Looking For Water

looking for water

Looking For Water.
Looking For Water (A Reality Tour, 2003).
Looking For Water (live, 2004).

Asked about “Looking For Water” in 2003, Bowie said he’d started with the cartoon-strip image of a man lost in the desert, crawling around under the boiling sun hoping to see palm trees, signifying an oasis. Instead he spies in the distance a row of oil derricks—an American perversion of deliverance, machines pumping oil from the earth, not trees sustained by water underground.

The last of the set of post-9/11 songs he’d written for Reality, “Looking For Water” moves the setting from a numbed, burned Manhattan to an anonymous Middle East country, which would answer for the crime (regardless of its guilt) for the rest of the decade. The conceit is some Manhattanite wandering in the desert, a few traces of his old life still in his head (a piece of “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Autumn Leaves”): an innocent abroad, wandering through a hell of his own making, wandering in circles.

A “virtually looped, chordwise” (Bowie) song that shuttles between D major and F# minor* throughout and whose structure is a piled-up set of agitated verses and guitar breaks, it became a tapestry of guitar tracks, primarily by David Torn and Earl Slick. Starting with a single left-mixed guitar keeping to its top three strings, the set soon expands to include a blunt Slick retort, a descending main riff doubled on bass (Mark Plati, tracing a Tony Visconti bassline from the demo) and some ferocious counterpoint figures, as if Torn is trying to rip his way out of the song (starting around 1:40). Sterling Campbell is a piston engine, giving a punishing crack to his snare on every beat. And the fever breaks: the track ends with a double-tracked Bowie, still lost in the desert.

It was a fresh sound—bright, punchy, unsentimental—and it proved long-lasting, serving as a template a decade later for some The Next Day tracks like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* You could make the case for either being the key, either D major orbiting to its mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major. In either case it’s a “strong” force pitted against a “weak” one, as opposed to a favorite Bowie habit of having two major chords duke it out (“Rebel Rebel,” “Golden Years”).

Top: Ashey Gilbertson, “A U.S. soldier walks in a Baghdad, Iraq airbase with a stuffed tiger on his back,” October 16, 2003.

26 Responses to Looking For Water

  1. fhgaldino says:

    I really like this track. The hook works so well. I have the feeling its overlooked sometimes. Maybe its sequencing on the album.

  2. Seanmacgabhann says:

    I always saw this one as a partial attempt to reclaim Glass Spider

    I do like it

  3. Deanna says:

    I never usually pay much attention to this song. It’s good, but it doesn’t seem very special… I think it’s my least favourite track on the album.

  4. crayontocrayon says:

    Really love Bowie’s singing on this, very rough, like a parched throat in a desert.

    The ‘Dawn’s early light’ line pops up a few times in Bowie songs – here and she’ll drive the big car where it is most likely a reference to the star spangled banner, but it’s also calling back to Bowie’s early days where he would belt out Port of Amsterdam and sing of it’s drunken sailors. Which brings me to another view I have of the song.

    Bowie by this point had given up alcohol. His drug use had been glorified and was firmly part of the icon that was built around him, but his drinking problem was rather glossed over. I can only remember him talking about it in one interview and even then he brought it up himself.

    I see the song as being partly about the temptation of drink and his resolution to abstain with lines like ‘i can’t eat this candy’ and ‘i look in your eyes and never means never’. And of course the title of the song could follow the same theme although maybe that’s a bit too obvious for Bowie.

  5. Sykirobme says:

    This is my favorite track on the album, by far. Concise, hard-hitting, lyrically incisive. The guitars are at once brash and subtly layered. Bowie sounds desperate. The rhythm section just drives forward with that relentless four-to-the-bar snare crack.

  6. Maj says:

    I haven’t listened to this song in ages!
    Reading this I thought I considered this song a bit of a filler but listening to it again…yeah it might be a bit too nervous sounding for my liking, but it’s a cool song. And interesting message there in the lyrics. Never realised just *how* much post-9/11 this album was.

  7. Bagolut says:

    the worst track on the album by far

  8. Momus says:

    1. I like this song — the tumbling vocal line, the determined backbeat, the squirts of guitar and squooshes of backing vocal the propel it efficiently along. But it’s a bit of a sketch.

    2. You can’t help feeling sad when you see that the main YouTube source of a song by an artist of Bowie’s stature can garner only a paltry 1156 views and “no comments yet”. Such a resonant subject, and yet so little resonance!

