Karma Man (Revisited)

Karma Man (rejected Deram single, 1967).
Karma Man (Top Gear (BBC), 1968).
Karma Man (The Sunday Show (BBC), 1970).
Karma Man (Toy, 2000).

The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.

John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.

George Harrison, quoted in Holiday, February 1968.

All at once, or so it seemed, the British pop aristocracy turned to “Eastern” religion. Pete Townshend found Meher Baba, Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. Donovan and the Beatles became adherents of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Spiritual Regeneration Movement, an offshoot of Hindu teachings centered on the practice of transcendental meditation.

The mystery of this burst of religiosity is somewhat dispelled if you consider that many of these people had taken LSD for some time—Tony Visconti and his wife Siegrid tripped once a week for a year, for instance, and John Lennon all but lived on acid in 1966. Eastern teachings resounded with young celebrities trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed,” as Bernice Martin wrote.

In Britain, where Christian observance was in great decline among the young (Lennon’s “we’re more popular than Jesus” comment was specifically about this generation), watery varietals of Buddhism and Hinduism became alluring. To Western youth, Buddhism had no edict-heavy god and its spiritual leaders were best known for protesting war and wearing colorful outfits. Seemingly devoted to the “now,” it was misinterpreted as a Pop religion. “I only live now and I don’t know why,” as David Bowie sang in “Karma Man.”

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism dated to his early teens, sparked in part by his half-brother Terry, Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and Penguin paperbacks on Zen Buddhism by the British convert Christmas Humphreys. But the essential book, Bowie later said, was Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the wellspring of Bowie’s first Buddhist-influenced song,“Silly Boy Blue.” Harrer was a German national who’d made his way into Tibet, a country few Westerners had ever visited. Much of his book concerned his stay in Lhasa, his meetings with the young Dalai Lama, and his thoughts on life in a Buddhist theocracy.

Bowie was a regular at the Tibetan Buddhist Society by late 1965, a time when he often stayed at his manager Ralph Horton’s apartment, a five-minute walk from the Society’s office in Eccleston Square. There he met and befriended a Tibetan lama in exile, Chime Rinpoche, who became Bowie’s spiritual mentor. He would ask Rinpoche and his fellow monks questions about Buddhism that the monks would answer with other questions, a circularity that delighted him.

The more frustrated Bowie became with his pop music career, the deeper his immersion in Mahayana Buddhism: late 1967 and much of 1968, when his debut album tanked and Deram kept rejecting his singles, marked the peak of his self-identification as a Buddhist. He said he was “going to chuck it all in” to become a monk, to the point of claiming to have visited a monastery in Scotland, allegedly sleeping upright in a box and keeping to a vow of silence. (It’s worth noting the latter practices have nothing do to with Mahayana Buddhism. This suggests a strong element of fiction in Bowie’s tale or that this Scottish Buddhist monastery was rather unorthodox.)

Chime Rinpoche, ca. 1960s

Buddhist-derived concepts, such as the ultimate emptiness of the self, intrigued Bowie. The line “his overself pays the bill” in “Silly Boy Blue” suggests that he’d read the Tathāgatagarbha Sutras, Mahayana sutras that claimed within everyone is an immortal, transcendental “overself” (a rough equivalent to the Christian concept of the soul, and sometimes referred to as Ātman, or the “Buddha nature”). Yet while anyone could be a Buddha, this potential was hidden within you, obscured by your own flaws of perception (“colored shades that blind your eyes”)— you wrongly perceived the world and, often, wrongly lived in the world.

So Bowie’s devotion was more dedicated than the average weekend Buddhist of his era, for whom “Tibet” was an Atlantis up in the mountains, a Shangri-La in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. The fevered political atmosphere of 1968 meant that identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist (and so by default protesting China’s occupation of Tibet) could get you flak from Maoist radicals. Even the apolitical Bowie reportedly was heckled by an American Maoist during his pro-Tibet mime Jetsun and the Eagle.

