Graffito on a broken piece of the Berlin Wall, ca. late 2000s
By the summer of 2012, the obscure song-by-song David Bowie blog that I’d started on a whim three years before had become a lively small corner of the internet. Its comments section had managed to avoid snobbery and personal attacks (well, mostly) and was populated by people with fresh insights into Bowie’s work. One debate we had back then was whether Bowie was through. If he would ever put out new music again.
I hadn’t been aware of Bowie’s “retirement” when I started writing the blog, though in retrospect his absence was one subconscious reason why I chose him to write about—it seemed like David Bowie was no longer in the conversation as much, that he’d wandered off without notice and was worth looking for.
But by 2012, what once had been the general take—“oh, I guess he’s taking a break”—was becoming far more “did he really just quit? And tell nobody?”
When asked what I thought, I’d usually say, yeah, maybe Bowie really was done with making new music. After all, he’d flirted with departing before: to give it up and concentrate on painting, have time to read even more books. Around 1968, when he was between record deals and desperately shifting from folk music to cabaret to auditioning for Hair. Around 1981, when he seemed more interested in doing movies and plays, was stuck waiting out an onerous settlement with his ex-manager, and was shaken by the death of John Lennon, killed by an alleged super-fan.
And in the late Eighties, when Bowie was in the doldrums, he told the director Julien Temple of his yen, in Temple’s words, “to parachute out: to find a strategy that would give a glorious exit…a kind of Houdini escape from pop stardom.” (Tin Machine, it turned out, served as his Houdini device then.)
In the early 2010s, there were a lot of signs that this time, he was gone for good. He had a young daughter. His son was starting on a promising film career. He was happily married, rich, comfortable—he’d bought out Tony Defries at last, and now had his song royalties back, after a decade of loaning them out to bankers. The iTunes/Soulseek era, and its concurrent implosion of record retailers and labels, meant you didn’t earn as much from records, particularly for a “legacy” act who hadn’t had a hit in over fifteen years. He’d had a health scare in ’04 and looked to be done with touring, which he’d always been ambivalent about.
I said maybe he was working on a memoir. That would make sense, no? He finally had the time to sit down and go through it all. He’d hired an archivist some years back, and in December 2012, the museum exhibit was announced. The past seemed like his future.
Of course, as we now know, he’d been working on a record since the autumn of 2010, recording it in secrecy in 2011 and 2012, and having regular second thoughts about ever releasing it. His confidence was shaky. Had he been gone too long? Would his big return land with a flop? Was the work good enough? It wasn’t until the autumn of 2012, when he hired Jonathan Barnbrook to do the LP cover and told a few executives at Sony they were, to their surprise, going to release a new Bowie record, that he committed to his comeback.
On Tuesday morning, January 8, 2013: a new song. The announcement of a new album (Bowie’s PR did a masterful job of alerting just enough journalists the night before to expect the news—he captured the news cycle without giving a single interview). Over a dozen new song titles to wonder about.
On the blog, the current entry was “Untitled No. 1.” I’d written it in the days after Christmas, through a pretty sorry New Year’s. As I’d been thinking that Bowie had retired without notice, I ended the entry with “there are a few times where it seemed as though Bowie could have stood up, then and there, and never recorded another note again: these tiny eddies of finality, in which everything in Bowie’s work and life reconciled for a moment before they broke apart again. This is one of them.”
The comment section, now frozen in time, is a wonderful record of people around the world learning the news, learning that he was back.
I found out through texts and notifications on my phone, waking up to constant pings. Once I realized all the ado was about Bowie, for a moment, until I processed what was going on, I feared he was dead. It turned out to be the dress rehearsal for three years later.
Now, somehow, it’s ten years later. Bowie’s been gone for seven. As Sandy Denny once sang, who knows where the time goes? Or as Bowie sang, where the fuck did Monday even go?
How does “Where Are We Now?” sound, a decade on? We now know how dissimilar it was from the rest of the loud, occasionally hectoring The Next Day. He crafted it as the official comeback song: meant it to be weary, sad, mournful, to be “David Bowie is Old, and Nostalgic,” to suggest that his voice had withered to a late Leonard Cohen rasp. One of the great fakes in a career full of them, as it turned out.
That’s not to say there isn’t a great well of sorrow deep in the song, that Bowie isn’t reckoning with time’s carnage, for he is. He’s just doing it in his oblique way—imagining himself, or a version of himself, as a old man tottering through an unrecognizable Berlin, a Berlin in which the Wall is a bad dream that a dwindling number of its citizens once had. A list of old names in his head, arranged like a code sequence: the Dschungel; Nürnberger Straße; KaDeWe; Bösebrücke.
The Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Kurt Weill; the Berlin of “Heroes,” of Hansa By the Wall and Iggy Pop and Romy Haag; even the Berlin of the early 2010s, a still-affordable metropolis sitting in the middle of a continent at peace—all are discarded editions. You walk through the city now, turn a corner, see that something has changed that you didn’t expect—a subway stop has vanished; there are no more newsstands; the coffee shop on that street, which had been around since the War, closed for good during COVID. A young man brushes by who wasn’t born when Bowie released Reality.
One response to time is a simple incredulity. You never knew that—that I could do that, Bowie sang, addressing a lost lover, maybe reckoning with a past self. What sticks with me the most from “Where Are We Now?”, a decade on, is how Bowie sings “the moment you know, you know you know.” He’s caught another glimpse of how others must see the faker, and has a handful of years left to baffle them yet again.
Hello! I hope you’ve all been well. It’s Christmas again, somehow. Another year over, and quite the one for me. I got married, and I moved out of the place I’d lived in since Bowie’s Reality era. Boxes, exhaustion. As Patrick Troughton once said, “life depends on change, and renewal.”
This blog will continue keeping on, in its sporadic way. There will be some commemorations to come (maybe Aladdin Sane, maybe Let’s Dance, maybe The Next Day—who knows) and possibly a few surprises. I continue to revise Rebel Rebel, which should be done by mid-2023. They keep throwing new boxed sets at me, though—now I have to write an entry on “King of the City.” A bit like the old days, when the blog looked to be nearing a close because we’d hit “(She Can) Do That,” and then he’d put out a new album.
Also, next June: the Bowie World Fan Convention in New York. I’ll be there: I’ll get to meet Nicholas Pegg and Nacho and so many others at last! If you’re there, it’ll be great to say hi.
Happy Christmas, happy New Year. Best to everyone.
1. The first sound that you hear, creeping in via Ken Scott’s faders, is Woody Woodmansey’s kick drum and closed hi-hat, in 3/4 time, with a snare hit (flutter) on the third beat, then (wham!) on the downbeat. Woodmansey later describes it as putting “hopelessness into a drumbeat.”
2.This is going to be something new…no one has ever seen anything like this before….it’s going to be entertainment. That’s what’s missing in pop music now—entertainment….You can’t remain at the top for five years and still be outrageous. You become accepted and the impact has gone. Me? I’m fantastically outrageous. Bowie, June 1972.
3. “Five Years,” one of Bowie’s last Sixties songs, could have been sung at his Arts Lab in Beckenham–you can imagine his folk trio Feathers doing it. It’s an acting troupe sketch, with scenario by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough, place setting of the Market Square, Aylesbury, location of the Friars Club (we’re pushing through, not pushing ahead), and various mimes (“queer” vomiting, soldier with broken arm, cop kneeling to priest, girl drinking milkshake).
4. Instruments stagger in. Double-tracked autoharp and piano (ZING! “pushing through the market square”). Trevor Bolder on bass, making interjections between lines (e.g., the octave jump after the news guy tells us the bad news). Bowie on 12-string acoustic guitar (“a girl my age”) shadowed by Mick Ronson-arranged strings (“went off her head”). Ronson’s electric guitar only appears on the refrain’s fourth go-round (cued by a “what a surprise!”). The verses of “Five Years” seem like they will never end, until, after curling into a ball, they become a doomsday pub singalong refrain. Five repeats in all, the rest of the song, which ends in screams, then fades away. Dennis MacKay, engineer on Ziggy: “Bowie’s screaming and what you hear on that song, the emotion is for real. I was in shock because he was also hitting every note spot on.”
5.It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s five years behind. There’s so much of it that seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back. Bowie on rock music, 1980.
6. “My brain hurt like a warehouse.” Ziggy is a work of Bowie writing about work. “Busting up my brains for the words.” “I’m so wiped out with things as they are.” “I felt like an actor.” Much of it is heard second-hand. Tapes, transmissions, backstage stories (“boy could he play guitar”). A record plays somewhere deep in the building, reduced by walls and floors to muffled basslines, ghost voices, the occasional piercing guitar note. Songs drift past on the radio. A band, sitting in a club long after hours, has gotten it together and can play all night, but few are there to hear them.
7.I thought of my brother and wrote ‘Five Years’. Bowie, 1975.
8. “Soul Love” again opens with Woodmansey alone, but he’s cheerier now. Hi-hat flourish, then rim-shots and kick drum, chased with handclaps and conga.
9. “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” Love as infestation (sweeping over cross and baby), as a priest talking to the empty sky.
10. Bowie’s baritone saxophone moves the action along in the second verse, then takes over, upturning the top melody and spooling it out, following a lengthy sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, ringing in the key change.
11.David Bowie and Marc Bolan were Sixties people who made it late…they were that much more grown up and that much more experienced…They’d been consuming media for a long time and, on a smaller scale, they’d been dealing with media already…their Sixties forebears had been making it up as they went along. The major work of art was actually the media events. The records and shows were part of the superstructure. Charles Shaar Murray.
12. The key to “Moonage Daydream” isn’t Ronson’s opening chords or Bowie’s opening blast of “I’m an all-ih-ga-torrr!” It’s the diminishing that follows them. “Moonage” is carried for the rest of its verse on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic, augmented by Ronson muting his Les Paul strings; it’s as if a dance floor has cleared out. The heavy guitar is there in corners, rarely where one expects it. The countermelodies in the refrain are low backing vocals and piano; the solo is a duet of recorder and baritone saxophone. Ziggy keeps rock at a distance, rationing its appearances, rehearsing for a play that we will never see.
13. Then, as “Moonage Daydream” draws to its close, Ronson steps into the center, boring through, pushing out, rocketing away.
14. The image of Ziggy Stardust in shuffle. The LP cover photo, of Bowie in a post-Hunky Dory look, still with mousy hair (tinted blonde), now in a jump suit. George Underwood’s illustration, used for early LP and tour advertisements: a sexualized Laughing Gnome. The Ziggy of the Top of the Pops “Starman,” a variation on Peter Cook’s Satan in Bedazzled (“Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation“). In late 1972 shows, Ziggy as a pantomime figure, an ominous Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s the post-Japan imperial Ziggy, a space empress. His wasted, gaunt final edition on the 1980 Floor Show, a shade without a corpse.
15.They tell me the next record is going to be the big one. RCA are very confident. Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s ex-manager, to George Tremlett, early 1972.
