Always Crashing In the Same Car

Always Crashing In the Same Car.
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 1997).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (acoustic w/Reeves Gabrels, broadcast, 1997).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 1999).
Always Crashing in the Same Car (Musique Plus, 1999).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 2004).

From Warsaw back to Los Angeles: “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” one of the last songs completed on Low, is a final meditation on Bowie’s LA period. The lyric was allegedly inspired by a) Bowie, spying a drug dealer who had ripped him off, ramming his car into the dealer’s, or b) Bowie speeding around an underground parking garage like a lunatic, half-trying to kill himself (the latter occurring either in LA or Berlin, depending on who you read). Both stories seem a bit suspect, especially the idea of Bowie as an avenging Sonny Corleone type. “Crashing” seems to be atoning for something, though; it’s a purgatorial island in the middle of Low‘s manic side.

Its two 16-bar verses offer mildly different scenarios—the first has Bowie speeding on the street (“kilometers from the red light”), the second has him driving around a parking garage “touching close to 94”—but the chorus is the same, an endlessly reoccurring car crash. The sense of life as an auto accident puts Bowie back in alignment with JG Ballard: if Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” seems to predict Ballard’s High Rise, so “Crashing” reflects Ballard’s “motorway” novels Crash and Concrete Island (particularly Crash, one of the most gruesome novels in the English language, with its array of lurid car-crash deaths and copulations).

Bowie’s old Buddhism crops up as well, with the idea of Bowie’s LA life as having been a time of samsara, a cyclic period of endless suffering and no advancement; a pointless life, one equivalent to getting into a different auto accident every day (but in the same car, of course, so even that variety is lessened).

Yet the music undermines the lyric’s sense of cyclical decay, its lack of escape clauses. The first verse is somber enough, with Dennis Davis’ drums for once being muted and buried in the mix (the 16ths he plays on his hi-hat are processed to sound like another synth line). Bowie’s Chamberlin provides the main hook, a 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2 pattern that later becomes an abbreviated two-note motif; Eno’s synth contributions shimmer in the mix, with one line sounding much like a Theremin.

Then things begin to shake up. There’s already been a taste of this in the first verse, with the traditional G major to E minor progression upended by an odd move to F major (it’s out of the home key—it should be an F#). In the second verse, Bowie extends his vocal line, moving into bars left vacant in the first verse. So “as I put my foot down to the floor” is four notes more than the first verse’s “take it on the road“; as the verse ends, Bowie lengthens the ends of phrases (compare “must have been touching close to nine-ty-four,” which fits in the space Bowie had sung “working left and right” in the first verse).

The players come alive as well. Davis’ loud Harmonized drums appear in the second verse and he throws in some fills (fittingly, under “round and round” in the second verse). Ricky Gardiner, who already offered a four-bar guitar solo at the end of the first chorus, essentially takes over the song, getting the entire third verse to deliver a masterful solo (Gardiner’s tone and the sharp melodic sense of his lines is similar to Tom Verlaine’s work on Marquee Moon). Bowie hummed the first three notes of the solo to him, Gardiner took off from there.* And where most of Low‘s “rock” tracks are faded out, “Crashing” slowly comes to a complete stop, ending on a resounding E minor chord. The past, rather than endlessly repeating, gets resolved with a show of force.

While the rhythm tracks were cut during the early Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville, Bowie was stuck for a time coming up with lyrics and a vocal melody (running through ideas, he even sang a verse in a parody of Bob Dylan’s voice, though tragically the vocal track was wiped—Tony Visconti later described it as being “spooky, not funny”). Hugo Wilcken makes a good case that Bowie rifled through Syd Barrett solo tracks for lyrical cues (e.g., “No Good Trying”: “you’re spinning around and around in a car with electric lights flashing very fast.“)

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, and Sept.-Oct. 1976, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live in 1997 (Bowie and Reeves Gabrels did an acoustic version for the radio station WRXT on 16 October 1997) and also for the BBC on 27 June 2000. Its last performance to date was an encore in Brisbane, Australia, on 17 February 2004.

* Gardiner would soon co-write Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” a track that, as Bowie didn’t write it and never performed it, won’t be featured in our survey. So enjoy this fantastic live performance of it, from ’77.

Top: Joel-Peter Witkin, “Los Angeles Death,” 1976.

12 Responses to Always Crashing In the Same Car

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    Always Crashing has such melancholic poise and takes you on a journey. I agree that the thought of Bowie repeatedly crashing his car into a dealers car doesn’t ring true – but what do we know really. Will Bowie ever do a Keith and write an autobiography? Perhaps he thinks there are too many books about him already, and besides, there’s always another painting it complete. Something I’m sure he’s doing a lot of these days.

  2. Look back in anger says:

    I wonder how much Bowie can really remember about the 1970s anyway

  3. bcr says:

    LOVE this blog…. always such fantastic reading and listening. I applaud your excellent work here!

  4. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I hope I’m not double posting here. The comment I sent several hours ago seems to have disappeared into the ether.
    It was just a question about the ‘working left and right’ lyric. Does that mean anything from an American perspective? I remember seeing that in an early lyric sheet but it sounds more like ‘looking left and right’ to me, possibly in reference to the road safety slogan. In later versions he definitely sings ‘never looking left and right’.

    • col1234 says:

      Brendan–sorry, you got caught in the spam filter for some reason.

      The sheet music I have (the original “Station to Station/Low” book, pub. 1977) says “I was always working left and right.” Not an Americanism as far as I know. Maybe it was intended as a play on “looking left and right” (i.e. driving, though it’s weird, as that means Bowie was driving cautiously, which doesn’t quite fit the mood of the song)…and eventually DB just used the “looking” instead?

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        I had that book as a kid. Fantastic pictures.
        I always thought of the song as him being overcautious in the first verse, ‘always looking left and right’ – or as he put it in a later song ‘never doing anything out of the blue’ – then suddenly – when the drums kick in – breaking out of that suffocating order/caution. But in later years he sang ‘never looking left and right’ so I was probably wrong.

  5. diamond dog says:

    I agree as well cannot se Bowie as Charles Bronson really but maybe him in the underground garage ..screeching tyres and a passenger cowering ..? I suspect more like his life felt like he was repeating the same mistakes ? Management worries, divorce ,money and drug busts? its a great piece anyway and your write is very befitting of it .

  6. sekaer says:

    I’m hoping you’ll have the chance to include the photographs in the book version, but my guess it is beyond prohibitively expensive

  7. tj says:

    I’m writing a short reflection on this song for a piece during the V & A exhibition in Melbourne next month. There was a curious time in my life when three people randomly crashed into the back of my car within several weeks of each other. It always reminded me of this song. “I was always working left and right” has a clear meaning when you imagine it in context of his spiritual explorations.

    I also just happened to be in that Brisbane audience in 2004. 😉

  8. kimlove says:

    Thank you for this website. I”ve been listening to this whole album every night while drifting into sleep. I can’t believe I never listened when it was first released. Life gets in the way sometimes, but I am so thrilled to be hearing all of this music now.

  9. RamonaAstone says:

    Oh my freaking hell, I’ve got goosebumps hearing this. Milioti’s cover for the LAZARUS album is out of this world and crashing down!

  10. Chubby White Duke says:

    The first Bowie album I bought (Ryko CD, after hearing my sister’s RCA vinyl). This is still a favorite and holds a permanent spot in my top five Bowie songs. I always loved the drums on this song and for a while I wanted to learn to play because of Dennis Davis. Ricky Gardiner plays a solo to rival the best of Slick, Fripp, Frampton, Belew, et al

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