Before Bowie began his summer 1996 tour, he took part in a documentary directed by Michael Apted. Called Inspirations, the film attempted to plumb the creative process and trace, as its title suggested, the development of an artist’s style and how he/she absorbed influences. Apted interviewed seven artists in various mediums: Bowie and his former collaborators, the dancers/choreographers Louise LeCavalier and Édouard Lock, of La La Human Steps; Nora Naranjo-Morse (a potter and poet); the painter Roy Lichtenstein; Dale Chihuly (a glass sculptor) and the architect Tadao Ando.
Bowie’s interviews found him open and wry. He spoke with intelligence and appreciation about the commercial art world (where he had briefly worked in the mid-Sixties) rather than using it as a joke, as he had in the past, when he’d regarded advertising as a square fate he’d escaped by going into rock music. He had come far enough to appreciate the craft of commercial art, and considered his current music (he’s shown rehearsing “A Small Plot of Land”) as, in its way, following a similar exacting standard.
A main sequence of Bowie’s section of Inspirations is a rehearsal with the Earthling band—Mike Garson, Zachary Alford, Gail Ann Dorsey and Reeves Gabrels, with Mark Plati likely behind the desk–in which Bowie attempts to write a new song in the studio. He begins by taking a front-page article from the New York Times about a disgraced admiral who killed himself, runs a few sentences from the piece through his word-mixing Verbasizer program, and soon comes up with the raw material for a lyric—you can see in the clump of text that the program generates the intriguing phrases “the top kills himself” and “dead men don’t talk.”
The choices that I now make from this form I can then reimbue with an emotive quality, if I want to. Or take it as it writes itself.
Bowie turned “dead men don’t talk” into a chorus hook (directly or perhaps subconsciously referencing Eno’s “Dead Finks Don’t Talk”) and set the lyric to an off-kilter pattern dominated by a Gabrels guitar feedback loop and a jittery Garson piano that echoes the vocal line. What’s interesting is that as late as May 1996, Bowie was still working in the Outside vein—“Dead Men Don’t Talk” is far more in line with the songs that came from the Leon sessions of 1994 than it is with the songs that Bowie and this band would record in just three months’ time.
He apparently didn’t try to revive or finish “Dead Men” for Earthling (it’s unclear from the film how far along its construction went), and the track’s far more interesting as a glimpse of the mechanics of Bowie’s songwriting than it is as a song.
Bowie’s entire segment of Inspirations is worth watching: the segment with Tony Oursler’s “egg” projections, which turn up on “Where Are We Now?,” shows just how ruthless a recycler of ideas Bowie is. The “Dead Men” fragment has often been misidentified as being from the main Earthling sessions in August 1996 or even from the December 1996 rehearsals for Bowie’s 50th birthday concert (audio versions have even turned up on Outside bootlegs, mixed in with Leon fragments). But the copy of the New York Times that Bowie uses here (from “Friday last,” he says in the clip) is the 17 May 1996 edition (“His Medals Questioned, Top Admiral Kills Himself,” by Philip Shenon), which conclusively places this recording during the week of 20-24 May 1996.
Top: Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995).