Slip Away (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Slip Away (Live By Request, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2003).
Slip Away (live, with the Polyphonic Spree, 2004).
Deep in the Heart of Jersey!
Hanging out with Lester Bangs & all
Phil Spector really has it all & all
Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV…
The Ramones, “It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World),” 1981.
The Catholic Church no longer believes in limbo, but they’re wrong: it exists, and it’s in New Jersey.
Floyd Vivino was a showbiz kid (“show people are show people, and that’s where I’m from,” he told the New York Times). Two of his brothers are in Conan O’Brien’s house band, his niece was in the original Les Miserables. Vivino tap-danced at the 1964 World’s Fair, worked as a sideshow barker, honed his comedy act at burlesque shows and amusement parks. He sang, played piano, did impressions. Like other vaudevillians, he found refuge in television.
When he was 23, he launched a kid’s show that, by the end of 1974, was on WBTB in West Orange, Channel 68 (a channel New York City aerials could pick up). An upstart UHF station like WBTB had to devote a percentage of airtime to children’s programming, so they took on The Uncle Floyd Show to fill the requirement (also, Vivino agreed to sell ads for it).
Compared to the child-psychologist-approved Sesame Street, The Uncle Floyd Show was weird, unsettling, a shaky transmission from some backwater. Uncle Floyd (all kids’ TV hosts were Uncles or Misters, Vivino figured, so why not be an Uncle) wore a loud plaid coat, bow-tie and porkpie hat; he played an upright piano and cracked off-camera to his crew and sidekicks, who laughed at odd, inappropriate moments (in part because the show didn’t rehearse, so crew members were seeing skits for the first time).
The show’s production values consisted of lighting and microphones. Vivino often used food as a prop because he could buy it cheap at the local Pathmark. His puppets included Oogie, a wooden ventriloquist’s clown that Vivino had found in a Times Square magic store, and Bones Boy, an ill-tempered skeleton whose catchphrase was “snap it, pal!” His co-stars included Looney Skip Rooney, gangster Don Goomba, the musical parodist Mugsy and Netto (a genie’s head in a box). There were celebrity parodies, from Floyd’s Julia Stepchild (who cooked corn dogs) to, in a nod to Jersey royalty, Mugsy’s Bruce Stringbean.
Most of our characters fell into two categories, con men and idiots. And on the Uncle Floyd Show the con men were often outsmarted BY those same idiots. Floyd has often correctly explained the theme of the show as a frustrated host constantly being interrupted by an endless parade of pests.
Much of Uncle Floyd‘s allure for early fans like Robin Williams and John Lennon was its shabbiness. It was children’s television done sincerely, with the right materials (puppets, singalongs)—Vivino wasn’t running some acidic spoof; he wanted to entertain kids while cracking up their parents—yet seeming to get it wrong. Although Vivino would bring on New Yorkers like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper as guests, he was more devoted to the eccentrics and irritants that he seemed to have found on the roadside somewhere. Uncle Floyd was the only place in America that these people were allowed on television.*
Here’s an example: R. Stevie Moore playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly tells Floyd his guitar’s wrapped in newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king. This was television fulfilled: the rules of civilized society didn’t apply here. Television was a world made from collisions of random elements, held together by a man in a plaid coat.
Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a cleaned-up and vaccinated version of Uncle Floyd; The Howard Stern Show is its coarse descendent.
I’m a man removed from this time zone. I would have liked the 1910s to the 1930s but now the only thing I like is “60 Minutes.”
Floyd Vivino, 1982.
John Lennon, who spent his last years in New York watching television, recommended Uncle Floyd to Bowie, who got hooked during his run on The Elephant Man in 1980. Iggy Pop became a fan, too. “We used to love falling around watching this guy,” Bowie said in 2002. “The show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.” (Close enough—it was filmed in an old house built on the site of a burned-down circus). Bowie, wearing an Uncle Floyd button, went to a live taping at the Bottom Line and told Vivino how much he loved his work. Vivino didn’t know who Bowie was at first and wanted him kicked out of backstage. (You can see why Bowie enjoyed the Sales brothers, whose background and attitude were the same as Vivino’s).
By 1982, Uncle Floyd was on enough radars that a syndication agreed to air it nationally in some 17 markets. NBC stations considered Uncle Floyd a good fit to follow Saturday Night Live (Vivino agreed: “It’s Saturday night, 1 AM. Half the audience is drunk and the other half is stoned.”). For Uncle Floyd, it was the big leagues (Vivino had only started getting paid, $125 a week, in 1978); the show even got an upgraded set. It had relocated to Newark, which meant the studio now had an air conditioner.
Syndication also meant Uncle Floyd was “cleaned up.” The syndicate brought in a former Sesame Street director, who was appalled by the lack of rehearsals and the anything-goes culture. Mugsy recalled having to shoot a single sketch 30 times. Then the finished shows were cut to bits by various stations, both to remove “weird” skits while also, in some cases, trying to make the show more salacious to appeal to the stoned post-1 AM college crowd.
It didn’t work. A few NBC affiliates soon revolted, one calling the show “garbage,” while Vivino got sued by Joe Franklin for defamation after doing a “Joe Frankfutter Show” skit. The syndication deal was over after a single season, despite good ratings in New York and Philadelphia and sold-out live shows.”Why then were we preparing to tape the final episode? Because that’s how the business works,” Mugsy wrote. “Besides we had gone from a small UHF station to national syndication in a profession that usually chews up and spits out people, programs and plots faster then the life expectancy of a bottle of beer at a ballpark.”
