‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

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‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Bowie home demo, single).
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Blackstar remake).

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A man of property and standing, believing his new wife virtuous, is deceived. She grows sick, though the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine—she just ate some bad melons. Yet the truth’s soon inescapable: she’s pregnant, by another man. Worse, by her brother. I know you have a son, her husband says. O folly! I’m such a fool: you went with that clown.

He’s persuaded to forgive her, but plans revenge. In a season of crime, none need atone. Instead, the brother stabs her to death, skewers his sister’s heart on his dagger, murders her husband, then at last is dispatched by thugs. A cardinal gets the closing lines:

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The last words of John Ford’s 1633 play are its title, and they also title David Bowie’s 2014 single, in which Bowie potted Ford’s revenge tragedy into a film noir setting. Incestuous, doomed Annabella becomes Sue in the weeds.

Wait, no, Bowie’s single is called “Sue.” Turn the disc over. There, the B-side has Ford’s title.

But if “Sue” is “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” under an assumed name, then what’s this song?

WITNESS: FEMALE ASSAILANT HAD ‘MASCULINE’ STRENGTH

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It’s Sunday in the late Seventies. In downtown Santa Cruz, the Pacific Garden Mall, “a playland of urban design,” winds along Pacific Street. A few blocks east is the San Lorenzo River; a half hour’s walk brings you the ocean. A jazz band plays in front of the Cooper House, a buff-brick old grandeur that was born a courthouse and now holds shops, bars, and restaurants. It’s the maypole around which downtown dances, as a Santa Cruz journalist wrote.

The band’s called Warmth, fitting for an outfit that carries shoppers and idlers through the Californian afternoons. The bandleader hops from Wurlitzer to piano to marimba; the tie-dye-clad saxophonist uses his solos to tear off into space, with great skronks, broils, and bleats. They play Cal Tjader, some Cannonball Adderley. As the afternoon ebbs, the tempo picks up. “Feel Like Making Love” and “Mustang Sally,” organ notes bouncing off the Cooper House walls. Couples tipsy from white wine over lunch get up to dance. Just offstage, sitting in a chair, is a boy of 10 or 12, watching his father’s band.

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Donny McCaslin, born in 1966, is the work of postwar American systems: a well-funded public school with a top-notch jazz band; a community college with professional jazz instructors; a municipal infrastructure that supported concerts by Warmth, and a community center to host concerts and seminars. “It was a place and time where all of these elements were together in place and I could just plug myself into them,” McCaslin said recently. Today, many are gone. His high school jazz program “is nowhere near what it was…budget cuts have decimated [it],” though the music program of Cabrillo Community College, where he took courses as a teenager, is somewhat intact. The Cooper House and the original Pacific Garden Mall are not, as they were demolished after a 1989 earthquake.

When McCaslin was 12, he made an “impulsive decision to switch out of a class in junior high into beginner’s orchestra,” mainly because a friend was in the latter. Asked what he wanted to play, McCaslin chose tenor saxophone, in part because he was in awe of Warmth’s bohemian saxophonist, Wesley Braxton (“I remember looking into the bell of his saxophone and there was like a pool of condensation and a cigarette butt floating in it”).

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Throughout his teenage years, McCaslin was steeped in jazz. He was lucky in his teachers: his professional musician father, and his band director, whose friendship with a Duke Ellington trumpeter meant that a student band had a book of Ellington charts. In location, too. Santa Cruz was a stop for jazz musicians heading from LA to San Francisco, so on any given Monday night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he could see the likes of Elvin Jones.

He was a pro by college (Berklee, class of ’88), playing in Gary Burton’s band before graduating. Moving to New York, McCaslin did stints with the Gil Evans Project, Steps Ahead, Danilo Perez, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He found that he thrived in groups. “It would be harder for me to live in a place where I was isolated and alone, and it was up to me in terms of my musical development.”

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A John Coltrane fanatic at Berklee, McCaslin’s core influences would shift to Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. He loved that Rollins once called himself a “blue-collar improviser,” and “the compositional nature of [Shorter’s] improvising.” With Perez, he developed his rhythms (“I grew up when jazz education for sax players was focused on…chord scales and chromatic substitutions, and there wasn’t much emphasis on time and rhythmic variation“). From Schneider, he learned how to deploy soloists, to loosen structure—his solo on her “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” is one of his first definitive moments on record.

McCaslin stands at 6′ 3″, a great presence on stage, at times bowing to the ground as if gravity’s bent on claiming his saxophone, while his lungs seem as large as mainsails. In 2007 Nate Chinen wrote of McCaslin “unfurling intricate lines as if they were streamers, in great gusts of exhalation.” A melodically dedicated improviser, he works in volume and tone, with a taste for long crescendos, slowly-accumulating builds that splinter into rapid-fire sprays of notes.

