I Would Be Your Slave


I Would Be Your Slave (debut performance, Tibet House Benefit Concert, 2002).
I Would Be Your Slave.
I Would Be Your Slave (live, 2002).
I Would Be Your Slave (live, 2002).

The first original composition from Heathen performed live (during Bowie’s set at the Tibet House Benefit Concert of February 2002), “I Would Be Your Slave” was crafted as a vehicle for grand voice, guitar, percussion loops, bass and string quartet. The latter were the Scorchio Quartet, a freshly-formed quartet who’ve since become the “house band” for Tibet House’s annual benefits.

Loosely fitting in the “Four Last Songs” sequence (see “Sunday“), “I Would Be Your Slave” is addressed as much to God as another human being (so, a typical Bowie love song). Like “Word On a Wing,” it’s prayer as labor negotiation: open up your heart to me, acknowledge my existence and maybe then I’ll worship you. The overarching theme of the album, or so Bowie claimed, was a world that had dispensed with its gods (see “Heathen”). The singer here, however, is a paranoid believer, one convinced that God is laughing at him somewhere, up in the quietude to which He’s retreated in a sulk. “An entreaty to the highest being to show himself in a way that could be understood. Too disturbing,” as Bowie described the song to Livewire in 2002.

Bowie’s grand concession, sung to close each of his four verses, is that he “would be your slave” (note the conditional tense: he’s not committing yet). It’s love as submission, or even Bowie offering himself as the slave drive to a master computer processor, working at whatever task the master assigns him. And of course, recall Jareth’s last temptation to Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) in Labyrinth: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”* It’s tempting to call “I Would Be Your Slave” Sarah’s long-delayed reply.

The first two verses were built on a repeating chord progression, semitonal moves downward (F-sharp major to F major “let me…understand”) and upward (F# major to G# major “drifting down a..silent path,” with a Tony Visconti bass fill always following the move to G#, descending to establish the floor of the upcoming F# chord). There was a gorgeous feint to B-flat minor (“show me all you are!”) that foreshadowed the more turbulent harmonic rhythm of the latter two verses. There a provisional A minor key soon fell under siege, with jarring moves from B to B-flat minor (“I don’t see the point at all”) and F# to F minor (“a chance to strike me down!”).

The Scorchio Quartet heightened the acrid flavor of Bowie’s chords (there’s a sting in their G-sharps). The scoring was mostly Bowie’s work, written on the Korg Trinity keyboard, hence the very chordal scoring—there are few solo passages, mainly just the four instruments clinging together as if for comfort (there’s a guttural drone of a cello line that looms up in the third verse). The quartet ennoble Visconti’s bass fills and build to slow, ruminating peaks in the latter halves of the verses. A few other flavors were salted in during overdubs: an arpeggiated guitar figure mixed right, a constant loop of what sounded like a rheumatic robot breathing, a distant cymbal (mixed left) kept exiled.

Scorchio recorded their parts in the weeks after September 11, having to make their way up to Shokan from New York City despite Metro North and Amtrak lines running irregularly and even some roads closed. “As they pointed out, it was the necessary break that was so needed by all of them,” Bowie said. “I will always thank them for that.” Critics and fans may have parsed Bowie’s lyrics for references to the attacks but the most open, stunned mourners were the strings.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals, strings) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* Visconti recalled that during their scouting trip to Allaire in June 2001 Bowie rented Requiem For a Dream to see how his former co-star was doing (he also was a fan of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi). The film’s lurid depiction of heroin addiction, and the debasement that Connelly’s character endures, was so unsettling that it killed the mood for the rest of the night.

Top: Andry Fridman, “Psy-Trance party in Club Friday,” December 2001.

30 Responses to I Would Be Your Slave

  1. Patrick says:

    This is it for me. Of the post classic period, (aside from TND still being digested ) this is probably the outstanding and memorable track of the latter years. I just find the melody of the strings so beautiful and moving. I used to find the sound effect distracting and gimmicky , until some one one suggested it might be a life support system – not quite “girlfriend in a coma” but a striking analogy for love, hope, and dependency .

