Girl Loves Me

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Girl Loves Me.

The Blackstar sessions of early January 2015 were devoted to revisits (“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”) and to most of Bowie’s Lazarus songs. The next round, in the first week of February, began similarly—a revised “Sue” was first on the agenda. But on the second day of the session, Bowie and Donny McCaslin’s band turned to a bewildering-sounding demo.

Mark Guiliana recalled that the file “had two loops on top of each other, creating a very dense groove, which I couldn’t play all at once.” Where some demos had been taped in the studio with Tony Visconti and a small group, this one was pure Bowie—the work of hours of home tinkering. There were synthesized string parts, some of which McCaslin would score for flute. Then there was the lyric. As Jason Lindner said, “when we first heard the demo, we said, ‘what the hell? What are those words?’”

Cheena so sound so titi up this                  malchick say!
Party up moodge nanti vellocet round on            Tuesday!

The lyrics are wacky but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word,” Tony Visconti said before the album’s release. A charitable belief: it’s more fair to say that those fluent in the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could decipher about three-fourths of “Girl Loves Me”; those conversant in the secret gay language Polari could pick up a few other bits.

A single verse is chanted more than sung—Bowie harping on one note until the end of each phrase, when he moves up first by a third (“this-malchik”) and ultimately an octave, by almost yodeling the last note (“say-ay” “da-aay). The verse lines have a tumbling consonance (“dizzysnatch,” “popo blind to the pol-ly”) and a rhythm of chasing short-held notes (“chee-na”) with slightly longer ones (“so sound”). Momentum builds as Bowie crams in more syllables with each line. “As he was listening back, I could see him experimenting with different words,” McCaslin recalled, which likely explains why Bowie tweaked his Nadsat—“yarbles” (balls) became “garbles,” “spatchka” (sleep) became “spatchko,” and “malchick” (boy) is sung more as “malcheck.”

He’d had secret languages before, on Low: the trans-European un-language of “Warszawa”; the homonymic blurs of “Some Are” and “Subterraneans.” Then, he was dedicated to melody—the “nonsense” words of “Warszawa” are gorgeous to sing, with a gentle lift. Now he sang “Girl Loves Me” as raw pieces of sound—the words harsh, short, jagged, packed together like bullets.

Varda, omees!

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Of the two dialects in the song, Polari (or Palare) is a spoken tongue, dating back well over a century, a pidgin language with roots in Italian and Shelta, the tongue of Irish and British Travelers. As Ian Hancock wrote, it was “the language of the theater, the circus, show business, and…certain male homosexual communities, especially those with connections to show business and with life at sea.” Nadsat is fictional, devised in the late Fifties by Anthony Burgess, who raided Russian for many of his words, along with Cockney rhyming slang. Both are the tongues of subcultures, of outsiders, of young toughs, of (fictional, likely, inadvertent) criminals. Both connect to Bowie’s youth.

He’d loved Clockwork Orange in the Ziggy Stardust days, with Stanley Kubrick’s film a sartorial guide for the Spiders From Mars, and Nadsat heard in “Suffragette City” (“say droogie don’t crash here!”). “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”

He’d picked up Polari from the mid-Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne and its Polari-fluent camp pair “Julian and Sandy.” And more directly, from being a young, beautiful man at the hub of Sixties British gay life—the London-based theater and music scenes—and the intimate of gay men like the mime Lindsay Kemp and the composer Lionel Bart. “David uses words like “varda” and “super” quite a lot. He’s gay, he says,” as Michael Watts wrote in the 1972 Melody Maker “Bowie comes out” piece. Nicholas Pegg does a typically thorough job of noting various bits of Polari in Bowie lyrics of the period, from “traders” (“Bewlay Brothers”) to “trolling” (“Looking For a Friend”).

“Translated” (my attempt here), “Girl Loves Me” mixes droogs and drag queens, police and cheenas. Tacky things drive the gang wild; party now because we’ll be out of drugs tomorrow. Set up the old men and take their cash; screw in the street, sleep it off in jail. It’s the balls-out, perhaps literally, sequel to “Dirty Boys.”

Where did it come from? Bowie’s late-in-life fandom for shows like Peaky Blinders, full of sharp young Birmingham toughs rumbling in the streets, maybe. A few books, as usual (see below). An older man with an unpromising diagnosis, who wakes one morning to wonder where the time has gone. Or, more succinctly: Where the FUCK did Monday go?

Sloosh to Polezny Mr. Murphy

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“We will have a new ‘body’ in the studio as of Tuesday,” Bowie reportedly told his group. “He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.”