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His albums mark his progress. Soar (2006) is McCaslin working through immersions in Latin music, under the sway of tango vocalist Roberto Goyeneche (“the way he sings, half of the time he’s talking, and it’s really over the bar line, it’s got this real vibe“). The aptly-named Declaration (2009) was one grand solo after another, like a man wheeling Cadillac models off a factory floor, from the title track through “M” and “Rock Me.”

At the turn of the decade, McCaslin started assembling his current quartet. Perpetual Motion (2010), his first album with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, was also the start of electronica as a compositional influence, at the urging of his producer/mentor David Binney (by 2014, McCaslin was tackling Aphex Twin’s “54 Cymru Beats“). It was also McCaslin looking back to afternoons at the Pacific Garden Mall, cutting jazz fusion pieces like “LZCM” (i.e., “Led Zeppelin Christian McBride”), “Impossible Machine” and “Memphis Redux” (inspired by “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a Warmth favorite).

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By 2012, when Jason Lindner had joined on keyboards, the McCaslin Quartet settled into its current form. With Guiliana, McCaslin had a drummer who could groove but also could replicate the rigor of electronic percussion, from the uncanny precision of his beats to how he varied the pitch of his snare hits via sleight-of-hand like placing a bottom-hat cymbal on the snare head. In Lefebvre, he had a road-seasoned, genial monster of a player who got thunderclaps from his pedals. And Lindner could glide from providing washes of synthesizer to the sudden clarity of a piano passage to a Wurlitzer groove that, again, called back to McCaslin’s father vamping on “Mustang Sally” for mall dancers.

Casting For Gravity was a first statement of purpose. “Says Who” has McCaslin alternating types of solos: melodically expansive ones based off a lopsided theme, minimalist ones in which he keeps to a handful of notes while his rhythm section spins around him like bumper cars. Its lead-off track got its title from Guiliana’s comment that one live performance had been so hot that it felt like “stadium jazz.”

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Instead of Giants Stadium, the McCaslin Quartet had 55 Bar, a former speakeasy that’s been on Christopher Street in New York since the Red Scare. Cecil Taylor would hang out by the ice machine, talking about Coltrane and Martha Graham; Norah Jones was there in her first years, Jaco Pastorius in his last. By the early 2010s, it had become “a clubhouse of sorts for players in McCaslin’s circle.”

On 1 June 2014, the Quartet was booked at the 55. On his web page, Lefebvre noted it as a “gig before we record Donny’s new record.” It wasn’t a flawless performance, as Lefebvre recalled struggling with his pedals at times (“the outlets there are janky“). During a break, a waitress came by to say there was a guy at one table “who looks like an old David Bowie.”

WAR DECLARED: RESERVISTS CALLED TO THE FRONT

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McCaslin, though not his band, knew to expect Bowie in the room. The latter was composing “Sue” with Schneider at the time, and she’d recommended he check out the McCaslin Quartet for a few songs on his next album (soon enough, McCaslin and Guiliana would be in rehearsals for the “Sue” recording). Bowie and McCaslin didn’t meet that night, but a day or so later, Bowie sent him an email.

And the first song Bowie sent McCaslin, not long after they started emailing, was a demo he’d recorded at his apartment, a song inspired by what he’d heard at 55 Bar that night.”I sat there in stunned silence for a while,” McCaslin said, recalling first hearing it. Although Bowie was in the studio in summer 2014 to record full demos with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford and Jack Spann, the B-side of “Sue,” issued that November, was Bowie alone: the same home demo he’d sent McCaslin, full of keyboard presets and crackling with cheap distortion.”The B-side was a demo. It was just kickass,” Visconti said. “His production skills have gone up 5,000%.”

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He’d been recording home demos since his teens. His former manager, Kenneth Pitt, recalled one bedroom studio set-up for which Bowie piled different-sized stacks of books to serve as tom and kick drums. There were a slew of tapes from those years, most of which were done for his publisher (to no surprise, the majority of bootlegged “lost” Bowie compositions hail from this period—the tapes circulated among London song-pluggers).

Bowie’s demos are his shadow songbook. What do they sound like? Are they fresher, wilder, more strange than their finished takes? You could project anything onto them, make them the “real” versions of disappointing album cuts. The early “Scary Monsters” that Bowie made for Iggy Pop in LA, ca. 1975. Whatever the first version of “Bring Me the Disco King” was. His producers were struck by the tapes, from Nile Rodgers (“I said ‘wow, that’s the way ‘Cat People’ goes?'” Rodgers recalled of hearing the original demo) to Hugh Padgham, who described the legendary “soul” demos for Tonight as being livelier and better than some released tracks.

Sometimes he’d dispense with the crutch of pre-recording songs—his late Seventies and mid-Nineties come to mind, when worked without a net in the studio. But by his last years, he’d essentially become a home-studio indie musician—the McCaslin Quartet recalled each demo being a miniature performance, full of surprising sounds, with bass and drumlines intricate enough that the players often based their performances on them. “The demos he sent us were nuts: so off and quirky and awesome,” Lefebvre said.

