I’ve Been Waiting For You

May 5, 2014

2001oyos

I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, 1968).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (The Pixies, 1990).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Tin Machine, live, 1991).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, live, 2001.)
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Bowie, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Live By Request, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2003).

The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!

Neil Young, 1973.

Sometime in June 2001, David Bowie drove up from New York City to West Nyack, where Tony Visconti had a modest studio in a modest house. His girlfriend cracked that Bowie would step out of his limo, take one look at their place, say that he’d forgotten something in NYC and head home. Instead, Bowie was Visconti’s lodger for a few days.

Since the late Nineties, the two had planned to make an album but Bowie had felt the times, and his moods, hadn’t been right. Now he’d cooled to a proper degree. He was in the vestibule of life, an eye on each door. That April, his mother had died at 88. A month later, Freddi Burretti, his former project, muse and costume designer, had died of cancer at age 49. And he was a father again at 54, with an infant daughter at home.

Meeting in NYC earlier that spring, Bowie and Visconti spent a day listening to recent albums (Beck’s Midnite Vultures, among others) and “looking for little creative tags to incorporate for the new album,” Visconti wrote in his autobiography. Struck by how Bowie had harnessed old addictions into socially acceptable habits, brewing pot after strong pot of coffee on the hour (he was even trying to shake cigarettes), Visconti wrote: “I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that we’d survived the indulgences of rock ‘n’ roll. We were alive and sober.”

Alive and Sober could’ve been the new album’s title. Visconti found in Bowie, with whom he hadn’t worked on an LP since the Carter administration, a new deliberateness that could pass for maturity. “His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure had vastly improved,” he said. “This had already been good when I last worked with him, but now there was more depth to his melodic and harmonic writing.”

Aware that “Bowie and Visconti” would generate scads of expectations for fans and the aging portion of the music press, the pair figured that some measure of grandiosity was inevitable. So Visconti proposed a “magnum opus” concept: a group of songs sharing an autumnal feel, fattened with “layers of layers of overdubs,” which suited Bowie’s introspective mood (he was still expecting Toy to be issued any month). But Bowie was adamant that he wanted the album to sound fresh, not to traffic in expected memory. It would be compared to Scary Monsters, sure, but it shouldn’t sound like Scary Monsters. It would be old age made new.

In West Nyack, they cut four demos in Visconti’s loft studio. Visconti had started using Pro Tools and Logic Pro, and he took pains to show Bowie how the software worked. “I cut up beats and sections of a song, made beat loops and pasted them in other places.”

The next day they drove north, up to the Catskill mountains, where there was a recording studio called Allaire.

allare

A swath of the Hudson River Valley and the hunched shoulders of the Catskills is something of a rock ‘n’ roll historical theme park. The Band’s “Big Pink” house is in West Saugerties; Steely Dan’s Annandale-on-Hudson and Barrytown are across the river; Mercury Rev‘s Opus 40 is off the NY Thruway; the former Bearsville Studios (Todd Rundgren, etc.) is near Woodstock, where Dylan once crashed his motorcycle on Striebel Road. Off to the west is Bethel, where the Woodstock Festival took place (its 1994 sequel was in Saugerties, the catastrophic 1999 edition farther upstate, in Rome).

Southwest of Woodstock is Mount Tonche, atop whose crest the Pittsburgh Plate Glass heir Raymond Pitcairn built a summer manse, Glen Tonche, in 1928. Pitcairn, a devoted enemy of the New Deal and foe of indulgences like child labor laws, erected an 18,000-square-foot hideaway with a commanding view of the Ashokan Reservoir. Its fleets of rooms were garnished with what Bowie described as “very American but aristocratic pieces of work,” like sections of yachts: it’s as though a tide of wealth had ebbed through the house, leaving behind a wrack of costly toys.

The Pitcairn family sold Glen Tonche in the mid-Nineties to the musician Randall Wallace, who converted some rooms, like a dining hall blessed with 40-foot-high ceilings, into recording studios.*

Bowie and Visconti, who’d been tipped off about Wallace’s Allaire Studios by the guitarist David Torn, were on a reconnaissance visit. They were stunned by the place, by its imposing isolation. “This is not cute, on top of this mountain: it’s stark and it has a Spartan quality about it,” Bowie recalled. Though not far from Woodstock, Allaire seemed to exist in another sylvan dimension: a luxurious human colony nestled in a wood-world of black bear, wild pigs and deer.

It was almost an epiphany that I had,” Bowie told Interview in June 2002. “Walking through the door, everything that my album should be about was galvanized for me into one focal point…I knew what the lyrics were already. They were all suddenly accumulated in my mind.”

As we’ll see, the area’s feeling of refuge appealed to Bowie. In the following years, he’d buy a whole side of a mountain in the area, and he’s still up in the Woodstock region, an occasional sight at local coffee shops.

allaire

At Allaire, Bowie and Visconti ran into the drummer Matt Chamberlain, who was recording an album with Natalie Merchant and T-Bone Burnett at the time, and they quickly decided to recruit him. Having booked their drummer and their studio, the pair began work in July 2001, with Bowie settling his family in a cottage on the grounds.

The album that became Heathen was (initially) one of the more sparsely-assembled works of Bowie’s recorded life. It was The Buddha of Suburbia in a grander key. For the first sessions at Allaire, the players were only Bowie (guide vocals, guitars, keyboards, Stylophone, even occasional drums), Visconti (bass, guitar, recorder) and Chamberlain (drums, loops). A routine fell into place. Bowie rose at 5 or 6 AM to work on songs in the studio or write lyrics, while Visconti and Chamberlain woke at a more civilized hour, exercised and showed up around 10:30 AM, upon which Bowie would present them with their “songs of the day,” Visconti said. As dinner at Allaire was 7 PM sharp, that marked the cut-off point. Bowie would keep working at night while Visconti and Chamberlain watched DVDs or sacked out early. “This certainly wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll life, by any stretch of the imagination,” Visconti wrote.

Still, the pace was vigorous enough that in roughly two weeks the trio cut basic tracks for 19 songs. Bowie wrote a sequence of brooding, lengthy pieces early in the sessions, so as to get the heavy stuff out of the way first, he said (see the next four entries). But he’d also drafted a list of prospective covers that he’d wanted to try.

Over the years, this blog hasn’t been very kind to Bowie’s covers. The likes of “Across the Universe,” “God Only Knows,” “Bang Bang,” “Kingdom Come,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “It Ain’t Easy” and so on form a rather grim canon. But now there was an urgency, a lightness to his covers on Heathen (and Reality). Maybe all of his lyrical dwellings on cyclicality and fleeting time played a part; maybe, rather than just singing over some track that his musicians cooked up, actually working out songs on guitar or keyboard let him take firmer root in the compositions. Something had fallen away, some bitter strain of ambition, some habit of overthinking that had hobbled so many of his earlier takes of others’ songs. He became an inspired interpreter at last; he sounded at home singing someone else’s lines.

roskilde

The three covers on Heathen, along with being spry lightweights set against the slab-like big bruiser tracks, were memory tokens. So start with Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” This was Bowie paying a debt to an old influence (he’d been consumed with Young while writing Hunky Dory: you can hear Young’s melodies and phrasings in “Kooks” and “Bombers,” even “Bewlay Brothers”) as well as a nod to his departed collaborator Reeves Gabrels. Tin Machine had played “I’ve Been Waiting For You” during its 1991-92 tour, with Gabrels on lead vocal and wearying lead guitar.

On Earthling‘s “Dead Man Walking,” Bowie had toyed with the image of Young and Crazy Horse converting rock and roll into some earth-worshiping religion; old men stomping about on stage like Tolkien’s Ents. Bowie also used Young as a map of how to age in a music where old age is a personal failing. As he told the Kansas City Star (9 May 2004):

When things go bad, I’ve always looked to my peers and, in a way, my musical mentors to see what they’ve done in similar situations. Neil Young and Bob Dylan have done similar things: They have both made a few disastrous albums, but they always end up coming back to the point of what they started in the first place. You’ve got to go back to what you were doing when you were rooting around with experimentation, ideas that are going to work for me, not my audience.

folder

Singing “I’ve Been Waiting For You” had another angle. The track was from Young’s 1968 debut album. Much like Deram’s David Bowie, Neil Young is a first impression of a mutable performer, the work of an ambitious, dreamy man who’d struck loose from a band and wanted to sound out his whims. So Young and David Briggs had rotated through Los Angeles studios during summer 1968, cutting overdubs, playing games in the mixes (a favorite move was to shimmer guitars back and forth across the stereo spectrum) and spending days on guitar tones (“that record is a masterpiece of tones,” Briggs later told Jimmy McDonough. “We got tones nobody’s ever got except Hendrix.”). Young’s debut has an piece for string quartet, dolorous folkie ballads, unending folkie ballads, a Western movie theme and a few beautiful obsessional songs devoted to a typical set of unattainable, mystifying women.

