When I Met You

giralone

When I Met You (Michael C. Hall and Krystina Alabado, Lazarus perf., 2015).
When I Met You (Hall and Alabado, Lazarus cast recording).
When I Met You (Bowie).

At the end of Lazarus, Thomas Jerome Newton discovers that the teenage girl he’s been talking to throughout the play is actually dead. “Not properly dead,” she notes. She’s the Baby Grace Blue of Lazarus—the girl whose murderer is never apprehended and whose death needs a ritual act to complete. Until then, she’s condemned to wander the earth (or at least Second Avenue) as a ghost. “I’m sorry, Mr. Newton, but it’s not me that’s going to help you get to the stars, but it’s you who’ll help me to die properly.”

You’re my last hope,” Newton replies. “How can I kill that?” Cue the duet “When I Met You,” the play’s penultimate song.

Yet “When I Met You” isn’t sung by Newton (Michael C. Hall) and the Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), as one might expect, given the narrative—its performers were misidentified as such when an audience recording from Lazarus was bootlegged. Instead it’s Newton and the “First Teenage Girl” (Krystina Alabado), one of a trio of singers/actors who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts (there are a wearying number of “Girls” in this play). When Bowie recorded the song during the Blackstar sessions, he took both parts.

“When I Met You” is a duet between a man and a voice in his broken mind—a dialogue on love, despair, and redemption by someone staring into a cracked mirror. On Bowie’s recording, the vocals are mixed to tumble, the lead voice gaining ground, the chorus vocals mounting a response. On the Lazarus cast recording, the space between Hall and Alabado’s voices is so great that each seems in a different world—their harmonizing is all top and bottom, with no middle.

A slow-paced composition that takes its time getting anywhere (the intro alone is 32 bars), “When I Met You” moves from Newton-sung verses to Newton/ Teenage Girl counterpoint/ harmony refrains to a harsh “bridge” section that’s the tension point of the song, where the home chord of G major is altered, diminished, augmented. It suggests the convulsions of Newton’s perspective, where nothing is solid anymore.

laz

In ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came,” the singer’s waiting for someone, for something to happen, but we never learn who she’s waiting for, nor what they brought. Agnetha Fältskog crosses off the stations of her day—breakfast, train, work, lunch, train, Chinese food, TV, a Marilyn French novel before bed. She hasn’t been living as much as she’s been maintaining, and the romantic assumption is that she’s about to meet someone who opens up her life. Yet there are hints (in corners of the lyric, in the dark colors of Agnetha’s phrasing) that the “you” of the title is malignant: the murderer at the door, the tumor on the chart, the driver that doesn’t brake in time.

In “When I Met You,” the other has already come, has saved Newton in some way, and now the spell is wearing thin. “You knew just everything,” Newton begins. “And nothing at all.” (Bowie changed it to “but nothing at all” in his recording.) If Newton is Lazarus, the girl in his head has been Christ—she called him from the tomb, opened his eyes, let him speak. He was a zombie, a madman, someone lost in himself; she freed him from his trap.

In its way, it’s a long-delayed response to “Word on a Wing,” Bowie’s prayer for protection and deliverance in a dry season. “A scuzzier version of one of his grand ballads—imagine “Word on a Wing” with three-day growth and hangover,” as Alfred Soto wrote of “When I Met You.” A biographical reading is easy, perhaps too easy: Bowie thanking his wife for saving him, for Coco Schwab for protecting him (in the “Never Let Me Down” line), for his children for letting him escape being “Bowie” for a while, tethering him to earth. “When I met you…the edge had become/ the center of my world….I was off my head/ I was filled with truth/ it was not God’s truth.”

Yet whatever salvation he got from the muse/angel in his head, it’s fading away now. It’s all the same, rescued and rescuer sing to each other. The darkness has crept back, covering everything in sight. In Lazarus, Newton sings the final refrain as he prepares to stab the Girl, which he does as the last notes sound. Death’s release; no knowledge comes.

figs

Of the Lazarus songs, “When I Met You” was the most difficult to transition into a solo Bowie recording. It had been a duet on stage, and was woven into the play’s narrative (as much as there was one). And when racked against its counterparts, it was the least of the new compositions.