HEARTBROKEN MAN SAYS MEMBER IN LADYLOVE’S POSSESSION

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Having gone through McCaslin’s catalogue in preparation for working with him (Lefebvre: “usually it’s the other way around—you research the guy who hired you“), Bowie focused on two pieces from Casting For Gravity. One was McCaslin’s take on Boards of Canada‘s “Alpha and Omega,” in which a multi-tracked McCaslin played a looped, phased melodic theme over variations driven by drum and bass. The other was “Praia Grande,” which built to a maximalist McCaslin solo full of great bass note waggles, riding a wave of drums (lots of splash and tom fills), Lindner’s synth and Binney’s vocals.

In the demo of “‘Tis a Pity,” the song’s development is driven by Bowie’s saxophone and piano lines, which pivot off a relatively-unchanging rhythmic base. “Compositionally the bass is more arhythmic and less of a harmonic function,” Lindner said. “It remains pretty much the same through the harmonic changes, with a couple of notes shifting to complement the progression.” (“That’s one where I was using a lot of octave pedal,” Lefebvre added.)

The same was true for the drum pattern. “The groove on the demo was a driving one-bar loop,” Guiliana said. “The challenge was to play this repetitive part but stay in the moment and keep pushing the intensity.” In overdubs, Guiliana played a Roland SPD-SX “full of 808 sounds,” almost all of which were kept in the final mix (e.g. the burst against Bowie’s “’tis my fate” at 3:33).

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Another starting point was likely Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct,” which like “‘Tis a Pity,” begins with a sonic barrage (taken from THX-1138) and whose timbre is similar. It’s possible Bowie was working out how to create a Steve Reich-esque sense of phasing, acceleration and heightening, and as he had the Nineties on his mind (see future entries), “Mr. Self Destruct” soon emerged as a rock-beat-driven template he could use. (A commenter in 2015 suggested yet another possible ancestor: the soundtrack of the 2005 film Lemming, which also has lots of acceleration and odd timings).

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There’s a fundamental instability in “‘Tis a Pity,” which spends much of its span shading between F major and F minor, from its intro and solo sections (Fm-Bb-F) to the coda, where Bowie’s waves of backing vocals shift from singing A-flat to A major notes, in turn coloring the underlying F chord from major to minor and back again.

But the greatest destabilizer is Bowie’s accelerandorallentando saxophone, moving in and out of phase with a plinking keyboard line. The feeling is of a song laboring to assemble itself, with the saxophone sounding like a locomotive slowly taking on steam until, when Bowie starts singing, the saxophone then slows in tempo, as if out of breath, only to build up again. This struggle continues throughout the song—Bowie’s saxophone disregards whatever role was planned for it to move in its own way, often keeping on the same note as if out of spite, taking an occasional cue from the vocal but more a corrosive agent that winds up ruling the track.

THEFT OF PURSE REPORTED, A DEXTEROUS CRIME

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Indulge yet another theory. David Bowie sits down to write a song based on John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore, turns the Annabella character into “Sue,” winds up with a song called “Sue.” But he still likes Ford’s title (even if he keeps putting an “a” before Pity) and wants to use it. Having transferred Ford’s “plot” into “Sue,” he has an empty stage where once there was a play. A scratch-space to populate.

You could say Ford’s lustful and murderous players are still here, hidden behind screens and made absurd. But the second line, ‘hold your mad hands!’ I cried,” in quotations on the lyric sheet, is an apparent reference to Robert Southey’s Sonnet I (1797), which begins a sequence of poems condemning the slave trade, and whose opening lines are:

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This led Nicholas Pegg, in his newest revision, to go off on an interpretative spree that includes Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I won’t spoil it—you should get the book). “‘Tis a Pity” is a hub around which the grandest, most bizarre interpretations can wheel. Like the now-demolished Cooper House in Santa Cruz, it’s a maypole.

There’s also the inevitable biographical reading. Bowie, apparently having suffered multiple heart attacks in the 2000s, faced worse medical news. Hence the references to disease and theft, to the idea that life is no longer skirmishes but has become a final, consuming battle that the singer knows he’ll lose in time.

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And then, Bowie’s only public statement on the song: “If Vorticists wrote Rock Music, it might have sounded like this.” The Vorticists, Britain’s answer group to the Futurists, had been on his mind for a while—they’re creeping around The Next Day and the Vorticist Blast is listed in his Top 100 Books.

Sitting in the crowded 55 Bar that night in New York, watching a jazz band blast away on stage, his brain being its usual warehouse, did Bowie flash on a parallel? The Cave of the Golden Calf, the notorious Vorticist cabaret of the early 1910s, combination gay bar and avant-garde hobnobbing gallery. A low-ceilinged club in the basement of a cloth manufacturer, its walls adorned with Ballet Russe murals and Wyndham Lewis’ stencils.

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Calling up wild mad nights in London in the early 1910s, comparing them with a crowd of polite young jazz enthusiasts gathered that night in New York in the last years of the Obama Administration. The Vorticists had demanded the future, wanted a world of dynamism, machines, color and noise, and they got the war instead, the war that began the summer that the Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt. The war that killed several Vorticists and sent Wyndham Lewis to the Western Front, on patrol for the Royal Artillery, spying on German positions from forward observation posts, calling in artillery strikes.

