The Cynic


The Cynic (Kashmir, with David Bowie).

My integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I’m doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you’re sick, you’re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I’m gonna watch movies I want to see. I’m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.”

Matthew Weiner, on the end of Mad Men.

I’ve erased several months
It’s turning into a year now…

Kashmir, “The Cynic.”

Whether on doctor’s orders or due to his own misgivings about getting back on the merry-go-round, as an old friend once put it, Bowie spent the 12 months after his heart operation in semi-retirement, doing only the occasional guest vocal session. But he wasn’t in seclusion. Living in Soho, Bowie sampled the hip new bands who came to town, avoiding attention by wearing a cap and glasses and sporting, at various times, a mustache and beard. It was his “Berliner workman” days again, only now he wasn’t working.

How did he have so much time to see all of these bands? Dave Itzkoff asked in 2005 (in what would be Bowie’s last to-date print interview). He had nothing but time, he replied. “Fortunately, I’m not working [laughs]. So I’m resting. I get out a lot. I am a New Yorker, very much, and I get out in New York. It’s just a place that I adore. And I love seeing new theater; I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere—very quietly and never above 14th Street. I’m very downtown.

So he saw TV On the Radio and the Secret Machines. He saw Franz Ferdinand at the Roseland Ballroom, twice (introducing himself to the starstruck band backstage, Bowie baffled them by doing an impersonation of the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer). Interpol at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Knitting Factory. Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. The Killers at Irving Plaza.*

Tony Visconti attended the latter, bringing as his plus-one the Danish singer and guitarist Kasper Eistrup of Kashmir, a band Visconti was readying to produce. So Eistrup, in town “on a guitar shopping spree,” wound up meeting Bowie in the VIP balcony. True to form, Bowie said he was a fan of Kashmir and had some of their albums, then began talking about culture, politics and whatever other subjects he was musing on that evening. The three wound up sharing a ride afterward.

Visconti and Bowie had been vaguely planning a new record, which Bowie seemed in little hurry to begin recording. He told the jazz musician Courtney Pine, in a radio interview in September 2005, that he’d started writing songs for a new album (“it looks pretty weird, so I’m happy”), but there were apparently no studio sessions booked. If there were demos, Bowie cut them at home: Visconti wasn’t hearing them.

There was an ambivalence in Bowie’s conversation with Pine (the former’s last radio interview to date). Asked what his fans were expecting from the new album, Bowie responded, “Oh they don’t expect anything these days, I think they just sorta see what I put out…you know, it’s the luck of the draw and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s godawful and…but that’s the way it goes and I like that.


As he had from the renewal of their friendship, Visconti offered Bowie walk-on roles on his other productions (see the Rustic Overtones or “Saviour”).** Working on Kashmir’s album in Copenhagen in March 2005, Visconti was convinced that one track, “The Cynic” (“it had the vibe of a Kurt Cobain song influenced by Bowie”), could use a Bowie vocal, to the point where Visconti sang Bowie imitations (“I can do a decent ‘Heroes'”) for scratch vocals in the second verse. He emailed Bowie the rough mix and Bowie agreed to sing on it. For Kashmir, “it was everyone’s birthday and Christmas morning at the same time,” Visconti said.

Returning to New York in late April 2005, Visconti, Eistrup and Kashmir bassist Mads Tunebjerg did mixing and post-production work at Looking Glass Studios. One morning Bowie appeared, “fresh as a daisy and enthusiastically sang the be-Dickens out of ‘The Cynic’ as if he’d written it himself,” Visconti said. Tunebjerg recalled that once he was in the booth, Bowie said “‘Tony, just roll the tape for me. I’m going to try and have a go at it.’ He knew the song, he had it on his iPod (afterward, Bowie played the band other selections from his current track list). He had one or two runs and he was there. We were sitting on the sofa. We couldn’t move or speak because the atmosphere was so intense.

Bowie even had a role in the video, a Constructivist-inspired piece in which Bowie, looking like the Patrick Troughton edition of Doctor Who, is Death as a butler.


