When I Live My Dream

October 2, 2009

chinoise1

When I Live My Dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If I’m Dreaming My Life

December 31, 2013

rushmore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top: Rushmore (Anderson, 1998).


The Mysteries

December 3, 2012

93moscow1

The Mysteries.

Sometimes I felt the whole world was converging on this little room. And as I became more intoxicated and frustrated, I’d throw open the bedroom window as the dawn came up…I wanted my life to begin now, at this instant, just when I was ready for it.

The Buddha of Suburbia.

I spent so much time in my bedroom [in Bromley]. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player. Going from my world upstairs out onto the street, I had to pass through this no-man’s-land of the living room, you know, and out the front hall.

David Bowie, 1990.

Over seven minutes long, consisting of washes of synthesizer and slowed-down, reverse-tracked, treated piano and acoustic guitar passages that occasionally resemble melodies, “The Mysteries” likely prompted the FF button for some Buddha of Suburbia listeners. I admit I did this throughout the Nineties. It wasn’t until some depressive evening in the past decade when I heard this track again after a long absence; only then its humble, rationed beauty, its meager war against silence, finally caught me.

In the context of Buddha, “Mysteries” is an aural portrait of a suburban dreamer, a Hanif Kureishi or David Jones stuck in his room on some dreary Sunday, reading, staring at the magazine pages taped to the wall, listening to records on headphones, waiting for something to happen, thoughts floating and expiring like soap bubbles. Those who leave them call the suburbs soulless places, hives of conformity, and there’s some truth to the charge (but the same could be said for your typical urban hipster neighborhood). But this ignores a nourishing side of suburban life for the young: the freedom, time and space it provides for the imagination. Deprived of external stimuli, lacking anywhere to go, stuck in a small house where you can hear the rumble of your parents’ television through the wall, one outlet is daydreaming, idling the mind, planning fanciful escape routes and then, sometimes, turning to creative work.* It’s no coincidence that so many pop musicians have been suburban kids: the suburban misfit welcomes the future; he or she is nocked like an arrow towards it.

If the secret police ordered you to live in the suburbs for the rest of your life, what would you do? Kill yourself? Read? Almost every night I had nightmares and sweats. It was sleeping under that childhood roof which did it. Whatever fear of the future I had, I would overcome it; it was nothing to my loathing of the past.

Buddha.

So “The Mysteries” is a mind at roam, with its bed of synthesizer loops (making a constant double-tracked wash of sound, with some high whistles and “foghorns” appearing in the later minutes—another, lower-mixed loop sounds like a choir) as the droning background of everyday life. Bowie slowed the original tape, which, like “South Horizon,” was derived from a motif used on the Buddha TV series. This “open[ed] up the thick texture dramatically,” leaving room for Erdal Kizilcay to “play the thematic information against it.” The information was phased or reverse-tracked piano and, after two minutes, acoustic guitar: on “Mysteries” these lead instruments offer just brief forays of thought, fraying strings of sound, never developing or expanding on any initial observations; their progress always falls back after a handful of notes, repeating a pattern again or starting a new one just as tentatively, just as fruitlessly.**

Of Bowie’s past work, “Mysteries” is closest to “Moss Garden” (the acoustic guitar here in place of the koto), an instrumental track that seems symphonic compared with the melodic aridity of “Mysteries.” But there’s a lovely yearning in the latter’s absences and in its few presences. The descending three-note motif that appears five times on the track becomes, with each repetition, increasingly more powerful and resonant—its last appearance, late in the track (5:52), rings in triumph.

The title could have come from anywhere: for example, it could be a reference to Philip Glass’ Mysteries and What’s So Funny (1990). I’d like to imagine it calls back to a wonderful line Bowie said in The Man Who Fell to Earth: [Television] shows you everything about life on Earth, but the mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s the nature of television.” The mysteries aren’t shown, but just are; they are simply whatever falls between what we do: the corpuscles of our imaginations.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Misprinted as “The Mysterie” on the most recent US CD issue of Buddha.

* I realize this statement dates me as someone from the last generation to grow up without the Internet.