    3. I have to admit that the main thing I think of when I listen to the track is the way it echoes Bowie themes I’ve encountered in more resonant places.

    4. For instance, the descending vocal line reminds me of The Secret Life of Arabia: “You must see the movie, the sand in my eyes, I walk through a desert song when the heroine dies”. Which is appropriate, because we’re back in the desert. But somehow there’s less at stake this time, despite the geopolitical urgency. Is it the lack of a Valentino-like narcissism? Is Bowie too nice, too liberal-humanist, to be compelling?

    5. Because of course it’s a liberal-humanist message, the kind of thing all right-thinking people agree with. Water over oil! Human lives over profit! Seeking a single civilised soul in a world of profiteers and warmongers! Searching for the value of things in a world that knows only price of things!

    6. Iman, an apparition from a desert herself, is evoked in another song this skims close to, Don’t Let Me Down and Down, which Bowie seemed to sing in her accent. Because of the “down and down and down” bit, of course. Loyal people don’t let you down. Loyal people stay true to values you can share.

    7. And I can chime in with the Never Let Me Down theme, because of course those baby spiders were crying about the water being gone, gone, all gone. Mr Bowie sang it into an antique telephone while being let down, literally, from a gantry, wearing a red suit. I was there!

    8. The most resonant association for me, though, is Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, who has of course come to Earth to find water and ship it back to his home planet, where only water can save his parched and dying family. If anyone is “looking for water” it’s Newton.

    9. Sinister evil forces not unconnected to the secret services of the American state, acting in what they think is the state’s interest, prevent Newton from saving his family and his planet with billions of gallons of water. In Roeg’s film the director of these black ops is a black CIA man who casually wonders “if we do and say the right things” before slipping into his swimming pool, which is filled with — yes! — water, and his healthy, happy family.

    10. In 2003, it was Iraqi families who were paying the ultimate price, and the enormously evil Dick Cheney who was directing the black ops funelling money through the CIA to a company of “contractors” called… Blackwater. Look no further.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Describing the song “Cool Water”, the final track on Talking Heads final album, “Naked”, David Byrne said something to the effect of; “You spend your whole life reaching for a glass of water, and when it finally comes you drown in it.”

      • Leigh Walton says:

        Reminds me of “The Last Day of Jimi Hendrix’s Life” (1995) by the Mountain Goats, which likewise contrasts the idea of mortality with the quotidian needs/pleasures of a shower and a glass of water.

  9. StevenE says:

    A rough cut of Madonna’s collab with SOPHIE just leaked. (After spending almost a decade falling way behind the pop curve I think she may actually be out in front again.)

    Over to you David, A. G. Cook’s waiting.

    • s.t. says:

      The new Madge songs are okay, but I think ARTPOP was better. I know Gaga’s out of vogue, so to speak, but that was when I actually found her to be interesting. Madonna seems to be jumping on Gaga’s sound, not unlike how Bowie sometimes covers those who pay tribute to him.

      While the music is good, the lyrics to Devil Pray are cringe-worthy.

  10. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    Not a bad track, nothing in the lyrics suggests its about 9/11 though.

  11. roobin101 says:

    It sounds like The Stars… because it’s surely got the same verse melody, almost…

  12. StevenE says:

    seeing as we’re creeping nearer, just need to flag that I will be devastated if She Can (Do That) doesn’t get heaps and heaps of praise from all quarters.

  13. Mr Tagomi says:

    I really like Looking for Water. For me it’s where the album really kicks into gear.

  14. MC says:

    The guitar sound aside, this song was always on the “just OK” pile for me. Listening to it again, for the first time in probably a decade, it’s better than I remembered. DB’s fervent vocal is particularly striking.

    That being said, I would still call Looking For Water an inferior dry run for The Stars (Are Out Tonight). It’s a track that really seems stuck in place, though that may be part of the point.

  15. BenJ says:

    I’d always figured the title and chorus were a nod to Bowie’s past, at least in part. Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth is on this planet looking for water for his planet.

  16. WRGerman says:

    I am surprised nobody has mentioned the “Looking, looking” chorus line is borrowed from Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ for a love”, from 1974. I mean, it hit me on first listen.

  17. :( says:

    Huh, the pirated copy I first listened to this on had cut out all the lyrics for some reason, leaving behind an instrumental that cut jarringly, repeating segments over and over. I assumed it was supposed to be like that.

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