Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)

December 1, 2016

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Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (single).
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (single edit, video).
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (Blackstar remake).

1. Allegro con brio

Imagine: David Bowie wondering whether he’d been gone too long, fearing that releasing a new album after ten years of silence would be considered an indulgence, a folly, politely ignored, condescended to. Issuing a surprise single on his birthday in January 2013, he hedges a bet. Discarding the promotional hype cycle lets him startle his fans, but also avoids raising their expectations. “Where Are We Now?” is simply there; no time to wonder what it would sound like.

Then comes The Next Day, the longest production of his life, over two years of studio work; it’s an album that, at times, he seems to consider scrapping. A sense of hard struggle permeates it, in its overlong sequence, its combative, narrow-scoped vocals, the pieces of old songs that keep surfacing. Tony Visconti, in early 2016, said that TNDstarted out trying to do something new but something old kept creeping in.”

TND does the job, though: it sells, gets (mostly) rapturous reviews, makes Bowie seem current again. Mark the growing confidence in his videos, from hermetic curator of “Where Are We Now?” to the piss-and-vinegar performers of “The Next Day” and “Valentine’s Day.” He’s through the rebirth. He can go anywhere he’d like. As he’ll write in a new song: I’m sittin’ in the chestnut tree/ Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?

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Jazz may have set me off on this idea that ‘planned accidents’ are truly wonderful experiences in music…it’s inspired me just by giving me an understanding that it’s okay to drift between the spaces created by the melody. The melody is a schematic, an outline of what you can do…the most important thing for me was learning that the spaces between the notes are where the action really is.

Bowie, 1995.

Jazz was his foundation music: the Georgie Fame-inspired “Take My Tip“; the Charles Mingus quote in “Suffragette City”; Let’s Dance, which has a big-band heart on some tracks; the wintry fusion of “This Is Not America” with the Pat Metheny Group; the long thread running through his Nineties, from “South Horizon” to “A Small Plot of Land” (whose “poor dunce” melody is heard in “Sue”) to “Looking for Lester,” a full-on D.-Lester Bowie trumpet/saxophone duel.

The problem was that Bowie, as he’d happily admit, lacked technique. His saxophone playing couldn’t pass muster in any environment but those he created in the studio. As a vocalist, he was so distinctive in tone and phrasing that integrating him into a jazz ensemble would be difficult. He’d pulled it off in spots (his and Angelo Badalamenti’s “A Foggy Day” comes to mind) but never on a large canvas.

Now he wanted to go the whole hog: work with a jazz band, not rock ‘n’ rollers acting the part. His ideal was a bandleader like Stan Kenton and Gil Evans, architects of postwar reveries (Evans had scored Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners). “David and I had a long fascination for [them],” Visconti said. “We always held the jazz gods on a pedestal above us.”

The plan was long in the works, as Bowie’s plans tended to be. During his early 2000s tours, he’d talk about wanting to work with jazz musicians with his pianist Mike Garson (who had a jazz background). It was Garson who first told Bowie to look up the bandleader/composer Maria Schneider. A decade or so later, Bowie did.

2. Andante con moto

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Maria Schneider was born in Windom, in southwest Minnesota, in 1960. It’s a farm town on the Des Moines River, a half-hour’s drive from the Iowa border. She’s returned there in compositions like “Sky Blue,” “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” and “The Thompson Fields”: watercoloring empty spaces; drawing on memories of flying in her father’s propeller plane to North Dakota and Canada, over fields of flax and corn. At home, “we had all these big picture windows and you’d look out the window and you’d see nothin’,” she said in 2006. “When your entertainment isn’t provided for you, your life is full of fantasy.

Unlike her future saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who’d been cooked in jazz since childhood, she barely knew the music until her college years. You can imagine Bowie happy to find a gifted, renowned jazz composer who had essentially stumbled into her field. A composition major at the University of Minnesota, she began reading about jazz scoring and gorging on records. The university had no jazz composition department but there was a campus big band. She began working with them and soon wrote for them.

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After graduating, she worked with Gil Evans, who showed how to blend instruments in an ensemble, making fresh cocktails with tones (so Schneider may score a line for a combination of mute trombone/baritone saxophone, making them sound like an English horn). How to “dress a soloist,” as she described it, using as an example how Evans arranged “Concierto de Aranjuez” on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain: “there’s all this fluttering—this movement…all these things going on—and when Miles enters, everything stops.” And how to push musicians to their limits, to create “struggling points” in compositions. Evans, reviewing something she’d rescored for him, had her put “the low instruments at the top of their range, so they’re uncomfortable.

She also studied with Bob Brookmeyer, who argued that structure shouldn’t be rigid. Don’t do a chord change because “it’s time” for one. A solo shouldn’t come after x many bars of a theme because that’s when a solo always comes. A solo, he said, should only come when there are no other alternatives.

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By the early Nineties, she’d put together a big band. The life of an American jazz musician, even one with club residencies and write-ups in the New York Times, is a precarious one. During the years the Maria Schneider Orchestra played the West Village club Visiones on Mondays, she would cab down with the scores and music stands, and pay each musician $25 a night (she took $15). “Every week was logistical hell,” she said. “It’s different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.” Only a rent-controlled apartment (something many of today’s young NYC musicians lack) allowed her to keep afloat, financially.

She began recording in 1994, for the German label Enja. It soon proved untenable: she had to come up with a third of the recording costs for each album, which she never recouped. In the early 2000s, she began self-publishing and fan-funding through ArtistShare. She records her albums and sells them via her website (they can’t be streamed or downloaded elsewhere). It’s the life of an independent artist today—tending to one’s audience, trying to get fresh funding, hyping the latest release, pushing the back catalog, touring as much as you can.

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Despite the grind of work life, her music improved. Her rhythms became subtler, her melodies broadened; her sense of texture, already fine, became masterful. As Gary Giddins wrote, “her greatest strength is in the rich vertical dressing of harmonies that swell in discerning, spacious clouds of sound…the whole orchestra breathing as one.”A breakthrough was Allegresse (2000), which opens with “Hang Gliding,” with its mixed meters and fluid structure—no intro/chorus/solo sections but a series of slowly interlapping lines, like a procession moving along a thoroughfare.

There’s “Dissolution,” which moves from flute wanderlude to drum-and-guitar scrum to walk out in serenity (one section has (presumably accidental) melodic affinities to the end of “Bewlay Brothers”).”Bulería, Soleá y Rumba,” in which Donny McCaslin charges at the ensemble like a bull. “Cerulean Skies,” which opens with birdsong and proceeds like an upturned day, sun rising and falling as if carried on the winds.

I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors–the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,” she said in 2013. Her contingent (her bands range from 17 to 20 members) plays multiple instruments–trumpeters double on flugelhorn, saxophonists on flute, clarinet or piccolo. Like her mentor Evans, she’s discarded the traditional role of big band as dance music—reeds stacked up against horns, unison theme statements, steady 4/4 to keep the floor full—to make her group more Impressionist, a cloud formation. Some critics found her work meandering, saying her pieces were like introductions to songs that never appeared. David Hajdu called Schneider’s work “sheer beauty distilled to its essence. Everybody knows beauty to be one of the things art has always been here to provide. And yet beauty in music is, somehow, sometimes, just as hard to accept as ugliness.”

Schneider developed a core set of improvisers and writes for their personalities, as if they’re a well-worn acting troupe: McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, pianist Frank Kimbrough. “I like to use soloists to develop pieces,” she said. Where often in ensemble jazz, a soloist plays over a harmonic structure introduced by the full band, Schneider writes “solo sections that continue the harmonic development of the piece. They’re carrying the piece to some other place.”

3. Scherzo. Allegro

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Bowie attended the first night of a Schneider residency at Birdland, on 8 May 2014. The following day he visited her apartment to see if a collaboration could work. He had two compositions in rough stages—the piece that became “Sue” and another called “Bluebird” that, over half a year, became “Lazarus.” Schneider, deep in the weeds finishing her own album, only had time to work on one piece; “Sue” was the more viable prospect. “When I heard what he played, I thought ‘you know, I think I can put something of my world into that!‘”she said. “I sat at the piano and played around with harmony a bit and said, ‘maybe I can imagine doing something with this.’

At the beginning of June, Bowie and Schneider met at her home to work on the music together after she’d had a chance to experiment on her own with ideas for a few weeks. On 9 June 2014, Bowie and Schneider, along with McCaslin, the trombonist Ryan Keberle, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson and Mark Guiliana (McCaslin’s drummer, not Schneider’s) met for a rehearsal session to test out those ideas and feel out the structure. Schneider wanted Bowie to hear firsthand the direction of the piece before they got into the studio with the whole band. After that first rehearsal, Schneider and Bowie met yet again, made adjustments, and they all met for another rehearsal about ten days later. Schneider did her final tweaks and the orchestra recorded “Sue” at Avatar Studios on 24 July 2014.