16. The strings of “Starman”—graceful cello ascension on the title line, high elaborations on Bowie’s la-la-las in the outro. Ronson used Cilla Black records as a primer for his arrangements: likely contenders include her mid-’60s heartbreakers “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (tensed strings take flight in the bridge) and the grand ballroom sweeps in “Love’s Just a Broken Heart.”
17. The verses are done in confidence: Bowie, You, and the Starman, communicating through radio receivers as if they’re walkie-talkies. Music played in a darkened bedroom, trying not to wake your parents.
18. On The Crown, dour Princess Anne sings the closing “lar lar la-lars” of “Starman” as she strides through a blacked-out Buckingham Palace. With its Judy Garland steals and clopping handclaps, it’s a song one can imagine the royals enjoying.
19. Lost pasts dept., part one:RCA PRESENTS DAVID BOWIE’S NEW RECORD: “ROUND AND ROUND.” Look out, you rock and rollers! The 15 December 1971 master was: Side 1: Five Years/ Soul Love/ Moonage Daydream/ Round and Round/ Amsterdam. Side 2: Hang Onto Yourself/ Ziggy Stardust/ Velvet Goldmine/ Star/ Lady Stardust.
20. It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story of Ziggy…so at the moment it’s a little fractured and a little fragmented…so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in…I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album, but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me. Bowie, radio interview, February 1972.
21. Having knocked “It Ain’t Easy” a lot over the years, I’ll try to make a case for it. The album needs a chunk of early Seventies Rawk to counter its flightier numbers. Despite being a Hunky Dory outtake, “It Ain’t Easy” still fits better in the LP sequence than “Amsterdam” (too folkie) or “Round and Round” (too scrappy). “Sweet Head” was never a contender; “Velvet Goldmine,” too magnificently singular. “It Ain’t Easy” is the communal closer to the LP side, the same role as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on the flip. When Bowie had performed it in 1971, he gave the verses to Geoff MacCormack, George Underwood and Dana Gillespie to sing (Gillespie is on the Ziggy take, as is Rick Wakeman on harpsichord). If five years is all we’ve got, spend them with your friends.
22. Still, “Velvet Goldmine.”
23. Lost pasts dept., part two; Bowie, to GQ, 2000: “I’ve pulled out a good deal of scraps that were never used at the time [on Ziggy Stardust]. Some of them are only 30 seconds long, but I’m extending those. I thought, ‘OK, is this crap and is that the reason why it never appeared on the first one or is it OK and should I try and do things with it?’ So I’ve taken those six tracks and thrashed them out and made them into songs that will support the original. One’s called the ‘Black Hole Kids’ which is fascinating.”
24. The demo of “Lady Stardust” is, ever since I first heard it on Ryko’s reissue in 1990, the song’s canonical recording for me. The strength of Bowie’s singing, the intimate grandeur of the track. It’s to the point that whenever I hear the Ziggy version, everything sounds off, especially Bowie’s phrasing. It’s become a retrospective outtake.
25. I knew someone who was in a band in the Nineties. They got signed by a major label, cut a record. Then, as often happens, there was a shift in label management, or the promo staff thought it wouldn’t hit on radio: something went wrong, a few bad rolls of the dice. The record was shelved, never to be released; the band split up. But during this time, they worked with Mick Ronson. One night, without prompting, Ronson sat at a piano and played “Lady Stardust” for the band, letting the song roll through him.
26. I guess it’s kind of that art school kind of posturing that the Brits usually have. And it was people like myself and Roxy Music that had a different agenda about taking up music. I think we all were kind of – well, maybe – I can’t speak for Roxy, of course. But some of us were failed artists or reluctant artists. You know, the choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music. And I think we opted for music: one, because it was more exciting. And two, you could actually earn a living at it. Bowie, 2002.
27. We’re as far away now from Ziggy Stardust as it was from Ulysses and The Waste Land, from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at their youthful peaks. As a child in the mid-1980s, I thought Ziggy, what I knew of it, seemed old and weird. Its film clips (bits from Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture and Mick Rock’s promos were pressed into service on occasion on Friday Night Videos) were like scenes from some ancient, decadent world. It was hard to reconcile Bowie of the then-present, a genial, medium-cool figure singing “Blue Jean” and “Dancing in the Street” and at Live Aid, with the jaundiced extraterrestrial in 16mm, this hollow-cheeked specter.
28. “Star”: A kid in her bedroom sings to the mirror; a school band struggles to get the song right for once (the drummer always fumbles the transitions) before the talent show. The opening number of the musical, actors spilling on stage, playing to the back rows. Soooooo exciting! to play the part!
29. The apparent reference to Nye Bevan “try[ing] to save the nation” in the second verse is one of Bowie’s more obscure lyrical nods, at least for non-UK listeners. Someone ages ago claimed to me it was actually a reference to ELO’s Bev Bevan, who I didn’t realize had been so ambitious.
30. Nickelodeon backing vocals in “Star”—air-raid siren “oooh wahs”; ch-ch-ch, ch-ch, cha-la-la-la!; you know that I couuuuld–end in Bowie’s ping-ponging hums and a whispered “just watch me now!”
31. “On stage when you are performing you are in total control. It is like a demon or spirit taking over. You have a congregation and you are the high priest.” But rock and roll doesn’t really fascinate him. “It is hardly a vocation.” Ziggy Stardust was conceived as a film. No one would make it, so he turned it into a record instead. David Lewin, “Will the Real David Bowie Stand Up?” Sunday Mirror, 20 July 1975.
32. How restrained “Hang Onto Yourself” is. The one-two opening punch of the riff is kept in check; the refrain’s an insinuation. Trevor Bolder’s bass as the focal point. Even Ronson’s slide guitar packs off without too much fuss.
33. “Layin’ on electric dreams.”
34. The guttural backing vocals that surge under “honey not my money” or “bitter comes out better” make those sections of the track sound as if the tape’s flaking apart.
35. Few have ever been in love with the sound of this album. Too tinny, too murky, too weedy, a rock record on which the rock has been boxed off. Audiophile message boards have hosted decades’ worth of battles over which pressing, which reissue, which remix salvages it. There will forever be some magnificent ideal Ziggy waiting for the right engineer to, at last, set it free.
36. The name, distilled from Bowie’s American trip of early 1971: the wild boy (Iggy Pop) and the wild man (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy). The character, bits taken from Nik Cohn’s chaos incarnate pop star Johnny Angelo and, as per Bowie legend, the acid-damaged Vince Taylor. Ziggy as a commemorative coin minted from the great rock ‘n’ roll dead: Brian Jones, Eddie Cochran, Hendrix, Morrison, Buddy Holly, countless more in the years since. Yet this misses Bowie’s point that Ziggy wasn’t supposed to be some great charismatic pop singer, but someone chosen, possibly at random, by “black hole jumpers” as their vessel. A middling performer, working through yet another set in yet another half-filled room, complaining to his manager that the latest single, “Liza Jane” or “I Dig Everything,” has gone nowhere.
37. While Ronson gives a grand ornamentation to “Ziggy Stardust”—the crunching chromatic bass figure under “Spiders from Mars” in the verse, the harmonics on “became the special man,” the vicious chords in the refrains—the memory may only recall him playing the main riff over and over again. The riff is Bowie’s version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”: each time it appears, the rest of the band stops to pay homage.
38. Like the New Testament gospels, the story of Ziggy is redacted from different, contradictory narrators. The timeline’s murky: a legendary past shot through with future premonitions. “He was the Nazz,” Bowie sings: Lord Buckley’s name for Christ, the Nazarene (is “god-given ass” a pun?). The Nazz never did nothin’ simple, Buckley would say. When He laid it, He laid it.
39. The opening riff of “Suffragette City”: played on Les Paul and 12-string acoustic guitar, soon bolstered by a monster ARP 2500 that got hauled down from another floor at Trident, all sounding as if they’re about to tear into Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.”
41. Ronson’s pick scratch as “wham bam!” hits. The ARP doubling Bolder’s bass; the bright rock ‘n’ roll rumble on the Trident Studios’ Bechstein. Woodmaney’s snare fills on the title phrase. How the front-mixed acoustic guitar works more as a percussion line (Ken Scott: “I wasn’t too into cymbals back then so I mixed them low”).
42. “Suffragette City” is the first Bowie song that I ever heard, or at least the first one I remember being a “David Bowie song.” Via a grade school friend whose sister, in college at the time, would come home on holiday breaks with the cool records. The nasally presence, the push of the track—it sounded diabolical.
43. Bowie atlas, with Suffragette City as sordid port town; its sister city across the water, Amsterdam; Hunger City, casting its long shadow on the plains. Oxford Town beyond the hills. Berlin, Jareth’s Labyrinth, Amlapura, Crack City. Freecloud Mountain to the north.
44.I dream about him a lot, but they’re always horrid dreams ’cause he always dies in the end. Teenage fan of pop idol Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), in Privilege (1967).
45.“What do you think?” she asked Peter. “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed. The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.
JM Barrie, Peter Pan (1904).
46.Gimme your hands!
47. In his hand-written lyrics for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie wrote “the water-wall is calling” in the first verse. Robin Mayhew, his tour sound engineer, was asked to proofread lyrics while visiting Gem Music one day, and thought he heard Bowie singing “wall-to-wall,” changing the line on the lyric sheet without telling Bowie (listen to the original—Bowie’s almost certainly singing ‘waw-ter wall’). “Wall-to-wall” has been the official lyric ever since. In the Bowie spirit, the mistake works as well as, if not better than, the intention.
48. Throughout Ziggy, horn lines are masqueraded by the ARP, or delivered alone by Bowie. Now, for the finale, Ronson at last scores a brass section—trumpets, trombones, tenor and bari saxes—as if inviting the neighbors in for a party.
49. Ronson’s won!-der-fuls towards the close.
50. The last thing that you hear: celli and double basses, a beat after everyone else departs, playing one last D-flat chord. An album that begins with a solitary drummer ends with four musicians bowing in unison. Oh no, love, you’re not alone.
Essentials: The Ziggy Stardust Companion; Mark Paytress, Classic Rock Albums: Ziggy Stardust; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record (International Music Publications Ltd.)
“Heathen” kind of felt right, in as much as it was about the un-illuminated mind. It was an idea, a feeling, a sense of what 21st Century man might become, if he’s not already: someone who’s lowered his standards spiritually, intellectually, morally, whatever. There’s a kind of someone who’s not even bothered searching for a spiritual life anymore but is completely existing on a materialistic plain. But just using the word “heathen” is kind of less preachy than explaining all that. ‘Cause if you wrote all that on the front of an album cover, nobody would bother buying it, would they?
At the start of each month I put up on Twitter photos of albums turning fifty, forty, thirty, etc. Recently, upon noting that Heathen will turn twenty (today!), I got a few responses along the lines of “you’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s something: you turn around and 2002 has scurried off into the past.
Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.
