I Can’t Give Everything Away

I Can’t Give Everything Away.
I Can’t Give Everything Away (Nine Inch Nails, 2017).

Five years is what they’re going to write, and one can’t blame them. It’s a good headline, and it’s the only time they can use it. A strange temporal distance: far enough away to be the past, yet it still feels like it happened a couple of months ago, or maybe in a dream.

It felt like a dream to me, that day. Sitting in my kitchen, putting up a tribute post on the blog, approving comments, turning the Twitter into a tribute feed. I did this for twelve hours or so, then wrote out John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X on Twitter, shut off the laptop, fell asleep on the couch with the dog. It was what I imagine being an air traffic controller is like on a heavy day.

I did this for lack of anything else to do, for fear that I wasn’t doing enough. I’d written about David Bowie for years, had released a book about his music. I felt an obligation to maintain one place where people could go, to talk, to mourn, to just announce their disbelief. For the people who had teared up on the bus that morning, or broke down in a supermarket, for no “logical” reason—after all, this was a famous pop star, whom you never met, whom you never knew. But your grief was real, as you were grieving your life, which had changed overnight, one piece of it suddenly removed, as if you woke up to learn that the moon had disappeared, that there would never be a moon again, just old photographs and films, your memories of it and those of your friends.

One grating performative bit of the past five years is the person who says David Bowie was holding the universe together and it all went to hell after his death, as if he was a Timelord or an Ent or something. Well, the lifespan of David Jones, which encompassed the Korean and Vietnam wars, the assassinations of many beloved public figures, the Rwandan genocide, the Indonesian massacres and so forth, was no golden age. I suppose the most generous reading of this lament is that Bowie’s death was an unmistakable sign that the 20th Century was fading into dust and smoke, taking with it things that had once seemed permanent—newspapers, comprehensible politics, rock and roll. The news of late that nearly every old rock star is selling off their publishing suggests a fire sale that’s grown more desperate. Everywhere one looks now is tumult and chaos; turning a calendar page becomes an act of optimism.

As were Bowie’s last years. He was a 20th Century man from stern to stem. In his relatively brief time in the 21st, he quickly grew disenchanted with it, like someone who regretted buying shares in a disastrous joint venture. I demand a better future, he’d sung, not long after the century began. His last surge of creative life—producing in a few years The Next Day, the “Sue” single with Maria Schneider, Lazarus, and Blackstar—was this demand restated, ever more firmly, a demand to want more, to expect more, from oneself, from the world. Yet there was also an element of finality in this, of knowing this would be the last campaign.

Cut in the final Blackstar sessions of March 2015, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was “trancelike,” the keyboardist Jason Lindner said. “I just had this piano figure I played on the Wurlitzer that keeps going and stays consistent through the bass notes moving down. It keeps repeating and gets bigger and bigger.”

For Blackstar, Lindner translated what he heard on Bowie’s demos into lush backdrops, converting guitar parts into synthesizer lines, and he gave “I Can’t Give Everything Away” overlapping, swirling layers of Moogs and Prophets: “I would dial in a basic patch on my Prophet ‘08 as a sort of blank canvas sound… It has an organic quality and it matches incredibly well with acoustic instruments. The Prophet 12 produced some beautifully edgy, full pads with ringing metallic overtones that really fit the more intense moments.” (There’s an odd mixing choice to abruptly cut off one of Lindner’s high-pitched drones at 4:28.)

The drum loop that links the track to its Blackstar predecessor “Dollar Days” came from Bowie’s home demo, as did his harmonica parts, unavoidably calling back to “A New Career in a New Town.” As on much of the album, Mark Guiliana had to play a drum part that would hold true to Bowie’s demo, to “accommodate this simple part but also interact with the rest of the guys and build the song in a spontaneous way.”

Guiliana’s work was the fulfillment of what Bowie, Mark Plati, and Zachary Alford had done on Earthling (a favorite album of Guiliana’s teenage years): live drum tracks with the roll and rigor of synthetic ones, playing human variations on an electronic theme. On “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Guiliana takes Bowie’s drum loop and builds it out—laying off his snare in verses to play subtly-changing hi-hat patterns and kick beats, getting in sharp fills to round out refrains, quietly building in intensity and dynamics when responding to Donny McCaslin’s solo.

