“Ashes to Ashes”: A Book

November 2, 2018

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Announcing, officially at long last, the release of Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016. It will be published by Repeater Books in February 2019, and is available for pre-order now on Amazon (US & UK & Canada). In the US, you can also use Indiebound. In Canada, it’s also up on Indigo. I’ll add more links to more retailers in the next month or so.

The book is 710 pages long. It has no pictures. It does have 15 chapters (see below), along with an appendix of “lost” Bowie songs from the period (you may find a scoop or two in here), a partial discography, and—always a huge selling point—a bibliography. Given the length of the book, the notes section had to be an online supplement, which I’ll set up on this site over the next few months. I’ll also probably make the notes a PDF if that’s easier for anyone.

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It starts with “Sister Midnight.” It ends with “Blackstar.” Every single song entry was revised—some far more radically than others. Some entries are now longer, some were edited down. With hope, they’re more accurate (in some cases, they certainly are, as people who made the recordings corrected me). The original entries will always remain on the blog, so don’t worry if you’ve got a favorite bit that didn’t make the cut for the book.

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The five “unreleased” blog entries from Blackstar and No Plan (the title tracks of both releases, plus “Killing a Little Time,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”) appear in the book (I’m not sure when/if they’ll be up here—not until the book publishes, in any rate).

It’s all to be found here—Bowie and Iggy Pop; Bowie and Eno; Bowie and Donny McCaslin; Bowie and Jagger. Labyrinth and Baal. Leon and 1. Outside. Tin Machine and Glass Spider. Marc Bolan, Freddie Mercury, Scott Walker, Tina Turner, Al B. Sure!, Ray Davies, John Cale, Scarlett Johansson, Arcade Fire, and Angelo Badalamenti.

I do hope you enjoy it. This is the end of something that I started in July 2009, and I think it turned out okay.

 

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“Loving the Alien” and “Never Let Me Down 2018”

October 20, 2018

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Hi! It’s been quite a while, I know. But we’re finally reviving the site for its last go-round.

To start with, here’s a review I just wrote for Pitchfork on the latest Bowie box set and my thoughts on the new Never Let Me Down (it’s okay? it made me kind of like the original more sometimes?). Feel free to add your own two cents on the new NLMD in the comments.

Hope everyone has been well—there will be a big book announcement very soon.

 


Let There Be a Book

July 19, 2018

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Hello! Happy summer. A brief update (I didn’t realize the last blog post was in April!)

Ashes To Ashes, the second and final book of my Bowie song-by-song criticism, is now done. Well, pretty much. There’s still a last, hard round of editing to come, then proofing, and likely some last-minute alterations in the autumn. But the work is finished. It’s strange to say that after all these years. All the Bowie songs are done.

Yes, yes: “but what about ‘Blaze’ or the 35 outtakes they’re going to release as soon as this publishes?” All power to them! I hope that they release tons of great Bowie music. But I consider this book my final word on the subject. Sure, many years down the road, if there have been substantial releases of currently-unheard music that would make me reconsider ideas or correct assertions, maybe I’d do a revision. And if they put out “Ernie Johnson” or “Black Hole Kids” or something, I’ll put an entry up on this blog to let people talk about it.

Two things about Ashes To Ashes:

  •  It’s publishing in early 2019, most likely in February. The date isn’t quite set yet, due to some variable factors. I’ll keep you updated.
  • It covers everything from “Sister Midnight” to “Blackstar.” It’ll be a big book.

Two things about the blog’s future:

  • There are five songs that I’ve written about for the book that I haven’t done as blog entries. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’ll likely put up one or two later this year, but you’re going to have to get the book to read some of them. Sorry. To quote the man, I can’t give everything away.
  • I’ve revised everything, sometimes radically, in the book. But the blog entries will remain as is, so don’t worry if you’re a fan of those versions. And the site will always be here. I’ll try to keep links up to date if I can, but that’s an endless, very tedious task. Given that the great majority of Bowie songs are on streaming services, the need for YouTube links isn’t as much a necessity for most entries anymore.

Thanks for your support over the years, and I hope you’ll enjoy the book. If you liked Rebel Rebel, you probably will. Talk soon.


Hey, Didn’t You Have a Blog Once, or Tentative Outcomes

April 8, 2018

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Easter has passed and the most recent entry on this blog is its Christmas post. So, time enough for an update.

Here’s where things stand. I’m trying to finish the book in the next couple of months, with the hope of it coming out next year. Repeater Books, as always, has been very forgiving of my tardiness. A while ago, I determined that I had to go straight through and revise the whole manuscript before writing the final song entries, rather than periodically stopping revisions to write a new entry, as had been my original plan.

So I’ll be in the unusual situation of writing the last entries for the book before putting them on the blog. The book may well come out before some entries do. But at some point, they’ll all be up, or at least they’ll be available somewhere, in some form.

A few more things. I’ll be presenting at the Pop Conference in Seattle later this month, offering what’s essentially a remix/remodel of a few entries—mostly “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Criminal World.” And I’ll be getting down to New York to see the David Bowie Is exhibit before it closes, as I hope many of you have been able to do, too.

That’s it for now! Hope the spring is treating everyone well, and see you soon. (“Soon” being a relative concept on this blog, of course.)

best
CO


(Oh We Know It’s Not the) Last Xmas

December 22, 2017

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Live Aid, 1985).
Bowie’s 2013 Xmas “Elvis” Message.
Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.
Peter and the Wolf.
The Snowman.
Feed the World.

In the grand tradition of this blog, the Xmas post will announce “well, this could be the end—only a few entries to go!” and then a year later, we’re still here. No such silly promises this time around. The blog will still be up on Xmas 2018, and there still may be an entry or two to go! “You think it’s easy? Realism.”

Some announcements:

Repeater Books and I are getting close to nailing down when Ashes to Ashes will come out—best guess is in a little over a year’s time. I’m in the thick of editing/revising all of the ’90s chapters, pretty much at once. When that’s over, and the few remaining Blackstar pieces are written, it’s done. So, only a matter of a few (possibly nightmarish) months of work left.

Also, if you happen to be in Seattle for the Pop Conference in late April, you can see me do a presentation called “Boys Keep Swinging In a Criminal World,” which is essentially going to be a mash-up of the “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Criminal World” entries, with various other bits. With hope, I’ll have finished the book by then and will be in rather good spirits.

Happy holidays to all and here’s to the new year. Thanks for your patience and support, particularly to those who bought the book (or are considering doing so).

Here’s to David Bowie: you’re missed more than ever. Everyone says ‘hi.’


Girl Loves Me

September 27, 2017

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Girl Loves Me.

The Blackstar sessions of early January 2015 were devoted to revisits (“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”) and to most of Bowie’s Lazarus songs. The next round, in the first week of February, began similarly—a revised “Sue” was first on the agenda. But on the second day of the session, Bowie and Donny McCaslin’s band turned to a bewildering-sounding demo.

Mark Guiliana recalled that the file “had two loops on top of each other, creating a very dense groove, which I couldn’t play all at once.” Where some demos had been taped in the studio with Tony Visconti and a small group, this one was pure Bowie—the work of hours of home tinkering. There were synthesized string parts, some of which McCaslin would score for flute. Then there was the lyric. As Jason Lindner said, “when we first heard the demo, we said, ‘what the hell? What are those words?’”

Cheena so sound so titi up this                  malchick say!
Party up moodge nanti vellocet round on            Tuesday!

The lyrics are wacky but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word,” Tony Visconti said before the album’s release. A charitable belief: it’s more fair to say that those fluent in the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could decipher about three-fourths of “Girl Loves Me”; those conversant in the secret gay language Polari could pick up a few other bits.

A single verse is chanted more than sung—Bowie harping on one note until the end of each phrase, when he moves up first by a third (“this-malchik”) and ultimately an octave, by almost yodeling the last note (“say-ay” “da-aay). The verse lines have a tumbling consonance (“dizzysnatch,” “popo blind to the pol-ly”) and a rhythm of chasing short-held notes (“chee-na”) with slightly longer ones (“so sound”). Momentum builds as Bowie crams in more syllables with each line. “As he was listening back, I could see him experimenting with different words,” McCaslin recalled, which likely explains why Bowie tweaked his Nadsat—“yarbles” (balls) became “garbles,” “spatchka” (sleep) became “spatchko,” and “malchick” (boy) is sung more as “malcheck.”

He’d had secret languages before, on Low: the trans-European un-language of “Warszawa”; the homonymic blurs of “Some Are” and “Subterraneans.” Then, he was dedicated to melody—the “nonsense” words of “Warszawa” are gorgeous to sing, with a gentle lift. Now he sang “Girl Loves Me” as raw pieces of sound—the words harsh, short, jagged, packed together like bullets.

Varda, omees!