  2. Maj says:

    This one was initially a grower but once it grew it ummm stuck.
    The melody that Bowie sings is strong enough to overpower the loops or whatever else is going on in the song – and really you can hear just that in the first live version…everything but Bowie’s vocal is muddled…and it works just as well, if not better than the final studio version. He could have sung that a capella.
    If I compare Slave with Sunday I feel like this tune is better equipped to deal with the “cold” production than Sunday’s is.
    I really like this one a lot. Not sure what else to add. 🙂

  3. the ‘robotic breathing’ is surely an iron lung; it loops throughout the song painting the world from which the singer lives – the only life that can be ‘Had’, kept alive mechanically by all we take to feed – pleading like an ignored lover to whatever is ‘beyond’ / ‘outside’ / after life / ‘alien’ for the chance to Be (‘your slave’) rather than just Have … or maybe I’m just breathing too deliberately

    • col1234 says:

      no I think that works: definitely is meant to sound like respiration of some sort

  4. fluxkit says:

    Requiem for a Dream is a mood killer. It’s easily in my bottom 10 for films I’ve most hated watching.

    • audiophd says:

      Has it been made required viewing for high schoolers yet? It really should be…

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Almost as harrowing as the teenagers story I think was the old woman slowly losing her mind on the amphetamines that her doctor was prescribing for weight loss.The stark contrast of the fantasy world she’d retreated into compared to grim reality was both moving and confronting.
        Although, nothing could shock quite so much as the sight of the heroin addicts gnarled forearm at the end. Chilling stuff.

  5. vinnie m says:

    I’m surprised the orchestrated sound wasn’t something Bowie picked up on sooner.. The sound works for a latter day gentleman.

    It’s hard, but I sometimes pretend Bowie took a long break between Earthling and jumped into Heathen.

  6. Vassilis says:

    Requiem was filmed in such a way that you almost feel the ups and downs of a user, and since all 3 of our protagonists are, we empathize with them. But the rush I felt during and after watching it, surely wouldn’t let me feel low. My mood shifted from the script of the movie (which could be seen as a downer) to the film making experience, which was surely so great. A masterpiece.

    • danglewood says:

      Definitely a masterpiece. It’s a film, kinda like Von Trier’s Antichrist, that I suggest to people as a great film you probably won’t ever want to see more than once.

  7. Mr Tagomi says:

    A major, major Bowie song, this one. At least, for me it is.

    Deeply expressive of something central to the human experience.

    Hats off to the man.

  8. Momus says:

    You can hear a strong continuity here with the Toy album; this is such a late-1960s arrangement, with the Easy Listening (yet slightly weird and broody) strings and twangling guitar recalling something like In The Heat of the Morning, and the mid-section sounding like one of the more oblique sections of Cygnet Committee. The adjacent semitonal chord swoops and almost-arbitrary changes are just so early Bowie.

    The lyric seems to be in the style of Cohen’s Hallelujah, which had been written when Cohen was 50, released to very little fanfare in the mid-80s, then covered by artists like Jeff Buckley and Bono (a version so bad he actually issued a public apology) until, by century’s end, it was a de facto standard. That and others like it (If It Be Your Will) may be my least favourite of Cohen’s songs; I find agnostic artists doing their Psalms of David impressions a bit toe-curling. In fact, Psalms of David could have been an alternative title for Heathen! Except that there’s a Doubting Thomas in there too, grumbling “I don’t give a damn!”

    So what do we have here? He’s come full circle to 1960s arrangement styles, reconnected with his old producer, and he’s speaking to God, albeit in a half-hearted way. He does seem to be a much nicer person than he was in the 1970s, but you do end up wishing the cocaine and fascism and transvestism and vampirism and sex would come back. Being a nice, normal middle-aged agnostic Dad just isn’t enough.

  9. Anonymous says:

    A ‘good’ song. In the top 4 or 5 on Heathen

  10. simonkaye says:

    Okay, I have to say – and I’m really interested to read more of people’s generally supportive views here – that I really, really dislike this song. And that’s as someone who thinks that Heathen is a truly superb album.