Bowie starts out low in range, his notes mostly those of the underlying F chord. He makes a quiet assertion, moving up a third (“something’s ve-”) and down (“-ry wrong”), ending a tone higher than where he started. Two steps up, a step down. He makes the same movement, only going higher, when the chord changes. He keeps pushing upward until, with the plaintive “GIVE” that opens the refrain, he’s on the peak, looking down at the valley. In a breath, he tumbles down (“ev-ry thing”). He does it again: a striving, a collapse. At last he reaches a compromise on the last “awaaaay,” holding on a C note that’s an octave up from where he’d started in the verse.

It’s a monologue, a surging lifeline against repetitions of drums and keyboards. But after a time, Bowie’s refrain vocal freezes into a pattern. He’s fallen into the song. No longer the lead actor, he moves into the background, his refrain phrasing becoming another loop, now working in support of his soloists. First McCaslin, who plays a melody to wreathe Bowie’s “away” and then takes a journey to parallel Bowie’s: lightly stepping up, sliding down, fixating on notes, urging himself onward, finding new pockets of melody as means to keep aloft; it’s an aeronaut’s solo.

The beginning of Ben Monder’s solo, as transcribed by John Hendow

Then the guitarist Ben Monder (like McCaslin, another Maria Schneider Orchestra regular). On Blackstar he’s often the touch-up man, working in overdubs, the inker and colorist who moves in once pages have been penciled. Yet when he appears on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” it’s as if the whole song has been laid out for his benefit, to be raw materials for his coruscating, shredding solo. Monder is another force pushing upward, again and again moving to his highest two strings, peaking on a sky-high A note, then making a tumbling chromatic fall. As “I Can’t Give Everything Away” moves into its outro, Monder plays a ritardando figure of alternating high notes, closing out broadly, no longer in tempo.

And where the ear expects the song to close on its F major home chord, it instead ends on D minor, its vi chord, which aches to be resolved but never will.

This is the last song on the last album that David Bowie would release in his lifetime. And it’s called “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” You can hear his mordant wit in the title—he might have called it “What Else Do You Want, Enough Already.”

When I first heard it, Bowie’s verse reminded me of Roy Orbison’s on “Blue Bayou.” I feel so bad, I got a worried mind, Orbison begins. He’s in exile, separated from his love, far away from his home, and he longs to go back there, saving dimes, working night shifts. But you sense in his voice that he may never make it back, that Blue Bayou, whose details are those of an afterlife or lost childhood (often one and the same in the imagination), isn’t there. Or it once was, but the world has changed and swept it away. As John Crowley once wrote, the world is older than it once was. Orbison could save up, take the train back, only to find nothing but a piece of swampland.

I know something’s very wrong
The pulse returns, the prodigal sons…

Who is this “I,” anyway? Mr. David Jones has brought back David Bowie by popular demand. It’s a show that could play for years, but he knows it won’t—the spells aren’t holding, the bindings are cracking.

Bowie’s stunning lines in the second verse are his Prospero moment, in which an old magician drowns his books in the sea, makes amends for his art and witchcraft:

Bowie sings one last riddle. He saw more than he felt, he said no when he meant yes. This is all I ever meant, he says, with a trace of a smile. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the last scene of a mystery in which the detective reveals there’s been no crime.

Here he stands in his deaths-head shoes, smiling and waving and looking so fine. The image to recall is one of Jimmy King’s last photographs of Bowie. On a downtown New York street, before a grated door, dressed for a tea social, grinning from ear to ear, he looks ready to leap into the air.

Recorded: (drum loop, harmonica) Bowie home studio, ca. mid-late 2014; (backing tracks, vocals) 21 March 2015, Magic Shop; (guitar overdubs) ca. late March 2015; (vocals) 7 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Photos: Jimmy King, “David Bowie,” New York, ca. September 2015.

36 Responses to I Can’t Give Everything Away

  1. type40ttc says:

    Thank you for this, Chris. As always, wonderful writing. And happy birthday to the man.

  2. rwlesses says:

    At the risk of sound condescending, your writing has gotten better and better over the years I have been following you on this blog.
    I am not a writer. Now, more than ever before, you pour yourself into your writing.

    I am ten years older than you. For me, the phrase “this was a famous pop star, whom you never met, whom you never knew” is more applicable to John Lennon (murdered when I was 20) than David Bowie.
    Yet Lennon’s murder was and remains distant: my mother had metastatic lung cancer and died October the next year.

    Still, Bowie’s sudden (to me) death was a gut punch. The next Monday or Tuesday (I don’t remember when I first read of Bowie’s death), I played “Girl Loves Me” in my car at the highest bearable volume over and over on my way to work.

