Turn to the dramatic field. You have so much sympathy and such a melodious voice. Make them valuable to others. It will make your powers endure…You have this quality in your eyes and mouth and in your nature. You can lose it, you know. If you turn away from it and live to satisfy yourself alone, it will go fast enough.
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie.
It’s 1994, and a nine-year-old girl is auditioning for a role in the Robin Williams picture Jumanji. The mannerisms of the famous actress, here glimpsed in the child that she had little interest in being for long: the unimpressed stare, the gravely voice, the calm self-possession.
Scarlett Ingrid Johansson is a New Yorker, born and bred, from a ‘professional creative’ home (mother a producer, father an architect, sister an actress). She has been acting essentially her whole life. She’s made over 40 films and is barely 30 years old.
The fact is most of the things that people know about me are made up. My own life is backstage. So what you “know” about me is only what I allowed you to know about me. So it’s like a ventriloquist act. And it’s also a way of safely keeping your personal life out of your business. Which is healthy and essential.
Tom Waits said this (and David Bowie easily could have). But its sentiment applies to Johansson as well. While her life’s been mild sport for the tabloids (some high-profile affairs, the obligatory short-lived marriage to a handsome nonentity), she stands outside of it, in her way. She’s not on Twitter garrulously cultivating a fanbase; she’s on terms solely with the camera lens. She does the usual round of promotions for each film and offers her curated self, while hinting that something else is going on that you, desperate viewer, have no claim on. That while extolling whatever picture she’s working on, she’s humming a Tom Waits song in her head.
She’d wanted to act in musicals but never got the Annie or Cosette-type roles she craved, in part due to having a deep voice even as a child. (Her singing “would have been slightly jarring for the audience,” she recalled. “But after the 500th performance [of Annie], maybe it would have been interesting to break out a little, with this pigtailed blonde-haired girl with this crazy voice.“) So “by the time I turned 13, I kind of buried that part of myself,” she said.
Instead she spent her life on soundstages and location shoots, growing up on movie and TV screens, moving from the wry, already-old kid (Manny and Lo), (“she shrugged off childhood as if it had been a bad shirt,” as David Thomson wrote) to object of mysterious desire for sad middle-aged men (Lost in Translation, Girl With a Pearl Earring) to high summer glamour goddess (the Woody Allen movies). Today she’s mainly an action film star, playing both hero and killer. I expect she’ll make films for another half-century.
In 2006, Johansson cut a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” for Unexpected Dreams, a tribute album distributed by Rhino, who liked the track and asked her to record an album. It was a canny move by Rhino—Johansson had some “indie” cred, she’d obviously be great for promotions and there’d always been a revolving door between acting and pop singing (in the Fifties, it would’ve been expected that a young actress would release albums between films).
Further, she was growing more confident as a singer, recording duets with Pete Yorn (the album, The Break Up, was released in 2009) and singing with the Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella. She also had come to embrace the absurdity and unfairness of stardom. She was a famous person who’d landed a record contract mainly because she was famous, when so many hundreds of more talented singers struggled in obscurity, and she knew that she’d be belittled by the likes of Perez Hilton for whatever record she made. So if she was going to make a self-indulgent album, then let it be indulgent.
“At first, I thought I would just do an album of standards. But then I couldn’t figure out which standards to do. I did know, though, that I wanted to record this Tom Waits song called “I Never Talk to Strangers,” which is a duet that he does with Bette Midler. But I think it was kind of confusing for some people, because they couldn’t understand how a Tom Waits song could fit in with a Cole Porter song and stuff, and it turned into, ‘Why don’t we just incorporate more Tom Waits songs into this?’ So I just decided to do an entire album of Tom Waits songs.”
She’d first heard Waits when she was 11 or 12, she told Interview. “It’s funny how the songs mean something different to me now than they did when I first heard them. I remember listening to the songs when I was a kid and laughing. Some of them are almost silly in a way, like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” When you’re 12, that means something completely different to you than when you actually recognize that there’s a grown man singing that song. Just listening to certain songs, like “I’ll Shoot the Moon“—they’re very opusy and attractive for a kid, in the same way that Alice in Wonderland would be or something.”
She started by doing some sessions with jazz musicians, recording a few Waits compositions, but the mood was wrong. “It all sounded awful,” she said. “I realized that trying to recreate Tom Waits’ sound with my voice…it just sounded really camp. I knew what kind of sound I wanted in my head, but I realized that I needed someone to help me get there.”
So she sought out Dave Sitek from TV On the Radio (of whom she was a fan). They clicked, and had similar ideas for the record. Sitek saw the chance to cut a Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra-esque record (the dream of seemingly every indie dude in the 2000s—Pete Yorn envisioned The Break Up as his and Johansson’s Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot album), as a way “to make a cinematic record with an actress and have zero concern with being ambitious in the music business way,” he told Tiny Mix Tapes in 2008. “We made it for each other, just to try it out and see what happens…She didn’t care if it was ever even mentioned in Pitchfork (it would be), and that was a really wild freedom to have. It seems really ballsy to me, especially since Tom Waits is a sacred cow.”
Cut during five weeks in late spring 2007 at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, the album (Anywhere I Lay My Head) featured mainly latter-day Waits compositions. Covering the jazzy, more melodic Waits songs seemed almost too easy a task (there’d be no Johansson takes on “Downtown Train” or “Muriel”). Instead, Sitek and Johansson drew from the likes of Bone Machine, Alice (including the instrumental “Fawn,” which wonderfully led off the album sequence) and Real Gone.
As if possessed by the spirit of Daniel Lanois on Dylan’s Oh Mercy, Sitek went for what he called a “cough medicine tinker-bell vibe,” which meant Johansson’s voice would be one strain in a genteel clatter: Tibetan bowls, music boxes, pump organs, bass harmonicas, kalimbas, cicada buzzes.
Asked by Amanda Petrusich about the recording in 2006, Waits said “I read about it in the paper…more power to her…I don’t know if I’m excited to hear it, but I’m curious. People make songs so that somebody else will hear them and want to do them. I guess it’s an indication that the songs aren’t so ultra-personal that they can’t possibly be interpreted by anyone else. I’ve seen her in movies. I don’t know what she’s going to do with the tunes.”
“When I first wanted to do the Bette Midler-Tom Waits duet, I was thinking about who would I duet with, who would make it interesting. I thought, Maybe, you know, David Bowie,” Johansson told Interview. “I thought it would be great if he could sing the Waits part—or if he could sing the Bette Midler part and I could sing the Waits part, or something like that. I mean, a duet with David Bowie: that was, like, my 13-year-old fantasy.”
Bowie and Johansson acted in the same film, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (though they had no scenes together). Afterward they met at a dinner in New York, where Bowie said he’d heard she was working with Sitek. “So I jokingly said, “You know, let me know if you want to come! Anytime—I’ll drive you!” And then one day when I was in Spain shooting [Vicky Cristina Barcelona], I got this call from Dave, and he was like, “You’ll never guess who I have in the studio right now.”
Bowie showed up at Avatar Studios during the album mixing, having obtained the sheet music and having worked out his vocal arrangements. Sitek had suggested that he sing on “Falling Down” and “Fannin Street,” which Bowie approved of, and “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” on which he believed he couldn’t do anything, and was likely right.