Kashmir started in 1991 and had become one of Denmark’s biggest “alternative” bands by the turn of the century. “We are like a boy band with four different characters: there is the little thin one and there is the tall guy and there is the media guy who is good looking and then there is the semi-fat guy who is dancing around,” Eistrup said. Their Visconti-produced record was a bid to break the American market, which didn’t happen. But the band has persevered until this day, still playing and recording, still believers that rock music can offer something to its audience. “That’s one of the most important things about art and that is the actual answer to why art is important because it can be out of time, it can be out of reason, it can be just commenting whatever is in the mind of the person who expresses it,” Eistrup said in 2013. “That little country of freedom can inspire the rest of the assholes to do things in a different way.”

“The Cynic” was a decent piece of brooding post-Radiohead rock, with Bowie’s verse finding him easily handling Eistrup’s knotty melody, then biting into the long vowels in the refrains. Bowie sounded comfortably decayed; he could’ve fashioned a bespoke version of Kashmir or Interpol or Franz Ferdinand easily enough in 2006. The question was whether he wanted to anymore. The answer seems apparent now: No, I’m happy in the audience.

Recorded: March-April 2005, Sun Studio, Copenhagen; (vocals) ca. April-May 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 October 2005 on No Balance Palace (Columbia 82876 72767 2).

* Some of these venues are above 14th St., so Mr. “Very Downtown” apparently had to take a cab once in a while.

** A shame Visconti didn’t get Bowie into his finest production of the 2000s, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ L’Avventura. That said, it would have been hard for Bowie to find a place to work on such an intimate album. L’Avventura is a document of two ridiculously attractive people falling in love, yet avoiding solipsism to make their union some public ideal of romance.

*** Visconti also roped in Lou Reed, who recited an Eistrup poem, “Black Building.” “It took a long time to actually get Lou into the studio, but when he came he was well-rehearsed and even prepared a special character for the part. He said he’s got about seven voice characters he uses when he does readings of his poetry. Lou was fabulous, he did about three or four takes for us to choose from and even took a phone call from a Tibetan lama in-between takes. Then, like a New York ninja, he disappeared into the chaos of Broadway as soon as he was finished.”

Eistrup’s memories were less reverent. Reed “was anything but sociable. He demanded that the studio be vacated, then that the whole band smoke. He gave me the vaguest handshake I have ever had in my life… He looked at [my] poem and straightened it. I had used words like pubs that he straightened to bars.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Tenis (Torres de Satélite),” Mexico, 2005.

26 Responses to The Cynic

  1. StevenE says:

    What’s weird about all the bands you hear Bowie working with or going to see, twice, back over this time period is that – without being mean – they’re all varying shades of lame right?

    It makes me glad he sat out for ten years if that’s what he was listening to, petty as that might be. This song’s not bad though.

    • Agreed, nothing much of that time stood out as very good. Maybe seeing these bands live was different, I dunno. I think Arcade Fire finally made a leap with Reflektor, though, which was a good time for Bowie to make a cameo. I’d hate to hear Bowie trying to ape bands like Franz Ferdinand or Interpol, though. They weren’t very remarkable.

      • BenJ says:

        Reflektor had its moments (“Here Comes the Night Time”), but it’s very uneven compared to its predecessor. Then again I think they were in a way trying to lower expectations.

    • s.t. says:

      TV on the Radio and Antony are wonderful. Arcade Fire’s first album was special, and Franz Ferdinand’s first was a lot of fun. The rest, I know what you mean.

  2. Deanna says:

    This song and this Bowie period feel like walking through a misty dream; everything is a little dulled and it doesn’t carry any weight of the past at all. While I obviously hear Bowie quite clearly in this song, I don’t hear BOWIE.

    That’s not a good or bad thing. It simply is. But whenever I hear this song, I always feel a little grey and empty.

  3. As a fan of constructivist art (and El Lissitzky) I really enjoy the video. I actually bought this CD when it came out but I’ve not listened to it in years. Kashmir sometimes stray a little too close to Radiohead territory for my taste.

    I’m fairly confident that Bowie’s vocal is intentionally broken, dismissive and cynical(!). This is after all the same man who later on that year would appear at a televised fundraiser dressed up in bandages and sporting a makeup black eye. During this period it seemed Bowie enjoyed occasionally poking fun at those who believed he was at death’s door.

    Related note: When Kashmir were touring this album they would often incorporate Memory of a Free Festival into their set. After one performance in Amsterdam, Eistrup asked the audience if they knew who wrote the song. One audience member shouted “The Beatles!”.