    ‘I Would Be Your Slave’ just feels like it’s about two or three ideas short of being interesting, and that bass line – my god, it’s like someone wanted us to fall asleep before Gemini Spaceship could jolt us awake. It’s like an attempt to write a song with no hook whatsoever.

    Yes, Bowie’s lyric is excellent, of course, but he’s singing it stolidly a the middle of his register. Every time the melody is on the verge of spinning off and hooking me, the slavery re-asserts itself, and we’re dragged back into the cycle. The production adds another layer. We move on. The song handily embodies the threat of the lyric.

    Speed it up, rock it up, strengthen that bridge, and you might have one of the weaker Next Day tracks. As it stands it’s more like one of the weaker tracks from ‘Hours…’.

    Just me?

  11. crayontocrayon says:

    I hear a little bit of ‘How soon is now’ in the bending fading guitar that appears later in the song. I think your reading of the lyrics are a good one. With the chords that constantly resolve back to the main progression the song is caught in a kind of limbo, he’s making a deal with God whilst the iron lung gasps stutteringly onwards.

  12. MC says:

    Just a beautiful, heartbreaking song. Not much more to add on this particular track, except that the Labyrinth connection is really fascinating to ponder. (and I always wondered what DB made of Requiem For A Dream).

    Momus, I get where you’re coming from. Taking the album as a whole, I can see why a Bowie fan would prefer The Next Day (as I think you did), as DB here seems to be raging more against the dying of the light. For me, Heathen just resonated so much,though, given the context of the time, where I was in my personal life, etc.. It’s not an album I can feel that coolly objective about. I guess I felt that if DB can struggle with these feelings of helplessness and fear that aging brings (as perfectly encapsulated in this song), then so can us all.

    Interestingly, I remember the Entertainment Weekly review of Heathen by David Browne, which I found utterly baffling. I remember he gave it a B-, and said something to the effect of, although he approved of the songs and production, that DB is, after all, a wealthy, world-famous family man, so why should we buy the space-alien routine. I still don’t understand what he was talking about. He really seemed to be suggesting that DB should retire, or record an album of lounge standards or something. (Not to get all ad hominem, but then again, Browne was the critic who wrote that The Beatles’ influence was waning in 1994, the year of Definitely Maybe.)

  13. CosmicJive says:

    One of my favorites of the last three albums. Wish Heathen had more tracks like this one on it. I remember it sounded quite beautiful live way back in 2002.

    I find this one a much more satisfying song than “Sunday”. The instrumentation works much better here. Wonder how “Sunday” Would’ve sounded had the Scorchio Quartet replaced some of the more cheesy synthpad parts.

  14. StevenE says:

    This is barely relevant, but another pop icon got resurrected over the weekend – in a song with Slave in the title – in a spectacle which is, perhaps, as much a figurative representation of an iron lung as the noise whirring away in the base of this song.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it (I wouldn’t advise watching if you’re going to bed any time soon): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKNEuVcgiDU

    I found the clip quite upsetting, for reasons that were obvious but at the same time really hard to verbalise. It’s hard not to see this as the final act of the world’s saddest episode of the Twilight Zone. The genie put back in the bottle. It feels like an act of violence. Pop dystopia.

    I wasn’t affronted by the album itself by any means – I thought most of the songs deserved an airing, and from the most part they came from my favourite part of his career – the weird, spiky, difficult – and above all desperately sad – 90s. And really I thought anything was preferable to the album Michael being left as the last word.

    But the hologram is just something else.

    The point of comparison that first came to mind was the close of 1984, Winston and Julia run into each other, utterly defeated. I feel as though someone’s got the Michael they always wanted, neutered, compliant, incapable of rebellion, broken, performing dutifully. The man that Joe Jackson tried so hard and so brutally to turn his son into, basically. But I’d bought the album already. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me—”

    I Would Be Your Slave has always sounded to me like the song of a man begging for release- to be let go – and there’s an obvious tension between what we know slavery entails and the source of relief it seems to represent to whoever Bowie’s channelling. It looks like Sony decided to take Jackson up on a similar offer. He’s finally their slave, in a way I don’t think even Prince would have imagined.

