Uncle Floyd→Slip Away

March 27, 2014

Unca-Floyd

Uncle Floyd.
Slip Away.
Slip Away (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Slip Away (Live By Request, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2003).
Slip Away (live, with the Polyphonic Spree, 2004).

Deep in the Heart of Jersey!

Hanging out with Lester Bangs & all
Phil Spector really has it all & all
Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV…

The Ramones, “It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World),” 1981.

The Catholic Church no longer believes in limbo, but they’re wrong: it exists, and it’s in New Jersey.

Floyd Vivino was a showbiz kid (“show people are show people, and that’s where I’m from,” he told the New York Times). Two of his brothers are in Conan O’Brien’s house band, his niece was in the original Les Miserables. Vivino tap-danced at the 1964 World’s Fair, worked as a sideshow barker, honed his comedy act at burlesque shows and amusement parks. He sang, played piano, did impressions. Like other vaudevillians, he found refuge in television.

When he was 23, he launched a kid’s show that, by the end of 1974, was on WBTB in West Orange, Channel 68 (a channel New York City aerials could pick up). An upstart UHF station like WBTB had to devote a percentage of airtime to children’s programming, so they took on The Uncle Floyd Show to fill the requirement (also, Vivino agreed to sell ads for it).

Compared to the child-psychologist-approved Sesame Street, The Uncle Floyd Show was weird, unsettling, a shaky transmission from some backwater. Uncle Floyd (all kids’ TV hosts were Uncles or Misters, Vivino figured, so why not be an Uncle) wore a loud plaid coat, bow-tie and porkpie hat; he played an upright piano and cracked off-camera to his crew and sidekicks, who laughed at odd, inappropriate moments (in part because the show didn’t rehearse, so crew members were seeing skits for the first time).

The show’s production values consisted of lighting and microphones. Vivino often used food as a prop because he could buy it cheap at the local Pathmark. His puppets included Oogie, a wooden ventriloquist’s clown that Vivino had found in a Times Square magic store, and Bones Boy, an ill-tempered skeleton whose catchphrase was “snap it, pal!” His co-stars included Looney Skip Rooney, gangster Don Goomba, the musical parodist Mugsy and Netto (a genie’s head in a box). There were celebrity parodies, from Floyd’s Julia Stepchild (who cooked corn dogs) to, in a nod to Jersey royalty, Mugsy’s Bruce Stringbean.

uf

Most of our characters fell into two categories, con men and idiots. And on the Uncle Floyd Show the con men were often outsmarted BY those same idiots. Floyd has often correctly explained the theme of the show as a frustrated host constantly being interrupted by an endless parade of pests.

Mugsy, 1999.

Much of Uncle Floyd‘s allure for early fans like Robin Williams and John Lennon was its shabbiness. It was children’s television done sincerely, with the right materials (puppets, singalongs)—Vivino wasn’t running some acidic spoof; he wanted to entertain kids while cracking up their parents—yet seeming to get it wrong. Although Vivino would bring on New Yorkers like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper as guests, he was more devoted to the eccentrics and irritants that he seemed to have found on the roadside somewhere. Uncle Floyd was the only place in America that these people were allowed on television.*

Here’s an example: R. Stevie Moore playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly tells Floyd his guitar’s wrapped in newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king. This was television fulfilled: the rules of civilized society didn’t apply here. Television was a world made from collisions of random elements, held together by a man in a plaid coat.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a cleaned-up and vaccinated version of Uncle Floyd; The Howard Stern Show is its coarse descendent.

floyd82

I’m a man removed from this time zone. I would have liked the 1910s to the 1930s but now the only thing I like is “60 Minutes.”

Floyd Vivino, 1982.

John Lennon, who spent his last years in New York watching television, recommended Uncle Floyd to Bowie, who got hooked during his run on The Elephant Man in 1980. Iggy Pop became a fan, too. “We used to love falling around watching this guy,” Bowie said in 2002. “The show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.” (Close enough—it was filmed in an old house built on the site of a burned-down circus). Bowie, wearing an Uncle Floyd button, went to a live taping at the Bottom Line and told Vivino how much he loved his work. Vivino didn’t know who Bowie was at first and wanted him kicked out of backstage. (You can see why Bowie enjoyed the Sales brothers, whose background and attitude were the same as Vivino’s).

By 1982, Uncle Floyd was on enough radars that a syndication agreed to air it nationally in some 17 markets. NBC stations considered Uncle Floyd a good fit to follow Saturday Night Live (Vivino agreed: “It’s Saturday night, 1 AM. Half the audience is drunk and the other half is stoned.”). For Uncle Floyd, it was the big leagues (Vivino had only started getting paid, $125 a week, in 1978); the show even got an upgraded set. It had relocated to Newark, which meant the studio now had an air conditioner.

Syndication also meant Uncle Floyd was “cleaned up.” The syndicate brought in a former Sesame Street director, who was appalled by the lack of rehearsals and the anything-goes culture. Mugsy recalled having to shoot a single sketch 30 times. Then the finished shows were cut to bits by various stations, both to remove “weird” skits while also, in some cases, trying to make the show more salacious to appeal to the stoned post-1 AM college crowd.

It didn’t work. A few NBC affiliates soon revolted, one calling the show “garbage,” while Vivino got sued by Joe Franklin for defamation after doing a “Joe Frankfutter Show” skit. The syndication deal was over after a single season, despite good ratings in New York and Philadelphia and sold-out live shows.”Why then were we preparing to tape the final episode? Because that’s how the business works,” Mugsy wrote. “Besides we had gone from a small UHF station to national syndication in a profession that usually chews up and spits out people, programs and plots faster then the life expectancy of a bottle of beer at a ballpark.

BowieUF

So Uncle Floyd went back to Jersey, and Oogie and Bones Boy didn’t become the next Kermit and Fozzie. For the rest of the century, Uncle Floyd would air on local channels, first on the public New Jersey Network until Vivino started making barbed political jokes about his home state (in West Orange, he “lived on top of a radon field, and as a taxpayer I have a right to laugh about it in public,” he later said), prompting complaints to NJN about the show’s alleged bias and its “lowbrow” humor. Then came the sunset years: a stint at the Cable Television Network of New Jersey, who wound the show down in 1992, and a brief millennial revival on Cablevision.

Interviewed in 2002, Floyd was stoic about his fortunes—he’d made a decent career in supporting acting roles (he’s in Good Morning Vietnam) and he’d never compromised on a show that he’d managed to keep alive for a quarter of a century. And around 2000, he’d gotten a phone call from David Bowie. “He said he was thinking of doing a song about me, and wanted to know what I felt about it.”

Let’s Dance, Bones and Oogie

uff

He still looks remarkably fit at 54 (“I’m just a year older than President Gore: one of us has had work done,” he winks), hardly changed in appearance from his career-defining role as Caligula in “I Clavdivs.” And his schedule’s never been busier: he’s starring in Boy Child: The Songs of Scott Walker, which opens at the Majestic on April 1, as well as promoting a new album, Toy (Nonesuch). It’s going to be his last, or so he says.

“The record industry and I have always been on rather estranged terms,” Bowie says. “I’ve put out an album every half a decade and each time I’ve come to regret it. The stage is where I like to be, or making a film [he's rumored to be the baddie in the next James Bond film], or back at home painting. Standing in some recording studio, where it’s just you against a microphone, can feel like such a primitive art. I feel like I should be singing through a megaphone, like Rudy Vallee.” Still, the new album has personal resonance for him. “These were my first songs, back when I fancied myself a pop singer. No one heard them at the time, and with good reason! I wasn’t cut out for the ’60s.”

New York Herald Tribune, 22 March 2001.

Down in space it’s always 1982. Uncle Floyd‘s pivot year was also Bowie’s. In 1982 he recorded Let’s Dance. Like Uncle Floyd, Bowie was put on a larger stage than he’d ever played before; unlike Bones Boy and Oogie, he made the big time.

Bowie had been a proper pop star in the mid-Seventies, with gold records and Madison Square Garden shows to his credit, but he’d spent the rest of that decade trying to break himself down into a cult figure again. Let’s Dance and Glass Spider and Labyrinth and Sound + Vision put paid that conceit: Bowie had become globally syndicated. Years later, whenever he’d try to be a marginal figure once again, the clothes didn’t quite fit him.

So on Toy he dug out some of his oldest songs. These were the work of a man who never charted, whose shows had never sold out, whose name barely got into the music trades. The David Bowie of 1968, the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome” and “We Are Hungry Men,” was the Uncle Floyd of his day. The hipsters (John Peel, Penny Valentine, Pete Townshend) knew who he was but the radio wanted nothing to do with him. It was tides and cross-tides of history: what if these songs had been hits? Or what if Bowie in 1968 had given up music, had gone off into cabaret, and Toy was just an actor’s indulgence, a tribute to a lost, failed youth?

Toy‘s finest song used Uncle Floyd‘s lost chance at fame as a way to frame the album. Imagine a ghost world where Bones and Oogie star in films (promoting Uncle Floyd’s Big Adventure, Amy Adams gushes in an interview about how much she loved Bones Boy as a child. “I can’t believe we’re working together!”), a New York where Oogie is inflated to the size of a city block as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float.

“Once a time they nearly might have been,” Bowie sings, giving a delicate weight to the last three syllables, as though if he pressed any harder, the bubble would pop. “Bones and Oogie…on a million screens.”