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Of the two dialects in the song, Polari (or Palare) is a spoken tongue, dating back well over a century, a pidgin language with roots in Italian and Shelta, the tongue of Irish and British Travelers. As Ian Hancock wrote, it was “the language of the theater, the circus, show business, and…certain male homosexual communities, especially those with connections to show business and with life at sea.” Nadsat is fictional, devised in the late Fifties by Anthony Burgess, who raided Russian for many of his words, along with Cockney rhyming slang. Both are the tongues of subcultures, of outsiders, of young toughs, of (fictional, likely, inadvertent) criminals. Both connect to Bowie’s youth.

He’d loved Clockwork Orange in the Ziggy Stardust days, with Stanley Kubrick’s film a sartorial guide for the Spiders From Mars, and Nadsat heard in “Suffragette City” (“say droogie don’t crash here!”). “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”

He’d picked up Polari from the mid-Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne and its Polari-fluent camp pair “Julian and Sandy.” And more directly, from being a young, beautiful man at the hub of Sixties British gay life—the London-based theater and music scenes—and the intimate of gay men like the mime Lindsay Kemp and the composer Lionel Bart. “David uses words like “varda” and “super” quite a lot. He’s gay, he says,” as Michael Watts wrote in the 1972 Melody Maker “Bowie comes out” piece. Nicholas Pegg does a typically thorough job of noting various bits of Polari in Bowie lyrics of the period, from “traders” (“Bewlay Brothers”) to “trolling” (“Looking For a Friend”).

“Translated” (my attempt here), “Girl Loves Me” mixes droogs and drag queens, police and cheenas. Tacky things drive the gang wild; party now because we’ll be out of drugs tomorrow. Set up the old men and take their cash; screw in the street, sleep it off in jail. It’s the balls-out, perhaps literally, sequel to “Dirty Boys.”

Where did it come from? Bowie’s late-in-life fandom for shows like Peaky Blinders, full of sharp young Birmingham toughs rumbling in the streets, maybe. A few books, as usual (see below). An older man with an unpromising diagnosis, who wakes one morning to wonder where the time has gone. Or, more succinctly: Where the FUCK did Monday go?

Sloosh to Polezny Mr. Murphy

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“We will have a new ‘body’ in the studio as of Tuesday,” Bowie reportedly told his group. “He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.”

James Murphy had struck up a friendship with Bowie around 2013. Having retired LCD Soundsystem (temporarily), he was producing Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, on which Bowie cut a guest vocal. Introduced in the studio, Murphy opened with “you know I’m an enormous fan of your work, because I steal from you liberally,” to which Bowie lobbed back, “you can’t steal from a thief, darling.” Upon Bowie’s return to making music, Murphy was often talked up as a future producer. It seemed apt. Murphy was a dance-rock classicist who lived in awe of Bowie’s late Seventies albums, forever trekking back to them, then building shrines to them.

He was too much in the sun, it turned out. In recent interviews, Murphy said he’d been slated as a co-producer on Blackstar but had backed out, feeling “overwhelmed” by the idea. “It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me,” he told Radio One this summer.

Instead Murphy envisioned himself as being the Brian Eno of the sessions, to the point of bringing in an EMS Synthi AKS, Eno’s weapon of choice in the Seventies. But he lacked the nerve to go the full Eno—he wouldn’t be directing ace musicians to play random chords at arbitrary cues, or erasing a half-finished track that wasn’t working. He kept to the sidelines, filtering guitars and keyboards through the “briefcase” EMS, including some of Lindner’s keyboard and synth lines on “Girl Loves Me” (see the burbling percussive line mixed left through much of the track). Murphy “was just in there hanging out,” Lindner recalled. “They weren’t clear on his role.”

That said, the final shape of “Girl Loves Me” apparently owes a good deal to him. “James took ‘Girl Loves Me’ to his home studio and did this whole other thing with it,” McCaslin said. “Mark and Jason heard snippets of it when they were over there working. Mark was saying it was really different from how he recorded it.”

Despite Murphy’s textures, the track is one of the more spare productions on the album, its minimal harmonic structure (shifts between two chords for all but the bridge) borne for long stretches by low-mixed keyboard or synthesized strings. The driving wheel is Guiliana’s drum ‘n’ bass-inspired snare and kick figures, with rapid bursts of notes on his cymbals. “I tried to capture the feeling of the halftime backbeat with the undercurrent of the busier 16th-note details,” he said. “The ghost notes in the groove are heard through the close mic on the snare, but the backbeat is being captured through David’s vocal mic. There was lots of bleed since we were all in the same room, which often led to very interesting sonic results. This, like many of the other songs, is a full drum take.”

Tim Lefebvre doubled his twisting, harmonically free bassline (as Lindner noted of his friend’s performance, “the bass note is not representative of the key or the root—it’s really coloristic” ) on guitar, borrowing Bowie’s instrument along with his “little multi-effects pedal…it was a cheap little thing but it sounded great.” McCaslin worked in the backline, tracking alto flute and C flutes for a gorgeous interlude in which the song breaks character for some twenty seconds to let in the sunlight. Then it’s nightfall again.

The center of it all is Bowie’s vocal, tracked to become an echoing patrol in the verse, cheering himself in the refrains (the wonderful GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! that starts at 1:26); doubled over an octave for the bridge; murmuring conspiratorial sleazy “heey cheena”s under high, wavering “girl…loves…mes,” reminiscent of his vocals on “No One Calls.”

Fantabulosa Prestoopniks

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The brilliance of that writing,” Lefebvre recalled. “How it’s all dark gibberish and then it turns into this beautiful melody. The chords are very interesting—aggressive but at the same time very languid and soft.”

There was a disgraced ancestor, as often with Bowie. Did he recall something he’d written decades before about dealers, druggies, and hustlers, whose semi-spoken nasally-intoned verses spooled into great, bounding refrains? In “Girl Loves Me,” the oft-maligned “Shining Star (Making My Love)” lives again. All that’s missing is the Mickey Rourke rap.

Why write the song as dark gibberish anyway? For a laugh, in part; for the joy of doing it. As Hancock wrote about Polari, its function wasn’t to be a separate tongue “but rather a pool of secret words sufficient to make cryptic any utterance that needs to be kept from outsiders” (essential for a time when homosexuality was illegal) and “a factor of social cohesion for those who need it.” Polari was an outsider’s inside language. And Burgess wrote his novel in Nadsat because he wanted to wall off his youth subculture from merciless time. It worked. Alex and his fellow droogs remain in the present today, and still suggest a brutal future, where they would have been defanged had they been saying “daddy-o” and “groovy.”

The refrain of “Girl Loves Me” stands outside of its own song: Where the FUCK did Monday go? cracks it open. Bowie’s line about sitting in the chestnut tree bred all sorts of speculations. Is it the Chestnut Tree Cafe of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and so suggesting betrayal? (Bowie could never shake free of that book; it was to him what his Berlin albums are to Murphy.) Or, in an inspired suggestion by Yanko Tsvetkov, is it a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude? In the latter, the patriarch José Arcadio Buendía is visited by the ghost of a man he’d killed years before. They chat for so long that time stops for him—José Arcadio has gone mad, trapped in a perpetual Monday, while for the rest of his family the week proceeds as usual. Raging, he starts to destroy his house: “Ten men were needed to get him down, fourteen to tie him up, twenty to drag him to the chestnut tree in the courtyard, where they left him tied up, barking in the strange language and giving off a green froth at the mouth.”

Barking in the strange language. Words from futures that never were, from bubble-cultures lost to time, jumbled and mangled and chewed up, made into a cipher of lust and spite, called out with malicious glee. But you can go lost when you go back too far to find the sources. Stay in the present—keep in the sound. “Girl Loves Me” should be done after two and a half minutes but it hangs on for longer, unwilling to stop. The defiant joy of the refrains; the pleasure Bowie takes in yelling FUCK! at the world. He’s in his tree (even if he’s been stuffed in it, left to rot), piling up what he can. All the lost dirty boys and dirty old men, the traders and droogs and crooked cops. Sex, money, pills, schemes—the great roil and filth of life, another tide sweeping out. Who the fuck’s going to mess with him? Nobody.

Bona nochy!

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 February 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, treatments) ca. March-April 2015, Murphy’s home studio; (vocals) 16 April, 17 May 2015, Human Worldwide.

First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources, thanks: “Crayon to Crayon” for the “No One Calls” tip; Ian Hancock’s “Shelta and Polari,” from Language in the British Isles, and Paul Baker’s Polari: the Secret Language of Gay Men (Polari’s spoken in a scene in Velvet Goldmine, and, of course, in Morrissey’s “Piccadilly Palare” (“so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah“). Musician quotes: Uncut, Modern Drummer, Pedals and Effects, Mojo.

