Liza Jane Redux

April 18, 2014

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Just a quick note: the blog’s taking a break until around May 2 or so. So have a happy rest-of-April.

I’m going to be in Seattle for the EMP’s 2014 Pop Conference, where I’ll be offering “Liza Jane: a Mongrel’s Ramble Through the 20th Century” on Saturday 26 April, at 10:45 AM (unfortunately, I’m scheduled directly against a friend’s presentation that I was quite looking forward to hearing: such are the minor cruelties of life).

This presentation is an elephantine version of the first entry of the book. It’s a recounting of the odd, twisted history of the song “Liza Jane” or “Little Liza Jane,” a tale whose supporting actors include Bowie, Huey “Piano” Smith, Fats Domino, Edward Everett Hale, the Countess Ada de Lachau, Nina Simone, Jean Toomer, Stepin Fetchit, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Ruth St. Denis, Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, Duane Eddy and Levon Helm, among others.

Looking forward to finally digging into Heathen once I get back. All best.


Nature Boy

April 7, 2014

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Nature Boy (Nat King Cole).
Nature Boy (Nat King Cole, live).
Nature Boy (Bowie).
Nature Boy (Bowie and Massive Attack).

When I was young I dreamed of a boy searching for God. Now I am old and dream of God searching for a boy.

eden ahbez, 1977.

One spring night in Los Angeles in 1947, a strange man on a bicycle tried to go backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. Thwarted, he gave Cole’s manager Mort Ruby a soiled, rolled-up score which Ruby passed on to Cole, noting that it came from a man who, with his shoulder-length hair and tunic, resembled Jesus Christ.

Cole read the score, was taken with the song, began singing it live. As it played well with audiences, Cole wanted to record it but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address. After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR copy) found ahbez camped underneath one of the “L”s of the Hollywood sign.

As Space Age Pop notes, Cole perceived that beneath the vaguely-mystic parable of the lyric was a catchy Yiddish tune (ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle, a Jew in Brooklyn in 1908). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, allowing Cole to leisurely scale ahbez’s wide intervals (e.g., the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”), Cole recorded ahbez’s “Nature Boy” on 22 August 1947. By the following summer it was a #1 pop hit, covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra and parodied by Red Ingle’s Unnatural Seven. Cole made “Nature Boy” a standard and it in turn made him. Thanks to its success (and that of “The Christmas Song,” cut around the same time), Cole was no longer the sharp leader of an adventurous modern jazz trio but a mainstream crooner, a figure too easily written off in jazz histories.1

The Wild Eyed Boy lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life. He loves the mountain and the mountain loves him. I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure.

David Bowie, on “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” 1969.

“Nature Boy” made ahbez as well, got him written up in Life, Time and Newsweek. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was the first postwar media hippie, a transition figure between Wandervogel nature cults and the gestating counterculture (in the Sixties, ahbez would hang out with Donovan, have his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attend Beach Boys Smile sessions). He was one of a group of bohemians (“Gypsy Boots” was another) living around LA at the time, promoting vegetarianism, health food and outdoor living and basically drafting modern California. Ahbez’s look, his “Eastern” philosophies and his live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos were a primer for at least one generation (some say R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him).

After selling a few more songs to Cole, ahbez (he said only God was entitled to capital letters) recorded his first album in 1960: Eden’s Island, the sort of beatnik exotica that the young David Jones of Bromley treasured (see another of Bowie’s teenage favorites, Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz albums). Ahbez’s East Coast counterpart was Moondog, a jazz composer who dressed up as a Viking warrior and stood on the street in midtown Manhattan (Bowie was delighted to see Moondog upon first visiting New York in 1971). But though ahbez and Gypsy Boots and Moondog were reduced to jokes, cast as court jesters for the space age, their mere appearance on a TV talk show or in some Time feature, or even just the slow, questing melody of “Nature Boy” on yet another recording of it, was a rebuke for a culture consumed with death, sex and merchandising. You don’t have to live like you think you have to.

Ahbez lived in LA for the rest of his life, watched it become the world he’d offered in the Forties, watched that world fade away in turn. He spent his last years preparing a final statement, a book and an album, both of which he never finished. He died at the age of 86 in 1995, reportedly after being struck by a car.