What Would You Do, Uncle F?

l

It began its life with a semi-out-of-tune piano and some grainy synth strings which sounded like they were pulled off of an old 78 rpm record,” Mark Plati wrote in his web journal in 2000. “Both sounds gave the effect of someone playing in a basement of some small, sad, lonely house.”

In October 2000 at Looking Glass Studios, Bowie and Plati were working on a new song. It had come together from a few pieces, its sound owed to a few new contributors. The Irish-born guitarist Gerry Leonard came in for some overdub work and Bowie bonded with him over stories about old coin-operated electric meters back in the UK. Lisa Germano was there to add some violin parts.

As with “Afraid,” another new song that Bowie composed during what was supposed to be a mixing/overdub session, he went off on his own to write some of it. Plati started working on a rough mix of the backing tracks. By the time he was done, Bowie had returned with a full lyric, cutting most of his vocal in a single take. For the chorus he roped in Corinne Schwab, Sterling Campbell, Holly Palmer, a few Looking Glass staff and Stretch Princess, a British alt-rock band recording in the adjacent studio.

For an intro, there was an opening routine with Oogie. It went on for a minute and a half, becoming increasingly unsettling; it reminded Germano of “a Mark Ryden painting…sweet and strangely disturbing.”

cyndiuf

Oogie crooks his round head. His empty eyes consider us through the camera, then he looks over at the unseen crew. Didja ever stop and think if there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd show what everyone on the show would be doing? Uncle Floyd says he does. A few laughs and hoots come at odd moments; they sound slightly menacing. Oogie plays with the idea, blows it up like a balloon. Netto wouldn’t even notice the show was off the air!…Scott would sit home all day and wait ’till silent movies came back. Then Oogie turns to Uncle Floyd, looks up at the man who lends him his voice: what would you do, Uncle F? What would you do if you didn’t exist anymore? There’s no answer. A Stylophone fades in.

The old toy instrument, a supporting actor of “Space Oddity,” retrieved from Bowie’s attic, sings in its small nasal range, with its crablike moves up and down a tone. Bowie sings the first verse over it; he’s a man singing along to a music box, as he would do, in mourning, on a Madison Square Garden stage a year later.

Mike Garson’s piano comes in on the second verse to settle the song down, establish its chords. The verses are long, meandering journeys off the ground (F major, “Once a time..”) up into the air, out into the orbit of a G major diminished (“Bones and Oogie”) and then slowly falling back to earth. Sterling Campbell’s drums and Gail Ann Dorsey show up to give the song its confines; Leonard’s guitar, whose tone has a touch of Mick Ronson in it, plays against Germano’s violin, two satellites in orbit. The last verse, with Germano as lead mourner, seems about to fade away, drift off into space. Then Campbell stops time with his hands, in a slow revolving fill across his toms.

Don’t forget to keep your head warm…twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd. It’s a gift from one performer to another. Bowie won’t let the Uncle Floyd Show die. In this cavernous refrain, in this melody that he seems to have pulled out of the air, which he sings with a pack of friends and strangers, Bowie mourns the show and he saves it. Here, within the confines of his song, Uncle Floyd is a legend. Here there are stars named after Bones and Oogie. You can see them from the beach on Coney Island, just above the World Trade Center.

The last irony: his keepsake of a song was then lost.

Toy Slips Away

3a

Plati and Bowie finished mixing Toy during the 2000 election, taking breaks to see which candidate had the better claim to be president at the moment. “We figured it’d all be sorted out by the time we woke up the next morning,” Plati recalled.

The completed mix, allegedly with some Tony Visconti tinkering, was sent off to EMI. On New Year’s Day 2001, BowieNet announced Toy “was already in the can awaiting release and scheduled for March.” A month later, Toy‘s release date was pushed back to May. On 5 June, in a web-chat, Bowie said “I’m finding EMI/Virgin seems to be having a lot of scheduling conflicts this year which has put an awful lot on the back burner. Toy is finished and ready to go and I will make an announcement as soon as I get a very real date.” A 4 July Bowie journal entry mentioned now “unbelievably complicated scheduling negotiations.” The summer passed.

EMI had lost 40% of its market value in a single year, thanks to the onset of digital song swapping, the mild (by today’s standards) recession and some wildly ill-considered actions. The label had bet the bank on Mariah Carey’s Glitter, a colossal flop, and wound up paying Carey $28 million to end her contract. Executives quit and were sacked, divisions were folded, the label was a mess.

So you’re an EMI executive trying to stop the bleeding in 2001. Across your desk comes David Bowie’s new album…which is mostly self-covers of songs that no one has ever heard before and which leads off with an odd six-minute song about…puppets? At a time when EMI desperately needed another Let’s Dance or at least a Black Tie White Noise, they got the most self-indulgent album of Bowie’s career. And there are stories in the music press that Bowie’s recording with Tony Visconti again, making tracks that, for all you know, could be the second coming of Ziggy Bloody Stardust at last…

Snapshot video sequence

On 29 October 2001, Bowie announced EMI was going with an album of “new material over the Toy album. Fine by me. I’m extremely happy with the new stuff. (I love Toy as well and won’t let that material fade away),” he said on BowieNet. “I won’t let Toy slide away. I’m working on a way that you’ll be able to get the songs next year as well as the newie.”

He stripped some jewels from the corpse. He refitted “Afraid’ and “Uncle Floyd” for Heathen. “Shadow Man” and “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves That Way” were B-sides. The title track was an online-only bonus; pieces of “The London Boys” were offered on his website. “Conversation Piece” was on a Heathen bonus disc. But the rest of Toy, including “Uncle Floyd,” faded away.

Bowie’s musicians were crushed (Visconti told Dan LeRoy that Bowie would never talk about Toy, but hinted that Bowie had taken it hard). Despite all of his wranglings with his labels over the years, he’d never had an album rejected before. It was a sign that the old order was crumbling, that labels had become more unforgiving (around the same time, Reprise rejected Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Soon he’d leave EMI and form his own label.

By 2003, the idea of rescuing Toy had lost urgency. He’d parceled out about half of the album, which had “become a reservoir of B-sides and bonus tracks,” Bowie said. While the idea of releasing Toy still appealed to him, he was frank. “You know what? New writing takes precedence. It always does.” As Mike Garson said, “[Bowie] does know the meaning of the words ‘move on’,” he told LeRoy. “You bring up Toy a few years later and he’s like, ‘Toy what?’ It’s not even in his world.”

Slip Away

vUF01

Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey baby, come on let’s slip away

Lou Reed, “Street Hassle.”

It was as though Bowie had shot a second pilot episode, remaking “Uncle Floyd” a year later with Visconti.

No puppets here. No Stylophone, either, at first. “Slip Away” instead opens with artificial harmonics played on electric guitar. It’s the other half of the “Space Oddity” intro, a part originally played by Mick Wayne: the brittle movements of Major Tom out in orbit set against Ground Control’s droning bass signals.

Instead of Stylophone, a piano (probably Jordan Ruddess, possibly Bowie) is placed front and center in the first verse, while the second verse is in the grip of Tony Levin’s fretless bass and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops, which offer solidity in exchange for Campbell’s dynamics (compare Chamberlain to Campbell on the refrain—the four rebukes of Campbell’s crash cymbal on “sailing over Coney Island,” the punishing snare fill just after it). Bowie sings cagily, more affectedly: he seems to be hedging his bets.

The biggest revision was to bring up the chorus to hit right after the second verse, and dispensing with the guitar solo. You can see why Bowie and Visconti did it—why hold back your biggest hook until four minutes into the track?—but the move ruined the glorious slow arc of “Uncle Floyd.” The operation wasn’t fatal, “Slip Away” still rang with mourning and triumph—you couldn’t do much damage to a melody that sturdy (there was a bit of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” in it toward the end). But there was a loss of nerve in the remake, or an impatience, a refusal to allow the song to build at its own speed. Something like what had happened to Uncle Floyd when the syndicators tried to improve it.

Pete Keppler, who engineered Toy, said he believed “Uncle Floyd” “was way cooler than the one that came out on Heathen. The mix that Mark did on that song was so much more haunting.” Still, “Slip Away” still had enough presence to make it an anchor-piece of Heathen, and Bowie made the song work on stage. As if reconsidering his revision on Heathen, his last live versions in 2003-2004 restored some of the “Uncle Floyd” framework, bringing back the puppet dialogue intro. On stage at Jones Beach in 2004 (one of his last concerts in the U.S.) he brought on the Polyphonic Spree for the last refrain to restore some of the Christmas party spirit of “Uncle Floyd.”

david_bowie_slip_away

On Sunday, 20 March 2011, an MP3 version of Toy (of what apparently were its rough mixes, not the final EMI mix) appeared on torrents. There are a few theories as to who leaked it and why: one logical-sounding scenario was that someone had acquired Toy through dubious means and was selling CDs of it on eBay, so someone in the Bowie inner circle dumped the album onto a torrent to essentially devalue the thief’s prize.

Toy‘s time, if it even had a time back in 2000, had long gone. It was a lost relic, one welcomed by fans although its critical reception was mixed. A few wags said that EMI had gotten it right by axing it. Toy got some press, got Bowie’s name back in the headlines after some years of silence, and wound up laying the groundwork for Bowie’s grand return in January 2013.

