One of the few Outside songs that Bowie never performed live, “Wishful Beginnings” was also dropped from the album on a few occasions: a late Nineties CD reissue and a vinyl edition. Unlike “Too Dizzy,” whose deletion was an act of self-criticism, the 5:09 “Beginnings” seems likely to have been cut for space reasons. Still, as it’s one of Bowie’s creepiest songs, hinting at the ritual murder of a young girl, it’s also possible that he had qualms about it (that said, it’s been restored to the most recent editions of the record).
Its lyric was allegedly the perspective of an “Artist/Minotaur” figure that Bowie made occasional gestures at explaining. It’s Bowie playing with one of his favorite interview subjects of the period: ritual sacrifice and murder as an art project. Tracing a line from Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” and Andre Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level“) to the scarring and blood-drips of Ron Athey, Marc Quinn (whose Self was a cast of his head filled with eight pints of his blood) and Kiki Smith‘s anatomical art, Bowie said all of it was of a piece, a tradition of modern paganism whose impetus goes “back to the Romans and their drinking the blood and eating the meat of the bull to enable us to go forward into the new era…a kind of appeasement to the gods to allow us to go into the next millennium.”
So the Minotaur figure, which Bowie had depicted in a few paintings for a 1994 theme exhibit in London (“Minotaur Myths and Legends”), was part of this movement, representing a piece of the artist that needed blood and appeasement before it had the strength to create again. A few lines hint that Bowie’s performing the blood ritual on himself (“I’m no longer your golden boy…flames burn my body“), and one reading of “Beginnings” is that it’s Bowie’s fear he was endangering his hard-won, carefully-constructed family man persona by indulging in base, violent fantasies for the sake of making better records.
As a track, “Beginnings” was one of Bowie’s most radical soundscapes, a sprechstimme vocal over a set of loops: a constant 4/4 drum, a two-note “chime,” and a thudding kick drum sample hitting on every other downbeat, bringing with it a satanic cackle and a rattling tambourine loop. At first, the only harmonic material is a synthesizer chord in sync with the kick drum sample, and Bowie’s voice hangs suspended for bars without any sense of grounding: it furthers the feeling that the singer has gone untethered, venturing into madness and estrangement from humanity. (It’s mainly a single-tracked vocal, with occasional echoes mixed right.)
As “Beginnings” goes on, the patterns loosen—the synthesizer plays an occasional melodic fragment, and begins sounding ahead of the downbeat, while the tambourine loop slightly lengthens and shortens. By the midpoint of the track, where Bowie is at his gentlest (“we FLEW on the wings…we will NEVER go DOWN”) and a keyboard offers a trio of tiny melodies, “Beginnings” feels like it could blossom into something human. Instead, the song freezes again. The kick drum sample and synthesizer chords vanish, leaving only a doleful Bowie and his percussion loops. The project has failed. We had such wishful beginnings, but we lived unbearable lives…I’m sorry little girl. And out comes the knife.
Scott Walker is an obvious presence here: “Beginnings” is one of the Outside tracks where Bowie was seemingly attempting to do a pre-cover of Walker’s Tilt, released during the last round of mixing. There are traces of Bowie’s past as well, like Lou Reed’s “Make Up” (cf. Reed’s “you’re a slick little girl” with Bowie’s “you’re a sorry little girl“). Where Reed had warmly detailed the stylish, precise makeup ritual of a transvestite, Bowie dehumanizes the ritual, making the girl simply a body, stripped of humanity, a piece of meat being prepared for the blade. And its key ancestor was Bowie’s own “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” with which “Beginnings” shares a structure (a spoken-sung melody that’s barely connected to any harmonic base) and a lurid, exploitative flavor.
Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studios, London, and the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. Deleted from 1. Outside Version 2 (replaced by the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”), but restored to the 2003 and 2004 reissues (Europe and US, respectively).
Top: Andreas Freund, “New York,” 1995.