If I’m Dreaming My Life

rushmore

If I’m Dreaming My Life.
If I’m Dreaming My Life (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
If I’m Dreaming My Life (only live performance, 1999).

“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).

32 Responses to If I’m Dreaming My Life

  1. Barb says:

    Happy New Year Chris

  2. s.t. says:

    I never even thought to compare this to a classic like Station to Station. It’s fair to do so, but such a comparison simply squashes the charm of this modest epic under the weight of past genius.

    I tend to compare this to the Tin Machine stuff. Once, while walking downtown with my iPod on shuffle, this song came on, and I assumed wrongly that it was an overlooked track from Tin Machine 2. In truth, this is more of a tragic sequel to TM’s mid-life crisis blues rock. It’s more mature and resigned, even as it evokes regret and despair.

    I think it has a grace and beauty to it, despite the “elder statesman of classic rock” tropes that seem ill-suited for Bowie. My main problem is its place within the album. It would have made for a fine closer on Hours, but as Track 4 it just seems to ramble on.

  3. Patrick says:

    From “If I’m Dreaming My Life” to “When I live my Dream”?

  4. Galdo says:

    What a surprise! I wasn’t expecting a new post in these final hours of 2013! About the track: This track with its length, pace and place on the album leaves me with a bleakness feeling. I’m not implying this is bad, though. Actually it’s one of my favourites on the album, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of people find it plain, boring and dull.

    BTW,
    Happy new year, Chris!

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    Happy new year, to Chris and everybody else!

    To be brutally frank, If I’m Dreaming My Life is one of my all-time least favorite Bowie tracks – from any period!😦 Mind you, even though ‘hours…’ itself is admittedly a rather uneven album, it’s certainly one I’ve always had a fair amount of respect and affection for, as an example of Bowie willfully embracing a more “mature” style and attitude – affected or otherwise – after a career of zeitgeist surfing. However…If I’m Dreaming My Life is pretty much where all the worst charges leveled at the album come home to roost! It is, in a word, dreary. As commented on above, it is one of Bowie’s lengthier tracks – and without question the absolute least deserving of its length. While structurally a bit unconventional, It just goes on and on without much in the way of redeeming variation. One is gratefully when the darn thing finally fades out. (And if anything, that outtake version from VH1 Storytellers is even more dreary and boring – if that’s possible!)

    Apologies to anybody out there who likes the song (and yes, I quite readily acknowledge the possibility of such individuals existing), and I’m sorry to be so brutal about it. Ordinarily, I have something good to say about most of Bowie’s work – even his generally acknowledged nadir, Never Let Me Down. But in the case of If I’m Dreaming My Life, I don’t think ‘hours…’ would have been hurt in the slightest by its absence – and I think We All Go Through would have made a far superior substitute!

    • Diamond Duke says:

      P.S. Also, let me add that my disappointment in this song is further compounded by the fact of my being a longtime fan of the Rollins Band, and guitarist Chris Haskett in particular. If I hadn’t known beforehand that Haskett played on the song, I would never have guessed he was even there. I’ve always been a fan of his work with Rollins, and his playing style is a wonderfully brutal jazz-metallic hybrid of Tony Iommi and Robert Fripp. (“Crimson Sabbath”??😉 ) But the rhythm guitar part on If I’m Dreaming My Life something which any old session hack could have phoned in, and is frankly a waste of Haskett’s considerable gifts. A pity, really: In some alternative universe, he would have been as great a sideman for Bowie as Ronson, Slick, Alomar, Belew or Gabrels.

      BTW, in the wake of Reeves Gabrels’ departure from the Bowie camp (after the VH1 Storytellers performance), his interim replacement was another ’90s alt-rock demi-god, Page Hamilton from Helmet. Who knows, maybe Haskett was in the running for the guitar spot, and things just ended up not working out…

  6. Maj says:

    You know what, I quite like this one, one of my favourite songs on the album. I like the use of unfinished phrases in the coda. It is very dream-like. Might not be a an amazing song but it sure, at least to me, seems a very effective one, which manages to accomplish what it set out to do. Funnily enough.
    It gives me this feeling of not being able to…move, and you can interpret it as both kind of a weird time stands still nightmare-ish dream or the inability to properly wake up in your real life. Not sure if I expressed myself clearly. NYE, wine. You get the picture.
    Anyway, I like this song a lot, even if I rarely listen to it these days. It was nice listening to it again while reading this.

