After All

January 13, 2010

After All.

A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.

Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.

“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.

The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.

“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.

The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.

“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.

Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.

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(Could It Really Be?) the Last Xmas

December 21, 2018

bowie-xmas

Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Live Aid, 1985).
Bowie’s 2013 Xmas “Elvis” Message.
Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.
Peter and the Wolf.
The Snowman.
Feed the World.

This blog turns 10 years old next year. Those of you who have followed it for a while know that one of its (unintentional) traditions is a Christmas post in which I, the fool who runs the “Bowie song by song” site, say something like “well, it looks like X is going to be the last year for the blog. We’re almost done.”

And then something happens in the following year—new Bowie music, another slowdown in production, etc.—so that I appear at year’s end to say pretty much the same thing.

This time it’s really and truly over. Well, in a way. All the Bowie songs (as of today) have been written about: in the book, if not on here. No doubt some new song will appear soon—possibly on his birthday! (You don’t have to make that joke, really!) But whatever the situation, this doesn’t mean the blog will shut down, nor that I won’t put up new posts on occasion, especially when something new happens in Bowieland (I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year.)

But we are moving into a more “posthumous” period in this blog, sad to say. It feels fitting—the end of a decade, a move ahead into something new.

So, a few things:

Ashes to Ashes will be out in mid February and can be pre-ordered in all sorts of ways (see link).

There will be some fun promotional events for it early next year. Things will kick off with two New York City dates—McNally Jackson in Soho, on Thursday 21 February 2019; and Rough Trade in Brooklyn, on Monday 25 February 2019. With hope, there will be some UK events relatively soon after that in March, and other appearances in the US throughout the year.

During 2019, I’m going to start working my way towards another project (or two), in a new blog or site. If this interests you, I’ll likely have some more details in a month or so. It’ll be quite a long road, full of detours—a shocker, I know.

I’d like to say thanks again to all of you. To commenters old and new, and to anyone who bought a book or has had something kind to say about them. Happy Xmas, happy New Year, Happy “we’re still here, and doing okay.” Here’s to the future. Take care.


Reissues: All the Madmen

January 29, 2016

The unearthing of a never-before-published interview [which I believe is legit, not a clever fiction] with Bowie from February 1971 inspired this reposting. In it, when asked about “All the Madmen,” Bowie said:

“The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at.”

The book revision of this post goes more into Nietzsche, R.D. Laing, the  song’s bizarre and very Bowie chord progressions, the (possible) influence of flamenco on Visconti and Ronson here, and other fun things.

Originally posted on January 18, 2010: “All the Madmen”:

All the Madmen.
All the Madmen (single edit).
All the Madmen (live, fragment, 1971).
All the Madmen (live, 1987).

In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In a general way, then, madness is not linked to the world and its subterranean forms, but rather to man, his weaknesses and illusions…There is no madness but which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and the illusions he entertains…In this delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad.’ Mine really is.

David Bowie, to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, was riddled with mental illness: his aunt Una had been institutionalized for depression and schizophrenia, was given electro-shock treatment and had died in her late thirties; another aunt had schizophrenic episodes; a third had been lobotomized.

Most of all there was his mother’s son, his older half-brother Terry Burns, who eventually was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1966, while Bowie and Burns were walking to a Cream concert, Burns fell to the street and screamed, claiming he saw flames rising up from cracks in the pavement. By the time Bowie recorded The Man Who Sold the World, Burns had been confined to London’s Cane Hill Hospital.

So Bowie believed, at the age of 23, that he had perhaps even odds of going mad. The prospect naturally terrified him and would lie behind much of his work in the ’70s—writing songs about identity, control, lunacy and fear; devising personae as various means of escape, as conduits for insanity (Ziggy Stardust was partially based on the mad rock & roller Vince Taylor—Bowie once saw Taylor on his hands and knees outside Charing Cross, using a magnifying glass to pinpoint UFO landing sites on a city map he had spread on the pavement).

“All the Madmen” is Bowie’s first attempt to grapple with what he regarded as his sad inheritance, but it also reflects broader cultural movements; in the quarter century since the war, how society regarded and treated the insane had begun to change, in some cases radically.

(Two films stand on either end of the divide: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), where the asylum is a stately Vermont manor, the “mad” are the misdiagnosed, the repressed and the malformed, and the face of modern psychiatry is the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman in a white lab coat; and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where the asylum is a jail, and the insane are no longer puzzles to be solved or worthy citizens to be rehabilitated, but truth-tellers, the last honest men, who society hates and demands silenced and locked away. The face of mental illness treatment is now the sadistic bureaucrat Nurse Ratched.)

Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest was just one of several 1960s books that questioned the treatment of the mentally ill and helped drive the anti-psychiatric movement: along with Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Erving Goffman’s Asylums, Cuckoo’s Nest showed the asylum as society’s means of isolating the mad from mainstream life, so as to streamline and better enforce cultural norms (e.g., sending homosexuals to be “cured” in asylums via shock treatment). Asylums were hypocrite’s prisons, in which the quiet compromises the “sane” made to conform with society were replaced by brute force.

“All the Madmen” falls in this line. In the lyric, Bowie casts his lot with the insane, following Kerouac’s lines in On the Road (a favorite of Terry Burns) that “the only people for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.” Bowie’s madmen, locked in their asylums, are “organic minds” hidden in a cellar. Bowie first acts like a lunatic to escape detection and show solidarity, as he’s realized he lives in a society of lunatics. It’s no use: his captors (his doctors, one and the same) remove pieces of his mind, until he truly descends into madness. He ends the song by chanting, over and over, the Dadaist refrain: “Zane zane zane! Ouvre le chien!!”

