Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

December 9, 2009

Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (BBC, 1970).

In late July 1969, while David Bowie was performing at the Maltese Song Festival, his father, Haywood “John” Jones, took ill. He died soon after Bowie returned to Britain. Jones had been a source of great stability—financial and emotional—for Bowie in the ’60s, and his death, coming at around the same time Bowie was breaking with his longtime manager Ken Pitt as well as ditching many of his old friends, left Bowie angry and withdrawn. Bowie later told George Tremlett that “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” was his attempt to capture the surreal feeling of the weeks after his father’s death.

“Unwashed,” however, seems more about class anxiety and Dylan-worship than anything else. Bowie told an interviewer in late ’69 that an inspiration for the title had come from the “funny stares” he got on the street, and critics like Nicholas Pegg suggest the song also seems to be revisiting the Hermione Farthingale breakup (Farthingale was of a higher class than Bowie and allegedly didn’t approve of his pop music leanings, and the song is in part a dig at a girl with a “red parquet floor” and a Braque painting on her wall).

The song is a slow reduction, moving from complexity and nuance down to hard basics, and seems, symbolically if not intentionally, to be Bowie throwing over folk music for hard rock. It opens with 12-string acoustic, alternating between Asus2 and D9 chords; Bowie’s dreamy vocal and the occasional sweep of electric guitar suggests it will be another delicate rambling folk song in the vein of “Letter to Hermione.” Then a 20-bar verse destabilizes the song until at last Bowie hits ground with a Bo Diddley beat and riffing guitars and harmonica (the latter played by Benny Marshall, lead singer of the Hull-based Rats, which would be the source of most of the Spiders From Mars).

A frustrated Bowie once said during the Space Oddity sessions that “It’s gotta rock!” and he finally got his wish here. The rest of “Unwashed” is centered on the primal chord progression C-F-C (and occasionally F-Bb-F, which is the spine of Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around”), with Bowie sneering that “I’ve got eyes in my backside” and “my head’s full of murders!” and so on. After a last yelp Bowie lets his players jam for two minutes, the harmonica backing the riffs while Tim Renwick and Keith Christmas solo on electric guitar, and even a horn section stumbles in towards the fadeout. By far the liveliest track on an otherwise somber and leaden record.

Recorded ca. September 1969; on Space Oddity.

Top: multi-generational summit, London, 1969 (Romano Cagnoni).

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Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

becknhm

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

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

worthing

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

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

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

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

student-march4_300

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

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

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

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

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


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

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

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

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

db1

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

David-Bowie-1967

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

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

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

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

db69

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

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

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


End of Chapter Two (1969-1970)

February 1, 2010

In July 1970, having cut The Man Who Sold the World and “Holy Holy,” Bowie went into hibernation (well, aestivation, to be precise). Everything was on hold. No shows, no promotions, no studio sessions. Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey dejectedly went back to Hull (Ronson even fell into a depression). Tony Visconti, who was about to produce a run of chart-topping singles for T. Rex and who was wary of Bowie’s new manager Tony Defries, told Bowie he couldn’t work with him anymore. The two parted outside Defries’ office on Regent Street, not to meet again for years.

The silence was partly strategy. Defries was negotiating to get Bowie a better record deal than his current one with Philips/Mercury, whose contract would expire once Man Who Sold the World was released. Bowie’s publishing contract with Essex Music was also expiring, and due to Bob Grace at Chrysalis Music’s love for “Holy Holy,” Bowie landed a new publishing deal with Chrysalis in October (giving Bowie a much-needed £5000 advance).

So in the latter months of 1970 Bowie simply wrote, song after song, many of them on a piano he had brought into Haddon Hall; he later demoed many of the pieces at Radio Luxembourg’s studios. In 1971 Bowie would at last go to America and would record Hunky Dory and most of Ziggy Stardust: alone at his piano, Bowie laid the framework for a miracle year.

Top five from the “Philips/Mercury” era:

The Man Who Sold the World.
Conversation Piece.
Space Oddity.
After All.
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.

Top: London, 1970 (photographer unknown).


The Width of a Circle

January 3, 2010

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.


The Mime Songs

October 21, 2009

563051B

Threepenny Pierrot.
Columbine.
The Mirror.
The Mask.

