An Occasional Dream

November 17, 2009

69addict

An Occasional Dream (demo).
An Occasional Dream (LP).
An Occasional Dream (BBC, 1970).

As young love often does, it sort of went wrong after about a year.

David Bowie, Golden Years documentary, 2000.

The other “Hermione” song Bowie composed in early 1969, “An Occasional Dream” replaces the studied heartbreak and intimacy of “Letter to Hermione” with a more stoic approach. Bowie was taken with Jacques Brel (his folk duo Feathers often performed Brel’s “Amsterdam,” which Bowie would later record), and “An Occasional Dream” has an attempted Gallic sensibility—a dead love affair is examined, pinned to a card and cased up. The singer seems to mourn more the passing of his beautiful youth than he does his departed lover.

“An Occasional Dream” is pretty enough, if it doesn’t have as memorable a melody or a vocal as “Hermione,” and it seems far more affected: the way Bowie swoons out the title phrase, or lines like “we’d speak of a Swedish room/of hessian and wood.”

The demo was recorded with John Hutchinson ca. mid-April 1969 (Hutchinson sings lines a bar after Bowie, or gives backing vocals, and gets the occasional lead vocal); it’s the best recording of the song, as the studio version, featuring dippy flute accompaniment, hissed interjections (“TIME!”) and a Bowie vocal that sounds like a Barry Gibb impersonation, is overcooked. It was cut ca. July-August 1969 for the LP Space Oddity. Bowie played “Occasional Dream” once on a BBC session on 5 February 1970 and then retired it.

Top: Mary Ellen Mark, “Heroin addict behind a door in London, 1969.”

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If I’m Dreaming My Life

December 31, 2013

rushmore

If I’m Dreaming My Life.
If I’m Dreaming My Life (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
If I’m Dreaming My Life (only live performance, 1999).

“If I’m Dreaming My Life” wasn’t just the longest track on ‘Hours’: it was one of the longest studio recordings that Bowie made in his life. Its contemporaries (length-wise) were epics and scene-changers: “Station to Station,” “Width of a Circle,” “Cygnet Committee,” “The Motel,” “Memory of a Free Festival,” the upcoming “Bring Me the Disco King.” If Bowie songs were comic books, these would be the Jack Kirbys. So when considered in this grand company, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” comes off as aridly grandiose.

On ‘Hours,’ though, its odd structure (four verses broken up by guitar solos, the second and last verses given tagged-on refrains, and a three-minute bloodletting of a coda) and its occasionally disconcerting chord progressions* gave it a presence, if a blank one, on the album: it’s an empty quadrant of the map. “Dreaming My Life” seems half-finished at times—Bowie sings emotive “ooohhhs” in lieu of words; the second guitar solo appears to have started as a parody of “Under the Bridge” and hardly developed further. Nothing pans out; the timing’s off. Lights fade. A father “steps aside/at the wrong time:” a bungled bit of wedding stagecraft—a father giving the bride away too soon—or the bitter thought of an estranged husband: he shouldn’t have given her away at all? Or the line “was it air she breathed?”: it’s a man seeming to fancy, like four hundred songwriters before him, that his lover seems scarcely human. Then he concludes the line with another “at the wrong time.” She wasn’t as much perfect as poisoned.

Though demoed and partially tracked in Bermuda, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” was completely remade once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels returned to New York for overdub and mixing sessions. Former Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett was recruited to play rhythm guitar; he’s echoed, in places, by a stabbing keyboard line. Mark Plati and Mike Levesque, perhaps energized by playing “live” on the backing track instead of cutting their typical overdubs, provide one of the more supple foundations on the album. Plati’s bass is the lead melodic voice of the intro, while his roaming fills in the coda are a counter-melody to Bowie’s static refrain; Levesque, charged with flooring life into the song in the refrain verses, serves as a gravity well (for all its faults, ‘Hours’ has some of Bowie’s more dynamic-sounding drum tracks).

