She Shook Me Cold

January 20, 2010

She Shook Me Cold.

Bowie was absent for much of The Man Who Sold The World. He was a happy newlywed (sometimes going antique shopping with his wife Angela during sessions), was living a mildly decadent life in his new rooms at Haddon Hall, a Victorian mansion in Beckenham, and was busy sacking his longtime manager Ken Pitt and replacing him with Tony Defries, the sort of remorseless borderline-criminal impresario who thrived in the mid-20th Century pop music industry.

Bowie had come up with some rough lyrics and chord progressions for songs, which he gave Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson during album rehearsals at Haddon Hall, but he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks, and sometimes even provide titles (“Black Country Rock,” for example). Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals, Visconti and Bowie’s biographers have claimed.

“She Shook Me Cold” in particular is Bowie guest-starring on his own record, as the track is essentially Mick Ronson fulfilling the dream of a struggling provincial guitarist suddenly given the run of Trident Studios—“She Shook Me Cold” is his Cream tribute (its direct inspiration likely being Cream’s live performances of “Spoonful”), with Ronson constructing his own power trio in their image (for example, he encouraged Visconti to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing).

Embodied by The Who, Cream and the Hendrix Experience, the power trio (sometimes equipped with additional lead singer, e.g., Robert Plant) was the child of new technology (louder amps, more guitar effects pedals, better recording techniques) and expanding musician egos. Trios typically dispensed with the rhythm guitarist slot, with often a more aggressive and fluid bass guitar taking the rhythm guitar’s place in the mix (or in The Who’s case, Keith Moon’s drums would sometimes be the lead instrument, while Pete Townshend’s guitar filled in on rhythm).

The trio would become rock’s standard format (The Police, U2, Nirvana, etc.), but some critics argued that as (the now-redundant) rhythm guitarists often had been songwriters and arrangers, their absence led to, as Ian MacDonald wrote, “a degradation of texture and a decline in musical subtlety…the average power trio was in effect an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise.” (This wouldn’t be Bowie’s fate, as Bowie, as if in retribution for the excesses of Man Who Sold the World, would center his following LP on the piano and acoustic guitar.)

So consider “She Shook Me Cold” a fun, vulgar one-off, Bowie’s accidental voyage into heavy metal. When Bowie arrived to finish the track, he gleefully went along with the pantomime, writing a ridiculous bad sex lyric (“I broke the gentle hearts of many young virgins,” “she sucked my dormant will/mother, she blew my brain,” culminating in a verse of moaning).

The track opens with Ronson’s homage to Jimi Hendrix (cf. the opening of “Voodoo Child”), sliding from his B string to his low E string: the intro kicks off two 12-bar verses that have a trip-and-lurch rhythm and an odd harmonic layout—if the song is in E (as it seems to be), within a measure or so its subdominant and dominant chords appear, jammed together back-to-back (they’re A and B, “uh-PON A hill” in the first line), followed by a retreat directly back to the tonic E chord.

A bridge dominated by Visconti’s bass (he really takes off around when Bowie sings “she took my head”), and the “orgasmic” verse serve as the lead-in to Ronson’s 64-bar, nearly two-minute-long extravagance of a guitar solo, during which, when he’s not trying to outdo Visconti’s bass, Ronson develops some fine riffs (listen to the one around 3:26 in). Afterward all Bowie can do is get out the last verse and crawl off to the shower.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; on side B of The Man Who Sold the World.

Top: Julian Wasser, “Joan Didion sitting inside white Stingray, with cigarette,” 1970.

Advertisements

I’m Afraid of Americans

May 14, 2013

cheer

I’m Afraid of Americans (first version, Showgirls OST).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling remake).
I’m Afraid of Americans (video, Trent Reznor Remix V1).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V2).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V3, Ice Cube).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V4).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V5, Photek).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V6).
I’m Afraid of Americans (50th Birthday concert, w/ Sonic Youth, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (GQ Awards, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Howard Stern Show, 1998).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Musique Plus, 1999).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live at the BBC, 2000).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live By Request, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2004).
I’m Afraid of Americans (NIN, live, 2009).

I never said, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” What I said was,”God exists, and he’s American.”

Prof. Milton Glass, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.

Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirls soundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.

I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.

shwgirls

Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)

He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.

The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.

So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.

trentmix

Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**

As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.

There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.

But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.

afraid

Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***

The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.

For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.

miss america

Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.

* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.

** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.

*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.

Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

“The Prettiest Star” (remake, 1973)
“Threepenny Pierrot”
“Columbine”
“The Mirror”
“Buzz the Fuzz”
“Amsterdam” (Brel, live)
“Width of a Circle”
“The Supermen” (remake)
“All the Madmen”
“After All”
“She Shook Me Cold”
“Saviour Machine”
“Running Gun Blues”
“Black Country Rock”
“The Man Who Sold the World” (Lulu, 1974) (SNL, 1979) (Nirvana, 1993) (DB, 1995)
“Tired of My Life”
“Holy Holy” (remake)

More: Aleister Crowley, Confessions; Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra; Biff Rose, 2014 interview; Michael J. Weller, “The Man Who Drew the Man Who Sold the World” (Home Baked Books, website); Asylum (1971, excerpt); “R.D. Laing and Asylum 40 Years Later” (New School lecture); Performance (1970, excerpt w/ “Memo From Turner“). Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970, excerpt).

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

“Oh! You Pretty Things”
“How Lucky You Are (Miss Peculiar)”
“Right On Mother”
“Hang Onto Yourself” (Arnold Corns single)
“Moonage Daydream” (Arnold Corns)
“Rupert the Riley”
“Lightning Frightening”
“Man In the Middle”
“Looking For a Friend”
“Almost Grown”
“Song for Bob Dylan”
“Andy Warhol(Dana Gillespie version, 1971)
“Queen Bitch”
“Bombers”
“It Ain’t Easy” (Ron Davies, original)
“Kooks”
“Fill Your Heart” (Biff Rose, original)
“Quicksand” (demo)
“Changes” (demo)
“Eight Line Poem”
“The Bewlay Brothers”
“Life On Mars?”

