Leon Takes Us Outside

tricky bird

Leon Takes Us Outside (Leon suite w/”I’d Rather Be Chrome,” “We’ll Creep Together,” annotation/links).
Leon Takes Us Outside (Outside).

Of what was once a tangled forest, all that remains are a few saplings. So the opening track of Outside, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” a minute-and-a-half piece consisting of guitar, piano and synthesizer accompaniment for a voice that murmurs a list of random dates and holidays, is the only surviving piece of a 21-minute musical suite.

Likely planned as the first of the three Leon suites, the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, which begins with the “Leon Takes” fragment, devotes much of its length to two movements that have been bootlegged —the “OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence and “We’ll Creep Together,” the latter unfortunately circulating in a maimed version. Where the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite featured a set of paired characters (detective/suspect, child victim/elderly witness), “Leon” centers on the mysterious figure of “Leon Blank,” outsider artist and possible killer/martyr. The only other voices appearing in the suite are those of Bowie’s various deranged narrators and of the detective Nathan Adler, who apparently sings the climactic “I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence.

While Leon Blank’s perspective survives in several of the Outside songs (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” whose ancestor may be in the “Leon Takes” suite, is from his POV, for example), this intro fragment is the only time that you hear Leon “speak.” He’s just whispering a stream of random information, a conflation of American and British (Leon mentions both Michaelmas Day and Martin Luther King Day, says both “July 6th” and “5th March”), as though he’s programming a string of code, a sequence to wake up the machine. As Nicholas Pegg noted, its similarity to the buzz-and-murmur opening of one of Eno’s most recent projects at the time, U2’s Zooropa, is likely no coincidence.

leon can ya hear?

These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live.’

Bowie, co-interview with Eno for Time Out, by Dominic Wells, 1995.

Bowie’s only published information about the Leon character was in the “Nathan Adler Diary,” which noted that Leon was a 22-year old of mixed race who had a rap sheet (including “plagiarism without a license”), and in one of the official Adler segues, where Adler recalled Leon jumping on stage at midnight and, wielding a machete, cutting “zeroes” in everything, and eventually ripping a hole in “the fabric of time itself.”

Even by the standards of the Outside “non-narrative,” the Leon character is a cipher. Still, he generally seems meant to represent the “outsider” artist figure that so fascinated Bowie and Eno at the time (e.g., their visit to the artist’s wing of Gugging Asylum). And in particular, the character seems partially inspired by Tricky, a young British musician who was a favorite of Bowie’s in the mid-Nineties and who Bowie would soon “interview” in a bizarre article for (see the upcoming “The Narratives.”)

Leon’s rap sheet seems to reference Tricky’s life. The son of a Ghanaian-English mother and Jamaican father, Tricky had spent time in prison as a youth for allegedly buying counterfeit £50 notes from a friend, who later grassed on him to the police. And by 1994, when Tricky had split from the rap collective Massive Attack and was finishing his debut Maxinquaye, he was arguably the most vital musician working in Britain. Bowie rewrote him as Leon, a boundary-shattering artist who gets caught in a narrative web, and he used some of Tricky’s sonic trademarks—ambient street noise, esp. the sound of rain, and Tricky’s own murmuring flow, which Bowie is arguably imitating on “Leon Takes”—as signifiers on Outside.

Was Bowie guilty here of fetishizing Tricky, or “outsider” artists (esp. racial minorities) in general? (The late Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is also in the mix here—soon after he made Outside, Bowie would play Andy Warhol in Julian Schabel’s bio-pic of Basquiat.) We’ll dig into this more in the upcoming “Narratives” entry. But it was in keeping with an established Bowie strategy. He was an adventurer who needed occasionally to replenish his stock of forward scouts, so he appropriated various “outsiders” for his own ends, whether as collaborators or as symbols (or, in Iggy Pop’s case, both).

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released (“Leon Takes” song fragment) in September 1995 on 1. Outside.

Top: Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, 1994.

28 Responses to Leon Takes Us Outside

  1. Patrick says:

    Musically, that opening track is actually quite pleasant and listenable ,
    feels like BoS, though I’d prefer the spoken vocal not to be there. As probably will happen more through the album.

