New Killer Star

new killer star

New Killer Star.
New Killer Star (single edit, video).
New Killer Star (Jonathan Ross, 2003).
New Killer Star (Today Show, 2003).
New Killer Star (France 2, 2003).
New Killer Star (Late Show With David Letterman, 2003).
New Killer Star (Last Call with Carson Daly, 2003).
New Killer Star (A Reality Tour, 2003).
New Killer Star (Die Harald Schmidt Show (@36:50 in), 2003).
New Killer Star (Rove Live, 2004).
New Killer Star (live, 2004).

17 March 2003: Walked around Battery Park at lunchtime. Tourists wearing Statue of Liberty headbands; two Ghanese men selling watches from suitcases; a strange lifelessness to everything. Walked through Castle Clinton, west to the shattered globe that used to stand in the plaza of the Trade Center. Went to a bar after work with D, H and G for a St. Patrick’s drink. “When we’ve taken out Hussein, we’re going to take out that guy in North Korea,” D said. But he didn’t want the NCAA tournament to begin only to have to be postponed.

Instead of heading north, he walks down to Canal Street, with its scaffolds and traffic, men selling bootleg DVDs and CDs on blankets spread on the sidewalk (he spies a ChangesBowie, its cover art in the wan smear-colors of an aging printer; he considers buying it, realizes he has no cash). He takes Church Street. He picks up the old burning smell around the time he crosses Chambers and at Barclay he stops. Barriers fence barriers. Behind steel and aluminum grates ten or twenty feet high are long-necked cranes, a tortoise-like dump truck porting dirt around. People move in sagging lines, making lethargic pilgrimage. They take pictures of themselves and their friends in front of a construction site. Men in American-flag hats and bald eagle sweatshirts sell photographs of an exploding building.

The words come soon enough. See the great white scar/over Battery Park… Or is it great white star? The bloodied earth or the place we dream of escaping to?

A white scar is one that’s nearly healed, but the skin can lie. His friends call up to see if he’s ready to go out yet: I’m not better, he says. I’m not going to be better. He keeps a lost city in its head and every day he loses another piece of it. Was there ever a guy with a cobbler stand on Dey Street? Where were the non-fiction books in the Borders: upstairs or downstairs? Were there trees in the lobbies? What kind? How tall were they? What color were the walls of the Cortlandt St. station? Who but we remember these? No, we forget them, too.

gz2002

5 April 2003: It is strange–you wouldn’t know this conflict was raging from any walk through New York. Few conversations are about it; protests are generally small and confined. Some graffiti—Bush Is Hitler sort of thing. The war has become this sort of abstract, bad news from far away, like daily reports of a great forest fire somewhere.

I’m not a political commenter, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening, politically,” Bowie told an interviewer in 2003. “There was some need, in a very abstract way, towards the wrongs that are being made at the moment.”

“New Killer Star” shares qualities of other “public” Bowie songs. The lyric’s run of sharp, disconnected details call back to the shell-shocked narrator of “Time Will Crawl“; its lyrical tone is a muted, older version of the raging, bewildered man who’s flipping through TV channels in “It’s No Game.” Only its first verse addresses a political “subject”: the empty bowl that once was the World Trade Center, the sutured hole in the ground. The rest of the song’s a man trying to distract and persuade himself by watching the skies, watching television, cottoning his memory with scenes from old films.

There is a feeling [in NYC] that it’s not over yet,” Bowie told Virgin Radio back home in June 2003. “I think everyone’s sort of expecting something to happen. I think the idea of terrorist action in bars and restaurants and that kind of thing, being cited as targets, is somewhere in everyone’s mind.”

So he winches up a routine. The song structure is the four-panel-grid of a comic strip (the bubbles and actions/the little details in color): establishing shot, start joke, build joke, punchline. So here: riff, verse, pre-chorus, two-part refrain (punchline: the title’s a British musician mocking the way the President of the United States pronounces “nuclear”). Eight-bar break. Repeat. The backing singers and the drums follow the same shifting patterns throughout, as if keeping to a map. The guitar/bass riff becomes the pre-chorus vocal melody (duh-DAH DAH, “I’m READ-Y”). In the refrains, the singers are replaced by a high keyboard line, then they’re called back in for the closer (cue tambourine). Do it twice and you’re out. The only variables in the mix are some thin, distorted, sometimes looped guitar atmospherics by David Torn, which sing through the track like telephone wires.