The song’s bid for “greatness,” or at least to hold its head up among the likes of “Station to Station,” is Bowie’s performance in the coda. It’s a simple conceit: he tries to complete a single phrase yet hardly seems able to make the effort (often he’ll just get out a “dreaming my….” before stumbling back to the start); it’s a man reduced to his voice. Beginning with keyboards masked as a horn/wind quartet (in the song’s few live performances, this role was assumed by Mike Garson’s “church” organ chords), the coda gains fresh dimensions whenever Bowie manages to finish the phrase: a distorted, chiming guitar; a choir of secondary Bowies; the melodic generosity of Plati’s bass. If it’s a triumph, it’s a barren one. Compared to the imaginative density of a “Station” or “Width of a Circle,” “Dreaming My Life” seems like an abandoned outpost of some crumbling empire.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Performed on VH1 Storytellers and once live, at Libro Music Hall, Vienna, 17 October 1999.

* The verses are basically in G minor, though a motivic chord sequence—found in the intro, refrain tags and coda—is Gm-Eb-C-F-D, suggesting a move to the parallel major. There’s a quintessential odd Bowie progression in the first round of the coda, where a C-sharp major chord crops up where the ear expects (by now) C major (the first “dreaming my…”).

Top: Rushmore (Anderson, 1998).


Planet of Dreams

August 12, 2013

deadman

Planet of Dreams.

The story of David Bowie’s music is that of a boy’s club. There obviously have been women (a great many) in Bowie’s personal life; on stage and in the studio, it’s been a far different matter.

There were muses and fellow performers: Hermione Farthingale, Dana Gillespie, Ava Cherry. His Arts Lab co-founder Mary Finnigan. Fellow composers like Lesley Duncan. Angela Bowie, who in the early Seventies was essentially Bowie’s manager, strategist, minder, roadie and work-engine (for all we know, Iman’s played the same role in the past 20 years). Corrinne Schwab has quietly run his empire since the mid-Seventies. There were choreographers and costumers like Toni Basil and Natasha Korniloff. Backing singers like Emm Gryner, Holly Palmer and Robin Clark. Occasional studio contributors, like the violinist Lisa Germano.

But there’s only been one woman who stands in the “frontline” of Bowie musicians, the only one whose name ranks with the likes of Gabrels or Garson, Alomar or Slick: Ms. Gail Ann Dorsey.

And that said, there’s a sense of missed opportunity with Dorsey and Bowie. While she had a marvelous voice, she rarely sang on Bowie’s albums and, more strikingly, she didn’t play on many of them. We’re about to say goodbye to her for a time, as Mark Plati and Tony Visconti were the only bassists on the stretch of albums between Hours and Reality (as fate would have it, the one album she did play on during this time, Toy, was never issued). Dorsey would remain Bowie’s touring bassist.

Some of her absence was possibly due to timing: she’d been a solo artist since the Eighties and was working on her own material, and she was in demand for other sessions. Some of it was a matter of logistics: e.g., when recording with Visconti, it was simpler to have Visconti play the basslines. But Dorsey seemed to have some regret that she hadn’t been more involved in the records. “It’s hard for me to get a look in with all the great bass players that hang around David. But I enjoy playing with David in any capacity,” she said in a 2003 webchat.*

After the Earthling sessions, Dorsey and Bowie collaborated on “Planet of Dreams,” a track slotted for a 1997 compilation to benefit the Tibet House Trust.** “Planet of Dreams” is little like the rest of Earthling. Recorded mainly with acoustic instruments, its establishing mood is a vague “Eastern” vibe: a glacial sense of grandeur as conveyed by a slow tempo, a wide-panned stereo mix featuring a rotating cast of tastefully deployed sound-colors (among those here are congas, a singing Gabrels guitar line and Garson rumbling on the bass end of his piano); it’s the sort of soundscape favored by late-career Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel and seemingly by any post-1990 travel documentary set in the Himalayan region.

