The Man Who Sold The World

January 27, 2010

The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, 1970).
The Man Who Sold the World (Lulu, 1974).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, rehearsal).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, broadcast).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 1995).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 2004).

I. Metrobolist

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

Hughes Mearns, “Antigonish” (1922).

Bowie’s third LP was going to be called Metrobolist, a play on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: it was the title of Mike Weller’s proposed cover illustration, a Letterist cartoon in which a man (whose image was based on a photo of John Wayne) walking past Cane Hill Asylum and carrying a rifle offers an aside in a speech bubble whose words have been erased. It originally read, according to Weller, “ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES, TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR ARMS.”

On the last day of mixing the LP, Bowie had yet to come up with a lyric for a final track that was cued up on the deck. Tony Visconti recalled waiting, tapping his fingers at the console, while Bowie sat in the reception area of Advision Studios, scratching out a lyric on paper. Bowie ran into the booth to record his vocal, the track was mixed in a few hours and the tapes were sent off the same night. You’d expect something like “Black Country Rock” from these straightened circumstances: instead, it was “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie’s finest lyric of the record.

Bowie had found his album’s real name. “The Man Who Sold The World,” nearly an afterthought, had turned out to be the prime mover of the LP all along, like a song whose key is only revealed in its last bars.

While it’s basically a first draft (and it shows at times: “I gazed a gazely stare” is pretty rough), the lyric’s forcibly-spontaneous origins also created its uncanny resonance. Metrobolist could be a play on somnambulist, and “The Man Who Sold the World” could be a sleepwalker’s journal entry, a piece of automatic writing.

Like a dream, “The Man Who Sold the World” has a score of fathers—its title is likely from Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon; its opening lines suggest Hughes Mearns’ “Antigonish,” as quoted above, or, even more likely, the WWII-era song based on the poem, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There“; its image of a man meeting his double, spiritual or corporeal, derives from everything from Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” to Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting,” in which a man and Martian cross paths in the deserts of Mars one night, each convinced that the other hails from the distant past.

And the song’s symbolic twin was a film from the same year (while shot in 1968, it finally premiered a few months after Bowie wrote his song): Performance (fittingly, the film had two directors: Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell), in which a glamorous gangster (James Fox) holes up in the mansion of a decadent pop singer (Mick Jagger), with the two playing out each other’s roles—a talented criminal, the film suggests, is as much an artist as a true artist can be a criminal.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Turner (Mick Jagger), in Performance.

“The Man Who Sold the World” has two verses (one pairing in a song filled with them: for example, Bowie sings two pairs of notes at the start of each line of the chorus): the first is Now, with the narrator encountering himself or Another (cf. Rimbaud’s “Je est une autre”), the second verse is Afterward (or Before). Where most of Bowie’s lyrics on the LP are oddly-phrased and filled with bizarre imagery, “The Man Who Sold The World,” two verses of eight modest lines and a chorus of four, has a cold simplicity, its tone that of an old riddle.

So the singer passes a man on the stair, although the singer isn’t truly present at the meeting. Is he asleep, dead, exiled from his own time? Whatever his own situation, the singer is more bewildered by the man he encounters. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” he says in astonishment, as though he has met a lost self, or the self he once imagined he would be, or the self he one day will be.

The chorus is the other’s response. “Oh no, not me” the specter (or the man) says, happily denying the charge. You could read it as “Death hasn’t come for me, it never will.” After all he’s the Man Who Sold the World, the extremity of all the extremities that this odd LP has offered. He could be a con man, like Delos Harriman, Heinlein’s Man Who Sold the Moon, who swindles the masses into financing his dream, only to be denied fulfilling it. He could be the Bowie of 1975, who has become world-famous at the price of his sanity. Or alternately, he could be, as he says, the one who never lost control, the man who never let his imagination take him where it would. Just common David Jones, living out a quiet life in Bromley, rebuking his extravagant alternate self.

The second verse broadens the scope, moving from the stairwell to the world. Bowie wanders, in exile or heading home (one and the same), and tries to find community in the fact that others are in the same straights as he. But the singer’s questions remain open, the riddles only answer themselves, and there’s no resolution. The song fades out with wordless moans and an cycling guitar, seeming to end before it began.

II. The Stairwell

I passed on with an inward shudder. I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer,” (1909).

