Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)

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Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (single).
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (single edit, video).
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (Blackstar remake).

1. Allegro con brio

Imagine: David Bowie wondering whether he’d been gone too long, fearing that releasing a new album after ten years of silence would be considered an indulgence, a folly, politely ignored, condescended to. Issuing a surprise single on his birthday in January 2013, he hedges a bet. Discarding the promotional hype cycle lets him startle his fans, but also avoids raising their expectations. “Where Are We Now?” is simply there; no time to wonder what it would sound like.

Then comes The Next Day, the longest production of his life, over two years of studio work; it’s an album that, at times, he seems to consider scrapping. A sense of hard struggle permeates it, in its overlong sequence, its combative, narrow-scoped vocals, the pieces of old songs that keep surfacing. Tony Visconti, in early 2016, said that TNDstarted out trying to do something new but something old kept creeping in.”

TND does the job, though: it sells, gets (mostly) rapturous reviews, makes Bowie seem current again. Mark the growing confidence in his videos, from hermetic curator of “Where Are We Now?” to the piss-and-vinegar performers of “The Next Day” and “Valentine’s Day.” He’s through the rebirth. He can go anywhere he’d like. As he’ll write in a new song: I’m sittin’ in the chestnut tree/ Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?

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Jazz may have set me off on this idea that ‘planned accidents’ are truly wonderful experiences in music…it’s inspired me just by giving me an understanding that it’s okay to drift between the spaces created by the melody. The melody is a schematic, an outline of what you can do…the most important thing for me was learning that the spaces between the notes are where the action really is.

Bowie, 1995.

Jazz was his foundation music: the Georgie Fame-inspired “Take My Tip“; the Charles Mingus quote in “Suffragette City”; Let’s Dance, which has a big-band heart on some tracks; the wintry fusion of “This Is Not America” with the Pat Metheny Group; the long thread running through his Nineties, from “South Horizon” to “A Small Plot of Land” (whose “poor dunce” melody is heard in “Sue”) to “Looking for Lester,” a full-on D.-Lester Bowie trumpet/saxophone duel.

The problem was that Bowie, as he’d happily admit, lacked technique. His saxophone playing couldn’t pass muster in any environment but those he created in the studio. As a vocalist, he was so distinctive in tone and phrasing that integrating him into a jazz ensemble would be difficult. He’d pulled it off in spots (his and Angelo Badalamenti’s “A Foggy Day” comes to mind) but never on a large canvas.

Now he wanted to go the whole hog: work with a jazz band, not rock ‘n’ rollers acting the part. His ideal was a bandleader like Stan Kenton and Gil Evans, architects of postwar reveries (Evans had scored Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners). “David and I had a long fascination for [them],” Visconti said. “We always held the jazz gods on a pedestal above us.”

The plan was long in the works, as Bowie’s plans tended to be. During his early 2000s tours, he’d talk about wanting to work with jazz musicians with his pianist Mike Garson (who had a jazz background). It was Garson who first told Bowie to look up the bandleader/composer Maria Schneider. A decade or so later, Bowie did.

2. Andante con moto

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Maria Schneider was born in Windom, in southwest Minnesota, in 1960. It’s a farm town on the Des Moines River, a half-hour’s drive from the Iowa border. She’s returned there in compositions like “Sky Blue,” “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” and “The Thompson Fields”: watercoloring empty spaces; drawing on memories of flying in her father’s propeller plane to North Dakota and Canada, over fields of flax and corn. At home, “we had all these big picture windows and you’d look out the window and you’d see nothin’,” she said in 2006. “When your entertainment isn’t provided for you, your life is full of fantasy.

Unlike her future saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who’d been cooked in jazz since childhood, she barely knew the music until her college years. You can imagine Bowie happy to find a gifted, renowned jazz composer who had essentially stumbled into her field. A composition major at the University of Minnesota, she began reading about jazz scoring and gorging on records. The university had no jazz composition department but there was a campus big band. She began working with them and soon wrote for them.

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After graduating, she worked with Gil Evans, who showed how to blend instruments in an ensemble, making fresh cocktails with tones (so Schneider may score a line for a combination of mute trombone/baritone saxophone, making them sound like an English horn). How to “dress a soloist,” as she described it, using as an example how Evans arranged “Concierto de Aranjuez” on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain: “there’s all this fluttering—this movement…all these things going on—and when Miles enters, everything stops.” And how to push musicians to their limits, to create “struggling points” in compositions. Evans, reviewing something she’d rescored for him, had her put “the low instruments at the top of their range, so they’re uncomfortable.

She also studied with Bob Brookmeyer, who argued that structure shouldn’t be rigid. Don’t do a chord change because “it’s time” for one. A solo shouldn’t come after x many bars of a theme because that’s when a solo always comes. A solo, he said, should only come when there are no other alternatives.

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By the early Nineties, she’d put together a big band. The life of an American jazz musician, even one with club residencies and write-ups in the New York Times, is a precarious one. During the years the Maria Schneider Orchestra played the West Village club Visiones on Mondays, she would cab down with the scores and music stands, and pay each musician $25 a night (she took $15). “Every week was logistical hell,” she said. “It’s different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.” Only a rent-controlled apartment (something many of today’s young NYC musicians lack) allowed her to keep afloat, financially.

She began recording in 1994, for the German label Enja. It soon proved untenable: she had to come up with a third of the recording costs for each album, which she never recouped. In the early 2000s, she began self-publishing and fan-funding through ArtistShare. She records her albums and sells them via her website (they can’t be streamed or downloaded elsewhere). It’s the life of an independent artist today—tending to one’s audience, trying to get fresh funding, hyping the latest release, pushing the back catalog, touring as much as you can.

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Despite the grind of work life, her music improved. Her rhythms became subtler, her melodies broadened; her sense of texture, already fine, became masterful. As Gary Giddins wrote, “her greatest strength is in the rich vertical dressing of harmonies that swell in discerning, spacious clouds of sound…the whole orchestra breathing as one.”A breakthrough was Allegresse (2000), which opens with “Hang Gliding,” with its mixed meters and fluid structure—no intro/chorus/solo sections but a series of slowly interlapping lines, like a procession moving along a thoroughfare.

There’s “Dissolution,” which moves from flute wanderlude to drum-and-guitar scrum to walk out in serenity (one section has (presumably accidental) melodic affinities to the end of “Bewlay Brothers”).”Bulería, Soleá y Rumba,” in which Donny McCaslin charges at the ensemble like a bull. “Cerulean Skies,” which opens with birdsong and proceeds like an upturned day, sun rising and falling as if carried on the winds.

I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors–the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,” she said in 2013. Her contingent (her bands range from 17 to 20 members) plays multiple instruments–trumpeters double on flugelhorn, saxophonists on flute, clarinet or piccolo. Like her mentor Evans, she’s discarded the traditional role of big band as dance music—reeds stacked up against horns, unison theme statements, steady 4/4 to keep the floor full—to make her group more Impressionist, a cloud formation. Some critics found her work meandering, saying her pieces were like introductions to songs that never appeared. David Hajdu called Schneider’s work “sheer beauty distilled to its essence. Everybody knows beauty to be one of the things art has always been here to provide. And yet beauty in music is, somehow, sometimes, just as hard to accept as ugliness.”