It was a day’s work—instrumentation was finalized and group tracks recorded, Bowie cut his vocal, McCaslin and Keberle did overdubs.When Bowie put down his tracks, he had placed some of his final vocal lines in some unexpected places within the form, blurring the more obvious structure, which delighted Schneider.

She heard his lyrics for the first time at the recording session.”He changed all the lyrics at the end,” she said in 2015. “I kind of knew the direction the song was taking but then that changed—it became about Sue getting murdered for cheating. He wanted it to be really dark. I thought oh my gosh, am I going to get a lot of flak for contributing to a song about a man murdering a woman? But I didn’t write the lyrics. And it does sound rather good.”

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When “Sue” first aired on BBC Radio 6 (on 12 October 2014), reaction was mixed. It was defiantly odd and unsettling, hard to absorb at first. Bowie’s vocal is harsh in tone, keeping to a few notes in a narrow range, with buffeting gales of vibrato. His voice spars against the underlying music. The composer/writer Kevin Laskey pegged it as being akin to parlando, when an operatic singer declaims lines, speak-singing over more melodic orchestral backing.

It solved the problem of how to integrate “David Bowie” into a jazz band. He becomes an oversized version of himself, creating an unassimilable, coldly grandiose persona that the music has to work around and find ways to support. “Sue” is a simple piece, harmonically: just G major moving to E minor. Schneider works by constantly varying tones and instrumentation: take how many voices are heard over the song’s seven-plus minutes, from Keberle’s trombone grunts and Scott Robinson’s contrabass clarinet as undercurrent, from Guiliana’s skittering cymbal work to buzzing muted trumpets to the three-note splash of Kimbrough’s piano that ends the song. (There’s also apparently enough of Plastic Soul’s “Brand New Heavy” in the bassline to merit Plastic Soul getting composer’s credit with Bowie and Schneider.)

Schneider also provides a sense of simultaneity—as the song progresses, everyone moves but not together (they’re dancing out in space, as Bowie might have said). The horns move to a different tempo than Guiliana’s antic snare patterns, while Bowie has his own cryptic timing. The jostling factions—instruments making loose confederations that soon break apart—give him room to roam, to drag or compress his phrasings, to make long trellises of words. As Laskey wrote, “while some instruments are following Bowie’s melody, there are others playing a counter-line against it. This push and pull with the main melody helps integrate Bowie’s voice into the overall texture of the band.”

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What’s he singing? A short story: the fall of a marriage in eight short verses (six, in the single edit). His character begins a success—he got the job, they’ll move into the house at last. But something’s amiss. Sue is ill (“you’ll need to rest”), though the clinic’s called, the X-ray’s fine. (Or in another, darker reading, he’s beaten Sue enough to make her go to a walk-in clinic, but there’s no permanent damage.) He puts his faith in the material future: soon there will be the house, the money will come soon enough.

The “theme” melody (a four-note phrase carried by brass and flutes, sung by Bowie in the first two verses) is the motif for the absent Sue. As Bowie’s accusations grow, the motif returns in darker and more distorted shapes—take how the horns, sounding like a regiment left in tatters after a battle, sound the notes at 5:57. His story grows more bizarre: Sue, thinking of the grave, wants to die a virgin. But you have a son…oh, folly Sue!

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On Outside, Bowie had played with narrative, writing a murder mystery with no plot or resolution but filled with scads of random information. The story of “Sue” is straightforward enough, if riddled with blank spaces. The mystery lies more in Bowie’s performance, as his emotional language is hard to decipher. Is his character a fool, a dramatist, a psychotic? Sue herself doesn’t exist apart from his obsessive recounting of details and how he sings the long stressed vowel of her name—she’s the hole in the center of the song, its absent goddess. If Bowie took the name from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (one of his “top 100” books), it’s an apt reference: the Sue of Fingersmith is a con artist running a job yet who’s a dupe in a greater game; she’s the “I” in a story who doesn’t know that her identity is a fiction.

A murder happens off-stage. He dumps the body in the weeds, kisses the corpse, says goodbye. Or so he does in the single, which ends with the sixth verse. On the full version, he keeps talking, as if detectives have him in the box and he can’t stop condemning himself. He’s found a note, it tells the whole dirty tale: “you went with him…right from the start/ you went with thaat clooooowwwwwwwwn.” Has she left him? Is her murder a revenge fantasy? Is he sitting in his empty house sketching the gravestone of his “virgin” wife? No goodbyes this time. Sue, I never dreamed, as he starts the last verse. Or, “Sue”/”I Never Dreamed”: David Bowie’s latest single backed by “I Never Dreamed,” the first song that he ever recorded, with the Kon-Rads in 1963. One of its verses could have fit in “Sue”:

I never dreamed
Your caress could hurt so much
I never dreamed
That I would shake to your tender touch

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With Bowie keeping his motives dark, the song’s emotional weight shifts to the man who’d soon become his last great collaborator: Donny McCaslin.

In “Sue,” McCaslin is a free agent, improvising throughout, liberated from having to support the theme or Bowie’s top melody. “I don’t think I was thinking, ‘wow, I’m gonna blow for seven minutes!’ It evolved into that,” he said. “I didn’t know how much would be used, and they ended up using a lot of it.

Mixed right, McCaslin is heard from the start, a voice helping to assemble the song, then he embellishes on Bowie’s lines, commenting in the margins. In the break after the second verse, his agitated run up the scale is answered by a suspicious snarl from trombone. After the verse with Sue’s murder, there’s a shift to a stunned instrumental passage with McCaslin as a mourner, creeping out of the wake. He bores into the last verses, actively working against Bowie’s voice, hounding him, not giving him a moment alone. Then, shifted to center-mix, McCaslin becomes the focal point of the closing section, the orchestra falling into place around him as he plays in his altissimo range (getting higher-pitched notes on tenor saxophone via different fingerings).

The lead actor has left the theater; McCaslin has to carry on the show. It’s how their roles would play out in 2016.

4. Allegro

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Bowie had expressed interest in doing more pieces together, but Schneider couldn’t spare the time due to her upcoming recording with her band scheduled for the following month and recommended that he use McCaslin’s quartet instead (see next entry). By the start of 2015, Bowie, having demoed some new songs, had shifted plans. He’d found in the quartet a contemporary group as much fluent in rock and drum & bass as in jazz, and he’d ditched the idea of a full-out jazz collaboration. Instead it would be a classic Bowie genre-shuffle, making an album with as much affinities to Earthling as to Stan Kenton. Having used Schneider as an experiment, he then took the results and worked in his own laboratory.

Remaking “Sue” for Blackstar was arguably unnecessary. Where the original “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was a home demo that could be fleshed out, “Sue” was an intricately-arranged work that didn’t cry out for another take, plus it just had been released on a new compilation. Some theories: Bowie knew that live performance was behind him, so here was a way to take apart a song as if he was playing it on stage;  he already was reworking his older songs for Lazarus, so why not here; he felt “Sue” was needed for the album sequence but that the Schneider version wouldn’t fit.

Recorded in the second set of Blackstar sessions, in early February 2015, a fresh arrangement for “Sue” proved difficult. “The new version of ‘Sue’ took the longest,” McCaslin said. “Because the original version that we recorded with Maria is so specific, with all the orchestration.” His first suggestion was to cut a take with his band “just jamming, and there’s David singing that first part, then we’ll all just cue the sections.” This didn’t work, although “we did one or two passes which were really wild.” So he went back to Schneider’s score and slimmed down instrumentation, reducing the cast to saxophone, clarinet and alto flute, all of which he played, and giving a greater role to Ben Monder’s guitar (see below).

We’d get the roadmap [of songs] together and that took a while, especially on the arrangement for “Sue”, because it’s kind of nebulous and floaty,”added Tim Lefebvre, one of the players in the Blackstar session (along with keyboardist Jason Lindner and James Murphy on percussion) who hadn’t been on the Schneider version. “We figured out where to change, because it’s not an eight-bar groove kind of thing.”

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Among the changes were an increase in tempo and a tighter arrangement. No longer are there strands of instruments competing to be heard—things are locked in, moving at a gallop (it’s telling that Bowie gets through all eight verses in roughly the length of the single edit). For the remake, Bowie “wanted a bit more edge, a bit more urgency,” Guiliana said. “David encouraged us to really go for it. Tim [Lefebvre] was free to go to what I call ‘Tim World,’ which is one of my favorite musical places. By the end, we really get to another gear. I have some Gregg Keplinger metal percussion on my ride cymbal on this take—you can that hear stuff bouncing around!”

Lefebvre’s bass is the focal point of the remade “Sue”—he opens with a fat-sounding funk riff distorted by his Pork Loin pedal, then changes to his Octave pedal, with some faster hand-picking. He also uses a Corona pedal for slow, sludgy-sounding passages—towards the close he plays what he called “EDM kind of stuff,” bending the top strings of his Moollon-P bass, fixating on the same notes. Lefebvre described the wild breakdown section following the sixth verse (3:07) as “they gave us eight bars to just rage. Mark and I had played a lot of live drum ‘n’ bass together, and it’s shocking and amazing to hear that on a David Bowie record—they allowed us to do what we do on this album.”