The latter songs channeled Jimi Hendrix, of whom Young was in awe (“there was no one even in the same building as that guy,” he later said of Hendrix). In particular there was “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” with its “Foxy Lady”-esque heavy breathing and its squall of a guitar solo, for which Young’s guitar was sent through an organ’s Leslie speaker and then piped directly into the soundboard.

Anchored in A minor, the song’s reappearing D9 chord (“for a woman,” “with the feeling“) is a liberation declined: instead of using the D9 as a means to brighten into A major (or move to D), the song sinks back into A minor. It reflects how Young’s been passively waiting for some life-redeeming woman, who’s always just about to appear and never does. (Also take how the intro/later chorus opens with a D suspended 2nd chord that aches to resolve to D major but the sequence instead cools into, naturally, A minor). A brief obsessional, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is a single verse, a refrain with a descending chromatic bassline for drama (“waiting for you...and you’ve been coming to mee“) and Young’s piped anguish via guitars.

On Neil Young, the track was the future: the Neil Young of the Seventies (and 2000s) roamed around in its confines. Everything Young would become was corked in it; the feel and the weight of his grand old age was there already, summoned up in a track that a 23-year-old cut in summer 1968, happily oblivious to what would become his life.

R-1556857-1228166141

Bowie knew the track from his days listening to Young, but “I’ve Been Waiting for You” was also one of Kim Deal’s favorite Neil Young songs. During the Bossanova sessions, the Pixies knocked off a version of the song and issued it as a B-side. They dumped the loping bassline/clopping drums of the Young original (the rhythm section was Poco, basically) for a drum track that was all hard business. Black Francis and Joey Santiago warred over it. Deal sang blankly, indulging in none of Young’s mystics; there was a cold rasp in how she delivered “a woman with a feeling…of losing once or twice.” Though playing the searcher, she had some sympathy for the pursued.

So for his cover, Bowie used the Pixies’ structure of recycling half the verse after the solo and halving the solo’s length, and he added a few Tin Machine flavors, like the wailing harmony vocals that he’d sung to buttress Gabrels on stage (here, they were a distorted-sounding synthetic “choir,” an effect he’d use on “Sunday,” among other tracks).

He recruited for lead guitar Dave Grohl (it was a mailbox transaction: Bowie sent the tapes to Grohl, who recorded his parts and sent them back), who was working up his current role as genial Gen X ambassador from classic rock. Grohl’s playing was fine if not memorable, with Grohl worrying the solo’s underlying chords in a less cheeky way than Santiago had on the Pixies version. Bowie should’ve had a go at the guitars himself (for all we know, he did): his whining Diamond Dogs tone would have been an nice spice in the mix.

The guitars came under fire from the drums, with Chamberlain’s dominant position in the mix seemingly won in battle. In the verse, Bowie sounded more callow than Young had in 1968 but in the refrains, a second vocal sunk down an octave gave his hopes a dimension of menace. How long has he been waiting, after all? In the closing refrain, Bowie sang “long time now” as if he could taste every hour of every wasted year. Having thrashed and wailed for three minutes, the track gave up the ghost with an unmoored bassline, a guitar clanging like a ship’s bell and the choir of bottled voices snuffed out in a breath.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (guitar solo) Dave Grohl’s home studio, ca. October 2001; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and also as a Canadian-only CD single (Columbia 38K 3369).

* The Glen Tonche estate has been up for sale for years: it’s yours for $4.5 million.

Top: Vassilis D. Gonis, from series “Christina Hoyos at Lycabetus Hill Theater,” Athens, 2001. (“I started this blog…to send my photos out there to the world with the hope of communication and as a motivation to keep clear away from the depressing feeling that comes along with the economic crisis in Greece.”); Walters-Storyk Design Group, Allaire Studios, New York (from without; from within); Neil Young at Roskilde Festival, 2001; Bowie’s philtrum as CD single art.


Like a Rolling Stone

November 20, 2012

Like a Rolling Stone (Mick Ronson and David Bowie).

When people came up and told him how wonderful he was, I think it just made him nervous. I don’t think he ever believed what they were saying.

Trevor Bolder, on Mick Ronson.

In late 1991, Mick Ronson learned that he had inoperable liver cancer, which killed him at age 46. He died on 29 April 1993, a few days after the release of Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise, to which Ronson had contributed. Bowie heard the news while promoting the album in America, and briefly eulogized Ronson on the Arsenio Hall Show.

There had been a reconciliation between the two of them before Ronson’s death, but then again, they’d never had as severe a split as had been imagined in the press. Bowie had considered Ronson as lead guitarist for his Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 (Ronson said he turned him down due to work commitments), they had played together live in 1983 and there were regular and possibly accurate rumors that Bowie had considered linking up with Ronson again at times during the late Eighties.

Since he left Bowie, Ronson had settled into a sideman’s life, working with everyone from Bob Dylan to John Mellencamp (Ronson’s responsible for much of “Jack and Diane”*) to Morrissey. Ronson had a professional open marriage with Ian Hunter: the two worked together for over 15 years, but were happy to let each other split for better opportunities (playing with Dylan, in Ronson’s case). Often based in Los Angeles in the late Seventies, Ronson, like Ray Manzarek, became a godfather to new bands emerging on the scene, producing and playing on records by the Payolas, Visible Targets, the Iron City Houserockers,, the Mundanes (with John Linnell, later of They Might Be Giants, on keyboards), Los Illegals and, back in Britain, for the Rich Kids and Slaughter and the Dogs.

Uncomfortable as a front man, Ronson had showed little interest in a solo career after his MainMain-hyped Slaughter on 10th Avenue in 1974, and it’s fair to say that he was often at the mercy of sharper personalities, both Bowie and later, Dylan, who allegedly refused to let him play on much of his 1976 tour, leaving Ronson sitting on the tour bus (Dylan “had lead-itis at the time,” tour bassist Rob Stoner later said). (Even after Ronson’s death, there were tensions and diva moments: Bowie didn’t perform at the tribute concert held in April 1994 at the former Hammersmith Odeon, with Ian Hunter and Trevor Bolder later accusing Bowie of not attending because the crowd wasn’t big enough.)

Learning that Ronson was making a new solo record, to be mordantly titled Heaven and Hull, Bowie sent Ronson “a box of tapes” while Ronson was producing Morrissey’s Your Arsenal in spring 1992. Unfortunately, the crop Bowie offered was a poor one, with the only apparently salvageable track being Bowie’s version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which hailed from one of his creative nadirs, the Bruce Fairbairn-produced demo sessions with Bryan Adams’ band, cut in LA in 1988. Ronson overdubbed as much guitar as the tape could take,** but “Rolling Stone” remains a sour finale to their partnership. Play “Moonage Daydream” instead.

Recorded (vocal, rhythm tracks) Los Angeles, spring 1988; (lead guitar, vocal overdubs) ca. spring 1992, Utopia and/or Wool Hall Studios?, UK. Released on 10 May 1994 on Ronson’s posthumous Heaven and Hull.

* Mellencamp, in a 2008 interview with Classic Rock, noted how Ronson’s knack for arranging was still sharp in the early Eighties. “I’d thrown ["Jack and Diane"] on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks…All of a sudden, for ‘Jack and Diane’, Mick said “Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.” I thought, “What the fuck does ‘put baby rattles on the record’ mean?” So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part “let it rock, let it roll” as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.

** Bowie also sang backup on Ronson’s “Colour Me.” That session is where he likely did the vocal overdubs for “Rolling Stone,” as evidenced by the goofy “Oh rock ‘em, Ronno, rock!” ad lib on the latter.

Top: Mick Ronson, ca. 1992.


Both Guns Are Out There*

November 7, 2012

Both Guns Are Out There.

This is as marginal and as obscure as we get: the song linked above may well not be by David Bowie at all, and if it is Bowie, it may well not be called “Both Guns Are Out There.”

