“If I’m Dreaming My Life” wasn’t just the longest track on ‘Hours’: it was one of the longest studio recordings that Bowie made in his life. Its contemporaries (length-wise) were epics and scene-changers: “Station to Station,” “Width of a Circle,” “Cygnet Committee,” “The Motel,” “Memory of a Free Festival,” the upcoming “Bring Me the Disco King.” If Bowie songs were comic books, these would be the Jack Kirbys. So when considered in this grand company, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” comes off as aridly grandiose.
On ‘Hours,’ though, its odd structure (four verses broken up by guitar solos, the second and last verses given tagged-on refrains, and a three-minute bloodletting of a coda) and its occasionally disconcerting chord progressions* gave it a presence, if a blank one, on the album: it’s an empty quadrant of the map. “Dreaming My Life” seems half-finished at times—Bowie sings emotive “ooohhhs” in lieu of words; the second guitar solo appears to have started as a parody of “Under the Bridge” and hardly developed further. Nothing pans out; the timing’s off. Lights fade. A father “steps aside/at the wrong time:” a bungled bit of wedding stagecraft—a father giving the bride away too soon—or the bitter thought of an estranged husband: he shouldn’t have given her away at all? Or the line “was it air she breathed?”: it’s a man seeming to fancy, like four hundred songwriters before him, that his lover seems scarcely human. Then he concludes the line with another “at the wrong time.” She wasn’t as much perfect as poisoned.
Though demoed and partially tracked in Bermuda, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” was completely remade once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels returned to New York for overdub and mixing sessions. Former Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett was recruited to play rhythm guitar; he’s echoed, in places, by a stabbing keyboard line. Mark Plati and Mike Levesque, perhaps energized by playing “live” on the backing track instead of cutting their typical overdubs, provide one of the more supple foundations on the album. Plati’s bass is the lead melodic voice of the intro, while his roaming fills in the coda are a counter-melody to Bowie’s static refrain; Levesque, charged with flooring life into the song in the refrain verses, serves as a gravity well (for all its faults, ‘Hours’ has some of Bowie’s more dynamic-sounding drum tracks).
The song’s bid for “greatness,” or at least to hold its head up among the likes of “Station to Station,” is Bowie’s performance in the coda. It’s a simple conceit: he tries to complete a single phrase yet hardly seems able to make the effort (often he’ll just get out a “dreaming my….” before stumbling back to the start); it’s a man reduced to his voice. Beginning with keyboards masked as a horn/wind quartet (in the song’s few live performances, this role was assumed by Mike Garson’s “church” organ chords), the coda gains fresh dimensions whenever Bowie manages to finish the phrase: a distorted, chiming guitar; a choir of secondary Bowies; the melodic generosity of Plati’s bass. If it’s a triumph, it’s a barren one. Compared to the imaginative density of a “Station” or “Width of a Circle,” “Dreaming My Life” seems like an abandoned outpost of some crumbling empire.
Recorded ca. May 1999, Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Performed on VH1 Storytellers and once live, at Libro Music Hall, Vienna, 17 October 1999.
* The verses are basically in G minor, though a motivic chord sequence—found in the intro, refrain tags and coda—is Gm-Eb-C-F-D, suggesting a move to the parallel major. There’s a quintessential odd Bowie progression in the first round of the coda, where a C-sharp major chord crops up where the ear expects (by now) C major (the first “dreaming my…”).
Top: Rushmore (Anderson, 1998).