Aversos Compono Animos

“All The Madmen” is one of the more intricately-arranged tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, opening with Bowie on his acoustic (a brusque, scattered intro with several ringing open strings), leading into the first verse. A descant recorder appears in the second verse, played by Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson (it’s eventually supplanted by synthesizer in the final chorus), and the ominous quiet of the early verses is shattered when Mick Ronson kicks in to lead the band into the long bridge (three separate sections, 24 bars in all).

The chorus (one of the catchiest on the record) is dominated by Ronson’s guitar in its first appearance, with Visconti’s freely-roaming bass as a counterweight, and it leads to a brief two-harmonized-guitar solo. A spoken interlude reminiscent of “We Are Hungry Men” follows, but soon enough it’s Ronson’s show again, with another harmonized-guitar solo replacing the first section of the bridge. The track ends in glorious chaos: Ronson repeating a riff from his first solo, Bowie chanting “Ouvre le chien,” madmen voices swirling around, Woody Woodmansey keeping on ride cymbals ’til the fadeout.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970. While Bowie’s American label Mercury released it as a promo single in December 1970 to accompany Bowie’s first-ever American press tour, the only contemporary live recording of “All the Madmen” was captured at a party by the Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer in early 1971—part of the poor-sounding recording turned up in a 2004 documentary on Bingenheimer’s life, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bowie let “Madmen” lie fallow for the rest of the ’70s, but garishly revived it for his Glass Spider tour in 1987. He’s left it alone since.

Top: Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman’s Leo The Last; an alternate cover of The Man Who Sold The World LP, with the administrative wing of Cane Hill Hospital in the background.


Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

November 21, 2014

03victory

Fall Dog Bombs the Moon.
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (acoustic performance, AOL Sessions, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2004).

The sword…is unsheathed. The blade…stands ready.

Oliver North, Fox News, 18 March 2003.

Reality was a wartime album, written and cut during the United States’ invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It was the record of a man living in a city whose attack had provided the justification for the war; it was the work of a British expatriate sickened by the war’s long, seemingly orchestrated media buildup.

Bowie told interviewers he’d turned to using an alternative news service called TruthOut. “A fabulous storehouse of information of what’s written in the alternative press, or the rest of the world’s press, that never really sees the light of day here,” he said to Ken Scrudato. Among the articles that had caught his eye were those about how the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root had won the assignment of restoring and operating Iraq’s oil fields post-invasion. KBR had a long, illustrious career in supplying and cleaning up after various US wars, and on occasion being accused (and sometimes convicted) of bribery, shoddy workmanship, expense padding and sexual abuse and intimidation of its employees.* Its parent Halliburton had, until July 2000 (four days before his nomination), been run by the current vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Cheney was a 21st Century version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, if lacking the wit or taste for theatrics. What distinguished Cheney from his former boss Richard Nixon was that Cheney disclosed none of Nixon’s paranoia or long-collected resentments. Nixon was a brilliant man who was desperate that you knew he was; his pettiness was superhuman. Cheney was unreadable, shameless, unperturbed, placid. He seemingly existed to claim power and once he had it, he brooked no checks on it and moved in his own world. He didn’t care what anyone thought of him; it didn’t matter. Carping about something like Halliburton was merely a sign that you weren’t serious. His public persona was calm, genial, a wry smile often on his face.

What tends to happen is that a thing like an issue or a policy manifests itself as a guide,” Bowie told Interview. “It becomes a character of some kind.” Bowie began with a Cheney-like caricature. “There’s this guy saying, ‘I’m goddam rich…throw anything you like at me, baby, because I’m goddam rich. It doesn’t bother me.’ It’s an ugly song sung by an ugly man.” He wrote the lyric in a half-hour.

falldog

“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” similar harmonically and rhythmically to “New Killer Star” in its verses (was one spun out of the other? derived from the same demo?), came together quickly as well: it’s the roughest-sounding of Reality tracks, with no keyboard dubs and its drums lacking reverb or even much presence in the mix. Bowie kept Tony Visconti’s original bassline (heard retorting to the guitar riff in breaks) from the studio demo and layered on guitars: his own scrappy rhythm playing, Earl Slick, Mark Plati and David Torn’s various overdubs, with various center- or right-mixed guitars vying to be the lead, and a harmonized solo for the outro. “Fall Dog” sounded like a collective memory of the past 20 years of “alternative” rock—a touch of “The Killing Moon” in the bassline, some Sonic Youth, Pixies and Yo La Tengo in its tangle of guitar tones, some late-period Lou Reed in the semi-spoken “what a dog” tags.

What was a “fall dog” anyhow? Some fans at the time took the line to be a thinly-veiled George W. Bush, a “fall dog” instead of a fall guy, while the “moon” could work as a reference to the Islamist star and crescent. “An exploding man” suggests a terrorist bomber, but also recall “The Motel,” with its climactic “re-exploding you” refrain (and the line follows “I’m goddam rich”—the dog’s so sated that he’s ready to blow). The lyrical perspective spins and weaves. An American soldier sees a girl in a marketplace with a bomb strapped to her. She runs towards him, he waits resignedly (“I don’t care much: I’ll win anyway“). A verse later he’s the exploding man (victim or bomber?).

Yet despite Bowie framing his song as a picture of some late capitalist monster (and sometimes it sounds as if he’s singing “full dog”), his phrasing undermined this reading. He keeps to a small vocal range, sounding wistful, not getting worked up, letting lines trail off. Or take the image of the Fall Dog itself, rich in rock ‘n’ roll history—is it a scamp like the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog” (possibly where Bowie took the “what a dog” tags from) or Bowie’s own “Diamond Dogs“? Or is it more like Iggy Pop’s dog—a man who yearns to submit?

