Conversation Piece


Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).

[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”

That’s it until after the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. For non-U.S. readers, happy Thursday.

12 Responses to Conversation Piece

  1. Ian says:

    It is strange to contemplate some album decisions, the non-inclusion of “Conversation Piece” is certainly among the biggest oddities. Perhaps it was too bleak? But things like Dream and Letter are a little bleak too, if not in a much more vague and flute-filled way.

    Perhaps it was the idea that I’ve heard of the song that it ends with the suicide of the character. I’ve never thought of it this way. To me, the song is much more tragic if he simply walks by the bridge crying everyday. I don’t know, what do you think? Suicide or sorrow?

  2. col1234 says:

    I think there is enough room for a suicide interpretation–the last chorus, about not being able to see the water, could be read as sung by the poor sod jumping off the bridge. But it’s a bit of a stretch, and it’s certainly even sadder to imagine the character just going on living, year after year, in his current state.

  3. snoball says:

    “Conversation Piece” reminds me a bit of the later song “Quicksand”. Both tracks seem to be about a socially isolated character living a solitary intellectual life. And both have a possible suicide interpretation – particularly the line “knowledge comes with death’s release” in “Quicksand”.

  4. Ian says:

    An interesting connection, but I feel like Quicksand has much less despair in resignation than Conversation Piece. It seems to me like in Quicksand, something like “knowledge comes with death’s release” is a statement, not a fact. If you get what I mean by that..

  5. Mr Tagomi says:

    Are you sure this is a Bowie composition? I could have sworn I saw a songwriting credit for it somewhere, and it was not him.

  6. K.W. Taylor says:

    This is hands down my favorite Bowie track (though I prefer the ’69 version, the Toy version is kind of a haunting remake/sequel, of sorts, if we see the narrator having grown old with this behavior; the lower register really works for this). I never saw the narrator committing suicide; he’s almost too in his own head to even do that, as he “can’t see” anything through his own tears. I think it’s both a reflection and referendum against such isolation, in a way, though the “essays lying scattered on the floor” that “fulfill their needs just by being there” are reminiscent of the loneliness of making art, of writing, or anything else drafted by oneself. Even songwriting can be lonely in this regard, though the finished product is meant to be shared more externally than other types of art. The narrator also has people who try to reach out to him, but he is somewhat dismissive of their offers, such as from his landlord. The description of “my hands shake, my head hurts, my voice sticks inside my throat, I’m invisible and dumb, and no one will recall me” sounds like the throes of serious clinical depression, whether ongoing or temporary (the hands shaking could also be a symptom of anxiety or even drug use or withdrawal from drugs or alcohol). And yet the ’69 version’s vocals and the way the almost steel guitar lilts in and out is nearly hopeful, as is the flow of the lyrics. We don’t have that same sense of hope quite so present on the Toy version, which again sort of goes with my theory this is just a continuation of that inner conversation.

  7. Is it possible that Bowie is singing in the 2002 version while listening to himself in the original? The timing is very similar- and there is a real flatness in tone that sounds like it might be for harmonics. It would be fascinating to have the two vocals isolated and spliced.

    • Marc Skeldon says:

      I thought the exact same thing, it’s almost like the 2001 toy version vocals are a backing vocal for the 1969 version and I thought the same if someone could combine the 2 vocals, I think they would sound great.

  8. leonoutside says:

    “Idle Thoughts” – yours, not Garson’s. Chris, Jerome K Jerome and you share much in common. “Idle Thought of An Idle Fellow”, “Three Men…” have echos throughout your pages. My salute sir…excellent work. Love the musings and the details.

  9. Mary Lowder says:

    I love both versions and can’t get enough of this song. Garson’s piano in the latter version captures the melancholy perfectly. I just see the tough times David went thru as a struggling artist, lost in the hugeness of humanity. Shine on David!

  10. The second version is haunting and just speaks to me because his tone is very close to his conversational voice which I suspect may have been on purpose.
    The seemingly toneless and matter of fact expression of a man grown older; which in itself says so much of his situation.
    And his harmony really does remind me of the sound of his voice in the first version. How nothing has changed yet everything has changed.

    I’ve read several of your other posts and realize this is an older one, so no idea why I’m finally posting a thought and thank you for all you contribute, but here it is…Thank you!

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