Alabama Song

Alabama Song (Lotte Lenya, 1962).
Alabama Song (The Doors, 1967).
Alabama Song (Bowie, live, 1978).
Alabama Song (soundcheck, 1978).
Alabama Song (broadcast, 1978).
Alabama Song (single, 1980).
Alabama Song (live, 1990).
Alabama Song (live, 2002).

Here in Mahagonny, life is lovely.

Scene title in Mahagonny-Songspiel, 1927.

Bertolt Brecht wrote “Alabama Song” around 1925. With its stilted English lyric (likely by his regular collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, as Brecht’s English was never good) and a crabbed melody meant for Brecht’s flint box of a voice, it was more a poem than it was a future standard. Kurt Weill, upon reading the original score, said “Alabama” was “nothing more than a notation of [Brecht’s] speech-rhythm and completely useless as music.” So Weill, once he began working with Brecht, set about turning “Alabama Song” into music. For instance, Brecht originally had compressed the start of the refrain, “O moon of Alabama,” into 1 1/2 bars—Weill extended the line over five bars, making “O” a whole note, having “Alabama” descend an octave. One of their first collaborations, the revised “Alabama Song” embodied the Brecht/Weill partnership, with Brecht’s depiction of man as a scavenging animal undermining, and being exalted by, Weill’s beauties.

“Alabama Song” first appeared in Brecht/Weill’s Mahoganny Songspiel (1927) and its operatic reworking three years later, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny. It was sung by a prostitute and her gang, leaving one town, heading for the fabled city of Mahoganny (essentially the ur-Las Vegas). “Alabama Song” was an anthem of the dissolute, a cry for base pleasures “performed by a priestess in the cult of money” (Daniel Albright). Lotte Lenya immortalized it, as she would other Brecht/Weill songs (a version here from 1962). When Lenya first sang “Alabama Song” for Brecht, he “listened with that deep courtesy and patience that I was to learn never failed him with women and actors,” Lenya recalled. “‘Not so Egyptian,’ he said, turning my palms upward, extending my arms…

Once the Nazis took power, Mahoganny and all other Brecht/Weill productions were banned from performance; by the early 1940s, Brecht, Weill and Lenya were all exiled in America. In the postwar years, Mahoganny was admired more than it was performed, never achieving the renown of Threepenny Opera, which had a major Broadway revival in the ’50s.

In 1965 Ray Manzarek played a cast recording of Mahoganny for his new band, the Doors. They adapted “Alabama Song,” as its calls for whiskey and (gender-altered by Jim Morrison) girls worked with the songs the Doors were writing at the time (here are versions by leather Morrison or bearded Morrison); the Doors played it in their sets at the Whiskey A Go-Go, where it became a standout, with most of the audience assuming it was an original. The band put “Alabama Song” on their first album; it was a remnant from a long-expired decadent era included in a bid to herald a new one.

A decade later, Bowie, planning a world tour in 1978, decided to play “Alabama Song” live; the idea may have been sparked by Bowie’s negotiations to star in a Threepenny Opera revival. It was an inspired choice, as “Alabama Song” both referenced (and slightly mocked) Bowie’s recent Berlin leanings and showed the ancestry of some of his recent songs—compare the irregular, even chaotic stressing of beats in the vocal (take “FOR–IF–we-don’t-FIND—the-next WHISKEY bar”) to Bowie’s vocals on songs like “What in the World” or “Breaking Glass.” In the Doors’ cover, Morrison had put a soulful rasp into the verses, making them flow better into the choruses. Bowie went back to Weimar, instead singing the verses with a blank expression, sometimes smoking a cigarette, flattening and deadening his tone. Then, suddenly, he would fall into the chorus, swooning and closing his eyes, with his band chanting behind him.

Pleased with how “Alabama Song” was working in his live sets, Bowie brought his touring band into Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio in London, the day after the final Earl’s Court show, to cut a version of “Alabama Song” as a prospective single. Bowie wanted Dennis Davis to play a wild track-length drum solo, but attempting to do that live in the studio caused Davis to keep throwing off the band. The compromise was, breaking with standard recording practices, to tape the drums last, with the rhythm mainly kept by Sean Mayes’ keyboards and George Murray’s bass. Davis opens with a rumbling run on toms and cymbals, offers a stammering off-beat commentary on the choruses.

Bowie shelved “Alabama Song” until early 1980, when he finally issued it as a single. The timing was right at last: “Alabama Song” would mark his goodbye to the Seventies with a curse and smile, and, as it was an ode to sex and dollars, it would neatly welcome the Eighties.

