Province

April 15, 2015

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Province (TV on the Radio, with David Bowie).

In 2003, Dave Sitek, a painter and musician from Brooklyn, made a score—he sold a painting to David Bowie’s doorman, who also promised to pass on Sitek’s band’s CD to his employer. His boss was impressed (their dark doo-wop version of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” may have sold him).* Two years later, Bowie was singing on a TV on the Radio track. So some advice to the ambitious young: cultivate good relations with doormen.

Sitek formed TV on the Radio with friend and fellow illustrator Tunde Adebimpe (it began as a joke, the two of them doing karaoke one night, drunk on Red Bull and vodka, Adebimpe improvising lyrics over Sitek’s beatboxing); they were eventually joined by Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and the late Gerard Smith. TVotR seemed programmed to be a band Bowie loved: most members were also visual artists and actors; they played multiple instruments and were devoted genre-minglers (Malone joined the band to “marry early ’90s noise with Usher”); they were part of a “local” NYC scene, the turn-of-the-century Williamsburg that also spawned the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whose 2003 breakthrough Fever to Tell Sitek produced).

TVotR also stood in contrast to Bowie’s other current favorite, Arcade Fire: cool and brooding (“calmer than cream,” as Adebimpe sang on “Young Liars”), where AF were boiling and frantic; offering millennial New York boho sophistication compared to the AF’s shambling Canadian glee club feel (the latter came off as “Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas,” the critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote after seeing Arcade Fire in 2007).

Enjoying their EP Young Liars, Bowie took on a mentoring role for the band, asking questions about their songwriting, boosting them on his website, listening to early mixes of their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Some of this was Bowie in his usual role as well-heeled fan. Some of it was him making up for lost time—he’d been so consumed with his own work in the past that he’d lost opportunities to develop younger acts (case in point, Devo, whose 1978 debut he’d eagerly wanted to produce but, as he was filming a movie and going off on a six-month tour, he had to turn the console over to Eno).

So when TVotR was recording Return to Cookie Mountain in summer 2005, the semi-retired Bowie offered to work on the album. “I told him, ‘If you want to come into the studio and be the boss of things, you totally can,’” Sitek told Tiny Mix Tapes in 2008. “I gave him the demos of the songs, and “Province” just really resonated with him in terms of being a relevant song to our times and what the world needed to hear. He just wanted to do it. He just showed up my studio and did it. He’s a spectacular person.” As per usual, Bowie impressed with his charm and humility. “It’s not like he landed on the roof of the building and it was ‘And now, David Bowie’,” Adebimpe recalled, while Malone added that “I never expected to be in a situation where I’m at a mixing board asking David Bowie to enunciate a consonant.”

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Bowie centering on “Province” wasn’t a surprise, as the track’s lyrics (“try to breathe while the world disintegrates”), tempo and trudging, cycling chord progression suggested some Heathen tracks: Sitek’s guitar even had a few tonal similarities to Gerry Leonard’s work. Cookie Mountain was meant to be a loose collective response to mid-2000s America, a work conceived in rage but delivered in abstraction (barring a few blunt tracks, like their ode to George W. Bush, “Dry Drunk Emperor”).

The trick was how to fit Bowie into an already-dense vocal arrangement. TVotR’s first EP had the multi-tracked Adebimpe supplemented by singers Katrina Ford and Shannon Funchess, and when Malone joined for the first album, the band’s vocal tracks became meshes of two colliding lead singers (see the a capella “Ambulance”), with occasional spices from other vocalists like Ford. On “Province,” Bowie starts the first verse as the high end of the harmony (his typical guest-star role) but he’s soon overtaken by Malone in his highest register. So Bowie spends the rest of the track fighting to stay heard, sometimes echoing Adebimpe, capturing the occasional phrase, sliding in low for the refrains—it’s one of his more democratic moments.

TV on the Radio keeps on today, though the Williamsburg of their youth is gone. Sitek had to close his Stay Gold studio in 2009 after his landlord tripled the rent; today it’s the site of Brooklyn’s first J. Crew.

Recorded ca. June-August 2005, November 2005, Stay Gold Studio, Williamsburg, NYC. Released on 6 July 2006 on Return to Cookie Mountain. (In 2009, TVotR cut a version of “Heroes” for the charity CD War Child).

* Adebimpe told the NME: “We were at a gas station and Dave (Sitek) got the phone call and hung up the phone, ‘cause he thought it was our friend Julian pulling another joke: ‘Yeah, you’re David Bowie, right.’ [DB] called him back two more times and said ‘No, I’m really David Bowie.”

Top: Han Soete, “General Strike in Belgium,” 7 October 2005; Bowie backstage at Madison Sq. Garden with TVotR and Karen O., 18 October 2005. (Brooklyn Vegan).

Book news: Rebel Rebel is now available as an e-book for a variety of readers, including Kindle & Nook. Please see the book page for links.


Wake Up

April 8, 2015

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Wake Up (Bowie and Arcade Fire, broadcast, 2005).
Wake Up (Arcade Fire and Bowie, live, 2005 (fragment)).
Reflektor (Arcade Fire, with Bowie vocals, 2013).

Some of it’s the lighting, some of it’s the TV facepaint, and hi-definition video does the face few favors, even for the photogenic. But Bowie, for the first time in his life, looks frail and old. He looks as if something’s been wrung out of him. The band Arcade Fire crowds him on the stage but he’s happy for the company, happy to be mistaken, at a distance, for one of them.

It’s September 2005, Bowie’s first live performance since his heart operation. It’s “Fashion Rocks,” a ceremony in which the fashion industry toasts itself and donates money to a catastrophe somewhere far away (post-Katrina New Orleans, in this case). Strumming a 12-string acoustic, Bowie takes the first verse of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” his phrasing little two-beat jabs. Something…filled up…my heart…with nothing…Now that….I’m older..my heart…colder…I can…see that it’s a lie.

His body, which he’d always been able to manipulate as he’d like, his happy soldier, now seems guarded, wary. He nods on the beat, sways on the snare hits. On the ragged communal chants (even the unmiked string players howl along), he holds back, sometimes stepping away from his mic, then joins in, a shaky higher flavor in the mix. After some lines about children growing bigger but never growing up and out of it, the song shifts into the “You Can’t Hurry Love” (and “Lust for Life”) beat, sounding scattered and diffuse here, with Bowie taking the lead again on a line about becoming a rain god and meeting Death.

He’d opened his set with “Life on Mars?,” with just Mike Garson on piano. In diminished voice (the vault on “Sai-LORS” now a modest lift), he took the song at a distance, appraising it, wondering at it. He sang its cut-up nonsensical second verse solemnly, as if offering recollections from a dying language. Then he did “Five Years,” with Arcade Fire brought on as backing band, which he delivered as a missive from a future that never happened. Too bad (in gleeful John Cale voice). “Five years! God, that’s all we got!” Bowie shouted towards the end, his voice fraying, Win Butler taking over the harmonies. Then he gave the stage over to Arcade Fire.

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I don’t wanna live in America no more
Because the tide is high
And it’s rising still
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill

Arcade Fire, “Windowsill.”

By the time of the presidential election of 2004, the image that many Americans (often younger ones, but not always) had of their northern neighbor had changed. What once had been genial indifference became a sense of longing, of envy, even. O Canada, country with a nationalized health care system, no Patriot Act, no Iraq War and run by a benign-seeming Liberal Party, of which most Americans knew nothing (but, hey, they had “liberal” in their name). Canada became a dreamland for alienated Americans: an alternate country above the 49th Parallel (are the winters really that bad?), a U.S. shed of its less desirable elements.

It didn’t help that were all of these Canadian collectives roaming around—the seven-member New Pornographers, the eight-person Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the sometimes-19(!)-strong Broken Social Scene. I knew a guy in an American indie rock band at the time, and he was bewildered by the logistics. “Do they all go broke on the road? Who can carry two violin players?” Canadian indie rock had a layer of unseen supports, its tours seemingly the beneficiary of the Canada Health Act and generous government arts grants.

“We should just go to Canada”: a sentiment heard around the country on the night after the election (I heard it at the West Village bar Fiddlesticks on that crashed-out evening). (“The American people have spoken—is that certain? Maybe those nice Midwestern folks were just jokin’!Nellie McKay sang.) Arcade Fire, arriving right at this time, was the culmination of the fantasy. Win Butler was an American, from Texas, no less, home of the president; his father had even worked for Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. He’d run off to Canada, fallen in love, had formed a band in Montreal with his wife, his brother and some friends.

So Arcade Fire offered an American-Canadian bohemia—a popular bohemia, even (they won some Grammys). They drew from and trafficked in childhood: the flip-books in the Neon Bible box, the corroded Yellow Submarine graphics of their videos, the neighborhood jamboree feel of their live performances, where they came off like a better-rehearsed Portsmouth Sinfonia–it was as if they’d taken up their instruments at random, that the next night Sarah Neufeld would play drums and Regine Chassagne would be on lead guitar.

The songs on their first record were worlds depopulated of adults and given over to children. Streetlights out, power failures, empty highways, snowdrifts. Lost brothers and vampires. Tunnels, legends and maps, tribal boasts: “‘cos nothing’s hid from us kids,” or, in one of their first songs: “us kids know.” The school music room garnishes—the sleigh bells on “Neighborhood #2,” the accordions, harpsichords and xylophones. In their video for “Rebellion (Lies),” they’re a pied piper collective, parading down a suburban street and waking up slumbering kids, who fall in line behind them.

It was a world shaped by distorted memories of Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak books; it was the ideal of a reconstituted childhood as a form of protest against the adult world. Arcade Fire was the musical analogue of Dave Eggers (who’d soon adapt Where the Wild Things Are), who’d raised his eight-year-old brother after their parents had died, who’d written a book about it and who, with McSweeney’s, offered another childhood order suited for adults: the Secret Club, with its stamp books, membership cards and shibboleths (“that is all”).