The second verse—there’s always a moron, someone to hate—was taken as a comment on the United States’ endless need for a fresh enemy, but you could equally turn the line back on the antiwar protesters. Who was George W. Bush but a convenient “moron,” a comical authority figure taking the heat? Having a Bush or a Cheney in power gives the American citizen a day pass. I didn’t vote for this fool, and look what he’s done now! What a mess.

A line in Bowie’s earlier “Slow Burn” had called up a future: So small, in times such as these. It echoed in “Fall Dog”: These blackest of years…No shape, no depth, no underground. It’s life in the early 2000s, when even the villains lack stature.

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy…When the Iraq War started, Halliburton got a billion-dollar no-bid contract. Some of the stuff has been so shoddy and so sloppy that our soldiers are over there dying in the shower from electrocution. I mean, it shouldn’t be sloppy work; it shouldn’t be bad procurement process. But it really shouldn’t be that these people are so powerful that they direct even policy.” Sen. Rand Paul, April 2009.

Top: Cherie A. Thurlby, “Victory Sign in Iraq,” 28 April 2003.


What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014

99seattle

What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.

wrhh

They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.

wrh

“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1” songs and the “Side 2” rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).


We Shall Go to Town

December 3, 2013

tokyo99

We Shall Go to Town.

In spirit (or actually?) a relic from the Outside sessions, the intriguing “We Shall Go to Town” was left off ‘Hours,’ perhaps because its somnolent eeriness didn’t fit the record’s thematic arc (dimness to brightness, like the settings of an oven lamp). Its consignment to B-side status is a shame, particularly as Bowie gave another B-side on the same CD single (“We All Go Through”) a similar title, so that “We Shall Go to Town” can get jumbled up in recollection.*

Built of crablike movements between B-flat major and E-flat minor chords (established via a wavering-sounding keyboard bed), the song overlays sets of competing rhythmic lines: Mark Plati’s fretless bass, singing the same rising eight-note line throughout; Sterling Campbell’s agitated shuffle, like a heart murmur conveyed via snare, low toms and hi-hat; the brittle guitar figure played by Reeves Gabrels that appears in the latter halves of verses and in refrains (panned right to left) as if Gabrels is gently interrogating the song. Bowie’s vocal has a physicality in it: he breaks each verse and refrain down to sets of four or five stressed syllables, the last of which he’ll often drag across a bar like a strand of taffy (“deliiiight,” “forgehhhht,” “the foooooool”); for further gravity, he applies phasing to some phrases, giving the sense that he’s singing in slow motion, and double-tracks a few lines at the octave. One starting point for the song could be Bowie’s old sparring partner Iggy Pop, whose “Mass Production” rattles in its bones.

Lyrically “We Shall Go to Town” suggests a reflection on old campaigns in the pop music world (“follow the lights/stay on the outside”); its title line, and a few other scattered phrases, offers that “going to town,” i.e., engaging a wider public, remains a worthy battle, even if it’s with demons. The alternative is stagnation, nostalgia, death: “only the fool turns around.” But the lyric’s vagueness makes any attempt at analysis a rum game. The track’s as much concerned with the flavor of Bowie’s low register, the sonic texture of his alliterations and consonant rhymes (delight/forget, bring your things), how his voice works as a member of a murmuring ensemble.

Then there’s Gabrels. His 16-bar solo, one of the few high-skronk moments he was allotted in his last round of Bowie co-compositions, begins with a crunching bend of strings, then he seems to stall out. Again there’s a tortured-sounding chord, again silence. A wail trails off, then another. You realize the solo is becoming a series of perpetual starts. Once you do, Gabrels finally offers some linking phrases, three consecutive down-shifting chords and a shriek of strings that simulates a machine in the act of pulping itself. Satisfied, he hounds Bowie through the last verse and refrain.

Their interplay in the song’s last minute, Bowie precisely droning his lines, Gabrels sounding as if he’s boring through metal (his old favorite “boiling teakettle” noise returns), is the sound of two men who know each other’s next dream; it’s not a dialogue as much as it’s an acceptance of roles, an interchange of moods. Call it maturity, for lack of a better word; they broke up soon afterward.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

* Among those confused appear to have been Bowie’s label (or perhaps even the man himself), which listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single.

Top: Junpei Yoshimura, “Tokyo, 1999.”


Hallo Spaceboy

April 2, 2013

chloe95

Hallo Spaceboy.
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys remix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Lost In Space mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Double Click mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Later With Jools Holland, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Det Kommer Mera, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (Karel, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, TOTP, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, Brit Awards, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with the Foo Fighters, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys, live, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (BBC, 2000).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2003).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2004).

Brion Gysin died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, July 13, 1986. He was the only man I have ever respected. I have admired many others, esteemed and valued others, but respected only him. His presence was regal without a trace of pretension. He was at all times impeccable…Brion was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. He knew he had only a few weeks to live. I was preparing to go to Paris when Brion died. I have this last glimpse through a letter in her own English, from my friend Rosine Buhler:

“…After occurs a dreamlike talk about to have a large house by the sea in August, the shadowed room where all is burning hot outside. Brion said he knew he would sleep well and was really happy of that good day. He wanted no help to lift himself up from his green armchair, and went to his room. I was watching his tall straight way to walk, his secure path…only kings and wild people have this way.”

William S. Burroughs, introduction to Gysin’s The Last Museum.

