The story of David Bowie’s music is that of a boy’s club. There obviously have been women (a great many) in Bowie’s personal life; on stage and in the studio, it’s been a far different matter.
There were muses and fellow performers: Hermione Farthingale, Dana Gillespie, Ava Cherry. His Arts Lab co-founder Mary Finnigan. Fellow composers like Lesley Duncan. Angela Bowie, who in the early Seventies was essentially Bowie’s manager, strategist, minder, roadie and work-engine (for all we know, Iman’s played the same role in the past 20 years). Corrinne Schwab has quietly run his empire since the mid-Seventies. There were choreographers and costumers like Toni Basil and Natasha Korniloff. Backing singers like Emm Gryner, Holly Palmer and Robin Clark. Occasional studio contributors, like the violinist Lisa Germano.
But there’s only been one woman who stands in the “frontline” of Bowie musicians, the only one whose name ranks with the likes of Gabrels or Garson, Alomar or Slick: Ms. Gail Ann Dorsey.
And that said, there’s a sense of missed opportunity with Dorsey and Bowie. While she had a marvelous voice, she rarely sang on Bowie’s albums and, more strikingly, she didn’t play on many of them. We’re about to say goodbye to her for a time, as Mark Plati and Tony Visconti were the only bassists on the stretch of albums between Hours and Reality (as fate would have it, the one album she did play on during this time, Toy, was never issued). Dorsey would remain Bowie’s touring bassist.
Some of her absence was possibly due to timing: she’d been a solo artist since the Eighties and was working on her own material, and she was in demand for other sessions. Some of it was a matter of logistics: e.g., when recording with Visconti, it was simpler to have Visconti play the basslines. But Dorsey seemed to have some regret that she hadn’t been more involved in the records. “It’s hard for me to get a look in with all the great bass players that hang around David. But I enjoy playing with David in any capacity,” she said in a 2003 webchat.*
After the Earthling sessions, Dorsey and Bowie collaborated on “Planet of Dreams,” a track slotted for a 1997 compilation to benefit the Tibet House Trust.** “Planet of Dreams” is little like the rest of Earthling. Recorded mainly with acoustic instruments, its establishing mood is a vague “Eastern” vibe: a glacial sense of grandeur as conveyed by a slow tempo, a wide-panned stereo mix featuring a rotating cast of tastefully deployed sound-colors (among those here are congas, a singing Gabrels guitar line and Garson rumbling on the bass end of his piano); it’s the sort of soundscape favored by late-career Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel and seemingly by any post-1990 travel documentary set in the Himalayan region.
Built on a single verse, Bowie singing each phrase to the same rising melody, that ramps up to a ten-times-repeated single-line chorus, “Planet of Dreams” has a sweep and power to it. Its lyric begins with intimations of reincarnation, takes an odd detour through Clark Gable’s eyes and “Eisenhower blam[ing] the poor” and closes with the title phrase, a more cutting idea than the aspirational-sounding “we’re living in planet of dreams” suggests. The line’s more likely Bowie playing on the Mahayana Buddhist concept of māyā, in which we perceive the world as if we’re audience members as a magic show, taking the illusions unfurled on stage as real.
Dorsey’s harmony vocals, coming midway through the verse, strengthen the song as Bowie’s single-tracked verse vocal is flighty and wavering in the first lines. Their harmonies on the chorus, soaring over rolling Zach Alford fills and cymbal crashes and the quiet musings of Dorsey’s own graceful bass, make the title line hypnotic. What saves the track from an icy loftiness is a slight sense of humor: the piano line that winks at George Michael’s “Freedom”: the “Walk on the Wild Side” vocal tag that Dorsey sings.
“Planet of Dreams” could have been the start of a promising partnership on record. Instead, Bowie and Dorsey would remain a stage collaboration only.
Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York [? possibly early 1997? see comments]. Released on 23 June 1997 on Long Live Tibet (EMI 7243 8 33140 2 7).
* A follow-up question was more blunt: Gail were you pissed off Bowie didn’t ask you to play on Heathen [?]
GailAnnDorsey: No. I am always surprised that I am still in the band after all these years. Besides, I always get called in for the hard work.
** The song was credited to Bowie and Dorsey on the CD sleeve. I didn’t find the copyright on BMI’s site (where DB’s songs usually are registered) so I don’t know if Dorsey got songwriting credit (I’m assuming it would be for music).