Bowie tackled it during the first Blackstar sessions in January—he was starting out by doing remakes (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“) and getting down his takes on the Lazarus songs, as if to clear the ground for leaps to come. He took the scissors to “When I Met You,” cutting a line (“the dream of time”) and switching some chorus lines around in later refrains.

For the arrangement, he emailed Donny McCaslin that “the structure of ‘When I Met You’ is sound, but now we need to mess with it so we hear it from another angle. Put in a couple of passages in the corner (in darkness) and throw a small pen-light beam on the rest—like a P.I. scouting a motel room.” (“He’s never saying something like ‘can I have a bass drum on 2 & 4’?” McCaslin recalled. “It’s more these kind of images.“)

The result was what McCaslin, Tim Lefebvre, and other musicians heard as “hearkening back to older Bowie.” Bowie’s “When I Met You” lacks McCaslin’s saxophone, where in Lazarus Henry Hey had scored subtle brass lines for refrains. It runs on skitterings (Jason Lindner’s synthesizers in the intro and vocal breaks), pulses (a jaunty Lefebvre bassline) and jabs (an acoustic guitar (possibly Bowie?) strummed more scrappily than the player on the Lazarus recording), with the “Hawaiian”-sounding lead lines (McCaslin heard “an African highlife thing”) as a dreamy counterpoint to Bowie’s voice in the verses.

In the Lazarus duet, Alabado’s chorus vocal is sharp, insistent, holding on one note, spiking over Hall’s lower, moaning phrases—her final repeats of “when I met—when I met” sound like a distress call. Bowie’s backing vocals, placed further back in the mix, are both more playful and more dramatic—there’s a greater emotional spectrum to them.

And for his lead vocal, Hall, faced with lines like “the peck of a blackened eye,” “the streams of debris” and “now the luminous dark,” unfurls them, lets them roll off, stiffly at times. Bowie takes far more pleasure—there’s a grin in some of his lines, despite their occasionally despairing words. Among the last vocals that he recorded in his life, it shows that he always wrote parts with one actor in mind.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 January 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 5 May 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: No Plan, 8 January 2017. Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus. McCaslin quotes from Mojo, December 2016.

Top: Frederik Ranninger, “Girl Alone in 16:9,” 2015; Hall and Caruso, Lazarus; Mercer Mayer, The Figure In the Shadows.

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20 Responses to When I Met You

  1. I should have known from you wouldn’t let the blog end without mentioning that ABBA song.

  2. billter says:

    The romantic in me is irresistibly attracted to seeing this a love song, and its dark trappings as window dressing. I’m sure the truth is more complicated than that, but I cannot hear the last lines:

    I was torn inside
    When I met you
    When I met you
    I was too insane
    Could not trust a thing
    I was off my head
    I was filled with truth
    It was not god’s truth
    Before I met you

    Without thinking of late-80s Bowie, adrift personally and professionally, and the stabilizing effect that he credited Iman with having on his life.

    It must mean something that Bowie’s vocal performance is so passionate; he reaches all the way down inside for the most he can give, which may not have happened before that since “Heroes.” There is more here, to be sure, than meets the eye. But in my book it is written down as The Last Great Bowie Song, and one that is always capable of bringing a tear to my eye.

    • alexandriadouillette says:

      Yeah, that’s pretty much what I wanted to say, but you were here before. 😀

    • Ann K says:

      Yes, I thought exactly the same thing when I first heard it: a love song to Iman – though as you say, there’s likely much more to it.

    • s.t. says:

      Perhaps there was even a knowing wink to his older song, “Without You.”

      Or maybe “When I’m With You” by Sparks?

  3. Sean says:

    What if he’s singing it to himself or maybe it’s Jones singing to “Bowie”?

  4. Love this song, but really cant stop thinking of Nick Heyward’s “Kite” from 1993 when i listen to it. Bizarre.
    I have the No Plan EP tagged onto the end of the Blackstar album to play in the car and for me it works really well as I always want Blackstar to last longer.

