Do I detect a character from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ lurking on your new album?
Bowie: Not intentionally….
The guy who rents the room–
Bowie: Aha! Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
There’s a little bit of him, I thought.
Bowie: It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner.
Interview with Seconds, 1995.
Bowie meant “Charrington,” but he was so tickled that the interviewer had unearthed a piece of his subconscious that he blended Orwell’s character with his own. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Charrington is the junk shop owner who rents a room to Winston Smith for his liaisons with Julia. “The old man seemed seldom or never to go out of doors, and on the other hand to have almost no customers. He led a ghostlike existence. Wandering about among his worthless stock, with his long nose and thick spectacles and his bowed shoulders in the velvet jacket, he had always vaguely the air of being a collector rather than a tradesman. He had dragged out from the corners of his memory some fragments of forgotten rhymes.”
Charrington turns out to be a Party member who helps bait the trap that lands Winston in Room 101. (Some scholars have argued that Charrington is a veiled T.S. Eliot, who Orwell had defended from attacks by leftist critics and who later “betrayed” Orwell by declining to publish Animal Farm.) The loyalties of Bowie’s character on Outside are more vague. Touchshriek is a 78-year-old shopkeeper who, according to Nathan Adler, “deals in art drugs and DNA prints [and] fences for all apparitions of any medium.” His personality is described as “harmless, lonely.”
Lonely, yes. Is he harmless? Touchshriek has one of the more opaque roles in the Outside “narrative.” He seems to have seen something (Grace’s murder, Leon or Ramona’s arrangement of the body), as in a deleted Leon segue, he mentions having been walking near the Museum of Modern Parts, where Grace’s body was displayed. He’s considering renting a room above his shop to a fugitive (perhaps Grace was once kept there), and it’s possible Touchshriek was involved with the killing in some manner. In another deleted Leon segue, he mentions that he “knew Leon once.”
But Touchshriek’s far more interesting than his cloudy role in Bowie’s admittedly plotless mystery. His Outside segue, an edited/re-recorded version of a segue on the “Enemy Is Fragile” Leon suite, is a clever, touching, sharply compressed piece of writing. Bowie opens with some Edward Lear- and James Joyce-inspired wordplay and, showing a fine touch for detail, he builds up Touchshriek’s enclosed world in a handful of lines.
The backing track suits the flow of the segue, with Reeves Gabrels guitar and Mike Garson piano lines cycling beneath Touchshriek’s monologue, as if they’re interrogating him. (In the original segue, Bowie spoke over a gradual crescendo of Garson piano glissandi and Gabrels arpeggios). Some Eno “jungle” sounds accompany Touchshriek’s last words, and he walks off stage to a quiet flow of synthesizer chords.
If the various Outside characters are refracted pieces of Bowie’s personality, Touchshriek is the withered end of one unlived life, a David Jones who had stayed in Beckenham, had kept up marginal ties to the local art scene (imagine him still running an Arts Lab at the Three Tuns in 1995) and who had grown old and alone there. In this vein, Touchshriek also ties back to Bowie’s Sixties character studies, his songs of shabby bachelors, elderly shoplifters and Gurney Slade-esque suburban dreamers: he’s the heir to Uncle Arthur, the Little Bombardier, and the lonely scholar in “Conversation Piece.”
Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.
Top: Bowie, older than he is today.