apparently cut in the latter Outside sessions, is the last of the Scott Walker-haunted pieces on the record (see the High Scott phrasing of “as the sooohber Philistine“) and it’s the last song in this survey which could have fit into the original Leon. That said, “Voyeur” also feels transitional, open. With its subtle devotion to rhythm (see Joey Baron’s tom fills, holding ground against buzzing insurgencies of electronic percussion) and the density and flash of its production—it has the feel of being a few Eno loops that flowered into something colossal—”Voyeur” points towards Earthling as much as “Hallo Spaceboy” does.

Said to be the perspective of Bowie’s nebulous Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”), the lyric references various Bowie hobbyhorses of the time: body art, scarification, possibly consensual torture (“the screw….is a tightening atrocity…the research has pierced all extremes of my sex“). The chorus hook, “turn and turn again,” is a pre-millennial blues, suggesting that all this angst and bloody tribalism is just a reiteration, weak echoes of patterns from centuries before. The chorus line’s also a Dylan call-back (see “Percy’s Song”) while the song’s last line, “call it a day,” sings back to the coda of “Bewlay Brothers.”

As a performance it’s a group devotion to sudden movements–the “O Superman” vocal loops, Bowie’s stage magician phrasing in the first verses, Mike Garson’s inflictions on the treble keys of his piano, a propulsive bassline by Erdal Kizilcay and the song’s climactic, jarring key change, followed by a new, eerie Bowie top melody and the sudden incursion of Reeves Gabrels, whose guitar first obscures [edit: his own] twin-tracked arpeggios and then lays the track to waste over its closing minute. It’s the sonic parallel to an implied brutality in the title: Harry Truman’s declaration to Japan, in July 1945, that the alternative to its unconditional surrender “is prompt and utter destruction.” The A-bombs fell two weeks later.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie enjoyed playing “Voyeur” live, and many of its recorded performances are the match of the studio take. Performed on the Outside tour, The White Room (Channel 4) on 14 December 1995, Taratata (France) on 26 January 1996 (but possibly recorded on 10 December 1995), Karel (Dutch TV) on 29 January 1996 and during the Earthling tour, including Bowie’s 50th Anniversary concert. A live version from Rio, 2 November 1997, is on liveandwell.com.

Top: Dr. Gull makes a house call, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Vol. 7, April 1995).


We Prick You

March 18, 2013

b&B

We Prick You.
We Prick You (alternate mix, unfinished vocal).
We Prick You (rehearsal, 1995).
We Prick You (first live performance, 1995).
We Prick You (live, 1995).
We Prick You (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).

Having revived Tin Machine for the title song of Outside, Bowie perhaps had the Machine on his mind for “We Prick You,” his hostile takeover of an Eno drum track. With a refrain that originally went “we fuck you we fuck you we fuck you” and lines like “dripping on the end of a gun,” it easily could’ve been a crass, wearisome track, in line with the Machine at its most tasteless. Instead “We Prick You” was punchy, catchy and strange, another in a set of songs on Outside that found Bowie managing to refine his work from the past decade: Outside can seem like the music Bowie thought he was making in 1987 or 1989, a better realization of his ambitions.

Eno provided the drum ‘n’ bass-lite loops and the various synth colors, like the “marimba” fills that wink in and out and the main four-note synth riff that repeats throughout, and which slightly distorts towards the close (the track was originally called “Robot Punk”). But he was also heard in Bowie’s array of bizarre backing vocals, some of which sound like zombified Eton toffs, and which could all hail from the funny-voice bestiary of Eno’s “Dead Finks Don’t Talk.”* Bowie had even wanted to sample Camille Pagila for the “you show respect, even if you disagree” tag, but wound up doing it himself via varispeed (Bowie kept trying Paglia’s office, but she thought it was a joke and never called him back). On stage Bowie responded to this voice as if it was an officious God, talking back and shaking his head.