Schneider developed a core set of improvisers and writes for their personalities, as if they’re a well-worn acting troupe: McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, pianist Frank Kimbrough. “I like to use soloists to develop pieces,” she said. Where often in ensemble jazz, a soloist plays over a harmonic structure introduced by the full band, Schneider writes “solo sections that continue the harmonic development of the piece. They’re carrying the piece to some other place.”

3. Scherzo. Allegro

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Bowie attended the first night of a Schneider residency at Birdland, on 8 May 2014. The following day he visited her apartment to see if a collaboration could work. He had two compositions in rough stages—the piece that became “Sue” and another called “Bluebird” that, over half a year, became “Lazarus.” Schneider, deep in the weeds finishing her own album, only had time to work on one piece; “Sue” was the more viable prospect. “When I heard what he played, I thought ‘you know, I think I can put something of my world into that!‘”she said. “I sat at the piano and played around with harmony a bit and said, ‘maybe I can imagine doing something with this.’

At the beginning of June, Bowie and Schneider met at her home to work on the music together after she’d had a chance to experiment on her own with ideas for a few weeks. On 9 June 2014, Bowie and Schneider, along with McCaslin, the trombonist Ryan Keberle, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson and Mark Guiliana (McCaslin’s drummer, not Schneider’s) met for a rehearsal session to test out those ideas and feel out the structure. Schneider wanted Bowie to hear firsthand the direction of the piece before they got into the studio with the whole band. After that first rehearsal, Schneider and Bowie met yet again, made adjustments, and they all met for another rehearsal about ten days later. Schneider did her final tweaks and the orchestra recorded “Sue” at Avatar Studios on 24 July 2014.

It was a day’s work—instrumentation was finalized and group tracks recorded, Bowie cut his vocal, McCaslin and Keberle did overdubs.When Bowie put down his tracks, he had placed some of his final vocal lines in some unexpected places within the form, blurring the more obvious structure, which delighted Schneider.

She heard his lyrics for the first time at the recording session.”He changed all the lyrics at the end,” she said in 2015. “I kind of knew the direction the song was taking but then that changed—it became about Sue getting murdered for cheating. He wanted it to be really dark. I thought oh my gosh, am I going to get a lot of flak for contributing to a song about a man murdering a woman? But I didn’t write the lyrics. And it does sound rather good.”

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When “Sue” first aired on BBC Radio 6 (on 12 October 2014), reaction was mixed. It was defiantly odd and unsettling, hard to absorb at first. Bowie’s vocal is harsh in tone, keeping to a few notes in a narrow range, with buffeting gales of vibrato. His voice spars against the underlying music. The composer/writer Kevin Laskey pegged it as being akin to parlando, when an operatic singer declaims lines, speak-singing over more melodic orchestral backing.

It solved the problem of how to integrate “David Bowie” into a jazz band. He becomes an oversized version of himself, creating an unassimilable, coldly grandiose persona that the music has to work around and find ways to support. “Sue” is a simple piece, harmonically: just G major moving to E minor. Schneider works by constantly varying tones and instrumentation: take how many voices are heard over the song’s seven-plus minutes, from Keberle’s trombone grunts and Scott Robinson’s contrabass clarinet as undercurrent, from Guiliana’s skittering cymbal work to buzzing muted trumpets to the three-note splash of Kimbrough’s piano that ends the song. (There’s also apparently enough of Plastic Soul’s “Brand New Heavy” in the bassline to merit Plastic Soul getting composer’s credit with Bowie and Schneider.)

Schneider also provides a sense of simultaneity—as the song progresses, everyone moves but not together (they’re dancing out in space, as Bowie might have said). The horns move to a different tempo than Guiliana’s antic snare patterns, while Bowie has his own cryptic timing. The jostling factions—instruments making loose confederations that soon break apart—give him room to roam, to drag or compress his phrasings, to make long trellises of words. As Laskey wrote, “while some instruments are following Bowie’s melody, there are others playing a counter-line against it. This push and pull with the main melody helps integrate Bowie’s voice into the overall texture of the band.”

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What’s he singing? A short story: the fall of a marriage in eight short verses (six, in the single edit). His character begins a success—he got the job, they’ll move into the house at last. But something’s amiss. Sue is ill (“you’ll need to rest”), though the clinic’s called, the X-ray’s fine. (Or in another, darker reading, he’s beaten Sue enough to make her go to a walk-in clinic, but there’s no permanent damage.) He puts his faith in the material future: soon there will be the house, the money will come soon enough.

The “theme” melody (a four-note phrase carried by brass and flutes, sung by Bowie in the first two verses) is the motif for the absent Sue. As Bowie’s accusations grow, the motif returns in darker and more distorted shapes—take how the horns, sounding like a regiment left in tatters after a battle, sound the notes at 5:57. His story grows more bizarre: Sue, thinking of the grave, wants to die a virgin. But you have a son…oh, folly Sue!

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On Outside, Bowie had played with narrative, writing a murder mystery with no plot or resolution but filled with scads of random information. The story of “Sue” is straightforward enough, if riddled with blank spaces. The mystery lies more in Bowie’s performance, as his emotional language is hard to decipher. Is his character a fool, a dramatist, a psychotic? Sue herself doesn’t exist apart from his obsessive recounting of details and how he sings the long stressed vowel of her name—she’s the hole in the center of the song, its absent goddess. If Bowie took the name from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (one of his “top 100” books), it’s an apt reference: the Sue of Fingersmith is a con artist running a job yet who’s a dupe in a greater game; she’s the “I” in a story who doesn’t know that her identity is a fiction.

A murder happens off-stage. He dumps the body in the weeds, kisses the corpse, says goodbye. Or so he does in the single, which ends with the sixth verse. On the full version, he keeps talking, as if detectives have him in the box and he can’t stop condemning himself. He’s found a note, it tells the whole dirty tale: “you went with him…right from the start/ you went with thaat clooooowwwwwwwwn.” Has she left him? Is her murder a revenge fantasy? Is he sitting in his empty house sketching the gravestone of his “virgin” wife? No goodbyes this time. Sue, I never dreamed, as he starts the last verse. Or, “Sue”/”I Never Dreamed”: David Bowie’s latest single backed by “I Never Dreamed,” the first song that he ever recorded, with the Kon-Rads in 1963. One of its verses could have fit in “Sue”:

I never dreamed
Your caress could hurt so much
I never dreamed
That I would shake to your tender touch

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With Bowie keeping his motives dark, the song’s emotional weight shifts to the man who’d soon become his last great collaborator: Donny McCaslin.

In “Sue,” McCaslin is a free agent, improvising throughout, liberated from having to support the theme or Bowie’s top melody. “I don’t think I was thinking, ‘wow, I’m gonna blow for seven minutes!’ It evolved into that,” he said. “I didn’t know how much would be used, and they ended up using a lot of it.

