Mother

1998_10-Urlaub London mit Bruno

Mother (John Lennon, 1970).
Mother (Bowie, 1998).

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.

mother

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.

26 Responses to Mother

  1. MC says:

    Yea, uncoverable about sums it up. This is the most tasteful of DB’s Lennon covers, to be sure, when tasteful is just the wrong approach.

  2. Possibly the most spectacularly misguided cover he ever recorded, and that’s saying something. They should have shot the master tape of this in a rocket to the sun.

  3. sunray jahchild says:

    I really like his lennon covers, possibly alone in thinking the young americans’ version of across the universe is way superior to the betales’ original? No, my little brother thinks so too

    • danmac says:

      I love Bowie’s Across the Universe. Probably helps that I heard it before the original though

    • Maj says:

      Not alone. I like it a lot too. I’m a huge Beatles fan (really, The Beatles, Bowie and Kate Bush is my Holy Trinity) but I think I prefer Bowie’s version over the original as well.

    • s.t. says:

      I might concede that I prefer the Bowie cover to Phil Spector’s slowed-down, tarted up take on Let It Be, but John’s untouched original is a gem.

  4. sunray jahchild says:

    beatles

  5. 87Fan says:

    I’ve never heard the original. This version doesn’t strike me as so bad. I am still amazed at how you dig this stuff up (not only that it existed at all – but that there’s a copy of it out there).

  6. s.t. says:

    Ramona don’t go…

    Paddy come home…

  7. Mr Tagomi says:

    It does seem very strange that he would chose to cover this song, given its intrinsic uncoverability. Maybe it has some particular personal meaning for him.

    What an album it’s on though. One of my personal all-time favourites. An absolutely remarkable piece of work.

    • MC says:

      I second that motion. Plastic Ono Band is for me by far the finest Beatle solo album, and Mother is a searing masterpiece.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        I reckon that the solo albums that matched the standards of the Beatles were Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, All Things Must Pass and Band on the Run.

        Much as i like Paul’s first couple of solo albums, I don’t think they were consistently great.

        I think Ringo had some great moments of his own in the early 70s too. Mostly abetted by George.

        And for me the last “Beatles’ song ever recorded was I’m the Greatest.

  8. Maj says:

    I knew Bowie covered this one but don’t think I’ve actually ever heard this until now. Or have I? Maybe the Silence made me forget.

    Well, Bowie’s version is more aurally pleasing (I always stop Lennon’s original when he starts doing Janov’s therapy, just too intense for me) but it’s also less remarkable – “tasteful and pointless” indeed.

    Funny thing I noticed: the bass on Bowie’s version sounds very Beatles. I have no idea if it’s just copied from the Lennon original (haven’t listened to it in years) but I can really hear the bass clearly in the Bowie version.

    I understand why Bowie would wanna try cover this one. He is not a singer of pure emotion, like say Janis, he wants to be and he keeps on trying, but he is not. Mother is a very attractive song in that sense. Something he can’t do.

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    It’s never a good idea to be too negative about any particular song, nor is it wise to speak ill of the dead, but I personally find Peter Noone’s “Right on Mother” more emotionally raw and convincing than Lennon’s dull dirge. I can understand the thinking behind Tin Machine, I can possibly even understand Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider, but I’ll never get Bowie’s fan-worship of Lennon. There’s a reason Bowie’s covers of Lennon songs are amongst the worst things in his catalogue, and it’s not Bowie. Let’s be grateful the album didn’t appear.

    • s.t. says:

      A great cover doesn’t necessarily need good source material (e.g., Alanis Morrisette’s tragi-camp interpretation of the brain dead “My Humps”).

      I think your mention of “fan-worship” gets closer to the problem. Just like with the Who, Bowie couldn’t get creative with Lennon’s material. His critical ear was consistently blinded by reverence.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        That is probably a factor, but I’m not sure that applies to all his Lennon covers.

        I distinctly remember when the Tin Machine album came out he said (Q magazine, I think) that he covered Working Class Hero in that particular way because he thought that’s how Lennon might have done it had he not been in such a mentally anguished state around 1970.

        He seemed to be suggesting that he did not think Lennon’s version was how it should have been done.

        Whether he really meant that or not, I don’t think there’s much reverence in the way he does it.

        Actually, I don’t think there’s much reverence in the way he covered Across the Universe either, considering that he expunged the unusual metre in favour of a sledgehammer regular beat, and dropped the “Jai guru deva” bit entirely.

      • s.t. says:

        Good point. Bowie’s critical ear has been clouded by things other than reverence. I had this song and Imagine in mind, plus the coming cover of Pictures of Lily, when I wrote the comment. But Across the Universe and the wretched God Only Knows are harder to interpret. Were they intentionally done as radical reworkings? Or they made in a spirit of reverence, just with a lack of taste or restraint? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.

        But my main point was to say that the responsibility for the bad cover falls on Bowie, not Lennon. The opinion that Lennon is incapable of a good song is itself a radically unpopular one. But even ignoring that, a talented musician can turn trash to treasure if they’re so inspired.

  10. Sidthecat says:

    Mr. Bowie has never lacked for ambition, but he doesn’t do uninhibited. Even at his most passionate he retains control.
    It’s what he saw in Lennon and Iggy Pop: an ability to completely let go in a song. It’s why his covers of those artists don’t work, and he occasionally needs to remind himself.

  11. Momus says:

    My mother always said that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. She also warned that to get things done you’d better not mess with Major John.

  12. CosmicJive says:

    I kinda like the Bowie Lennon covers. This one is pretty nice I think, Even though I like the lead guitar in this I do feel Reeves’ wah VG-8 guitar sounds a bit out of place in the second chorus.

    Talking ’bout ‘Mother’, Bowie seemed to have used it sonically as a template for the 1980 ‘Space Oddity’.

    • s.t. says:

      I can hear that in Space Oddity 80.

      It recently struck me that Quicksand sounds quite a bit like Bowie’s darker take on Across the Universe, with a quasi-Buddhist call for death as the refrain rather than some transcendental meditation hoohah.

  13. col1234 says:

    Cut the bit about 5-year-old Lennon having to choose between his parents at Blackpool because it’s apparently not true, according to the new Lewisohn bio:

    http://www.mojo4music.com/7455/is-this-the-best-beatles-book-ever/

    • Maj says:

      Mmmm, that looks like something I might wanna read one day. Have already read way too many Beatle-related books (still by far not all of them) but this looks like I might actually learn something new. Thanks for noticing this one, Chris! x

  14. NiggyTardust says:

    Just wanna ask, how many more of these interim songs are still left before we move to ‘…hours’?

  15. CosmicJive says:

    There’s the Placebo songs… Don’t know if there are any others left. Perhaps the Omikron stuff…

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