    Happy 2014 everyone! Comes here in an hour.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Good call, in reference to that “time stands still” quality, that feeling of not being able to move. That may account for the song’s sluggish quality that seems to grate on my nerves.

      A very valid observation, but Bowie’s best work has always had resonances with dreams and the unconscious. (And thank you for that link, Patrick!😉 A good case in point.) I just don’t think If I’m Dreaming My Life was one of the more inspired examples…

      • Patrick says:

        A Happy New Year to Chris and all (just under an hour to go UK time) Just remember this time last year we were all still picking over the freeze dried entrails of DB’s late career little suspecting what was going to happen in a few days on his birthday…
        One year on..where are we now?

  7. AB says:

    I had no memory of this song, so thought it must have been a dud, but it’s much better than I expected.

    The transition into the slower coda simply sounds like an attempt at a grandiose ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ ending that doesn’t really come off.

    I’m honestly-thinking the problem with Bowie in the 90’s is, for all his talk of willful-retreat from the mainstream, the production remained Major-Label Sterile Perfection: everything is crisp and shiny.

    Take the defeated, wounded and weary conceit for ‘Hours’, then imagine it as the 4-track bedroom Portastudio album that would have been a more natural fit. I suspect the talk of ‘sounding unfinished’ and ‘the odd production’ wouldn’t have arisen.

    • s.t. says:

      Yes, imagine Earthling and Hours produced by Steve Albini, or at least Rick Rubin: rocky and folky pop songs stripped to the basics. That would be interesting to hear!

      • Ididtheziggy says:

        I’ve said this a few times in the comments on this blog, but a lot of his nineties work would have benefitted from having Visconti around. Bowie’s just better with him than without.

  8. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    …Funny that you should describe this song as sounding half-finished Chris, because I was talking to a woman at a New Year’s Eve party last night who used that very term as a criticism of Bowie’s work in general. She went on to say that she just didn’t “get” Bowie, and the best I could offer was that he tended to appeal to outsiders, day-dreamers, and those with an artistic or creative bent.
    How did we get onto the subject of Bowie?
    Well, she asked me what my highlight of 2013 was, and seemed a little surprised when I mentioned the first new Bowie album after ten years in “retirement”. Maybe this was an odd choice, but 2013 was a pretty unspectacular year for me, for reasons I wont go into, and frankly I am happy to see the back of it.

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I had no idea this was supposed to be an epic. It’s the kind of ‘epic’ that at around two minutes in reminds you to check your email and that you haven’t polished your shoes for a while. I’ve never been able to stay with this all the way to the end. The point about sequencing on the album is an interesting one; I find myself giving him the benefit of the doubt for the first few tracks but once this plods into the limelight I suddenly have other things to do.
    By the way, was that a gratuitous ‘Hutch’ appearance in the When I Live My Dream clip? If so, a timely reminder of the importance and influence of the principal collaborator in Bowie’s work.

  10. gcreptile says:

    In 1999, I quite liked this one because it at least pretended to have the complexity I had grown to expect from Bowie by that time, and as such it stood out on the album. But today it doesn’t hold up for me. It’s too.. empty? Happy new year from me as well.

  11. Ididtheziggy says:

    This is much closer to “Loving the Alien” than to “Station To Station” on the Bowie epic track spectrum. It has it’s moments, but not really one of my favourites on the album.

  12. crayontocrayon says:

    Trom around 6:30 onwards the solo that Gabrels plays to close the track sounds very much in the vein of Queen’s Brian May in terms of tone and the use of delay. Surely a warning sign of the end of his tenure as Bowie’s collaborator.

    The verse section does drag on for a long time and as it isn’t very musically interesting its easy to lose attention, however this does also add to the drama when the song finally makes its shift into the ‘have you ever’ section and then the coda. The final section saves the song – building up and fading away much like Bowie’s verses that start promisingly before he loses interest with half finished lines and oh ohs.