Brion Gysin liked to say he was a man from nowhere. Even his name was a mistake: his mother had christened him John Clifford Brian, but a passport clerk, misreading Gysin’s crabbed handwriting, swapped in an “o” for an “a” in the latter name (“like the famous wine of Bordeaux, Haut Brion,” Gysin said.) Born in London during the First World War, which claimed his father, he lived in Canada, New York, where he was a ship welder and Broadway costume designer, Tangier, where he ran a restaurant called The 1001 Nights, whose house band was the Master Musicians of Joujouka, and Paris, where he died.

In life and art he was transient—he was Bowie’s world-roaming Lodger in the flesh. Gysin could never commit to one spouse: he was a poet, historian, mystic, painter, filmmaker, musician, inventor (of “the Dreamachine,” a trance-inducing flickering light-box that he thought would make his fortune and didn’t). He had a habit of leaving a city soon before something occurred—an exhibit, a new publisher—that could have “discovered” him.

For Bowie, Gysin was most obviously influential as being the creator of the cut-up method in 1959; a method that came about, Gysin said, when he tried to apply the techniques of painting and film (collage and montage) to the assembly of words, He started by slicing through a stack of newspapers and making poems out of the shreds. By the mid-Sixties, Bowie was cutting up his lyric sheets, throwing pieces in the air and seeing what came from picking them up; three decades later, he had custom-made software to do the equivalent. But Gysin also served a symbolic role for Bowie, as an image of an unrefined creativity. Gysin made being a dilettante into a noble calling. Life is a game, not a career, as he said.

He might’ve lived a much more traditional artistic life, but he was always outside of that, and that was very much to his advantage as an artist.

John Geiger, on Gysin.

“Hallo Spaceboy” is, among many other things, a eulogy to Gysin: a tribute to a force of motion that was stilled only by death. You’re so sleepy now…your silhouette is so stationary…Don’t you want to be free? Even if Bowie hadn’t consciously intended to reference Gysin (“If I fall, moondust will cover me” (a line heard in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Spaceboy”) were rumored to be Gysin’s last words*), the latter’s ghost still possessed the song. The Pet Shop Boys remix used Gysin’s cut-up to rip a hole in the song, transforming it into a sequel to “Space Oddity,” much to Bowie’s initial dismay.

Unlike friends like Burroughs and rivals like André Breton (who had Gysin’s paintings yanked from a surrealist exhibit in 1935), Gysin left no definitive works; there was no Naked Lunch or Surrealist Manifestos to his name, only a series of pieces scattered across various mediums: scripts, sound poems, novels, calligraphic paintings, the Dreamachine. A body of work treasured by a few, and remaining fundamentally obscure. Gysin’s most public legacy was a method used by rock stars like Bowie and Mick Jagger to write pop lyrics. But Gysin had lived his entire life as a performance. Lacking commercial ambitions and any desire for a mass audience, Gysin was a free agent, a man who spent decades on this planet without having any sort of “proper” occupation (his stint as restauranteur was as domestic as he ever got); he was a figure who earned respect by keeping in flux.

On Outside, Bowie was trying to reconcile, as he’d done time and time before (see the Glass Spider tour), his ambition to be considered an avant-garde artist with his more prosaic reality: that he was a pop star who was still on a major label, and who was still mainly known for singing about Major Tom and dueting with Mick Jagger. So figures like Scott Walker and Gysin wound up in the sediment of Bowie’s art-rock album, as potent but discarded influences, especially in the last stages of recording Outside, when Bowie had scrapped his Leon song-montages in favor of a fresh run of hook-filled pop songs like “Spaceboy.” If he was burying Gysin, he’d do it to the sound of slamming drums.

gysburr

“Spaceboy” is a negative of “Moonage Daydream.” “Daydream” opens with Mick Ronson’s slammed power chords and Bowie’s solo vocal, a double-hook (“ALL-i-GAH-tor! BAM-BLAMMM!”) so captivating that the rest of the song is a homage to it. “Spaceboy” begins with 16 bars of suspense: a swirl of synthesizer loops, an ominous chopping loop mixed right, a distorted guitar line. There’s a sense that something’s coming to break this into pieces, a tornado glimpsed on the horizon, and thirty seconds in the hook finally arrives. Instead of the expected guitars, it’s a moving wall of percussion, a cannonade of electronic beats and crushing 4/4 drums undergirded by a low-mixed bassline and dirtied by static bursts of distorted guitar. It’s a sonic cancer at the heart of the song, perversely giving it strength.

The “Moonage Daydream” intro hook was glam in miniature: here, dream this: go! “Spaceboy” wasn’t open, but an imposition—the hook found you out, hunted you down, and all you could do was submit to it and bang your head. BAMBAMBAMBAMDUNNADUNNADUNNA (there’s a bit of “Detroit Rock City” in it). In the choruses, two distorted guitars spit and tear, shifting from a B to a G chord and back (that’s the main harmonic sequence of the song, which also moves to a brief A major progression in the bridges). When Bowie comes in for the first verse, “Spaceboy” shifts back to its initial state of dread. The beat’s out there, and it’s coming back. By the second verse, a muted strain of it pounds beneath Bowie’s vocal, triggered by “Spaceboy!”; before the second chorus, Bowie holds off the onslaught for a few bars, whispering “moondust” before the door is kicked in. Everything in the mix serves as a counter-rhythm: there are ping-ponged electric guitars, snapping riffs back and forth; later, there’s a mouse-chase across Mike Garson’s piano. A muttering Bowie curses across the spectrum, his inaudible syllables sounding like crash cymbals.