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Bowie was fascinated. “Arcade Fire has a very strong theatrical flair, a boisterous, college kind of feel to what they’re doing, and also there’s a wave of enthusiasm to it,” he said in 2005. “But their show is theatrical nonetheless, because it doesn’t alter much from night to night. I’ve seen them many times, and I love them very much. I think they’re exhilarating.” He joined the band again live the following week, singing “Queen Bitch” and “Wake Up” in their encore at SummerStage.

Then he went away; Arcade Fire kept at it. Neon Bible was an expatriate’s curse on America (its title taken from a John Kennedy Toole novel that was, in Toole’s words, ” a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South”), with some back-channel communications via Springsteen and John Cafferty tributes. The Suburbs found Butler returning home, a poseur snapping at the generation of poseurs coming up after him (see “Rococo”); the album ended with what sounded like their last song, their credo piece for suburban misfits, the band’s natural constituency (“come out and find your kind!”), its music a mingle of an MTV-fed youth (the beat of “Come On Eileen,” the hook of “The Safety Dance”), its video a tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (there’s also a bit of “Wish You Were Here” in “Wake Up”). The band got tighter, their records became more spacious, if losing the edge of Funeral, where the guitars sounded as if they’d been strung with baling wire.

Reflektor was a band’s midlife crisis: a labored attempt to change the palette while layering on the mythology thicker (see the respective Orpheus and Eurydice songs on Disc 2; see also the idea of a “Disc 2″). It was their go at doing a Remain In Light; it only worked on their Haitian-inspired piece “Here Comes the Night Time” (yet another Eighties tribute—here, the Cure’s “Close to Me”).

The title track was a hidden reunion with Bowie (only credited in the “thank you” section of the liners), who’d kept on being a fan during his absent years. He visited the band in a New York studio while they were mixing Reflektor. “It was just after The Next Day had come out,” Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry told the NME last year. “He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us—he was like, ‘If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!’ So we thought, well why don’t we go one better, why don’t you sing on our version? Thankfully he obliged.”

“Reflektor” wasn’t that radical a shift, as the band had always tried to dance, in their way (there’s a frenzied disco hi-hat in “Neighborhood #1″) and the track fell in Arcade Fire’s tradition of being happily shameless in their dork-theater routines—see its performance on Saturday Night Live, where Chassagne got into a glass box and did a sort-of mime routine, or Butler sporting raccoon makeup in its video. Arcade Fire perseveres, having grown up to be Bowie’s contemporaries where they once were his charges. They’re the closest thing that indie rock has to an institution these days, God help them.

Recorded: (Fashion Rocks) 8 September 2005; (live) 15 September 2005. The Fashion Rocks recordings were issued as a digital single on 21 November 2005. “Reflektor,” the lead-off single of the LP it titled, was released on 9 September 2013.

Top: Daska, “Children,” 2005.


The Cynic

March 31, 2015

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The Cynic (Kashmir, with David Bowie).

My integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I’m doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you’re sick, you’re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I’m gonna watch movies I want to see. I’m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.”

Matthew Weiner, on the end of Mad Men.

I’ve erased several months
It’s turning into a year now…

Kashmir, “The Cynic.”

Whether on doctor’s orders or due to his own misgivings about getting back on the merry-go-round, as an old friend once put it, Bowie spent the 12 months after his heart operation in semi-retirement, doing only the occasional guest vocal session. But he wasn’t in seclusion. Living in Soho, Bowie sampled the hip new bands who came to town, avoiding attention by wearing a cap and glasses and sporting, at various times, a mustache and beard. It was his “Berliner workman” days again, only now he wasn’t working.

How did he have so much time to see all of these bands? Dave Itzkoff asked in 2005 (in what would be Bowie’s last to-date print interview). He had nothing but time, he replied. “Fortunately, I’m not working [laughs]. So I’m resting. I get out a lot. I am a New Yorker, very much, and I get out in New York. It’s just a place that I adore. And I love seeing new theater; I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere—very quietly and never above 14th Street. I’m very downtown.

So he saw TV On the Radio and the Secret Machines. He saw Franz Ferdinand at the Roseland Ballroom, twice (introducing himself to the starstruck band backstage, Bowie baffled them by doing an impersonation of the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer). Interpol at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Knitting Factory. Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. The Killers at Irving Plaza.*

Tony Visconti attended the latter, bringing as his plus-one the Danish singer and guitarist Kasper Eistrup of Kashmir, a band Visconti was readying to produce. So Eistrup, in town “on a guitar shopping spree,” wound up meeting Bowie in the VIP balcony. True to form, Bowie said he was a fan of Kashmir and had some of their albums, then began talking about culture, politics and whatever other subjects he was musing on that evening. The three wound up sharing a ride afterward.

Visconti and Bowie had been vaguely planning a new record, which Bowie seemed in little hurry to begin recording. He told the jazz musician Courtney Pine, in a radio interview in September 2005, that he’d started writing songs for a new album (“it looks pretty weird, so I’m happy”), but there were apparently no studio sessions booked. If there were demos, Bowie cut them at home: Visconti wasn’t hearing them.

There was an ambivalence in Bowie’s conversation with Pine (the former’s last radio interview to date). Asked what his fans were expecting from the new album, Bowie responded, “Oh they don’t expect anything these days, I think they just sorta see what I put out…you know, it’s the luck of the draw and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s godawful and…but that’s the way it goes and I like that.

kashmr

As he had from the renewal of their friendship, Visconti offered Bowie walk-on roles on his other productions (see the Rustic Overtones or “Saviour”).** Working on Kashmir’s album in Copenhagen in March 2005, Visconti was convinced that one track, “The Cynic” (“it had the vibe of a Kurt Cobain song influenced by Bowie”), could use a Bowie vocal, to the point where Visconti sang Bowie imitations (“I can do a decent ‘Heroes'”) for scratch vocals in the second verse. He emailed Bowie the rough mix and Bowie agreed to sing on it. For Kashmir, “it was everyone’s birthday and Christmas morning at the same time,” Visconti said.

Returning to New York in late April 2005, Visconti, Eistrup and Kashmir bassist Mads Tunebjerg did mixing and post-production work at Looking Glass Studios. One morning Bowie appeared, “fresh as a daisy and enthusiastically sang the be-Dickens out of ‘The Cynic’ as if he’d written it himself,” Visconti said. Tunebjerg recalled that once he was in the booth, Bowie said “‘Tony, just roll the tape for me. I’m going to try and have a go at it.’ He knew the song, he had it on his iPod (afterward, Bowie played the band other selections from his current track list). He had one or two runs and he was there. We were sitting on the sofa. We couldn’t move or speak because the atmosphere was so intense.

Bowie even had a role in the video, a Constructivist-inspired piece in which Bowie, looking like the Patrick Troughton edition of Doctor Who, is Death as a butler.

db_kashmir_300k

Kashmir started in 1991 and had become one of Denmark’s biggest “alternative” bands by the turn of the century. “We are like a boy band with four different characters: there is the little thin one and there is the tall guy and there is the media guy who is good looking and then there is the semi-fat guy who is dancing around,” Eistrup said. Their Visconti-produced record was a bid to break the American market, which didn’t happen. But the band has persevered until this day, still playing and recording, still believers that rock music can offer something to its audience. “That’s one of the most important things about art and that is the actual answer to why art is important because it can be out of time, it can be out of reason, it can be just commenting whatever is in the mind of the person who expresses it,” Eistrup said in 2013. “That little country of freedom can inspire the rest of the assholes to do things in a different way.”

“The Cynic” was a decent piece of brooding post-Radiohead rock, with Bowie’s verse finding him easily handling Eistrup’s knotty melody, then biting into the long vowels in the refrains. Bowie sounded comfortably decayed; he could’ve fashioned a bespoke version of Kashmir or Interpol or Franz Ferdinand easily enough in 2006. The question was whether he wanted to anymore. The answer seems apparent now: No, I’m happy in the audience.

Recorded: March-April 2005, Sun Studio, Copenhagen; (vocals) ca. April-May 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 October 2005 on No Balance Palace (Columbia 82876 72767 2).

* Some of these venues are above 14th St., so Mr. “Very Downtown” apparently had to take a cab once in a while.

** A shame Visconti didn’t get Bowie into his finest production of the 2000s, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ L’Avventura. That said, it would have been hard for Bowie to find a place to work on such an intimate album. L’Avventura is a document of two ridiculously attractive people falling in love, yet avoiding solipsism to make their union some public ideal of romance.

*** Visconti also roped in Lou Reed, who recited an Eistrup poem, “Black Building.” “It took a long time to actually get Lou into the studio, but when he came he was well-rehearsed and even prepared a special character for the part. He said he’s got about seven voice characters he uses when he does readings of his poetry. Lou was fabulous, he did about three or four takes for us to choose from and even took a phone call from a Tibetan lama in-between takes. Then, like a New York ninja, he disappeared into the chaos of Broadway as soon as he was finished.”

Eistrup’s memories were less reverent. Reed “was anything but sociable. He demanded that the studio be vacated, then that the whole band smoke. He gave me the vaguest handshake I have ever had in my life… He looked at [my] poem and straightened it. I had used words like pubs that he straightened to bars.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Tenis (Torres de Satélite),” Mexico, 2005.


Rebel Rebel: A Book

March 27, 2015

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A man who publishes his Works in a Volume, has an infinite Advantage over one who communicates his Writings to the World in loose Tracts and single pieces.

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 124.

Today’s the day: Rebel Rebel is available everywhere (well, in theory). You can buy it via on-line vendors, including Amazon and Book Depository. The e-book should be up in a day or so. There will be some promotions in the next few months: Books Etc. is currently running a discount until May. For UK readers: this £16 sale price is about as low as I’ve seen, promo-wise.

And as a fan of bookstores, I’d love it if you asked your local shop to get a few copies. Above is my local bookstore, White Square Books. In the UK, Foyles and Waterstones should carry it, but it would be great to have it in smaller shops as well.