Photos, top to bottom: Wayne S. Grazio, “Sharing a Text Message”; Henrik Johansson, “Snapple”; Oleg Dulin, “Buried in Their Smartphones”; Paolo Briauca, “Couple In the Park.” All taken 2015.

 


When I Met You

July 26, 2017

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When I Met You (Michael C. Hall and Krystina Alabado, Lazarus perf., 2015).
When I Met You (Hall and Alabado, Lazarus cast recording).
When I Met You (Bowie).

At the end of Lazarus, Thomas Jerome Newton discovers that the teenage girl he’s been talking to throughout the play is actually dead. “Not properly dead,” she notes. She’s the Baby Grace Blue of Lazarus—the girl whose murderer is never apprehended and whose death needs a ritual act to complete. Until then, she’s condemned to wander the earth (or at least Second Avenue) as a ghost. “I’m sorry, Mr. Newton, but it’s not me that’s going to help you get to the stars, but it’s you who’ll help me to die properly.”

You’re my last hope,” Newton replies. “How can I kill that?” Cue the duet “When I Met You,” the play’s penultimate song.

Yet “When I Met You” isn’t sung by Newton (Michael C. Hall) and the Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), as one might expect, given the narrative—its performers were misidentified as such when an audience recording from Lazarus was bootlegged. Instead it’s Newton and the “First Teenage Girl” (Krystina Alabado), one of a trio of singers/actors who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts (there are a wearying number of “Girls” in this play). When Bowie recorded the song during the Blackstar sessions, he took both parts.

“When I Met You” is a duet between a man and a voice in his broken mind—a dialogue on love, despair, and redemption by someone staring into a cracked mirror. On Bowie’s recording, the vocals are mixed to tumble, the lead voice gaining ground, the chorus vocals mounting a response. On the Lazarus cast recording, the space between Hall and Alabado’s voices is so great that each seems in a different world—their harmonizing is all top and bottom, with no middle.

A slow-paced composition that takes its time getting anywhere (the intro alone is 32 bars), “When I Met You” moves from Newton-sung verses to Newton/ Teenage Girl counterpoint/ harmony refrains to a harsh “bridge” section that’s the tension point of the song, where the home chord of G major is altered, diminished, augmented. It suggests the convulsions of Newton’s perspective, where nothing is solid anymore.

laz

In ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came,” the singer’s waiting for someone, for something to happen, but we never learn who she’s waiting for, nor what they brought. Agnetha Fältskog crosses off the stations of her day—breakfast, train, work, lunch, train, Chinese food, TV, a Marilyn French novel before bed. She hasn’t been living as much as she’s been maintaining, and the romantic assumption is that she’s about to meet someone who opens up her life. Yet there are hints (in corners of the lyric, in the dark colors of Agnetha’s phrasing) that the “you” of the title is malignant: the murderer at the door, the tumor on the chart, the driver that doesn’t brake in time.

In “When I Met You,” the other has already come, has saved Newton in some way, and now the spell is wearing thin. “You knew just everything,” Newton begins. “And nothing at all.” (Bowie changed it to “but nothing at all” in his recording.) If Newton is Lazarus, the girl in his head has been Christ—she called him from the tomb, opened his eyes, let him speak. He was a zombie, a madman, someone lost in himself; she freed him from his trap.

In its way, it’s a long-delayed response to “Word on a Wing,” Bowie’s prayer for protection and deliverance in a dry season. “A scuzzier version of one of his grand ballads—imagine “Word on a Wing” with three-day growth and hangover,” as Alfred Soto wrote of “When I Met You.” A biographical reading is easy, perhaps too easy: Bowie thanking his wife for saving him, for Coco Schwab for protecting him (in the “Never Let Me Down” line), for his children for letting him escape being “Bowie” for a while, tethering him to earth. “When I met you…the edge had become/ the center of my world….I was off my head/ I was filled with truth/ it was not God’s truth.”

Yet whatever salvation he got from the muse/angel in his head, it’s fading away now. It’s all the same, rescued and rescuer sing to each other. The darkness has crept back, covering everything in sight. In Lazarus, Newton sings the final refrain as he prepares to stab the Girl, which he does as the last notes sound. Death’s release; no knowledge comes.

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Of the Lazarus songs, “When I Met You” was the most difficult to transition into a solo Bowie recording. It had been a duet on stage, and was woven into the play’s narrative (as much as there was one). And when racked against its counterparts, it was the least of the new compositions.

Bowie tackled it during the first Blackstar sessions in January—he was starting out by doing remakes (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“) and getting down his takes on the Lazarus songs, as if to clear the ground for leaps to come. He took the scissors to “When I Met You,” cutting a line (“the dream of time”) and switching some chorus lines around in later refrains.

For the arrangement, he emailed Donny McCaslin that “the structure of ‘When I Met You’ is sound, but now we need to mess with it so we hear it from another angle. Put in a couple of passages in the corner (in darkness) and throw a small pen-light beam on the rest—like a P.I. scouting a motel room.” (“He’s never saying something like ‘can I have a bass drum on 2 & 4’?” McCaslin recalled. “It’s more these kind of images.“)

The result was what McCaslin, Tim Lefebvre, and other musicians heard as “hearkening back to older Bowie.” Bowie’s “When I Met You” lacks McCaslin’s saxophone, where in Lazarus Henry Hey had scored subtle brass lines for refrains. It runs on skitterings (Jason Lindner’s synthesizers in the intro and vocal breaks), pulses (a jaunty Lefebvre bassline) and jabs (an acoustic guitar (possibly Bowie?) strummed more scrappily than the player on the Lazarus recording), with the “Hawaiian”-sounding lead lines (McCaslin heard “an African highlife thing”) as a dreamy counterpoint to Bowie’s voice in the verses.

In the Lazarus duet, Alabado’s chorus vocal is sharp, insistent, holding on one note, spiking over Hall’s lower, moaning phrases—her final repeats of “when I met—when I met” sound like a distress call. Bowie’s backing vocals, placed further back in the mix, are both more playful and more dramatic—there’s a greater emotional spectrum to them.

And for his lead vocal, Hall, faced with lines like “the peck of a blackened eye,” “the streams of debris” and “now the luminous dark,” unfurls them, lets them roll off, stiffly at times. Bowie takes far more pleasure—there’s a grin in some of his lines, despite their occasionally despairing words. Among the last vocals that he recorded in his life, it shows that he always wrote parts with one actor in mind.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 January 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 5 May 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: No Plan, 8 January 2017. Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus. McCaslin quotes from Mojo, December 2016.

Top: Frederik Ranninger, “Girl Alone in 16:9,” 2015; Hall and Caruso, Lazarus; Mercer Mayer, The Figure In the Shadows.


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

lazarus

Lazarus (Michael C. Hall, Lazarus stage performance, 2015).
Lazarus (Hall, The Late Show, 2015).
Lazarus (Bowie).
Lazarus (Bowie, video edit).
Lazarus (Hall, Lazarus soundtrack).
Lazarus (Hall, live, 2016).
Lazarus (Donny McCaslin Quartet, live, 2016).
Lazarus (Gail Ann Dorsey and McCaslin, live, 2017).

Stage

Walking into a performance of Lazarus at the New York Theater Workshop in December 2015, the first thing you noticed was a man lying on his back on stage. You might have recognized the play’s lead actor, Michael C. Hall; if not, you might have thought it was someone playing a corpse, one whose presence would spark the drama once other characters shuffled in.

It felt a bit like being at a wake, those fifteen minutes before the lights dimmed. Hall didn’t move, barely seemed to breathe; people taking their seats spoke in hushed tones. (At a post-Christmas performance that I attended, my friend Rahawa and I sat directly behind Duncan Jones. Something had come full circle: not sure what.)

Lights dim. The alien Thomas Jerome Newton grudgingly resurrects. He stretches, stands up, walks over to his bed. An old friend appears, asks him “don’t you remember the person you were? Your life outside?” “That was before,” Newton replies. “There’s nothing left of the past. It left. This is it now.”

Behind a glass wall upstage is a band, who have been onlookers: a smaller audience to mirror the larger in the seats. Now, a keyboard line, a call to attention on snare, guitar and saxophone riffs. Newton starts to sing:

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

When he was 21, he drafted Ernie Johnson, a rock opera about a man throwing a suicide party. In 1971, he envisioned Ziggy Stardust as a hipper Jesus Christ Superstar: he’d originate the role, other singers would take it over for road productions. He was “keen on writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” Soon enough, he wanted to make 1984 a musical. He’d play Winston Smith, Marianne Faithfull was considered for Julia, the project was scotched. On it went: countless rumors, nothing produced. Outside was once talked up as a Robert Wilson production in Vienna. Around 1998, Bowie considered reviving Ziggy Stardust in a multi-tiered offering: play, film, website, album.