03trip

I read someone a while back (blanking on the name) who said that Bowie should ideally lack nationality—that he was best as a Swiss resident, a man seemingly without a country or culture. But Bowie’s life in Switzerland was a set of lost, comfortable years. He’d been more alive as an artist when he was a Beckenhamite and a Londoner, when he was a Berliner, even a Los Angeleno. In Switzerland he’d been clean. He needed a city’s dirt in his blood again. So without even intending it, he’d become a New Yorker. By 2003, the only residence he owned was in the city. He’d raise his child there. He’s still pretty much there.

It’s a bit like being on holiday in a place I’ve always wanted to go to, that doesn’t come to an end,” he said of living in New York. “I always feel like a stranger here. I am an outsider. I really am still a Brit, there’s no avoiding it. But I’ve got friends here. I probably know this town better than I know the new LondonI can walk around here and find my way far better than I can in Chelsea. I’ve forgotten all the streets. [He mimes befuddlement]. Where did Clareville Grove used to be?

The album he assembled in early 2003 was his “New York” album. Not in the way “Heroes” had been, he told Interview: “In Berlin, I was really dealing with a lot of negativity that I had to lose.” Whereas in New York “there’s a certain energy you get here. I really felt the sidewalk,” he told Mikel Jollett. (You could say Bowie hedged his bets, buying in 2003 a 64-acre mountain near Woodstock with the rumored intention of building a retreat there, though apparently he never has.)

So “New Killer Star” distilled a New Yorker’s emotional reaction to her city becoming the stage of a national tragedy, used as the justification for national retribution (which includes the torture report whose grotesque details have leaked on a slow drip the day I finished this piece).

NYC was, and still is, disliked by much of its country. Two examples from my Nineties: a security guard at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, asking me my final destination, then coldly shaking his head and saying “I’m very sorry to hear that.” A man in an Amtrak train bar car outside Philadelphia, asking me where I’m from, growing agitated, pushing into me. “I was in that city once and I did not like it. Me and that city do not get along.” There was a compact of sorts. People who lived in NYC were pitied but were generally left alone. There’s a David Johansen song written during the Guiliani years, in which Johansen complains that the old order—guys like him ranging around on the street, tourists on buses gawking at him—had started breaking down. They had started getting off the buses, he said. After 9/11, it got worse.

Others are watching us [now]. I don’t think we ever felt that before,” Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis soon after he finished Reality. “There’s a slight unease. We really felt freewheeling and that ‘tomorrow belongs to us,’ anything can happen. Now there’s not quite that swaying surge of hopefulness.

nks

4 May 2003: We went to the Village Underground to see Hammell on Trial, a middle-aged bald man who swears a lot and punishes his acoustic guitar. “Where were the weapons of mass destruction?” he yelled. “A few guys in a tent with gasoline is not a weapon of mass destruction!” “What do you know, man?”: drunk voice in audience.

“New Killer Star” was a typical magpie construction for Bowie: its bass/guitar riff (in part by Tony Visconti, retained from the demos) was essentially the chorus hook of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” with a touch of Blur’s “Coffee and TV.” Nicholas Pegg noted how some of the song was lifted from “”87 and Cry,” from melodies to chorus hooks (and you realize how much the “disgraced” Never Let Me Down is resurfacing on this album).

It was Reality‘s lead single, and it had some hooks: Torn’s “stuttering” opening guitar riff, the vocal tags that enliven the verses, the subtle way the verse’s A minor chord is swapped for a bright A major in the pre-chorus, the grand refrain that promises an escape route. “Iiiii’ve discovered a star!” Bowie sings, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell cheer him on. Even if it turns out to be another thing to lay waste to a chunk of the city, it still shines nicely, hanging in the sky above the park. He’ll be optimistic even if it kills him. “The ghost of the tragedy that happened [in NYC] is reflected in the song, but I’m trying to make something more positive out of it,” he told Performing Songwriter. “We have to assume that for every piece of awfulness there’s a good thing…[but] I’m telling you it’s a struggle to find a ray of hope.”