** Paul Trynka’s bio said the track was sampled from “an Austrian classical work,” which doesn’t really narrow the alleged source down too well: Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, the Strausses and Schoenberg all could fit the bill. I’m guessing the reference is to the Second Viennese School of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, but even their starkest pieces have more flesh on the bone than “Mysteries” does. Any ideas?

Top: Olga Schlyter, “Moscow, November 7, 1993.”


Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)

March 13, 2012

Shining Star (Makin’ My Love).
Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) (rehearsal, 1987 (fragment)).

“Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a song: even its title is a grotesque hybrid.* Its parts include: Bowie’s simpering, vaguely-rapped verses which at times sound as though he’s doing an Old Hollywood “Asian” accent (recall that Bowie used a borderline-racist accent on “China Girl” during the Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider tours); a Prince-inspired emoted pre-chorus; a “soul” chorus that’s meant to be a tribute to Smokey Robinson but which sounds more like Johnny Hates Jazz; and a mid-track eight-bar “Method” rap by Mickey Rourke.

Bowie’s lyric also seems cobbled together from a few bad ideas. It starts with a list of sub-Jim Carroll doper casualties, builds steam with a run of inane similes (life is a broken arrow, memory is a swinging door—I’m surprised we didn’t learn love is like a rose with thorns, too). Then in the chorus, Bowie tries to reboot the song and make it a generic soul ballad. All of this is delivered via one of Bowie’s most excruciating vocals on record, with the showboating high Gs on “happy ev’ry day of your LIIIIFE” apparently meant to distract you from noticing how poorly sung the rest of it is. The melody is so contorted, the lyric so ill-suited to it, that Bowie pronounces “Chernobyl” as “CheRR-no-BEEL” to make it scan.**

Then there’s the Rourke rap. Rourke and Bowie had met in London and briefly were a regular duo in the clubs; it was as though Rourke was auditioning for Bowie’s new “wild man” companion after Iggy Pop had sent in his notice. To be fair, as ludicrous as it is (“blew heads outta shape in the name of Trotsky, Sinn Fein, Hitler, cash down” (are these time-traveling mercenaries?)), the rap’s far from the worst offender in the track—Rourke sells his junk better than Bowie. Rourke’s not aping Run-DMC as much as Joe Strummer  or Paul Simonon (as apparently was Bowie: the way he sings “vermin…cowardice…lice” seems like a parody of “Straight to Hell”) in one of the Clash’s gonzo attempts at rap, like “Red Angel Dragnet.”

Bowie later tried to explain the song’s disjunction by saying it represented “how people are trying to get together in the face of so many disasters and catastrophes, socially around them, never knowing if they’re going to survive it themselves. The one thing they have got to cling on to is each other.” But if each scenario—grubby “street” life, cloud-headed romantic dreams—rings false, slapping the two together just doubles down on the mistake.

There’s a few minor things of musical interest—while the song’s harmonically minimalist, with just four chords, all of them are extended: a C major 7th and a C major 9th alternate as the tonic chord until a B-flat major 9th/D in the pre-chorus upends their dominance, using a D Minor 7th as a pivot chord. There’s also an out-of-nowhere bar of 5/4 in one of the last choruses, which just serves to throw an ugly song further out of whack. Just dreadful stuff, the sheer dregs of Bowie’s recorded life.

* As the song’s partially titled after an Earth, Wind & Fire hit and nearly plagiarizes its chorus in the outro, I suppose Bowie considered “Shining Star” to be an EWF tribute as much as a Smokey Robinson one, and some of his singing in the choruses does seem like an attempt to ape Philip Bailey.

** That said, it may be closer to the Russian pronunciation (still sounds comical when Bowie sings it, though.)

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, at Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down. Rehearsed for the Glass Spider tour but somehow didn’t make the cut.

Top: “Falk v010,” “My Computer Class, 1987, Kleinmachnow, East Germany.” Featuring “a kick ass KC85/II sporting 8 KiloByte RAM, a NO SMALL CAPS rubber round keyboard, a whopping “HD ready” 320×256 pixel screen, a “save me 10 times and you have one functioning copy” cassette recorder and an operating system called CAOS (Cassette Aided Operating System) with lovely BASIC.” My high school in Connecticut, in 1987, didn’t have anything better, though I think we had PASCAL by ’88.