His itch to move on, to play at something new, was at odds with the time and drudgery needed to write and stage a play. There was always another tour, another album to make. And then there wasn’t.

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Script (1)

Around 2007, Bowie was done with long-term touring, was ambivalent about making new albums. He’d acquired the rights to Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth and was looking for a collaborator to turn the novel into a musical play.

An article by the novelist Michael Cunningham, published in GQ this January, sheds some light on this dim period. Cunningham’s prose style, his caginess about certain details and odd specificity about others, makes the piece read like a man recounting a long, bizarre dream, which is perhaps what collaboration with Bowie was like. (And there’s always the chance Cunningham made up the whole thing.)

Bowie allegedly contacted Cunningham and the two met for lunch in New York, where Bowie “admitted that he was intrigued by the idea of an alien marooned on Earth,” Cunningham wrote. “He’d never been entirely satisfied with the alien he’d played [in the Nicolas Roeg film adaptation]. He acknowledged that he’d like at least one of the major characters to be an alien.”

What apparently caught Bowie’s eye was Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005), a collection of three novellas set in the past, present, and future, with Walt Whitman as a through-line. The SF story, “Like Beauty,” begins in a New York City full of reptilian refugees from the first inhabited planet contacted by Earth. A female refugee and a male cyborg flee the city, heading west. They meet a group who are planning to leave Earth in a spaceship and take their chances on an unknown planet, but the alien is old and dying, and she can’t escape her exile.

He imagined the musical taking place in the future,” Cunningham wrote. “The plot would revolve around a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died. David himself would write the hitherto-unknown songs.” Also, there should be mariachi music. “He’d be pleased if [it] could be incorporated, mariachi music being under-appreciated outside Mexico.”

Sermon

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For his play, Bowie was toying with the idea of using “Lazarus” in some way. A name with many stories corked within it. Notably, Lazarus is a double in the New Testament. He’s two different men, with no specific relation to each other.

In the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31), Christ tells a parable. Lazarus is a beggar at a rich man’s gate. He desires “to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” Lazarus dies, is carried up to heaven; the rich man dies, goes to hell. He cries out to “Father Abraham,” asking for Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool the rich man’s burning tongue for a moment. Tough luck, Abraham says (imagine him in the voice of Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited”). “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The rich man lowers his hopes. He asks for the resurrected Lazarus to go to his home and convince his family to change their ways. They already have the words of Moses and the prophets, don’t they? Abraham says. If that’s not good enough, well, even a dead man at the door won’t make a difference.

You can see John Calvin nodding in his Geneva study while reading this, his thin lips pursed. The rich man isn’t shown to be particularly cruel, Lazarus doesn’t appear to have been particularly holy. But each holds his position: the rich man prospers on earth, burns in hell; the poor man suffers in this life, sits at the head of the table in the next. There are no crossings between heaven, earth, and hell; there are no last-minute favors to be called in. Lazarus has grace; the rich man does not.

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But in the Gospel of John (11), there’s another Lazarus: Lazarus of Bethany, a friend of Christ. Lazarus is expiring of an illness, and his sisters ask Christ to intervene. But Christ hangs back for two days; when he arrives, Lazarus is dead. Christ is mournful, even seemingly angry. ““Where have ye laid him?” They said unto Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.” He restores Lazarus to life, calls him forth from the tomb.

You can wonder why Lazarus, of all mortals, gets a second chance at life; two millennia of biblical scholars have. Was the resurrection done for political reasons, to shore up the Christians in Bethany? To show that death is not the end, but merely a sleep in which we wake to another life? Was Christ despairing about the cruelty of death and just said, no, not today?

Lazarus has no lines in the gospel. We don’t know how he felt, waking up in a tomb after four days of death, his body stinking, swathed in bandages. He briefly intersects with the divine and then he’s left behind in the story. An exile, a resurrected alien stranded among the living. The man fated to die twice.

Sermon (2)

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There were plenty of Bowie’s usual themes here—exile, doubles, death, resurrection, fate. And legend: the Biblical story echoes in the African-American folk songPoor Lazarus,” an outlaw hunted by a high sheriff and his deputy (“they blowed him down with a great ol’ .44”), and who’s left to die on a commissary table after asking his mother for a glass of water (the Luke parable is overturned—now it’s Lazarus who asks for his thirst to be quenched). But Bowie had another Lazarus on his mind.

David hesitantly said he’d been thinking about popular artists who are not considered great artists, particularly the poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” Cunningham wrote. “What, said David, are we to make of a poet taught in few universities, included in few anthologies, but whose work, nevertheless, is more familiar to more people than that of the most exalted and immortal writers?” (Again, even if the Cunningham story is BS, Emma Lazarus was part of the play’s conception early on—“The New Colossus” is quoted in the script book.)

Emma Lazarus was a lifelong New Yorker (she’s buried in Brooklyn—to my knowledge, she was not resurrected), one of the first major Jewish-American writers. She wrote poems, polemics, translations, novels; she knew Browning and William Morris. And today she’s remembered for a few lines from one sonnet that she wrote for the Statue of Liberty (to be fair, I doubt many today could recall as many lines from Browning or Morris), a poem that her New York Times obituary didn’t mention.

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Perhaps another New Yorker, after a health scare or two, was wondering how his work would last. Would he also be reduced to a handful of lines? “Ground control to Major Tom.” “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” “Ziggy played guitar.” And yet those lines would still be alive—kids would hum them, ad campaigns would keep churning them up. Fragments of Bowie would still be around in 2117, where the complete oeuvre of John Ashbery could be forgotten.

Emma Lazarus would be central to Bowie’s play—a character who falls in love with Thomas Newton, “this most travelled of immigrants” (Enda Walsh), believes that she’s Emma reincarnated. (This character eventually became Newton’s assistant Elly, played by Cristin Milioti in the original run of Lazarus, who sang “Changes” in the spirit of Dorothy Parker.)

Songs

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Cunningham allegedly would suggest plot points or characters and Bowie would respond with “brief passages of music on a piano or synthesizer.” These pieces “had what I can only call a dark buzz of underlayer. They had urgency.” At one point, Cunningham devised a big climactic moment: the alien reveals his true self to his human lover. “I read that passage to David over the phone. The next day he phoned me back and played me a few minutes of music he’d composed for the scene. It was, unmistakably, a fucked-up, slightly dissonant love ballad.” (Bowie also apparently didn’t remind Cunningham that such a scene was central to Roeg’s film; another possible sign this memoir isn’t what it seems.) Halfway through a first draft, Bowie’s heart trouble returned and he needed immediate surgery, Cunningham wrote. “Our musical was put on hold. We never revived it.”

Bowie’s attention was returning to music. By 2010, he’d written many of the songs that would appear on The Next Day. His usual move would’ve been to devote himself to the album and ditch any idea of doing a play: maybe he’d bring up his latest lost idea years later. But Bowie wouldn’t let it go this time—he pressed on with developing his play even as he labored to finish The Next Day.

Maybe one morning over coffee Bowie realized doing a musical about lost Bob Dylan songs, extraterrestrials, and mariachi music was ridiculous even by his own standards. (And of course maybe Cunningham made it all up.) Whatever it was, he grew a touch more realistic about his play. To get it staged in New York, he’d have to offer some type of “jukebox musical.” If people are going to see a David Bowie play, sure, let them hear “Changes” or “All the Young Dudes” along with getting a lot of weirdness thrown at them.

An established playwright collaborator seemed preferable: two absolute beginners at musicals was too many. In the summer of 2013, Bowie asked his producer Robert Fox for suggestions—who’s a great young playwright? Enda Walsh, Fox said.

Script (2)

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Enda Walsh was born in Kilbarrack, a suburb northeast of Dublin, in 1967. Before he turned 30, he’d written Disco Pigs, a play about two teenagers fatally obsessed with each other (the play and its movie version starred Bowie favorite Cillian Murphy).

Reading up on Walsh, Bowie found a voice seemingly born to write his alien-exile play. Describing his Misterman (2011; another Murphy performance), Walsh told the Guardian: “I wanted it to be about a man and a building and for the audience to be asking from the off: ‘How did he end up there? What’s he trying to tell us and why?’ He’s looking for some rest, but his guilt is overwhelming and, besides, he’s existing on Fanta and Jammie Dodgers and cheap cheesecake, so there is no rest.” This is Lazarus in a nutshell.

When Walsh first met Bowie in New York, in autumn 2014, he recalled entering “a secret lift [and] arriving in a completely grey corridor, with this huge ridiculous fucking door at the end of it.” The door (Walsh later told Bowie, “that’s a really stupid door”) led to a gallery, where he found Bowie. Embracing Walsh, Bowie said “you’ve been in my head for three weeks.” True to form, he’d read every Walsh play, and started the conversation by asking about Walsh’s work. “I was just thinking, ‘this is easy,’ because I was talking about myself,” Walsh recalled.