Mick Ronson and Visconti’s arrangements, like Bowie’s language, had been heavy, dark and convulsive for much of the record, but as with “The Man Who Sold The World”‘s lyric, suddenly all is simplicity and clarity. Ronson’s opening guitar riff is basic enough that guitar teachers use it as a lesson for beginners—hold the G string down and play three notes (A), lift your finger up and play a fourth note as an open string, then simply slide your finger along the same string from the second to the third fret and back again, lifting your finger up at the end (which creates the circular hook).

The riff is constant throughout the song, moving, like Bowie’s narrator, across a moving landscape, its appearance seemingly altered with its changing surroundings. So the riff travels, in the intro, from A to D minor (the home key of the song; Bowie, likely unintentionally, sings “made my way back home” over one return to D minor) to F and back to D minor; it does the same in the break after the first chorus, and again, seemingly endlessly, in the long outro. As the author Chet Williamson wrote, in an appreciation of the song: “The melody of the riff is unchangeable. It seems to owe nothing to any key, and stands alone, adapting itself to the darkness of D minor, the brightness of F, and the intermediary and transitory character of A.

The chorus is even simpler. Visconti on bass, then Ronson, then Ralph Mace (or Visconti) on keyboards, all follow the same path: they are simply playing scales, as if pupils in a band class—first the C major scale, then the F major scale. A sudden move to B flat casts a shadow for two bars, and then the cycles resume.

III. The Buyer

Sometime in the late 1980s Chad Channing, a Seattle-based drummer, found a mint The Man Who Sold the World LP in a shop and dubbed it onto cassette, as you did in those days. He played the tape while driving around his bandmates, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, and Channing recalled that when Cobain first heard “The Man Who Sold the World,” Cobain was baffled to learn David Bowie was singing it (this was the era of the “Let’s Dance” MTV icon Bowie, who seemed light years removed from the likes of The Man Who Sold the World).

In November 1993, as Cobain and Novoselic’s band Nirvana (Channing had left in 1990) began what would be their final tour, they came to New York to record a session for MTV’s Unplugged. Determined to irritate the biggest commercial force in music at the time, Nirvana told Unplugged‘s producers that not only would they not perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” acoustically (thus defeating the whole purpose of Unplugged, which was for bands (and MTV) to cash in by turning their greatest hits into easy-listening standards, like Eric Clapton turning “Layla” into a cocktail-hour blues), but also that half of their set would be obscure covers: three Meat Puppets songs, a Vaselines track, a Leadbelly blues and “Man Who Sold The World,” which, as far as MTV was concerned, might as well have been a Bowie outtake.

The songs Nirvana performed that night were tainted and distorted after Cobain’s suicide five months later, forced into new shapes—“All Apologies” became a self-requiem, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” a final curse, “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” visions of the afterlife. And “Man Who Sold the World” became Cobain’s catechism.

Where Bowie had sung “The Man Who Sold The World” dispassionately, as if at a remove from his own terror, Cobain sounds betrayed and disgusted (with himself, with whatever alternatives he’s presented with on the stair); whatever fear the figure on the stair means to invoke by saying he’s The Man Who Sold The World, Cobain simply deflates. He’s done his share of selling, after all. But Cobain’s voice catches on lines like “He said I was his friend,” which he offers in a tone of weary disbelief, and he plays his allegedly unplugged guitar through a hidden amplifier.

The time leading up to [Cobain's] death was really strange. He disappeared. He just seemed like he wanted to get away. He bailed. I honestly did not think he was going to kill himself. I just thought he was on someone’s floor in Olympia, listening to albums. Or something.

Dave Grohl, interviewed by Austin Scaggs, 2005.

Nirvana kept “The Man Who Sold The World” in its set throughout the following tour (here’s Inglewood, Calif. (30 Dec 1993) and Modena, Italy (21 Feb 1994), including their final concert in Munich. The tour ended: Cobain made his way back home to Seattle, where he died alone.

IV. Transit

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know. Then don’t ask. But the night is very short. There go the festival fires in the sky, and the birds.”

Tomas put out his hand. The Martian did likewise in imitation. Their hands did not touch; they melted through each other.
“Will we meet again?”

“Who knows? Perhaps some other night.”

Ray Bradbury, “Night Meeting,” (1950).

Before this, Bowie had revisited “The Man Who Sold the World” only twice. In 1973, embarking on a mild Svengali relationship with the Scot belter Lulu, Bowie revised the song as glam disco, centering it on a new Ronson riff and a saxophone he played himself. Lulu sang the hell out of it (in the studio, Bowie had told her to smoke cigarettes to make her voice raspier), dressed up for the promo video in a gangster suit. But the song was flattened out and distorted, its questions barely discernible beneath the flash and glare.

