Brief Promotional Message

November 22, 2021

Two items that may be of interest:

One. On 3 PM on Saturday December 4, I’ll be speaking at the New York Bowie pop-up shop, which is located at 150 Wooster Street (it’s a quick walk to Bowie’s old apartment and the former sites of the Magic Shop and Looking Glass studios, where he made his last albums, if you wanted to do a tour). I believe I’ll talk about various elements that went into the making of 1. Outside, but that’s subject to change.

If you happen to be in the city, please come! Only wrinkle is you have to get tickets beforehand (but they are free!)—I believe there may be a space issue. More information here.

Two. Those of you who follow publishing news may have seen that the parent company of Repeater Books, which published Ashes to Ashes, has acquired Zero Books, which published Rebel Rebel. This means that both my books are now under one roof: an unexpected and quite welcome development.

And this means I’ll be able to do a major revision of Rebel Rebel in the medium-term future. This revision would take into account the new songs that have appeared since it was first published (in early 2015), new sources of information (autobiographies of Woody Woodmansey, John Cambridge, Phil Lancaster, John Hutchinson etc.; the scads of interviews done with Bowie’s fellow musicians in the years since his death), and most of all, I will be able to correct errors, fix names, and make other improvements that I feared I’d never be able to do. I’m very happy to be able to do this; I believe it will substantially improve the book.


Karma Man (Revisited)

October 18, 2021

Karma Man (rejected Deram single, 1967).
Karma Man (Top Gear (BBC), 1968).
Karma Man (The Sunday Show (BBC), 1970).
Karma Man (Toy, 2000).

The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.

John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.

George Harrison, quoted in Holiday, February 1968.

All at once, or so it seemed, the British pop aristocracy turned to “Eastern” religion. Pete Townshend found Meher Baba, Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. Donovan and the Beatles became adherents of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Spiritual Regeneration Movement, an offshoot of Hindu teachings centered on the practice of transcendental meditation.

The mystery of this burst of religiosity is somewhat dispelled if you consider that many of these people had taken LSD for some time—Tony Visconti and his wife Siegrid tripped once a week for a year, for instance, and John Lennon all but lived on acid in 1966. Eastern teachings resounded with young celebrities trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed,” as Bernice Martin wrote.

In Britain, where Christian observance was in great decline among the young (Lennon’s “we’re more popular than Jesus” comment was specifically about this generation), watery varietals of Buddhism and Hinduism became alluring. To Western youth, Buddhism had no edict-heavy god and its spiritual leaders were best known for protesting war and wearing colorful outfits. Seemingly devoted to the “now,” it was misinterpreted as a Pop religion. “I only live now and I don’t know why,” as David Bowie sang in “Karma Man.”

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism dated to his early teens, sparked in part by his half-brother Terry, Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and Penguin paperbacks on Zen Buddhism by the British convert Christmas Humphreys. But the essential book, Bowie later said, was Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the wellspring of Bowie’s first Buddhist-influenced song,“Silly Boy Blue.” Harrer was a German national who’d made his way into Tibet, a country few Westerners had ever visited. Much of his book concerned his stay in Lhasa, his meetings with the young Dalai Lama, and his thoughts on life in a Buddhist theocracy.

Bowie was a regular at the Tibetan Buddhist Society by late 1965, a time when he often stayed at his manager Ralph Horton’s apartment, a five-minute walk from the Society’s office in Eccleston Square. There he met and befriended a Tibetan lama in exile, Chime Rinpoche, who became Bowie’s spiritual mentor. He would ask Rinpoche and his fellow monks questions about Buddhism that the monks would answer with other questions, a circularity that delighted him.

The more frustrated Bowie became with his pop music career, the deeper his immersion in Mahayana Buddhism: late 1967 and much of 1968, when his debut album tanked and Deram kept rejecting his singles, marked the peak of his self-identification as a Buddhist. He said he was “going to chuck it all in” to become a monk, to the point of claiming to have visited a monastery in Scotland, allegedly sleeping upright in a box and keeping to a vow of silence. (It’s worth noting the latter practices have nothing do to with Mahayana Buddhism. This suggests a strong element of fiction in Bowie’s tale or that this Scottish Buddhist monastery was rather unorthodox.)

Chime Rinpoche, ca. 1960s

Buddhist-derived concepts, such as the ultimate emptiness of the self, intrigued Bowie. The line “his overself pays the bill” in “Silly Boy Blue” suggests that he’d read the Tathāgatagarbha Sutras, Mahayana sutras that claimed within everyone is an immortal, transcendental “overself” (a rough equivalent to the Christian concept of the soul, and sometimes referred to as Ātman, or the “Buddha nature”). Yet while anyone could be a Buddha, this potential was hidden within you, obscured by your own flaws of perception (“colored shades that blind your eyes”)— you wrongly perceived the world and, often, wrongly lived in the world.

So Bowie’s devotion was more dedicated than the average weekend Buddhist of his era, for whom “Tibet” was an Atlantis up in the mountains, a Shangri-La in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. The fevered political atmosphere of 1968 meant that identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist (and so by default protesting China’s occupation of Tibet) could get you flak from Maoist radicals. Even the apolitical Bowie reportedly was heckled by an American Maoist during his pro-Tibet mime Jetsun and the Eagle.

Spanish bootleg 45, ca. 1980

“Karma Man,” written in early-to-mid 1967, was slated as the B-side of Bowie’s proposed autumn single for Deram, a chaste counterpart to the lustful “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” Bowie’s tribute to monks in exile like Rinpoche, its title character prays in a carnival tent as one of the exhibits: a metaphor for the lama in the West, a “freak” living ascetically in the world of ice cream cones and sideshow stalls. There’s the concept of life as perpetual impermanence, which would turn up again in “After All” and “Changes,” and an obvious homage to Ray Bradbury’s tattooed Illustrated Man (“fairytale skin depicting scenes from human zoos”), with the lama as living storybook.

Down-and-out Strange (Strange Tales 115, Dec. 1963, Lee/Ditko)

Where “Silly Boy Blue” had the measured tone of a National Geographic article, “Karma Man” was more fantastical. Bowie had taken to describing Buddhist monks as superhuman figures, claiming to the Melody Maker that monks could go days without eating, spend months underground and could live for centuries (traces of this appear in “The Supermen”  and “Sons of the Silent Age”). This suggested that Bowie was up on one of the counterculture’s new heroes, Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, an arrogant ex-surgeon reborn as a chela to the Ancient One and who, as per Geoffrey O’Brien, “spends his days sitting lotus fashion within his tastefully decorated Greenwich Village pied-à-terre and tuning into the brainwaves reaching him from across the universe.” Steve Ditko’s Strange Tales was full of astral projections, trips to psychedelic bardos and battles with occult powers like the Dread Dormammu.

Strange Tales 133, June 1965 (Lee/Ditko)

“Karma Man” was a fragile beauty of a song, its syllable-stuffed D major verses calmed by harmonized B major refrains, whose melody had for an opening hook a grand descending phrase (“slooow down, sloooow down,” F#-D#-C#-B) that set up the spotlight moment, an Anthony Newley-style elongation of “do–oh–ow–ownnnnnn,” with Bowie really wringing out the concluding en sound. It would have a strange, frustrated life as a recording.

Its 1967 studio take was a rush-job, as Bowie and Visconti had to cut it on the same day they did “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (Deram soon rejected both tracks.) Bowie sounds tentative in his phrasings at times, putting hard emphases on filler words like “he’s” and “but,” sounding as if he’s stalling for time while changing lyric sheets. There’s a fundamental imbalance between Visconti’s cello scoring, which dominates much of the track, and the subdued rhythm section—John McLaughlin vanishing for much of the song after playing the opening riff, some professional busker guitar by “Big Jim” Sullivan, a bass mostly content to shadow the cello (a modest Visconti), Alan White’s drums trying to make peace with the track. Siegrid Visconti sang the high harmonies, blending well with Bowie’s voice and kicking off a tradition of Visconti spouses making cameo appearances on Bowie tracks or videos.

Far better was the “Karma Man” done for the BBC’s Top Gear in May 1968, which I still consider the song’s canonical version. Visconti’s strings are lusher, with a broader tonal range; the tempo has subtly but essentially increased, making the song move at last. Having a stronger rhythmic template to work with (see also, more dynamic drumming and livelier guitar strum patterns), Bowie sounds at ease in the song, better handling the tricky rhythms of his verse lines, luxuriating in his refrains.

He returned to “Karma Man” in early 1970, as it was being released at last, on a Deram compilation LP cashing in on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” success. Performing it alone for a John Peel session, Bowie alters the guitar pattern to the sort of chugging Bo Diddley-esque line he favored in the “Space Oddity” era, while he has a similar plaintive tone as on likes of “Columbine” and “God Knows I’m Good.” He’s more inventive as a singer by now—listen to how he subtly shifts emphases and holds his notes with more assurance in the refrains—and he makes “Karma Man” sound fresh. You can imagine it having further life on stage in the Hunky Dory/Ziggy years, but this was the end of it.

Thirty years later, Bowie remade many of his “lost” Sixties songs. “Silly Boy Blue” got a gravid, respectful reinvention; “Let Me Sleep Beside You” became an aging roue’s come-on. “Karma Man,” never bootlegged but said to have been cut in the Toy sessions, would remain a rumor until last Friday, when it appeared on streaming sites.

I wish that I could say its Toy version gave the song a new perspective. But so far I just hear a cluttered, fumbled cover, a reheated “oldie” with Bowie in a diminished voice—was he getting over a cold when he cut this vocal?—that feels more dated than its Sixties versions. The arrangement, with Mike Garson filigrees in the verses, a trumpet opening hook and radio ident bumper vocal tags, sounds at times like a band trying to replicate a Badly Drawn Boy track from memory. Sterling Campbell tries to pound some life into the thing, and there may well be some good guitar lines somewhere in the mix. The 1968 “Karma Man” had grace; the 1970 version held mystery—it left an opening. Its 2000 incarnation is airless.

There would be no going back, it turned out, and this wouldn’t be the way forward. The world that created “Karma Man” now seems ten lifetimes away. Bowie’s song was a butterfly, never meant to last more than a summer.

End credits

(Deram version) Recorded: 1 September 1967, Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal; John McLaughlin: lead guitar; Jim Sullivan: acoustic guitar; Tony Visconti: bass; Alan White: drums; Siegrid Visconti: harmony vocals; unknown player(s): cello. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Gerald Chevin. First release: 6 March 1970, The World of David Bowie (Decca SPA 58)

(Top Gear version) Recorded: 13 May 1968, Piccadilly 1 Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; McLaughlin: lead guitar; Alan Hawkshaw: keyboards; Herbie Flowers: bass; Barry Morgan: drums; Visconti, Steve “Peregrin” Took: harmony vocals; The Tony Visconti Orchestra (uncredited): violins, violas, celli. Produced: Bernie Andrews; engineered: Alan Harris. First release: 26 September 2000, Bowie at the Beeb (EMI/Virgin 7243 5 28629 2 4).

(Sunday Show version) Recorded: 5 February 1970, BBC Paris Studio, London. Bowie: vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar. First release: 28 May 2021, The Width of a Circle.

(Toy version). Recorded: (tracking) July 2000, Sear Sound, New York; (vocals, overdubs) October 2000, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Bowie: lead vocal; Earl Slick: lead guitar; Mark Plati: rhythm guitar, keyboards; Mike Garson: keyboards; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Sterling Campbell: drums; Cuong Vu: trumpet?; Holly Palmer, Emm Gryner: harmony vocals. Produced: Plati; engineered: Pete Keppler. First release: (streaming) 15 October 2021.


Tin Machine II at 30

September 2, 2021

Tin Machine II, released thirty years ago today, is a strange thing to commemorate. You may recall that it got little respect at the time of its release (its legendary Melody Maker pan ended with telling Bowie to “sit down man: you’re a fucking disgrace”). Time hasn’t been much kinder to it, though I have seen reappraisals here and there, and more of late.

Part of its oddness is the album’s quasi-bootleg status for much of the 21st Century—it was out of print for well over a decade and who actually controls the rights to it at present remains rather mysterious. The fact that a Dutch label was apparently able to do a legitimate reissue last year without Reeves Gabrels or even the Bowie estate knowing beforehand speaks volumes. And TMII remains a fugitive from the streaming age—it’s not on Spotify nor anywhere else, I believe.

