Waterloo Sunset

October 21, 2014

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Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, 1967).
Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, live, 1973).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie and Ray Davies, live, 2003).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie).

At his final (to date) Tibet House benefit concert in February 2003, Bowie duetted with Ray Davies on the latter’s “Waterloo Sunset.” Soon afterward Bowie recorded a cover of the song, at first slotted for Reality and ultimately issued as a bonus track. Apart from his cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” on Pin Ups, it’s Bowie’s only overt Kinks homage,* but Davies was far greater an influence than this suggests. He was a fundamental element for Bowie; he’s in the bedrock of Bowie’s songwriting.

Bowie had met Davies in 1964, when the former’s King Bees were on the same bill as the Kinks for a brief tour of southern Britain, and for a time Bowie and Davies shared a producer in Shel Talmy. But Davies existed more as a guide on records for Bowie, teaching him how to structure songs, write top melodies, set up riffs, spin lyrical scenarios. You see it anywhere you look in Bowie’s Sixties work, from how the lovelorn “Baby Loves That Way” answers the Kinks’ “Nothing In This World” to how “See My Friends” haunts “The London Boys,” from the Davies-esque third-person character pieces of Bowie’s debut LP to the melodic and harmonic flavors from Kinks songs that turn up in later Bowie pieces (e.g., Iggy Pop’s “Baby,” which Bowie co-wrote, has bits of “Dead End Street” and “Sunny Afternoon” in it).

Yet covering “Waterloo Sunset” was still rather ambitious for Bowie: it would be like attempting to finally crack “A Day In the Life” in late middle age. “Waterloo Sunset” was a Kinks masterpiece, a capstone for an era. “I started writing a song about Liverpool that implied that the era of Merseybeat was coming to an end, but I changed it to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ not only because that gave me a bigger canvas to work on but because it was about London, the place where I had actually grown up,” Davies wrote in his “autobiography” X-Ray.

He’d felt possessive of the song as he wrote it, refusing to let his bandmates hear his lyric until backing tracks and backing vocals were cut.** “Even when the record was finished, it felt like a secret,” Davies wrote. “It was like an extract of a diary nobody was allowed to read.” When asked by a critic what the next Kinks single was, Davies pretended to have forgotten the song’s title.

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It came from a teenage memory: Davies standing on Waterloo Bridge, watching the brown Thames flow beneath him, having a vision of the river cresting its banks and submerging the Houses of Parliament.*** Many of his great Sixties songs share the sense that an older, homelier England is getting washed away by a fresh tide, leaving the “common” British man or woman stranded and wondering how to get home (if home’s even still there). While often using his large, ructious family as characters (Rosy, or his brother Dave as his swinging sister), Davies used for his lead actors in “Waterloo Sunset” the actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, beautiful gods of Swinging London (if there was a Wicked + Divine set in Sixties London, they’d be in the pantheon for sure). He cast himself as narrator, a shut-in who spends his days in his flat, watching life go by, turning the nameless people he sees into stories.

So “Waterloo Sunset” is a songwriter’s workbook. The composer sits at home alone, watching the young go about the business of life as he scratches out ideas in his notebook. There’s too much relentless life out there: the dirty river, flowing ever eastward to the sea (counterpoint to the lazy old sun, ever ballooning westward). The millions of people entering Waterloo Station, pooling from all across London and streaming in veins outward to the suburbs. Waterloo Bridge itself (the opening and closing scene of Alfie), its name Britain’s fading glory, now a commuter’s walkway and a meeting place for lovers, a still point for old dreamers.

Davies was often depressed in the Sixties, worn down by band and managerial politics, struggling with financial problems (he was writing #1 hits yet was often broke). He said he felt he was supposed to have given up years before. The Kinks were just meant to get a few top hits and break up, letting the record company move on to brighter things. But he kept at it. In 1967 he was still writing songs in the shadow of the favored likes of the Beatles. The Beatles promised the world could be new; Davies stayed home to keep a record of what was being decommissioned: steam trains, china shops, Victoriana, palais halls, dance bands. Must you keep flowing? As long as you have one corner of London to claim, you’re not dead yet. Sunset’s the end of the day, but it lingers for a while in the summer.

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The Kinks’ recording of “Waterloo Sunset” was marked by happenstance and their typically erratic studio habits. After puzzling how to process Dave Davies’ lead guitar, they wound up piping it through tape delay (“almost like a Fifties-type ‘triplet’ delay,” Dave recalled) while Ray’s rhythm guitar was a scrappy undercurrent in the mix, barely audible at times. The song’s beautiful melancholia was in the backing vocals–the Davies brothers and the essential Rasa Davies, the grace of many Sixties’ Kinks tracks—which soar upward while the chromatic bassline trudges downward.

Having sung “Waterloo Sunset” as a joyous full-band piece at the Tibetan concert, with Bowie serving as the high end of the harmonies, Bowie crafted a bright, even peppy version of the song in the studio. Why he felt the need to chase away the blues of the song, to make essentially a “Waterloo Sunrise,” is another question. There was something of a precedent: a Kinks TV version from 1973 with horns and a host of singers, where the refrains were a carnival retort to Davies’ humble verses.

But Bowie mainly just scrubbed away the soot, his embellishments including a nagging two-note synthesizer riff, a handclap-fattened Sterling Campbell hitting on every beat in the intro, and a “theremin” squiggle to transition back to verses. The song hustled, sparkled; it pushed you along. Bowie discarded most of the Kinks’ harmonies, only doubling himself at the octave in refrains (one of his voices was almost conversational). He wrote a new set of backing vocals for the last verse, some “ooh-LA-las” in slight debt to the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me.” Only in the coda did he finally bring in the echoing, plangent harmonies of the original. He sounded as if he was in competition with himself.

The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” offered that in a world consumed with movement, often going nowhere, sometimes you could find an escape hole, like Terry and Julie do (were they catching a train out of town?) Bowie’s version has no need for hideaways. It’s the sound of a winner’s Sixties, a flattened Sixties; it seems intended as cheery in-flight music for Virgin Airlines.

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Bowie and Davies’ performance was at Carnegie Hall, 28 February 2003. Bowie’s version was recorded ca. January-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 November 2003 as a “cyber-single” download in the UK (some BowieNet members got the track earlier on a promo CD), and also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in Sept. 2003.

* Bowie also played Kinks hits on stage with the likes of the Manish Boys and the Lower Third in the mid-Sixties, and he’s thrown in bits of “All Day and All of the Night” in a few live performances over the years.

** Likely some poetic license here on Davies’ part (X-Ray is far from an “official” autobiography), as his brother recalled Ray playing the developing “Waterloo Sunset” to him and “we started ad-libbing vocal parts around the chorus.”

*** Davies described the Thames as “bright brown, almost red…like blood flowing through a great vein,” which does suggest another lament for a “lost” England, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech from 1968.

Top: “Gadget (Ben),” “London, Mayday 2003;” “Waterloo Station, 1967“; Waterloo Sta., still from John Schlesinger’s Terminus (1961); dirty old river, still flowing under Waterloo Bridge, 2003 (Bruno Girin).


I Feel So Bad/ One Night (2002 Tour)

October 2, 2014

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Part 1: Taxidermy

Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11 June 2002).
Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Meltdown, London, 29 June 2002).
Half-complete Low (live, E-Werk Festival, Cologne, 12 July 2002).
Near-complete Low (live, Montreux Festival, 18 July 2002).

The closest Bowie has come to being the curator of himself was the 2002 tour to promote Heathen. This was first intended as a minor tour of the European summer festival circuit, with a few TV dates between gigs, but soon Bowie’s theatrical instincts kicked in and he devised the most fannish set-list of his life.

He would perform all of Low in sequential order, wearing a (slightly) looser version of his Thin White Duke outfit. Then, after a change to Burberry tweed, he would perform all of Heathen in sequential order. The albums “feel like cousins to each other,” he said. “They’ve got a certain sonic similarity.” His recent work with Lou Reed (see “Hop Frog“) may have been an influence, as Reed had performed full-album live sets for New York and Magic & Loss.

But Bowie was also doing a bit of trend-chasing. Around 1998, it became increasingly common for bands (especially older bands) to play their “classic” LPs in sequential order live. The trend ballooned in the 2000s once live performance became a primary way for musicians to make a living. (“You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen,” Bowie told the New York Times in June 2002). You could see why the “play your whole LP” shtick worked: get the old fans who’d stopped buying CD reissues out of the house to hear It Takes a Nation of Millions or Fun House or Entertainment! on stage.