The few known facts: sometime in 1975, Bowie and Keith Christmas, a British guitarist who had played on the Space Oddity record, cut some demos in Los Angeles. It was in the murky period before Bowie recorded Station To Station, around the same time that Bowie and Iggy Pop had worked on some songs, like an early version of “Turn Blue.” One of the Bowie/Christmas songs was allegedly titled “Both Guns Are Out There.”

Christmas later claimed that he’d heard one of his riffs from these sessions on Black Tie White Noise, but he didn’t specify which track (the consensus is that it was the title track) nor did he claim (as far as I know) that the riff was from “Both Guns Are Out There.” Now Bowie reusing a riff from 1975 on a song cut in 1992 wouldn’t be surprising in the least: Bowie is a legendary musical pack rat, with many of his compositions built out of shards of discarded songs.

A few years ago, the above track surfaced, purporting to come from some mid-Nineties Bowie recording session and allegedly titled “Both Guns Are Out There.” I very much doubt this track had anything to do with a song that Bowie and Christmas worked up in 1975. If the track is Bowie, and if its title is legit and not just a bootlegger’s fancy (the latter’s possible—it is the only lyric heard in the track), then I’d say Bowie just used a scrapped title from his files for a completely different work.

If this “Guns” is legitimate, it could be Bowie reworking some outtakes from Black Tie White Noise (particularly the trumpet loop, which doesn’t sound like Lester Bowie, however), perhaps for some proposed remix for a BTWN track or as an experimental piece considered for either Buddha of Suburbia or Outside. Or perhaps “Guns” is just a piece of flotsam that someone on the Internet decided to call a lost Bowie track.

Recorded ca. 1992? 1994? Who knows?

Top: Rowan Atkinson does an in-store promo at HMV, 1992.


I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday

October 26, 2012

Cosmic Dancer (Morrissey and Bowie, live, 1991).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey, live, 1992).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Bowie).
Drive-In Saturday (Morrissey, live, 2000.)
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey, live, 2005).

The Last of the International Playboys are Bowie, Bolan, Devoto and me.

Do you see similarities between yourself and Bowie?

What, the living Bowie or the present dead one? The living Bowie, there are some, yes. Yes, I do see similarities.

Morrissey, NME interview, February 1989.

Morrissey is what would have happened if Bertie Wooster and David Bowie had a son.

Ken Tucker, “Alternative Scenes: Britain,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1993.

In the autumn of 1980, Steven Morrissey began exchanging letters with a fellow music enthusiast, a Scot named Robert Mackie. The 21-year-old Morrissey was holed up in his room in Manchester, reading, obsessing over Ealing comedies, Sandie Shaw records and Joan Crawford films, writing letters to the music press. In his letters to Mackie, Morrissey rubbished the former’s musical tastes (Kate Bush is “unbearable,” “all electronic music is a sad accident”) and rebuked him for never having seen David Bowie live. (He conceded that Mackie owned far more Bowie albums, but anyone could buy a record.) Granting Bowie the capitalized pronoun once reserved for gods and kings, Morrissey noted that he’d seen “Him” perform 14 times between 1972 and 1976 alone.

And to Morrissey, Bowie once had been a god or a king. “He was so important to me because his vocal melodies were so strong and his appearance was so confrontational,” Morrissey recalled in 2009. “Manchester then was full of bootboys and skinheads and macho-macho thugs, but I saw Bowie’s appearance as the ultimate bravery. To me, it took guts to be David Bowie, not to be a shit-kicking skinhead in a pack.” When Morrissey bought the “Starman” single in the summer of 1972, he “fell in love with the potency of the pop moment…the pop moment in my life was the only thing that ever spoke to me.”

A decade later, Morrissey met Bowie for the first time in Manchester, backstage at a “Sound + Vision” show in August 1990. By that time, of course, Morrissey had founded and disbanded a group that had played the same role for disaffected Eighties teenagers as Bowie had for Morrissey, and he was becoming a pop star on his own, with four UK top 10 hits. And one night in June 1991, as Morrissey was playing the Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles, Bowie came on stage to sing T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” with him. The crowd went fanatic: you can barely hear Bowie and Morrissey above the din in recordings. It seemed that Bowie was anointing Morrissey as heir presumptive of glam, using a Marc Bolan song as coronation hymn. The succession continued in 1993, when Bowie covered a Morrissey song on Black Tie White Noise, with, again, another glam legend roped into the proceedings. Bowie sang “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” a song originally produced and arranged by Mick Ronson.

There was sly dig in Bowie’s song choice, as “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” was, in his view, Morrissey’s attempt at a Ziggy Stardust-era belter; in particular, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” whose coda saxophone arrangement Morrissey might as well have sampled. “It occurred to me that he was spoofing one of my earlier songs, and I thought, I’m not going to let him get away with that,” Bowie later said.

Bowie repaid the favor by singing “Someday” in a pitch of sustained grandiosity. He said he wanted to do “Someday” as though he was performing it on the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974: decadent, fervent, unhinged, slick (Brett Anderson rightly noted that Bowie was channeling Johnnie Ray again). However, the resulting track lacked the spirit of camp, the bite of parody. It was leaden and forced, its centerpiece a dull guitar solo by Wild T. Springer and its mix accorded great glops of overbearing chorus vocals and horns. Bowie’s vocal didn’t measure up to his intended latter-day Ziggy Stardust: you could hear him strain sometimes, with his vocal fills before the closing “wait, don’t lose faith” especially gruesome. Slowing the song down to a thudding 4/4 instead of the whirling 12/8 of the Morrissey original only served to spotlight the track’s shortcomings.

Bowie intended “Someday” to be high camp, a silly goose of a silly song (in his video, Bowie holds a cigarette lighter aloft and solemnly sways his arms during the guitar solo), and as such it was a cynical misreading. Morrissey’s track begins and closes with long stretches of static and drifting pieces of radio flotsam, with the song proper suddenly appearing over a minute in, briefly shimmering into range and then fading into the void again, as though it was a broadcast sent from behind enemy lines. Its tone is wholly sincere, its message one of constancy and commitment, a pledge to adolescents of any age that they will somehow get through it (it seemed Morrissey’s take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as much as it was a Bowie tribute). Like the young Bowie, Morrissey had been a professional fan before he was a star, and his work was one long negotiation with and tribute to his fans. At the end of the “Everyday Is Like Sunday” video, the mousy-haired anomic heroine finds Morrissey through her spyglass and sees that he’s wearing her face on his T-shirt: she’s his idol as much as he’s hers. If “Someday” was absurd, as Bowie seemingly thought it was, it was because pop music itself, the promises it made and the beliefs it offered, was absurd.

Morrissey said he loved Bowie’s cover, and for a time the two kept up their mutual admiration society. This culminated in late 1995, when Bowie asked Morrissey to open for him on a round of UK and European dates. From the start there was tension, from the publicity materials (which touted Morrissey as a “very special guest” but only featured Bowie’s photograph) to sound check times. Morrissey occasionally opened sets with “Good evening, we are your support group” and contended with hecklers: critics found his performances both enervated and desperate-seeming. The Morrissey fans (“a crowd, that is, of precisely 11 rows deep and 20 seats across,” Melody Maker‘s Jennifer Nine sharply noted) would typically pack off as Bowie’s set began, and it didn’t help the atmosphere in the stands that Bowie was playing few old hits and intended to assault audiences with his new industrial-inspired music (as we’ll see in early 2013).

Morrissey said the breaking point was Bowie’s conceit (used with Nine Inch Nails earlier in the tour) that during Morrissey’s last song, members of his group would slowly walk off stage and be replaced by Bowie’s band, until as a climax Morrissey would go into a Bowie song and be joined by Bowie, sweeping in from upstage. Bowie thought it would make for great theater; Morrissey saw it as a diva move that would deprive his fans of a proper closing number. [This story is possibly dubious, see comments.]

So after only nine shows, Morrissey left the tour before an Aberdeen gig, allegedly without informing Bowie. A few years later, Morrissey was still seething, grousing that Bowie was a has-been and a charlatan. “You have to worship at the temple of David when you become involved with him.” In another interview, he said Bowie “is no longer David Bowie at all. Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy, and they’re yawning their heads off. And by doing that, he is not relevant. He was only relevant by accident.” (Bowie, always the gentleman or at least one more press-savvy, kept mum, only saying that Morrissey had gone to a sound-check in Scotland, then got into a car and left, “and that’s the last we heard of him.”)

