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.

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All The Madmen

January 18, 2010

All the Madmen.
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, quoted in Sandford’s Loving the Alien.

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 (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 the 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.


Reissues: Soul Love

March 2, 2016

A “minor” song on Ziggy Stardust, possibly spun out of “Five Years” (with which it shares a drum figure intro, a near-identical verse chord progression and a sense of pity for a set of doomed people), “Soul Love” has become one of the Ziggy songs I still enjoy hearing when it turns up. Bob Fay did a nice version of it at a reading of mine last year (speaking of which, I’ll be doing the same event—a book festival in my hometown in MA—next month. Subject will be Bowie and Iggy Pop; likely some live music, too.)

This is a hybrid: first half is the original entry, back half is the book. Book goes a bit more into the intricacies of DB’s vocal, the song’s debt to “Stand By Me” and the difficulties Bowie had recreating “Soul Love” on stage. We also established back in the original entry that the line is “Cross AND baby” though Ronno sings “cross A baby.”

Originally posted on 27 April 2010, it’s “Soul Love”:

Soul Love.
Soul Love (live, 1973).
Soul Love (live, 1978).

Soul Love (rehearsal, 1983).

I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience. It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease. Hateful thing, it was. Being in love is something that breeds brute anger and jealousy, everything but love, it seems. It’s like Christianity — or any religion, for that matter.

David Bowie, interviewed by Cameron Crowe in Playboy, September 1976.

“Soul Love,” sweet on its surface, sometimes interpreted as a picture of “youthful romance” (as per 1001 Greatest Albums) or as a message of peace and brotherhood, is rather clinical at heart. Love, whether that of a mother, lover or priest, is shown as being amoral, delusive, pointless, and ruinous. (Love is “sweeping over cross and baby,” as if it was a plague or an infestation.)

The song opens with a mother at her son’s tombstone (the son likely killed in a war, having died “to save the slogan”), with “stone love” suggesting both a resolute, enduring love and a cold emotion. The priest kneels at the altar in bliss and in blindness. The teenagers, so besotted they believe they’re the first to ever fall in love, are just puppets of instinct (“idiot love will spark the fusion”).

It opens with Woody Woodmansey playing rapid 8ths on his closed hi-hat and a kick-rimshot-kick pattern, garnished with handclaps and conga, Bowie’s rapidly-strummed 12-string acoustic guitar (muting a strum on the third of every four strokes) and Trevor Bolder’s vaguely Latin bassline. The verses’ rhythmic skip (a bar of 2/4 pops in midway through) has a counterpart in the harmonic dislocations of the refrains, where Bowie swaps an E major for an expected E minor (“sweeping over”) and upturns a triumphant C major dominant chord (“defenseless,” “inspirations”) by cooling it to a C minor (“all I have”), celebrating the coup by singing an E-flat note.

A dissenter from the song’s schematics was Bowie’s baritone saxophone, first heard harrying things along in the second verse and then taking over for a verse, reversing the top melody and then veering off from it, following a long, sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, not-quite-executing a two-note volley and ringing through a few rising triplets to transition the key change. And though Mick Ronson’s double-tracked guitars war against Bowie’s vocal line in the refrains, he surrenders: his coda guitar solo plays Bowie’s verse melody note for note, with Bowie soon appearing to sing him out.

Recorded 12 November 1971. Played in a few 1973 shows, a fixture of the 1978 tour, a rarity of the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour. It was the B-side to a re-issue of “All the Madmen,” and the Stage version was released as a single in Japan. Ronson’s 1975 country-ska remake,  “Stone Love,” was later included on reissues of Play Don’t Worry.

Top: Alan Merrill and Yoshiko Mandai, Meiji Park, Tokyo, 1972.


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

December 16, 2015

dbnew

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

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

Let’s begin at Haddon Hall, 1971:

David Bowie in a dress, 1971 (3)

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

Soul Love (30 points/votes).

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

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

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

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

bluejean

Hey, it’s a TIE 95-94.

Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (35 points/votes).

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

Bowie_Stardust_03

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

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

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

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

DavidBowieLS03

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

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

Slow Burn (37 points/votes).

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

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

37 Bowie a

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

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

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

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

and another fun surprise:

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

d98508e5

Ok, a break from the ties for a bit.

82. Cracked Actor (39 points/votes).

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

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

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

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

77. Diamond Dogs (46 points/votes).

76. DJ (48 points/votes).

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

blackstar

and presenting, the rookie of the year:

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

dbb

Now the hitters get heavier:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David-Bowie-960x534

another high-speed TIE for 67-66.

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

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

dbronno

and a hard rocking glam TIE for 65-64.

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

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

tumblr_nitdvkxBMb1u49wbmo1_500

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

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

bowie-mercury

And a titan-clashing TIE, 61-60.

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

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

Bowi

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

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

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

Panic In Detroit (63 points/votes).