Built on a single verse, Bowie singing each phrase to the same rising melody, that ramps up to a ten-times-repeated single-line chorus, “Planet of Dreams” has a sweep and power to it. Its lyric begins with intimations of reincarnation, takes an odd detour through Clark Gable’s eyes and “Eisenhower blam[ing] the poor” and closes with the title phrase, a more cutting idea than the aspirational-sounding “we’re living in planet of dreams” suggests. The line’s more likely Bowie playing on the Mahayana Buddhist concept of māyā, in which we perceive the world as if we’re audience members as a magic show, taking the illusions unfurled on stage as real.

Dorsey’s harmony vocals, coming midway through the verse, strengthen the song as Bowie’s single-tracked verse vocal is flighty and wavering in the first lines. Their harmonies on the chorus, soaring over rolling Zach Alford fills and cymbal crashes and the quiet musings of Dorsey’s own graceful bass, make the title line hypnotic. What saves the track from an icy loftiness is a slight sense of humor: the piano line that winks at George Michael’s “Freedom”: the “Walk on the Wild Side” vocal tag that Dorsey sings.

“Planet of Dreams” could have been the start of a promising partnership on record. Instead, Bowie and Dorsey would remain a stage collaboration only.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York [? possibly early 1997? see comments]. Released on 23 June 1997 on Long Live Tibet (EMI 7243 8 33140 2 7).

* A follow-up question was more blunt: Gail were you pissed off Bowie didn’t ask you to play on Heathen [?]
GailAnnDorsey: No. I am always surprised that I am still in the band after all these years. Besides, I always get called in for the hard work.

** The song was credited to Bowie and Dorsey on the CD sleeve. I didn’t find the copyright on BMI’s site (where DB’s songs usually are registered) so I don’t know if Dorsey got songwriting credit (I’m assuming it would be for music).


When I Live My Dream

October 2, 2009

chinoise1

When I Live My Dream.

Bowie’s first LP was essentially finished in mid-December 1966 but Deram sat on it for more than six months. In February 1967, Bowie cut two new tracks that became last-minute additions, leavening the album’s weirdness with more standard pop.

Much like “Sell Me a Coat,” “When I Live My Dream” has a lovely melody burdened with awkward lyrics (“the trees will play the rhythm of my dream” ?) and smothered (in later versions) by an overdone arrangement. Whenever Bowie deliberately tried to write for a mainstream audience in this period, as he appeared to be doing here, he fell into weak artifice. He could easily connect with the sad, the lost and the eccentric, but found it difficult to, basically, write for squares.

That said, Bowie and his manager Ken Pitt apparently thought “Dream” could be their break-through song and so kept flogging it despite the lack of label enthusiasm. A fairly spare initial version was soon followed by a remake with a sodden Ivor Raymonde arrangement, the latter version proposed as a single (Deram nixed it). Bowie pushed “Dream” for the rest of the decade—including it in the mime show Pierrot in Turquoise, recording a German version and making it the closing number of his “Love You Till Tuesday” promotional film. He finally gave up in July 1969, when Bowie performed “Dream” in a big-band arrangement at the International Song Festival competition in Valetta, Malta, and lost to a Spanish child prodigy named Cristina.

The song suffered from bad timing, in part—it reeked of stale sentiment and sounded corny when it was released in the summer of ’67. And the lyric, with its tired knights-and-castles imagery, its weak rhymes (“horse” paired with “voice”) and the occasional groan-inducing line like “tell them I’m a dreaming kind of guy,” is a real muddle. The singer’s been dumped and contents himself with imagining his lost lover in his dreams, but he also keeps putting off his illusions, as though he needs her legal consent to get things started. It builds up to the final histrionic verse where he assures her that he’ll only stalk her in his dreamworld.

Best suited as a cue for nostalgia, despite it having had no resonance in its own time. Leos Carax used it in 1984’s Boy Meets Girl, and Seu Jorge‘s version, recorded in 2004 for the Life Aquatic soundtrack, is likely the song’s finest interpretation. Singing most of it in Portuguese helped.

The first version was recorded on 25 February 1967, the remake on 3 June 1967 (both are on Deram Anthology).