It was an ugly end to what had once seemed a graceful dialogue between generations, a volley between fans and former fans and idols. But perhaps the root of the break lies back in Bowie’s grotesque, vain interpretation of Morrissey’s song. The two reportedly never spoke again. While Morrissey seems to have made some sort of peace with Bowie, at least as a “living” memory, as he covered “Drive-In Saturday” on stage in 2000 and 2007, some recent snarky tweets by Duncan Jones suggest there may still be some sharp feelings on the Bowie side of the fence.

Moz sources: John H. Baker, “In the Spirit of ’69: Morrissey and the Skinhead Cult,” collected in Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities; David Bret, Morrissey: Scandal & Passion; the “pop moment” quote is from the Irish Times, 1999. The complete Mackie/Morrissey correspondence is scanned here (there are plenty of DB references to be found, including Morrissey signing off a letter with “I’m unhappy, hope you’re unhappy too.”)

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

Top: Les deux dames, in happier days, ca. 1991; Lucette Henderson, moody teenage dream girl and star of M’s “Sunday” video, 1989.


Real Cool World

September 17, 2012

Real Cool World (single mix, video).
Real Cool World (soundtrack LP).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Overture).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Thing #2).

Prologue: Three Scenes From a Public Life in the Early Nineties

11 November 1991: Tin Machine are en route to the Brixton Academy for their last UK gig. Bowie has asked the bus driver to take a “scenic” way to get there, so that he can see what’s become of the neighborhood of his early childhood. The bus goes along Stansfield Road. Eric Schermerhorn, the Machine’s rhythm guitarist, notices Bowie quietly weeping. “It’s a miracle,” Bowie says. “I probably should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.”

20 April 1992: Bowie plays the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He sings “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, who’s dressed as a mingle of his discarded selves. He plays saxophone on “All the Young Dudes.” As Ian Hunter lurches into the song, Bowie sings along with him, not into the mike but absently, murmuring into the air, as though he’s only now recalling the words that he’d written for Hunter, the words which are the only reason Hunter’s on stage this evening. Later in the performance, Bowie pulls Mick Ronson over to him, in a slight echo of the Top of the Pops “Starman” moment. But they’re only sharing a private joke here.

Bowie plays “Heroes” with Ronson, who uses an E-bow to mimic Robert Fripp’s keening lines, and for a moment you can imagine some alternate 1977 where Bowie and Ronson had made “Heroes.” Ronson will be dead in a year. Bowie thanks the crowd, sinks to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Some guy yells “whoo-hoo” after Bowie intones “who art in heaven,” then Wembley seemingly holds its breath until he finishes. Bowie’s friend, a playwright named Craig, had slipped into an AIDS-related coma the day before—he would die two days after the show. Bowie had the bad taste to remind a stadium that the concert they’ve been screaming at is supposed to be a requiem. He later said offering the prayer was a spontaneous decision (Brian May: “I remember thinking that it would have been nice if he’d warned me about that”) and called it the most “rock and roll” episode of his latter-day career. Call it a humble moment of submission or galling pantomime, it’s one of the last moments that the general public will recall from Bowie’s life.

6 June 1992: Bowie marries Iman for a second time, in Florence (they had been married by a magistrate in Lausanne in April). He grants Hello! magazine exclusive rights to the coverage, which results in a 23-page spread. The second wedding is a public art installation: two celebrities, the groom’s teeth newly capped, pledging their troth to flashing cameras and to the sound of screaming fans, massed outside the St. James Episcopal Church.* In the Hello! photographs, the couple are stunningly beautiful mannequins; the wedding party is a taxidermist’s masterpiece.

Brian Eno attends. “It was a lovely wedding,” he said later. “And I was totally confused.” During his stay, Bowie plays Eno a tape of what he calls his “wedding songs.”

We used to laugh about Nile Rodgers and then it’s funny he goes back and works with him…Nile Rodgers is a very talented guy. [Bowie's] idea to work with him was to recapture what they had, but that’s bullshit. You can never go home again.

Hunt Sales.

We’d put all this effort into trying to get rid of the stuff that followed Let’s Dance to change expectations and allow David to be an artist again. So I was irritated by the notion, but, for whatever reason, they decided to do it.

Reeves Gabrels.

These quotes can seem like grumblings of a pair of discarded suitors. But let’s grant them the argument: what had been the point of the abrasive Tin Machine records and tours, of the grand public funeral of “Sound + Vision,” if the next move was just to make Let’s Dance II?

Bowie’s decision to reunite with Nile Rodgers to make a “mainstream” pop album was in some part financial. Bowie no longer had an EMI contract, he’d funded the “It’s My Life” tour out of his own pocket, and he was a married man now, buying houses around the world for the setting of his new domestic life. And he admitted to friends that he missed it sometimes, regretted he was no longer part of the pop conversation, missed hearing himself on the radio. He got a new contract with Savage Records that was predicated on delivering a radio-ready album.

But Black Tie White Noise, though it briefly hit #1 in the UK and produced Bowie’s last Top 10 UK hit, was a global dud, much to Rodgers’ and Savage’s frustration (though the latter was in great part to blame, as we’ll see). Bowie had steeled himself to become a mainstream entertainer again, then had seemed to balk in the process, sabotaging his own compromises. He consigned the best pop song of the sessions to a CD bonus track and left another possible hit on the shelf, not to revive it for a decade; he filled half the record with instrumentals and covers.

So BTWN is one of the stranger albums of Bowie’s life: a pop record that seems intent on denying itself; an album jammed full of ghosts and memories, with a restless creative spirit running through it, along with a seeming indifference to quality at times; it’s a funeral album as much as a wedding album, its moods ranging from glossy pap to uxoriousness on a global scale to ham-handed public commentary to a studied alienation. Bowie would alter his voice beyond recognition, sing on some tracks as a seeming parody of his public self, sing on others as though he’s desperately answering a question someone had posed years before. He seemed to have trawled through his past and picked up whatever came to hand: it’s an album on which not only Mick Ronson and Mike Garson reappear but also the Tonight-era Frank Simms and Phillipe Saisse. While making BTWN Bowie seemed incredibly happy, a man sunk into domestic bliss, and one who also was vaguely disgusted with having to recompose himself, yet again, as a public figure.

Bowie had been writing the BTWN material throughout late 1991 and 1992. The first track that emerged from a desultory series of sessions (Rodgers later groaned that where Let’s Dance took three weeks to make, BTWN “took a year”) was “Real Cool World,” a song written for Cool World, Ralph Bakshi’s disastrous animated film, a crass rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, complete with a cartoon temptress (Kim Basinger’s “Holli Wood”) and human-toon interactions (a bewildered Gabriel Byrne and a sadly game Brad Pitt). While the title obviously came from the movie’s title, there’s a chance Bowie was also referencing the Greatest Show on Earth hit of the same name from 1970.

“Real Cool World” was a try-out session to see if Rodgers and Bowie could work together again (Rodgers had just finished a new Chic record, Chic-ism, and was in the mood for reunions), and the result was enough to convince Bowie to have Rodgers run the album sessions, which would stretch into late 1992, alternating between Bowie’s home base in Switzerland and Rodgers’ at the Power Station in New York.

The appearance of “Real Cool World” was well received at the time by the likes of Billboard, as it showed that the “real” Bowie (there’s always a “real” Bowie who’s gone missing) was back, not the scowling man who had been hiding out in some rock band. Along with Bowie’s sudden return to celebrity A-list status with his wedding, “Cool World” was a sign that Bowie intended to be a commercial force again, although the single charted modestly.

And “Cool World” did sound as though Bowie had gone to sleep around 1985 and had woken up seven years later at the Power Station, lying on a stack of R&B and house promo CDs. There was a crispness and a buoyancy to the track, a vibrancy that Bowie’s music had lacked for ages: if he was playing Rip Van Winkle, he was a sprightly one at least. Rodgers’ intro alone, with its mesh of percussive synthesizers (a hi-hat pattern in the left channel that’s soon drowned out by snares), two syncopated sequencer lines and a third synthesizer keeping on a high root note, and a staggered introduction of bass and Bowie’s saxophone, was the sharpest production that Bowie’d had in a decade. There were instrumental callbacks in the mix—a truncated version of the stepwise descending “Laughing Gnome” line on synthesizer, and another synth fill suggestive of “Speed of Life” (the former appearing towards the close of each verse, the latter midway through).