Maybe it was there on the ground, on the streets, somewhere still in the beaten-up, gentrified, overpriced, domesticated old bird of a city. “I still love this town. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Bowie admitted to DeCurtis. “I am a New Yorker: It’s strange; I never thought I would be.”

new killa

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality and as the album’s lead-off single on 29 September (the single edit, which trims intro and outro, appears on Nothing Has Changed): because it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for singles charts, so it officially charted nowhere in the world).

Top: Beth Keiser, “Fritz Koenig’s Sphere Dedicated in Battery Park,” March 2002; Joshua James Arcady, “Ground Zero” 9/11/02; Christian Brothers High School band visits Ground Zero, March 2003.

All journal entries by me: NYC, 2003.

39 Responses to New Killer Star

  1. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    That’s a lovely piece of writing. It reminded me of how I feel when I visit my hometown. It all looks the same but its somehow empty and desolate, as if someone built a filmset representation of it. Then I remember that its me that is different, and everyone I knew and loved here is gone.

  2. Vinnie says:

    Keeping a journal – you’ll never know when the thoughts of the period are handy to reference.

    I need to give Reality another chance. This song is good. It’s pop, pop from an older man. And Reality really is similar in sound to The Next Day. (I’m just bitter about that jacket art, and for years, thinking it was Bowie’s final album as well)

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, an old journal is helpful. but i stopped around 2007 after some lousy stuff happened & never quite got in the habit again

  3. gcreptile says:

    Quite Momus-esque this entry… The video for this song gave me a headache. The song itself is like a car drive with the handbrake on.

  4. Deanna says:

    It’s a good track, and I especially love that warbly guitar(?) sound at the beginning. I’m also convinced that the mocking of Bush goes beyond the title and is, in essence, the focus of the entire song. For example, I hear an exaggerated Bush voice when he sings the line”All the corners of the buildings…” in live performances.

  5. Wow. Really thoughtful piece about a fairly underrated song in the Bowie songbook. I especially appreciated the snippets from interviews and his online journal. You touched upon several nice insights and I wish I would have kept a tally of everything that gave me a jolt – one that stood out was the comparison of Reality and Never Let Me Down. I’ve always said Reality is the album NLMD wished it could have been, and it’s nice to know I’m not alone in the vague general vicinity of that sentiment. Anyway….great writing. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  6. StevenE says:

    fucking love it.

    I think it’s the best placed of any Bowie song, if that makes sense. I think of the (limited, so far) time I spent in NYC when I hear it (and when in NYC I thought of this song, and wanted to take a look at Battery Park because of it). Heroes doesn’t make me think of Berlin particularly, Berlin didn’t make me dwell that much on Bowie. It sounds like NYC, basic.

    A useless observation this, but that’s all I got.

    • StevenE says:

      really do think it appropriate as well that the most geo-specific Bowie song (to me anyway) got its write-up as the torture tap started dripping a little harder.

      UK-based, but for the first time I’m so glad the Labour party chose Ed Miliband over David, who can at least pretend convincingly to have clean hands in all this.

  7. Diamond Duke says:

    “…a man trying to distract and persuade himself by watching the skies, watching television, cottoning his memory with scenes from old films.”

    If that’s the case, then surely one of those films must have been Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb. That image of a “horseback bomber” certainly reminds me of Slim Pickens’ final ride at the end! (If you recall, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange had provided inspiration for much of Bowie’s earlier work.)

    It’s certainly one of my favorite “late-period” Bowie songs, and I also think the Reality album is highly underrated…

  8. Maj says:

    Love the song, and a great entry again, Chris!

  9. RLM says:

    Really love this song, definitely one of my favourites from late period Bowie. Although I like The Next Day very much, I find this song more vital than anything on that LP.