Heathen‘s distance doesn’t feel that jarring, though, because it was born old—a record built for posterity, a deliberate Late Work (Bowie described the album in 2002 as “serious songs to be sung”), with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs claimed as a primary influence on it. (As always, possibly an influence that emerged after Bowie made the record.)
There’s a severity in it, down to Bowie wearing a somber tweed suit for the album photos (recall that he wore sandals for the previous one). The carnival of the Nineties is over; Lententide now. The album’s central theme, as per its composer, is a life after God, after the expiration of the last, frailest hope of transcendence—“white as clay” mornings, deserted train stations, slashed-up paintings in empty museums.
There are no yearning ambitions any more. There are things I’d like to do but none are crucial. I have a sense that I’ve become the person that I always should have been. It’s been a kind of cyclical, almost elliptical, journey at times, but I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young—there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store.
I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it—hopefully—like Strauss, at 84.
It now seems like an early draft of Blackstar—a Bowie/Tony Visconti collaboration whose funereal tone is brightened with a few weirder pieces (“Gemini Spaceship” etc.; “Girl Loves Me”). While it continues the moods of its immediate predecessors—the melancholy of ‘hours…’; the sense of lost time in Toy (andof course, two tracks cut during the Toy sessions were remade for it)—Heathen was also crafted as a division point, dressed to be autumnal. The opening of the last section of the book.
Its creation was out of a Don DeLillo novel: its backing tracks were recorded in a mansion atop a mountain, accessible only via a winding, private switchback; its overdubs were done in a New York stunned by terrorist attacks, the smell of the burned towers still in the air. Bowie said he wrote the songs (“there’s fear overhead…steel on the skyline…nothing has changed/everything has changed”) before the planes hit, but he was a bit defensive in a few interviews, as if to say you couldn’t blame him, he’d always expected the worst. Remember, he says, the nightmares came to stay quite a few years ago.
The emphasis on instability which has dogged my life and my own personal feelings of instability make me focus more than the average on looking for some sense in all this. I’d love to believe in something. But I can’t. I won’t. Really, we’re just animals. Very few people can say: ‘I love humankind.’ You have a possibility of loving your immediate family and maybe widen that to a few friends, but that’s it.
Was Heathen Bowie’s response to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, an album that he liked enough to cover a song from it in 1998? Similarities in tone, in tempo, and, notably, in critical responses—both albums were hailed as returns to form for legacy artists, both seemed to address mortality in the way that anyone over fifty is supposed to (regularly, with grace and time-weariness).
That said, TOOM has a more coherent, unified sequencing. Heathen can seem as if a few tracks got shuffled in during its latter stages to make it less weighty: Pixies and Legendary Stardust Cowboy covers; cheery songs about death and departure (“Everyone Says ‘Hi'”) and an arbitration hearing with God (“A Better Future”).
I had a sense of the sonic weight that I was after, a sort of non-professional approach, a kind of British amateur-ness about it. And I mean amateur in that dedicated fashion you find in a man who, only on Sundays, will build a cathedral out of matchsticks, beautiful but only to please himself and his family and friends. I went in very much like that. I wanted to prove the sustaining power of music. I wanted to bring about a personal cultural restoration, using everything I knew without returning to the past. I wanted to feel the weight and depth of the years. All my experiences, all the questions, all the fear, all the spiritual isolation. Something that had little sense of time, neither past nor present. This is the way that the old men ride.
There’s what Bowie described as a deliberate “amateur-ness” to Heathen (what Pete Townshend, guest guitarist on “Slow Burn,” described as “Kafka meets Ed Wood”), which is at its base the work of an isolated trio: Bowie, favoring broken-in instruments like a battered headless Steinberger from the Tin Machine days and a few old synthesizers (Eno’s EMS; the Stylophone), Visconti, and the excellent drummer Matt Chamberlain, whose drums, miked booming around the 2,000 sq. foot Allaire “great room,” give the album its foundation. (Apart from the bass, “Cactus” is entirely Bowie in overdubs, down to the shaky hi-hat). So much depends on a few textures. Visconti’s Tuvan “throat” harmonies on “Sunday”; David Torn’s glitch guitar, a stream of encrypted information; Townshend wringing sustained notes across “Slow Burn” as if trying to patch up a broken song; the Scorchio Quartet’s tense elaborations of lines that Bowie wrote on his Korg keyboard.
And Bowie gave one of his finest sustained performances as a vocalist on record. It’s as if he’s playing the character he offered in interviews for the album—an older man drained of the potential to be surprised, a settled man, one content within his twilit world and accepting of barbarity—but the character keeps breaking script. While he begins in his lower registers, does the occasional Scott Walker-esque plummet (“Sunday”), at times he sounds needy (“5:15”), lusty (“Cactus”), sappy (“Everyone Says ‘Hi'”), until on the closing track he’s out on the wire. A few years ago someone isolated the vocals from the SACD mix, giving it a new life as an eerie a capella suite.
As some of the strongest tracks from the album sessions were consigned to B-sides, I once tried my hand at sequencing a “hardcore” Heathen, pillaging some more from Toy:
Maybe too gravid; too much like a month of Ash Wednesdays. Better to have a disco Legendary Stardust Cowboy knocking around in it.
Why now, when I [finally] understand myself and others, should I die? What a shitty game. Is there no one you could revise the rules with?
Twenty years on, how does Heathen sound? Prophetic, in places: of Bowie’s future works, at least. Does it move with too heavy a step? I understand why some prefer its louder, brash successor Reality, an album that makes fewer claims.
A charming thing about Bowie was his refusal to take his various doomsdays that seriously. Heathen is ominous, wind-swept, herald of a bleak future, yes, but it’s also strange, homespun, sometimes clunky, even goofy in places. Bowie once said that he put “Slip Away” on the album as a memento of happier times, which at the time weren’t so happy: we were dumb, but you were fun, boy.
A generation’s distance away from us now, Heathen‘s end of the world scenarios were staged for a world that was. Its futures, like all futures, never came to be. As the man sang, nothing changed, then everything changed, even at the center of it all.
“One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless,” Paul Bowles once said, around the time Bowie made “Heroes”. “What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead.”
We all feel very alone, don’t we: often. Too often: that’s why we make such a thing about being with people…It’s very scary to know that in those last moments we’ll be absolutely alone.
David was born on 8th January . The midwife said to me, “this child has been on earth before,” and I thought that was rather an odd thing to say, but the midwife seemed quite adamant.
Margaret “Peggy” Burns Jones.
The very first memory I have is of being left in my pram in the hallway of 40 Stansfield Road [Brixton], facing the stairs—they were dark and shadowy.
If there was anything that caught his ear, he would tell everyone to be quiet and listen, and then fling himself about to the music.
So many people are born in a trap. And they don’t seem to have the courage to want to get out. And it’s so simple, really, so simple.
Gurney Slade (Anthony Newley), The Strange World of Gurney Slade.
So many of the things I wanted to do come from books.
He didn’t actually go out very much but preferred to stay home. I’d often invite him to a party and he would often say, “No, I’m going to stay in, I’ve got some work to do.”
David knew all the songs by heart and in his peculiar way could sing every song in our set [but] none of us liked his voice at all.
Alan Dodds, The Kon-Rads.
He looked like a young waiter who had blown his first check on a bad haircut.
John Bloom, recalling Davie Jones and the King Bees’ performance at Bloom’s birthday party, April 1964.
One of the ways we would write was I would bring my fingers down on the keyboard and David would say, “What’s that? Hold that chord.” And we would write something around it. I found it hard getting my fingers used to those chords, he never made things easy.
Denis Taylor, lead guitarist, The Lower Third.
You can’t give all you have to take something back.
He had written a lot of songs, they were not Rock and Roll but they were very good, very musical and they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff.
John “Hutch” Hutchinson, on first working with Bowie in The Buzz, 1966 (from Bowie & Hutch).
Now you know I’m not the warmest performer on stage, and I never have been…I’ve never felt comfortable talking on stage. With ‘Diamond Dogs’ I even wanted to have the band in an orchestra pit.
David, you’re working with a backing group, The Buzz. Have you always worked with them? As David Bowie, yes. I’ve always been with them, for about six months. Why do you say ‘as David Bowie’? I was someone else before that.
Radio London interview with Bowie at the Marquee Club, 1966.
I want to act. I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else. It takes some doing.
Bowie, to Melody Maker, 26 February 1966.
He would go down to Carnaby Street and get himself kitted in a fancy outfit. You would never see him walking around like a slob. He didn’t do slob.
Dana Gillespie, to Dylan Jones.
Lo, Palmer’s Green has been disrupted by a clown and two friends. Twenty-four people walked out the first night. Most of them were coppers off duty. One old man sat and read a newspaper: The Sketch, I think. And a couple of nice ladies talked about their babies, bingo, and bras in Row E. Lindsay [Kemp] was pissed, Jack [Birkett] was ill and I just sang.
Bowie, letter to Hermione Farthingale, 1967.
I’m not quite sure what We’re supposed to do So, I’ve been writing just for you
Bowie: What do you think you’ll be doing in ten or twenty years’ time? Writing—and you? Bowie: I might be writing, too. I think of myself more as a writer than a musician. I shall be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty, and I’ll spend the rest of my life doing other things.
Interview by George Tremlett in Ken Pitt’s apartment, 39 Manchester St., London, 17 November 1969.
David Bowie is 22 years old, thin, with a halo of fair hair, a delicately soft face and two cold eyes. One is pale kitten blue and the other green, and it makes it rather disconcerting to talk to him.
Penny Valentine, Disc, 11 October 1969.
I haven’t got a clue why Visconti didn’t like the song. The fact is, Mercury didn’t have any major acts with the exception of Rod Stewart, who at that point wasn’t a major act anyway…they took Bowie on specifically because of “Space Oddity.” They’d heard the demo and in those days a gimmick was a big deal, and people who had gimmicks were taken more seriously than those who hadn’t.
Gus Dudgeon, 1993.
I wasn’t interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television—that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.
J.G. Ballard, 2008.
With The Man Who Sold The World I wanted to work in some kind of strange micro-world where the human element had been taken out, where we were dealing with a technological society. That world [was] an experimental playground where you could do dangerous things without anybody taking too many risks, other than ideas risks….It was all family problems and analogies, put into science-fiction form.
Bowie, 1993; 1976.
The song breathes out the whole sweep of postwar British culture before the Beatles turned it on its head—the slow, squalid sink of pointless desires caught in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction—and places it squarely in the present. It’s a drama of ordinary life you can’t turn away from, because you’re seeing a life that you know, that you’re living, thrown up on the screen of the song. The quietest tinkling piano begins it; at the end, the piano trails off into a huge, harsh crescendo of movie-finale strings—hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms, wind propelling them into their future—as if the notes can’t remember the song.
The day will come when David Bowie is a star and the crushed remains of his melodies are broadcast from Muzak boxes in every elevator and hotel lobby in town.
Nancy Erlich, New York Times, 11 July 1971.
