Toy (Your Turn to Drive)


Toy (Your Turn to Drive).

[see previous]

Around five in the morning on 15 August 2000, New York City received a new resident, Ms. Alexandria Zahra Jones. Her arrival happily preoccupied her father.

The rest of his band found some other occupations. Mark Plati, Earl Slick and Sterling Campbell worked on a solo album for former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre. And Plati kept listening to the rough mixes of the Toy sessions. The buzz of creation gone, he was hearing the tapes with a cooler head and came to believe something was missing from them.

Pete Keppler, who’d engineered the Toy sessions, recommended Plati see the Eels (with whom Keppler had worked), so Plati went to their 11 August show at the Bowery Ballroom. He was taken by the violinist Lisa Germano, who was playing with the band. Having gained notice in John Mellencamp’s touring band in the Eighties, she’d gone on to play for Sheryl Crow, Iggy Pop, the Smashing Pumpkins and U2, among dozens of others. “I knew I needed to have her play on Toy,” Plati recalled in a web journal entry. “Her vibe would be just perfect for us.” So he mentioned the prospect of Germano doing some overdubs to Bowie, who was intrigued once she sent over her solo CDs. In late September, Plati scheduled two days of sessions with Bowie and Germano at his apartment in the East Village.

Bowie had hardly listened to the Toy roughs since his daughter’s birth. When he went back to them, he also decided the songs needed more work, and he rethought the central idea of the project. His run of big-top nostalgia shows in June, culminating in the Glastonbury Festival, had been public events: a quick way of landing back at the top rung. But in Toy he wasn’t remaking “Space Oddity” and “Changes” in some sort of MTV Unplugged setting. He was singing mostly utter obscurities, songs he’d pretended hadn’t existed for decades.

Nor had he altered the songs much, in terms of lyric, chords or melody: the likes of “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” still displayed the unripe talent of their composer. He generally just slowed the tempos and sang most of the songs in an ashen baritone. He came off as a older man singing a juvenile’s songs. In a few cases, this was an inspired move. “Conversation Piece” has a new depth of loneliness when sung not by a self-absorbed young writer but by someone whose life hasn’t panned out. “Liza Jane” became a dirty old man’s song, “Baby Loves That Way” a lament by a humiliated fool whose age is unleavened by wisdom.

In lesser performances, though, he settled for following the traces of his former voice; he was genially haunting his old songs. Maybe that was the point of the project after all. As he was to be a father again, he would try to reconnect with a young man whom he could barely remember. Toy was a seance with himself.


Germano turned up at Plati’s apartment with a small arsenal of eccentric instruments, including a recorder-flute, a down-tuned electric violin, a 1920s Gibson mandolin “and an old tiny tortoise-shell blue-green Hohner accordion with a strap so old and tired we had to beg it to stay together (assisted by duct tape),” Plati recalled. Bowie arrived elated to work (or perhaps just simply elated to be among adults again, after having been in baby-world for a few months). He sat on Plati’s couch, chain-smoked, played guitar and once even tried his hand at Germano’s violin “playing some cool drones, like a John Cale vibe.”*

The mood was loose and fun. Germano recalled to Dan LeRoy that Bowie got “genuinely excited when he came up with an idea and Mark and I were able to see it to fruition.” Among her overdubs was a whirling violin solo on “Baby Loves That Way.” She described as Bowie as being childlike—wide open to experiment, gleeful with what he was hearing. The three decided to cut more overdubs in the studio the following month with the full band. An effusive Bowie soon wrote in a web journal entry that “the [Toy] songs are so alive and full of color…It’s really hard to believe they were written so long ago.”

Yet this happy re-commitment to the project came with a substantial change in strategy. He’d decided he couldn’t just put out an album of re-recorded obscurities. In the BowieNet entry he said he’d “written a couple of brand new songs…in the style [I] may have written them in the ’60s.”


It’s unclear when “Toy” was recorded. While possibly one of the original 13 tracks cut at Sear Sound, it makes far more sense coming after Bowie had recalibrated the album concept. If there were going to be some “new ’60s” songs to supplement his remade Pye and Deram songs, it seemed appropriate to have a title track. My guess is that “Toy” began around the time of the Germano/Bowie overdub session and likely was cut in the second round of full-band sessions at Looking Glass Studios in October. One tell is the presence of the Stylophone, which Bowie would use on other newly-written tracks (and it was at the Looking Glass sessions where the jazz trumpeter Cuong Vu overdubbed solos for “Liza Jane” and “Toy”).

Where “Hole in the Ground” felt like a song Bowie hadn’t bothered to finish since 1970, “Toy” was a song frozen in the process of creation. It’s one of the slightest of Bowie compositions: just a single extended refrain, consisting mainly of alternated four-beat ascending phrases, that’s bookended by a lengthy Mike Garson/Earl Slick dominated intro and a two-minute coda clouded with Vu’s trumpet solo.

There’s a soft mystery to the track: its waves of ghost vocals, the hypnotic arpeggio Garson plays, the way Vu seems to be in mourning. Its closest relative is “Untitled No. 1,” with which it shares the lack of a definitive lyric. Bowie’s lines, blurred in the mix and likely improvised at the mic, are just a mesh of sounds, coalescing around a set of “ay” rhymes: is he saying “die tonight” or “lie tonight” at the end? He could be addressing anyone: a spouse, a muse, a god or a child. If the latter, “Toy” answers another ode to parental anxiety, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” There the young were the homo superior, happy to displace us. In “Toy,” the generational shift is far less choice of a prospect for the young: your turn to drive, kid; hope you do better than us.