“We Prick You” moves from spare beginnings (a bassline over two drum loops, mixed far left and right, that’s joined, in eight-bar increments, by a drum machine and two main keyboard tracks) to a chorus that boasts one of the finest latter-day Carlos Alomar guitar riffs, a piece of barbed funk that calls back to the Miracles’ “Love Machine.” Alomar was just one hook in a track devoted to them—the “I’m Not in Love“-esque loops of endless “ooohs” high in the mix in later verses, the goonish counter-melodies (“shoes, shoes, little white shoes“), Bowie’s righteously sung “TELL the TRUTH! TELL the TRUTH!,” and the title line, repeated thrice like an anathema, and which is occasionally pummeled by snare drum fills.

The lyric has a similar density, working as: a blunt sex joke; a more subtle sex joke (“wanna come quick, then die”) playing on the phrase “little death” as orgasm; a feminist statement (the chorus could be Woman putting Man on trial, the first lines yelled by the prosecutor, the title line being the defendant’s confession); the trial of Leon Blank in Bowie’s anti-narrative; an occult reference (the alchemical symbol of Christ being pierced with a spear); and the idea of sex as a form of bodily mutilation, a variation of Ron Athey’s 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, where Athey had stuck needles into his arms and scalp during his performance. A collection and implosion of ideas and sounds, signifying nothing and seemingly everything, “We Prick You” is Bowie at his purest.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. In 2012, another mix of “We Prick You” surfaced (see above) with some unfinished Bowie vocals; it was possibly an outtake from the Hit Factory sessions. Played only during the Outside tour.

* One of the voices on “Dead Finks” is Eno’s dead-on parody of Bryan Ferry.

Top: Ambitious man, in search of steady employment, consults with established power couple at the Q Awards, 1995. (Jarvis Cocker presented the “Q Inspiration Award” to Bowie and Eno that night.)


Outside

March 14, 2013

katmandu

Now (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Outside.
Outside (first live performance, 1995).
Outside (live, 1995).
Outside (live, Loreley, 1996).
Outside (live, Gail Ann Dorsey vocal, 1997).

Basically I haven’t liked a lot of music I’ve been doing in the past few years. I forgot that I’m not a musician and never have been. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.” So Bowie told the 17 year-old Cameron Crowe, during an interview in Los Angeles in May 1975. While much of what Bowie said to Crowe was cocaine-fueled gibberish, the baiting of a young, credulous journalist, this small self-insight explains in part what happened to a record that Bowie made two decades later.

If you consider Outside as an art film in the guise of an album, then the revisions Bowie made to the project in early 1995—essentially “normalizing” the record with a set of new, catchier songs that had little, if anything, to do with his original art-murder-anti-narrative—were the equivalent of a reshoot, recasting players and cutting a new edit. It’s as though Bowie had been his own test audience, and had found the material lacking after a poor screening. And sure, he was looking for a label to distribute the album, which would be an easier sell if it was a collection of “David Bowie songs with weird spoken bits” rather than 20-minute collages of song-slivers and weird spoken bits.

So, back to work. One of Bowie’s first moves was to reclaim a lost Tin Machine song, “Now,” which Bowie had co-written with the Machine’s fifth member, the guitarist Kevin Armstrong.* “Now” was played only twice during the Machine’s brief 1989 tour, and it’s unknown whether the band cut a version of song in the studio for either of their records (no takes are circulating).

“Now” itself revised the past: it developed out of Bowie’s reworking of “Look Back in Anger” in 1988, his first collaboration with Reeves Gabrels.** “Now,” in its live performances, began and closed with the pummeling guitar maelstrom from the revised “Anger.” Midway through, the song downshifted into a set of moody eight-bar verses and bridges, built on an ascending four-note bass hook. One reason “Now” didn’t make the grade, apparently, was that Bowie wasn’t happy with some of the verses he’d written (he apologized to the crowd on the song’s debut): “Ah! I need your love! Talk about love!” was a bit too Sammy Hagar for his liking.

But Bowie had a habit of keeping his potentially strong songs on retainer, holding back on finishing the pieces until he felt the mood was right (most notably “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that he kicked around for nearly a decade). So perhaps rather than waste “Now” as an album track on Tin Machine II, he felt it was meant for grander things. And so it was: Bowie turned “Now” into the title song/overture/prologue to his art rock concept record.