Spanish bootleg 45, ca. 1980

“Karma Man,” written in early-to-mid 1967, was slated as the B-side of Bowie’s proposed autumn single for Deram, a chaste counterpart to the lustful “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” Bowie’s tribute to monks in exile like Rinpoche, its title character prays in a carnival tent as one of the exhibits: a metaphor for the lama in the West, a “freak” living ascetically in the world of ice cream cones and sideshow stalls. There’s the concept of life as perpetual impermanence, which would turn up again in “After All” and “Changes,” and an obvious homage to Ray Bradbury’s tattooed Illustrated Man (“fairytale skin depicting scenes from human zoos”), with the lama as living storybook.

Down-and-out Strange (Strange Tales 115, Dec. 1963, Lee/Ditko)

Where “Silly Boy Blue” had the measured tone of a National Geographic article, “Karma Man” was more fantastical. Bowie had taken to describing Buddhist monks as superhuman figures, claiming to the Melody Maker that monks could go days without eating, spend months underground and could live for centuries (traces of this appear in “The Supermen”  and “Sons of the Silent Age”). This suggested that Bowie was up on one of the counterculture’s new heroes, Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, an arrogant ex-surgeon reborn as a chela to the Ancient One and who, as per Geoffrey O’Brien, “spends his days sitting lotus fashion within his tastefully decorated Greenwich Village pied-à-terre and tuning into the brainwaves reaching him from across the universe.” Steve Ditko’s Strange Tales was full of astral projections, trips to psychedelic bardos and battles with occult powers like the Dread Dormammu.

Strange Tales 133, June 1965 (Lee/Ditko)

“Karma Man” was a fragile beauty of a song, its syllable-stuffed D major verses calmed by harmonized B major refrains, whose melody had for an opening hook a grand descending phrase (“slooow down, sloooow down,” F#-D#-C#-B) that set up the spotlight moment, an Anthony Newley-style elongation of “do–oh–ow–ownnnnnn,” with Bowie really wringing out the concluding en sound. It would have a strange, frustrated life as a recording.

Its 1967 studio take was a rush-job, as Bowie and Visconti had to cut it on the same day they did “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (Deram soon rejected both tracks.) Bowie sounds tentative in his phrasings at times, putting hard emphases on filler words like “he’s” and “but,” sounding as if he’s stalling for time while changing lyric sheets. There’s a fundamental imbalance between Visconti’s cello scoring, which dominates much of the track, and the subdued rhythm section—John McLaughlin vanishing for much of the song after playing the opening riff, some professional busker guitar by “Big Jim” Sullivan, a bass mostly content to shadow the cello (a modest Visconti), Alan White’s drums trying to make peace with the track. Siegrid Visconti sang the high harmonies, blending well with Bowie’s voice and kicking off a tradition of Visconti spouses making cameo appearances on Bowie tracks or videos.

Far better was the “Karma Man” done for the BBC’s Top Gear in May 1968, which I still consider the song’s canonical version. Visconti’s strings are lusher, with a broader tonal range; the tempo has subtly but essentially increased, making the song move at last. Having a stronger rhythmic template to work with (see also, more dynamic drumming and livelier guitar strum patterns), Bowie sounds at ease in the song, better handling the tricky rhythms of his verse lines, luxuriating in his refrains.

He returned to “Karma Man” in early 1970, as it was being released at last, on a Deram compilation LP cashing in on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” success. Performing it alone for a John Peel session, Bowie alters the guitar pattern to the sort of chugging Bo Diddley-esque line he favored in the “Space Oddity” era, while he has a similar plaintive tone as on likes of “Columbine” and “God Knows I’m Good.” He’s more inventive as a singer by now—listen to how he subtly shifts emphases and holds his notes with more assurance in the refrains—and he makes “Karma Man” sound fresh. You can imagine it having further life on stage in the Hunky Dory/Ziggy years, but this was the end of it.

Thirty years later, Bowie remade many of his “lost” Sixties songs. “Silly Boy Blue” got a gravid, respectful reinvention; “Let Me Sleep Beside You” became an aging roue’s come-on. “Karma Man,” never bootlegged but said to have been cut in the Toy sessions, would remain a rumor until last Friday, when it appeared on streaming sites.

