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.