James Murphy had struck up a friendship with Bowie around 2013. Having retired LCD Soundsystem (temporarily), he was producing Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, on which Bowie cut a guest vocal. Introduced in the studio, Murphy opened with “you know I’m an enormous fan of your work, because I steal from you liberally,” to which Bowie lobbed back, “you can’t steal from a thief, darling.” Upon Bowie’s return to making music, Murphy was often talked up as a future producer. It seemed apt. Murphy was a dance-rock classicist who lived in awe of Bowie’s late Seventies albums, forever trekking back to them, then building shrines to them.

He was too much in the sun, it turned out. In recent interviews, Murphy said he’d been slated as a co-producer on Blackstar but had backed out, feeling “overwhelmed” by the idea. “It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me,” he told Radio One this summer.

Instead Murphy envisioned himself as being the Brian Eno of the sessions, to the point of bringing in an EMS Synthi AKS, Eno’s weapon of choice in the Seventies. But he lacked the nerve to go the full Eno—he wouldn’t be directing ace musicians to play random chords at arbitrary cues, or erasing a half-finished track that wasn’t working. He kept to the sidelines, filtering guitars and keyboards through the “briefcase” EMS, including some of Lindner’s keyboard and synth lines on “Girl Loves Me” (see the burbling percussive line mixed left through much of the track). Murphy “was just in there hanging out,” Lindner recalled. “They weren’t clear on his role.”

That said, the final shape of “Girl Loves Me” apparently owes a good deal to him. “James took ‘Girl Loves Me’ to his home studio and did this whole other thing with it,” McCaslin said. “Mark and Jason heard snippets of it when they were over there working. Mark was saying it was really different from how he recorded it.”

Despite Murphy’s textures, the track is one of the more spare productions on the album, its minimal harmonic structure (shifts between two chords for all but the bridge) borne for long stretches by low-mixed keyboard or synthesized strings. The driving wheel is Guiliana’s drum ‘n’ bass-inspired snare and kick figures, with rapid bursts of notes on his cymbals. “I tried to capture the feeling of the halftime backbeat with the undercurrent of the busier 16th-note details,” he said. “The ghost notes in the groove are heard through the close mic on the snare, but the backbeat is being captured through David’s vocal mic. There was lots of bleed since we were all in the same room, which often led to very interesting sonic results. This, like many of the other songs, is a full drum take.”

Tim Lefebvre doubled his twisting, harmonically free bassline (as Lindner noted of his friend’s performance, “the bass note is not representative of the key or the root—it’s really coloristic” ) on guitar, borrowing Bowie’s instrument along with his “little multi-effects pedal…it was a cheap little thing but it sounded great.” McCaslin worked in the backline, tracking alto flute and C flutes for a gorgeous interlude in which the song breaks character for some twenty seconds to let in the sunlight. Then it’s nightfall again.

The center of it all is Bowie’s vocal, tracked to become an echoing patrol in the verse, cheering himself in the refrains (the wonderful GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! that starts at 1:26); doubled over an octave for the bridge; murmuring conspiratorial sleazy “heey cheena”s under high, wavering “girl…loves…mes,” reminiscent of his vocals on “No One Calls.”

Fantabulosa Prestoopniks

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The brilliance of that writing,” Lefebvre recalled. “How it’s all dark gibberish and then it turns into this beautiful melody. The chords are very interesting—aggressive but at the same time very languid and soft.”

There was a disgraced ancestor, as often with Bowie. Did he recall something he’d written decades before about dealers, druggies, and hustlers, whose semi-spoken nasally-intoned verses spooled into great, bounding refrains? In “Girl Loves Me,” the oft-maligned “Shining Star (Making My Love)” lives again. All that’s missing is the Mickey Rourke rap.

Why write the song as dark gibberish anyway? For a laugh, in part; for the joy of doing it. As Hancock wrote about Polari, its function wasn’t to be a separate tongue “but rather a pool of secret words sufficient to make cryptic any utterance that needs to be kept from outsiders” (essential for a time when homosexuality was illegal) and “a factor of social cohesion for those who need it.” Polari was an outsider’s inside language. And Burgess wrote his novel in Nadsat because he wanted to wall off his youth subculture from merciless time. It worked. Alex and his fellow droogs remain in the present today, and still suggest a brutal future, where they would have been defanged had they been saying “daddy-o” and “groovy.”

