What does Nathan Adler want?
I think Nathan Adler would require the world to come back to…certain parameters that he understands. He looks back rather nostalgically to a time when there was a seeming order in things. He’s really rather despondent that things are broken into this fragmented chaotic kind of state. Which of course it always has been. But in his own Apollonian way he sort of created the parameters for his society and how he should be. That’s him. And he’s got to solve this crime…
Bowie, interview by Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.
Edmund Wilson, in 1944, wondered about detective stories: why were they so popular? why were so many of his friends and “respected” literary figures obsessed with them? So being Wilson, he read a stack of books and pronounced a verdict. He read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (“a dim and distant copy of the original [Sherlock Holmes]“), Agatha Christie (“[her] writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seems to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out“), and Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (“a cold underworld brutality…[but] not much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.”)
Wilson sniffed that detective stories were popular because they suited their shabby times, the interwar and war years, when the world “was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility.” In a mystery novel, by contrast, “the murderer is spotted and, relief!, he is not, after all, a person like you and me…[and] the supercilious and omniscient detective…knows exactly where to fit the guilt.”
Bowie’s Nathan Adler comes fifty years later, during another time of vaguely-perceived impending disaster. Speaking in an Englishman’s memory of a hard-boiled gumshoe’s voice, clad in the private eye’s uniform of trench coat, necktie and cigarette pack, Adler is the alleged protagonist and narrator of Outside. In his three segues (two official and one that’s part of “I Am With Name”), you might expect to learn something: background, clues, details on suspects, even a resolution.
You don’t get that. What you get is a stream of unaligned information: names, jargon, settings, incomprehensible actions. As Phil Sandifer wrote about the hip “paranoid” TV shows of the Nineties, especially The X-Files, which devoted years to sifting through layers of conspiracies within conspiracies, “the conspiracy does not provide an answer so much as it provides an interminable narrative stretching towards an answer that never arrives.” So Adler is a private eye who’s a red herring; his presence is a confusion. He’s a lost soldier of order who’s an unwitting element of chaos, and he’s as clueless as you are, if not more so (he may not have heard Baby Grace’s tape, nor is he privy to Ramona and Touchshriek’s thoughts).
This was a revision of Adler’s role. On Leon, Adler is far more present, speaking in each of the three suites. He’s still cryptic but his reoccurring presence acts as an adhesive that binds the bizarre suites together. On Outside, Bowie reduced Adler to cameo appearances. He was playing with the established role of the private eye: the loner who manages to break into a closed circle. Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. The private eye is a walking means to advance a story: he doesn’t know anything, so he asks questions; he pokes around and stumbles upon bodies and secrets; he eventually shades in the plot.
Adler* talks like his predecessors but no one talks to him, no one tells him anything. He’s not even trying to solve a killing but only to determine whether the murder qualified as art (he also works for an overseas employer: he’s a telecommuter). The screen detective he most resembles is Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville: an unflappable fragment of some lost narrative, blankly wandering through a world he can’t understand, still serving as a grounding point for viewers (and listeners, in this case). (Of course, a direct ancestor of Adler was Bowie’s cameo role as the lost FBI agent “Philip Jefferies” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.)
The two Adler segues hail from different stages of the recording of Outside. The first is an edit of two segues from the “I Am With Name” suite and given a new backing track dominated by a jittery Reeves Gabrels guitar line (it’s possible it’s Carlos Alomar). The second, which is barely half a minute long, was recorded during a round of overdubs with Eno in early 1995 (it’s credited only to Bowie and Eno, unlike the other segues), and has Bowie muttering and moaning over a middleweight drum ‘n’ bass loop, an early sign of where Bowie would go next.
However, Adler also left a diary behind…
Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs (and in the second segue’s case, the complete recording) at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.
* There’s plenty of speculation where Bowie took the name from. Candidates include the psychologist Alfred Adler, the 19th Century British rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, the 18th Century Kabbalist Nathan Hakohen Adler (all dignified agents of order), and, Maj’s astute suggestion, Irene Adler. The name could also just be a joke about being “addled.”
Top: Gumshoe Jones.