Cracked Actor

June 15, 2010

Cracked Actor.
Cracked Actor (live, 1973).
Cracked Actor (live, 1974).
Cracked Actor (live, 1983).
Cracked Actor (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Cracked Actor (Live at the Beeb, 2000).

Bowie spent two weeks in Los Angeles in late October 1972. His manager Tony Defries said you had to spend like a star to become one, so the Bowie entourage, roadies and all, stayed at the 5-star Beverly Hills Hotel. Everything was charged to RCA. No one had enough cash to take a cab, so they charged limousines to room service. Afternoons by the pool, nights at Rodney’s English Disco on the Sunset Strip. To complete the LA experience, some of the Spiders took a course at the Scientology Celebrity Center (pianist Mike Garson was a Scientologist; he converted Woody Woodmansey by proselytizing on the tour bus). By the time they left LA, Bowie and company had burned through $100,000.

Sometime during his stay (allegedly after touring Hollywood Boulevard), Bowie wrote a song about an aging, debauched film star. The actor was once Hollywood’s golden boy, or so he claims, and now lives a twilight existence in Hollywood’s mortuary era, reveling in his fall. Life’s been clarified down to a series of coarse transactions, with the actor leveraging his fading fame, and depleting what’s left of his fortune, to poach young boys (and girls). These could be desperate, aspiring actors, or kids he’s hired off the street—it hardly matters so long as they’re on their knees. It’s one of the most brutal lines Bowie ever wrote: “Forget that I’m fifty, ’cause you just got paid.”

“Cracked Actor” is crude and louche, its lyric a collection of barely-double-entendre lines (“stiff on my legend,” “give me your head”). The chorus is hammered through with harsh, plosive sounds (“crack,” “smack,” “suck”—mirrored by Mick Ronson slamming on each beat), while Ronson smears guitar over every corner. The track’s centered on Ronson’s power chording and Bowie’s harmonica, the latter played through a cranked-up guitar amp and pushed high in the mix. While the song basically ends at 1:40, the guitar and harmonica extend the track for four more 12-bar choruses, starting a fifth as the track fades out, suggesting the Hollywood nightmare will keep repeating itself.

Recorded ca. 20-24 January 1973. For the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie removed “Cracked Actor” from its back-room origins and staged it entirely within an actor’s fevered mind: he wore a cape and sunglasses and sang to a skull in his hand, a la Hamlet, then French-kissed the skull. He did the same, with even more artifice, during his 1983 tour. A curse on Los Angeles, “Cracked Actor” would rebound on Bowie: it became the title of a 1974 documentary chronicling Bowie living in LA at his lowest state, reduced to a jittery husk of a human being.

Top: Anthony Friedkin, “Vice police interrogating two men, Hollywood, 1972.”

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Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

May 10, 2016

One of the more radically transformed entries in the book, with good reason. This was the “cut up” entry of the blog, and it didn’t quite work (well, maybe you thought it did).

I’d planned to do one Diamond Dogs entry in the spirit of 1974: assembling it through Bowie’s favorite method of cutting up lines of verse, jumbling them, selecting the pieces in random order and then pasting together something new from the sequences. Originally it was going to be “We Are the Dead,” but the need for that entry to spell out the George Orwell connections of Diamond Dogs required some coherence and form. In its place: the big triptych of the album.

So I wrote out a “straight” entry on paper and then cut it up, typically in paragraphs but sometimes just sentences. I also cut up quotes that I found in a few books, particularly in Jonathan Raban’s wonderful urban study Soft City and also in a couple of London histories. The Thatcher stuff came from (I believe) Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Other bits came from a never-finished 1974 entry on my old blog, Locust St., and from other things that I’ve since forgotten.

I cut it all up, tossed the pieces of paper in a cap, pulled them out one by one and…it was weirdly coherent. The Bowie stuff was all together, generally in order, and most of the quotes were in one clump in the “middle.” Not cut-up enough! So I did it again, then again. At last it was far more jumbled, which was nice. But then I started tinkering with the sequence—it’s got to make some kinda sense, I thought—and wound up smoothing and rejiggering things until I had the below entry. In retrospect, this was likely how Bowie worked as well.

The book entry is far better, I believe, or at least it’s more expansive, delving into things like the guitar solo, John Rechy’s City of Night (a big influence on the lyric), the draft lyric, more on the 1974 tour and the end of Bowie’s life in the UK, and so forth. But the beast below is the untouched original.

A last note: the source of the photos (some of my favorites in the blog’s history) has vanished due to the death of Picasa, and I can’t locate who “Bruce” was anymore. So the blog at present has become the only place on the web to find Maggie Sollars of Brixton, in 1974. I hope she’s doing well these days.