I wish that I could say its Toy version gave the song a new perspective. But so far I just hear a cluttered, fumbled cover, a reheated “oldie” with Bowie in a diminished voice—was he getting over a cold when he cut this vocal?—that feels more dated than its Sixties versions. The arrangement, with Mike Garson filigrees in the verses, a trumpet opening hook and radio ident bumper vocal tags, sounds at times like a band trying to replicate a Badly Drawn Boy track from memory. Sterling Campbell tries to pound some life into the thing, and there may well be some good guitar lines somewhere in the mix. The 1968 “Karma Man” had grace; the 1970 version held mystery—it left an opening. Its 2000 incarnation is airless.

There would be no going back, it turned out, and this wouldn’t be the way forward. The world that created “Karma Man” now seems ten lifetimes away. Bowie’s song was a butterfly, never meant to last more than a summer.

End credits

(Deram version) Recorded: 1 September 1967, Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal; John McLaughlin: lead guitar; Jim Sullivan: acoustic guitar; Tony Visconti: bass; Alan White: drums; Siegrid Visconti: harmony vocals; unknown player(s): cello. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Gerald Chevin. First release: 6 March 1970, The World of David Bowie (Decca SPA 58)

(Top Gear version) Recorded: 13 May 1968, Piccadilly 1 Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; McLaughlin: lead guitar; Alan Hawkshaw: keyboards; Herbie Flowers: bass; Barry Morgan: drums; Visconti, Steve “Peregrin” Took: harmony vocals; The Tony Visconti Orchestra (uncredited): violins, violas, celli. Produced: Bernie Andrews; engineered: Alan Harris. First release: 26 September 2000, Bowie at the Beeb (EMI/Virgin 7243 5 28629 2 4).

(Sunday Show version) Recorded: 5 February 1970, BBC Paris Studio, London. Bowie: vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar. First release: 28 May 2021, The Width of a Circle.

(Toy version). Recorded: (tracking) July 2000, Sear Sound, New York; (vocals, overdubs) October 2000, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Bowie: lead vocal; Earl Slick: lead guitar; Mark Plati: rhythm guitar, keyboards; Mike Garson: keyboards; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Sterling Campbell: drums; Cuong Vu: trumpet?; Holly Palmer, Emm Gryner: harmony vocals. Produced: Plati; engineered: Pete Keppler. First release: (streaming) 15 October 2021.

15 Responses to Karma Man (Revisited)

  1. sinj says:

    the vocals are very strange indeed – weirdly sped up and then lumpy in the verses. They alway said he liked a first take, but this really feels like a “before breakfast” run through…perhaps it will grow on me

  2. sinj says:

    …and nice to have a post from you Chris 🙂

  3. fhgaldino says:

    I was happy to see it finally released… then I listened to it. Not a tasteful take on this song.

  4. patr100 says:

    The “Toy” version sounds like a late “Madness” cover version.

    • cartologist says:

      “Our house… at the end of our street…” – You’re right!

    • patr100 says:

      Seems there was bit of “cross fertilisation” going on , deliberate or not.


      • patr100 says:

        Just to add , on the Madness connection:

        Suggs: “David Bowie was a very nice person. The first time we met, Madness supported him in concert in California, USA. I was late and the rest of the band had gone on and were playing One Step Beyond. I just managed to get on stage for the last bars but I slipped off the edge and fell, hitting every bit of scaffolding on the way. I dragged myself back up and the crowd went wild as I crawled to the microphone, only to see Bowie really laughing in the wings. The second time, our producer was working with him on Absolute Beginners and Bowie invited us to his place in Switzerland.
        Off we went with our two families and suitcases piled on the roof of the car. His place was like a James Bond hideaway in the mountains. The garage door opened and there he was – David Bowie, silhouetted like a scene from Close Encounters. We drive into the garage and all our suitcases go flying off the back. The next thing, my underwear is blowing around Bowie’s driveway and there he is picking up my socks and vests. It wasn’t the impression I was hoping to make. But he was very charming about it.”