Then Bowie slid four pages’ worth of ideas across the table, and that was the start of it. The two would collaborate for over 18 months, often by Skype: Bowie in New York, Walsh in London.

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He had it mapped out for me,” Walsh recalled. There was Thomas Jerome Newton; his savior, a dead girl; a woman (“Ellie Lazarus”) “who over this short period has a mental breakdown;” and the psychotic murderer Valentine, “who just wants to kill fucking love!” There wouldn’t be a straight narrative as much as a series of events refracted through Newton’s distorted mind: the perspective of a man who can’t leave earth and who can’t die.

Walsh described their writing process as “like making a weather report…I said to him, “Jesus, all we’re doing is constructing weather—it’s all atmospheres and rhythms clashing together.” The bizarre grocery list of earlier versions was gone. Now the play was becoming an ominous mood-piece centered on Newton’s exile and madness. The aim was to create an hour-and-a-half play that felt like a song. “It’s this dream piece, connecting sort of but not fully,” Walsh said. “We talked a lot about a man who effectively wants to die…can we make a piece that feels like it’s been infused with morphine?”

When Walsh learned Bowie had cancer, he wondered how much Bowie was grappling with mortality during the writing. “What must it be like to be David Bowie? [When you die,] are you truly dead?” When they were writing Newton’s final speech, Walsh thought “can you imagine the last moments of your life…to have that grief and fight with yourself, wanting to live, wanting to continue, but wanting rest. That’s what we ended up making…having a silent conversation with each other without it being, ‘let’s go down and have a pint’…how do you deal with the fact you’re not going to be here in three months’ time?”

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I’m done with this life—so a new universe I’ll dream big up there.

Newton, Lazarus.

Caged in his apartment, Newton begins Lazarus in the same condition as at the end of Roeg’s film: drunk, isolated, bereft, numb, missing his home planet. He’s the hollowed-out center of the play, around whom brighter, livelier personalities circle: the grinning murderer Valentine (Michael Esper), the angelic lost girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), and Newton’s assistant, Elly, who’s a set of walking nerves, scrabbling in and out of her clothes.

It was, among many things, a look into how Bowie’s mind worked: an early scene where Newton is thrown around the stage by a female Japanese samurai while they duet on “It’s No Game” could well be how Bowie envisioned the song in his head in 1980. An opportunity to have new songs performed on stage that Bowie never would play live (“Where Are We Now?” is essentially Hall covering Bowie). After January 2016, another layer of the play was revealed: a dying man saying goodbye to his teenage daughter.

“Visionary crap,” pronounced a man sitting behind me at the end of a preview performance.

Studio

lazbass1At first Bowie considered only using his catalog songs for the revised play, but his producer Fox suggested that he write a few new ones.

It’s unclear when Bowie started what became the play’s title and opening song. By 2014, he had a sketch known as “Bluebird,” which he proposed developing with Maria Schneider after “Sue.” That same summer, he demoed the song (now called “The Hunger”) in the studio with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford, and the pianist Jack Spann. Renamed “Lazarus,” it would be one of the first tracks recorded in the first Blackstar session in January 2015.

“Lazarus” moves at morphine-drip tempo (it takes a minute to get through 16 bars—there are reservoirs of space between each hit of Mark Guiliana’s snare drum), and it’s harmonically bare—the verse dazedly moves from the home chord of A minor (“look up here, I’m in”) out to the VI chord, F major (“heaven”) and slowly back home again. There’s more turbulence in the bridge, which jolts from C major (“I was”) through E-flat major (“looking for your”) to land on D major (“ass”). A possible inspiration, at least for mood and tone, was the Cure’s “The Big Hand” (“it traces back to the Cure and New Order,” bassist Tim Lefebvre said of his opening bassline).

In the verse, the vocal line is confined to a five-note range, mostly keeping to the root notes of chords, with closing phrases dragged across bars (“see-een,” “loo-oose,” “be-low”). Bowie (and Hall) change their phrasing in the bridge: more declamatory phrases that sink a third to expire (“then I used up all-my-money“). They stick with this phrasing when the chords resume the verse’s Am/F pairing, which conveys Newton’s growing frustration at being stuck in limbo, and creates a structural tension—is this still a bridge? is it a new verse? an outro? The song winds down, unresolved; it feels like it’s been expiring for a long time.

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The Lazarus performance, on stage and in its cast recording, is meant for Newton to bring the audience into his state of mind, so Michael Hall quickly gets into the song. The intro is shorter, the bridge is the dramatic peak (complete with backing singers), and the song soon packs off so as to cut to a scene with Elly and her husband.

In the studio, the Donny McCaslin group began by replicating lines from Bowie’s studio demo, with McCaslin playing what were originally Bowie saxophone parts in the verse. But Bowie wanted the song to linger more, to open up, build. “I remember that we played a really nice first take—everyone played very musically, but politely,” Mark Guiliana said. “David said something like, ‘Great, but now let’s really do it.’ He was always pushing us. The version on the record is the next take, where we are all taking a few more chances.”

Compare the Lazarus version’s quick-sweep keyboard intro to the long, brooding opening of the Blackstar take: a chordal bass run by Lefebvre, improvised early in the “Lazarus” session. “The intro didn’t exist on his demo, but after the first take we kept playing, and Tim started playing this beautiful line with the pick, which David liked and thought it would make for a nice intro,” Guiliana said. “He was very much in the moment crafting the music.

For the opening Lefebvre plays a run of eighth notes on his E string, moving up the neck, playing such high notes at first (at the 19th fret) that many have thought it’s a guitar line. It began as an embellishment during the first take’s outro. “I’m a big fan of this band Fink, and their guitar parts are like that, where they move roots around,” he said. “So I did it at the beginning, too, and it became the thing. Anybody that’s heard my playing had heard me do that five billion times…I just improvised the high stuff.”

There was a raw element needed—a clanging, distorted guitar to abrade the verses and outro. Though Ben Monder was on hand for guitar overdubs later in the Blackstar sessions, Bowie played these lines. As Nicholas Pegg discovered, Bowie used the Fender Stratocaster that Marc Bolan had given him in 1977, weeks before Bolan’s death. The power chords—three sliding stops down the neck—at first stand alone, tearing through the opening verse; the scars that can’t be seen but heard well enough. Later they close ranks with McCaslin’s saxophone.

Stage (2)

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Bowie’s “Lazarus” builds as it closes, with McCaslin’s roaring saxophone (at times colored with overdubs McCaslin recorded months later) urged on by Guiliana’s drums and Lefebvre’s rolling bassline. But compared to some of his wilder moments on Blackstar, McCaslin seems controlled, precise, slightly held in check.

Then a show in London, in November 2016. McCaslin starts by announcing “Lazarus” with its three-chord banner, plays the verse melody somberly, then in a higher register. By the bridge, he slowly lifts into the song, begins boring and twisting through it while Guiliana detonates around him. Five minutes in, he’s pushing out, whirling in the air, with higher and higher phrases, holding and choking off notes: the song offers endless territories for him to move into.

In February 2017, in New York, he played with Gail Ann Dorsey. She captures the song with her first line—it’s as if Bowie had turned out to have written it for her: the way she sings “I was living like a king” with cold dignity. McCaslin follows, counter-weaves. She finishes singing and sits down on the stage, letting McCaslin take her place in the relay. There’s no warmup—he tears into his solo, running up and down scales, boiling and rolling while Dorsey nods along in time, her eyes closed. It’s a seance where the spirit doesn’t need to talk, where the living happily do the work.

Screen

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I just thought of it as the Biblical tale of Lazarus rising from the bed. In hindsight, he obviously saw it as the tale of a person in his last nights,” said Johan Renck, who directed the “Lazarus” video.

Shot in November 2015, it’s Bowie’s last public image, and it’s easy to view the video as Lefebvre once described it: “the references to his own mortality, the symbolism in the ‘Lazarus’ video, it’s all spelled out. And he went out in a ball of flames.”

“Lazarus” was meant to be distributed—it was as if Bowie was selecting heirs, passing on estates, shifting properties around. So it was Michael C. Hall’s song, too—the song through which Hall introduced Newton on stage. Hall was the one who first played “Lazarus” to an audience beyond the confines of the NY Theater Workshop, singing it on the Late Show in December 2015. It was McCaslin’s song, though it took him time to fully find his way in. It was Dorsey’s song—when she sang it that night at the Cutting Room, it was as if it had been waiting for her all along, and now she’d finally gotten there. There will be more inheritors to come.