“Fannin Street,” which Waits wrote for John Hammond and recorded himself in 2006, drew on Leadbelly’s song of the same title. Waits shifted his song west to Texas, singing of Houston’s Fannin Street, where Leadbelly had sung of Shreveport, Louisiana’s red-light district, which he’d been drawn to as a boy in the 1900s. Waits’ song was a dissolute’s lament, a man recalling a warning he knew he’d never heed, with a refrain melody that seemed fished from a riverbed. “Fannin Street” for Leadbelly was an escape, a place where the night never ended. His mama tells him to stay away, he tells her to let him go: life’s waiting there for him. For Waits’ singer, Fannin Street is a temptation and a damnation. There’s no joy here, even a corrupt one; there’s just a closed, gilded door.
Johansson sang it simply, keeping to her comfortable low register, her voice slipping into the murk on her lowest notes. She cedes the lamenting to Bowie, whose four-part harmonies build into, in the closing refrain, a gorgeous piece of hysteria. He’s mourning her fall; she accepts it. Waits made the line “give a man gin, give a man cards/give him an inch he takes a yard” a pitying self-condemnation. Johansson makes of it a small indictment. It’s the voice of someone at the other end of the taking.
Given its line “come from St. Petersburg/Scarlett and me,” covering “Falling Down” was perhaps inevitable (‘Johansson’ and ‘Scarlett’ as two separate personae mediated by Tom Waits). Its video is the Johansson mystique “unpacked”: we see her in her dressing room, assembling herself into a movie star; she strides through her paces, impeccably beautiful (it’s the reverse of Lost In Translation—now she’s the star doing her rounds) but unknowable, refusing to drop the mask for a second, only applying further masks, not looking at the camera unless she’s being paid.
She sang “Falling Down” by pushing her voice to its limits, using for many phrases a sharp Noo Yawk accent that recalled Debbie Harry on “Just Go Away.” (“that hotel was a GAWN-UH!“) It was a feinting maneuver. Waits’ vocal (recorded in a studio session with some Little Feat members and included on the live LP Big Time) is one of his most astonishing works, exploiting the full range of his smashed jukebox of a voice—a man, a hotel, a world is in freefall, shattering itself apart, and he tries to hold it together in his breaths. Johansson moves through the wreckage, observing but not responding, watching through glass like Iggy Pop’s passenger. Bowie begins by muttering in the margins (“I’ve-come-five-hundred-miles” he whispers) and then rises to shadow her in the refrains. By the last verse he’s nearly become her equal in the mix, his voice giving a sense of loss that she refuses to admit.
Anywhere I Lay My Head came out in 2008 to modest criticisms and modest sales, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s assessment of it still rings true: “It doesn’t quite work, but it can’t quite be dismissed, either: unlike so many actor-turned-singer records, there’s not a hint of vanity to this project and it’s hard not to marvel at its ambition even as it fails.” But while Sitek’s production can already seem dated, Johansson, so earnestly blank throughout, remains alluring, her collective performance suggesting the last line of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.
As for Bowie, he cut his vocals, listened to playback, said goodbye to Sitek, went home. He wouldn’t go back in a recording studio again for over three years.
Recorded: (Johansson, musicians) ca. May 2007 at Dockside Studios, Maurice, Louisiana; (Bowie vocals) ca. late summer 2007, Avatar Studios, NYC. Released on 16 May 2008 on Anywhere I Lay My Head (UK #64, US #126).
One night in 1999, a British pianist named Clifford Slapper was walking to a gig in London. To do so, he had to go past the Astoria, where David Bowie was playing the same night. Slapper had wanted to go to the show but had his prior obligation. So instead he stopped for a moment, heard Bowie’s voice ringing out from the venue, and walked on. Later that night he returned, talked with someone who he later realized was likely Bowie’s guitarist Mark Plati, and regretted missing the gig.
But seven years later, he played piano with Bowie on a television show, so sometimes things work out.
“During production of the second season of Extras, I was contacted by the producer, Charlie Hanson, and was told that David Bowie would be flying over from New York to film an episode, and would be singing and playing the piano, but that he’d specified that he wanted an ‘English rock pianist’ to be brought in to actually play the piano track,” Slapper told me.
Extras was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to The Office. Where The Office was a sad little world, a place where failure and humiliation came as often as the rains fell on Slough, Extras was on a broader canvas. It diagnosed a wider malaise: millennial Britain’s obsession with fame (or at least notoriety), money, status.
For Gervais, Extras was a sign of his upgraded celebrity rating. The Office had a strong cult following in the US and had spawned an American version, and the BBC had partnered with HBO for Gervais and Merchant’s new series, which meant there was a substantial production budget (which likely enabled Bowie’s scene to have the entire Extras crew relocate to an actual club in Hertfordshire (see below) instead of just filming the scene on a soundstage in London, which helped Bowie avoid the paparazzi). And Gervais had acquired some famous fans, letting him stud Extras with celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet, Robert DeNiro and, of course, David Bowie.
It’s not surprising that Bowie agreed to appear on Extras, whose jaundiced sensibility and humor (its plots centered on the accumulated humiliations and grievances of Gervais’ character, striving actor Andy Millman) reminded him of what he enjoyed most about Britain. He’d loved The Rutles, screening All You Need Is Cash and playing the soundtrack for his band during his 1978 tour; he’d name-dropped Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Behind the Fridge in “Young Americans” and had spent the Low and “Heroes” sessions doing “Pete and Dud” impressions with Eno. And he’d done a few comic turns himself, from his flamboyant director “Sir Roland Moorecock” on HBO’s Dream On to his “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” on Comic Relief.
For Extras, Gervais and Merchant wrote Bowie as a figure of refined fame, an avatar of impeccable cool. The set-up had the slightly-famous Millman (he has a role in a sitcom that requires him to say a catchphrase, which he hates) visiting a high-end bar and looking for a sympathetic ear from Bowie, who, after a few nods, instead turns to a conveniently-located grand piano and performs what, until 2013, was his last public composition: “Little fat man, who sold his soul…chubby little loser…the clown that no one laughs at…he blows his stupid brains out…see his pug nosed face!”
The scenario’s brilliance lies in that it’s a fan’s worst nightmare: failing Bowie’s hip test and then being stilettoed in public. Certainly, about every account of Bowie over the past 40 years has been of a professional and charming man, whether meeting fans or greeting fellow artists or celebrities (indeed, Bowie’s often been the put-upon one, such as in his ill-fated dinner with Frank Zappa in 1978). But the Bowie mystique is such that you still fear, somehow, you’ll have failed Bowie by coming off as too eager, too boorish, too familiar, and then you’ll pay for it.
“Pug Nosed Face” (still, as of this writing, Bowie’s last television appearance) also encapsulates a common perception of Bowie the artist: someone who regards life as a collection of images to exploit, a man who can take a stray line and wind a song around it and one who can move, in a few bars, from dramatic, ominous phrases to a knees-up singalong refrain. For a time, I thought “Pug Nosed Face” would be the blog’s last entry, and it seemed fitting: Bowie going out with a bout of wickedly funny, slightly surreal cruelty.
The lyrics were already written as part of Gervais and Merchant’s script.
“I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen,” Gervais told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (switching to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice.) And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars”—and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?'”
Having received the lyric in New York, Bowie “was asked to write chords to the song and bring them over,” Slapper says. “I was also sent a script and was asked to do the same, in case he declined to do so. One of the first things that happened after we met is that he asked to see what chords I had come up with, and compared them with his. It turned out that they were almost exactly the same, which he found spooky.”
The song’s progression (which Slapper still has and recalls was in A major) was “classic” Bowie in its modulations. Hence the nearly-identical works of Bowie and Slapper, who naturally was writing in a Bowie vein, much as how Gervais and Merchant were writing a “Bowie” lyric.
