A Small Plot of Land

ted untitled

A Small Plot of Land.
A Small Plot of Land (alternate version, Basquiat soundtrack).
A Small Plot of Land (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1996).

After having spent so long in the hypothetical never-was (scrapped tapes, character segues, indecipherable prose), it’s a comfort, if a cold one, to finally reach the Outside songs. These were in two blocks: pieces that came out of the Montreux sessions in March 1994, mostly improvised by Bowie and Eno with Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell, and the block recorded in early 1995 at the Hit Factory in New York. The latter featured Gabrels, Garson, old Bowie hands Carlos Alomar and Kevin Armstrong and a new rhythm section of Yossi Fine and Joey Baron.*

The latter songs were generally a catchier and punchier set: the Hit Factory is where “Strangers When We Meet,” “Outside,” “We Prick You,” “No Control” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town” came together. The songs that began in Switzerland (with some exceptions) tended towards the grim, theatrical and rambling. Many of them shared a common port of origin: Bowie’s old obsession Scott Walker (more in “The Motel”).

“A Small Plot of Land”** is certainly Walker-haunted, with its references to “Nite Flights” (“swings through the tunnels”) and Bowie’s condor-swoops on the reoccurring “POOR dunces” suggest Walker’s strangled tenor. (A live version from Utrecht in 1996 sounds like Bowie is trying to win a Walker impersonation contest). But “Small Plot,” a song built on running collisions among its players, is also an example of the sound that Bowie and Eno had wanted from the Leon sessions. The track opens with Garson on piano, doing his typically frenetic wire-dancing, but he’s soon fighting to be heard against Campbell, who keeps constant fours with his bass drum while seemingly trying to throw Garson off with a rocketing snare pattern. For over a minute nothing advances, no verse appears; the song remains trapped in its intro. Campbell’s insurrections harden into a pattern—he’s stuck in a loop while Garson still has a measure of freedom allotted to him. Gabrels keeps upstage, playing a nagging pair of notes, mixed right, that are the twine holding everything together. Erdal Kizilcay’s bass seems to abandon the song after a few bars, as if he walked into a room and didn’t care for the atmosphere.

Bowie said about seventy percent of his lyric was pure computer-generated cut-up, hence lines like “he pushed at the pigmen.” Using a moderated sprechstimme, he worked his set of random words into a group of mourners. From the first note, he established a funereal march pace: a two-note opening phrase (“poor soul,” “prayer can’t,” “poor dunce,” “brains talk”), where Bowie holds the first note while letting the second, lower in pitch, quickly expire; and two or three “spoken” closing phrases, with just a few notes emphasized or raised in pitch (“he never knew what HIT HIM,” “and it HIT HIM so”). This pattern builds to the two final “POOR dunces,” with the last repeat ballooning the structure: a three-bar endurance of “POOOOOOR,” followed by a muttered “dunce.”

On to Gabrels’ solo, which he said took Adrian Belew’s solo on “Red Sails” and Robert Fripp’s on “Teenage Wildlife” as launching points. Aided by Garson pounding the bass octaves of his piano, Gabrels bloodies and dominates the track so much that when Bowie returns to sing another round of “poor souls,” he’s been reduced to a supporting role.

“Small Plot” had an alternate life. Eno arranged another version of the track for the Basquiat soundtrack, where Bowie sang, echoed by a delayed second vocal track, over “long, drifting overlays” of synthesizers, some intended to sound like motors and machines humming. Here Bowie’s dramatic build to the final “POOR SOUL” was scrapped in favor of a humbly-sung, double-tracked set of closing phrases; it’s the churchyard in place of the cathedral. Julian Schnabel, Basquiat‘s director, told Eno he thought it was a better version than the Outside track, and he used it in the film to score the death of Bowie’s Andy Warhol.

