Amlapura is the largest town in eastern Bali, the island to the east of Java, although the Indonesian guide books generally don’t consider Amlapura worth a visit unless you’ve already checked off the top-tier attractions. The area suffered a volcano eruption in 1963 and has never quite recovered. What remains of interest to the tourist are Amlapura’s three palaces, one of which is still used by some remnants of former royalty. The palaces, which are filled with Dutch paintings as much as the work of local artists, reminds one that Amlapura, originally known as Karangasem, was the center of a quisling kingdom—its rulers had acquiesced to Dutch rule in the late 19th century, and so were allowed to retain the trappings of their rule while other Balinese states were conquered. Vague divine retribution of a sort came via the volcano, Mount Agung, which killed 1500 people but spared the Mother Temple of Besakih. After the fire, the town’s name was officially changed from Karangasem to Amlapura: it was a sign of humility or an attempt to disguise the town so that the volcano would pass it by the next time round.
Bowie had gone to Amlapura in July 1989, as part of his Indonesian vacation after the first Tin Machine tour. The song he wrote about it is a mingle of colonial-era imagery (tall ships, flying Dutchmen, shore dwellers watching for “boogies”–i.e., bugis, seafaring traders and occasional pirates)* and of the recent past—the dead children buried under the lava in ’63, whose bodies, Bowie implies, serve as the soil for regeneration: flowers blooming around a statue’s mouth.
The Amlapura of Bowie’s chorus is a sacred dream-space that’s been soiled in some manner, whether via the guns and traders of the West or just by the essential grime of humanity. In his earlier song on Indonesia, the Road-to-Borneo adventure “Tumble and Twirl,” the mood was more absurdist, the most striking image being a rich man’s hilltop mansion piping sewage onto the allegedly pristine beaches. “Amlapura” is vaguer, mistier and feels out of time, a suggestion more than a song. Bowie sang his vocal a semitone flat in an attempt to convey sadness and loss, and he wound up contributing to the sense that the song isn’t finished, that it’s still coalescing into some more permanent form.
Tin Machine, working out the song in the studio, dampened down any attempt to rouse things—Hunt Sales’ drums, which had been prominent in early takes, were reduced to a few kick drum beats in the intro and first verse, with Hunt’s off-kilter fills only arriving in the second verse. Tony Sales’ bass is nearly inaudible, with the verses carried by three acoustic guitars (Gabrels, Bowie, Kevin Armstrong?) scanned across the spectrum—the guitars parked left and right strum the back-and-forth chord clusters (either C-D-C or Em-D-Em) while in the center another guitar plays arpeggios. Gabrels’ Steinberger playing (including an 8-bar solo over the intro chords) is similar to his neo-Dick Dale work on the surf instrumentals cut in the same period (“Needles on the Beach,” “Exodus”).
With “Amlapura,” “Shopping for Girls” and the surf songs, Tin Machine II seems in retrospect Bowie’s half-baked attempt to revisit Lodger, another record on which he made a stateless, traveling figure a recurring image. But then Bowie had been in fighting strength, with the finest supporting band of his life backing him and with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti as directors and provocateurs. Tin Machine II is a record of a far diminished time, with even its highlights like “Amlapura,” lovely and evanescent, suggesting more than they offer. If Bowie was reduced to eking out small victories, making pawn’s moves with tiny mood pieces like “Amlapura,” it’s still heartening: Bowie was recovering his ambition, if not yet his voice.
Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, with overdubs in 1990-March 1991. Bowie cut an Indonesian vocal as well, which was used as the B-side on the 12″ single of “You Belong In Rock n’ Roll” (London LONX 305), and so added another language to Bowie’s tally (total so far: Italian, French, German, Spanish). Performed throughout the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Hamburg, 24 October 1991, appearing on the DVD/VHS version of Oy Vey Baby. A few alternate takes of “Amlapura” have circulated on bootleg—an instrumental track and three other takes that differ mainly in having more prominent drums, guitar (the instrumental has Gabrels soloing throughout the song) and Bowie using slightly different phrasing on his vocals.
* There’s some debate whether “bugi” is the source of “bogeyman” (the OED makes a reference to “Malay pirates” in its first use of the word).
Top: Irène Jacob, The Double Life of Véronique (Kieslowski, 1991).