72db

“Shadow Man” (Toy)
“Ziggy Stardust” (demo)
“Star” (Chameleon, demo, 1971)
“Velvet Goldmine”
“Sweet Head”
“Round and Round”
“Lady Stardust” (“Song For Marc,” demo)
“Soul Love”
“Five Years”
“Suffragette City”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
“Starman”

More: Bowie, radio interview, Philadelphia, first US visit, 26 January 1971; The Quatermass Experiment (1953); The Tomorrow People (“The Vanishing Earth,” 1973); Doomwatch documentary; Phil Sandifer, “Pop Between Realities: Ziggy Stardust“; Jon Pertwee, “I Am the Doctor“; Ralph Willett, on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius; Andy Warhol: the Complete Picture; Warhol, Tate Gallery exhibit catalog, 1971 (a man flips through it quickly); Bob Dylan v. AJ Weberman, 1971; Blood on Satan’s Claw, main theme, 1971; A Clockwork Orange (1971, “Flat Block Marina” excerpt); Jacques Brel, “Jef,” 1964.


The Man Who Sold The World

January 27, 2010

The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, 1970).
The Man Who Sold the World (Lulu, 1974).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, rehearsal).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, broadcast).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 1995).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 2004).

I. Metrobolist

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

Hughes Mearns, “Antigonish” (1922).

Bowie’s third LP was going to be called Metrobolist, a play on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: it was the title of Mike Weller’s proposed cover illustration, a Letterist cartoon in which a man (whose image was based on a photo of John Wayne) walking past Cane Hill Asylum and carrying a rifle offers an aside in a speech bubble whose words have been erased. It originally read, according to Weller, “ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES, TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR ARMS.”

On the last day of mixing the LP, Bowie had yet to come up with a lyric for a final track that was cued up on the deck. Tony Visconti recalled waiting, tapping his fingers at the console, while Bowie sat in the reception area of Advision Studios, scratching out a lyric on paper. Bowie ran into the booth to record his vocal, the track was mixed in a few hours and the tapes were sent off the same night. You’d expect something like “Black Country Rock” from these straightened circumstances: instead, it was “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie’s finest lyric of the record.

Bowie had found his album’s real name. “The Man Who Sold The World,” nearly an afterthought, had turned out to be the prime mover of the LP all along, like a song whose key is only revealed in its last bars.

While it’s basically a first draft (and it shows at times: “I gazed a gazely stare” is pretty rough), the lyric’s forcibly-spontaneous origins also created its uncanny resonance. Metrobolist could be a play on somnambulist, and “The Man Who Sold the World” could be a sleepwalker’s journal entry, a piece of automatic writing.

Like a dream, “The Man Who Sold the World” has a score of fathers—its title is likely from Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon; its opening lines suggest Hughes Mearns’ “Antigonish,” as quoted above, or, even more likely, the WWII-era song based on the poem, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There“; its image of a man meeting his double, spiritual or corporeal, derives from everything from Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” to Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting,” in which a man and Martian cross paths in the deserts of Mars one night, each convinced that the other hails from the distant past.

And the song’s symbolic twin was a film from the same year (while shot in 1968, it finally premiered a few months after Bowie wrote his song): Performance (fittingly, the film had two directors: Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell), in which a glamorous gangster (James Fox) holes up in the mansion of a decadent pop singer (Mick Jagger), with the two playing out each other’s roles—a talented criminal, the film suggests, is as much an artist as a true artist can be a criminal.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Turner (Mick Jagger), in Performance.

“The Man Who Sold the World” has two verses (one pairing in a song filled with them: for example, Bowie sings two pairs of notes at the start of each line of the chorus): the first is Now, with the narrator encountering himself or Another (cf. Rimbaud’s “Je est une autre”), the second verse is Afterward (or Before). Where most of Bowie’s lyrics on the LP are oddly-phrased and filled with bizarre imagery, “The Man Who Sold The World,” two verses of eight modest lines and a chorus of four, has a cold simplicity, its tone that of an old riddle.

So the singer passes a man on the stair, although the singer isn’t truly present at the meeting. Is he asleep, dead, exiled from his own time? Whatever his own situation, the singer is more bewildered by the man he encounters. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” he says in astonishment, as though he has met a lost self, or the self he once imagined he would be, or the self he one day will be.

The chorus is the other’s response. “Oh no, not me” the specter (or the man) says, happily denying the charge. You could read it as “Death hasn’t come for me, it never will.” After all he’s the Man Who Sold the World, the extremity of all the extremities that this odd LP has offered. He could be a con man, like Delos Harriman, Heinlein’s Man Who Sold the Moon, who swindles the masses into financing his dream, only to be denied fulfilling it. He could be the Bowie of 1975, who has become world-famous at the price of his sanity. Or alternately, he could be, as he says, the one who never lost control, the man who never let his imagination take him where it would. Just common David Jones, living out a quiet life in Bromley, rebuking his extravagant alternate self.

The second verse broadens the scope, moving from the stairwell to the world. Bowie wanders, in exile or heading home (one and the same), and tries to find community in the fact that others are in the same straights as he. But the singer’s questions remain open, the riddles only answer themselves, and there’s no resolution. The song fades out with wordless moans and an cycling guitar, seeming to end before it began.

II. The Stairwell

I passed on with an inward shudder. I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer,” (1909).

Mick Ronson and Visconti’s arrangements, like Bowie’s language, had been heavy, dark and convulsive for much of the record, but as with “The Man Who Sold The World”‘s lyric, suddenly all is simplicity and clarity. Ronson’s opening guitar riff is basic enough that guitar teachers use it as a lesson for beginners—hold the G string down and play three notes (A), lift your finger up and play a fourth note as an open string, then simply slide your finger along the same string from the second to the third fret and back again, lifting your finger up at the end (which creates the circular hook).