The refrain of “Girl Loves Me” stands outside of its own song: Where the FUCK did Monday go? cracks it open. Bowie’s line about sitting in the chestnut tree bred all sorts of speculations. Is it the Chestnut Tree Cafe of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and so suggesting betrayal? (Bowie could never shake free of that book; it was to him what his Berlin albums are to Murphy.) Or, in an inspired suggestion by Yanko Tsvetkov, is it a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude? In the latter, the patriarch José Arcadio Buendía is visited by the ghost of a man he’d killed years before. They chat for so long that time stops for him—José Arcadio has gone mad, trapped in a perpetual Monday, while for the rest of his family the week proceeds as usual. Raging, he starts to destroy his house: “Ten men were needed to get him down, fourteen to tie him up, twenty to drag him to the chestnut tree in the courtyard, where they left him tied up, barking in the strange language and giving off a green froth at the mouth.”

Barking in the strange language. Words from futures that never were, from bubble-cultures lost to time, jumbled and mangled and chewed up, made into a cipher of lust and spite, called out with malicious glee. But you can go lost when you go back too far to find the sources. Stay in the present—keep in the sound. “Girl Loves Me” should be done after two and a half minutes but it hangs on for longer, unwilling to stop. The defiant joy of the refrains; the pleasure Bowie takes in yelling FUCK! at the world. He’s in his tree (even if he’s been stuffed in it, left to rot), piling up what he can. All the lost dirty boys and dirty old men, the traders and droogs and crooked cops. Sex, money, pills, schemes—the great roil and filth of life, another tide sweeping out. Who the fuck’s going to mess with him? Nobody.

Bona nochy!

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 February 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, treatments) ca. March-April 2015, Murphy’s home studio; (vocals) 16 April, 17 May 2015, Human Worldwide.

First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources, thanks: “Crayon to Crayon” for the “No One Calls” tip; Ian Hancock’s “Shelta and Polari,” from Language in the British Isles, and Paul Baker’s Polari: the Secret Language of Gay Men (Polari’s spoken in a scene in Velvet Goldmine, and, of course, in Morrissey’s “Piccadilly Palare” (“so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah“). Musician quotes: Uncut, Modern Drummer, Pedals and Effects, Mojo.

Photos, top to bottom: Wayne S. Grazio, “Sharing a Text Message”; Henrik Johansson, “Snapple”; Oleg Dulin, “Buried in Their Smartphones”; Paolo Briauca, “Couple In the Park.” All taken 2015.

 

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40 Responses to Girl Loves Me

  1. Floodsy says:

    Another fantastic review – much thanks!

  2. Barry Hodge says:

    Although the text is interesting, I usually skip this plodder.

  3. Hometime says:

    Bowie-O´Leary search engine full throttle once again.

    Here I am, revisiting my Kubrick dvds and my 80´s “100 años de soledad” copy (I read it in 1982 when I was 15, months after starting with DB via Scary Monsters and Stage).

    Amazing review, but longing for “Dollar days” turn.

  4. Rini6 says:

    There is not one weak song in Blackstar. I love and treasure them all. This one is almost taunting and teasing. Bowie had the attitude until the end.

    Speaking of James Murphy, the new LCD Soundsystem album is great. Word is that Bowie urged Murphy to create it.

  5. Faulkner says:

    Ooh, wasn’t aware of the polari. Another great post, btw.

    I’m surprised James Murphy passed up the chance to produce a Bowie album. I mean, isn’t that every studio monkey’s dream (or stress hive inducing nightmare)? It’s just one of those things you just can’t say no to, damn the consequences and critics. Murphy did wonders for the Arcade Fire tracks he worked on, not to mention the minor Pulp resurgence track, After You. Shame, shame. However, I’d love to hear the original demos of Girl Loves Me. Any chance the Bowie estate are willing to do a Bowie Bootleg Series, ala Bob Dylan’s? There must be a sheer treasure trove of hidden Bowie demos that can be sussed into release-shape.

    Anyways, nothing more to add other than to say keep up the amazing work and cheers!

    • Ambrose Chapel says:

      If you listen to the last track on the new LCD album (Black Screen), he talks about it:

      “I had fear in the room. So I stopped showing up. My hands kept pushing down in my pockets. I’m bad with people things.
      But I should have tried more”

      The whole song is about his relationship with Bowie. It’s great.

      • Faulkner says:

        Thanks, Ambrose! I’ll definitely give the new LCD another listen. Apart from 2 or 3 songs, I really haven’t given it a proper appreciation. It kinda sounded same-old, same-old to me.

        I guess fear, social anxiety, and idol-worship really can bring a good man down.