  5. Funny how perspectives change with one’s age and the times. Twenty years ago I was mildly curious about the “eastern” religions and philosophies the celebrity boomer generation was into. Ten years later the attitude was more like, good for them but no thanks. Now? Mildly embarrassed on their behalf, frankly.
    Yet still, Bowie doesn’t seem to me to be the worst offender and the way it got distilled into his work was ambiguous enough.

    Strong agree on the ’68 Beeb version being the best. The Toy Karma is poorly enunciated on the verses and indeed, he sounds like he has a cold. Odd vocal from such a strong vocalist!

    The official release of Toy has been leaving me pretty cold in general, have to say. But there’s all the other music…for pretty much any mood. What a body of work!

    • Christine says:

      My first thought when reading this piece was in agreement with Maj about changed perspectives. I am of the generation that was attracted to the East and mysticism and never realised at the time how “of the time” this was. I trained in Transcendental Meditation (TM) but never really got on with it so I let it lapse and it is all now very much of the past. However I did have a couple of married friends who were totally NOT hippy dippy ( he was a sceptical mathematician) and they took to it straight away and both spent the following decades working in the TM dome in Skelmersdale and it has obviously enriched their lives and the lives of their family and they remain very down to earth.
      As for Karma Man I too prefer the earlier versions to the recent version – why so fast?! However I quite like the drums and bass on the Toy version so would prefer that to be blended in with db’s earlier vocals with less of the strings.
      I also am not so excited by the Toy disc but have ordered the box set for the other discs as I am a fan of db in the 90’s.

  6. Steve says:

    As much as I can generally find something to love in almost every Bowie album, it saddens me to say that I can kinda see why Toy got rejected.

    It takes a bunch of his early, slightly flawed tracks, but strips out almost all of the youthful energy and innocence that made them so compelling, and the mis-steps forgivable.

    Instead you’re just left with this dreary, weary, middle-aged, Sunday afternoon radio, middle of the road sensation. I don’t think Bowie’s ever done a more lifeless set of vocals, or depressing production. It’s like Hours, but with the material even less fitting for the intentionally slow direction.

    I get this was likely an intentional, creative choice. But I think it was a major error. I don’t feel a single one of the songs were improved.

  7. Phil O. says:

    I’ve always found “Karma Man” to be an awkward composition, especially in the verses, and if anything the Toy version doubles-down on the awkwardness through DB’s very odd vocal choices. The “everything pushed up-front” quality of the mix – full of 60s-style baroque pop bells-n-whistles competing for the listener’s attention – adds to the ungainliness of the remake.

    OTOH, while I was pretty flummoxed/disappointed when I first heard this on Friday, I am finding the chorus of the remake – which is big and buoyant – pretty catchy. It’s been in my head all day today.

    On a macro level, the more I hear of Toy the more I understand why it was cancelled and all that DB released during his lifetime were the real highlights (“Conversation Piece” being the best). He could have easily green-lit Toy a few years down the road, but he chose not to; I think he had second thoughts and decided to consign most of Toy to the same fate as the original versions of these songs: available, but not promoted.

  8. phyllisinpigtails says:

    the vocals for the opening verse are so bizarre. on occasion, bowie’s vocals can just be a little wide of the mark. but here they’re awful.

  9. Coagulopath says:

    A tragedy of late Bowie is that he seemingly lost his ability to do “bad” singing. He does a challenging vocal on “Red Sails” (for example) but it somehow works, but here it doesn’t.

    The arrangement is overstuffed to me and the song feels like its racing. It’s like the soundtrack to a bipolar person’s manic state. “Slow down!” loses its cosmic significance and instead sounds like a note Visconti’s frantically waving inside from inside the mixing booth.

  10. ge says:

    Tibetan Buddhist summa teachings not translated/available til recent decades: Dzogchen {Great Perfection}…the sage Longchenpa’s writings take the cake. Mahamudra is related pinnacle fare, tied to other school

  11. Lee says:

    Karma Man is my favourite Bowie song – there’s something about the garbled story mixed with the quirky musicality which has always pinged me.

    I’m pleased that I’m not the only one who is unsure about the Toy version.

    Perhaps, once I’ve heard the whole album, it may not stick out so much. Maybe it needs the rest to normalise it.

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