  5. crayontocrayon says:

    I’m told that Visconti said the jangly, mildly out of tune guitar is Bowie playing his old Airline twin-tone.
    The song makes me think first of fantastic voyage, it has a similar nostalgic lilt to it with a long tension building section. Bowie should sing more duets with himself

  6. Gordon says:

    Thanks, Chris. Great analysis as ever.

  7. perlion says:

    Thank you Chris. Your work enriches my life immensely.

    I love this song. I appreciate how it differs sonically from the rest of Blackstar/No Plan and how the guitar evokes his earlier work. I enjoy the juxtaposition of long intro and then tangled web of vocals throughout. For me the vocals are so emotionally resonant and on emotional level I feel as I’m listening to a love song, but when I focus carefully on all the layered lyrics I hear so many shadowy narratives co-existing in the same story, and the love song breaks into fragments. So evocative yet so oblique – often this is how I receive Bowie’s work.

  8. roobin101 says:

    What a pleasant surprise. I skipped this whole EP mostly because I didn’t want to hear a dying man’s leftover songs but this a bright, welcoming little tune (OK maybe not lyrically) that makes good use of his old man voice. Without knowing the biography of this song I would have sworn this it was a Next Day cast off that got started by monkeying around with the chords to Sound and Vision.

  9. Matthew says:

    Since I didn’t like to listen to Blackstar for a long while after DB died Ithought I’d save the No Plan EP songs for the final run through on this blog as well. So this is the first time I’ve listened to the DB version of ‘When I Met You’. Initially it feels very different from the Lazarus version, though to be honest my recollection of it on stage is pretty hazy. To me it sounds like it could have easily fitted in on TND rather than the Blackstar sessions, I wonder when he wrote it.

    I like the way the two characters viewpoints slowly converge during the song until at the end it is as if they are one and the same. Great stuff.

    I remember(?) reading somewhere that DB aquired the rights to TMWFTE novel back in 2005 (Chris puts it at 2007) or so, he could have been amassing ideas/songs for Lazarus for a long while and some of those TND songs fit right in. For instance I cannot now listen to ‘Love is Lost’ without hearing it as a Newton song, or even further back ‘But I’ll survive your naked eyes’ (Mary Lou did just that).Then you can always read into some DB songs whatever you believe.

  10. For quite a while I took the propulsive nature of this song and the angry sounding vocals to mean that “You” was Cancer in this song with specific reference to the seeming-remission only to realise that no, it was back with a vengeance

    “When I met you (You’re feeling again)
    I could not speak (You’re drowning in pain)
    You opened my mouth (You’re walking in mist)
    You opened my heart (You’re living again)
    My spirit rose (She tore you down)
    The marks and stains (Happens all the same)
    Could not exist (You were afraid)
    When I met you
    Now it’s all the same (Now it’s all the same)
    It’s all the same (It’s all the same)
    The sun is gone (The sun is gone)
    It’s all the same (It’s all the same)”

    But I think I prefer the love-song interpretations

    As for the song itself I liked it ok until I saw Lazarus for the second time. In the second viewing as the last “when I met you” faded I was convinced I was at the best Bowie gig ever. (this holds true for Lazarus as a whole – liked it the first time, second time changed my opinion of it enormously)

  11. Floodsy says:

    Fantastic as usual – looking forward to the next!

  12. BenJ says:

    Great, insightful entry. I think this is my favorite of the three released non-Blackstar tracks from Bowie’s final year. My primary interest is in Bowie’s own recording. That said, I have to respect Michael C. Hall’s commitment to glamming it up.

  13. MC says:

    Can’t add too much to what everyone has said, except to say that I find the Lazarus cast recording of When I Met You the weakest performance out of the new songs,and the DB version the best of the No Plan tracks (save for Lazarus itself). The key is that magnificent vocal arrangement. And yes, I completely agree that it harks back to The Next Day. It’s weird that the TND era seems so far away now, but it does.

  14. WRGerman says:

    OK, so now the path is firmly through the No Plan tunes, before the story ends with the epic Blackstar. Makes sense, if I’m correct.

    Am I the only one who hears echoes of “Rock And Roll Suicide” in the electric guitar arpeggios, starting with the 2nd verse?

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