I’ve been hyping the book for some time now: see the book page for updates, the talks page for extensive radio/podcast interviews and the press page for just shameless self-promotion. Thanks for your patience. The “regular” blog will resume next week, with a fun set of entries, featuring Scarlett Johansson, Arcade Fire and little fat men with pug-nosed faces.

Those who have bought the book, or who are considering doing so, thank you for your support. It means more than you can imagine. Some people have even taken shots of their copies and put them on various social media. The idea that someone thinks enough of your writing that they took a photo of the thing is beyond humbling.

I’ve little left to say about the book, which took three-plus years to write, except that I hope you enjoy it.

The Addison quote above is a feint, as in the following sentence he moves to ridicule “bulky Volumes” for which “the most severe Reader makes Allowances for many Rests and Nodding-places…a great Book is a great Evil.” Writing his triweekly newspaper essays, Addison was essentially an 18th Century blogger. For his ilk, there was no room for padding or preambles. “We must immediately fall into our Subject and treat every Part of it in a lively Manner, or our Papers are thrown by as dull and insipid.” I hear you, Addison.

Here was my challenge—how to take the little essays that I put up on the Internet and turn them into something that would justify people paying for a collection of them? Besides it being a vanity project, a tip-jar sort of thing? It helped that the first few months of the blog, esp. the pre-“Space Oddity” essays, were dashed out quickly, with little care. So my revision at first centered on improving those entries, shoring them up, adding more context: that sort of thing.

There were other choices. I needed a more uniform writing style for the entries, which meant I had to gut and rewrite the weird one-offs like the personal narrative in “Changes” and the cut-up aesthetic disaster of the “Sweet Thing” entry. I looked for fresher, more varied quotes. I reduced the level of snark and glibness (fans of “Time” will rejoice), though you still get the occasional nose-tweak—the book’s far from reverent towards its subject. I tried to confine the music theory to a paragraph per entry and exile much of it to the end notes, as I know some people glaze over when they read that stuff.

I think it turned out all right. Hope you do as well.

All best,

C.O.


(She Can) Do That

March 18, 2015

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(She Can) Do That.

The official Bowie narrative: after the sudden end of A Reality Tour, he takes a step back, assesses his life and slowly, imperceptibly, he fades into the twilight, not to return for a decade….

Well, yes, but wait. There’s one problem with this story. Bowie released a new song in 2005. This track, not “Bring Me the Disco King,” was the last studio recording issued under his name until The Next Day. Much of Bowie fandom wants to wish the thing away. Many hated it at the time. It’s understandable: the Bowie story shouldn’t have (possibly) ended with some clang-bang dance track he cut for the soundtrack of Stealth, one of 2005’s notable commercial and critical disasters.

But we can’t ignore it; we can’t pretend that it never happened. It’s “(She Can) Do That.” Listen to it and accept that the man who wrote “Heroes” also wrote this, and he wrote it at a time when he was convalescing, after years of making brooding retrospective albums and “Last Songs.”

keep going don’t stop now keep going take cover keep going be cool…

To be fair, Bowie only wrote the lyrics and top line melody. The rest was cooked up by the producer Brian Transeau (aka BT) and the Berklee professor Richard Boulanger, who worked on the refrain. In early 2005, Bowie cut his vocal at his usual studio, Looking Glass in New York, with Tony Visconti producing and Kristeen Young allegedly singing backing vocals (I don’t hear her, though). Bowie sent the Pro Tools files to BT in Los Angeles, where BT finished the mix. It wound up being used in a dance club scene in Stealth whose dramatic purpose is to establish Jamie Foxx as a ladies man.

STEALTH!!!!!!!

What was Bowie doing? A tribute to/reworking of Hawkwind’s “You Shouldn’t Do That“? A tip of the hat to the Hamtaro theme song? An out-of-nowhere attempt to homage Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne, at a time when Byrne was calm and melancholic? An update of “Right,” another song in which Bowie’s bucking himself up during a dark time?

Of course, one can be cynical and say that Bowie put as much thought into his vocal as he did his coffee order at Dean and DeLuca the morning he cut it. If the brief was “do a dance track for a Jamie Foxx Top Gun ripoff updated for the War on Terror,” there are only so many options.

It’s also obvious Bowie was using “(She Can) Do That” as a tentative first step back into the studio after a long period of recuperation. The question is whether its sound portended a stylistic move. Before his heart operation, Bowie had mentioned to interviewers that he wanted to get back in the studio with Visconti in late 2004, and that he planned something divergent from the Heathen/Reality sound—possibly even cutting an all-instrumental album or something “experimental.”

Was the move meant to be a return to Earthling? Was Bowie actually considering making an EDM record in 2005? Did he listen to a playback of “(She Can) Do That,” have a road-to-Damascus moment and swear off making records for nearly a decade? It’s all speculative.

Full of BT’s trademarks, including the “stutter edit,” vocal pitch shifting and subtle time changes, “(She Can) Do That” ultimately was the Laughing Gnome, back for the millennium, as shameless and irritating as ever. So Bowie’s “last” track for eight years is him thumbing his nose on his way out the door, wondering why people always took him so damned seriously.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) ca. early 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; music, mixing (LA, early 2005). Released 12 July 2005 on the Stealth OST (Epic EK 94475 ).

Top: Joshua Bousel, “Daphne and Blair’s Last Month Single Party,” December 2005; a stealthy trio.


A Contest Winner

March 13, 2015

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First, a few book-related things:

Amazon has started shipping copies of Rebel Rebel, which I imagine a number of you have received by now. My cousin, seen above, got his copy and already has incorporated it into his daily life. But the official release date is March 27, which is when (hopefully) the e-book will be ready and when the book should be available in stores. If you’ve received the book via Amazon already and if you like it, please consider giving it a rating on the site. If you hate it, maybe hold off on the rating bit.

OK. The contest. I received 60! entries, all of which were inspired, many of which were astonishing in their inventiveness. After I narrowed the entries down to five (itself a difficult process), it became all but impossible to choose one. But a contest’s a contest: someone’s gotta win it. One of the darker scenarios submitted for 1977 Bowie was also leavened with some inspired comical moments. And when I found myself cracking up in the supermarket thinking about “the Ritual of Da’at,” I realized I had a possible winner…

(drum roll)

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Congrats to Tymothi Valentine Loving. Here’s his entry.

“A brief song-by-song recap of the legendary David Bowie Madison Square Garden concert of 1977. It was released posthumously several times, with most versions leaving out several of the end songs, this discusses the only complete, non-bootleg release, 2005’s “DBMSG77.”

1. Five Years

Bowie starts the show as if it were starting with “Station to Station,” only to have it go in to a tar-heroin-slow version of “Five Years,” which then devolved into one of the many noisy jams of the night.  Apocryphally, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was played at the opening of the show, manipulated through several effects pedals, to create the twisted version of “Station to Station”‘s live “train sound”. The true story is even stranger; apparently Lou Reed and David Bowie indulged in some “speedballs” before the show, and the sound is actually Reed backstage playing a guitar while Bowie “played” the pedals.  After finally tiring of this, Bowie finally staggered out to start the show.  So, technically, although he was never on stage, this was Lou Reed’s last live performance, since he ODed the next year, infamously exactly one month after Bowie’s own fatal OD.

2. Andy Warhol

The shortest, straightest played song of the night.  Notable only for the minute & 30 seconds after the song is over that Bowie spends repeating “Can’t tell them apart at all”, with different emphasis each time (“CAN’T tell them apart at all”, “Can’t tell them APART at all”, etc.) with the final “Can’t tell them apart at AAAAALLLLLL” howled into a feedbacking mike as the band starts:

3. Red Money/Calling Sister Midnight (Just “Red Money” in the DBMSG77 track listing)

The title of this song is questionable. The version that Bowie performed at this show combines the lyrics of the two known recorded versions; “Calling Sister Midnight” that appears on the 1979 Iggy Pop album Idiot’s Lantern, and the 1980 posthumous Bowie collection “David Lives!“, which, among other things, contains tracks from Bowie’s final, incomplete album, What I Will. Who wrote what on which version is still up for debate. What isn’t however, is the performance itself. The dynamic of the fast pace combined with the stop/start cadence, and the quiet verses and loud choruses is still influential to this day, and some version of this song has been covered by bands ranging from Einsturzende Neubauten to Nirvana on their single studio album.

4. Fame
Seven minutes of the band jamming on a sped up version of the riff, while Bowie was offstage (possibly apocryphally) doing more cocaine. This is where the first signs of serious crowd unrest can be heard. Infamously, this was the inspiration for Suicide’s 1978 performance piece “27 Minutes Over New York”, where they would play a synth version of the riff until, basically, forced by the crowd and/or venue to stop. Nobody stopped Bowie that night, however, and when he comes out at 7:13 to finally start singing, the crowd goes wild. And, as clumsy as the increase in tempo makes some of the transitions in the song, the contrast between the band’s frantic pace and Bowie’s deadpan delivery just works.

5. Stay
Probably the clunker of the show. Although the pace of the song is increased, similar to “Fame,” there’s a notable lack of energy, and the bit of attempted free form disco jamming in the middle is as bad an idea as it sounds on paper, and never really coheres. Mainly known for the brief bit in the middle where, apropos of nothing, Bowie points into the crowd and yells “I see you, Pierrot!”.

6. Sweet Head/Cracked Actor (“Gimme Sweet Head” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
Interestingly enough, an early studio recording of this song has surfaced. Quite a bit less abrasive and charged then this version. It’s also quite a bit slower than the manic pace of this performance. And, it must be said, quite a bit shorter. More signs of crowd unrest are evident on the recording, with some angry catcalling at the end of the song.