Along with Lefebvre, Monder is the other major element of the remade “Sue” (compared to his role in the Schneider take, McCaslin is far more a secondary player, working as backdrops—a wasp-like buzzing after the first verse; finally introducing the “Sue” motif on clarinet at 2:02). Monder began by doubling Lefebvre’s bassline for the backing session, then Bowie asked him to essentially play the “David Torn” role in overdubs. He “wanted a bunch of really atmospheric stuff, so I did one pass with a lot of reverbed -out guitar,” Monder said. “My go-to trick was turning the mix on my Lexicon LXP-1 [an older half-rack reverb unit] all the way up, as well as putting the delay and decay all the way up—which makes this giant wash of sound and makes whatever note you play sound really good.” (Monder played the main riff on a hybrid Strat, switching to his 1982 Ibanez AS-50 for harmonics.)

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Like McCaslin’s soloing, the full-bore vocal performance of the Schneider version is also gone here. Bowie is quieter, more subdued, a shadow within the swirl of the mix, sounding beaten down (the clinic had called again; the x-rays weren’t good). While retaining some of his phrasings from the original, he uses less vibrato and is far less expressive and dramatic—I know you have a son is now half-spoken, like an aside that doesn’t matter. As Monder, Lefebvre and Guiliana build to a din, he sings the last verses resignedly, saying goodbye to himself as much as to Sue.

The two versions can seem like a handmade hardback edition of a book and its mass-produced paperback—if some subtleties are gone in the remake (I miss the gorgeous intricacy of Guiliana’s playing on the Schneider take, for instance), the thing now moves faster and packs a harder hit.

In the end, “Sue” became two songs existing at once (fittingly, Bowie gave it two titles), each seeming like the revision of the other. It’s a cusp song, the first puzzle in a new set. There’s nothing quite of its like in the Bowie catalog. One of his last great oddities.

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Recorded: (Schneider/DB single) (workshops) 9, 18 June 2014, (recording) 24 July 2014, Avatar Studios, NYC. Released 17 November 2014 as a 10” single and digital download (UK #85); full take led off Nothing Has Changed, released a day later; (Blackstar remake) (backing tracks) 2 February 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 23, 30 April 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2016 on Blackstar.

Sources: Schneider: quotes from interviews including Judy Carmichael, 2004; Ben Ratliff, NYT, 17 November 2006; Best New Music, 2008; Jennifer Kelly, 2009; Zachary Woolfe, NYT, 12 April 2013; NME, 11 October 2014; Michael J. West, Jazztimes, 26 January 2015; Pamela Espeland, Minnesota Post, 2 Sept 2015; Brent Hallenbeck, Burlington Free Press, 14 April 2016. Bowie’s 1995 jazz quote from George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune. McCaslin: quotes include those from Uncut, January 2016; Mojo, January 2016; (Monder) Jon Wiederhorn, Yahoo Music, 13 January 2016; Lee Glynn, 14 January 2016; (Guiliana) Modern Drummer, 26 February 2016; (Lefebvre) Kevin Johnson, No Treble, 14 January 2016; Pedals & Effects, 7 March 2016 (this is a fun interview—Lefebvre seems like a great dude). Recording dates from Uncut and the indispensable Nicholas Pegg, whose new edition of The Complete David Bowie you should’ve purchased by now.

Photos: 1: “Tokyo, April 2014” (Eric Foto); DB as Kon-Rad, ca. 1963 (Roy Ainsworth). 2: Bowie and Schneider at Birdland, 8 May 2014 (photog unknown); downtown Windom, MN (Wikipedia); Schneider, Ensemble Denada, Victoria Jazz Club, Oslo 2014. 3: Bowie and Schneider at the Magic Shop, June 2014 (Jimmy King); stills from “Sue” video, directed by King and Tom Hingston. 4. Bowie w/Keberle and McCaslin, June 2014, Magic Shop (King).


Bowie: Object/ David Bowie Is…

October 26, 2016

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I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.

Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.

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In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:

My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.

I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.

Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.

Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).

But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.

Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.

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News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.

A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”

It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.

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The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).

He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:

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What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.

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A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.

Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”

Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.

Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.

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The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.

Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”

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During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.

The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.

The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.

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Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.

Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.

And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.

First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.


Heat

October 12, 2016

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Heat.

1. Mirror Contract

The photograph shows a room in a flat in West Berlin—155 Hauptstraße, Schöneberg. David Bowie lies on his side on his bed. Thirty years old, his face is that of a beautiful sleeping child.

This is Bowie-in-Berlin, in a stolen moment (or was it? was the photograph staged for possible use? I don’t know who took it). A man gone from the world, hiding in his bedroom. The headboard is a wooden sunrise. All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall is an enormous canvas: Bowie’s portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

One of Bowie’s favorite paintings, arguably his best, it’s a severe crop of Mishima’s head, which seems carved from stone. The almond eyes have a penetrating sadness.

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Well before he first toured the country in spring 1973, Bowie had immersed in Japan (he always did the research). He loved its art, photography (Sukita), fashion (Yamamoto), food, music (Toru Takemitsu), kabuki (Bando), film (Oshima), temples, and likely more than a few of its citizens. Perhaps above all, the work of Mishima, whose last books were being translated into English in the early Seventies.

For Bowie, Mishima was the extremity of Japan’s artistic culture. He stands most openly in Bowie’s “Berlin” songs. A tributary of “Heroes” is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, of whose sailor Mishima wrote “he was perfectly aware he would leave [his lover] in a day yet he was ready to happily die for her sake” (and recall that “sailor” was Bowie’s internet handle in the Nineties).

The sailor washes up in Lodger (“Red Sails”), an album with a Mishima counterpoint in “Fantastic Voyage” (Mishima, of the samurai: “there is dignity in serenity, there is dignity in clenched teeth and flashing eyes”; Bowie: “dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too”), Mishima’s decayed angel in “Look Back in Anger” and reference in “Yassassin” (“Look at us—sun and steel“). “Because You’re Young” and “Teenage Wildlife” tick to the quickened pulse of Mishima novels like Thieves, with their passionate, beautiful young suicides.

Consider Mishima’s description of a samurai preparing for seppuku (“the sense of beauty was always connected with death…the samurai was requested to make up his face by powder or lipstick, in order to keep his face beautiful after suffering death“) and Bowie’s makeup for the last Ziggy Stardust shows.

At dinner with Arcade Fire in New York in 2005, Bowie talked of his love of Mishima’s work and said he’d been in Tokyo when Mishima died. Like many Bowie stories, it was a perfect synchrony and quite untrue: on 25 November 1970, Bowie was likely sitting at his piano in Beckenham while Mishima stabbed himself in an army commander’s office in Tokyo.

2. Entrance to the Stage

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I had a desire to turn myself into my own opposite, even in real life…I cannot be certain whether I actually created my own opposite or merely an aspect of myself which until then had been ignored.

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

Like David Bowie, Yukio Mishima is a stage name. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, to a family of samurai heritage. Fifty days after his birth, his formidable grandmother essentially kidnapped him, having his cradle moved into her sickroom. He lived in her house, rarely seeing his parents or siblings, until he was 12 years old.

Allowed dolls and origami for playthings, his few friends (all girls) severely vetted, he was left alone to dream and read fairy tales. When his grandmother determined she finally was going to die, she returned him to his parents. His siblings saw him as a lodger; his father considered the would-be decadent scribbler a disgrace.

During World War II, Mishima was in college, waiting to be called up for the last battles of the Pacific. “A genius destined for death,” he described his 20-year-old self. “It was a rare time when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of the age perfectly corresponded.” His memory of 1945, the year of the atom bomb and surrender, was of merciless sunlight. “The summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before.” A sympathetic army recruiter rejected him (Mishima had played up a recent bout of tuberculosis), so Mishima never fought. The world gained a writer who wished he’d died a soldier.

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What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my own true nature. And it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was masquerade.

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

By the Fifties, he was Japan’s best-selling author. His books, full of death, scandal and glamour, were so popular that slang for an adulterous woman, yoromeki fujin (“lady misstep”), came from his novel A Misstepping of Virtue. He wrote and directed plays; he wrote, directed and/or starred in dozens of films (he liked playing toughs and gangsters) and once sang a film’s theme despite being tone deaf. “How wonderful to be a star!” he once said while sprawled upon a sofa backstage at one of his plays.

In whatever little compartment—as a clown (which he liked to be), as an actor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—every little thing he tried be, he also resisted,” the writer Nobuko Albery said. To the actress Hideko Muramatsu, Mishima said human beings are made of opposite halves: love and cruelty, tenderness and hatred. “Try to express both sides at the same time. Then the personality you create will be more profoundly expressed.”