One starting point was Eno’s “Third Uncle” (esp. via Bauhaus); another was the Swiss industrial band the Young Gods, who were as much an influence on Outside as the more-hyped Trent Reznor. Particularly the Gods’ T.V. Sky (1992): “Skin Flowers,” for instance, with its buzz-swaths of guitar and its relentless beat, is an ur-“Spaceboy” (the hollered “OUTSIDE!” also might’ve attracted notice); see also the juxtaposition of guitar loops and percussion fills on “Dame Chance.” (And Bowie’s 20-minute Leon suites seem in part inspired by T.V. Sky‘s closer, a 20-minute song-churn called “Summer Eyes.”)

Conjured up in a handful of days in the studio, “Spaceboy” was a liberating track for Bowie, who rode its beat and reveled in the trash. This chaos is killing me! he screamed, sounding delighted to die, mocking his past selves with “do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” And some of the song was due to Reeves Gabrels, uncredited.

sapce

In mid-1994, a few months after the first Leon sessions, Gabrels returned to Switzerland to work on overdubs and new recordings with Bowie. No other musicians from the Leon sessions were around (including Eno) except for an occasional visit by Erdal Kizilcay. Towards the end of a month-long stay in Montreux, Gabrels played Bowie an “ambient” instrumental piece, which he then recorded as a demo. Bowie recited some lines over the track, including “moon dust,” which Gabrels said Bowie had found in a book of poems he was reading in the studio (he speculated the poet was John Giorno).

After [Bowie’s] vocal/spoken word tracks were done, I did a bunch of long sustain guitars thru a vocal formant patch from an Eventide 4000 signal processor (which makes it sound like a human voice) and I used a slight variation on the ava rava middle eastern scale,”** Gabrels wrote on his website. That was the end of it. On a subsequent visit to Montreux in late 1994, Gabrels asked about the track, provisionally called “Moondust,” and Bowie said “he didn’t feel there was anything special going on with that piece and that he’d pretty much forgotten about it.”

However, Bowie seemed to have remembered “Moondust” during the final Outside sessions in New York, in January 1995. On 17 January, using Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron, Bowie broke the song down to a handful of chords, reducing the original track “to almost nothing,” Eno recalled in his diary. “I wrote some lightning chords and spaces…and suddenly, miraculously, we had something.” Bowie quickly came up with the “hallo spaceboy” vocal hook, and the track was completed within days.

Bowie played “Hallo Spaceboy” for Gabrels when the latter turned up at the Hit Factory. “When I pointed out the similarities in harmonic motion [to “Moondust”] and the lyrics (etc.), there was zero interest in doing what the writers I continue to work with would have done, what I have done in this situation, and what I consider to be the fair, honest, and right thing,” Gabrels wrote. Having already fought Bowie and Eno to get co-credit for himself, Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell for Leon songs like “Hearts Filthy Lesson” and the segues, Gabrels felt he couldn’t win on a new front. “Because…I will always owe David a debt of thanks for dragging me into the music major leagues…I eventually dropped the subject.”

But a few years after an apparently sharp breakup with Bowie, Gabrels was ready to let it rip. “The track “Spaceboy” follows the chord changes of my original “ambient” track which was dismissed as just being “ambient” and not really a song or contributing to the existence of “Spaceboy” (which if it did contribute, writing credit should be shared). At its most basic level, [if] I hadn’t come up with the ambient track, that ball would would never have rolled itself into a song. I found it odd to have my original piece of music treated as though ambient music has no chord changes or melody and that people who write ambient music cannot copyright their songs to protect their ideas as it isn’t really writing music. (Someone should tell Eno.) What I really wonder about is the poet who wrote “Moondust”…his name isn’t in the writing credits either. But then again those are just words in a certain order, right?

Bowie has never commented on this claim, and to be fair we only have Gabrels’ side of the story, from ten years ago; Gabrels has never released “Moondust” for people to make their own comparisons. From Eno’s diary entry, it seems that the track was pretty heavily overhauled, from new guitar riffs to new chords, and one can see Bowie’s perspective: “Spaceboy” was a new song he had alchemized out of an unpromising ambient jam track. But this begs the question of who actually “authors” rock songs, as Bowie’s songwriting credits can seem arbitrary: Mick Ronson never got a single credit for songs that he obviously contributed riffs and melodies to; Dennis Davis and George Murray are credited for “Breaking Glass” but not “Stay,” and so on.

But God can be an ironist sometimes: Bowie’s “stolen” song was soon enough stolen from him.

boyspace

Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? ‘Your very own words,’ indeed! And who are you?

Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” Brion Gysin Let the Mice In.

Neil Tennant had started as a music journalist, so he had an eye for a lead. When Outside was released, he saw an obvious interpretation of “Spaceboy” that its author apparently hadn’t considered, or had deliberately avoided. In none of the dozens of interviews Bowie gave to promote Outside did he say that “Spaceboy” was connected to “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” (He even directly denied the connection during a press conference: “I only used [the word] ‘space’—there’s nothing about it that’s even remotely like ‘Space Oddity,’ frankly.”] When the Pet Shop Boys offered to remix “Spaceboy,” Bowie quickly agreed, as he seemingly let anyone remix his songs. But when Tennant told Bowie he was going to sing new lyrics and would use “Space Oddity” to get them, Bowie was taken aback by Tennant’s “nerve.” He went into the studio with Tennant, allegedly to get the performance right, but one wonders if he was irked about it.