So Uncle Floyd went back to Jersey, and Oogie and Bones Boy didn’t become the next Kermit and Fozzie. For the rest of the century, Uncle Floyd would air on local channels, first on the public New Jersey Network until Vivino started making barbed political jokes about his home state (in West Orange, he “lived on top of a radon field, and as a taxpayer I have a right to laugh about it in public,” he later said), prompting complaints to NJN about the show’s alleged bias and its “lowbrow” humor. Then came the sunset years: a stint at the Cable Television Network of New Jersey, who wound the show down in 1992, and a brief millennial revival on Cablevision.
Interviewed in 2002, Floyd was stoic about his fortunes—he’d made a decent career in supporting acting roles (he’s in Good Morning Vietnam) and he’d never compromised on a show that he’d managed to keep alive for a quarter of a century. And around 2000, he’d gotten a phone call from David Bowie. “He said he was thinking of doing a song about me, and wanted to know what I felt about it.”
Let’s Dance, Bones and Oogie
He still looks remarkably fit at 54 (“I’m just a year older than President Gore: one of us has had work done,” he winks), hardly changed in appearance from his career-defining role as Caligula in “I Clavdivs.” And his schedule’s never been busier: he’s starring in Boy Child: The Songs of Scott Walker, which opens at the Majestic on April 1, as well as promoting a new album, Toy (Nonesuch). It’s going to be his last, or so he says.
“The record industry and I have always been on rather estranged terms,” Bowie says. “I’ve put out an album every half a decade and each time I’ve come to regret it. The stage is where I like to be, or making a film [he’s rumored to be the baddie in the next James Bond film], or back at home painting. Standing in some recording studio, where it’s just you against a microphone, can feel like such a primitive art. I feel like I should be singing through a megaphone, like Rudy Vallee.” Still, the new album has personal resonance for him. “These were my first songs, back when I fancied myself a pop singer. No one heard them at the time, and with good reason! I wasn’t cut out for the ’60s.”
New York Herald Tribune, 22 March 2001.
Down in space it’s always 1982. Uncle Floyd‘s pivot year was also Bowie’s. In 1982 he recorded Let’s Dance. Like Uncle Floyd, Bowie was put on a larger stage than he’d ever played before; unlike Bones Boy and Oogie, he made the big time.
Bowie had been a proper pop star in the mid-Seventies, with gold records and Madison Square Garden shows to his credit, but he’d spent the rest of that decade trying to break himself down into a cult figure again. Let’s Dance and Glass Spider and Labyrinth and Sound + Vision put paid that conceit: Bowie had become globally syndicated. Years later, whenever he’d try to be a marginal figure once again, the clothes didn’t quite fit him.
So on Toy he dug out some of his oldest songs. These were the work of a man who never charted, whose shows had never sold out, whose name barely got into the music trades. The David Bowie of 1968, the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome” and “We Are Hungry Men,” was the Uncle Floyd of his day. The hipsters (John Peel, Penny Valentine, Pete Townshend) knew who he was but the radio wanted nothing to do with him. It was tides and cross-tides of history: what if these songs had been hits? Or what if Bowie in 1968 had given up music, had gone off into cabaret, and Toy was just an actor’s indulgence, a tribute to a lost, failed youth?
Toy‘s finest song used Uncle Floyd‘s lost chance at fame as a way to frame the album. Imagine a ghost world where Bones and Oogie star in films (promoting Uncle Floyd’s Big Adventure, Amy Adams gushes in an interview about how much she loved Bones Boy as a child. “I can’t believe we’re working together!”), a New York where Oogie is inflated to the size of a city block as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float.
“Once a time they nearly might have been,” Bowie sings, giving a delicate weight to the last three syllables, as though if he pressed any harder, the bubble would pop. “Bones and Oogie…on a million screens.”
What Would You Do, Uncle F?
“It began its life with a semi-out-of-tune piano and some grainy synth strings which sounded like they were pulled off of an old 78 rpm record,” Mark Plati wrote in his web journal in 2000. “Both sounds gave the effect of someone playing in a basement of some small, sad, lonely house.”
In October 2000 at Looking Glass Studios, Bowie and Plati were working on a new song. It had come together from a few pieces, its sound owed to a few new contributors. The Irish-born guitarist Gerry Leonard came in for some overdub work and Bowie bonded with him over stories about old coin-operated electric meters back in the UK. Lisa Germano was there to add some violin parts.
As with “Afraid,” another new song that Bowie composed during what was supposed to be a mixing/overdub session, he went off on his own to write some of it. Plati started working on a rough mix of the backing tracks. By the time he was done, Bowie had returned with a full lyric, cutting most of his vocal in a single take. For the chorus he roped in Corinne Schwab, Sterling Campbell, Holly Palmer, a few Looking Glass staff and Stretch Princess, a British alt-rock band recording in the adjacent studio.
For an intro, there was an opening routine with Oogie. It went on for a minute and a half, becoming increasingly unsettling; it reminded Germano of “a Mark Ryden painting…sweet and strangely disturbing.”