    “And where the ear expects the song to close on its F major home chord, it instead ends on D minor, its vi chord, which aches to be resolved but never will.” is exactly as it should be. Life ends but we don’t know why, or why on a particular day.
    In time, I came to realize that my need for him to be alive and chronicle the world through his strange point of view was irrational and, like my occasional urge to talk to my mother about the last 35 (now 40) years, unresolvable.

    All the best,
    Richard

  3. DJC says:

    Thank you Chris. Just read this in book form, and your reprise here is perfect indeed. Like many Blackstar tracks – this one was a bit hard to listen to (despite its beauty) in the immediate aftermath of DBs passing. I find myself revisiting this track (and others) in a much clearer way now, Five Years on.

  4. Dal says:

    A beautiful piece about a devastatingly beautiful song. Bravo.

  5. Deanna says:

    Hard to believe it’s been that long, wow. Life really does move faster as the years pass. I still don’t ever seek out this song, it’s too sad.

  6. Erin Finneran says:

    Thank you for this writing on what is my favorite Bowie song.

  7. whitenoiz1 says:

    Oddly enough on my library app where i get three free downloads a month to basically keep? This is one of the few Bowie tracks unavailable.

  8. s.t. says:

    I have both of your books, Chris, but I must admit that when David passed, I put Rebel Rebel aside halfway through and I haven’t yet gone back to it. Reading this lovely entry, I feel like it’s finally time to return. Really looking forward to going back and reflecting on this immense body of work. Thank you.

  9. steve carroll says:

    What lovely words and insight Chris. Thank you. Keep on keepin’ on. All the best for 2021.

  10. David JR says:

    Lovely – thanks very much.

  11. rwlesses says:

    Just discovered that, with 2 additional leap days, both Jan 8 2016 and Jan 8 2020 are/were Fridays.

  12. Floodsy says:

    Thanks for this.
    I love new entries from this blog, rolling in like messages in bottles.
    Grateful for the slow roll out of your thoughts here regarding these last materials, to be savored and not hurried.
    I remember getting on my laptop to start work those years ago, queuing up Blackstar for repeat listening (all day! I’m one of those). I had it fairly well on repeat since it had came out (and, at the risk of sounding insane – listened to the snippet of the title track that was serviced on the marketing site for quite a bit even the day it came out). It was hours old news when I happened on it, but – because of the new album and my obsession with it – it was perhaps a more significant gutpunch for me (like rwlesses).
    I’ll not forget the sensation of the air involuntarily being sucked out of me. I’ve lost significant loved ones, but this person – whom I only knew from the art he shared – bits of soul – this *intangible* connection, or to your point; a part of my life – was a loss I felt and in ways still carry.
    Appreciate this blog always, again.

  13. Paul Outlaw says:

    Thanks so much for this “remix.” This is my favorite track on Blackstar, the only one I can listen to with some frequency, even though it has the same effect on me as the rest of the album. Sobs, tears, paralysis…

  14. Christine says:

    Lovely update, Chris. I find it harder to listen to tracks from Blackstar or Lazarus due to sadness and have to keep reminding myself that Bowie was proud of these tracks and so would have wished them to be listened to! I am currently in Bowie heaven with the current wall-to-wall Bowie coverage on TV or radio – better than Christmas!

  15. President Joan says:

    Dear Chris!

    It is amazing hearing of your fear that you weren’t doing enough back then. You certainly did! Your dedication to this blog is very precious to me. And the blog meant everything to a lot of us those strange days that weekend Five Years ago… (Yes, Five Years, of course. And again celebrating his birthday on a Friday with a very Black Sunday soon coming up. At least – and at last – I hope to viddy Lazarus on Sunday when it’s being streamed in Europe in the afternoon.)

    So, I am very thankful this site is here. Of course, it was wonderful already in its own right as it was up until late 2015. And then, of course, came the glorious exam it passed with honour in the fantastic, trivial but important and engaged poll you led us through (with MUCH effort, I realize;). And after that, it almost became the centre of my universe! When the poll results had finally been presented and commented (with so much energy and contribution from everyone) Blackstar was released and after a brief weekend of bliss (and happy commenting here) news guy wept and told us …
    Well, the sanctuary this place immediately turned into then meant everything to me then. Really. Thank you so very much, Traffic Command!

    And now. To my mind, the site has become an important part of Bowie’s legacy. A real treasure – as I think I said before.

    I am crying again this weekend. Yes, “a pop star I didn’t know”, but he´s such a real part of me. I think we all feel the same.