Mixed right, McCaslin is heard from the start, a voice helping to assemble the song, then he embellishes on Bowie’s lines, commenting in the margins. In the break after the second verse, his agitated run up the scale is answered by a suspicious snarl from trombone. After the verse with Sue’s murder, there’s a shift to a stunned instrumental passage with McCaslin as a mourner, creeping out of the wake. He bores into the last verses, actively working against Bowie’s voice, hounding him, not giving him a moment alone. Then, shifted to center-mix, McCaslin becomes the focal point of the closing section, the orchestra falling into place around him as he plays in his altissimo range (getting higher-pitched notes on tenor saxophone via different fingerings).

The lead actor has left the theater; McCaslin has to carry on the show. It’s how their roles would play out in 2016.

4. Allegro

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Bowie had expressed interest in doing more pieces together, but Schneider couldn’t spare the time due to her upcoming recording with her band scheduled for the following month and recommended that he use McCaslin’s quartet instead (see next entry). By the start of 2015, Bowie, having demoed some new songs, had shifted plans. He’d found in the quartet a contemporary group as much fluent in rock and drum & bass as in jazz, and he’d ditched the idea of a full-out jazz collaboration. Instead it would be a classic Bowie genre-shuffle, making an album with as much affinities to Earthling as to Stan Kenton. Having used Schneider as an experiment, he then took the results and worked in his own laboratory.

Remaking “Sue” for Blackstar was arguably unnecessary. Where the original “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was a home demo that could be fleshed out, “Sue” was an intricately-arranged work that didn’t cry out for another take, plus it just had been released on a new compilation. Some theories: Bowie knew that live performance was behind him, so here was a way to take apart a song as if he was playing it on stage;  he already was reworking his older songs for Lazarus, so why not here; he felt “Sue” was needed for the album sequence but that the Schneider version wouldn’t fit.

Recorded in the second set of Blackstar sessions, in early February 2015, a fresh arrangement for “Sue” proved difficult. “The new version of ‘Sue’ took the longest,” McCaslin said. “Because the original version that we recorded with Maria is so specific, with all the orchestration.” His first suggestion was to cut a take with his band “just jamming, and there’s David singing that first part, then we’ll all just cue the sections.” This didn’t work, although “we did one or two passes which were really wild.” So he went back to Schneider’s score and slimmed down instrumentation, reducing the cast to saxophone, clarinet and alto flute, all of which he played, and giving a greater role to Ben Monder’s guitar (see below).

We’d get the roadmap [of songs] together and that took a while, especially on the arrangement for “Sue”, because it’s kind of nebulous and floaty,”added Tim Lefebvre, one of the players in the Blackstar session (along with keyboardist Jason Lindner and James Murphy on percussion) who hadn’t been on the Schneider version. “We figured out where to change, because it’s not an eight-bar groove kind of thing.”

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Among the changes were an increase in tempo and a tighter arrangement. No longer are there strands of instruments competing to be heard—things are locked in, moving at a gallop (it’s telling that Bowie gets through all eight verses in roughly the length of the single edit). For the remake, Bowie “wanted a bit more edge, a bit more urgency,” Guiliana said. “David encouraged us to really go for it. Tim [Lefebvre] was free to go to what I call ‘Tim World,’ which is one of my favorite musical places. By the end, we really get to another gear. I have some Gregg Keplinger metal percussion on my ride cymbal on this take—you can that hear stuff bouncing around!”

Lefebvre’s bass is the focal point of the remade “Sue”—he opens with a fat-sounding funk riff distorted by his Pork Loin pedal, then changes to his Octave pedal, with some faster hand-picking. He also uses a Corona pedal for slow, sludgy-sounding passages—towards the close he plays what he called “EDM kind of stuff,” bending the top strings of his Moollon-P bass, fixating on the same notes. Lefebvre described the wild breakdown section following the sixth verse (3:07) as “they gave us eight bars to just rage. Mark and I had played a lot of live drum ‘n’ bass together, and it’s shocking and amazing to hear that on a David Bowie record—they allowed us to do what we do on this album.”

Along with Lefebvre, Monder is the other major element of the remade “Sue” (compared to his role in the Schneider take, McCaslin is far more a secondary player, working as backdrops—a wasp-like buzzing after the first verse; finally introducing the “Sue” motif on clarinet at 2:02). Monder began by doubling Lefebvre’s bassline for the backing session, then Bowie asked him to essentially play the “David Torn” role in overdubs. He “wanted a bunch of really atmospheric stuff, so I did one pass with a lot of reverbed -out guitar,” Monder said. “My go-to trick was turning the mix on my Lexicon LXP-1 [an older half-rack reverb unit] all the way up, as well as putting the delay and decay all the way up—which makes this giant wash of sound and makes whatever note you play sound really good.” (Monder played the main riff on a hybrid Strat, switching to his 1982 Ibanez AS-50 for harmonics.)

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Like McCaslin’s soloing, the full-bore vocal performance of the Schneider version is also gone here. Bowie is quieter, more subdued, a shadow within the swirl of the mix, sounding beaten down (the clinic had called again; the x-rays weren’t good). While retaining some of his phrasings from the original, he uses less vibrato and is far less expressive and dramatic—I know you have a son is now half-spoken, like an aside that doesn’t matter. As Monder, Lefebvre and Guiliana build to a din, he sings the last verses resignedly, saying goodbye to himself as much as to Sue.

The two versions can seem like a handmade hardback edition of a book and its mass-produced paperback—if some subtleties are gone in the remake (I miss the gorgeous intricacy of Guiliana’s playing on the Schneider take, for instance), the thing now moves faster and packs a harder hit.

In the end, “Sue” became two songs existing at once (fittingly, Bowie gave it two titles), each seeming like the revision of the other. It’s a cusp song, the first puzzle in a new set. There’s nothing quite of its like in the Bowie catalog. One of his last great oddities.

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Recorded: (Schneider/DB single) (workshops) 9, 18 June 2014, (recording) 24 July 2014, Avatar Studios, NYC. Released 17 November 2014 as a 10” single and digital download (UK #85); full take led off Nothing Has Changed, released a day later; (Blackstar remake) (backing tracks) 2 February 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 23, 30 April 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2016 on Blackstar.

Sources: Schneider: quotes from interviews including Judy Carmichael, 2004; Ben Ratliff, NYT, 17 November 2006; Best New Music, 2008; Jennifer Kelly, 2009; Zachary Woolfe, NYT, 12 April 2013; NME, 11 October 2014; Michael J. West, Jazztimes, 26 January 2015; Pamela Espeland, Minnesota Post, 2 Sept 2015; Brent Hallenbeck, Burlington Free Press, 14 April 2016. Bowie’s 1995 jazz quote from George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune. McCaslin: quotes include those from Uncut, January 2016; Mojo, January 2016; (Monder) Jon Wiederhorn, Yahoo Music, 13 January 2016; Lee Glynn, 14 January 2016; (Guiliana) Modern Drummer, 26 February 2016; (Lefebvre) Kevin Johnson, No Treble, 14 January 2016; Pedals & Effects, 7 March 2016 (this is a fun interview—Lefebvre seems like a great dude). Recording dates from Uncut and the indispensable Nicholas Pegg, whose new edition of The Complete David Bowie you should’ve purchased by now.