  4. So Bowie finally did “post-punk revival” kinda… Not bad, but not really great. I feel the reason I don’t like it much is because I’ve outgrown that phase of rock music (You know, two “angular” guitars, mid-enhanced bass, loud drums, and reverb on almost all of it). I know lots of people who love it though.

    • col1234 says:

      there’s also a pop music theory that nothing’s as uncool as stuff that was cool 10-12 years ago. It’s the nadir of the cycle right now. Expect serious Franz Ferdinand nostalgia by today’s toddlers, ca. 2024.

  5. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Just on the subject of Dean Wareham (L’Avventura), I have to say that I’m a huge fan of Luna. If pressed, my favourite song of theirs is Pup Tent from the album of the same name.
    Though the lyric that always cracks me up is “You’re out all night chasing girlies, you’re late to work, and you go home earlies “.
    Ha, ha. Terrific!

  6. Momus says:

    1. I’m thinking about what they call in the movie business “continuity errors”. Continuity is complicated, because you actually have three different dimensions that need to be fitted plausibly together. You have the timeline of the fiction, the timeline of the shoot, and the timeline of the actor’s real life. Your job is to make the actor look like he did last month, or possibly make him look ten years older, or even match the “ten years older” they shot last year to the “ten years older” they’ll shoot tomorrow.

    2. The worst “continuity error” on a Bowie film (but it’s surely deliberate) is that feverish flashback in Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence where Bowie is back at school, wearing shorts and a piped blazer. They could have cast a child actor as young Celliers, but the deliberately-smashed continuity makes the scene freakish, surreal, dreamlike.

    3. Deliberate continuity errors can themselves become the focus of a narrative. Think of Peter Pan, never growing up, or Dr Who, popping up all over the fabric of space-time in the same scarf. Think of Dorian Gray, a character whose attic-stashed portrait takes all the bullets (organic and moral) for him, allowing Dorian to swan from era to era with the same immaculate and seductive appearance. Ironically, this “continuity”, rather than keeping him on an even keel, actually makes him do worse and worse things, as his empowering beauty gets increasingly out of kilter with his inner depravity. Dorian Gray becomes decadent precisely because he fails to decay.

    4. Rock is full of continuity errors. Image-google any rock star (I just did it with Todd Rundgren) and you’ll find photos in which they’re young, photos in which they still look young despite being already out of fashion, and photos in which they’re old and almost unrecognisable.

    5. A still-young-looking rock star — and Bowie still could still pass for a thirtysomething far into his 50s — could, with the right material, be a sort of Dorian Gray. Doing cover versions or collaborations, he could pass in society for what he always was, but those who’d watched him through the decades would feel increasingly uneasy, as Dorian Gray’s friends did. Finally, for them, the perfect continuity would itself become the “continuity error”. Because continuity is not always about matching the last scene, it’s also about matching one arc (biological decay) to two others (the context in the story, the context in history).

    6. Things get more complicated, however, when we’re talking about a context which also has continuity complications of its own. As howscandinavian notes, The Cynic is Bowie doing “post-punk revival” in the noughties. The decade had started with The Strokes doing VU (just as Bowie’s career had started with Bowie doing VU) and was continuing with Franz Ferdinand doing Josef K, Interpol doing Joy Division… what Malcolm McLaren called “karaoke culture”.

    7. So we get a paradox. Bowie singing on some noughties post-punk revival band’s record is all wrong, and all right at the same time. He’s pre-punk, but he’s also influenced punk. He’s already covered Morrissey covering him. He more or less invented the postmodern hall of mirrors rock is by now lost in. And how better would he fit into a decade that’s gone all Retro Necro than going all Retro Necro himself? Deliberate continuity error is, by this time — and partly thanks to him, David Pan-Who-Gray — the best way to establish any kind of naturalistic context, any kind of plausible continuity.

    8. This isn’t a bad song at all. I like the textures in the verses, the 90s-sounding grunge-lite chord sequence (without that annoying 90s trick of suddenly getting loud on the chorus), the Scandinavian inflections in the English (Bjork, Abba, the slightly off-kilter phrasing). But in my perverse dreamworld Bowie does another post-punk tribute cover in 2005. He does The Fall’s Living Too Long: “Crow’s feet are ingrained on my face… food with no taste, music grates…” Somehow, to name the fear of irrelevance would be the best thing you could do to neutralise it. To restore organic continuity of some sort. To decay.