While there’s a domesticated version of the “Look Back in Anger” intro as a lead-in, “Outside” itself is fairly muted, reserved—Bowie holds off on moving to his high register until the second bridge, and doesn’t use his octave double-tracking until the third verse. (On stage, he usually sang the first verses and bridges seated, then rose to his feet for the climactic section.) The track’s harmonic base is two “horn” lines, mixed left and right (they seem to be synthesizers, though it’s possible Bowie’s playing baritone saxophone on the right-mixed track), that parallel the ascending bassline, and what sounds like Carlos Alomar playing arpeggios on acoustic guitar—Gabrels comes in for the last two bridges, first shadowing the ascending horn/bassline, then soloing off of it. And “Outside” is driven by a tremendous performance by Joey Baron (possibly Sterling Campbell) on drums: the subtle shift in the drum pattern that triggers the moves to the bridges, or the machine-gun tom fills at 2:38. Along with the various fills, sweeteners and oddities—a tambourine in the first verse, chimes and congas in the second, Eno squiggles throughout—there’s a guitar solo that’s minimalist by Gabrels standards.

A line in “Now” about “going to the outskirts of town” possibly suggested the title change, but Bowie also had been talking up the merits of “outsider” art to interviewers, and there are a few lines in his revised lyric that call back to his and Eno’s trip to Gugging Asylum (“the crazed in the hot zone“). Meant as a curtain-raiser for the 17 tracks to come, “Outside” serves well enough as the album’s master of ceremonies. But it was also a statement of purpose for Bowie. After a decade of disappointments, bafflements and false starts, “Outside” was a public bid for attention, Bowie promising that this record was something new, that it was committed to the present:Now….not tomorrow…It happens today. In a rock culture so often devoted to nostalgia and past glories, it remains a worthy, if often ignored, demand.

“Now” debuted at the Machine’s 29 June 1989 show in the National Ballroom, Kilburn, and it opened the band’s set at St. George’s Hall, Bradford, UK, on 2 July 1989. These remain its only circulating performances. “Outside” was recorded ca. January-February 1995 at the Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie usually had Gail Ann Dorsey sing lead on it during the Earthling tour.

* Oddly enough, while Armstrong played on Outside (he’s credited for “Thru These Architects Eyes”), he apparently didn’t play on his own song, at least according to the credits and the bios.

** “Anger” was one of the few “classic” songs that Bowie played on the Outside tour.

Top: Takahiro Fujita, “Kathmandu, 1995.”


Get Real

March 11, 2013

grandma

Get Real.

“Get Real” was an out-of-nowhere attempt to revisit Never Let Me Down, an album that Bowie had said he wanted to re-record one day. It’s as though Bowie was toying with previous incarnations of his “commercial” sound during his revisions of Outside in New York in early 1995. “Get Real” alternates a conversational verse/chorus, punctuated throughout by the double-tracked and stereo-panned title hook, with a moodier bridge that has a trace of New Order’s “True Faith” (“I walk the streets not expecting morning sun“).

While the beat and the guitars (it’s a Carlos Alomar-heavy track, especially the arpeggiated line mixed low in the right channel) call back to Bowie’s late unlamented Eighties, the acerbic, spare verse lyric and the chipper melancholy of the bridges suggest his turn-of-the-century albums. An odd, transitional piece that had nowhere to go on Outside, “Get Real” slipped out as a CD single bonus track later in 1995.

Recorded, most likely, at the the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. First released as a bonus track on the Japanese version of Outside, and on the UK CD single “Strangers When We Meet” (RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2). Also included on the 2004 reissue of Outside.

Top: Heli Lehtonen, “Grandpa and Grandma Working in the Field,” Sweden, 1995.


The Motel

March 6, 2013

95scott

The Motel (early mix, fragment).
The Motel.
The Motel (live, 1995).
The Motel (live, 1996).
The Motel (live, 1997).
The Motel (live, 2003).

Prologue: Eat This, Crows!

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game…

“Nite Flights”, November 2012.

