Crack City

Crack City.
Crack City (live, 1989).
Crack City (live, 1991).
Crack City (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

In December 1977, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones went on holiday to Kingston, Jamaica. Kitted out in their leathers, the two walked from their hotel down to the docks, vaguely in search of the producer Lee Perry’s studio but mainly looking to score drugs. On the streets, they were mocked, called “white pigs” and threatened (“the only reason they didn’t kill us was that they thought we were merchant seaman off the ships,” Strummer later recalled). Shaken, Strummer and Jones spent the rest of their time in Kingston holed up in the Pegasus Hotel, smoking grass and writing songs, one of which, “Safe European Home,” was their self-mocking memoir of the trip.

A punk comes back from holiday (“wherrrre’d you go?” the backing singers keep asking him—it’s like a punk music hall number) and freely admits he was out of his league when he stumbled upon actual Third World poverty. “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” he says, sitting down with relief at his local. He’s happy to be back home, walking the streets in his gear and his sense of contempt, secure in his anti-social privilege. The Clash were never finer then when they rubbished their own legend, as with the London counterpart to “Safe European Home,” “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” where the punk turns up at a reggae show, is upset that the black performers aren’t playing political and insurrectionist numbers (“it was Four Tops all night!“) to rile up the black audience, then turns the blade back on himself and his generation’s own miserable, failed pretensions at revolution.

A decade later, David Bowie, while recording in a luxury resort in the Bahamas, allegedly once walked through a rough part of Nassau. Inspired by the misery, he wrote “Crack City.” “The crack situation down there was just trouble on legs, it was hateful. It may seem like a naive kind of story but it made an impression on me as a writer.”

But while the initial sparks were similar—white British musicians shaken up by encountering a post-colonial Caribbean city—the songs seemed to be from different galaxies. “Safe European Home” had wit, drive and hooks; “Crack City” bluntly nicks from Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” for its riff and shuttling I-IV-I verse chord progression, and features deathless lines like “they’re just a bunch of assholes/with buttholes for their brains” or “like Everest it’s fatal/its peaks are cold as ice.”

There was an opening for a cynical Strummer/Jones-style look at the “crack plague,” which, though an awful reality, had also become (at least in the U.S. in the late Eighties) an easy means to bemoan the behavior of poor, inner-city African Americans, with commentary about crack addiction often descending into racist urban legend (e.g., the idea of a fearsome generation of “crack babies,” which had no medical foundation)—even Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” has a duff verse where a crack mother leaves her baby in a garbage can while she gets a hit.

But “Crack City” just uses crack as a stalking horse for Bowie’s real concerns: his past battles with drugs (and, possibly, Hunt Sales’ ongoing struggles) and the false glamour that rock & roll bestows upon the grubby business of addiction. So Bowie sneers at “the icon monsters/whose guitars bequeath you pain” and throws in some meager wordplay on “Velvet Underground” in the last verse, which he later said wasn’t a dig at Lou Reed but the “lifestyle” that the VU allegedly soundtracked. (Playing the song live in 1989, Bowie was more blunt about referencing Hendrix*, throwing in a “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” towards the close).

Bowie’s awful lyric, a career low in terms of clumsy/overwrought imagery, shows the strain of having to keep to first-draft inspirations—allowed a revision, Bowie may not have salvaged much, but at least he could’ve done something about lines that didn’t even scan, like “ho-how-hounds of paranoia.” In an interview, Bowie had claimed that most anti-drug songs had been “all intellectual…written for other writers,” suggesting that “Crack City” was meant to be direct and blunt, simple “street” wisdom delivered at a stadium level. And true, if the song had wholly consisted of lines like “don’t look at me you fuck-heads,” he may have had a point. But instead too much of it comes off as fifth-rate Bob Dylan, particularly “Masters of War” (esp. the jeremiad against dealers in the third verse).

The best thing that “Crack City” has going for it is, for once, the Machine, whether the hollered “hit-Crack-Citaaay!!!” chorus vocals by the Saleses, the only hook the chorus was allowed, or Reeves Gabrels’ bloody-minded playing in the verses and his sustain-riddled eight-bar solo, or the usual tight rhythm guitar by Kevin Armstrong. Even Bowie’s singing is far better than his lyric deserves, with Bowie slowly descending a fifth in the verses, building to a hoarse bellow in the last verse and chorus.

Then oddly enough, “Crack City” blossomed live. It helped that Bowie was often inaudible on the mic and that the band re-thought the song’s arrangement, breaking up the monotony by having the players back off in the last two verses. It became a loud, vulgar grind-piece for both Machine tours, with Gabrels becoming particularly inspired in his soloing. In its meat-handed way, “Crack City” ably summed up everything that Tin Machine allegedly stood for.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. A live version from Paris in July 1989 was a B-side for the 12″ version of “Prisoner of Love.”

* The Hendrix references likely were owed to Bowie and Gabrels’ shared love for the recently-released (November 1988) Radio One sessions; the CD also brought the label Rykodisc to Bowie’s attention.

Top: Matt Weber, “Anti-Crack Mural, Spanish Harlem, 1988.”

16 Responses to Crack City

  1. Maj says:

    Never thought I’d say a guitar solo was my favourite part about a song.
    To my 24-yo ears this just sounds like generic rock…and Bowie pretending to be a singer in a pub cover band…disgusts me more than anything on Tonight (yes, even God Only Knows).
    The live versions are a bit better but still, no thank you. 🙂

  2. MC says:

    Ok, this is pretty much Exhibit A in the case against Tin Machine for me, though you’ve hit the nail on the head by saying that the band salvage it. The things I liked about the song initially (the Wild Thing steal, Bowie’s vocal, the false ending, the general air of pissed-offedness) are now overwhelmed in my opinion by those lyrics. Still, as anti-drug shibboleths go, the song still beats The Cranberries’ Salvation. And like the fella said, you can dance to it. 🙂

  3. Diamond Duke says:

    Well, this isn’t exactly one of my favorites of the Bowie canon! First of all, “They’re just a bunch of assholes / With buttholes for their brains!” is probably the worst line David ever wrote. (His own choice for that particular title, “My girl calls my name / ‘Hi Dave / Drop in, see you around, come back / If you’re this way again” from Can’t Help Thinking About Me is a model of wit and elegance by comparison.)