    Anyway, if they do this to dead Bowie I will find their houses and I will burn them to the ground.

  15. roobin101 says:

    This feels to me like a John Lennon melody over a Portishead backing track. However good it is (and it may grow on me) it’s simply too long. Sunday is the right length.

    I suppose, if we’re talking about Heathen as a comeback of sorts I’ve noticed these recent songs (recent in the survey) have very expressive chords, much more so than in Bowie 90s songs. This is a pre Young Americans trait of Bowie’s writing.

  16. Mike F says:

    David and Tony are trying their best – some good lyrics, solid production, etc. Unfortunately, neither the melody nor mood intrigues me. In fact, I find the song kind of dull. I would not want to listen to this 5 times in a row.

  17. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I don’t like the song but Visconti’s bass is terrific.

  18. Nick 7 says:

    Just going back to that “rheumatic robot” sound that runs rhythmically through the song, I can hear it now as laboured breathing, even the iron lung as described above.
    But before I imagined it was a big rusty wheel turning and turning, the singer inside, thinking he’s walking in a snowy street (stream?) or down a silent path, but actually he’s inside the big rusty wheel going nowhere, offering all his love to an unseen higher power that has no interest in him at all – “I don’t sit around and wait, I don’t give a damn” (this “god’s point of view”, if that’s what it is, reminds me of the song That’s Why I Love Mankind).

    The chord structure emphasise this circular motion, centring on F sharp, dropping and rising a semi-tone, then rising and dropping a tone, around and around until the melody almost escapes with the lovely Bbm, surging eventually to C sharp behind the line “open up your heart to me”, but then almost at once, on the word “slave”, back into the circular pattern around F sharp.

    Thanks again Chris for another really interesting entry, and for the links as well, especially the Tibet House one, the sound/vision aren’t so good but it doesn’t matter. I liked DB’s harmonica playing, he uses it again for the old song he mentions (Space Oddity!) offering a harmonica note for the musicians to tune to, saying “I expect you’d prefer an A” (the Scorchio Quartet are joined by the Kronos Quartet in the backing band, with Philip Glass on piano!).
    Only 2 songs, but it’s one of those performances I’d have loved to have seen (like the Dunstable Ziggy concert that Chris has linked to a few times, that looks fantastic). If only the New York/Penge astral flying technique that DB mentioned so long ago could work to travel in time as well as in place. Did you ever have a dream or two?

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I see the “I don’t sit around and wait” section as the character’s vacillation.

      He longs for God to show himself, then recoils with disgust at the futility of his longing.

      But the longing is still there, and comes to the fore again.

  19. Ramzi says:

    Heart-breakingly beautiful. Or is it beautifully heart-breaking? Either way I think it’s sensational and one of Bowie’s best songs since the 70’s. The complete package for me.

  20. s.t. says:

    It was only very recently that I realized that this is the greatest track on Heathen. I never dismissed it, but often ignored it.

    Like Momus, I had generally feared that my musical savior was trading risk and ambition for safety and resignation. While Hours was the first taste of this, it was Heathen that established that the trend would stick around for a while, maybe even ’til the end. Despite his continued fondness for basic song structures and a few moments of questionable taste, The Next Day has proved this worry of mine to have been ill founded.

    The everyman melancholy of Hours/Toy/Heathen/Reality very likely helped Bowie to cope with his age and his faded glory, but it was just a phase; a hat to try on for a while. Perhaps other hats are more impressive, but I myself am particularly impressed by the restraint and impeccable balance of this number.

    It has somber beauty, it has pathos. It also has a sweetness to it that imbues those qualities with subtlety and grace. Forget Brilliant Adventure; this is his wabi sabi moment. Severe and sweet, grandly banal, saying very little yet conveying quite a lot.

  21. tearoof says:

    I dont know Heathen well, but i sure was ‘walk[ing] in peace’ listening to this song yesterday, between the hot sun and shade with a playful cool breeze buffetting through both. Later I imagined an after-life that doesnt answer such questions and a sister email talking about gateways from reading novels ..

  22. leonoutside says:

    Sensational track. One Love.

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