Was Bowie, in his later years, okay with its twilight existence as a used record store CD staple and unauthorized YouTube upload? After all, he did a massive securitization deal in the ’90s to buy out Tony Defries’ share of his music, and after the MainMan debacles of the mid-’70s, he’d watched his finances and copyrights like a hawk. You’d think if securing Tin Machine II had been important to him, he would’ve put his financial adviser Bill Zysblat on the case at some point. Instead an album that he released in 1991 fell out of his hands, and he didn’t seem too bothered by it.

Not just his hands. Tin Machine II was the work of a four-person partnership: each band member owning a piece of it. Since Bowie’s old label EMI wasn’t interested in releasing the record, the band wound up going with Victory, an ill-fated Japanese startup label whose collapse in 1994 began TMII‘s long sojourn in the wilderness. Perhaps this is how to view Bowie’s perspective on TMII—he truly did consider it to be a joint project, to the point of having the drummer sing two tracks, and thus when the album fell into eclipse, he wrote off his losses and got on with things, much as he did with films like The Linguini Incident from the same era.

And yet. At the time, he really had committed to the band and the album. For much of August 1991 to February 1992, Bowie all but lived on the road with Tin Machine, playing small venues he’d never do again—it’s still wild to me that Tin Machine played Toad’s Place and The Sting in Connecticut in fall 1991: clubs where I used to go see 24-7 Spyz and Men and Volts as a teenager.

TM II took ages to assemble—for Bowie albums, only The Next Day would have a longer genesis. “Baby Universal” dated to 1988, to the start of Bowie and Gabrels’ songwriting collaboration (and the Roxy Music cover was a holdover from the first Tin Machine sessions). Much of it was tracked in Australia in fall 1989, and then, due to Bowie spending much of 1990 on the Sound + Vision tour, it was overdubbed around the world—in Miami; at Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie Studios in Twickenham; in LA in the spring of 1991. Gabrels was the one who held the album together, sometimes flying to wherever Bowie was on tour to get in a few days’ work, and in the process he made the album into a temple of guitar overdubs, especially on tracks like “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Because of this, TMII isn’t the most unified of records, apart from having a sort-of Pacific travelogue theme—“Amlapura,” “Shopping For Girls,” “Hammerhead,” the surfer outtakes “Exodus” and “Needles on the Beach.” You hear on it a band forging a more unified sound than on the first record, which was a hard battle for supremacy (the drums often won)—they’re slicker, but at least they’re listening to each other more. It’s Bowie processing some recent influences—the Pixies homage “A Big Hurt,” for instance (I’ve come to like the latter far more than when I first wrote about it, which was in the spirit of Tom Hibbert). And there’s the two Hunt Sales songs, the garrulous appendix to the Bowie catalog.

What TMII sounds like to me now, upon a fresh listen, is as the middle piece of a trilogy that would never be completed (& Tony Sales once said a three-LP run was always the plan). It’s a transitory album, moving Tin Machine from their studio improv origins towards being more of a working unit, but it remained in transit. 

The months of touring they put in for TMII makes you wonder if the band, at last working together at length on stage (they had only done a brief promo tour in 1989 for the first album), would wind up in a different place; it’s intriguing to wonder how Tin Machine III, the lost concluding episode, would have sounded. Instead we got for a hasty last word the live LP Oy Vey Baby, which is still out of print.

I won’t make the case for TMII being any sort of forgotten gem. Too many of its tracks don’t work for me, and it was weakened by some late-in-the-day sequencing decisions, such as ditching the hard-nerved “It’s Tough,” apparently in favor of the wearying “If There Is Something” and/or the label-mandated single “One Shot,” in which the band is in self-caricature mode. But it’s no disaster, either, and I think its bad reputation is unmerited. Its highlight, the masterful “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” is as strong as anything Bowie released in the Nineties.

Timing was most of it, as it often was for Bowie. TMII wasn’t what many of Bowie’s fans, fresh from Sound + Vision, wanted from him in the fall of 1991, and it was pitched towards a pop metal audience (Tin Machine even did interviews with RIP, a heavy-metal magazine, in the fall of ’91) at the exact moment when grunge broke. So it withered and died on the LP charts—#23 in the UK, an ignoble #126 in the US—and by mid-1992, Bowie was done with the band. 

Destined to be an orphan, Tin Machine II has now reached middle age. Who knows, maybe it’ll find a home someday.


John Hutchinson (1944-2021)

July 27, 2021

The likes of Tony Visconti will have most probably omitted any mention of me in their books, because I will have been to them (just as they were to me) a peripheral character in their David Bowie stories. 

John Hutchinson, Bowie & Hutch

Greil Marcus once called John Lennon “the reality principle” of the Beatles: the quadrant of the Beatles who reminded you that life goes on elsewhere, the one who questioned what the group was for, who said why it had to be abandoned (though I’ve long thought this better applied to George Harrison). John “Hutch” Hutchinson, who died a few days past, was something like this for his friend David Bowie. 

To his once-partner, Hutch was normality, steadiness, humility, domesticity. Hutch as the control to Bowie’s variable. The Ground Control, as it turned out—“Space Oddity” was originally a duet in which Hutch is left on earth, calling out into the void, fearing that his astronaut counterpart has gone lost.

A few years Bowie’s elder, Hutchinson had a similar trajectory as Bowie in the early-to-mid Sixties: growing up in an un-hip English town (Scarborough), forming an R&B band with an American name (The Tennesseans, of whom Hutch wrote “played most of the Beatles’ cover repertoire before we heard the Beatles”), spending the Beatlemania years scratching out a performing life, looking for the big break. In 1965, Hutchinson moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he got notice simply for being the only English rock guitarist in the city.

In January 1966, having turned up at the Marquee Club to ask if anyone needed a guitarist, Hutchinson auditioned a few days later there for David Bowie’s new band, The Buzz. Hutchinson played some Bo Diddley riffs and got the job. In his memoir, he noted that the main requirements for The Buzz were that “the musician could not be too good-looking or trendy, and he must be prepared to adopt a nickname.” Thus, “Hutch.”

The Buzz set the parameters of Hutch’s time with Bowie. Hutch as the genial journeyman guitarist who was able to make Bowie’s odd songs work on stage (“they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff”—“Good Morning Girl” came about when Bowie scatted to a jazz riff Hutch was playing); Bowie as the driven, occasionally moody artiste, absorbing every speck of music that he came across.

Married and with a pregnant wife, tired of not getting paid, and wary of Bowie’s new manager, Ken Pitt, who was positioning Bowie as a pure solo act, Hutchinson left The Buzz in June 1966 to get a proper job, soon moving to Montreal for a year or so. In 1969, he’d do the same—leaving Bowie again to go back to the real world. Hutch had responsibilities and obligations. Rock and roll was a circus that he’d work for a few summers, but at some point it was time to go home. 

Hutch’s departures, Hutch’s time in normie exile, became one of Bowie’s shadow-mirror lives. What if he’d given up, too? Gotten married, gotten a proper job in Beckenham, turned music into a hobby. Driving through Brixton with Tin Machine in 1991, Bowie wept, said that he still wondered sometimes how all of it happened, that he should have been an accountant or something.

Hutchinson was most of value to Bowie upon his return from Canada, having forsaken R&B for contemporary folk: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. In 1968, Bowie stood at one of his crossroads. His first, gloriously weird solo album had flopped; he had no record deal, and Ken Pitt was edging him towards cabaret, stage musicals and film roles. Hutch gave him a new grounding, a fresh backdrop. Hutch was a folkie; now Bowie would be a folkie. 

At first, it was indulgent: Feathers (nee Turquoise), a “mixed media” acoustic trio with Hermione Farthingale that’s commemorated by the hippie doodle “Ching-a-Ling,” a song that Donovan would’ve considered too fey. It drove Ken Pitt up a wall, Bowie frittering away his talent on this stuff, which already sounded dated in its first performances.

But when Bowie and Hermione broke up, leading to the “Bowie and Hutch” acoustic duo of early 1969, something caught fire. Bowie needed to be in a double act at the time, with Hutch as his straight man on stage, his friend and harmonizer. The obvious template was Simon and Garfunkel, with the twist that in this incarnation, “Garfunkel,” the mushroom-haired, extravagantly-voiced half of the group, would be the dominant creative force, while Hutch’s “Simon” would play the intricate guitar chords and mostly stay out of his way.

Bowie and Hutch’s 1969 demos, on which Hutchinson sang lead on Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” and Roger Bunn’s “Life is a Circus,” come off mostly as David Bowie With Accompaniment. Hutchinson stays in Bowie’s shadow; Bowie, making leaps as a composer, sounds ready to leave Hutch behind. But you can hear their friendship in their harmonies and inside jokes. Their time together established what would be Bowie’s standard working relationship: Bowie as director and scenarist; Hutch as facilitator, the one who drafted the storyboards and filled in details. Hutch as the 1.0 version of Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, Donny McCaslin.

Their epilogue was marvelous. Hutchinson returned yet again to play rhythm guitar in the Spiders from Mars’ 1973 tour. What must they have made of each other then! Hutch watching his once-Mod frontman stalking around, with a flame-colored mullet and dressed in Japanese extraterrestrial outfits; Bowie glancing upstage to see good old reliable Hutch standing there, memento of the hungry years. 

They’d stay in contact until the end, exchanging the occasional email. In his humble way, Hutchinson wrote in his memoir he “had to remember not to pester David, mind you, as we are many years and many miles apart now and there are constraints that lifestyle and fame impose upon old friends of stars like David Bowie.” No more effacing now. Raise a glass to Hutch, a star in his own right.


Jerusalem

May 24, 2021

Jerusalem.

One day he was a respected young songwriter, the next he was this thing, The Voice of a Generation. The Man With All the Answers…People were at him all the time…it was relentless. You or I couldn’t have stood that kind of pressure. We’d have been crushed by it. Dylan not only stood up to it, he continued to do great work on his own terms in spite of it.

David Blue.

Hear this, Robert Zimmerman: I wrote a song for you.

Bowie, “Song for Bob Dylan.”

David Bowie had shrugged off Bob Dylan as an influence for as long as he could, but by the end of the Sixties, even Bowie gave in. Everyone did. You could resent Dylan (Paul Simon), cover him (many examples), imitate him (countless examples), pinpoint him (Joan Baez), translate him (Levi Stubbs, Sam Cooke), but Dylan stood in the center, as inescapable as the sun; at times, as oppressive.

There’s an anecdote in Clinton Heylin’s new Dylan biography. Sometime in 1963, a drunk Dylan hovers at the entrance of the Gaslight, in Greenwich Village, asking people walking in if they know who he is, writing down their responses in a notebook. Whenever someone answers “yeah, you’re Bob Dylan,” Dylan stares at them and snarls, “You don’t know who I am.” What must it have been like to live like this? To still, to some degree, live like this, at age eighty?

In 1961, a middle-class Minnesotan Jewish folkie named Robert Zimmerman gave birth to a brilliant wraith called Bob Dylan, who became the closest that the late 20th Century would get to Shakespeare. It was this summoning, this lifetime marriage to a character, this sense that having become an Other, having dispensed with his own life, Zimmerman had opened a vast reservoir of power—this is what drew in Bowie, far more than Dylan’s songs. He, too, had changed his name; he also was running as far away from Bromley as Dylan had from Hibbing, Minnesota. He’d have sold his soul in a heartbeat.

[Around 1965] I’d bought the second Bob Dylan album, the one where he’s walking down, I believe it’s Bleecker Street. And he’s got the girlfriend with him. And I thought, ‘this guy is so cool looking.’ [Then as an aside, to me] It’s always the clothes first, right? [We both laughed.] Well, I’m English. What do you want? Then I played the album. I loved the music. And it was absolute dynamite. It was like this 60 year old guy voice in this young kid. I thought, ‘This is the Beats. It’s everything that’s great about America in this one album.’

Bowie, to Filter magazine, 2003

And as Bowie was studying pop narratives, Dylan had an unsurpassable one. Born an unknown in the Midwest; meeting and being anointed by his elders (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger (Dylan even tried for Carl Sandburg, without much luck)); becoming entwined with the cultural revolutions of his time; soon resenting this; becoming the hippest person in the United States by 1965. Dylan was always leaving someone behind. Leaving Suze Rotolo for Joan Baez, leaving folk for rock, leaving rock for country, leaving the New York of Allen Ginsberg and Dave Van Ronk and blonde-on-blonde Edie Sedgwick for marriage and domestic obscurity in the Catskills. And he’d leave that behind soon enough.

Dylan had deep roots, though—the joy of the complete Basement Tapes is hearing how many songs he had in his head. It’s as though he’d devoted his life to be a preservation of American music, the analogue of some monk in North Africa in 500 AD who can recite Ovid from memory after all the scrolls have been burned. But Bowie, after deciding to follow a Dylan path for a time, didn’t have the music to draw on. He loved American R&B, but hated country and had no affinity with folk music, even that of his own land—his contemporaries Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny could breathe hard life into “Tam Lin” and “Nottamun Town” but Bowie was a suburban kid who’d grown up watching television and reading The Beano, and returning to Albion must have seemed a bit absurd to him.