Moonage Daydream

February 19, 2010

Moonage Daydream (Arnold Corns single).
Moonage Daydream (Ziggy Stardust LP).
Moonage Daydream (BBC, May 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1973).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1974).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1997).

I first heard “Moonage Daydream” when I was 16 years old, which is when you should first hear it. I was in my car, listening to some dubbed cassette of Bowie hits, when suddenly:

BAMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAMMMMMMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Teenage bliss. I can’t remember what my exact response was, but it was along the lines of “Jesus! What is this?”

I had bought in. “Moonage Daydream” intends to shock, its spectacular opening a battle between power chords (Mick Ronson hitting hard twice on D, then F#) and Bowie’s dramatics (the excitement furthered by the taste of silence between each chord and sung line). But the track quickly settles down into a groove and its choruses are moody and wistful—it delays the fireworks that Ronson and Bowie promise in its first four bars. The first solo isn’t Ronson but a duet between a pennywhistle and a baritone saxophone.

So “Moonage Daydream” can stand for all of Ziggy Stardust, a vaguely conceptual rock LP about a fake rock star whose songs both parody and subsume rock & roll. As Ziggy is pop music about pop music, so the lyric of “Moonage Daydream” is fused from old rock & roll phrases—“I’m an alligator” come from “See you later alligator,” all the “far outs” and “freak outs” are pilfered from the hippie LPs, while a bizarre line like “you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird” sounds like it was lifted from a lost novelty hit of 1960 (as the solo was, see below). It also could be the pseudo-Russian pop music of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, or a botched translation—as if an extra-terrestrial who had been monitoring our radio and TV broadcasts had fashioned an imitation of what it took to be our national musics. Bowie later claimed that was the idea all along.

Bowie wrote “Moonage Daydream” to be the debut single of his “fake band” project, The Arnold Corns, and then refigured it as part of Ziggy Stardust‘s early conception as a West End stage show. So from its inception, the song was meant to serve as entrance music, a character piece for a fraudulent character, whether impostor pop idol (the Corns’ non-singer Freddi Buretti) or plastic rock star (Ziggy Stardust, who Bowie would later claim on stage was the song’s author).

The Arnold Corns project petered out after two singles, only one of which was released, as Bowie focused on designing the Ziggy character and his never-quite-comprehensible storyline (Hunky Dory and Ziggy were recorded back-to-back, with some Ziggy songs preceding Hunky Dory ones, hence the timeline confusion).

What’s missing from the Corns “Moonage Daydream” (beyond Ronson’s guitar) is the sense that anything’s at stake—the Corns single, voiced by Bowie but allegedly sung by the cherubic Buretti (he’s the male equivalent of Chantale Goya in Godard’s Masculin-Feminin), is drearier than much of the music it’s mocking. The Ziggy “Moonage Daydream” works in part because the song was taken out of Bowie’s head and invigorated by Ronson, whose guitar heroics are matched by his string arrangements, bassist Trevor Bolder and producer Ken Scott (who put the phasing effect on the swirling strings at the end of the track).

By the time of the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith in July 1973, teenage girls and boys in the audience were singing along to every word of “Moonage Daydream,” holding their hands to their faces while they sang the chorus, falling in love with themselves as much as they were with Ziggy. Using the strength and delusion of adolescence, the belief that the world somehow has been left open for you, they took the lie and made it sing to them.

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder, 1976.

The Ziggy recording is the sum of its players. Bolder doesn’t get that much credit as a bassist, but his work on “Moonage Daydream” in particular is assured and inventive—he starts by anchoring Ronson’s opening chords, then serves as the main melodic voice in the choruses (his descending line, going down the frets from the D string to the A to the E, mirrors the wordless harmony vocals).

And then there’s Ronson. In the studio, Bowie drew a diagram for how Ronson’s guitar solo should sound—it started out as a flat line, grew to form “a fat megaphone-type shape, and ended in sprays of disassociated and broken lines,” Bowie recalled years later. Ronson looked at the chart, went off somewhere (he often wrote arrangements in the bathroom), and came back and performed a solo that exactly followed Bowie’s directions.