“Small Plot” was meant to be long, punishing and hard, and Bowie sequenced it to be unavoidable. On the album, slotted after the one-two punch of the title track and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” it stilled the momentum. On stage in 1995 and 1996, Bowie plopped “Small Plot” dead in the middle of his sets, often prefacing it with a shabby man’s monologue on the poor dunce (“he wasted all his life, he was dumb, he deserved to die and now he’s dead!”) During early performances, he followed a routine where he first sang with his back to the audience, then paced in a tight circle, and during Gabrels’ solo, he walked across the stage pulling on cords, tugging down long, rectangular banners. Some thought it was a mime sequence symbolizing Bowie’s separation and alienation from the audience. Gabrels, in 2000, said it was just something for Bowie to do with himself during the solo, and it helped set the stage for the following number. “[It was] functional theatricality,” he said.

That said, the finest live performance Bowie ever gave of “Small Plot” was more in the Basquiat version’s line. At a private charity performance in New York in September 1995, Bowie sang it accompanied only by Garson, and he loosened the severity of his phrasing, allowing the song to mourn more openly. The climactic “POOR dunce,” sung gorgeously, led into a tolling Garson piano solo that seemed at times to be churning up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (“The last time we worked together before this year was in 1973, and as you can tell, we still haven’t found our way to finding a melody in those years,” Bowie cracked afterward.)

Recorded ca. May 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. late January-March 1995. The Basquiat version may hail from the overdub sessions Eno and Bowie did at London’s Brondesbury Villas Studio in early January (there’s a reference to this version in Eno’s diary of the period). The version of “Small Plot” that Bowie sang accompanied only by Garson was for, in Nick Pegg’s words, “a private charity function at a New York hotel,” held on 18 September 1995. They also performed “My Death” there.

* One way to tell to which block a song belongs is its publishing: if it’s credited to Bowie/Eno/Gabrels/Kizilcay/Garson/Campbell, it’s definitely from the early Leon sessions. That said, most of the earlier songs were possibly reworked and recut and definitely overdubbed during the Hit Factory sessions.

** Bowie found the song’s title in the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (recall that Duncan Jones was getting a philosophy doctorate at the time, although Deleuze and Guattari were catnip for Bowie, who likely got a kick from lines like: a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.) The paragraph Bowie took his title from could have been a manifesto for Outside: This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of land at all times.

Top: Ted Barron, “Untitled,” 1994. (As I’ve written before, Ted is a friend and a fine photographer).

39 Responses to A Small Plot of Land

  1. I haven’t heard the Bowie/Garson performance in years. I completely forgot about it, and it really is the best version of the song.
    The rambly monologues at the start of the Small Plot performances were always a treat (I kicked ‘im in the ‘ead. And ‘e got dead. deadeadeadead). I think it’s safe to say this was his final ‘theatrical’ tour, but also the final tour he could get away with being a bit theatrical. Would be weird on the Reality tour for instance.

  2. Anonymous says:

    For me-this is Bowie at his finest, oblique , minimal and grandiose,savant garde and medieval, melancholic and operatic, multi-layered and mad as cheese. I was slack jawed when I first heard it back in 95-I hadn’t been moved by his work that much since Low.
    I’ll be a group of one and say I prefer the album version, because its intensity seems to be portray a man in the throws of complete meltdown, to the literal point of becoming a black hole.

    High point of the 90’s for me, not bettered until Heathen-the Rays.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      Mmm… ‘Heathen (The Rays)’. I love the album, love the lyrics to this track, but musically it doesn’t catch fire for me. Neither fish nor fowl; did he want a kind of ‘Radio GaGa’ anthem, or something atmospheric and emotional. For me something is missing. Better live.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        I was slightly regretting my post above, (Feb 15, 3.43pm), after playing and replaying, ‘Heathen (The Rays)’, again. Maybe I’m used to it now, although I remember how I felt on first hearing it.

        But then… I still feel I should be getting tearful by the end of the track, but it’s too restrained and tasteful vocally. There is nothing wrong with the song or the performance, it’s just that it doesn’t quite get me to the tipping point emotionally.