Dylan is a poor guitarist, his songs are boring and he has a bad voice. Let’s drop the subject.

Bowie, to journalist Bosse Hansson, May 1970, in response to Hansson’s assertion that DB would be the Bob Dylan of the Seventies

Instead, Bowie covered and imitated the mid-Sixties acoustic Dylan—apparently, the first Dylan he’d heard: the Freewheelin’ album and the Don’t Look Back tour of the UK in 1965 (“I was as knocked out when I heard Gas Works as I was when I heard Dylan on his first trip to Britain,” Bowie said in 1969). The shift came after the failure of his debut album in 1967 and the subsequent formation, with Hermione Farthingale and John Hutchinson, of his “folk” group Feathers. This called for a new repertoire—it would’ve been hard to pull off earlier Bowie live staples like Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” or even his own Pye singles in an acoustic guitar trio. Bowie’s folk covers weren’t Child Ballads, but more contemporary artists like Leonard Cohen (“Lady Midnight” was often in Bowie and Hutch’s sets), Van Morrison (“Madame George”) and, naturally, Dylan (“She Belongs to Me,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”).

Dylan’s writing style soon seeped into Bowie’s own. The most notable example was unearthed two years ago on the Conversation Piece set—a 1969 demo called “Jerusalem” that no one, apparently not even Bowie archivist Kevin Cann, had ever heard of before.

Its inspiration is the sort of endless-stanzaed song that Dylan favored in late 1964 and early 1965—see “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Desolation Row.” Bowie sings essentially one long verse over an acoustic guitar figure, and in Dylan style, breaks the flow for the occasional refrain tag. Much of the lyric is hippie junk-shop caliber (“a man plays his sitar on a Monday afternoon,” “the waiter says the cavalry is nice”) and Bowie seems to be as much processing Dylan as he is others’ Dylan imitations—particularly Mick Jagger on “Jigsaw Puzzle.”

“Jerusalem” comes sharper into focus when Bowie shifts to a favorite subject—how much self-betrayal one needs to become a star. “He’s a film script in himself…he profiteered on monies made by selling most of himself.” In its profusion of images, there are traces of “Quicksand” (“he blew his mind on Churchill just before the age of five”) and “Life on Mars?” (“milk his sacred cow…both his eyes were made by Disney”).

Bowie used similar torrents of language in a few of his other 1969 songs, particularly “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and “Cygnet Committee,” then he moved on. It was as if Dylan was an unavoidable course requirement, so he crammed and got through it with a passing grade. Years later, to Chris Roberts, he described it as being similar to how John Lennon had dealt with Dylan:

I remember talking with John at the time about people we admired, and he said to me, ‘Y’know, when I’ve discovered someone new, I tend to become that person. I want to soak myself in their stuff to such an extent that I have to be them.’ So when he first found Dylan, he said, he would dress like Dylan and only play his kind of music, till he kind of understood how it worked. And that’s exactly how I feel about it as well. in a more awkward fashion, I did that, too. I lived the life, whatever it was.

But his interest in “Dylan” as a concept stayed with Bowie, and in 1971, he turned his sights on him.

Song For Bob Dylan.

Bowie always maintained that the voice of “Song for Bob Dylan” wasn’t his (“the lyrics in that song are not my thoughts,” he said at the time of its release). He wrote it for his friend George Underwood, so in a way he’s doing a parody of his friend in his own take on the song for Hunky Dory. The person singing “Song for Bob Dylan” is an obsessive fan, a bedsit zealot, the sort of person who would cry over a record sleeve or sift through Dylan’s garbage, looking for clues. By 1971, Bowie has dispensed with Dylan enough that he can frame him through the eyes of his more pathetic disciples.

Their meetings were few and, per legend, unhappy. Bowie reportedly told Dylan “where he was going wrong” in one conversation in the Seventies; Dylan allegedly told Bowie he disliked Young Americans (perhaps in response). The one set of photographs of them together, in New York in 1986, is bizarre: Bowie looks like a businessman who’s hired Dylan to kill someone and is already regretting having signed the check.

I’m trying to think if there’s anyone who truly has honed his craft to a point that you are really, really glad that he stayed with one thing all the way through his life. Of course there is. How stupid of me! Bob Dylan. He’s not actually changed his course very much, and now his music has such resonance that when I first put his new album on I thought I should just give up. 

Bowie, 1998.

Bowie ultimately came to regard Dylan as a lesson in how to keep going. Tour every year, give few interviews, shamelessly make some commercials using your classics, seem bemused by the absurdity of it all, and hold off on releasing new albums until people start missing you again. Bowie certainly took note of the reception that Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft got (to the point of covering “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”). You can see Heathen and Blackstar as Bowie working within Dylan’s frame, making death-haunted records that still have a sense of humor (“Girl Loves Me” in particular).

They were never friends, rarely influences (Mick Ronson as Dylan’s guitarist for the Rolling Thunder Revue is another wrinkle in the story), but Bowie and Dylan would align at times. By the 21st Century, Dylan’s appetite for outright theft had well surpassed Bowie’s. Fellow actors, each was the sort who could corner strangers at a bar, ask them to tell him who he was, then tell the strangers they were dead wrong. Dylan is still here, Bowie is gone, both seem far away now. Last year, days after the lockdowns began, Dylan put out “Murder Most Foul,” a long requiem for a lost century, for the end of rock ‘n’ roll, for the death of the past. Bowie didn’t make Dylan’s list (though “All the Young Dudes” made it into “I Contain Multitudes”), but he was there anyway, hidden in its margins.

Recorded: ca. 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, London? David Bowie: vocal, acoustic guitar. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Photos: Dylan at the press conference for his Isle of Wight concert, August 1969; outtake from Don Hunstein’s Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan photo shoot, early 1963; Dylan and Bowie backstage (I believe) at an Iggy Pop show at the Ritz, NYC, November 1986.


I Can’t Give Everything Away

January 8, 2021

I Can’t Give Everything Away.
I Can’t Give Everything Away (Nine Inch Nails, 2017).

Five years is what they’re going to write, and one can’t blame them. It’s a good headline, and it’s the only time they can use it. A strange temporal distance: far enough away to be the past, yet it still feels like it happened a couple of months ago, or maybe in a dream.

It felt like a dream to me, that day. Sitting in my kitchen, putting up a tribute post on the blog, approving comments, turning the Twitter into a tribute feed. I did this for twelve hours or so, then wrote out John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X on Twitter, shut off the laptop, fell asleep on the couch with the dog. It was what I imagine being an air traffic controller is like on a heavy day.

I did this for lack of anything else to do, for fear that I wasn’t doing enough. I’d written about David Bowie for years, had released a book about his music. I felt an obligation to maintain one place where people could go, to talk, to mourn, to just announce their disbelief. For the people who had teared up on the bus that morning, or broke down in a supermarket, for no “logical” reason—after all, this was a famous pop star, whom you never met, whom you never knew. But your grief was real, as you were grieving your life, which had changed overnight, one piece of it suddenly removed, as if you woke up to learn that the moon had disappeared, that there would never be a moon again, just old photographs and films, your memories of it and those of your friends.

One grating performative bit of the past five years is the person who says David Bowie was holding the universe together and it all went to hell after his death, as if he was a Timelord or an Ent or something. Well, the lifespan of David Jones, which encompassed the Korean and Vietnam wars, the assassinations of many beloved public figures, the Rwandan genocide, the Indonesian massacres and so forth, was no golden age. I suppose the most generous reading of this lament is that Bowie’s death was an unmistakable sign that the 20th Century was fading into dust and smoke, taking with it things that had once seemed permanent—newspapers, comprehensible politics, rock and roll. The news of late that nearly every old rock star is selling off their publishing suggests a fire sale that’s grown more desperate. Everywhere one looks now is tumult and chaos; turning a calendar page becomes an act of optimism.

As were Bowie’s last years. He was a 20th Century man from stern to stem. In his relatively brief time in the 21st, he quickly grew disenchanted with it, like someone who regretted buying shares in a disastrous joint venture. I demand a better future, he’d sung, not long after the century began. His last surge of creative life—producing in a few years The Next Day, the “Sue” single with Maria Schneider, Lazarus, and Blackstar—was this demand restated, ever more firmly, a demand to want more, to expect more, from oneself, from the world. Yet there was also an element of finality in this, of knowing this would be the last campaign.

Cut in the final Blackstar sessions of March 2015, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was “trancelike,” the keyboardist Jason Lindner said. “I just had this piano figure I played on the Wurlitzer that keeps going and stays consistent through the bass notes moving down. It keeps repeating and gets bigger and bigger.”

For Blackstar, Lindner translated what he heard on Bowie’s demos into lush backdrops, converting guitar parts into synthesizer lines, and he gave “I Can’t Give Everything Away” overlapping, swirling layers of Moogs and Prophets: “I would dial in a basic patch on my Prophet ‘08 as a sort of blank canvas sound… It has an organic quality and it matches incredibly well with acoustic instruments. The Prophet 12 produced some beautifully edgy, full pads with ringing metallic overtones that really fit the more intense moments.” (There’s an odd mixing choice to abruptly cut off one of Lindner’s high-pitched drones at 4:28.)

The drum loop that links the track to its Blackstar predecessor “Dollar Days” came from Bowie’s home demo, as did his harmonica parts, unavoidably calling back to “A New Career in a New Town.” As on much of the album, Mark Guiliana had to play a drum part that would hold true to Bowie’s demo, to “accommodate this simple part but also interact with the rest of the guys and build the song in a spontaneous way.”

Guiliana’s work was the fulfillment of what Bowie, Mark Plati, and Zachary Alford had done on Earthling (a favorite album of Guiliana’s teenage years): live drum tracks with the roll and rigor of synthetic ones, playing human variations on an electronic theme. On “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Guiliana takes Bowie’s drum loop and builds it out—laying off his snare in verses to play subtly-changing hi-hat patterns and kick beats, getting in sharp fills to round out refrains, quietly building in intensity and dynamics when responding to Donny McCaslin’s solo.

Bowie starts out low in range, his notes mostly those of the underlying F chord. He makes a quiet assertion, moving up a third (“something’s ve-”) and down (“-ry wrong”), ending a tone higher than where he started. Two steps up, a step down. He makes the same movement, only going higher, when the chord changes. He keeps pushing upward until, with the plaintive “GIVE” that opens the refrain, he’s on the peak, looking down at the valley. In a breath, he tumbles down (“ev-ry thing”). He does it again: a striving, a collapse. At last he reaches a compromise on the last “awaaaay,” holding on a C note that’s an octave up from where he’d started in the verse.

It’s a monologue, a surging lifeline against repetitions of drums and keyboards. But after a time, Bowie’s refrain vocal freezes into a pattern. He’s fallen into the song. No longer the lead actor, he moves into the background, his refrain phrasing becoming another loop, now working in support of his soloists. First McCaslin, who plays a melody to wreathe Bowie’s “away” and then takes a journey to parallel Bowie’s: lightly stepping up, sliding down, fixating on notes, urging himself onward, finding new pockets of melody as means to keep aloft; it’s an aeronaut’s solo.

The beginning of Ben Monder’s solo, as transcribed by John Hendow

Then the guitarist Ben Monder (like McCaslin, another Maria Schneider Orchestra regular). On Blackstar he’s often the touch-up man, working in overdubs, the inker and colorist who moves in once pages have been penciled. Yet when he appears on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” it’s as if the whole song has been laid out for his benefit, to be raw materials for his coruscating, shredding solo. Monder is another force pushing upward, again and again moving to his highest two strings, peaking on a sky-high A note, then making a tumbling chromatic fall. As “I Can’t Give Everything Away” moves into its outro, Monder plays a ritardando figure of alternating high notes, closing out broadly, no longer in tempo.

And where the ear expects the song to close on its F major home chord, it instead ends on D minor, its vi chord, which aches to be resolved but never will.

This is the last song on the last album that David Bowie would release in his lifetime. And it’s called “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” You can hear his mordant wit in the title—he might have called it “What Else Do You Want, Enough Already.”

When I first heard it, Bowie’s verse reminded me of Roy Orbison’s on “Blue Bayou.” I feel so bad, I got a worried mind, Orbison begins. He’s in exile, separated from his love, far away from his home, and he longs to go back there, saving dimes, working night shifts. But you sense in his voice that he may never make it back, that Blue Bayou, whose details are those of an afterlife or lost childhood (often one and the same in the imagination), isn’t there. Or it once was, but the world has changed and swept it away. As John Crowley once wrote, the world is older than it once was. Orbison could save up, take the train back, only to find nothing but a piece of swampland.