Originally posted on 23 September 2010, it’s:

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

***
Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

***
During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

***
It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

***
The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

***
It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

***
In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

***
George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

***
There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

***
Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

***
Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

***
Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

***
Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

***
Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

***
Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

***
Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

***
“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

***
James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

***
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

***
Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

***
To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

***
The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

***
Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

***
“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

***
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.


Poll, Day 2: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 100-51

December 16, 2015

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“I’d better be impressed,” the taciturn man says as he turns on his laptop. So, here we go.

The issue with the lower stretches of the top 100 songs is, as you’ll soon see, that there are lots of tied songs. This isn’t often the case above the 50-song barrier. But get ready. If one of your picks is in a tie, well, you can say it’s the best of the bunch and no one can contradict you.

Let’s begin at Haddon Hall, 1971:

David Bowie in a dress, 1971 (3)

TIE: 100-99. Kooks. (30 points/votes).

Soul Love (30 points/votes).

98. Fascination (31 points, 27 votes, 1 #1 vote). Go Luther!

97. Watch That Man (32 points/votes).

96. Up the Hill Backwards (34 points/votes).

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.
..

bluejean

Hey, it’s a TIE 95-94.

Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (35 points/votes).

Blue Jean (35 points, 31 votes, 1 #1 vote). A strategic #1 vote by a certain music writer.

Bowie_Stardust_03

If you want it, boys, it’s a THREE-WAY TIE, 93-91.

Hang Onto Yourself (36 points/votes (2 for live 1972 recordings, 1 for Stage)).

I’m Deranged (36 points/votes, 1 for Lost Highway edit).

New Killer Star (36 points, 32 votes, 1 #1 vote).

DavidBowieLS03

Yeah, well now it’s a FOUR-WAY TIE, 90-87.

Love Is Lost. (37 points/votes, 7 for the James Murphy remix).

Slow Burn (37 points/votes).

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote). Toll the bell.

V-2 Schneider (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote).  “YES OKAY I PUT V2 SCHNEIDER AT NUMBER ONE OKAY WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME” email from its #1 voter.

37 Bowie a

What’s that? You say you want another FOUR-WAY TIE? 86-83.

Conversation Piece (38 points/votes, 7 specified the Toy version, 2 the original). One of the most surprising and loveliest of placings in the top 100. Well done, everyone: well done.

I’m Afraid of Americans (38 points/votes, 1 specified the Earthling version, 1 the NIN remix).

The Next Day (38 points, 34 votes, 1 #1 vote). Not quite dying indeed!

and another fun surprise:

Alternative Candidate (Candidate Demo), (38 points, 30 votes, 2 (!) #1 votes).

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Ok, a break from the ties for a bit.

82. Cracked Actor (39 points/votes).

81. Heathen (the Rays) (42 points/votes). Bit of a surprise placement? More support than I expected.

80. China Girl (43 points, 39 votes, 1 #1 vote; 1 vote specified Iggy’s version, 1 Bowie’s).

79. Thru These Architects’ Eyes (44 points, 40 votes, 1 #1 vote).

78. Cat People (45 points/votes, 2 specified the Let’s Dance remake).

77. Diamond Dogs (46 points/votes).

76. DJ (48 points/votes).

75. Sunday (49 points/votes, 1 specified the Moby remix).

blackstar

and presenting, the rookie of the year:

74. Blackstar (50 points/votes). For a song that debuted midway through this poll, this is a pretty damn impressive showing. The big question: had it come out a month earlier, how high would it have been?

dbb

Now the hitters get heavier:

73. All the Madmen (51 points/votes).

72. Red Sails (52 points, 40 votes, 3 #1 votes).

71. Hallo Spaceboy (53 points/votes, 3 specified the Pet Shop Boys remix, 2 specified “NOT the Pet Shop Boys remix”).

Well, it’s been so long, time for a THREE-WAY TIE: 70-68.

Sons of the Silent Age (54 points/votes).

Jean Genie (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

We Are the Dead (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

David-Bowie-960x534

another high-speed TIE for 67-66.

Jump They Say (55 points/votes, 1 for “rock” mix).

Speed of Life (55 points, 51 votes, 1 #1 vote).

dbronno

and a hard rocking glam TIE for 65-64.

John, I’m Only Dancing (56 points, 52 votes, 1 #1 vote).

The Width of a Circle (56 points, 48 votes, 2 #1 votes).

tumblr_nitdvkxBMb1u49wbmo1_500

63. The Secret Life of Arabia (57 points, 53 votes, 1 #1 vote).  At one point, early on in the tabulations, this was in the top 30 songs, votes-wise. I knew that streak couldn’t last, but hey, I had no idea there was so much love for this one.

62. A New Career In a New Town (58 points/votes).

bowie-mercury

And a titan-clashing TIE, 61-60.

Under Pressure (60 points/votes, 1 specified the Dorsey-sung Reality Tour version).

The Motel (60 points, 48 votes, 3 #1 votes). Lights up, boys.

Bowi

was rooting for this to do a little better than it did, but still..

59. Uncle Floyd/Slip Away (61 points/votes, 4 specified “Uncle Floyd”).

It’s a post-apocalyptic Che Guevara TIE for 58-57.