Photos: 1: “Tokyo, April 2014” (Eric Foto); DB as Kon-Rad, ca. 1963 (Roy Ainsworth). 2: Bowie and Schneider at Birdland, 8 May 2014 (photog unknown); downtown Windom, MN (Wikipedia); Schneider, Ensemble Denada, Victoria Jazz Club, Oslo 2014. 3: Bowie and Schneider at the Magic Shop, June 2014 (Jimmy King); stills from “Sue” video, directed by King and Tom Hingston. 4. Bowie w/Keberle and McCaslin, June 2014, Magic Shop (King).

68 Responses to Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)

  1. Vinnie says:

    We’ve arrived at the final station,

    I remember the shock of Nothing Has Changed and of two new songs – dynamic, interesting songs! – and the number of friends who had re/discovered Bowie with The Next Day reacting in confusion online. Many didn’t realize Bowie existed between “Let’s Dance” and TND; for the many who hadn’t heard the intervening years (1. Outside, & co.) it felt like Bowie abandoned “pop” or “rock and roll” music. If they only knew! And I made sure they did. (Virtual correspondence, I present you with links).

    The first version of “Sue” is lovely; I still think the remake is the weakest track on . I appreciate that Bowie let the players go for it; after reading your entry, Chris, analysis of the lyrics (the clinic called; the x-ray’s fine), it makes sense for the change of tone. Initially, the doctor says you’re fine; a second time, the doctor says you’re fine, in that reassurance that only comes with gritted teeth.

    Thank you again for this blog. I still don’t know if I’m ready to relive January 10, but I know your writing (and the community here) always helps.

  2. ecsongbysong says:

    Beautiful piece, as always. Much of “Blackstar” remains undigested for me, because it remains hard to listen to — not that I haven’t listened to it fifty times. Anyway, I hadn’t managed to process the distinction between the original “Sue” and the remake, and I’m very grateful for a roadmap to dissecting the two tracks one of these days — and also for the beginnings of a guide to Schneider’s music, when I get around at some point to exploring her catalog. Grateful as ever for your voice, Chris — thank you so much!

  3. Deanna says:

    Amazing! I loved the original when I first heard it streamed live. Many times when I first hear a song it has to grow on me, but it definitely wasn’t the case this time.

    I love the comparisons between the two songs, it’s so fascinating to look at how different they are. The first one is fueled by rage, the second by anxiety.

  4. Thomas says:

    I heard the remake first, so I prefer it – the original almost seems tame in comparison, though Bowie’s vocal performance is more intense. I really like the “live drum-n-bass” thing that they incorporated into the remake, it feels like the Bowie of Earthling looking back on that sound from a more somber and mature perspective.

    • Thomas says:

      I also prefer how the Blackstar version implies that Sue’s murder was just an angry fantasy and that she actually left him. It adds a sense of helplessness to the song that fits very well into the album – on Lazarus he faces death with dignity, on Girl Loves Me he faces it with blind terror, but on Sue he’s simply paralyzed, watching his life race toward its end, unable to move or do anything about it as the band swirls around him.

      • BenJ says:

        That’s a very astute reading. “Sue (or…)” very much feels like the most chilling track on Blackstar, partly because it doesn’t have the exuberance of the other remake. Is Sue there? Is she real? Was she ever? This may be the last song in Bowie’s series of profiles of men who he could have become, and it’s an unnerving one.

        Again, great essay by Chris.

  5. Jaf says:

    Chris – you’re the fucking best. 2016 has been a shite year for a variety of reasons but this blog has been a beacon of light throughout. All the very best to you and to everyone that enjoys your work x

  6. Dave L says:

    Phenomenal writing, as usual. So good to read you again after the hiatus.

    All the pictures of Bowie smiling with the musicians make me sad. He seemed so excited with the new direction.

    And I was just at Birdland this past weekend! Had no idea that was where he met Schneider. Fascinating.

  7. TisAPity says:

    I prefer the remake as it is harder hitting and the awesome dark electronics pleasantly remind me of Bish Bosch. I wish there was a little more jazz instrumentation though, it could have still been wilder; i wish the remake had a little of that sound that “Killing a Little Time” has.

    • Phil Obbard says:

      When I first heard “Killing a Little Time”, it occurred to me that it could have easily substituted for “Sue” on Blackstar; the two tracks have similarities in their rhythm sections.

    • StupidintheStreet says:

      Yes! Those dark electronics are one of the reasons I prefer the remake; I’m discovering bits and pieces with every listen. Another reason: when Lefebvre goes to “Tim World”…well, that is quite a trip.

  8. Landon Brown says:

    Great work, the Kon-Rads reference was rather inspired. Like others, I much preferred the Blackstar version once I heard it, as the Schneider version had always seemed a little lacking in urgency, but I hadn’t truly appreciated until now how much more expressive the original is in contrast to the more muted remake, both the vocals and instrumentation. The hardback/paperback comparison seems an apt one. I still find it one of the more challenging songs in his catalogue to fully digest, as the speaker just seems so aloof and hard to pin down.

  9. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    Been so looking forward to the next post and this one was so worth the wait. Love this song, all the versions. I remember when Blackstar came out, and I had 24 hours with it before hearing he had passed away, and I can remember hearing the version of Sue on Blackstar and thinking its so great that Bowie at this stage in his life is still making music as tough and uncompromising as this song.

  10. arcbeatle says:

    Its a bit funny for me, as I’ve always considered the remake a vast improvement over the original. The first time I heard it I felt like I understood the purpose of revision a little better: I haven’t been able to go back to the first cut, it always sounds unfinished now.

    • Phil Obbard says:

      Yes, exactly my take. To be honest, I didn’t listen much to the original when NHC came out. It didn’t do much for me. When I heard it on Blackstar a year later, I immediately thought “Oh NOW I get this!”

      Also, that “I Never Dreamed” catch is amazing.

  11. fantailfan says:

    I also did not hear the earlier version. I didn’t think of the story as a murder when I heard it. I thought she just left, but there is that bit about the weeds. I suppose I don’t look for murder in pop songs; when I need a good murder I put on a Child Ballad.

    This non-remunerative job must be getting harder and harder for you, but I will buy the second book when it comes out.

  12. Put any stock in the idea that the lyrics are loosely related to John Ford’s play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore? (Maybe more related than the B-side’s lyrics, anyway?) Play seems to have some of the same ingredients: infidelity, murder, a secret pregnancy. (But no clowns or X-rays, of course). There was also a London production by the Globe in 2014.

    • col1234 says:

      gotta wait til the next entry

    • Thomas says:

      Slightly off-topic, but I always wondered if “Tis A Pity She Was a Whore” was less about the play and more about Time… you know, who flexes like a whore and falls wanking to the floor. Listening to the song with that in mind, the meaning of Bowie’s protagonist being punched and robbed by the “whore” changes entirely.

  13. Mr Tagomi says:

    I seem to be in a minority in preferring the original version. I find it tremendously exciting. The combination of the wild arrangement and his singing is just fantastic.