I know something’s very wrong
The pulse returns, the prodigal sons…

Who is this “I,” anyway? Mr. David Jones has brought back David Bowie by popular demand. It’s a show that could play for years, but he knows it won’t—the spells aren’t holding, the bindings are cracking.

Bowie’s stunning lines in the second verse are his Prospero moment, in which an old magician drowns his books in the sea, makes amends for his art and witchcraft:

Bowie sings one last riddle. He saw more than he felt, he said no when he meant yes. This is all I ever meant, he says, with a trace of a smile. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the last scene of a mystery in which the detective reveals there’s been no crime.

Here he stands in his deaths-head shoes, smiling and waving and looking so fine. The image to recall is one of Jimmy King’s last photographs of Bowie. On a downtown New York street, before a grated door, dressed for a tea social, grinning from ear to ear, he looks ready to leap into the air.

Recorded: (drum loop, harmonica) Bowie home studio, ca. mid-late 2014; (backing tracks, vocals) 21 March 2015, Magic Shop; (guitar overdubs) ca. late March 2015; (vocals) 7 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Photos: Jimmy King, “David Bowie,” New York, ca. September 2015.


(Somehow It’s Still Not the) Last Xmas

December 24, 2020

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

Well, it’s been quite the year, hasn’t it? I hope you’ve gotten through it fairly intact.

Not much to say except Merry Christmas to you and yours. Here’s to a safe and happy holiday season, and a hopeful New Year. I didn’t want to revisit my 2019 Xmas post for fear that I wrote something like “2020 is going to be a blast!” Let’s be modest in our expectations now. Perhaps the new year will surprise us. After all, Duncan Jones found the Snowman scarf again.

The blog keeps going at a slow pace. Check in once in a while—you might find something new! There will be two new posts coming relatively soon: one retrospective, one commemorative. The 64 Quartets blog also keeps going at a very slow pace; there’ll be a new entry there soon, too.

I did look back at the 2019 Xmas post after all, and what I wrote at the end of that one applies today: Happy Xmas, happy New Year, Happy “we’re still here, and doing okay.” Here’s to the future. Take care.

CO


1984, Pop’s Blockbuster Year: an Interview

December 8, 2020

I’ve known Michaelangelo Matos for some time and greatly enjoyed his 2015 book, The Underground Is Massive. Today he has a new one out: Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, which I enjoyed even more.

Can’t Slow Down is Matos’ massively-researched, sharply-written, concise, and intelligent history of one of pop music’s biggest years, the year of Purple Rain, Private Dancer, and Born in the USA; of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Madonna, Van Halen, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and, most of all, the towering presence of Michael Jackson. An era of spectacles, from Stop Making Sense in movie theaters to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” from the Reaganite apotheosis that was the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA to the concluding chapter on Live Aid in 1985. It also covers “underground” scenes on the verge of breaking big—1984 is a golden year for U.S. indie rock, for example (Let It Be, Double Nickels on the Dime, Reckoning, Zen Arcade, etc.), and is also foundational for house and hip-hop.

It’s a year in which seemingly everyone who ever recorded pop music was seen out in public—there’s a wonderful chapter centered on a panel at the New Music Seminar in New York that featured, among others, James Brown, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Madonna, Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall, John Oates, Joe Ely, and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. Yet it’s as often concerned with the doings of music business pros—the A&R scouts, radio programmers, producers, label execs, journalists, TV talent bookers, etc., who made “1984” happen.

Though David Bowie is often a spectral presence in 1984, as Matos says in this interview, he’s still seemingly everywhere that year, as influence and rival, and he does still get a #1 album and Top 10 hit. The pop world of 1984 is one that Bowie both revels in and hides away from—much of his subsequent career is him coming to terms with how popular he’d become then. After all, it was a time when, as Wham!s album was titled, you were supposed to Make It Big.

The following is edited from a talk Matos and I had last week. If you’re interested in the book, please buy it from your local bookstore! (or Indiebound).

Yes, Baby, I Am Indeed a Star: Prince in LA (Michael Ochs)

CO: There’s an anecdote that you open the book with that really rang true to me. You’re nine years old, you’re cleaning your room and listening to Top 40 radio and you realize that you’ve been listening for hours and you don’t hate any of the songs playing. I was 12 and it was the same deal for me. And…that’s not the case for long, even very soon afterward, right? The “1984 moment” feels very brief—when is it over, as early as 1986, 1987?

Michaelangelo Matos: The moment wasn’t just gone but completely formulized. Part of what makes the ‘84 moment is a great deal about professionals being professional. That’s a lot of it. It’s not fair to say it was this great shining moment and it had nothing to do with the business. It had everything to do with the biz. The biz is what made the moment. It just happened to be a high-water mark of a certain way of doing things that quickly became pomp and circumstance. It was a much faster version of the difference between, say, ’65 and ‘74.

But for a while, suddenly, there was this thing that seemed so promising and playful and the people who were doing it really seemed to be enjoying it. There was a real spark of energy. It wasn’t just, “oh we have to calibrate our business plan according to Thriller.” It was more: “wouldn’t it be fun to make hit songs of all these titles? Wouldn’t it be fun to make a whole album of hit singles?” People were pushing themselves to make good hits. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get on the radio, though you can never understate the mercenary nature of the business. There’s a great deal of cold-faced greed there too. The thing I really enjoyed was writing the chapter about AOR. That was fun.What rock history doesn’t treat these guys as demigods? Well, let me be the first.

CO: It’s striking to realize how old, relatively, many of the big 1984 pop stars were. Phil Collins, Bowie, Tina Turner, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis—some of these people had been around for decades at this point.

MM: Purple Rain is Prince’s sixth album. It had been seven years at that point since he’d signed a contract and six years since his debut.

And Phil Collins is not just somebody who’s been doing it for a long time, but someone who’s absolutely comfortable in the pop field. He is completely comfortable making pop music for large audiences. There is no weird divide for him between that and what he’s done since the ‘70s, because Genesis evolves along with it, Genesis turns into a singles band right as AOR is hitting the skids.

CO: MTV is obviously a big part of the 1984 story, but has it been overstated over the years?

MM: One thing to keep in mind is that MTV is not the be-all and end-all. MTV has a great deal to do with ’81 to ’83, but by ’84, MTV wasn’t the whole story by any means. By ’84, radio has really come back into its own. Top 40 is making hits on its own, in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.

The other thing that is relevant here: when we’re talking about video, we’re not just talking about MTV and not only talking about television, but also talking about clubs. In the early ‘80s every club got a fucking video screen and started playing videos. That was new. And a lot of the big club hits that wound up becoming ‘80s standards first got played as videos in clubs. That’s very important to the whole thing.

Square America at last meets some of the “New Romantics,” Jan. 1984

CO: One thing you note is that by 1984 the “Second British Invasion” of America is already falling apart, not long after it begins. Duran Duran is falling apart, Culture Club is a mess.

MM: I was looking through some ’89 magazine issues and this was the point when they were “Duranduran”: one word. It’s so funny—the ‘80s get glossed over so much in rock history. The impulse is to glorify these people and it’s often their least glorious era. People overlook all the crazy shit that happened in this period. Like “Duranduran”—what, are you some kind of arthouse thing now? What the fuck! Did Wong Kar-Wai film you? No, Wong Kar-Wai wouldn’t fucking do that with your name—that is a bad manager decision. It’s a glorious era for terrible ideas and decisions on the part of these people. It’s not like all I want to do is point and laugh, but there is some element of that to it. There has to be, it can be so fucking absurd.

CO: One of the last times you could be ridiculous in an unironic way.

MM: All of late ‘80s culture in some ways seems to be leading up to and is almost redeemed by Road House. It’s like, this should suck but it’s so rich and funny and entertaining and you know they knew this, even if they’re doing it totally straight-faced. They know how ridiculous this is. And you get that but in a sadder way when watching a Jefferson Airplane video from 1989.

CO: “Planes?” I love the “Planes” video.

MM: That’s what I’m thinking of. It’s not like I sat down and watched more than that. I didn’t go “hmm, what else?” I’m happy to let certain lost worlds stay lost.

CO: In your country music chapter, I was taken by one quote [by MCA Nashville’s Jimmy Bowen], that in the early ‘80s “pop music became very stale, the albums were not that good…and country music filled those slots…now pop music got its act back together…[and] they simply pushed us back off of those slots.” You can see this swing back sometime in the ‘90s.

MM: I think he’s really talking about the crossover market. That’s a fairly distinct sector. One thing about that chapter is that it’s kind of an outlier for the subject matter. I think I treat it well and I think it’s a decent overview, I’m not trying to minimize what I’ve done there. But it’s an outlier for me in terms of when I wrote it—it was a Pop Conference presentation that I added a few things to. Most of that was done in a very contained period. I went to Nashville and that’s when I did the research for it. I had things of my own before that and from books from the library here and I sort of melded it all back together. I have a strong memory of that chapter of being a very self-contained unit of time and writing, whereas some others sprawled along and I rewrote things and overhauled things.

CO: I got the sense that you read scads of Billboards, Gavin Reports, Radio & Records for this era, is that fair to say?

MM: Absolutely. There’s a website, World Radio History, that has scans of incredible numbers of trade magazines, music magazines, regular coverage music magazines, sometimes stuff that’s completely offline, completely gone—publications that ended decades ago. This incredible resource. I started working on this book essentially in September 2015, and I moved back to the Twin Cities in February of 2016. So I’d been working on it pretty diligently for six months when I got here and then I discovered that website. I realized I’d been working with very incomplete data with regard to Billboard because I was using Google’s archive.

CO: Yeah, there are pretty big holes in that collection.

MM: Most of 1984 is gone. The gap was something like April 1983 to September 1984. So I was using a little bit of ‘83 and I thought, well I’ll find other things to fill in those gaps, and then I discovered Radio History and they have all the Billboards. That meant putting them all on my iPad and reading them everywhere. Get on the bus, read Billboard. At the same time I discovered [an archive of] all the Smash Hits from 1984 and read them. What was happening was that Radio History was expanding as I worked. I’d check it again after a month and, oh my God, there’s all the Cash Boxes. This was constant. This happened for a good two years until I finally couldn’t do it anymore. There’s a point at which you just have to stop doing research.

CO: When did you have the structure of the book in place?

MM: It’s funny: I’ve had more or less the same chapter list going back eleven years. I started working on this book in 2009. I wrote a proposal, and it wasn’t a good proposal, because I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to manifest that, so I was hedging a lot. So I thought, “I’ve got to downscale.” The proposal I wrote had twelve chapters, one for each of these major artists, and I thought, that’ll be okay, it’ll be like a book of essays. But I didn’t want to write a book of essays. I wanted to write a real history but I had no idea how to do it, because at that point most of my living was still in writing record reviews. That was most of my work. Over the next two years, it became almost none of my work because there stopped being a market for record reviews, for the most part. I had to re-orientate myself to writing features, and as soon as I did, I thought, my God, this is so much more fun, you know?

I remember I’d see things that I’d written about a year or two earlier or six months earlier [in a review] being discussed in a feature and see people linking to it and talking about it, and I’d be like, “I talked about that. I said that very fucking thing.” And nobody had read it because nobody read record reviews anymore. It was a reality check. I realized this is not sustainable, I can’t keep doing this because I’m going to starve to death.

Also, I had come up writing in late ‘90s alternative weeklies, where ideas on the page were expected. You were expected to be thinking about shit in a real way. That’s gone. That left. Suddenly it was like nobody took it seriously anymore. There was no market for it, and I had all these ideas that really needed to be explored at length. That was a frustration, too. That was manifesting in wanting to write a book that wasn’t a book of essays.

Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards: the centerpiece of one chapter in Can’t Slow Down

CO: There’s a cinematic quality to how you introduce characters in the book—you’ll have a central location, say an awards show, and then you “pull back the camera” when someone appears on stage and give a couple pages of backstory.

MM: That was very deliberate. What I had to do is write the other book. I had to write The Underground Is Massive in order to write this one. It took me a long time to generate the edifice of it. What happened was that I kept a Tumblr page and I would just put shit on it—this is funny, here’s an interesting photo, here’s a song I’m thinking about. With [TUIM], I knew the structure immediately and I knew what the structure of this book would be as well, but I had no idea until I’d written it how one might fill those structures out. What about this, what about that? With [TUIM] I had the lineups of everything, so I knew where the holes were. There isn’t that much drum ‘n’ bass in that book, but I knew where the drum ‘n’ bass piece would lie.