Oogie crooks his round head. His empty eyes consider us through the camera, then he looks over at the unseen crew. Didja ever stop and think if there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd show what everyone on the show would be doing? Uncle Floyd says he does. A few laughs and hoots come at odd moments; they sound slightly menacing. Oogie plays with the idea, blows it up like a balloon. Netto wouldn’t even notice the show was off the air!…Scott would sit home all day and wait ’till silent movies came back. Then Oogie turns to Uncle Floyd, looks up at the man who lends him his voice: what would you do, Uncle F? What would you do if you didn’t exist anymore? There’s no answer. A Stylophone fades in.
The old toy instrument, a supporting actor of “Space Oddity,” retrieved from Bowie’s attic, sings in its small nasal range, with its crablike moves up and down a tone. Bowie sings the first verse over it; he’s a man singing along to a music box, as he would do, in mourning, on a Madison Square Garden stage a year later.
Mike Garson’s piano comes in on the second verse to settle the song down, establish its chords. The verses are long, meandering journeys off the ground (F major, “Once a time..”) up into the air, out into the orbit of a G major diminished (“Bones and Oogie”) and then slowly falling back to earth. Sterling Campbell’s drums and Gail Ann Dorsey show up to give the song its confines; Leonard’s guitar, whose tone has a touch of Mick Ronson in it, plays against Germano’s violin, two satellites in orbit. The last verse, with Germano as lead mourner, seems about to fade away, drift off into space. Then Campbell stops time with his hands, in a slow revolving fill across his toms.
Don’t forget to keep your head warm…twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd. It’s a gift from one performer to another. Bowie won’t let the Uncle Floyd Show die. In this cavernous refrain, in this melody that he seems to have pulled out of the air, which he sings with a pack of friends and strangers, Bowie mourns the show and he saves it. Here, within the confines of his song, Uncle Floyd is a legend. Here there are stars named after Bones and Oogie. You can see them from the beach on Coney Island, just above the World Trade Center.
The last irony: his keepsake of a song was then lost.
Toy Slips Away
Plati and Bowie finished mixing Toy during the 2000 election, taking breaks to see which candidate had the better claim to be president at the moment. “We figured it’d all be sorted out by the time we woke up the next morning,” Plati recalled.
The completed mix, allegedly with some Tony Visconti tinkering, was sent off to EMI. On New Year’s Day 2001, BowieNet announced Toy “was already in the can awaiting release and scheduled for March.” A month later, Toy‘s release date was pushed back to May. On 5 June, in a web-chat, Bowie said “I’m finding EMI/Virgin seems to be having a lot of scheduling conflicts this year which has put an awful lot on the back burner. Toy is finished and ready to go and I will make an announcement as soon as I get a very real date.” A 4 July Bowie journal entry mentioned now “unbelievably complicated scheduling negotiations.” The summer passed.
EMI had lost 40% of its market value in a single year, thanks to the onset of digital song swapping, the mild (by today’s standards) recession and some wildly ill-considered actions. The label had bet the bank on Mariah Carey’s Glitter, a colossal flop, and wound up paying Carey $28 million to end her contract. Executives quit and were sacked, divisions were folded, the label was a mess.
So you’re an EMI executive trying to stop the bleeding in 2001. Across your desk comes David Bowie’s new album…which is mostly self-covers of songs that no one has ever heard before and which leads off with an odd six-minute song about…puppets? At a time when EMI desperately needed another Let’s Dance or at least a Black Tie White Noise, they got the most self-indulgent album of Bowie’s career. And there are stories in the music press that Bowie’s recording with Tony Visconti again, making tracks that, for all you know, could be the second coming of Ziggy Bloody Stardust at last…
On 29 October 2001, Bowie announced EMI was going with an album of “new material over the Toy album. Fine by me. I’m extremely happy with the new stuff. (I love Toy as well and won’t let that material fade away),” he said on BowieNet. “I won’t let Toy slide away. I’m working on a way that you’ll be able to get the songs next year as well as the newie.”
He stripped some jewels from the corpse. He refitted “Afraid’ and “Uncle Floyd” for Heathen. “Shadow Man” and “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves That Way” were B-sides. The title track was an online-only bonus; pieces of “The London Boys” were offered on his website. “Conversation Piece” was on a Heathen bonus disc. But the rest of Toy, including “Uncle Floyd,” faded away.
Bowie’s musicians were crushed (Visconti told Dan LeRoy that Bowie would never talk about Toy, but hinted that Bowie had taken it hard). Despite all of his wranglings with his labels over the years, he’d never had an album rejected before. It was a sign that the old order was crumbling, that labels had become more unforgiving (around the same time, Reprise rejected Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Soon he’d leave EMI and form his own label.
By 2003, the idea of rescuing Toy had lost urgency. He’d parceled out about half of the album, which had “become a reservoir of B-sides and bonus tracks,” Bowie said. While the idea of releasing Toy still appealed to him, he was frank. “You know what? New writing takes precedence. It always does.” As Mike Garson said, “[Bowie] does know the meaning of the words ‘move on’,” he told LeRoy. “You bring up Toy a few years later and he’s like, ‘Toy what?’ It’s not even in his world.”
Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey baby, come on let’s slip away
Lou Reed, “Street Hassle.”
It was as though Bowie had shot a second pilot episode, remaking “Uncle Floyd” a year later with Visconti.