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

27d114a5e1d745980fcd7fe66c9e1ea3

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

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

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

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

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

db77

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

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

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

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


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

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

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

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

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

72db

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

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


Wood Jackson

July 31, 2014

rov

Wood Jackson.

[The Legendary Stardust Cowboy] is an outsider artist, he’s playing with a different deck of cards…[and] Daniel Johnston is like a one-man Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking. He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.

Bowie to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, 2002.

I bet you never knew
What I went through
What I had to do
Just to bring you a lonely song

Daniel Johnston, “A Lonely Song.”

In early 1972, as Bowie was finishing Ziggy Stardust, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury named Roger Cardinal published a survey of “marginalized” artists, some of whom were schizophrenic and confined to mental institutions. Cardinal wanted to call his book Art Brut, honoring the term the painter Jean Dubuffet used for such artists, but his publisher blanched, wanting “something more easy to get on with the English ear.” So Cardinal went through hundreds of potential titles (one was “the art of the artless”) until settling on Outsider Art.

Given a name, the genre soon accumulated critics, collectors, exhibitions. But reviewing Cardinal’s book in the New York Times, Corrinne Robins pinpointed flaws of his approach: the conflation of surreal, obscure artists with artists who suffered from schizophrenia; the treatment of these artists as Noble Madmen (with an element of the freakshow to it); the idea of “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, as being more “pure” than the contemporary art scene. As Dubuffet said in 1951, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”

Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of outsider purity further blossomed, even though outsider art itself became more collected and so more valuable. It could seem as if the only remaining uncorrupted artists were Sunday painters, odd grandmothers, troubled children, Jesus enthusiasts, recluses and hermits, few of whom were recognized in their lifetime. And at its best, outsider art truly was visionary and astonishing: James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a new Ark of the Covenant that Hampton built in a rented garage (see below), or Henry Darger‘s 15,145-page illustrated epic The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.*

1970.353.1_6a

I think David thought that he was more practical and that they were loonier artists in the real sense of artists as madmen. He felt guilty. Because David was never a madman [and] how could you be a really good artist without being a madman? And now he had two of the maddest madmen in the world, one on each arm.

Danny Fields, on Bowie’s recruitment of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in 1971.

Bowie had become taken with “outsider” painters while working up Leon/Outside in the mid-Nineties (visiting the Gugging Clinic’s artist wing with Eno), but his affinities for musical outsiders went much further back. As a teenager, he sought out the professional or actual deranged, in part inspired by a favorite book of his adolescence, Frank Edwards’ Strange People, a chronicle of various real or fictional persons who had ESP or third eyes or who’d been struck by lightning and now could talk to ghosts.

His love of oddballs like Biff Rose and Ken Nordine, and of the “feral” Iggy Pop, stemmed from this. He savored performers who lived in their own bright, strange worlds, whose moves didn’t seem calculated, whereas his entire career had been nothing but calculation. His discovery of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was another glorious find (and of course Ziggy Stardust was the marriage of Iggy and “The Ledge”). Bowie was fascinated by the singer. Was “The Ledge” a put-on, or was he actually insane? Did he really think he could sing? Was he a genius or some talentless clown? The Cowboy’s appearance on Laugh-In offers the 1968 equivalent of a crowd baiting a medieval fool. (See next entry.)

Punk and indie rock purists (I’ve been and known some in my time) followed a similar route. The more obscure and penniless the band, the more mentally disturbed the singer, the better. It became a game of oneupmanship: who can find the biggest unknown weirdo? When I visited an old high-school friend in Chicago in 1995, he pulled out a cassette from “this unbelievable fucked-up amazing homeless dude” and played me Wesley Willis. Every song seemed to have the same refrain: Kurt-Co-bain, Kurt Co-bain; Re-tard bus, re-tard bus. “It’s amazing, amazing,” he said, laughing a bit too hard. Something felt off about it all—sitting in his brick-walled loft apartment in Wicker Park (we were far away from the old punk days by now), listening to and laughing at a man who sounded mentally disturbed.

The tunes they call creative when they’re running out of names…

kurt-cobain-hi-how-are-you-alien-tshirt

“Wood Jackson,” though Bowie didn’t quite admit it to Paul Du Noyer, was his tribute to the musician Daniel Johnston. (The name possibly came from an SF pulp writer; another Nicholas Pegg suggestion, a reoccurring private eye character of the mystery writer M. Scott Michel (“Wood Jaxon”), seems less likely, though as it is Bowie, you can’t write anything off).

Born in 1961, Johnston kicked around the country and wound up in Austin, Texas, where he worked at McDonald’s and was a musician who handed out demo cassettes; sometimes, as Bowie mentioned, he bartered with his tapes for comics. Taken up by Austinites, who have a studied taste for the eccentric, Johnston appeared in a few local concert films and was recruited by the New York producer/musician Kramer, with whom he recorded his first professional record, 1990. His reputation was made on his self-recorded cassettes of the Eighties, though, particularly Hi, How Are You, whose cover Kurt Cobain often sported as a t-shirt.