A brief word on Stage, as this is the place for it. A live record of Philadelphia, Boston and Providence shows taped in early May 1978, it has strong versions of “Warszawa” (and all the Berlin instrumentals), “Stay” and arguably has the definitive “Station to Station.” It’s a document of transit: Bowie’s band learning how to adapt the Low/”Heroes” songs live and creating the sound of Lodger in the process, with keyboard work divided between Roger Powell (avant) and Sean Mayes (garde). Adrian Belew, having to not only cover Robert Fripp’s guitar work but Mick Ronson’s too, acquits himself well; Simon House’s violin adds an electric gypsy sound to the proceedings.

That said, as with most live records, Stage is a case of souvenirs from a trip that you (well, most of us) didn’t go on*. Most of the uptempo songs pale when compared to their originals, in particular the Ziggy Stardust material, with which none of the players were familiar. The original sequencing of the record was odd: Visconti, with Bowie’s approval, cut up the performance tapes so as to track the songs in chronological order, so that the LP began with “Hang Onto Yourself,” had a nearly all-instrumental side, and ended with “Beauty and the Beast.” This was a complete distortion of how the shows actually were performed. Bowie generally opened with nearly an hour of new material (leading off with “Warszawa”) leavened by a stray oldie like “Jean Genie”. After intermission, he returned with a revisited Ziggy Stardust (though mainly its lesser-known tracks, so “Soul Love” or “Star,” no “Suffragette City” or “Starman”), a Berlin entr’acte (“Art Decade,” “Alabama”) and closed out the set with the monster songs from Station to Station.

“Alabama Song” was performed throughout the 1978 tour, with a version on Stage. The studio version was recorded 2 July 1978 and released in February 1980 as RCA BOW 5  (#23 UK, c/w the “acoustic” remake of “Space Oddity”). Performed in 1990 and 2002.

Essential for the history of “Alabama Song”: Daniel Albright’s Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts; Foster Hirsch, Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway; James K. Lyon and Hans-Peter Breuer, Brecht Unbound (source of Lenya quote).

* Stage was also Bowie’s bald attempt to knock off two records from the remaining four that he owed RCA, though RCA successfully argued that the double-LP live album should only count as one.

Also, thanks very much to Time magazine, which chose “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” as a “Best Blog of 2011.” Finding my small, weird effort on the same list as the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nate Silver has made it a very odd morning.

Top: Lotte Lenya, New York, 1978.

26 Responses to Alabama Song

  1. Remco says:

    Congratulations on the Best Blog thing, well deserved.
    I love those drums, they completely unbalance the entire song in a very very good way,I always wondered how they recorded it.

  2. gonemansland says:

    Whilst I’m a much bigger fan of Bowie than the Doors I always felt the latter recorded the better version of this song. Somehow Morrison is just so much more plausible staggering from bar to bar which is kind of odd as it is not as if Bowie was averse to a drink or two – but he just sounds as if he is acting a part.

  3. gonemansland says:

    OH and the 2005 Stage is much better than the original release with everything back in the right order – if still not in anyway as good as the tour itself but like you say Live LPs are always like that

  4. Jaf says:

    Many congrats on Best Blog. Fully deserved imo, I’ve loved reading it for the past few months.

    Anyone else own a pair of ‘Bowie Bags’ in ’78?

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      One more comment to add to the congratulatory mood. I’ve no idea how you do it. For me, it’s a struggle to keep up just reading and reflecting.

      “Bowie Bags”? Yes, in bright yellow with matching t-shirt.

      Wasn’t the release of the Alabama down to Bowie taking the first rest of his adult life and having no new material available? More a case of looking into the vault and releasing whatever was lying on top? No idea why it was left off Stage, but everything about the organisation of the original Stage seemed to have been designed to ruin it.

  5. peterpotter says:

    Was Alabama not left *off* stage at the time of its original release, and only added to the Ryko reissue…? Presumably so as not to affect sales of the single.

    Good work sir, have been enjoying this blog since the Sane days – and then only to find info on Rupert the Riley… I think… 🙂

    • col1234 says:

      yes! good call. The LP ended with “Beauty and the Beast.” I’ll change that.

      • peterpotter says:

        A pleasure to jog your mind, especially as you reawoke my Bowie fascination! I go back to his work every now and then – the last time was about ten years ago after, through odd circumstances, I spent xmas eve with Ralph Horton who spent the day reading my copy of the Pitt Report. True story 🙂

        Can’t wait for the book(s)!

  6. speak says:

    I have been reading your superb blog for months now, and I must say that it is the best, most insightfully written information available on Bowie.

    Congrats on the Time link – you deserve. And keep up the great work. I look forward to reading all the way through Reality!

  7. philT says:

    congrats on the award – well deserved

  8. sekaer says:

    What?! You are taking off faster than I thought! You don’t know me, but I am a huge fan of what you are doing, so congrats!! That is so insane!