And on one of the last weekends of the Seventies, Bowie played Saturday Night Live. Those watching TV that night must have wondered if a European avant-garde theater troupe briefly had commandeered SNL—Bowie, in a giant Dadaist tuxedo (inspired by a Hugo Ball performance in which Ball had been carried onstage in a tube, as well as Sonia Delaunay’s costumes for a 1923 Tristan Tzara play), was hoisted like a placard by two vampires in red and black dresses (Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias), and backed by a band including Blondie’s Jimmy Destri (filmed making ridiculous faces while playing two keyboards). The gorgeous outro, with Nomi and Arias’ counter-tenors swirling around Bowie’s voice, had a severe finality to it, a sense of being a last aria. You could imagine, at the performance’s end, that Bowie never intended to play the song again.

But Nirvana’s cover, played on TV throughout the spring of 1994 (MTV was running “Nirvana Unplugged” seemingly around the clock), suddenly exhumed the song, and “The Man Who Sold The World” was out of Bowie’s hands. Many kids even thought the song was a Nirvana track (despite Cobain’s earnest introductions on stage that “this is a David Booooie song”), placing Bowie in the odd position of, if he revived the now-popular song, being accused of covering his own composition.

A year later Bowie made his move: he gutted the song, making what he did in the Lulu version seem like minor outpatient surgery. Erasing everything familiar (the vocal melody, Ronson’s riff, the chorus scales) as if it was the speech bubble of Weller’s cartoon, Bowie left only the lyric, stripped bare over a minimalist electronic beat. He sang it quietly and sadly, the puzzles that the song once offered now not even worth trying to solve.

Finally Bowie seemed to make peace with the song, offering a fairly “traditional” version in 2000 for a BBC performance (a version that, to be honest, sounds like a Nirvana cover). By the time of Bowie’s Reality tour of 2003-2004, “The Man Who Sold the World” had become part of Bowie’s canon, along with “Changes” and “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes.” Bowie sang it as if had been one of his standards all along: he had reclaimed a child who had been stolen from him and, in the process, had outgrown him.

V. Transit Documents

“The Man Who Sold The World,” originally recorded ca. 8-22 May 1970, was the penultimate song of the LP it titled; lurking between the bombast of “She Shook Me Cold” and the closer “The Supermen,” its cold power was, if anything, magnified. It was the B-side of a few singles, including a 1973 RCA reissue of “Life on Mars?” Lulu’s 1974 single (Polydor 2001 490) hit #3 in the UK and was collected on her 1977 LP Heaven And Earth And the Stars. A truly god-awful cover, with the Lulu track as its apparent inspiration, was cut by the young John Cougar in 1977. The Bowie/Nomi/Arias recording, from 15 December 1979 (they also did “TVC-15″ and “Boys Keep Swinging”) has never been released, either on DVD or CD.

Nirvana’s version was recorded on 18 November 1993 and is found on Unplugged in New York; Bowie’s 1995 remake, mixed by Brian Eno, was released as the B-side of “Strangers When We Meet”; the 2000 live performance, recorded 27 June 2000 at the BBC Radio Theatre, is on the bonus disc of Bowie at the Beeb; the final version featured here was recorded in Dublin on 22-23 November 2003 and is on the A Reality Tour DVD.

Top: Gov. Ronald Reagan debates Irving Wesley Hall, Sacramento, Calif., 1970.


Black Country Rock

January 24, 2010

Black Country Rock.

“Black Country Rock” was the provisional title Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti gave to a riff-happy jam they had worked up in the studio, and Bowie, facing a deadline, dashed out a single verse and chorus based on the title.

Recording his vocal, Bowie decided to parody his friend/rival Marc Bolan, who was readying to become a pop star (T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan,” their first top 10 hit, was recorded a few months after this), delivering a merciless imitation of Bolan’s singing voice (especially in the last chorus repeat, where Bowie bleats out “fond adieuuuuuuuuuuu”). Visconti, amused, thinned Bowie’s vocal track with an equalizer so that it sounded even more like Bolan’s (the “my friend” in the last chorus is so on the money you’d swear it was a Bolan vocal overdub).