Was choosing Low a cynical touch? The album had little to do with Heathen besides some superficial resemblances (it’s as if Bowie recalled Low being eleven variations on “Warszawa” and had forgotten the little fractured funk tracks on its first side). But 2002 was the apex of Low‘s critical reputation: it was now considered, in the Pitchfork age, to be his masterpiece and most influential release. So there was some ad man’s hustle (“Heathen is the new Low“) and keyed-in nostalgia in the mix.

The full performances of Low were tailored to what fans wanted (on the Montreux tape, you can hear some guy lose his marbles when “Breaking Glass” kicks in)—the performances were sung well and played well, with Earl Slick tracing over his old nemesis Carlos Alomar’s guitar lines, Gail Ann Dorsey singing “Warszawa” like a muezzin and Sterling Campbell as a dynamic foundation (he’s a monster on stuff like “Speed of Life”). The guitar-heavy arrangements (Slick on lead, Mark Plati on rhythm and acoustic, Gerry Leonard on what Bowie termed “atmos”) and the supplemental vocals of Catherine Russell and Dorsey gave a density to the sound.

But there’s a constriction in some of the performances: there’s a sense that Bowie’s working with a common audience memory of each song and feels unwilling to challenge it. This was most noticeable in the instrumentals, which cried out for some sort of revision, some fresh improvisation or just an instrument swap. Instead Bowie kept reverent, a tour guide pacing his audience through an old cathedral of his making.

The track-by-track album live homage also suggested a sad endgame for Bowie: to be doomed, ever so often, to trot out another classic to showcase to fans. The Second Year of the Diamond Dogs. Major Tom’s 40th Birthday Party. Hunkier Dorier 2011.

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Boredom (the most constant of Bowie’s muses) soon put an end to it. After playing Low and Heathen in their entirety at a BowieNet-only show at the Roseland in NYC, he began monkeying with the song order, first jumbling the Low songs to break up the run of instrumentals. By his 1 July 2002 performance in Paris, he’d made a salad of the set-list, also throwing in oldies like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fame.”

On he went, through Horsens and Oostende, from Manchester to Cologne to Lucca, earning the sort of reviews that had become de rigueur by now. “The hits were pitch perfect” (Daily Star). “An incredible rebirth as a performer” (Daily Telegraph), “More relaxed than he’s been for years” (Manchester Evening News), “His voice: that indispensable sound which ricocheted against the square’s walls like some operatic singer” (Sunday Times of Malta). Having done enough, he sailed home to New York on the QE2.

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Part 2: Theology

I Feel So Bad (Chuck Willis, 1954).
I Feel So Bad (Elvis Presley, 1961).
One Night (Smiley Lewis, 1955).
One Night (Elvis, 1958).
One Night (Elvis, 1968).
I Feel So Bad/ One Night (Bowie, live, 2002).

[Elvis was] a kid who was monstrously acquisitive, but also fundamentally passive, looking to be counselled and led. In his own wholly pragmatic way, Col. Parker foresaw several future directions that showbiz would take. He saw how Elvis, the real Elvis, with all his moods and problems, could be left to sit at home and do whatever he did, while the spangly, malleable Elvis image could be sent out into the world to work…

Ian Penman, “Shapeshifter,” London Review of Books, 25 September 2014.

The next leg was an alternating-headline slot Moby’s Area 2 Festival, a three-week cross-country North American tour that also included Busta Rhymes (sometimes a no-show) and the Blue Man Group. (“What’s most striking about this collection of acts is the lack of novelty,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his review of a Holmdel, NJ, stop.) Bowie said he didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Moby on some nights, as it let him cut out early and (if he was in the Northeast) get home to say goodnight to his daughter.

The set-lists were essentially the same as the latter European shows: a mingle of Low and Heathen tracks, with some popular oldies for seasoning (“Fashion,” “Life on Mars?” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance”). Bowie was drawing the sort of crowd for whom the appearance of “Stay” in the set-list “generated a bit of puzzlement,” according to a review of a Toronto gig. “Bowie devoted two-thirds of his set to songs that were 20 or even 30 years old. But the move didn’t seem like a surrender to the commercial reality that fans want to hear the familiar,” wrote Robert Hilburn, reviewing the LA stop. On and on it went, in the pages of American and Canadian papers: Timeless perfection. A still-commanding voice. He’s still beautiful. As steely as sinuous as ever. A nearly flawless musical time capsule.

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On the last night of the Area 2 tour, at the Gorge Amphitheatre east of Seattle, Bowie did something different at last for the encore. He noted that it was the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death (which he’d learned about while on safari in Kenya in 1977). He mock-griped that Presley’s birthday had always eclipsed his own. “He gets all the birthday shit and nobody knows that I ever got born…Jimmy Page was born on the 9th: you can make something out of that. But the 8th of January? You lose out, innit.” And he sang two Presley songs in commemoration.

Like any British rocker born in the Forties, Bowie was fascinated by Elvis, who’d seemed like an extraterrestrial to him at age 10. Elvis was a swiveling mass of American bad intentions. There’s even a touch of Elvis in Bowie’s singing at times, in the swagger of “Janine” and, oddly enough, in some of his “Song For Bob Dylan.”

At first Bowie seemed to be paying tribute to the pantomime Elvis, the dead Elvis of common tabloid memory. Fat, pilled-up Elvis, the sweaty kung-fu-chopping “thankyouverramuch” Elvis: rock and roll in its buffoonish red giant phase. But the songs that he chose were a fan’s picks.

“I Feel So Bad,” which Presley cut in Nashville in March 1961, was Presley’s take on a Chuck Willis R&B number. It was fitting for Elvis at the time, about to vanish into a morass of cheap, endless movies and soulless soundtrack LPs (“sometimes I wanna stay here/then again, I wanna leave“): its moroseness chased away by an alliance of Floyd Cramer’s piano and Hank Garland’s guitar, and capped with a Boots Randolph saxophone solo that Presley walked over to cheer during the take, as if he’d bet on Randolph in a horse race.

“One Night” was a dirty Smiley Lewis song, an open account of a man caught in an orgy (“the things I did and I saw/would make the earth stand still“), that Elvis cleaned up (slightly) in his 1958 take, a minor hit. Elvis went back to “One Night” in his 1968 TV special, where he tore into the song, retrieving the original Lewis lyric. You can see in the clip what made him maddeningly, exotically Elvis. He’s joking around, mugging for the camera and his friends, parodying himself, not seeming to give a shit about the song and then suddenly in a breath he’s there, committed like a zealot, screaming BEEN TOO LONELY TOO LONG! like he’s confessing to a killing. He lurches up, forcing one of his buddies to rig up a mike for him, and he stands there, balancing his weight with his foot, slashing at his guitar as if he wants the strings to snap off in a pack.

Bowie’s versions of the songs (respectful, even modest) couldn’t compare. Elvis was too high a cliff to climb, to even consider climbing. He paid his respects and called it a tour.

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Part 3: Cartography

The New York Marathon:
Music Hall at Snug Harbor, Staten Island, 11 October 2002.
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 12 October 2002.
Colden Center at Queens College, Queens (queen borough of the 5), 16 October 2002.
Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, Bronx, 17 October 2002.
Beacon Theater, Manhattan, 20 October 2002.

Well, not yet. Bowie seemed unwilling to stop playing. He went back to Europe in September for more TV and radio spots, some record store signings. At a Radio 2 concert he filmed some of the audience with a handheld camera (“to show my daughter exactly what sort of person I associate with”). He offered more prizes for lucky winners, like the first-ever live performance of “Bewlay Brothers.”

On 22 September he played Max-Schmelling-Halle, his first concert in Berlin since 1995. The hall, built in 1996, was at the edge of the Mauerpark, near where the Wall once had cut through Prenzlauer Berg. “Half the audience [that night] had been in East Berlin that time way before [in 1987],” Bowie told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “So now I was face to face with the people I had been singing to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together.”

It was as if his tour had become a leyline of his past lives. A stop in Munich, where he’d recorded some of The Idiot. A return to the once-Hammersmith Odeon (in 2002 it was “the Carling Apollo”; it later became the “HMV Hammersmith Apollo” and is currently the “Eventim Apollo”), with Eno, Bowie’s old schoolfriend George Underwood and his once-drummer John Cambridge in attendance. This gig, finally, was supposed to be the finale.

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But back in New York, Bowie realized he still had some TV appearances booked for October, so why not keep the band together a bit longer (“before they drifted off to family and friends for the winter“)? Bowie credited a friend “Bill” (likely his financial adviser, Bill Zysblat) with the idea of doing a set of shows that roughly followed the route of the New York marathon. It would be a tribute to his still-recovering adopted city, with Bowie playing clubs.