Panic In Detroit (63 points/votes).

Loving the Alien (63 points, 59 votes, 1 #1 vote; 2 votes specified early 2000s live versions, 1 vote specified the full version on Tonight).

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Now the “too low!” yells from the crowd grow in number and fervor:

56. Lady Stardust (64 points, 52 votes, 3 #1 votes).

55. All the Young Dudes (66 points, 58 votes, 2 #1 votes; 1 vote specified Bowie live 1973, 2 specified Mott the Hoople, 2 specified Bowie live 2003.)

54. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). (68 points, 64 votes, 1 #1 vote).

53. Blackout. (69 points, 61 votes, 2 #1 votes).

db77

And finally, a tie for the almost-made-it-ins (from the class of 1977), 52 and 51.

Beauty and the Beast (71 points, 67 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Subterraneans. (71 points, 47 votes, 6 #1 votes). Broke my heart: it was so close to the top 50 but couldn’t go the last 100 meters. The last ten votes compiled sealed its fate.

Next: Winners’ Outer Circle: Songs 50-26.


Links: Chapters 9-10

March 26, 2015

Chapter 9: Campaigner (1974-1975)

db74

“Knock On Wood”
“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”
“Can You Hear Me”
“John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)”
“Young Americans”
“Shilling the Rubes” (fragment)
“It’s Gonna Be Me”
“After Today”
“Who Can I Be Now”
“Somebody Up There Likes Me”
“Right”
“Foot Stomping/ I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”
“Fascination”
“Win”
“Across the Universe”
“Fame”

More: 1974 tour: Boston, Philadelphia, New YorkCracked Actor (Yentob, 1974); Dick Cavett Show full episode, December 1974; Joe Tarsia documentary clip; The Jacksons, recording at Sigma Sound, 1976; John Lennon, Tomorrow Show interview, 1975.

Chapter 10: The Man In the Tower (1975)

dbduke

“Golden Years”
TVC 15” (SNL, 1979)
Wild Is the Wind” (Nina Simone)
Stay
Word On a Wing
Station to Station” (Christiane F)

More: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976): Bowie’s first lines; Russell Harty interview, November 1975 (1, 2, 3); Dinah Shore, 1976 (interview); Kabbalah: The Ten Sefirot; Kirlian Photography; Peter-R Koenig, The Laughing Gnostic; Victoria Station footage, May 1976; 1976 tour: Nassau Coliseum, London.


Links: Chapters 6-8

March 25, 2015

Chapter 6: Ziggy In Nixonland: 1972-1973

db73

“You Got To Have a Job/ Hot Pants”
“I Feel Free”: (live, 1972) (1980 inst. outtake) (1993 remake)
“White Light/White Heat” (VU)
“All the Young Dudes”: (Mott the Hoople) (Bowie)
“John, I’m Only Dancing”
“My Death”
“The Jean Genie”
“Drive-In Saturday”
“Watch That Man”
“Panic In Detroit” (1979 remake)
“Cracked Actor”
“Time”
“Aladdin Sane”
“Let’s Spend the Night Together”
“Lady Grinning Soul”
“This Boy” “Love Me Do”

More: Ziggy Stardust tour, 1972: Aylesbury; Rainbow Theatre, London; Santa Monica. Rock and Roll (1995, Ep. 7, “The Wild Side“); Classic Albums: Transformer; Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies; Kazumi Hayashi, “Some Cat From Japan,” (on Kansai Yamamoto); Dirty Harry (1971, opening sequence); “Baader-Meinhof: In Love With Terror”; New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis” (Midnight Special, 1973); Mayor of the Sunset Strip; Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Chapter 7: The Anxiety of Influence (1973)

dblate73

“Everything’s Alright” (Mojos)
“I Wish You Would” (Billy Boy Arnold) (Yardbirds)
“Rosalyn” (Pretty Things)
“Don’t Bring Me Down” (Pretty Things)
“I Can’t Explain” (The Who)
“Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” (The Who)
“Here Comes the Night” (Them) (Lulu)
“Where Have All the Good Times Gone” (Kinks)
“Friday On My Mind” (Easybeats)
“Sorrow” (Merseys)
“Shapes of Things” (Yardbirds)
“See Emily Play” (Pink Floyd)
“Zion”
“Music Is Lethal”
“Hey Ma, Get Papa”
“Growing Up and I’m Fine”

More: Pin Ups (Bowie radio promo, 1973); Richie Unterberger, Billy Boy Arnold interview; The Yardbirds Story; Pete Townshend interviews: 1969, 1971, 1972, 1972, 1974; the Kinks: live, 1966; Ray Davies, interviews, 1971, 1977; Syd Barrett: interview, 1967; Mick Ronson: interview, ca. 1992.