“Black Country Rock,” straight-up album filler, is of interest mainly for Ronson, who makes the track a primer on how to economically arrange a song, deploying four guitar riffs as motifs. The first riff, a vault from his low to high strings in E, and the second (a needling little hook ending back in E) appear in Ronson’s intro, then serve as motifs in the verse, with riff 2 reappearing on every other bar, while riff 1 links each eight-bar verse together.

The chorus has the other two—the low-end riff 3 appears at the end of the first line, while riff 4 (mainly just two notes over and over again, sometimes bent) closes out the chorus and twice extends into a 16-bar solo (with riff 2 reappearing to transition back to the verse). For a throwaway track, it’s impressive enough: a number of mediocre ’70s rock bands would build whole careers out of this sort of thing.

Recorded ca. 12-22 May 1970; on side A of The Man Who Sold the World and issued as the B-side of “Holy Holy” in 1971.

Top: Mickey Finn, Marc Bolan and their jawlines practice LP cover poses, summer 1970.


She Shook Me Cold

January 20, 2010

She Shook Me Cold.

Bowie was absent for much of The Man Who Sold The World. He was a happy newlywed (sometimes going antique shopping with his wife Angela during sessions), was living a mildly decadent life in his new rooms at Haddon Hall, a Victorian mansion in Beckenham, and was busy sacking his longtime manager Ken Pitt and replacing him with Tony Defries, the sort of remorseless borderline-criminal impresario who thrived in the mid-20th Century pop music industry.

Bowie had come up with some rough lyrics and chord progressions for songs, which he gave Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson during album rehearsals at Haddon Hall, but he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks, and sometimes even provide titles (“Black Country Rock,” for example). Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals, Visconti and Bowie’s biographers have claimed.

“She Shook Me Cold” in particular is Bowie guest-starring on his own record, as the track is essentially Mick Ronson fulfilling the dream of a struggling provincial guitarist suddenly given the run of Trident Studios—“She Shook Me Cold” is his Cream tribute (its direct inspiration likely being Cream’s live performances of “Spoonful”), with Ronson constructing his own power trio in their image (for example, he encouraged Visconti to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing).

Embodied by The Who, Cream and the Hendrix Experience, the power trio (sometimes equipped with additional lead singer, e.g., Robert Plant) was the child of new technology (louder amps, more guitar effects pedals, better recording techniques) and expanding musician egos. Trios typically dispensed with the rhythm guitarist slot, with often a more aggressive and fluid bass guitar taking the rhythm guitar’s place in the mix (or in The Who’s case, Keith Moon’s drums would sometimes be the lead instrument, while Pete Townshend’s guitar filled in on rhythm).

The trio would become rock’s standard format (The Police, U2, Nirvana, etc.), but some critics argued that as (the now-redundant) rhythm guitarists often had been songwriters and arrangers, their absence led to, as Ian MacDonald wrote, “a degradation of texture and a decline in musical subtlety…the average power trio was in effect an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise.” (This wouldn’t be Bowie’s fate, as Bowie, as if in retribution for the excesses of Man Who Sold the World, would center his following LP on the piano and acoustic guitar.)

So consider “She Shook Me Cold” a fun, vulgar one-off, Bowie’s accidental voyage into heavy metal. When Bowie arrived to finish the track, he gleefully went along with the pantomime, writing a ridiculous bad sex lyric (“I broke the gentle hearts of many young virgins,” “she sucked my dormant will/mother, she blew my brain,” culminating in a verse of moaning).

The track opens with Ronson’s homage to Jimi Hendrix (cf. the opening of “Voodoo Child”), sliding from his B string to his low E string: the intro kicks off two 12-bar verses that have a trip-and-lurch rhythm and an odd harmonic layout—if the song is in E (as it seems to be), within a measure or so its subdominant and dominant chords appear, jammed together back-to-back (they’re A and B, “uh-PON A hill” in the first line), followed by a retreat directly back to the tonic E chord.

A bridge dominated by Visconti’s bass (he really takes off around when Bowie sings “she took my head”), and the “orgasmic” verse serve as the lead-in to Ronson’s 64-bar, nearly two-minute-long extravagance of a guitar solo, during which, when he’s not trying to outdo Visconti’s bass, Ronson develops some fine riffs (listen to the one around 3:26 in). Afterward all Bowie can do is get out the last verse and crawl off to the shower.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; on side B of The Man Who Sold the World.