7. The Ritual of Da’at
This song has no known recording other than this one. Bowie announced the song title at the beginning (“This here, this is The Ritual of Da’at”). The lyrics are mostly incomprehensible, and gibberish where they can be understood, although the line “Oh my sweet milk and peppers, you are all I can love!” has resurfaced in popular culture after famously being uttered in the midst of a nervous breakdown by the protagonist of Todd Haynes’ brutal, Dogme 96-ish takedown of the glam era, My Velvet Goldmine!. This song shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Something about how slow it starts, and the incredible, proto-speedmetal finish just coheres into what, despite the sloppiness, many consider to be one of the best Bowie live performance ever captured, and if not the best, then certainly one of the most intense.

8. “Bring Me The Disco King” (“The Disco King” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
This improvisational piece, never recorded other than this once, has no known title other than the line Bowie repeats for the first and last couple minutes, quietly at the beginning of the song, yelling at the end. During the middle section, he is offstage, presumably doing more coke, although it’s not true that he mutters “more cocaine” before leaving the stage, it is, fairly clearly, “keep playing”. The crowd, whipped into a seething frenzy by the previous song, seems bemused by this somewhat melancholy (in comparison, anyway) piece.

9. Blackout
Bowie’s intro to this song (“Here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!”) was famously sampled on the title track of the debut album of 80’s New York rap pioneers Power Station, Here Comes the Blackout. And, if I can be pardoned the obvious pun, Bowie gave an electric performance here. And the crowd went, in the famously un-bleeped words of one of the attending medics who was interviewed on the live news in the aftermath of the show, “Absolutely fucking bugshit insane”. Reportedly, at least 3 people who had never had an epileptic seizure before experienced one due to the severe strobe light effects employed during this number.

This is where most official releases of the show ended until DBMSG77 was released, although the rest of the show has been available in bootleg form for years. Much has been written about the violence of the near-riot that broke out and the damage done to the classic venue by the small fires set at the end (although, as far as I can tell, the number of fires is often exaggerated, there appear to have been only 2). Even more has been written about the investigation afterwards. I’m going to skip most of that here, and focus on the music itself, other than to say that, no, there’s nothing there that can be considered an incitement to riot, at least not in any legal way. The investigation was a witch-hunt, plain and simple. Edward Koch needed a scapegoat for the underlying tensions of his city (although Abraham Beame earns much of the blame), and he chose Bowie. OK, enough of that, on to the music:

10. Station to Station
A strange version of this song. This was the opener of the previous tour; a sprawling, shambling, genius mass of a song that seems like it would fit right into this show, but here, it runs an abbreviated 4 minutes and change. Starting with “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lovers eyes” sung a cappella a few times, with “making sure white stains!” screamed in the last line, skipping the instrumental jam, and ending after only one time through the last few lines of the song, this is a tight, severe performance.

11. Queen Bitch/God Save The Queen (“God Save The Queen Bitch” in the possibly too clever DMBSG77 track listing)
Truly amazing. Bowie performs his song in a vicious, camped up punk cabaret style. And then he throws in a couple of verses and choruses of The Sex Pistols’ single in the middle. Most of the people at the show probably had no idea who The Sex Pistols were at this point. And Bowie handles their song with relish. Makes you wonder what could have been if he’d been around to make music in the 80s, an angry, anti-commercial punk Bowie may have saved that decade from some of its own excesses.

12. White Light/White Heat
A perennial Bowie cover, since at least the Ziggy Stardust tour, the band tears into this one and leaves it bleeding at the end. Bowie, on the other hand, seems disengaged again, forgetting some lyrics (a somewhat impressive feat, considering how few there are in the song). Which leads to him leaving the stage again as the band rides the riff (for 12! minutes!). He does, once again, seem more energized upon his return.

13. Panic In Detroit (Panic In New York on the DBMSG77 track listing).
This song is what was supposedly being focused on in the investigation of Bowie possibly inciting a riot. And yes, he does change the location city in the lyrics, but it’s a very thin thing to hang such a charge on. Anyway, an intense, stripped down version of the song. And yes, Bowie does seem, in some way, to be feeding off of the negative energy of the crowd. His strident, repeated “Panic in NEW YORK!” starts off brutally, and ends up like nothing else Bowie ever performed, at least that’s been saved for posterity.

14. Hang On To Yourself
This wasn’t supposed to be the last song of the show. Although no known printed version of the setlist still exists, according to members of the band, there was supposed to at least be Suffragette City, Let’s Spend the Night Together, TVC15, Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie, with Diamond Dogs as the closer. Notable in their lack are softer songs such as Changes or Time, or anything similar. It seems the intention was to just have the show almost entirely be amped up versions of (mostly) already fast songs. “TVC15″ may have been a bit of a reprieve (although I really, really wish I could have heard the version that would have performed at this show). At any rate, this song barely gets started before the show is shut down, due to the (2, not several) fires that had started. An ignoble end to an astounding show that seemed to indicate an amazing new direction for David Bowie.

Although, I am indescribably happy that DBMSG77 has the complete audio of the end of the show, with Bowie screaming “I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!” at the NYFD and NYPD just before his mike was cut.”

Runner-up: A masterful piece of writing by Steven Hanna, in the style of Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, detailing not just the MSG concert but the whole “1977 ‘New Wave’ Tour,” with Blondie’s Chris Stein as ill-fated lead guitarist and an opening medley of “Can You Hear Me”/”Son of a Preacher Man.” This was a redemptive tale for Bowie, who cleans up and escapes to Europe after the disastrous Low sessions.

Here it is: enjoy!

Other top contenders: James Scott Maloy, who wrote a retrospective in the voice of a Lester Bangs still alive in 1993; James Alex Gabriel Phillips, whose phenomenal 2,000-word piece included the return of Tony Defries as ringmaster; Alon Schmul, who had Mick Ronson, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Hall as guests at a Bowie 30th birthday extravaganza; Aaron Rice, who had Bowie sing nothing but duets, including “Win” with Sinatra and “Be My Wife” with Barry Manilow; Ean McNamara, whose set opened with a Buffy St. Marie cover (“sung mostly off stage”) and ended with “Wolves Song” (aka “Some Are”). [Most of these are now in the comments.]

I wish I could send a book to everyone who contributed an entry: I’m very grateful to everyone who took part in this, and the volume of responses bodes well for something I’m planning to mark the blog’s end later this year: a reader survey/ranking of favorite Bowie songs (essentially voting for the Bowiesongs Top 50, or maybe 100).


The Last Tour

March 11, 2015

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some postcards from a very long trip:

Song 2 (Rotterdam, 15 October 2003).
It Can’t Happen Here (Vienna, 29 October 2003).
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (San Jose, 27 January 2004).

“A Reality Tour”—nine months, 22 countries, 59 songs (+ more snippets*) performed, 112 shows—may be Bowie’s last. Even should he play live again, he won’t undertake the relentless global campaign that his 2003-04 tour was. The people of Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong may never see Bowie again and in North America, it’s fair to say Uncasville (CT), the Quad Cities, Manchester (New Hampshire), Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Hershey (PA) have seen their last Bowie concert.

Tour in capsule: The 57-year-old Bowie, playing markets that, in some cases, he’d last visited in the Eighties, embarked on a grueling schedule that, originally planned for seven months, soon grew to span nearly a year. Each night he played at least two hours and up to 35-song sets. There were a few signs of wear—a bout of flu caused Bowie to cancel a run of shows in December 2003, highly unusual for him (Lou Reed once said that “David never seems to exercise, but he never gets sick”) and his voice was frayed in some mid-winter shows. Upon finishing the last US tour leg, he moved directly to a run of European summer festivals in June 2004. In Prague, he appeared to have a heart attack and after getting through one more show in Germany, he had a heart operation and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

He’s never headlined a full concert again. His live appearances dwindled to a handful of guest spots and small sets; after 2007, he was no longer a public performer.

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The future distorts the past. The “Reality” shows now seem hubristic in their energy, pacing and length—why was Bowie pushing himself so much? Take it easy, man! you want to yell at the computer screen when you see a concert clip. But this belies the evidence of the time. Fan reports, newspaper concert reviews, tour diaries of players like Gail Ann Dorsey, video footage of the shows—all document a man seemingly in robust health, in fine voice, eager to play each night.

He said he really was, at last. He’d been wary of singing live since the Sixties. “It was not something I looked forward to very much,” he told the Weekly Dig in late 2003. “I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing—one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist.”

But after Tin Machine and his road-heavy mid-Nineties, he’d developed a taste for the stage. “We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many,” he told an interviewer. “We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn’t been amongst that many bands continually so it was like, ‘Phew, got to measure myself against this every night’. And it was like, ‘You know what, we’re going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age.'”

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Touring as “himself” to say goodbye, if unknowingly, to the world, Bowie quietly solved the problem of how to reconcile his hits (“singalong time,” he called it) with newer, lesser-known material by just putting the songs cheek-by-jowl in a set, sequencing them so that the crowd wouldn’t get restless and he wouldn’t get bored playing too many old chestnuts. “I can’t do a full evening’s worth of those songs [like “Starman”] because I’ll go barmy. You become a karaoke machine,” he said in 2003 (“look mum, I’m a jukebox!” he snarked after singing “Starman” one night). On stage he used the image of travel to describe his sets to crowds—you’ll go down an unfamiliar road for a while, so just enjoy the sights, and soon enough “you’ll recognize a street, then a house.” (“You’ll recognize this house,” he said, introducing “Ashes to Ashes.”)

He didn’t go easy on his audiences: “Heathen (The Rays)” was occasionally a set-closer or encore piece. “Sunday,”The Motel” and “The Loneliest Guy” (the latter a bathroom break for some griping concertgoers) were regulars. Nor were the oldies only his top-charting hits. There was no “Space Oddity” or “Golden Years,” but plenty of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Be My Wife” and a somber “Loving the Alien.” Over the months, Bowie slowly reshaped his sets into being more retrospective—by spring 2004 he was playing only a handful of Reality songs while cycling in “Queen Bitch,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Five Years,” “Quicksand,” “Panic In Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs,” mainly for encores.

Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I’ve done the right thing,” he told a reporter midway through the tour, in February 2004. “I think I’ve chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.” That said, fan recollections of the shows recounted a fairweather portion of audiences growing impatient at times. “Give us some hits, Davy!” one man loudly yelled in Toronto between songs.

An inspiration was Bob Dylan, who in 2003 was well over a decade into his “Never Ending Tour.” Learning that Dylan made his band keep 70 songs in their repertoire, so that if the mood struck him one night he could play “Lenny Bruce,” Bowie pushed his band to learn around 60 songs and he altered set lists regularly to bring in new pieces and shuffle out old ones. At first this churn was trying for the band—Dorsey wrote in her tour journal that after one show in Paris where Bowie swapped in a bunch of under-rehearsed songs, the band “all felt as if we had fumbled through a tough football match we knew we had lost from the beginning.”** But soon they had it tacked down, capable of playing any era that Bowie threw at them.

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In the works since 2001, the tour’s impetus was in great part financial (which, of course, is the impetus behind every rock tour in history). Despite high chart placings in Britain and Europe, Bowie’s later albums had sold relatively modestly and he got scant airplay for his new singles. It didn’t help matters that the music industry was in free-fall, tottering thanks to Napster, plummeting once the iPod hit critical mass in 2004. Making a living by selling albums was for suckers, Bowie said. “I don’t see any hope for the industry at all. We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a source of irrelevance.

So touring was Bowie’s main source of new revenue (at the time, all earnings from much of his back catalog were going to Prudential Insurance, holder of the Bowie Bonds). And his Area 2 festival shows of 2002 had grossed $4.7 million, with attendance down from earlier “mini tours.” Bowie’s people surveyed fans and found them unhappy with the recent shows, which had been built around festivals and sharing the stage with other headliners. There was a hunger for an undiluted Bowie, by a global market. He hadn’t been to Singapore and Hong Kong since 1983, Australia and New Zealand since 1987, Japan since 1996, South America since 1997 (and he never would make it back to South America).

Using goliath Clear Channel Entertainment, Bowie and his advisers drafted a flexible tour schedule—he’d play the arenas he knew could sell out (like Wembley) but he’d also book 2,000-seat theaters in less predictable markets. And he often underestimated demand: he booked the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre for his Chicago stop, but sales were enough to justify playing the Rosemont two more nights. The tour wound up grossing $46 million, even with its premature end.

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I know I’m a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don’t particularly enjoy, being separated from the others. I don’t like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I’ve always liked being part of a band—I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us.

Bowie, Scotland on Sunday, June 2004 (his last newspaper interview to date).

His band was the “Hours” tour rhythm section (Dorsey and Sterling Campbell), old standby Mike Garson, guitarists Gerry Leonard (playing the “Fripp,” “Belew” and “Gabrels” roles) and Earl Slick (playing himself) and the most recent addition, from 2002: Catherine Russell, a utility player who sang, played keyboards, percussion and guitar. They were a no-nonsense crew who’d worked with Bowie, in some cases, over decades. If they lacked in improvisation, mainly keeping to established arrangements, they made up for it in power and precision, aided by a cracking sound mix in which “David’s voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be,” said front-of-the-house engineer Pete Keppler.

The aim was to make the band heard clearly throughout the room, even the largest stadium gigs. So Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda used a JBL VerTec PA system, with 14 cabinets and subwoofers on each side of the stage and Prowda mixing each song live with a 14-track console (“Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes”). Bowie used a vocal effects system that included a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger to alter his voice on a whim. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He’s hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house,” Prowda said.

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Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and scarf, leather boots or Chuck Taylors and a tattered jacket to be discarded after a few songs*** (“it’s a T-shirt and jeans type show, believe me that’s what it is”), Bowie became something of a traveling politician and emcee, pulling the same jokes each night, gurning, pantomiming (doing a runway strut for “Fashion,” Pierrot-isms for “Ashes to Ashes,” drag queen moves for “China Girl”), bantering with the crowd (“how DO you get your hair that color? What product do you use?” to a fan in Copenhagen; calling one guy in Atlanta “fancy pants”), having the crowd sing verses of “All the Young Dudes” and “China Girl.” “Constantly grinning,” Billboard noted of Bowie’s performance in New York. In Berkeley he “pranced theatrically, calling himself the Artful Dodger, imitated Americans and Americans imitating the British,” a reviewer wrote. In Denver, he did a bit of his old Elephant Man performance. He usually opened shows with “[YOUR CITY HERE] you bunch of crazy motherfuckers!”

It was all his “schtick,” as he described it to journalists. “I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don’t want it any other way,” he said. “If there’s a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves….Performing isn’t a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things.” Or as the Kinks once sang, it’s only jukebox music.

This was a return to an old form: the fey, witty folk musician of “Bowie and Hutch,” who’d made his hippie audiences crack up between numbers. Or the would-be cabaret star of 1968, the “all-round entertainer” persona that his old manager Kenneth Pitt had believed was Bowie’s best bet for stardom. Reviving this glad-handing figure for the “A Reality Tour” (the indefinite article, mind) was a theatrical bit, a way for Bowie to serve as stage manager and frontman.

But he also seemed intent on de-mystifying “Bowie” at last. I’ll do songs I like, I’ll play songs you like, let’s have fun. The only stage props were catwalks, video screens and some tree branches suspended in mid-air. Each night of the tour found a magician walking on stage in shirt sleeves, showing you how he made his assistant disappear via a set of mirrors, recalling favorite sleights of hand. And then still making you fall for the trick.

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Then his luck turned.

Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind. At the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, on 18 June, he was struck in the eye by a lollipop, causing him to understandably lose his shit for a moment. Gerry Leonard said a fan had somehow hit a bullseye (the thrower was a mortified thirtysomething who claimed she’d just been waving her hands when someone knocked into her and caused her to project the lollipop). The next festival, in Finland, passed uneventfully in rain. Then came Prague.

He opened with “Life on Mars?” for the first time on the tour, and eight songs in, while singing “Reality,” it was obvious to fans in the front rows that Bowie was in pain, struggling to finish the song. He left the stage, the band keeping going with “New Career In a New Town” and “Be My Wife” (sung by Cat Russell). “‘That’s not supposed to happen,” Leonard recalled thinking. “He was really feeling terrible. it happened right there on the stage: that’s showbiz.” Returning to apologize, Bowie blamed a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He sang “China Girl,” still in noticeable pain, and left the stage again after an aborted “Station to Station.”

It was as if the persona he’d developed for the tour, the music man who gave you a bang for the buck, wouldn’t let him end a set early. So he went back out again to finish “Station” and sing “Modern Love” and “The Man Who Sold the World” while sitting on a stool and clutching his arm. Finally he pulled the plug. Our Czech correspondent, longtime commenter Maj, was there: she told me that the crowd soon grew aware something was wrong: “There might have been a few boos because it got cut short, but I think mostly we were confused & a bit worried.”

While not confirmed, it seems apparent that Bowie had a heart attack that night, possibly while singing. It may not have been the first time, either. Gabrels told Marc Spitz, one of Bowie’s biographers, that “I knew for years that he was having some chest pains, but he swore me to secrecy, and I should have told Iman.”

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If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).

Bowie, Weekly Dig.

There would be one more show.

The annual Hurricane Festival is held on a motorcycle racetrack in Scheeßel, a German village southwest of Hamburg. An unassuming place to close a story that began on Bloomsday, 16 June 1962, with 15-year-old David Jones’ first-ever public gig, playing Shadows covers at the Bromley Tech PTA Fete.

Fans noticed nothing amiss during the set, with Bowie moving around on stage and playing some guitar (he did seem to have a moment of pain during “Ashes to Ashes,” clutching his arm again). As evening drew in, it got colder, the North Sea winds coming across the Lower Saxony plains, and Bowie donned a simple grey sweatshirt. It’s poignant: Bowie finally reduced to the human, looking like a handsome, tired dad at a football game. Or a fishing boat captain weathering a storm (via Chris Barrus).

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“Heroes” (Hurricane Festival).

He closed the set with “Heroes.” Leonard starts with an ascending, choppy figure on guitar, jabbing against a backdrop of Sterling Campbell’s snare and cymbals. Bowie holds back, knotting his fingers below his chin, as if he’s outside looking in, even slightly bemused by his old dramatics (he does a little dolphin dance). Dorsey’s pensive, working down the song. Slick comes in, cool and indifferent, chewing gum. At last, the wailing Fripp riff (courtesy of Leonard’s E-bow) appears and Bowie starts drawing power from somewhere in him, diving into the song, resurfacing, torching through its last verses. And the SHAME spread on the OTHER SIDE!, gesturing off towards a lost Berlin to the east. And NOTHING and NO ONE will HELP us! while Campbell plays hard enough to power a city.

Do they, does he, know it’s the end? But it is the end. An end, at least. The moment has chosen itself. This is the wake for David Bowie. We’ll never see his like again. Nor will he.

UK: The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004 - Day Three

He encored with “Life On Mars?” (opening with it was bad mojo), “Suffragette City” and he closed the show, as he had for almost every other show on the tour, with “Ziggy Stardust.” The next day, at St. Georg Hospital in Hamburg, a surgeon performed an angioplasty to treat a blocked artery in Bowie’s heart, inserting a stent to open up a blood vessel narrowed by plaque.

Bowie was in hospital for over a week. One by one, his appearances at the remaining June festivals and the eleven July festival dates were cancelled. Scotland’s T in the Park, where Bowie had hoped to meet one of his new favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand. The Xacobeo Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where he would have shared a bill with Iggy Pop again.

He gave a public statement, said he was irked that the tour had to end this way but that he was feeling better and hoped to “get back to work” within a month. It would be a touch longer than that.

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Following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version was released on CD in 2010).

Of immense help to this entry was the site Bowie Wonderworld, which provided a day-by-day account of the tour while it happened, compiling set lists and fan testimonies.

* No clips on YT, but Bowie also sang bits of songs like “Puppet On a String,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Here Comes the Sun” at other dates.

** Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004.

*** In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie showed up in a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom.

Photos: a curtain call (unsure from which show); Melbourne, 26 February 2004 (Trevor Wilson); Pittsburgh, 17 May 2004 (Keith Sparbanie); Bowie and Debbie Harry backstage in Manchester, 17 November 2003 (Ian Hodgson); Houston, 24 April 2004 (Mark Jeremy); Kansas City, 10 May 2004 (Deryck Higgins); Indianapolis, 20 May 2004; Isle of Wight Festival, 13 June 2004 (Anthony Abbott); Hurricane Festival; Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1972.


A Contest

February 27, 2015

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We’re now a month away from the release of Rebel Rebel, and as a first bit of hype I offer a reader contest. The winner will receive (drum roll)….a copy of the book mailed to them, before the publishing date. If you’d like, I’ll sign the thing, too. And I will write whatever you’d like me to, barring it being obscene or potentially libelous.

The “Bring Me the Disco King” entry opens with a fictional account of a woman who attended a Bowie concert at Madison Square Garden in August 1977. The conceit is that in this alternate universe Bowie, instead of escaping to France and Berlin in late 1976 and recording Low and “Heroes,” instead found himself back in Los Angeles and, a year later, was touring again.

So, my challenge: what would the set list of this 1977 show be? The most inspired one wins a book.

Some parameters. Here are a bunch of set lists from the 1976 tour as a first guideline. Bowie typically played 15-20 songs a night in ’76, which would likely be what an even Thinner White Duke would do in 1977. Let’s not have him doing some marathon 35-song set, for my sake.

My fake account begins with him singing “Five Years” and later has him playing “Sister Midnight,” “Sweet Head,” “Fame” and “Stay,” but you don’t have to include these songs. Feel free to do so, though.

Songs on the list should be confined to anything Bowie recorded prior to 1977, and given the path of our fictional narrative, it’s unlikely any of the Eno instrumentals would have been written, so no “Warszawa” exists in this world, for instance. If you make the case that Bowie would be singing something from the ’80s, explain why, and it had better be a good reason.

Points awarded for originality and flow (would this have worked as an actual set? Don’t just throw a bunch of songs together). May the best person win!

Send your ballot to: bowiesongs@gmail.com (put “setlist” in the subject line) by Friday, March 6. I’ll choose a winner on the auspicious date of Friday, March 13, and will try to get the book in the mail that weekend. Obviously, if you’re outside the US (where I live), the book will take a bit longer to reach you, but you should get it prior to the official publication date (edit: well, it looks like the book’s begun shipping to pre-orderers,so you won’t get it before they do. But hey, you won’t have to pay for it).

Best of luck.

CONTEST OVER: THANKS FOR THE AMAZING ENTRIES. IT WILL BE MURDER TO PICK ONE OF ‘EM AS A “WINNER.”


Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary)

February 25, 2015

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Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary) (Earl Slick with David Bowie).

Whenever the “who’s the greatest Bowie guitarist” debate arises (typically by dudes), there are few contenders. Mick Ronson, architect of Bowie’s breakthrough. Carlos Alomar, ultimate right-hand man. Adrian Belew, Reeves Gabrels and Robert Fripp: instigators. That’s pretty much the lot.

It’s rare for someone to argue for Earl Slick, despite his pedigree—hot Young Turk on the Diamond Dogs tour, adding guts to the Lennon tracks on Young Americans, being the linchpin of Station to Station. Called back for the Serious Moonlight tour, and the mainstay of the last Bowie tours and albums. Slick is one of the last remaining ties to Bowie’s past: of the players on The Next Day, only he and Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie in the Seventies.

So why doesn’t he get his due? Maybe he never shed the “hired gun” label (he had to fill Ronson’s shoes in 1974 and was drafted as a last-minute replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1983 tour). Or that he’s not considered a bandleader in the way that Ronson, Alomar and Gabrels were. Some critics and fans have argued he lacks a signature sound. You can hear a few notes of Ronson and Alomar and likely place them, but what defines Earl Slick?

This gives him too little credit. Slick’s playing has a distinctive tone, a bluesy, swaggering sensibility: there’s an attitude in his string bends (only Ronson could wring more out of his bends) and pick attacks; he seems hell-bent on making his amplifiers smoke. John Lennon got Slick for the Double Fantasy sessions because “he wanted one street guy in there” among the studio aces, and Bowie regarded Slick in much the same way, as a fearless “blue-collar” guitarist who wasn’t plagued by good taste. Slick’s peak was “Station to Station,” where his regiments of overdubbed guitars created a sound that even Belew struggled to reproduce on stage.

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Slick grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Kicking around in a few NYC bands in the early Seventies, Slick met the composer/arranger Michael Kamen, who hired him as a roadie and then as a guitarist. Kamen, chosen as bandleader for the Diamond Dogs tour, suggested Bowie consider Slick as a lead player. “I went down to RCA Studios to meet him, they stuck a set of headphones on me, turned on some Diamond Dogs mixes and told me to play along,” Slick recalled in 2003. “They didn’t even tell me what fuckin’ key they were in.” He got the gig.

Within months, though, he was on the outs. Bowie reconfigured the tour in September 1974 to reflect his new “soul” music and Slick now had to share the stage with a rival guitarist, Alomar, and a new vocal chorus, and tackle songs that Bowie hadn’t even released yet. “I thought I was important to the thing but I’m starting to feel like a fuckin’ throwaway,” he told Bowie biographers the Gilmans in the mid-Eighties. “David had gone completely in a direction I didn’t like.” Slick realized he’d only hung onto his job “because they needed me for the rock material.”

So Station to Station became Slick and Alomar battling for control, each overdubbing the other, each trying to outplay the other. Alomar, who’d assembled a rhythm section he was in sync with, had pole position; Slick, who’d made the strategic blunder of signing with Bowie’s soon-to-be-estranged new manager, was outside, trying to knife his way in. The title track, “TVC 15,” “Golden Years” and “Stay” are the records of their battles—Alomar sparring with one of his endless catchy riffs, Slick retaliating with massive chords and feedback concertos.

Slick was gone before the 1976 tour. In the Eighties he was a session man and leader of his own sub-super group, Phantom, Rocker & Slick. In the Nineties, he cleaned up and burned out. “Every time I got called to do anything, or when anybody was going to get involved with me, it was for that—more of the same,” he told Billboard in 2003. “And I remember going onstage doing another, yet one more blues rock solo, and just thinking, ‘Man, this is not fun.’ And at the time, I don’t think I was conscious of whether I was bored with what I was doing, with that kind of guitar playing, or if I just started hating music. I didn’t know where I was at.”

So he quit. Moved to Lake Tahoe with his Newfoundlands, stayed off the grid for years. When he put up his own website, around 1999, he got back on Bowie’s radar. The story was that Bowie, who was spending hours on the Internet at the time, did the usual thing: he wondered “hey, whatever became of Slick?” and typed his name into AltaVista. And so Bowie (or a staffer) discovered Slick was living in the High Sierras. Around New Year 2000, an email invitation was sent to Slick’s webmaster, and Slick went to New York to, yet again, step in for a departing lead guitarist: in this case, Reeves Gabrels. Slick played on Bowie’s 2000 mini-tour, and has been on every Bowie album and tour since.

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It helped that Bowie was reviving many of his Seventies rockers on stage and that the new songs from Heathen and Reality suited Slick’s style—Bowie wasn’t asking him to do many drum ‘n’ bass numbers. Slick also had cooled down. “I don’t like using my chops anymore. It bores me,” he told Vintage Guitar.I approached David Bowie’s stuff a lot differently way back than I do now. I’m playing less, but I think my playing is a lot more intense and I’m playing more to the sound of things. I’m playing simpler and a little more thematic, and a lot less jammy and bluesy than I used to. Because I write so much now, I’m approaching the songs more like a songwriter.”

Invigorated by working on Bowie’s albums and tours, Slick in 2001 began planning his first solo album in over a decade. Originally he was going to make an instrumental record, using fellow Bowie sideman Mark Plati as producer, but he didn’t have the stomach to cut a “noodling” album, as lead guitarists usually produce. (“I’ve never been that much of a heavy noodler anyway,” he said.) Instead, Zig Zag started as Slick’s attempts at writing incidental music for films, keeping his tracks concise and melodic. “The album was almost like making a demo to get scoring jobs.”

But Slick had racked up admirers over the years, so he soon had Robert Smith singing on one track, and Joe Elliott, Royston Langdon (Spacehog) and Martha Davis (the Motels) were also on board. Bowie not-quite-subtly invited himself. “He overheard a conversation I was having with [Plati]… and said, ‘I guess you’re not interested in me maybe doing a little something on the record,‘” Slick recalled.

Each guest singer had provided their top melodies and lyrics, and Bowie did the same. His contribution, “Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary),” which Slick described as “pensive,” came after Slick sent Bowie “seven really rough pieces” and he picked one. Once the track was properly recorded, Bowie came to Looking Glass Studios (during the recording of Reality in early 2003) to cut his typically quick-take vocal. “He asked what I thought about the ending and I said, “Well, what if you tried this on the harmony…,” Slick recalled. “It was fucking weird giving him direction! I was stepping back from myself the whole time, like there was one of me at the console and one of me just watching everything in the room.”

The result was a track that, unlike some other Bowie side-project contributions, was worthy of his own albums. Bowie’s lyrics and melodies are in line with the somber theatricals of Heathen and Reality, with some striking lines (“one dies on the lawn/his face turned away from it all“). The track’s final-curtain mood makes “Isn’t It Evening” another end point for a professional life that, unknown to all concerned, was about to go on hiatus for a decade.

So here’s to the perennially-underrated Earl Slick: say what you’d like, but he outlasted ’em all.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, ca. February 2003; (guitars, backing tracks) ca. late 2002, early 2003, Looking Glass. Released 9 December 2003 on Zig Zag (Sanctuary 06076-84671).