He usually isn’t stuck for words. Well, he’s stuck for words these days. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. It’s odd, he was always around, there was always something cooking. I wish he’d make a record.

Scott Walker, on David Bowie, Mojo, December 2012.

He opened his laptop and read the morning’s collection of news about himself. Once he’d had an assistant sift through the papers and magazines and stuff thick packets of clippings into manila envelopes, delivered via courier. Now some custom-rigged alliance of Google News and other secretive algorithms did it all. It made for duller reading, he’d found. Drinking a cup of coffee, he read of a Tyrolean fashion show with an Aladdin Sane theme; of a boy, born in Elkhart, Indiana, whose parents had named him Thin White Duke (they were Dukes, her mother’s maiden name was White, but the child was ten pounds, six ounces). Another entry from the ridiculous blog. A long one this time: well, they tended towards the gaseous, didn’t they?

He finished reading, lingering over the last paragraphs, and let out a laugh with some violence in it. He fished into the pocket of a jacket draped over a nearby chair and found the flash drive. He danced it between his fingers. Another laugh, more ruminative, carrying a trace of his old smoker’s cough. “Oh, if only,” he said lightly. He thought of typing “No, Where Are We Now?” into the comment box.

Instead he dressed, put on his cap and coat, went outside, had a cab hailed. He was murmuring. Lifeless planet…Out of the game. Like you’re in the game. Looks like it’s going to be one of Mr. B’s odd days, the doorman considered.

I: This Is How You Disappear

walker3

I took what I was given
And I took what I had stole
But I took nobody with me,
Not a soul, not a soul.

Tennessee Williams, draft of “Blanket Roll Blues.”

The last time Bowie and Brian Eno had been in a studio together was in 1979, when they were listening to the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights. Fifteen years later, Bowie and Eno finally made another record: in part a Scott Walker record, as it turned out.

The album, Leon, which would become Outside, had begun with paints and role-playing, with Eno assigning Bowie the part of a village storyteller. But as the sessions in Montreux went on, Bowie considered another role. He would create a Scott Walker album, an album that Walker, apparently lost to silence, would never make. The challenge was: where would Walker have gone after his then-last record, Climate of Hunter? Where would he be in 1994, after he’d been reduced to a set of speculations? He’s ill. All he does is sit in a pub in Vauxhall and watch ‘em play darts. He’s done with music, he’s washed up. The Sunday People had even offered a reward for Walker sightings, as if he was a Yeti.

I just decided to stop for a while and concentrate on art, painting and drawing and things like that.

Walker, interview, 1995.

Both Bowie and Eno had wanted to produce Climate of Hunter; much to his label’s irritation, Walker had declined them both. Eno had tried again a few years later, offering his and Daniel Lanois’ services. There were a few preliminary sessions, but it didn’t work out—Walker allegedly later said of Lanois, “I didn’t get on with that guy,” and Walker collaborator Brian Gascoigne said “Eno hadn’t the faintest idea of what Scott was up to…[Scott] is happy to listen to suggestions…as long as nobody tries to insist on one that’s been sidestepped. And they, as hired producers, never understood that.” Now with Bowie’s scheme, Eno could produce a Walker record at last, and free of the burden of dealing with Walker.

Lodger had answered Nite Flights, as the latter had answered “Heroes,” but it had been a superficial response: a name-check, a song or two where Bowie had dug out his old “Scott” voice. Bowie and Eno didn’t take on “The Electrician,” which had stunned them: Eno once described the track as a future of music not taken. Bowie seemed obsessed with the song. Tackling “Nite Flights,” as he did in 1992, had been easy. “The Electrician” was more formidable. In the fifteen years since its release, he’d barely gotten its measure.

ElectricianFront

What was it about “The Electrician”? The only other song to rival it for Bowie was “I’m Waiting For the Man.” I once described “Man” as a song Bowie felt that he ought to have written; his recycling of its riff and rhythm in his own songs (everything from “Laughing Gnome” to “Heroes”) and his endless covering of “Waiting For the Man” on stage suggested that he was possessive of the song, that he had as much a claim to it as Lou Reed had.