First Snug Harbor, a park two miles west of the Ferry terminal on Staten Island (“Earl Slick country,” Bowie wrote. “Earl was freaked and excited at the same time. ‘Oh God, I’m gonna see some really old faces. We’re gonna get Joey Bag-a-Doughnuts…And then there’s family. I’m never gonna survive this.”). Then up to the rapidly-gentrifying DUMBO (one sign of gentrification: getting an acronym like “DUMBO”) neighborhood of Brooklyn, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I’d seen Joe Strummer play there earlier that year: he’d been late, complaining his cab didn’t know where to go, then ripped into “Bank Robber,” singing it like Elvis.

Colden Center at Queens College, which the band likened to a high school hall. Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, visited by everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby (and which would close its doors in 2004). Finally the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. Bowie closed with “Ziggy Stardust.”

When Gail Ann and I slow-danced through ‘Absolute Beginners’ that night…it didn’t seem like the end of a long and grueling year, but a new time with a horizon that went on forever,” Bowie wrote in 2003, when he was making a new album and planning a global tour. Was this hyperbole? Of course not. It would go on forever. Wouldn’t it?

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“One Night” and “Feel So Bad” were performed 16 August 2002, The Gorge, WA.

Photos: “Elvis Bombay” and “Vigil One: Elvis Death March, Memphis,” Ted Barron, 2002; Giacomo Pepe, “Bowie in Lucca,” 15 July 2002; Adam Bielawski, “Bowie in Chicago,” 8 August 2002. The other shots of Bowie in NYC, mid-October 2002, are from David Bowie: Live in New York, a fine photo collection by Myriam Santos-Kayda.


Saviour

September 25, 2014

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Saviour (Kristeen Young with Bowie).

At the end of 2001, Bowie broke with his current label, Virgin (it helped that Virgin hadn’t picked up its option on a new Bowie album—they were all but daring him to leave) and formed his own record company. This was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of frustration with the music industry and in particular with Virgin, who’d rejected both a live Bowie album (liveandwell) and a studio one (Toy). “Many times I’ve not been in agreement with how things are done and as a writer of some proliferation, frustrated at how slow and lumbering it all is,” he told Billboard.

So at age 55, Bowie was finally an indie recording artist. His new label, ISO, had one client, himself: there were reports ISO had signed a band and another solo act, but nothing apparently came of this. He signed a distribution deal with Columbia for Heathen, a structure that remains at the present day (Columbia’s issuing Nothing Has Changed in a few months).

One sign of Bowie’s contractual freedom was a growing penchant for guest-starring on others’ albums: these would be his only moments on record in the late 2000s. It helped that he was able to use Tony Visconti for his field research. Visconti had already gotten Bowie on a Rustic Overtones album and now he introduced Bowie to a St. Louis songwriter and pianist named Kristeen Young.

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A half-Apache, half-German child adopted by fundamentalist Christians, Young endured adolescence as a series of pitched battles (her mother would smash her Prince records; Young later described herself as “an imprisoned child”). She took refuge in punk and indie music, becoming pen pals with Jello Biafra (who once taught her to parallel park); in the Nineties, she formed and discarded bands, worked as a waitress and began recording solo records with a drummer, “Baby” Jeff White (the set-up was a reversed image of the White Stripes). She was an acquired taste: the CMJ, reviewing her debut in 1997, began with “What is it about playing the piano that encourages young women to become crazy, screaming banshees?

She sent Visconti a copy of her second album, Enemy, in November 1999 (she’d reportedly found his name in a music industry directory). Taken by what he described as her “part rock, part Bartok” music, her cover photo and her four-octave “gutsy voice…with its high soprano register,” Visconti agreed to produce Young’s next album. As she had no record deal, Young and Visconti worked up a collection of demos in New York in 2001-2002, around the same time Bowie was recording Heathen. She wound up singing and playing piano on a few tracks, Bowie in turn offering to sing on one of hers.

This was “Saviour,” which Young later said was in part a tribute to her friendship/mentorship with Visconti. Bowie took the second verse, savoring the line “American landfillLAAND-fill,” and kept pace with Young for the rest of it, mostly content to let Young out-sing him. It’s a piece of bizarre, affected, fairly catchy art-rock. Should Lady Gaga and Bowie get together at some point, “Saviour” could even be something of a template.

Young went on to have a contentious, sibling-like relationship with Morrissey, who sacked her from a 2007 tour for “salacious language” but soon mended fences. Earlier this year, the Morrissey camp accused Young of giving Moz a “horrendous cold” that resulted in yet another tour cancellation. If Bowie ever tours again, Young should perhaps consider switching allegiances.

Recorded: Looking Glass Studios, ca. late 2001/mid-2002: (Bowie vocal retake) February 2003. Released 13 June 2003 (November 2003 in the US) on Breasticles (N Records ZM 00103). (Reflecting the chaos/implosion of the music industry in 2003, this record was released as a CD only in Portugal, and later as a web-only release in the US/UK). The promo version of Breasticles, which Young self-distributed in 2002, featured an earlier Bowie vocal.

Top: “The king stay the king“: D’Angelo lectures Wallace and Bodie on chess strategy, “The Buys,The Wire, June 2002; Young, ca. 2002.


Hop Frog

September 19, 2014

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Hop Frog (Edgar Allan Poe, read by Nick Gisburne).
Hop Frog (Lou Reed with Bowie).

You write in the liner notes [to The Raven] that Poe is more attuned to our century than he was to his own.

I think that we can relate more to him now than then. Recent world events seem to have a real Poe turn to them.

Lou Reed, to Larry Katz, January 2003.

Sometime in December 1966, David Bowie heard the voice of Lou Reed for the first time. Bowie put on an album that his manager had brought back from New York. First came a sweet, haunting “Sunday Morning,” then, out of nowhere, another voice breaks in: flat, unimpressed, working up the details. Up to LEX-ing-TUN: ONE-TWO-FIVE. Hey WHITE BOY. Here he cooomes..he’s all dressed-in-BLACK. Everybody’s pinned you but NOBODY caaaares.

Entranced, Bowie decided to devote the rest of his life to the song.

In August 1972, Bowie produced a record for Reed. At the brink of exhaustion (he was rehearsing with the Spiders From Mars in his downtime), Bowie had to contend with an icy Reed, barely talking and taking in the whole enterprise as if he was a critic silently watching a faltering stage act. Reed had offered some skeletal songs on acoustic guitar. Mick Ronson dressed them up, Bowie did vocal arrangements. There was a delicacy to Bowie’s work that belied the strain he was under: the little dancing motifs in “Satellite of Love,” the girl-group “spoke spoke” in “Wagon Wheel,” the acidic queen harmony in “New York Telephone Conversation.”

At last, despite the occasional public dust-up, the two settled into being friends, living within walking distance of each other’s NYC homes. In the months after 9/11, Reed was working on an album based on Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems, and he asked Bowie if he wanted to sing on a track. Bowie chose “Hop Frog,” a little rant under two minutes long.

That’s him, not me,” Reed told Venice magazine in 2003. “He chose that part. I was pretty astonished myself, because I thought he would have picked one of the other parts. I thought he would go for one of the power ballads, but it turns out that he was a perfect Hop Frog. I realized that David wanted to have some fun, and have some fun just being Bowie. He did the kind of background vocals on this that I really like, all the way back to my Transformer record when he did those kind of things. I liked it then and I still love it now.”

It would be their last collaboration.

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Reed had been asked to write some Poe-related songs by the stage director Robert Wilson for a show, “POEtry,” which played in Hamburg and Brooklyn. “Bob thought this is something that could occur easily, without any weird rubbings going on,” Reed told the New York Times. “I saw it as a can’t-win situation. I knew people would say, ‘How dare he rewrite Poe?’ But I thought, here’s the opportunity of a lifetime for real fun…It’s accessible, among other things. And I felt I was in league with the master. In that kind of psychology, that interest in the drives and the meaning of obsession and compulsion in that realm Poe reigns supreme. Particularly now, with the anxiety and everything else that’s permeating our lives right now.”

He turned the project into an album, realizing it would also serve as a grand Viking funeral for his recording career. One last enormous folly: a 2-CD, 36-track album of rewritten Poe and reconfigured Reed, guest-starring Ornette Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Laurie Anderson, Antony Hegarty, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Bowie.

Can you imagine what it took to do that?” Reed asked Uncut. “I mean, I’m serious. Imagine! Even now I can’t believe that we’ve done it. This might be a nice way to say ‘Goodbye’, a good way to go out…it’s like ‘Pheww!’ Really. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll get a chance to make records like this with people downloading their music… unless you take the viewpoint that there’s only one good track on it.”