No puppets here. No Stylophone, either, at first. “Slip Away” instead opens with artificial harmonics played on electric guitar. It’s the other half of the “Space Oddity” intro, a part originally played by Mick Wayne: the brittle movements of Major Tom out in orbit set against Ground Control’s droning bass signals.
Instead of Stylophone, a piano (probably Jordan Ruddess, possibly Bowie) is placed front and center in the first verse, while the second verse is in the grip of Tony Levin’s fretless bass and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops, which offer solidity in exchange for Campbell’s dynamics (compare Chamberlain to Campbell on the refrain—the four rebukes of Campbell’s crash cymbal on “sailing over Coney Island,” the punishing snare fill just after it). Bowie sings cagily, more affectedly: he seems to be hedging his bets.
The biggest revision was to bring up the chorus to hit right after the second verse, and dispensing with the guitar solo. You can see why Bowie and Visconti did it—why hold back your biggest hook until four minutes into the track?—but the move ruined the glorious slow arc of “Uncle Floyd.” The operation wasn’t fatal, “Slip Away” still rang with mourning and triumph—you couldn’t do much damage to a melody that sturdy (there was a bit of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” in it toward the end). But there was a loss of nerve in the remake, or an impatience, a refusal to allow the song to build at its own speed. Something like what had happened to Uncle Floyd when the syndicators tried to improve it.
Pete Keppler, who engineered Toy, said he believed “Uncle Floyd” “was way cooler than the one that came out on Heathen. The mix that Mark did on that song was so much more haunting.” Still, “Slip Away” still had enough presence to make it an anchor-piece of Heathen, and Bowie made the song work on stage. As if reconsidering his revision on Heathen, his last live versions in 2003-2004 restored some of the “Uncle Floyd” framework, bringing back the puppet dialogue intro. On stage at Jones Beach in 2004 (one of his last concerts in the U.S.) he brought on the Polyphonic Spree for the last refrain to restore some of the Christmas party spirit of “Uncle Floyd.”
On Sunday, 20 March 2011, an MP3 version of Toy (of what apparently were its rough mixes, not the final EMI mix) appeared on torrents. There are a few theories as to who leaked it and why: one logical-sounding scenario was that someone had acquired Toy through dubious means and was selling CDs of it on eBay, so someone in the Bowie inner circle dumped the album onto a torrent to essentially devalue the thief’s prize.
Toy‘s time, if it even had a time back in 2000, had long gone. It was a lost relic, one welcomed by fans although its critical reception was mixed. A few wags said that EMI had gotten it right by axing it. Toy got some press, got Bowie’s name back in the headlines after some years of silence, and wound up laying the groundwork for Bowie’s grand return in January 2013.
So “Uncle Floyd” survived after all. The New York City of which the Uncle Floyd Show was a minor flavor is long gone. Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone and Lou Reed are gone. WBTB was bought by Univision. CBGB’s, Brownies, Kim’s Video, Coliseum Books are all just lost names or misused trademarks now. Is it a tragedy? Everything fades. All that’s left of your childhood are some photos, some old toys (Stylophones, skeleton puppets) and old television signals (“just waves in space,” as per Thomas Jerome Newton (who would have enjoyed Uncle Floyd). Waves of sound and pictures that, if reconstituted, would play The Uncle Floyd Show, are out in the solar system somewhere. If some poor extraterrestrial ever picks up the signal, they can see 1982. Everything dies and everything goes away, and even Oogie will crack apart one day, but a few things live, too. Or at least television does. Uncle Floyd is dead, long live Uncle Floyd.
Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (remake) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004. Uncle Floyd is still on the air on the Internet. Tune in here.
* Of course there was an Uncle Floyd equivalent everywhere in America then: some strange kid’s program or prayer service or community access talk show. Yes, New York likes to make its local amusements a national concern.
Sources: Beth Knobel’s article on Uncle Floyd just as the show entered syndication in 1982, for the Columbia Daily Spectator, was a wonderful resource. There are a number of sites run by fans and former Floyd Show alum. Mugsy’s ca. 1999, is essential, as is this one and many photographs shown here are found on Bob Leafe’s site. Unfortunately there’s almost no video footage of the Uncle Floyd Show on line.
Top: Oogie and Floyd, a life’s journey (Floyd, 2009 (Chris Marksbury); Bowie at the Uncle Floyd Show at the Bottom Line, 1981.
Great article, among the best on this site. Utterly fascinating.
I didn’t know anything about the Uncle Floyd show before reading this…the cultural value of this blog goes well beyond the Dame.
Was coming here to say exactly that.
I like how the song alludes to a show that few of us have knowledge of, and does so in a way that assumes we do know. Reading this article made me realise how Slip Away (I haven’t listened to Uncle Floyd yet) is a sort of document from an alternative history.
I read about Uncle Floyd in relation to “Slip Away”, but otherwise I knew nothing about it. Until now I always assumed that UF was a genuine oldster, or at least middle aged. You can tell from some of the pictures that that wasn’t the case at least in the early days.
This article also feels like it documents the time that the music industry started to squeeze David Bowie out of its ranks.
Nice piece,as always. Footage of Pussy Galore on the Uncle Floyd Show here: (starts approx 18:50)
” Vivino didn’t know who Bowie was at first and wanted him kicked out of backstage. ”
Very surprised ! That guy must have been really living and working in his living room. 🙂
Floyd is just old school and into older music.