    On invented biogs and Bowie, possibly his involvement in the Nat Tate
    hoax will surface here later.
    Nat Tate/Nathan Adler?


  2. gcreptile says:

    Once again, very interesting! I thought you’d combine this one and the song ‘Outside’ in one entry, like in the Album release. That merged song by the way, is, in my opinion, a fantastic album opener. I used to be addicted to the whole sequence from Leon to The Motel (and then, Oxford Town started a different album). How amazing it is that the first track of ‘1. Outside’ is just 1/20th of what was actually recorded! (And if Bowie is right about “20 hrs of recorded music with real gems in there etc…” then only 1/20th of the sessions made it onto the CD.)
    By the way, I had to check if it was Tricky that icelandic singer Björk had an affair with, but no, it was Goldie. And the internet tells me that Bowie appeared on a track on Goldie’s 2nd album. I didn’t know that!

    • col1234 says:

      agree Leon Takes/Outside is a great sequence, but the latter is a much different bird—coming out of a Tin Machine outtake that DB also tried for Black Tie and finally cut in ’95. as we’ll see eventually.

  3. The Pataphysical Me says:

    Great, great, great….

  4. angusdurer says:

    Excellent and enlightening, as ever. Thank you.
    NB. Should the recording credits actually read “Westside Studios”?
    I believe “Westlake” is in California…

    CO: yes–thanks for the correction

  5. Maj says:

    I always thought Leon Takes… and Hallo Spaceboy came from the same place musically, sonically? They definitely have some chords in common. And the guitar. Anyway…..

    Great write-up! I like this intro, as it were, to the album…and I kind of like how short it is – it’s what makes the motif of it strong. Interesting to read about Leon (almost wrote Levon…oops….Leon is not supposed to be a good man!) and the Tricky connection. Cool!

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Actually, you may be thinking of the single version of the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy (and in the video), in which an excerpt of Leon Takes Us Outside is used for the intro, accompanied by Bowie’s flat, fragmented recitation of “If…I…fall…moondust…will…cover…me…”

      • Maj says:

        Oh. 😀
        Yes. BUT I guess *why* they used it is because the two “songs” already have something in common. But yeah, thanks. I’m a huge PSB fan but haven’t listened to their version of HS in ages. Shame on me.

    • CosmicJive says:

      I think Reeves Gabrels once said on his website it was based on a song called Moondust.. Eno and Bowie used that as a basis for Spaceboy and Leon takes us Outside uses parts of it too.. Cant remember the entire story…

  6. stuartgardner says:

    I can hardly say how glad I am that at last someone has set himself the task of unravelling as many of these knots as possible and giving fans an approximate view of what the completed project might have been like. I can’t fathom how you’re going about it — I get frustrated untangling my earbuds — but I’m truly grateful.

  7. Momus says:

    Confirming the influence of Bowie’s Phillip Jeffries role in Twin Peaks, this one feels very much like Angelo Badalamenti’s theme music to me.

    There are times when Bowie’s references and influences don’t touch mine at all. The Stan Kenton influence on Let’s Dance, the Pixies influence on Tin Machine, for instance. But this is a moment when I feel very much on the same page. The cult of Twin Peaks and the cult of Tricky were very significant features of my early 90s: I recall Twin Peaks viewing parties in which a group of us shared cherry pie and “damn fine coffee”, and I recall the absolutely revitalising effect of Tricky’s Maxinquaye album, the shock of its haunted, sinister gentleness.

    That plus the influence of the slick, amoral new British art scene and, more generally, what you might call the mainstreaming of postmodernist ideas (this was, after all, the era of the wild popularity of The Simpsons). I feel the presence of all this in Outside; it captures the best of the era. Bowie — semi-retired in the 1980s — suddenly seemed young and vital again, full of the vampiric eclecticism which made his 1970s so exciting. The realisation that “it’s happening outside” had, paradoxically, made him central again; an insider.

  8. Diamond Duke says:

    In a weird way, the album intro version of Leon Takes Us Outside kind of reminds me of Character, the opening intro track of Iggy Pop’s American Caesar from two years before, with its eerily ambient feel and faintly-heard spoken monologue.