The Raven was also a farewell and tribute to the late 20th Century “pop” bohemian New York, the NYC of The Performance Group and The Knitting Factory, the Kitchen and St. Ann’s Warehouse. Reed cut “Fire Music,” a piece of extended feedback, a few days after the WTC attacks. On the album, it’s preceded by Amanda Plummer screaming “Burn, monkeys! Burn!” (why? see below).

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Reed’s “Hop Frog” has little to do with Poe’s story, a lurid revenge piece in the line of “Cask of Amontillado.” (The following tracks, “Every Frog Has Its Day,” “The Courtly Orangutans” and “Tripitena’s Speech,” are the narrative). Hop-Frog, a dwarf who walks with a limp, is the slave of a cruel king, for whom he’s the long-suffering court jester (you get the idea George R.R. Martin may have read this story). Offended by the king throwing a drink in the face of fellow dwarf Tripetta (renamed “Tripitena” here), Hop-Frog devises a scheme in which he has the king and his ministers dress up as escaped orangutans for a masked ball. Their costumes are made of pitch and flax, the “orangutans” are chained together to further the illusion. Hop-Frog sets them ablaze, leaving the king and his party as torched ape-men corpses. He escapes after announcing “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest.”

Reed’s “Hop Frog” essentially plays off that last line. It’s a strut, a boast, savoring the clash of “ahp” and “ahg” sounds in the title. Its backdrop is a vein of feedback, a vicious, cycling Reed rhythm guitar and Tony Smith’s heavy-mixed drums. Bowie holds back a bit in the first verse, creeping in to echo, then top Reed’s voice. Then he sets about taking over the song.

Now dominating over Reed’s voice, Bowie devised a set of background harmonies, a funfair ride of rising and falling phrases (“I love David’s background parts that he does, when he goes up really high: I love his voice,” Reed told Australian DJ John Faine) and outfitting an army of Bowies for the final verse. Bowie’s having a whale of a time. You can see me in the ballroom! You can see me in the BED-room! You can see me in the WOODS! Hap!-HOP FROG! He closes with a last, plummeting trademark “wail” note. Reed pays him homage with a fanfare on guitar. Exeunt omnes.

Everything ends. Reed and Bowie went out with a noisy nose-tweak of a track starring a vengeful, murderous Poe dwarf. Sounds about right. See you, Lou.

Recorded October-early November 2001, New York. Released 28 January 2003 on The Raven (released in single and double-CD versions. If you have Spotify, unabridged version’s here.)

Top: Julian Schnabel, “Lou Reed,” 2002; Bowie and Lou, approaching the end of the game, 2007; Arthur Rackham, “Hop-Frog, Trippetta, the king and his councilors,” 1935.


Slow Burn

September 8, 2014

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Slow Burn.
Slow Burn (Top of the Pops, 2002).
Slow Burn (The Today Show, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Show With David Letterman, 2002).
Slow Burn (A&E Live by Request, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Slow Burn (VMC, 2002).
Slow Burn (live, 2002).

Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime…Wars are never cured, they just go into remission for a few years. The End is what we want, so I’m afraid the End is what we’re damn well going to get. There. Set that to music.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

“Slow Burn” was Heathen‘s lead-off single. Well, it was in Japan, Europe and the US. Not in Britain, which by 2002 was the only reliable country for a Bowie chart placing. (He’d ceased troubling the US charts in the mid-Nineties: “Slow Burn” proved no exception). Scheduled for a July 2002 UK release, “Slow Burn” never appeared. There was no British single released until September, when “Everyone Says ‘Hi‘” finally arrived to barely break the UK Top 20. Another curious thing was that Bowie quickly stopped performing “Slow Burn” live. He sang it only twice, its last performance at the Meltdown Festival in June.

His label had decided to pull “Slow Burn” from the UK (Bowie had diligently sung “Slow Burn” on seemingly every American talk show in June, and had taped a session to air on Top of the Pops), but its disappearance from Bowie’s live sets as well suggests perhaps a collective realization that “Slow Burn” wasn’t going to do the business. Was it too familiar-sounding, coming off as a generic public conception of a Bowie song? A soaring vocal with a few condor cries (the ninth-spanning “slooooooow BURRRRRN!”); a “Heroes”-esque rhythm track; a guitar line that set out to trump Reeves Gabrels; a doomy lyric.

There’s no evidence that the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere played a role in shelving “Slow Burn” (for one thing, it was a single in America). Bowie said he’d written his lyric before the attacks and that his lines unnerved him, as he’d managed to predict the feel of life in downtown Manhattan that September. There’s fear on the ground. “The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears,” a faint Biblical reference (see Luke 12:3: “whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops”), offered a preview of our national security state. The most damning, most prophetic lines were in the refrain, written years before the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib and all the numbing rest of it:

But who are we
So small in times such as these…

slowburn

Bowie had been writing about doomed societies since “We Are Hungry Men,” with his descriptions of America as being full of killers, his clay model recreation of Seventies New York as Hunger City, the Five Years left to us, and so on. Apocalypse could be a joyful thing for him—“Five Years” meant five years of carnival before the End. At least the End was more interesting than “normal” life.

“Slow Burn” is a bled-out, bummed-out apocalypse, a recognition that after living on this earth for a while, you come to realize doomsday predictions have the frequency and excitement of commuter trains. In “Slow Burn” the nearly-static harmonic rhythm of the verses (shuttling between tonic and mediant chords, F to Am/E),* the rounds of Visconti and Bowie backing vocals (“on and on and on and on and on…” “round and round and round..”), suggest there’s nothing new under the sun despite this latest catastrophe. Even the return of the Borneo Horns (Bowie’s brass section from the Eighties) is rather muted: the likes of Lenny Pickett nose their way into the second verse and later mainly work in support of the bassline. Kristeen Young offers a piano line that goes lost in a loop. Doomsday once meant the End at last, but now even the End wasn’t going to end: it would just keeping come around, again and again, its colors fading with each trip.

There’s one vein of anger in the track: Pete Townshend’s lead guitar (unlike the lyric, this was a post-9/11 response). Offering an intro hook by answering a long-sustained chord with strings of bent, distorted notes, Townshend reappears after the first refrain for a run of sirens and shockwaves and then hangs on through the second verse, playing the same choppy chord as a counter-rhythm; it’s as if he’s itching to cut Bowie short, that he fears being caught up in the endless cycle as well.

Pete Townshend Performs At The Concert For NYC

Townshend’s been one of this blog’s minor supporting characters, partly because the blog came close to being a Townshend song-by-song survey: he was the other top contender (if I’d gone with PT, the blog would’ve been called Another Man’s Life). So I found it fun to use Townshend as an ongoing check on the Bowie experiment.

As a character in Bowie’s play, Townshend moves from being a lofty, cutting rival in 1965, lording his powers over Bowie’s shabby band playing Who knock-offs in Bournemouth (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving“), to a fellow Sixties self-mythologist in 1973 (“I Can’t Explain“) to 1980, when a depressed, alcoholic Townshend shows up as a ghost from Bowie’s abandoned England, playing a bitter lead guitar on “Because You’re Young.” The latest reconnection came about when Bowie and Townshend met at a wake, the Concert for New York City in October 2001. Returning to London, Townshend got an MP3 of the rough “Slow Burn,” added his lines via Pro Tools, which Bowie and Visconti imported back in New York. So the most bloodless of their interactions yielded Townshend’s most resonant (and final) contribution to Bowie’s work: he’s the song’s blood infusion. Soon afterward Townshend, in an unfortunate mix of idealism and stupidity, would bring down the whirlwind on himself.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (lead guitar) ca. November 2001, Townshend’s home studio, London; (horns) 29 January 2002, Looking Glass. Released 3 June 2002 in the US and Europe (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2); only released as a promo single in the UK.

* Moving from the tonic (I) to the mediant (iii) chord means there’s only a one-note difference in the chords. So in our case, it’s F major (F-A-C) moving to A minor/E (E-A-C) and back. Bowie’s just swapping F for E as a “foundation” tone. It’s the same type of progression as Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a possible influence? (More here). The refrain shakes things up a bit with D minor (vi) chords (the opening “slow burn”) and a B-flat IV chord (“but who are we”) but it’s soon back to the F-Am dance.

Top: Peggy Lee, “Munich, 2001″; Townshend, Concert For New York City, 20 October 2001.


A Better Future

September 1, 2014

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A Better Future.
A Better Future (live, 2002).
A Better Future (Air remix).