So “Uncle Floyd” survived after all. The New York City of which the Uncle Floyd Show was a minor flavor is long gone. Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone and Lou Reed are gone. WBTB was bought by Univision. CBGB’s, Brownies, Kim’s Video, Coliseum Books are all just lost names or misused trademarks now. Is it a tragedy? Everything fades. All that’s left of your childhood are some photos, some old toys (Stylophones, skeleton puppets) and old television signals (“just waves in space,” as per Thomas Jerome Newton (who would have enjoyed Uncle Floyd). Waves of sound and pictures that, if reconstituted, would play The Uncle Floyd Show, are out in the solar system somewhere. If some poor extraterrestrial ever picks up the signal, they can see 1982. Everything dies and everything goes away, and even Oogie will crack apart one day, but a few things live, too. Or at least television does. Uncle Floyd is dead, long live Uncle Floyd.

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (remake) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004. Uncle Floyd is still on the air on the Internet. Tune in here.

* Of course there was an Uncle Floyd equivalent everywhere in America then: some strange kid’s program or prayer service or community access talk show. Yes, New York likes to make its local amusements a national concern.

Sources: Beth Knobel’s article on Uncle Floyd just as the show entered syndication in 1982, for the Columbia Daily Spectator, was a wonderful resource. There are a number of sites run by fans and former Floyd Show alum. Mugsy’s ca. 1999, is essential, as is this one and many photographs shown here are found on Bob Leafe’s site. Unfortunately there’s almost no video footage of the Uncle Floyd Show on line.

Top: Oogie and Floyd, a life’s journey (Floyd, 2009 (Chris Marksbury); Bowie at the Uncle Floyd Show at the Bottom Line, 1981.


Afraid

March 10, 2014

00nairobi

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

[where were we?]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ben_stiller_david_bowie_owen_wilson_zoolander_001

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

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

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

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

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

[to be concluded]

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

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

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

Future days dept.:

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

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


Pictures of Lily

February 27, 2014

jcjl

Pictures of Lily (the Who, 1967).
Pictures of Lily (Bowie).

An early order of business once Bowie reconvened his band at Looking Glass Studios in early October 2000 was to cut a Who cover. Pete Townshend had asked him to take part in a Who tribute album (Bowie was the bait to hook other contributors, like Pearl Jam and Sheryl Crow). Bowie devoted little time to the task, with much of the recording cut in a few hours.

“Pictures of Lily” was at the apex of an astonishing run of Who singles between 1965 and 1967, Pop at its oddest and most adventurous. I once described “Lily” as “masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding,” complete with John Entwistle orgasmic French horn solo, and it’s a credit to the gifts and sympathies of Townshend in 1967 that the single broke the UK Top 5 and had a sad, comic humanity despite its potentially grotesque subject. The kid truly falls in love with Lily: Townshend’s guitar thrashing in the last verse is a curse at time.

Covering Townshend in the past, Bowie had bled the life out of his songs (see “I Can’t Explain“) and he kept up the tradition here: halving the Who original’s tempo and generally making a dirge of it. Using only Mark Plati for guitars and bass and Sterling Campbell on drums (with a later-dubbed Lisa Germano for the violin solo), Bowie’s version of “Lily” “came out sounding like a glam version of Crazy Horse,” Plati wrote in his web journal. “We did the entire thing in an afternoon, complete with Stylophone solo, Ronson homage outro and football hooligan chanting courtesy of the three of us.” Thanks to the molasses tempo, Plati’s guitars verge towards shoegaze at times while Campbell has to plot out his drum fills; the key change midway through the chorus, which erupts out of nowhere in the Who single, is as labored as a jet takeoff here.

Townshend reportedly liked Bowie’s aged glamster take on his song (he’d soon return the favor on Heathen). A sympathetic reading of the cover is that it’s about a kid who wants to grow up to be Lily, not just fantasize about her. As a treat, Bowie took his band to see the surviving Who at Madison Square Garden.

Recorded ca. 10-13 October 2000, Looking Glass Studios. Released on 12 June 2001 on Substitute: the Songs of the Who (Edel 0126242ERE).

* Townshend once said the Lily of the song was inspired by a postcard of “an old vaudeville star, Lily Bayliss” but he was likely confusing Baylis, who was a renowned theatrical producer, with the actress Lillie Langtry, who has indeed been dead since 1929. Though this being Townshend, who knows.

Top: Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000).


Toy (Your Turn to Drive)

February 25, 2014

pntt

Toy (Your Turn to Drive).

[see previous]

Around five in the morning on 15 August 2000, New York City received a new resident, Ms. Alexandria Zahra Jones. Her arrival happily preoccupied her father.

The rest of his band found some other occupations. Mark Plati, Earl Slick and Sterling Campbell worked on a solo album for former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre. And Plati kept listening to the rough mixes of the Toy sessions. The buzz of creation gone, he was hearing the tapes with a cooler head and came to believe something was missing from them.

Pete Keppler, who’d engineered the Toy sessions, recommended Plati see the Eels (with whom Keppler had worked), so Plati went to their 11 August show at the Bowery Ballroom. He was taken by the violinist Lisa Germano, who was playing with the band. Having gained notice in John Mellencamp’s touring band in the Eighties, she’d gone on to play for Sheryl Crow, Iggy Pop, the Smashing Pumpkins and U2, among dozens of others. “I knew I needed to have her play on Toy,” Plati recalled in a web journal entry. “Her vibe would be just perfect for us.” So he mentioned the prospect of Germano doing some overdubs to Bowie, who was intrigued once she sent over her solo CDs. In late September, Plati scheduled two days of sessions with Bowie and Germano at his apartment in the East Village.

Bowie had hardly listened to the Toy roughs since his daughter’s birth. When he went back to them, he also decided the songs needed more work, and he rethought the central idea of the project. His run of big-top nostalgia shows in June, culminating in the Glastonbury Festival, had been public events: a quick way of landing back at the top rung. But in Toy he wasn’t remaking “Space Oddity” and “Changes” in some sort of MTV Unplugged setting. He was singing mostly utter obscurities, songs he’d pretended hadn’t existed for decades.

Nor had he altered the songs much, in terms of lyric, chords or melody: the likes of “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” still displayed the unripe talent of their composer. He generally just slowed the tempos and sang most of the songs in an ashen baritone. He came off as a older man singing a juvenile’s songs. In a few cases, this was an inspired move. “Conversation Piece” has a new depth of loneliness when sung not by a self-absorbed young writer but by someone whose life hasn’t panned out. “Liza Jane” became a dirty old man’s song, “Baby Loves That Way” a lament by a humiliated fool whose age is unleavened by wisdom.

In lesser performances, though, he settled for following the traces of his former voice; he was genially haunting his old songs. Maybe that was the point of the project after all. As he was to be a father again, he would try to reconnect with a young man whom he could barely remember. Toy was a seance with himself.

dblisa

Germano turned up at Plati’s apartment with a small arsenal of eccentric instruments, including a recorder-flute, a down-tuned electric violin, a 1920s Gibson mandolin “and an old tiny tortoise-shell blue-green Hohner accordion with a strap so old and tired we had to beg it to stay together (assisted by duct tape),” Plati recalled. Bowie arrived elated to work (or perhaps just simply elated to be among adults again, after having been in baby-world for a few months). He sat on Plati’s couch, chain-smoked, played guitar and once even tried his hand at Germano’s violin “playing some cool drones, like a John Cale vibe.”*

The mood was loose and fun. Germano recalled to Dan LeRoy that Bowie got “genuinely excited when he came up with an idea and Mark and I were able to see it to fruition.” Among her overdubs was a whirling violin solo on “Baby Loves That Way.” She described as Bowie as being childlike—wide open to experiment, gleeful with what he was hearing. The three decided to cut more overdubs in the studio the following month with the full band. An effusive Bowie soon wrote in a web journal entry that “the [Toy] songs are so alive and full of color…It’s really hard to believe they were written so long ago.”

Yet this happy re-commitment to the project came with a substantial change in strategy. He’d decided he couldn’t just put out an album of re-recorded obscurities. In the BowieNet entry he said he’d “written a couple of brand new songs…in the style [I] may have written them in the ’60s.”

200008_027_span9

It’s unclear when “Toy” was recorded. While possibly one of the original 13 tracks cut at Sear Sound, it makes far more sense coming after Bowie had recalibrated the album concept. If there were going to be some “new ’60s” songs to supplement his remade Pye and Deram songs, it seemed appropriate to have a title track. My guess is that “Toy” began around the time of the Germano/Bowie overdub session and likely was cut in the second round of full-band sessions at Looking Glass Studios in October. One tell is the presence of the Stylophone, which Bowie would use on other newly-written tracks (and it was at the Looking Glass sessions where the jazz trumpeter Cuong Vu overdubbed solos for “Liza Jane” and “Toy”).

Where “Hole in the Ground” felt like a song Bowie hadn’t bothered to finish since 1970, “Toy” was a song frozen in the process of creation. It’s one of the slightest of Bowie compositions: just a single extended refrain, consisting mainly of alternated four-beat ascending phrases, that’s bookended by a lengthy Mike Garson/Earl Slick dominated intro and a two-minute coda clouded with Vu’s trumpet solo.

There’s a soft mystery to the track: its waves of ghost vocals, the hypnotic arpeggio Garson plays, the way Vu seems to be in mourning. Its closest relative is “Untitled No. 1,” with which it shares the lack of a definitive lyric. Bowie’s lines, blurred in the mix and likely improvised at the mic, are just a mesh of sounds, coalescing around a set of “ay” rhymes: is he saying “die tonight” or “lie tonight” at the end? He could be addressing anyone: a spouse, a muse, a god or a child. If the latter, “Toy” answers another ode to parental anxiety, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” There the young were the homo superior, happy to displace us. In “Toy,” the generational shift is far less choice of a prospect for the young: your turn to drive, kid; hope you do better than us.