Chapter 8: Tomorrow’s Double Feature (1973-1974)

db74

“I Got You Babe”
“Growin’ Up” (Springsteen, live, 1972)
“It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City” (Springsteen, live, 1975)
“Having a Good Time”
“Things To Do”* (the one clip not on YouTube! it’s on Spotify though)
“I Am Divine”
“People From Bad Homes”
“I Am a Laser” (Bowie, 1974, fragment)
“1984/Dodo” (“1984”) (“Dodo”)
“Big Brother”
“Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”

“We Are the Dead”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”
“Rebel Rebel” (1974 single version) (2003 remake)
“Future Legend”
“Diamond Dogs”
“Candidate 1 (Alternative Candidate)”
“Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)”

More: The 1980 Floor Show, 1973; J.G. Ballard, Future Now; “The Family,” BBC, 1974; Pathe, “West End of London,” 1973; John Lydon, on ’70s England (from The Filth and the Fury); Nineteen-Eighty Four (BBC, 1954); Jenny Diski, on Sonia Orwell; The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, “Mr. Apollo”, Colour Me Pop, 1968; John Rechy, City of Night; Marcello Carlin, “Diamond Dogs” (TPL).


A Contest Winner

March 13, 2015

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First, a few book-related things:

Amazon has started shipping copies of Rebel Rebel, which I imagine a number of you have received by now. My cousin, seen above, got his copy and already has incorporated it into his daily life. But the official release date is March 27, which is when (hopefully) the e-book will be ready and when the book should be available in stores. If you’ve received the book via Amazon already and if you like it, please consider giving it a rating on the site. If you hate it, maybe hold off on the rating bit.

OK. The contest. I received 60! entries, all of which were inspired, many of which were astonishing in their inventiveness. After I narrowed the entries down to five (itself a difficult process), it became all but impossible to choose one. But a contest’s a contest: someone’s gotta win it. One of the darker scenarios submitted for 1977 Bowie was also leavened with some inspired comical moments. And when I found myself cracking up in the supermarket thinking about “the Ritual of Da’at,” I realized I had a possible winner…

(drum roll)

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Congrats to Tymothi Valentine Loving. Here’s his entry.

“A brief song-by-song recap of the legendary David Bowie Madison Square Garden concert of 1977. It was released posthumously several times, with most versions leaving out several of the end songs, this discusses the only complete, non-bootleg release, 2005’s “DBMSG77.”

1. Five Years

Bowie starts the show as if it were starting with “Station to Station,” only to have it go in to a tar-heroin-slow version of “Five Years,” which then devolved into one of the many noisy jams of the night.  Apocryphally, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was played at the opening of the show, manipulated through several effects pedals, to create the twisted version of “Station to Station”‘s live “train sound”. The true story is even stranger; apparently Lou Reed and David Bowie indulged in some “speedballs” before the show, and the sound is actually Reed backstage playing a guitar while Bowie “played” the pedals.  After finally tiring of this, Bowie finally staggered out to start the show.  So, technically, although he was never on stage, this was Lou Reed’s last live performance, since he ODed the next year, infamously exactly one month after Bowie’s own fatal OD.

2. Andy Warhol

The shortest, straightest played song of the night.  Notable only for the minute & 30 seconds after the song is over that Bowie spends repeating “Can’t tell them apart at all”, with different emphasis each time (“CAN’T tell them apart at all”, “Can’t tell them APART at all”, etc.) with the final “Can’t tell them apart at AAAAALLLLLL” howled into a feedbacking mike as the band starts:

3. Red Money/Calling Sister Midnight (Just “Red Money” in the DBMSG77 track listing)

The title of this song is questionable. The version that Bowie performed at this show combines the lyrics of the two known recorded versions; “Calling Sister Midnight” that appears on the 1979 Iggy Pop album Idiot’s Lantern, and the 1980 posthumous Bowie collection “David Lives!“, which, among other things, contains tracks from Bowie’s final, incomplete album, What I Will. Who wrote what on which version is still up for debate. What isn’t however, is the performance itself. The dynamic of the fast pace combined with the stop/start cadence, and the quiet verses and loud choruses is still influential to this day, and some version of this song has been covered by bands ranging from Einsturzende Neubauten to Nirvana on their single studio album.

4. Fame
Seven minutes of the band jamming on a sped up version of the riff, while Bowie was offstage (possibly apocryphally) doing more cocaine. This is where the first signs of serious crowd unrest can be heard. Infamously, this was the inspiration for Suicide’s 1978 performance piece “27 Minutes Over New York”, where they would play a synth version of the riff until, basically, forced by the crowd and/or venue to stop. Nobody stopped Bowie that night, however, and when he comes out at 7:13 to finally start singing, the crowd goes wild. And, as clumsy as the increase in tempo makes some of the transitions in the song, the contrast between the band’s frantic pace and Bowie’s deadpan delivery just works.