Johnston suffered from manic depression and suffered schizophrenic episodes. Convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, he nearly killed himself and his father in 1990 by yanking the keys from the ignition of a two-seater plane, forcing his father to land the stalled plane in a forest. Committed to a mental institution after causing an old woman to leap from a two-story window (he was trying to exorcise demons from her), Johnston also rejected a deal by Elektra Records (the label of Metallica, whose music he considered Satanic) to keep issuing his own tapes.

These stories gilded his legend. “When a child hits a piano, he makes untainted music, and that’s there in Daniel,” Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce once said. This “untainted” art ideal went back to the counterculture and far beyond—the idea of the child’s nascent creativity as a pure state, untouched by ambition or money or labels or journalists. The child may not know how to draw a straight line, but what matter? A bourgeois sniffing in a gallery that a child could draw that! was a badge of honor for modern painters.**

Everything about Johnston—his wavering, sometimes-tuneless voice; his lack of interest in production “values”; his vivid imaginative world (which resembled Henry Darger’s with its battles of light and dark by cartoon avatars); his artless, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“hearts upon his sleeve and his blade,” as Bowie sang)—was a rebuke to the singer who takes two weeks to cut a lead vocal, the guitarist who’s deliberately referencing John Fahey in a riff, the lyricist who makes Sartre references or spins intricate rhyme schemes. He was an artist’s “anti-artist.”

As Sean O’Hagan wrote, this all removed Johnston’s agency, ignored his intelligence and his own self-awareness, to make of him a sort of Holy Fool for indie music. To wax how “untainted” Johnston’s music is, to rack up the stories of his breakdowns and institutionalizations as if they were batting statistics, is to diminish Johnston as a human being, making him some primitivist art project for your secret benefit. You hear something in Johnston—a deep privacy, an inner richness that dwarfs your own—and you eagerly pass him on to others, and soon it’s easy to regard him as an exotic object; you become a collector, a Victorian slum-tourist, despite your best intentions. But Johnston was aware of the game. Listening to Johnston’s songs, you can hear cynicism and sadness, a weariness at life and the role he’s been assigned in it.

l_53df92a1f15a03a654914b9ae3e76f1c

Released as a B-side but recorded in the Heathen sessions, Bowie’s “Wood Jackson” had ties to “Uncle Floyd,” another song about an obscure “savant” figure who never quite made prime time. If “Wood Jackson” was Bowie’s interpretation of a Johnston song, rather than cutting it on four-track or a boombox cassette, he made his track as spacious as a three-story house. It was as though he was making the song that Johnston was hearing in his head.

Bowie also couldn’t resist playing on his own history, with references to “The Bewlay Brothers” (“to tayke away“) and “All the Madmen” (see Tony Visconti’s recorder accompaniment). It’s a man going back over old ground, looking for landmarks. “Bewlay” and “Madmen” were songs about his lost half-brother, his odes to madness, his pledges of allegiance to the raving men who lived in a way that he couldn’t. As with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, all Bowie could do was tip his hat to Johnston and use him as the meat of a song.

It opens with Jordan Rudess on Hammond organ, a grand version of the toy organ Johnston would use. A Matt Chamberlain drum loop, Visconti’s bass and David Torn’s sliding, spectral lead guitar are other main players. Bowie’s Wood Jackson is both Christlike (taking beatings, being threatened by mobs) and Satanic, giving away his cassettes in exchange for souls. Such a shay-hay-hayme, Bowie sings. Jackson just wants to play: he just wants to be heard, not pitied or honored.

Back when Heathen seemed like one of Bowie’s last records, a track like “Wood Jackson” had finality—it was the last word on old obsessions: the raving men, the mad saints, those who’d burned more brightly than him. And it was a confession of sorts: he’d used these sad, lonely men for his own ends, he’d tasted their madness and their eccentricities, and had stolen from them happily. Now he was saying goodbye, shuffling off, wishing them well.

One of his saddest and loveliest B-sides, with its autumnal vocal melody, its jostling rhythms (see how the shaker and congas play off each other, or how the late-arriving acoustic guitar serves as another percussion line) and its gorgeous tapestry of organ, guitar and backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti), “Wood Jackson” still seems one of Bowie’s last chapters, regardless of where it now falls in his work.

00

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a CD bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single.

* The influence of Darger on early 21st Century pop culture is near-inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run to a photo spread in Rookie and so on.

** I have a London friend whose mother was rather set in her ways. He took her once to the Tate Gallery and she spent the entire trip tromping from painting to painting, each time saying loudly, “Well, I could’ve done that!” After a time he started mumbling “but you didn’t, did you” under his breath. “Never take your mother to an art gallery,” he said afterward.

Sources, quotes: Robins, “A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NYT, 8 April 1973; Willem Volkersz, “Roger Cardinal on Outsider Art,” Raw Vision No. 22; Fields quote from Marc Spitz’s Bowie; O’Hagan, “At War With His Demons…and Metallica,” Observer, 1 April 2006.