        It’s exactly the same feeling I have after the fairground instrumental break in, ‘Try Some, Buy Some’. The rolling drumming doesn’t quite reach a climax, (with a cymbal crash or something),and Bowie doesn’t hit a note that gives ‘release’ the way he does at the end of ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’ and other similar songs. Maybe that would be too easy and cheap? So, call me a slut but I like to go all the way, lol.

        I do like both ‘Heathen’ and ‘Try Some…’ but both tracks frustrate me a little emotionally. Maybe that’s the point.

  3. Maj says:

    Well, the piano in the intro of the song makes me want to gouge out my eardrums and it’s hard to ever get over that and listen to the rest of it. I only did it because of this blog, after many years. Great torture material.
    The thing is, the melody (?) Bowie is singing is not that bad. Very pagan ritual sort of thing. I also quite like the bass line that kicks in later on, the one Garson plays on his piano (redeeming himself).

    The Basquiat version IS better but still not something I’d ever want to listen to for pleasure.

    Have to admit the ’95 (acoustic) performance is quite good. I wasn’t sure I’d survive another version of this but glad I did click on the link. Thanks Chris! Bowie sounds great in it. Did it ever occur to him to just sing it a capella? Would have made a great summoner kind of moment.

    The ’95 version with the band is OK until Gabrels starts jerking off.

  4. Wonderful, deep, sophisticated piece, one of my absolute favourites. Besides the album track, I love the many different live versions, too. It is amazing what Bowie and Garson do with this song to let it always sound different live. May I say that I feel a bit honoured that you could use my “audio upgrade” of the Wembley 1995 version.

  5. Remco says:

    Every now and again someone in this section wonders how younger people could have gotten into latter day Bowie. This song would be my answer, it really is up there with his best work. Not only his best since ‘Scary Monsters’, but to my ears it beats anything on side two of that album.
    Chris, am I wrong in thinking that you’re not a big fan of this one?

    • col1234 says:

      I admire it, get a kick out of it, don’t love it. the Centre Pompidou of Bowie songs.

      • Estelle says:

        “the Centre Pompidou of Bowie songs.”… ha, makes me smile ! In my youth in Paris I was a suscriber and would go the the Centre Pompidou once a week at least. Indeed sometimes learning about modern art and its errance the painful way more than enjoying it.
        A Small Plot is however a masterpiece to me (for now, I’ll stick to the album version, as I am discovering later DB work –and Outside– only since DB passed away, slowly, slowly, like sipping in it –Outside is such a strong powerful liquor.)
        I am not sure what you mean by “the Centre Pompidou song” –too complicated, abstract, conceptual, and even ugly? I could agree that would mean the song is not SO great, though if I understood well, that could make it also fit very well into the Outside album concept.
        Yet I like to relate to art primarily with my senses rather than through very abstract complicated thought processes. The fact is that this song –from the very first bass + piano notes, the intro of the intro, onward– touches right into my autonomic nervous system and moves me to tears –the intensity, the depth of the sound, the sadness of madness, the cry on “Poooooooooor…” with its tone of firy anger (Maj in his/her comment calls the voice “pagan” –agreed!) yet landing so gently and softly with Dunce, pure singing genious. I get caught in this piece and do listen to it in loops for a number of times. I am in a trance. This piece even swings!
        Maybe I am deranged, maybe I am extremely sensitive to madness’ dead end, to the tragedy we live in. Bowie is here making sense of the madness and of the sensitivity to it, and of the whole intensity. Whatever itches, he played it (as he said). This piece is a relief, a catharsis to me, I cannot not love it. I don’t remember anything at the Centre Pompidou ever did this to me. This song in particular (and others on Outside in general) brings me back in complete awe and love with the later Bowie.

        I don’t know if my comment makes any sense; I obviously lack the impressive background you have, Chris, and the heights you help us reach with your posts. I feel so clumsy and dumb here. I don’t analyse this song, I just receive it. I don’t even get to the lyrics, I get a voice, singing, vocalizing. I get punched and moved and awakened –and that is no Centre Pompidou, to me. Maybe that just proves my dumbness, but I am glad Bowie created this piece for the dumb me to love it! Life on Earth!