5. Stay
Probably the clunker of the show. Although the pace of the song is increased, similar to “Fame,” there’s a notable lack of energy, and the bit of attempted free form disco jamming in the middle is as bad an idea as it sounds on paper, and never really coheres. Mainly known for the brief bit in the middle where, apropos of nothing, Bowie points into the crowd and yells “I see you, Pierrot!”.

6. Sweet Head/Cracked Actor (“Gimme Sweet Head” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
Interestingly enough, an early studio recording of this song has surfaced. Quite a bit less abrasive and charged then this version. It’s also quite a bit slower than the manic pace of this performance. And, it must be said, quite a bit shorter. More signs of crowd unrest are evident on the recording, with some angry catcalling at the end of the song.

7. The Ritual of Da’at
This song has no known recording other than this one. Bowie announced the song title at the beginning (“This here, this is The Ritual of Da’at”). The lyrics are mostly incomprehensible, and gibberish where they can be understood, although the line “Oh my sweet milk and peppers, you are all I can love!” has resurfaced in popular culture after famously being uttered in the midst of a nervous breakdown by the protagonist of Todd Haynes’ brutal, Dogme 96-ish takedown of the glam era, My Velvet Goldmine!. This song shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Something about how slow it starts, and the incredible, proto-speedmetal finish just coheres into what, despite the sloppiness, many consider to be one of the best Bowie live performance ever captured, and if not the best, then certainly one of the most intense.

8. “Bring Me The Disco King” (“The Disco King” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
This improvisational piece, never recorded other than this once, has no known title other than the line Bowie repeats for the first and last couple minutes, quietly at the beginning of the song, yelling at the end. During the middle section, he is offstage, presumably doing more coke, although it’s not true that he mutters “more cocaine” before leaving the stage, it is, fairly clearly, “keep playing”. The crowd, whipped into a seething frenzy by the previous song, seems bemused by this somewhat melancholy (in comparison, anyway) piece.

9. Blackout
Bowie’s intro to this song (“Here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!”) was famously sampled on the title track of the debut album of 80’s New York rap pioneers Power Station, Here Comes the Blackout. And, if I can be pardoned the obvious pun, Bowie gave an electric performance here. And the crowd went, in the famously un-bleeped words of one of the attending medics who was interviewed on the live news in the aftermath of the show, “Absolutely fucking bugshit insane”. Reportedly, at least 3 people who had never had an epileptic seizure before experienced one due to the severe strobe light effects employed during this number.

This is where most official releases of the show ended until DBMSG77 was released, although the rest of the show has been available in bootleg form for years. Much has been written about the violence of the near-riot that broke out and the damage done to the classic venue by the small fires set at the end (although, as far as I can tell, the number of fires is often exaggerated, there appear to have been only 2). Even more has been written about the investigation afterwards. I’m going to skip most of that here, and focus on the music itself, other than to say that, no, there’s nothing there that can be considered an incitement to riot, at least not in any legal way. The investigation was a witch-hunt, plain and simple. Edward Koch needed a scapegoat for the underlying tensions of his city (although Abraham Beame earns much of the blame), and he chose Bowie. OK, enough of that, on to the music:

10. Station to Station
A strange version of this song. This was the opener of the previous tour; a sprawling, shambling, genius mass of a song that seems like it would fit right into this show, but here, it runs an abbreviated 4 minutes and change. Starting with “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lovers eyes” sung a cappella a few times, with “making sure white stains!” screamed in the last line, skipping the instrumental jam, and ending after only one time through the last few lines of the song, this is a tight, severe performance.

11. Queen Bitch/God Save The Queen (“God Save The Queen Bitch” in the possibly too clever DMBSG77 track listing)
Truly amazing. Bowie performs his song in a vicious, camped up punk cabaret style. And then he throws in a couple of verses and choruses of The Sex Pistols’ single in the middle. Most of the people at the show probably had no idea who The Sex Pistols were at this point. And Bowie handles their song with relish. Makes you wonder what could have been if he’d been around to make music in the 80s, an angry, anti-commercial punk Bowie may have saved that decade from some of its own excesses.

12. White Light/White Heat
A perennial Bowie cover, since at least the Ziggy Stardust tour, the band tears into this one and leaves it bleeding at the end. Bowie, on the other hand, seems disengaged again, forgetting some lyrics (a somewhat impressive feat, considering how few there are in the song). Which leads to him leaving the stage again as the band rides the riff (for 12! minutes!). He does, once again, seem more energized upon his return.

13. Panic In Detroit (Panic In New York on the DBMSG77 track listing).
This song is what was supposedly being focused on in the investigation of Bowie possibly inciting a riot. And yes, he does change the location city in the lyrics, but it’s a very thin thing to hang such a charge on. Anyway, an intense, stripped down version of the song. And yes, Bowie does seem, in some way, to be feeding off of the negative energy of the crowd. His strident, repeated “Panic in NEW YORK!” starts off brutally, and ends up like nothing else Bowie ever performed, at least that’s been saved for posterity.