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He was a gay man who married a woman and had two children; a Europe-loving aesthete obsessed with restoring traditional Japanese culture, the sovereignty of the emperor and the Japanese army (now with nuclear weapons). His dogged, precise work schedule was that of a banker while he dressed, as his biographer John Nathan described, in a “blend of Hollywood cool and Roman drugstore cowboy,” favoring shades, loud sport shirts, black pegged trousers, gold chains. (Nathan, who went to discos with Mishima in the Sixties, said “it was like watching a studied imitation of a dancer; he always looked horrifyingly sober“). Within his Western-style house with a statue of Apollo in its garden (“my despicable symbol of the rational“), Mishima wrote on a metal desk in a small, spartan room. At parties, he’d roll on his back to do impressions of a dog treeing a cat, would imitate Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Then he’d dismiss everyone before midnight so he could get in his writing hours.

Frail in build after the hothouse years of his childhood, driven by his shame of failing the draft (and being kidded in gay clubs about being so skinny), Mishima began exercising and weight-training until he had the body of a lean Charles Atlas. He seemed to have custom-designed each muscle as he had each room of his house.

In Sun and Steel, he wrote that he began life as nothing but mind. “I was to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language.” Once he’d learned it, he knew he would lose it—the idea of his body’s inevitable decay appalled him. “I was the final heir to the tradition of Japanese beauty.”

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By the mid-Sixties, he’d set upon two goals: he would write his masterpiece and would die by ritual suicide. At first he thought these irreconcilable, but found a means to entwine them and bring them to fruition.

While writing Spring Snow, the first of his quartet of novels The Sea of Fertility, he befriended a group of nationalist students, whom he’d incorporate into his next book, Runaway Horses. He joined the Army Self-Defense Force (roughly Japan’s equivalent to the National Guard), going to boot camp at age 42. As he wrote The Temple of Dawn he created a civilian counterpart to the ASDF—-a private 90-man army called the Shield Society (he wrote their theme song). He debated left-wing students, starred as a terrorist in a film, hoped a leftist uprising would cause his civilian army to be activated.

He was playing war, which had a special excitement for him because he hadn’t been allowed to do so as a child,” his brother later said.

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On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society disciples went to the ASDF headquarters and held the commander hostage. Mishima stood on the balcony to orate to the soldiers. He called on them to overthrow the Japanese government and restore the emperor; they mostly jeered him: “Stop trying to be a hero!” “We can’t act in common with fellows like you!” He’d contacted the media to be sure the news cameras were there. Returning to the commander’s office, he knelt and drove a foot-long dagger into his left side, then drew it across his abdomen. His disciple fumbled the killing blow, failing twice to decapitate him as Mishima shook in pain and gushed blood and intestines. Another would-be hero finished the job.

That morning, Mishima had left home wearing his dress uniform. On his desk was the finished manuscript of the last book of his quartet, The Decay of the Angel, and a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune

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Then we saw
Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall

The first lines of “Heat,” the last song on Bowie’s The Next Day (the last next day), refer to a scene early in Mishima’s Spring Snow.

Mishima’s quartet is the life of Japanese man, Shigekuni Honda, and his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies each novel to be reincarnated in the following book. Kiyoaki, dead of heartbreak and illness in 1914, is reborn as Isao, a nationalist fanatic who commits seppuku in 1931. Isao is reborn as Ying Chan, a Thai princess who barely seems to exist in the world until she no longer does (snake bite, 1952). She reincarnates as Tōru, an arrogant shipping clerk whom an aged Honda adopts in 1970.

Honda—rational, dull, slave to routine, dedicated worker, faithful husband in a loveless marriage, reader, voyeur, survivor—is the control. The experiment is his reincarnated friend, whose various lives embody passion, beauty, bravery, depravity, improvisation, a will for death. Honda “was certain he had played a part in the crystallization of Kiyoaki and Isao’s transparent lives…he was a kind of harbor and not a ship,” (The Temple of Dawn). The quartet is Mishima’s life of opposites split into two beings—one continual, one reoccurring, each needing the other.

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Spring Snow begins with Honda and Kiyoaki as teenagers on the latter’s family estate in 1912. They’re part of an entourage walking to a waterfall on a hill overlooking the manor. “It’s a beautiful day,” Honda says. “In all our lives, we may not have many like this.”

Though the hill has been sculpted to provide a gently-flowing waterfall, water is being diverted midway up the slope. A black dog that “probably had been mortally sick or wounded when it came to the stream to drink, had fallen in. The force of the current had wedged the corpse into the cleft of rocks at the top of the falls…[Honda] felt oppressed by the sight of the dog hanging dead in the falls under a bright sky only faintly flecked with cloud.” The party gives the dog a burial, an abbess leads the funeral blessing.

A water-washed corpse of an aimless dog spoils the careful designs of human beings. It harbingers Kiyoaki’s death, his subsequent deaths, and the slow corruption of his various reincarnations; it foretells the Kiyoaki estate being bombed to pieces by American planes during the war and Honda’s sad withering. It is time and doom.

Bowie uses “we”: his perspective both Honda and Kiyoaki, Mishima’s halves in a single eye. But the oppressive mood of “Heat” is far from that of Spring Snow, whose setting is a jewel of a prewar Japanese world. “Heat” is more a blasted landscape.

Referencing a Mishima novel was in keeping with how Bowie wrote much of The Next Day. His circle reduced, since the mid-2000s, to his family and a few friends, Bowie seems to have retreated into books (in a way, he lived Mishima’s childhood as an older man). So lines from Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh turn up in “I’d Rather Be High,” Carole Anne Duffy and Svetlana Alliluyeva in “How Does the Grass Grow?,” Robert Palmer (writer, not singer) in “The Next Day,” Mishima here.

It was an older type of songwriting—he’d written many of his first album’s songs by taking stories and characters from Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. But it’s done far more obliquely and disjointedly here: a traceable reference links to an untraceable one, forming a lattice of broken images. The dog in the waterfall is the first square on the board; the rest of Bowie’s words are a series of jumps.

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky

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So in the first verse of “Heat,” after the Mishima lines, come some purgatorial images—songs of dust, the night always falling. Then “the peacock in the snow,” suggesting a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord (a film about children growing up in a surreal Fascist Italy):

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Which in turn, as the artist Tanja Stark noted, has echoes in one of Jimmy King’s photo shoots of Bowie, from winter 2013:

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And jump-cut to Scott Walker’s “Jolson and Jones,” from 2006’s The Drift:

Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted
Where dead children were born

It’s not that Bowie set out a map and said, “all right, x will take you to y, from which you can find z.” He’d always worked at angles, in shadows, never spelling things out (even to himself), making the listener do the work. It was a holdover from his glam rock years. The crowd had made Ziggy Stardust; here, the crowd (no longer a crowd, but a group of solitudes listening to his songs on computers or phones) decides which path a song like “Heat” takes.

There was a parallel in the work of an old influence. The later songs of Scott Walker are full of lines with little to tether them but their being sung by the same keening voice. Walker wrote bloody histories via arcane words quarried from the OED or from art movies, set to apocalyptic music.

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John

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The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

This blog’s gone at length into the connections between Scott Walker and David Bowie (see “Nite Flights” and “The Motel”; pack a lunch). For Walker, Bowie was of interest while he was making his 1978 album Nite Flights. For Bowie, Walker was nearly a lifelong influence.

A pop star in the Sixties, Walker spent much of his artistic life on the margins, while Bowie remained a genial mainstream presence (with some exceptions) whose secret ambitions were to be something like Scott Walker. In 1997, Bowie exhibited a painting titled The Walker Brothers Triptych. The three “brothers” were x-rays of himself, bracketed by then-collaborator Reeves Gabrels and the artist Tony Oursler. It’s a remnant of his most Walker-esque avant-garde period, the years of Outside and Modern Painters.

Then a funny thing happened in the 21st Century—the two swapped places. Bowie grew furtive, was out of the public eye; his life became speculation. Walker was, by his standards, a public figure.

Walker cut a song for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film, soundtracked Leos Carax’s Pola X, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2000, produced Pulp’s final album We Love Life, recorded a song with Bat For Lashes. He participated in a documentary about himself which he said he’s never watched, and let cameras into the studio as he recorded The Drift. Thanks to a sympathetic generation of music journalists, there are more interviews promoting The Drift and Bish Bosch than there are for the whole of his solo career pre-2006. He patiently explained what his intentions were, how the albums were recorded, how he was using his voice.

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He’s become, at 73, something of a cultural institution. While a few older fans may still harass him on the tube because “the stuff you’re doing now I fucking hate,” he’s mostly escaped at last being the glamorous Mod London Scott. Sporting skinny jeans and caps like a Williamsburg grandfather, he makes inscrutable albums that critics generally like.