You had to make the two sides of the album roughly the same length. While parts were being worked out, I would spend time working out the timings and putting songs together so I could suggest which order would work best…Up to a point, the running order was dictated by the LP format. The whole idea about the concept album thing…there are some songs that fit together on a certain story. But I dispute the fact that it’s a concept album, because why would you have “It Ain’t Easy,” which was recorded for Hunky Dory?
Ken Scott, on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Writers like George Steiner had nailed the sexy term “post-culture” and it seemed a jolly good idea to join up the dots of rock…Everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves. The main platform would be, other than shoes, “we are the future, now” and the way of celebrating that was to create it by the only means at our disposal.
Bowie, introduction to Moonage Daydream, 2002.
Ziggy was this kind of megalomaniac little prophet figure who came down to tell us it was all over. We were never quite sure whether he meant it or not, whether he was from outer space or not.
Bowie, on 20/20, 1980.
As David Bowieappears, the child dies. The vision is profound – a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who – at last! – transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence. David Bowie is detached from everything, yet open to everything; stripped of the notion that both art and life are impossible. He is quite real, impossibly glamorous, fearless, and quite British. How could this possibly be?
How would you describe yourself? Bowie: Partly enigmatic, partly fossil.
Backstage interview at Carnegie Hall, 28 September 1972.
Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants— particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising—self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him.
Martin Amis, The New Statesman, 6 July 1973.
The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!
Neil Young, 1973.
Living in Dagenham, the appeal was that if you dyed your hair or had a little bit of make-up or wore a bangle, you’d get the piss taken out of you, but because it was David Bowie you didn’t. You could dress up like that…It was so obvious that girls liked it—thank you David Bowie! And good music to shag to, I have to say.
Steve Ignorant, of Crass (whose name came from “the kids were just crass” in “Ziggy Stardust”).
“Lady Grinning Soul”—to have all those runs on the piano, I was practicing eight hours a day at the time, year after year. You can’t play like that if you haven’t done tons of repetition….then when we did “Time” they found that truly humorous, and David being almost like a Broadway singer and knowing all the German stuff, everything about it was David Bowie. But I was playing the piano how I think he would have played if he could play at my level. He could play, he played well, but it was very basic piano. I think, if he had my chops, that’s what he would have done.
Mike Garson, on Aladdin Sane.
The ego is the instrument of living in this world. If the ego is broken up or destroyed…then the person may be exposed to other worlds, “real” in different ways.
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience.
I was already a 13-year-old fan when Diamond Dogs came out…Diamond Dogs is not a coherent story, but I’m not sure I wanted a coherent story. The inner sleeve’s photographs of a broken city, as if seen in a damaged kaleidoscope, aren’t coherent either, but they paint a place…it’s my favourite album because it was mine—in a way no other Bowie album had been, or would be again…because it contained complex lyrics on Sweet Thing and Candidate that made me feel like I was being shown a 12-hour drama through a letterbox slot; because the opening monologue pronounces the album unashamed science fiction; because it sent me to the school library aged 13 to borrow 1984, back then only a decade away; because the track listing on the cassette was all jumbled for reasons of time, so that story, whatever it was, and that sequence was what I first encountered and responded to, built up in my head, which meant that it would be another 32 years until I realised I could reorder the track listing on my computer and listen to Diamond Dogs in a way that felt right to me.
Diamond Dogs, as I remember it at the time, was trying to accomplish some great mockery of rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to be part of my manifesto at the time, I don’t know why.
It solidified..what I wanted to do with Devo. We’d spent way too much time smoking pot talking about ideas & doing nothing about it. Here was someone who’d taken the time to do it for real.
Jerry Casale, on seeing the Diamond Dogs tour in Cleveland, June 1974.
I ran to his room and looked at the thin white man singing on Soul Train. Bowie was wearing a dark suit with a light shirt. He was moving very slowly, as though he were high or drunk or too cool to sweat. “He sing ‘Fame'”? I said. We loved that song. “I thought he was black.” We stared at the television as though we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I’m trippin’,” Keith kept saying. “I am really trippin’.” “Me too,” I said. “He white?” “I don’t care,” Keith said. “He bad. He a bad dude.”…Who was this man who wasn’t anything close to what he looked and sounded like? Who let him do that? Who let him be white and weird and on Soul Train?
Dana Johnson, Elsewhere, California.
Plane comes into view, loud, knocks letters out. Hand places “The Young American.” Major Tom walks into vision. The letters drop and he passes the camera…We are in [an] aircraft and slide back to passenger section to find Major Tom watching English news TV of his sensational send-off.
Bowie, film scenario, 1974.
David played “Station to Station” to me at Cherokee. When he played that…it was cinematic in every respect…I was amazed how he could come up with that, having been in complete cocaine psychosis.
Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple).
The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.
William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).
I walked out on Bowie’s show. I thought it was dreadful. I got turned off by that whole ego trip. That ‘here I am, baby, and isn’t it wonderful to actually be able to see me, I’m the thin white duke’ bit. What is all that about? I could call myself the fat pink pulp, but I don’t.
Elton John, 1976.
“The first space-rock hero of the 70s,” as David has been called, has finished a book of “semi-autobiographical” short stories called “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” which will be published at Christmas—by his own company, natch.
The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1975.
And all of the imbeciles and cretins, who had been delegated to some other imperceivable providence of their own, have tumbled and fallen from the sky, soared spouting from the seas. The catastrophic menage is ripping and torturing their release from the soul of OM. And the rock bands just dirge and provacate [sic] the malforms into the frenzid waltz of [infinity symbol].
Excerpt from Chapter One of The Return of the Thin White Duke.
Because of the dark glasses Bryce could not see Newton’s eyes, but it seemed to him as though Newton were looking everywhere. “Easy come, easy go, Nathan,” he said. Newton began to tremble. His angular body began to lean forward and the felt hat fell silently on the table, showing his chalk-white hair. Then his Anthean head fell on to his spindly Anthean arms and Bryce saw that he was crying…
The bartender had come over and when Bryce looked up the bartender said, “I’m afraid this fellow needs help.”
“Yes,” Bryce said. “Yes, I guess he does.”
Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
In this movie, the forlorn, limp hero-David Bowie—a stranger on earth, doesn’t have a human sex drive. He isn’t even equipped for it: naked, he’s as devoid of sex differentiation as a child in sleepers. When he splashes down in a lake in the Southwest and drinks water like a vampire gulping down his lifeblood, one is drawn in, fascinated by the obliqueness and by the promise of an erotic sci-fi story. It is and it isn’t. The stranger has come to earth to obtain the water that will save his people, who are dying from drought, but he is corrupted, and then is so damaged that he can’t return…The plot, about big-business machinations, is so uninvolving that one watches Bowie traipsing around—looking like Katharine Hepburn in her transvestite role in Sylvia Scarlett—and either tunes out or allows the film, with its perverse pathos, to become a sci-fi framework for a sex-role-confusion fantasy. The wilted stranger can be said to represent everyone who feels misunderstood, everyone who feels sexually immature or “different,” everyone who has lost his way, and so the film is a gigantic launching pad for anything that viewers want to drift to.
Pauline Kael, review of The Man Who Fell To Earth, The New Yorker, 8 November 1976.
[Bowie’s] done something that I should have done but I backed out of doing, which is just split the album into two halves and said “Well, here’s all the fast songs—and here’s all the other things that I also like.” I’ve got this same problem coming up again now. Because it’s even more polarized. I’ve got on the one hand some really manic songs. Oh dear, they sound so bizarre I don’t know what I’m gonna do with them. They sound a bit like Captain Beefheart or my version of modern jazz or something like that.
Brian Eno, NME interview, 27 November 1976.
On this album David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion available to an individual working within the existing cultural forms of the West.
THE FIRST IMPRESSION Low imparts to the listener is that he is somehow hearing it sideways.
Ian MacDonald, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.
It’s decadent in the sense that it glamourises and glorifies passive decay and I don’t give a shit about how clever it may or may not be—David never makes minor errors, only fundamental ones—it stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeat and futility and emptiness.
We’re low enough already, David.
Give us a high or else just swap tapes with Eno by post and leave those of us who’d rather search for solutions than lie down and be counted to try and find ourselves instead of lose ourselves.
You’re a wonderful person but you’ve got problems.
Charles Shaar Murray, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.
From station to station back to Düsseldorf city Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.
Kraftwerk, “Trans-Europe Express.”
We went to East Berlin across Checkpoint Charlie where you have to show your passport to the East German police. David’s passport had a picture of him with curly hair from his “Space Oddity” days and Iggy Pop had platinum blonde hair in a Beatles cut. The guards took one look and burst out laughing at the two passports. David and Iggy were holding back their aggression and gritting their teeth, saying “very funny.”
I’m happy now. Content. I feel more than a product on an assembly line and no more a means of support for 10,000 persons who seem to revolve around every fart that I made.
My role as an artist in rock is rather different to most. I encapsulate things very quickly, in a very short space of time. Over two or three months usually. And generally my policy have been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area. Another piece of time.
You wouldn’t believe how much of it was entirely unwitting. I think I did play outside the boundaries of what is considered the general area of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of it, just pure petulance, some of it was arrogance, some of it was unwitting, but, inevitably, I kept moving ahead.
Ziggy, particularly, was created out of a certain arrogance. But, remember, at that time I was young and I was full of life, and that seemed like a very positive artistic statement. I thought that was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought that was a grand kitsch painting. The whole guy. Then that fucker would not leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to sour.
Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 29 October 1977.
[Marianne Faithfull] reminded me of Grace Kelly, or rather Kelly’s voice in the duet she sang with Bing Crosby in High Society, “True Love.” Kelly was almost speaking her parts in a captivating and sensual monotone. It was not unlike Crosby’s later duet, with David Bowie playing Princess Grace.
Andrew Loog Oldham (from Stoned).
I’m incredibly happy now, because I’m not ambitious anymore. I do have a strong paternal streak. I’m a born father. I want more children, but not ego children…You can stuff all your punk bands, give me three children instead.
Bowie to Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader, March 1978.
“You owe me a move,” say the bells of St. Groove “Come on and show me,” say the bells of Old Bowie.
The Clash, “Clash City Rockers” (1978).
They’re different from me, they actually go andread books, they don’t read walls.
Bowie, introducing Talking Heads’ “The Book I Read” on BBC1’s Star Special, 20 May 1979.
I’m so pleased that the conclusion of these three albums has been so up. I think it would have been terribly depressing if the third one had been down. At least this one has a kind of optimism.
Bowie, 1979, on Lodger.
The [Scary Monsters cover] character is based on Lindsay Kemp’s very wonderful-looking Victorian clown. I took that feeling and looked inside of that, that’s when you get the disheveled side of the clown. It’s a nod backwards to an element I started with. One always returns and looks back and reincorporates those old things and reevaluates them from time to time…There were an awful lot of mistakes on that album [Scary Monsters] that I went with rather than cut them out. [It’s hard] to put oneself on the line artistically ever since the Dadaists, who pronounced Art Is Dead. Once you’ve said Art is Dead, it’s very hard to get more radical then that. Since 1924 it’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing and looking at it from a very different point of view.