Top: Darger, “GIGANTIC ROVERINE WITH YOUNG ALL POISONOUS ALL ISLANDS OF UNIVERSAN SEAS AND OCEANS. ALSO IN CALVERINA ANGELINIA AND ABBIEANNA,”; Hampton’s Throne; Kurt Cobain sporting Daniel Johnston t-shirt, ca. 1992; more Darger; Simon Sparrow (b. West Africa, c. 1925; d. USA, 2000), Assemblage with Painted Frame.


The Buddha of Suburbia

November 27, 2012

The Buddha of Suburbia.
The Buddha of Suburbia (“rock” mix).

Rarely now do we artists tell us much of ourselves. We are without history, interest or spiritual life. Our thoughts are often scattered and banal. Those occasional strands that have some merit are often stunted if not still-born. Although I get the sense that all art is somewhat autobiographical it seems increasingly hard for the artist to relinquish his solipsistic subjectivity.

David Bowie, liner notes to the original Buddha of Suburbia.

The suburbs were over: they were a leaving place.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Black Tie White Noise, though it sold in the UK (hitting #1 and producing a Top Ten single), failed to “reestablish” Bowie as a commercial presence, which is just as well, as Bowie had been greatly ambivalent about being reestablished. The record stiffed in the US, in part because Bowie’s American label, Savage, collapsed a month after its release and filed for bankruptcy six months later. In a fine turn, Savage partially blamed its collapse on the performance of an album whose sales were hurt by its collapse; they would later sue Bowie and BMG for $100 million.*

BTWN‘s respectable, mediocre performance was an ideal outcome for Bowie. He had shown that he still could sell records, but he’d also deftly avoided being roped into touring for a year to promote the album (he’d been far more relentless in pushing Tin Machine II). And for once in his late career, he was able to push on quickly, to build upon the strengths of a previous work rather than discarding it and starting yet again from scratch. He’d established a beachhead; now he was moving inland.

It began with an arranged conversation. The author Hanif Kureishi interviewed Bowie in February 1993, and at the close of their talk Kureishi mentioned he was adapting his novel The Buddha of Suburbia into a miniseries for the BBC, and asked Bowie if the production could use some period songs like “Fill Your Heart” and “Time.” Bowie agreed. Working up the nerve, Kureishi then asked if Bowie felt like contributing any original material. Bowie asked to see the tapes of Buddha, and a couple of months later, Kureishi and the series’ director Roger Michell were in Switzerland, listening to Bowie’s score.

There were two stages of Bowie’s involvement in the BBC’s Buddha. First, he composed incidental music for the series.** These were generally a series of motifs—combinations of guitar, synthesizer, trumpet, percussion, sitar—roughly a minute in length each, which Bowie tweaked based on responses from Kureishi and Michell. Kureishi found the whole business surreal: watching rough cuts of his fairly autobiographical Buddha playing on a TV monitor while the idol of his adolescence workedthe mixing desk, which was dotted with dozens of buttons, levers and swinging gauges, alongside which were banked computers.”

Roughly a month later, Bowie went back to these motifs and, relying on his usual studio jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay, began tinkering with the pieces, extending them into six- or eight-minute loops, isolating what he considered “dangerous or attractive elements” and adding overdubs and occasional vocals. After a week’s recording and another fortnight of mixing, he had a new 50-minute album.

Released in November 1993 to little notice, listed as a soundtrack album and not as a new Bowie release, distributed only in the UK and Europe and eclipsed, sales-wise, by the near-simultaneous issue of the compilation The Singles Collection, The Buddha of Suburbia was a non-existent album, a ghost record, and it was Bowie’s best album in over a decade. If there is a latter-day “great” Bowie album, it’s this one; Buddha is only now beginning to get the recognition that it always had deserved.

Buddhas in Bromley

I am considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care—Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie found a fellow traveler in Kureishi. Seven years Bowie’s junior, Kureishi had grown up in the same London suburb, Bromley, had attended the same school, Bromley Tech, and had followed the same trajectory as Bowie: escape to London, a professional life in the arts. Kureishi started out as a dogsbody at the Royal Court Theatre and eventually became its writer in residence and a playwright, then in the Eighties moved into making films, scripting two directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first novel, published in 1990, used his Bromley adolescence as its backdrop. Like Kureishi, the novel’s protagonist, Karim “Creamy” Amir, is the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. Spending his youth trying to escape the curse of lower-middle-class suburban life, Karim finally slips free of it, first via his father’s abandonment of his family and subsequent move to South Kensington, and then via his own success as an actor (paralleling Kureishi, Karim goes from avant-garde theater into television). One of the best novels of the Nineties, Buddha balances a minstrels’ gallery of characters (including Changez, an Indian national brought to Britain for an arranged marriage, who is obsessed with Harold Robbins and Arthur Conan Doyle; Pyke, a sexual adventurer and Svengali stage director; the would-be Marxist revolutionary Terry, who makes a living playing a cop on a TV series; and the Buddha himself, Karim’s father Haroon, a Muslim bureaucrat who becomes a Buddhist guru to earnest suburban Londoners) with acridly funny and astute observations on class, identity and pretensions (artistic, political, spiritual, sexual).