“It was perfect!” Gervais recalled of the song to Rolling Stone. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”
Already in London for his performance with David Gilmour in late May 2006, Bowie filmed his Extras scene in the first week of June.
“We had one day of rehearsal and one day of filming for the scene, which was tricky as it was filmed ‘live’ (without overdubs) with a second piano off-camera for me to play, and it was important for us to synchronize so that his arm movements coincided perfectly with my playing,” Slapper says. “It soon became clear that it would be easier for him to mime to my playing if his fingers were allowed to sometimes make contact with the keys on the piano he sat at. But obviously since it was being filmed as a live performance with sound, we could not have any sound from that piano being heard. I suggested that we simply disengage the action of that piano, and showed the crew how to do this.”
“The rehearsal and filming all took place in a real nightclub [Elberts on Pegs Lane*] not far from London, which was still in use, though obviously closed down for those few days. The club was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire, which gave rise to some amusement, as I would ask the producer where we would be, and he would say “Ware”, and I would say, ‘yes, where?'”
The song was registered as a three-way split among Bowie, Gervais and Merchant, with “Pug Nosed Face” chosen as its official title (though I imagine many fans call it “Little Fat Man”—Gervais sometimes still refers to it as such in interviews).
I asked Clifford if it felt odd to know that he’d played on possibly the “last” Bowie recording until The Next Day appeared. But he corrected me in noting “this was in 2006, only about three years after Reality, so there was not that sense of a long absence or hiatus from recording on his part, as there might have been if it had been 2011. Nevertheless, I was excited and honored to play on this. Bowie was charming, intelligent, modest, efficient, creative, perceptive. He was a delight to work with: polite, funny, witty and sharp. In rehearsal, we worked out the arrangement in a way which he guided and directed whilst at the same time allowing me to express myself in the way I played it.”
“Pug Nosed Face” would be the last public image of Bowie for over six years: healthy, well-dressed, sitting in a nightclub and leading a pack of yuppies through an eviscerating song. The story could have ended here; indeed, for a time, it seemed that it really had. Not bad, as endings go.
Recorded 5-7 June 2006, Elberts, Hertford, Hertfordshire. First broadcast on BBC2 on 21 September 2006. Bowie’s brief rendition of “Pug Nosed Face” in his introduction of Gervais at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (for the Bowie-curated High Line Festival) on 19 May 2007 remains, to date, his last appearance on stage.
* Elberts relocated in 2009; the original bar is now apparently an art gallery.
Thanks again to Clifford Slapper, who’s also just published a biography of Mike Garson. This came about in part because of Extras, as when Slapper met Garson for the first time in LA in the late 2000s, “a strange and funny coincidence happened. Without knowing about my participation in Extras, Garson started to tell me a story of how he had, a couple of years earlier, enjoyed an English comedy on cable TV, and had seen David Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. Garson spoke to Bowie around that time and had joked with him about it, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me! That was some English guy playing the piano.” It was a lovely twist to be able to interrupt Mike’s musings and to say, “Well, I was that guy!” We bonded over this coincidence. Mike and I found that we had a great deal of shared experiences as pianists and as working musicians generally. After hours of conversation, on our first meeting, I pointed out what a fascinating life he’d had and how inspiring his experiences and outlook on life could be. I asked whether there were any biographies of him and he replied that there had not been any yet, but that he thought I would be the perfect person to write it. I started work on it that day.”
You can buy Clifford’s biography, Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson (Fantom Books) here (UK) and here (USA and elsewhere). Any Bowie fan should enjoy it. I regret that I wasn’t able to read it before I published my book, as it sheds a great deal of light on Garson and his playing.
Top: Bowie on set, Extras; Bowie and Gervais, NYC, 2007; Clifford Slapper and David Bowie (photo: Ray Burmiston).
David Gilmour was touring in the spring of 2006 as a solo artist, as Pink Floyd, the band whose name and leadership he’d assumed since the mid-Eighties, was finally in the grave. “I’m at liberty to play with Rick [Wright] and Nick [Mason] any time,” he said in 2001. “But the weight of the whole Pink Floyd thing is something that I don’t feel like lifting these days…I just think I’ve grown out of it. Finally.”
He and Roger Waters had sniped at each other for decades over who “owned” Pink Floyd. Waters, the band’s neurotic auteur, had left in acrimony in 1983 and Waters partisans considered the Gilmour-led, still-platinum-selling Pink Floyd to be a shell of its former self. Gilmour and Waters buried the hatchet (at least for a night) in 2005, when Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8, but Gilmour used the occasion as a public burial for the band. There were offers of £150 million for a series of reunion gigs, but Gilmour was done: no more tours, no more Floyd albums.
In 2006 Gilmour put out his first solo record in two decades, On an Island, and it hit #1 in the UK (given the collapse in record sales by 2006, if you had any sort of fanbase, you had a good shot to top the chart on your album’s release week).* He played the Royal Albert Hall for three nights at the end of May, with a band and set list full of guests—David Crosby and Graham Nash, Robert Wyatt, Phil Manzanera. And at the first show, with no fanfare or pre-show hype, David Bowie walked out on stage to help sing the encores.
Gilmour said he chose his collaborators that night from “people I grew up loving…David Bowie might not have worked with Pink Floyd,” he said in 2007. “But it fits with me.” Afterward on BowieNet, “sailor” wrote that “I had a ball tonight singing with David Gilmour and the band. He invited me up to do Arnold Layne and Uncomfortably Numb.” (Bowie felt obligated to note, in a follow-up post, that the latter title was a joke.)
Bowie’s appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, following his performances with Arcade Fire the previous autumn, hinted that he was testing the waters for a return to public life. Soon enough would come the announcements: a new album, even a new tour, perhaps? Any day now, certainly.
We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here. Particularly, of course, for Syd.
Roger Waters, Live 8, 2005, before “Wish You Were Here.”
The encore songs were both Pink Floyd pieces: two points far apart on the band’s spectrum, though symbolically linked. Both addressed the man who wasn’t there; a man who, in two months, would finally die, though he’d left the world far earlier.
“Comfortably Numb” is a moment of grace on Waters’ misanthropic The Wall, perhaps in part because Gilmour wrote most of the music. Its lyric was pure Waters: isolation as defense mechanism, using dope-induced quietude to find a lost, better self, exalted self-pity. The B minor verses found Waters in a favorite role as a manipulative bureaucrat—here, a doctor trying to revive the catatonic “Pink” and get him functioning enough to perform (inspiration came from Waters getting a tranquilizer injection before a show during the Animals tour). The Gilmour-sung D major refrain was the release, the needle hitting the vein, the clouds lifting for a moment.
Behind it all was Syd Barrett. Was there ever more heartbroken a band than Pink Floyd? Spending decades mourning a man who’d left them, making album after album in his image. “Brain Damage,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Comfortably Numb” were all Waters trying to contact his lost boyhood friend, to try to see the world as he imagined Barrett did. Barrett’s continued presence on the margins was a rebuke: the fact that he kept on living and enduring (“[Syd] found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted,” his sister Rosemary Barrett said after his death), that he didn’t need Pink Floyd a tenth as much as they apparently needed him. “When people called [Syd] a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them,” as Rosemary Barrett said.
Bowie struggled to find his footing in “Comfortably Numb,” in part because he was miscast for the verses. Given the near-conversational melody that Waters wrote to fit his cracked recorder of a voice (it started as something of a Dylan parody, as a studio demo shows), Bowie elevated his phrasings and wound up worrying his way through the song; he’s a doctor who knows he’s a quack.
