RCA, Bowie’s bewildered label, considered “Be My Wife” the closest thing on Low to a conventional pop song, and issued it as a single six months after the LP’s release. It flopped, the first Bowie single since 1971 not to chart in the UK. Its failure isn’t that surprising, as “Be My Wife” is far odder than it first appears; it’s as radical in its glum way as a track like “Subterraneans.”
Its promo film, directed by Stanley Dorfman, offers one way to consider it—a pop song by a sad Pierrot (see “the Mime Songs”). Momus, as always one of Bowie’s most perceptive critics, described the film as “a mime sketch of a rock star making a rock video, yet too comically glum and sulky to go through the required hoops, and lacking the necessary gung-ho conviction…the character (because it isn’t really Bowie, it’s a fellow, a sad sack, a thin-lipped melancholic) makes to play his guitar and gives up halfway through the phrase. He just can’t be bothered.” (as quoted by Hugo Wilcken).
(The “Be My Wife” promo also parodies and draws on earlier Bowie videos—Bowie/Pierrot’s flailing, awkward body movements are a sad diminution of the Jagger-esque camping of “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” while the film’s white-room setting and washed-out lighting are nearly identical to the promo for “Life on Mars.”)
When Bowie/Pierrot sings the chorus for the first time, after he sings “share my life,” he cocks his head and stares directly into the camera, as if noticing the viewer at last. There’s no readable expression on his face—he could be suppressing a smile, he could be about to scream—and just before the image fades, the life drains from his face. It’s unnerving to watch, as though a marionette is suddenly professing love to you, and worse, that the marionette may not really mean it.
It’s a visual analogue to how Bowie sings “Be My Wife.” His vocal is trapped in a five-note range, and Bowie sings his brief lyric (four verse lines, four chorus lines) in the East End accent of his mid-’60s records, a move particularly jarring when heard in sequence, as “Wife” directly follows “Sound and Vision” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” both of which Bowie sang in his then-standard croon.
If Low is something of Bowie’s rebellion (or act of petulance, RCA would have said) against being an American-approved rock star, then “Be My Wife” is a love song that questions the act of singing a love song. Its lyric is simple; its arrangement, with its crashing piano (a set of pounding G6 and F chords serve as a hook in every other bar of the verse, each time bolstered by Dennis Davis’ drum fills) and guitar solos, is in the common language of ’70s pop. Yet you can never determine where Bowie stands; it’s unclear whether he knows.
“I’ve lived all over the world,” Bowie sings, rising a note on the last word. It’s a standard rock star line, reminiscent of everything from Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” to Deep Purple’s “Woman From Tokyo”: the singer’s validating himself, talking up the weary business of life on the road. It’s a set-up line, and you might think it’s leading to a typical follow-up: but I’ve never met someone like you or but I’m with you tonight or I’m still lonely or something. Instead Bowie follows that line with the meek, barren “I’ve left every place.”* And that’s the end of it: the verse is over, another begins, only it’s an instrumental. Later in the song, Bowie just sings the first line of the verse (“sometimes you get so lonely”) and then stops, as if the effort isn’t worth it.
The backing track for “Be My Wife” was cut before Bowie had decided on a lyric or a vocal, so it’s a rambunctious performance that seems at odds with Bowie’s muted vocal—the players are trying to force a resolution, inspire some sort of emotion, while Bowie simply stands still. When he moves, it’s grudgingly. The song, in A minor, builds to a climax in its chorus—as Bowie sings the last line, “be my wife,” the players are moving from C up to G, with everyone pushing: George Murray’s bass, Davis’ drum fills, Roy Young’s washes of Farfisa organ. Yet Bowie only moves up a tone, then immediately slides downward on “my wife,” defusing the excitement. A bar later, he’s back singing “sometimes you get so lonely.”
Of course “Wife” just as easily could be read as a straight, unironic plea (Bowie in 1978 said the lyric was “genuinely anguished”). It’s a marriage proposal scraped free of affection, an offer to be alone together (and of course, Bowie was writing the song at the same time his marriage was in its last, bitter months). And the song does have a union. The first 8-bar verse is Bowie singing, the second is an instrumental centered on Ricky Gardiner’s guitar, and the third 16-bar verse is their marriage—Bowie gets two bars, then Gardiner gets two, and so on. Yet Bowie doesn’t change a word of what he sang before and Gardiner plays the same riff, so there’s no true collaboration: each remains in his own world, and Gardiner is just delaying Bowie’s cold repetitions. A fine, strange song: Bowie at his most brilliantly unreadable.
Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, with overdubs in September-October 1976 at Hansa, Berlin. Issued as a single (RCA PB 1017) in June 1977. Performed in 1978 (a recording is on the reissued Stage) and on the Heathen and Reality tours, 2002-2004.
* For a long time, I thought this line was “I’ve lived every place,” which works just as well: you can find emptiness anywhere in the world you go.
Top: Mummenschanz on “The Muppet Show,” November 1976.