Top: Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky in Godard’s La Chinoise, 1967.


C’est La Vie

April 21, 2016

3028362358_f2b1ac5933_b.jpg

This entry, on a minor but sweet song from ca. late 1967, is in the book but never was on the blog. This was due to the fact that the recording didn’t leak until well after I’d covered the Sixties on the blog (2009, basically–I think “C’est” only popped up around 2012).

I am curious whether other demos from the messy “second (and never recorded) Bowie Deram LP” era of late 1967 to early 1968 will eventually surface. I wouldn’t be surprised if so. Looking forward to hearing “Angel Angel Grubby Face” and the Ernie Johnson tape someday.

C’est la Vie.

Bowie wrote “C’est la Vie” in summer 1967 and his manager Kenneth Pitt sent demos that October to song publishers and the American singer Chris Montez, to no response. The elaborate tape, which had eight instrumental and vocal versions of the song, with multiple vocal overdubs and prominent clunky bass (apparently Bowie), suggested Pitt thought “C’est la Vie” one of Bowie’s more commercially promising efforts.

Considered for Bowie’s second Deram album but never taken beyond the demo stage, “C’est la Vie” had a warm melody to suit its lyric’s homebody sentiments. Bowie’s content to watch the world pass by his window, hoping that time will pass him by in turn. It’s a lassitude found in a contemporary interview he gave to Chelsea News (“David is contented with contentment: he is a happy loving person with a gentle nature”). He later reworked one line for “An Occasional Dream” (“burns my wall with time”) and recycled some of its top melody for “Shadow Man.” You could also argue that “Conversation Piece” starts here.

Recorded: (demo, still unreleased) ca. September 1967, Essex Music. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine, bass?

Top: John Atherton, “London, 1967” (“September 13, 1967 at St. James’s park. She was from Germany.”)


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

“Liza Jane” (Toy)
“Louie Louie Go Home”
“I Pity The Fool”
“Take My Tip”
“That’s Where My Heart Is”
“I Want My Baby Back”
Bars of the County Jail”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
(Toy)
“Baby Loves That Way”
(Toy)
“I’ll Follow You”
“Glad I’ve Got Nobody”
“Baby, That’s a Promise”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”
“And I Say to Myself”
“Do Anything You Say”
“Good Morning Girl”
“I Dig Everything”
(Toy)
“I’m Not Losing Sleep”

More: Britain on Film (Look at Life): “Fashion,” London on Film: “Suburbs,” “Why I Hate the Sixties” (2004); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (conclusion); Devin McKinney on Colin MacInnes; Nick Bentley, “Translating English: Youth, Race and Nation in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners;” Bowie: Tonight interview, November 1964; The Beatles Anthology: 1963, 1964, 1965; “British Mods and Rockers” (BBC); scenes from Billy Liar;  Georgie Fame, “Yeh Yeh“; Glenn Gould, “The Search for Petula Clark“(1967); Bowie, radio interview, Marquee Club, 1966; Pye Studios.

Chapter 2: Gnome Man’s Land (1966-1968)

db1

“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
(Toy)
“Over the Wall We Go”
“Uncle Arthur”
“She’s Got Medals”
“Join the Gang”
“Did You Ever Have a Dream”
“There Is a Happy Land”
“We Are Hungry Men”
“Sell Me a Coat
” (remake)
“Little Bombardier”
“Maid of Bond Street”
“Silly Boy Blue”
(Toy)
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
(remake)
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)

David-Bowie-1967

“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Pancho
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
(Toy)
“Karma Man”
(BBC, 1968)
“C’est La Vie”

“Even a Fool Learns to Love”
“In the Heat of the Morning” (Toy)
“London Bye Ta-Ta”
(1970 remake)
“When I’m Five” (BBC, 1968
) (demo, 1969)
“Social Kind of Girl”
“Ching-a-Ling”
“The Mask”

More: The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960: Ep. 1, opening sequence); Anthony Newley, live, 1964; Alan Klein, “I Wanna Be a Beatnik“, 1964; Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (esp. “Uncle Ernest,” “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” and “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”); There Is a Happy Land (1974 adaptation); Heinrich Harrer, “My Life in Forbidden Lhasa” (1955); Ophiel, The Art and Practice of Astral Projection (1961);  David Guy, “Christmas Humphreys”; The Prisoner, excerpt from “Fall Out” (1967); “Forgotten Heroes: Big Jim Sullivan“; The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966); The Fugs, “Dirty Old Man,”(1966); Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” (1957); The Image (Armstrong, 1967, excerpts).