But before that he’d sung “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, a Barrett masterpiece. Though it was recorded after Bowie had cut his first album, “Arnold Layne” distilled the latter—Bowie’s little bombardier, cross-dressing barkeep and Uncle Arthur are the children of Barrett’s knicker-thief and jailbird Arnold. Bowie’s songs share Barrett’s empathy for his oddball, his knowledge that there’s little separating him from the official freaks of the world—why can’t you see? Barrett had sung to a silent England. Like “Waiting for the Man,” “Arnold Layne” could seem like a song that Bowie wished he’d written, to the point where he named his “fake” rock band the Arnold Corns in homage to it. Finally singing “Arnold Layne” here, at the apparent end of his stage career, came off as an intro melody reappearing in a closing movement.
Bowie savored the song’s Mockney rhymes (“now ‘ees CORT/a nahsty SORT,” “LAYNE..had a STRAYNGE ‘obby” (see his “The Supermen”: “straynge gaymes thay would play”) and he jibed the refrains. “Takes two to know! TWO to KNOW!” flashing a V-for-victory sign. The freaks and the oddballs had won out, or at least they’d persevered, if keeping to their own worlds, as Syd had. By 2006, Arnold Layne had become a late 20th Century saint: Bowie, Gilmour and Richard Wright sang his name over and over again in tribute.
Two months after this performance, Barrett died of complications related to diabetes. Wright died of cancer in 2008. Gilmour keeps on; he revived Pink Floyd one last time in 2014 for a scrap reclamation effort; he’s got a new album coming this year, it’ll probably hit #1. Waters tours The Wall endlessly (it’s lasted longer now than the old Berlin one). And David Bowie has never performed live in Britain again.
Recorded 29 May 2006, RAH, London. “Arnold Layne” was released 25 December 2006 as a UK/European single (EM 717), with Bowie and Rick Wright’s versions of the song and Gilmour’s take on “Dark Globe.” “Arnold Layne” and “Comfortably Numb” were released 17 September 2007 on the DVD/Blu-Ray Remember That Night: David Gilmour, Live at the Royal Albert Hall.
* For instance, see other one-week UK LP #1s of early 2006: Morrissey’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth, The Streets’ Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, etc.
Top: “Tom,” “South Bank Portrait,” London, 13 October 2006.
BOOK HYPE: As I think I’ve mentioned, the e-book version of Rebel Rebel‘s now available, for everything from Kindle to iTunes to Nook to Google Play. See the “electronic” list on the book page.
And I’ll be the guest of Evan “Funk” Davies on WFMU this Wednesday, 29 April, from 9 to midnight EDT. So tune in: there should be a lot of Bowie played. The show will be archived on Evan’s page afterward.
In 2003, Dave Sitek, a painter and musician from Brooklyn, made a score—he sold a painting to David Bowie’s doorman, who also promised to pass on Sitek’s band’s CD to his employer. His boss was impressed (their dark doo-wop version of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” may have sold him).* Two years later, Bowie was singing on a TV on the Radio track. So some advice to the ambitious young: cultivate good relations with doormen.
Sitek formed TV on the Radio with friend and fellow illustrator Tunde Adebimpe (it began as a joke, the two of them doing karaoke one night, drunk on Red Bull and vodka, Adebimpe improvising lyrics over Sitek’s beatboxing); they were eventually joined by Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and the late Gerard Smith. TVotR seemed programmed to be a band Bowie loved: most members were also visual artists and actors; they played multiple instruments and were devoted genre-minglers (Malone joined the band to “marry early ’90s noise with Usher”); they were part of a “local” NYC scene, the turn-of-the-century Williamsburg that also spawned the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whose 2003 breakthrough Fever to Tell Sitek produced).
TVotR also stood in contrast to Bowie’s other current favorite, Arcade Fire: cool and brooding (“calmer than cream,” as Adebimpe sang on “Young Liars”), where AF were boiling and frantic; offering millennial New York boho sophistication compared to the AF’s shambling Canadian glee club feel (the latter came off as “Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas,” the critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote after seeing Arcade Fire in 2007).
Enjoying their EP Young Liars, Bowie took on a mentoring role for the band, asking questions about their songwriting, boosting them on his website, listening to early mixes of their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Some of this was Bowie in his usual role as well-heeled fan. Some of it was him making up for lost time—he’d been so consumed with his own work in the past that he’d lost opportunities to develop younger acts (case in point, Devo, whose 1978 debut he’d eagerly wanted to produce but, as he was filming a movie and going off on a six-month tour, he had to turn the console over to Eno).
So when TVotR was recording Return to Cookie Mountain in summer 2005, the semi-retired Bowie offered to work on the album. “I told him, ‘If you want to come into the studio and be the boss of things, you totally can,’” Sitek told Tiny Mix Tapes in 2008. “I gave him the demos of the songs, and “Province” just really resonated with him in terms of being a relevant song to our times and what the world needed to hear. He just wanted to do it. He just showed up my studio and did it. He’s a spectacular person.” As per usual, Bowie impressed with his charm and humility. “It’s not like he landed on the roof of the building and it was ‘And now, David Bowie’,” Adebimpe recalled, while Malone added that “I never expected to be in a situation where I’m at a mixing board asking David Bowie to enunciate a consonant.”
Bowie centering on “Province” wasn’t a surprise, as the track’s lyrics (“try to breathe while the world disintegrates”), tempo and trudging, cycling chord progression suggested some Heathen tracks: Sitek’s guitar even had a few tonal similarities to Gerry Leonard’s work. Cookie Mountain was meant to be a loose collective response to mid-2000s America, a work conceived in rage but delivered in abstraction (barring a few blunt tracks, like their ode to George W. Bush, “Dry Drunk Emperor”).
The trick was how to fit Bowie into an already-dense vocal arrangement. TVotR’s first EP had the multi-tracked Adebimpe supplemented by singers Katrina Ford and Shannon Funchess, and when Malone joined for the first album, the band’s vocal tracks became meshes of two colliding lead singers (see the a capella “Ambulance”), with occasional spices from other vocalists like Ford. On “Province,” Bowie starts the first verse as the high end of the harmony (his typical guest-star role) but he’s soon overtaken by Malone in his highest register. So Bowie spends the rest of the track fighting to stay heard, sometimes echoing Adebimpe, capturing the occasional phrase, sliding in low for the refrains—it’s one of his more democratic moments.
TV on the Radio keeps on today, though the Williamsburg of their youth is gone. Sitek had to close his Stay Gold studio in 2009 after his landlord tripled the rent; today it’s the site of Brooklyn’s first J. Crew.
Recorded ca. June-August 2005, November 2005, Stay Gold Studio, Williamsburg, NYC. Released on 6 July 2006 on Return to Cookie Mountain. (In 2009, TVotR cut a version of “Heroes” for the charity CD War Child).
* Adebimpe told the NME: “We were at a gas station and Dave (Sitek) got the phone call and hung up the phone, ‘cause he thought it was our friend Julian pulling another joke: ‘Yeah, you’re David Bowie, right.’ [DB] called him back two more times and said ‘No, I’m really David Bowie.”
Book news: Rebel Rebel is now available as an e-book for a variety of readers, including Kindle & Nook. Please see the book page for links.
Some of it’s the lighting, some of it’s the TV facepaint, and hi-definition video does the face few favors, even for the photogenic. But Bowie, for the first time in his life, looks frail and old. He looks as if something’s been wrung out of him. The band Arcade Fire crowds him on the stage but he’s happy for the company, happy to be mistaken, at a distance, for one of them.