The track’s B minor verses are hooked to a lower-register Bowie vocal (doubled and tripled in some phrases, with what sounds like a synth bass effect applied to the lowest harmony) that’s a series of progressively sinking phrases, with Bowie plummeting to a low B on the last “world” of the verse, while the chorus, even with a cheery “do-Do-do-do-do” refrain, remains muted in sentiment. Only in the bridge/refrains, which shift to a bright C major, does Bowie seem to rouse himself, but even then he hardly ventures above a middle C. It suits the tentativeness of the lyric, in which the singer finds himself in love but can’t bring himself to fully accept it, trying to verify that what he’s feeling is real. “Color me doubtful,” he murmurs towards the end, still listening for footsteps: it’s a sentiment that could apply to the album that he was about to make.

Recorded ca. spring-June 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released in August 1992 as Warner W0127 (#53, UK) and on Songs From the Cool World OST (the latter is an impressively hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era, including the Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz”, and some early Moby tracks.)

The BTWN tracks have a bewildering set of remixes and edits. So for “Cool World” there is: a) the single edit (4:14), used for the video; b) the album cut, used for the closing credits of Cool World and found on the OST—this version later appeared on the 2-CD reissue of BTWN; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the CD single; d) an instrumental version used for the B-side of a few 7″ singles.

* Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. It’s a colorful place. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only later to change his mind, becoming an Episcopalian, and then suing his wife (who’d become a nun in the meantime) for “restitution of conjugal rights.” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in World So Wide as a hour when assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress.”

Sources: first anecdote is from Trynka’s Starman. The Sales quote is from Spitz’s biography, the Gabrels from Trynka’s.

Top: Shimon and Lindemann, “Hutch With His Bowling Ball,” Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1992; Bowie and Lennox at Wembley, April 1992.


Go Now

September 10, 2012

Go Now (Bessie Banks, 1964).
Go Now (The Moody Blues, 1965).
Go Now (Wings, 1976).
Go Now (Tin Machine, live, 1992).

At one point Bowie said Tin Machine would also be a three-album project. Does that mean there’s only one more record to go?

“He said that this was a three-album thing,” Tony Sales says. “It will take three albums, possibly, for people to start to understand where we’re coming from.”

Said Bowie last year: “I think our intention is to stay together as long as all of us have the same enthusiasm that we have now. I think once it starts to feel like a job, I think that’s the last thing we want to feel.

Roger Catlin, “Everything’s Hunky Dory With Bowie’s Tin Machine,” Hartford Courant, 24 November 1991.

After months of sporadic rehearsals, warm-up gigs and occasionally baffling television appearances, Tin Machine began what would be its last tour in October 1991. It was a gradual trek westward, starting in Europe (Bowie took time off to propose to Iman in Paris), then going on to Britain in early November. At the last UK show, at the Brixton Academy, Bowie was struck in the eye by a pack of cigarettes that someone had hurled on stage, a preview of the even ghastlier eye injury he’d receive a decade later.

The Machine was in America by mid-November. As with the European shows, the band generally played clubs, including two of Connecticut’s finest: Toad’s Place and the Sting.* It was both a reaction to the arenas of the Sound + Vision tour and a blunt acceptance that Tin Machine generally couldn’t fill a 10,000-person hall. “There’s a fair amount of improvisation in terms of how we approach some songs. And that wouldn’t hold well in a large place—particularly at this stage,” Bowie said at the time. “First of all, the people don’t know the material at all. I don’t know how many people would be interested in coming to see a Tin Machine show in an arena. I’d imagine a lot might come along hoping I’d be doing old songs or something. We don’t want that feeling at all.”

On 20 December 1991, the band was in Seattle, playing the Paramount Theatre, for its final US gig. By then, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had conquered MTV (and would peak at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following month), Seattle was the center of a gold rush of record labels and promoters, and the Machine was irrelevant, yesterday’s insurrectionists, playing to a less-than-full house.

By then there were other tensions and fractures. The tour was getting middling to scathing reviews (Greg Kot, on the Chicago show: “there was nothing noble about a group of graying rock ‘n’ rollers collectively working through a midlife crisis on stage and then having people pay to watch it.”) And Bowie, who still didn’t have a solo record contract, was essentially funding the tour himself. “A small room packed with people is a cool thing, but it’s not economical,” he recalled to Kot in 2002. “I was paying for that band to work, and I was gradually going through all my bread, and it became time to stop. I had to build my audience back up again.

And allegedly Hunt Sales was at low ebb, regularly using drugs (see “Sorry”), which soured the group’s camaraderie and made Bowie in particular agitated. “That really destroyed the band, more than anything else,” he later recalled. It got to a situation where it was just intolerable. You didn’t know if the guy was going to be dead in the morning…We just couldn’t cope.”**

The Machine played a final leg, a short trip to Japan in January and early February 1992. The last song that they played at the Budokan, on 17 February 1992, was the first song that they’d recorded, “Heaven’s in Here,” which Bowie now infused with bits of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and Perry Como’s “Dream On, Little Dreamer.” There had been vague talk about cutting a third Tin Machine album, about going on another tour in a year or so, but Tokyo was the end, and they knew it.

So there’s a poignancy in Tony Sales’ version of “Go Now,” which he played throughout the tour. Tony Sales tends to be forgotten amidst the discussions of Hunt’s antics, Gabrels’ guitar playing and the various doings of their charismatic lead singer, but he was a fine bassist and R&B singer for whom Tin Machine was the payoff of a professional life of near-misses. It’s easy to imagine that he took the band’s demise the hardest.

“Go Now” was a hit for the Moody Blues in 1965, though it was also notable, in retrospect, for being another sign that American R&B was being supplanted by British copies (while it had been a minor R&B hit for Bessie Banks the year before, the Moodys’ version all but erased the original from common memory). A waltz built on a set of descending piano thirds, “Go Now” was built so sturdily that it could withstand a good deal of emoting, though it worked best when sung simply and moodily, as by Banks or Denny Laine. So it’s a shame the Machine yet again couldn’t resist overkill, as their performances of “Go Now” were often garish overextended affairs, the song flogged to the point of being unrecognizable. The song’s title proved too apt a target, with people in the audience occasionally yelling “yeah, go now!” back at Sales. It was a fittingly heartfelt, frustrating and chaotic close to Tin Machine, and here we’ll let the band lie in peace.

“Go Now” was performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour.

An endnote on Oy Vey, Baby: This live album, issued in July 1992, is arguably the most unloved release in the entire Bowie catalog, having failed to chart in the US or the UK upon release. It’s currently out of print. Composed of tracks taken from the Chicago, Boston, New York, Tokyo and Sapporo gigs, it’s actually a decent live document of a band that, even as they were slowly disintegrating, was still putting on tight shows. “Amazing,” from Chicago, is better than the studio version; the Tokyo “Goodbye Mr. Ed” has Bowie in fine voice and Gabrels on form. The asinine title, a Hunt Sales jibe at the latest U2 album, didn’t help the record, nor did the inclusion of a 12-minute “Heaven’s in Here” and an eight-minute “Stateside.” The mix was mainly the work of Reeves Gabrels, who described it as “deconstructionist R&B,” and who later said it was his favorite Tin Machine album. The video release (also out of print) is a wholly different beast, being entirely taken from the 24 October 1991 show in Hamburg.

* As I was a teenager in Connecticut in the late Eighties, I’d regularly gone to these clubs. As fate would have it, I was living in Boston by the time the Machine came to them.

** This quote, the most open that Bowie ever got about the Sales situation, is found in both Nicholas Pegg’s book as well as Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy. In both cases, the interview it’s taken from is not cited and I could find no original print source for it. I’m assuming it’s from a TV/radio interview, most likely the BBC’s “Golden Years” radio doc from 2000.

Photos: video stills from one of the last Tin Machine shows, Tokyo, 5-6 February 1992.


Debaser

September 6, 2012

Debaser (the Pixies).
Debaser (Tin Machine, live, 1991).

That’s the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song,” Joey Santiago once said of “Debaser.” “All the sound qualities are there. That’s what it represents.”

Bowie had loved and name-dropped the Pixies ever since he’d first heard Surfer Rosa in 1988. (It’s never been clear whether Reeves Gabrels had turned Bowie onto them or if Bowie had found them on his own.) He was taken by the band’s dynamics, Santiago’s guitar playing, Black Francis’ lyrics, their mingle of trash TV and surrealism, and Francis’ stage presence itself (“his mass of screaming flesh”).