But the video is Bowie’s copyright tag—he makes “Lazarus” impossible for the song ever to fully escape his orbit. A jovial not so fast, loves. He plays two roles (beggarman and resurrectee), both seen in Renck’s earlier “Blackstar” video, and the symbolism is clear, isn’t it? “Jones”: the dying mortal, reaching out to heaven, his wasted body being tugged away from his hospital bed. “Bowie”: the impish trickster daemon, still at work, still plotting, wearing his Station to Station jumpsuit, scoffing at how dully serious death is. Jones sings the mournful verses, while Bowie gets the bridge lines, which derails the song’s doom-and-gloom sensibility with some score settling:

Then I used up all my money!
I was looking for your ass!

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So British, the wit, like a guilt thing, making sure it’s not coming across as too serious or pretentious—and yet that enhances the humanity of it,” Renck said. The video even ends with “Bowie” going back into the closet.

But “Button Eyes,” as Bowie and Renck called the terminal character, was as much of a viciously ironic performance. This is “Dying Bowie” for the tabloids to use, with his Late David Lynch hair and wild gesticulations; a man seemingly older than the planet. It’s how a young person may regard someone old—how do they keep at it, the olds, with so much weight and tear on them? It’s his burlesque of Jacques Brel’s “Old Folks,” a song he’d raided as a young man, for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (“you live so far away, when you’ve lived too long”) and “Sons of the Silent Age” (“the old don’t die, they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day”).

It’s a mockery of death, a pantomime, a refusal to take it seriously, for why should we? “Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breath of the universe,” as Walt Whitman wrote (did he ever meet Emma Lazarus? did they pass on the street?) “Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.”

And meantime the grinning trickster Bowie is a slave to work: frantically writing, settling the accounts, trying to keep the balls in the air. New titles, names, chord changes. Another play—maybe 1984 at last! 2. Outside: Infection! Should write Brian. More albums. A small residency with McCaslin somewhere in New York—it’ll start at a comfortable hour, we’ll be in bed by 11. More, always more.

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When he was 26, Bowie had sung a curse on time. Time as an addled bureaucrat, pacing in the wings like a stage manager. A bad playwright. A wanker, a puppet dancer. Time took the insults in stride. He was back now, watching Bowie work at the candle’s end with the rest of us. Time’s sympathetic but really, we should be on by now.

Stage (3)

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At first, the cast and crew of Lazarus didn’t know whether Bowie would make the opening night, on 7 December 2015. His health was still a secret kept among Walsh, director Ivo van Hove, and a few others. But he was there. At the end of the performance, Bowie “went around to everyone in the the theater…he wanted to celebrate the stage managers and the doormen—he thanked everyone,” Walsh said. When Bowie left through the front door, out onto East 4th St., Walsh “knew that was going to be the last time I would see him.”

Michael Cunningham said he was there as well. He’d spied a notice at the NY Theater Workshop for Lazarus. “Realizing that David had gone ahead with another writer was a little like running into a lover from the deep past, on the arm of his new lover, and finding that you ceased to miss him so long ago that you felt nothing but happiness for him,” Cunningham wrote.

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A month or two earlier, Bowie’s at an early run-through performance of Lazarus. The bandleader Henry Hey asks for his thoughts. “Is everything OK? Would you like anything else?”

“Yes,” Bowie says. “I think I’d like a sing.”

A keyboard intro, a call to attention on the snare. David Bowie sings before an audience for the last time in his life. The performance is the memory of a dozen or so actors, a dozen or so musicians; some lighting techs, a stage manager or two.

He closes his accounts with “Lazarus.” A New Yorker at death. Pop poet of the downtrodden. Beggar in heaven, twice-dead man, outlaw. Exiled alien, living on Twinkies and gin. Old Button Eyes.

Look up here, Bowie begins, finding his foothold in the song, the musicians there to back him up. I’m in heaven…

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The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

Recorded: 3 January 2015 (backing tracks), Magic Shop, NYC; 23-24 April, 7 May 2015 (vocals, overdubs), Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: 18 December 2015, digital single (UK #45, US #40). Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus.

Photos/illus: Gustav Dore, Resurrection of Lazarus; MC Hall on stage at the New York Theater Workshop, 2015 (Sara Krulwich, NYT); Tevis, first edition of Man Who Fell to Earth; Woodcut illustration of Luke 16:19-31 by Jacob Locher, used by Silvan Otmar of Augsburg (d. 1540); Resurrection of Lazarus, unknown painter, Athens, 12th-13th C; portrait of Emma Lazarus, unknown painter; Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh, 1996 (Corcadorca Theatre Company); transcription of Tim Lefebvre’s bassline during the saxophone solo on “Lazarus” by Brian Woten; stills and GIFs from the “Lazarus” video (Renck); Bowie at rehearsals (Jan Versweyveld); the cast & creators take a bow, 7 December 2015.

Sources: Cunningham, GQ, January 2017; Walsh, quotes primarily from a conversation filmed at the Dublin Bowie Festival, 10 January 2017, and an interview with the Daily Telegraph (24 October 2016); McCaslin, New Yorker Radio Hour; Guiliana, Modern Drummer; Lefebvre: No Treble, Pedals and Effects; Renck: The Guardian. Also essential resources: Paul Trynka’s piece in Mojo (“Final Curtain,” December 2016) and the latest edition of Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie.

Some lines of this piece originally appeared in a review that I wrote for Slate on 8 December 2015. Thanks to Alex Reed for the Cure suggestion and to Rahawa Haile and Nikola Tamindzic, Lazarus companions.


State of Play

April 13, 2017

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A few people of late have asked me (on Twitter, Facebook, name your social media) about what’s going on with this site. No updates in two months!

Here’s the thing: I’m behind in writing my book, which is due this year to Repeater Books. In part because after Bowie died, I pretty much couldn’t write anything of value for half a year. I lost that time, and, you know, I don’t regret it (I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan). Something of the same was true for Nicholas Pegg, and I imagine for other writers on DB. It was just tough to do anything productive then.

But I am behind. And, to be honest, this blog doesn’t pay any bills. Books do, in a very roundabout and not-particularly-lucrative way. My day jobs do.

The priority for 2017 is therefore: finish the book as quickly as I can, and work when I need to, which is very often. The blog is, sadly, a secondary business at this point. I need to write the last Blackstar entries, to air them out before I finish the book—that is the impetus to get them done. But otherwise, the blog cannot be a priority. I hope you understand.

The next entry should hopefully be done this month. Or it won’t. Take it as it comes. And thank you for your support.


‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

February 16, 2017

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‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Bowie home demo, single).
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Blackstar remake).

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A man of property and standing, believing his new wife virtuous, is deceived. She grows sick, though the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine—she just ate some bad melons. Yet the truth’s soon inescapable: she’s pregnant, by another man. Worse, by her brother. I know you have a son, her husband says. O folly! I’m such a fool: you went with that clown.

He’s persuaded to forgive her, but plans revenge. In a season of crime, none need atone. Instead, the brother stabs her to death, skewers his sister’s heart on his dagger, murders her husband, then at last is dispatched by thugs. A cardinal gets the closing lines:

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The last words of John Ford’s 1633 play are its title, and they also title David Bowie’s 2014 single, in which Bowie potted Ford’s revenge tragedy into a film noir setting. Incestuous, doomed Annabella becomes Sue in the weeds.

Wait, no, Bowie’s single is called “Sue.” Turn the disc over. There, the B-side has Ford’s title.

But if “Sue” is “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” under an assumed name, then what’s this song?

WITNESS: FEMALE ASSAILANT HAD ‘MASCULINE’ STRENGTH

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It’s Sunday in the late Seventies. In downtown Santa Cruz, the Pacific Garden Mall, “a playland of urban design,” winds along Pacific Street. A few blocks east is the San Lorenzo River; a half hour’s walk brings you the ocean. A jazz band plays in front of the Cooper House, a buff-brick old grandeur that was born a courthouse and now holds shops, bars, and restaurants. It’s the maypole around which downtown dances, as a Santa Cruz journalist wrote.

The band’s called Warmth, fitting for an outfit that carries shoppers and idlers through the Californian afternoons. The bandleader hops from Wurlitzer to piano to marimba; the tie-dye-clad saxophonist uses his solos to tear off into space, with great skronks, broils, and bleats. They play Cal Tjader, some Cannonball Adderley. As the afternoon ebbs, the tempo picks up. “Feel Like Making Love” and “Mustang Sally,” organ notes bouncing off the Cooper House walls. Couples tipsy from white wine over lunch get up to dance. Just offstage, sitting in a chair, is a boy of 10 or 12, watching his father’s band.