Maudlin and petulant, “A Better Future” is yet another Bowie conversation with God on Heathen. Here he treats God as a girlfriend who’s disappointed him of late; he’s even considering ditching the relationship unless God gets his act together.

In one of his more bizarre revisits, Bowie referenced a verse of his never-released “Miss Peculiar (How Lucky You Are)” in the bridge of “A Better Future.”* “Miss Peculiar” was something of Bowie’s attempt at “Under My Thumb” (it was offered to Tom Jones): when you walk, you follow: two steps behind! Its ghost, turning up a generation later, turned the tables: now it’s a man resenting that he’s under God’s thumb: When you talk, we talk, too (or “to you”).

What bred this irritation? Fatherhood and terrorism, it seemed. “I had rosy expectations for the 21st Century, I really did,” Bowie told the Observer in 2002. “The whole idea was lifting my spirits quite a lot during 1998 and 1999. But it has become something other that what I expected it to be. And it’s obviously a pretty typical parental concern to wonder what type of a world you have brought your child into.

So “A Better Future” was meant as a plea “to whoever that higher spirit is…because I want a place where my daughter can grow up safely, walking open-eyed into her ambitions—not having to dodge bullets.”

Built over a ceaseless three-chord progression in A-flat (Ab-Bbm-Eb), “A Better Future” is a run of verse/refrains interrupted by a bridge. There’s a singsong lead vocal, doubled at times down an octave; a synthesizer hook that seems a mild reworking of the descending vocal tag from “Do You Know the Way to San Jose.” The drum loop isn’t much; the guitars are better, both David Torn’s clouds and gales and the raucous, often stereo-scoped acoustic guitar (Bowie, most likely) that hustles through the track.

It’s Bowie at his most sincere, seemingly (see the opening lines of the third verse), but you can’t be that sure: there’s a sense he knows how ridiculous he’s being, that prayer is nothing more than a refined act of solipsism, and that he’s really got nothing to bargain with. It’s a man going all in with a pair of deuces. The sudden appearance of “Heathen“-esque loftiness in the bridge (“down therrrrre below/nothing is moooooooviiiiiiing“) offers a cameo by an indifferent God.

L’Avenir Postlude

There’s a little film that’s haunted me for a long time: Louis Lumière’s Repas de Bébé, one of the first Lumière films, shot in 1895. On an idyllic spring afternoon in France, an infant is fed and doted over by Lumière and his wife. Lumière was rich: this child, unlike a great many French infants in 1895, lacked for nothing. And what a marvelous world she stood to inherit! Her birth nearly coincided with those of the telephone and the motion picture, the airplane and the phonograph; she would be part of the first 20th Century generation. Would that we all could have had her future.

But that child, Andrée Lumière, was twenty years old in 1914. She likely lost friends and possibly lovers to the World War. She would die in 1918 in the global influenza pandemic that killed nearly as many as the war did. And had she lived, she would have been 40 years old in the depths of the Depression. Forty-six when the Nazis tromped through Paris.

By contrast, take a child born in the middle of World War II, in Nazi-occupied Paris. What sort of future does she have? Why bother having children? But Françoise Hardy grows up in a world of free higher education, nearly-full employment and general prosperity, which in turn creates a global pop music boom, to which she contributes. Today she’s 70, having lived through some of the brightest years for common people in the entire history of France.

So complain to the almighty all you’d like: having kids has always been a crapshoot.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. The Air remix was included on the 2-disc version of the album; the SACD cut lopped off 15 seconds.

*He’d already recycled its coda in “Revolutionary Song.”

Top: Michael Schmidt, from series Irgendwo, 2001-2004.


When the Boys Come Marching Home

August 21, 2014

Marineshumping2001

When the Boys Come Marching Home.

While Bowie claimed he’d written the lyrics for Heathen before the 9/11 attacks, it’s easy to imagine the B-side “When the Boys Come Marching Home” coming out of the dark autumn of 2001, with the Afghanistan invasion, a nation afraid to open its mail thanks to the anthrax scare, routine color-coded terror freak-out alerts, the Department of Homeland Security established and plans for the Iraq war underway.

It’s not as if the song would have been out of place anytime in the past century, though. The somber refrains, Matt Chamberlain’s snare pattern and the song’s title suggest the endless military cycles of history (“There’s nothing to learn from history. As we’ve repeatedly shown,,” Bowie told the Daily Mirror in 2002. “We’re not willing to learn. We’ve slipped straight back into what we usually do—we’ve fallen for a religious war.“): an obvious reference was the U.S. civil war song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and its British counterpart “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”

But the lyric, one of Bowie’s most gnomic works since Hunky Dory, offered more than antiwar sentiments: there are “outsider” artists as bellwethers and court jesters (“I love him in his craziness, his tatters and his courage“), wanderings through some lost battle-numbed Europe of the imagination (“I love the little cars at dawn“). Cities and countries as prostitutes; collectives of mean townies; Aldous Huxley nods. Bowie casts himself as the moon (“my cloudy face will be gone, high-tailing it out of here” and there’s a lovely bit in the second verse where the moon in turn becomes a fisherman, using the tides to “pull[] up its net of souls“) and Don Quixote (“I and the cobbled nag I ride/stumble down another weary mile“).

A descending synthesizer line, following the footsteps of the Laughing Gnome, appears in the first verses and then gets packed off; florid margin commentaries of violins and viola, courtesy of the Scorchio Quartet, color the refrains; Jordan Rudess plays a nimble piano line towards the close that seems about to break into stride or boogie-woogie. The vocal melody in the bridge is one of Bowie’s loveliest, seemingly building to a dramatic payoff that never comes (that we don’t deserve?): the refrains sound beaten into submission. One of his more indecipherable songs, it’s been all but forgotten today.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” single.

Top: Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly, “A U.S. Marine with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit leads others to a security position after seizing a Taliban forward-operating base, Afghanistan, 25 November 2001.”


Everyone Says ‘Hi’

August 15, 2014

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Everyone Says ‘Hi.’
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Metro Mix).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (live, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Top of the Pops, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi.’ (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Parkinson, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Hypershow, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Quelli Che…Il Calcio, 2002.)
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Live with Regis and Kelly, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi.’ (Claudia Brücken, 2012).

We all feel very alone, don’t we: often. Too often: that’s why we make such a thing about being with people [and] become social animals. It’s very scary to know that in those last moments we’ll be absolutely alone.

Bowie, TV interview, 2002.

We thought we lost you: it will all come back

New Pornographers, “Adventures In Solitude.”

Slotted early on as a single, “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” was partially outsourced to the London-based production team of Brian Rawling and Gary Miller (the architects of Cher’s “Believe“). At Looking Glass Studios in New York, Bowie and Tony Visconti recorded vocals, and Carlos Alomar marked his return to the fold with some guitar dubs, but much of the track was the work of London pros: bassist John Read, percussionist Sola Akingbola (Jamiroquai), cellist Philip Sheppard (who worked with Jeff Buckley, Scott Walker and Jarvis Cocker) and keyboardist Dave Clayton (ABC, Simply Red). (Miller also played some guitar; he and Rawling added synthesizer overdubs).

The result was a glittering bauble of a track, its main hook Sheppard’s electric cello line, its undercarriage a chugging acoustic guitar (and some unmistakable Alomar rhythm fills) and its mix garnished with whooshing loops, Akingbola’s chimes and rattles, synthesizers playing games of charades (now an accordion, now a whistle, now a bassoon) and some doo-wop backing vocals by Bowie and Visconti in the bridge. An apparent influence was Jeff Lynne, from the ELO-style dramatically-bowed celli to the lead guitar in the bridge, which has the feel of Lynne’s work “recreating” the Beatles in the mid-Nineties (esp. “Real Love“).

Sometimes when Bowie sang “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” live in 2002, he performed with a big cheery smile on his face, urging the crowd to raise their hands and become “swaybots,” to use a term coined by my dear friend Mike Slezak to describe the coached, arrhythmic American Idol audience. (Other times he was more somber.)

“Everyone Says ‘Hi'” fared poorly, barely cracking the Top 20 in the UK (the only country where it charted). To some, it was the work of an aging rocker losing the plot. Compared to the grand ferocity of “Slow Burn” (a single which, in some markets, “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” replaced), “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” felt a bit sappy, sentimental, indulgent. Some reviewers assumed it was just an old dad’s song, intended for Duncan Jones.