We say we want the future, but when it comes, it’s always the war.

The Cave of the Golden Calf was located at 9 Heddon Street, London. Its former building is in the background of the cover photo of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, with Bowie posed right up the street.

VOICE URGES CROWD TO RESTRAIN WOMAN, CHAOS ENSUES

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Making a “proper” version of “‘Tis a Pity” for Blackstar was a top order of business—it was one of the first tracks taped for the album, on 5 January 2015. “When we got together that first week, David said he wanted to re-record [it],” McCaslin said. “We were playing hard and going for it. That just happened in like ten minutes. That might’ve been the first take.”

The Blackstar “Pity” opens with two sharp intakes of breath, like a man readying himself to walk up another flight of stairs. Or, to be fair, like someone snorting coke.

The demo vocal is quieter, its laments humbler; it’s a man making strange asides in a corner of the room, trying to find an angle into the song, which is rolling along without any need of him. The Blackstar singer is more gregarious: he has an audience. Man, she punched me like a dude, he begins in a conspiratorial tone, trying to cadge a drink from a stranger in a bar. He rubs his cheek in wincing recollection. My curse, I suppose, in a tootling phrase; his four-note closing emphases—that-was-pa-trol—broken with a piping lift up an octave to a high F on “waaaaar.”

He keeps on, his muddled tale growing murkier (maybe he got that drink), cracking the hard “ks” of “kept my cock” like walnuts, oddly dramatizing her “rattling speed” by slowing his notes down, crowning “whore” by making it his new octave-jump. Each time he repeats the title phrase, he grows more absurd until, in the last go-round, his voice seems to have crawled into his pocket: teeshapeetysheeewarseurhoooor.

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The other great change lies in how the saxophone’s deployed. On the demo, it’s always there in the verses, essentially becoming the lead vocal, the chief color in a whirlwind of noise. On Blackstar, with McCaslin now taking the part and breaking it in two (he did sax overdubs months after the initial take), its use is more precise and dramatic. In the first verse, McCaslin only enters with a slow dancing phrase after “my curse”; in the third, he arrives with some Albert Ayler-esque trumpeting phrases. His multiple sax tracks take on much of the work of the piano on the demo, making an upspeed-downshift duet of stereo-scoped saxophones.

As McCaslin spirals outward into the coda, tearing into notes and discarding them, David Bowie breaks character. A whoo! as if he’s startled by something, then two shouts—goddamn, this is happening—and a last yell like a man coming off a roller-coaster loop. Standing in the studio, facing this miraculous band he’d found seemingly from out of nowhere, stepping back to see what’s in front of him.

It’s the Vorticists’ “separating, ungregarious British grin.” It’s Jacobean incest-murder noir, or God’s judgment on slave traders or just whatever strange jokes floated through his head on the day he sat in his apartment and started taping his demo. A ridiculous bloody history of this broken world is within “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore,” a latter-life masterpiece, with no top and no bottom.

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Recorded: (demo, B-side) ca. June 2014, Bowie’s home studio, Lafayette St., NYC; (album) (backing tracks) 5 January 2015, Magic Shop; (McCaslin overdubs) ca. March-April 2015, Human Worldwide; (vocals) 20, 22 April 2015, Human Worldwide. Released: (demo) 17 November 2014, B-side of “Sue”; (album) 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources: Quotes on Pacific Garden Mall from the Santa Cruz Sentinel: Wallace Bain, 3 Oct 2009 (“urban design”) & Jason Hoppin, 14 Oct 2014 (“maypole”). McCaslin bio: primarily from David Adler, Jazztimes, 13 June 2011, and DM’s interview with Neon Jazz, 12 February 2016. Also Nate Chinen, NYT, 14 June 2007; Jason Crane, All About Jazz, 8 September 2008. Other quotes from Jazztimes (Lindner), Modern Drummer (Guiliana), No Treble, Pedals & Effects (Lefebvre), Mojo (Visconti, McCaslin), Uncut (McCaslin), New Yorker Radio Hour (McCaslin). Insights on composition: Alex Reed; “Crayon to Crayon.” Momus, in 2014, brought up the Cave of the Golden Calf; his album The Ultraconformist claims to have been recorded on wax cylinders at the club in 1910.

Photos/art: Ian McDuffie, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, 2015; panel from Hawkeye No. 9, 2013 (Matt Fraction/David Aja; suggestion of Fraction); Warmth at the Cooper House, ca. 1970s; Santa Cruz Sentinel, 31 March 1989; Nadja van Massow, “Donny McCaslin, Jazz Baltica,” 30 June 2007; McCaslin & band at 55 Bar, 2015; Lydia Wilson as Annabella, ‘Tis Pity.., Barbican, 2012; Wyndham Lewis, Cave of Golden Calf brochure, 1912; mash-up of Cave of Golden Calf, 1912, & 55 Bar, 2015. All text breaks from Blast No. 1 (1914), the 1915 D.C. Heath & Co. edition of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or the NYT, 9 August 1914.

