One of the few Sixties Bowie songs to make the reader top 100 song poll, “Conversation Piece” was one of DB’s “lost gems,” a B-side never compiled until the Ryko Space Oddity reissue in 1990. But is it finally starting to come into its own?
This entry isn’t that different from the book revision: in the latter, there’s more on the arrangement, the rather inept musical breakdown offered here is corrected, and more attention is paid to the remake, to which I give short shrift here. Likely the only piece of rock criticism to open with a quote from the 2nd president of the U.S.
Originally posted November 23, 2009: “Conversation Piece.”
Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).
[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.
John Adams, Discourses on Davila.
I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.
There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.
“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)
Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.
It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.
The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).
Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.
Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”
This one made my poll.
Both versions work for me, though I’d likely lean toward the Toy remake; I’m a sucker for the low register, almost spoken vocal.
It’s a lovely song, one I often gravitate to for expression or release.
It made my playlist of his songs after he died. Its melancholy was precisely what I needed at that point.
This one will remain in my all time top ten Bowie songs. I like the vocals in the remake a bit more, but I really wish the backing vocals would not remind me of some ’80s italo pop song.
This song also made my poll list. I love the Toy version.
Along with “Everyone Says Hi” (and now, not counting most of Blackstar), since I first heard this song I’ve considered it to be one of Bowie’s saddest. There’s just something that makes me feel so alone when I hear it. But I do love listening to it quite a bit.
+1 on this.
I’d never heard the 1969 demo until now. Quite interesting (but definitely running too fast, isn’t it? Chipmunk-y) and again begs your question of how this didn’t make the Space Oddity LP!
One of the songs this blog introduced me to. Space Oddity was the first Bowie album I owned but I got a vinyl copy from a car boot sale instead of the Ryko edition, as I did with most of the others.
It’s great. Easily the most successful of his early attempts at social realism. I’ve known several people who could have turned into the protagonist of this song if they’d been less lucky and had fewer good friends around them.
Some of my favorite Bowie songs are those where he exposes the fragility of inner thought, with “Conversation Piece” included.
“… jokes about his broken English. He tries to be a friend to me.”
That is a little gem or melancholy beauty.
You note in one of the other entries that Bowie had never shown much interest in country, but this song actually does have a C&W feel, although Neil Young may have been the direct source.
Funny, first time I heard this one (on the Ryko disc), I was sure that it was an obscure Neil Young cover.
Beautiful, graceful, poignant, poetic. Everything that “God Knows I’m Good” tries and fails to be. So strange that it got cut. Its inclusion would have made the album a good deal stronger.
This is a gorgeous song. Well done putting it in proper presidential context!
I never got the Ryko reissue of Space Oddity, so it took me a while to hear Conversation Piece. I always got the impression it was a minor track, at best, primarily because of the writeup in Carr & Murray’s tome. I finally got to know the song in 2001, courtesy of Napster. It struck me immediately as a true gem, one of those hidden pearls that, when discovered, sheds new light on everything else the artist has done. Just a haunting, beautiful song: listening to it right now, I can’t believe it didn’t make my Top 30.
The Toy remake is definitely one of the more solid tracks on that collection, mainly because it’s such a strong piece to begin with, and Bowie and his collaborators are clearly taking care with it. For me, though, the callowness of the earlier vocal is more poignant: self-dramatizing though it may be, the ’69 version is shot through with the piercing sadness of a young person losing contact with life and hope, where the later rendition is just somewhat morose.
I find this so true “one of those hidden pearls that, when discovered, sheds new light on everything else the artist has done”
….not just this song –which has an autobiographical element I do trust– but others too, which I discover or rediscover since infamous January 2016. It’s an endless expansion journey for me…. he was so vast… so rich in inner worlds and outer encounters, and so multifaced
It is incredible, as song after song, lyrics after lyrics, stories after stories, i receive and i am inspired, enlivened
It is a joy.
And yet it’s his death that bought me back to him (and his creations) and then through him and the echoes, to so many things, in the world and within…
And it’s been ongoing, for almost a year now (on and off, but never completely off)… a year of expansion…
How precious …!