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Donny McCaslin, born in 1966, is the work of postwar American systems: a well-funded public school with a top-notch jazz band; a community college with professional jazz instructors; a municipal infrastructure that supported concerts by Warmth, and a community center to host concerts and seminars. “It was a place and time where all of these elements were together in place and I could just plug myself into them,” McCaslin said recently. Today, many are gone. His high school jazz program “is nowhere near what it was…budget cuts have decimated [it],” though the music program of Cabrillo Community College, where he took courses as a teenager, is somewhat intact. The Cooper House and the original Pacific Garden Mall are not, as they were demolished after a 1989 earthquake.

When McCaslin was 12, he made an “impulsive decision to switch out of a class in junior high into beginner’s orchestra,” mainly because a friend was in the latter. Asked what he wanted to play, McCaslin chose tenor saxophone, in part because he was in awe of Warmth’s bohemian saxophonist, Wesley Braxton (“I remember looking into the bell of his saxophone and there was like a pool of condensation and a cigarette butt floating in it”).

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Throughout his teenage years, McCaslin was steeped in jazz. He was lucky in his teachers: his professional musician father, and his band director, whose friendship with a Duke Ellington trumpeter meant that a student band had a book of Ellington charts. In location, too. Santa Cruz was a stop for jazz musicians heading from LA to San Francisco, so on any given Monday night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he could see the likes of Elvin Jones.

He was a pro by college (Berklee, class of ’88), playing in Gary Burton’s band before graduating. Moving to New York, McCaslin did stints with the Gil Evans Project, Steps Ahead, Danilo Perez, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He found that he thrived in groups. “It would be harder for me to live in a place where I was isolated and alone, and it was up to me in terms of my musical development.”

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A John Coltrane fanatic at Berklee, McCaslin’s core influences would shift to Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. He loved that Rollins once called himself a “blue-collar improviser,” and “the compositional nature of [Shorter’s] improvising.” With Perez, he developed his rhythms (“I grew up when jazz education for sax players was focused on…chord scales and chromatic substitutions, and there wasn’t much emphasis on time and rhythmic variation“). From Schneider, he learned how to deploy soloists, to loosen structure—his solo on her “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” is one of his first definitive moments on record.

McCaslin stands at 6′ 3″, a great presence on stage, at times bowing to the ground as if gravity’s bent on claiming his saxophone, while his lungs seem as large as mainsails. In 2007 Nate Chinen wrote of McCaslin “unfurling intricate lines as if they were streamers, in great gusts of exhalation.” A melodically dedicated improviser, he works in volume and tone, with a taste for long crescendos, slowly-accumulating builds that splinter into rapid-fire sprays of notes.

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His albums mark his progress. Soar (2006) is McCaslin working through immersions in Latin music, under the sway of tango vocalist Roberto Goyeneche (“the way he sings, half of the time he’s talking, and it’s really over the bar line, it’s got this real vibe“). The aptly-named Declaration (2009) was one grand solo after another, like a man wheeling Cadillac models off a factory floor, from the title track through “M” and “Rock Me.”

At the turn of the decade, McCaslin started assembling his current quartet. Perpetual Motion (2010), his first album with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, was also the start of electronica as a compositional influence, at the urging of his producer/mentor David Binney (by 2014, McCaslin was tackling Aphex Twin’s “54 Cymru Beats“). It was also McCaslin looking back to afternoons at the Pacific Garden Mall, cutting jazz fusion pieces like “LZCM” (i.e., “Led Zeppelin Christian McBride”), “Impossible Machine” and “Memphis Redux” (inspired by “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a Warmth favorite).

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By 2012, when Jason Lindner had joined on keyboards, the McCaslin Quartet settled into its current form. With Guiliana, McCaslin had a drummer who could groove but also could replicate the rigor of electronic percussion, from the uncanny precision of his beats to how he varied the pitch of his snare hits via sleight-of-hand like placing a bottom-hat cymbal on the snare head. In Lefebvre, he had a road-seasoned, genial monster of a player who got thunderclaps from his pedals. And Lindner could glide from providing washes of synthesizer to the sudden clarity of a piano passage to a Wurlitzer groove that, again, called back to McCaslin’s father vamping on “Mustang Sally” for mall dancers.

Casting For Gravity was a first statement of purpose. “Says Who” has McCaslin alternating types of solos: melodically expansive ones based off a lopsided theme, minimalist ones in which he keeps to a handful of notes while his rhythm section spins around him like bumper cars. Its lead-off track got its title from Guiliana’s comment that one live performance had been so hot that it felt like “stadium jazz.”

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Instead of Giants Stadium, the McCaslin Quartet had 55 Bar, a former speakeasy that’s been on Christopher Street in New York since the Red Scare. Cecil Taylor would hang out by the ice machine, talking about Coltrane and Martha Graham; Norah Jones was there in her first years, Jaco Pastorius in his last. By the early 2010s, it had become “a clubhouse of sorts for players in McCaslin’s circle.”

On 1 June 2014, the Quartet was booked at the 55. On his web page, Lefebvre noted it as a “gig before we record Donny’s new record.” It wasn’t a flawless performance, as Lefebvre recalled struggling with his pedals at times (“the outlets there are janky“). During a break, a waitress came by to say there was a guy at one table “who looks like an old David Bowie.”

WAR DECLARED: RESERVISTS CALLED TO THE FRONT

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McCaslin, though not his band, knew to expect Bowie in the room. The latter was composing “Sue” with Schneider at the time, and she’d recommended he check out the McCaslin Quartet for a few songs on his next album (soon enough, McCaslin and Guiliana would be in rehearsals for the “Sue” recording). Bowie and McCaslin didn’t meet that night, but a day or so later, Bowie sent him an email.

And the first song Bowie sent McCaslin, not long after they started emailing, was a demo he’d recorded at his apartment, a song inspired by what he’d heard at 55 Bar that night.”I sat there in stunned silence for a while,” McCaslin said, recalling first hearing it. Although Bowie was in the studio in summer 2014 to record full demos with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford and Jack Spann, the B-side of “Sue,” issued that November, was Bowie alone: the same home demo he’d sent McCaslin, full of keyboard presets and crackling with cheap distortion.”The B-side was a demo. It was just kickass,” Visconti said. “His production skills have gone up 5,000%.”

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He’d been recording home demos since his teens. His former manager, Kenneth Pitt, recalled one bedroom studio set-up for which Bowie piled different-sized stacks of books to serve as tom and kick drums. There were a slew of tapes from those years, most of which were done for his publisher (to no surprise, the majority of bootlegged “lost” Bowie compositions hail from this period—the tapes circulated among London song-pluggers).

Bowie’s demos are his shadow songbook. What do they sound like? Are they fresher, wilder, more strange than their finished takes? You could project anything onto them, make them the “real” versions of disappointing album cuts. The early “Scary Monsters” that Bowie made for Iggy Pop in LA, ca. 1975. Whatever the first version of “Bring Me the Disco King” was. His producers were struck by the tapes, from Nile Rodgers (“I said ‘wow, that’s the way ‘Cat People’ goes?'” Rodgers recalled of hearing the original demo) to Hugh Padgham, who described the legendary “soul” demos for Tonight as being livelier and better than some released tracks.

Sometimes he’d dispense with the crutch of pre-recording songs—his late Seventies and mid-Nineties come to mind, when worked without a net in the studio. But by his last years, he’d essentially become a home-studio indie musician—the McCaslin Quartet recalled each demo being a miniature performance, full of surprising sounds, with bass and drumlines intricate enough that the players often based their performances on them. “The demos he sent us were nuts: so off and quirky and awesome,” Lefebvre said.

HEARTBROKEN MAN SAYS MEMBER IN LADYLOVE’S POSSESSION

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Having gone through McCaslin’s catalogue in preparation for working with him (Lefebvre: “usually it’s the other way around—you research the guy who hired you“), Bowie focused on two pieces from Casting For Gravity. One was McCaslin’s take on Boards of Canada‘s “Alpha and Omega,” in which a multi-tracked McCaslin played a looped, phased melodic theme over variations driven by drum and bass. The other was “Praia Grande,” which built to a maximalist McCaslin solo full of great bass note waggles, riding a wave of drums (lots of splash and tom fills), Lindner’s synth and Binney’s vocals.

In the demo of “‘Tis a Pity,” the song’s development is driven by Bowie’s saxophone and piano lines, which pivot off a relatively-unchanging rhythmic base. “Compositionally the bass is more arhythmic and less of a harmonic function,” Lindner said. “It remains pretty much the same through the harmonic changes, with a couple of notes shifting to complement the progression.” (“That’s one where I was using a lot of octave pedal,” Lefebvre added.)

The same was true for the drum pattern. “The groove on the demo was a driving one-bar loop,” Guiliana said. “The challenge was to play this repetitive part but stay in the moment and keep pushing the intensity.” In overdubs, Guiliana played a Roland SPD-SX “full of 808 sounds,” almost all of which were kept in the final mix (e.g. the burst against Bowie’s “’tis my fate” at 3:33).