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Like most songwriters worth their salt, ahbez had a magpie’s ear. For “Nature Boy,” he took his melody from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 and probably from “Shvayg Mayn Harts,” a Yiddish pop song from 1935. The latter’s composer, Herman Yablokoff, sued ahbez, who called to protest, saying the melody had come to him while he was up in the California mountains, “as if angels were singing it,” to which Yablokoff replied that if angels had been singing it, “they must have bought a copy of my song.” (They settled out of court.)

“Nature Boy” had no refrains, just two 16-bar verses, with only slight harmonic and melodic differences between the latter. Its D minor progression offered a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roaming over land and sea in the middle bars and feinted at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Despite its legendary first appearance on a soiled piece of parchment (as though ahbez had written “Nature Boy” up on a mountain like some Epistle to the Californians), the song showed evidence of more painstaking craft, of ahbez spending nights at a piano to assemble the song: take how most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on).

What Cole and later interpreters like John Coltrane and Bowie found was that the song, already rhythmically free, allowed freedom of movement on other fronts: you could twist and belabor the vocal melody all you’d like, or you could stick to ahbez’s notes over an assault on his chord structures (if you were Coltrane, you did both). For Cole, a hip musician who’d become the voice of Brylcreem America in the Fifties, singing “Nature Boy” was a way of letting his inner hipster self out to play for a few minutes. For Coltrane, who recorded the song twice in 1965, “Nature Boy” served notice that he was done with the earth and was off to annex space.

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That’s why we’ve got audiences who clap and cheer at the songs in cinemas. They’re not cheering the projectionist. What they are doing is communing with everyone else in the room and saying, ‘Ha ha ha. I get it, too.”

Baz Luhrmann.

As Bowie was recording Toy in 2000, the Australian director Baz Luhrmann was filming Moulin Rouge, a musical in which Belle Epoque France bohemians sing Elton John, T. Rex and Labelle songs.

Luhrmann, never low in ambition, said he aimed to reinvent the musical and restore it to its former populist role. Take Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in Saint Louis, he said.The film’s set in 1904 but its music is mostly Forties big-band Hollywood. “In an old musical, the audience had a relationship with the music before they went in [the theater],” Luhrmann said. They’d heard the songs in other contexts, in a stage musical or on the radio or in another film. So in Moulin Rouge when Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman fall in love by singing the refrains of a dozen pop songs (“I Will Always Love You,” “Silly Love Songs,” “I Was Made for Loving You,” “Love Is Like Oxygen” etc.) to each other, it’s pop as a common emotional language, the sequence is a love song meant more for the audience than the characters. And the mash-ups of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge sequences, with “Lady Marmalade,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Offenbach’s “Can Can” overlapping on the soundtrack, predicted the anarchy of a random YouTube playlist.

Luhrmann originally wanted to use Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” to open his film but Stevens turned him down, citing religious objections. Bowie, who’d already agreed to let Luhrmann use “Heroes” and “Diamond Dogs“, offered to sing “Nature Boy” as a new opener. As it happened, Stevens’ rejection helped Luhrmann clarify his film. “Nature Boy” became Moulin Rouge‘s theme song, its last line a motif for his storyline.

Yet the bohemians of Luhrmann’s film (John Leguizamo as a grotesque caricature of Toulouse-Lautrec, McGregor as a sunnier Frédéric Moreau) were far from the world of eden ahbez. This was bohemia as a visual shorthand—ratty clothes, cold-water flats, tasteful drug use, tasteful sex, noble pure-heart characters set against corrupted squares—and it owed an unacknowledged debt to Jonathan Larson’s Rent (both musicals had used Puccini’s La Boheme for their plot). You could say ahbez’s Life profile in 1948 had begun this, the sense of fashioning a bohemian life from a few magazine features and well-chosen songs. Moulin Rouge suggested any viable counterculture was gone, was now kitsch, was just one color in a catalog, a specialty TV channel. It was play-acting by beautiful people, which perhaps bohemia always was.

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Still, there remained “Nature Boy,” odd and unassimilable. Neither of Bowie’s takes on the song were integral to the film (Leguizamo sang “Nature Boy” in the opening; McGregor sang its last line throughout). Bowie’s “orchestral” version was only heard, mixed distantly, in a few shots, while the take that he cut with Massive Attack, slotted for the end credits, was ditched because “Bowie and Massive ended up being so dark [while] we had to resurrect the audience during the credits,” Luhrmann said.