Signing with 4AD in the 2000s, Walker was free to do whatever he wanted (if anything, 4AD pushed for “weird”). His late albums are as much a brand identity as the Scott albums of the Sixties. Their covers have muted colors, with photographs that could be lunar surfaces or microbe slides; tracks have titles like “Epizootics!” and “Psoriatic” and “Herod 2014.” You come to expect the sudden shifts in dynamics, esoteric percussion as primary rhythmic pulse, keening lead vocals that follow melodic lines unsupported by the backing music (or noises), abstract violence as organizing principle.

The Drift is a slasher film as art rock record. Listening to each track, you wait for the blow to strike—Satanic Donald Duck voice, horse-massacre horn, winter armies, massed strings summoned like ringwraiths. Walker’s voice is the only constant in a sequence of rapid set changes, his plaintive, haunted phrasings fall over telltale-heartbeat drums or gales of atonal strings. The Drift is the culmination of what he’d been moving towards since “The Electrician.” His masterpiece, it’s a brutalizing album to endure from start to finish.

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Bish Bosch, from 2012, works along the same lines, but there’s a growing sense of absurdity, as if the Walker project has reached its red giant phase (the title, Walker said, meant in part “job done, sorted”). Songs are longer, more ridiculous, goofier—the dog barks, fart and piss noises in “Corps de Blah” or how Walker’s ode to the fall of the Ceaucescus, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died,” has a lyric of multiple-choice personality test questions and ends with a snatch of “Jingle Bells.” At the same time, there’s a paring down—fewer strings, diminished basslines. “We just need to find silence and stillness to experience it,” Walker said.

Its gonzo peak is the 21-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an oblique history of a 5th Century jester dwarf, stuck on a pole, who becomes a brown dwarf star. Much of the lyric is a historical catalog of insults, from Catullan digs like “for gross Gauls, who won’t leave our sheep alone” to Don Rickles jibes like “does your face hurt? Cause it’s killing me.” What best survives the long centuries? The put-down jokes.

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After decades of frustration, Walker had found a way of working that suited him. Keeping to a tight budget (he had to record all the strings in a single day, would have to wait months for a few days of studio time to open up), he would use a small group of studio pros who knew what to expect from him, and could process his instructions quickly. Machetes as percussion? Electroshock guitar? Crickets? It got done.

His albums sold enough to justify their production costs; he got enough press. He was as free as any artist can be in the 2010s. So he could sit at home and write his dark Saturday-crossword-clue lyrics (there’s a similarity to Mishima’s prose: Mishima “knew the exact word for everything,” friends recalled, and loved archaic and obscure terms, making his books difficult to translate). Then he’d map out chords on his keyboard, get much of the song set in his head, go to the studio and have his musicians give the rest of it to him.

A workable aesthetic. One that Bowie followed as if using a blueprint when making Blackstar.

6. The First Step Toward Salvation

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Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip.

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

As I write this, on a nearby table is Mick Rock’s photo collection of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The book is the size of a small tombstone. It’s a public life in glam stills, whether Bowie applying makeup backstage, on a train somewhere, or out on stage. A record of Bowie assembling a grand personality, as if building a temple, then walking around in it.

The critic Donald Richie once said of his friend Mishima: “He knew one of the great and best-kept secrets of being alive is that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it. You become who you are by practicing it and, little by little, you will turn into who you want to be.”

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period was him rigging himself into being a star. For the rest of his life, he’d tear down the stage dressing and do it again, and again. It wasn’t the way of Mishima, who’d spent the whole of his life building to his suicidal climax. His books, films, plays, interviews, actions feel aligned in a single rising movement, a unified performance, all his halves fusing to form the man standing on the balcony in 1970. When he killed himself, the Japanese were stunned; he had acted. “Mishima has gone and actually done what these rightists only talk about,” a Japanese policeman told journalists. “And it is not only the rightists who are stirred. Here in Japan, there must be thousands of frustrated people. They have no outlet for their pent‐up feelings.”

Mishima doing karate, practicing kendo, flying in subsonic aircraft, plotting revolutions, gutting himself, making sure the camera caught his right profile. For Bowie, he existed as image: heat and light, sun and steel. By contrast, there was Scott Walker, hiding in London studios, having drummers thwack sides of meat. Existing, as he had since the early Walker Brothers singles, as voice, as form without being, artist without biography. “I’m just trying to be a person singing without any personality or anything else particularly,” Walker said.

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‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

In 1982, in the months before he made Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had been Mishima’s leftist political rival in the Sixties. Bowie said he once saw a TV interview in which the two fervently argued with each other for what boiled down to the same ideals. “I qualify that by saying that the Japanese left and right are quite different from Western ideas of left and right, where it is estranged left and estranged right,” Bowie said in 1983. “In Japan both would have probably have roots in the same source than they might have over here. They both say, let’s stay Japanese. And when you’ve got that, you’re almost cancelling out everything else!”

In Mr. Lawrence, Oshima cast the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, head of a World War II prison camp for British soldiers. Sakamoto essentially plays Mishima (call the movie a battle for aesthetic supremacy between Bowie and Mishima, a war fought via actors). Yonoi is a pop star out of time, obsessed with his own honor and Bowie’s character, the prisoner of war Jack Celliers; he’s consumed by Celliers’ blond purity, his beauty, his refusal to obey. Both characters are driven by past shames: Celliers’ betrayal of his younger brother, Yonoi failing to die honorably after the failure of a coup he participated in.

At the film’s climax, to prevent the POW commander from being executed, Celliers breaks ranks and walks up to Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks. Yonoi, outraged and in love, can’t act. He collapses in disgrace. Celliers is killed by being buried alive; Yonoi is executed at the end of the war, perhaps with the lock of hair he’d cut from Celliers still in his pocket.

7. The False Account and the True

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With its austere F-sharp major key, “Heat” seems like an outpost when compared to the rest of its loud, compressed album. It seems to play the curtain-closing role that “Bring Me the Disco King” did on Reality.

It’s a mix of Walker tropes. The usual “Electrician” moods, the Climate of Hunter fretless bass (Gail Ann Dorsey, playing an instrument she was unfamiliar with), the blurred instrumentation and semitonal shifts in melody and chords. The latter’s been a Walker trait since the Sixties—his hope of making “new chords” by binding contrasting tones together, strings hovering between tones.

The chord structure of “Heat” is sparse: a long stay on the home F# chord, then moving to the IV chord (B major, “songs of dust”) to a D major refrain (“I tell myself”); it’s a shift between E and F# for the coda (“I am a seer..”). But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C). It creates tension throughout the track; it’s as if a landscape is being shrouded in mist, then uncovered.

Bowie sings a handful of notes, making pawn’s moves (rising only by second or third intervals). He does this often on The Next Day, hunkering down on a few notes instead of writing his usual octave-spanning lines, as if unwilling to stray out of his confines. A movement repeats like Morse code: a two-note rise for each phrase, F# to G# (“Mi-shima’s dog,” “tell my-self,” “love is theft“)). He only moves to a third note to close a section, whether circularly (“blocking the water-fall” is F#-G#-F#) or ambiguously (“pea-cock in the snow” ends on an A note).

heatsheet

The arrangement clouds things further. The rhythm is a brusque acoustic guitar (Bowie?), the drums embellish (cymbals hiss on the chord changes), Dorsey’s bass is a softly persistent querying voice. Despite Bowie’s dominant position in the mix, the background—meshes of keyboards that hold on a wavering chord, guitars making solitary gestures, vocal loops, wary strings that finally burst into flight in the coda—is as much central to the track.

And while Walker is there in “Heat,” it’s a frozen conception of him. This is still the Scott of “It’s Raining Today” and “Nite Flights,” not the man howling and laughing on his latter records. The 21st Century’s Walker doesn’t exist here. Much of The Next Day is Bowie assessing his past, “sampling” it, playing cut-up with it. He does the same to Walker here—“Heat” feels like the end of a long admiration. A man finally packing things up, starting to look beyond the horizon.

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial

mish69

All art is like the evening glow. It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky, even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile…The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending.

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

Of “Heat,” Tony Visconti said “the lyrics are so bleak that I asked David what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer…He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind.

“Tragic, Nerve, Mystification” are the last words in the list that Bowie gave the writer Rick Moody, in what would be his only public statement on The Next Day. The 42 words, in order, seem to have a structure: each three-word set corresponds to the equivalent song on the LP sequence. If this is “Heat” in miniature, the words fit. A tragic loss of nerve. Making an end by fading into the mystic.

The violence throughout The Next Day—dying men shoved in trees, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—comes to a rest in “Heat,” which is a world bled free of killing as much as anything else. If The Next Day is a war album, the sad tale of how the 21st Century became more like the religious-war-plagued 16th Century than the world of Major Tom and the Saviour Machine, “Heat” is its tattered epilogue, its cease-fire.

20161007_bowie_collector_mom-5095847

It has one of Bowie’s winking self-epitaphs: I am a seer, and I am a liar. A pun: a see-er, a seer. A man who only sees what’s right before him, or a prophet. And a liar, which he always claimed he was.