It’s September 2005, Bowie’s first live performance since his heart operation. It’s “Fashion Rocks,” a ceremony in which the fashion industry toasts itself and donates money to a catastrophe somewhere far away (post-Katrina New Orleans, in this case). Strumming a 12-string acoustic, Bowie takes the first verse of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” his phrasing little two-beat jabs. Something…filled up…my heart…with nothing…Now that….I’m older..my heart…colder…I can…see that it’s a lie.
His body, which he’d always been able to manipulate as he’d like, his happy soldier, now seems guarded, wary. He nods on the beat, sways on the snare hits. On the ragged communal chants (even the unmiked string players howl along), he holds back, sometimes stepping away from his mic, then joins in, a shaky higher flavor in the mix. After some lines about children growing bigger but never growing up and out of it, the song shifts into the “You Can’t Hurry Love” (and “Lust for Life”) beat, sounding scattered and diffuse here, with Bowie taking the lead again on a line about becoming a rain god and meeting Death.
He’d opened his set with “Life on Mars?,” with just Mike Garson on piano. In diminished voice (the vault on “Sai-LORS” now a modest lift), he took the song at a distance, appraising it, wondering at it. He sang its cut-up nonsensical second verse solemnly, as if offering recollections from a dying language. Then he did “Five Years,” with Arcade Fire brought on as backing band, which he delivered as a missive from a future that never happened. Too bad (in gleeful John Cale voice). “Five years! God, that’s all we got!” Bowie shouted towards the end, his voice fraying, Win Butler taking over the harmonies. Then he gave the stage over to Arcade Fire.
I don’t wanna live in America no more
Because the tide is high
And it’s rising still
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill
Arcade Fire, “Windowsill.”
By the time of the presidential election of 2004, the image that many Americans (often younger ones, but not always) had of their northern neighbor had changed. What once had been genial indifference became a sense of longing, of envy, even. O Canada, country with a nationalized health care system, no Patriot Act, no Iraq War and run by a benign-seeming Liberal Party, of which most Americans knew nothing (but, hey, they had “liberal” in their name). Canada became a dreamland for alienated Americans: an alternate country above the 49th Parallel (are the winters really that bad?), a U.S. shed of its less desirable elements.
It didn’t help that were all of these Canadian collectives roaming around—the seven-member New Pornographers, the eight-person Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the sometimes-19(!)-strong Broken Social Scene. I knew a guy in an American indie rock band at the time, and he was bewildered by the logistics. “Do they all go broke on the road? Who can carry two violin players?” Canadian indie rock had a layer of unseen supports, its tours seemingly the beneficiary of the Canada Health Act and generous government arts grants.
“We should just go to Canada”: a sentiment heard around the country on the night after the election (I heard it at the West Village bar Fiddlesticks on that crashed-out evening). (“The American people have spoken—is that certain? Maybe those nice Midwestern folks were just jokin’!” Nellie McKay sang.) Arcade Fire, arriving right at this time, was the culmination of the fantasy. Win Butler was an American, from Texas, no less, home of the president; his father had even worked for Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. He’d run off to Canada, fallen in love, had formed a band in Montreal with his wife, his brother and some friends.
So Arcade Fire offered an American-Canadian bohemia—a popular bohemia, even (they won some Grammys). They drew from and trafficked in childhood: the flip-books in the Neon Bible box, the corroded Yellow Submarine graphics of their videos, the neighborhood jamboree feel of their live performances, where they came off like a better-rehearsed Portsmouth Sinfonia––it was as if they’d taken up their instruments at random, that the next night Sarah Neufeld would play drums and Regine Chassagne would be on lead guitar.
The songs on their first record were worlds depopulated of adults and given over to children. Streetlights out, power failures, empty highways, snowdrifts. Lost brothers and vampires. Tunnels, legends and maps, tribal boasts: “‘cos nothing’s hid from us kids,” or, in one of their first songs: “us kids know.” The school music room garnishes—the sleigh bells on “Neighborhood #2,” the accordions, harpsichords and xylophones. In their video for “Rebellion (Lies),” they’re a pied piper collective, parading down a suburban street and waking up slumbering kids, who fall in line behind them.
It was a world shaped by distorted memories of Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak books; it was the ideal of a reconstituted childhood as a form of protest against the adult world. Arcade Fire was the musical analogue of Dave Eggers (who’d soon adapt Where the Wild Things Are), who’d raised his eight-year-old brother after their parents had died, who’d written a book about it and who, with McSweeney’s, offered another childhood order suited for adults: the Secret Club, with its stamp books, membership cards and shibboleths (“that is all”).
Bowie was fascinated. “Arcade Fire has a very strong theatrical flair, a boisterous, college kind of feel to what they’re doing, and also there’s a wave of enthusiasm to it,” he said in 2005. “But their show is theatrical nonetheless, because it doesn’t alter much from night to night. I’ve seen them many times, and I love them very much. I think they’re exhilarating.” He joined the band again live the following week, singing “Queen Bitch” and “Wake Up” in their encore at SummerStage.
Then he went away; Arcade Fire kept at it. Neon Bible was an expatriate’s curse on America (its title taken from a John Kennedy Toole novel that was, in Toole’s words, ” a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South”), with some back-channel communications via Springsteen and John Cafferty tributes. The Suburbs found Butler returning home, a poseur snapping at the generation of poseurs coming up after him (see “Rococo”); the album ended with what sounded like their last song, their credo piece for suburban misfits, the band’s natural constituency (“come out and find your kind!”), its music a mingle of an MTV-fed youth (the beat of “Come On Eileen,” the hook of “The Safety Dance”), its video a tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (there’s also a bit of “Wish You Were Here” in “Wake Up”). The band got tighter, their records became more spacious, if losing the edge of Funeral, where the guitars sounded as if they’d been strung with baling wire.
Reflektor was a band’s midlife crisis: a labored attempt to change the palette while layering on the mythology thicker (see the respective Orpheus and Eurydice songs on Disc 2; see also the idea of a “Disc 2″). It was their go at doing a Remain In Light; it only worked on their Haitian-inspired piece “Here Comes the Night Time” (yet another Eighties tribute—here, the Cure’s “Close to Me”).
The title track was a hidden reunion with Bowie (only credited in the “thank you” section of the liners), who’d kept on being a fan during his absent years. He visited the band in a New York studio while they were mixing Reflektor. “It was just after The Next Day had come out,” Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry told the NME last year. “He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us—he was like, ‘If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!’ So we thought, well why don’t we go one better, why don’t you sing on our version? Thankfully he obliged.”
“Reflektor” wasn’t that radical a shift, as the band had always tried to dance, in their way (there’s a frenzied disco hi-hat in “Neighborhood #1″) and the track fell in Arcade Fire’s tradition of being happily shameless in their dork-theater routines—see its performance on Saturday Night Live, where Chassagne got into a glass box and did a sort-of mime routine, or Butler sporting raccoon makeup in its video. Arcade Fire perseveres, having grown up to be Bowie’s contemporaries where they once were his charges. They’re the closest thing that indie rock has to an institution these days, God help them.
Recorded: (Fashion Rocks) 8 September 2005; (live) 15 September 2005. The Fashion Rocks recordings were issued as a digital single on 21 November 2005. “Reflektor,” the lead-off single of the LP it titled, was released on 9 September 2013.
Top: Daska, “Children,” 2005.
My integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I’m doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you’re sick, you’re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I’m gonna watch movies I want to see. I’m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.”
Matthew Weiner, on the end of Mad Men.