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Another starting point was likely Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct,” which like “‘Tis a Pity,” begins with a sonic barrage (taken from THX-1138) and whose timbre is similar. It’s possible Bowie was working out how to create a Steve Reich-esque sense of phasing, acceleration and heightening, and as he had the Nineties on his mind (see future entries), “Mr. Self Destruct” soon emerged as a rock-beat-driven template he could use. (A commenter in 2015 suggested yet another possible ancestor: the soundtrack of the 2005 film Lemming, which also has lots of acceleration and odd timings).

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There’s a fundamental instability in “‘Tis a Pity,” which spends much of its span shading between F major and F minor, from its intro and solo sections (Fm-Bb-F) to the coda, where Bowie’s waves of backing vocals shift from singing A-flat to A major notes, in turn coloring the underlying F chord from major to minor and back again.

But the greatest destabilizer is Bowie’s accelerandorallentando saxophone, moving in and out of phase with a plinking keyboard line. The feeling is of a song laboring to assemble itself, with the saxophone sounding like a locomotive slowly taking on steam until, when Bowie starts singing, the saxophone then slows in tempo, as if out of breath, only to build up again. This struggle continues throughout the song—Bowie’s saxophone disregards whatever role was planned for it to move in its own way, often keeping on the same note as if out of spite, taking an occasional cue from the vocal but more a corrosive agent that winds up ruling the track.

THEFT OF PURSE REPORTED, A DEXTEROUS CRIME

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Indulge yet another theory. David Bowie sits down to write a song based on John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore, turns the Annabella character into “Sue,” winds up with a song called “Sue.” But he still likes Ford’s title (even if he keeps putting an “a” before Pity) and wants to use it. Having transferred Ford’s “plot” into “Sue,” he has an empty stage where once there was a play. A scratch-space to populate.

You could say Ford’s lustful and murderous players are still here, hidden behind screens and made absurd. But the second line, ‘hold your mad hands!’ I cried,” in quotations on the lyric sheet, is an apparent reference to Robert Southey’s Sonnet I (1797), which begins a sequence of poems condemning the slave trade, and whose opening lines are:

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This led Nicholas Pegg, in his newest revision, to go off on an interpretative spree that includes Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I won’t spoil it—you should get the book). “‘Tis a Pity” is a hub around which the grandest, most bizarre interpretations can wheel. Like the now-demolished Cooper House in Santa Cruz, it’s a maypole.

There’s also the inevitable biographical reading. Bowie, apparently having suffered multiple heart attacks in the 2000s, faced worse medical news. Hence the references to disease and theft, to the idea that life is no longer skirmishes but has become a final, consuming battle that the singer knows he’ll lose in time.

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And then, Bowie’s only public statement on the song: “If Vorticists wrote Rock Music, it might have sounded like this.” The Vorticists, Britain’s answer group to the Futurists, had been on his mind for a while—they’re creeping around The Next Day and the Vorticist Blast is listed in his Top 100 Books.

Sitting in the crowded 55 Bar that night in New York, watching a jazz band blast away on stage, his brain being its usual warehouse, did Bowie flash on a parallel? The Cave of the Golden Calf, the notorious Vorticist cabaret of the early 1910s, combination gay bar and avant-garde hobnobbing gallery. A low-ceilinged club in the basement of a cloth manufacturer, its walls adorned with Ballet Russe murals and Wyndham Lewis’ stencils.

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Calling up wild mad nights in London in the early 1910s, comparing them with a crowd of polite young jazz enthusiasts gathered that night in New York in the last years of the Obama Administration. The Vorticists had demanded the future, wanted a world of dynamism, machines, color and noise, and they got the war instead, the war that began the summer that the Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt. The war that killed several Vorticists and sent Wyndham Lewis to the Western Front, on patrol for the Royal Artillery, spying on German positions from forward observation posts, calling in artillery strikes.

We say we want the future, but when it comes, it’s always the war.

The Cave of the Golden Calf was located at 9 Heddon Street, London. Its former building is in the background of the cover photo of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, with Bowie posed right up the street.

VOICE URGES CROWD TO RESTRAIN WOMAN, CHAOS ENSUES

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Making a “proper” version of “‘Tis a Pity” for Blackstar was a top order of business—it was one of the first tracks taped for the album, on 5 January 2015. “When we got together that first week, David said he wanted to re-record [it],” McCaslin said. “We were playing hard and going for it. That just happened in like ten minutes. That might’ve been the first take.”

The Blackstar “Pity” opens with two sharp intakes of breath, like a man readying himself to walk up another flight of stairs. Or, to be fair, like someone snorting coke.

The demo vocal is quieter, its laments humbler; it’s a man making strange asides in a corner of the room, trying to find an angle into the song, which is rolling along without any need of him. The Blackstar singer is more gregarious: he has an audience. Man, she punched me like a dude, he begins in a conspiratorial tone, trying to cadge a drink from a stranger in a bar. He rubs his cheek in wincing recollection. My curse, I suppose, in a tootling phrase; his four-note closing emphases—that-was-pa-trol—broken with a piping lift up an octave to a high F on “waaaaar.”

He keeps on, his muddled tale growing murkier (maybe he got that drink), cracking the hard “ks” of “kept my cock” like walnuts, oddly dramatizing her “rattling speed” by slowing his notes down, crowning “whore” by making it his new octave-jump. Each time he repeats the title phrase, he grows more absurd until, in the last go-round, his voice seems to have crawled into his pocket: teeshapeetysheeewarseurhoooor.

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The other great change lies in how the saxophone’s deployed. On the demo, it’s always there in the verses, essentially becoming the lead vocal, the chief color in a whirlwind of noise. On Blackstar, with McCaslin now taking the part and breaking it in two (he did sax overdubs months after the initial take), its use is more precise and dramatic. In the first verse, McCaslin only enters with a slow dancing phrase after “my curse”; in the third, he arrives with some Albert Ayler-esque trumpeting phrases. His multiple sax tracks take on much of the work of the piano on the demo, making an upspeed-downshift duet of stereo-scoped saxophones.

As McCaslin spirals outward into the coda, tearing into notes and discarding them, David Bowie breaks character. A whoo! as if he’s startled by something, then two shouts—goddamn, this is happening—and a last yell like a man coming off a roller-coaster loop. Standing in the studio, facing this miraculous band he’d found seemingly from out of nowhere, stepping back to see what’s in front of him.

It’s the Vorticists’ “separating, ungregarious British grin.” It’s Jacobean incest-murder noir, or God’s judgment on slave traders or just whatever strange jokes floated through his head on the day he sat in his apartment and started taping his demo. A ridiculous bloody history of this broken world is within “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore,” a latter-life masterpiece, with no top and no bottom.

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Recorded: (demo, B-side) ca. June 2014, Bowie’s home studio, Lafayette St., NYC; (album) (backing tracks) 5 January 2015, Magic Shop; (McCaslin overdubs) ca. March-April 2015, Human Worldwide; (vocals) 20, 22 April 2015, Human Worldwide. Released: (demo) 17 November 2014, B-side of “Sue”; (album) 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources: Quotes on Pacific Garden Mall from the Santa Cruz Sentinel: Wallace Bain, 3 Oct 2009 (“urban design”) & Jason Hoppin, 14 Oct 2014 (“maypole”). McCaslin bio: primarily from David Adler, Jazztimes, 13 June 2011, and DM’s interview with Neon Jazz, 12 February 2016. Also Nate Chinen, NYT, 14 June 2007; Jason Crane, All About Jazz, 8 September 2008. Other quotes from Jazztimes (Lindner), Modern Drummer (Guiliana), No Treble, Pedals & Effects (Lefebvre), Mojo (Visconti, McCaslin), Uncut (McCaslin), New Yorker Radio Hour (McCaslin). Insights on composition: Alex Reed; “Crayon to Crayon.” Momus, in 2014, brought up the Cave of the Golden Calf; his album The Ultraconformist claims to have been recorded on wax cylinders at the club in 1910.

Photos/art: Ian McDuffie, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, 2015; panel from Hawkeye No. 9, 2013 (Matt Fraction/David Aja; suggestion of Fraction); Warmth at the Cooper House, ca. 1970s; Santa Cruz Sentinel, 31 March 1989; Nadja van Massow, “Donny McCaslin, Jazz Baltica,” 30 June 2007; McCaslin & band at 55 Bar, 2015; Lydia Wilson as Annabella, ‘Tis Pity.., Barbican, 2012; Wyndham Lewis, Cave of Golden Calf brochure, 1912; mash-up of Cave of Golden Calf, 1912, & 55 Bar, 2015. All text breaks from Blast No. 1 (1914), the 1915 D.C. Heath & Co. edition of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or the NYT, 9 August 1914.

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