Including the track on Toy wouldn’t make the record any easier to sell. Its ultimate fate—being issued as an Internet-only bonus track, retitled “Your Turn to Drive,” and never collected on CD—was no injustice: it’s a song seemingly meant to exist on the margins. But there were other new songs emerging in the later Toy sessions that had more visible promise. [to be continued]

Recorded ca. 1-15 July 2000, Sear Sound?; Mark Plati’s apartment, ca. late September 2000?; ca. late October-early November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. First released as a download (“Your Turn to Drive”) in September 2003 to those who pre-ordered Reality on-line from HMV, and later as an iTunes-only download. The only apparent difference between the leaked Toy mix and the official release is that the latter has a slightly longer fadeout.

* Bowie’s only reported attempt to play a violin. He also once played viola on stage with Cale in 1979 (see “Cale Demos“).

Top: Charles Schulz, excerpt from one of the final Peanuts Sunday strips, 2 January 2000 (Schulz died a month later); new father and Lisa Germano playing at Mark Plati’s apartment, NYC, late September 2000 (from Plati’s now-defunct web journal); Frank Tafun, “Cuong Vu,” ca. 2000 (JazzTimes).


Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

am02

Hole In the Ground.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Be like the sun
Never gone
Sleep long and fast
Let the past be the past

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

am09

Aaargh, that Tony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favor.

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

For a long time, Bowie’s Sixties had begun in 1969: he hadn’t existed prior to “Space Oddity.” Whatever came before that record was mere juvenilia. His Decca, Parlophone and Pye singles, his Deram album, “The Laughing Gnome,” the King Bees and Manish Boys and the Buzz and the Riot Squad, five years of candled ambition: all of it was buried, its obscurity encouraged.

It was also hard to find some of these records—they crept in and out of print, the tracks shuffled through decades’ worth of shabby collections. Bowie didn’t own the rights to the songs, and seemed indisposed to licensing them, so “The London Boys” was never on any career retrospective despite the song being a foundational work—”Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Diamond Dogs, among a fleet of others, are inconceivable without it.

A few things aligned at last. His pre-Philips material was thoroughly compiled on two CD reissues: Rhino’s 1991 Early On and 1997′s Deram Anthology (Bowie was involved in producing the latter, which unfortunately meant two outtakes from David Bowie—”Bunny Thing” and “Pussy Cat”—were cut from the track list). And the Sixties affectations of high Britpop—Blur’s “Country House” wasn’t that far removed from “Join the Gang“— gave the oldest Bowie records a context: they had somehow become hip. It’s surprising one of Bowie’s Pye singles didn’t wind up on the Rushmore soundtrack. “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ’90s generation, but they don’t know the early stuff,” Bowie told GQ in 2000. “I think it’s a surprise when they hear them…and think ‘did he write that?‘”

It could’ve been a preemptive strike, covering himself before someone like Oasis did. Bowie, taping a VH1 Storytellers in August 1999, resurrected his first major composition, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” playing it for the first time since the Marquee Club days of 1966. While he introduced the song by ridiculing its lyric, it cooked on stage, thanks to Sterling Campbell’s drumming—it felt fresher than the ‘hours’ songs he was debuting. (Playing it allowed Mark Plati “to work out a lot of Who fantasies on stage, thank you very much.”) And in a few live dates later that year, Bowie revived “I Dig Everything.” (Mike Garson said they played “Karma Man” and “Conversation Piece” in rehearsals.)

So Bowie’s first web journal entry of the new century noted that he would re-record songs he’d released between 1964-1969, “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I.” As typical with Bowie, the idea quickly ballooned in scope. As with “What’s Really Happening?” the recording sessions for Up Date I would be broadcast via webcam. And he wouldn’t only remake his old singles, he’d revive songs which hadn’t even made the cut back then. He would draw from his legion of ghost songs, those that fans knew only as their titles: Ernie Johnson, “Black Hole Kids,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and, see below, “Hole In the Ground.”

sm04

“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers a little impatiently. “So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which I frankly don’t need.”

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

In February 2000, Bowie and Iman told the press that she was pregnant. He would be a father again at 53. He also said he would play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time since 1971 (when he’d also been a new father). Soon afterward he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour, as his new lead guitarist: a sharp swerve from the now-confirmed-departed Reeves Gabrels.

As Iman was due in August, Bowie planned a burst of activity for June and early July: a handful of NYC live shows that would double as rehearsals for the Glastonbury gig and for what he was now calling “the Sixties album,” which he planned to cut immediately upon his return to New York. “I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band,” he told Time Out. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” Plati would go to work mixing Bowie’s 1968-1972 BBC sessions (yet another reclamation: Bowie at the Beeb would be issued in September) and then would pivot to mixing “the Sixties album” in the fall.

During rehearsals, Bowie worked his band (the Hours touring unit plus Slick) through his abandoned catalog, reviving all but two of his 1964-1966 singles (“I Pity the Fool” was superfluous, “Do Anything You Say” perhaps too dire a composition to salvage) and the cream of the Deram years (sadly, not the Gnome). He didn’t want the band to be reverent; he wanted them to crack their way into the songs, pull them out of their shells. “We weren’t out to duplicate the original tracks at all,” Plati said.

As a prelude, Bowie fully gave himself over to his past, with setlists meant to make old Bowie fans weep. The first Roseland gig, a three-hour extravagance that blew out Bowie’s voice, opened with the four-shot of “Wild Is the Wind,” “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. He unearthed rarely-played classics (“Absolute Beginners,” not performed since 1987) and debuted “This Is Not America” on stage; at the June 19 gig, he played “London Boys” for the first time in nearly 35 years. It also gave Gail Ann Dorsey a rare chance to play clarinet.

He flew to the UK, where he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (why not? it was getting to the point where you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup); two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

am08

I haven’t been here for 30 years and I’m having a fucking great time!

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

In the year of its birth, 1971, Glastonbury was among the free festivals starting to crop up around Britain. Fitting for a show held in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, its pyramid-shaped stage was constructed on a ley-line. It was free admission for the 12,000 or so hippies who’d made their way out to Somerset. Bowie played a set at dawn: just him, his 12-string acoustic and a piano. For the wakening crowd, he offered, for the first time, the breadth of Hunky Dory, from “Quicksand” to “Kooks.”

Glastonbury was in retrospect one of Bowie’s most critical live performances: the sunny reception he got was the best experience he’d had in years. He’d stopped solo live performance after his acoustic/mime shows had bombed in 1969. In the summer of 1971, Bowie was still unsure whether he wanted to be a performer at all. Given the songs he was now racking up, he thought he could be primarily a songwriter, like his friend Lesley Duncan. But that morning in Glastonbury confirmed him as a stageman: Ziggy Stardust would play his first show half a year later.

In 2000, Glastonbury was charging £87 tickets and drawing crowds of 100,000. Its recent headliners had included Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp and Prodigy. Bowie came back as some lost king regnant of British music, wearing what looked like an eccentric bishop’s vestments, his hair in flowing golden locks; he gently proceeded to make everyone else on the bill (his co-headliners were Travis and the Chemical Brothers) look second-rate. He led off with “Wild Is the Wind,” exorcised “Station to Station” with Slick in tow: for an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “‘Heroes’,” “Let’s Dance” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The papers went mad: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star”(the Times); “a level beyond and above everyone else at this festival” (NME).

am20

BBC executive producer Mark Cooper, who was recording the festival, was frustrated that Bowie’s management let him only broadcast six songs from the set (presumably because they were considering releasing the Glastonbury show as a live CD). “It was painful” to cut away from Bowie, he told Paul Trynka. “An artist can be reborn with a performance like that, get another 10 years in their career…I think [denying the full broadcast] was a mistake. Because this was the moment.”

But what was the moment? Was there something sad in all of this ecstatic reclamation, this genial reconquest, with Bowie even wearing his hair at Hunky Dory length? You could regard it as some traveling grand self-entombment. In the year 2000, which he’d feared and talked up and prophesied for much of his life, Bowie wound up playing the nostalgist. A stunningly capable one, sure, but still, he was someone who’d greeted the new millennium by playing songs from 1966 again.

That said, he was in line with one mood of the time. The hooks of the old century were still barbed in the new one: it was as if the culture still couldn’t shake the Sixties’ idea of the future, a future that, of course, hadn’t come true, but one which still seemed more of a “real” future than the one we were now living in. There were still ghosts everywhere. Take the through-line of “Sixties” droning organ across a swath of 2000 records: Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” Blonde Redhead’s “This Is Not,” Ladytron’s “Another Breakfast with You,” Clinic’s “Distortions,” Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” (If you wanted the sound of a new future, you had to listen to Aaliyah or OutKast.)

So what did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”? He’d let in the past again: what was he going to do with it?

stella02

The album soon got the working title of Toy (likely from “Baby Loves That Way” and/or “London Boys”). Its basic tracks were cut in about nine days in early July 2000 at Sear Sound, whose 2,500-square-foot studio boasted two isolation booths: one set aside for vocals, the other housing Mike Garson’s collection of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes (which he hadn’t played since Young Americans) and a Hammond B3 organ. Earl Slick soon had a sense of déjà vu. A walk around the place made him realize that he was in the old Hit Factory, where he’d cut Double Fantasy with John Lennon twenty years earlier. “It really freaked him out,” Plati recalled.