And his favorite Pixies song was “Debaser,” the lead-off track of Doolittle. Bowie saw it as a quintessentially American song, dealing with religion and debasement and, most of all, ambition, with a crackpot joy running through it. It’s a disciple’s song, a boy somehow stumbling across Un Chien Andalou* on television and getting worked up, entranced by the idea of being a professional irritant, a worm in society (the original lyric was “Ma, I wanna be..“) As Francis screams “De-BASE-ER,” Kim Deal quietly repeats the word after him, as though she’s trying to coach a demented child, while Santiago’s riff cycles around him.

So Tin Machine covering “Debaser,” which they played in nearly every show of their 1991-92 tour, was both tribute and evangelism (Bowie considered the Pixies shamefully underexposed in America). Bowie gave it to Tony Sales, but as the tour went on, he turned it into a duet, Bowie becoming a hype man for the song, jabbing and weaving into Tony, his phrasings ranging from the manic to the robotic (in a Tokyo performance, Bowie blankly intoned the “ha ha ha ho” lines). While Tony didn’t come anywhere close to Francis’ yawp (and his “Andalucia,” which Francis had sung in exaggerated Castilian, sounds like “Andalooser”), he was game enough and seemed to get caught up in the song each night that he sang it. The band, especially Hunt Sales’ bludgeoning 4/4, discarded the clockwork precision of the Pixies’ original–how the song quickly crests from Deal’s bassline to Santiago’s riff to David Lovering’s fills—in favor of just thrashing away at the song as though they meant to beat it into submission.

Performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour, with the above recording from one of their last US concerts, the Warfield in San Francisco, 17 December 1991.

* Or Purple Rain. The original chorus lyric was “shed, Apollonia!,” a reference to Apollonia’s nude scene in that film.

Top: Kevin Westenberg, “The Pixies,” outtake from the Bossanova photo shoot, 1990; included in the Trompe Le Monde tour program, 1991 (scan via this site).


You and I and George (The “Jean Genie” Variations)

August 22, 2012

You and I and George (Red Kelly, with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, 1959).
You and I and George (Rowlf, 1977).
You and I and George (Bowie, live, 1990).
You and I and George (Bowie, live, 1996).

The “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990: an 108-show, seven-month venture that opened in Quebec City in early March, shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic for months (and across the Pacific to Japan for a week) and closed on a late September night in Buenos Aires. As it’s the only occasion that I’ve seen Bowie play live (see “Changes”), the tour is tainted with nostalgia for me, a nostalgia leavened by the fact that I can barely recall the show now.

It was the first time since 1968 that Bowie had toured without promoting a new album. Instead he meant to sell the past, to promote his Ryko boxed set and CD reissues, with the hook being Bowie’s public announcements that this was it: the last time he would play the hits. (It wasn’t, for the most part.)

Bowie had kicked around the idea of a greatest-hits revue for years, and had provisionally committed to such a tour even before making the first Tin Machine album in late 1988. Once he’d signed with Rykodisc in spring 1989, Bowie began planning in earnest and soon locked in Adrian Belew as his lead guitarist and arranger. The two spent months determining how to arrange the songs essentially on a budget. Bowie envisioned the tour as a minimalist response to the bloat of Glass Spider: no horn sections, no backing singers, no dancers,* only a small band. So instead Bowie and Belew “put the orchestrations into a sequencer,” Belew recalled to David Buckley. “We kept adding more and more sampling, and we kept buying more and more samplers!”

It was audacious in a way: Bowie, if he wanted, could sample a trademark hook of some past hit on stage, whether David Sanborn’s saxophone on “Young Americans” or Mary Hopkin’s vocal line on “Sound and Vision.” The tour would be a traveling museum exhibit, complete with period sound samples. He and Belew would come out on stage and unveil the old treasures, one by one, set to elaborate light shows and film clips, the latter projected upon a diaphanous screen that hung behind them.

Audiences ate it up (the opening “Space Oddity,” Bowie emerging on stage alone with an acoustic guitar, was a phenomenal moment, I can attest—you could feel the auditorium shake), but there was something of a funereal air to the shows as well. It was as if Bowie was performing a rolling public eulogy for his past, with concertgoers as happy mourners. “Sound + Vision,” the genial obverse of the Tin Machine project, had the same intention: it was a firebreak between Bowie and his past selves, his past music, so that Bowie could enter the Nineties unencumbered.

The setlist was allegedly democratic, with songs chosen by fan votes, a herald of the Pitchfork People’s List.** Bowie said he assembled the 30-song setlist from roughly equal proportions of vote-winners from the UK,*** the US and Europe (the Americans had pushed for the recent hits, the Europeans loved “Heroes,” which Bowie introduced as “a song for Europe!” onstage at Linz—he sang the chorus in German, too).

It’s evidence that democracy is at heart bland. There was nothing from the Sixties besides “Space Oddity.” Nothing from Man Who Sold the World. Only the singles from Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. Nothing from the “Berlin” trilogy except “Heroes,” “Be My Wife” and “Sound and Vision” (& the latter likely wouldn’t have made the cut but for being the tour’s theme song). Only the Top 10 hits from the Eighties, with Bowie pretending, as perhaps some of his audience did, that he’d made no music after Tonight, except for the newly-released “Pretty Pink Rose,” which was a sop to Belew.

Bowie seemed ambivalent to singing some of the hits again. He told Paul du Noyer that he had no problem revisiting some of them, like the Station to Station material, but songs like “Rebel Rebel” (“written for a particular generation“) had no relevance to him anymore and he felt odd singing them. “I find I’m throwing them away a bit. I hope it doesn’t show.” He cut “John, I’m Only Dancing,” another faded generational manifesto, from setlists by the end of the first run of British shows.

The band was Bowie on rhythm guitar and occasional saxophone, Belew on lead guitar, the ever-ready Erdal Kizilcay on bass, and, from Belew’s group, Rick Fox on synthesizers/keyboards and Michael Hodges on drums. There was a clear hierarchy—Belew and Bowie were the stars, the rest of the band was backup (literally, as the band played behind the projection screen for much of the show)—and it grated. The backstage mood could be sour at times (“[Bowie] wasn’t very happy on that tour. Something wasn’t working. It was a weird atmosphere,” Kizilcay told Marc Spitz). Fox eventually checked out. His main job was to monitor the samplers and sequencers and ensure they were in sync with the performances, so he took to eating his dinner while at the keyboard, and was once found (according to Belew) listening to the Beatles on headphones during a concert.

Kizilcay said he found the inclusion of a Labatt’s ad midway through the Canadian sets (Labatt’s was a tour sponsor) to be crass and that it spoiled the crowd’s mood. Once Bowie blew up when Kizilcay mistook a Bowie hand gesture and rushed forward on stage to start dancing, which allegedly threw Bowie off enough to make him miss a vocal cue (the best recollection of the argument has Bowie screaming backstage and hurling his puffy shirt at Kizilcay: “take it, Erdal! take it and sing in my place!”). The tour was draining, with Bowie losing his voice at times (a fan who attended the Modena show in September recalled Bowie balking at playing “Station to Station,” killing the song after a few bars, then starting “Fame” in rough voice, throwing away his guitar and groaning “fucking nightmare!” into the mike).

Even the genial Belew could be frustrated with the sound and the performances. With so much of the music programmed (“Young Americans” was built on lots of samples and backing tapes, from the saxophone to the vocals), there was little room for improvisation. “Stay,” the funk centerpiece of the 1976 and 1978 tours, sounded anemic compared to its predecessors.

Still, the “Sound + Vision” shows were generally strong, the performances tight, and the tour remains the last time that Bowie fully gave the people what they wanted. The concerts served as a collective goodbye—a singer divesting himself of his past, casting it out to a crowd each night. The crowd watched enormous video projections of the singer, while at times ignoring the man standing underneath his giant reflection. It was an extended disappearing act.

“Sound + Vision” was tightly choreographed—one critic recalled noting a roadie standing offstage whose apparent job it was to light a cigarette for Bowie at a precise moment. Only in a few places per show, most often “Jean Genie,” did Bowie apparently indulge his whims. Often playing “Genie” as an encore, Bowie and Belew would extend the song out over ten minutes and throw in covers during the middle of it. Bowie had done that with “Jean Genie” years before, stuffing it with “Love Me Do” during his last performance as Ziggy Stardust. Now he threw in a variety of old favorites—pieces of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna-Fall,” Them’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Gloria” (the latter performed with Bono one night), “Maria” from West Side Story, “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Baby What Do You Want Me to Do,” “I Am a Rock,” Parliament’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” (tragically unbootlegged), Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

And on 21 May 1990, playing at the Tacoma Dome near Seattle, Bowie offered Red Kelly‘s “You and I and George.” Likely only a handful of people in the crowd knew that Bowie was paying homage to a local hero. Kelly was a Seattle shipyard welder who taught himself to play bass during World War II, assuming correctly that there was a shortage of bassists (though there’s always a shortage of bassists). He played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker at Birdland (he recalled Parker hugged him one night “so it must have been okay”). Kelly had retired to Tacoma: only the year before Bowie’s performance, Kelly had run for mayor on a platform of bringing back cable cars to Tacoma and starting up riverboat gambling. He got 10% of the vote.