    He was as good as he’d ever been in his final couple of years.

  14. Gb says:

    Another great write up
    I have a slight preference for the original myself, even though I heard the Blackstar version first. It has a slower pace, but to me that just gives the song bigger holes one can fall into…doesnt take away its edge, but adds more and allows more to go on in general. I like the grandiosity of a Jazz big band of sorts juxtapositioned against the very grimy, very dark story of the song, and Bowie’s vocal performance adds so much (the moment where he belts out,Oh, FOLLY, Sue!!!! shakes my ones). The second version is still great and more cohesive to the Blackstar alum, but I find the first version harder to place in a specific genre, which makes me like it more.

  15. The one song on Blackstar I could take or leave (though it admittedly helps the album’s pacing by breaking up the slow songs). I get that the way the vocal always feels at odds with the rest of the song may have been intentional, but I feel like it’s a case of an experimental approach misfiring a bit – on both versions it sounds kinda stilted and awkward, like he’s really forcing the lyrics to fit and not quite succeeding.

    That said, the album version salvages it a bit by virtue of how ferociously the band tears into it – I often find myself scanning to that drum ‘n’ bass breakdown just past the three-minute mark and playing it over and over in lieu of listening to the whole song. The fact that James Murphy’s adding to the chaos somewhere in the mix probably helps (I’m guessing we’ll hear more about him once we get to his other cameo on Dollar Days).

    Also, fun fact: when I looked at the credits for the first version with the big band, I recognized Jay Anderson’s name right away because he’d been on a couple of Zappa albums in the ’80s. It’s nice to associate him with something slightly more dignified than, say, Thing-Fish.

  16. RamonaAstone says:

    It’s so difficult to compare the original and the remake – the original is simply a masterpiece. I’ll never forget when I first heard it and I just totally flat out freaked out. The Blackstar version feels like such a backtrack for him. The bass just feels so…typical for a Bowie piece. I mean, typical for Bowie is untouchable Godliness for everyone else. But – it just seems rather odd. The original version just feels like it matches onto Blackstar so much better.

    I am SO excited to read what you have to say about ‘Tis a Pity, by the way. I remember the demo leak disappointing people – and I distinctly remember one youtube commenter writing essentially “If this wasn’t Bowie you’d all think it was garbage, admit it.” And it was pretty accurate. But my GOD when I heard it in its final form I just flipped, it was perfect and, I would say, better than the Blackstar version of Sue.

    • TisAPity says:

      As evident by my username, i also have a very soft spot for “Tis a Pity”. Not only is it my favorite song in the album, but it also ranks in my personal top 10 Bowie songs. The glam and artsiness of it all is intoxicating. What a way to go out.

  17. MikeB says:

    Love the interview with Lefebvre!

    And this unreleased ‘bangin”’ When Things Go Bad…. I wanna hear it!

  18. MikeB says:

    … also, wondering: are the new tracks on the Lazarus soundtrack added to your queue?

  19. James LaBove says:

    Somehow, the entries keep getting better and better. What a wonderful, multifarious analysis.

    I was thrilled and slightly confused the first time I heard the Schneider version of Sue. It was daring and obviously well-executed, but I have to confess to being mostly ignorant about jazz, so despite being glad to have new Bowie music it didn’t have the immediate impact on me that it otherwise might have. In contrast, my boyfriend (who is a music theory and band geek, and an extremely talented French horn player) quickly named it his very favorite Bowie song, hah.

    The lyric video helped. It moved the dark song even further into Outside territory for me. After previously feeling a weird sense of disappointment in not being able to fully appreciate it, the visuals helped the song take on film noir elements for me; felt like what I imagine old detective films to feel like. The song’s narrator became something like a combination of Nathan Adler and Baby Grace’s murderer, seeking to make sense of an unraveling situation that he may not be capable of understanding he is the cause of, or one that may not even be fully based in the narrator’s understanding of reality.

    Lots of chilling lines in this song. “I just said HOME.” As if the auditor is having trouble understanding (implying that perhaps the x-ray isn’t fine; it was after all a second-hand recounting), or perhaps fearful that the narrator isn’t actually taking her home. “Why too dark to speak the words?”

    I love, love, love the Blackstar version. Just as the video connected the song to Outside for me, the new arrangement brought out the Earthling elements even more. It’s twitchy and has sharp edges; feels more dangerous and even more paranoid in some ways, even if the vocal is less harshly-sung (I’ll agree that the vocal is much better on the Schneider version).

    Can’t wait to read about ‘Tis a Pity (my favorite song on Blackstar outside of the title track)! Unlike Sue, it was love at first listen, even on Bowie’s hiss-filled demo. Thank you as always for your tremendous efforts, Chris; they are appreciated.

    One last thing: I probably shouldn’t share this, but the day before this post came out, a friend passed unexpectedly. Obviously, nothing on Blackstar has been in rotation since then. But spotting a new, sprawling entry on this blog was a happy occurrence during a time when such things are a bit harder to find than normal.

  20. Matt says:

    I much prefer the harder LP version. That and “..whore” are the high points for me.

    And that picture of DB with Keberle and McCaslin: it’s beautiful and gut-wrenching at the same time. He just doesn’t look like a seventy year old, let alone a terminally ill one.

  21. dh says:

    “Sue” has turned out to be one of my favorite songs on Blackstar – largely because so many of the responses to the album have been fixated (understandably) on its backward-looking, mortality-facing elements, when really there’s this whole other thread running thru the album too, not elegiac but vibrant & experimental, with Bowie gleefully synthesizing/playing with his influences, not just self-reflecting. “Sue” to me is the emblematic song for that vibrant thread, with the apparent loose lyrical relation to the source material of “‘Tis a Pity” making for an additional layer of interest (it’s certainly a more subtle & interesting line of reference/influence than the blunt deployment of Clockwork Orange lingo in “Girl Loves Me,” in any case).

    The hardcover vs. mass paperback analogy is apt: like many of the other commenters, I’m not much of a jazz listener, and the original “Sue” didn’t make much of an impression on me. I loved it for what it indicated – that Bowie was clearly willing to shoot off in a weird/bold direction rather than doing some middle-of-the-road milking of The Next Day’s “comeback” success – but the song itself just kinda drifted past me whenever I gave it a listen. The more accessible Blackstar version, with the rhythm section foregrounded, clarified the song’s structure for me, and now I can return to the original with much greater appreciation.

    Sidenote: as I’m sure is the case for many people, I never encountered this site until after Bowie’s death, when I saw it mentioned in some obituary or other. I’ve now spent the past several months using it as a guide thru all the post-Let’s Dance releases that I’d never explored before. Thanks for your work, Chris, it puts most rock writing to shame – I look forward to the 2nd book.

  22. roobin101 says:

    This is the chrome! Thanks for keeping going with the blog. I’ve been looking forward to this post and it hasn’t disappointed.

    This one did have to grow on me but it did. It’s got that same quality of all great Bowie songs of being particular yet accessible. At the time it felt like a stretching out, perhaps Sue was intended as a new sound to stretch on for years.