      • Rini6 says:

        It’s a great album.

  6. Jason Das says:

    Thanks as always, Chris. I guess this song isn’t too deep, but it really benefits from your nuts-and-bolts explanation (especially for lyrics and production/collaborators’ roles).

    I like this song. I’d probably like it more if some of the lyrics were less goofy, but oh well.

    It’s got an excellent groove/performance. It took twenty years, but DB finally figured out how to use a DnB-inspired beat that doesn’t suck. That’s worth a lot, given how often he tried and floundered. (As usual with DB, the answer was to enable the right collaborators.)

    The layered vocals are wonderful. To be expected from Bowie, but this one goes through such an impressively full bag of tricks without breaking a sweat.

    Most importantly, “where the fuck did Monday go?” is an all-time great chorus and earworm for me.

    Stray thought on relistening now: I feel stronger Eno influence on this track than some other late Bowie: the dubbiness, the textural layering, the cut-and-paste aesthetic, the liminal English, etc.

  7. djonn says:

    aww, that last paragraph just makes me smile.

  8. TisAPity says:

    This is one of my favorite Bowie songs ever actually. As a fellow reader commented about Tis A Pity She Was a Whore in this blog, this song is quintessence Bowie. Artsy, obscure, fantastic.

    Also, this song always reminds me of I Have Not Been To Oxford Town, it probably has to do with that sort of militaristic march rhythm thing it has going for it, as well as the sound of the production and territory of the lyrics.

  9. postpunkmonk says:

    Well, on Monday, January 11th, 2016 – three days after buying “Backstar,” the chorus felt like a ton on bricks being dropped on me. I can hear hear the ghostly bones of “Shining Star [Making My Love]” just barely underneath the clatter of it all. Barely.

    The consistent rehabilitation of that deeply [but not completely] misguided album certainly remained a touchstone for his last two albums. I have to say that the effort certainly worked. “Never Let Me Down” was perhaps the most depressing of Bowie’s EMI period if only because it genuinely seemed like he was trying on that one. But for every spark of an interesting idea, there were 4-5 gaffes waiting in ambush.

    • BenJ says:

      In effect Tonight seemed more depressing because having “Blue Jean” as a first taste made it seem like it was going to have more pep than it did. With Never Let Me Down at least he didn’t make the best song – “Zeroes”, I’d say – the first single. Instead we got “Day In, Day Out”, which, yeah.

  10. delightful. this entry made my day.

  11. BenJ says:

    Ooh, this is good. I wasn’t expecting this essay until some time down the road, but I’m happy to take it any time.

    “Girl Loves Me” proved that Bowie was, right up to the end, willing to challenge his fans with a new sound, a new Bowie.

    • col1234 says:

      i bumped this entry up for a number for reasons, one of which was simply to mess with the commenter who “predicted” the order of the last entries

      • BenJ says:

        😀 Yeah, I kind of thought that might provoke you.

      • Tyrell says:

        At least my comment had an impact even if in a non-expected way. 🙂
        But please, leave Blackstar for the last one.

      • col1234 says:

        i was just kidding, man.

      • WRGerman says:

        Heh, my strategy worked! Much as I like the No Plan/Laz tunes, the Blackstar songs are the more interesting ones to peel back the flesh on, to see what’s underneath.

        Love the analysis on this one. One of the great things about Blackstar are the new stylistic chances DB took on this LP.

  12. Jukka says:

    This is one of the two the songs that can’t find it’s place between the two opposite ends – let’s say the Extras and Charlie Rose’s Basquiat “interviews” for example. The only mystery to me is the difference between the double talk of Blackstar and Next Day. I feel like Next Day is the Rosetta stone – a compulsory testament before leaving the past and the present. An attempt to tie things up before blowing everything up to the atmosphere. Yeah, I guess it’s all a joke but a very serious joke and that’s why nobody is having a serious laugh.

  13. wateracre says:

    The Laura Mvula version of this at the David Bowie Prom was one of the better things in that weirdo night: https://youtu.be/x72dOxkfY4M?t=1m40s

  14. Matthew says:

    That first weekend I thought the use of slang would annoy the hell out of me, but revisiting the album I find a different perspective. I just love the sheer unhingedness of Girl, besides this track contains my new favourite DB line “I’m sitting in the chestnut tree…..”. Although I have to admit to being a big 1984 fan.
    That said I’m not sure it really is a direct 1984 reference, my take on it now is this ,
    Monday is a placeholder for time or ones life, so its a regret that life has passed so quickly, the next line shows no concern for mundane earthly matters, the chestnut tree represents heaven ( or whatever) and truly when you’ve left no one is going to be able to fuck with you. One view anyway, I’m sure its debatable

  15. s.t. says:

    Thanks Chris! What a pleasant surprise. I was just popping in to check a factoid, and here’s a brand new meaty post to chew on.