I’ve erased several months
It’s turning into a year now…
Kashmir, “The Cynic.”
Whether on doctor’s orders or due to his own misgivings about getting back on the merry-go-round, as an old friend once put it, Bowie spent the 12 months after his heart operation in semi-retirement, doing only the occasional guest vocal session. But he wasn’t in seclusion. Living in Soho, Bowie sampled the hip new bands who came to town, avoiding attention by wearing a cap and glasses and sporting, at various times, a mustache and beard. It was his “Berliner workman” days again, only now he wasn’t working.
How did he have so much time to see all of these bands? Dave Itzkoff asked in 2005 (in what would be Bowie’s last to-date print interview). He had nothing but time, he replied. “Fortunately, I’m not working [laughs]. So I’m resting. I get out a lot. I am a New Yorker, very much, and I get out in New York. It’s just a place that I adore. And I love seeing new theater; I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere—very quietly and never above 14th Street. I’m very downtown.”
So he saw TV On the Radio and the Secret Machines. He saw Franz Ferdinand at the Roseland Ballroom, twice (introducing himself to the starstruck band backstage, Bowie baffled them by doing an impersonation of the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer). Interpol at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Knitting Factory. Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. The Killers at Irving Plaza.*
Tony Visconti attended the latter, bringing as his plus-one the Danish singer and guitarist Kasper Eistrup of Kashmir, a band Visconti was readying to produce. So Eistrup, in town “on a guitar shopping spree,” wound up meeting Bowie in the VIP balcony. True to form, Bowie said he was a fan of Kashmir and had some of their albums, then began talking about culture, politics and whatever other subjects he was musing on that evening. The three wound up sharing a ride afterward.
Visconti and Bowie had been vaguely planning a new record, which Bowie seemed in little hurry to begin recording. He told the jazz musician Courtney Pine, in a radio interview in September 2005, that he’d started writing songs for a new album (“it looks pretty weird, so I’m happy”), but there were apparently no studio sessions booked. If there were demos, Bowie cut them at home: Visconti wasn’t hearing them.
There was an ambivalence in Bowie’s conversation with Pine (the former’s last radio interview to date). Asked what his fans were expecting from the new album, Bowie responded, “Oh they don’t expect anything these days, I think they just sorta see what I put out…you know, it’s the luck of the draw and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s godawful and…but that’s the way it goes and I like that.”
As he had from the renewal of their friendship, Visconti offered Bowie walk-on roles on his other productions (see the Rustic Overtones or “Saviour”).** Working on Kashmir’s album in Copenhagen in March 2005, Visconti was convinced that one track, “The Cynic” (“it had the vibe of a Kurt Cobain song influenced by Bowie”), could use a Bowie vocal, to the point where Visconti sang Bowie imitations (“I can do a decent ‘Heroes'”) for scratch vocals in the second verse. He emailed Bowie the rough mix and Bowie agreed to sing on it. For Kashmir, “it was everyone’s birthday and Christmas morning at the same time,” Visconti said.
Returning to New York in late April 2005, Visconti, Eistrup and Kashmir bassist Mads Tunebjerg did mixing and post-production work at Looking Glass Studios. One morning Bowie appeared, “fresh as a daisy and enthusiastically sang the be-Dickens out of ‘The Cynic’ as if he’d written it himself,” Visconti said. Tunebjerg recalled that once he was in the booth, Bowie said “‘Tony, just roll the tape for me. I’m going to try and have a go at it.’ He knew the song, he had it on his iPod (afterward, Bowie played the band other selections from his current track list). He had one or two runs and he was there. We were sitting on the sofa. We couldn’t move or speak because the atmosphere was so intense.”
Kashmir started in 1991 and had become one of Denmark’s biggest “alternative” bands by the turn of the century. “We are like a boy band with four different characters: there is the little thin one and there is the tall guy and there is the media guy who is good looking and then there is the semi-fat guy who is dancing around,” Eistrup said. Their Visconti-produced record was a bid to break the American market, which didn’t happen. But the band has persevered until this day, still playing and recording, still believers that rock music can offer something to its audience. “That’s one of the most important things about art and that is the actual answer to why art is important because it can be out of time, it can be out of reason, it can be just commenting whatever is in the mind of the person who expresses it,” Eistrup said in 2013. “That little country of freedom can inspire the rest of the assholes to do things in a different way.”
“The Cynic” was a decent piece of brooding post-Radiohead rock, with Bowie’s verse finding him easily handling Eistrup’s knotty melody, then biting into the long vowels in the refrains. Bowie sounded comfortably decayed; he could’ve fashioned a bespoke version of Kashmir or Interpol or Franz Ferdinand easily enough in 2006. The question was whether he wanted to anymore. The answer seems apparent now: No, I’m happy in the audience.
Recorded: March-April 2005, Sun Studio, Copenhagen; (vocals) ca. April-May 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 October 2005 on No Balance Palace (Columbia 82876 72767 2).
* Some of these venues are above 14th St., so Mr. “Very Downtown” apparently had to take a cab once in a while.
** A shame Visconti didn’t get Bowie into his finest production of the 2000s, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ L’Avventura. That said, it would have been hard for Bowie to find a place to work on such an intimate album. L’Avventura is a document of two ridiculously attractive people falling in love, yet avoiding solipsism to make their union some public ideal of romance.
*** Visconti also roped in Lou Reed, who recited an Eistrup poem, “Black Building.” “It took a long time to actually get Lou into the studio, but when he came he was well-rehearsed and even prepared a special character for the part. He said he’s got about seven voice characters he uses when he does readings of his poetry. Lou was fabulous, he did about three or four takes for us to choose from and even took a phone call from a Tibetan lama in-between takes. Then, like a New York ninja, he disappeared into the chaos of Broadway as soon as he was finished.”
Eistrup’s memories were less reverent. Reed “was anything but sociable. He demanded that the studio be vacated, then that the whole band smoke. He gave me the vaguest handshake I have ever had in my life… He looked at [my] poem and straightened it. I had used words like pubs that he straightened to bars.”
Top: Dante Busquets, “Tenis (Torres de
A man who publishes his Works in a Volume, has an infinite Advantage over one who communicates his Writings to the World in loose Tracts and single pieces.
Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 124.
Today’s the day: Rebel Rebel is available everywhere (well, in theory). You can buy it via on-line vendors, including Amazon and Book Depository. The e-book should be up in a day or so. There will be some promotions in the next few months: Books Etc. is currently running a discount until May. For UK readers: this £16 sale price is about as low as I’ve seen, promo-wise.
And as a fan of bookstores, I’d love it if you asked your local shop to get a few copies. Above is my local bookstore, White Square Books. In the UK, Foyles and Waterstones should carry it, but it would be great to have it in smaller shops as well.
I’ve been hyping the book for some time now: see the book page for updates, the talks page for extensive radio/podcast interviews and the press page for just shameless self-promotion. Thanks for your patience. The “regular” blog will resume next week, with a fun set of entries, featuring Scarlett Johansson, Arcade Fire and little fat men with pug-nosed faces.
Those who have bought the book, or who are considering doing so, thank you for your support. It means more than you can imagine. Some people have even taken shots of their copies and put them on various social media. The idea that someone thinks enough of your writing that they took a photo of the thing is beyond humbling.
I’ve little left to say about the book, which took three-plus years to write, except that I hope you enjoy it.
The Addison quote above is a feint, as in the following sentence he moves to ridicule “bulky Volumes” for which “the most severe Reader makes Allowances for many Rests and Nodding-places…a great Book is a great Evil.” Writing his triweekly newspaper essays, Addison was essentially an 18th Century blogger. For his ilk, there was no room for padding or preambles. “We must immediately fall into our Subject and treat every Part of it in a lively Manner, or our Papers are thrown by as dull and insipid.” I hear you, Addison.