True to his plans, Bowie had flown in his band days after the Glastonbury concert and essentially had them plug in and rip through the songs. (He’d ditched the webcast idea.) In roughly a week they cut 13 tracks, complete with full Bowie vocals. The engineer Pete Keppler recalled Bowie “belting his brains out while the band was just roaring away behind him,” while Plati hadn’t seen Bowie so excited since the first Earthling sessions (another album cut right after a tour to feed off a band’s energy). Bowie was economical beyond his usual habits: he’d cut a first-take lead vocal, then overdub himself on the second take, then add further harmonies for every further take (Plati: “his final vocal would be finished by the time the band had gotten it right!”). Bowie and Plati even managed to hustle in Tony Visconti to score a 14-piece string section for a few tracks.

What Bowie had at the end of the Sear Sound sessions almost certainly included these 11 revivals—a link to the Toy track, if extant, is found in the original entry (* = not circulating, but reportedly recorded):

“Liza Jane”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”*
“I Dig Everything”
“The London Boys”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”*
“In the Heat of the Morning”
“Conversation Piece”

There was also a track known as “Secret 1″ (allegedly Dorsey’s favorite) which Nicholas Pegg rightly (IMO) surmises was likely the revived “Shadow Man.” My guess for the other completed track is another ghost song.

bbc02

‘Hole in the Ground’ was written by David, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tim Renwick on guitar and Terry Cox on drums. Also David was playing guitar on it. What year was it?…1971, I think. Apart from David, I think I have the only copy in existence.

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

It was fitting that George Underwood got caught up in Bowie’s Sixties revival, if indirectly. Underwood was one of Bowie’s oldest friends: he’d played with him in the King Bees; his girlfriend had inspired Bowie’s “Janine”; he’d accompanied Bowie on his first US tour (where he may have kicked off “Jean Genie” by playing Yardbirds songs on the bus). Most of all, Underwood was partially responsible for Bowie’s look (starting, of course, by hitting Bowie in the eye as a teenager and so leaving Bowie’s pupil permanently dilated): he drew the back cover of Space Oddity and designed the covers of albums from Hunky Dory to Low.

Underwood is the control in an experiment in which Bowie’s the radical element: his life can seem an alternate edition of Bowie’s. Considered as handsome, charismatic and talented as his bandmate in the King Bees, Underwood also cut an unsuccessful single or two in the mid-Sixties. But by the end of the decade, he’d become the artist that Bowie would occasionally play at being, founding the Main Artery Studio in 1971. And sometime in the Seventies, Underwood bailed out of the professional music game for good (one story is that a bad acid trip led to a nervous breakdown).

Bowie wrote “Hole in the Ground” for Underwood around 1970. It was his part of his bid to help Underwood make it as a singer—he also wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” and “We Should Be on By Now” (the ur-”Time”) for him—but it was also a feint to benefit his own career. In 1971, Bowie couldn’t release songs under his own name for a time due to his manager’s label/publisher negotiations, so he put out his new compositions under aliases (see the Arnold Corns) or used his friends as masks (see Mickey King’s “Rupert the Riley” or Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol”).

As the original “Hole in the Ground” has never leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of it was altered for the Toy remake. Mike Garson described the Toy version as a jam that the band developed in the studio. If I had to guess, I’d say little fundamentally was changed. The lyric’s in line with Bowie’s lesser works of 1970-1971 (its title may homage Bernard Cribbins): it’s a depressive love ballad with some apocalyptic portents (the hole in the ground mirrors of the “crack in the sky” in “Oh! You Pretty Things”). Some of its vocal phrasing, and the acoustic guitar strum patterns in the verse, call back to “Janine,” and the song shares with “Janine” a slacking-off in lieu of an ending, with its chorus repeated long enough to double as a coda.

Its revival was performed well—Garson’s keyboards gave fresh backdrops to the verses and refrains, and Campbell and Dorsey (who homages Herbie Flowers’ bassline on “Walk on the Wild Side”* and gets in a nice sloping bass fill or two) shone in particular—but its reappearance mainly argued that Bowie had been right in deep-sixing “Hole In the Ground” back in 1970. Time hadn’t improved the song, only made it somewhat novel.

/cover.jpg

So Bowie had the basics for a new record, one that would capstone a year he’d dedicated to his youth. After taking some time off to be a father, all he’d have to do is a cut few overdubs, mix the tracks and send Toy on its way. Then onto something new with Visconti. Toy would take its seat in the canon, and the past would be the past again… [to be continued]

* Of course the intriguing question is whether Flowers had originally come up with that bassline for “Hole in the Ground” and later recycled it for Lou Reed.

Sources: For this, and the upcoming run of entries, Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold, which devotes a chapter to Toy, was invaluable. Also, Teenage Wildlife and Bowie Wonderworld, as each was founded in the late Nineties, serve as “real time” documentation of Bowie during this time: interviews, setlists, BowieNet comments, journal entries and chats, etc. Having spent some frustrating months trying to verify details from the shakily-remembered and legend-prone Diamond Dogs era, it’s a blessing to have such an amount of concrete information available.

Top to bottom: Bowie’s life in pictures, 2000.


The Rustic Overtones Songs

February 11, 2014

00london1

Sector Z.
Man Without a Mouth.

The overriding feature of the ’90s was working with bands that few people had heard of,” Tony Visconti recalled in his autobiography. In 1989, he sold his Good Earth Studios (where Bowie had cut some of Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters) to “a jingle company” and, after two decades in London, Visconti moved home to New York. “It was the end of my era. Young dance producers were making entire records on Akai 900 samplers and record companies loved this trend, if only for financial reasons. Rock was dead; or rather, record companies were attempting to murder it.”

A bit ironically, as he was now based in New York,* Visconti now worked with a heap of British and European artists: Phillip Boa, Annie Haslam, Louis Bertignac, Marc Lavoine, John Squire’s Seahorses. He also produced records for a few American indie bands swept up by the majors: the Dwellers, D Generation (during whose sessions Bowie called to break the ice with Visconti, after 14 years of silence) and Portland, Maine’s Rustic Overtones.

ro

The Rustic Overtones were signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis in 1998. They’d come up DIY in the early Nineties—playing hundreds of shows across the Northeast, producing and promoting their CDs to an at-times obtuse local media and helping to grow a music scene in Portland, Maine, a town not especially known for its sound (no dig at Portland, a fine place).

Davis saw the band, with their three-man saxophone and trombone section and their funk/ska leanings, as being Arista’s response to RCA’s Dave Matthews Band, Atlantic’s Sugar Ray and Interscope’s Smash Mouth. The band had other ideas. At their “coming out” performance at an Arista party in 1999, attended by the likes of P. Diddy, the band ignored Davis’ song requests and instead played the most feedback- and distortion-heavy songs in their repertoire.

Upon signing with Arista, the band was given a list of possible producers and quickly settled on Visconti. Recording in the spring of 1999 at Avatar Studios (the former Power Station) in midtown New York, the band felt like “the Beverly Hillbillies,” lead singer Dave Gutter told me. Their one indulgence was to have a ping-pong table brought in the studio. As the sessions went on, Visconti kept saying Bowie would love their sound. (The intro of their “Hardest Way Possible” had called back to “Young Americans.”) This became a running joke, with the band pranking Visconti about Bowie showing up to jam. Gutter would announce himself as Bowie at the door buzzer and once carried on a five-minute phone conversation with Visconti as Bowie, with “a really bad British accent.”

The band didn’t know that Visconti and Bowie had renewed their friendship and were now regularly e-mailing, and that Visconti actually had invited Bowie to the sessions. So one day when the Overtones were messing around in the studio, each player on a “wrong” instrument (Gutter, who played guitar, was thumping on a bass), Bowie walked in. “We freaked out,” Gutter said. The rules changed. For one thing, Bowie smoked everywhere, despite the “no smoking” signs at Avatar. The band had been on good behavior but now they were almost running after Bowie, frantically lighting up in his nicotine wake. (Gutter mailed a few of Bowie’s cigarette butts home to his mother.)

Rustic_Overtones_-_¡Viva_Nueva!

With Bowie up for singing on a track, the Overtones developed a piece called “Sector Z” for him. The song naturally involved extraterrestrials. “In the smoky clubs you won’t need oxygen/and you won’t need laser guns,” Gutter offers in the verse, with Bowie commandeering the refrains as an alien broadcaster. Bowie came up with the refrain’s call-and-response structure, alternating his spoken asides with some gorgeously-sung phrases “in his Ziggy voice,” as Visconti later recalled, and swathed them in a set of harmony tracks. (So the Bowie voice you hear in “Sector Z” could be similar to the scrapped “Safe In This Sky Life,” another alleged Ziggy-style vocal cut the prior year.)

“Sector Z” sounded like Bowie was having a blast: there’s a fizzy exuberance in the track that’s a world away from ‘Hours,‘ the album he was finishing at the time. Bowie would turn up five or six times during the sessions and the band was taken by his irreverence and honed self-deprecation. “Oh, that was shit,” Bowie would say upon hearing one of his (usually perfect) vocals played back. Gutter was on Bowie’s email list for a time; Bowie would bombard him with links to the most bizarre video clips imaginable.

Bowie’s work with the Rustic Overtones is a testament to his “professional fan” side: he didn’t charge the band for his time and he would hype them on BowieNet as one of his favorite groups. And when the Overtones went to Looking Glass Studios in July 1999 for Bowie’s vocal overdubs, Bowie mentioned that there was another song on the roughs that he thought he could do something with, and would they mind?