Top: Julian Wasser, “Joan Didion sitting inside white Stingray, with cigarette,” 1970.


All The Madmen

January 18, 2010

All the Madmen.
All the Madmen (live, 1987).

In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In a general way, then, madness is not linked to the world and its subterranean forms, but rather to man, his weaknesses and illusions…There is no madness but which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and the illusions he entertains…In this delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad.’ Mine really is.

David Bowie, quoted in Sandford’s Loving the Alien.

Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, was riddled with mental illness: his aunt Una had been institutionalized for depression and schizophrenia, was given electro-shock treatment and had died in her late thirties; another aunt had schizophrenic episodes; a third had been lobotomized.

Most of all there was his mother’s son, his older half-brother Terry Burns, who eventually was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1966, while Bowie and Burns were walking to a Cream concert, Burns fell to the street and screamed, claiming he saw flames rising up from cracks in the pavement. By the time Bowie recorded The Man Who Sold the World, Burns had been confined to London’s Cane Hill Hospital.

So Bowie believed, at the age of 23, that he had perhaps even odds of going mad. The prospect naturally terrified him and would lie behind much of his work in the ’70s—writing songs about identity, control, lunacy and fear; devising personae as various means of escape, as conduits for insanity (Ziggy Stardust was partially based on the mad rock & roller Vince Taylor—Bowie once saw Taylor on his hands and knees outside Charing Cross, using a magnifying glass to pinpoint UFO landing sites on a city map he had spread on the pavement).

“All the Madmen” is Bowie’s first attempt to grapple with what he regarded as his sad inheritance, but it also reflects broader cultural movements; in the quarter century since the war, how society regarded and treated the insane had begun to change, in some cases radically.

(Two films stand on either end of the divide: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), where the asylum is a stately Vermont manor, the “mad” are the misdiagnosed, the repressed and the malformed, and the face of modern psychiatry is the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman in a white lab coat; and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where the asylum is a jail, and the insane are no longer puzzles to be solved or worthy citizens to be rehabilitated, but truth-tellers, the last honest men, who society hates and demands silenced and locked away. The face of mental illness treatment is now the sadistic bureaucrat Nurse Ratched.)

Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest was just one of several 1960s books that questioned the treatment of the mentally ill and helped drive the anti-psychiatric movement: along with Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Erving Goffman’s Asylums, Cuckoo’s Nest showed the asylum as society’s means of isolating the mad from mainstream life, so as to streamline and better enforce cultural norms (e.g., sending homosexuals to be “cured” in asylums via shock treatment). Asylums were hypocrite’s prisons, in which the quiet compromises the “sane” made to conform with society were replaced by brute force.

“All the Madmen” falls in this line. In the lyric, Bowie casts his lot with the insane, following Kerouac’s lines in On the Road (a favorite of Terry Burns) that “the only people for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.” Bowie’s madmen, locked in their asylums, are “organic minds” hidden in a cellar. Bowie first acts like a lunatic to escape detection and show solidarity, as he’s realized he lives in a society of lunatics. It’s no use: his captors (his doctors, one and the same) remove pieces of his mind, until he truly descends into madness. He ends the song by chanting, over and over, the Dadaist refrain: “Zane zane zane! Ouvre le chien!!”


Aversos Compono Animos

“All The Madmen” is one of the more intricately-arranged tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, opening with Bowie on his acoustic (a brusque, scattered intro with several ringing open strings), leading into the first verse. A descant recorder appears in the second verse, played by Tony Visconti (it’s eventually supplanted by synthesizer in the final chorus), and the ominous quiet of the early verses is shattered when Mick Ronson kicks in to lead the band into the long bridge (three separate sections, 24 bars in all).

The chorus (one of the catchiest on the record) is dominated by Ronson’s guitar in its first appearance, with Visconti’s freely-roaming bass as a counterweight, and it leads to a brief two-harmonized-guitar solo. A spoken interlude reminiscent of “We Are Hungry Men” follows, but soon enough it’s Ronson’s show again, with another harmonized-guitar solo replacing the first section of the bridge. The track ends in glorious chaos: Ronson repeating a riff from his first solo, Bowie chanting “Ouvre le chien,” madmen voices swirling around, Woody Woodmansey keeping on the ride cymbals ’til the fadeout.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970. While Bowie’s American label Mercury released it as a promo single in December 1970 to accompany Bowie’s first-ever American press tour, the only contemporary live recording of “All the Madmen” was captured at a party by the Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer in early 1971—part of the poor-sounding recording turned up in a 2004 documentary on Bingenheimer’s life, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bowie let “Madmen” lie fallow for the rest of the ’70s, but garishly revived it for his Glass Spider tour in 1987. He’s left it alone since.