That demo appears to be about a full step too fast. If the chords are really “G-D-G,” they sound as if they’re in A! (Probably explains why he sounds so elfin…)
yes, there’s got to be better versions of the demo out there by now. this was back in ’09, when there wasn’t much in terms of “rare” DB on youtube.
The Toy version definitely does it for me. There’s something about the maturity of vision which justifies the sense of regret. In the younger man its self pity – in the later version its a voice of experience.
i’m going to dissent a bit and say i far prefer the original. the appeal of the song, to me, is its sense of youthful melancholy. it is indeed self-pitying, as another commenter pointed out, but beautifully so. which is why the Stuart Murdoch mention in the original writeup was so apt.
plus i find the remake a bit leaden from a musical standpoint, and the vocals a tad…err…crepuscular?
I think this is the best example of the ‘Toy’ version working really well in dialogue (conversation) with the original partly because the contrast between the young singer and his seemingly exhausted older version adds depth to the song’s sense of impotence and early onset regret.
Listening to ‘An Occasional Dream’ yesterday, elements of the melody seemed close to ‘Conversation Piece’ in places. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t make it on to the album, although the very late 60s arrangement of ‘Dream’, which I like, makes it seem the more dated recording now.
Yes I agree. He was obviously entranced by a number of melodic/rhythmic ideas at the time and they emerge in more than one song. I think I can hear bits of Occasional Dream, God Knows I’m Good, Memory of a Free Festival and Wild-Eyed Boy in Conversation Piece. Perhaps he decided its inclusion would detract from the integrity of those other songs. It is lovely, though. However, I agree that it is a young man’s song – there is no way the remake can capture the raw awkwardness of the original.
The original, where he sounds like an old-before-his-time young man, is melancholy. The remake, where he sounds authentically old and defeated, is just plain sad. Give me melancholy every time.
Never having heard this track before I’ve been listening to the two versions back to back and I agree the ‘Toy’ version is a brilliant reworking.
Assuming the songs character doesn’t throw himself from the bridge, one can imagine him humming ‘Tired Of My Life’ on the way home and hoping life may improve. Thirty years later there would be no hope of redemption or change and he’d know exactly what was gnawing at him.
Some time after hearing this (on this blog!) and falling in love with it, I read a comment from Some Bloke On The Internet who suggested the narrator is about to kill himself – I can’t see the road/…bridge/…water. Well, maybe, although what struck me first of all was the shift from ‘rain’ to ‘tears’ – an acknowledgment of the deep sadness he’s been tamping down up to then under a kind of world-weary dolefulness – which seems much more positive, particularly with the way the chords resolve under that last ‘eyes’. Perhaps we can split the difference and picture him finding his way numbly to the parapet, and only then realising how much it all bloody hurts – and finding the pain calls him back to his life.
When we got the news I wrote this on FT:
It crossed my mind earlier today – fleetingly, half-unconsciously and without the slightest irony – that it was at least some consolation to know that he’d written and recorded my song; at least I’d always have that. It’s a song I only discovered a couple of years ago, although it dates back to the “Wild eyed boy from Freecloud” era, and on mature reflection I agree with my unconscious: it is actually literally about me, give or take a few details.
A great lyric. I was introduced to the album via the Ryko reissue, so never felt it as “lost”. Not sure I like the Toy version, but I’m glad he thought enough of the song to redo it.
It would have been interesting to hear Bowie do more realist character studies, but I really like the ones from this period.
Thanks Chris — what a gem this song is: https://manwithoutqualities.com/2017/05/06/conversation-piece/
A few moments ago Tanita Tikaram (the singer) posted a tweet with a painting by Norma Morris. Here’s the caption of her tweet :
“Norma Morris(1936–2004) ‘Conversation Piece (Conway Street, Birkenhead, Wirral) ‘
I tried to find a date for the painting of the picture thru Google but no success.
The shop in the painting, although only a backdrop (decor), does seem to be a grocery store. So is there a chance that DB was inspired in some way when writing his 1969 Conversation Piece.
My apologies if this was mentioned before.
it’s a great idea but Morris appears to have been a very obscure regional painter (almost no references to her in art books) and it’s a stretch to think young Bowie would’ve seen this painting in London in ’68 or ’69. but you never know!
It was just the kid in me feeling very proud having found a link. But no worries! Best to stay awake from ‘fake news’ 🙂