Here was my challenge—how to take the little essays that I put up on the Internet and turn them into something that would justify people paying for a collection of them? Besides it being a vanity project, a tip-jar sort of thing? It helped that the first few months of the blog, esp. the pre-“Space Oddity” essays, were dashed out quickly, with little care. So my revision at first centered on improving those entries, shoring them up, adding more context: that sort of thing.
There were other choices. I needed a more uniform writing style for the entries, which meant I had to gut and rewrite the weird one-offs like the personal narrative in “Changes” and the cut-up aesthetic disaster of the “Sweet Thing” entry. I looked for fresher, more varied quotes. I reduced the level of snark and glibness (fans of “Time” will rejoice), though you still get the occasional nose-tweak—the book’s far from reverent towards its subject. I tried to confine the music theory to a paragraph per entry and exile much of it to the end notes, as I know some people glaze over when they read that stuff.
I think it turned out all right. Hope you do as well.
The official Bowie narrative: after the sudden end of A Reality Tour, he takes a step back, assesses his life and slowly, imperceptibly, he fades into the twilight, not to return for a decade….
Well, yes, but wait. There’s one problem with this story. Bowie released a new song in 2005. This track, not “Bring Me the Disco King,” was the last studio recording issued under his name until The Next Day. Much of Bowie fandom wants to wish the thing away. Many hated it at the time. It’s understandable: the Bowie story shouldn’t have (possibly) ended with some clang-bang dance track he cut for the soundtrack of Stealth, one of 2005’s notable commercial and critical disasters.
But we can’t ignore it; we can’t pretend that it never happened. It’s “(She Can) Do That.” Listen to it and accept that the man who wrote “Heroes” also wrote this, and he wrote it at a time when he was convalescing, after years of making brooding retrospective albums and “Last Songs.”
keep going don’t stop now keep going take cover keep going be cool…
To be fair, Bowie only wrote the lyrics and top line melody. The rest was cooked up by the producer Brian Transeau (aka BT) and the Berklee professor Richard Boulanger, who worked on the refrain. In early 2005, Bowie cut his vocal at his usual studio, Looking Glass in New York, with Tony Visconti producing and Kristeen Young allegedly singing backing vocals (I don’t hear her, though). Bowie sent the Pro Tools files to BT in Los Angeles, where BT finished the mix. It wound up being used in a dance club scene in Stealth whose dramatic purpose is to establish Jamie Foxx as a ladies man.
What was Bowie doing? A tribute to/reworking of Hawkwind’s “You Shouldn’t Do That“? A tip of the hat to the Hamtaro theme song? An out-of-nowhere attempt to homage Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne, at a time when Byrne was calm and melancholic? An update of “Right,” another song in which Bowie’s bucking himself up during a dark time?
Of course, one can be cynical and say that Bowie put as much thought into his vocal as he did his coffee order at Dean and DeLuca the morning he cut it. If the brief was “do a dance track for a Jamie Foxx Top Gun ripoff updated for the War on Terror,” there are only so many options.
It’s also obvious Bowie was using “(She Can) Do That” as a tentative first step back into the studio after a long period of recuperation. The question is whether its sound portended a stylistic move. Before his heart operation, Bowie had mentioned to interviewers that he wanted to get back in the studio with Visconti in late 2004, and that he planned something divergent from the Heathen/Reality sound—possibly even cutting an all-instrumental album or something “experimental.”
Was the move meant to be a return to Earthling? Was Bowie actually considering making an EDM record in 2005? Did he listen to a playback of “(She Can) Do That,” have a road-to-Damascus moment and swear off making records for nearly a decade? It’s all speculative.
Full of BT’s trademarks, including the “stutter edit,” vocal pitch shifting and subtle time changes, “(She Can) Do That” ultimately was the Laughing Gnome, back for the millennium, as shameless and irritating as ever. So Bowie’s “last” track for eight years is him thumbing his nose on his way out the door, wondering why people always took him so damned seriously.
Recorded: (Bowie vocal) ca. early 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; music, mixing (LA, early 2005). Released 12 July 2005 on the Stealth OST (Epic EK 94475 ).
Top: Joshua Bousel, “Daphne and Blair’s Last Month Single Party,” December 2005; a stealthy trio.
First, a few book-related things:
Amazon has started shipping copies of Rebel Rebel, which I imagine a number of you have received by now. My cousin, seen above, got his copy and already has incorporated it into his daily life. But the official release date is March 27, which is when (hopefully) the e-book will be ready and when the book should be available in stores. If you’ve received the book via Amazon already and if you like it, please consider giving it a rating on the site. If you hate it, maybe hold off on the rating bit.
OK. The contest. I received 60! entries, all of which were inspired, many of which were astonishing in their inventiveness. After I narrowed the entries down to five (itself a difficult process), it became all but impossible to choose one. But a contest’s a contest: someone’s gotta win it. One of the darker scenarios submitted for 1977 Bowie was also leavened with some inspired comical moments. And when I found myself cracking up in the supermarket thinking about “the Ritual of Da’at,” I realized I had a possible winner…
Congrats to Tymothi Valentine Loving. Here’s his entry.
“A brief song-by-song recap of the legendary David Bowie Madison Square Garden concert of 1977. It was released posthumously several times, with most versions leaving out several of the end songs, this discusses the only complete, non-bootleg release, 2005’s “DBMSG77.”
1. Five Years
Bowie starts the show as if it were starting with “Station to Station,” only to have it go in to a tar-heroin-slow version of “Five Years,” which then devolved into one of the many noisy jams of the night. Apocryphally, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was played at the opening of the show, manipulated through several effects pedals, to create the twisted version of “Station to Station”‘s live “train sound”. The true story is even stranger; apparently Lou Reed and David Bowie indulged in some “speedballs” before the show, and the sound is actually Reed backstage playing a guitar while Bowie “played” the pedals. After finally tiring of this, Bowie finally staggered out to start the show. So, technically, although he was never on stage, this was Lou Reed’s last live performance, since he ODed the next year, infamously exactly one month after Bowie’s own fatal OD.
2. Andy Warhol
The shortest, straightest played song of the night. Notable only for the minute & 30 seconds after the song is over that Bowie spends repeating “Can’t tell them apart at all”, with different emphasis each time (“CAN’T tell them apart at all”, “Can’t tell them APART at all”, etc.) with the final “Can’t tell them apart at AAAAALLLLLL” howled into a feedbacking mike as the band starts:
3. Red Money/Calling Sister Midnight (Just “Red Money” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
The title of this song is questionable. The version that Bowie performed at this show combines the lyrics of the two known recorded versions; “Calling Sister Midnight” that appears on the 1979 Iggy Pop album Idiot’s Lantern, and the 1980 posthumous Bowie collection “David Lives!“, which, among other things, contains tracks from Bowie’s final, incomplete album, What I Will. Who wrote what on which version is still up for debate. What isn’t however, is the performance itself. The dynamic of the fast pace combined with the stop/start cadence, and the quiet verses and loud choruses is still influential to this day, and some version of this song has been covered by bands ranging from Einsturzende Neubauten to Nirvana on their single studio album.