14. Hang On To Yourself
This wasn’t supposed to be the last song of the show. Although no known printed version of the setlist still exists, according to members of the band, there was supposed to at least be Suffragette City, Let’s Spend the Night Together, TVC15, Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie, with Diamond Dogs as the closer. Notable in their lack are softer songs such as Changes or Time, or anything similar. It seems the intention was to just have the show almost entirely be amped up versions of (mostly) already fast songs. “TVC15” may have been a bit of a reprieve (although I really, really wish I could have heard the version that would have performed at this show). At any rate, this song barely gets started before the show is shut down, due to the (2, not several) fires that had started. An ignoble end to an astounding show that seemed to indicate an amazing new direction for David Bowie.

Although, I am indescribably happy that DBMSG77 has the complete audio of the end of the show, with Bowie screaming “I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!” at the NYFD and NYPD just before his mike was cut.”

Runner-up: A masterful piece of writing by Steven Hanna, in the style of Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, detailing not just the MSG concert but the whole “1977 ‘New Wave’ Tour,” with Blondie’s Chris Stein as ill-fated lead guitarist and an opening medley of “Can You Hear Me”/”Son of a Preacher Man.” This was a redemptive tale for Bowie, who cleans up and escapes to Europe after the disastrous Low sessions.

Here it is: enjoy!

Other top contenders: James Scott Maloy, who wrote a retrospective in the voice of a Lester Bangs still alive in 1993; James Alex Gabriel Phillips, whose phenomenal 2,000-word piece included the return of Tony Defries as ringmaster; Alon Schmul, who had Mick Ronson, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Hall as guests at a Bowie 30th birthday extravaganza; Aaron Rice, who had Bowie sing nothing but duets, including “Win” with Sinatra and “Be My Wife” with Barry Manilow; Ean McNamara, whose set opened with a Buffy St. Marie cover (“sung mostly off stage”) and ended with “Wolves Song” (aka “Some Are”). [Most of these are now in the comments.]

I wish I could send a book to everyone who contributed an entry: I’m very grateful to everyone who took part in this, and the volume of responses bodes well for something I’m planning to mark the blog’s end later this year: a reader survey/ranking of favorite Bowie songs (essentially voting for the Bowiesongs Top 50, or maybe 100).


Right

October 28, 2010

Right (“Never No Turnin’ Back,” early take).
Right.

Near the end of Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor, Bowie is filmed rehearsing a new song. Luther Vandross, Robin Clark and Ava Cherry are gathered in a semi-circle around him, everyone glancing at their lyric sheets as though they’re actors about to go off book. Bowie guides them through the rapids of his call-and-response vocal bridge, and seems delighted and slightly abashed by what he’s done.

“Right,” the song being rehearsed, is the first of Bowie’s Sigma Sound tracks to work primarily as a groove piece, and so marks the break between the early Sigma recordings, which were basically standard Bowie songs with an R&B tinge, and the more committed funk tracks cut later in the sessions (“Fascination,” “Fame”). Where the first batch of Sigma recordings, like “Young Americans” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” feature Bowie’s usual time shifts and rapid harmonic rhythms, “Right” is only two chords, twined back-to-back, played relentlessly through the song—and structurally “Right” is basically just a repeated chorus (with two sets of lyrics) interrupted only by a 16-bar vocal “breakdown” section and a guitar solo.

‘Right’ is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man’s instinct is—it’s a drone, a mantra. And people, say: ‘Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on’. But that’s the point really.

Bowie, 1975.

“Right”‘s relaxed, circular feel is owed mainly to Carlos Alomar’s guitar line, which spreads out over six bars and mirrors the vocal. Willie Weeks’ bass and David Sanborn’s saxophone, the latter thankfully mixed down, churn the rhythm and offer supplementary colors, while Mike Garson, on clavinet*, dedicates himself to the groove. The blissed-out confidence of Bowie’s lead vocal in the first chorus is shaken during the call-and-response section, the singers forcing Bowie out of his comfort zone, making him make his case. Bowie cedes the song to them for its last minute.

First recorded ca. 11-18 August 1974 (a take that got out on bootlegs has “Right” in near-final shape, though Bowie initially sang the opening chorus higher), then recut in November-December ’74. “Right” ended the A side of Young Americans and was never performed live.

Top: Joseph Beuys, “I Like America and America Likes Me,” 1974. (Beuys’ most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’)

* Is Garson playing a clavinet here? Really sounds like one, but could find no evidence.


Knock On Wood

September 29, 2010

Knock on Wood (Eddie Floyd, 1966).
Knock On Wood (Bowie, David Live, 1974).
Knock on Wood (Bowie, live, 1974).

[America] filled a vast expanse of my imagination; I was always pretty imaginative. Imagination can dry up in wherever, living in England, often—if there’s nothing to keep it going. It just supplied a need in me, America, became a myth-land for me. I think every kid goes through it, eventually. I just got onto it earlier.