I must say I admire [Bowie] for his vast repertoire of talent the guy has, you know. I was never around when the Ziggy Stardust thing came, because I’d already left England while all that was going on, so I never really knew what he was. And meeting him doesn’t give you much more of a clue, you know…Because you don’t know which one you’re talking to.
John Lennon, BBC interview, 6 December 1980.
I enjoy David Bowie. He can stay right out of it all and enjoy his life, enjoy his music. I can enjoy my life like that when I’ve done a lot more work.
Adam Ant, NME interview, November 1981.
The subject matter of ‘Let’s Dance’ is nebulous. There is an undercurrent of commitment, but it’s not quite so straightforward… It’s a one-to-one thing, yes, but the danger, the terrifying conclusion is only intimated in the piece. It is not apparent what exactly the fear is that they’re running from. There’s an ominous quality about it, quite definitely. That was the dance song that has all the trappings of old disco music, but it’s almost like the last dance.
Bowie, NME interview, 16 April 1983.
Bowie: Having watched MTV over the last few months, it’s a solid enterprise…I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?…The only few black artists that one does see are on from about 2:30 in the morning to around six.
Mark Goodman: Of course we have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie, or pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces.
Bowie: That’s very interesting. Isn’t that interesting.
Goodman:We have to play the music that we think an entire country’s going to like…should PLJ play the Isley Brothers? Now you and I might say yeah, because we grew up in an era when the Isley Brothers mean something to millions…but what does it mean to a 17-year old?
Bowie: I’ll tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17 year old, and surely he’s part of America as well…Do you not find it is a frightening predicament to be in?…Is it not possible that it should be a conviction of the station and of other radio stations? It does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated? Especially, if anything, in musical terms.
Bowie MTV interview, January 1983
Somebody once said — who was it? It’s terribly important — that Harry Langdon, the silent comedian, cannot be taken on his own; you have to put him alongside that which went on around him, like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. He can only be seen by reference, and somebody said that about me, which is probably very true. I kind of quite like that, actually, that you can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference!
Bowie to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.
Mick wants to do new things. He would much prefer to be David Bowie than to work with Keith Richards because when he makes a record now he has to deal with the fact that Keith Richards wants to be like Muddy Waters and grow old and die playing the blues.
Pete Townshend, 2002.
August 1987: Cafe Luxembourg, following Bowie’s Madison Square Garden Glass Spider concert. Nick Rhodes, Jeremy Irons, Coco Schwab…Bowie asks me what I thought of the show. “A little busy,” I say, attempting to be flippant about the dancers, the huge props, the overkill. “No, really,” he says. “C’mon, you and I have known each other too long. What did you really think?” In no uncertain terms, I proceed to tell him what I thought. You can only fool some of the people some of the time, I say. Less is more, David. Put on a leather jacket and jeans and go out and sing your hits, for God’s sake. It’s a new generation: they’d love those songs. I finish; everyone is horrified. David is laughing.
Lisa Robinson, SPIN, August 1990.
I knew David wanted to do a different kind of music. [But] I always thought if I gave it back to him, it would end up going back to the Spiders from Mars. That’s exactly what happened.
Hunt Sales: But, man, those albums. I dunno. And the Glass Spider tour? Well, I didn’t go and see it but I saw it on TV and…
Bowie: But, Hunt (slips into music hall straight man mode), I thought you never missed any of my tours...
Hunt: I never miss any of your tours. I never go see ’em, so I never miss ’em…
Bowie: Boom boom!
Hunt: But I didn’t like Glass Spider. I mean that. Seriously. I thought it was a bit beneath you. That’s my opinion. I don’t need to sit here and say that I love something I didn’t think much of. I watched it thinking, This is the guy who did Spiders From Mars.
Bowie: What he’s saying is he hasn’t listened to anything of mine since Spiders From Mars!
Reeves Gabrels: But Glass Spider was cabaret. A lot of critics said…
Bowie: Yeah, critics. Give me your personal opinion.
Reeves: If you want my personal opinion you’ll have to ask my wife. But it seemed to me it was about entertainment more than music. I went to see a soundcheck in Chicago and that was better than the show.
Bowie: To come to its defence, I liked the video of it. But I overstretched. I made too much detail of… Oh Christ. Next question!
Tony Sales: He’s beginning to roast!
Tin Machine interview by Adrian Deevoy, Q, June 1989.
He was lying in bed, too weak to stand, losing his sight, going: “Have you heard Mrs Bowie’s new album, darling? What does she think she’s doing?“
Elton John, on Freddie Mercury in 1991.
Did you hear the latest Living Colour album? Vernon Reid wrote a song about bisexuality. I think that’s very good of him, very brave. Because I think especially today people shouldn’t be made to feel as if they should hide their sexuality. These are dangerous times for everyone that wants to explore their own sexuality. Sex is becoming a taboo again and I feel people should be able to talk about it. As long as the discussion remains open you’ll prevent so-called vigilantes from using AIDS as an excuse to discriminate and isolate certain groups from society. Because of this, people will turn inward or won’t experiment with their sexuality or worse: pretend to be something different sexually then they really are and that is very, very dangerous. It must be awful for young people today to be trapped into an existence that goes against their very nature, you have to continue to rebel against this. Sexual experimentation might be dangerous right now, but the danger should not be a reason to stop people from being who you want to be.
Bowie, interview with Oor, 1993.
My personal brief for this collection was to marry my present way of writing and playing with the stockpile of residue from the 1970’s.
Here is a partial list: Free association lyrics Pink Floyd Harry Partch Blues clubs Unter den Linden Brücke Museum Pet Sounds Friends of the Krays Roxy Music T. Rex Costume The Casserole Neu Kraftwerk Bromley Croydon Eno Prostitutes & Soho Ronnie Scott’s club Travels thru Russia Loneliness O’Jays Philip Glass in New York clubs Die Mauer Drugs.
Bowie, liner notes to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993).
Phillip Jeffries: Well now, I’m not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all, we’re gonna keep her out of it.
Special Agent Dale Cooper: [bewildered] Gordon?
Gordon Cole: I KNOW, COOP!
Jeffries: Who do you think this is there?
Albert Rosenfeld: Suffered some bumps on the old noggin, hey, Phil?
Cole: WHAT THE HELL DID HE SAY THERE, ALBERT? THAT’S SPECIAL AGENT DALE COOPER! FOR GOD’S SAKES, JEFFRIES, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? YOU’VE BEEN GONE DAMN NEAR TWO YEARS!
Jeffries : The stories that I wanna tell you about… It was a dream! We live inside a dream!
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
I see no way we can go back, philosophically, to a world of absolutes. Which I feel very comfortable with and I always have done…I think seeing the problems that historians themselves have with revisionism of history it seems almost nonsensical for the layman to even bother to try and analyze history any more in a straight narrative way. In a way history almost ceases to exist—possibly we can’t really entertain the idea of a future in the same way. Which may be not a bad thing…I mean, by hacking off the limbs of both past and future we might have created a workable future where we have to deal with things on a day-to-day basis, rather than having long term plans for a world which really can’t afford to have long term plans.
Bowie to Ian Penman, Esquire, 1995.
Brian and I had both felt resolutely out of it. I tried passionately hard in the first part of the ’80s to fit in, and I had my first overground success. I was suddenly no longer the world’s biggest cult artist in popular music. I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance”, and it was driving me mad – because it took all my passion for experimenting away. I went through the doldrums at approximately the same time as Brian. I felt I really wanted to back off from music completely and just work within the visual arts in some way. I started painting quite passionately at that time. Then, toward the end of the ’80s, everything started to fall back into place again. It was as though there had been this hiatus where everything had stood still. Birds hung in the sky; they didn’t finish their flight.
Bowie to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, 1995.
Caller: How did you get the title for the new album and why is the title split up on the album cover? Bowie: Well it was kind of lugubrious, it was a rather a weak pun on the fact that I feel quite happy with life and anything else you want to read into it, you know, the work is never finished until the audience participates and all that. But I think the idea if you change the content of something, if you look at something that you know very well for a long time, it starts to disappear. So if you change the context of what that thing looks like people notice it more, so we put spaces in the word just to make you take in the word “Earthling” in a different way to how you would normally receive it. Riki Rachtman: What was that word again, there, nugubrious? Bowie:…It’s an old graphic design trick. Rachtman: Well you gotta help me with that other word David, I wanna learn a new word. “Unagubrious”? Bowie: [laughs] Lugubrious. Rachtman: Oh OK, I just want to say I learned that one — Bowie: It’s from Alfonse Lugubri, the old silent actor.
Bowie radio interview, Rockline, 1997.
Wake up, people of Omikron! Reshev and his corrupt government are lulling you to sleep in order to control you better. They have transformed you into puppets that are manipulated by Ix and the demons. Join the Awakened Ones and rise up to fight for your freedom.
Boz (Bowie)’s message; Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1998).
Jeremy Paxman: You’ve got to think that some of the claims being made for [the internet] are hugely exaggerated. I mean, when the telephone was invented, people made amazing claims.
Bowie:…No, you see, I don’t agree. I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.
Paxman: It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?
Bowie. No, it’s not. No. It’s an alien life form. [Laughs] Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here… I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.
Bowie on Newsnight, 1999
Isn’t it all so personal, though, isn’t really all so personal? If by consensus an artist is great, if numerically enough people like that artist, that he becomes a great artist? [Roy] Lichtenstein that way isn’t a great artist. How can he be a great artist if I don’t think he’s a great artist? I mean he had a great gag for the first few years, and then he just did it and did it and did it and then he died.
Bowie on Charlie Rose, 1998.
Our ace boon Arthur Jafa likes to say that ”Andy Warhol was so white he was black.” Bowie (who played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat) was likewise so avant-garde he tipped over into the Avant-‘Groid—that Afro-outré dimension where Little Richard and Sun Ra define how far out you can go and command love from the folk. Like Joni Mitchell—another unguilty pleasure of many boho blackfolk—Bowie double-crossed back over to black culture by being his own transcendently pan-everything creation. But not even Queen Mother Joni can say she provoked James Brown to copycat action twice in his career. JB was so blown away by Bowie’s ”Fame,” he cut his own carbon-copy track, ”Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved),” and, years later, when Bowie optioned his publishing for stock points, the Godfather of Soul got the news about how lucrative the deal proved and quickly followed suit. Bowie once said, “The secret to my success was I was always the second guy to come up with the idea.” All hip-hop junkies can relate.
I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young – there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store. I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it – hopefully – like Strauss, at 84.
I don’t think we are going to destroy it at all. I’m not that pessimistic. I just believe we’re going through a transition where we will become a humankind that accepts chaos as our basic premise.
Bowie, Soma interview, 2003.