  23. Sylvia says:

    I know these Blackstar entries have been pretty difficult, but they are just gorgeous as ever–i’m freshly struck with every update how much this writing means and has meant to me. Thank you for keeping at it.

  24. Stowethelion says:

    Ayy, good read. Always something to look forward to, which in the Bowie world now has become a rarity I guess.

    The blackstar version is my fave. I remember not really enjoying the Jazzy original but being really excited and pleased he was trying something new and not crowd pleasing. The Blackstar version’s 8 bar drum and bass bit is amazing, a real highlight, it just booms and shakes for those 8 bars, you can’t not nod your head.

  25. greg says:

    Excellent analysis of the music and background. I’m looking forward to your “Tis Pity” entry since I tend to think the “Sue” lyrics are a fairly direct retelling of the Ford play “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” with perhaps a little narrative time-shifting (the final stanzas, in which the narrator reads the letter, are a flashback explaining what made the narrator kill Sue, I suspect). Anyway, not completely sure of any of it, so will be interested on your take, as always.

  26. verdelay says:

    So here we are. Another superb post, Chris. I have been keenly anticipating the beginning of the end.

    As always your insights are sharp and thought provoking. One thing bothers me about Sue, though, and that is the lyric. I think perhaps my own reading is rather banal and far too beholden to the “Blackstar as an album about impending death” theme that has (quite naturally under the circumstances) been widely taken up. Clearly Bowie was an artist of great depth and capable of manifold allusions, and so to simply offer up a one-dimensional narrative of his condition seems a little insulting. Nevertheless, I offer my own reading here for consideration.

    Whatever the references to Ford’s play and ‘Tis a pity…’, it seems odd to me that a song like Sue would simply present a plain ‘murder narrative’ in its lyric. The rest of the album offers different perspectives on his condition, mostly obliquely, but often directly. Sue itself was reworked, as you point out, and sits at the centre of Blackstar, so it must have held some particular significance to Bowie. But what?

    My hypothesis is that Bowie was addressing his cancer directly in a number of the songs on the album, with a range of interlinking themes and tropes. Here was an ‘incursion’ of his bodily-self by an entity that would eventually take his life, and I can see him taking this view and using it as a narrative stance. While there are elements of resistance in his lyrics, the emotions presented are far more complex than simply ‘fighting’ his disease. I believe he was trying to understand it. Cancer has been called ‘asymmetric immortality’ as cells in the body cease to die and overwhelm the still-mortal parts. So the interloper is actually a higher form of one’s self – an inside-outsider. I am in no doubt that Bowie would do just about anything to preserve and extend his life, including spending a lot of money on treatment (a recurring theme across the album: ‘she stole my purse at rattling speed’); I also suspect, however, that he would also have adopted a distanced, intellectual fascination with his predicament. I didn’t know him, of course, so my views are mere speculation. I apologise for any offence caused to those who did know him.

    In Sue Bowie addresses this ‘inside-outsider’ directly. Here’s a cursory reading:

    Sue, I got the job
    We’ll buy the house
    You’ll need to rest
    But now we’ll make it

    There is a hint here that ‘Sue’ was diagnosed and treated previously, perhaps a number of years ago, and is now in remission (‘that was patrol’). In this opening passage Bowie alludes to his successful return as a public artist – he got the job. Everything will be okay.

    Sue, the clinic called
    The X-ray’s fine
    I brought you home
    I just said home

    Given the all-clear, the successful chauffeur-driven Bowie returns home. His wealth and powers now are almost magical, transcendent. But unbeknownst to him, Sue returns too.

    Sue, you said you wanted writ
    “Sue the virgin” on your stone
    For your grave

    ‘Sue’ has been designated stage I,II or III by Bowie’s doctors. She has not metastasized and spread, they reassure him. She dies a virgin. Life can go on.

    Why too dark to speak the words?
    For I know that you have a son
    Oh, folly, Sue

    Impossible as it is to comprehend, however, Bowie begins to suspect this is not the case. Sue has a son. Stage IV.

    Ride the train, I’m far from home
    In a season of crime, none need atone
    I kissed your face

    Undergoing renewed, intensive treatment Bowie grasps at acceptance. It is not Sue’s fault that she cannot let him go, this is the way of the world. He senses love. In a way it may be possible to reach an accommodation…?

    Sue, I pushed you down beneath the weeds
    Endless faith in hopeless deeds
    I kissed your face
    I touched your face
    Sue, Good-bye

    …all well and good to say such things, but in truth Bowie is still trying to kill her and her progeny (‘this is the war’). Trying but failing. There is a goodbye, but it is not Sue who is dying.

    Sue, I found your note
    That you wrote last night
    It can’t be right
    You went with him

    The note is perhaps some physical manifestation. It is clear that Sue will soon overwhelm him. She loves him, you see (‘girl loves me’). She can’t let go of him.

    Sue, I never dreamed
    I’m such a fool
    Right from the start
    You went with that clown

    Bowie is the clown. Sue was his fate, I suppose.

    Just one view, and there will of course be many others. Bowie was nothing if not a masterful riddle-poser.

    v

    • Jasmine says:

      Gosh, verdelay, I have read your post and have gone over the lyrics and I think you may well be correct. When he sings about Sue, he sings about his illness. He saw himself as a clown, right from the 60’s, a further link to ‘I never dreamed’. And the X Ray was fine, but he brought Sue home. All quite unsettling.

  27. greg says:

    Unless I’m mistaken, “Sue” was written before Bowie’s cancer diagnosis.

    • Jasmine says:

      If I’ve read it correctly, he was diagnosed around June 14, just around the time of recording. If Maria Schneider said he changed the words at the last minute, this would make some sense.
      I feel quite disturbed by it.

  28. poseidonian says:

    Lyrically, I’m reminded that Bowie also adopted the persona of a man who does violence to a woman in “Repetition.” The “weeds” also remind me a bit of PIL’s “Poptones”: “I don’t like hiding in this foliage and peat/It’s wet and I’m losing my body heat.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Been thinking Repetition a lot, too. Somehow I feel like most of the songs since 2013 are attempts to close the circle. Fat chance, Valentine’s Days and Next Days just keep coming and there isn’t a myth strong enough to stop that. Most of the songs are about Sues, only women kneeling and smiling and girls who loves me – but I don’t think they are actually about being a man or a woman. He really doesn’t have to walk that alley since he’s been doing it since day two. To me, it’s a statement of what it is to live a life in these hopeless times. Compared to Heathen and Reality there seems to be darker darkness present and the ten years later… is world a better or worse place? Boys keep swinging but will boys ever work it out?

    • rainman says:

      think of Baal ….

  29. B.R. Gamot says:

    Wonderful article – Great to get to know about the genesis of this track from all those angles. It feels so different reading about these recent events instead of something that took place say 40 years ago. “Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.”

    Enjoyed the perspectivation to his earliest work, to which the anonymous and old-fashioned artwork of the single release could also allude, I suppose.