Yet it was as much a rumination on death, loss and lack of belief as the grand “Last Songs” of Heathen, and one far more human-scaled. We tend to face tragedy with platitudes, busy-work, weak jokes and “making do.” If “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” is a shallow-seeming response to death, it’s one more emotionally resonant, at least for me, than the epic register of “Sunday.” Take the broken way that Bowie sings Didn’t know the right thing…to say. It sounds hollow as he sings it—he knows it—he sings it anyway.

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Rosy won’t you please come home?
Your room’s clean and no one’s in it.

The Kinks, “Rosy, Won’t You Please Come Home.”

In an interview at the time, Bowie said the song’s impetus came from his memory of his father’s death in 1969: how his mind couldn’t accept that his father was dead. “I kind of thought that he’d just put his raincoat and his cap on and that he’d be back in a few weeks or something. And I felt like that for years.”

News of death comes, as it often does, in pieces and rumors, with the mind trying, and often unwilling, to accept it. The singer puts blame on others: he’s still holding out hope. “They said you moved away/Happened oh so quietly/…they say.” (Bowie had the departed “you” leave by ship rather than fly away: taking a ship seemed sadder, more of a one-way voyage). He’s left in regret, gets tongue-tied, makes a lame, dark joke (“hope it’s not too hot” where you are now).

It’s a song for anyone who’s drifted away; it’s an open letter to a depressed friend or lover (“you can always come home,” Bowie sings, calling back to Ray Davies’ sad “Rosy, Won’t You Please Come Home”*). Its last refrain could be the voice of our collected dead, calling back from the other side: your old dogs are there, your mother and father, even “the guy upstairs” whom you may get to meet one day. And when Claudia Brücken covered “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” in 2012, complete with Major Tom video, it was a song for the then-vanished David Bowie, a performer who’d gone away quietly, with no one noticing; it was a note that the world missed him, wished he’d send a letter to let us know how he was doing.

There’s a pippy energy to “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”: it’s not going to be a downer. Bowie does a few tricks (“a BIG trip” is a jolt up a seventh, then down a third) and jostles the song’s A minor key in the bridge, with its E-flat (“if the money”) and G# (…home”) chords. The coda alternates two major chords (F/G “girl next door”) with two minor ones (Dm/Em “guy upstairs”). The key line is “buy a little frame: something cheap.” It’s a joke, a bluff: the singer’s trying to play off how much the loss has hit him. It’s also a clue to the song itself: the sweet melody, the bright, fizzy mix, is the cheap frame.

“Everyone Says ‘Hi'” is modest and tinny, sweet and amenable—it sounds as if it’s meant to be piped over a shopping mall PA or played on a Virgin Airlines in-flight promo video—and heartbroken. We will do anything but accept the knowledge that everyone we love will go away and that we may never see them again, that everything ends (even The Uncle Floyd Show). By fate or coincidence, the single was released in Britain on the same day, 25 years earlier, that Marc Bolan died.

rw2002

Recorded: (vocal, guitar tracks) October-November 2001, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (overdubs, mixing) ca. December 2001-January 2002, Sub Urban Studios, London. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and as a single (Columbia/ISO 673134 3, UK #20) that September (see the upcoming “Slow Burn” entry for more on the jumbled single releases for this album). The “METRO” remix was issued as a US 12″ promo in January 2003.

* Written about Ray Davies’ sister, who’d moved to Australia, there’s a troubling undercurrent to the song—Rosy could be dead or disappeared, the singer keeping her room empty and clean to avoid reality. Davies later wrote “Come Dancing” about his sister Rene, who had died of a heart attack one night after dancing—the song’s mix of cheeriness, anger and melancholy has a bit in common, tonally, with “Everyone Says ‘Hi’.”

Top: Sarah Glidden, “Beijing Airport,” 2001; Robin Williams, 2002.


I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship

August 7, 2014

karach01

I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, 1969).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie, Top Of the Pops, 2002).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie, live, Meltdown, 2002).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Legendary Stardust Cowboy, live, 2007).

What is it with spaceships?

Bowie: Well it’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space isn’t it, writ large. I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me. I’ve absolutely no ambition or interest to go into space whatsoever. I’m scared going down to the end of the garden.

Radio 4 “Front Row,” interview, June 2002.

God is my partner and he is on my side. It looks like that I will be able to record Gospel records, be on Johnny Carson, have my first date, and later on be in the Western movies.

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, autobiography, 1969.

On one of his rambles through the Internet, Bowie found a delight: the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Norman C. Odam, had a web page. Compared to BowieNet, it was primitive (“just two pages!” Bowie crowed) but its contents were enough to fascinate him, like a JPEG of “The Ledge”‘s birth certificate.

There was also a handwritten letter from the Ledge, in which he gave the webmaster his blessing “to put me on the Internet” and said he’d had some financial troubles of late. “I’ve reached the point where I need help in going further…It sure would be nice if David Bowie would pay me something for using part of my name in “Ziggie Stardust,” as appeared in the August 20, 1984 issue of People magazine with Richard Burton on the cover.” (This was a “Picks and Pans” review of the Cowboy’s latest album—a pick, happily.)

Bowie was contrite. He’d “chewed off” Stardust’s name for his own plastic rock ‘n’ roll star to use, and now here was the original Stardust Cowboy, so broke he couldn’t buy a computer to see his own website. “When I read on his site that he thought that because I’d borrowed his name that, at least I should sing one of his songs, I got guilty and wanted to make amends immediately,” Bowie told LiveWire. “So I covered one of his best songs, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,’ although he sings ‘Spacecraft’ on the record.”*

Talking up the Ledge also fit in with Bowie’s “outsider music” designs. He was the guest editor of the June 2002 issue of Mojo, where he commissioned pieces about various things that had caught his eye over the decades (he wrote a tribute to The Ledge himself), and was the curator of the 2002 Meltdown, whose performers he chose partly for their weirdness (that said, Coldplay and Pete Yorn made the cut). “Being an editor for just one day is a lovely excuse to clean out the closet. I found all my old Legendary Stardust singles in there, all on Mercury, and that got me into a quiet reverie or two,” he wrote. “Along with Wild Man Fischer and solo Syd Barrett, the Ledge was instrumental in creating, unwittingly, the now current Outsider Music genre. Mr. Stardust takes the title of World’s Most Influential Cult Artist in my small world for maybe obvious reasons.”

Like Bowie’s Daniel Johnston analogue “Wood Jackson,” the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was everything you’d want from “outsider” music—obscurity; an insane-seeming singer wholly devoted to (or consumed by) his persona, and whose music was both fascinating and unbearable. To Jools Holland, Bowie said the Cowboy’s singles “were unbelievably atrocious but in that wonderful way that you couldn’t stop listening to them.” One of the Ledge’s guitarists, Frank Novicki, once said that “Norman can’t carry a tune, and he doesn’t really sing in time, but you don’t have to know any of that stuff to be good at music. Boy, is he proof of that.”

ledge

When Bowie came to America for the first time, in January 1971 on a promotional tour, he was hungry for new, weird records. Ron Oberman, the Mercury promo man who met Bowie at Dulles Airport, passed on the Ledge’s three Mercury singles. “Back home, I choked on ‘Paralyzed,’ gasped in awe at ‘Down in the Wrecking Yard’ and fell all about the floor at ‘I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship,’” wrote Bowie in Mojo. “It was the laugh of love. I could not believe that such a talent was unrecognized…I became a lifelong fan, and Ziggy got a surname.

Born in 1947, Norman Odam came from Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly’s hometown; a school friend was the singer/guitarist Joe Ely, who once called the Ledge West Texas’ finest jazz musician. Odam would stand on the steps of Monterrey High School, singing stuff like “My Underwear Froze Down to the Clothesline,” sometimes getting pelted by hard candy, pennies and clods of dirt thrown by unimpressed classmates. Seeing Odam perform in the 2000s, Ely said that the Cowboy’s set list hadn’t changed that much from the steps of Monterrey.