    However…having said that…there is something oddly, metaphorically appropriate about that particular line. If you’re as badly strung out on psychoactive substances as Bowie evidently was back in the mid-’70s, you can certainly become “corrupt with shaky visions” – one’s brain becoming quite literally screwed! In fact, one thing that is actually somewhat redeeming about the song is that Bowie’s stance does not come across as hypocritical. For if you know enough about Bowie’s own troubled past, then you definitely get the impression that he’s ranking his own badly troubled ’70s self as Asshole #1 on the Icon Monster Hit Parade. (“I’m riding on the subway / The subway down to hell / I’ve finished with this journey / I seem to know it well”.) (Granted, Station To Station and Low certainly do not come across as “shaky visions” in any way. Troubled and often desperate visions, to be sure, but not in any way malign or corrupt. I think Bowie was very fortunate in that his own addictions had no seriously detrimental effect on his artistry.)

    Musically, the song’s no great shakes, either. The album version definitely comes across as some loud, annoying teenage garage band jamming on Jimi’s cover of Wild Thing, but being far too inebriated to figure out any chords besides the basic I-IV! Granted, I’ve heard the live versions, and they’re somewhat more energized. But as much as I’m willing to cut Tin Machine some slack and give credit where it’s due, with Crack City I can truly understand where the detractors were coming from, I’m sorry to say…

    (But I must admit, I actually like the aforementioned “jeremiad” against the dealer. “May death be on your brow…May razors slash your mainline…May all your vilest nightmares / Consume your shrunken head”Wow! That is certainly cold…)

  4. Frankie says:

    I enjoyed the over-the-top venomously pissed-off lyrics. I thought he was going for the genuine expression of sheer hatred – hatred for crack pushers he must have met in his lifetime. There is something about this that makes the impression that he didn’t want to care about making likeable music, these likely would have been private recordings, if Bowie hadn’t the ego or contract, and strangely for me, there is something fun about that – the sense of eavesdropping on what he wanted to smash – I find the buried vocals create this, as if microphone levels weren’t checked, like ad-hock basement recordings. There is a sense of spoof to this band, something of a lame joke, as if polishing the songs would have destroyed them. Possibly too, given some of the poo, but i believe any of these songs would have only benefited from more “tightened” conception, a few more takes, less aerosol spray pain. Helter-Skelter and Metal Machine Music fits in this terrain, but at least there the sonics brought you in for a listen to the roughness, instead of replicating what its like in a car crash.

  5. sossidge eater says:

    Could anyone explain “It belongs to mr sniff and tell/it belongs to the candy man” to me?
    Are they “real” people or just gibberish drug allusions?

  6. Frankie says:

    They’re fake people who introduced themselves that way, and Bowie innocently fell for it.

    • Frankie says:

      Yes, they were friends of Dylan’s Neighborhood Bully. His bite sound better it appears.

  7. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Could Bowie really not have said asshole/arsehole? God, man, you’re 42…

  8. diamond dog says:

    Laughable lyric ..awful pinch musically , i remember at the time this track was just so off the mark, Bowie coming over all tough about drugs blimey what a joke . he had shoved half of columbia up his nose and funded their economy in the mid 70’s . He is an intelligent man yet he still fell prey to drugs so it was good enough for him but not for the residents of ‘crack city’ ..funny what was he thinking . Should have remained on the studio floor give me tumble and twirl over this dirge anyday.

  9. Aloninseine. says:

    @Diamond Duke
    “My girl calls my name / ‘Hi Dave / Drop in, see you around, come back / If you’re this way again” is actually quite touching.
    The singer just confessed to her and his family that he’s gay, and he has to leave town in disgrace. However. his girl still loves him. “Come back” if you’re “this way” (i.e. straight) again, she begs.

  10. Nijinska says:

    Didn’t exactly stop our man indulging on his next solo tour though did it… there are plenty of Sound & Vision concert clips where he’s patently had far more than a casual toot (he’s looking particularly ‘refreshed’ in Rio).

  11. Remco says:

    I wonder about those lyrics. As an intelligent man who had been putting words to music for decades he must’ve known how awful some of those lines were while he was writing them. Perhaps it was a particularly uninspired first draft session but then he could’ve at least changed the words when they started playing it live, which allegedly was the point of Tin Machine.

    The fact that he didn’t change a single word could be seen as evidence of an almost perverse submission to the first draft rule or perhaps he was actually being truthful when he talked of other anti-drug songs being too cerebral. Maybe ‘Crack City’ is an honest attempt at pure anger, unfiltered by sophistication or good taste.

    Whatever the reason, I always try very hard not to hear what he’s singing because I actually quite like the track. Not the most original piece of music ever recorded but it works somehow.

  12. Roman says:

    I hate this song but I do think it should have been the lead-off single. It has a riff and a chorus, It would also have caused some controversy with the certain-censorship of the awful lyrics – and it would’ve been such a kick in the head after his last single and album Never Let Me Down.

  13. KenHR says:

    No mention of the mutated “Iron Man” intro?

    I like Tin Machine on a song-by-song basis, even this song. As mentioned before on this blog, however, listening to an entire album is exhausting.

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