Bowie…had attended our school several years before, and there, in a group photograph in the dining hall, was his face. Boys were often found on their knees before this icon, praying to be made into pop stars and from a release from a lifetime as a motor mechanic, or a clerk in an insurance firm, or a junior architect…We had a combination of miserable expectations and wild hopes. Myself, I only had wild hopes.

Kureishi, Buddha.

When I knew I was going to be a writer, it completely changed my life because it made the present unimportant. Whatever was happening to me, the racism, the drag of being in such a violent school, were made unimportant because I lived in the future.

Kureishi, interview.

Kureishi had used Bowie as a symbolic figure from his earliest work (Bowie recordings are in his second play, 1980’s The Mother Country) and Bowie naturally figures in his novel, both as an actual cultural reference as well as an element in one of the book’s major characters, Charlie Kay (later Charlie Hero), a Bromley-born musician who molts from a would-be Ziggy Stardust local muso into a punk and ends the novel as a NYC-based rock star, a thinly-veiled Billy Idol (another Bromley kid made good).

Bowie, who had driven through his early childhood neighborhood of Brixton in 1991 and had a moment of bewildered nostalgia there, found in Kureishi’s novel and scripts a central observation that rang true to him: that the curse of a would-be artist who grows up middle-class in the suburbs is a restless and self-compromised ambition, the constant need to better yourself chased by the fear of being found out. The novel takes a generous view of this: its characters who thrive are those who manage to transform themselves in some way, like Karim, Charlie, Haroon and his lover Eva, who goes from suburban mystic hanger-on to upper-class home decorator. Even Changez winds up in a Peckham commune, happily raising his wife’s child by another man. Those who perish or wither, like Karim’s would-be fundamentalist uncle Anwar and his drunk, “respectable” aunt Jean, are those unable to discard the past.

Karim, on Thatcher: She can’t win: she’s too suburban.

Eva: We live in a suburban country.

Buddha, end of episode 4.

The rub is that this drive of self-betterment and self-transformation, this multi-colored suburban counterculture, ultimately twins with the impetus that drove Thatcherism—both novel and series end on the night of the general election in May 1979, with the main characters celebrating their new selves in an expensive Soho restaurant whose patrons are cheering the returns.

And although written in the Eighties by a man who was far from a Thatcherite, Buddha isn’t a criticism as much as it’s a bittersweet family history: showing how the ferment generated by the hippies, the communes, the suburban mystics and the Bromley punks was just part of a greater pattern, and that the economic “liberation” of Thatcher’s era wasn’t as much a reaction to them as it was a fellow radical movement, and the most successful of all. The revolution happened after all, but it was a suburban one. Kureishi’s novel and Bowie’s musical take on it are both documents from the aftermath, the notes of two survivors on the opposite shore, wondering how they had made the passage, now finding it hard to recognize the country that they had grown up in.

I felt the pleasure of pleasing others, especially as this was accompanied by money-power. I was paying for them; they were grateful; they had to be; and they could no longer see me as a failure…it was as if I’d discovered something I was good at.

Buddha.

Stockpile of residue

In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.

Buddha.

Working on Buddha triggered something in Bowie: an introspection, a need to sort through the past. Film and book were a loving recreation of Seventies Bromley and Beckenham (e.g., Karim and Haroon stop off at the Three Tuns, where Bowie had run an Arts Lab in 1969 (see “Cygnet Committee”), and where, in the novel, Kevin Ayers is playing a dreary set, “whispering into a microphone [while] two French girls with him kept falling over the stage“). Bowie likely also found analogues of himself and people he’d known (he’d had his share of encounters with Sixties avant-garde theater) in the characters: Charlie’s magpie-like musical thievery, Haroon’s suburban mysticism, Eva’s ambition, Karim’s self-absorption and his openness to new experiences.

So for his Buddha songs, Bowie drew from what he called a “personal memory stock” of Seventies images, ranging from his teenage years in Bromley through late Seventies Berlin. He made Buddha a secret, abstract autobiography, perhaps the only one he’ll ever do.*** His songs not only directly quote from his previous work (especially the theme song, see below) but in total offered an impressionist retrospective of his past musical life, revisiting jazz, Eno’s ambient works, Philip Glass, glam, R&B, funk. Not as museum pieces or pastiches, but far more indirectly: most of the tracks on Buddha are answer songs to hazily-remembered past works, reinterpretations of the past, kept alive and contemporary, with Bowie using cues and moods from his old work and churning them up in the service of the future.

Bromley in the Buddha

Bowie’s title song was the only recording from the Buddha album that was actually used in the series: it played over the end credits of each episode (except ep. 3, which closes with an orgy scored to Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”).