After all, Outside was supposed to be his fresh, pre-millennial record, crafted to speak to a new audience, and now here was Major Tom/Starman come back again. The revised “Spaceboy” threatened to convert the project into yet another spew of Baby Boomer nostalgia, to throw Bowie back into his past. What saved “Spaceboy” from being cheap audience-bait was Tennant’s use of cut-up. He broke the well-worn words of “Space Oddity” into strange, fresh alignments:

Ground to major bye-bye Tom
Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong
Planet Earth is control on?

Still, the remix shifted the song’s axis. Bowie had written off Major Tom on “Ashes to Ashes”: he’d drifted off into the inexplicable and was content to stay there, roll end credits. Now, with Tennant’s new verse in “Spaceboy”, Bowie had been cast as Major Tom again, against his will; he was a fly caught on wax paper. This chaos is killing me! now became the words of Major Tom, strung out in heaven, worn through with transcendence and longing for death. Bye bye love! No longer just Gysin, dying in Paris, but Bowie’s own legend, being exhumed only to be buried again.

All Bowie could do was play along. The remix was issued as Outside‘s third single and it nearly broke the top 10 in the UK—it was Bowie’s highest charting post-1995 until “Where Are We Now?” this year. In the two performances Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys gave of it, Bowie looked immaculate and ageless, thrashing about on stage, but he also looked trapped. Tennant calmly sang (or mimed) his interrogation, while Bowie struggled against a song that now seemed to confine him.

It was a fitting ending, or as fitting as you get these days. “Spaceboy,” one of the last great Bowie pop moments, never quite seemed his own property; it was fluid, a coalescing held together by a beat that seemed to invade it. Bowie spent the last decade of his performing life singing “Spaceboy” again and again, trying to get it back under his thumb, sometimes succeeding (using three drummers to beat the song into shape at his 50th birthday party), sometimes seeming as though he was covering it.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Released, in its Pet Shop Boys form, as a single in February 1996 (BMG/RCA 74321 353847, #12 UK). A 12″ remix, the Lost in Space mix and the Double Click mix were included on a promo 12″ and later on the 2-CD Outside reissue. “Spaceboy” was played on seemingly every TV show in Europe, including Jools Holland (2 December 1995); Det Kommer Mera (Sweden) 19 January 1996; Taratata (France) 26 January 1996; Karel (Dutch) 29 January 1996, and a broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre on 27 June 2000. A recording from the Phoenix Festival in 1996 was issued on a bonus CD single that came with the French edition of Earthling. “Spaceboy” was a regular in most of Bowie’s last decade of touring.

Sources: Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (ed. Jason Weiss); John Geiger, Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted (pretty much the only Gysin bio).

* Nicholas Pegg wrote without attribution that “if I fall, moondust will cover me” was rumored to be Gysin’s last words. I’ve found no other reference to this, via the Internet and by rummaging through the libraries of Smith College and Amherst College, so I’ll conclude this claim is false unless someone points me to a source that I’ve missed. Gysin did use “moondust” in his novel The Process (1969) (“a familiar indigo rag flutters out of the sand where I look for my guide to find him, too, buried in moondust.“) I’ve found no reference to a Giorno poem mentioning “moon dust” either. The line could just as well be Bowie’s.

** I think Gabrels meant the Ahava Rabbah, or the Phrygian dominant scale. Maybe not? Ava rava, anyone?

Top: Chloe Sevigny, Kids (Clark, 1995); Gysin, Burroughs and stone-faced ancestors (via BrionGysin.com); various Spaceboys.


A Small Plot of Land

February 14, 2013

ted untitled

A Small Plot of Land.
A Small Plot of Land (alternate version, Basquiat soundtrack).
A Small Plot of Land (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1996).

After having spent so long in the hypothetical never-was (scrapped tapes, character segues, indecipherable prose), it’s a comfort, if a cold one, to finally reach the Outside songs. These were in two blocks: pieces that came out of the Montreux sessions in March 1994, mostly improvised by Bowie and Eno with Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell, and the block recorded in early 1995 at the Hit Factory in New York. The latter featured Gabrels, Garson, old Bowie hands Carlos Alomar and Kevin Armstrong and a new rhythm section of Yossi Fine and Joey Baron.*

The latter songs were generally a catchier and punchier set: the Hit Factory is where “Strangers When We Meet,” “Outside,” “We Prick You,” “No Control” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town” came together. The songs that began in Switzerland (with some exceptions) tended towards the grim, theatrical and rambling. Many of them shared a common port of origin: Bowie’s old obsession Scott Walker (more in “The Motel”).

“A Small Plot of Land”** is certainly Walker-haunted, with its references to “Nite Flights” (“swings through the tunnels”) and Bowie’s condor-swoops on the reoccurring “POOR dunces” suggest Walker’s strangled tenor. (A live version from Utrecht in 1996 sounds like Bowie is trying to win a Walker impersonation contest). But “Small Plot,” a song built on running collisions among its players, is also an example of the sound that Bowie and Eno had wanted from the Leon sessions. The track opens with Garson on piano, doing his typically frenetic wire-dancing, but he’s soon fighting to be heard against Campbell, who keeps constant fours with his bass drum while seemingly trying to throw Garson off with a rocketing snare pattern. For over a minute nothing advances, no verse appears; the song remains trapped in its intro. Campbell’s insurrections harden into a pattern—he’s stuck in a loop while Garson still has a measure of freedom allotted to him. Gabrels keeps upstage, playing a nagging pair of notes, mixed right, that are the twine holding everything together. Erdal Kizilcay’s bass seems to abandon the song after a few bars, as if he walked into a room and didn’t care for the atmosphere.