  9. Jeremy Earl says:

    “I must have PAOTD, oh you know why!” Congratulations indeed. Time checking you out is pretty cool. Wonder if it will come to Bowie’s attention – he may well check it out. Maybe he’ll think – well, I’ve got eight years of unreleased songs to come out in 4 successive double albums over 4 years, that’ll break his back!” Wishful thinking.

    I think bowie singing this like an actor is the whole point. For my mind the Musicladen Live in Breman version posted above is the best. Great crooning and melodrama from the man. I think I have the single version sitting around somewhere…

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    A similar thought occurred to me. He’s sitting on a ton of material both new and old regularly checking this site for dates. He’s waiting until the author is struggling over how treat ‘Chubby Little Loser’ – irrelevant novelty or triuumphant finale – before springing his surprise.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Is that really the last song he’s written for public consumption? Surely not! It’s be great in some way though if it turned out to be. Kind of perverse.

      Still, I do think that he’s been writing songs at least, if not recording them properly, maybe just demos. I’d take even a good demo at the moment, even post Toy.

    • ian says:

      OOf, doing things in order is really going to end things on such a bizarre note. It’ll be like this:
      That one verse of a Kashmir song,

      Rebel Never Gets Old,

      A song on Earl Slick’s solo album,

      A footnote about how his additions to that Scarlett covers Tom Waits album
      were the only thing good about it,

      That dreary song from the Stealth soundtrack,

      Chubby Little Loser.

      When having “Bring Me The Disco King” as the definitive (so far) end to a career would be so perfect. I mean, that’s a little bit of my high opinion of it sneaking through, but ending your career with a song you’ve been trying to do since Never Let Me Down, not to mention a totally brilliant one, is a pretty good thing, no?

      • col1234 says:

        haven’t really done the chronology yet, but i’ve been assuming the Gervais song would be the finale. (there are some 2006 performances with David Gilmour which may/mayn’t deserve an entry). Mr. Bowie, you’ve got @ 2 yrs to come up with another song…

      • Galdo says:

        It seems we have a problem well solved by now. Sue, goodbye.

  11. Jeremy Earl says:

    The gauntlet is thrown down!

    Bring me the Disco King is brilliant. Would love to hear a chronology of all the aborted attempts.

  12. ian says:

    He’s going to re-record “Requiem For A Laughing Gnome” and rush-release it just to spite you.

  13. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I know you’re keen on doing this chronologically, and you’ve been magnificent about it so far, but… perhaps you could make just one exception, and finish with “Disco King”? Delay it until after the Gervais song? It would be such an amazing finisher, and it is the last song on his last studio album. That must count for something – it may not be quite true chronologically, but symbolically it’s the end of Bowie’s opus – the last words of the Thin White Duke.

  14. diamond dog says:

    Congrats on the mention in Time as an avid Bowie fan for 36 years having read much that has been written I find your blog informative and essential. You are doing a great job of placing Bowie’s output and influences together in its time and place …genius.
    Alabama song was for surpassed by its its bside the stunning remake of space oddity obviously waving in ashes to ashes. I preferred the MoRrison version as definitive , Bowies was for me like a bad cover. For me its not an easy song to like the odd tempo and manNered vocal do it no favours. The doors version is much easieR to like. Alabama was a really odd single almost commercial suicide , I think it was a AA side , cannot remember it being a hit and I would not imagine it was.

  15. diamond dog says:

    Congrats on the attention this blog has got its well deserved. 36 years of listening to Bowie and this is the best writing I’ve read.
    I always thought alabama was a throw away cover version compared to the excellent doors version and commercial suicide as a single which was poorly received and outshone by the brilliant remake of space oddity. Nice fols out cover though.

  16. Roman says:

    Excellent blog. You mention that the better known songs from Ziggy were not played on the ’78 tour such as Starman and Suffragette City. However Suffragette City was performed at every ’78 gig (except the Breman TV special).

  17. Rufus Oculus says:

    Imagine a universe where a song like this would be a hit. I think it went top 30 in the UK. Amazing.

  18. rob thomas says:

    Just a quick note on Stage. Various comments around the place had led me to believe it was a waste of £ (plus Shaar Murray’s assessment of it in his monograph), but, having just picked up a nice vinyl copy (not reissue), I really like it. Yes, running order’s all wrong and yes, that super-swift Soul Love is daft, but I’m digging it!

  19. Vinnie says:

    “We’ve lost our good old mama”

    Alabama Song has become my go-to Bowie song since last Monday. A bit too upbeat to allow me to wallow in feelings, exceptional in the decadence of being poor. “I tell you, I tell you, I tell you we must die.”

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