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56 Responses to ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

  1. roobin101 says:

    Thank you so much for keeping going with the blog. I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while. I love this song but most of all I love the original version.

    I’m trying to remember how I felt about it at the time… it felt like another stage of coming back. The intro to what we now call the demo is just this fantastic, peacocking delight – “I’m going to hype you for a minute with gasps, explosions and bleeps…” Then this voice creeps in. “I’m not even going to give you a clear lyric and you’re still going to love it.” Knowing this was a demo now just makes me wonder how many other times Mr B second guessed himself in the studio.

    As for the lyric I can definitely see this as Bowie salvaging a title he liked rather than any direct reference to the play. I do wonder if it’s worth taking literally though. On its own it could quite easily fit with the war lyrics on The Next Day.

    Anyway, a patchwork of thoughts there. I hope you’re feeling better. Keep on truckin’.

  2. Palescue says:

    Great you found that

  3. roobin101 says:

    Oh, and someone’s got to bung up this wonderful reaction video (a slightly more restrained version of how this song makes me feel) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hDSq4WW11E

  4. bloom says:

    I’m glad you share my sentiments about the song being a latter-day masterpiece, it is my utter favorite on Blackstar and easily on my top 10 favorite Bowie songs. The Blackstar version of Sue would be perfect in my eyes if it had just a bit more wild jazz instrumentation akin to what’s on this song.

    Everything about it is just perfect for me, i find it to be glamorous, exciting, complex, dark, adventurous, and it personally gives me fun vibes similar to Queen Bitch and Boys Keep Swinging to be honest, which are two of my favorites. For me it is a bit of a microcosm of what made Bowie great, and knowing his special relationship with the Sax and Jazz makes this song just that more special in my eyes.

  5. W. White says:

    A new post! And a great one at that.

    I wonder how long until all of Bowie’s demos are released. I would certainly be interested in a version of “Tonight” that is actually good, instead of an uneven, often terrible mess.

  6. Mr Tagomi says:

    This was really worth the wait, Chris. I think you’ve captured the essence of an enigmatic yet very immediate song.

    It may well be my favourite Bowie song of them all. I just love it, either version. I never tire of hearing it.

    To me, the breathing at the start (and the paper shuffling later in the album) are a bit of verité. A man with mortality on his mind saying “I’m alive right now. This is me. I exist.”

    His excitement at the end of the studio version is very moving, given where he was in his life at the time.

    • John S. says:

      I’m wondering if the breathing was inspired by a similar moment in For Sale? by Kendrick Lamar. Bowie was apparently influenced in some general way by To Pimp A Butterfly.

  7. verdelay says:

    A latter-blog masterpiece.

    And yes, this is quintessence of Bowie.

  8. Welcome back, Chris. I prefer the demo, there’s an exuberant anarchy to it, and I love Bowie’s phrasing. In the video for the demo we see repeated airstrikes on military targets. Before his death and its revelations, I always thought it was a bit of an odd choice for visuals, but since learning of his cancer, and watching that video again, I’ve wondered if the airstrikes were meant to represent radiological attacks on tumors?

  9. Chris says:

    You’ll have to explain “he varied the frequency of his snare hits via sleight-of-hand like placing a bottom-hat cymbal on the snare head” to me (I don’t get how that varies the frequency), but heck, what a song. There are parts of the demo I prefer – the drums and electronic bleeps are fierce – and parts of the album version I prefer, Bowie’s vocal is more confident, McCaslin’s sax runs are blisteringly good. Fabulous song, such energy!

    • col1234 says:

      sorry clunky word. changes the pitch of the hit–it sounds higher

      • Chris says:

        Got it – realised you meant that just after I clicked “Post”. I just had a go at doing this on my kit – it gives the snare a sort of ringing echo and damps the usual snare crunch – you can hear it at the beginning of the track.

  10. BenJ says:

    “In a season of crime, none need atone.” Have the Purge movies used that one as a tagline yet?

    The demo has a crazy brilliance, and I can see why Bowie released it as a B-side. Too good to keep under wraps. On the other hand he thrives on collaboration. That’s what the “whoo” on the Blackstar version is about, which makes it one of the album’s most joyous tracks.

    Kudos on the entry. It definitely goes on my “read again and again” list.

  11. Vinnie says:

    “WHOA”

    I made the same noise hearing this for the first time, as Bowie does in the recording. I squealed. Hollered. How heavy, wonderful, and intense the song is. What a grand piece of music. The first thing I listened to after I heard the news, in disbelief.

  12. lp says:

    Chris, you really outdid yourself. Amazing.