Inspired by Tiny Tim’s appearances on the Tonight Show, the Ledge set off for New York in 1968, only to wind up stuck in Fort Worth. Two vacuum cleaner salesmen, awed by a gonzo Cowboy performance at a nightclub, hustled him into a local recording studio, where a 21-year-old T. Bone Burnett and another engineer had been up all night and were on the verge of hallucinating, Burnett recalled. The salesmen waved some money around, so Burnett rigged up two microphones and put a fresh tape reel on the deck. He got behind the drums. The Ledge told him “play in the same tempo I’m singing in” and they were off: the result was “Paralyzed.” “The only thing I wanted was to write a song that was wilder than anything Elvis had ever done. His music was too slow for me!” the Ledge recalled decades later. After a Burnett drum solo that seemed intended to make Keith Moon’s work on “Happy Jack” look staid, Odam played a cracked-sounding bugle for a few bars. Along with his war whoops, it was as if he was playing both sides of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Above the studio was a radio station, KXOL. Burnett took the tape upstairs as a joke but the DJ flipped out (he allegedly screamed “this is IT! This is the NEW MUSIC!”) and started playing “Paralyzed” on air. Fort Worthers, wondering what in hell they’d just heard on the radio, kept requesting the song. A Fort Worth music impresario, “Major Bill Smith,” soon became the Ledge’s “manager” and pressed a single that led to a deal with Mercury, which released “Paralyzed” nationally. It cracked the US Top 200 and landed the Ledge on Laugh-In, where the smug comedians treated him like a freak.

laughin

And like The Uncle Floyd Show, the Ledge struck out in the major leagues. A musicians’ union strike in early 1969 meant that none of the other TV variety shows could book live musicians (the Ledge qualified as “union” because he’d strummed a guitar on Laugh-In). He’d had offers from the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show and American Bandstand but he could play none of them. By the time the strike ended, “Paralyzed” was off the charts and his two other Mercury singles (including “Gemini Spaceship”) had flopped. Mercury dropped him just as another of their 1969 signings, one David Bowie, finally got a hit with “Space Oddity.”

The rest of the century was a long, bizarre epilogue: an arrest and brief jailing for vagrancy; the Ledge spooling 50 (or 52) songs’ worth of master tape down Henderson Street in Fort Worth to spite Major Bill, who was ripping him off; decades of wild club performances (where the Ledge often stripped down to his underwear) and a few more records in which the Ledge assembled a pick-up band, got them in the studio and started to sing, forcing the band to chase him. By 2001, the Ledge was working as a security guard at a defense plant and living with eight roommates in an apartment in San Jose’s Evergreen Valley. “Two stop signs and nine traffic lights from the freeway,” he told the reporter Brad Kava.

bowieledge

Was he a musical influence as well?

Bowie: (laughs) Not really. Have you heard the records? They are out there. He has great integrity: he has no idea that any judgements will be made on what he does or delivers…there’s an incredible naivety to him. He really is solidly outside. He’s quite spectacularly outside.

Radio 4 interview.

Bowie chose his Stardust Cowboy cover well: he couldn’t have done anything with “Paralyzed” besides seem ridiculous and ordinary. But “I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship” was melancholy, sad, mysterious. It was a metaphor for Odam’s life in West Texas, where he’d painted a map of the moon’s Sea of Tranquility on the roof of his car and would spend nights staring up at a sky that he wanted to hide in. Moon shining down/ on some little town/ and with each beam/ the same old dreeeeam. How the repeated “tomorrow nights” call back to the moonlit loneliness of Elvis’s Sun single. The self-recriminating last verse, where the Cowboy looks back “at a stardust trail leading back to yoooou.” What did I do? he moaned. The last, mumbled line sounded like “abandon you.”

“Gemini Spacehip” was a less refined Captain Beefheart. Take the Cowboy’s vocal—the outrageous pronunciations that turn names into alien beings (“Gem-uh-nee,’ “Jew-pit-err”) or the way he’ll collide phrases into another like boxcars (“I jumped into miiine-we’ll orbit the mooon”). The drummer (was it Burnett again?) obstinately kept to his clunking pattern until, as if the Cowboy’s been baiting him, he started clubbing fills for every phrase. The B-movie organ occasionally sobered up, playing lines of haunting beauty.

Bowie turned “Gemini Spaceship” into a “rave uncle” song, a sudden return to the sound of Earthling—it was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy kitted up for the festival circuit, with Bowie singing the Ledge’s words in a nightclub seducer’s croon, turning seemingly every line into an innuendo (“I shot my space gun“), while dramatically sighing, drawling and even plummeting to the absolute depths of his register (the “weeellllllll” at 3:14 is his lowest-sung note on record). He piled on glum-Gus baritone saxophone, a keening theremin, Tony Visconti-scored strings that have a touch of Bollywood in them and washes of David Torn guitar, cemented in a Visconti bassline that mainly hops along on root notes, breaking off to make a few interjections, and Matt Chamberlain as convulsive pulsebeat.

It was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy performed straight-faced, which is how the Ledge always played it. Bowie sang it a few times on stage in 2002 and bopped along to the music like some antic kid.

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Bowie, Paralyzed (L.S. Cowboy), Later With Jools Holland, 2002.
Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Space Oddity (D. Bowie), 2003.

Unlike many stories these days, this one has a happy ending. The Ledge got some decent royalty checks from the sales of Heathen and Bowie flew him and his band out to London in June 2002 for the Meltdown Festival, where he happily bewildered the British. And two months later, when Bowie’s tour hit the San Francisco area, the two met for the first time.

The Ledge, with two friends and his documentarian, a filmmaker named Tony Philputt, showed up at the Shoreline Ampitheatre, happy to find there was no charge for parking. They told the ticket counter attendant to let Bowie’s people know “the Ledge is here!” “Within five minutes, four tickets and four backstage passes came shooting out the window slot. It was great fun walking around with Norman, decked in hat, boots, garish jacket and all, amongst the kids. Got a lot of strange looks,” Philputt said.

After watching the show backstage via closed-circuit TV and regretting they hadn’t brought earplugs, the Ledge and crew got into the meet-and-greet line. Bowie entered the room and saw a man with whom he’d been obsessed since 1971. “I knew instantly that David Bowie was much more intimidated by the Ledge than vice versa,” Philputt recalled. “When he came walking into to the room, he yelled out ‘Ledge!’ and ran to him to try and hug him. And Norman was having none of that—he stepped back slightly and David ended up giving him the two hands on the arms squeeze as opposed to a full hug. And they just stood around taking pictures, and Bowie had this grin on his face like somebody had just handed him a syringe of the sweetest smack in the world.

So dreams do come true (though more for David Jones of Bromley than for Norman Odam of Lubbock, who calmly took Bowie’s fanboy effusions as payment long overdue). And if anything, the whole story just serves to show just how damned normal Bowie is, relatively speaking.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. A “Deepsky’s Space Cowboy” remix appeared on the promo US 12″ single for “Everyone Says ‘Hi.'”

* Wonderfully, the Cowboy’s website refers to the song as “I Took a Trip (On a Space Shuttle).” I like the idea that the song will continue to molt over the next centuries (“I Took a Trip (On a Generational Starliner to Alpha Centauri)”).

Sources: Irwin Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z (excerpted on Perfect Sound Forever); “Flesh-and-Blood Ziggy Stardust Inspiration Gets Gig on Bowie Bill,” Brad Kava, San Jose Mercury News, 12 June 2002; “Out on a Ledge: The Legend of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy,” Richard Skanse, Texas Music Magazine, Winter 2003.

Top: Ian Cowe, “Local bus, Karachi, Pakistan, August 2001″; Ledge on Laugh-In, 1968; meeting of Stardust and Starman, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Santa Clara, 14 August 2002; a Ledge performance ca. late 2000s.


Wood Jackson

July 31, 2014

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Wood Jackson.

[The Legendary Stardust Cowboy] is an outsider artist, he’s playing with a different deck of cards…[and] Daniel Johnston is like a one-man Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking. He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.

Bowie to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, 2002.

I bet you never knew
What I went through
What I had to do
Just to bring you a lonely song

Daniel Johnston, “A Lonely Song.”

In early 1972, as Bowie was finishing Ziggy Stardust, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury named Roger Cardinal published a survey of “marginalized” artists, some of whom were schizophrenic and confined to mental institutions. Cardinal wanted to call his book Art Brut, honoring the term the painter Jean Dubuffet used for such artists, but his publisher blanched, wanting “something more easy to get on with the English ear.” So Cardinal went through hundreds of potential titles (one was “the art of the artless”) until settling on Outsider Art.

Given a name, the genre soon accumulated critics, collectors, exhibitions. But reviewing Cardinal’s book in the New York Times, Corrinne Robins pinpointed flaws of his approach: the conflation of surreal, obscure artists with artists who suffered from schizophrenia; the treatment of these artists as Noble Madmen (with an element of the freakshow to it); the idea of “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, as being more “pure” than the contemporary art scene. As Dubuffet said in 1951, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”

Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of outsider purity further blossomed, even though outsider art itself became more collected and so more valuable. It could seem as if the only remaining uncorrupted artists were Sunday painters, odd grandmothers, troubled children, Jesus enthusiasts, recluses and hermits, few of whom were recognized in their lifetime. And at its best, outsider art truly was visionary and astonishing: James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a new Ark of the Covenant that Hampton built in a rented garage (see below), or Henry Darger‘s 15,145-page illustrated epic The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.*

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I think David thought that he was more practical and that they were loonier artists in the real sense of artists as madmen. He felt guilty. Because David was never a madman [and] how could you be a really good artist without being a madman? And now he had two of the maddest madmen in the world, one on each arm.