The Arnold Corns single version was recorded in April 1971 and released as B&C CB149; the Ziggy Stardust track was cut on 12 November 1971. (Bowie was inspired to suggest a baritone sax/pennywhistle solo from the B-side of The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop,” “Sho’ Know a Lot About Love,” which featured a fife and bari sax. “I thought that’s the greatest combination of instruments. It’s so ludicrous—you’ve got this tiny sparrow of a voice on top and a huge grunting pig-ox of a thing at the bottom,” Bowie said in 1997.) Bonus note: the solo’s descending minor-chord sequence (Bm/A/G/F#) is cited by Wikipedia as an example of the “Andalusian cadence.”

Bowie debuted “Moonage Daydream” on a BBC session of 16 May 1972, and played it in most shows of the Ziggy tour (the performances linked above are from Dunstable, UK (21 June 1972), Santa Monica, Calif. (20 Sept. 1972) and the final Spiders show of 3 July 1973, which features Ronson’s ultimate version of his guitar solo, all delays and feints). It’s turned up in a few tours (mainly the Diamond Dogs tour ’74, and some of Bowie’s ’90s shows) since.


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.


Thursday’s Child

January 21, 2014

99peckham

Thursday’s Child.
Thursday’s Child (instrumental).
Thursday’s Child (Omikron “slower” version).
Thursday’s Child (video).
Thursday’s Child (“rock mix”).
Thursday’s Child (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (TOTP, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Saturday Night Live, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Wetten Daß, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Francamente Me Ne Infischio, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Quelli Che…il Calcio, 1999)
Thursday’s Child (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Thursday’s Child, (TVE, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, Paris, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, NYC, 1999).

One summer day some ten years ago, I was helping to paint a house. On the boombox was Best of Bowie: a long, chronological march from the beachhead of “Space Oddity,” with most songs met by indifference and occasional hums. The caressing synthesizers of “Thursday’s Child” began, and as Bowie started crooning, a fellow painter stopped mid-swipe and looked over at the CD player.

What happened to that guy?” he said.

We’d made it through “Dancing In the Street” with a few chuckles and “Under the God” without comment. But “Thursday’s Child,” on that hot afternoon, sounded awful: treacly, gaspy, wan; the limp expiration of a career. When heard as the close of a sequence that runs through “Rebel Rebel,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Modern Love” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Thursday’s Child” sounds like a man falling down in the street, a hasty end scene tacked onto an overlong Act V. “I’m done with the future: here’s a song for your grandmother.” Dies, borne off stage right.

Sure, any slow, fragile-sounding number could’ve gotten a raspberry that day from our collection of young and recently-young NYC snobs. It’s not as if “Thursday’s Child” is an ill-constructed or poorly-sung track: if anything, it’s one of the few Bowie compositions of the period sturdy enough to withstand being a cover, whether a trumpet solo or a busker’s guitar piece (solo electric guitar interpretation by Jake Reichbart here). Its verse melody, a dance of mild leaps and modest falls, suits a lyric crafted for common use. In the verses, an older man regrets the paths he’s taken; in the choruses, he dares to hope a new love can give his life meaning. It’s Bowie’s “September Song.”

But “Thursday’s Child” wasn’t hip; it didn’t offer any pretense that it was—it sat in a comfortable present tense and stewed on the past. It felt genteel and a bit shabby. After a few years of running across stages in his bottle imp incarnation, after his stabs at industrial and jungle, after all the interviews about Damien Hirst and body scarifications and Millennial doom and Internet-as-cultural-dynamite, Bowie suddenly turned up as the sad clown again. He’d dusted off his Buster Keaton suit and reclaimed the shadow bloodline of his “rock” one: the Bowie of “When I Live My Dream” and “As The World Falls Down,” the cabaret and mime Bowie, the “light entertainment” regional thespian, the bedsit saddo, the Mod who worshiped Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt (see below).

The singer of “Thursday’s Child” is another of the Pierrots he’d played since the Sixties: a perpetual loser at love, like the glum figure of his “Be My Wife” promo. Take the Mr. Pitiful tone of the opening verse—

All of my life I’ve tried so hard
doing the best with what I had:
nothing much happened all the same…

—with its most desperate emphases (“best,” “hope”) cued to gloomy B minor chords, while the verse’s circular structure strands the singer back where he started, on an augmented E major (“breaking my life in two”). You can take the song as a straight-faced lament, as a quietly over-the-top spoof of the same, or both (it is Bowie, after all).