My father ran the prison. I’m not guilty, but you can’t believe a word I say, mind. I never wanted to be a rock star, he said in 1974. But I was there, that’s what happened.

It became a personal song in the sense of Self. Not ego-self or knowable self but in the way of whatever the Self is,” Walker once said of his song “Cue.” Who is singing “Heat”?

If much of The Next Day is a romp with his touring band, getting the gang back together for one last caper, “Heat” points to the end of Bowie’s recording life. You could call it a dock, from which he went off on a last trip.

Or a pier, which, as James Joyce once wrote, is a disappointed bridge.

9. Grand Finale

dbsp

You hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.

Bowie, “Bring Me the Disco King” video, 2003.

In 2014, Scott Walker recorded with a band, Sunn O))). The album, Soused, has the usual droning guitars and obscure lyrics but there’s something fresh in it. It’s an artist who’s been locked in his mind having to balance himself against a set of younger players (all members of Sunn O))) were born after the Scott albums were released). Though it’s a drone record, there’s a lightness of tone, a looseness of structure, that other Late Scott albums lack. It could be a one-off; it could be his future.

The same year, David Bowie was at a New York jazz club, sizing up a combo of musicians a generation or two younger than him. Donny McCaslin, after Bowie had hired his group for his new album, began exploring Bowie’s back catalog (he only knew the Eighties hits). But Bowie warned him off. “That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now.”

walkers

In the autumn of 1970, a few months before his suicide, Yukio Mishima mounts an exhibition of himself in a department store. It ranges from photographs of his stolen childhood to a recent series of homoerotic shots in which he’s posed as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows.

In 2008, Scott Walker helps create Drifting and Tilting at the Barbican, in which his post-Eighties songs are performed live for the first time. He doesn’t sing them, nor does he appear on stage. Instead singers inspired by him (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) perform his songs. Walker is at the sound desk, watching his music escape him. He notes that most of the audience is well under 50.

It’s 2015. David Bowie Is, a museum exhibition of David Bowie’s life, moves from Paris to Melbourne to the Netherlands. Among the works on display is the painting of Yukio Mishima that once hung on a West Berlin wall. Bowie’s last public appearance is at the opening night of his musical; he sits and watches actors sing his songs to him.

Clear the waterfall, let the stream go where it will.

Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!

Mishima, Runaway Horses.

dbmish

Recorded: (backing tracks) May 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released: 8 March 2013, The Next Day.

Credits: (Mishima) John Nathan, Mishima-A Biography (1974); Naoki Inose, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (2013); The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (Arena, 1985); Mishima: His Life and Literature; Philip Shabecof’s “You’ve Heard of Yukio Mishima…”from the NYT, 2 August 1970, and subsequent NYT articles after Mishima’s suicide. Of Mishima’s novels, essential works include: Confessions of a Mask (1949), Thirst For Love (1950), Forbidden Colors (1951), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) and his last quartet: Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (posthumously p., 1971). The essay Sun and Steel (1968) is critical for a sense of Mishima’s philosophy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a fusion of Mishima’s biography and fiction, is worth watching, as is Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, of course! (Walker) In addition to sources listed in the previous entries (esp. No Regrets and Anthony Reynolds’ biography), I’m indebted to articles and broadcasts, 1966-2016, that I’ve listed here. (Walker, DB and “Heat”) ‘Crayon to Crayon,’ as always. Tanja Stark’s “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses,” collected in Exploring David Bowie, is a compelling analysis of mortality in Bowie’s work.

For Kevin Smith, 1972-2016. Tell me all about it on the next bardo, Kev. For Rahawa, defeater of mountains.

Photos inc.: 1. DB, 1977 (unknown photog.); Johannes Eisele, “David Bowie Is… exhibit, Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin,” 2014; 3. Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-2005); 4:  King, 2013; Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). All DB shots: King, 2013; 8: Mishima, 1968. 9: Bowie: self-portrait “D Head V,” ca. 1995; “Walker Brothers Triptych” 1996,”Head of Mishima” 1977.

Reissues: Word On a Wing

September 1, 2016

A good place as any to close the “reissues” series, which I hope you’ve enjoyed or tolerated. This is one of the essential Bowie songs of the Seventies, and as such it’s weird, beautiful and a touch over-the-top.

As the man said at the end of the past century, “1975, 1976, and a bit of 1974, and the first few weeks of 1977, were singularly the darkest days of my life. I found myself up to my neck in such negativity. And it was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh on impossible, certainly painful…unwittingly this song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure it was a call for help.

Back “live” at some point this month. Have a good rest of the summer.

Originally posted on 16 December 2010, it’s “Word On a Wing”:

Word On a Wing.
Word On a Wing (rehearsal, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1999).
Word On a Wing (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).

With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of two bears in one den.

Maxim Gorky, on Tolstoy.

The heart and hymn of Station to Station, “Word On a Wing” is a petition to God, though as prayers go it’s more of an opening negotiation, Bowie attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme. Hence its warring moods, suppliant and audacious (see Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ or the petulant tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well”). As in his love-as-confusion “Stay,” Bowie denies himself from achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, he’s playing for greater stakes.

He was only nominally Christian. When John Lennon said the Beatles had meant more to British kids than Jesus Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about.* This didn’t mean Bowie was spiritually empty: he’d spent his twenties looking for some sort of God figure that met his high standards, a path that took him from Beat existentialism to Tibetan Buddhism to whatever brew of cabbalist Gnosticism he was imbibing in 1975 (see “Station to Station”). “I had this religious fervor,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force.”

“Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, was Bowie’s (apparently) open plea for salvation from God. He’d been tempted at the time by some sort of evangelical Protestantism, into which Bob Dylan would dive headfirst a few years later. As Bowie began writing “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, there was a parallel to Lennon’s “Help!”—-both songs are pleas for deliverance written while their composers were stuck on a movie set, paranoid and depressed, wondering what they’d become. In an NME interview in 1980, Bowie regarded his dalliance with Christianity as a nearly-consummated romance: “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking…finding the cross as the salvation of mankind.”

This sounded similar to how he’d described past relationships to journalists at the time: as an all-consuming passion that had threatened his sense of self. To bend the knee to God, to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, required humility, an acceptance that there are higher powers beyond your ken, to have faith and to not try to learn the trade secrets of the cosmos. Ultimately this wasn’t enough for Bowie; it was taking the sucker’s bet.

So like his reference to the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there was a touch of blasphemy in “Word On a Wing,” with Bowie using the imagery and musical trappings of Christian art for occult ends. Bowie crafted the song as white magic to set against the dark “Station to Station,” the two tracks spinning in parallel on an LP side, yin and yang in grooves (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, keeps them apart). The song was a “protection…something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.”

He felt he needed protection. He’d been under siege by “dark forces” since 1974 (once throwing away a doll his cousin had given him for fear it was a Satanic totem), a predicament worsened upon moving to Los Angeles. When his wife Angela found a house on North Doheny Drive, Bowie wanted it cleansed. Following the instructions of the New York witch Walli Elmlark (which required “a few hundred dollars’ worth of books, talismans and assorted items from Hollywood’s comprehensive selection of fine occult emporia”), Angela performed an exorcism on the house, including the indoor swimming pool, a natural repository for demons.

Bowie was using Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense as a bulwark. Fortune, a British mystic of the early 20th Century, wrote that man had two Angels, a Dark Angel (which she likened to the subconscious, “a dark temptation from the depths of our lower selves…we think thoughts, or even do deeds, of which we never would have believed ourselves capable”) and a Bright Angel. The mystic’s goal is to summon the latter angel in times of “spiritual crisis, when the very self is being swept away,” she wrote. “The Higher Self comes to the rescue, ‘terrible as an army with banners’.” If successful, one has an expanded consciousness, a sense of calm, “like a ship hove-to, securely riding out the storm.”

Compare this to Bowie’s various public statements about “Word On a Wing,” that it was “something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself” or “I wrote [it] when I felt very much at peace with the world….I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?” “Word on a Wing” was his protective talisman encased in a song, much like the small crucifix he’d wear around his neck for decades.

Bowie’s brand of fascism, while it embraced irony, was basically serious; or was taken seriously by a certain hermetic compartment of his mind, wherein it dwelt. The rest of him…was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station to Station a song, “Word On a Wing,” which semi-seriously kept a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Ian MacDonald, “White Lines, Black Magic.”

“Word On a Wing” starts in somber opening verses, which Bowie sings in his low register (on stage in 1976, he sang-spoke the lines, sounding like Lou Reed); it’s in B major, an unusual and remote key for a rock song. He cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again” as if he’s consoling God. All at once comes a jolting move to D-flat major (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”) which continues for over a dozen unsettled bars until the song steadies in D (“Lord! Lord, my prayer flies…”). The latter section builds to the ornate rise-and-fall phrase that closes the refrain, with Bowie and Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. And then a swift fall down to earth, back to B major to start another verse. Only after further struggle is “Word On a Wing” content to stay in D major, concluding on the home chord as a celestial soprano bears the song away from its fallen creator.