Top: Camilio Vergara, “‘Satan, you are not longer my Lord,’ Outdoor service of the New Creation Ministry, Sutter Ave., Brooklyn, 2003.”


Bring Me the Disco King

February 17, 2015

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Bring Me the Disco King.
Bring Me the Disco King (video).
Bring Me the Disco King (“Loner Mix” (Danny Lohner)).
Bring Me the Disco King (live, 2003).
Bring Me the Disco King (live, 2003).

Interview transcript, 5/9/2005: OSTERMAN, D., RHINEBECK, NY.

I missed the ’76 tour but I was there at the Garden in August ’77. You’ve heard the show, right? Yeah, right? My kid got the boxed set a while back. I didn’t want to hear it. I heard it once, you know? All you need. All I need, at least.. [inaudible] well, look, the show took forever to get going. Like two hours of lights dimming and going back up, to all these big moaning groans from the crowd, and this fucked-up metal-shredding noise kept playing on the PA, setting everyone on edge. The mood, you can expect, was just…off. Everyone in my group, five of us, was seriously high—we had some ludes and some pot that was laced with who knows what. Not just us. The whole crowd was high on something, or were just tensed for something.

Finally the lights went down for good and Bowie came out. He was pin-thin and wore all black—black suit coat, black rosette in his lapel, black shoes. Black hat? Maybe. Black cane, yes. Leaned on it a lot. Contrast to his face and hands, which were just…I’ve never seen skin shine like that. Like moon-skin. And he was still living in LA then, right? I guess he never went outside [laughs].

He started, I remember, with “Five Years,” and it was just the slowest, most dragging version that you could imagine—was like a year between the drum hits. And he just stood there, just propped against the mike stand, and after a long while he started singing, low, real ghostly. [sings] “Pushing through the market square…” You know how it goes. Then he seemed to kinda wake up and the band really kicked in. He had, maybe, three guitarists? A guy on a huge keyboard too. Drummer had a gong.

There was a bunch of disco stuff, really savage-sounding stuff. Couldn’t really dance to it: too fast. “Fame,” “Stay,” “Calling Sister Midnight,” “Gimme Sweet Head.” He would sing some, then let his band jam for like 10 minutes, then he’d pick up again. While they played he looked out at the crowd, like he was scanning for someone he knew. He did some new stuff, too, maybe ones he never recorded, like this one song I just remember he was yelling “bring me the disco king!” Over and over again. That was most of the song. His hands were up in the air, like someone had a gun on him. Then he did this lunge, this weird pivot, at the mike and said something like, “here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!””

And you remember the blackout had happened just the month before and everyone in that room was probably there in the city during it and..I mean, parts of the city were probably still on fire then! And Bowie sent like an electric current through the place. Have you ever been on a boat during a storm? The crowd was listing, listing, like, say the right side of the Garden kind of convulsed and then it sort of shivered across until the left side got all worked up. Screams, really big shrieks, you know. This guy the row up from us started shaking, having a fit. Making this awful noise, I still remember, this little hut-hut-hut-hut-hut sound. Bowie was really caught up in the song, just wailing at it, but then he’d crouch, almost squat down on stage, like he was like holding off punches. I couldn’t breathe all of a sudden and my friend Cindy was crying, so when the strobe lights started, I figured we just had to get out of there. Nearly got in two fights just getting into the walkway.

We got out on Eighth Ave., probably by the time of “Station to Station,” when that kid got stabbed, right? I was happy to be out. Though I loved Bowie, you know? Really. I was such a fan. But that wasn’t a good place. And what happened to him in ’78—well, you can’t be surprised, really, though, can you?

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Excerpt from Musician, May 1990, “The London Gang’s All Here.”

Musician: So everyone in the group was in London with you? In the ’60s?

Bowie: Yes, although we didn’t all work together then, except for John [Hutchinson] and I. Andy [Mackay] wasn’t quite there—he was still at university until 1969 or 1970, I believe. But he knew the scene, went to a lot of the shows, same as I did. Bill [Legend] of course was Marc’s drummer, on all the great T. Rex singles. Oh and yes, Herbie [Flowers] was on one of my records and one of Lou’s, and he even produced a single that no one ever remembers, called “Holy Holy.”

M: And the band’s name is a tribute to one of your other old singles? That no one remembers?

B: [Laughs]. It wasn’t even on the radar enough to be forgotten! But I always thought it my first proper recording, my first proper song, and it meant a great deal to me. Though we weren’t quite proper London Boys! I was in Beckenham until 1971 or 1972. Hutch was in Canada.

M: Have you gotten flak for going down this nostalgic route? You’re going to be playing a lot of old songs, and you haven’t made any new records since Never Let Me Down.

B: Which has few supporters, I’ve found. No, I wouldn’t call us a nostalgia act at all. There’s a Buzzcocks song that goes, “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” Well this is a nostalgia for a past that never was. I think we bring something new to the table. Though of course we’ve all been on the scene for quite a while. But never quite in this combination.

M: And this is the last time you’re singing your old songs? Are you recording new ones?

B: That’s the plan, yes. Once we’re back from South America later this year, we’re going to see what happens in the studio. One possible title is Bring Me the Disco King [laughs]. You can just see the cover image, right? Henry V, ordering some flamboyant conquered foe to be brought to him in irons.

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“Bring Me the Disco King” first went public in a mix (for the soundtrack of Underworld) in which the Bowie track’s sole elements—Mike Garson’s piano, Matt Chamberlain’s drum loop and, for a good chunk of the song, Bowie’s vocal—were erased and replaced by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner. In this alternate world, Lisa Germano plays piano, John Frusciante’s on lead guitar and Josh Freese drums. And Maynard James Keenan sings some of it.

You may wish to listen to the remix first, because it feels like the most “complete” version of the song, making Bowie’s track sound like a polished, slightly avant-garde demo. The Lohner remix builds steadily, from Frusciante’s looped, distorted Fender in the intro to the string settings and Keenan taking over the refrains.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a “sequel” to a Bowie song supplants the original recording: I’ve long argued the recut/overdubbed version of “Rebel Rebel,” completed in New York months after the Diamond Dogs version, is the superior recording. You could say the definitive “Station to Station” is the (likely doctored) Philadelphia live recording on Stage (used in Christiane F.), and that some of the Reality songs hit harder in their tour versions.

Consider if the remix was the only version of the song, that the Bowie/Garson take was as “lost” today as the Nineties versions of “Disco King” are (see below). That Bowie’s grand finale existed only as a mid-sequence mood piece on a Kate Beckinsale vampire movie soundtrack.

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Excerpt from Simon King, The Royal Scam: A Misspent Youth In the Advertising World (Clearwater: 1995):

Bill said DJ wanted me in his office “yesterday.” First, a trip to the men’s room (thankfully, I still had some coke from the night before). I was bracing for the worst. So, it seemed, was Bill. “King, bring me the disk before you go upstairs,” he said while I was putting on my jacket and pinching some life into my face.

I’d never ever spoken to DJ before, only seen him from across the floor. He worked in three different offices—London, here in NYC and Tokyo—but he was more like some global embodiment of Jones & Bond, his official residence a first-class airplane seat. DJ was a figure of abstract terror for our office. He’d show up on a Friday afternoon and within an hour three people would be packing their desks and you might be reassigned to a new account that had a project due on Monday morning at 8 AM.

His secretary, who looked like a Modigliani come to life, waved me through. DJ was at his desk, which was immaculate and had nothing resembling work on it. He asked me to sit. It’s hard to describe how incredibly striking-looking he was. He was around 40 but looked at least a decade younger. No visible work done, just a sense that life hadn’t managed to touch him yet. He was steeped in charisma. This was a guy who’d started in the business in ’63, when he was barely out of high school, and in two years he was all but running the show at Collett Dickenson Pearce. His own shop by ’68. He could have been anything—an actor, a prime minister. (Rumor was he cut a few Beatles-type singles back when, but no one at J&B has turned up anything).

I tried to meet his gaze. He had an irregular right pupil, permanently dilated, so naturally you were drawn to it but you also kept trying to not stare at it. He, of course, was entirely aware of this situation and used it as a power play, making whoever was across the desk look at anything else (there was a Japanese-looking guitar on the wall, I noticed).

“Simon,” he began. “You consider advertising to be beneath your substantive talents. Is that a fair assessment?”

I think I flushed. Here it comes. “You spend your nights in the East Village and give off that you’re a frustrated, sadly corrupted artist. I quite empathize, but you must realize this is a rather tedious existence.” He took a Gauloise from his pocket and lit it with a bone-handle lighter produced seemingly out of thin air. “Substantive art is not born from such a cliche.”

“I was very much in your shoes once. But I came to realize that advertising has a much greater purchase on the imagination than any painting. What’s the promise of art? What’s its potential? Immortality? Fame? Power? If you want to colonize dreams, if you want to create a desire—to make someone need something they never knew they needed—if you’d like to stage how people regard reality itself, our field offers some promise.”

He drew out another cigarette and pushed it towards me across his desk. “A Tibetan lama once said there are two forms of art—black magic to turn people’s heads and “white” reality art. We’ve well enough of the latter. Simon, would you care to work on some black magic with me? It should prove interesting, at least.”

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Review: “Expatriates in Berlin: 1980-2000″ (James Cohan Gallery, until May 23).

The exhibit includes six works by David Bowie, the former rock performer from the 1970s best known for his gender-fluid chameleon figures on stage. Bowie has worked as a painter and an avant-garde filmmaker since his retirement, though his technique has shown little signs of improvement and his subject matter remains obscure and, in its way, provincial.

Of the pictures (three in oil, one black pencil, two mixed-media), the most promising was “(Bring Me) The Disco King and His Wives,” a 6′ x 12′ abstract work with some furious brushwork and a good sense of scale. Unfortunately even this pales to the work of other Berlin-based artists featured, especially the Archine sisters. One wonders why Bowie has abandoned a field in which he was so capable to devote his time to one in which he’ll always be a second-rater.