And while the chorus offers a hope of release from the cycle, its alternation of F# majors (“falling”) and F# minors (“really got,” “my past”) suggest the hope’s rather thin. The repetitions of “throw me tomorrow” start to feel desperate; Bowie’s “everything’s falling into place!” is someone trying to hypnotize himself. It’s as if Bowie’s answering Joni Mitchell:

It’s got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past

earthak

Ours was the most exciting show that had hit London since the war…I was glad that I was born in a part of the world that had been so well protected, but I was also ashamed of my protection. I carried guilt inside for being a privileged character when the rest of the world was being destroyed.

Eartha Kitt, Thursday’s Child, 1956.

This song, I might point out, is not actually about Eartha Kitt.

Bowie, 1999.

He’d taken the song’s title from Eartha Kitt, Bowie said upon introducing “Thursday’s Child” on VH1 Storytellers. Writing the song, he’d recalled the paperback cover of her first autobiography (“it just kind of bubbled up the other month”). It had been an erotic memory of his youth (that and D.H. Lawrence, he said).* Using Kitt as a starting point suited Hours’ theme of a middle-aged assessment of lost youth, a 50-year-old flipping through a box of mold-speckled records shipped from his childhood home (Ray Charles’ “Lucky Old Sun” —a man stuck in the middle of life and envying death—also gets a nod).

The title also plays with an old prediction rhyme—“Thursday’s child has far to go” (another variant is “Thursday’s child is merry and glad”)—that had come out of the ground somewhere in medieval England. The rhyme was a popular corruption of court astrology: Thursday was considered a day of great fortune as it was under the sway of Jupiter, kingpin of gods. The Book of Knowledge, by one Erra Pater (1745), notes a “child born on Thursday shall arrive to Great Honour and Dignity” (By contrast, David Robert Jones was born on a Wednesday “full of woe”).**

So the refrain of “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday born, I was Thursday’s Child” was Bowie spading up his old occult interests, presenting them in anodyne forms: the little boxes tucked away on a newspaper’s comics page: horoscopes, birth stones, fortunes, lucky numbers (see “Seven”). It’s the “secret histories” of the Sixties reduced to syndicated copy; it’s another diminishing of unearthly power into ordinary life.

It’s also a clever way to cloud the lyric. What to make of the chorus kicker: “only for you I don’t regret/that I was Thursday’s child“? It’s at odds with the picture the singer’s painted so far: that he’s someone for whom little’s worked out, someone who’s estranged from everyday life yet firmly stuck within it (“He’s a teethgrinding, I’ll-get-this-job-done guy,” Bowie said of the narrator). (It’s also possible that, as Nicholas Pegg noted, Bowie’s referencing the VU’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties“: “For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown.“) But a Thursday’s child would be a lucky child: someone with pull, some who had far to go: a Kitt, or a Bowie.

ekitt

Go back to Eartha Kitt for a moment. Born in South Carolina, she’d reinvented herself in the early Fifties as a nightclub goddess who’d seemingly flown in from the Continent; she played the seductress, the gold-digger with taste (“Santa Baby”) who captured men with her boxful of languages. She’d be cast in that role for the rest of her days: a life spent forever vamping. But what a role! As her biographer John L. Williams wrote of her performance of “Monotonous” in the film New Faces: Eartha is playing a character that’s almost unimaginable in reality [in 1954]: a black American woman who’s tasted all of the world’s delicacies and found them lacking…we wonder, who on earth is this woman? And how can she seem to be so indifferent to the laws and mores of her time? A question that could have been asked, with a gender change, about another performer in 1973.

So maybe the singer is someone like Kitt: not some teeth-grinding anonymous drone but a bright public figure, someone whose name everyone knows, someone to whom things seem have come easily. Doing the best with what I had becomes a modest boast; shuffling days and lonely nights are those of a stage life. Or maybe even the common life of an office drone is a stage life. Bowie had called himself “the Actor,” but in a way, we’re all actors.

tc

Composed in Bermuda in late 1998, “Thursday’s Child” appears to have been mainly Bowie’s work, written on acoustic guitar. It was earmarked as a potential single, with a prominent role for backing singers. The question of who those should be became a bit contentious once Bowie and Gabrels were back in New York.

