No Plan

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No Plan (Bowie).
No Plan (Bowie, video, 2017).
No Plan (Sophia Anne Caruso, Lazarus, 2015).
No Plan (Caruso, Lazarus cast recording, 2016).

When he dies, his spirit rises a meter. No music, but there’s sound. Nowhere, but Second Avenue just out of sight. The pieces of his soul—memories, loves and hates, dreams, idle ambitions, all his arable and barren selves—hold together but may soon drift apart. There’s no recognizable street plan anymore. North could now be west, Broadway could cross Avenue D. “This is no place,” the spirit says. “But here I am.” It steps aside into the not-quite-yet.

“No Plan” (called “Wistful (This Is Not Quite Yet)” in one Bowie draft of a Blackstar LP sequence) was always intended for Lazarus, Donny McCaslin believed. And Enda Walsh, the play’s co-author, said Bowie had asked him if Walsh had any lyrical ideas for the song. The most “Broadway” of the Blackstar-era pieces, its melody’s intervals are a bit suggestive of the leaps in Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” or “Something’s Coming.”

It’s unknown if Bowie originally had a woman’s voice in mind for the song, but by the time Lazarus was cast in summer 2015, he wanted a young female singer for it. He found her in the then-fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso, who once described “No Plan” as “a new song by David Bowie just for my character.” Bowie sent her a card on Lazarus’ opening night to say how much he appreciated her interpretations of his songs (in an act worthy of great karmic retribution, someone stole the card afterward).

In Lazarus, “No Plan” is one of the spotlight songs for Caruso’s character, Marley, known mostly in the play as The Girl, a not-quite-dead murder victim who becomes the guardian angel of the exiled alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Singing “No Plan” is how she introduces herself, stating the terms of her confinement while Newton pours himself another drink.

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Bowie’s recorded version of “No Plan” predates Lazarus by nearly a year—it was among the earliest tracks that he and the McCaslin Quartet cut in January 2015, in the first batch of the Blackstar sessions.

McCaslin recalled to Mojo of Bowie’s “No Plan” “that there was more tinkering with the instrumentation than we did with the others, and more takes… It’s a bit more like a show tune. In fact the second time we approached it, he sent a new demo. First time was David and guitar. This one had acoustic piano [Henry Hey] and a female singer, and she had a dramatic musical theater approach.” McCaslin was central to Bowie’s arrangement, doing multiple overdubs: “I play a bunch of flutes and some clarinet and low-end tenor sax stuff,” he said. Also key is Mark Guiliana, whose drum pattern is a ribbon of tension in the verses—the Lazarus recording sounds weightless by comparison.

(Given the timing (early 2015), the demo singer couldn’t have been Caruso, who was cast the following summer—presumably it was someone with whom Hey worked. McCaslin also recalled the band remaking “No Plan” in the last Blackstar sessions of March 2015, though Nicholas Pegg has that the released “No Plan” was mostly tracked in the January 2015 sessions, including Bowie’s full vocals. Perhaps there was a March retake that wound up being discarded? Or maybe McCaslin was recalling the flute and sax overdubs he did in that period—Ben Monder’s guitar was recorded then as well.)

Sparse in its harmonic structure—the verses often hold on a B-flat major seventh chord, with a few feints, like a move to F# (“I’m lost” “nowhere now”); the refrains move to E-flat minor, now with shifts to F major (“without a plan” “here I am”)—“No Plan” is also subtly clever in its construction, having a five-bar verse that Bowie later extends. As McCaslin said, “he was playing with form, dropping this unusual five-bar phrase, then next time you come round to it, it’s a seven-bar phrase. And this diminished triad he inverts.”

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Bowie’s “No Plan” first appeared as a bonus track on the Lazarus cast recording, then was issued as the title track of the last “new” Bowie EP, on his birthday in January 2017.

Tom Hingston shot a video, in which that deathless YouTube artifact, the “lyric video,” is eerie and moving. Where the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos depict the fall and death of “David Bowie,” “No Plan” is Bowie beyond the veil, turning up for a few minutes in odd corners of the city, an electrical ghost.

“The words of the song do play a central part, of course, but it’s as much about the surrounding situation and setting,” Hingston told Jenny Brewer in 2017. “There is a theme of disembodiment within the track and this sense of occupying another space, which is not of this time, indeed in places the song itself is out of time. So I wanted to create a situation which felt familiar, yet somehow out of place; a recognisable street setting, with its day-to-day rhythms and an otherworldly scene playing out within it.”

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There’s a heap of Bowie references—Newton Electrical, on Foxgrove Road (where Bowie lived in 1969), with its Man Who Fell to Earth-esque rows of televisions with their blue, blue, electric blue screens. (The actual location is a launderette in Brockley.) The first person drawn to the TV screens looks a bit like Leon Blank, from 1. Outside, and wears red shoes; screens show bluebirds and rockets.

