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.