I’m grateful for any audience, you know? It’s fine; I don’t care if they’ve got two heads. As long as they are there to enjoy themselves, come listen. I suppose the only thing I’m fairly strong-armed about is that I really kind of require them to get involved with the new material I’m writing as well as the older things.
Bowie, Weekly Dig interview, 2003.
The last time I saw him was in New York at a party in the early 2000s. I arrived a bit late and was surprised to see Bowie stepping out of a yellow cab. I asked him how he traveled about Manhattan, unrecognized and un-harassed. Simple, he said. I carry a Greek newspaper. He held it up…People think, hey that’s David Bowie! Then they see the newspaper and realize it’s just some Greek guy who looks like him.
It was early 2007. She was out in the East Village on St. Mark’s Place in the middle of a blizzard, trying to hail a cab. [There was] only one other pedestrian on the sidewalk. When a lone pair of headlights appeared through the snow, the stranger gallantly said, “go ahead.” She said, “why don’t we share?”…It was only in the cab that the scarves and hats came off and she said, “Oh, I know who you are.” She made the split-second (but brilliant) decision to start talking about herself and tell him her entire life story, so he could relax and not have to entertain this stranger he was trapped with…She told him every last detail of her family life (“You’ve got to forgive, for your own sake,” he kept telling her) until the taxi reached Soho. As she got out, he said, “Now when you tell your friends about this, make sure you mention that I was wearing fabulous shoes.”
Rob Sheffield, on his friend’s encounter with Bowie (On Bowie, 2016).
“I’m not thinking of touring,” he said. “I’m comfortable.” He draws, paints and collects 20th Century British art.
Bowie’s last quote to the New York Times, in a profile of his wife, 6 June 2010.
Here’s what David sent me (and I should thank him for doing it, and so I fervently thank him here):
Bowie’s list was left-justified, but probably because he didn’t want to take the time to center justify, and also his list was purposefully double-spaced.
Rick Moody, 25 April 2013.
That’s why I’m so puzzled when people say [my work is] all dark, dark, dark, whereas I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. Obvious beauty. I’m not a religious man, but it’s a longing. For who knows. For existence itself. True existence. It’s a longing for a calling. It’s just a feeling that it might be there.
Scott Walker, 2012.
There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.
Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective.
I know something’s very wrong The pulse returns the prodigal sons The blackout hearts the flowered news With skull designs upon my shoes
“I Can’t Give Everything Away”
NEWTON: And I’m not of this world. And not yet marked by this place here. Not pinned down in this apartment—not divided into days and praying for my death—and bullied by this broken mind—and before all of this happened to me—and before the journey down here—to wake in the place where I was born. And to be up there.
Lazarus (Bowie/Walsh, 2015).
I remember when I found out about 2:30 in the morning that he’d passed, I was laying in bed, my partner woke me up; she’d heard from Duncan [Bowie’s son]. I just kind of laid in bed and I started laughing. She said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Because we had so much fun.“
The night of April 14, 1865, and Lincoln’s assassination. As Lincoln drew his last breath, all the worthies who had crowded into a little back bedroom in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre turned to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War, for a final word….Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
I picked up James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering…Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’ Now he belongs to the angels? Where had that come from?…In the endnotes, Swanson explained that his rendering was deliberately at variance with the scholarly consensus: “In my view, shared by Jay Winik, the most persuasive interpretation supports ‘angels’ and is also more consistent with Stanton’s character and faith.”
…I made up my mind about what must have happened: Stanton had muttered “angels,” been heard as saying “ages,” and, if he had been asked which afterward, would have been torn. He might have decided to enable the mishearing, in order to place Lincoln in history, not Heaven. It seemed possible that both versions were true, one to the intention and the other to the articulation, one to the emotion of the moment and one, in retrospect, to the meaning of the life. Angels or ages? Lincoln belongs to both.
…And then I knew that we probably would not have understood any better had we been standing there than we do now. Stanton was weeping, Lincoln had just died, the room was overwhelmed, whatever he said was broken by a sob—the sob, in a sense, is the story. History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn’t what’s heard, and what is heard isn’t what gets repeated…The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.
Adam Gopnik, “Angels and Ages,” The New Yorker, 28 May 2007.
This is the tenth-annual Bowiesongs Christmas post. For those who didn’t read the thing back in the early to mid-2010s, the joke was that each year’s edition was supposed to be the last Christmas post, as we were about to run out of songs to cover. Then came Next Day, Blackstar, and (waves hands around) all this.
Now the Xmas post has become a check-in: my hope that everyone’s doing as well as they can be. Here’s to another Christmas, to the new year. May it be a happy one for all of you.
For me, 2022 will be about revising Rebel Rebel, still working on 64 Quartets (Quartet No. 8 coming in the next few months), and making some wonderful changes to my life. As Patrick Troughton once said, “life depends on change, and renewal.”
Dr. Leah Kardos is a composer and musician, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, and the founder of Kingston University’s Stylophone Orchestra. She’s written a book on David Bowie, entitled Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie, which Bloomsbury Academic publishes in January in the U.S. and February in the UK. (The e-book is out now!)
Blackstar Theory isn’t a Bowie biography, nor is it something as foolhardy as a chronological song-by-song guide to Bowie’s music (cough). Instead, as Kardos writes in her introduction:
What this book does do is explore some of the interconnected webs of meaning that are observable in the work itself. By ‘the work’ I refer not only to the primary outputs of the period in question, but to the artistry embedded within that connects with Bowie’s entire sphere of activity – his career history and the totality of his observable creative practice across time. Although Blackstar Theory deals with death as a subject, it is not the aim of the book…The aim is to approach the realities of Bowie’s mortality using the same terms as he used in commenting and wrestling with it through his work.
Part of this entails Kardos breaking down every Blackstar song and some Next Day ones (I regret that these musical analyses weren’t available for me to rely on in Ashes to Ashes, but am also grateful that I didn’t have to match the caliber of Kardos’ work here—it’s thorough, intelligent, and definitive). She explores some likely influences on Bowie’s last works, including Carl Jung’s dream journal and Dennis Potter’s last teleplays, and has fresh interviews with the likes of Tony Visconti, with whom she’s worked for years. It’s a major addition to the Bowie critical “canon.”
Leah and I spoke via Zoom in early December—the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
CO: It’s still unclear to me, after all this time, whether Bowie, when he was putting out all of this stuff in his last years, had something like a complete design in mind. I guess I always saw him as someone who’d more draft extensive plans that would never come to fruition, as he’d abandon them to move onto something more interesting. But there’s a narrative logic to the 2013-2016 period, even if unintended. Do you think so, too? Do you see an overarching pattern?
Leah Kardos: I get the impression that he was an intuitive creator. He followed his nose and was really grabbing at anything to try out. However, certainly since diving into the last works and from that position looking back at the rest of the catalog…you recall all those interviews in 2003 when he was saying “I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always been the same question about isolation and identity, etc.” I started to think, “actually, yeah, you might be onto something there!” Because he really is just talking about the same things repeatedly, just putting a different costume on each time. Approaching the same question from different angles.
The consistency of his catalog is something that’s really struck me since he died. When he was alive, he’d provide something interesting and new, and because we didn’t have the full rear-view picture, it kind of felt like we were floating along with the changes. But I was really struck by the coherence of the catalog. One reason why Blackstar Theory came about was the realization that wow, it really does hang together. The longer you look at it, the better it gets.
CO: One thing I’ve found when I was writing about not just the Blackstar period but Hunky Dory and Station to Station is interacting with a few people, over the years, who really take the occult side of Bowie very seriously. Who appear to believe there is a master plan, that Bowie was dead serious about it all and had mapped everything out.
LK: That there’s a code to be cracked.
CO: Yes, all a bit Da Vinci Code. I do still love the Villa of Ormen Tumblr.1I love the unsolved mystery of that. That could have been him: it’s not out of speculation.
LK: It’s in the realm of possibility. And it seems on brand for him to fuck with people like that. He knew how to slide into a chatroom and pretend to be someone else. I think also all of that fulfilled the function, the drama, the theater, the fact that he was so officially quiet and yet so forthcoming in other ways. Sneaky. Putting this shroud of numinous energy over the last album. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to have done that. And the fact it’s unresolved is delicious.
Part One: The Set-Up (The Next Day)
CO: So, in your book, as this late period begins, another is winding down. You were a BowieNetter2, and that era seems like such a contrast to the late years. In the late Nineties, he’s Accessible Bowie. He’s chatting with fans, having in-studio live feeds, doing interviews with anybody who claimed to be a journalist. It must have been a fun period for you—does it feel bizarre in retrospect?
LK: It felt very normal for me—I joined BowieNet when I just came out of high school and was just starting to discover Bowie. Back then you bought a CD from HMV or whatever and it would have a card inside saying, ‘join BowieNet!’ I had no idea that being a fan could be any other way, and I discovered the career backstory retrospectively. It was strange when he left us all hanging, but of course we knew he was sick, what more you want? You don’t want to be that kind of fan.
Looking back now, what a remarkable thing it was. It felt so normal at the time, I made friends in the UK when I was still in Australia, probably the seeds of my immigration, to come to England and live here, began there. There are friends I met on BowieNet who I’m still close with today. It’s hugely important to me. His “dad jokes, everyguy, I’m just normal Dave” act, well I fell for it. Obviously he was right to get the hell off of the internet and away from social media when he did.
CO: Your book is primarily about The Next Day and Blackstar. Do you see the beginning of this period with his reunion with Tony Visconti in the early 2000s?
LK: That’s the way I see it, in two categories—the ‘late period’ from Heathen to Blackstar, and the ‘last works’ between 2013–2016. Because the sound of Heathen I feel is traceable right to the end. I also think Tony brought out a certain type of music from Bowie.
The period is also marked by Bowie’s autonomous process. He didn’t have a guitarist or co-writer coming up with material, so in a way the music there links further back to Buddha of Suburbia—that’s just the sound of David making his music, his way, that’s what he sounds like. Writing everything himself in his little home studio. And there’s the freedom of ISO.3 Also Heathen’s introspective anxiety seems to intensify throughout.
So when I pulled it all together, I thought I’d draw a line on it. Some people refer to this is his neoclassicist period, but I’d say it’s more accurately defined as his late period, due to him finding a more consistent approach to music making with Tony, free from label demands, and of course the conscious playing around with his own history.
I also wanted to put the focus back on the songcraft and not define things by the haircut he had at the time. I really wanted to get away from that.
CO: We’ve talked before about his love of the Korg.4How best to describe how odd his affection for this keyboard was—while it’s not a kid’s keyboard, it’s no state of the art synthesizer either.
LK; It was a pretty cool keyboard in 1997. If you needed to save patches on it, there was a module that attached to it and you could save them on floppy discs. I quizzed Tony about the Korg a lot, I was really fascinated by it. The sounds that come from it are weird and incongruous. Like, why choose that? The sounds in something like “Dancing Out in Space”: why are they choosing that? It always came down to this keyboard. He loved that thing.