“The Electrician” opens with massed atonal strings, a bass note tolling the downbeat and Walker’s groaning baritone; it shifts to a section where Walker and John Maus harmonize twistedly; it suddenly becomes a gorgeous flight of strings and Spanish guitar. Strings, bass and baritone return. There’s no help, no. A last shift of the strings and it ends. What’s striking about “The Electrician” is that these shifts have no dramatic impetus; they don’t feel scripted, they aren’t leading to or following each other. The song just resets itself each time it changes. A song about torture is now a love song is both is neither. The perspectives are fluid. The opening lines are set in the torture room, and on paper, they read like an Ink Spots song: Baby, it’s slow/when lights go low. The torture itself is erotic: the torturer jerks the handle, the victim’s body writhes.

In 1994, Bowie was writing about ritual murder and art crimes, mapping killers and lovers (were his Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone the torture/tortured pair, now stranded in some cybernetic gumshoe fantasy?). “The Electrician,” with its tropical extremes of mood, its indecipherable strains of romance and brutality, its sense of violation (the torturer is drilling through the spiritus sanctus, violating the spirit as much as the body) and resistance (whose dream is the strings and guitar idyll? the torturer or the person on the rack?), was at the root of the project. Bowie couldn’t claim “Electrician” as he’d tried with “Waiting for the Man”: he could only try to channel the song’s uncanny power into his own creations.

II: Rawhide and Bloody Bones

track3

They do not know her here. That is,
I am free to invent her! sweet
dogs.

Anne Carson, “Canicula di Anna.”

So if he was to make a ghost Scott Walker album, Bowie’s other reference besides “The Electrician” was Climate of Hunter. Outside was in part a corrective swerve away from Hunter. The latter, released soon before Bowie’s Tonight in 1984, is an odd duck: it sounds, as @discographies said, as if Walker hadn’t heard any contemporary music since the late Seventies. It’s cold and glossy, a “commercial” record by Walker’s standards, especially when compared to “The Electrician,” and it’s also a funeral for his past selves, an oblique way to prepare his audience for what would come next.

As Damon Krukowski and Lewis Williams noted, Hunter was rigidly sequenced. There are four songs on each side, mirrors of each other—each side was a move from “difficulty” to reassurance and goodbyes. So the openers, “Rawhide” and “Track Five,” begin with an isolated, odd sound (a panned, erratic cowbell and bass guitar harmonics, respectively) and remain bewildering—”Rawhide” is a Western “round ‘em up” ballad with Cro-Magnon sheep herders. “Dealer” and “Track Six,” the knottiest tracks on the album, have Evan Parker’s saxophone (Parker recalled Walker, over a bottle of Chablis, asking for clouds of saxophones); “Track Three” and “Track Seven” were Walker’s idea of pop singles, with Peter Van Hooke’s hi-hat pushed up in the mix (just like his work on Nite Flights) and each with bloodless guitar solos by Ray Russell, who had to play “blind” in the studio, with no sense of the top melody.

And each side’s closer was a throwback: “Sleepwalkers Woman,” a gorgeous, string- somber ballad that opened like “Boy Child” and, as it went on, became a farewell, a man abandoning those who had known him in his beautiful youth. I am returned, he sang, but only to say farewell. Its Side 2 counterpart was “Blanket Roll Blues,” Walker’s last cover on record, a wisp of a song that Tennessee Williams wrote and Marlon Brando sang on The Fugitive Kind. A hobo’s song, a few lines hummed while a man breaks camp and heads off.

Hunter was a work of isolated individuals. Walker had written the songs alone, cooped up in a “workman’s cabin in Tunbridge Wells” during the summer of 1983, and he’d “kept his melodies a secret from his players,” often waiting until everyone had left the studio before cutting his vocals. There’s a cold, disjointed feel to the album: Mark Knopfler and Walker, the two performers of “Blanket Roll Blues,” are seemingly on different continents.