Thanks this is a really great post
Absolutely brilliant write-up. I had a feeling that this was going to be a longer one, but still: wow. Quite a work.
I can see why one might regard the remake as reflecting hedged bets, but I much prefer the Heathen recording. The schmaltz of the original is reigned in, the whimsy is turned up a notch, and the looseness of structure is trimmed. In short, the remake trades indulgence for economy. The result is a gorgeous, stately number, basking equally in weepy eyed nostalgia and starry eyed fantasy. What was once a bit creaky and plodding (though still quite lovely) now feels weightless and majestic.
I didn’t like the song immediately, and that quick payoff structure was part of the reason. But I eventually came to accept it as part of Heathen’s beauty. The album is decades of Bowie’s art, subject to Occam’s Razor. It took a while for me to appreciate (especially coming after Hours) but I eventually came around. And Slip Away is an essential jewel in this crown, twinkles and all.
I am similar. I didn’t like Slip Away initially, maybe for the same reason.
I had a Damascene moment when I heard him playing it live in 2003. It was probably the high point of that concert for me. I was suddenly just blown away at how lovely the song was.
That was one of the shows where a clip of Uncle Floyd began the song. It seemed to leave the Dublin audience slightly nonplussed. Having spent a few years in New Jersey, I had some vague idea about Uncle Floyd, so I was slightly non-nonplussed.
Moving from nonplussed to very plussed in the span of a few minutes.
Was going to say the same thing. I also prefer the Heathen version, the lushness, classic Visconti. Also, my iPhone wanted to autocorrect that to “Classic Visconti” capitals and all. Guess I’ve probably typed that on here a few times already. Need an I love Visconti thesaurus.
Magnificent. Up there w/yours on Station to Station, and the instrumentals on Low. And good to know Floyd’s been hanging in there.
I always thought the deeper layer of this song to be about John Lennon, and perhaps a little Iggy. Friends lost, friendships kind of lost. Or is that just me?
Definitely feels like Iggy. “We were dum [dum]…”
The Heathen version reminds me of ‘safe’ from a production point of view, especially the prominent stylophone. Perhaps Visconti saw that Safe had been lost in the shuffle and revived the same tricks. I do remember reading on Visconti’s now defunct website that it was Rudess on piano(who also worked on ‘Safe in the Sky life’ if I remember). There is some lineage there for sure in my eyes.
I do find it very slightly overlong, despite being reworked to get straight to the point and dropping the(wonderful) intro, Slip away is just as long as Uncle Floyd. But it does a great job of closing the opening section of Heathen.
Not too sure where you got the Ronson-like tone from for Leonard, I am trying to think of a song where Ronson had that more decaying-bell-like tone but off the top of my head I am drawing a blank.
I echo everyone else who said this is a wonderful article that sheds a lot of light on what would otherwise be fairly abstract lyrics.
Uncle Floyd sounds like the opener to a rock opera. Slip Away is “just” an album track. A great one though.
My musical tastes are very selective. Instead of listening to all kinds of music I really prefer focusing on fewer artists but then listen to every single song of them (and occasionally I add another artist to my canon). This song here shows why. All those references… to Bowie’s own past, his possible parallel life 1982 (the year of my birth), the Toy album that took a decade to finally come to the surface… This is history and art.
Extraordinary post on an extraordinary song. For me, Slip Away was such an instant Bowie classic that I found it hard to wrap my mind around the notion that any version could be superior, but now, having listened to Uncle Floyd twice in its entirety, I think that may be the case. In any event, if Toy had been properly released, UF and the original Afraid would have rendered much of the rest of the album superfluous, I think, in much the way Lou Reed’s Street Hassle dwarfs the other tracks (a stew of novelty songs and VU leftovers) on the LP of the same name. Listening to the Toy reworkings, I’m struck by the disconnect between DB’s evident enthusiasm at the recording sessions and how apathetic he sounds on most of these tracks, versus how committed his vocals are on the few original songs (even the wispy title track).
To return to Uncle Floyd/Slip Away, I think the genius of it is how Bowie makes this wistful remembrance of an obscure tv show into a profound evocation of loss, of missed chances, of dreams that never came to fruition, of worlds disappeared into memory. You can read so much into it. One of DB’s towering achievements as a songwriter, in any version, and one of the great DB performances at any of the concerts I attended, on the Reality tour, with the most tear-streaked bouncing-ball singalong ever. (Another fond memory: Bowie playing the stylophone at song’s end, then abruptly singing the first line of Space Oddity. The crowd went momentarily berserk, then audibly deflated when he cut the song short with a hearty “Just kidding!” There’s the siren call of nostalgia, for you…)
that’s great. at the Jones Beach concert linked above, DB sang a snippet of “Win” (a song he hadn’t played in 30 yrs!) and then cruelly went into another song
Damn! It looks like they have it up for download here (http://www.davidbowiesongs.net/2494323/Slip-Away-Space-Oddity-Tease-0401), but it won’t let me download it in my country. Would somebody mind uploading it elsewhere?
Would love to see that again!
I get DB teasing the arena crowd with Major Tom, but a brief snatch of Win…that’s just cruel!
In the Reality tour show that I saw, there was an open-stringed thungggg as he changed guitars.
“It’s been a hard day’s night” he sang, almost apologetically.