    Perhaps my favorite song on the album. I love the heavy breathing, the gender play, the rhythmic complexity, the vitality and noise, the aspirated consonants of ‘kept my cock,’ the lyrical ambiguities, and especially the way that the saxophone, in the final verse of the album version, breaks out into a rapturous transcendent arc, like a flung object breaking the bonds of gravity and hanging timeless in the sky for a moment. It’s the triumph of the spirit amidst the peril of the flesh.

    Thanks for writing these. I don’t mind waiting for new entries, as I’ll be quite sad when you’re through.

  13. Anonymous says:

    “Man she punched me like a dude” may be one of my favorite Bowie lines ever. What else can be said, other than that every time I listen to it is physically impossible to not break into some weird interpretive dance…egged on especially by DBs Oo’s and Aa’s towards the end. The energy is palpable, sexy…fun…dark. One last hurrah before the curtain closes.

    Both versions are excellent…usually I like the grittier, clankier demo versions, but man you just cant beat that sax.

  14. djmac says:

    Thank you as always Chris, your research and insights are such wonders and much appreciated. So nice to see also that “Tis A Pity” is a favorite of so many people.

  15. WRGerman says:

    Pity you can’t include the illustrations in your upcoming book.
    Really great attention to detail. Especially love the intro scene in Santa Cru; what looks like a total non sequitur becomes the absolute core to the whole piece.

  16. Michal Rosa says:

    Thank you. Long time listener, first time poster (and I have the book). Enjoyed every single entry, even if I don’t agree with some of your colorful analysis.

    Wanted to post if under the appropriate entry but seems it’s closed for comments. All about “Girls” – “(All targeted to various regional markets—“Girls” was big in Poland)” – well, not it wasn’t.

    Tina was BIG in Poland in the late 80s (including a Polish release of her live album on 3 LPs – the Polish technology of the day could not quite make it onto two records) but I cannot recall “Girls” being particularly popular. What’s your source on this one?

    Cheers,
    Michal

    • col1234 says:

      boy that was a long time ago when i wrote that, so i don’t know. maybe Pegg’s book? I’ll verify it and delete if wrong when i get to that era soon in my revisions for the book.

  17. fantailfan says:

    Mind-bloggling. In another malatypo, when I looked up when Charles reigned in England, I typed my search as “Changes I England.”

  18. My interpretation of it was that it was from the perspective of a Clifford Chatterley kind of figure, left smashed and powerless by the war, simultaneously bemoaning a war that wasn’t all it had been made out to be and a failing, disappointing love life, the ‘she’ being the war, the woman, and his life in general. Lady Chatterley’s Lover being on Bowie’s 100 book list seemed to fit with that too. A brilliant entry by the way, and what a song. It gets better every time I hear it. The ideas, the mad joy of the whole thing…

  19. WRGerman says:

    Just listening to Blackstar again, it occurred to me that there is a lot of what could be called ‘water rhythm’ on this album. It’s like swing jazz, but it fits better to boats and tidal rhythms. (You visit Venice, and you tend to notice stuff like that afterwards).
    But it IS there, just listen to “Whore” and picture the pendelum effect of tides. Plus, Blackstar has it too, whereas “Lazarus” has more the effect of water eroding rock over a much longer period and in one direction, as in a long-established river.

  20. Remco says:

    Wonderful post Chris, thank you.

  21. Yakbutter says:

    Thank you for this richly layered review Chris.

    I wonder if the breathing at the start of the song hints at a further layer that links the song to Time from Aladdin Sane. If you go to the 2 minute 10 second point of that song you will hear the same breathing.

    In Time Bowie sings ‘Time – He flexes like a whore’, now he laments ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore’. In the background of Tis Pity (particularly in the original) you can hear an accelerating electronic beat that seems to represent the passing time? Bowie then sings ‘Hold your mad hands’, which I now discover from your article is a quote from the play. But does the quote also refer to the hands of a clock that he wants to stop.

    Then, as you highlight, when he sings ‘That was Patrol, This is the War’ he is contrasting the feeling of time passing as a young man (when he wrote Time) with the heightened sense of time passing as he is approaching his final days.

    I’m looking forward to reading the remaining reviews from Blackstar.

    • Matthew says:

      I love all the varying interpretations that can be put to lyrics so direct yet vague.
      ‘Time’ caught me out the other day, the breathing took me right back to Jan 2016, so I like the idea of mad hands on a clock face. I had only thought of the more obvious meaning – stop hitting me, now I learn it’s a quote from another play!
      Chris, thanks for an enlighting article. You’ve given me more to learn about, never heard of the Vorticists before so research needed. (As indeed Ford and Mishima in the previous two posts.)
      Musically I prefer the vocal and sax of the remake but love the intro of the demo. I never got round to a posting on ‘Sue’ as in my mind the two songs seem linked and I was waiting for this post as well, (now ‘Sue’ seems closed to new comments) I prefer the remake of ‘Sue as well.
      I only managed a few listens of the album between release and jan 10th but just started again with these posts coming up and have found that I feel differently now, even better than remembered.
      This pair of songs feel like a prelude to the Blackstar album, a pointer. Looking forward to the main act.