In Bowie’s “orchestral” version of “Nature Boy,” he tinkers with the melody in the expected way, alters a few phrasings, changes a few emphases: he sidesteps the expected rise on “very far,” stresses fools rather than kings. It’s “Nature Boy” as a European art song, Bowie gravely responding to the various scarlet moods of Craig Armstrong’s orchestration. Yet just when the song’s about to tastefully wind down, Bowie gives a pole-vault for a last note: “RETUUUUURRRRN!” It’s a welcome grand dame moment, up there with “Lady Grinning Soul” in Bowie closing grandiosities.

It also was close to ahbez’s intended reworking of his song. Up until his death, ahbez had recorded tracks with the engineer Joe Romersa, including a new version of “Nature Boy” that reflected what he’d taken in over the long haul. “He said to me, ‘Joe, that lyric, ‘To love and be loved in return’… it’s too much of a deal. There’s no deal in love.’ He wanted it to say, The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just love and be loved,’” Romersa said in an interview. “The final recording would’ve also altered the melody slightly, with “Nature Boy” rising up in a grand Ben Hur-like cadence that reflects love’s ultimate triumph.” As ahbez’s version has never been released, Bowie’s should suffice.

The Bowie/Massive Attack “Nature Boy,” mainly the work of Robert “3D” Del Naja, starts like a machine waking itself up. A repeating two-note bassline becomes a pulsebeat and a few other characters appear: a three-note phrase on plucked strings, an ebb-and-flow synth figure. Bowie’s set back in the mix. His voice sounds sped up, thinned out, reduced to a texture. He’s a gear in a clock; his phrasings and his melodic choices are minor colors in the mix. His “he passed my way” is now somber, his rise on “many things” is washed out by the roar of a guitar loop. And his last line’s drained of any drama or triumph. It’s just Bowie slowly singing the words as if he’s trying to piece together a memory. It’s enough; the song still shines in the box Del Naja built to house it. In its last seconds comes Kidman’s whispered “I love you.” As ahbez said, just love and be loved.

Recorded (Bowie vocal) ca. February 2001, Looking Glass Studios?, prod. Visconti; (orchestra) ca. late 2000, Sydney, Craig Armstrong: conductor/arranger; (Massive Attack version) (Bowie vocal) February 2001, New York; (music, mixing Del Naja) London. Both versions were released 8 May 2001 on the Moulin Rouge OST (Interscope 06949 3035 2).

Sources: Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island”; Jack Gottlieb’s Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish; Life, 10 May 1948; Harvey Kubernik’s interview with Luhrmann (collected in Hollywood Shack Job); Brian Chidester, “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.

1: That said, Cole made the occasional great jazz record well into his mainstream days (see “I Know That You Know,” with Stuff Smith, from 1957).

Other recommended naturals: Etta Jones (1963), James Brown (1965), Peggy Lee (1948), Miles Davis (1955 w/Mingus, Teddy Charles, Elvin Jones), Big Star (1975), Milt Jackson Big 4 (1975), George Benson (1977), Kurt Elling (1996).

Top: The new vice president and his wife take a spin, 20 January 2001; ahbez and Sinatra, ahbez and Cole (both 1948); McGregor and Kidman, Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann, 2001).


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.

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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

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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

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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).

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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?

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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.

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‘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.

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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

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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.

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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.


End of Chapter Nine (1996-1999)

February 3, 2014

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That time again. Note for newish readers: these “chapter end” posts are a chance to sit back and assess the most recent period we’ve gone through in Bowie’s life. They’re also, blessedly, a means for me to not write the blog for a week. So say goodbye to the Nineties: list your favorites from the Bowie/Nine Inch Nails duets to Reeves Gabrels’ “Jewel” (so, all of Earthling and ‘Hours‘).

A tough period to assess (the toughest?). My top 10, as of this morning:

Something In the Air.
Dead Man Walking.
I’m Afraid of Americans.
Little Wonder.
Suite For a Foggy Day.
Looking For Satellites.
Survive.
Battle For Britain (the Letter).
Truth.
Seven Years in Tibet.

Top: Ted Barron, “South Third Street, Brooklyn, 1997.”


Jewel

January 31, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.


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