CO: He was a big preset guy too, I recall Visconti saying.
LK: He did like the old preset but apparently he also knew how to go in and tweak a preset, making something more bespoke. I downloaded all the Korg effects, there’s a sample pack you can find online, and I went through them and I couldn’t find all of them [that were used on the albums], so I suspect there was some parameter fiddling going on.
CO: His composition style is often about what instrument he’s mostly using at the time, right? Space Oddity is the 12-string acoustic; Hunky Dory is the piano. Are the late records in part Korg compositions, deep in their bedrock?
LK: They are! And they’re also owed to the Zoom R24 multitrack unit he had,5 the way he was creating his demos. I spoke to Henry Hey and he got rough demos sent to him, Tony as well, and they had a particular sound about them. You listen to the Lazarus soundtrack, particularly “When I Met You” or that early version of “Lazarus,” you’ll hear these weird guitar parts in there. That was a detail on the demo and Henry said he wanted to honor that.
The demoing comes into its own in the late period, the particularity of the choices that David makes tended to get translated. Tony bought his own Zoom unit so he could figure out how to work with it. Reportedly David would say things like ‘I like the way I did it [on the demo], I don’t see why I have to do it again.’ So the demoing is bleeding into the end results.
CO: The demoing is far different from the old days when he’d go into the studio and tell Carlos Alomar, “okay, this is in A major, and have this funk riff here, and let’s work this out.”
LK: All those [Young Americans session] tapes at the Drexel Archive that Toby Seay has6 is literally that private process of him demoing, but he needed a band to do it back then. So [home demoing] gave him a lot of autonomy in the late period. He didn’t have to rely on a Reeves in the room, on Mark [Plati] in the room, and I think you can hear it in the choices he makes. Some of them sound naïve, some sound exquisite—you get both with Bowie’s demoing.
CO: You mention he’s even doing the scoring—again, this was something he always had to have Ronson or Visconti do—he’s even taking that in-house.
LK: The fact he was achieving this with his basic Zoom digital multitrack unit and not, say, ProTools on a Mac or PC…it’s amazing.
CO: Among my what-could-have-beens if Bowie was still alive, I wonder if he would’ve done a McCartney II7 at some point—a whole record from the Bowie home studio.
LK: Which is one of the oddest things he ever produced. And Tony was emphatic about how much he loves that version, he told me that for him it rivals the Blackstar version. It’s a very strange record indeed, I really enjoyed analyzing it.
CO: You go a lot into Bowie’s “late voice” which you describe wonderfully as having the “wow and flutter of ancient tape.”
LK: Tony is very keen to say whenever he has the opportunity that Bowie’s voice was brilliant to the end. And he was in the room, so who can argue. However in the Whatley Last Five Years documentary, when they isolate the ‘Lazarus’ vocal, you can hear how raspy he sounds. There’s a heavy frail grandeur to Bowie’s late voice that I spend a bit of time trying to frame in the book. Thankfully, another feature of the period is the consistently great vocal takes Tony manages to draw from him, so there’s a lot of musical examples to dig into.
Another thing about the late period is the ensemble singing. It’s often an orchestra of voices beautifully arranged, walls of harmony, call and response, octaves and unisons, left and right spread out, sometimes barely audible—you realize, wow, it must have taken ages to do all of that.
CO: He had on call a singer as good as Gail Ann Dorsey but he chose to do all the vocals himself, for the most part right? He used [engineer] Erin Tonkon for a few things.8
LK: There’s a heck of a lot of him, just walls of David on the Next Day even though he’s got Janice Pendarvis, Gail and Erin and what sounds like a gospel choir there, he uses voices in a painterly way. I mean think about “The Informer” and what’s going on with the vocal arrangement and its construction—that must have been a few days’ work at least. That’s a lot of architectural detail to render.
You know that footage of Lou Reed isolating the backing vocals of “Satellite of Love” and saying ‘how does David do this?’ That’s what I think about the backing vocals of The Next Day—they’re so intricate. Maybe he did spend a bit too much time on that record, those details are so gothic.
CO: The Next Day is in an interesting place right now, reputation wise. There was the initial “he’s back! this is great!” and then with Blackstar, it wasn’t quite a backlash but more a “Blackstar is what Next Day should have been” kind of revision. Where would you rank it now? I find it’s a major record but also an overlong one, and the sequencing feels off.
LK: When The Next Day came out remember feeling ambivalent about it— for me it felt like the album was trying too hard, perhaps overcompensating for something. But I wanted to love it, and of course the first half is super-strong. I think those appraisals were battered by information overload—that’s how I came into it, really loving the good bits on it and hating stuff I thought was badly executed.
Then when I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.
One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything. I found an interview with Tony Oursler where he said he and Bowie were involved with the V&A exhibition, they were involved with planning it, and Jonathan Barnbrook also confirmed [Bowie] had his hand in it. So you can add the V&A to the pile of Next Day and Next Day Extra: he was giving us a lot of information in a deliberately impersonal arrangement. An invitation to participate and construct something meaningful from the bits and pieces. One can really sense his directorial hand in all of it, the ‘David Bowie Is…’ question being explored on all sides.
CO: For Next Day and Blackstar, he turned over the promotion of the albums to all those who played on it. This was unusual: if you look back, say for Earthling, maybe Reeves did an interview with a guitar magazine but otherwise it was all Bowie Bowie Bowie, saying ‘this is what the album’s about.’ But now you have everybody but Bowie doing substantial interviews: the drummers, the backing singers, the engineers. It seems to be deliberate in that he was already removing himself from his work, quite early on.
LK: I agree. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Remystification’ where I’m trying to look at that movement, how he made that retreat. Also to think about ways he represented his own art: refusing to talk but at the same time laterally making more stuff for us to engage with: all the music videos embedded with Easter eggs, the lists, the books. I enjoyed that new kind of intimacy with his material, matched with his absolute disengagement with the media.
Part Two: The Performance (Lazarus)
CO: The middle section of your book is about Lazarus the play. You saw it in its first run in New York [December 2015-January 2016], as I did, and you describe the audience reaction as being much like the one I was in, with everyone walking out of the theater saying “what the fuck was that about?”
LK: The group I was with were like “What was that? Did you like it? I don’t know, I think I loved it. I hated it.”
CO: I’m glad it’s being staged more. At first, it was just this two-month off-Broadway run in this small theater, so it felt like a secret thing that lot of fans didn’t know about because they couldn’t see it. The missing piece of the puzzle.
LK: It’s so crucial, I felt. I think it’s successful. I think it does what it’s meant to do. But the timing of it, you know, it changed it. I saw it while he was alive and again after he died. There’s no way you can come to it the same way again, and no way the play could say the same thing that it first did. It really does exist separately in that first run up until he died. You can see the change in what the new directors are doing with it. It’s really not about [Thomas Jerome] Newton at all anymore, it’s more a Bowie-like character having a dream.
He worked so hard on it and I felt the need to really go deep on it in the book because he devoted and sequestered a lot of his time on it in his final two years. It deserves a deep diving analysis, absolutely.
CO: I’m curious if it will survive as a piece of drama, if it could be staged in 2070, when few people will still have memories of David Bowie while he was alive. Or will it have a short life? I still find Lazarus hard to grapple with. It’s the closest I ever felt to seeing how Bowie’s mind worked, being able to peep in on his thought processes. Like someone recounting a dream to you.
LK: I really love it, and I’m still kind of afraid of it. As a theater piece, if you come into it cold, in one sitting it’s really difficult to grasp because it shunts you about between violence and pantomime and comedy and Bowie songs you love, followed by murders and blood. It’s a lot. As an audience member you come out of there feeling quite punch-drunk: is this what he wanted us to see and feel before he left us? There’s a lot there that works with Bowie’s established archetypes, all the Jungian stuff, the lines all but ripped from the Red Book.9The Looking Glass Murders redux.10
CO: You devote a good amount of space to the late works of Dennis Potter, which I really thought was right on the money. I had no idea Potter had a piece called Cold Lazarus! When I read that I cracked up: “Bowie, you thief.”
LK: Based on something Enda said, I checked out The Singing Detective11 and my jaw was on the floor—there are so many references I recognized from Next Day and Lazarus. Also Potter’s deliberate merging of his biography and his legacy and his myth in the fictions he was creating, muddling it up on purpose to make it richer and more emotionally dense and confusing. You recall the Bowie quote “I think I like complications… I like thickly textured things.”
In Cold Lazarus,12 there is this sequence where the memories of this detached head are projected on screen and go backwards, not through the character’s life but Dennis Potter’s life: this was staged with his direction from beyond the grave. Same in Lazarus: Newton is completely woven into Bowie’s myth almost to point of interchangeability: people see Newton and see Bowie. The blurring allows the show to function like a performed closure of a public life.
CO: It’s amazing how much of a through line Newton is for Bowie. I heard “Looking For Water” playing a while ago and thought “that’s another Newton song.” Is it strange how much he identified with the character?
LK: I was digging around those issues of Modern Painters from the mid-Nineties, and in that interview he does with Balthus he brings up the Bruegel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus again. That’s another detail directly lifted from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film. He really did keep referencing and returning to that text.
CO: The recurrence of stars is another one. Towards the end, he’s playing with the idea of a star aging, or dying, like a red giant.
LK: Which I took from you!
CO: Which I may have gotten from one of my commenters, Deanna Kerry, who was an astrophysics grad student at the time—I later asked her to explain blackstars, which she did as well as she could to a scientifically-challenged person like me. It seems like a cliché that everything with Bowie is stars, everything is black holes, but as you said the consistency is unnerving at times. You wonder: did he really have it all figured out in 1968? Maybe that’s all on the Ernie Johnson tape,13which is why we’ll never hear it.
LK: My favorite dead star metaphor reference is in that conversation with Burroughs where he’s describing, down to the costumes, the Ziggy Stardust storyline of dead stars, and aliens traveling along the black holes, all this stuff borrowed from Kubrick’s movie and Quatermass. With immaculate consistency following through with it.
Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.
Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the Infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.
Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense.
From Craig Copetas, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman,” Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.
CO: In the late work, Bowie seems to be in dialogue with other older musicians, you note. Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is very much an influence on Heathen, I’ve thought.
LK: I think so too, so many great parallels. The more you look at them, you think, were they looking over each other’s shoulders? While Dylan was writing Chronicles, Bowie’s working on his books. There are the musicals with Irish playwrights14; the archives.
Part Three: The Prestige (Blackstar)
CO: Moving to the third part of your book, “the prestige” as you call it: Blackstar itself. How essential is the Maria Schneider “Sue”—is that necessary to get to Blackstar?
LK: It’s exciting [the 2014 “Sue”], isn’t it—it’s such a great noir, so dark and elegant. That said, I do prefer the roughness and aggro of the album version, it’s got a lot more emotion in it for me. For the big band version Maria keeps it firmly in control. But there’s something about “Sue” on Blackstar that’s out of control, it’s fucking nuts. I really appreciate the chaos and mess of the Blackstar version.