The riff is constant throughout the song, moving, like Bowie’s narrator, across a moving landscape, its appearance seemingly altered with its changing surroundings. So the riff travels, in the intro, from A to D minor (the home key of the song; Bowie, likely unintentionally, sings “made my way back home” over one return to D minor) to F and back to D minor; it does the same in the break after the first chorus, and again, seemingly endlessly, in the long outro. As the author Chet Williamson wrote, in an appreciation of the song: “The melody of the riff is unchangeable. It seems to owe nothing to any key, and stands alone, adapting itself to the darkness of D minor, the brightness of F, and the intermediary and transitory character of A.

The chorus is even simpler. Visconti on bass, then Ronson, then Ralph Mace (or Visconti) on keyboards, all follow the same path: they are simply playing scales, as if pupils in a band class—first the C major scale, then the F major scale. A sudden move to B flat casts a shadow for two bars, and then the cycles resume.

III. The Buyer

Sometime in the late 1980s Chad Channing, a Seattle-based drummer, found a mint The Man Who Sold the World LP in a shop and dubbed it onto cassette, as you did in those days. He played the tape while driving around his bandmates, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, and Channing recalled that when Cobain first heard “The Man Who Sold the World,” Cobain was baffled to learn David Bowie was singing it (this was the era of the “Let’s Dance” MTV icon Bowie, who seemed light years removed from the likes of The Man Who Sold the World).

In November 1993, as Cobain and Novoselic’s band Nirvana (Channing had left in 1990) began what would be their final tour, they came to New York to record a session for MTV’s Unplugged. Determined to irritate the biggest commercial force in music at the time, Nirvana told Unplugged‘s producers that not only would they not perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” acoustically (thus defeating the whole purpose of Unplugged, which was for bands (and MTV) to cash in by turning their greatest hits into easy-listening standards, like Eric Clapton turning “Layla” into a cocktail-hour blues), but also that half of their set would be obscure covers: three Meat Puppets songs, a Vaselines track, a Leadbelly blues and “Man Who Sold The World,” which, as far as MTV was concerned, might as well have been a Bowie outtake.

The songs Nirvana performed that night were tainted and distorted after Cobain’s suicide five months later, forced into new shapes—“All Apologies” became a self-requiem, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” a final curse, “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” visions of the afterlife. And “Man Who Sold the World” became Cobain’s catechism.

Where Bowie had sung “The Man Who Sold The World” dispassionately, as if at a remove from his own terror, Cobain sounds betrayed and disgusted (with himself, with whatever alternatives he’s presented with on the stair); whatever fear the figure on the stair means to invoke by saying he’s The Man Who Sold The World, Cobain simply deflates. He’s done his share of selling, after all. But Cobain’s voice catches on lines like “He said I was his friend,” which he offers in a tone of weary disbelief, and he plays his allegedly unplugged guitar through a hidden amplifier.

The time leading up to [Cobain’s] death was really strange. He disappeared. He just seemed like he wanted to get away. He bailed. I honestly did not think he was going to kill himself. I just thought he was on someone’s floor in Olympia, listening to albums. Or something.

Dave Grohl, interviewed by Austin Scaggs, 2005.

Nirvana kept “The Man Who Sold The World” in its set throughout the following tour (here’s Inglewood, Calif. (30 Dec 1993) and Modena, Italy (21 Feb 1994), including their final concert in Munich. The tour ended: Cobain made his way back home to Seattle, where he died alone.

IV. Transit

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know. Then don’t ask. But the night is very short. There go the festival fires in the sky, and the birds.”

Tomas put out his hand. The Martian did likewise in imitation. Their hands did not touch; they melted through each other.
“Will we meet again?”

“Who knows? Perhaps some other night.”

Ray Bradbury, “Night Meeting,” (1950).

Before this, Bowie had revisited “The Man Who Sold the World” only twice. In 1973, embarking on a mild Svengali relationship with the Scot belter Lulu, Bowie revised the song as glam disco, centering it on a new Ronson riff and a saxophone he played himself. Lulu sang the hell out of it (in the studio, Bowie had told her to smoke cigarettes to make her voice raspier), dressed up for the promo video in a gangster suit. But the song was flattened out and distorted, its questions barely discernible beneath the flash and glare.

And on one of the last weekends of the Seventies, Bowie played Saturday Night Live. Those watching TV that night must have wondered if a European avant-garde theater troupe briefly had commandeered SNL—Bowie, in a giant Dadaist tuxedo (inspired by a Hugo Ball performance in which Ball had been carried onstage in a tube, as well as Sonia Delaunay’s costumes for a 1923 Tristan Tzara play), was hoisted like a placard by two vampires in red and black dresses (Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias), and backed by a band including Blondie’s Jimmy Destri (filmed making ridiculous faces while playing two keyboards). The gorgeous outro, with Nomi and Arias’ counter-tenors swirling around Bowie’s voice, had a severe finality to it, a sense of being a last aria. You could imagine, at the performance’s end, that Bowie never intended to play the song again.

But Nirvana’s cover, played on TV throughout the spring of 1994 (MTV was running “Nirvana Unplugged” seemingly around the clock), suddenly exhumed the song, and “The Man Who Sold The World” was out of Bowie’s hands. Many kids even thought the song was a Nirvana track (despite Cobain’s earnest introductions on stage that “this is a David Booooie song”), placing Bowie in the odd position of, if he revived the now-popular song, being accused of covering his own composition.

A year later Bowie made his move: he gutted the song, making what he did in the Lulu version seem like minor outpatient surgery. Erasing everything familiar (the vocal melody, Ronson’s riff, the chorus scales) as if it was the speech bubble of Weller’s cartoon, Bowie left only the lyric, stripped bare over a minimalist electronic beat. He sang it quietly and sadly, the puzzles that the song once offered now not even worth trying to solve.

Finally Bowie seemed to make peace with the song, offering a fairly “traditional” version in 2000 for a BBC performance (a version that, to be honest, sounds like a Nirvana cover). By the time of Bowie’s Reality tour of 2003-2004, “The Man Who Sold the World” had become part of Bowie’s canon, along with “Changes” and “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes.” Bowie sang it as if had been one of his standards all along: he had reclaimed a child who had been stolen from him and, in the process, had outgrown him.