David Bowie, Cracked Actor, 1974.

In the opening minutes of Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor, a BBC documentary of David Bowie in the US in mid-1974, Bowie is shot sitting in the back of a limousine driving through the California desert. It’s a bit like Nosferatu touring Death Valley. Throughout the performance, as it’s very much a performance, Bowie keeps picking up on the song playing in the car, Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” wanly delighting in its call-and-response vocals: he seems to be craving the song, using it as a means to keep himself in focus. So begins Bowie’s soul era.

Bowie’s move into soul/R&B in 1974 could be seen as a calculated, even slightly exploitative move: Bowie giving his secretary a list of contemporary R&B records to purchase as research, Bowie going to Sigma Sound to have the Philadelphia International house musicians craft a soul album for him. Yet this ignores Bowie’s long-documented love of soul and jazz, and that he had started out making records as a Mod soul singer, covering Bobby “Blue” Bland (“I Pity The Fool”) and writing Sam Cooke tributes (“And I Say to Myself”); even at the height of the Ziggy Stardust era he had covered James Brown songs on stage.

So the soul-inspired ’74 Philly Dogs tour, and the subsequent Young Americans record, can seem like a return to first things for Bowie, a further step back after his psychedelic/Mod tribute Pin Ups. Of course this wasn’t quite the case, either. Bowie would use soul as a way to get out of an aesthetic dead-end, as a way to finally get an American hit record. He treated the music with respect but also without much reverence, using soul as a means, making his own twisted version of it. As it turned out, this made him a trenchant interpreter of contemporary black music (it’s no surprise that Bowie was one of the first white artists to play Soul Train).

Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour began in June 1974 in Canada and in mid-July the tour was in residence at Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre, with the five Philly shows taped for a prospective live record. Until Philadelphia, the shows had consisted of revamped hits like “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and the new Diamond Dogs material, but now Bowie put Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” in the middle of the set list.

“Knock on Wood” seemed at first intended to be a breather for Bowie’s band and his audience, as it brightened the mood after the dark extravagance of the “Sweet Thing” suite and, often slated to follow the uptempo “Watch That Man,” built up the show’s momentum. “Knock on Wood” is soul at its most welcoming and democratic, whether in the easy, undemanding vocal (a good fit for Eddie Floyd’s voice, though originally intended for Otis Redding), or the utter basics of its groove (Al Jackson playing ones and threes on the bass drum, twos and fours on the snare) or structure.

It was written by Floyd and Steve Cropper, with Floyd providing the lyric and vocal melody and Cropper the chords/riffs. Cooked up in Memphis one evening in June 1966, “Knock on Wood” was built by committee, as everyone in the studio that night offered something: Isaac Hayes wrote the sprightly horn line for the bridge, while Jackson contributed the “knock-knock-knock-knock” drum hook (Floyd later said Jackson was inspired by “Open the Door Richard”). While initially rejected by Stax owner Jim Stewart, who thought it was too much of an “In the Midnight Hour” knock-off (which, admittedly, it was), “Knock on Wood” topped the US soul charts upon its eventual release, and was a UK hit as well.

Bowie’s performance recorded for David Live is anchored by his new guitarist Earl Slick (whose guitar replaces the horn riffs in the verses) and his now-established rhythm section: Herbie Flowers on bass and drummer Tony Newman. While the trio aren’t quite Booker T and the MGs, they keep a vigorous groove, with Slick on offense while Flowers follows Donald “Duck” Dunn on the Floyd single, providing melodic variations on bass. Letting down the side are Mike Garson, who seems unwilling to commit to the groove, and the stiff horn playing of David Sanborn and Richard Grando (the latter in part because much of the brass was overdubbed in the studio later). Bowie, his voice worn down after a month of nightly concerts, delivers the song credibly, if keeping very close to the record (by contrast, Floyd often riffed and improvised on stage).

Recorded 8-12 July 1974 at the Tower Theatre, Philadelphia. On David Live, and also released as a single in September ’74 (RCA 2466; #10 in the UK) (odd TOTP clip here). Bowie’s relative hit single revived “Knock On Wood,” arguably inspiring a host of further covers, some majestic (the high disco of Amii Stewart‘s 1978 single), some dull (Rachel Stevens).

Top: Steve Schapiro, “Ike and Tina Turner, Los Angeles, 1974.”

Much of “Knock on Wood”‘s history is from Rob Bowman’s fine Soulsville, USA.


Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

September 23, 2010

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

***
Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

***
During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

***
It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

***
The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

***
It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

***
In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

***
George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

***
There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

***
Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

***
Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

***
Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

***
Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

***
Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

***
Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

***
Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

***
“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

***
James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

***
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

***
Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

***
To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

***
The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

***
Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

***
“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

***
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.


Time

June 22, 2010

Time.
Time (live, 1973).
Time (The 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Time (live, 1974).
Time (live, 1987).

