Prisoner of Love

Prisoner of Love.
Prisoner of Love (video).
Prisoner of Love (live, 1989).

The only group songwriting effort on Tin Machine, apart from the band’s theme song, is “Prisoner of Love,” in which Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and the Saleses write a Iggy Pop song, with Bowie serving as Pop’s stand-in. Pop’s absence, his growing estrangement from Bowie, is the context of Tin Machine. It’s not only that songs like “Prisoner,” “Heaven’s In Here” and “Run” seem intended for his voice and/or reference Pop’s work (at the end of “Prisoner,” Bowie recycles the Allen Ginsberg Howl quote that Pop had used on “Little Miss Emperor”). Tin Machine itself seemed to be Bowie reassembling Pop in plural, separating the wild man primitivist (Hunt Sales) from the underground American intellectual (Gabrels).

Pop had been a muse, a collaborator, a friend to Bowie, and in the Eighties, he had been a lifeline: a defiant personality ready to do battle with the world no matter how much shit was thrown at him. Global fame and wealth had made Bowie empty, had made him doubt the value of work, a belief that had kept him going even when he was most estranged from humanity. Pop, even in his most pathetic hours, retained a belief in redemption via making art. Having never really succeeded, Pop had no need to please anyone and he treated whatever success that he came across as a private joke.

Bowie and Pop’s fortunes finally shifted in the late Eighties. A year after Bowie released Tin Machine to modest sales and ridicule, Pop made what would be the best-selling record of his life: Brick by Brick. In the album Pop wanders through a flyblown America; he’s a ridiculous, dissolute figure who’s the closest thing that the country has left to nobility. Its best tracks (“Home,” “Candy,Neon Forest“) take solace in lust and wisecracks, or the idea of home as being the one right they can’t strip away from you. Pop’s political asides— “America takes drugs in psychic defense,” “this whole country’s scared of failure“—had a hard-won beat wisdom, unlike Bowie’s splenetic rants on Tin Machine.

And although Brick by Brick, produced by Don Was, is crammed with celebrity muso cameos, from Slash to Waddy Wachtel, Pop seems relaxed, hardly bothered by the sudden opulence. It’s like a tramp kicking back in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, saying yeah, this works. The joy of the early Nineties was that the oddballs who had been knocking around for a while, the Iggy Pops and Kate Piersons, the Bob Moulds and David Lowerys, the Michael Stipes and Sinead O’Connors, suddenly were everywhere, on the radio and TV, as if the world had finally come around to their perspectives.

So “Prisoner of Love” could’ve been on Brick by Brick, and Pop may have sung it better than Bowie. That said, “Prisoner” is one of the finest tracks on Tin Machine, with a sense of melancholy and passion, even a grandeur in the chorus. Bowie’s lyric seems crafted to be sung for once—the repeating ell and vee sounds in the first verse (“whatever it takes…I’ve believed I belonged to you for a long time“), or the gently arcing vocal line in the bridge, where, after hitting a high G (‘don’t be“) Bowie gracefully sinks to an octave below (“fools who“). The lyric, Bowie later said, was a pledge to his new lover Melissa Hurley, a woman who was far younger and less jaded than he (“just stay square“), though with typical Bowie irony the title also references Jean Genet’s last work— Genet’s ode to Palestinian guerrillas and to the concept of perpetual revolution, written as Genet was dying.* (It’s also a James Brown reference.)

Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong made the track, whether Armstrong’s barrages of rhythm guitar in the verses that harry Bowie’s vocal melody, or Gabrels serving as a one-man guitar orchestra: the Hank Marvin-style twanging opening riff; the way Gabrels becomes a string section in the bridge and chorus; the “chimes” sound that Gabrels got by using a plectrum between the trapeze tailpiece and bridge of an old Gretsch; the weeping lines he plays as the song fades. On a record so generally devoted to dominance and bluster, it’s a masterful, gorgeous collective performance.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. “Prisoner” was released as the album’s third single in October 1989 (EMI MT 76 c/w live versions of “Baby Can Dance” and “Crack City”): it went nowhere.

* The lyric has some groaners, too, of course: “like a sermon on blues guitar, love walked into town.” I’d like to think Bowie was mocking Bono here.

Top: Gundula Schulze Eldowy, “Berlin, 1987.”

20 Responses to Prisoner of Love

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    You’re right, this is a terrific song. Not my all-time favorite Tin Machine track, but I must say it’s right up there. A wonderful songwriting collaboration between all four band members. The thing that really grabs me the most is Gabrels’ lead guitar harmonics in the bridge section. And there is much wisdom in Bowie’s lyric, particularly the hard-won sentiments of “Now don’t be fooled by fools who promise you / The world and all that glitters, more fool you”. There’s also a wonderfully paranoid edge to sentiments such as “I smell the sickness sown in this city / It drives me to hide you, yeah, even deceive you / I’m so afraid for you that / I’ll break any thug that maps out your passage to ruin”. (True, that does have a certain macho possessiveness which quite understandably plays into people’s negative perceptions of Tin Machine’s overall lyrical slant. But in this particular instance, the sentiment seems more or less honorable!)

    P.S. I read some book somewhere – the title presently escapes me – where the guitar playing was compared with Blondie’s Atomic

  2. MC says:

    This is a great, beautiful track – the second best TM song in my opinion (after I Can’t Read). Indelibly associated for me with an unrequited crush I had in the summer of ’89. (Now it can be told!) Odd as some of the lyrics are, the words here are fervent and passionate; lines like “Even the best men shiver in their beds” still resonate for me so many years later. (Where some of the album’s “protest lyrics”, “Washington heads in the toilet bowl/Don’t see supremacist hate!” – not so much!)