This voice was generated by the Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron, whose appearance here is similar to its role on the instrumentals of Bowie’s next two albums, Low and “Heroes.” In particular “Sense of Doubt” on the latter, a track that ends ambiguously, either to “resolve itself via faith into religious commitment or be left unresolved, freestanding and wordless,” as Momus once said. It would be a wary response to “Word On a Wing.”

The Chamberlin’s just one of the gorgeous touches, along with the left-mixed vibraphone that’s a counterpart to Roy Bittan’s piano or the acoustic guitar fills. The heart of the song, however, is a work for voice—see the astonishing harmonies by Bowie and MacCormack in the refrains—and piano. Whatever led to Bittan playing on Station to Station, his presence on “Word On a Wing” seems ordained. There are the child’s steps of melody Bittan plays in the intro, his steady chording in the verses, the cascading notes under the “sweet name” section, the sprightly two-note punctuation of the “word on a wing” prayer. A fellow pilgrim, Bittan’s piano has a grace that Bowie desperately craves, much as he spurns it.

Recorded October-November 1975, Cherokee Studios, LA. Performed on the 1976 “Isolar” tour, and revived in 1999.

Top: Close-up of Elizabeth Frink’s Shepherd and Sheep, 1975 (Photo: Steve Rutherford.)

* The decline in British churchgoers, notable even in the war years, was a cause of national concern and as such the subject of several books, the wittiest of which was R.C. Churchill’s The English Sunday (1954): “The Bible itself, however, has ceased in general to be read in England. What, then, do we read instead? Apart from Sunday newspapers a good many people, of course, read nothing at all on Sundays.”


Reissues: Win

August 9, 2016

death

Readers of Mojo have likely seen the article that I wrote for them this month (a preview here). Though commissioned to coincide with the announcement of The Gouster as part of the upcoming Bowie boxed set, the article is far more about the early days of the album sessions, in Philadelphia in August 1974. This was research I did for the book—I went to Philly and heard the various studio tapes held in Drexel University’s Audio Archives, which document the raw, loose first takes of things like “Young Americans” as well as the legendary “Shilling the Rubes” and the Bowie-sung “I Am a Lazer.” For more, read the article or check out the book. Also, if you’re going to the Bowie conference in Lisbon this September, excerpts from the tapes should be played during Leah Kardos’ and Toby Seay’s presentations.

The Gouster has been talked up as being  a “lost” Bowie album but that’s a bit of marketing—all of the restored songs (“John, I’m Only Dancing Again,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Who Can I Be Now”) have long been available as bonus tracks on other editions of Young Americans. And perversely, the new set doesn’t include previously-issued outtakes like “After Today” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City” (the latter a confusing track that started during Diamond Dogs and was possibly completed as late as Station to Station). But it is an interesting sequencing—Young Americans reconsidered as a slow-jam album, dominated by lengthy ballads. Would it have sold as well without having “Fame”? Maybe not.

What’s notable is that “Fascination” and “Win” aren’t on The Gouster sequence, though they were recorded prior to Tony Visconti leaving for London to mix and arrange the tracks, unaware that Bowie would upend things with his John Lennon collaborations. Any sequence without the masterful “Win” in particular seems just wrong, but perhaps it goes to show that the song, one of Bowie’s most gorgeous pieces, was underrated from the start.

Originally posted on 15 November 2010, all you’ve got to do is:

Win.
Win (live, 1974).
Win (live, tantalizing fragment, 2004).

The finest Young Americans ballad, “Win” is the closest Bowie came to the Philly Soul sound, using it to cushion a study of obsession and control. Softening David Sanborn’s alto saxophone, which plays dreamy scales throughout, and adding sweeps of low strings, Bowie and Tony Visconti made the track seem swathed in cotton. Along with the promiscuous use of sixth and major seventh chords, the arrangement gave “Win” a narcotic lassitude.

Like “Fascination,” “Win” has little in common with the rambling early Sigma Sound recordings —it’s the track on Young Americans to most foreshadow Station to Station, signaling an end to Bowie’s American soul project. Bowie said the chord structures in “Win” were “much more of a European thing than an American thing,” though they were also apparently a Brooklyn thing, too, as Earl Slick claimed in 2014 that he and Bowie “came up with that whole chord structure” in a hotel one night on tour. It was a standoff between G major and F major in the verses (with an A major posing an unresolved question, rather than moving the song anywhere) and a modulation to D major in the refrain.* It may have come from Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” with which “Win” shares a taste for sixths and major sevenths and a rhythmic hiccup: in the latter case, it’s two bars of 6/8 capped by a bar of 2/4 at the close of the refrain (compare “all you’ve-got-to-do-is-win” with the bridge of “Hello It’s Me,” “I’d nev-er-want-to-make-you-change,” a little steal first noted by Jeff Norman).

Singing his most inspired lines on the album (“someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires,”“Me, I hope that I’m crazy”), Bowie made a vocal in brushstrokes. The Philadelphia DJ Ed Sciaky, who attended the last “Win” session, said Bowie worked by “sing[ing] three lines, then having the engineer play them back, keeping the first line every time…hitting every line the way he wanted.” Finishing around seven in the morning, Bowie had the track played back twice, then nodded and pronounced it done.

While on other Young Americans tracks, Bowie had been foiled by his backing singers, on “Win” he keeps them in check. He paces them, undermines them (take the threatening “it ain’t over” that closes the second refrain). The refrain’s a set of knife blows, with an organ high in the mix and a Carlos Alomar arpeggio that calls back to the closing guitar figure of the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Bowie sings “all…you’ve got…to do…is…win” like a piece of extortion, dreamily lingering on the last word (he’d developed the refrain from riffs during live performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “you’re not alone! All you’ve got to do is win!”). At the close, Bowie sings “it ain’t over” in a rising melody over an out-of nowhere E major chord. It’s as if “Win” was just prelude so far, that the song’s about to move somewhere else, that Bowie’s barely exhausted his reserves. The sudden fade comes as a small mercy.

Recorded: ca. 20-24 November 1974, Sigma Sound; ca. 3-10 December 1974, Record Plant; January 1975, Air Studios, London (strings, arr. Visconti). First release: 7 March 1975, Young Americans. Only one live recording of “Win” exists: 1 December 1974 at the Omni Theater in Atlanta, the last night of the “Soul Dogs” tour. It’s unknown whether “Win” debuted there or in Nashville or Memphis gigs in late November, neither of which were taped. Bowie hummed the first lines of “Win” after a performance of “Station to Station” in his penultimate show in the US (Jones Beach, 4 June 2004), then cruelly yelled “enough!” to his band.

* “Win” is in G mixolydian (the G major scale with a flattened VII chord, here the song’s “rival” chord, F major). The verse sequence of G-G6-A-A6-G-G6-Fmaj7-F6 is odd, as the A major chord, instead of the expected A minor, seems as though it should have a “purpose” of some sort, but it doesn’t change the key: you go right back to G major and then move on to the flatted VII chord, F. A major is merely a strong flavor in Bowie’s soup.

Top: Tammy Hackney, “Death,” ca. 1974-75. Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk.”


Reissues: Big Brother

July 21, 2016

The timing seemed right to look at this song again—one of Bowie’s most gorgeous and eerie odes to power. The key is how much of it he derived from the Bonzos’ “Mr. Apollo”—the self-aware absurdity of Bowie’s dystopias (see also the coke joke in the first verse) is much of what makes them still compelling.

This entry, like much of Diamond Dogs, was a nightmare to revise for the book; I gutted the whole thing, then restored it, then gutted it again. It wound up being fairly similar to the original blog entry—a Momus observation helped to clarify a paragraph. Still an underrated song, I’d say.

Originally posted on 31 August 2010, it’s graphically yours:

Big Brother.
Big Brother (live, 1974).
Big Brother (live, 1987.)

A love song to submission, a fascist and a cocaine hymn, “Big Brother” was possibly intended to close Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, as little could top it dramatically. Opening in apprehension with a moaning synthetic choir and “trumpet” reveille via Mellotron, after two B minor verses where Bowie sings despairing, fifth-sinking phrases (“a-sylum,” “of mayhem”), “Big Brother” gave itself over to power.

The conversion starts in the first bridge—“please savior, savior show us!” Bowie now jumping up a fifth—and crests in the shining D major refrains, where Bowie rises an octave to hit a high A on “shame us!” Each subsequent refrain offers further bribes—skittish handclaps, a considered tambourine, a counter-melody via Alan Parker’s guitar, a spasmodic snare fill by Tony Newman that predicts Mick Fleetwood’s snare break on “Tusk.”