I imagine it wasn’t the first time he used that joke, but I found it funny all the same.
That last paragraph perfectly captures the feeling I had when I was first haunted by this song, and I somehow figured out via dial-up internet in 2002 that Bowie was singing about that weird show I remembered preceding Dark Shadows on NJN (which my brother watched along with Doctor Who, I was too scared or bored for both as a kid in mid-80s Philly suburbia). Waves of sound and vision drifting from the past into the future, nostalgic and elusive, tracking adjustments on the VCR never resolving to a full picture.
Long time reader, first time commenter. Brilliant work, as always. This site is a marvel.
I heard for years that the song was a heavily-obscured reference to Bowie’s lost friendship with Iggy Pop, but I suppose there’s no truth to that rumor now.
i think “UF” can very easily be read as a tribute/mourning of his lost friendship w/Iggy (and Lennon, see starperson above), as Uncle Floyd was one of their bonding points. “how I wonder where you are [now]”
“No one knew what they could do, except for me and you” is a perfect fit for the Iggy interpretation anyway.
I love these monster-sized entries. (It was The Motel one, linked to by Luke Haines, that turned me on to this site in the first place.) And how appropriate that a couple of screencaps (#2 & #5) Uncle Floyd has all the twinkly-eyed mischief of (1982-born, naturally) Matt Smith.
i think “Nite Flights” is the all-time champion, verbiage-wise, coming it at nearly 6,000 bloody wds (I can think of only one upcoming entry that might challenge it)
I suspect that entry would be ‘Heat’ from ‘The Next Day’, but I might be wrong as well.
My guess is New Killer Star.
I was gonna guess Disco King as well but I think s.t. may be correct in suggesting it will be New Killer Star. Lots of 9\11 history likely attached to that one. I suppose we’ll all just have to wait and see. 🙂
I’m gonna guess Disco King too. I know it’s slow going for the next little bit but I’m really looking forward to Heathen. I’ve mentioned this before in the comments, but the songs that bookend the album are two of my favourites songs in his catalogue.
A couple of contenders for another Epic post to come
BMTDK is my guess as well – it’s a song with a long history and for many years was considered to be the last track on the last Bowie album
If we get to actually hear the earlier versions as well then bonus!
Heathen (the Rays)
Where Are We Now
I’ve changed my mind, I think the next epic post is going to be on David’s performance of “America” at the Concert for New York City. There’s the background of that song to discuss plus the reason for the concert.
i’ll just say one of the songs mentioned was what I was thinking of. (was tempted to say “no, it’s the Johansson duets”)
Any theories on why the lead vocal goes from murky to clear when it reaches “flickers grey”?
The problem I find with prolonged non musical intros to tracks is that while they add context, they can get tedious after the first listen, if not at the first. Hence an issue with Outside for me and the “pathetic” opening half-vocals of the Toy version are a little offputting.
A good track though. haven’t checked out the live tracks yet.
What’s the unreferenced photo of the night science in the article of/from?
Sorry I meant night scene not science (blame Chrome autocorrect)
meant to say: that was used on someone’s YouTube upload of “Uncle Floyd” (no idea of source or where it is) & it seemed to fit
100% with you on non-musical intros.
I feel that if an artist wants to include something like skits or segues, they should at least make them separate tracks from the songs, so that they’re easy to skip.
Holy hell, Chris, this is perfect. Thanks for the article.
“Slip Away” stood out to me on Heathen, but never felt too significant before. Reading the article added a new dimension to the whole thought. This article nearly made me cry. (I’m at work, so… that’s not happening). While Vivino is not a “failure,” the ‘what-if’ that exists always hurts to think about. Who fame chooses to highlight it always tricky.
As stated by Nikola above – this entry is up there, on the all-time classic posts (with the long-reads on Bowie chasing Scott Walker’s ghost: “The Motel”).
Thanks for this blog,
1. “Ah, he’s admitting his age and giving in to nostalgia!” say the cynics. Well maybe; but as a nebulous, twilit, tugging-to-and-fro emotion, nostalgia has interested Bowie right from the start. There’s a sub-division we could call “nostalgia for scenes”, and it goes all the way back to songs like Memory of a Free Festival.
2. Bowie is a “decadent”, and to be decadent is to be interested in decay. So even in prime Bowie — in songs of apocalyptic futurism — the characters have “come on a few years” from their highs and are “trying to get it on like once before”. Ziggy is a washout, a fallen messiah. Typically, in a Bowie song, there’s been a golden age, a golden dawn, a silent film, and everything since then is heading “worstward ho” (as Beckett put it).
3. But Bowie is also… not so much a “scenester” himself as an observer, collector or documenter of scenes (scenes which vampiric self-transformations allow him to outlive, and therefore obituarise). As a decadent interested in scenes, he is therefore particularly interested in the decay of scenes, and in what happens to the individuals who comprise them “after” (even the title of “The Next Day” has a suggestion of this: there’s a day after heroism).
4. A period particularly rife with nostalgia is the New Wave Bowie era, which begins with the refrain about a “failing star” on Warszawa and with Iggy’s rundown of comrades lost in action in the intro to Dum Dum Boys, referenced explicitly — it seems to me — in the intro to Uncle Floyd. Floyd’s characters are anticipating their obsolescence whereas Iggy’s have already faded or “gone straight”, but it’s a similar roll-call, raising a similar question: what do you do when the circus moves on, when the scene implodes?