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“Bring Me the Disco King” dated to the early Nineties, Bowie said. He wrote the song for the Black Tie White Noise sessions in 1992. “I initially did a version of it which played to the title, alarmingly…I wanted it to sound cheesy and kitschy, and be a kind of real uptempo, disco-y kind of slam at late Seventies disco. And the trouble is, it sounded cheesy and kitschy, ha ha! It just didn’t work. It didn’t have any weight to it.” Attempting it again during the Earthling sessions (“we did it in a sort of muscular way, like the band was at that particular time“), he found the track still lacking.

Of course, there are no circulating demos or outtakes of these early versions of “Disco King,” so there’s no way to trace the song’s evolution. And it’s tempting to wonder whether there were any early versions. After all, Bowie likes to lie to us, so perhaps he invented a tangled family history for his big album-closer, which was one of the longest tracks he ever recorded and which, for a decade, was his Last Word on Record (though it wasn’t, quite).

Let’s take Bowie at his word. “Disco King” doesn’t seem originally intended for piano, in the way that, say, “Lady Grinning Soul” or “Oh! You Pretty Things” were. It’s possible the song began as a simple guitar piece in E minor (with a capoed first fret to move the song, vocally, to F minor), and chord-wise it’s fairly standard (if it was written on guitar down a half-step, the verse chords would be Em/D/B/Em or C/Em/D/C).

But the chords on the Reality track were Garson’s choices. Bowie played the latter his vocal over the drum loop and told Garson to “show me the chords,” using Bowie’s top melody as a guide. So Garson’s intro and outro loops F minor, A# and G# (calling back to “Aladdin Sane,” where Garson soloed over the latter two (flattened) chords), and he’ll swap chords for climactic effect—shifting “bring me the disco king” to F minor after Bowie initially sings it over C# and D#, or reversing the latter two chords for the last extended refrain (“soon there’ll be nothing left of me”). (Thanks to regular commenter “CrayontoCrayon” for his help.)

Giving the song a lost, troubled ancestry adds more dimensions, echoes—the ear wonders how “Disco King” could have worked with a disco or techno beat (“I had those drums on it, the works, you know, it’s a 120-beats-a-minute,” Bowie said), how Bowie’s phrasing would have changed (imagine the “don’t let me know we’re invisible” sung varisped at double the tempo).

It fits how Bowie’s final “Disco King” was partially assembled out of lost songs—its “dance dance dance/through the fire” nearly the same melody as Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” its drum track cut by Matt Chamberlain during the Heathen sessions in 2001 (“playing to a completely different song,” Tony Visconti said. “We just recorded ‘Disco King’ over the loops that I’d made of his performance”). Or how the notes of Garson’s piano are essentially samples, as he played his lines on Bowie’s Yamaha digital piano in New York.

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The Goblin King was driven out of his kingdom by a palace revolt. Now this wasn’t much of a revolt, as revolts go, more a minor insurrection of a few disgruntled goblins and a set of confused bureaucrats. It could have been crushed with some choice spells and head-whackings. But the King was weary of his throne and he saw a choice opportunity to escape.

He traveled in the cities of the Western Lights, where, in his sweeping cloak and shining boots, he cut a noticeable figure in the marketplaces and piazzas, and for a time he attended the monastery balls each evening, once winning a dancing contest against a Kermode bear. But there was a melancholy in his step and his demeanor, and he found the crowds oppressive, especially as it was growing near carnival time. So he went further westward, out to the few scattered settlements and ranch towns along the Peninsula. He took up residence in a two-story hotel that was perched on the thin end of a frozen lake.

One night he was at his usual table when a man came in. The latter was known to the proprietor, a woman of few words, who called him “El Mayor,” and he sat by the fire, not acknowledging his fellow guest. This was fine for the King, who had no appetite for conversation. Still, as the two saw each other on the succeeding evenings, they began talking, took their meals together and played checkers afterward. The proprietor played songs on guitar: “Out On the Lamplighter,” “Aubergine,” “Traiga La Disco.” “King me,” El Mayor said, ending a game with a hopscotching movement across the board. Later in the evening, he was walking up the staircase to his room when he saw the King descending.

“Whose story are we in?” El Mayor said.

“I couldn’t tell you, Tomás,” the King replied.

“But it’s a story nonetheless.”

“I suppose. Its length is its only virtue.”

“It’s not a very good story, then?”

“Are they ever?”

“Sometimes,” El Major considered. “I’m happy: hope you’re happy, too.”

“Not particularly,” the King said.

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“Short Picks,” JazzWeb, 10 May 1998.

Label: King (Disco 1). “Bring Me The French Reserves.” Zurich free-jazz ensemble Malachi (rumored to include David Bowie among its ranks—its LPs never feature credits) offers two 30-minute free form jams featuring a distorted alto saxophone, vibraphone, car horns and arco bass. Recommended.

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Garson’s piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” gave Duncan “Zowie” Jones nightmares when he was a child, Garson recently said. Likely not the only one. Garson’s solo on “Aladdin Sane” is one of a few endpoints in Bowie’s work, being Bowie’s most avant-garde (if outsourced) moment on record. If you were to constellate Bowie songs, the solo would place “Aladdin Sane” out along the edges.

So it’s fitting that Bowie chose Garson to be the harmonic support for “Bring Me the Disco King,” which at some point in the Reality sessions Bowie had pegged as an album closer. It’s very unlikely at the time that Bowie considered Reality as any sort of last work (he would mention a new album throughout the tour and into 2005). But given the weighty end-of-days imagery he’d been playing with since Hours, perhaps it seemed appropriate to have a grand summary piece, in the way a television show uncertain of being renewed will shoot a final episode that could double as a series-ender.

What a difference between the madcap Garson of “Aladdin Sane,” a man running a series of parlor tricks and throwing Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett figures into a blender, and the more stately figure on “Disco King,” whose opening riff seems a slower, truncated version of the intro to Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (possibly because Bowie’s first line sounds a bit like Donald Fagen’s: “while the music played, you worked by candlelight“).

Often keeping to his bass keys, Garson gives brief ascending or descending chord figures as hooks, laces Bowie’s verse lines with discreet note runs, provides chordal support just when Bowie expects it, on a dramatic pause or an emphasis, while also rhythmically playing off Chamberlain’s looped drum figure. His solos on “Aladdin Sane” had acted as if Bowie’s vocal melody was off in another dimension, whereas here Garson remains in gracious service to the song, never straying too far from its confines, worrying out the “disco king” melody in his closing solo. This is, as of this writing, Garson’s last performance on a Bowie record; there have been no finer last acts for Bowie sidemen.

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Excerpt from Hollywood’s Greatest Disasters (Methuen: 1988).

By May 1980, The Cubists was $10 million over budget, only four complete scenes had been shot and Stoppard’s script (which Godard had never consulted) was still being revised. After having seen dailies, producer De Laurentiis called a temporary halt to the filming for a week, at the end of which he fired Godard (who had already left the set) and said he would recast the Braque and Léger roles, much to the consternation of De Niro, who had developed a good rapport with Depardieu during the shooting of 1900 and was upset the latter would no longer be playing Léger.

The replacement leads, however, were at first warmly received, particularly Bowie, who played well against De Niro. To the shock of nearly all concerned, the first two weeks of resumed filming went smoothly, with much of the Paris exteriors completed. The move to Cinecittà, however, proved disastrous. Walken fell ill with colitis, De Niro was acting increasingly erratic (at times speaking in a pidgin French no one could understand) and Brando had still yet to appear on the set. A stage hand fell to his death, the atelier set burned down in a mysterious fire (some suspected the desperate producer’s hand). There was, consecutively, a flood, a rat infestation, a bomb threat by a remnant of the Red Brigades, a supporting actor suddenly becoming mute, a second fire, a third fire, and the violent reappearance of Godard, who demanded he be restored to the director’s chair (by this point, the 2nd AD was doing much of the primary shooting).

Throughout it all, sources said, Bowie was unflappable, even when summoned to the set by De Laurentiis yelling “bring me the disco king.” His long years in live television, co-hosting revues with Petula Clark and Cher, had inured him to chaotic situations on set, and he entertained fellow actors with impromptu songs he played on guitar during the many breaks in filming. De Niro recalled hearing a charming one “about some kind of astronaut rock star” and said he wished Bowie would have made a “proper album, as he was never really given his due.” “Bowie was the only good thing about that misbegotten wreck,” Walken later said. “It should not have been his last movie.”

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“Bring Me the Disco King” isn’t Bowie’s last song (anymore), but through its lengthy verses and lengthier refrains you can see Bowie begin to plot his own demise. Take the last refrain, with his ominous command to “close me in the dark/let me disappear,” then punning on a release from jail and being freed from the album release cycle, as he’d earlier punned on “balance” (as a way of life and a bank statement). His abstruse lines of half-remembered decadence: Hunger City seen off in the distance, fading nights in a lost, divided Berlin. Killing time in the Seventies: wasting one’s life in nightclubs, or being victorious over time (temporarily, of course).

You promised me that the ending would be clear, he begins, but this isn’t a promise David Bowie would ever make. The lines about opening the door may reference Brel’s “My Death,” an old Bowie obsession, but if there was a death here, it proved temporary. “Bring Me the Disco King” sets the stage for a world in which David Bowie is only a memory or a legend, a world that’s waiting to be born. He’ll be okay, most likely, but he doesn’t know about you.

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Recorded: (drums) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (vocals, digital piano) ca. March-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Its first release was on 2 September 2003 as the “Loner Mix” (by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner), on the soundtrack to Underworld (Lakeshore LKS, 33781). Bowie’s version was released on 16 September 2003 on Reality.

Top: Jon Gosier, “Misfilter @ the Remote Lounge,” 2003. “My band performed at the Remote Lounge in New York in late 2003. The whole club is monitored by cameras which they post every night on a website that clubgoers go to to get pics of themselves.”


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