“Big Brother” was built like a flowchart: beyond a certain point you can’t go back (after the first bridge, there are no more verses). A pair of saxophones keep things in line. The tenor saxophone sweetens verses with bar-length notes, a baritone saxophone prods you along like a warder. Only the four-bar second bridge, with its scrappily-strummed acoustic guitar and its shaky octave-doubled vocal, is a last moment of doubt.

It’s the voice of some Arts Lab hippie about to be packed off to Orwell’s Correction Room. “You know, you think you’re awful square, but you’ve made everyone and you’ve been everywhere,” Bowie chirps in admiration. The squares—the bankers, the landlords, the promoters, the Mr. Joneses of the world—are the real revolutionaries, making the decadence of Bowie’s earlier songs seem played out (“don’t talk of dust and roses,” or spare us the claptrap of Aladdin Sane). The squares (Momus: “brave Apollos to the subcultural Dionysians”), liberated by the freedoms that the counterculture fought to give them, will inherit the earth. They were the homo superior all along; by the end of the century their rule would be secure (see “Alternative Candidate”).

Are there any signs of resistance? Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar, running underground for much of the track? His vocal, with a more resonant voice shadowed by a lower-pitched one like a bad conscience? The grin beneath the erotic ode to power? As Nicholas Pegg noted, an ancestor to “Big Brother” is the Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo”. (“He’s the stronnnnngest maaan/ the worrrrld has ever seeeen…follow! Mr. Apollo!). It’s Bowie worshiping a cult leader as if he was some fascist bodybuilder. Submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you“, a conceit that soon reappears in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”), even a line of coke—can be a beautiful thing.

It ends with a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” segueing without pause into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” It’s a broken man brought to his feet and made to dance.

Recorded: 14-15 January 1974 (basic tracks) ca. late January-early February 1974 (overdubs). A set regular during the 1974 tour; revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.

Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.


Reissues: Sorrow

July 5, 2016

Can Pin Ups be redeemed? Arguably the least popular of Bowie’s Seventies albums (see the reader poll last year, in which only five songs out of the album’s 12 tracks even got votes), it feels overdue for someone to make a claim for it besides Greil Marcus, who called it Bowie’s “quirky triumph” decades ago.

For me, Pin Ups still sounds, as it did when I first heard it in the late Eighties, like a scattershot record whose occasional brilliant moments are overcrowded by adequate but uninspired renditions of songs that Bowie couldn’t quite master. I’ve come to appreciate how good it sounds—it’s Ken Scott’s brightest production—and the playing’s top-notch, as you’d expect.

So here’s a revisit to one of the album’s highlights, in which I make the case for the superiority of its contemporary rival, Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things (Stephen Ryan, who proofread a lot of the book, wasn’t convinced, to put it mildly–I’ve gotten other “really?” comments over the years).

Anyhow, reconsider Pin Ups if you’d like. I’m on vacation: see you in late July!

Originally posted on 4 August 2010, it’s “Sorrow”:

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weeks before Bowie recorded Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry cut a covers album in London. This was Ferry’s first solo record, made as Roxy Music was entering a less anarchic second edition without Brian Eno. Learning that Bowie was doing his own covers album, Ferry grew agitated, reportedly calling Pin Ups “a rip-off,” a charge with some heft, given that Bowie would steal the look of Roxy Music’s saxophonist Andy Mackay for the album sleeve.

Though some biographies have Ferry considering having his label file an injunction to prevent Pin Ups from being issued before his record, reality was apparently more polite. After some negotiations between managers, Bowie called Ferry, purportedly to ask permission to record a Roxy Music song (“Ladytron”) but also to drop the news about Pin Ups. “He’d heard that I was doing this thing and that he was going to do something similar,” Ferry told David Buckley. Ferry had to admire what Mick Rock called Bowie’s “marvelous street instinct.” “There doesn’t seem to be any great self-doubt there,” Ferry said. “Whereas I’m always riddled with doubts and self-criticism and God-knows-what.”

Ferry needn’t have worried. These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups could have been: bolder in ambition and scope (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), its arrangements fresher, its execution more consistent. Ferry considered his covers as Dadaist “readymades,” interpreting each song in a glam rococo style, singing in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice” and backed by a female chorus seemingly recruited from an Andy Williams session.

It wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new casing (his “It’s My Party” is tragic). Where Bowie stuck with the point of view of the macho teenage Mod, Ferry was catholic in tone, singing from female and male perspectives, elevating “trashy” songs and lowering “serious” ones. He made “Sympathy for the Devil” a Vegas revue number and sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, filling it with “grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take,” as Robert Forster wrote, and left the Dylan original in flames. Ferry closed the record with its title song, a straight cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard. It was the legend to his map: a song of how the ephemeral contains the eternal.

The Pin Ups track most worthy of These Foolish Things, and one of the few enduring pieces of music from its sessions, was Bowie’s version of “Sorrow.” Like “I Wish You Would,” it was a second-generation interpretation (Bowie covering the Merseys’ take on the McCoys’ original), with Bowie purpling a Romantic revision of a grungy teenage blues.

Written in 1965 by Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, “Sorrow” was the B-side of “Fever,” a single from the McCoys, an Indiana garage band led by Rick Derringer. It wasn’t much of a song, a clichéd lyric over three chords that Derringer sang sheepishly, swallowing “sorrow” like a pill. Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley, as the Merseys, transformed the song when covering it the following year. Opening the track with a bowed bass, the Merseys met insistence— jangling guitar and piano—with a hollowed-out longing. Crane and Kinsley, singing close harmonies, let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air and circled obsessively over two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair.” The Merseys’ “Sorrow” hit #4 in Britain and was treasured by the likes of George Harrison, who quoted its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much.”

Mick Ronson’s arrangement for Bowie’s “Sorrow” took the choicest bits of the Merseys’ and subtly improved them. He made the Merseys’ bowed bass a solitary violin, in line with how the opening verse was just Bowie, his 12-string acoustic guitar (its only appearance on the album), Trevor Bolder’s bass and Mike Garson’s processed piano. The Merseys’ half-bar-delayed harmony vocals became a hall of Bowie mirrors; their piping trumpets and trombones became a ruminative saxophone break: a baritone harmonic base and a tenor melodic line. Ronson’s scoring for strings rivaled his work on Hunky Dory, from the long-held high notes in the ultimate verse (matching Bowie’s gorgeous leap of an octave) to the waltz patterns that sweep through the last refrain.

As a last pip, Bowie’s “Sorrow” had a thirty-second F major outro, where Garson on electric piano worked a new melody until the fade consigns him to silence. It paralleled how Bowie had moved the lyric to the past tense—the disaster’s over and he’s left trying to pick up the pieces.

Recorded 9-31 July 1973, Château d’Hérouville, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” #3 UK). On Pin Ups, it was sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout). Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear as the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.


The Map Ahead

June 14, 2016

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A few things of note.

  1. The blog will resume publishing after Labor Day, with the “last 10″* entries, and with the hope (but no guarantee—come on, you should know me by now) of finishing before year’s end. I hope that commenters who’ve drifted off during reruns will come back for the endgame. It would be good to hear from everyone, one last time.
  2.  Ashes to Ashes, which will cover every song from The Idiot through Blackstar, should be completed by next summer and Repeater should publish it sometime after then. Progress is going okay, with five of 15 chapters in decent shape.
  3. At some point in 2017, I’ll start a new project. It will be about, among other things, temporal architecture, television, the American business voice, art school, the religion of work, disco, public relations, guitars, sanctioned bohemias, talk radio, American cities, and the songs and performances of Talking Heads.

Have a good summer: I’ll put up a few more reissue posts now and then.

CO

* I think there’ll be 10 but possibly more, possibly less. Haven’t decided whether to break the 3 Lazarus songs into separate entries—much will depend on whether the soundtrack album comes out this fall.


Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

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Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

worthing

The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

student-march4_300

Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.


April’s Tooth of Gold

May 20, 2016

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April’s Tooth of Gold (demo, unreleased).

Long known only as a song title, “April’s Tooth of Gold” was finally bootlegged in 2010, revealing itself as a piece of mild psychedelia melodically similar to “Silver Tree Top School for Boys.”

Ray Davies was central to the development of Bowie’s songwriting and “April’s Tooth of Gold” discloses the debt as openly as Bowie ever allowed. Driven by a harshly-strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of the Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac,*” Bowie’s song concerned strange young people with blue hair and gold teeth, and the older generation bewildered by them—it was a first draft of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” with the old-timey affectations of “Rubber Band” not quite discarded yet. A minor but appealing piece that could’ve won a place on the never-recorded second Bowie Deram album.

* If it was inspired by “Almanac,” it would push the date of composition for “April’s Tooth” to post-October 1967, when the Kinks track was issued. There’s also a bit of The Lovin’ Spoonful in it.

Top: “Arbyreed,” “Hippies near Trafalgar Square, ca. 1968.”

Various business: I did a recent podcast for Zachary Stockill’s Travels in Music. You can hear me utterly blank on naming Eno’s Oblique Strategies (hey, it was early in the day).