After toying with having Mark Plati’s six-year-old daughter sing the “Inchworm”-inspired “Monday, Tuesday..” line (she turned Bowie down! “she said she’d rather sing with her friends than with grown-ups,” Plati told David Buckley), Bowie thought of contacting the trio TLC. In 1999, they were arguably the premier female R&B vocal group of the decade. But they were tottering. Rife with personality and financial squabbles and having taken five years to cut their follow-up LP, they were about to be dethroned by Destiny’s Child.

Using TLC sat poorly with Gabrels, who thought it stunk of Bowie’s “New Jack Swing” moves in 1992: “Thursday’s Child” could be another potential Al B. Sure! fiasco. Gabrels had positioned himself as the house purist: some faint analogue in the Bowie camp to Steve Albini. He’d met Bowie during the nadir of Never Let Me Down and he saw it as his charge to keep Bowie honest and weird, to stop him from embarrassing himself by chasing trends after their sell-by date. During the making of ‘Hours’ Gabrels came to feel that his time with Bowie was over (we’ll get into this more in next week’s entry); his veto of TLC would be his last strategic win.

His alternative proposal had a touch of self-interest: he recommended a Boston friend, Holly Palmer, who Bowie auditioned via speakerphone (“let’s hear it with more vibrato now”). You could argue that Palmer’s vocals were just as time-stamped as any TLC vocals would have been: the Liz Fraser-inspired vocalese, the coffee-shop ambiance (a slightly edgier Dido). But Bowie liked what he heard and Palmer joined his touring band in 1999-2001.**

Another question was how far to take the production. David Buckley argued that the song was “crying out for strings,” and the various synthesizer fill-ins for woodwinds, strings and brass can make the song seem stuck in an embryonic state. Had Bowie held “Thursday’s Child” back for what he was calling the “Visconti album,” slated for 2000, it likely would’ve had a much grander production. Perhaps what kept “Thursday’s Child” from being a monstrous hit was that it hedged its bets too much.

dbb

The last piece was Walter Stern’s video. “Bowie,” with little makeup to mask his plus-fifty face, and his partner prepare for bed. They brush their teeth, she takes out her contacts (verrry slooowly). There’s a naturalist feel to counter the tasteful Wiliams Sonoma bedroom set: you hear Bowie cough, mumble and half-sing over the recorded track (taken from Elvis Costello’s “I Wanna Be Loved” video), and the plash of water in the sink. He looks in the mirror, transfixed by his aged but still beautiful face; he’s a veteran Narcissist. A twist of the glass and he sees younger versions of himself and his partner.

The mirror pair have the easy, arrogant confidence of youth; they stare at the older couple with the cold pity of  what Bowie once called “the coming race.” They seem like beautiful wraiths. Bowie, seemingly infatuated with his younger self, does the Marx Brothers Duck Soup mirror game with him. The double plays along for a while, then stops, bored and disgusted with his older self. We passed upon the stair, Bowie had sung long ago, upon meeting another double. He’d been on his way up then, his life still mostly potential. This is the other end of the staircase: a man realizing that time has changed him, that the majority share of his life lies behind him now, that his younger self would’ve regarded the current him like some threadbare costume. Perhaps that was the right question to ask after all: What happened to that guy? He kisses his wife in his imagination, and so to bed.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0, UK #16). BowieNet members voted on the single mix, though both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube in places; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) were included on the UK/EC CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version appeared in the Omikron: The Nomad Soul game: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours,’ as was the Rock Mix. Performed live throughout Bowie’s promotional tour of 1999 and once in 2000, at his Roseland Ballroom concert on Bloomsday.

* Seeing that Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties, and that the title song’s lyric has some affinities to Bowie’s, it seems likely Bowie recalled the record as well.)

** The rhyme was tinkered with during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, with Friday now “full of woe” and Sunday getting some of Thursday’s former glory.