It’s a process—you have to learn as you go. There’s no map to write a book, every fucking book is different. So where I did all those interviews [for TUIM], I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do as many for this one, and I didn’t want to. Because I’d already known, just by looking through the material I already had, that I hadn’t seen anyone talking about any of the shit that I’m reading about from that period. The interesting stuff, the things that I was finding where I was like, “I didn’t know that.”

I set out to write a book about stuff that surprised me. And that was pretty easy to do, because a lot of it surprised me.

When I had my back against the wall and realized okay, I’ve got to put up or shut up and write this goddamned proposal. And what I realized, I looked at the Tumblr and said, wait a minute, why don’t I just use this stuff? I have all this stuff that I already thought was interesting enough to show people—why don’t I just put it all in order? That’s how I wound up writing the outline of the proposal. It was like, you’ve done the work, you just haven’t put the work in order. Once I put all of those things into chapters, it was a matter of connecting the dots.

CO: Was Live Aid always intended to be the last chapter, the close of the book?

MM: I’ve had some version of the twenty-chapter list since 2009. The minute I thought of the idea, [Live Aid] was the logical, obvious, you-can’t-have-a-different-ending ending. There was no second choice: that’s where it ends.

CO: Could something like Live Aid happen now? Obviously, there could be a big charity concert with lots of celebrities, but could there be an equivalent to what “Live Aid” was in 1985?

MM: The culture has lost a lot of the innocence that fueled it. We do not have an innocent culture in any way now. Not that anyone thought anything was innocent then, either. Music culture has become more purely mercenary and is more outward about it, and I don’t think that’s altogether a terrible thing (laughs)—the devil you know. But I don’t know enough about the business as it stands today frankly to make an assessment. I have a very partial overview of current music and it’s been that way for a while and it’s going to stay that way for a while. I don’t want to cover pop—I gave that up a while ago. Not because I dislike pop as an idea but just because my specialties are elsewhere, when it comes to current music. And I think that the question I know how to answer is whether I’d want to watch such a thing, and I think the answer is no.

CO: One thing that struck me in the book was just the colossal sales of physical media. People bought so many records, tapes, CDs in 1984. It’s crazy to think about now.

MM: It’s only crazy to think of it now because physical media doesn’t exist. The very idea that there would be no physical media sales sounded lunatic for a really long time.

CO: You have that quote from Quincy Jones in the intro where he’s basically predicting Spotify in a trade magazine interview in 1984. [Jones: “It could be possible…for you to have no inventory in your house. No books, tapes, anything, if you had access to a satellite, a code book/catalog and a television set…”]

MM: That threw me for a loop. It was one of those things that when I found it I thought, “this is too good not to show people, but I shouldn’t be showing people this.” But I also realized it’s social media and everyone forgets. People put up the same stuff that they wrote every few months and not only will you get a different audience for it every time, you will get the same audience that’s forgotten about it.

CO: I recently did a joke on Twitter and apologized that I’d done a variation on it five years ago, and then realized nobody would remember that or care.

MM: Nobody fucking remembers anything anymore. Nobody retains anything anymore. I have a very old man complaint about it that I’ll spare you.

CO: We finally should talk about Bowie a bit, I suppose. [Matos: I was just gonna say!] He’s somewhat of a marginal presence in the book, although he releases a #1 album in the UK that year—he’s both there and not there in 1984, which is kind of where you’d expect him to be.

MM: He is big in ’83—the book about ’83 would be a whole different thing. And in a sense it is a book about ’83, because so much of what happens in ’84 germinates in ’83. Bowie was too big a presence to ignore. There’s no way to write this book without including some Bowie, and he’s fun to write about, as you know. But I also knew I wasn’t going to be writing a ton about him. He’s not at the Grammys, he’s only on the VMAs because he recorded something earlier. He’s spectral that year. He takes most of the year off, aside from releasing Tonight. Doesn’t go on tour behind it. He does like one interview, and it’s with Charles Shaar Murray and Murray puts it out to three different publications with different stuff in it. That’s that. And Kurt Loder or somebody goes and watches him film the Blue Jean video. He doesn’t do any press. He’s absenting himself. He’s basically like, I’m going to make this record to give me some money, to give Jim [Iggy Pop] some money, and he’s going to take it easy. He’s moved to the Alps and he likes his life.

CO: Tonight is this outlier in the context of top-charting 1984 albums. It’s a bad record but a strange bad record.

MM: Is it an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? It’s completely half-assed: of course it’s a strange record, it’s scraps.

CO: It’s bizarre, the idea he thought someone would appreciate his take on an obscure Chuck Jackson single, or his take on “God Only Knows.”

MM: [In the book], it’s all just a lead-up to Live Aid, where he slays. I hadn’t watched the Live Aid performance in full—I remembered it well—until I read you, you were talking about it was one of the great performances of his career, and it was, wasn’t it? I didn’t think I was ready to understand that, because it took me a long time to get to Bowie. Bowie was such a has-been at the time [the late ‘80s & early ‘90s].

CO: People still forget that.

MM: I was also overly reliant on [Robert] Christgau’s record grades, and there are so many B-pluses and Bs in there—I was just trying to hear the A-minuses, so I missed a lot of good things that way. I didn’t realize for a long time just how fucking indebted Prince was to Bowie. So that took a while.

One reason for Bowie’s spectral presence in other parts of the book is that you can’t just introduce him at Live Aid. It doesn’t make sense in the narrative, and it also would be false. Whereas you can introduce Queen there.

CO: You told me a while back that MTV in the U.S. cut away from Queen’s Live Aid performance midway through, which seems bizarre now, given the rep of that performance.

MM: Cut away from Queen’s performance to an interview with Marilyn McCoo. Who was then the co-host of Solid Gold.

CO: Yeah, it was like “wait, we’ve got McCoo on camera three? Cut away!”

MM: It really does tell you just how little Queen were cared for at that point in the States.

CO: Is the prominence of Queen’s Live Aid performance now something that grew over time, a product of YouTube and the movie?

MM: In Britain then it was obvious they’d stolen the show. That was the triumph of all triumphs, and the close of the book tells that story pretty well. This Melody Maker guy is just like fulminating. It’s against his code of conduct to be saying he liked it. You can sense, oh yes you’ve been indoctrinated by punk and you’ve internalized all the rules but [Freddie Mercury] got to you. Because I was the same way—I hated Queen growing up, I hated them! I didn’t like them all! I still don’t really like them much—I will never ever voluntarily put on a Queen recording. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, it’s just not my taste in the least. But I will watch that fucking performance any time because it’s glorious. It’s everything you could possibly want from that band in 22 minutes.

The internet has really shown us how wide and also narrow a canon can be. One of the things I wrote about for an upcoming issue of the Wire was on “what kept you sane in 2020.” And I wrote about Don Giller’s YouTube David Letterman archives. The Tom Waits collection is like 2 ½ hours, it’s every Tom Waits appearance on Letterman from 1983 to 2015. Every one of them is a song followed by banter, and he’s Tom Waits, he’s funny as hell. I was watching this thinking that you cannot have a better introduction to him. This is genuinely the best way to learn about this guy.

CO: The Queen performance is even more striking when, as you write, so many other of the “legend” performances at Live Aid were under-rehearsed and sloppy, like Led Zeppelin. I recall as a kid waiting for this big Bob Dylan/Keith Richards climactic performance and then they stumble out and look like winos.

MM: Not just look.

CO: Did you wind up cutting any chapters?

MM: The book is 40% what I wrote, but no chapter ideas were abandoned. What got cut were profiles of groups, profiles of artists. I left a number on the cutting room floor—Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. I wrote [the latter two] together because ’84 is when they make their duets album that gets released in ’85 in the U.S. as Omona Wapi. I really wanted that in the book because those are the two biggest African acts at the time—those guys were way bigger than Fela [who made the cut for the book]. But I couldn’t include them.

I didn’t get around to writing about Billy Idol. I kept pushing him back, thinking “he’s not going to be in this chapter, he’ll be in the later chapters.” And then I got to the MTV Awards chapter where he performed and I said, “I just can’t do it—this is already overstuffed and I cannot include anything more.” I’ve already got three times as much as what this thing will allow, it’s the Madonna chapter and that’s really the fucking point of it.

I had to cut a long DeBarge thing which actually dovetailed with the Janet Jackson piece, because that’s when she marries James DeBarge. I had a treatment of all of that and then realized, this is not going to work, I have too much here and I have to cut. It became obvious when I did Underground Is Massive that these books are not about my tastes. That [earlier] book would be entirely different if were about what I liked, and so is this.

CO: How do you edit?

MM: I write long and cut. What happens is that I take forever to write the damn thing because I chase every fucking lead down, I try to find everything I’m curious about within that framework and I go to work. I do the whole thing and it takes forever, but when it comes to cutting it I’m emotionless. All that matters is if it works. I’m looking at it completely coldly. I don’t have to think about it because I did it. I wrote what I set out to write, so if it doesn’t work that means it wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t space for it. I cut Underground Is Massive to size in about two weeks and I did the same thing with this.

Every book has a wordcount—it’s math. I spend the whole day doing math and what I spend the day doing is figuring out how many words I want each chapter to be, and how many words there are in total, and how much I’ll need to cut. If I’m cutting each chapter down to one-third of its [original] size, it has to be this many words. I do that for the whole book and it makes it really easy. Again, you’re taking your ego completely out of it. Now you’re just doing math. Or say you’ve read through one section and think, “this is rock solid, I can’t do anything.” That means you have to cut the other section out. It clarifies things.

CO: This might be off the mark but one book that yours seems to be in conversation with is Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock & Soul, from 1989 [a list of Marsh’s 1001 top-ever singles, which included, somewhat controversially at the time, lots of Madonna and even a Billy Ocean track].

MM: Very much so. I’d say even more [Marsh’s] First Rock and Roll Confidential Report ..it’s both. Another section that I had to cut was about the proliferation of rock books in ’84.

CO: The Book of Rock Lists, things like that?

MM: If you remember the bibliography of the First Rock and Roll Confidential Report, it’s like 200 books—this is when those books all came out. There were pieces about this—there were pieces about the proliferation of rock books. Marsh had like a book out every six months it seemed; Born to Run had been a best seller.

CO: Yeah the mid-‘80s is when the first wave of serious Bowie biographies all appear, I recall. There wasn’t much before then.

MM: I really enjoyed the photo book about the Serious Moonlight Tour. With Dennis O’Regan. I had so much in there at one point about the making of that tour…that was a lot of what I cut. I quoted the fuck out of that book and then I realized there was no space for it. Chet Flippo wrote it—I was like, oh, you got a real writer. It’s a perfect example of Bowie’s extremely good taste. Bowie had very good taste in music writing. Greg Tate once wrote for MTV News that he went to interview some startup that Iman was working on and apparently they were sitting there talking, she was behind her desk, and she gets a call and “it’s for you, it’s my husband.” And Bowie is lavishing Tate with praise. And of course, Mystery Train is in his 100 favorite books.

Thanks, Matos! Again, if you’re interested in this period of pop history, I think you’ll enjoy the book.


Scary Monsters at 40

October 8, 2020

Scary Monsters was released on Friday, 12 September 1980 in the UK, where it was a smash: hitting #1 and having four Top 40 singles, Bowie’s best chart showing there since Diamond Dogs. Released sometime in the following week in the US, sales there were more in line with Bowie’s withered chart performances of the late Seventies. In the US, it peaked at #12 on Billboard and didn’t produce a single chart pop hit, though it got decent album rock airplay.

Reviewers (mostly) praised it at the time and would keep doing so; the cliché “best since Scary Monsters” would appear in assessments of Tin Machine, or Black Tie White Noise, or Outside, or Heathen. Scary Monsters became an end-stop. The Last Great Bowie Album, Until Maybe This One (Well, No).

Scary Monsters is dressed as a finale, one of several in Bowie’s life. The last album that Bowie made for RCA, concluding a sequence that had begun with Hunky Dory. The last Bowie album in the 20th Century produced by Tony Visconti—their friendship frayed soon afterward; they didn’t speak for years. The last Bowie album with Robert Fripp, the last with the magnificent rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray.