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

db69

“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
(demo)
“An Occasional Dream”
(demo)
“Janine”
“Conversation Piece”
(Toy)
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (B-side)
(LP remake)
“Don’t Sit Down”

“God Knows I’m Good”
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
“Cygnet Committee”
” (“Lover to the Dawn”, demo version)
“Memory of a Free Festival”
” (1970 remake)

More:  2001: A Space Odyssey (“Stargate” sequence); The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941“; Apollo 11, pre-flight conference, July 1969;  International Times (1969 archive); Scott Walker, live in Japan, 1970; Jean Itard, Victor de l’Aveyron (French) (English); Prof. John Merryman, France: May 1968; MC5, “Kick Out the Jams” live, Detroit, 1969; Rolling Stones, Hyde Park free concert, July 1969; George McKay, “The Free Festivals and Fairs of Albion” (in Senseless Acts of Beauty); Beckenham Free Festival, 1969.


Letter To Hermione

November 16, 2009

bowieherm

Letter To Hermione (“I’m Not Quite” demo).
Letter To Hermione (LP).

Elvis Costello, irritated by biographical interpretations of his songs, once said in frustration to an interviewer something like “if Bob Dylan or I meant for you to take us literally, we’d have included a verse that said: So-and-so, my ex-wife, is a real bitch, this is where she lives, go burn down her house.”

Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” appears to fit that bill: it’s a diary entry of a song, addressed to his actual ex-girlfriend by name, detailing what his biographers have described as a devastating break-up. Hermione Farthingale wasn’t her real name (no one knows, or will disclose, the true one). Bowie met her through Lindsay Kemp, danced with her for the film The Pistol Shot and the two were a couple by the summer of 1968, living together in South Kensington, forming a folk trio. By the time the two filmed Love You Till Tuesday in early 1969, it was over (Farthingale apparently had dumped Bowie for another dancer), and Bowie and Farthingale’s last day together was on a soundstage, miming “Sell Me a Coat” and “Ching-a-Ling” for the cameras.

So we have these facts, which impress the songs that Bowie wrote about the break-up (this and “An Occasional Dream“) with the engraved stamp of truth. “Letter to Hermione” isn’t just a sad break-up song, it’s a real sad break-up song. Marc Spitz, Bowie’s latest biographer, calls the song “plaintive and literal,” Nicholas Pegg calls it “painfully intimate.” Here, at last, we believe Bowie took off the mask—here is the true Bowie, dripping out his heart accompanied by guitar, so much that the song should have been credited to David Jones.

It’s understandable, because Bowie remains such an unknowable creature that any visible crack in the wall is worth a sortie. But do we consider something like “Letter to Hermione” an essential, “painfully intimate” Bowie song mainly because we believe it to be true? Is its formal beauty—the tender melody of the verses, the sweep of Bowie’s guitar—not enough?

Because the song isn’t a raw diary spewing at all, but has as much artifice and craft as “Space Oddity”: it’s structured neatly with a mirrored guitar intro and outro which enclose three verses (the first details how desolate “Bowie” is feeling, the second notes the rumors he’s getting about how “Hermione” is faring, and the third speculates about her new lover and her happiness). In the middle of each verse, Bowie, in desperate confidence, suggests that “Hermione” misses him (“You cry a little in the dark”) answered by a short four-syllable line (“well so do I”). And as James Perone notes, as the song is a “letter” it discards typical “love song” standards, shunning, for the most part,  short melodic hooks in favor of long, meandering phrases, while its rhymes are often assonant or half-rhymes (“well/girl,” “pain/same”).