Hingston said he also wanted to honor Lazarus, recalling an interview in which Walsh described his and Bowie’s structural idea for the play as “the notion of a stained glass window and how this could be used as a visual metaphor to tell a series of stories through one central image,” Hingston said in 2017. “I thought that was such a lovely point of reference. For me, the shop window and the screens form a device which allows the story to play out, yet viewed through a somewhat fractured lens.”

It was an inspired way to depict the unreality of the days after Bowie’s death in January 2016, the collective disbelief that he was gone, the common response to gather in groups and play his music. That in mourning there could be a new community. From the perspective of March 2020, that’s something else that’s been taken from us now.

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Bowie starts “No Plan” in what Tony Visconti, referring to how Bowie sang “Where Are We Now?,” described as the “fragile” Bowie voice. A weary-sounding voice without authority, one grappling its way into the melody and then, at once, surging with hidden strengths. It’s among the most beautiful of Bowie’s final vocals. His last phrase—a sinking “not…quite…yet,” each note held for a bar (or two, for the last), with the consonance of the “t”s as endstops—is answered by a McCaslin solo that sounds as if a sleeper is considering facing the day and then drifts off again, in bliss.

As Bowie’s humbled, yearning take on “No Plan” was cut before Caruso’s wide-eyed one, listening to the tracks in their recording order reverses the progression of Toy, where Bowie had remade his earliest songs as an older man, imposing the costs of age upon youth. It’s a different degree of tragedy here—Bowie’s “No Plan” assesses a full life at its end, while Caruso’s mourns one that was barely allowed to begin.

Recorded: (backing tracks, vocals) 7, 10 January 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, retake?) ca. March-April 2015. Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitar?; McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, alto flute, C flute; Ben Monder: guitar; Jason Lindner: keyboards and synthesizers; Tim Lefebvre: bass; Mark Guiliana: drums. Produced: Bowie, Visconti; engineered: Kevin Killen, Visconti.

First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Zara Yaari, “New York, 2015.”

14 Responses to No Plan

  1. fhgaldino says:

    This song feels like a epilogue now more than ever. One of the most beautiful songs he ever recorded. And thanks Chris for posting this in these times, especially for the person who asked for new posts.

  2. sw says:

    Just what the doctor ordered!

  3. Floodsy says:

    Great post as usual, thanks for this now

  4. DanGoodman says:

    Does anyone else hear echoes of the Labyrinth soundtrack (maybe ‘As the World Falls Down’), especially playing over the end McCaslin solo?

    Also, at 1:09 of the DB version, there’s a jarring (intentionally?) slight overlap between the sustained “I am” and the “All…” in the higher register, where two versions of David exist at the same time for a second. It’s more obvious at 2:01, but I think the first is more striking because the overlap is barely obvious.

  5. Paul Outlaw says:

    Very fitting post the day after Sondheim’s 90th birthday: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.” (Bowie, 2008)

  6. scarymonster says:

    Oh man, a song for our troubled times, when planning even for tomorrow is next to impossible (at least here in the UK, where there is no effective leadership to face C19).

    I’d not listened to this track for at least a couple of years – but it just broke my heart all over again.

    Thanks Chris (I think!)

  7. suzyq1973 says:

    Thank you!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks

  9. matthew says:

    Yes indeed.
    When I saw there was a new post I’d forgotten that No Plan hadn’t had an entry yet and thought how appropriate. An underrated ep I think. The four tracks flow together brilliantly, from Lazarus setting the scene through disbelief and feeling lost (No Plan), rage (Killing a Little Time) and finally some sort of acceptance (When I Met You).
    Thanks Chris for a little lift today.

  10. Jim Nightshade says:

    There’s also the reference to Black Tie White Noise (picture of Bowie singing here in to the 50s style mic) and because of this his wedding to Iman (?), and the multiple screens in the shop window – other than the obvious “Newton Electrical” referencing The Man Who Fell To Earth – post modern fragmentation of reality etc.

  11. BenJ says:

    Over the past couple of days I’ve been listening to some of my favorite Bowie tracks and revisiting some others. So it’s nice to take a fresh look at this one. Again, thank you for giving us this thoughtful essay.

    It’s interesting that Caruso’s character is a murder victim in her teens. I’m probably not the first to suggest a parallel with Baby Grace Blue from Outside. If it is, on some level, her, then Lazarus is about as happy an ending as she’s going to get.

  12. Chris, what a treat to find a new post in my inbox. Thank you for this beautifully written and thoughtful essay – and the opportunity to revisit this lovely track. It really does feel appropriate to this time.

  13. Charles Hunt says:

    I live near the launderette where it was filmed and after watching the video recognised the shop front, but was thrown a bit by the road sign – because the actual street is called “Endwell Road” – I couldn’t help a smile at the bittersweet feelings that provoked.

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