There was its recycling, its sense of recurrence. Major Tom returns, as does Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot. Much like the Rolling Stones’ contemporaneous Tattoo You, Scary Monsters refurbished older, abandoned songs: six of its ten tracks derive from or reference late Sixties-early Seventies Bowie compositions. It’s a rummage through an estate sale, finding a “Laughing Gnome” single, an Astronettes demo. Edward Bell’s album cover illustration (see below) includes a Berlin Bowie retrospective, the LP cover characters now blurred, shrunken, distorted. Bowie’s role as a clown was a nod to his time “in the circus” with Kemp in the late Sixties — his costume was designed by Natasha Korniloff, who had worked with him and Kemp in those years. But there are two clowns on the album cover: the dignified one who looks straight at you, and the disheveled one behind him, casting a long shadow.

Is it possible, given all of this baggage, to hear the album fresh today? To hear it as listeners in 1980 did? Though, of course, they had seen Scary Monsters via a prism of impressions and perceptions that we, forty years later, can only guess at. A punk kid who considered Bowie an old vampire, looking to steal what he can. A woman who loved “Fame” and “Golden Years” in her teenage years, getting the new album as part of an RCA Record Club 10-LPs-for-a-penny batch, dropping the needle on “It’s No Game (Part 1),” soon yanking it off (“this sounds awful—why is he screaming all over the place?”) and filing the album away, never to be played again; it’s eventually bestowed upon a library or a cousin.

Monsters was meant to sound fresh, contemporary, to be more commercially-minded than the “experiments” of the so-called Berlin era. Eno was gone. Bowie seemed “more serious,” both Fripp and Chuck Hammer noted. The album would remain contemporary as it aged, with its near-future always near; it would be Bowie’s perpetual New Album. This summer of pandemic and mass conspiracy, of depression (economic, spiritual) and street actions, of increasingly authoritarian and chaos governments, is a world that Scary Monsters would recognize, as it’s already there in its grooves.

Tracks

Bowie and Visconti at the Power Station, ca. February 1980

Scary Monsters was made in two blocks: tracking sessions with guide/sketch vocals at New York’s Power Station, in February-early March 1980, and overdub and vocal sessions at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, ca. April-May 1980. Somewhere along the line, a set of rough mixes and/or alternate takes were bootlegged—the most likely scenario is that someone dubbed some tapes in the last days of recording in New York, before Visconti shifted operations to London. The original “mass release” bootleg of these tapes was, apparently, Vampires of Human Flesh, ca. 1994.

Along with the bootlegged Leon tapes from 1994 and the Young Americans session tapes housed at Drexel University, the “Scary Monsters roughs,” for lack of a better term, are the only documents that we have of Bowie’s in-progress studio work. While not that revelatory—rhythm tracks are mostly the same as those on the album, nor do Bowie’s lyrics differ greatly from final versions—it’s still invaluable. Scary Monsters, a hard-crafted, punchy album, as seen before the last layers of paint were applied. The energy pulsing through the roughs is such that sometimes I’ll choose the bootlegs over the mastered tracks. 

Scary Monsters sounded good in part because of where it was made, the hottest new studio in New York. Originally a Con Edison plant on West 53rd St. and 10th Avenue, the Power Station (hence the name) had opened in 1977, owned by Tony Bongiovi (cousin of Jon) and Bob Walters. Among its first users were Chic, who would book its Studio B for months. Bowie cut Scary Monsters at the same time Springsteen was cutting The River (hence Roy Bittan’s appearance). Decades later, in 2007, Bowie went back to the studio, which at the time was known as Avatar, to cut backing vocals for a Scarlett Johansson record. Chris Moore, who recorded him then, told me that Bowie “said it felt weird to be back there.”

Power Station Studio A, as it looks today

The band was the trio which had supported Bowie on tour in 1976 and 1978 and which had been his albums’ supple backbone from Station to Station to Scary Monsters. I’ve written enough over the years on the brilliance of Carlos Alomar (heard on backing vocals on the roughs, a role that he often played on tour), Murray and Davis. Their departure after this album (Alomar occasionally returned to the Bowie orbit; Murray would retire completely) was inevitable and tragic.

The roughs are the sound of three musicians at work, one establishing something, the other two ratifying it, as they had when they’d made Station in LA and Low in France and “Heroes” in Berlin and Lodger in Switzerland, this magnificent team of movers, each time setting up in a new studio, in a new country, doing mike checks and then leaping off again, ever so easily, Davis to Murray to Alomar, in telegraph bursts, in long, animated conversations in dynamics and rhythm, always keyed into this great joyous connection they had. The roughs give us a Scary Monsters freed from Robert Fripp’s lead guitar, Andy Clark’s synthesizers, Visconti’s effects and processors (Pete Townshend’s lead is already there in the earlier version of “Because You’re Young,” as he’d cut his parts in New York); it’s the album exposed at its thick roots, David Bowie singing over a New Wave R&B band.

Listen to the instrumental outtake that bootleggers mistakenly titled “Is There Life After Marriage?“—it was, in truth, yet another Bowie attempt at covering Cream’s “I Feel Free.” A trio in a New York studio one evening in February 1980, in a world that now seems as far away as the Napoleonic wars. Alomar parries, Murray rumbles, Davis settles matters. Then they do it again.

Words

Years ago on a blog comment thread, Momus wrote about trying to parse Bowie’s lyrics in “Aladdin Sane,” which he accurately described as “eccentric doggerel.”  

“Passionate bright young things /Takes him away to war (don’t fake it)/ Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense! “They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical….There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative.

Bowie’s lyrics on paper rarely resemble “verse,” even by the loose standards of rock musicians. They’re meant to be sung, in his voice, and, sometimes, to be obscured in the mix. One line is a garble, the next a fragment, the subsequent one a sharp phrase that lingers in the memory. This tactical vagueness, as Momus called it, was key to Bowie’s aesthetic. Ziggy Stardust has no comprehensible story but the one that you, listener, choose to give it. In the Seventies, Bowie strove to make his lyrics ever more disjunctive, jarring, abstract: using William Burroughs/Brion Gysin-style cut-up was liberating for him. Meaning would be found, should one wish to find it, in the spaces between the lines, in the note that Bowie used for a particular word, in how he phrased a closing line.

You can take this argument too far (a very Bowie thing to do). There are times where he’s writing lucidly about a particular person or emotion or scenario, and his lyrics are often colored, as he’d agree, by the time and place in which he wrote them. See Scary Monsters, whose lyrics were written from possibly late 1979 to, in a last revision burst, March-April 1980, and in jumps from New York to Japan to London.

We’re lucky, as with the album’s bootlegged rough mixes, to have a window into Bowie’s lyric-writing process for Scary Monsters. The David Bowie Is exhibit included two “sketch pages” on graph paper, invaluable documents of how he compiled phrases, quotes, ideas, stage/production concepts, jokes, and queries, and then began to piece together songs from them. The first is below:

It’s like a transcript of Bowie’s mind. Apparent ideas for covers (“Try Some Buy Some,” “Suzy Q,” “Green Tambourine,” “She’s Not There”), which offers the prospect that Bowie was considering a record similar to Heathen and Reality: three-fourths originals, one-fourth covers (“I Feel Free” got as far as the tracking stage—who knows about the others). “Zow[ie]’s Kids List”—his son’s suggestions? Musical and/or production references abound—Wagner, “Clapping Song” (Shirley Ellis, possibly Steve Reich), James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” Stan Kenton’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Philip Glass organ sound,” “Lollipop harmonica solo,” “helicopter sounds.”

On the upper half of the page, you see Bowie assembling “It’s No Game” from a disparate set of lines, a few later discarded (“gradual pagan” and “big head and drum” are in the early vocal take); on the lower half, he does the same for “Up the Hill Backwards,” including a line that Bowie pilfered from Hans Richter’s Art and Anti Art (a Nicholas Pegg discovery from a few years ago):

The other page, whose smuggled exhibit photographs are harder to read (Leah Kardos did her best to transcribe it), is more dense. It’s less a set of prospective lyrics than a word-pile of agitations, observations, rants (“RCA is richer than you’re [sic] whole country”), aphorisms, fears, phrasing/mixing ideas (“get on top of D.D.’s drum,” “Joy Div/ those terrible cockney accents” (see the title track)). Reading it through, however, you find more songs being formed, including “Ashes to Ashes” and, most of all, “Teenage Wildlife.”

Let’s write about society and events of international import… who’s going to lead the working clash? It ain’t me buddy. Over the page Bowie keeps circling back to the idea of an impending crisis (“won’t stop with Iran”). There’s going to be war… there’s going to be chaos…you’re not gonna turn away. Pricks will write songs about it and tell you ‘it’s the truth’. A few lines down, he becomes the prick: it’s not strange it happens every day… It’s the truth. (The working title of “Teenage Wildlife” was “It Happens Everyday.”)

Bowie kept paring and revising lines, sometimes to obscure an image, to make things less obvious. In “Ashes,” “little green dealer” becomes “little green wheels,” while “every day my reason is ebbing” is scrapped. “Fashion” was stripped of more overt lines that equate dance moves to street violence (“shake a fist, start a fight/ if you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right”).

There’s a harshness in the lyrics of Scary Monsters, in part because of its paucity of rhyme (with notable exceptions—the hooky refrains of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Scream Like a Baby,” for instance). Bowie instead often uses consonance. The album opens, after Michi Hirota’s barrage of Japanese, with him using hard esses and ens to end his phrases, applying the occasional “oh” and “ev” sound as mortar within a line:

or “Scream Like a Baby,” whose verse’s phonic links are a hard traffic of ens, eds, gees, and uhs:

Or the Buddy Holly-esque “Ashes,” in which Bowie uses a three-note pattern as a rhythmic hook, while varying Major Tom’s message in meter or phrasing or length. Again, there’s nearly no rhyme in the verse, only a series of “ings” and one quick “in/syn.” It’s similar to the verses of “Changes,” another maze of phrasings that seem more akin to recitative in opera than standard pop singing. Further, in “Ashes,” Bowie’s lead vocal is interfered with by layers of mumbled, whispered counter-lines, as if one radio station is breaking into another’s airspace:

Half of me freezing, half of me boiling, I’m nowhere in between, Bowie wrote on his sketch sheet. A reactive person…too much data, possible events. Scary Monsters has recurring themes. A powerless rage at a collapsing world—it’s why Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” fits into the set: life as being sentenced to a prison farm, an armed guard always at watch from the tower. The streets are dangerous, the rooms are traps; he doesn’t know any hallways. A sense of entropy, of energy ebbing, of structures fraying and eroding. Major Tom falls to earth. Skylab falls from the sky, sneakers fall apart. 

There’s the inability of art to provide answers, alternatives, anything of value, and the question of whether the concept of artistic progress was a cruel illusion. He’s never done anything out of the blue, nothing good, nothing bad. The kids keep at it, but they don’t stand a chance. “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie watching his imitators and successors fighting over a kingdom already lost. “One flash of light but no smoking pistol” came from something he’d said about glam rock to a TV interviewer at the end of 1979—that while “in the beginning of the Seventies when it was sort of a bit dull, there was the idea of creating a flash of some kind. And the flash was created, but nobody was really found holding the smoking pistol. So [rock] sort of went off at tangents after that.”

When Scary Monsters plays in the background, so that you’re only hearing bits and scraps of lines, it seems as if the album is but one song, that it’s telling one story. It’s a horror film. More precisely, a horror documentary. 

The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own. They do it over there but we don’t do it here. To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading. One flash of light, but no smoking pistol. We’re legally crippled. They’re people I know, people I love, they seem so unhappy, dead or alive. She had a horror of rooms, she was tired, you can’t hide beat. I feel like a group of one. I know too well what’s keeping me here. He jumped into the furnace, singing old songs we loved. 

Images

This photograph is of an LP that I bought thirty years ago, for about four or five dollars, at In Your Ear, a used record store on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. It’s been with me ever since.

The album is slightly more than a foot in length and width. Its outer sleeve is still solid, if the spine has frayed by a thumb’s breadth at the center; the inner sleeve is in more parlous condition, being long engaged in a slow process of tearing in halves. The disc, over time, has nudged through substantial lengths of the sleeve’s bottom and sides. When I pull out the inner sleeve now, a black half-circle of vinyl will appear somewhere along an edge, reminding me that the natural state of things is entropy and that each year, this record’s resale value on Discogs diminishes. 

A late developer, late in discarding teddy bear and comics (and to be honest, neither yet fully relinquished), no good at sports and an academic failure, sanctuary was sought in the art room at school, the harmless pursuit of the cissy.

Edward Bell, 2003, on his youth.  