V. Transit Documents

“The Man Who Sold The World,” originally recorded ca. 8-22 May 1970, was the penultimate song of the LP it titled; lurking between the bombast of “She Shook Me Cold” and the closer “The Supermen,” its cold power was, if anything, magnified. It was the B-side of a few singles, including a 1973 RCA reissue of “Life on Mars?” Lulu’s 1974 single (Polydor 2001 490) hit #3 in the UK and was collected on her 1977 LP Heaven And Earth And the Stars. A truly god-awful cover, with the Lulu track as its apparent inspiration, was cut by the young John Cougar in 1977. The Bowie/Nomi/Arias recording, from 15 December 1979 (they also did “TVC-15” and “Boys Keep Swinging”) has never been released, either on DVD or CD.

Nirvana’s version was recorded on 18 November 1993 and is found on Unplugged in New York; Bowie’s 1995 remake, mixed by Brian Eno, was released as the B-side of “Strangers When We Meet”; the 2000 live performance, recorded 27 June 2000 at the BBC Radio Theatre, is on the bonus disc of Bowie at the Beeb; the final version featured here was recorded in Dublin on 22-23 November 2003 and is on the A Reality Tour DVD.

Top: Gov. Ronald Reagan debates Irving Wesley Hall, Sacramento, Calif., 1970.


Nite Flights

November 14, 2012

Scott Walker, Message to David Bowie on his 50th Birthday, 1997.

I see God in the window.

David Bowie, after hearing it.

See the dwarfs and see the giants. Which one would you choose to be?

Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”

I. Engel and Jones

I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”

Start by placing them across the board from each other: two queen’s bishops, rows of squares ahead of them. One is Noel Scott Engel, born in Ohio in 1943, an American who went to Britain for fame and who stayed there; the other is David Robert Jones, born in Brixton on the day before Engel’s fourth birthday, who scrabbled for fame in Britain and, once he finally got it, left for good. Jones became David Bowie, Engel became Scott Walker. Each was precocious, ambitious, beautiful. They first met around 1966 at a London nightclub, The Scotch of St. James, when Walker was a pop star and Bowie nothing but polite aspiration.

The Walker Brothers were cool, handsome Californians who sang maudlin, shabby pop. Their hit singles were all dirges. Britain, more than any other country, took them to heart, a hint that beneath the shine of Carnaby Street and the “classless” glamour society pages of David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups there was still a weary nation that had never gotten over the war, a Britain for whom the glum fatalism of “Make it Easy on Yourself” and the doom-struck “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” rang more true than “All You Need is Love,” whose promise seemed extended only to the beautiful and young. The Walkers, though they looked like surfer gods, lived in darkened rooms: they suffered breakups, desertions and morning-after regrets, their albums were lonely hearts columns. The somber flavor of their songs suggested there was still a war on (and of course, there was—one reason the Walkers had left the US was to avoid the draft).



Like the spider-egg memory cruelly programmed into the replicant’s memory in Blade Runner, the Walker Brothers felt real but did not actually exist in any recongisable reality.

Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”

Years before Bowie would create a “plastic” rock star, there was the Walker Brothers (not brothers, none of them really named Walker), who didn’t play on their records, who used different backing bands for touring and TV appearances (live, Gary Leeds used paper sticks, the actual drummer parked backstage). As Reynolds wrote, the only “real” Walker Brothers were Scott and John’s voices, “two solo singers sharing a b(r)and name…[whose] LPs were the works of a mythical beast, spawned and constructed under the laboratory conditions of Philips Studios.

Not that it mattered. By 1966, the Walkers’ UK fan club was larger than the Beatles’ and the Stones’; Mick Jagger, sizing up the competition, tried to start a feud by flicking cigarette butts down on Walker at a nightclub. Lulu, besotted with Scott herself, recalled being unable to sleep while on tour with the Walkers because shrieking girls had the hotels under siege. The Walkers’ mid-Sixties was a reenactment of Beatlemania in miniature, more ritualized and more violent, with Walkers shows condensed to a half-hour of screams and gutter battles. One night Leeds saw a girl covered in blood from head to foot—she had crawled through a shattered window to get into the club—and he remembered another girl who wouldn’t let go of John’s hair even after being punched in the face.

It had happened by chance. John Maus and Scott Engel, who’d met in the early Sixties, got a minor hit in America and were working clubs on the Sunset Strip. John sang lead; Scott, his gloomy baritone suiting his role as bassist, was second string. Recording a new song, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love Her,” that had been written for the Righteous Brothers, the producer Nick Venet suggested a deeper-voiced lead for the Bill Medley role, and Scott became the front man. Leeds, a drummer that he and John knew, came back from a British tour with PJ Proby with UK contacts and a proposition. The three, christened the Walker Brothers, flew to London in February 1965. Four months later, they had a manager, a record contract and hits, starting with “Love Her.”

Scott had worked in professional music since his boyhood: he was making demos and singles in his mid-teens and had been a protege of the singer Eddie Fisher. It was a life of pointed ambition, reminiscent of another boy in Bromley who started cutting singles at age 17. But unlike Bowie, Walker had only a professional interest in R&B and rock ‘n roll (with the exception of the disco-tinged Nite Flights, Walker’s oeuvre is an alternate history in which “white” popular music had almost zero African-American influence). His idol was Frank Sinatra. Hearing that Sinatra had built up his lungs by staying underwater for minutes, Walker would try to hold his breath for a block when walking in London.

His was a wary fame. He never had a period like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era when he savored the absurd peak of his celebrity. Instead he escaped whenever he could, enisling himself in movie theaters, where he’d watch four films in a row, or turning up at nightclubs at 1 AM and sitting by himself; he took Valium to bring himself down, uppers and vodka to get him through sessions and shows. Encouraged by his manager to write B-sides for some publishing royalties, Walker found his ideal form of escape: his songs, from the start, fabricated worlds for him to hide away in. In December 1966 he had a breakthrough, with “Archangel,” built on a Bach-inspired pipe organ figure that Scott recorded at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square (a moviegoer’s whim indulged), and the kitchen-sink drama of “Mrs. Murphy.” In these two songs, a B-side and an EP track, was the breadth of his imagined, inherited London: the gossipy flavor of life in a two-up two-down, where angels sometimes appear at the windows.