  22. Stephen Young says:

    thank you. what do you want to know? i know David very well.

    yours,

    stephen young

  23. Stephen Young says:

    oh yeah. i forgot. i’m so lonely i could die. i suppose..

  24. Jason Das says:

    Great post, Chris. Thank you.

    The timing of your Blackstar entries works out well—by now, I’ve had a chance to internalize the LP a bit. So I get to mix your post with what I already think of the songs; as it should be.

    This song wins on energy for me, more than any deep meaning. Despite some great lines (and my general interest in WWI culture) I’d like the song just as much if he was spewing gibberish.

    P.S. I love this line of yours: “We say we want the future, but when it comes, it’s always the war.”

  25. s.t. says:

    Great to have you back, Chris! Gorgeous post. Tis pity there are few more.

    And yet, once more I am bummed to find that a favorite lyric of mine was heard wrong.I thought he was saying: “Man she punched me like a dude; Hold your man-hands and cry…”

    A slight change, yes. The silliness of the opening is still there to soften the darkness, but I’ll miss those man-hands.

    Now they’re gone, through the crack in the pants…

  26. Stephen Young says:

    dear mr.(s)? Pushin’ Ahead of the Dame.

    more than anything, i hate to be a nuisance. however and nevertheless, i have one hell of a story.. if you ever want to hear one..? but perhaps you already know.. you being directed by the occupier of the eleventh (11) floor–that being the Great Architect’s dwelling place. i’m getting ahead of myself.. sorry.

    love you,

    me

  27. leonoutside says:

    The Vorticists met, pre WW1 in a club in Heddon St.,Bowie had a painting by one of them, depicting art work on walls on the club. I have the bits and bobs somewhere, from Beth Greenacre.

    • leonoutside says:

      Chris, – Sorry, Yea, …see now yo mentioned that in your piece. Nice one. I was quite taken by that story. And yours too. Other end of spectrum, remember how Blammo and Sailor was blown away by that young girls reaction to the track….GreenGoblin, was that her moniker?

  28. Stevo says:

    Thanks for the ever-insightful blog Chris. Is it just me or is the rhythm of this track ever so slightly reminiscent of ‘You’ve been Around’ from BTWN?

  29. dm says:

    For a while I thought it was “Man, she punched me like a dude/hold your man-hands, I cried” Which is dumb but kinda funny.

    My absolute favourite on the album, and possibly my favourite Bowie track of the century.

  30. dm says:

    Forgot to mention in my last comment- the closest sonic precedent is, to my ears, the first 3 tracks off Nite Flights. There’s a great deal of Shut Out and Nite Flights in the relentless steady, dirty euro-rock sound, with its quiet synth base, and the skronking sax and nasty lyrics of Fat Mama Kick.

  31. Ian McDuffie says:

    I love this song to pieces. It’s one of the songs that exemplifies one of Bowie’s greatest additions to music— dense and gnomic music that can be enjoyed instantly. It survives the first listen as loud and fun, and then gives way to wonderful caving trips.

    To me, part of that fun is in how the music sounds— to me, this could be a Black Tie, White Noise outtake. Or, if not that, than it’s the ideal version of BTWN. It’s fun, danceable, but “arty.” But there’s no compromise between the two. It is both at the same time. It just goes to show how important it is for everyone working on the album to be on the same page.

  32. Phil Obbard says:

    I’ve read this three times over three days and found something new each time – a lot like my first reaction to “Whore”! An epic post, and worth the wait. And thanks for not telling me I had to read the play to understand this one (as for “Sue”, well…).

    For those who haven’t checked it out yet, McCaslin’s BEYOND NOW has a son-of-Blackstar vibe running through it (not to mention two deep cut DB covers) and is well worth checking out, even if like me your jazz knowledge is fairly slim. CASTING FOR GRAVITY (which I bought on the recommendation of our host) is similarly excellent, and breathtaking at times (esp. “Praia Grande”).

  33. Snufkin says:

    Wow. This is an amazing bit of writing and research. Like, conference-quality research. I am stunned by the depth and the breadth of the connections you found. This is really one of your best entries. Thank you for keeping the blog going. Can’t wait for your next book.

  34. That home demo! What a gem. Thank you for this beautifully crafted looking glass of a blog

  35. MC says:

    Terrific piece on a fantastic piece of music, Bowie at his most brilliantly knotty. I was blown away by Pity when I first heard it in 2014; it was the song that pretty clearly indicated that Sue was no one-off, as it was self-evidently a demo, albeit a mad, inspired one. In retrospect, DB’s uncharacteristic decision to release it was a possible harbinger of things to come, a peak behind the curtain as the end neared. It makes me wonder what else may emerge from the vaults now.

    Of course, the “finished” track is extraordinary, as well. I’d like to second Ian McDuffie’s notion that Blackstar is Black Tie, White Noise done right: you can hear the juices flowing here in a way they decidedly are not on BTWN.

    I was struck, also, by the reference to Bowie suffering multiple heart attacks in the 2000s. Is that the consensus now? If true, it explains DB’s disappearing act, to be sure, and it makes his comeback seem even more inspiriting.

