Most of Bowie’s Blackstar/No Plan songs accept death or dismiss it; they regret having to leave and grumble about doing the packing. And then there’s “Killing a Little Time,” a rage at death in a would-be heavy metal/jazz fusion piece: a strange, garish anomaly among Bowie’s last works.
Take its opening guitar riff, F and E notes played over E minor and A minor chords, with a descending A-G#-F tag. Perhaps this started off as Bowie considering some sort of Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot-inspired accompaniment, but the end result is more chest-puffed-out adolescent riffing, with another guitar even harmonized two steps up in a classic cheesy Eighties metal move.
Donny McCaslin recalled that “it was always this angry, pissed off-song.” A labored-over composition, “Killing a Little Time” was first cut in the January 2015 Blackstar sessions, its initial arrangement having prominent synthesizer parts. When recut in March, the instrumentation was simplified, with McCaslin scoring new horn parts and “harmoniz[ing] them in this dark way,” he told Mojo. Its highlight is the drum track, one of Mark Guiliana’s master performances in the sessions. While technically in 4/4 (as emphasized by his clanging cymbal pattern), Guiliana sounds as if he’s doubling time on alternating beats in every measure, which, along with Tim Lefebvre’s syncopated bassline, makes “Killing a Little Time” lurch, sway, rumble. It feels punch-drunk—one comparison, and a possible influence, is the similar time distortion in “If You Can See Me.”
As often, Bowie had a sharp eye when watching his collaborators. “Killing a Little Time” sounds as if he’s processing what he’d taken from his composing sessions and small group workshops with Maria Schneider in 2014. He (and McCaslin) drew from her “Sue” arrangement (see how McCaslin scores his woodwinds in the second verse of “Killing a Little Time”) and, for organizational and tonal ideas, Bowie’s favorite of Schneider’s compositions, “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song” (1994), a piece that McCaslin said helped him “get inside of [“Killing”] a little bit.” (Henry Hey’s arrangement for Lazarus keeps close to Bowie/McCaslin’s, with a few minor changes such as substituting horns for keyboard chord support in the intro, while the lead-up to the refrain lacks McCaslin’s ascending woodwind line.)
Lyrically, the song also took a long path—Bowie kept revising lines and cut his final vocals at the very end of the sessions (a key difference between the Blackstar songs and the ones consigned to Lazarus/No Plan is that the latter were far more reworked in the studio, McCaslin said, with tracking sessions spread out over months and various arrangements tried out).
Tim Lefebvre said in 2018 that “Killing a Little Time” began as a song originally reported as an outtake, “Black Man of Moscow,” whose title subject was a) an undisclosed medieval czar, perhaps along the same lines as the unnamed medieval villain of “The Next Day” and/or b) the nineteenth-century Russian poet Pushkin, who had African ancestry. “I lay in bed/ the monster fed/ the body bled/ I turned and said” isn’t quite a Pushkin sonnet, though.
In Lazarus, Michael C. Hall sings “this tidal wave” as “thees tidal waaave,” and treats the long notes as if they’ve done him harm. It’s his most Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment in the play. In his recording (which predates Hall’s), Bowie hangs back more, although he expectorates “fuck you over” and bites into his blood-sponge words (“sym-pho-neeee,” “fyur-ious raaaaaaain”) with as much relish as Hall does.
No surprise that “Killing a Little Time” didn’t make the cut for Blackstar: it would have been tonally jarring in the LP sequence and had perhaps too many similarities to “Sue” and the title track (compare its refrain to the “Blackstar” coda). The most overlooked of Bowie’s final compositions, “Killing a Little Time,” if a bit leaden, is also sharp and fresh. It’s a launching point for a scrapped mission: it could have led to somewhere interesting, had Bowie been granted some more years to write.
It was used in Lazarus as a piece for Thomas Jerome Newton to sing when his deranged assistant Elly and the killer Valentine invade his apartment. Until the outtake “Blaze” is released (will it ever be?), “Killing a Little Time” is Bowie’s last-ever studio vocal: a petulant rant whose core demand is that of his 1969 “Cygnet Committee”—I want to live! If he can’t, he’ll bring the house down with him.
Recorded: (backing tracks) 23 March 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs) ca. April 2015; (vocals) 19 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.
Top photo: Juan Salmoral, “103rd Street, New York”, 11 September 2015.