Walker became a dedicated expatriate: Sixties London, he later said, really was the London he had dreamed of in America, the London of Ealing Studios films, of eccentricity and “making do,” with vaguely Continental daydreams as its mild opiate. He became a British citizen in the Seventies, though living in Holland much of the time, and his attitude towards his native country has been coldness tinged with contempt. An idealized, affected “British” sensibility colored his music. Even the Walker Brothers albums were structured like provincial pantomime revues: a Matt Monro-style ballad followed by a back-to-the-Sunset Strip rocker like “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a country-style number leading into one of Scott’s compositions (a bizarre piece of sequencing on Images sandwiches Walker’s “Orpheus” between anemic covers of “Stand By Me” and “Blueberry Hill”).

Much of the music, even the #1 singles, sounded slightly off, inaccurate translations. “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” was producer Johnny Franz and a pack of British session players (including Alan Parker, who later played on “Rebel Rebel”) going for the full-bore Phil Spector sound, with Hal Blaine style “on the four” drums, “Holland Tunnel” reverb and instruments stacked upon each other like folding chairs. But they didn’t quite pull it off: “Sun” has so much blear and murk that Scott drowns in the mix, but the track’s also thin-sounding in places; it’s a drywall of sound.

Still, even echoes have echoes. Some of Bowie’s 1966 Pye singles, with their Tony Hatch productions, seem crafted to mimic the gimcrack cathedral tone of the Walkers’ singles. He and Walker were in different worlds: you can imagine Scott’s face on a magazine cover at the Clapham cafe where Bowie once wrote a bitter little jibe called “Join the Gang,” which he couldn’t. Where Bowie was a footnote, Walker was getting enseamed in British pop legend. When the gangster Ronnie Kray shot a rival at the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, one bullet from Kray’s Mauser hit the jukebox, causing the record playing to skip: the sun ain’t gonna shine…sun ain’t gonna shine…

II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom

Scott Walker, Amsterdam.
David Bowie, Amsterdam.
Scott Walker, My Death.
David Bowie, My Death (live).

Contrary to public opinion, I hated cabaret. In the course of four years, I mentioned it to David once. That was when he was broke and unable to feed himself. Cabaret? Not likely. It killed Scott Walker.

Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.

Caller: Is [“Plastic Palace People”] about what I think it is?

Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.

Capitol Radio interview, 1978.

It’s a well-established arc in pop: the teen idol grows (cracks) up. Idols are a savvier lot now, and managers have gotten far better at handling the transition, but it remains a treacherous crossing, one that usually demands some sort of declaration of independence. Scott Walker’s was extremist. Consider if Justin Bieber put out a record where he sang about losing his virginity in an “mobile army whorehouse,” recalled “the queer lieutenant who slapped our asses as if we were fags” and “my first case of gonorrhea” and closed with “one day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive.”

Walker went to the Playboy Club one night in 1967 and met a German woman who worked there. Back at her place, she drank Pernod and played Jacques Brel records for him, translating the songs as they played. He fell in love, not with her. By chance, soon after that evening Walker’s friend Andrew Oldham told him that Mort Shuman had just made a translation of Brel songs for a stage revue, some of which had been recorded for a promo disc. Walker found this acetate, which had “Amsterdam” and “Jackie” and “Mathilde” on it, and, in his words, “ran with it.” Brel was his liberator, giving Walker cover, some exotica and notoriety.

So began the “shabby ’60s solo epics: fantasias of crumpled velvet” (Tom Ewing) that were the four Scott records: fervid Brel covers, MOR schlock, occasional country/folk forays and the Walker-penned songs, the latter increasingly more “lieder” than pop, with Walker disdaining hooks and choruses in favor of wandering through his endless, spiraling verses. His songs, sometimes literally art movies remembered in music (“The Seventh Seal“), were split-screen compositions (“Plastic Palace People”), flashbacks, slow-motion reveries. He peopled his lyrics with children and angels (and one in the same), tramps and toy soldiers (there was a touch of the black velvet painting in Scott’s songs of the period), squandered dreamers rotting away on fire escapes and terraces. His characters, refracted through his own brooding persona, seemed poisoned by memories, left motionless (the first side of Scott 1 is a set of remembered lost girls—Mathilde,Angelica, Lucy Brown, Joanna—that naturally concludes with ode to death). The Scotts are singular, as much out of their time as they reek of it: Scott 2 remains one of the stranger #1 albums ever released.

Late Sixties Scott can seem a schizophrenic character, hosting a lite-pop TV revue for the BBC while singing about prostitutes and archangels on his gnomic records. For some he was a tortured artist, packaged by his label and manager as a reluctant version of Englebert Humperdinck, who slipped in a few subversive masterpieces on records marketed to middle-aged bourgeois. For others he was a teen idol with bad taste, a ghastly poseur who took a sniggering adolescent pleasure in singing Brel’s bawdy lyrics. (He was easy to detest: Nik Cohn called Walker “top heavy and maudlin” in 1968 and Robert Christgau later threw up in print: “purely godawful…Anthony Newley without the voice muscles…a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too R&B.”)

Sure, Walker’s records are the sort of thing the couple in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” would have on their hi-fi, and his lyrics can easily venture into Rod McKuen waters. He seemed an older man in spirit, a throwback whose main vices, booze and pills, were classic Hollywood’s, and whose interests were those of a graduate student ca. 1957: Camus, Bergman films, Bartok. The Scotts are the refined sound of the aspiring middlebrow of the Sixties, a tragic figure easy to mock today. A lost world of Cabernet, mime, mild Buddhism, poetry readings, “action” theater. Which, as it happens, was also the world of Bowie and his girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, in 1968.