The cover and inner sleeve were designed in 1980 by Edward Bell. He’d studied graphics at Chelsea, photography at the Royal College of Art. “I started life as a photographer, but I found the medium limiting, so this fact led me to various manipulations: photo montage, over painting or even just using the photo as inspiration for a painting,” he told David Bowie News this year. As Bell said in 2003, “I was impatient with the technicalities of producing the perfect photograph; if a shadow fell in the wrong place, rather than adjust the lighting, I would airbrush, tint and montage. “

A photographer became an illustrator. This illustrator, having done a series of portraits of friends, got his first show at the Neal Street Gallery, in Covent Garden, London. It was attended by someone introduced as “an important client” and who wore, in Bell’s recollection, “an insipid yellow short-sleeved shirt and bright red trousers, but most damning of all, he wore dark glasses to examine the pictures.” This, of course, was David Bowie, who’d been told about Bell’s work by the photographer Brian Duffy.

Although Duffy was taking photos for use on Scary Monsters, Bowie decided that he wanted Bell to do the sleeve artwork, which would incorporate some of Duffy’s pictures. Instead Bell would deface them, covering one up with his own illustration, reducing other photos to postage-stamp size (others literally became postage stamps, in a sheet included with early issues of the album).

After Bowie was photographed in the Pierrot outfit, Bell asked him to muss his hair, smear his makeup, look disheveled. Become a clown scowling backstage after the show, looking cranked off and sour. Then Bell sketched him.

“This was an image no longer wistful, pretty, safe or fey, but a glimpse of glamour in its dangerous extremity; decadent and blatantly seductive,” Bell wrote in his memoir. Bowie told Bell to design the cover however he’d like, only asking for his hair to be tinted red in the illustration (it was a dun color in early to mid-1980—see, below, the photograph used for the “Fashion” sleeve, which was the first shot taken of Bowie at the Pierrot session). “In America I’m known as the red haired bisexual,” Bowie explained to Bell—he apparently needed to maintain the brand for a bit longer.

The cover and sleeve design went through various drafts. I’d wager a guess that Bell may have drawn on two sources as a starting point. Derek Boshier’s cover design for Lodger has a muted, off-white color as its foundation and a similar set of jumbled images, meant to signify something opaque.

And Gerald Scarfe’s design for Pink Floyd’s The Wall (as with Lodger, a recently-issued album at the time). Again a white backdrop, again a series of images—here, cartoon grotesques— “breaking through” the backdrop to catch the viewer’s eye.

Perhaps most obviously, the use of hand lettering, in bold strokes in black ink, for the lyrics on the inner sleeves of both albums.

The brilliance of Bell’s cover design is how it illustrates the mood of the album, its feeling of resurgence and collapse, the concept of a long-running circus shuttering for the winter, maybe forever. David Bowie, throughout the Seventies, was always on the cover of his latest album in the center of the frame: displaying a fresh look, a new haircut, a new caprice. Pre-Raphaelite decadent sprawled on a couch. Tragic silent movie star. Glam icon in an alleyway and phone box. 22nd Century pinup. Freakshow attraction. Hollywood glamour queen. A Man who has Fallen to Earth. An emissary from a lost future.

And here, the sour Pierrot. But something’s not right. The Bowie photograph that should be here has instead been torn in two, the smaller half confined to the back cover. Overlaid upon much of the photo is a haughty-looking cartoon figure, which stands off-center, confined to the left half of the front cover. While one’s eye is still drawn to Bowie’s face, there’s so much “empty” space on the cover that Bowie’s usually definitional image becomes unsettled—you’re as much looking at a shadow of his profile, or wondering what his face looks like in the photograph you will never see. (Again, Lodger is a starting point, as the record buyer only saw Bowie’s splayed legs on its front cover).

On the back cover, more substitutions—Bell’s illustrations supplant Sukita’s “Heroes” photograph, Duffy’s Lodger shot, the Low profile. The past becomes a faded, distorted cartoon of itself (Bowie as the Scary Monsters and Super Heroes of his inspiration). “David Bowie” is a set of postage stamps or miniaturized Polaroids. It has the look of a child’s scrapbook, especially when seen as a two-sided whole.

Like many others who saw the David Bowie Is show, I was stunned by how large Bell’s painting is. Having only known it as an album sleeve for much of my life, I found its true form astonishing. I’d never imagined it was such a physical presence—it seemed to take up a fourth of a museum wall. The LP sleeve itself is a reduction, a substitution, a diminishing of an original grandeur.

Bell and Bowie became friends, in the way Bowie was friends with many people: he’d vanish for years, then appear without notice. He gave Bell (who also did the Tin Machine II cover in 1991) a postal address in Switzerland—Bell would mail the occasional letter or postcard, to no response. Then a call would come in.

“Instead [of writing] he would, completely out of the blue, telephone,”  Bell said in his memoir. “Years might even pass, then I’d be shopping at Tesco, or digging a vegetable patch on the west coast of Ireland, or sitting on a Welsh hilltop painting a sky, when the mobile would ring.” Bowie, calling from Switzerland or Japan or New York, usually at the dead of night of whichever timezone he was in. They’d talk for hours about anything under the sun, then another year or two would pass. It was Bowie as a lighthouse keeper, a harbor master, making his solitary rounds over the years, but mostly existing in his absences, as he does on the cover of Scary Monsters.

Press

Talking with Bowie makes me more than unusually aware of the manifest absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and much to lose by doing so. We’re total strangers compelled by our respective positions and professions to confront each other for a ludicrously short time.

Angus MacKinnon, 1980

The promotion of Scary Monsters was relatively modest by Bowie standards. He wasn’t touring the album; his only TV performance for it was on The Tonight Show, which few in his home country saw at the time; he acted in The Elephant Man throughout what, typically, would have been his album’s promo cycle.

In a handful of late 1980 interviews—with the NME and Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles and London Times, some TV and radio spots, Radio One’s Andy Peebles—Bowie talked through the album he’d made the previous spring (an eon ago, by his Seventies standards) and sketched where he’d go in the Eighties. Whether by circumstance or design, he was particularly open (or, at least, apparently so) and retrospective.

Angus MacKinnon, NME (interview conducted early August 1980; published 13 September 1980).

Angus MacKinnon worked at the NME in the punk end of the Seventies, becoming close friends with Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble (MacKinnon had reviewed Lodger, saying it felt like Bowie was “ready for religion”). In August 1980, the NME sent him and photographer Anton Corbijn to Chicago for a week to interview Bowie during the run of Elephant Man there (RCA footed the bill, booking journalists in the high-end Whitehall Hotel—a truly lost era). Conducted over two days, it’s among the high-water marks of Bowie interviews, a credit to MacKinnon’s skill and to Bowie’s receptive frame of mind. As fascinated by his life as anyone was, Bowie precisely and coolly assessed his Seventies, which seemed like a science fiction novel in retrospect.

Later, MacKinnon said he thought he got what “the interview” meant for Bowie—an opportunity to play a character (see his coke-freak Nosferatu performance for the benefit of Cameron Crowe in the mid-Seventies) but most of all, to do “an intensive form of self-therapy.” Bowie appeared to live in a state of “continual reassessment and often comprehensive rewriting of his past…although one of the more profoundly amoral people I’ve ever met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him.” 

That said, Bowie the son of a PR man, had been adept at media manipulation since he was a teenager. He could, in a flash, discern who an interviewer was, what their likely angle would be, how they could be flattered, their likely status in the publication they worked for. Most of all, what role they wanted him to play. Bowie is “uncannily adept at telling you exactly what he thinks you want to hear,” MacKinnon wrote. His charm, his wit, his knowledge of what made for a great quote—how a line would play if blown up, marquee-style, in a subhead, or if used as a tart caption to a photograph—his ability to quickly draw you into his confidence: these were his weapons, an armory so colossal that as a reporter, MacKinnon said, you were constantly scrambling to determine if Bowie was contradicting something he’d said only a few minutes before. It was exhausting to challenge his routine habit of blaming “characters” for “his own more irresponsible, or inexplicable actions.” 

MacKinnon begins with basic questions—Bowie’s concept of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, cutting to thoughts on Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie: “Newton is a far better person at the end of the film…when he first comes down, he doesn’t give a shit about anybody”) and Just a Gigolo (“that film was a cack”). MacKinnon then strings a line from MWFTE to Station to Station, inspiring a Bowie mea culpa for the Thin White Duke “England needs a Hitler” period. (M: I was there and came away thinking you were sort of fascist maniac. B: “I was out of my mind, totally crazed”). “This whole racist thing,” Bowie swears, was because “I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur.” He attests that he’s worked “with black musicians for the past six or seven years, and we’d all talk about it together….about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign.” (One can only imagine poor Dennis Davis genially nodding through these sessions.) And a wild bit of psychological legend:

All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked there were these great demons of the past, demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain…Mixed up too, of course, were my own fucking characters.

Bowie jumps around the chessboard. Praise for Berlin, place of restoration; a ritual curse on Los Angeles (“the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is.”) MacKinnon pushes him to start talking about the Scary Monsters songs at last. A few lines of thought begin here. The idea of “the future” being another Sixties trick. A detaching from Fripp and Eno, whom he describes as being “intellectuals” as compared to his more instinctive type of songwriting. Thoughts on the “grimness” of contemporary fashion, with a dig at the Blitz Kids he’d recently seen in London (and hired, for the “Ashes to Ashes” video). 

They resume talking a few days later, on the stage of the Blackstone, The Elephant Man’s theater. This time, thanks to MacKinnon’s choice to burn through “simple, factual questions” first and free-style for a half hour, a compelling back-and-forth develops. Bowie admits that “he can’t write young” anymore, that rock music is a dead end for him, and wonders what will he, in the end, really be remembered for? MacKinnon later said he felt like he’d gotten through, finally got Bowie to say something real, only to consider that this was possibly another conversational trick of Bowie’s, and furthermore, what does “real” even mean? Why do we, as journalists, as readers, expect this from pop singers, when we don’t offer it ourselves?

M: Those lines from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ spring to mind: “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue.” You seem to be saying that you’re not prepared to judge your own achievements. Do you feel any—how shall I put it?—guilt about having helped propagate the sort of delusions we’re talking about?…

B: Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot of reservations about what I’ve done inasmuch as I don’t feel much of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course it all feels very important to me, that I’ve contributed an awful lot. But I’m not awfully happy with what I’ve done in the past actually.

M: So what would you include amongst your positive achievements?

B: The idea that one doesn’t have to exist purely on one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to everyday life. I think I’ve tried to do that. I think I’ve done that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical level, I’ve managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don’t think so… I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs)….

And a coda, where Bowie considers old age from the vantage point of 33.

Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone; interview, early August 1980; 13 November 1980 issue.

One sign of Bowie’s diminished commercial presence in the US is that he didn’t get the cover of Rolling Stone for this interview—Mary Tyler Moore did, for her role in Ordinary People.

Bowie’s still apparently content to accept being a famous second-tier artist, commercially. “More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales…by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I’m going to make.” More differentiation from Fripp and Eno. “They’re out there cerebrally, you know? And I’m just not out there. I sort of bludgeon along through their strange ways and paths and articulate to the best of my ability what the fuck I’m tryin’ to put on a record.” Again, the idea of the future being humbler, dirtier, more brutal than the Sixties thought it was going to be. “Forget your high-tech. We’re not gonna be prancing around in silver suits or anything like that. It’s all blood and guts from here on out.”

Good Morning America, 3 September 1980.

With a few exceptions, Bowie was charming and intriguingly vapid in his post-Seventies American TV interviews, rising to the challenge of the medium. No exception here: some Lodger-era guff about being a perpetual traveler (“Mombasa, Berlin and Kyoto…are my main ports of call”) and praise for his Elephant Man cast. The visual—Bowie looking like a rockabilly Eloi in a purple turtleneck before a backdrop of potted ferns—is exquisite, though.

Robert Hilburn, LA Times, interview 5 September; 21 September 1980 edition

Conducted in an LA dressing room during a Tonight Show rehearsal, this interview is perhaps most notable for one of Bowie’s first, ugly repudiations of his bisexuality—a preview of his 1983 press strategy. For an LA paper, Bowie provides a new variation on his usual escape-from-LA narrative. “I may have been living through a breakdown and not knowing it…In Berlin, I lived quite the reverse style of life that I’d been living. It was designed as a positive step to make myself learn how to relate back to the real world.” The Low era as a purging, “throwing everything out and starting over again.” Yet another sign that despite his protestations, his declining commercial fortunes concern him. “I never tried to define my audience and exploit it like a tobacco company…I just hoped the audience would come along.”

10 October 1980, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, with Tim Rice.

The best of the TV interviews of the period. Bowie offers his story of how he got his album’s title from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box notice of “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” (“Supermen and Nosferatus….as I was writing a New York album, it seemed the perfect collective title for the bits and pieces I was writing”). On regular Broadway theatergoers: “they had heard of me but had some kind of really corrupted idea of what I was about. I suppose they’ve got a different impression of me now: little do they know.”