  30. MajorTomCat says:

    After his passing it downed on me that there might be more in Sue than the plain murder narrative, though I would not push the metaphors as far as verdelay.
    In my version of the tale, Sue tells the story of a woman who dies of cancer after a long battle (endless faith in hopeless deeds) and his lover’s dismay and despair at realising after her death that she loved another man.
    Be that as it may, your writing is marvellous Chris. The masterpiece that ★ is deserves this. Thank you.

  31. President Joan says:

    Brilliant post. I care for this song a lot and will comment on the song itself, but I would like to start with commenting on this blog and its impact on (my) life.

    A year ago we were all rattling our brains as to which songs and albums to vote for in the poll. For me it was an amazing journey. Once again I went through all of the albums and songs that I had listened to a thousand times; first to decide my vote and then to live it all through again when the result was presented. Oh, man! I really loved that! I read old blog posts and despite having listened to Bowie since 1980 I discovered new things every day.

    As you might remember, the final results of the Album poll was presented just a few days before the release of Blackstar, ★. Came Friday 8th January. The new album! A very happy day! Oh, I was so happy! I indulged myself and played the album “at maximum volume” the whole weekend. But then. Then. When the news arrived on a dark snowy Stockholm Monday morning, I was mortified. In disbelief, I played the album again. Now, it sounded different. Quite different. In a sense, of course, it sounded even better. But that was small consolation.

    I remember how I found consolation at first, mainly in sharing the loss with everyone reading this blog. However, after a while I became reluctant to play the album. I realized what a gift the album was. How brave David had been. But there was too much pain. And when Chris announced he would take a break before posting Blackstar, I just stopped listening to the album. I think I was in denial. I think I thought I would postpone his death and deal with it when it was “officially” acknowledged. Acknowledgement meaning this blog publishing posts on the songs of the final album. Posts I didn’t mind waiting for.

    And now Chris posts Sue. (So, actually, thanks for making us wait, Chris!)

    But I think I’m ready now. I think I may now accept what has happened, by sharing the last album in this community. Like we shared the agony of voting last year, the results of the polls and the first few days after 10 January, we will now share Chris’ analysis of ★, comment on it and together reach the end of this fantastic journey.

    (But of course nothing ends …)

  32. andy says:

    It’s such a great reading, thank you so much, Chris; and I’m also very impressed by verdelay’s interpretation of the lyrics. When I first heard the song in 2014, I could not figure out just why the narrative line in the lyrics was so enigmatically thin in comparison with the frantic, ominously eloquent, superb jazz orchestration. Something was lacking. But then with ★, and after January 10, the plot thickened. So it dawned on me that Sue should also be known as Whore and Girl. I thought: taken good care of, Sue should have died a virgin during treatment, but there’s offspring: oh folly Sue (cancer as madness of cells). Some of my details may differ from verdelay’s (e.g. I don’t see a reference to his successful return as a public artist in the lyrics), but it remains more or less the same story, I think. To me “the X-ray’s fine” phrase is especially poignant as it is good news primarily for Sue (he’s reassuring and comforting her, not himself). There’s a sense of finality in “I brought you home / I just said home”; one might add “at last”. And when he sings early on “But now we’ll make it” he probably means that he kissed her face, touched her face, et cetera, but this time they’ll definitely make it (real). True enough, he did fight, even pushed her down beneath the weeds, but anyway she did go with that clown for good, i.e. she’d never leave him. (Maria Schneider’s words, quoted by Chris, may reflect Bowie’s responses to the various diagnoses of 2014: „ She heard his lyrics for the first time at the recording session.”He changed all the lyrics at the end,” she said in 2015.”)

  33. Anonymous says:

    Colin, you are the best thing on the internet today, seriously. The crappier the world seems, the more nourishing and comforting it is to focus on things of beauty and value. Your writing has made a bad year better.

  34. Trevor Mill says:

    I agree with Anonymous. Distance is letting these songs breathe. The onslaught of the music, coupled with the historical circumstances had left this track feel murky.
    Your research and summing up helps. Listening again to the music with the new knowledge makes certain parts spring out; the points about the Schneider arrangement especially. Like you have heightened it, mucking about with the EQ on an eighties Hi-Fi.

    Essential reading, for me. So many thanks.

  35. Rob Thomas says:

    Stunning work, Chris. Most (music) writers would give a lot for lines that you seem to humbly toss off. xx

  36. Jukka says:

    Dear Chris and everyone, this blog is such a gem but with all the respect, don’t know if all this pushing and pulling this part of some kind of game or operation. I don’t see any point in analyzing the pieces one at the time since this labyrinth of mirrors reflects so many things. It’s obvious that the mystery is bigger than all of us. It’s also obvious that Next Day is crucial part of his final statement, not just a random comeback album. Song of Norway, Milton Lazarus, Villa of Ormen, Eye of Horus, Lollipop of Oslo, Imsety, liver, cancer, 69, girls, whores, women, suffragettes, boys, diamonds and eagles. What a way to kill a little time, what a wonderful death abyss. What a way to sting souls, fuck us over and get some of us all the time. I hope I live to see the some other time. Sorry, if I spoiled something but this has been a tough and long year for me. Actually Where Are We Now already fucked me up pretty bad but after seeing the Blackstar video I have been just spellbound. The most interesting question is probably: For how long has he had it all figured out. Such a star. Where do we go from here?

    • col1234 says:

      with all due respect, stop reading it then. I need to finish these songs; you certainly aren’t obligated to go along with me.

      also: it has been a tough and long year for a hell of a lot of us

      • Anonymous says:

        Sorry for doubling the comment and my humblest apologies for upsetting you. Definitely didn’t mean it that way – my writing is obviously missing the nuances that only native speaker can master.

        I know that I’m an anxious outsider and I also know how big job this is. I respect and value the insight that you have – I would be nowhere with my questions and doubts without it. At the same time I’m not sure if this is a healthy hobby anymore – for me at least. It just seems that this thing is so enormous and rich in meanings that figuring it out might take a lifetime or two. And since nothing like this has ever happened in pop culture there is no benchmark to help the process. And the oddest thing is that this goes so far beyond pop culture that it makes the work of Elvis and Beatles look like pile of props. No wonder Dylan hesitated with the Nobel. ;-P

        You are doing a great job and I really appreciate it. I wish you the strength to keep going. And I also value the other commenters, big time. Cheers!

      • col1234 says:

        no offense taken

  37. Greg Evans says:

    I know I sound like a broken record, or a nag, but if we’re going to really investigate the lyrics, we must keep in mind historical accuracy. Sue was first recorded in July ’14. That much we know. Bowie might or might not have gotten an early cancer diagnosis then (probably not), but it certainly wasn’t terminal at that point; the following January, a full half year later, he was undergoing chemo and very hopeful. I think we fall into a trap of reverse-engineering his art by seeing it all from the prospect of how his life ended. Furthermore, bowie just didn’t write songs the way verderlay describes. He didn’t cram his lyrics with hidden metaphors and secret codes. Obscure codes, yes (Station to Station), but that is not the same as metaphor. The mystery of his lyrics comes from his dropping fairly straightforward lines alongside other straightforward lines that, by their juxtaposition, create a resonance. The only Bowie song I can think of that has as much purposely hidden and disguised meaning is Bewlay Brothers, and even that might not be the case. I think Bowie’s song “Sue” is a fairly direct interpretation of Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore” – the plot elements are all there. Just as he did with “Heat,” which was essentially a retelling of a Mishima book, he was serving as storyteller and allowing the story to resonate.