    This song is so essential to the power of the Blackstar LP. Like the cover songs on Heathen, “Girl Loves Me” offers some much needed levity and irreverence on an otherwise dour, heavy album. Not to mention that polarizing Polari ZING!

    Bowie and Visconti mentioned Kendrick Lamar as an indirect influence on their recording at the time–perhaps this was some sort of take on rap? Honestly, the beat sounds more indebted to Schooly D than it does to Anthony Top Dawg Tiffith. It probably was just an influence of ‘tude.

    And hey, if he wants to resurrect his sillier trendier song ideas with some newfound ‘tude, [He Can] Do That.

  16. Christopher Williams says:

    I thought the performance by Paul Buchanan at the Bowie prom was fabulous.

  17. Lux says:

    This is the intersection of the nerdy and cool in Bowie and the reason he attracts both nerdy and cool fans. Its a very obsessive teenage occupation to decode and memorize a secret language. Most of us remember doing that with A Clockwork Orange. Legions of kids have taught themselves Klingon. Slang has been the password to cliques and communicating so the parents and squares aren’t savvy. Pre-internet urban dictionary, lyrics and interviews with Brit rockers who’d casually drop slang or idioms that hadn’t made it across the pond were quite a mystery. You’d have to find an Eric Partridge at the library. Many British vocabulary and slang words have now become common in the US so it’s hard to even recall their novelty. That was the charm of reading glam era Melody Maker, it was exotic on all fronts.
    Just as fascinating to David Jones and his cohorts were fringed buckskin vests, drive-ins, and Tutti-Frutti.
    Thanks for another enjoyable pondering, Chris.

  18. Thanks for this great entry. This song-as-punctuation to years of boisterous insider slang allusion really works…a touching goodbye to all of that and at and same time prankster-ish “I’ve still got you by the yarbles” moment.

  19. leonoutside says:

    Cheers Chris. I’d been looking forward to reading this all week. To read in peace at home, rather than in the bustle of the week. Geez…Thanks for your piece. For me the Monday, was always “that” Monday. The eleventh. And it killed me. But then there was Dollar Days…And that was funny and made everything alright.. Love on Ya.

  20. Faulkner says:

    Probably not the right place to discuss the new Berlin remasters, but I’l keep it short and simple. Feel free to delete if not appropriate.

    What does everyone think about A New Career in a New Town box set?

    Apart from the Heroes volume debacle, I’d say the new bass in Low takes a little getting used to. The Lodger remaster, to me at least, is a revelation.

    I’m still working my way through the rest but would love to read different takes on the release.

  21. Bowietie Daddy says:

    I think David was stealing heavily from Shalamar’s “My girl loves me”. But he was a master thief, as he confirmed to Big Baby Murphy, and no one noticed.

    • Faulkner says:

      I wouldn’t say no one noticed. No one really cared because everyone already knew. Bowie as master thief is a tired trope.

      • Bowietie Daddy says:

        Sorry. I meant: “no one noticed that he was using Shalamar’s song”. He was so good at defacing sounds till they are unrecognizable. (It’s terrible to write “was” instead of “is”, I still don’t get used to it). Brian Wilson has a similar ear, “me thinks”.

  22. Flossie_666 says:

    Hi, the melody sounds like a Hindu prayer that men thank their God for a sexual encounter (for favors granted). Like the truck drivers who pray and have sex every couple of hundred miles. Many Gypsy words have their roots In Indian Sanskrit.

    • StupidintheStreet says:

      This does not seem outside the realm of possibility. Surely, Mr. B had much to be thankful for in that regard.

  23. Christopher Williams says:

    I’ve missed the “Oh You Pretty Things” boat a bit but I saw “Waiting For Godot” last night and quote: “That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”

  24. ealdwif says:

    Thanks for the excellent review, as well as translation of the slang. Being a bit of a nerd I had already looked up the polari and nadsat words, but your translation places the lyrics in their cultural context. It is interesting that one of your commenters sees Girl Loves Me as offering levity to the Blackstar album; my take on the song is more in line with the NME reviewer who called in ‘menacing’. But it’s a good complement to the other songs on the album and Laura Mvula’s version is very good.

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