So Bowie would make Walker communal—he’d carve his songs out of the collisions of his players, playing live in a single room. Outside would be set in an imagined America, compared with Walker’s increasingly abstracted Europe (“I developed a European imagination, which probably doesn’t have anything to do with Europe at all,” Walker once said). And where Walker slaved over his lyrics, not recording until all of his lines were set (“I sit down and notate it all, the top line, rough idea of the bars. It’s an old fashioned way of working,” he said), Bowie had a computer program churn up a string of random text which he would pillage, calling out lines during group improvisations.

And as the Outside sessions went on, Bowie’s new “Walker” songs developed. The eerie moments of the Leon suites, like “We’ll Creep Together.”Wishful Beginnings,” with its keening ode to murder, set over drum and synth loops. The world’s-end sad sack lament “A Small Plot of Land.” And finally, his big roll of the dice: the song where he finally met “The Electrician.”

III: From a Motel 6

data

He arose laden with doubt as to how he should begin. He looked back at the bed where the grindstone lay. He looked out at the world, the most famous experimental prison of its time. Beyond the torture stakes he could see, nothing. Yet he could see.

Anne Carson, “On the King and His Courage.”

“The Motel” opens in the lobby. Murmured conversations, barely heard over a duo playing in a corner of the room. A garrulous pianist, a secretive bassist. The latter* plays a fretless bass, another callback to Climate of Hunter. Nearly a minute in, Bowie wanders over from the bar, begins singing as if in mid-sentence. For we’re living in the safety zoneliving from hour to hour down here. Everything’s provisional, wavering—chords oscillate between F and F-sharp, Bowie often shifts between singing A or B-flat notes. An interlude: synthesizer, Mike Garson’s querying piano, bass fills. Bowie continues: It’s a kind of living which recognizes…the death…of the odorless man…

Its title suited it. A motel, especially the David Lynch-esque one Bowie’s checked into here, can be a purgatorial place, a shabby limbo (or, more fitting for Bowie’s past, a bardo, a vestibule between reincarnations; see “Quicksand”). Then drums kick in, cementing the song in 4/4, and Bowie sharpens his tone: There is no hell. There is no shame. It’s a (deliberate?) mishearing, an echo, of Walker’s “there is no help,” in “Electrician.” Bowie conflates Walker’s line with something he’d recalled from his visit to Gugging Asylum: “THIS IS HELL,” scrawled on a wall in the murderer’s wing. There is no hell…like an old hell. The chorus expires with Bowie hitting his highest notes so far: “it’s LIGHTS UP BOYS.” He builds on his dual references: Lights up, boys: a body twisting in an electric chair; lights up, boys-–it’s not a bar’s closing time, but the morning, when the inmates are rousted from their beds.

(This line recalls another story, one Walker may have known, if not Bowie: that Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film was to be shot in an asylum. Inmates were brought in, Antonioni put them into formation, was surprised at how well they took his requests, then he turned on his lights for a take. The inmates recoiled and convulsed on the floor. (“I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors…they started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor….they tried desperately to get away from the light, as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster.“) Antonioni abandoned the film, but the poet Anne Carson used it as a starting point years later, her poem offering that the inmates were only feigning their reactions so that they could roll around and try to kiss each other, stealing a moment of mass intimacy.)

The entire sequence repeats. A new intro (Garson at his tackiest; he’s the hotel pianist from an old hell), a last verse where Bowie disdainfully rips up stage props, like he once did to the paper skyscrapers of his Diamond Dogs set (“we’re living in a SEA of SHAM“), another chorus. But now Bowie keeps surging, gaining strength, hitting a high E-flat as the song itself solidifies in E-flat major, while Reeves Gabrels slams in with distorted power chords. The lobby’s become a stage in an arena. We’re back at the close of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song that also had begun in obscurity and despair and which had climaxed in a Judy Garland moment. GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! RE-EXPLODING YOU!!! ‘COS YOU’RE WONDERFUL!! LIKE EVERYBODY DO!