Bowie said about seventy percent of his lyric was pure computer-generated cut-up, hence lines like “he pushed at the pigmen.” Using a moderated sprechstimme, he worked his set of random words into a group of mourners. From the first note, he established a funereal march pace: a two-note opening phrase (“poor soul,” “prayer can’t,” “poor dunce,” “brains talk”), where Bowie holds the first note while letting the second, lower in pitch, quickly expire; and two or three “spoken” closing phrases, with just a few notes emphasized or raised in pitch (“he never knew what HIT HIM,” “and it HIT HIM so”). This pattern builds to the two final “POOR dunces,” with the last repeat ballooning the structure: a three-bar endurance of “POOOOOOR,” followed by a muttered “dunce.”

On to Gabrels’ solo, which he said took Adrian Belew’s solo on “Red Sails” and Robert Fripp’s on “Teenage Wildlife” as launching points. Aided by Garson pounding the bass octaves of his piano, Gabrels bloodies and dominates the track so much that when Bowie returns to sing another round of “poor souls,” he’s been reduced to a supporting role.

“Small Plot” had an alternate life. Eno arranged another version of the track for the Basquiat soundtrack, where Bowie sang, echoed by a delayed second vocal track, over “long, drifting overlays” of synthesizers, some intended to sound like motors and machines humming. Here Bowie’s dramatic build to the final “POOR SOUL” was scrapped in favor of a humbly-sung, double-tracked set of closing phrases; it’s the churchyard in place of the cathedral. Julian Schnabel, Basquiat‘s director, told Eno he thought it was a better version than the Outside track, and he used it in the film to score the death of Bowie’s Andy Warhol.

“Small Plot” was meant to be long, punishing and hard, and Bowie sequenced it to be unavoidable. On the album, slotted after the one-two punch of the title track and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” it stilled the momentum. On stage in 1995 and 1996, Bowie plopped “Small Plot” dead in the middle of his sets, often prefacing it with a shabby man’s monologue on the poor dunce (“he wasted all his life, he was dumb, he deserved to die and now he’s dead!”) During early performances, he followed a routine where he first sang with his back to the audience, then paced in a tight circle, and during Gabrels’ solo, he walked across the stage pulling on cords, tugging down long, rectangular banners. Some thought it was a mime sequence symbolizing Bowie’s separation and alienation from the audience. Gabrels, in 2000, said it was just something for Bowie to do with himself during the solo, and it helped set the stage for the following number. “[It was] functional theatricality,” he said.

That said, the finest live performance Bowie ever gave of “Small Plot” was more in the Basquiat version’s line. At a private charity performance in New York in September 1995, Bowie sang it accompanied only by Garson, and he loosened the severity of his phrasing, allowing the song to mourn more openly. The climactic “POOR dunce,” sung gorgeously, led into a tolling Garson piano solo that seemed at times to be churning up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (“The last time we worked together before this year was in 1973, and as you can tell, we still haven’t found our way to finding a melody in those years,” Bowie cracked afterward.)

Recorded ca. May 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. late January-March 1995. The Basquiat version may hail from the overdub sessions Eno and Bowie did at London’s Brondesbury Villas Studio in early January (there’s a reference to this version in Eno’s diary of the period). The version of “Small Plot” that Bowie sang accompanied only by Garson was for, in Nick Pegg’s words, “a private charity function at a New York hotel,” held on 18 September 1995. They also performed “My Death” there.

* One way to tell to which block a song belongs is its publishing: if it’s credited to Bowie/Eno/Gabrels/Kizilcay/Garson/Campbell, it’s definitely from the early Leon sessions. That said, most of the earlier songs were possibly reworked and recut and definitely overdubbed during the Hit Factory sessions.

** Bowie found the song’s title in the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (recall that Duncan Jones was getting a philosophy doctorate at the time, although Deleuze and Guattari were catnip for Bowie, who likely got a kick from lines like: a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.) The paragraph Bowie took his title from could have been a manifesto for Outside: This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of land at all times.

Top: Ted Barron, “Untitled,” 1994. (As I’ve written before, Ted is a friend and a fine photographer).


Ballad of the Adventurers

October 13, 2011

Ballad of the Adventurers (Baal EP).

I’m not a rat. It must be lighter out there. My dear Baal, you’ll get to the door. You still have knees. It’s better in the doorway…

Brecht, Baal (his last words).

“Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s last will and testament. After years of living out in the woods, he and his friend Ekart return to civilization, only to find that the bars have grown filthier and everyone’s grown older, shabbier and drunker. But Baal’s older and more pathetic as well (“nothing’s changed here…only you, it seems, have grown more refined,” a barfly sneers at him).

Asked for a song, Baal offers a final tribute to those “who were flung out alike from heaven and from Hades” (like the cursed harlot Evelyn Roe, of Brecht’s early poem). Regretting ever having left the womb, they wander across “absinthe-green oceans,” solacing their tortured minds with the image of a little meadow with “blue sky overhead and nothing else.” The adventurers of Baal’s song are the last bohemians, tearing through their short, appalling lives, hungry for sensation, settling for violence.

Ekart paws at a barmaid while he baits Baal (“why shouldn’t I have women? Am I your lover?“) until Baal, enraged, stabs him to death. Baal flees town for the last time, heading north, “following the underside of the leaves.” Sick and weary, he winds up in a logger’s camp, where the loggers jeer his impending death; one even spits on his face. Baal dies as he had lived: in mockery, curses and rebellion. His last act is to haul himself outside, so he can expire in the open air. “Stars—hmm,” he mutters as he crawls.