Seven minutes of the band jamming on a sped up version of the riff, while Bowie was offstage (possibly apocryphally) doing more cocaine. This is where the first signs of serious crowd unrest can be heard. Infamously, this was the inspiration for Suicide’s 1978 performance piece “27 Minutes Over New York”, where they would play a synth version of the riff until, basically, forced by the crowd and/or venue to stop. Nobody stopped Bowie that night, however, and when he comes out at 7:13 to finally start singing, the crowd goes wild. And, as clumsy as the increase in tempo makes some of the transitions in the song, the contrast between the band’s frantic pace and Bowie’s deadpan delivery just works.
Probably the clunker of the show. Although the pace of the song is increased, similar to “Fame,” there’s a notable lack of energy, and the bit of attempted free form disco jamming in the middle is as bad an idea as it sounds on paper, and never really coheres. Mainly known for the brief bit in the middle where, apropos of nothing, Bowie points into the crowd and yells “I see you, Pierrot!”.
6. Sweet Head/Cracked Actor (“Gimme Sweet Head” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
Interestingly enough, an early studio recording of this song has surfaced. Quite a bit less abrasive and charged then this version. It’s also quite a bit slower than the manic pace of this performance. And, it must be said, quite a bit shorter. More signs of crowd unrest are evident on the recording, with some angry catcalling at the end of the song.
7. The Ritual of Da’at
This song has no known recording other than this one. Bowie announced the song title at the beginning (“This here, this is The Ritual of Da’at”). The lyrics are mostly incomprehensible, and gibberish where they can be understood, although the line “Oh my sweet milk and peppers, you are all I can love!” has resurfaced in popular culture after famously being uttered in the midst of a nervous breakdown by the protagonist of Todd Haynes’ brutal, Dogme 96-ish takedown of the glam era, My Velvet Goldmine!. This song shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Something about how slow it starts, and the incredible, proto-speedmetal finish just coheres into what, despite the sloppiness, many consider to be one of the best Bowie live performance ever captured, and if not the best, then certainly one of the most intense.
8. “Bring Me The Disco King” (“The Disco King” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
This improvisational piece, never recorded other than this once, has no known title other than the line Bowie repeats for the first and last couple minutes, quietly at the beginning of the song, yelling at the end. During the middle section, he is offstage, presumably doing more coke, although it’s not true that he mutters “more cocaine” before leaving the stage, it is, fairly clearly, “keep playing”. The crowd, whipped into a seething frenzy by the previous song, seems bemused by this somewhat melancholy (in comparison, anyway) piece.
Bowie’s intro to this song (“Here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!”) was famously sampled on the title track of the debut album of 80’s New York rap pioneers Power Station, Here Comes the Blackout. And, if I can be pardoned the obvious pun, Bowie gave an electric performance here. And the crowd went, in the famously un-bleeped words of one of the attending medics who was interviewed on the live news in the aftermath of the show, “Absolutely fucking bugshit insane”. Reportedly, at least 3 people who had never had an epileptic seizure before experienced one due to the severe strobe light effects employed during this number.
This is where most official releases of the show ended until DBMSG77 was released, although the rest of the show has been available in bootleg form for years. Much has been written about the violence of the near-riot that broke out and the damage done to the classic venue by the small fires set at the end (although, as far as I can tell, the number of fires is often exaggerated, there appear to have been only 2). Even more has been written about the investigation afterwards. I’m going to skip most of that here, and focus on the music itself, other than to say that, no, there’s nothing there that can be considered an incitement to riot, at least not in any legal way. The investigation was a witch-hunt, plain and simple. Edward Koch needed a scapegoat for the underlying tensions of his city (although Abraham Beame earns much of the blame), and he chose Bowie. OK, enough of that, on to the music:
10. Station to Station
A strange version of this song. This was the opener of the previous tour; a sprawling, shambling, genius mass of a song that seems like it would fit right into this show, but here, it runs an abbreviated 4 minutes and change. Starting with “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lovers eyes” sung a cappella a few times, with “making sure white stains!” screamed in the last line, skipping the instrumental jam, and ending after only one time through the last few lines of the song, this is a tight, severe performance.
11. Queen Bitch/God Save The Queen (“God Save The Queen Bitch” in the possibly too clever DMBSG77 track listing)
Truly amazing. Bowie performs his song in a vicious, camped up punk cabaret style. And then he throws in a couple of verses and choruses of The Sex Pistols’ single in the middle. Most of the people at the show probably had no idea who The Sex Pistols were at this point. And Bowie handles their song with relish. Makes you wonder what could have been if he’d been around to make music in the 80s, an angry, anti-commercial punk Bowie may have saved that decade from some of its own excesses.
12. White Light/White Heat
A perennial Bowie cover, since at least the Ziggy Stardust tour, the band tears into this one and leaves it bleeding at the end. Bowie, on the other hand, seems disengaged again, forgetting some lyrics (a somewhat impressive feat, considering how few there are in the song). Which leads to him leaving the stage again as the band rides the riff (for 12! minutes!). He does, once again, seem more energized upon his return.
13. Panic In Detroit (Panic In New York on the DBMSG77 track listing).
This song is what was supposedly being focused on in the investigation of Bowie possibly inciting a riot. And yes, he does change the location city in the lyrics, but it’s a very thin thing to hang such a charge on. Anyway, an intense, stripped down version of the song. And yes, Bowie does seem, in some way, to be feeding off of the negative energy of the crowd. His strident, repeated “Panic in NEW YORK!” starts off brutally, and ends up like nothing else Bowie ever performed, at least that’s been saved for posterity.
14. Hang On To Yourself
This wasn’t supposed to be the last song of the show. Although no known printed version of the setlist still exists, according to members of the band, there was supposed to at least be Suffragette City, Let’s Spend the Night Together, TVC15, Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie, with Diamond Dogs as the closer. Notable in their lack are softer songs such as Changes or Time, or anything similar. It seems the intention was to just have the show almost entirely be amped up versions of (mostly) already fast songs. “TVC15″ may have been a bit of a reprieve (although I really, really wish I could have heard the version that would have performed at this show). At any rate, this song barely gets started before the show is shut down, due to the (2, not several) fires that had started. An ignoble end to an astounding show that seemed to indicate an amazing new direction for David Bowie.
Although, I am indescribably happy that DBMSG77 has the complete audio of the end of the show, with Bowie screaming “I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!” at the NYFD and NYPD just before his mike was cut.”
Runner-up: A masterful piece of writing by Steven Hanna, in the style of Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, detailing not just the MSG concert but the whole “1977 ‘New Wave’ Tour,” with Blondie’s Chris Stein as ill-fated lead guitarist and an opening medley of “Can You Hear Me”/”Son of a Preacher Man.” This was a redemptive tale for Bowie, who cleans up and escapes to Europe after the disastrous Low sessions.
Other top contenders: James Scott Maloy, who wrote a retrospective in the voice of a Lester Bangs still alive in 1993; James Alex Gabriel Phillips, whose phenomenal 2,000-word piece included the return of Tony Defries as ringmaster; Alon Schmul, who had Mick Ronson, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Hall as guests at a Bowie 30th birthday extravaganza; Aaron Rice, who had Bowie sing nothing but duets, including “Win” with Sinatra and “Be My Wife” with Barry Manilow; Ean McNamara, whose set opened with a Buffy St. Marie cover (“sung mostly off stage”) and ended with “Wolves Song” (aka “Some Are”). [Most of these are now in the comments.]
I wish I could send a book to everyone who contributed an entry: I’m very grateful to everyone who took part in this, and the volume of responses bodes well for something I’m planning to mark the blog’s end later this year: a reader survey/ranking of favorite Bowie songs (essentially voting for the Bowiesongs Top 50, or maybe 100).