    9. The Peter Pan / Dr Who / Dorian Gray act was yielding diminishing returns. By doing a lot and ageing little, by popping up all over the place out of context, Bowie was simply trashing the brand. His body said no with the heart attack, and the market said no when the Bowie Bonds (owned by Prudential Insurance, a company based on the sure knowledge that things do not stay the same forever) fell to junk status.

    10. The subsequent disappearance restored Bowie’s full status, his resonance and authority. Instead of being flooded with images of a not-bad-for-his-age Bowie, Tumblr pages could be flooded with classic, iconic images of Young Bowie, Timeless Bowie, Forever Bowie. Instead of listening to some new not-bad-considering collaboration or guest vocal, we could go back to the Best Of Bowie, the Imperial Bowie, the Eternal Bowie. And that’s continuity too. The best kind.

    • postpunkmonk says:

      With all due respect, Herr Momus, I submit that it was Mr. Ferry who more or less invented the Postmodern hall of mirrors that subsumed Rock. In 1972, Bowie was making sci-fi hard rock, with the sole smattering of Postmodernism being his adoption of the Ziggy role and the blurring of the lines between the authentic and feigned. Meanwhile, Mr. Ferry was applying all of the art theory he learned in college to the history of Rock with dazzling results. I maintain that Mr. Bowie was rattled enough to make certain that he was going to co-opt this upstart, who had emerged fully formed from the head of Zeus like no other in Rock.

      This he did by sagely associating himself with this astonishing phenomenon by the slick move of having them be his opening act; forever associating himself with the brilliance of Ferry and keeping his potential rival close at hand, in a position of submission. The creative rivalry then spurred Mr. Bowie into Pomo territory, most notably with the Diamond Dogs project. Then, when Eno was available, he took the opportunity to get some of that Roxy DNA into his art [though Ultravox! had beaten him to the punch]. Bowie is an autodidact, par excellence, but Mr. Ferry had the education necessary to achieve what he did from point zero. It was Bowie who had to play catch up when presented with the inspiration of what Ferry achieved. Of course, Ferry burned out in a few years, and has been coasting ever since, but the triptych of the first three Roxy Music albums are unassailably groundbreaking in ways that I feel Bowie only touched upon when he started working with Eno.

      • Momus says:

        Not sure I agree that you needed to go to art school to embody postmodernism, but it’s interesting to hear a dissenting opinion. I was just reading a Billy Childish feature in The Quietus in which he has this to say about Bowie:

        “Most of [the punks] were really closet Bowie fans. And while I don’t have anything against Bowie, he really wasn’t for me – I just didn’t like the glam thing. I saw some of those groups when I was 12 or 13, like Slade and Roy Wood, but I used to go to the rock & roll revival shows mainly – which were really useless because I wanted The Beatles in ’62 or the Stones in ’64. I wanted everything pre-rock. And that’s what I’m interested in now. I don’t like rock music. I used to get in trouble at school because I didn’t like music. For me, it was a rock & roll question, and it’s always remained that. The thing is, David Bowie when he was with Mick Ronson, he would do an impersonation of rock & roll, and he’s got an alright voice, and he was alright at ripping off R&B, but he’s still not as good as the real thing. And it never was the real thing because David Bowie wanted one thing more than anything else on this planet – which he got – and that was to be famous. I watched a BBC documentary about him a few years ago, it was fascinating. David Bowie was someone who wanted to be famous! He was talented and charismatic but that’s beside the point: there are lots of people who are talented and charismatic but who don’t have such an obvious desire for fame.”

        I then went off and listened to a track or two by Billy, and they sounded like Jilted John outtakes! Just dreadful.

      • patr100 says:

        For me, the crucial point about Bowie as the actor/performer and to an extent Roxy, was the lack of a need for a certain “authenticity”, you could cherrypick your influences (blues, soul, jazz, however unrelated they were to your origins and they were to each other. You didn’t have to be black, poor and from the deep South to appropriate the blues for a particular synthetic end result. Which is possibly slightly different from Tom Jones from the Valleys etc channelling Elvis channelling his 1950s and earlier influences . Maybe.