Gordon Burn, Sunday Times Magazine, interview 2 October 1980; 30 November 1980 issue.

A dishy look at Bowie, thespian (“he looked eager, the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they’ve got the answer…David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a lady’s…he has eye-teeth like fangs”) and someone apparently bracing for future conformity.

“I have so many streaks of sensibleness that it’s frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative me but it wears me out trying to fight it. Fighting it used to lead me to that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten that back, I’m confronted with the basic facts of where I came from and who I am…I am still, as you can see, fighting.”

20/20, broadcast 13 November 1980 (presumably filmed ca. October). 

A bog-standard “This Is David Bowie” bio intro (DB was apparently “born on the other side of the tracks in Brixton”) leads into footage of Bowie drawing (“he’s produced a gallery full of paintings”), It comes off as a butchered 10-minute reduction of a scrapped documentary, in which Bowie occasionally appears to say little of import.

Countdown, broadcast 16 November 1980 (filmed ca. October).

Bowie, filmed in an NYC Japanese restaurant, gives off the vibe of a charming civil servant being asked to justify some questionable expense account statements. The bit where the interviewer asks about Bowie’s 1967 debut album, to DB’s “what in the hell are you bringing this up for?” expressions, is a joy. 

Andy Peebles, Radio One, taped 7 December 1980.

The last great interview of the period, parts of which were used for a promotional LP, with Bowie going into each song on Scary Monsters.

On Major Tom in 1980:

What would be the complete dissolution [of] the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space…When he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there and…now we come to him 10 years later and we find the whole thing has soured, ‘cos there was no reason…the technological ego that got him up there…was a potpourri of technological ideas. The most disastrous thing I could think of is that he’d find solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, the cosmic space itself is feeding him an addiction and now he wants to return to the womb from whence he came…

Peebles had flown to New York to talk to Bowie and, seizing opportunity, talked to John Lennon and Yoko Ono the day before. Little more than a day after Bowie talked with Peebles, he’d be standing before a TV set, watching news reports about his friend’s murder.

Stage

Scary Monsters was a greatly unrealized album on stage, as Bowie would never perform half of its songs. It’s in part because the tour on which he would’ve likely sung them, a proposed 1981 venture, never came to be.

An alleged “spokesman” said in late 1980, while Bowie was promoting the album, that Bowie planned to devote three months in 1981 to “live work” while Bowie told MacKinnon “next spring—I want to play smaller places.” The tour was barely in the sketch stages, apparently, when DB pulled the plug after John Lennon’s murder. Given that he was also talking about doing an exhibition of his paintings and video work in 1981, and was in negotiations for film and TV roles, there’s a strong likelihood that a 1981 tour wouldn’t have been on the scale of, say, 1978. More something like a month of shows in the UK and Europe, a month or two in major markets in North America, maybe a Japanese coda.

When Bowie did return to live work in 1983, he was now promoting Let’s Dance to a new, broader audience, one with less of a taste for oddity. The emphasis was on new hits, old hits, a few obscurities for the die-hards. Scary Monsters was represented only by its charting singles.

Songs Never Performed, Apparently Never Rehearsed

“It’s No Game (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2).” The Bowie film archivist Nacho proposed a dream 1981 setlist not long ago, in which Bowie would open and close sets with the two “It’s No Games.” It’s a great idea, but given that “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)” sounds utterly brutal to sing, the idea of Bowie opening with it for months seems a bit unlikely.

“Kingdom Come.” Not a shock: a song that audiences mostly wouldn’t have recognized, and as with “It’s No Game,” another wear-and-tear of a vocal.

Songs Rehearsed, Never Performed

“Scream Like a Baby.” Rehearsed for Glass Spider in 1987; didn’t make the cut. The rehearsal tapes show that the band had the song down well, if Bowie sounds borderline camp.

“Because You’re Young”: As with “Scream,” a reject from the Glass Spider set; as with “Scream,” it likely would’ve worked well enough. Though the idea of Bowie’s gang of theater-kid “street” dancers interpreting this song makes me grateful it didn’t make the cut.

Songs Sort-of Performed

“Up the Hill Backwards.” Used as part of the opening sequence for Glass Spider: Bowie didn’t sing it, his dancers lip-synced it. The Legs & Co. interpretation from Top of the Pops in 1981 is superior and more weird.

Songs Performed

“Teenage Wildlife.” Debuted in the Outside tour in 1995, and a highlight of those shows—sung as Bowie watched teenage Nine Inch Nails fans pack up, leaving behind empty rows, it had a fresh poignancy. Carlos Alomar provided continuity, Reeves Gabrels did a fine American art-weirdo’s take on Robert Fripp.

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Debuted in 1983 on Serious Moonlight, but its definitive live versions were Bowie’s duets with Trent Reznor in 1995. A Scary Monsters track tailored for the following decade.

“Fashion.” The “Fame” of Scary Monsters songs—debuted in 1983 and performed in nearly every tour afterward. Had the potential to be irritating on stage, and sometimes was. Its live peak was 1996-97, as it suited the Earthling era well.

“Ashes to Ashes.” Like “Fashion,” often found in his 1983-and-afterward setlists, though Bowie put it on ice in the Nineties after Sound + Vision. For me, he’d never manage on stage to rival the studio version—he tended to grapple around the song and do an approximation. Something was always off: the bassline, the keyboards, his vocal. If I had to choose a performance, I’d go with its slightly-shambolic Tonight Show debut in 1980, in which a pick-up band (GE Smith! Steve Goulding!) and Bowie punch into the song, one still so new that Bowie bungles a verse lyric. They advance, stumble back; something keeps evading them but they keep scraping away at it. There’s a beauty in the effort.

Crystal Japan Epilogue

“Crystal Japan,” for a while during the Scary Monsters sessions, was intended as the album’s closer. Yet after Bowie decided instead to end the LP with a reprise of the opening track, he cast “Crystal Japan” loose. It first appeared as a Japanese single in 1980, then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” the following year; it’s likely, however, that many Bowie fans first heard it as a bonus track on the 1992 Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters—that’s where Trent Reznor, who nicked its melody for his “A Warm Place,” discovered the song. (Reznor confessed this to a cracking-up Bowie during an MTV interview.) 

Had it closed Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” would have changed the album’s tone, brightened its aspect. “It’s No Game (Pt. 2)” is cyclicality—the album ends as it began (furthered by Tony Visconti adding a tape spool-out sound to parallel the “roll tape” intro of Pt. 1)—and exhaustion, with the rage of “Pt. 1” cooled to a weary acceptance of daily horrors. “Crystal Japan,” had it capped off a hard, brutal album, would have offered a respite, an exit, a future. Something akin to “Radio 4,” the closer of PiL’s Metal Box in 1979—an epilogue that, at last, lets in the sun.

Who knows why Bowie pulled the track. Perhaps if it couldn’t be a finale, it just didn’t fit in anywhere else. Maybe he wanted to put the “Berlin” era firmly behind him, and so yanked an instrumental that might remind listeners of “Moss Garden.” Or he felt that a respite and an exit weren’t what was needed at the time.

Bowie had agreed to do a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer (he needed the money, he said, adding that he thought the track would get more airplay than his singles would on radio). So he had to come up with an instrumental for a 30-second bit in which he’d appear to be a visiting extraterrestrial a) on holiday at a Kyoto temple or b) relaxing in the mothership, which, nicely, has a piano and a wet bar. 

During the Scary Monsters sessions, Bowie assembled the track himself on synthesizer (no idea which models—he may have still been using the Low/”Heroes” set, which included an ARP Solina, ARP Pro Soloist and a Chamberlin M1), with Visconti’s only contribution being a treated falsetto vocal. It’s unknown whether DB wrote the piece after filming the ad in Japan (during the break, March 1980, between the LP’s New York and London sessions), or if he’d been working on it for a while, perhaps as far back as “Heroes” or Lodger.

With its yearning melodies and placid feel, it’s a quiet world tucked away within a greater, turbulent one—the sound of a warm place, as Reznor might say. The exiled ending of Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” was fated to forever be alone, a beautiful fragment.


Nuts

June 29, 2020

Nuts!

Not long ago, the musician Tim Burgess hosted, for one of his COVID-era Listening Parties on Twitter, a song-by-song collective listen to Bowie’s Earthling. Reeves Gabrels chimed in from quarantine, adding facts and color.

During it, I was struck by how so many taking part seemed wild about Earthling—saying that they’d overlooked it at the time, or they’d never heard it before, as they’d assumed it was some embarrassing attempt by Bowie to stay fresh in the mid-Nineties. They were surprised by how good it was. Maybe Earthling‘s day has finally come.

If so, a shame that any potential mid-Nineties Bowie box set is apparently on ice, at least for now, whether due to the plague wreaking havoc on release dates and production schedules, or whether the Bowie estate has decided to shift their reissue program to focus on the more lucrative “50th Anniversary” market for Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, etc. Still, mid-Nineties Bowie is getting better archived, if digitally. A 1995 concert recording is coming soon, and earlier this year some Earthling-era odds and ends were slipped into circulation via the Is It Any Wonder? collection, at present only available via download or on streaming sites (with very-limited-edition CD and vinyl versions).

“Nuts,” one of the never-before-released IIAW tracks, is that rare bird—an actual Bowie studio outtake. We haven’t seen much of these since the Rykodisc era, nearly thirty years ago. It’s been termed a “semi-instrumental,” which translates into Bowie mumbling or whispering a few lines (“what would you rah-thuh be doing?…. in time…”) and exclaiming “nuts!!!” on occasion. The rest of it’s Mark Plati and Gabrels going to town on guitars, computers, keyboards, and samplers in a New York studio in late 1996.

Recorded in the last Earthling sessions in November 1996, after Mike Garson, Zachary Alford, and Gail Ann Dorsey had finished cutting their parts, “Nuts” was the sister track of “The Last Thing You Should Do.” Both pieces were instrumentals made by Gabrels and Plati at Looking Glass; both had improvised Bowie performances—he’d popped into the studio, heard the new tracks, did some vocals on the spot, bang, done. Both were intended to be bonus tracks or B-sides.

Then Bowie altered the character of Earthling at the last minute. He’d intended to waltz remakes of “newer-older” compositions (“I Can’t Read,” “Baby Universal,” “I’m Afraid of Americans”) into new ones (“Little Wonder,” “Looking for Satellites,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” etc.) But right before mixing, Bowie, with Gabrels’ blessing, decided to skew the record more towards the future, or at least the present. So he deep-sixed the Tin Machine remakes and gave “The Last Thing You Should Do” a battlefield promotion to album track. Poor “Nuts” was confined to the vault, or at least someone’s hard drive, for over twenty years.

Hearing “Nuts” at last, it’s no grand mystery as to why it didn’t make the grade. “Last Thing You Should Do,” with its hangover melancholy, added a new, somber mood to the album. “Nuts” is more a quintessential CD Bonus Track From the Nineties: goofy, slightly ambitious, packed full of “period” sounds. (By CD-era standards, Earthling was a slim 49 minutes, so Bowie easily could’ve thrown in “Nuts” as a mid-sequence break, his equivalent to “Fitter Happier.” Probably good he didn’t.)

It’s a “drum ‘n’ bass” track in the way that Earthling is “drum ‘n’ bass”—a gleeful fraudulent. Plati and Gabrels use jungle-esque snare patterns as a shiny color in an otherwise mostly “modern rock” pallete. It’s a homemade, off-brand jungle, cooked up on a desktop by a couple of New York musicians and an amused London expatriate.

Someone during Burgess’ Twitter party was saying Earthling showed that Bowie was off his game, that he really should’ve been doing jungle in 1993, nabbing the best young London producers, taking the choicest bits from the underground. But that was rarely Bowie’s tactic. His Philadelphia Soul record comes a year or two after that genre’s peak, and was made mostly by New Yorkers; one of his “krautrock” albums was created by American, Scottish, and English musicians in France; his big Eighties pop record has more allegiance to Little Richard than it does Duran Duran. A gimcrack knock-off version of jungle, done far past peak, holds true to the Bowie ethos.

Highlights: Bowie retrieving character voices from Leon and Outside, muttering lines while sounding like Algeria Touchshriek; the tug of war between whistle and “saxophone” late in the track; and of course, Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn-nuts!, Bowie’s more restrained equivalent to the Iggy Pop Tarzan yell that ends “Funtime.”

Recorded: November 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. First release: 7 February 2020, as part of the Is It Any Wonder? digital/streaming set.

Top: Patrick Burgler, “St. Patrick’s Day parade,” NYC, March 1997.