For a time, during the tail end of the ’60s, David Bowie became a professional mime who occasionally sang on stage. His label wanted to be rid of him, every record that he had released had flopped, he didn’t have a band, and often his only regular work came from mime shows, whether in stage productions or even (disastrously) opening for rock bands like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Mime, like it or loathe it, is essential to Bowie’s art—it’s as important an influence as Bowie’s love of R&B and jazz, or science fiction, or Buddhism, or Lou Reed. It lies behind everything that he did after 1968: Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, even the wan extraterrestrial figure of his “Berlin” trilogy are basically all mimetic interpretations of rock musicians. Coming full circle, Bowie dressed as Pierrot in his 1980 video for “Ashes to Ashes,” winding down his most creative period.

Bowie had followed the path of a typical British would-be rock star—leaving school early, playing in beat groups, getting a manager, cutting singles, making a moderately psychedelic LP. His mime years broke this frame; it marked him with a different aesthetic than the typical rocker. It’s in part why Bowie is hard to fit into the standard “’70s rock star” slot, though radio stations and retrospectives try, and why some critics have considered him a poseur, a campy thief, a heartless vampire figure. Was Bowie really only a mime who “played” a rock musician? Or was he someone who considered mime to be an aesthetic equivalent to rock & roll, thus denying one of the music’s core myths—that its purity and simplicity made it superior to more elaborate, ‘higher” forms of art? When a mime can do rock as well as a “real” rock & roll singer, what does it say about the latter?

[Bowie] in class would drink up my words and do exactly as I asked of him. And a few years later, when he invited me to stage Ziggy Stardust for him at the Rainbow, he was still a joy to direct. I would keep encouraging him to simplify his performance, which he did, and we never had any artistic disagreements. He was an ideal student.

Lindsay Kemp, quoted in The Bowie Companion.

It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.

David Bowie, 1997, on working with Kemp.

Bowie met the mime Lindsay Kemp in mid-1967 and by the fall was taking dance lessons from him. Kemp later claimed, deliberately creating a legend, that he had saved Bowie from becoming a Buddhist monk, as Bowie had visited a Buddhist monastery in Scotland and allegedly was considering taking vows. Kemp asked Bowie to perform and write songs for a new production he was mounting, Pierrot in Turquoise. (Bowie suggested “turquoise” as it was the Buddhist symbol of eternity.) The play featured Pierrot, the sad, ever-trusting cuckold, his love Columbine and her lover Harlequin, variations on classic Commedia dell’arte types. The production became a traveling soap opera: Bowie was having simultaneous affairs with Kemp and the costume designer Natasha Korniloff, and once Kemp found out, he lived up to the role of the betrayed Pierrot and slashed his wrists before a show. When he reopened the wounds while performing that night, blood stained his Pierrot costume and the audience roared at the audacious realism.

For Pierrot in Turquoise, Bowie wrote “Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” and revived, yet again, “When I Live My Dream.” While the jaunty “Threepenny Pierrot” (soon to be rewritten as “London Bye Ta-Ta“) could have fit on Bowie’s debut LP, “Columbine” and “The Mirror” show a new, emerging compositional style for Bowie—somber folk-esque songs, in which an elaborate lyric is countered by a basic, repetitive acoustic guitar figure. The type would dominate the Space Oddity LP. Bowie quarried from “Columbine” in particular—its guitar line is reused in “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and a variation turns up at the end of “Width of a Circle.”

Bowie continued to work as a mime and dancer throughout 1968 and 1969, dancing in a Kemp-choreographed version of Pushkin’s The Pistol Shot and performing his own Tibetan-inspired production Yet-San and The Eagle. When Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, seeking to revive his client’s career, arranged for Bowie to record a promo film, Bowie included in the mix a mime piece (with narration) he had written entitled “The Mask.” During its five minute span, Bowie calmly and ominously depicts his future stardom and the subsequent near-madness it caused him. He acted out his future, then endured it.

“Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” were debuted at the premiere of Pierrot in Turquoise in Oxford on 28 December 1967; their only recordings are from a 1970 production of the show, The Looking Glass Murders, that aired on the BBC. “The Mask” was recorded for Bowie’s promo film Love You Till Tuesday on 5 February 1969.

Top: David Bowie at the Middle Earth Club, 19 May 1968.