During the Scott years, Bowie was in the wilderness. His one LP had flopped and Deram stopped releasing his singles. And in 1968, a year when he didn’t release any music and nearly abandoned pop music, he discovered Walker. As with Walker and Brel, a woman was the ambassador. The songwriter Lesley Duncan had dated Walker and later briefly took up with Bowie, and Bowie found the latter’s records in her flat on Redington Road. Bowie was irritated at first, Walker seeming to mock him with his glamorous brooding Philips LP covers, but when he finally played the records he was entranced.

At first, mainly with Brel (Walker had chosen Brel wisely, as a carnival barker to get potential listeners into the tent). Bowie soon tried to make “Amsterdam” and “My Death” his own, singing them accompanied only by his 12-string acoustic guitar, but all he managed to do was cover Walker. The actual Brel, an agitated Fleming who expectorated his songs in performance, is hardly to be heard in Bowie’s various versions—Bowie’s Brel is just a shadow of Scott’s. Seeking to evade Walker, he only channeled him.

Then, through Walker’s own songs, Bowie began to craft a new persona to inhabit. He had forgotten he’d ever been a Mod and, in the words of his then-partner John Hutchinson, was now “into softer things.” Scott’s songs are in the sediment of Bowie’s late Sixties: in the bedroom of “hessian and wood” where Bowie and Hermione once stayed; in the paper-strewn rooms of the scholar who lives above an Austrian in “Conversation Piece”. And in the song that finally made Bowie? Is there some of Walker’s growing isolation and coldness in “Space Oddity,” in Major Tom’s desire to slip free from the world’s tether and just float off somewhere, like a balloon?

It’s easy to go too far in this game. There were other competing influences at work on Bowie, and Bowie’s arrangers/producers Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti were of a different cast than Walker’s, who were generally of an older generation. Dudgeon and Visconti were more pop-oriented, working in service to the song, favoring moody sweeps of ‘celli, using strings and horns to underscore top melodies, and while open to innovations like the Mellotron and Stylophone, kept them as secondary players in the mix. Nowhere on a Bowie record of the period is there anything like Wally Stott’s coagulation of strings, a semi-tonal quivering between G, G-sharp and F-sharp, that hangs like a storm cloud in Walker’s masterpiece “It’s Raining Today.”

It was this sound—a suspension between tonality and atonality, release and tension, fear and longing—which Walker had sought since he began making records (Derek Walmsley: “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation“) and he would reuse it for decades to come, building and coloring his songs with variations on these shifts, with strings phasing in and out of key, players rolling out strings of harmonic and ghost notes that suddenly cohere into great clumps of sound. (On Tilt, three decades later, Walker would try to create “new chords” by having his players play major and minor chords simultaneously, aiming for “a yin and yang thing,” he said.)

The sound of “Raining Today” suggested that Scott was delving further inward. His lyrics grew more obscure, his art movie songs were increasingly meant for him alone, as if he was screening dailies of his dreams. After the triumph of Scott 3, Walker even discarded Brel, disposing of one last crutch. He went off the map as his audience fell away. There’s a telling moment in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man, when, as part of a transition montage, there’s a cut to a late 1969 issue of Melody Maker. On the right-hand side of the two-page spread is a photograph of a beaming hippie Bowie in an article about his hit single. On the opposing page, a dour Walker illustrates a piece about the poor sales of Scott 4, which Philips would delete in a year. Sun (machine) rising, sun setting.

You’ve been a wonderful audience. Now it’s time for me to go away.

Scott Walker, at the end of his first BBC TV show, 1969.

III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer

It bothered me that I couldn’t write a record. Sure. But I felt…it’s just as important to exist as write…Existence is worth everything. So I wasn’t dead, you know?

Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.

Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable….

Conrad.

In the early Seventies, David Bowie finally became a star. You likely know the story: Ziggy Stardust, Ronson, the Spiders, Angela, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tony Defries, Mike Garson, “Starman”, “Jean Genie.” Bowie still sang the Walker-Brel songs on stage but he’d long since dispensed any Scott-inspired production cues and lyrical influences, as though he’d stuffed away Walker in a box of teenage memorabilia when moving house.

As for Walker, he was hiding in plain sight. He still put out records, sometimes twice a year. The Moviegoer, Stretch, Any Day Now, We Had It All. These albums seemed intended to be remaindered, meant for dusty afterlives in charity shops and garage sales and church basements. One wonders who bought them (there weren’t many—none of the albums really sold). A fan from the Walker Brothers days, now married with children, who spied the still-handsome face on a LP in Debenhams and bought it out of some weak nostalgic obligation? A cultist, poring through the liner notes, looking for clues? Your grandmother?

Walker was blocked, creatively, and pushed by his manager to only do covers, so he grubbed out albums to meet his contracts and support his family, sometimes cutting all of his vocals in a single day, going through a bottle or two of vodka in the booth. He sang anything that he was given, sang it professionally and at times even beautifully, but with little artistry, little trace of his own interpretation. It was though he was demoing songs for other singers to do something with. Amanda Petrusich argues that Walker’s move into country music came as he was renouncing his citizenship, at the height of Watergate, and that singing country was a way for Walker to make some sort of reckoning with his past (he said in an interview that most of his family back home had voted for Nixon). It’s a solid enough theory as any. What’s more unnerving is the idea that Walker simply had no motives, had no strategies, but was just using music as a base currency. As Andy Zax said of these records, “their emptiness is startling.”

The connection could have been severed here: Walker drifting off into genteel nothingness, Bowie far off on his own path. But the line was still open on Bowie’s end. In late 1973, with the Spiders gone, with Bowie forced back onto himself and clawing his way out of a trap he’d made (he was trying to salvage at least three failed musicals), Bowie found himself listening to Walker again.

The first evidence on Diamond Dogs is a parody of Walker’s “Any Day Now” that briefly surfaces in the murk of “Future Legend.” Then, a few tracks later, comes “Sweet Thing/Candidate.” The ghoulish basso profondo that Bowie used to open “Sweet Thing” sounds like some resurrected, blighted Walker, Walker as some croaking Baron Samedi figure, pacing through Bowie’s Hunger City, looking for rough trade. It was a Walker that had never existed, one that seems instead to have been generated in Bowie’s shadow-memory of Scott’s old songs, and it’s a more frightening, vivid figure than Scott ever managed to play on his Philips LPs: a Scott purged of his middlebrow crooner affectations, clarified to base instinct and dark camp. The zombified Walker crops up again, as a lesser flavor, in some of Bowie’s other mid-Seventies songs (“Station to Station” comes to mind). It’s one possible ending: Walker ending up as one of Bowie’s characters, yet another influence absorbed. Instead, one day Walker woke up.