    I had drifted away from Bowie around Tin Machine and the occasional songs I’d heard hadn’t really done it for me. But for some reason I attended the “live” (not in Australia) cinema gig for the Reality launch. I remember being really impressed by this song – it was clearly engaged with its time and lyrically quite deft. Musically it reminded me of Scary Monsters – straight rock with clever chord progressions and enough happening sonically to keep you listening. It was “classic Bowie” that felt fresh and contemporary, which I suppose was the Heathen marketing line but I’m not sure there’s anything particularly wrong with that.

    It was also a really strong second song on both the Reality shows I attended – a tour which we’ll get to soon enough, I guess. But the strength (and healthy presence in the setlist) of Bowie’s recent material was a real feature of those shows for me.

  10. Momus says:

    1. The Reality album finds me deep in my “meh, Bowie” years, and New Killer Star is as good a place as any to try and work out what went wrong. Why didn’t I buy this album? Why was I uninterested in even hearing the songs? Why, although I lived in Berlin and Bowie came to Berlin in 2003, did I not go to his show (something I regret now: this was the show in which he played the whole of the Low album)?

    2. I think the main answer is that Bowie sounds middle-aged and middle-class here. New Killer Star is well put-together, and has some nice samples and guitar sounds and backing vocals, but somehow the sum is less than the parts. Since I was also middle-aged and middle-class at this point, I probably wanted to flee material that sounds, as Chris points out, almost as good as a 1999 Blur song.

    3. In 2002 I’d fled New York after all the firestorming crap that went down, and all the flagwaving crap that followed it. I’d chosen Berlin partly of course because our protagonist had lived there. But in 2003 I was interested in a quite different kind of music, the scene the Wire magazine had dubbed Weird New America (Devendra Banhart, Cocorosie, Joanna Newsom), or else French electronica (o.lamm, Anne Laplantine, Discom, Hypo). This was probably partly self-preservation: I wanted to remain hip and be influenced by relevant stuff.

    4. It’s not Bowie’s age (he was 55 in 2003) that ruled him out of relevance per se, but when you combine being middle-aged with being middle-of-the-road and middle-class-sounding, it does all get a bit too middling. And that wasn’t the zeitgeist of the noughties at all in my experience: there was a “disappearing middle” effect happening, and clever artists were getting weirder and more marginal. People were freed from the gatekeepers of TV and radio, and now hunted down freakier and more personal stuff online.

    5. There is actually a Bowie influence (and a Visconti influence) in the cool music of the day: Devendra, for instance, sounded like a young Marc Bolan. And 2003 was the year of Alison Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry album, which brought Glam Rock sounds to bear on her soundscapes. But these artists were relating to work Bowie and Visconti did in the imperial period, of course, not their “almost-as-good-as-Blur-in-1999” stuff.

    6. How did such an interesting mind get (temporarily) so dull? Yesterday I was watching Philip Glass in a YouTube video talking at Emory about avant-garde art in the 20th century. He had a good line about “dethroning narrative” which I could imagine Bowie heartily agreeing with. According to Glass, the strategies for dethroning narrative are: cut-up, repetition, readymades, chance operations. The usual suspects are mentioned: Duchamp, Cage, Warhol, Burroughs.

    7. But there is no “progress” in art. What tends to happen is that narrative falls out of fashion, because it gets associated with a lot of mediocrity, and original spirits veer away from it. Then at a certain point the journey away from narrative starts to become reflexive, boring and sterile itself. I think that after thirty years of largely non-narrative writing, Bowie’s “avant-gardism” (his cut-up lyrics, for instance) is sounding tame and dull. He’s dovetailed the resulting vagueness with a MOR-ish hope to be all things to all men. This is one circle-squaring synthesis of his two tugging impulses: to be ahead, yet to be populist.

    8. The word “new” is a potentially exciting one. Same with the word “killer” and the word “star”. But because of this opportunistic vagueness — which presses 20th century avant-garde justifications into the service of an aspirational middleness (“universality”) — when you put them together you get something less than the sum of their parts: New Killer Star, a rejected Suede album title sloshing with watered-down Stan Brakhage.