Including the track on Toy wouldn’t make the record any easier to sell. Its ultimate fate—being issued as an Internet-only bonus track, retitled “Your Turn to Drive,” and never collected on CD—was no injustice: it’s a song seemingly meant to exist on the margins. But there were other new songs emerging in the later Toy sessions that had more visible promise. [to be continued]

Recorded ca. 1-15 July 2000, Sear Sound?; Mark Plati’s apartment, ca. late September 2000?; ca. late October-early November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. First released as a download (“Your Turn to Drive”) in September 2003 to those who pre-ordered Reality on-line from HMV, and later as an iTunes-only download. The only apparent difference between the leaked Toy mix and the official release is that the latter has a slightly longer fadeout.

* Bowie’s only reported attempt to play a violin. He also once played viola on stage with Cale in 1979 (see “Cale Demos“).

Top: Charles Schulz, excerpt from one of the final Peanuts Sunday strips, 2 January 2000 (Schulz died a month later); new father and Lisa Germano playing at Mark Plati’s apartment, NYC, late September 2000 (from Plati’s now-defunct web journal); Frank Tafun, “Cuong Vu,” ca. 2000 (JazzTimes).

21 Responses to Toy (Your Turn to Drive)

  1. I find Bowie’s mindset at the time so interesting to read/think about. Revisiting songs from the 1960s? Who is this person? Wanting to revive Ziggy Stardust? What became of Bowie’s brain?

    Something you always read is how Bowie constantly wanted to move on to the next thing – the next sound – reinvent himself. Uses up his collaborators/talent, moves on to the next person. And then out of nowhere quits the ‘jungle’ sound, and tries to be his old self.

    Where did that competitive spirit briefly go? Looking forward to the buildup to Heathen/

  2. s.t. says:

    Yes, I completely agree with the connection to Untitled No. 1. For a while I found this to be just as easily forgettable as Hole in the Ground, but its gentle mystery eventually won me over.

    The line “You’re making my songs/You’re making my heart” is intriguing. Taken alone, the first part could be interpreted as a slight swipe at the new generation of musicians: he’s handing over the keys while muttering something under his breath. But the “making my heart” bit suggests to me that perhaps its about his new daughter, or some other loved one. Taken this way, the subject serves as the muse for his work, stirring the emotions of his heart and thus inspiring David’s music. If that’s the case, then there’s a bit of Kooks in there as well.

  3. Maj says:

    I adore the piano on this one. I wouldn’t be mad if this got reworked as an instrumental only.

    It’s a lovely song…I can hardly make out what Bowie’s singing but the mood of it is just, well, lovely. (And yes, it does have an Untitled No. 1 vibe. Well spotted, or heard, or whatever, Chris!)

  4. Mr Tagomi says:

    I really like this song, if it can properly be called one. It’s a lovely mood piece. Enigmatic.

  5. StevenE says:

    Really like this one. It does sound half-finished but that suits it somehow.

    On the subject of Toy generally, which images or mock ups do people use (if any) in place of an album cover on iTunes? I always liked this one – , which turned up on Google Images one day. It sums up the album’s nostalgic, downcast aesthetic and tone (especially this song) well enough for me. Unofficial as it is I have problems imaging the cover being anything else. Makes me wonder what we would have gotten if the album had made it to a release proper.

  6. roobin101 says:

    What a pretty song. Thank you for putting it up here. The only thing that stops it from being Untitled 1 is the lack of a “quiet powerhouse.” The drumming is a little basic and the wah-wah guitar anomalous.. But it’s a beautiful tune; It sounds so easy – like those tunes bands occasionally describe writing “Jonny picked up his guitar and started strumming – half an hour later we had a hit song.”

  7. Ramzi says:

    This song just screams the year 2000, doesn’t it?

  8. david says:

    There’s a side of Bowie’s personality that seems intent to want to atone for past transgressions. It struck me at the time that the Toy project was a case in point, a need to reverse engineer songs that sat uncomfortably in his own perception of his legacy-the
    ‘cringey Newley stuff’ as he once put it.
    I imagine in an alternative universe, where the project reached successful fruition, Toy v 5.0 plodding through a jazzy scat version of “Too Dizzy” (as opposed to the scatological one).
    Despite the project bearing the excellent fruit of Slip Away, that prospect alone leaves me rather glad Toy was shelved.

  9. Mike F says:

    This is a mess. The vocals seem to be barely developed out of the la-la-la stage and are buried in the mix. Garson’s endless piano loop is really irritating. The 70s wah wah guitar is an anachronism on a supposedly 60s inspired song.

    Instead of making room for the trumpet player in the mix, they just shoehorned in his solo. It almost sounds like two different songs playing at once while he is soloing.

    I’m glad Toy was shelved. The critics would have ripped it to shreds.

  10. gcreptile says:

    Yeah, definitely Untitled No.1… The song is a perfect reflection of the whole album though…half-finished, if even that, slightly melancholic, slightly vague. Even though there’s not much of a song there, I’m a sucker for that trumpet. I have to check out Cuong Vu.

  11. RLM says:

    I really like this, slight as it is. Particularly keen on that clever/awkward guitar figure that stops it from being uncomplicatedly pretty.

    Cuong Vu is old friends with Holly Palmer, who guested on one of his records around this time.

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