CO: I have wondered what a full album of Bowie/Schneider would have been like, but I wonder if it was best as this one-off thing.
LK: Would it have been too glamorous sounding? Those large jazz orchestras sound so luxe and shiny to my ear. I wonder if an all Schneider/Bowie project would have felt like a detour in the grand album narrative, like Baal, or that Badalamenti collab. It’s hard to imagine because I love the Blackstar stuff so much.
CO: On Blackstar, while Bowie lets Donny McCaslin and the band have plenty of space, he’s the middle of it all, he’s the controlling figure. Whereas Schneider and Bowie are kind of equals and combating each other, influence wise, in “Sue.”
LK: I’d agree and I love the presence of Donny as being something like Bowie’s emotional avatar, not vying for equal billing, but supplying a musical commentary underneath Bowie’s vocal performance. And it really articulates something: the solo on “Lazarus,” the way it dramatizes a song which on paper is quite simple. The soling on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also. It reaches towards those inexpressible things, the unsayable stuff. And I’m so glad the last song didn’t end up being “Heat.”
CO: As the legendary Crayon to Crayon said, it’s a blast that the last song on the last Bowie album ends with this noodling, almost prog guitar.
LK: I love it—I’m so thankful for that. The rest of the albums from the late period end on a somber note, so I’m glad he chose to do that with the last one.
CO: For me “Dollar Days” feels like an epilogue, the calm after the storm, a song about wanting to go home but knowing you will never go home again.
LK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it—slipping off the mask a bit, a vulnerable moment. A song about being English and missing England and being okay with it. What I particularly love about that song is Bowie’s thoughtful use of harmony and structure to dramatize the lyric. He’s really mindful of the chords he’s using and the relationships between them, he’s playing with tension.
A lot of these details can get missed—people concentrate on the lyric, or the voice, understandably. But he’s there on his Korg putting a lot of thought and effort into the musical details, embedding references, playing into and against expectations. One reason I wanted to write this book was to give space to unpacking these kinds of details.
CO: He obviously knew a lot about music, having written it for 50 years—how much did you get a sense of how advanced his knowledge was of composition and theory? He’d sometimes say he was more of a ‘that sounds cool!’ type of composer. You mention on “Love Is Lost” an organ figure Bowie got by playing only black keys on his Korg. Schneider described this sort of thing to me as “the element of surprise,” which she thought was fundamental to his work.
LK: He was so omnivorous with his listening. There’s so much he takes from jazz, classical and experimental music and I really think he downplayed his musicianship a lot in public: the catalog tells another story.
The way he commands harmony even in some of his earliest pieces of music: it’s not someone playing a keyboard and saying, ‘that sounds cool.’ You’ve got “Moonage Daydream” transporting you through secondary dominant progressions15 in the first few bars. You’ve got beautiful chromatic transpositions treading through the bridge of “Life on Mars.” All the way through to the cadences of “Dollar Days.”
The chords of “Buddha of Suburbia” are amazing to look at. The way it’s pinned down on D with E minor and a G minor over the top, and then he flips it into B minor, then to B-flat—this isn’t a dude who just knows two chords on the guitar and can only play five notes. There’s immense sophistication going on. This kind of Eno ‘I’m not a musician, I’m just a dabbler’ thing allows him to engage in rule breaking, like he’s never claimed to be authentic about his music or belonging to any formal tradition with it. I will forever be an advocate for Bowie’s compositional prowess. It’s the reason why I love his music.
However he also struggled with his confidence. I asked Tony about The Next Day: why did it take so long? He said it was his confidence.
CO: It’s amazing to think of Bowie sitting there going “am I past it? Do the kids not want to hear from me anymore?”
LK: Which again is so touching. Sometimes I go a few years without making music and then I try to go back to it and think ‘can I really do this?’ Particularly if music creativity is intuitive for you, if you’re not engaging with it all the time, that kind of magic can disappear and you don’t have ready access to it anymore–you have to build it up again from nothing. I see Bowie as a modern romantic—in his best moments showing uniquely exquisite songcraft easily on par with Sondheim,16 Bacharach, or McCartney.
CO: Does the last work need to be the last work? Does it lose its power if Bowie lives five more years and makes two more records?
LK: It’s the question that drove me to change the nature of the book. I originally pitched it as Bowie’s Death Art…does the last work need to be the last in order to work? I don’t think so. I think those couple of days when he was alive and we had Blackstar: it was great, and I remember listening to it and thinking “oh my gosh, he’s given us a gem. He’s given us a diamond.” I was really looking forward to spending a few months digging into it. And then he died and it changed it immediately. So many people went back and revised their takes, kinda shutting the book on it quickly and shutting down the album’s lovely sense of ambiguity.
CO: Seemingly everyone who worked with him on the last record has said he wanted to do more.
LK: I think it’s disrespectful for us to presume Bowie made his last work while he waited for death. All evidence suggests that he was deep in the middle of a creative momentum, that he had sessions booked, he had people on the phone, “I’ve got ideas, I’ve got demos, I’ve got new songs.” He’d found a purple patch! He was making some amazing work and he knew it. He knew he was back in. Blackstar has such a momentum about it. You feel like if they’d had a few more sessions they would have come up even more incredible stuff.
CO: The idea of him doing a show with the McCaslin quartet [as McCaslin said he and Bowie discussed in 2015] is…just incredible.
LK: I can picture it as well. Imagine hearing ‘Tis a Pity’ live!
CO: He was never going to go on tour again and sing “Rebel Rebel” to a stadium. But a jazz club within walking distance of his apartment, that was more his style. That was the story of his last years, right?17
LK: “If I can walk there.”
CO: Is there a sense there are outtakes from these last albums that will one day be heard? There’s “Blaze,” we know.18Are there other songs kicking around, do you think?
LK: The estate has got a lid on whatever exists. It seems that Donny’s got demos and bits of song ideas we’ve never heard before sitting in his inbox. It’s totally feasible that there’s unfinished files and sketches left on the Zoom R24 recorder. But you know, I don’t need it. I’d be devastated if someone went through my files and published my unfinished stuff.
CO: He was never much of an archival guy, musically—getting demos and outtakes from him for reissues was like pulling teeth at times. The idea of him doing a Dylan Bootleg Series is unlikely.
LK: Yeah I think so. Consider his process. For most of his career the way he developed songs was with the help of others. He would have been in a room with the tape or Pro Tools rolling, messing around with musicians and finding what sticks. He needed everyone to respect his privacy, to realize this is process, this is not the finished article. It would be highly rude for someone to share some half-baked shit with the world now that he’s gone. I’m sure there are process-based demos that have Donny’s band, bits of music they didn’t use, and if anything features Donny’s band I bet those sketches would sound especially great and listenable. Hopefully people can keep it all under wraps—I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!
Thanks again to Leah Kardos! Blackstar Theory can be purchased as an e-book now or, in Jan/Feb, in your favorite indie bookstore.
1. A now-defunct Tumblr page (originally: http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com/archive) from November-December 2015 that contained a number of black-and-white photos, some of which had eerie similarities to images that appear in the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos. No further posts were made after Bowie’s death, and to this day, no one can say with certainty who was responsible for it.
2. Bowie’s webpage/ISP/message board of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, on which he regularly took part in chat rooms, usually under the moniker “sailor,” and shared journal entries and photos. His appearances became much more sporadic after his heart operation in 2004, and as per Kardos, his last interaction as “sailor” was in 2007, around the same time that he stopped doing live appearances for good.
3. Bowie’s independent label, artist roster of one, which he started in 2001; EMI’s rejection of Toy was the last straw for him, in re working for major labels, though ISO has always had a distribution arrangement with one.
4. The Korg Trinity (Bowie also used a Korg Pandora effects unit and a vintage ARP Odyssey), which dates to 1995. You first hear it on the Omikron soundtrack and ‘hours,’ though as Kardos notes, the Korg is a fundamental part of Bowie’s music right until the end.
5. As per Kardos, “the Bowie home studio setup was connected to a Zoom R24 digital multitrack recorder, which came with an on-board drum machine, bass synthesizer, audio loop editor and a step/real-time sequencer. Even as home recording practices quickly evolved in the early millennium towards software applications like Logic and Pro Tools, Bowie preferred to stick with his Zoom hard disc recorder, a relatively limited and old-fashioned piece of kit by the time he used it to produce the 2014 version of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’.”
6. Both Leah and I have visited this archive, located a quick walk from Philadelphia’s 30th St. station. You can read more about these tapes in Rebel Rebel, though Leah went one better and played excerpts from the tapes at a conference with Drexel’s Toby Seay.
8. Tonkon, to Kardos in Blackstar Theory: “For women, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you work in studios, times when you have to smile and put on a happy face and put up with things, but working with David was the opposite of that. I was able to learn so much from him – creative lessons, life lessons … I learned an incredible amount. He was a good person.”
9. Kardos: “The Red Book was Jung’s own private dream journal-cum-art project, a personal record of his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, a series of disturbing visions that he experienced during a time when he was close to having a psychotic breakdown as Europe stood at the edge of the First World War. It was finally published in 2009 and its handwritten pages, paintings and drawings were shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (October 2009 to February 2010),” an exhibit which Bowie and Oursler saw at the time.
10. Lindsay Kemp’s 1970 televised version of Pierrot in Turquoise, for which Bowie sang “When I Live My Dream” and other compositions. Lots of dreams, mirrors, bedrooms, killings.
11. One of Potter’s masterpieces, The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) has Michael Gambon as a writer, Philip Marlow, recovering from a vicious bout of psoriatic arthritis in a hospital ward. The second episode is entitled “Heat.” Kardos’ book lists a number of fascinating parallels between Singing Detective and Bowie’s last works.
12. Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC, 1996), was, along with its twin production Karaoke, Potter’s last work, written as he was dying from pancreatic cancer and produced after his death in 1994.
13. Legendary 1968 “rock opera” demo tape of Bowie’s that was auctioned to a record collector in the Nineties.
14. Enda Walsh (Lazarus) and Conor McPherson (Girl From the North Country).
15. A secondary dominant is, typically, a chord that’s “borrowed” from a key other than that of the song, often employed to anticipate the arrival of the key’s true dominant (the V chord). So “Moonage,” which is in D major, opens: “I’m an all-i-ga-tor!” (D, the I or “home” chord), “I’m a mamapapa comin’ for you!” (F-sharp major, a III chord (the secondary dominant), quickly resolving to B minor, the vi chord of D, with a root note of A (the root of the key’s true V chord): “I’m a space invader.”
16. Bowie, 2008: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.“
17. Well, he’d have taken the limo, most likely.
18. Of the various outtakes rumored to have come from The Next Day and Blackstar, only “Blaze” from the latter sessions, which Nicholas Pegg and other sources have heard, is verified to have a complete Bowie vocal/lyric. Many other outtakes of the period likely only have place-filler DB top melodies, Kardos speculates from her research and interviews.
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.
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
(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 Worldof 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, 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.