      • Estelle says:

        Listening to it as i write, I want to add: beautiful, pure bliss! Skillfully surfing at high speed on massive waves of inhumane mental illness from deep waters, at times taking off and soaring, with grace–taking life risks, with total mastery and control. Safe, but serious, both extremely playful and stressful…
        Tears at 5:30.
        Incredible! I am blown.
        I play it again, I don’t get bored of it!
        Only the very end after 6:10 is weaker.

  6. gcreptile says:

    This one indeed fits somewhere between ‘Tilt’ and ‘The Drift’, but Bowie couldn’t have known that back then, or? Yes, it is meant to be hard to listen to. At least during those sessions, Bowie wanted that huge impenetrable block of music, so avantgarde, so electronic, so complicated, it would have restored his critical standing, won him a new generation of fans, the admiration of his peers, and commercial success… all at once – which is the problem with 1.Outside. I do like it between Heart’s Filthy Lesson and Hello, Spaceboy, though. The brain is on alert for the whole time. Garson is a genius, I never paid enough attention to his work. That duet is very fine. Those stripped down versions really reveal the quality of Bowie’s songwriting (à la The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).

  7. twinkle-twinkle says:

    I played ‘Outside 1’ for the first time in ages the other day. It was fresh all over again. It’s mad and cold and exciting and rich with ideas. Too rich perhaps, but wonderful, especially live.

    The link to the above Bowie/Garson version and ‘My Death’, just stunning. Great photos of him too doing ‘M.D’. I hope there is some of that kind of thing on the new album, advancing all electric.

    Has the cover been fixed Dave? Please…

  8. MC says:

    This is one of DB’s “difficult” songs that I just love, personally. The sense of terror is palpable – worthy of comparison to the best of Tilt, in my opinion. I must say, the Garson piano version is a treat to listen to – a great reinterpretation. Does anyone have an idea, though, of where it fits in the narrative of Leon, Ramona, Adler, etc. from a lyrics perspective – or am I just being literal-minded?🙂

  9. s.t. says:

    I love this song, especially the Outside version. This is the moment in the album where you realize that David’s not simply genre-hopping from the clubs to Reznor Land; he’s offering us music-as-art, something he hadn’t really done since Scary Monsters. It doesn’t go down easy, but it’s damn inspired.

    • You’ve written what I was thinking. I had no interest in 1. Outside in 1995. I was 21 and was absorbed in the 70’s material, convinced the 95 material was bunk. But this song is fantastic.

  10. CosmicJive says:

    Are you sure the Basquiat version is the Eno version he mentions in his diary? The Basquiat one seems to be the album version stripped of all the instruments except the string synths. I alway thought the Eno mix was remixed into the 50th birthday show intro you can even hear a “poor dunce” before the battle for britain snippet is heard. And the atmosphere of machines and motors humming discription fits that snippet much better than the strings only Basquiat mix…

    Anyway, love this track and especially love Gabrels’ mad solo. Wanted to be a guitarist after hearring Gabrels work on this record and fell in love with Bowie music too. Too bad I missed out on seeing the full Outside band in 1996, luckily I did see a festival show later that year:-)

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      Eno mentioned a version full of machine noises in his email conversation with DB published in Q before Outside was released.

      I like this song a lot. I wasn’t aware of that these other versions were available. So I am rather pleased.

      • CosmicJive says:

        Exactly, which means the Basquiat version isnt that machines and motor mix which Eno did. Still believe the short intro for the bithday show video is an edited snippet of that Eno Mix

      • col1234 says:

        yes, think I was in error confusing the two mixes. I’ll correct that.

