The gorgeous “Lady Grinning Soul” seems written for an imaginary film. As James Perone notes, Bowie’s song is melodically similar to Quincy Jones’ “On Days Like These,” which opens The Italian Job, while his vocal’s initial upward leap and step-by-step descent echoes Max Steiner’s main theme for Gone With The Wind. Most of all, “Lady Grinning Soul” is Bowie’s lost James Bond movie theme song, seemingly paced to accompany a Maurice Binder title sequence. Even the last line, “your living end,” sounds like an Ian Fleming title (one far better than, say, “Quantum of Solace”).
The lyrical signifiers—Volkswagen Bugs, canasta, Americard (Visa’s original name)—don’t really connote glamour or mystery, though. If anything, they suggest my late grandmother, and possibly yours. Perhaps Bowie wanted a cultural mishmash, with French perfume, Uruguayan card games, German cars and American credit used as shorthand to indicate the Lady is pure cosmopolitan: stateless, rootless, all-conquering. Or maybe it was just Bowie taking delight in savoring the strange words, the tripping syllables of “canasta,” the melodious depths of “cologne.”
It’s said to be about the singer Claudia Lennear, and it’s more tasteful than her other alleged tribute, “Brown Sugar.” But there’s a vagueness to the Lady’s character, with the cinematic feel of the music and the lyric’s oddities lessening the sense the song’s about a specific person. “Lady Grinning Soul” is more the glory of a perfect symbol, one through which someone trapped in life can find release, false or no. The key line is “how can life become her point of view?,” liberation from the self by submission to another, possibly ending in death. (For Bowie, this is a love song.)
Everyone on the track seems dressed to the nines. It’s the closing number, after all. Mike Garson’s piano intro gives a taste of the verse vocal melody and adds a Spanish tinge. His piano cascades through much of the track: in the verses, he spins out repeated arpeggios with his right hand while Bowie sings, as though he’s trying to upset Bowie’s timing. “French, with a little Franz Liszt thrown in,” Garson described his playing to David Buckley, adding that he also took cues from Liberace. So the avant-garde piano of “Aladdin Sane” is replaced by something that comes close, at times, to vintage European schlock—Garson’s performance is the biggest clue that “Lady Grinning Soul” could actually be something of a parody.
Mick Ronson plays a Spanish-style acoustic guitar solo against Garson’s arpeggios (with Garson eventually echoing Ronson’s playing), and finishes off the track without artifice, his electric guitar playing soaring, vibrato-saturated notes as the lights dim. Bowie’s saxophone arrangement and his vocal are the finest on the record, with Bowie sounding like a man who swallowed a dream. “Lady Grinning Soul” ends a sordid, urban and often-cynical record with pure delusive romance.
Recorded ca. 20-24 January 1973. “Lady Grinning Soul” was the last song written for, recorded for, and sequenced on Aladdin Sane (Bowie scrapped a remake of “John I’m Only Dancing,” which was intended to be the album closer, possibly because it spoiled the LP’s closing mood). Bowie has never performed it live.
Top: Francis Bacon, Triptych, May-June 1973.