Danny Fields, on Bowie’s recruitment of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in 1971.

Bowie had become taken with “outsider” painters while working up Leon/Outside in the mid-Nineties (visiting the Gugging Clinic’s artist wing with Eno), but his affinities for musical outsiders went much further back. As a teenager, he sought out the professional or actual deranged, in part inspired by a favorite book of his adolescence, Frank Edwards’ Strange People, a chronicle of various real or fictional persons who had ESP or third eyes or who’d been struck by lightning and now could talk to ghosts.

His love of oddballs like Biff Rose and Ken Nordine, and of the “feral” Iggy Pop, stemmed from this. He savored performers who lived in their own bright, strange worlds, whose moves didn’t seem calculated, whereas his entire career had been nothing but calculation. His discovery of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was another glorious find (and of course Ziggy Stardust was the marriage of Iggy and “The Ledge”). Bowie was fascinated by the singer. Was “The Ledge” a put-on, or was he actually insane? Did he really think he could sing? Was he a genius or some talentless clown? The Cowboy’s appearance on Laugh-In offers the 1968 equivalent of a crowd baiting a medieval fool. (See next entry.)

Punk and indie rock purists (I’ve been and known some in my time) followed a similar route. The more obscure and penniless the band, the more mentally disturbed the singer, the better. It became a game of oneupmanship: who can find the biggest unknown weirdo? When I visited an old high-school friend in Chicago in 1995, he pulled out a cassette from “this unbelievable fucked-up amazing homeless dude” and played me Wesley Willis. Every song seemed to have the same refrain: Kurt-Co-bain, Kurt Co-bain; Re-tard bus, re-tard bus. “It’s amazing, amazing,” he said, laughing a bit too hard. Something felt off about it all—sitting in his brick-walled loft apartment in Wicker Park (we were far away from the old punk days by now), listening to and laughing at a man who sounded mentally disturbed.

The tunes they call creative when they’re running out of names…

kurt-cobain-hi-how-are-you-alien-tshirt

“Wood Jackson,” though Bowie didn’t quite admit it to Paul Du Noyer, was his tribute to the musician Daniel Johnston. (The name possibly came from an SF pulp writer; another Nicholas Pegg suggestion, a reoccurring private eye character of the mystery writer M. Scott Michel (“Wood Jaxon”), seems less likely, though as it is Bowie, you can’t write anything off).

Born in 1961, Johnston kicked around the country and wound up in Austin, Texas, where he worked at McDonald’s and was a musician who handed out demo cassettes; sometimes, as Bowie mentioned, he bartered with his tapes for comics. Taken up by Austinites, who have a studied taste for the eccentric, Johnston appeared in a few local concert films and was recruited by the New York producer/musician Kramer, with whom he recorded his first professional record, 1990. His reputation was made on his self-recorded cassettes of the Eighties, though, particularly Hi, How Are You, whose cover Kurt Cobain often sported as a t-shirt.

Johnston suffered from manic depression and suffered schizophrenic episodes. Convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, he nearly killed himself and his father in 1990 by yanking the keys from the ignition of a two-seater plane, forcing his father to land the stalled plane in a forest. Committed to a mental institution after causing an old woman to leap from a two-story window (he was trying to exorcise demons from her), Johnston also rejected a deal by Elektra Records (the label of Metallica, whose music he considered Satanic) to keep issuing his own tapes.

These stories gilded his legend. “When a child hits a piano, he makes untainted music, and that’s there in Daniel,” Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce once said. This “untainted” art ideal went back to the counterculture and far beyond—the idea of the child’s nascent creativity as a pure state, untouched by ambition or money or labels or journalists. The child may not know how to draw a straight line, but what matter? A bourgeois sniffing in a gallery that a child could draw that! was a badge of honor for modern painters.**

Everything about Johnston—his wavering, sometimes-tuneless voice; his lack of interest in production “values”; his vivid imaginative world (which resembled Henry Darger’s with its battles of light and dark by cartoon avatars); his artless, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“hearts upon his sleeve and his blade,” as Bowie sang)—was a rebuke to the singer who takes two weeks to cut a lead vocal, the guitarist who’s deliberately referencing John Fahey in a riff, the lyricist who makes Sartre references or spins intricate rhyme schemes. He was an artist’s “anti-artist.”

As Sean O’Hagan wrote, this all removed Johnston’s agency, ignored his intelligence and his own self-awareness, to make of him a sort of Holy Fool for indie music. To wax how “untainted” Johnston’s music is, to rack up the stories of his breakdowns and institutionalizations as if they were batting statistics, is to diminish Johnston as a human being, making him some primitivist art project for your secret benefit. You hear something in Johnston—a deep privacy, an inner richness that dwarfs your own—and you eagerly pass him on to others, and soon it’s easy to regard him as an exotic object; you become a collector, a Victorian slum-tourist, despite your best intentions. But Johnston was aware of the game. Listening to Johnston’s songs, you can hear cynicism and sadness, a weariness at life and the role he’s been assigned in it.

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Released as a B-side but recorded in the Heathen sessions, Bowie’s “Wood Jackson” had ties to “Uncle Floyd,” another song about an obscure “savant” figure who never quite made prime time. If “Wood Jackson” was Bowie’s interpretation of a Johnston song, rather than cutting it on four-track or a boombox cassette, he made his track as spacious as a three-story house. It was as though he was making the song that Johnston was hearing in his head.

Bowie also couldn’t resist playing on his own history, with references to “The Bewlay Brothers” (“to tayke away“) and “All the Madmen” (see Tony Visconti’s recorder accompaniment). It’s a man going back over old ground, looking for landmarks. “Bewlay” and “Madmen” were songs about his lost half-brother, his odes to madness, his pledges of allegiance to the raving men who lived in a way that he couldn’t. As with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, all Bowie could do was tip his hat to Johnston and use him as the meat of a song.

It opens with Jordan Rudess on Hammond organ, a grand version of the toy organ Johnston would use. A Matt Chamberlain drum loop, Visconti’s bass and David Torn’s sliding, spectral lead guitar are other main players. Bowie’s Wood Jackson is both Christlike (taking beatings, being threatened by mobs) and Satanic, giving away his cassettes in exchange for souls. Such a shay-hay-hayme, Bowie sings. Jackson just wants to play: he just wants to be heard, not pitied or honored.

Back when Heathen seemed like one of Bowie’s last records, a track like “Wood Jackson” had finality—it was the last word on old obsessions: the raving men, the mad saints, those who’d burned more brightly than him. And it was a confession of sorts: he’d used these sad, lonely men for his own ends, he’d tasted their madness and their eccentricities, and had stolen from them happily. Now he was saying goodbye, shuffling off, wishing them well.

One of his saddest and loveliest B-sides, with its autumnal vocal melody, its jostling rhythms (see how the shaker and congas play off each other, or how the late-arriving acoustic guitar serves as another percussion line) and its gorgeous tapestry of organ, guitar and backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti), “Wood Jackson” still seems one of Bowie’s last chapters, regardless of where it now falls in his work.

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Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a CD bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single.

* The influence of Darger on early 21st Century pop culture is near-inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run to a photo spread in Rookie and so on.

** I have a London friend whose mother was rather set in her ways. He took her once to the Tate Gallery and she spent the entire trip tromping from painting to painting, each time saying loudly, “Well, I could’ve done that!” After a time he started mumbling “but you didn’t, did you” under his breath. “Never take your mother to an art gallery,” he said afterward.

Sources, quotes: Robins, “A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NYT, 8 April 1973; Willem Volkersz, “Roger Cardinal on Outsider Art,” Raw Vision No. 22; Fields quote from Marc Spitz’s Bowie; O’Hagan, “At War With His Demons…and Metallica,” Observer, 1 April 2006.

Top: Darger, “GIGANTIC ROVERINE WITH YOUNG ALL POISONOUS ALL ISLANDS OF UNIVERSAN SEAS AND OCEANS. ALSO IN CALVERINA ANGELINIA AND ABBIEANNA,”; Hampton’s Throne; Kurt Cobain sporting Daniel Johnston t-shirt, ca. 1992; more Darger; Simon Sparrow (b. West Africa, c. 1925; d. USA, 2000), Assemblage with Painted Frame.


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