5. Floyd’s characters are so out of it they wouldn’t (in most cases) even notice the demise of the show that gives them life: Tony “still lives at home” like Uncle Arthur. And the Uncle Floyd song refers back to another lost late-1960s antihero, Major Tom, who slips away into the obscurity of space. The semitone shift which introduces the astronaut is recapitulated here in the F chord which slips down to an E, and the line about it always being 1982 in space seems to refer more to Major Tom than Oogie.
6. Chris is wise to link this to Bowie’s performance of Paul Simon’s America at Madison Square Garden the following year. By then 9/11 had happened and there was a sense that America itself was a scene that had imploded and was witnessing its promise slip away, like the dinosaur labels of a music industry which was also by now on the skids, and beginning a slide into terminal “retromania”.
7. Uncle Floyd (and I prefer the Toy version) draws its strength from poignant paradoxes and emotive distances: this is the past viewed from the present, American culture viewed by a British expat, childhood viewed from adulthood, comedy viewed through tragedy, innocence framed by the lens of knowledge, lightness made suddenly heavy.
8. Although we can say that Bowie had always been writing this kind of song, you have to admit that it’s the kind of song an old man can write much more deftly and with much more lived depth and pain than a young man can. Nostalgia, like wine, improves with age.
9. “There is a happy land where only children live; we don’t have time to learn the ways of you, sir, Mr Grownup.” Until, that is, we’re broken down and forced to.
10. Great song, David! Great entry, Chris!
Cheers to you for a lovely response as well.
Okay, I’m going to begin by gushing over this fabulous write up, another master piece Chris! Such a great read. I this was worth waiting for.
I seems to me that the Toy sessions really stirred up some deep nostalgia in David, possibly even more than he’d be willing to admit, which resulted in this beautifully poignant song. I have been trying to list just how many songs in his catalogue actually get this personal and deep and they seen to be pretty rare. “Where Are We Now?” is one and “Letter to Hermione” is another and perhaps “Win”…?
I’ve also been trying to decide which version is my favourite and it’s proving to be a difficult choice. I think, however, right at this moment, Uncle Floyd is winning based simply on David’s vocal choices. I can’t help but feel that his over singing in Slip Away sounds just a bit too forced so I’m leaning towards UF’s more natural vocal.
I feel that the differing presentations do change the narrative styles In UF it feels like the nostalgia is initially more of an intellectual reminiscence, like a memory that bubbles to the surface while digging through a box of old stuff in the attic; intriguing and amusing. But the guitar solo leads the listener from the head into heart where deep emotional longing is revealed and by songs end, the narrators is practically sobbing over the memories that are flooding in. So Powerful.
SA, on the other hand, takes the listener into that emotional place early on and manages to successfully keep then there throughout the song. No small feat in my humble opinion. I also have been contemplating the change in vocal sound at “flickers gray”. I hear it like a cinema graphic-like transition from distant memory into a full emotional emersion. Think of it like going from grainy black and white imagery into a full colour scene. (Like in the Wizard of Oz). I’d love to know who thought of that transition because it’s a little piece of brilliance. I love Visconti production of this one, somehow he creates a “Spector-esque” wall of sound that speaks to the emotional depth of the piece without overshadowing the lyrical content.
As this seems to be the end of our journey through Toy, I’d just like to close with a couple of thoughts. Firstly, I’m glad it was never released as an official album because I feel it has more cache as a ‘lost album’ and secondly, that Toy left us with some of Bowie’s strongest work post 90s in the recorded “Conversation Piece” and “Shadowman”.
I like your comparison to the color breakout in Wizard of Oz. The Flaming Lips used a similar approach to their song “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” (even using what sounds like an old film reel before bursting into full strength). They’ve also covered some songs from Wizard of Oz, so maybe they were intentionally doing what you hear in Uncle Floyd. It’s more appropriate for Bowie’s song, though, given its themes of nostalgia and showbiz.
As much as I like the song, I’m surprised that there aren’t more “nay” opinions being voiced here. Surely there are some Heathen haters out there, no?
Careful, you’ll wake up Humanizing The Vacuum, ha ha!
Your interpretation of the vocal transition sounds bang-on to me.
Another song with a similar transition from murky to clear is Beck’s Nobody’s Fault, although in that case the reason is completely obscure, considering the nonsensical lyrics.
I’ve always wondered how to image that vocal transition and you’ve just nailed it. That’s exactly what it’s like.
We had a vaguely similar show here in Melbourne called Hey Hey It’s Saturday. It too started out as a nightly kids’ show in the early 70s, presenting cartoons, but often getting distracted by in-jokes and asides (as a kid I would regularly become frustrated by how long it would take them to get to Spiderman and Scooby Doo.)
It was soon turned into a loose, ad-libbed Saturday night variety show with a pink feathered ostrich, a bunch of hip musicians, bemused international guests, and a guy in a duck suit, which still appealed to kids, as well as their dope-smoking older brothers who “got” the many barbed references and asides.
One of the regular segments was a blatant rip-off of The Gong Show called Red Faces, where an endless array of the talentless, the bewildered, as well as a great number of successful future comedians all had a taste of the spotlight.
Also, like Uncle Floyd the show eventually became old hat and eventually found itself in the twilight zone where all old television shows (including The Twilight Zone) must go to die.