Top: Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman’s Leo The Last; an alternate cover of The Man Who Sold The World LP, with the administrative wing of Cane Hill Hospital in the background.


After All

January 13, 2010

After All.

A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.

Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.

“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.

The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.

“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.

The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.

“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.

Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.


Running Gun Blues

January 11, 2010

Running Gun Blues.

An early entrant in the distinguished “crazy Vietnam veteran” genre, “Running Gun Blues” features an ex-soldier turned serial killer. Bowie sounds unhinged in the verses, tries for menace in the choruses, going on about cracking the heads of “gooks.” It’s satire fit for (and seemingly written by) a squalid 13-year-old boy.

Mick Ronson offers amends—beefing up the D-C-G riff that Bowie first offers on his acoustic, locking in with Tony Visconti’s bass to ride out the track. It’s no use, as the track’s nothing but cheap, loud burlesque with “social commentary” pretensions. Angela Bowie recalled that her husband wrote the lyrics to “Running Gun Blues” over an afternoon when he kept being interrupted to do interviews, and it shows (“for I promote oblivion/and I’ll plug a few civilians”). As rancid as it is forgettable.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; never performed again by Bowie, or anyone else.

Top: Lt. William Calley goes on trial, November 1970.


Saviour Machine

January 7, 2010

Saviour Machine.

“Saviour Machine” is The Man Who Sold The World‘s topical song, as computers controlling every aspect of society and (without fail) eventually weakening, conquering and/or exterminating the human race was a basic doomsday scenario in 1970.

This fear now seems dated and mildly ridiculous, a nightmare of the Great Society era. By the late ’60s it seemed that, at least in US and UK science fiction, world government and centralized computer control of the planet were just around the corner. Patrick Troughton- and Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (1967-1974), for example, was often set on a standard near-future Earth (say, 1985) where the United Nations is the world’s government and military force, while various Controllers and Supervisors run the massive mainframe networks that control shipping, the weather, the moon colonies, and so forth.

The massive growth of government between 1940 and 1970, with the parallel rise of the mainframe computer network (the idea of a “personal computer” seemed absurd to all but a few cranks), had only one logical outcome: with power continuing to centralize, and with society growing ever more complex and burdensome (overpopulation, pollution, wars, crime, etc.), only a super-computer would eventually be able to keep things running.

Naturally, however, even the computers would crack under the strain. Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” opens with a liberal U.S. “President Joe” elected on a platform of installing a computer system, called “The Prayer,” to end war and hunger. The twist is that while The Prayer easily handles the job, perfection bores it; The Prayer contemplates introducing new wars and plagues simply as a bit of distraction, and because it’s grown to despise its human subjects, chastising them like an officious Old Testament God.

As a performance, “Saviour Machine” is unrelentingly strange. It makes constant demands on a listener, with its complex time changes (it opens in what seems to be 15/8 time (more likely 6/8, see comments), goes to 3/4 (or not) in the bridges*) and Bowie’s eerie seesawing vocal, which seems designed to thwart anyone else from attempting to sing it. Even the song’s structure is odd—there’s only one verse, followed by alternating bridges and choruses (in the former, Bowie continually holds notes, draining the blood from his words, as if fighting against his song’s rhythms).

Ronson gets a solo after nearly every sung section—the first and third (at 1:28 and 3:08), each 24 bars, reuse the wordless chorus of Bowie’s old “Ching a Ling,” the melody first carried on Ronson’s guitar, then by Ralph Mace’s Moog synthesizer. Ronson’s second solo is a dance between Am7 and D, while his outro performance grows noisier and more manic as the track fades out.

Recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970, on the second side of The Man Who Sold the World. “Saviour Machine” has generally been forgotten, though Redd Kross covered it in the ’80s and its name was appropriated by a Christian goth band.

Top: The IBM 360, made obsolescent in 1970 by the introduction of the System/370.

* I’ve never been able to determine musical time—these are just guesses, and likely very wrong ones.


The Supermen

January 5, 2010

The Supermen (LP version).
The Supermen (1971 remake).
The Supermen (live, 1972).
The Supermen (live, 2004).