And here “The Motel” faltered. Its lyric collapsed into gabble; its motion felt strained. It’s as if Bowie needed to have the song “pay off” in some way. This left “The Motel” in a curious state.  On Outside, “The Motel” is the blank at the center of the record. Sequenced between the battering “Hallo Spaceboy” and the jaunty “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “The Motel” can seem like a seven-minute void. It seems actively hostile to the memory. I still don’t know what to make of it: sometimes I think it’s a latter-day flawed Bowie masterpiece, with a grisly beauty; other times, it can seem a failure, a self-sabotaged attempt to redo the “Electrician” that remains far in the original’s shadow.

Outside was done. And one day in early 1995, as he was mixing the record, Bowie read in a list of upcoming releases that Fontana was putting out a new Scott Walker album.

IV: Farmers in the City

tilt

Bowie: What do you think of his latest, Tilt?

The first half an hour was disappointing, because he does everything except what he’s best at…and the last 30 minutes are fabulous. It’s like Walker is saying: Okay, you’ve done your best and now you’re rewarded.

Bowie: I agree. I find it a sensational record, very brave too. I’ve got a lot of respect for his integrity. He’s true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves. He really works without compromising and there are very few artists like that…What you said about not doing what you’re best at. Well, it may sound arrogant but I don’t feel like adapting to wishes and expectations of the big audience anymore.

Bowie, interview by Humo, 1995.

I just want to connect with as many people as I can with it. I know it’s not easy but I’m always hoping.

Walker, interview for Tilt.

It became a farce: Bowie making his secret Scott Walker sequel while, unbeknownst to him, Walker was quietly making his own. And the Walker sequel lapped Bowie’s shadow one, coming out five months earlier! This caused a spot of apprehension, especially as Bowie was in the midst of negotiating a record deal. Eno wrote in his diary that the Walker record “could occupy much of the territory of Bowie’s” and feared what effect this could have on a record Eno was already worrying Bowie was compromising. “Bowie won’t release those things and, as time passes, more will get chipped away or submerged under later additions.

In April 1995, Bowie got an advance copy of Tilt. He phoned Eno and played him a track, said he was relieved: it sounded nothing like Outside. Crisis averted.

The best album that came out this year in terms of being an adventurous album was Scott Walker’s Tilt which of course died after about a week. It was bought by three people, me being one of them.

Bowie, Prodigy chat, 1995.

He was right: Tilt sounded nothing like Outside. What it had more affinities with was the now-buried and maimed Leon. Not musically but in both pieces’ hermeticism, their arrogant self-sufficiency, their strangeness. Hunter had been Walker’s conversation with his listeners: he’d challenged them and had dismissed them. Tilt offered no entry point: it simply begins and defies you to keep listening to it. The opener, “Farmer in the City,” allegedly had NME staff members yelling for the CD to be yanked while Marc Almond, upon hearing it, thought Scott had completely lost the plot. It was the most accessible track on the record.

If you’d made it through Walker keening, like the world’s loneliest auctioneer, “do I hear 21? 21? 21?”, then there came “The Cockfighter,” the true sequel to “The Electrician.” It was a piece of historical fascist erotica, with Walker connecting the trial of Adolf Eichmann to that of the allegedly adulterous Queen Caroline. Some of its lines could be said by a seducer, a torturer or a man conducting an autopsy: if you could turn on your side, move your touch to that hip…easy now, easy now. Walker first sings over what sounds like a rat gnawing through a wad of paper. The track is occasionally consumed in pummeling metallic sprays of noise. Later on there’s a horn that sounds like a horse being slaughtered. “Cockfighter” ends in another industrial noise-attack, dying off in a second as if someone had flipped a breaker as an act of mercy. And on the record went. The title song exhumed the Scott of Scott 3 and kicked him around a bit. “Rosary” found Scott alone on the far margins, muttering “and I gotta quit…and I gotta quit.

Tilt was ignored. No one knew what to make of it. Tilt was irreconcilably strange, the sound of a man pursuing what’s in his head, using musicians “who are extensions of yourself,” as Walker said. It was an actual millennial doom record, bled through with history and death: Eichmann on the scaffold; Pier Paolo Pasolini crushed under the wheels of his own car on a beach in Ostia. Walker quoted “Dry Bones,” Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not, Desi Arnaz’s “Babalu. He sang over the sound of the organ in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, strangled guitar and shaken bells. It was Bowie’s favorite album of the year; it was the record Outside pretended to be.