    9. The randomness in the songs on Side 1 of Low is still exciting. There’s a liberating don’t-give-a-fuckness to Breaking Glass and Always Crashing in the Same Car, and the fact that this is the same man doing Dad Rock that’s almost as good as Blur in 1999 makes it all terribly sad.

    10. It’s wonderful that the “don’t-give-a-fuck” guy came back a decade on with a record as weird as Sue / ‘Tis Pity, and I think it’s significant that narrative has made a return too: the lyrics to Sue may be fragmented, but they are definitely not made with some shitty randomiser program. There’s a story there. Current Bowie has that catnip sense that there’s madness with method in it, inviting you to try to glom onto something mysteriously cool. Reality-era Bowie is just him standing in a disappearing middle, doing competently what’s he’s learned to do, miscalculating the era’s commercial-weird sweet spot, and sounding almost as good as Blur.

    • StevenE says:

      I’m planning on starting a baseless rumour that you’ll be releasing a split LP with kero kero bonito. hope you don’t mind.

      • Momus says:

        I’ve roped Sarah Midori Perry into an art performance in Berlin on January 14th, so it’s not entirely baseless!

      • StevenE says:

        Oh ace, do you know each other?

        I caught them live last week, and they were great. (I think there’s been a sea-change in music coming up from young producers/performers in London over the last year and a half – disconnected tracks cropping up online, maybe starting with Serious Thugs in 2012, started to congeal into a pretty robust, totally mad scene). KKB are right at the front of that curve atm. Amazing tunes.

      • s.t. says:

        Interesting. Like Lily Allen meets Takako Minekawa.

    • StevenE says:

      Just to tie this back to the thread a bit (as I’m taking it a bit off course) on the subject of Bowie taking inspiration from the place he lives, if he’d arrived a couple generations later and was only starting out in London now it’s KKB and the wider PC Music scene he’d be ripping off/inserting himself into (and come to think of it, SOPHIE’s already landed a Madonna collaboration).

      David, if you’re reading this, it’s not too late.

    • s.t. says:

      2003-2005 indeed had some really exciting new music. Even Blur’s “Think Tank” explored some interesting territory, Norman-Cook-produced single aside.

    • Oh enough with the “Blur in 1999” thing, Momus.

      I’ll assume you’ve actually listened to what Blur released in 1999? 13 was the sound of Britpop decomposing. “Battle” is where guitar-based music needed to go in the new century and it’s a shame David didn’t take more notes, frankly.

      • John D. says:

        The “Blur in 1999” stuff sounds very pretentious and unnecessary.

        New Killer Star falls over only and turns Dad Rock when it gives up the Blur-Rhythm and tries for some big chorus.

        (And there is a lot of very cool stuff on 13 and Think Tank, if you discard the grisly Fatboy Slim EMI-mandated Crazy Beat.)

  11. And not as good as ’87 & Cry or Time Will Crawl in my book. I can see the similarities.
    Great write up.

  12. s.t. says:

    For quite some time I never noticed the lyric “See my life in a comic.”

    Which is a shame, because it really summed up my impression of that time period. Almost literally. The drum beat for war was bringing out the tribalism in everyone around me, no prominent politicians or even journalists seemed to question the narrative for war that was being pushed by the neoconservatives, and the first source of real validation for my anxieties was “Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel. Another was David Cross’ standup. No one else but the comedians and the comic strip artists had the will to speak truth to power, plus the demented absurdity of the time was just ripe for the picking.
    So, a feather in Mr. Bowie’s cap for his perceptive line, and a black eye to me for my unperceptive first five years of listening to it.

  13. Patrick says:

    Found this track rather too self contained and claustrophobic and the video doesn’t help though the first two YT links above are barred from UK viewers . It feels like an elastic band being repetitively wrapped then only slightly released at times.

    Read of it before, but never saw the point of criticising GWB’s Texan pronunciation of nuclear , given that there were more pressing concerns about this behaviour, sady even more so , given this weeks revelations about the CIA.

