Segue: Algeria Touchshriek

glowers for algeria

Segue: Algeria Touchshriek.

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.

19 Responses to Segue: Algeria Touchshriek

  1. Paul Kelly says:

    “Mr. Walloff Domburg…A reject from the world wide Internet”

  2. bravo!…i never thought of the lineage back to’conversation piece’ ,and so true.

  3. Maj says:

    You made great connections there, Chris. Your write-up is much more interesting than the segue itself.
    I would have liked Touchshriek’s monologue without any music, or at least not with the thing that was used. I find it annoying. But I think this guy is my favourite of the characters yet. It kind of fits Bowie. (Sorry, David.)

  4. gcreptile says:

    Somehow I always assumed that Touchshriek was of oriental ethnicity. And Walloff Domburg… there must be an Eno-esque anagram hidden somewhere. I suspect that all of 1.Outside is full of Eno’s anagrams but I never really did the research. I have to agree that Touchshriek’s role in Bowie’s canon is far more interesting than his role in Outside’s narrativeless murder mystery.

    • col1234 says:

      it’s quite possible it’s supposed to be, or a play on, “Wolof” (the West African language)–recall that was one of the words DB’s ‘town crier’ character kept repeating in the various Leon segues.

      • gcreptile says:

        Yes, maybe, and what’s that about anyway? Maybe it’s Eno’s dream world in which african rhythms (à la Talking Heads) dominate pop culture.

  5. postpunkmonk says:

    Damn! All of this is more interesting than the album! My eternal problem with “Outside” in a nutshell.

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    Quite possibly my favorite character segue on the album! Bowie is really quite convincing in the role of a lonely old shopkeeper. There is a vague hint of dementia or senility in the old man’s monologue, and that may be no surprise given Bowie’s long-standing fascination/empathy with the subject of madness and/or mental deterioration.

    It’s also really quite interesting how Bowie seems to be using a kind of futuristic sci-fi jargon for this fictional universe. There are references to “update demons, “mind filters, “shoulder surfers, “interest drugs” and “brain patches.. I sometimes wonder how Touchshriek’s reference to “looking through windows for demons” ties in with Nathan Adler’s later reference to Ramona A. Stone as an “update demon..

    And the musical backing is really quite beautiful and ethereal, if eerily perturbed. I love the way that Garson’s piano and Gabrels’ guitar work together.

  7. Cleofis says:

    This one always did work for me far better than the other segues; it’s definitely the one the stands alone the best.

    On a general Bowie-related note, this is one of the greatest Bowie pieces I’ve ever read:

    • col1234 says:

      yes, Carlin is a wonderful writer. His entire blog, not just the Bowie entries, is worth reading. Start from the beginning and you’ll have a better, more nuanced sense of postwar British cultural history than you’ll get from most “official” histories of the period.

    • 2fs says:

      What a curious coincidence…in that I’m in the midst of re-watching The Prisoner on disc…

  8. Remco says:

    Lovely post, but then I always loved this segue too. As with the Baby Grace segue the words are absolutely wonderful. Glad to see you’ve done them justice.

  9. Momus says:

    This piece on its own is a better bit of art than the whole of the new My Bloody Valentine album. Better lyrics, better projection, better ability to teleport the listener into an unfamiliar alternative universe.

    I love the sentimental cerebrotonic loser created by the sketch. Bit parts and skewed stereotypical supporting characters (“suspects”, usually red herrings) are one of the pleasures of detective fiction, and of the life it imitates (Algeria Touchshriek isn’t a million miles from the blue-rinsed landlord in the Yeates murder case that had Britain transfixed a couple of years ago).

    I also love that the Sherlock-Holmesian apparatus of the Nathan Adler plot requires, itself, to be extensively sleuthed. The result–a sum of confusions in terms of narrative mechanics–touches, on the level of spooky atmosphere and noir style, a sublimity I’d call “Bladerunneresque”. Or perhaps “Residentsesque”, because it reminds me of the macabre magic of Residents CD-ROMs like Gingerbread Man, released the same year.

  10. Momus says:

    Rewatching GIngerbread Man on YouTube I’m struck by the similarities. There are creepy characters like The Sold-Out Artist, The Dying Oilman and The Aging Musician, each with a through-composed operatic cameo and an acted-out voice, not to mention digital visuals.

    The Residents are using the same digital synths and the same digital imaging tools, unsurprisingly. But they’re also the same generation, roughly, as Bowie and David Lynch, and you get the same basic Gen X cultural outlook: early molding by Hollywood glamour (noir movies, Oz) which gets a postmodern makeover later. Immersion in the cultural Pandora’s Box of the 1960s, together with a keen understanding that evil emerged along with all the Peace, Love and Understanding (a strong theme in Twin Peaks, especially). And a sense that mainstream culture (MTV, major record labels, TV) had really sold out and lost their way in the big-buck 1980s, and that the “outside” of digital culture would and should come to the fore in the 1990s — with, again, the proviso that, as in the 1960s, there would be something creepy and evil emerging from Pandora’s Box.

  11. Momus says:

    (I don’t mean “Gen X”, I mean “Boomer”, clearly.)

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I remember when I first heard this and how it echoed Conversation Piece. I hate to be a pedant but isn’t Mr Touchshriek’s lineage more on the side of the Austrian owner than the scholar-narrator?

  13. spiritual hercules says:

    Probably my least favourite of all Bowie products, the Outside album.
    Brilliant reviews however.

  14. VersionCrazy says:

    The line about looking through windows searching for demons I always assumed to be a reference to the Internet – at the time of Outside, Demon was a major dial-up ISP.

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