So unsurprisingly, of the Buddha songs, the title track is the one that most directly relates to the past; it’s the easiest of the set, a rewriting of and homage to Bowie’s turn-of-the-Seventies “Beckenham” songs: the guitar break from “Space Oddity” turns up (and the string of suspended, diminished and augmented acoustic guitar chords that undergird the song are very Oddity), as does the “zane zane zane” coda chorus of “All the Madmen,” while the melancholy flavor of its verses—Bowie’s voice, octave-tracked at times, circling within a cage of acoustic guitar, bass and synthesizer—calls back to the likes of “Bewlay Brothers” and “After All.”

His two-verse lyric keeps to the rough outline of Kureishi’s narrative (the book is divided into “In the Suburbs” and “In the City” sections). The opening stanza is suburban misfit angst, sung from the perspective of a figure who’s both Karim and a self-recalled Bowie: compare “Elvis is English and climbs the hills” with Bowie’s proclamation to Kureishi in their interview: “I knew at thirteen that I wanted to be the English Elvis.” (And Bowie also lived “near the railway lines,” which figure in his early “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.“) There’s a tension in the character, who’s both pushing for experience (“full of blood, loving life and all it’s got to give“) and has a middle-class kid’s terror of being different, of failing, of being shown up. The second verse finds the kid in the city at last, changing himself (or at least his clothes), liberating himself while still, in his heart, praying in suburbia for escape.

There’s tension and doubling in the song as well, with Bowie shifting from being a melancholy custodian of his folk years in the verses (the subtle arpeggiated guitars; the sweet, yearning top melodies) to a garish figure in the choruses, a revival of Anthony Newley and provincial showbiz (“down on my KNEEEES in Suh-bur-bee-yah!“). He’s reconciling two sides of his Sixties. The two solos are also different editions of Bowie: the would-be jazz saxophonist from Bromley takes the first solo, while the power-chording glam idol gets the second. (Bowie had Lenny Kravitz play lead guitar on a harsher, inferior “rock” mix of “Buddha.” Kravitz’s soloing is proficient, perfectly-played and soulless, top-rate simulacrum-music from one of the Nineties’ most pointless artists.)

Lovely and wistful, a shadowy collision of influences, “Buddha” was a minor hit in the UK and served its chorus role in the series well. But it was just the opening act for what Bowie would attempt on the Buddha album, much of which would make the “Buddha” song seem oppressively literal. As Bowie wrote in his liner notes manifesto, “a major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form. To rely upon this old war-horse can only continue the spiral into British constraint of insularity. Maybe we could finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Kravitz’s overdubs were recorded ca. July-September 1993, poss. at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California). Released as a single in November 1993 (Arista/BMG 74321 177052, c/w “Dead Against It” and “South Horizon,” #35 UK)—the first track on the CD single is a mix of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix,” both of which were included on the Buddha soundtrack. The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995 (weirdly enough, there was a vinyl pressing made for Brazil in 1994). The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993 and since has been released on VHS/DVD.

* Savage, in its suit, claimed that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses BMG, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million that it allegedly owed to Savage. In September 1993, a cash-poor Savage said it had to return to Bowie the rights to BTWN. (Savage had laid off its entire staff on May 27, barely a month after the album’s release.) The case was dismissed and was finally put in the grave in July 1998, when the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time.

** Bowie “was amazed at how little the BBC paid. Nobody had ever paid him so little in his whole life.” It’s unclear whether Bowie composed the two “punk” songs that Charlie Hero performs in the series, but if so (and I think he did), they’re pretty sharp parodies of the Sex Pistols and serve as Bowie’s belated nose-tweaking of punk. (More on this in future entries.)

*** While I’m skeptical he’ll record again, I think Bowie has at least one book in him, and hope he publishes it.

Top: Naveen Andrews as Karim in Buddha; first edition of Kureishi’s novel; original Buddha CD; “Buddha” CD single.


Jump They Say

November 2, 2012

Jump They Say.
Jump They Say (video).
Jump They Say (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Jump They Say (Rock Mix).
Jump They Say (Leftfield Remix)
Jump They Say (Dub Oddity).
Jump They Say (Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix).
Jump They Say (Club Hart Earth mix).
Jump They Say (live, 1995).
Jump They Say (live, 1996).

On the morning of 16 January 1985, during a snowstorm that had left the Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon understaffed, a patient left the asylum grounds. He went across the road, into the Coulsdon South train station, and walked to the end of the platform. When the express train, which had run late, appeared in the distance, he jumped down onto the track. He lay his head upon the rail and turned his face away from the train, which killed him a few seconds later. He was Terry Burns, David Bowie’s half-brother.

As with many suicides, the final act wasn’t a surprise. Burns had laid on the same track the month before but had pulled away from the rail at the last minute. He had thrown himself out of a window in Cane Hill in 1982. These are just the documented attempts.

