At the corner of the settee nearest the fire, beneath a television which has long ceased to flicker its soundless images, sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother”, growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.
Martin Hayman, “Outside David Bowie…Is The Closest You’re Gonna Get,” Rock, 8 October 1973.
Hayman was interviewing David Bowie at the Château d’Hérouville during the making of Pin-Ups. Twenty-five years later, Bowie was still taken by Lennon’s “Mother,” enough to record a version of the song with Tony Visconti.
Bowie’s “Mother” was intended for a tribute album meant to mark Lennon’s would-have-been 60th birthday in October 2000. The commemorative Lennon industry was thriving in the late Nineties. Following the Beatles’ Anthology series and Lennon’s return to the pop charts, albeit in ghost form, via “Free As a Bird,” there was the Lennon Anthology, a four-disc box of outtakes released for Christmas 1998. The all-star Lennon tribute CD, intended as the counterpart of an all-star tribute birthday concert, would cap this latest exhumation.
At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.
Arthur Janov, on Lennon in 1970.
“Mother” had led off Lennon’s first solo LP, Plastic Ono Band (it was also the single). It was a purge of a song. Neither his mother Julia nor his father Alf had been capable of raising him, flitting in and out of his childhood, using him as a bargaining chip in their chaotic relationship. His father eventually abandoned him; Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958.
Her death set the 18-year-old Lennon off; it hardened him, made him caustic, cruel, obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll (“rock and roll was real: everything else was unreal,” he later said). As critics like Ian MacDonald noted, Julia was a muse for Lennon the composer: her image, a nurturing artistic mother/lover figure, lies at the heart of songs like “Yes It Is” and “Girl.” Upon meeting Yoko Ono, his muse made flesh, Lennon could finally relinquish Julia, which he did in the gorgeous song he titled after her on the White Album, a love ballad and elegy in one (“her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering..in the sun,” both the sight of a lover and of his mother lying dead in a Liverpool street).
But he wasn’t done with her yet. The Plastic Ono Band album came out of Lennon and Ono’s “primal scream” sessions with Arthur Janov in 1970. The therapy, which entailed sitting in a room and screaming at the top of your lungs for hours, a sort of bloodletting for the soul, also helped Lennon get over his usual dislike of his singing voice, giving him license to shriek his songs out. So “Mother,” a curse on childhood, builds from ruminative verses to splenetic refrains, the latter growing in fervor with each repeat, Lennon’s larynx-scraping “dooon’t GOOOOs” matched by the descending knife-blows of “daddy-come-home.”* While its lyric was open, so that anyone could see themselves in the words, the pain that Lennon inflicted on his phrasings made it an intensely, uncomfortably personal recording, in a way that “Girl” or even “Julia” wasn’t. “Mother” seemed uncoverable. Naturally, Bowie tried.
Lennon had been Bowie’s inspiration and friend, and perhaps because of this, Bowie proved incapable of interpreting Lennon’s songs with any perspective. He fell into gush or blundered through them: his takes on “Across the Universe,” “Imagine,” and “Working Class Hero” range from the misguided to the dreadful.
For “Mother” he recorded a demo in Nassau with Reeves Gabrels, an unknown session organ player and Andy Newmark (the latter’s first appearance on a Bowie record since Young Americans) on drums, then took the tape to New York to have Visconti craft it into releasable shape during the “Safe In This Sky Life” sessions. He and Visconti decided to keep his original vocal from the demo, despite it having some bleed-through from Newmark’s drums (Bowie did a few punch-ins, which required Visconti to track down the same microphone that Bowie had used in the Bahamas). They added Jordan Rudess’ piano (which quotes from Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” in the second verse) and Visconti’s bass and harmony vocals (along with Richard Barone). Visconti later said that “it’s [not] the most polished production of our careers. The recording was made on that now defunct digital system ADAT and it was one of my first attempts at manipulating music in a computer.”
It’s not the murky production that’s most at fault here, nor the arrangement (though Gabrels’ guitar in the choruses is a garish interloper at a wake). It’s that Bowie had set himself an impossible task: he couldn’t physically sing with as much mania and spleen as Lennon had (even Lennon couldn’t have done it after 1971 or so), but the song’s emotive fury, its petulance and its raw neediness (it’s an adult regressed to a child, screaming demands at his absent parents) demanded some unhinged passion from its interpreter.
But Bowie treated the song with reverence, as if making a church piece of it; he was careful not to embarrass himself, singing the verses in his rich lower register and not going too far over the top for the choruses. Where Lennon sang his lines as if arguing with ghosts, Bowie sang as if he was back in the Château d’Hérouville, singing along to Lennon’s record on the turntable. His “Mother” is tasteful and pointless: it gives nothing back to the song, it just takes. Not that it mattered. For still-obscure reasons, Ono scrapped the tribute CD idea and Bowie’s final Lennon tribute remains, as of this date, unreleased.
Recorded ca. August-September 1998, Nassau and New York.
* There’s also the sad irony that while Lennon was singing this, he was barely in touch with his own seven-year-old son, who he’d named after his late mother.
Top: “ShreddtoHell,” “London mit Bruno,” 1998; “Mother” US 45 sleeve.