    Interesting point about the “sermon on blues guitar” line: I always took that to be a dig at Bono’s “heavy lyrics” on “When Love Comes To Town” as well. Not the last Tin Machine dig at U2 either(e.g. Oy Vey Baby!) Was Bowie somewhat threatened by U2 and their work with Eno in this period? I’ve never read that he expressed any animus towards them, but it would be understandable: Achtung Baby! was the record many of us felt Bowie should have been making in the early 90’s.

  3. princeasbo says:

    I get your point about the seeming omnipresence of “alternative rock” in the late 80s/early 90s, but I don’t really think David Lowery was everywhere. 🙂

    • col1234 says:

      maybe a US thing? CVB’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” was a mild hit and the first Cracker records also were pretty big.

      • sigmata martyr says:

        Sigh, where’s my babydoll dress and ten eyelet Docs with a Spin under one arm and an Option magazine under the other…

        Happy days…

      • princeasbo says:

        Grew up in and was living in Ohio at the time so well remember the Campers; and Kerosene Hat was, I thought, a really good record. Just wouldn’t go so far as to say ubiquitous to the extent of REM, B52s, et al.

  4. Maj says:

    Definitely an Iggy Pop song. Sadly not with Iggy on vocals. Bowie just isn’t selling such a shitty clichéd title. But the song itself is not half bad. I loved the Iggy-Bowie ’89/90 analysis.
    This record needs less instruments…it’s a bit crowded, it would work better with a simpler sound – and again, Iggy on vocals.
    But all in all a pretty good note to end on talking about the first Tin Machine album. 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Best TM song by some distance. Loved it the first time I heard it, and it still often makes my frequent “Best of Bowie” CD-Rs (yes, I need to get a life!)

  6. Roman says:

    I don’t think Bowie had a problem with U2 or Bono around this time. All evidence points to the opposite.
    When Bowie first played Ireland in 1987 he told the crowd at Slane that he’d been hanging with Bono in Paris and that he sends his love.
    In 1990 they duetted on Gloria during the S&V tour.
    Then in 1991 when Tin Machine were rehearing in Dublin, Bowie hung out with U2 and was at the Edge’s birthday party in his house.

    They seem to get along to this day – with Bono backstage often on the Heathen and Reality tours. Though when Bowie turned 50, there was a recorded message played to him of Bono saying “The world owes David Bowie a living and everyone should queue up just to carry his luggage, In reply Bowie quipped, “Yes, and you should be first in line!”

    • MC says:

      I stand corrected! Thanks ! 🙂

      • Roman says:

        No prob MC. I’m not actually a U2 fan but I’m Irish and living in Dublin so I’d be paying attention to what Bowie was up to any time he came to town over the years! Another thing – when Bowie staying in Dublin to rehearse the Earthling tour, Iman and himself bedded down for a few weeks in U2’s Clarence Hotel. And he stayed there on his next few tours too.

  7. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Funny that this post came along as I was thinking about finally buying Brick by Brick. Guess I should, no?

    • col1234 says:

      i think you’d like it. mind, there’s some real crap, as one can expect on any Iggy album, but there are some pretty strong tracks on it.

  8. david says:

    Odd that everyone seems to be making the assertion that this is an Iggy song, when it was written by Bowie and the band. It’s like saying Black Country Rock is a Mark Bolan song, or Queen Bitch a V.U.
    I think it does sound like a relative of Iggy perhaps, but there’s definitely a typical Bowie undertone-a finesse in the melody, that Iggy only could only ever come close to when working with Bowie. Its in the same way that Jim adopted the Bowie croon, (as on Sakamotos Risky or on Brick by Bricks ‘Living on the Edge of the Night’) one might suggest Bowie would sing it better, so I suppose in equal regard, they influenced each other, but still…

    Regardless, its a gorgeous track, even if that lyric is a little arse numbing.

    • sigmata martyr says:

      I think that kind of musing has been going on different posts just because we all have the benift of hindsight to ascribe styles to the songs – which is “an Iggy” , “a Ferry” or “a Reed” not because it’s true, but in print it gives an idea of how we contrast and compare the tracks.

  9. V. De Lay says:

    I’d just like to say how elegantly written and perceptive this review is. Superb work.

  10. Frankie says:

    Great writing as always! This is one of my all time favorite Bowie/Tin Machine songs ever. I just think its fantastically dramatic and intense, one of the best from Tin Machine’s essence, with the Sales brothers on backing vocals, reminding me of Lust For Life. It is one of those songs that appeared to me one night in my sleep soon after i heard the album – the complete song from beginning to end turned up in a lucid dream – that’s all there was, nothing to watch, it was just this song, as if a CD player turned on in my brain. There hasn’t been song since that has done that again!

    • Frankie says:

      Yes, and Brick By Brick is one of the top Pop albums. If you’ve heard the acoustic demos, with Iggy playing guitar, it gives you a sense of his finely-honed songwriting ability, when he takes time with his craft.

  11. diamond dog says:

    By far the finest song on the album

  12. Eduardo VM says:

    I agree that the “sermon” couplet is bad, but the following two lines, at least for me, are completely and utterly true:
    “I was drowning so slowly /
    One step in front of your shadow”
    I may have a few times while listening to that song, for a few different shadows.
    Love this track.

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