Most of us are fortunate in that our family tragedies don’t become the sport of tabloids. The Sun attacked Bowie for his alleged mistreatment of Burns, calling him out for ignoring his brother and for not attending the funeral (which he didn’t attend because he thought he would make it a press circus). The papers gave a platform to an aggrieved aunt to lambaste him. The following year Peter and Leni Gillman’s biography, Alias David Bowie, was published, with the aunt as one of its key sources and which offered as a central premise that the Bowie family was riddled with insanity and that Bowie’s tortured relationship with his mentally ill half-brother, and his fear of going mad, inspired many of his songs. Except for a note included with the flowers he sent to Burns’ funeral (paraphrasing a line from Blade Runner), Bowie kept silent.

Certainly Terry Burns had been essential to Bowie’s development; there’s little question as to that. Burns, Bowie’s elder by ten years, had helped turn David Jones into “David Bowie,” having introduced his younger half-brother to everything from Tibetan Buddhism to jazz. And the period in which Bowie and Burns had last had regular contact, the Haddon Hall days of 1970-1971 (when Burns would sometimes stay with the Bowies on weekends) coincided with Bowie’s quantum leap in songwriting—he would introduce himself to guests as “Terry’s brother” and then go off to write “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars?”

There was Cane Hill on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, and there were the songs: “All the Madmen,” “After All,” “Five Years,“* “The Man Who Sold the World,“The Bewlay Brothers.” Songs about doubles and brothers and shadows, about lost children, madness and isolation. But songs about “Terry” the imago, not Terry the troubled man who would take his own life at age 47. Bowie had made a doppelganger of Terry, had used it for his own ends, as a vessel into which he could channel his fears, a muse he could eventually discard. In 1993, promoting his new album, Bowie said he’d really never known his half-brother, who in his youth would disappear for years and then turn up at the house in Bromley seemingly just to upset his mother. “I think I unconsciously exaggerated his importance. I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.

“Jump They Say,” released eight years after Burns’ death, was “semi-based on my impression of my stepbrother,” Bowie told the NME. But “Jump” was no eulogy (how could it have been, as Bowie had already written “Bewlay Brothers”?), and there was little sentimental or maudlin about it. It was a somber, desolate song, built on a steady mid-tempo rhythm track and which only erupted into brief spasms of cold anger—even the usually buoyant Lester Bowie sounds aggrieved in his solo. Oddly enough, it was a hit: Bowie’s last-ever UK Top 10 single.

The starting point for “Jump” may have been Bowie toying with his old piece “What in the World” with which “Jump” shares a similar shifting two-chord structure, rhythmic base and even lyrical signifiers: a girl with grey eyes in “World” gives birth to the shaking man with a nation in his eyes in “Jump.”

And there’s a taste of Low‘s spiritual deadness in “Jump.” It’s even a far colder song than “What in the World,” which lies on the manic end of Low‘s emotional spectrum. “Jump” feels like it’s going nowhere, a song locked in a box, from the constant two-chord (C/B-flat) shift underlying the verses and bridges** to the looped percussion tracks (a left-mixed synthesized hi-hat and right-mixed tambourine 16ths, which play almost entirely through the track—the hi-hat drops out during Lester Bowie’s solo, while the tambourine gets down-mixed) to the bassline, which until the chorus just alternates between holding on the root note (the C bars) and playing a livelier two-note pattern (the Bb bars).

Bowie’s vocal, which keeps to the range of a fifth except for the soaring bridge, is also locked in this stasis, with Bowie arranging phrases so that “he has” falls at the same place, rhythmically, in each line (Bowie eventually alters this pattern—while he at first does the same with “they say,” using that line to end phrases in the first verse, he starts dragging it across bars in the second verse: “they/say he has/no fear they…“). This strict rhythmic pattern fits the coldness of the lyric, in which the “Terry” figure is observed as though by a scientist in a lab—“Terry” has no inner life, he’s just made up of a series of observation reports. Look at him climb! the researcher notes, with the slightest trace of life in his voice, watching as the man hauls himself up a spire like some sad parody of King Kong. And what’s the chorus but a crowd calling for him to jump? The researcher closes the file. I’d say he should watch his arse, he mutters, as he leaves the room and turns off the light.

Breaking through the song’s permafrost are a few brief interruptions—distorted, “underwater”-sounding trumpets that crop up in the intro and get a brief moment to solo; Lester’s wild spray of notes (in the Outside tour, this section was battled over by Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson); Bowie’s pained-sounding saxophone responses to the crowd calling “jump!,” a melody that Bowie finally put to words in the last chorus. It’s a message of hope and faith (“got to BELIEVE somebody!“) though Bowie and his backing singers only emphasize the last syllable (“LEAVE!”)