The demo (called “I’m Not Quite”) furthers the sense of “reality,” with its poor, scratchy sonic quality, muffled guitar and Bowie’s tender- and awkward-sounding vocal. (The demo literally is a bedside confessional.) But as John M. Cunningham wrote, the demo’s rawness was refined away by the time Bowie recorded “Hermione” for his LP four months later. There he sings in a more mannered style, choosing a carefully forlorn and wistful tone to deliver his lines. He seems comfortable with it being a work of art, even if we aren’t.

The demo was recorded ca. mid-April 1969, likely in Bowie’s shared flat in Foxgrove Road, Beckenham; the studio cut was recorded ca. August 1969 and is on Bowie’s second LP, called David Bowie in the UK, given the woeful name Man of Words, Man of Music in the US and eventually rechristened Space Oddity by RCA.

Top: Bowie and Farthingale already heading in opposite directions, 1968.


When I Met You

July 26, 2017

giralone

When I Met You (Michael C. Hall and Krystina Alabado, Lazarus perf., 2015).
When I Met You (Hall and Alabado, Lazarus cast recording).
When I Met You (Bowie).

At the end of Lazarus, Thomas Jerome Newton discovers that the teenage girl he’s been talking to throughout the play is actually dead. “Not properly dead,” she notes. She’s the Baby Grace Blue of Lazarus—the girl whose murderer is never apprehended and whose death needs a ritual act to complete. Until then, she’s condemned to wander the earth (or at least Second Avenue) as a ghost. “I’m sorry, Mr. Newton, but it’s not me that’s going to help you get to the stars, but it’s you who’ll help me to die properly.”

You’re my last hope,” Newton replies. “How can I kill that?” Cue the duet “When I Met You,” the play’s penultimate song.

Yet “When I Met You” isn’t sung by Newton (Michael C. Hall) and the Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), as one might expect, given the narrative—its performers were misidentified as such when an audience recording from Lazarus was bootlegged. Instead it’s Newton and the “First Teenage Girl” (Krystina Alabado), one of a trio of singers/actors who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts (there are a wearying number of “Girls” in this play). When Bowie recorded the song during the Blackstar sessions, he took both parts.

“When I Met You” is a duet between a man and a voice in his broken mind—a dialogue on love, despair, and redemption by someone staring into a cracked mirror. On Bowie’s recording, the vocals are mixed to tumble, the lead voice gaining ground, the chorus vocals mounting a response. On the Lazarus cast recording, the space between Hall and Alabado’s voices is so great that each seems in a different world—their harmonizing is all top and bottom, with no middle.

A slow-paced composition that takes its time getting anywhere (the intro alone is 32 bars), “When I Met You” moves from Newton-sung verses to Newton/ Teenage Girl counterpoint/ harmony refrains to a harsh “bridge” section that’s the tension point of the song, where the home chord of G major is altered, diminished, augmented. It suggests the convulsions of Newton’s perspective, where nothing is solid anymore.

laz

In ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came,” the singer’s waiting for someone, for something to happen, but we never learn who she’s waiting for, nor what they brought. Agnetha Fältskog crosses off the stations of her day—breakfast, train, work, lunch, train, Chinese food, TV, a Marilyn French novel before bed. She hasn’t been living as much as she’s been maintaining, and the romantic assumption is that she’s about to meet someone who opens up her life. Yet there are hints (in corners of the lyric, in the dark colors of Agnetha’s phrasing) that the “you” of the title is malignant: the murderer at the door, the tumor on the chart, the driver that doesn’t brake in time.

In “When I Met You,” the other has already come, has saved Newton in some way, and now the spell is wearing thin. “You knew just everything,” Newton begins. “And nothing at all.” (Bowie changed it to “but nothing at all” in his recording.) If Newton is Lazarus, the girl in his head has been Christ—she called him from the tomb, opened his eyes, let him speak. He was a zombie, a madman, someone lost in himself; she freed him from his trap.