I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the superman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”

His other great inspiration is mythology. He has a great need to believe in the legends of the past, particularly those of Atlantis; and for the same need he has crafted a myth of the future, a belief in an imminent race of supermen called homo superior. It’s his only glimpse of hope, he says—“all the things that we can’t do they will.”

Michael Watts, Bowie profile in Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

Bowie, who never had the sunniest of dispositions, grew apocalyptic at the dawn of the 1970s. He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end (he gave the human race 40 years to live, soon cut it down to five). Worse, he had started reading Nietzsche, mainly Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and took from the former the concept of a new race of overmen who would supplant homo sapiens. For Bowie, this was cause for slight optimism.

“The Supermen,” the first fruit of this new infatuation, isn’t as much future prediction as it is primordial memory, with overmen at the dawn of time on their “loveless isle,” playing and battling (which seem to be one and the same). It’s akin to Donovan’s “Atlantis,” from 1968, but where Donovan had envisioned the few survivors of Atlantis bestowing art and civilization upon the human race, Bowie’s supermen are brutes, nightmare Teutonic demigods. In a 1976 interview, Bowie called the song “pre-fascist.”

Nietzsche wasn’t the only influence: Bowie’s overmen also have (no surprise) some resemblance to the Buddhist monks of his ’60s songs, like the carnival sage of “Karma Man.” Bowie also was likely inspired by the supermen and mutants who populated postwar SF novels and comics, whether The Mule, the superhuman of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who is the unforeseen variable that alters the predicted path of “psycho-history,” or the mutant children of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, who discover that together they form a new entity, homo gestalt, a plural form of human being (cf. Bowie’s line: “where all were minds in uni-thought.”)

Even though he is immortal…mankind is affected by mortality…above the cosmic framework, he became a slave in it…He never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.

Bowie’s supermen, however, are locked in the past, once-gods who became mortal. As the very Gnostic lyric says, they are “wondrous beings chained to life.” The song chronicles their fall: the chorus boasts that the perfect men cannot die, but then the overmen dream of murder and rotting flesh; in the last repeat of the chorus, Bowie alters the final word and releases his supermen into death.

Strange games

Jimmy Page allegedly gave Bowie the lumbering riff that opens “The Supermen”—a primal sway between F and G—which on the LP is first played on Tony Visconti’s bass, then Mick Ronson’s guitar. (Page supposedly gave Bowie the riff during the session for Bowie’s 1965 single “I Pity the Fool“—if true, you have to admire Bowie’s packrat sensibilities, stowing away the riff for half a decade.)

For the album cut, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti made, as Visconti later said, an “outrageous sonic landscape.” The track opens with a fanfare on echo-tracked drums, which, like the end of “Width of a Circle,” suggests the tympani of the first movement of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” (This marks the debut of Woody Woodmansey, who Ronson brought in to replace John Cambridge on drums after Cambridge couldn’t master the song’s odd time signatures.) There’s a wordless, moaning chorus soaring throughout, while Ronson offers a solo constructed from three harmonized guitar tracks.

Bowie, for whatever perverse reason, sings his lyric in an exaggerated, nasal, near-Cockney tone (“strAYnge gAYmes thAY would plAY then”), even gasping horribly while he sings “nightmAYre dreams no mortal mind could ‘OLD”. It causes the track to war between self-parody and stone-faced seriousness.

Bowie re-recorded “The Supermen” in November 1971 during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and gave the track to a compilation LP to benefit the Glastonbury Fair (causing at times the remake to be erroneously labeled as a live recording). The new arrangement suggests a rethink of the song, with the verses now only carried by Bowie’s acoustic guitar while Ronson comes in hard on the choruses. The band would use this arrangement in most of its 1972-1973 live performances (see the 1972 recording from Boston above). Bowie has occasionally exhumed his master race on a few recent tours.

“The Supermen” was first recorded at a BBC session on 25 March 1970 (I’ve not heard it, but Nicholas Pegg writes that it’s close to the studio version, with a few slightly altered lyrics and Cambridge’s “dodgy” drumming); the studio track (sequenced as the final cut on the LP, and so ending the record with the death of gods) was recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970. The remake, recorded on 12 November 1971, was first included on Glastonbury Fayre and is now on the reissue of Ziggy Stardust; the Boston recording, from 1 October 1972, is on the 30th anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane.

Top: Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1; detail from cover of Sturgeon’s More Than Human.


The Width of a Circle

January 3, 2010

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.


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