    BTW, that Iggy recitation goes: “Well, I’ll tell you one good thing at least about some of these junkies was they had some character / They may have driven me nuts sometimes and screwed up / But at least when they played the damn guitar they’d play it like they meant it / These white bread boys nowadays, knowin’ all the score / Don’ t even know how to puke”

    I can quite easily imagine that Bowie felt rather the same way as Iggy about the ’70s vs. the ’80s, in that even in the drug-induced hell of the ’70s (having to deal with their own addictions as well as those of others) there was an energy and vitality, but that both of them started to lose their way in the clean-cut, business-oriented “white-bread” ’80s. You could say that both American Caesar and Outside represent both Iggy and Bowie attempting to get back to that same sense of creativity and vitality (minus the addictions, of course).

  9. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I don’t know how many are you are familiar with a TV series in which Bowie appeared in 1999-2000 called “The Hunger” (I get the impression it wasn’t hugely successful, though I could be wrong.) Although it was produced and directed by Tony and Ridley Scott, it’s not to be confused with the Bowie vampire movie of the same name from 1983.
    Bowie mostly narrated this series, but there’s one episode in particular called “The Sentinel” which he starred in that shares many of the themes and obsessions of Outside. In it, Giovanni Ribisi plays a young drifter on the run from the police for murder, who shows up at the door of an infamous self-mutilation artist named Julian Priest (played by Bowie) who’s holed up in an abandoned prison.
    Priest, who is obsessed with death in his art because, he says “he resents it” has been living in exile after the public outcry following his last installation which involved crucifixions, chainsawing animal carcasses and peeling off his own flesh. To sum it up, Bowie captures Ribisi and plans to cut him up and inject fluid into his spinal column as his last great work of art. But in a strange twist Bowie has in fact self-mutilated once again, committing suicide by cutting off his own arms and legs and reducing himself to a stump.

    • Momus says:

      Good call; it’s definitely from the same sort of guignol-hardboiled-postmodern universe as the one evoked by Outside. Bowie plays a cross between Damien Hirst and Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch. Best of all, he’s able to use his own accent.

  10. re the Nathan Adler character

    I always thought the name came from the joNathan Adler shops I saw in lower Manhattan

  11. Roman says:

    Re Nathan Adler:

    I read somewhere that in the 1980’s TV series FAME, there’s an episode in which ‘the kids from Fame’ sing Bowie’s song Fame. In that same episode there’s a character called Nathan Adler.

    • fantailfan says:

      Perhaps the original Nathan Adler was an 18th century German Kabbalist. I’m sure Bowie had no idea who that Nathan Adler was, despite his own dabbling in Kabbalah.

      • Galina says:

        May be even Bowie’s reluctance to see his lyrics in print is due to NA the Kabbalist mystic ideas… So it’s quite possible he knew who NA was.

  12. fantailfan says:

    –replacing my second comment–
    To expand on my reply, Milton Berle played a character named Nathan Adler on Fame (season 4, episode 19, March 1985). Adler is a retired director. See https://sites.google.com/site/fameepisodeguide2/Home/coco-returns. They don’t sing “Fame.”

  13. Roman says:

    Interesting stuff fantailfan.

    I seem to recall (from wherever I’d originally read about this) that they sing Bowie’s Fame in either the episode immediately preceding the Nathan Adler one, or just after it.

    I’ve just checked from your link and Bowie’s Fame is in the episode immediately preceding the Nathan Adler one.

  14. Steve says:

    After re-reading this post, I was struck by how the song “Leon Takes Us Outside” starts with the date “Valentine’s Day, 2013.”

    It’s probably just a coincidence, but it did give me chills when I heard that, as if Bowie was somehow predicting that track from midwinter 2013’s “The Next Day”…

    All in all, I think it is merely a coincidence, however strange, and if there’s any connection, Bowie may have been partly inspired by his own lyric in “Leon Takes Us Outside” for the Holy Holy/Kinks-esque “Valentine’s Day.”

    It’s probably nothing, but I just thought I’d share it!

  15. heynongman says:

    Is Bowie doing an Iggy impersonation in “I’d Rather Be Chrome”?

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