IV. The Electrician and the Lodger

David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and he makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I.’

Scott Walker.

Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).

The Walker Brothers reunited in 1974, for lack of anything else to do. They got a minor hit, a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” and stalled out. Their label GTO collapsed but there was enough money for one last record, so the Walkers figured they’d cut some of their own songs for once, using the budget to bring in some top session men (including Alan Parker and the guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan, who’d played on hundreds of British rock records, including David Bowie).

So far, this has been a one-way tale: Bowie watching, interpreting, coveting, acquiring Walker. Now Walker, at last, was listening to Bowie, sifting through Station to Station, Low and especially the just-released “Heroes,” which Walker brought to the studio, playing it for his partners and the studio musicians (he also wanted everyone to subscribe to Gramophone magazine). The engineer Steve Parker told Anthony Reynolds that “Heroes” was “the reference album when we were making Nite Flights…we could have been more adventurous, maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there, it would have been even more stunning, I think.”

What did Walker get out of Bowie’s “Berlin” albums? They were records of a man, pushed to his limits, who broke himself up and tried to piece himself together again, one who seemed intent on killing his former personae; Walker, after years of acquiescent mediocrity, of self-imposed artistic silence, was trying to write again, trying to make the step he felt he should have made after Scott 4. The Bowie records are also an exile’s albums, their creator roaming from Los Angeles to France to Berlin, which a fellow expatriate like Walker could appreciate. And more cynically, as Walker’s quote above suggests, he saw in Bowie someone to whom it had seemingly come easily, a man who dabbled in art rock but still got hits, one who seemed to have stolen the freedom to go where he willed. Remember that Walker wasn’t the mysterious avant-garde figure in 1978 that he’s since become. He was a pro singer who’d put out a lousy record for nearly every year of the Seventies, and whose vaunted Sixties LPs had more than their fair share of songs that could have been a Blood, Sweat and Tears album. He could still think in commercial terms, and he likely did here.

Nite Flights was front-loaded with Scott’s songs (though his fingerprints are everywhere on the record—as Reynolds wrote, the phased tubular bells and harmonized snare on Gary Leeds’ “Den Haague” are very Bowie/Eno/Visconti-inspired), which are sequenced perfectly. The opener “Shutout” is a first shot at Bowie, a reconsidering of “Blackout” with a taste of sharp violence, while “Fat Mama Kick” seems to be Walker taking Eno’s measure, writing a song that Eno could’ve fit on Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s a dark, extravagant goof, with Walker again, as with “Archangel,” busting the budget to record a colossal pipe organ (in this case, the Royal Albert Hall’s). “Nite Flights” (see below) is a maneuver where Walker met Bowie head-on.

He closed the quartet with “The Electrician,” where he pushed beyond Bowie and Eno, opening an avenue they had never considered. It begins with Walker’s favored dissonant string chords, with Walker, when he appears, groaning and bellowing as if he’d heard Bowie’s incarnation of him on “Sweet Thing” and thought, “oh, you think you can do this?“. Then, with the chorus, Walker strangles his professional voice. Considering his moneymaker baritone suspect, that it lulled the listener to sleep, he altered his phrasing and timbre, now singing lines in a straining, desperate tone that, like his love of consonant/dissonant strings, hung between being sharp and on the note. It suited the lyric, a love song about American complicity in Central American torture regimes.

There was nothing of its like in 1978. Brilliantly released as a single, “The Electrician” proffered a future that no one dared to take (Eno, decades later, groused about the cowardice of young bands who never went beyond “The Electrician,” but were just content to imitate him or Roxy Music or Bowie.)

In late 1978, Eno brought Nite Flights to Montreux, where he and Bowie had started recording Lodger. Bowie was stunned. One can’t blame him. Imagine if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.

So Lodger was, in part, Bowie scrambling to acknowledge a revived Walker, from the obvious reference “African Night Flight” to “Look Back in Anger,” a song full of cold angels (at a time when Walker no longer seemed interested in them) and whose phrasing had a trace of Bowie’s old Scott imitation. But this was superficial. Bowie stewed, considered new responses. “The Electrician” proved such a challenge that Bowie played it for nearly twenty years, then all but rewrote it as “The Motel.” (But that’s a story for later.)

V. Nite Flights

Nite Flights (Bowie).
Nite Flights (Bowie, video w/introduction).
Nite Flights (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Nite Flights (Moodswings Back to Basics Mix).
Nite Flights (Bowie, live, 1996).

In the early Eighties, when Bowie pieced himself out to the world, Walker, after the promise of Nite Flights, seemed to leave it. It was here, not in his workingman’s Seventies, when he truly began to vanish. He had ceased to exist in the music press. None of his records get a mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1983, or in the Trouser Press record guides of the era; he merits a single line in a two-graph Walker Brothers bio in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of 1983 and isn’t mentioned at all in RS‘ 1986 History of Rock & Roll. Nite Flights, rather than marking some startling rebirth, instead seemed his last roll of the dice before leaving the room.

Then Walker put out another record, Climate of Hunter. This would establish the pattern of his late work: silence, oblivion, then a new album. Released in spring 1984, a few months before Bowie’s Tonight, Climate made Bowie’s corporate nadir LP even more appalling. Climate was an actual adult pop record, Walker working with contemporary musicians and producers (Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler, among others), but keeping his own counsel, to the point of perversity (the Ocean track, the most pop-appealing song on the record which even got a video, didn’t get a title).