Kelly wrote “You and I and George” in the late Fifties, when he was playing with the Kenton Orchestra, and the song was immortalized on the 1959 concert LP Kenton at the Tropicana. There Kelly, shuffling up to the mike and speaking in a doleful voice, offered what would become the song’s founding joke: that it was written by someone else, who preferred to remain anonymous as the song was so lousy. (The joke was too good—”George” has been described as a “traditional” song in several Bowie resources.) The distinguished bluesman Rowlf, playing “George” on The Muppet Show in 1977, said that the song only sold two copies: “I bought one and George bought one. Where were you?” In Kelly’s words, “George” was the product of a hungover songwriter who’d finally realized that people didn’t care about lyrics. It was just one sad verse: a trio walks along a brook, George falls in and drowns himself, the girl/guy winds up with the singer, who’s obviously his/her second-best choice.

Bowie honored the tradition: “You boo it when you’re fed up with it!” he told the crowd (see again Rowlf: “my own mother turns down her hearing aid when she hears this song!“). But in its few public incarnations, “George” had a small mordant beauty; it’s a sap’s love song. And Bowie’s vocal that night in Tacoma, somber and even mournful, seems in part a burlesque of his performance of “The Drowned Girl.” He sang “George” once more at the Bridge Benefit Concert in 1996.

The tour ended tensely, with some police aggression affecting the final South American shows (Bowie was playing Chile when Pinochet had only just relinquished power and was still commander in chief, while Argentina had had a spell of government-toppling riots in 1989). Bowie and Belew parted ways, Bowie promising to give Belew a call soon for further work (Belew told Paul Trynka in the late 2000s that he was still waiting for the call!). A few days after the last show in Argentina, Bowie went on a “blind” date with Iman Abdulmajid, who he’d met a few times backstage during the tour. He would marry her within two years; his next solo record would be a shrine to her. But first there was the Machine to put to rest…

Bowie’s “George” was recorded 21 May 1990, Tacoma, Washington (unreleased).

* Bowie had intended to use the dance troupe La La Human Steps but as the scheduling didn’t work out, he instead used video clips of lead dancer Louise Le Cavalier.

** Only about 20 of my picks (the obvious indie ones) made the People’s 200.

*** Cue the very, very shopworn anecdote about the NME trying to rig the poll by pushing for “The Laughing Gnome.”

Top to bottom: various photos and souvenirs from the 1990 tour, with the top photo coming from the show that I attended, Hartford, 23 July 1990 (it’s by Bonnie Powell). Most are from the essential Teenage Wildlife.


Gunman

August 20, 2012

Gunman.

As Adrian Belew had salvaged “Pretty Pink Rose,” Bowie repaid him by writing a lyric and vocal melody for an instrumental track that Belew was ready to abandon. Rehearsing the Sound & Vision tour in New York, Bowie and Belew went to Right Track Recording one night in January 1990 to cut the vocals for “Pink Rose.” The work quickly dispatched, Bowie listened to a few backing tracks Belew was considering for Young Lions but which he said he didn’t know what to do with. One, an uptempo piece with a guitar hook and a driving tom-centered beat, intrigued Bowie, and he asked for it to be replayed a few times. Then Bowie sat down with a beer and a notepad. He wrote a lyric in under a half-hour and, with his typical economy, cut his vocal in a couple of takes.

The backing track, performed entirely by Belew, was built on a drum track with an up-tuned tom, on which Belew played steady eighth notes, and then added delay (at the end of the track, you can hear the delay taper off, Belew said). The bass is the same growling sample that Belew had used on “Pink Rose,” while for his rhythm guitars he used the Roland GR-50, a guitar synthesizer that, in Belew’s words, “had the wonderful capability of playing a different sound on each string. So I added a harmony note to each string but a different note from string to string. In this way I could make up very unusual chords and patterns for the rhythm guitars. For the soloing guitars…who knows?”

Bowie gave the track, “Gunman,” one of his most bizarre recorded vocal performances in over a decade. “I’m not sure what to do,” Bowie said in the booth before cutting his vocal. “If I should be American or English on this.” Belew, in the control room, replied: “I like your English—it’s one of your better speaking voices.” Bowie theatrically moaned “oh Gawd!” and ran through the first verse in an exaggerated RP: “gunman…my sort of stah…we’re bleeding for you.

On the final take, Bowie’s “English” voice doesn’t appear until his last verse: a sing-spoken set of lines that become what sounds like a vicious lampoon of Robert Smith’s singing voice (“your women are DOGS but they’re braver than youuuuu“). Bowie opened the song in a guttural, hoarse voice, sounding deliberately off-key at times, and first sang the title as though being strangled. Taking his vocal hook from Belew’s two-chord guitar phrases (“gun-man”), Bowie generally sang six- or eight-line verses over this hook while singing four-line “refrains” over the contrasting eight-bar sections with arpeggiated guitars. The pattern broke down by the last verse, which bleeds into the “refrain” section.

The lyric, on paper, had the subtlety of Bowie’s thudding protest songs on Tin Machine. But here it worked, Bowie giving his clunky lines piss and blood by the sheer abrasiveness of his performance. His verses are just repeated, stabbing, three-beat, two-note phrases that strain upward at their close. His voice, sounding toxic, builds to a double-tracked shrieked refrain, at first followed by Belew’s solo, then repeated beneath Bowie’s closing, straight-faced ad-libs in his “English speaking voice”: “you’re more solid than a rock…a rock of coh-cayne or crack…Or ayyce..or death…like a rock o’ death! Like a grayve stone!”

A wonderfully odd track that was tucked away as the closer of Belew’s Young Lions, “Gunman” served, in retrospect, to preview Bowie’s crackpot ambitions in the mid-Nineties.

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wis., on 3 November 1989, with Bowie’s vocal cut at Right Track Recording, NYC, on 15 January 1990. Sadly never performed live.

Top: Didier Ruef, “Poland, Silesia, Kameniec,” 1991. “Sanatorium for children aged 7 to 15. A group of girls are inhaling water vapor with eucalyptus oil. Major polluted area due to heavy metals suspended in the air. Kameniec is a small town, distance 35 km from Katowice.”


Pretty Pink Rose

August 15, 2012

Pretty Pink Rose (instrumental mix).
Pretty Pink Rose.
Pretty Pink Rose (live, 1990.)

If Bowie’s work on Tin Machine II seems maddeningly uneven, with the likes of “Shopping for Girls” matched with dreck like “You Can’t Talk,” it was in part because making the record was a sideshow for him. At the same time, in the fall of 1989, Bowie was consumed with readying his past for show, planning an elaborate re-issue of his back catalog and a world tour that would serve as its epilogue.

In 1988, compact discs had outsold LPs for the first time1 and by late 1989 vinyl was all but kaput. But the first wave of catalog CDs, churned out simply to get albums into stores, were slipshod, tinny-sounding, with artwork which rivaled that of cassettes (cropped, blurred photos; often no lyric sheets). The first Beatles CDs, which at least standardized US-UK album sequences,2 were primitive if passable, but the majority of Sixties bands’ catalog CDs were dreadful: vastly inferior, sonically, to the LPs they were supplanting. These discs only sounded “good” because for many people the contrasting item was an old, scratched, finger-smudged LP.

Bowie’s catalog was scarcely available on CD. RCA had put out an initial run of discs that by 1987 had all but vanished, as the rights to the albums had reverted back to Bowie. Rather than dump another batch of cut-rate CDs into the market, Bowie envisioned a series of high-end reissues, for which he could charge a premium, rather than the reduced prices that catalog issues usually merited. Essentially, the plan was to market a record that many people already owned (say, Ziggy Stardust) as a new release. It was rock & roll entering its archival, collector’s edition phase, a gambit aided by a booming economy, a new shiny recording medium and a clever strategy like Bowie’s, which baited fans with the promise of, at long last, new old songs.

