By late 1991, Hunt Sales was no longer the character who had come to public notice on Tin Machine. Then his brooding looks and shoulder-length locks had made him the Machine’s most striking visual, while his sardonic Catskill-comedian personality let him dominate interviews. Two years later, he looked washed out, vampirish, sporting a new set of tattoos, a crop of bleached hair and a pair of sunglasses seemingly affixed to his face. He still made wisecracks, acted the cut-up, but something was off about him at times. He had a nervous, jittery energy; he could seem like a man in a fever.
Bowie biographies generally concur that Hunt had issues with drugs around 1991, which would become a factor in the collapse of Tin Machine (David Buckley quoted Carlos Alomar that Bowie was “depressed because of his inability to deal with that drug problem…It’s a terrible blow when you find out one of the band members is lying to you and, most importantly, lying to himself“; Paul Trynka quotes Eric Schermerhorn, the rhythm guitarist on the 1991-92 tour: “I think [Bowie] watched Hunt self-destruct and I think it angered him, in that he was trying to help him.“). Bowie has never commented publicly about it, though the coldness of his post break-up statements—“Reeves Gabrels will continue to work with me. The Sales brothers will not”*—suggests that he thought a firm separation was required.
Bowie had become anti-drug by the time of Tin Machine II‘s release, especially once he had met Iman in late 1990 and had committed to clean life—he called himself “a former drug addict” in interviews and once snarled about the Happy Mondays: “you look at them with their pro-drug stance and you look at Magritte, who never touched anything other than a pipe in his life, and you wonder who came off better.” And as Tony Sales had been sober for over a decade, not even touching beer or wine, there was little sympathy for Hunt from even the fraternal quarter of the band.
So in this context, Hunt’s self-penned self-lament “Sorry” has some real pathos to it, especially at the start of the closing verse: I guess I’ve thrown it away. It’s a continual fuck-up’s apology, as pathetic as it’s desperate, and with a touch of defiance—after all, it’s the voice of the man who had intended to tattoo “It’s My Life, So Fuck Off” on his back (the pain proved too much even for Hunt, so he stopped after the first three words). So “Sorry” ranges from the classic melancholic key of B minor in the verses to a combative C major in the “I’m sorrrry!” refrain (via an odd shift from G major to G minor during the last pleas in the verses).
Originally tried out as an uptempo rocker in the brief 1989 tour, its revision as an acoustic ballad didn’t really gel—“Sorry” winds up as one long, dreary meander. With Hunt’s vocal a study in abasing neediness, and with the song’s unabashed sincerity, “Sorry” seemed wildly out of place on a Bowie record; it’s like a tap-dance routine appearing in the middle of a Bond movie. Still, Bowie’s somber backing vocals and saxophone, and his and Gabrels’ guitars (Gabrels offering some haunting harmonics) add some restraint and nuance to the recording.
There’s no point in going on too much about the many failings of “Sorry.” Just take it for what it is: a strange, sad footnote in Bowie’s collective work.
Recorded ca. September-October 1989 (with possible overdubs in 1990-91) at Studios 301, Sydney. Performed live on both Tin Machine tours. I haven’t heard the original rocking version from ’89, and am curious to, so if anyone has a copy let me know.
* In an interview with Uncut in 1999, Bowie said that “personal problems with [Tin Machine] became the reason for its demise. It’s not for me to talk about them, but it became physically impossible for us to carry on. And that was pretty sad, really.”
PS: Ask and Ye Shall Receive Dept.: So thanks to Xianrex, I’ve heard the ’89 rock version. It’s not bad—probably on the whole slightly preferable to the studio version. The lyric’s pretty much the same, and Hunt’s lamenting vocal sounds jarring when soaring against the Machine playing a slack variation of the “Lust for Life”/”Can’t Hurry Love” beat. Lots of Gabrels’ needling guitar, including a climactic 32-bar wailfest of a solo.
Top: John Cusack and Angelica Huston, The Grifters (Frears, 1990).