*** Dorsey, Palmer and Emm Gryner made the most handsome Bowie stage lineup since DB and Mick Ronson.

Top: Liz Johnson-Artur, “Peckham, 1999.”


Even a Fool Learns to Love

October 25, 2009

68picc

Even A Fool Learns to Love.

Someone must have enjoyed or at least tolerated Bowie’s lyrics for “Pancho,” as Bowie was offered further translation work at the start of 1968. This time it was for Claude François’ “Comme D’Habitude,” written by François, Gilles Thibault and Jacques Revaux.

“Comme D’Habitude” in the original French (here’s a multi-language translation guide) has the singer stoically noting that something has died—his lover, he’s realized, responds to his actions out of habit, “as usual,” and he goes on to admit that he too has been living without inspiration: it’s a post-mortem for a failed relationship, in which even the various infidelities, despairs and fights have a weary, bloodless feel to them. (François allegedly liked it because the song encapsulated his recent breakup with France Gall.)

By contrast, Bowie’s translation, “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” is purple, self-pitying and, worse, full of sad clowns—it’s basically another version of “When I Live My Dream” combined with some Pierrot-isms. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, and unsurprisingly Bowie’s lyric got shot down (Geoffrey Heath, who worked at Essex Music, later said that the powers that be “wanted a star to record the song, not this yobbo from Bromley”).

Soon afterward, Paul Anka heard “Comme D’Habitude” on French television and wrote a new set of lyrics for it, again completely at odds with the original song. Anka titled it “My Way.” You know the rest.

Bowie’s demo (which weirdly consisted of Bowie singing over François’ original recording) was recorded in January-February 1968. Bowie seemed to regret not getting the song—he performed it as part of his failed cabaret auditions later in 1968, and as Nicholas Pegg has noted, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is something of a rewrite.

Top: Rudy Meisel, “Piccadilly Circus, 1968.”


The Mime Songs

October 21, 2009

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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.


Love You Till Tuesday

October 5, 2009

lytt

Love You Till Tuesday.

“Love You Till Tuesday” is catchy and rancid enough to have been a top 10 hit in 1967. It could’ve even been a smash, the single that finally broke Bowie. Instead it utterly flopped and soon vanished, even after favorable reviews (except Syd Barrett, who vaguely panned it in Melody Maker (“Very chirpy, but I don’t think my toes were tapping at all.”)).

An album track promoted to a single (after getting a new strings arrangement by Ivor Raymonde), “Love You Till Tuesday” has a taste of desperation in its cheer. Bowie sings in an affected nasal tone, as if he’s pretending that this track is from the cast recording of Oliver!, and he oversells his mildly-clever lyric. There’s also a sense, as in “When I Live My Dream,” of old-fashionedness to it—it could be a 50-year-old Catskills entertainer’s spin on free love.

Still, all of that shouldn’t have hurt its prospects. The summer and fall of 1967, at least in terms of the pop charts, was a time of bleary fatigue, indulgence and slack. Look at the top songs in the UK—“All You Need Is Love” and “Hello Goodbye,” two of the Beatles’ less inspired songs, Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” Englebert Humperdinck’s “The Last Waltz,” The Bee Gees’ “Massachusetts,” Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.” “Love You Till Tuesday” could’ve contended.

Imagine an alternate timeline in which “Tuesday” hit, say, #2 for weeks in the summer of ’67, giving Bowie at last a taste of pop stardom. Then a rushed-out sequel single, maybe “Sell Me a Coat,” that also hit big. The Ed Sullivan Show, Las Vegas revues, duets with Petula Clark and Nancy Sinatra, Bowie Sings Bacharach. An ongoing cabaret show (“Man of Words, Man of Music, Man of Mime”) that extended well into the ’70s (towards the end, playing Sun City for weeks). A disco crossover hit. A mysterious death in the mid-’80s in a Honolulu hotel.

Instead, once again, Bowie was knocked back to the start of the board.

Recorded initially on 25 February 1967 and re-recorded on 3 June. Released (version 1) on David Bowie and (version 2) as Deram DM 135 in July 1967 (it of course was the title song of Bowie’s 1969 promo film). “Love You Till Tuesday” would be the last thing Deram released by Bowie until he became famous on another label.