Unlike “Sector Z,” “Man Without a Mouth” wasn’t intended for him, so Bowie had to worm his way into the song, tracking a series of wordless harmony vocals. He worked with his usual economy: he sang his main vocal in one go, then triple-tracked his lines, finishing all of it in about 20 minutes.

Variations on what happened to the Rustic Overtones played out for dozens of other bands caught up in the post-Napster implosion of the music industry. (“It was when the wall fell down,” Gutter recalls). Their album, provisionally titled This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll, was set for an early 2000 release until the ouster of Davis and his allies left the band without an advocate. The album soon got yanked from Arista’s release schedule, and after a year in limbo, the band was able to escape Arista with their masters. They cut some new tracks, though nine of the Visconti tracks (and naturally, the two Bowie songs) would remain on Viva Nueva, the album finally issued by Tommy Boy in the summer of 2001. The strain had taken its toll on the band, though: they broke up a year later.

They’ve been reunited since 2007 (“once the coast was clear,” Gutter said) and are happy to be indie again. Visconti is the last outside producer the band used, as they took their time with him as a tutorial (“we learned so much from him—all of these tricks he had”). Gutter said that when starting out as a band in the early Nineties, the game was to hustle to get a major-label deal, that self-producing CDs was taken as a sign that you couldn’t cut it. Now seemingly everyone (including Bowie himself) is a self-publisher of sorts.

So hats off to a Maine rock band who can be listed in the same sentence as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Placebo, Lulu, Scarlett Johansson and Arcade Fire. Gutter’s only regret from his time with Bowie concerns the ping-pong table at Avatar. The band had wanted to invite Bowie for a match during the sessions but thought better of it: this was a serious rock artiste, after all. Later, they read that Bowie was actually an avid ping-pong player and once had an epic match with Lou Reed. “We totally should have asked Bowie to play!” he says.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Avatar Studios; July 1999 (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, New York. First released on Viva Nueva, 5 June 2001.

I’m very grateful for Dave Gutter for his time and stories. Please visit the Rustic Overtones’ site for more information about them. Dave has a request: if anyone recalls (& finds) the BowieNet journal entry, ca. 2000, where DB talks up the Rustic Overtones, please send along a link (I haven’t found it yet).

* A pointless personal anecdote: Visconti and I were neighbors in the Nineties. According to his autobio, he lived and worked in an apartment at 90th St. and 3rd Ave.; I lived at 83rd St. and 1st for most of the decade. I likely saw him on the street a few times without knowing it. Did I ever see DB & not realize it? There’s a question.

Top: Holger Engelhard, “London, 2000″; Visconti and the Rustic Overtones clowning at Avatar Studios, 1999 (Billboard); Viva Nueva.


Jewel

January 31, 2014

thened

Jewel (Reeves Gabrels with Frank Black, Bowie and Dave Grohl).

If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels.

Erdal Kizilcay’s recent interview cast fresh light onto Bowie’s icy professional side: nearly every collaborator has a story of receiving a “your services are no longer required” notice, from Woody Woodmansey, Trevor Bolder and Mike Garson to Carlos Alomar and Kizilcay (“[Bowie] changed his way of being with me at the end of the recording of Outside. I don’t even know why, for what reason.”).

Reeves Gabrels was one of the few Bowie collaborators who quit.1 His last performance with Bowie was a VH1 Storytellers set, filmed in New York on 23 August 1999. You can try to read the impending break into their brief exchanges (the only moment with any slight tension is a crack about Tin Machine), but from most accounts Bowie was blindsided when Gabrels told him four days later that he wouldn’t tour, causing Bowie to scramble to find a new lead guitarist (Helmet’s Page Hamilton, as it turned out).

Gabrels has given a few reasons for his resignation over the years: exhaustion from dealing with Bowie’s management and advisors, as he’d had to scrap for every bit of songwriting credit and an acceptable pay rate (“A lot of it didn’t have to to with David as much as…just dealing with some of the people around him,” he told Paul Trynka); some personal entanglements (he was having a child with Bowie’s wardrobe mistress). And as in 1995, he’d cut a solo album but now was supposed to set aside his promotion for Bowie’s. Further, Gabrels’ album was meant to have had a number of songs that wound up on ‘Hours.’ His professional life had gone lost in the shadow of his partner:

It is always a bittersweet compliment to me when fans, writers and reviewers say that my “unique” guitar style was important in defining the sound of any of the records I did with David. The reason for that is the fact that on most every album I have done with him, I also co-written the majority of the songs and co-produced,” he told Music Dish in 2003. “I may be overly sensitive to this issue, but I am continually amazed by the number of musicians, fans and music critics who seem to be unaware of the amount of songwriting I did with David or my involvement as a producer.”

He’d also lasted long enough in the ring to know when Bowie’s mood was turning. Tony Visconti was coming back into the picture; Bowie’s next record was going to be Pin Ups 2 (My Life As a Mod); the Ziggy Stardust 30th anniversary CD/film/musical boondoggle was still being talked up. Bowie was discarding his pre-millennial interests in jungle and, increasingly, the Internet. “I always tried to be aware of David’s legacy,” he told David Buckley. “But a big part of that legacy is the pursuit of the new. When I became more aware of the desire to do more old songs and eliminate the sequential information and loops from our new music2, I realized that what David wanted from the music was quickly diverging from what I needed…I was ready to move on, take control of my life and pursue my own course.”

If Gabrels had stayed, he felt it would have been for a paycheck and residual fame. He feared becoming a bitter guitar hack who stood on stage replicating Mick Ronson lines on “Suffragette City” and “Jean Genie” each night, “becom[ing] everything I had disliked in musicians I had known…or I was gonna die because I would be so miserable I would just drug myself to death,” he told Trynka. He was calling his solo album Ulysses: a lost man who needed to make his way home.

dbrg

So he left (the press was told that Gabrels was taking a break from the promo tour but would be back for the next album). For a time he and Bowie kept in touch but there was a fairly sharp break around the mid-2000s. His departure was welcomed by some quarters of Bowie fandom: Gabrels, to some fans, had come to symbolize everything they disliked about Bowie’s new music, from his shabby Berkelee professor look on stage to his skronkfest guitar solos. His leaving signaled a return of the classics, a welcome resumption of taste: it was safe to go to a Bowie show again.

Bowie had met Gabrels during one of his lows. He was isolated in a comfortable Swiss exile, feeling like a cossetted indentured servant to his label, wondering why he kept at the pop music racket after the drubbing he took for Never Let Me Down and the Glass Spider tour. A decade later, it was Gabrels who was lost, Bowie who knew in which direction he needed to go.

Gabrels, more than any other Bowie sideman, was someone who didn’t seem to buy the myth. When Bowie risked making himself look the fool, Gabrels called him on it, and he likely spared us a few disasters. Interview after interview in the Nineties will find Gabrels busting Bowie’s chops on something. He had the audacity to believe that his work, his insights, were as vital as Bowie’s: he made Bowie’s music fit his sensibilities as much as he worked within Bowie’s frames; he didn’t kowtow to celebrity. This attitude could make for hard stretches of music: his solos, at their most punishing, seem intended to kill the songs they’re housed in. And he wanted credit: he wasn’t going to be consigned to the fate of a Ronson, an essential contributor without a single Bowie song credit to his name.

You could argue that Gabrels was the only true creative partner, besides Eno and Iggy Pop, that Bowie has ever known. Bowie had spent his youth destroying the bands that he joined because he couldn’t abide compromising with others. He killed off the Spiders because they were casing him up in a box. He finally wound up adrift. So in 1988, he let an obscure post-punk shredder from Boston start bossing him around. Looking back at his professional life, there’s no one else who Bowie seemed to respect more than he did Gabrels at times. Gabrels was his loud conscience (or an extended middle finger), and the best of Bowie’s Nineties music is inconceivable without him.

tincrop

Ulysses (Della Notte) was the album Bowie had wanted ‘Hours’ to be, distribution-wise: it was a 21st Century release in 1999, available solely as a download. Gabrels signed an agreement with CDDB, which for a flat fee distributed MP3s across a variety of platforms, including RealJukebox, WinAmp and MusicMatch.”The Internet lets me make my music available to listeners within a week of completion. And these songs are coming out unaltered or remixed by a record label’s A&R department. What you hear is what I wanted you to get. No compromises,” he said at the time.

Bowie contributed to one song on it, a big honking collision of a track called “Jewel” that also featured Frank Black, Dave Grohl and Mark Plati. It’s as if they all got together over drinks one night to write a song that would sum up “the Nineties” for their children: it’s such a garish example of “alterna-rock” that it sounds like it was made a decade later as a spoof by someone like Andy Samberg.

Its origins were, unsurprisingly, casual: Black, Grohl, Gabrels and Bowie hung out after Bowie’s 50th anniversary show in 1997, and Grohl, possibly joking and in “some sort of stupor” (Gabrels), said they should form the alt-rock version of Blind Faith. “Just do one record, one tour and be done with it,” Grohl said. “We’d have a great time.” (This was per Gabrels’ recollection: “[Grohl] probably doesn’t even remember this.”)