  11. The Pataphysical Me says:

    I knew there was a genuine link between Bowie & Deleuze-Guattari. A lot of concepts from these authors can be seen & thought as patterns for Bowie’s creations. D&G wrote about “deterritorialisation”, “processus”, “schizo-analyse”, “devenirs”…, there’s a website driven by Richard Pinhas, ex-leader of the French band “Heldon” (very close to Fripp) which is completely dedicated to Deleuze & turns to written words what was recorded during his courses in Vincennes & Saint-Denis; here’s the link:

    http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/sommaire.html
    (Pinhas used to drive Gilles Deleuze to University & debate with him… such a fantastic epoch/ Era!)
    extracts (some are translated into English):
    “Dominique Fernandez fait un éloge mesuré, mais très remarquable de Bowie. Il dit que c’est une voix de fausset. Mais ce n’est pas par hasard que la pop music ça a été les Anglais. Les Beatles: il devrait y avoir des voix qui ne sont pas loin du tout, ce n’est pas un contre-ténor, mais il y en a un qui devait avoir un registre qui approchait le contre-ténor. C’est très curieux que les Français aient refusé les castrats. Pour les Anglais, on comprend, c’est des puritains. Lorsque Gluck fait jouer je ne sais plus quel opéra, en France, il doit réécrire entièrement le rôle principal pour le faire chanter par un ténor. C’est dramatique, ça. Nous, on a toujours été du côté de la ritournelle. Donc, Fernandez fait cette espèce de compliment à la pop music. Mais vous voyez bien où il veut en venir quand il dit que la musique se termine avec Bellini et avec Rossini, ce qui revient à dire, encore une fois: mort à Wagner, mort à Verdi. Là, ça devient moins bon. Tout ce que je voudrais retenir du livre de Fernandez, c’est: oui, la musique est inséparable d’un devenir enfant, d’un devenir femme, d’un devenir moléculaire, c’est même ça sa forme de contenu, en même temps que sa forme d’expression c’est la déterritorialisation de la voix, et la déterritorialisation de la voix passe par les deux extrêmes de la voix déterritorialisée du castrat et de la voix déterritorialisée du contre-ténor. Là, ça forme un petit bloc?”

    • The Pataphysical Me says:

      “un petit bloc de terre”, Bowie… a nomad (poor) soul, Bowie left the Desert behind him to find a small plot of land.

  12. + says:

    Reading this post and tracking back just a few posts is like a heartbreak.
    weather it’s seriously a bad joke or truth,
    for person i’m admired for decades, i feel he’s totally blank for no reason.

    • The Pataphysical Me says:

      ??????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      i must admit that i need details; what’s wrong with this blank Bowie? you felt BTWN better? how this Jones you admired for decades? should be interresting o know more MR + says?!

  13. BenJ says:

    I hadn’t known about the Deleuze connection. There’s a line in the Nat King Cole song “Thou Swell” that says “Give me not a lot of, just a small plot of land,” and I always thought that was the inspiration for the song name.

    This is definitely one of the jazzier songs in the later Bowie repertoire, seeming to draw from two different eras. Garson’s piano is boppish, very much in the Monk vein, while the lead guitar is more free jazz, or like one of Zappa’s jazz compositions.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      NAT KING COLE? Well spotted. I have a few more.

      I seem to remember db’s mum telling Bono at ‘the wedding’, that Nat King Cole was her favourite singer. So it would be no surprise if Bowie absorbed many songs.

      ‘Changes’ – ‘I watch the RIPPLES change their size, but never

      leave the STREAM.’

      ‘For All We Know’ – ‘We come and go like a RIPPLE on a

      STREAM.’

      ‘On The Street Where You Live’ – In this song the singer is

      floating off the ground in love. In Bowie’s song he’s ‘in a cellar, like a church with a door ajar.’

      ‘Candidate’ – ‘ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE I could not

      hold up my head.’

      ‘LET’S Face the Music and DANCE’ – ‘So while there’s

      MOONLIGHT and love and romance, LET’S face the music and DANCE.’

      ‘Let’s Dance’ – Trouble ahead? ‘THE SERIOUS/sirius

      MOONLIGHT.’

      At the time of release of Mick Ronson’s ‘Slaughter on 10th Ave’ in ’73, a flexi disc was given away free to promote it in a weekly music paper the UK.

      Mick is interviewed on it, and finishes by saying how, when walking home – romantically – with someone new for the first time, ‘it feels like the end of the world.’

      ‘For fear tonight is all’?