For the rest of the Eighties, when Walker was nowhere to be found, Bowie endured his own public set of lost years, reduced to making records for the sake of it, losing himself, trying to purge his way back with Tin Machine. Finally, in 1992, looking for some anchorage, casting about for fresh influences or just any means to move ahead, he finally decided to take Walker on. He covered “Nite Flights.”

As with his take on Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there was a touch of vanity in Bowie’s choice: “Nite Flights” is the closest that Walker was ever influenced by Bowie’s music, from the “Heroes” callbacks in the lyric (“we could be gods“) to its production and arrangement, which has the taut fluency of Bowie’s great Murray-Alomar-Davis band (the hi-hat, mostly played by Peter Van Hooke (and Frank Gibson here) is the unsung hero of Nite Flights, mixed as prominently as the lead vocal).

Bowie’s cover took the fractured disco of the Walkers and smoothed it out, deepening the song, gave it a steadier foundation (with Nile Rodgers’ fine rhythm guitar, starting in the second chorus, providing some friction). Just as with their Johnny Franz Sixties singles, the Walkers record, despite its pedigreed cast, had a feel of being scraped together at short notice, trying to approximate a sound they’d heard elsewhere. Bowie made “Nite Flights” a thick curtain of music, lessening the dramatics (Walker makes the out-of-key change to B-flat on “blood-lite” seem to portend something awful, while Bowie just breezes by it). Where Walker strains, gasps, acts as though he’s only got a few moments before something terrible happens (is he the air, about to crash? both he and Bowie shared a fear of flying), Bowie sings the bizarre, violent lyric (“the dark dug up by dogs!…the raw meat fist you choke!…broken necks!“) as if it was a love song, making it even more surreal, delivering each phrase with a poise that makes Walker seem like a madman. Bowie takes the first octave leap—“it’s so COLD!“—without blinking, where Walker seemed to bleed while doing it.

Covering Walker shook something loose in Bowie, reset his ambitions, made him commit to one last push into the avant-garde, to try to give audiences not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed. And in 1995, as Bowie was putting the final touches on Outside, a record that Reeves Gabrels has said was made under the influence of Walker, Walker popped out of the void with Tilt, a record so abrasive and baffling and ahead of its time, that it made Outside seem like a pop record. (Again, more later.)

VI. Walker and Bowie

I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

Conrad.

Starting with Nite Flights and on through Tilt and The Drift (and, from what I’ve heard of it, Bish Bosch), Walker eradicated himself, exiled his past lives. There remains some continuity of sound (the dissonant/consonant strings, while a ghost of the flugelhorn in “Orpheus” appears in “Cue”, and a few basic lyric images: he’s still obsessed with the movies—“Clara” began with his memories of seeing Mussolini’s corpse on a newsreel as a child) but otherwise Walker has, more than anyone else of his generation, hived off his past, has made it of no relevance to him. He’ll never revisit his former work, nor flog it on stage nor give it deluxe CD/DVD reissue treatments (Walker has said he’s never listened to any of his records since he’s made them). The tremulous Anglophile of the Scott records, the jaundiced pop singer of Climate of Hunter, are well in the grave. The Walker of today keeps to the edges, looking for margins within margins. The Drift, in 2006, found him hiring top percussionists to punch slabs of beef and rub thimbles across wooden blocks. He sings his inscrutable lyrics, hinting at future fascisms, ethnic cleansings, plagues, in a voice that he seems to keep purging and bleeding; he’s become increasingly medieval.

Bowie, after his last trek into the attempted unknown in the mid-Nineties, fell back into his past. At the turn of the century, as we’ll see soon enough in this survey, he revived some of his oldest songs, remade them, like an older man reading aloud some faded letters; he drafted wills, put old debts to right, arranged his estates, then went out by playing his old music with fervor, as though he was a young man again. And he praised Walker effusively, again and again, his fandom ripening with age. Hearing Walker merely wish him a happy 50th birthday left Bowie close to tears. Whereas with Walker, whenever he mentioned Bowie (not often) there was simply gracious reserve, the quiet complimentary manner of an artist to his occasional patron.

So add up the sums. Walker, apart from a few Walker Brothers hits, has never produced work that a mass audience has loved, in the way that they have loved “Changes” or “Life on Mars?” or “Heroes,” or will still run to a dance floor whenever “Blue Jean” or “Let’s Dance” comes on. Bowie, despite his best intentions, was a populist at heart. As Lloyd Cole wrote about Low, there was always too much with Bowie, too much melody, too much love of pop, too much need to be heard, so that he never could cram himself down into being just an “artist” (it’s akin to how Bowie never could make a coherent “concept album,” as much as he hinted at it). Walker began standing in the center, a treasured photograph on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and wormed his way out, seeking nothing, throwing away everything that he once carried, occasionally sending some new transmission from somewhere far off the grid, seemingly not caring whether it even gets heard.

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game. His name only surfaces in quickly-disproven rumors of a return, to the stage or studio (a deluxe boxed set of Low is about all we can hope for). It’s a shame that their story, which had run for so long, through so many editions, is over, but all stories end: you know that. It was fine while it lasted. Secret partners, rivals, sounding, sounded, carriers, receivers, exiles, electricians. Engel and Jones, Bowie and Walker.

The Walkers recorded “Nite Flights” in February 1978 at Scorpio Sound, UK. Bowie’s version was cut ca. summer/autumn 1992 at the Power Station and/or Mountain Studios, Montreux. A remix was released as a UK promo 12″ single (Arista HOME 1) and later included on the reissued Black Tie White Noise.

Sources: The Wire‘s recently-issued essay compilation No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (edited by Rob Young) was essential. I’m particularly indebted to Derek Walmsley on Scott 3 and 4, Amanda Petrusich on Walker’s wilderness years, Ian Penman’s meander through Walker’s befuddled early Seventies and Damon Krukawski on Climate of Hunter. Anthony Reynolds’ The Impossible Dream is a first-rate bio: many quotes and facts are taken from it, as well as from the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man documentary (Kijak, 2006). Thanks to @Discographies (Andy Zax) for entertaining theories and offering insights and music.

Top to bottom: Scott Walker in 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984, 1995, 2006; Bowie in 1966, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1994, 2006.