Later, Black and Gabrels got together to write a song and, recalling Grohl’s “Blind Faith II” conceit, they got Grohl to drum and sing backup, then roped in Bowie to sing a verse: Grohl recalled Bowie scribbling lines on sheets of paper spread across the studio floor. Black took the first verse; Gabrels got the refrains, sounding like a more doleful J. Mascis. Bowie’s verse, which he sang in a series of erratic voices, was his last go at being an embarrassing “rave uncle”. He seemed to be leering throughout it.

“Jewel” was a nose-tweaking farewell to a decade of riches—the last time that a group of weirdos like Black, Bowie and Gabrels would be funded by major international labels. It was a perfect way for Bowie and Gabrels to go out: tastelessly, and not acting close to their ages. Play it loud and bother your neighbor. Bye, Reeves.

Recorded 1999? earlier?. Released on Ulysses (Della Notte), first issued as a download on 4 November 1999 via CDDB Inc. and as a CD in 2000.

1: It’s still tough to conclude whether Mick Ronson jumped or was pushed: a bit of both.

2: One irony was that Gabrels soon had his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro-Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”

Top to bottom: DB and RG, 1999; 1996; 1989.


Seven

January 27, 2014

9900

Seven (“demo”).
Seven.
Seven (Omikron: The Nomad Soul version).
Seven (Marius De Vries mix).
Seven (Beck Mix 1).
Seven (Beck Mix 2).
Seven (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Seven (Musique Plus, 1999).
Seven (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Seven (TVE, 1999).
Seven (live, 1999).
Seven (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).

I’d be so unhappy if I’d got myself into a…rut, as my mother used to say. My dear old mum. (Loudly) “You’re in a bit of rut, aren’t you?” She said it about herself. “I’m in a rut.” I think I probably thought then, “I’m never gonna be in a rut if that’s how you turn out.”

“Seven” also mentions both your parents and your brother…

They’re not necessarily my mother, father and brother; it was the nuclear unit thing. Obviously I am totally aware of how people read things into stuff like this. I’m quite sure that some silly cow will come along and say, (adopts silly cow voice) “Oh, that’s about Terry, his brother, and he was very disappointed about this girl back in 1969, whenever he got over her…” That sort of thing comes with the territory, and because I have been an elliptical writer, I think people have—quite rightly–gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am.

Bowie, interview with David Quantick, Q, October 1999.

Silly cow voice: “I forgot what my father said…” he begins, then quickly has to remind himself he’s still forgotten it. “I forgot what my mother said, as we lay on your bed.” The same goes for his brother. Of course, it’s presumptuous and dully literal to argue that Bowie has to be referring to Haywood and Peggy Jones (the latter causing grief as far back as “Can’t Help Thinking About Me“) and Terry Burns here. Of course, he is, in a way. He knows, if you’re a deep fan or a lazy journalist, that the words may call up long-gone Haywood and Terry (well, your ideas of them, of these people whom you’ll never know). So he plays with it: the family as a set of blank faces; the song an orphan’s.

Peggy Jones would die in 2001; Haywood and Terry had been dead for years, or decades. Losing your parents is the last act of becoming an adult: it’s as though you look up one day to find there’s no roof on your house. The gods forgot they made me/so I forgot them, too. It’s one of Bowie’s most Gnostic lines. God’s forgotten that He made our world; the archon ruling in His place has forgotten that he isn’t God; people on the sad earth have forgotten to believe in any of them. The latter line’s tense is key. Bowie forgot them a while ago: is he regretting it now?

Memory, they say, is fate’s shorthand. I do recall at some time in the Seventies the revolutionary Abbie Hoffman saying to me over a drink: “Tomorrow isn’t promised.”

Bowie, introducing “Seven” on VH1 Storytellers, 1999.

There’s a disenchantment in “Seven”; something about it feels half-finished. There’s arguably no final version of the song: its “demo” can sound more ornate than the album mix in places (the demo has Reeves Gabrels’ slide guitar hook in the intro, while acoustic guitars and organ are pushed up), as does the Omikron mix, with its thunking bassline. A Marius De Vries mix, pushed up in key, was the lead track on the single.

The singer has seven days left, so he plays in churches (graves of the gods), wanders through empty cities trying to remember what his parents sounded like. It’s a world as a set of monuments, honoring forgotten ghosts. His movements resound in the verses’ simple C major progression: he starts alone on C (“I forgot what my“), strikes out to G (“father said”), spends a wistful moment in A minor (“I forgot what he..”), uses an F major chord as a means to avoid going back home (“..said..“). And then he goes back home, alone, to start over again.

7

“Seven” also answers “Five Years,” which Bowie had written when he was 24, back when he seemed to welcome the apocalypse. “That’s all we’ve got!” he’d choked out, weeping in the vocal booth. But catastrophes can lose their charm with age. Life can seem a run of disappointed apocalypses. So the song he wrote on acoustic guitar in Bermuda at the close of 1998 was what he called, in its debut live performance, “a song of nowness.”

Seven days to live, seven ways to die,” he told Quantick. “I’d actually reduce that further to twenty-four hours to live. I’m very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I’m going through. I’m not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I’ve just come through. The present is really the place to be.” Five years would’ve been nice, but seven days are enough. (Given the references to gods, these might be the seven “days” of biblical creation, each of which could’ve been eons. So Bowie may have some time to kill.)

As if to frustrate his “nowness” intentions, he used as a central image “seven,” with its millennia of signifiers—the deadly sins and holy virtues, the seals and veils and hells and penitential psalms, the days (and  ‘hours…‘) of the week. He once called “Seven” a “hippy dippy” thing, too: a song for Hoffman, who hadn’t made it out of the Eighties (in one mix, Bowie sang lines from “Sorrow” in the outro). A subtle bit of wordplay—the city “full of flowers” has a bridge full of “viole(n)t people“—offers that the hippies have let down the side as well; they turned out to be just another lost cause.

David Bowie: see you in the new year!
David Bowie: happy hols from all of us to all of you…
David Bowie: from over here to over there… happy trails, sweat dreams, good luck, you’ve got a lucky face… the drinks are on me…
David Bowie: …do you know where your children are?
David Bowie: do you know who your parents are?
David Bowie: Good night from David, and the man with rusty hair

Bowie’s last public words of the 20th Century, BowieNet, 23 December 1999.

He was supposed to end the millennium on stage in Vienna with Brian Eno, performing some massive conclusion to the Outside project. That idea shuffled off. Undeterred, he decided he’d go to the Antipodes. He was slated to headline the Gisborne 2000 “First Light” Festival, to be held in the most easterly city on the globe to greet the new millennium, along with a reunited Split Enz and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He said he would write a new song to welcome the new era. The promoters grossly overpriced the show: in August 1999, with only 1,000 of a proposed 35,000 seats sold, Bowie pulled out.

So after chatting with fans on BowieNet the night before Christmas Eve 1999, he saw off the century in private. Maybe just watching TV like the rest of us, to see if the lights would go out in Gisborne City or Sydney or Hong Kong once 2000 began to sweep westward. But it was just another year. No Bowie millennial song, either, which is as just well, as he’d already written one. Quiet and lovely, ash-emptied out, “Seven” was as good a way as any to close a chapter. A goodbye to the already-forgotten, it rang with the sound of Gabrels’ slide guitar, sustaining notes just long enough that it seemed as if they could break, then bending them anew.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released on ‘Hours’ and as the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a disc that led off with the DeVries Mix and included the demo, the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC, on 19 November 1999 (another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue.

Top: Aaron Miller, still from “December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000.” (“We got power! The lights are on!”)


Thursday’s Child

January 21, 2014

99peckham

Thursday’s Child.
Thursday’s Child (instrumental).
Thursday’s Child (Omikron “slower” version).
Thursday’s Child (video).
Thursday’s Child (“rock mix”).
Thursday’s Child (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (TOTP, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Saturday Night Live, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Wetten Daß, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Francamente Me Ne Infischio, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Quelli Che…il Calcio, 1999)
Thursday’s Child (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Thursday’s Child, (TVE, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, Paris, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, NYC, 1999).

One summer day some ten years ago, I was helping to paint a house. On the boombox was Best of Bowie: a long, chronological march from the beachhead of “Space Oddity,” with most songs met by indifference and occasional hums. The caressing synthesizers of “Thursday’s Child” began, and as Bowie started crooning, a fellow painter stopped mid-swipe and looked over at the CD player.

What happened to that guy?” he said.

We’d made it through “Dancing In the Street” with a few chuckles and “Under the God” without comment. But “Thursday’s Child,” on that hot afternoon, sounded awful: treacly, gaspy, wan; the limp expiration of a career. When heard as the close of a sequence that runs through “Rebel Rebel,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Modern Love” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Thursday’s Child” sounds like a man falling down in the street, a hasty end scene tacked onto an overlong Act V. “I’m done with the future: here’s a song for your grandmother.” Dies, borne off stage right.

Sure, any slow, fragile-sounding number could’ve gotten a raspberry that day from our collection of young and recently-young NYC snobs. It’s not as if “Thursday’s Child” is an ill-constructed or poorly-sung track: if anything, it’s one of the few Bowie compositions of the period sturdy enough to withstand being a cover, whether a trumpet solo or a busker’s guitar piece (solo electric guitar interpretation by Jake Reichbart here). Its verse melody, a dance of mild leaps and modest falls, suits a lyric crafted for common use. In the verses, an older man regrets the paths he’s taken; in the choruses, he dares to hope a new love can give his life meaning. It’s Bowie’s “September Song.”