  13. MC says:

    Happy New Year, everyone.

    I agree with s.t that the song sounds like a revisit of the Tin Machine sound. In particular, this always suggested to me a rethink of TM’s cover of If There Is Something, with its world-weariness, its shifts in tempo. For me, Dreaming is a minor song, to be sure, but an affecting one. I find it complements the melancholia of the tracks sequenced around it quite nicely. Myself, I wouldn’t have thought to compare it to the likes of Station To Station either; it always struck me as a jam session developed into a song. Definitely unfinished sounding, but it gets to me nevertheless.

  14. Mr Tagomi says:

    This struck me at the time as being filler.

    But revisiting it recently I find that I like it a lot more. As mentioned above, it has a sort of enigmatic dreamlike quality to it.

    It does seem like an interim version of a greater song, though.

  15. Mike F says:

    Here’s what I guess happened with this one. For the Bermuda demo, Bowie had the title and a few fragmentary lyrics that he figured he would flesh out later. Then the New York recording date suddenly arrived and he realised he didn’t have any additional lyrics and decided he kind of liked the demo the way it was. So he re-recorded the fragmentary lyrics from the demo.

    Pure speculation on my part since I haven’t heard the Bermuda demo. In any case, it doesn’t work in my opinion. It sounds like he’s trying to bluff his way through singing a half-written song. One of the problems with becoming a rock god is your producer can’t tell you, “This is pretty good. Now go and finish writing the song.”

  16. Palacio Rojo says:

    Absolute Beginners is also very long. It clocks up to 8 minutes and it’s a “game changer”. Why almost everybody forget that song? I usually do too. Maybe it is because remind us of the 80′s Bowie.

  17. Of interest for possibly no one but me, but I wanted to acknowledge that you referenced three obsessions of mine in a single post: Obviously Bowie (and “Hours…” is one of my favorite albums, warts and all), Kirby epic comics and Wes Anderson’s cinema… it made me happy!

    • Bruised Passivity says:

      Happy belated new year to everyone.

      Despite having read this posting a few days ago it has taken me some time to decide exactly where I stand on this piece and why. Firstly, I do really like this one and do consider it among the strongest songs on the album but I also agree that it does suffer from its grandiosity. As with much of hours… a strong producer would have helped immensely. I get the impression that the studio is something of a playground for Bowie and so without someone to remind him that “less can be more” we’re left with all his impulses and ideas compiled into one song. And sometimes it works but not in this case.

      I agree that this one is poorly placed on the album, I think it should have been the first track; if you dislike it then the rest of the album improves and if you like it the your appetite is stimulated for more.

      It struck me today that this one could be another allusion to film. A passive viewer watching other people’s lives play out before him while he compares then to his own. Has he loved his life to the fullest or has he chosen to stay “safe” by living vicariously through those on the silver screen?

      This is why I love Bowie, I’m always left with something to ponder.🙂

  18. D says:

    I admit I never really listened to this song until I started reading this post (I listen to the respective songs as I’m reading about them on this site). I mean, I’ve /heard/ it, but always in the background when whatever I’m listening to is on shuffle. I really like it up until about four minutes in– everything past that is completely useless and horribly dull.

    I think part of the reason why I’ve never specifically chosen to listen to this song is that the very beginning sounds like the intro to some sort of country song…so when I’m actively paying attention to what’s playing, I have a knee-jerk reaction to change it. I hate country.

    Past the intro, it’s obviously not country, and it’s kind of pretty. I particularly like when he says “at the wrong time”. With many songs, I tend to latch onto really small bits of lyric and play them repeatedly because I love how the singer delivers the words. This happens quite a bit with Bowie; he does really subtle things with his voice that turn out really well.

  19. Micki says:

    I’ve gotten into the habit of rushing to this blog whenever I hear a Bowie song I like. I love seeing what you and your community think. I listened to the live version, and I thought it sounded like someone coping with a miscarriage. The comments about unfinished just reinforce my impression.

    Back to lurker mode, but just wanted to say thank you for this blog.

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