      • s.t. says:

        Hmmm, interesting.

        Also, “Let’s face the music and dance” is a line in Bowie’s New Killer Star.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Of course, I felt sure I’d forgotten one and that was it, many thanks. I have a couple of ‘Small Faces’ inspired musical moments too, but that’s for another time.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Apologies for talking about other songs on this page, but you pull one thread on a Bowie song and suddenly you have a lap full of… sweater fragments?

        Anyway, Bowie’s heart was in the cellar in more than one song. ‘My heart’s in the basement…’ Queen Bitch. An image reminiscent of Cole Porter’s, ‘Down in the Depths’ (On the ninetieth floor), where the singer is living high but feeling lonely and low.

        db said he was not a natural songwriter and had to work hard to learn how it was done. Taking inspiration from other songs is nothing new.

        Early Beatles were kind of Little Richard meets the Everly Brothers. How many great songs did Lennon create from his love of Ketty Lester’s ‘Love Letters’? (Bowie then took that sound and reworked ‘Space Oddity’ in 1980, with a sparse floating arrangement, (including Lennon-esque vocals).

  14. spanghew says:

    This is one of the songs on Outside that really sold me: I love the way he develops that melody, the way it builds and varies, over the nearly unchanging backdrop. The vocal is such a commanding performance that even when it seems absurd to parse it harmonically (drone + vocal in other key entirely), it never seems arbitrary. I honestly haven’t paid that much attention to whatever narrative strands in the lyrics relate to the “plot” (or, more accurately, situation) of Outside…but this *feels* like someone, well, somewhat outside that situation, commenting on it, coldly yet not without compassion. I probably can’t justify that feeling with reference to the lyrics – it’s entirely from the music and singing.

  15. Diamond Duke says:

    Well…I really don’t know what I could add to everybody else’s observations (my being a latecomer this time around), but I would agree that this is definitely a highlight of Bowie’s “later” years. Nothing you could safely categorize or conveniently file away into some category. Quite eerie and unsettling, but nonetheless beautiful. More than anything else from this period, this definitely makes one think of what Bowie’s Berlin period might have been like if Mike Garson had been along for the ride (think “Aladdin Sane meets ‘Heroes’“). As much as I like the album version and the live versions with the full band, I think this is a rare instance where a prefer the more sparser-sounding ambient treatment of the Basquiat mix, as well as the live version with just Bowie and Garson. Maybe this is because I really love that soaring, gorgeous vocal melody, and in the full-band version, the insistent beat kind of clashes with it just a tad, whereas in its more minimal incarnations it’s highlighted with a more sparing accompaniment.

    • spanghew says:

      I like the spare version too – but I prefer the album version *because* of the contrast and testnion between the beat and the musical chaos and Bowie’s magisterial vocal performance. As I said: it’s somehow simultaneously impassionated and at a cold distance.

  16. spanghew says:

    (pretend I know how to type)

  17. rob thomas says:

    Listening to this track for the first time, mainly due to the high poll rating that readers gave Outside. Hints of ‘Sue’ of course, and of Blackstar. Great stuff- challenging, yet (generally) listenable.

  18. I love this song, especially going to sleep.

    So…… Is this song about Leon then?… Does he die at the end?

  19. Grim Gnarlicon says:

    I’d always assumed it was Joey Barron on the drums on this one, not Campbell. It swings more like a jazz drummer behind the kit, and Joey Barron is a monster of a jazz drummer.

    Incidentally, Donny McCaslin’s new album contains a very good cover of this song. The singing is a bit jarring after two decades of the Bowie version, but I got used to it.

  20. leonoutside says:

    Chris, Bowie titled “Small Plot of Land” as a nod to both Samuel Beckett and by extension to Jack Butler Yeats. Bowie purchased “Sleep Sound” in 1993. An Oil on canvas depicting (just about) two figures lying on an Irish bog. Yeats executed the work in 1955, and Beckett based -in part – Waiting for Godot’s two main characters: Vladimir and Estragon on the painting. Classic “Outsider” art. Both.

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