But “Thursday’s Child” wasn’t hip; it didn’t offer any pretense that it was—it sat in a comfortable present tense and stewed on the past. It felt genteel and a bit shabby. After a few years of running across stages in his bottle imp incarnation, after his stabs at industrial and jungle, after all the interviews about Damien Hirst and body scarifications and Millennial doom and Internet-as-cultural-dynamite, Bowie suddenly turned up as the sad clown again. He’d dusted off his Buster Keaton suit and reclaimed the shadow bloodline of his “rock” one: the Bowie of “When I Live My Dream” and “As The World Falls Down,” the cabaret and mime Bowie, the “light entertainment” regional thespian, the bedsit saddo, the Mod who worshiped Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt (see below).

The singer of “Thursday’s Child” is another of the Pierrots he’d played since the Sixties: a perpetual loser at love, like the glum figure of his “Be My Wife” promo. Take the Mr. Pitiful tone of the opening verse—

All of my life I’ve tried so hard
doing the best with what I had:
nothing much happened all the same…

—with its most desperate emphases (“best,” “hope”) cued to gloomy B minor chords, while the verse’s circular structure strands the singer back where he started, on an augmented E major (“breaking my life in two”). You can take the song as a straight-faced lament, as a quietly over-the-top spoof of the same, or both (it is Bowie, after all).

And while the chorus offers a hope of release from the cycle, its alternation of F# majors (“falling”) and F# minors (“really got,” “my past”) suggest the hope’s rather thin. The repetitions of “throw me tomorrow” start to feel desperate; Bowie’s “everything’s falling into place!” is someone trying to hypnotize himself. It’s as if Bowie’s answering Joni Mitchell:

It’s got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past

earthak

Ours was the most exciting show that had hit London since the war…I was glad that I was born in a part of the world that had been so well protected, but I was also ashamed of my protection. I carried guilt inside for being a privileged character when the rest of the world was being destroyed.

Eartha Kitt, Thursday’s Child, 1956.

This song, I might point out, is not actually about Eartha Kitt.

Bowie, 1999.

He’d taken the song’s title from Eartha Kitt, Bowie said upon introducing “Thursday’s Child” on VH1 Storytellers. Writing the song, he’d recalled the paperback cover of her first autobiography (“it just kind of bubbled up the other month”). It had been an erotic memory of his youth (that and D.H. Lawrence, he said).* Using Kitt as a starting point suited Hours’ theme of a middle-aged assessment of lost youth, a 50-year-old flipping through a box of mold-speckled records shipped from his childhood home (Ray Charles’ “Lucky Old Sun” —a man stuck in the middle of life and envying death—also gets a nod).

The title also plays with an old prediction rhyme—”Thursday’s child has far to go” (another variant is “Thursday’s child is merry and glad”)—that had come out of the ground somewhere in medieval England. The rhyme was a popular corruption of court astrology: Thursday was considered a day of great fortune as it was under the sway of Jupiter, kingpin of gods. The Book of Knowledge, by one Erra Pater (1745), notes a “child born on Thursday shall arrive to Great Honour and Dignity” (By contrast, David Robert Jones was born on a Wednesday “full of woe”).**

So the refrain of “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday born, I was Thursday’s Child” was Bowie spading up his old occult interests, presenting them in anodyne forms: the little boxes tucked away on a newspaper’s comics page: horoscopes, birth stones, fortunes, lucky numbers (see “Seven”). It’s the “secret histories” of the Sixties reduced to syndicated copy; it’s another diminishing of unearthly power into ordinary life.

It’s also a clever way to cloud the lyric. What to make of the chorus kicker: “only for you I don’t regret/that I was Thursday’s child“? It’s at odds with the picture the singer’s painted so far: that he’s someone for whom little’s worked out, someone who’s estranged from everyday life yet firmly stuck within it (“He’s a teethgrinding, I’ll-get-this-job-done guy,” Bowie said of the narrator). (It’s also possible that, as Nicholas Pegg noted, Bowie’s referencing the VU’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties“: “For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown.“) But a Thursday’s child would be a lucky child: someone with pull, some who had far to go: a Kitt, or a Bowie.

ekitt

Go back to Eartha Kitt for a moment. Born in South Carolina, she’d reinvented herself in the early Fifties as a nightclub goddess who’d seemingly flown in from the Continent; she played the seductress, the gold-digger with taste (“Santa Baby”) who captured men with her boxful of languages. She’d be cast in that role for the rest of her days: a life spent forever vamping. But what a role! As her biographer John L. Williams wrote of her performance of “Monotonous” in the film New Faces: Eartha is playing a character that’s almost unimaginable in reality [in 1954]: a black American woman who’s tasted all of the world’s delicacies and found them lacking…we wonder, who on earth is this woman? And how can she seem to be so indifferent to the laws and mores of her time? A question that could have been asked, with a gender change, about another performer in 1973.

So maybe the singer is someone like Kitt: not some teeth-grinding anonymous drone but a bright public figure, someone whose name everyone knows, someone to whom things seem have come easily. Doing the best with what I had becomes a modest boast; shuffling days and lonely nights are those of a stage life. Or maybe even the common life of an office drone is a stage life. Bowie had called himself “the Actor,” but in a way, we’re all actors.

tc

Composed in Bermuda in late 1998, “Thursday’s Child” appears to have been mainly Bowie’s work, written on acoustic guitar. It was earmarked as a potential single, with a prominent role for backing singers. The question of who those should be became a bit contentious once Bowie and Gabrels were back in New York.

After toying with having Mark Plati’s six-year-old daughter sing the “Inchworm”-inspired “Monday, Tuesday..” line (she turned Bowie down! “she said she’d rather sing with her friends than with grown-ups,” Plati told David Buckley), Bowie thought of contacting the trio TLC. In 1999, they were arguably the premier female R&B vocal group of the decade. But they were tottering. Rife with personality and financial squabbles and having taken five years to cut their follow-up LP, they were about to be dethroned by Destiny’s Child.

Using TLC sat poorly with Gabrels, who thought it stunk of Bowie’s “New Jack Swing” moves in 1992: “Thursday’s Child” could be another potential Al B. Sure! fiasco. Gabrels had positioned himself as the house purist: some faint analogue in the Bowie camp to Steve Albini. He’d met Bowie during the nadir of Never Let Me Down and he saw it as his charge to keep Bowie honest and weird, to stop him from embarrassing himself by chasing trends after their sell-by date. During the making of ‘Hours’ Gabrels came to feel that his time with Bowie was over (we’ll get into this more in next week’s entry); his veto of TLC would be his last strategic win.

His alternative proposal had a touch of self-interest: he recommended a Boston friend, Holly Palmer, who Bowie auditioned via speakerphone (“let’s hear it with more vibrato now”). You could argue that Palmer’s vocals were just as time-stamped as any TLC vocals would have been: the Liz Fraser-inspired vocalese, the coffee-shop ambiance (a slightly edgier Dido). But Bowie liked what he heard and Palmer joined his touring band in 1999-2001.**

Another question was how far to take the production. David Buckley argued that the song was “crying out for strings,” and the various synthesizer fill-ins for woodwinds, strings and brass can make the song seem stuck in an embryonic state. Had Bowie held “Thursday’s Child” back for what he was calling the “Visconti album,” slated for 2000, it likely would’ve had a much grander production. Perhaps what kept “Thursday’s Child” from being a monstrous hit was that it hedged its bets too much.

dbb

The last piece was Walter Stern’s video. “Bowie,” with little makeup to mask his plus-fifty face, and his partner prepare for bed. They brush their teeth, she takes out her contacts (verrry slooowly). There’s a naturalist feel to counter the tasteful Wiliams Sonoma bedroom set: you hear Bowie cough, mumble and half-sing over the recorded track (taken from Elvis Costello’s “I Wanna Be Loved” video), and the plash of water in the sink. He looks in the mirror, transfixed by his aged but still beautiful face; he’s a veteran Narcissist. A twist of the glass and he sees younger versions of himself and his partner.

The mirror pair have the easy, arrogant confidence of youth; they stare at the older couple with the cold pity of  what Bowie once called “the coming race.” They seem like beautiful wraiths. Bowie, seemingly infatuated with his younger self, does the Marx Brothers Duck Soup mirror game with him. The double plays along for a while, then stops, bored and disgusted with his older self. We passed upon the stair, Bowie had sung long ago, upon meeting another double. He’d been on his way up then, his life still mostly potential. This is the other end of the staircase: a man realizing that time has changed him, that the majority share of his life lies behind him now, that his younger self would’ve regarded the current him like some threadbare costume. Perhaps that was the right question to ask after all: What happened to that guy? He kisses his wife in his imagination, and so to bed.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0, UK #16). BowieNet members voted on the single mix, though both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube in places; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) were included on the UK/EC CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version appeared in the Omikron: The Nomad Soul game: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours,’ as was the Rock Mix. Performed live throughout Bowie’s promotional tour of 1999 and once in 2000, at his Roseland Ballroom concert on Bloomsday.

* Seeing that Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties, and that the title song’s lyric has some affinities to Bowie’s, it seems likely Bowie recalled the record as well.)

** The rhyme was tinkered with during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, with Friday now “full of woe” and Sunday getting some of Thursday’s former glory.

*** Dorsey, Palmer and Emm Gryner made the most handsome Bowie stage lineup since DB and Mick Ronson.

Top: Liz Johnson-Artur, “Peckham, 1999.”


What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014

99seattle

What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.

wrhh

They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.

wrh

“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1″ songs and the “Side 2″ rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 513 other followers