The least melodic of the Baal songs, “Adventurers,” far more than the rest of the EP, sounds like an exercise, an overly ambitious attempt to do an art song. Still, could Baal have been a beginning, rather than a footnote?

As a goof, I once wrote an alternate Bowie history (“Love You Till Tuesday”) in which Bowie’s jaunty, irritating pop singles of the mid-Sixties were smash hits, setting him off on a life much like Englebert Humperdinck’s. So what could Bowie’s Eighties have been, had Baal been an initial foray into, for lack of a better term, the commercial avant-garde? Bowie collaborations with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Laurie Anderson or John Zorn? A run of art-rock soundscape records like Tom Waits’ midEighties trilogy? Minimalist synthesizer instrumentals? Bowie scoring Jarmusch or Wenders films, producing Sonic Youth?

Some of Bowie’s moves in the Nineties hint at this sort of revision: it’s as though Bowie beat his way back to the fork and peered down the other path, wondering where it could have led him. But he wouldn’t have been “David Bowie” had he gone the other way. The David Bowie of Let’s Dance is also the world’s Bowie; in a way, his vast commercial success became his final, most enduring incarnation. So Baal remains forgotten; it’s just a trace of a world in which Bowie was a lesser, if greater figure.

A Prologue on Money and Ambition

In 1982, Bowie was looking for a new record deal. His current label RCA was battered: it had lost $14.5 million in 1981 alone, with its bet on manufacturing videodiscs proving, with the advent of VCRs, to be a disaster. For its record label, RCA’s main pop acts remained Elvis Presley (unfortunately dead since 1977) and Bowie (who, in RCA’s eyes, was in much the same condition). In a few years, RCA would be eaten up by General Electric.

So RCA, in its last days as a stand-alone company, had neither the desire nor the capital to humor an artist who was their Bob Dylan: great press, great prestige, mediocre to poor sales. With his contract up, Bowie now wanted Michael Jackson-level, Fleetwood Mac-level money, but his past performance was nowhere in their range. As of June 1983, Bowie’s total global album sales were as follows (according to Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust, figures rounded up/down):

Three top sellers: Ziggy Stardust (1.38 million units moved), ChangesOneBowie (1.33 million), Young Americans (923,000). A few gold records: Diamond Dogs (745,000), David Live (598,000), Station to Station (552,800), Aladdin Sane (533,000); a few mid-list sellers: Space Oddity (455,600), Hunky Dory (445,600), Pin Ups (421,250), Scary Monsters (347,400). With the “Berlin” records, a complete cratering: “Heroes” (279,000), Low (265,900), Lodger (153,360), Stage (127,350). Between 1977 and 1983, one of every two new Bowie LPs was returned unsold by retailers. By contrast, Michael Jackson sold over a million copies of Off the Wall between August and December 1979 alone.

Finally free from having to pay his former manager mechanical royalties, and feeling unappreciated and (relatively) underpaid by RCA, Bowie wanted, essentially, to cash in at last. So he needed an album that, when shopped around, would get a label excited enough to provide his payday. According to George Tremlett, Bowie first had his staff write profiles of all of the major labels, “detailing their commercial strengths and weaknesses, their key personnel and their willingness to invest in promotion” (the latter a key point for Bowie, who felt RCA had bungled the promotion of his Berlin albums.) He finally targeted EMI, aiming for a 3-LP deal reportedly worth $17 million ($36 million, inflation-adjusted).

In late 1982, Nile Rodgers flew to Switzerland to stay at Bowie’s house in Lausanne. The two had recently met and Rodgers had agreed to produce Bowie’s next record. Bowie sat down with his 12-string acoustic guitar (Rodgers recalled being baffled that Bowie only had six strings on it, though) and ran through a batch of new songs: they were mainly sketches, sometimes just chords, top melodies, a few choruses. Before he started to play one song, Bowie told Rodgers he thought this was the hit. It was a folky piece that reminded Rodgers of the Byrds. “I was like, ‘that’s not happening, man,”” Rodgers recalled to Paul Trynka. “It totally threw me. It was not a song you could dance to.”…

Top: Don Hudson, “Detroit, MI 1981.”


Is There Life After Marriage?*

August 23, 2011

Is There Life After Marriage?*

I came very close to not doing an entry for this one, but seeing as I’m behind on the remaining Scary Monsters entries and after listening to it again, I felt “Is There Life After Marriage?” merited some sort of notice: a separate but qualified entry. Hence the asterisk.

Because “Is There Life After Marriage” has already been covered here—it’s an instrumental from the early Scary Monsters sessions that was meant to be a version of Cream’s “I Feel Free,” a song that Bowie played during the first Spiders tour and had intended to cover for years: he finally did so on Black Tie White Noise. The intended Scary Monsters cover went no further than this backing track (possibly because “Kingdom Come” made it superfluous), in which Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray do their thing: Alomar demonstrates yet again that he’s one of the best rhythm players of his generation, Murray is a rock of melodic steadiness and Davis seems ready to cut loose at a half-second’s notice.

To make things more confusing, there are two “Marriage”s: a track title reportedly documented during the Scary Monsters sessions (as per Pegg) which no one has heard outside the Bowie circle (and which may well be a working title of another Monsters track, as “Cameras in Brooklyn” was for “Up the Hill Backwards”), and this version, the bootlegged “I Feel Free” backing track. The title could be a reference to the just-divorced Bowie, but it’s also possible that he took the phrase from Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground (1980), where it’s a graffito scrawled on the wall of an Oxford Street bridal shop.

Recorded February 1980, the Power Station, New York. Unreleased.

Top: Kevin O’Sullivan, “New York,” May 1980.