Bowie was inspired by Frank Zappa, who had used Rykodisc, an independent CD label based in Salem, Massachusetts, to issue his back catalog. Zappa had loaded the CDs with extras, and sometimes re-recorded old tracks (a path Bowie blessedly never followed). Bowie signed an agreement with Rykodisc in March 1989,3 allowing Ryko to selectively raid his vaults for potential extras (with Bowie retaining veto power). These outtakes, demos and live cuts, provisionally around 50 tracks, would be added to various reissues and as well as to a career-spanning boxed set that Ryko issued in September 1989 to kick off the series.

[A brief aside on Sound + Vision. I have a soft spot for it, as I received it for an Xmas present in '89 and it served as a great entry into Bowieland. But it's a frustrating compilation, mainly intended to hook you into buying the other reissues, so it often uses a live or demo version of a classic song. Using the Stage version of "Station to Station" was inspired, but substituting "Helden" for "Heroes" was a bridge too far.]

The Sound + Vision plan was tripartite: unveil the boxed set; stagger-release the CDs (the last batch wouldn’t come out until 1992—above is the aluminum “Tech Unit” that Ryko issued as the official holding case for one’s complete Bowie reissues); go on a six-month tour that would be billed as the last time Bowie ever played the hits. For the latter, Bowie needed a lead guitarist who had stage presence, who was familiar with his back catalog and with whom he had a good camaraderie. At first, Bowie assumed he would use Reeves Gabrels.

Gabrels balked, in part because he thought doing the tour would’ve meant bad blood with the Sales brothers, who were definitely not invited. But Gabrels also instinctively knew that he was the wrong choice for the gig, as the audience for this tour wouldn’t tolerate any of his deconstructionist assaults on classic Bowie hits. So instead he recommended one of his inspirations: Adrian Belew.

Belew had last worked with Bowie on Lodger. He had spun through the Eighties: as a counterpart and possible replacement for David Byrne in the Talking Heads (during a low period for band morale, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz asked Belew to consider taking over as lead singer/guitarist); playing “David Byrne” in a revived King Crimson; forming an indie band (the Bears); closing the decade with a solo record, Mr. Music Head, whose goofy father-daughter duet, “Oh Daddy,” was a modest hit.

Belew was sitting by a swimming pool with the band America (now there’s a story untold) when he got Bowie’s call. He was intrigued by the idea, and he and Bowie began mapping out plans for the tour, which songs to include, how to arrange them with a stripped-down band. But Belew also had a solo contract with Atlantic, and in late 1989 he was making Young Lions, the follow-up to Mr. Music Head. So becoming Bowie’s lead guitarist for much of 1990 would mean putting the promotion of his own album on hold. As a lure, Bowie offered to sing on and provide new songs for Belew’s album, which could be performed during his “greatest hits” concerts.

So Belew sent Bowie a few tracks he was working on. Bowie sent back a tape with a song that he had recorded as a studio demo in 1988, “Pretty Pink Rose.” This hailed from a session in Los Angeles produced by Bruce Fairbairn, and cut with Bryan Adams’ backing band (see “Heaven’s In Here”).4 Years later, Belew was unsparing as to what he thought of the demo:

David’s office sent a cassette. Excitedly I opened it and played it. “Oh gawd,” it was awful! Imagine how I felt. Here I was on the verge of touring for a year with David Bowie and thinking we might produce a duet of perhaps a “hit” song of David’s, only to be confronted with something which sounded lifeless, limp, and plodding. I didn’t know quite what to do.

So working alone at a studio in Wisconsin, Belew tried to salvage the song. First he jump-started the plodding rhythm track. Recalling an old Beatles trick in which Paul McCartney played what sounded like straight 4/4 while Ringo Starr played a shuffle (or vice versa), and so creating a “pulling” rhythmic sensation that felt like half-time, Belew used a sampled “growling” bass and played variations against it on a 1955 Ludwig drum set.

Then he tweaked with the song’s structure. He made a tongue-in-cheek grandiose intro out of a play on the chorus melody, a brooding quasi-classical synthesizer musing that’s suddenly upended by a wailing guitar. He replaced a keyboard ostinato that had run under the chorus vocal on Bowie’s demo with a double-tracked guitar line. For the verses, Belew found that the way Bowie’s vocal melody “sat” allowed for him to write a series of responses on guitar: this created an volleying dialogue between guitar and singer, an effect further heightened in the final mix when Bowie and Belew traded off vocals.

As for the guitar tracks, Belew said: I was using Stratocasters equipped with Kahler tremolos at the time. I discovered you could adjust the tip of the Kahler tremolo arm downward facing the strings and then play the strings using the tip itself. Like “tapping,” only using the tip of the tremolo arm instead of your right hand fingers. It was the perfect bit of “flash” I was looking for. And it just happened! I had never seen it done before (or since).”

The finished track shifted between 16-bar uptempo verses driven by propulsive rhythm guitar and moody choruses that sounded more like bridges and were well suited for a classic Bowie croon. It was punchy, full of hooks, a ready-made piece of guitar pop. Bowie, stunned that Belew had made a possible hit single out of a song that hadn’t been good enough for Tin Machine, wrote an inspired lyric in response.

Bowie and Belew cut their vocals in a raucous session in NYC in January 1990, just before Bowie unveiled the Sound + Vision tour. The original vocal intro, Bowie intoning “she had tits like melons…it was love in the rain,” was sadly discarded, but an uncorked joy remained in the final lyric, a gonzo kiss-off to the waning Cold War. She’s just been to Russia and they’re dying their faces, the song begins: capitalism gaudily triumphant at last, the funfair finally heading East, streaking across the broken borders. They’re dying over there, is the subsequent pun, which Bowie sings with a smirk. The video took the idea further: Bowie and Belew, two louche representatives of the West, cringe before and court Julie T. Wallace, cast as a dominatrix in traditional Russian garb.

And where Never Let Me Down and the Tin Machine records had their wearying share of heartbreaking, ball-breaking women, here Bowie made his obsession into a force of nature (Belew’s whinnying, goading guitar solos also seem like a parody of Gabrels at his most excessive; it’s a master mocking a pupil). She’s the poor man’s gold, she’s the anarchist crucible!, Bowie hollers. She upturns civilizations wherever she spins, tearing up Paris looking for Tom Paine, who’s slipped loose from the jails, heading for the Finland Station. For a moment around 1990, it seemed like the world could be reset, and the optimism of the time echoes in “Rose.” But in its second verse, Bowie growled out a premonition of what the next two decades really would hold: the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane.

“Pretty Pink Rose” is a brief taste of glam élan during Bowie’s bilious mid-life crisis. It’s also frustrating. Belew’s surgical repairs to the song showed that, in the hands of a musician with something at stake, Bowie’s sub-standard material could be restored to life. It makes one wonder how much of the banal music that Bowie released in the late Eighties had finer, if unborn incarnations. “Pretty Pink Rose” easily could have been a throwaway. Instead it was Bowie’s best single since “Absolute Beginners.”

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, on 11 November 1989, with vocals cut at Right Track Recording in NYC on 15 January 1990 (info via Belew’s website, from which I also took the history of “Rose”‘s restoration). You can purchase the instrumental version directly from Belew here. Released in May 1990 as Atlantic A7904, c/w “Heartbeat” (only #89 UK, though it hit #2 on US “Modern Rock” charts). There’s an alternate mix released on the promo CD single: it’s about thirty seconds shorter, has less lead guitar and even has a different second verse (I’ve not heard it). The video, filmed in a day at an abandoned German railway station, was never officially released.

1: The market leader until 1993 was the cassette, mainly because it was cheaper and cars didn’t have CD players yet. The transition happened earlier in the UK: by 1990, CDs had a greater market share than cassettes.

2: It’s nice that for everyone under, say, 35, Revolver has always had “I’m Only Sleeping” on it, Rubber Soul has always had “If I Needed Someone,” and Help! is where you find “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Yesterday.”

3: This was only for the US. Bowie finally struck a UK licensing agreement with EMI in 1990.

4: It’s possible that the outtake “I Pray Ole” was either an early or alternate version of what became “Pretty Pink Rose.” The closing “take me to the heart, to the heart, to the heart” chorus melody fits over some of “Ole.”

PS BUT HEY WAIT THERE ARE MORE TIN MACHINE SONGS. Yes, yes! As the last two TMII songs were recorded in 1991, we’ll get to them after these few Belew/Sound + Vision posts.

Top: “Reconstructing Light,” Bowie and Belew at the Point Depot, Dublin, 9 August 1990.


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