    • Gb says:

      At first I thought the same, but didn’t Chris mention that MS remarked Bowie had changed his lyrics by the time they recorded the song?(which, from all accounts seems to have been right around the time he was diagnosed, if its accurate he fought the illness for 18 months)

      Also, Bowie being a man who seemed to have death very present when it came to his song writting, especially his last 15 years or so , I dont think it’d be a long shot to say the diagnosis affected him and the writting of the song.

      • BenJ says:

        It’s a little bit of both things, I think. Reports have indicated that even when he was in remission Bowie wasn’t as optimistic as Visconti that he would pull through. His attitude could best be described as “fatalistic.” So “Sue”, which was Gothic to begin with, sounds especially death-haunted on Blackstar.

        On the other hand it’s possible to oversell Blackstar as an album about dying. He didn’t know how long he had when he recorded it. And Bowie has a history of making albums that incorporate his real life without letting it take over. Examples include Hunky Dory, which is informed by his becoming a father for the first time, and Low, where he was drying out after the madness of his LA stay. He worked on those themes but used them as jumping off points to other things that interested him. I’d submit that he was still doing that up to the end.

      • greg says:

        Benj, absolutely agree. I didn’t mean to suggest that death and mortality weren’t on Bowie’s mind, and would certainly be reflected in his lyrics. But I guess I just resist the proposition that he was sending out these coded, overly symbolic messages – frankly just seems too Sophomore English Lit 101 to me. Your examples of Hunky Dory and Low are perfect: He didn’t try to disguise his interests – Kooks, being the most obvious example. Even Station to Station, as obscure as those references are, weren’t hidden – the answers were always there for whoever cared to research them. So yes, a dark, deathy tale like Sue might have appealed to him because of his condition, but I just don’t see all the direct metaphors to his life that some are proposing. Anyway, I suspect we’ll have tons of opportunity to discuss all this when we get to “Look up here, I’m in heaven!”

    • verdelay says:

      I get what you’re saying here, Greg. I prefaced my overlong post with words to the effect of ‘Look, Bowie’s better than this rather literal interpretation, but here’s my take’. I am not suggesting for a moment that my account is what Bowie actually intended, it’s just a possible reading of the lyric. It is entirely feasible that such a ‘terminal’ reading was one of the touchstones of his working and reworking of the lyric, alongside others (including the Ford narrative); it is also quite possible that such a reading would make the old guy chuckle if he were here to read it. I think he’d probably be quite pleased with such contortions. What else is an artist for, if not to affect people, emotionally and intellectually, in manifold ways? I think one of David Bowie’s great talents as a lyricist was to permit his songs multiple perfectly reasonable interpretations, often simultaneously playing across each other so that the listener never really feels that it might be possible to resolve them down to a singular, ‘correct’ version. Indeed, so many of his songs remain open and, consequently, living breathing things; their myriad meanings can even shift and evolve with the listener’s own growth and development over many decades. That’s why Bowie’s work ‘lives’ for so many of us – because we ourselves are alive. Long may ‘Sue’ remain unresolved, unfinished, incomplete and endlessly stimulating.

      v

  38. greg says:

    Ugh, sorry I used my full name on that. Didn’t mean to. Sometimes it just does that.

  39. oh ramona says:

    Five Grammy nominations for Blackstar!

  40. MC says:

    Welcome back, Chris. What an excellent piece. The last stretch promises to be amazing and terribly sad all at once.

    Thinking of the Blackstar Sue in light of DB’s earlier studio remakes, I find it’s most like the Spiders versions of The Superman and Holy Holy. It’s a brutal paring-down of the original, where Bowie’s usual tendency was to add a lot of flourishes when he revisited songs on record, usually to their detriment (e.g. the busy remakes of John I’m Only Dancing). The other re-recording Sue Mark 2 puts me in mind of is the 1980 Space Oddity, with its starkness underscoring the anguish in the lyric.

    I can’t honestly say which version I prefer, actually. I admire the audacity of the Schneider version; the big band colliding with DB’s boldly theatrical vocal is overwhelming. It’s not unlike latterday Scott Walker, though obviously minus the outlandishness of something like the Zercon song on Bish Bosch. The McCaslin retake is remarkable in a different way. It rocks, alright, while simultaneously radiating a frazzled, end-of-rope energy. I’ve always found the track almost unbearably tense, but I suspect my reaction would be different if I’d managed to hear it prior to January 10th.

    As far as the lyric, it seems to me a culmination of a much-unloved strain in DB’s songwriting. It’s a murder ballad akin to something like One Shot, or (more credibly) the Baby Grace narrative on Outside. Whenever the lyric dates from vis-à-vis his illness, there’s no question for me that there’s a sense of something palpably at stake here in a way there isn’t in the earlier manifestations of this particular theme. In either version, one of Bowie’s most harrowing works.

  41. David says:

    Just joining the chorus to applaud your return to new posts, Chris! A great start, so very much looking forward to following the rest of this chapter …

  42. s.t. says:

    Wonderful work as always, Chris. So glad to have more of your pieces to chew on.

    One thing that I wonder about is his choice of the name “Sue.”

    Any other monosyllabic name would have sufficed. Jane. Pam. Ben. Kim. Joan. Pete. Kyle. The rest of the song would have remained the same.

    So why Sue?

    When I hear the name, I immediately think of The Boy Named Sue, made popular by Johnny Cash. I can certainly see Cash being a general influence on this song’s content, it being a murder ballad in the vein of Delia’s Gone. Yet unlike Cash’s songs, no justice is meted out by the song’s end, only revenge. In that sense, it’s closer to “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (…..or Please Mr. Gravedigger).

    Maybe it wasn’t about content. Perhaps he simply thrilled at crooning that “ooooh” sound like a sleazy ghost announcing its presence. There’s a libidinal indulgence to his delivery in the original version, best captured in his constant voicing of the titular character’s name. It brings to mind Scott Walker (see: Bish Bosh), who would probably also revel in his delivery of a line like “Oh Folly, Sue…”

    That delivery gives a domineering edge to the story’s protagonist; a touch of cool menace. Interestingly, on the remake he sounds comparably meeker and weaker in spirit. It casts the character in a more sympathetic light—until the end subverts that tone.

    As far as songs go, I prefer the remake. It just gels really well. A later day murder ballad.
    But the original is great, and works as an expressive sound collage. And for some reason I think it’s a great soundtrack for whiskey drinking.

    David’s gone. One more round. David’s gone.

  43. “With Bowie keeping his motives dark, the song’s emotional weight shifts to the man who’d soon become his last great collaborator: Donny McCaslin.”

    This might just be my own crooked perspective, but when I hear “Bowie’s last great collaborator”, my thoughts jump straight to Johan Renck. Great writing as always, and very much looking forward to your take on the Blackstar and Lazarus videos – to me they’re mesmerising films in their own right, every bit as important as the songs themselves.

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