        On Roxy, I am reminded of a comment Ian Anderson made on a Tv Doc interview a few years back, recalling Jethro Tull touring the US, if I recall correcting, touring together with RM, Tull with their quirky style apparently being reasonably received by audiences but Roxy were poorly received , they were too mannered or contrived in a certain way, too, in Anderson’s words “Too art school” . America sure as hell influenced Bowie but did Bowie influence American mass audiences before his 80s zoot suit superstar persona ?

    • Steve Mallarmy says:

      There’s the hall-of-mirrors aspect of this – Bowie dabbling in revival post-punk, a genre that was in turn influenced by Bowie etc. But there’s something else I notice, which is that the song and video, while being retro, are at the same time “timeless”. The song dates from a decade ago, and refers to a period two decades before that. But it could also just as easily have been made today. Styles have been congealed to the extent that they are no longer historical, but outside time. I think this is a key difference with the postmodern period, which I would argue we exited around the turn of the millennium.

      Postmodernism self-consciously “quoted” earlier styles and genres, juxtaposing them in novel ways. Post-postmodernism, on the other hand, removes the quotes and the juxtapositions. It’s the difference between, say, Stereolab, which mixes up a hodgepodge of krautrock, easy listening and avant-gardism into something sui generis – and The Strokes or the Arctic Monkeys, which simply replicate the sounds of an earlier era as closely as they can.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Franz Ferdinand nostalgia? I’m off to see Franz Ferdinand play alongside with Sparks (the latter once Visconti-produced I believe) in London in June. As an ensemble they are calling themselves FFS…

  8. Maj says:

    Well this song is…boring but in an unpleasant way. Bowie’s bit is quite lovely, but I’d enjoy the tune more without all the clutter.

    And boys, you’d better not be snotty about Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire and the Killers, kay? That’s my youth right there, back in the days Bowie did fuck all. 😉

    • I have nothing to say about them, but they bore me. “Somebody told me your girlfriend looked like my boyfriend last February… it’s not confidential, I’ve got potential.” I never got into it. But, not horrible, imo. My “youth” was polluted by mid-90s depression and sulking, even if there were a few good things I held onto through that morass of Nirvana-esque misery and Pavement-esque cynicism. I’d take Franz Ferdinand over all that if I could choose. But I’d rather just wait for Arctic Monkeys to come along.

      • dm says:

        My teen tastes always veered towards the music I half remembered in the background of my childhood, so when the Killers, Franz, Bloc Party, AM, Kaisers thing happened I was firmly a Pavement, Kinks, Cure and Blur fan. But I still really got into those bands. Franz were really a cut above the rest. Maybe it was the mean age of the band members, but their influences were wider and their worldview more interesting. Some of their best songs were B sides and double A side singles, though.

        If you haven’t heard it, “Wine in the Afternoon”, their best song IMO, is a gorgeous Kinksian folky thing with a great little unfolding tale of melancholy and unemployment.

  9. s.t. says:

    Uh oh Chris, looks like you’re gonna have some more work to do. Some new Bowie songs on the way:

  10. Momus says:

    Mixing in some old songs in the Newtonian spirit, too. I’d predict: TVC15, Looking For Water, Space Oddity / Ashes to Ashes, Some Are, Subterraneans, and Dead Man Walking (since the show is to be called Lazarus, for reasons I can’t fathom).

  11. Rufus oculus says:

    I have been wondering about Lazarus too. All I came up with so far is that the raising of Lazarus was the incident that convinced the Sanhedrin that Jesus should be eliminated as he would cause too much trouble with the Roman authorities. Just as various forces conspired against the Christlike Newton. Almost certainly incorrect but the best I can do.

  12. spanghew says:

    Well, if Thomas Jerome Newton was set to be his planet’s messiah, with his planet in the Lazarus role…he failed…and, nearly dying OF this planet, seemed to need his planet to resurrect HIM.

    There’s a sort of logic to the title, I guess…

  13. roobin101 says:

    What an odd song. You rope Bowie recording with you yet you neither ask for nor give anything “Bowie” to sing. All the way through I was waiting for a soaring middle eight with Life On Mars chords to kick in. I’ll listen again… maybe they will get it in the bounce.

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