    Hope you’ve had a great birthday, Chris. Cheers!

  36. Anonymous says:

    Welcome back. You were missed.

  37. gcreptile says:

    I prefer the album version. It was Bowie’s last juvenile prank, that last glimpse of youth. It’s a wonderful song.

  38. Ramona says:

    Absolutely brilliant entry COL. Still hits such a raw and emotional nerve in me listening to Bowie’s last masterpieces. Soaring joy and searing pain and sadness at the same time. ‘Tis A Pity’ seems to me a hybrid (a favorite Bowie device) of the multitude of images and wordplay that always inhabited his vast imagination. The poignancy of these final songs fills my heart and breaks it simultaneously. The depth of your research is stunning. Bowie lives here. Long live the King.

  39. Dave P. says:

    Wonderful post, thanks for your great work. I continue to revel in Blackstar, and having a post like this pop up in my reader is like a little gift.

    I’ll second Phil’s comments about about Beyond Now. It’s a fantastic record and the vibe and energy of Blackstar and well and alive there.

  40. tj says:

    Thank you for this, Chris!

  41. McCall says:

    For my money, this is the best song about post-traumatic stress disorder I think we’re ever likely to hear. The ragged breathing at the start indicates that the vile deed is done; the song that follows gives his twisted reasons as to why, always referring to his love in the past tense.

  42. Anonymous says:

    A beautiful commentary for my favorite song on ★. Thank you.
    Yesterday evening in the Opera Theatre of Rome the violoncellist and composer Giovanni Sollima gave a very Vortex rendition of TMWSTW.
    http://www.operaroma.it/spettacoli/cajkovskij-haydn-bowie-sollima/

  43. Tyrell says:

    With hindsight it is clear that there were three periods in Bowie’s life where Bowie the Artist were in foreground, where experimentation, the discovery of new musical territories were more important than commercial success or to deliver songs which are easy to listen to. These periods were roughly (STS)-The Idiot-Baal, (BTWN)-Buddha-Outside and Blackstar-Lazarus years.
    I guess, after knowing Low or Outside unconsciously I had always been waiting for Bowie delievering something similar to those albums, something new, uncompromising, something which opens new worlds, without any fear of failure or losing his audience.
    After the 10 year hiatus I was really excepted something like that and was quite disappointed with TND. It was like the direct continuation of Heathen/Reality, it was like it had been recorded the next day (pun intended) of the last Reality sessions. And I am not a fan of Heathen/Reality. 2-3 really great songs, 2-3 okay songs and the rest are forgettable fillers. But what really bothers me on those albums is the production – I love Visconti but Heathen/Reality/TND sound just dull to me. (Blackstar is much better, I guess because the band is a jazz band and they had to be recorded differently).
    So, after a couple of listening I put my first-day-buy TND CD into the drawer and forgot about it, I did not even listen to any Bowie song for a long time.*
    Well, not until I heard Sue by chance. I switched very quickly in Bowie fan mode again. The histrionic singing, the strange, dissonant orchestration of Maria Schneider, the mystery of the lyrics, with a result which is first not easy to get love but after a while it gives one a unique experiment, rarely heard in contemporary popular music – this is the Bowie I like the most.
    But what really blew my mind was ‘Tis a Pity. This was what I had been waiting for since… Outside, I guess. Something very new, unheard, unexpected, unusual, experimental and still a great piece of music.
    It was enough to hear the train-like intro (from STS) to be sucked into the world of the song.
    The composition itself is based on something Bowie had been experiencing since STS: the tension between a very strong, almost industrial beat (first with a human rhytm section, but since BTWN also with drug machines) and on top of the strong beat free, dissonant, atonal music (during the classic Bowie period especially the guitar, since BTWN and the comeback of Garson piano+guitar. And of course the vocal melodies).
    What new is in ‘Tis a Pity is that here the tension is created in first place not by the melody the instruments (sax and piano) are playing but by the rhytmh of their playing. It seems totally randomly when they play a note, altough I think people with a good sense of rhythm can tell in which rhythm pattern they are following.
    For me the Blackstar version is one step back (and Sue was two steps back), I miss the edginess of the original altough the backing vocals are great, especially the Beatles hook (1:02) and the constant minor-major swifts at the end.
    Sue, ‘Tis a Pity and then came out the last momumental masterpiece song of Bowie, Blackstar. It was a very happy period for a Bowie fan. Not to mention that that was also the time when I learned about the Leon Suits, I mean about the latest leaks. It was like getting a new, unannounced Bowie album. And what an album! I think the Leon material does not get the appreciation it should. I prefer it even to Outside and if Blackstar would not exists, it would be the last Bowie masterpiece album.

    * I did not even know about the release of TND Extra. To be fair, I think the extended album is much better that the original.

  44. WRGerman says:

    In end effect, Bowie finally found a group. A rubber band who played his tunes in tune but beyond everything else in convention.

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