  16. BenJ says:

    It seems like a lifetime ago, more or less. I was working in a data entry job and my coworker was surfing the web while he worked–as I was, but on a different site. He asked me if I’d heard about David Bowie. Sadly it wasn’t hard to guess what he meant. I’m not sure how long it took me but I do know that one of the first things I felt I had to do was come here. You had a beautiful piece for him then. This is another, and I know I’ll reread it many times.

    The resemblance of the verses to Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” is like one of those clues that Dr. Watson exclaims to be obvious after Holmes has pointed it out to him. It is like Bowie to pay a subtle yet clear homage to another vocal great in what he knew might–not definite, but possible–turn out to be his swan song.

    The NIN cover is new to me. It has a striking sincerity. Props to Trent Reznor, too, for sensing that by that point the world didn’t need another “Heroes” cover.

  17. Kurt says:

    Thank you, Chris. I always look forward to your reflections. This was a great tribute. The first time I listened to Blackstar in its entirety, I came to I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY and found it to be such a unique song compared to the rest of the album. Such a good cut! It felt DB’s own eulogy.

  18. Phil says:

    The circling, unresolved repetition of the last section with the guitar solo soaring above it say only too clearly that DB knew his time was running out – hanging on for another day, another day, another day, but all the time heading for something unknowably far beyond.

    Perhaps. I don’t know if anyone at all, outside the inner circle, knew about Bowie’s illness, but the world at large certainly knew nothing. I went through all the contemporary reviews of Blackstar I could find, once, to see how many of them had picked up on the clues that now seem so very obvious – in this song, in the title track, “Dollar Days” (“I’m dying to[o]”…), “Lazarus” (for goodness’ sake)… Not one. One review – I think it was in the Financial Times – picked up on the “something’s very wrong” line in this song and said “hmm, a bit morbid”, but that was as far as it went; most of them didn’t notice a thing. He did it – he fooled them all, again…

  19. Anonymous says:

    Came back to reflect a bit and as always, learned so much. I truly appreciated the Orbison reference, his Prospero moment and your spot-on play-by-play summary of a great jazz record.

    Thanks!

  20. Christine says:

    I have just re-read your piece, Chris, and really appreciate the poignancy. I am only now just coming down from the amazing high of the commemorative weekend. The phenomenal high of Mike Barron’s Tribute Celebration – if anyone was in any doubt about the quality and variety of Bowie’s canon they just needed to see these covers. And Lazarus I saw twice. The first time I watched with trepidation, suspecting I would find the show pretentious and underwhelming, but surprised myself by liking it so saw it a second time, when I was blown away by it! I still discover on a daily basis new insights into the complexity of past songs, which I have attempted to play on my guitar (I had not played for 30 years but these songs inspired me to pick it up again – only playing for my own amusement of course!). So thank you for the blog, Chris, and thank you for the inspiration DB.

  21. Brooke says:

    As someone born in the 90s, I was always going to be late to Bowie. Blackstar was the first (and last) Bowie album I actively anticipated. However it wasn’t until this past year’s ‘events’ that I started my Bowie deep dive. This blog has been a great jumping off point, especially for the under discussed 90s work. It’s given me something to talk about with my mother (a pre -1983 casual Bowie fan) in a year where we don’t really have much to get excited about. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the not strictly song focused entries- the NIN tour, Bowie Bonds, Bowienet- all fun trivia Bowie books don’t give a lot of focus too.

  22. Matthew says:

    You did so much and I thank you. This was a place where people understood, my family and friends didn’t really. The best I could try and explain was to say Bowie is part of how I define myself.

  23. Stolen Guitar says:

    Terrific!

    For me, this song is his perfect goodbye. Just perfect.

    And he absolutely gave away far more than any other pop star ever has…certainly, to me.

    Thanks for yet another brilliant look at Bowie’s genius, Chris.

  24. Niko Okamoto says:

    This Five Year anniversary has hit me harder than the previous. Thank you for your beautiful words that capture what many of us feel so acutely but cannot articulate.

  25. Movie Blues says:

    I can’t give everything away. I’m taking some things with me. We will speak of them no more. Silent like the grave.

  26. ckracer76 says:

    Great news. A new live album about to be released… Feb 2021

  27. colincidence says:

    just realised there’s Young Hearts Run Free in the verse to this

  28. ashar hussain says:

    reading your blog over recent years has introduced me to new bowie songs and made me appreciate and change mu views on others. it would be great if you could open the replies on previous entries as i;m sure a lot of us came late into this game and missed our chance to comment on a lot of material.

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