    • col1234 says:

      in re: links not being viewing to UK readers. please let me know in the future (& let me know a UK-friendly link, should one exist)—i have no way of knowing which links work beyond the US.

      • Patrick says:

        Short of using a VPN or proxie , I can’t find a UK viewable version of the video for the single on YT but found one on vimeo

        The only non live edit of the track I could find was this (but not any single edit)

  14. crayontocrayon says:

    These entries are really enlightening for a non New Yorker. There is a definite sense of location for a big chunk of the album and it’s a pretty strong track that kicks it all off. It has a musical uneveness to it due to the trembling, nervous and at times dissonant guitar in the background.

    I am a big fan of glitchy and loopy guitar and as a continuation from Heathen its an important part of the later era Bowie musical palette. Torn is surely up there in the underloved collaborators stakes.

    • I really wish Bowie used him more as a lead player and not the “loops and weird sounds” guy. Having heard his solo stuff he’s way more adventurous than his work with Bowie lets on.

  15. sidthecat says:

    There’s a self-satisfaction and roteness to much of “Reality” that makes it hard for me to take it to my heart. It took the distance of ten years for Mr. Bowie to find his rage, which is why “The Next Day” was worth the wait.

    BTW, I ‘m from L.A. and I loved New York.

  16. MC says:

    Good song, this, one of the best on the album for sure, but there’s something fundamentally unexciting about it for me. It came alive on tour, though, and paired with Rebel Rebel as the set opener, the chorus’ resemblance to the former became apparent as well.

    I too hear traces of the much-loathed NLMD on Reality, particularly on this track. Much the same is true of some of The Next Day, suggesting that DB has in latter years made his peace with the earlier album, or regards it as an untapped motherlode. This reminds me of this reviewer for Entertainment Weekly who opined that Reality sounded dated, and that DB should have drafted someone “current” like Steve Albini to produce, as if it were 1993 and not 2003. Indeed, the early noughties were the period when the reviled 80’s production sounds and ideas were making a comeback, which more or less continues to this day, suggesting that Bowie was still ahead of his critics.

    A great, evocative piece, by the way. Actually, I find your writing here more haunting than New Killer Star’s lyric. Interesting as the song’s sense of place, and the “scar/star” confusion are, I still find the occult relationship of the Heathen lyrics to 9/11 more eerie and powerful, all the more so for not being so on the nose.

    • s.t. says:

      At this time, David Sitek was taking 80’s sounds and spinning wonders. Too bad all he produced with Bowie was “Province” and some covers for Scarlett Johansson.

  17. Seanmacgabhann says:

    I always thought there was a similarity to TVC15 in parts

    “Oh my tvc15…”

    “I’ve found a better way…”

  18. Mike says:

    I never connected with this song (and I missed the “New Killer/Nukular” joke) until this entry and its re-release on NHC. Now, ten years later, I’m finally hooked!

  19. The Blur comparison is apt, but I’d listen to Blur’s Girls & Boys to find it’s true origins. Musically the two tracks are very similar.

  20. Alexandria says:

    “I read someone a while back (blanking on the name) who said that Bowie should ideally lack nationality—that he was best as a Swiss resident” – not trying to smartmouth, it just rang a bell.
    I read it in the V&A book, in the interview about Bowie, and said statement was made by radio journalist Mark Kermode. Don’t know whether you meant him or not, but at least he’s said something quite similar…

  21. Shane75 says:

    Hello Chris/col1234, I have been a reader of this blog for years and never posted a comment before, but wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading Rebel Rebel this summer and I’m looking forward to volume II. Great work.
    PS: interesting comparison: the bass line from New Killer Star vs Graffiti-Throwing Muses.
    Best from the Netherlands.

  22. bootedhoss says:

    I’ve always thought Bowie borrowed from Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” when he composed this song. Though, on the right (or wrong) day, I can hear anything in most of Bowie’s songs.

    Thanks for the great work!

  23. M says:

    The riff… Check out the closing bars to Diamond Dogs’ Sweet Thing (Reprise)

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