During his first US tour, Bowie had written sharp, vicious rockers (“Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor,” “Watch That Man”). Yet by the time he returned to the UK in December 1972, something had changed. The final songs he wrote for the Aladdin Sane LP were sprawling, piano-centered mood pieces: the title track, “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.”

Some biographers claim Bowie found life as a newly-minted rock star maddening and constricting, so he began writing “art” songs to break out of rock & roll’s confines. That’s possible, though a more likely influence was Bowie’s new pianist, Mike Garson, who could play in any style and who had an intuitive sense for accompaniment. Unlike Bowie’s other major pianist to date, Rick Wakeman, whose relationship with Bowie was entirely in the studio, Garson first played with Bowie on the road. So Bowie became fluent in Garson’s style (the two would sometimes play in hotel bars after shows, on standards like “My Funny Valentine”) and he soon began writing for Garson as he did for Mick Ronson. (One could argue Bowie was already thinking about how to replace Ronson.)

Garson grew up in Brooklyn in the ’50s and, until his mid-teens, had intended to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a touring musician—first in the Catskills with the likes of Jackie Mason, then in New York, where he played in jazz clubs and backed Martha and the Vandellas. Bowie arrived in New York in September ’72 and put out the word that he needed a touring pianist, and one of Garson’s friends recommended he audition. Garson went into a room he later described as being full of men with rainbow hair wearing circus clothes, and got the gig after playing eight bars of “Changes.”

“Time,” which Bowie allegedly wrote in New Orleans during a stop there in mid-November 1972, opens with an 8-bar intro in which Garson plays what he later described as a stride piano line “a little left field, with an angle.” Stride had developed in the early ’20s —it generally meant playing a set of beats with the left hand while the right hand improvised on melody. Garson’s version of stride is overly stylized, aided by Ken Scott’s production, which pushes Garson to the front of the mix (mainly in one speaker) and emphasizes his tone’s treble qualities, so much that Garson sometimes sounds like a player piano (Scott is also responsible for mixing in two bars of heavy Bowie breathing after a verse).

The final track is an elaborate duet between Ronson and Garson. Each generally comps while the other solos, though they also strike against each other (take the way Garson’s rainfall of piano notes (after “I had so many dreams”) is followed by a Ronson waltzing guitar line). Or how, in the intro repeat midway through the track, Garson’s fractured stride piano line is answered by Ronson making three whinnying runs on his guitar. It’s a masterful dual performance. Ronson winds up quoting from Beethoven’s Ninth and Garson plays a free-time solo buried in the mix during the repeated ‘LA-la-la-la-LA-la-LA-la” outro.

“Time” is an odd composition: its chorus (if it even has one) is wordless; its bridge converts into a chorus/outro; and it has three verse variations, each of which repeat after the Ronson/Garson solo. The first set goes from “Time, he’s waiting in the wings” to “his trick is you and me, boy” and is mainly Bowie’s vocal over Garson’s stride piano and Trevor Bolder’s bass. The second variant, a more harmonically complex version of the first (it still goes from E minor to F to end in C, but there are more chords along the way), features the entrance of the full band. The third is harmonically different (going from C up to G, down to C again), and Bowie sings it at full drama (beginning with “the sniper in the brain”, or, later, “breaking up is hard”).

Then there’s Bowie’s lyric, which is terrible. You could read the most notorious lines (“time, he flexes like a whore/falls wanking to the floor”) as Bowie personifying positions on a clock’s face, but they were likely conceived more as grotesque mime imagery (one shudders to imagine Bowie performing it—his backing dancers threaten to in the 1980 Floor Show performance). The lyric is all pathetic adolescent cod-profundity—masturbation as a kind of philosophy (“I looked at my watch, it said 9:25/and I think, ‘oh God I’m still alive!’ oh, shut up).

Still, buried underneath Bowie’s dreadful language is a real sense of mourning. Bowie wrote “Time” after hearing about the death of the New York Dolls’ drummer Billy Murcia, who he had met a few months earlier. Murcia had a messy, stupid rock & roll death, asphyxiating after being force-fed coffee (his friends were trying to prevent him from sleeping after Murcia took too many barbiturates). Bowie references “Billy Dolls” being taken by “time” and in later verses seems to return to him (“perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness” etc).

“Time” worked best on stage, where it served as recitative between the hard rock songs—a moment for Bowie to take a breath, smoke a cigarette, play the weary roué. So it’s no surprise the song was central to Bowie’s two most theatrical tours—the 1974 Diamond Dogs show, where Bowie sang “Time” sitting cross-legged behind an enormous black hand (a performance which veers close to Lily Von Schtupp territory), and the 1987 Glass Spider tour, where Bowie was borne aloft to the top of the infamous spider wearing fiberglass angel wings.

Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. It led off Aladdin Sane‘s second side and RCA issued an edit as a single in the US (radio stations bleeped “Quaaludes” but let “wanking” go through), where it failed to chart.

Top: New Orleans, 1972.