V: Lights Up, Boys

wire walker

What would make me happy is to be an artist living in a garret in a cold water flat somewhere, as long as I could afford art material.

Bowie, to John Dove, 1974 (as per Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust).

He concedes there was a point in the mid-’80s when he thought about giving up music altogether to retire as a “garret-type art person with a loft in Soho. I fell foul of the marketplace…I suddenly felt, for the first time, inhibited about being creative…I was quite willing to opt into a life of crime and art. Or at least a life of art.”

Bowie interview, Vox, August/September 1995.

Throughout his professional life, Bowie has occasionally said that he wished he could chuck it all away. Become a real artist, live in a loft somewhere, not bother with record labels and tours and MTV. A few times he went through with it, sort of; his years with Iggy Pop in Berlin; his flirtations with the British art scene around the time he was recording Outside.

And in the Nineties, Bowie’s public effusions about Scott Walker’s integrity suggested that he was using Walker as a symbol, an embodiment of this sort of uncompromised artistic life. Bowie seemed to consider Walker as a boundary rider, off in the wilderness somewhere, using Walker’s sporadic progress reports to chart his own movements: he’s there, here’s where I’ll set up camp. He’d be the railroad that followed the first wave of settlers (the Hearst to Walker’s Swearengen, if you’ve seen Deadwood).

Bowie had always had a taste for musical eccentrics, those who’d gone further out on the branch, those who’d be fated only to be remembered by hipsters like himself: Ken Nordine, Biff Rose, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. And Scott Walker, who he classed in this lot of Sixties oddballs, the great artist among them. Bowie treasured them, he treasured Walker, but despite whatever proclamations he made, Bowie needed a public. He worked in the public realm, he was its ambassador of the weird, and to indulge himself to make something like Tilt, to flay himself enough to really match “The Electrician,” now seemed beyond his powers, or his interests.

Sure, Bowie could have done what Eno and Reeves Gabrels had argued: put out the Leon sessions as one fearsome bundle. A CD of twenty-minute suites, full of gnomic dialogue, anxiety raps, shrieks, arcane beauties. His own Tilt. How would it have been received? With bafflement and irritation, condemned to quick obscurity, like Tilt was? Or with utter ridicule: Bowie’s folly? His own Life of Chris Gaines, to be used as a punchline by entertainment writers for their decade summaries in 1999?

This is just idle speculation, because the Outside that was released was a compromised record, in the best sense of the word. Some of its finest moments were its pop songs, its songs with catchy choruses and hooks, its songs seemingly intended for those Walker had left behind.

End Credits

Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with poss. overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. A live version from Amsterdam, 10 June 1997, was included on liveandwell.com. This story will conclude (?) with “Heat.”

Sources: Again, The Wire’s essay compilation No Regrets was of great help, in particular Damon Krukowski on Climate of Hunter, Brian Morton on Tilt and the 1995 interview with Walker conducted by Richard Cook. A dissertation on Outside by Nicholas P. Greco (2000) has a detailed analysis of “The Motel” at the close of its second chapter. Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is the source of the Gasciogne quotes. The Anne Carson quotes are from her marvelous Plainwater (1995). Thanks to @Discographies for bouncing ideas (esp. on the nature of “The Electrician”), offering phrases and suggestions, and for scanning “The Electrician” sleeve.

* Very likely Yossi Fine, not Erdal Kizilcay. This decade-old post on the TW board by someone who’d met Fine claims that Fine played on some “track with a fretless bass” which he couldn’t remember, but which I’d venture is “Motel.” The bass is similar to “Small Plot of Land,” which Fine said he did play on.

Top to bottom: Walker playing “Rosary” on Later With Jools Holland, 1995; Bowie, The Walker Brothers Triptych, 1996; “The Electrician” single, 1978; “Track Three” single, 1984; lyrics (alleged) of “The Motel,” Outside; LP inner sleeve of Tilt, 1995; The Wire #135, 1995.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 587 other followers