One particularly distasteful episode with a black face sketch which offended critics, fans, and visiting guest Harry Connick Jr. hurried up the show’s demise.
What a great write-up, Chris! Once I saw how long it was I decided to find some proper time for it, so I only got around to reading it tonight.
I’ve already said here many times Heathen was my first album. Logically, I listened to Slip Away a million times before finally hearing its predecessor, and I can’t say I prefer the early version to what finally ended up on Heathen.
Though as Uncle Floyd it obviously is much more about Uncle Floyd…for me an interesting piece of trivia – and thanks to this article I now realise much more clearly what that programme was and what it meant – for me though, doesn’t mean much more than just that, a piece of Bowie trivia.
What Slip Away does well though, is allowing to translate this nostalgia into anything of personal meaning to the listener – which is why for me Slip Away works better than some obscure American creepy dolls of the original Uncle Floyd TV programme. 😉
It’s a great song, though you have to be in the right mood for it. It can easily became a wee bit much on the nostalgia overkill scale.
Terrific write up as always. Not Bowie’s greatest track of all timer but oddly moving.
This was the song that got me back into Bowie after many, many years – I think it was the first Bowie song since Absolute Beginners that I genuinely loved on a first listen. Though I now like most of Outside, I think it’s a miracle that he got his mojo back after such a long time. From here on in, it’s a blast.
Like Joshua keiter, I grew up watching Dark Shadows and Uncle Floyd on NJN and this song thwacked me between the eyes having strayed after Earthling came out. I came back to Bowie at this point because it validated so many things – childhood when things seemed simple, the various vanished New Yorks I keep locked in my heart, the anxiety of parenting, the death of a good friend, and the strange fear of not knowing what happens after death. I can’t divorce the song from my real life – it was like getting a valentine,or having an international rock star put a blanket around my shoulders and give me a cup of tea. I knew you would write an excellent piece for this. Thank you.
Some years ago, I played a dvd of Uncle Floyd for my young son and he was baffled and horrified. And I saw the “creepiness” through his response when I swear I had no recollection of that as a child, I took the show at face value.
‘Leave my shoes, and door unlocked,
I might just Slip Away.’
~discovered this great[est] song A.D.~
Some Riffs on the Uncle Floyd-Slip Away Diffs:
So I entered the world of this stellar tune pretty distractedly, last summer downloading an unknown-about Toy from a forum for free and alliteratively, and what hit me most on premiere listen was that accelerating snare fill at 5 min. mark, and not the many other facets subtly screaming at me: “Masterpiece here, bud!!”
Then on Toy the hook of his updated ‘Baby Loves that Way’ & life distractions crowded out memory of ‘UF’ many weeks…when, post-passing, the Heathen ‘Slip Away’ version became known and captivated me to the point of covering it [which can oft result in a sick-of-it saturation diminishing all the magic/attraction one feels for a song, but not this baby yet] and actually had me timewarpedly buying a physical CD!–surprise used copy found at local shop [naturally cut 3 skipped into cut 4, so returned dang thing]…and now I’m happily exploring the POVs of the perceptive contribbers here and comparing for pleasure the 2 versions for their distinct alchemies!
Must I choose? but I refuse!
The classical appreciator [which DB was also it seems] in me admires the structural niftiness of holding back the ‘twinkle’ chorus til so late as in ‘UF’, making it a little like ‘Hey Jude’ where having the ”Naaa-na-na’s” as long coda –not a repeated chorus– has a sublime symphonic logic [there are ways one could make it a chorus repeating, but such not its fate–a genius-stroke just as it is].
Yet as Chris pointed out ‘SA’ brings that moving chorus in twice as early which creates its own structural strength, and plants seeds of hope for its inev. return–from a competing popsong-craftedness POV. [sacrificing the quirky left-field Cpart quality for more trad. hooky repeating chorus sense.]
‘UF’ thus also appeals to the eccentricity & weirdness-lover/commerciality-hater within,
with its musty attic-conjuring toy keyboard intro-outro and honkytonk old piano and lofi vocal beginning. The understated guitar break-breather on the F-E7-Gsus-F chords gets chopped for ‘SA’—-perhaps a necessary sacrifice IF trim one must, & Levin’s heartwrenching fretless bass filigrees added in ‘SA’ once heard will become integral. But the also integral spoken characters intro [bemoaned aptly above] kind of infuriate when repeating ‘UF’ but one should hear it a few times that way, whilst tripping it is hoped. The backwards-sounding blips and whooshes at fin make for nice touches in ‘SA’ …
For quirks, a touch more cinematicity, originality-experimentalism, symphonic vs pop dynamics…mundane-as-cosmic, trifle-as-treasure objet trouve meets studio balls: UF
-but for anthemic, songcrafted perfection, fitting swan-song status, studio production magic, fewer chances/more labor-of-loved into existence: SA
[it’s a candy mint AND a breath mint]
In all, what a swell double-headed achievement! -as a tribute to this obscure lo-budget quint-american fanboy [‘get home in time to watch and turn on!’–or viceversa] nostalgia trifle/treasure immortalized, mingled with its Lennon-fellow-expat-new dad in Gotham echo, and a busted-up nursery rhyme to make it half-familiar to most all ears from 1st listen…tis quite the wondrous toon.
…what would YOU do?…