In its way, it’s a long-delayed response to “Word on a Wing,” Bowie’s prayer for protection and deliverance in a dry season. “A scuzzier version of one of his grand ballads—imagine “Word on a Wing” with three-day growth and hangover,” as Alfred Soto wrote of “When I Met You.” A biographical reading is easy, perhaps too easy: Bowie thanking his wife for saving him, for Coco Schwab for protecting him (in the “Never Let Me Down” line), for his children for letting him escape being “Bowie” for a while, tethering him to earth. “When I met you…the edge had become/ the center of my world….I was off my head/ I was filled with truth/ it was not God’s truth.”

Yet whatever salvation he got from the muse/angel in his head, it’s fading away now. It’s all the same, rescued and rescuer sing to each other. The darkness has crept back, covering everything in sight. In Lazarus, Newton sings the final refrain as he prepares to stab the Girl, which he does as the last notes sound. Death’s release; no knowledge comes.

figs

Of the Lazarus songs, “When I Met You” was the most difficult to transition into a solo Bowie recording. It had been a duet on stage, and was woven into the play’s narrative (as much as there was one). And when racked against its counterparts, it was the least of the new compositions.

Bowie tackled it during the first Blackstar sessions in January—he was starting out by doing remakes (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“) and getting down his takes on the Lazarus songs, as if to clear the ground for leaps to come. He took the scissors to “When I Met You,” cutting a line (“the dream of time”) and switching some chorus lines around in later refrains.

For the arrangement, he emailed Donny McCaslin that “the structure of ‘When I Met You’ is sound, but now we need to mess with it so we hear it from another angle. Put in a couple of passages in the corner (in darkness) and throw a small pen-light beam on the rest—like a P.I. scouting a motel room.” (“He’s never saying something like ‘can I have a bass drum on 2 & 4’?” McCaslin recalled. “It’s more these kind of images.“)

The result was what McCaslin, Tim Lefebvre, and other musicians heard as “hearkening back to older Bowie.” Bowie’s “When I Met You” lacks McCaslin’s saxophone, where in Lazarus Henry Hey had scored subtle brass lines for refrains. It runs on skitterings (Jason Lindner’s synthesizers in the intro and vocal breaks), pulses (a jaunty Lefebvre bassline) and jabs (an acoustic guitar (possibly Bowie?) strummed more scrappily than the player on the Lazarus recording), with the “Hawaiian”-sounding lead lines (McCaslin heard “an African highlife thing”) as a dreamy counterpoint to Bowie’s voice in the verses.

In the Lazarus duet, Alabado’s chorus vocal is sharp, insistent, holding on one note, spiking over Hall’s lower, moaning phrases—her final repeats of “when I met—when I met” sound like a distress call. Bowie’s backing vocals, placed further back in the mix, are both more playful and more dramatic—there’s a greater emotional spectrum to them.

And for his lead vocal, Hall, faced with lines like “the peck of a blackened eye,” “the streams of debris” and “now the luminous dark,” unfurls them, lets them roll off, stiffly at times. Bowie takes far more pleasure—there’s a grin in some of his lines, despite their occasionally despairing words. Among the last vocals that he recorded in his life, it shows that he always wrote parts with one actor in mind.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 January 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 5 May 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: No Plan, 8 January 2017. Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus. McCaslin quotes from Mojo, December 2016.

Top: Frederik Ranninger, “Girl Alone in 16:9,” 2015; Hall and Caruso, Lazarus; Mercer Mayer, The Figure In the Shadows.


Bowie: Object/ David Bowie Is…

October 26, 2016

objetdart

I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.

Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.

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In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:

My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.

I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.

Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.

Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).

But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.

Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.

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News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.

A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”

It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.

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The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).

He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:

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What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.

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A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.

Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”

Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.

Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.

David Bowie exhibition

The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.

Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”

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During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.

The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.

The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.

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Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.

Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.

And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.

First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.


Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

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Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

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The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

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Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.