While the single went nowhere in America, “Jump” was a hit in the UK, its performance likely boosted by a strong promotional push, the hype around it being Bowie’s first “real” new single in half a decade and by its video, directed by Mark Romanek. The latter was Bowie’s best effort since “Ashes to Ashes,” with which it shared a sense of rummaging through discarded Bowie selves: in “Jump” the stewardesses from Kubrick’s 2001 share the stage with the fallen man of Lodger and the tortured Thomas Jerome Newton of Man Who Fell to Earth.

As for the man who walked into the Coulsdon South station that morning? No one knows him; no one will ever be privy to was in his mind, on that or on any other morning. He remains a secret to us, likely even to his brother. “Jump” doesn’t bring us any closer to him, it answers nothing, it explains nothing, it mourns him only in passing, indirectly, as if in a scientific paper’s abstract; the song’s falling man easily could have been someone Bowie had just read about in a newspaper. “Jump” lets us overhear a man talk to his brother’s shadow, which had always been just as much a reflection of himself.

Recorded ca. summer/fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (Arista 74321 139424, c/w “Pallas Athena,” #9 UK) in March 1993. Performed live in 1995-1996, one of two songs from BTWN that Bowie revived. Again, there were a heap of remixes (see here for the lot). The UK 12″ single included the Hard Hands, Leftfield and Dub Oddity mixes (the latter, also by Leftfield, an instrumental that’s basically a new song, is on the 2-CD BTWN reissue); the Rock Mix (orig. on the Savage CD single, “Rock Mix” = more banal guitar) and the Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix are also on that reissue. “Jump” was also released in 1994 as a poorly-received CD-ROM in which users could remix BTWN songs, re-edit the “Jump” video and listen to Bowie gas on.

* “I thought of my brother and wrote “Five Years,” Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1976.

** Much of the song alternates between B-flat and C major, the chords shifting every other bar. While the ear keeps trying to guess which way the song will go, the pattern seems that it’s never going to break, so there’s a suspension of movement, fitting the uncertainty of the track. Finally, the chorus progression (Dm7-F-Gm7-C5) offers a vague resolution, establishing the song in C Mixolydian mode. (Though you could make a case that the song’s been in F major the whole time, with the dueling Bb and C chords the IV and V chords of F. Or that it’s in standard C major, with Bowie borrowing Bb from the key of F major (as a substitute IV chord—it’s the sort of thing John Lennon loved to do), and portending a key change to F that never happens.)

Epilogue: There was another Bowie half-sibling, one who is often forgotten: his half-sister Annette, born in 1943 (she was his father Haywood’s daughter). Her story ends far happier. As Bowie wrote in the introduction to his wife’s autobiography: “When I was seven or thereabouts, my half-sister, Annette, left England for good. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and was to travel to his village to marry him. She would write. My father may have received news but if so those letters were not shared. I never heard another thing from or about her…[when] Annette had arrived in Egypt, she had converted to Islam, which had meant undergoing a name change. Being the first Western Christian girl to ever visit let alone live in her husband’s village, the most appropriate name for her was obvious.

If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.”

Top: Messrs. Blonde, White and Pink, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino, 1992; “Jump” single; still from the “Jump” video, Romanek, 1993.


Tin Machine

May 9, 2012

Tin Machine.
Tin Machine (edit, video).

Tin Machine is not a David Bowie record. Tin Machine is a band.

Hunt Sales, 1989.

In the Sixties, Bowie had gone through a string of bands: The Lower Third, the Riot Squad, the King Bees, the Kon-rads, the Manish Boys, the Buzz, Turquoise/Feathers. Each had failed in its own way. Some had been flawed propositions from the start, hamstrung by Bowie’s non-negotiable demand to be first among alleged equals. A few later editions, like the Buzz, assembled by Bowie and his manager via Melody Maker want ads, became a workable template—a band as a second unit orbiting its frontman, as with the Spiders from Mars. Even then, there was too much free movement: Bowie dispatched Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey within two years. Bowie’s most enduring band, his backing group of the late Seventies, were craftsmen who generally kept behind the scenes.

Now at age 41 Bowie finally wanted to submerge himself in a group, to go in hiding in a crowd. Tin Machine was credited to the band, not “David Bowie and Tin Machine” (though EMI affixed the album with stickers reminding buyers the bearded man on the cover had made “Let’s Dance”).* Duties were communal: songwriting, solos, singing. Tony Sales would often introduce the band on stage. In TV interviews of the time you can see Bowie restraining himself from talking over his bandmates. This deliberate anonymity pleased few in the Bowie organization or his label (Tin Machine would be the last EMI record). Reeves Gabrels later said that even Bowie’s assistant Coco Schwab “felt Tin Machine was bringing down the value of the currency of the David Bowie name.”

The name itself was an afterthought. “We couldn’t think of a good name, so we picked [one] from a song on the album,” Bowie said in a 1989 radio interview. “Tin Machine” was the obvious choice (though in an alternate life, Bowie fronted Crack City), as it worked as a play on the likes of Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly and signaled Bowie’s intentions: an automobile, i.e., a tin machine, is a means to get you out of town and on the road heading somewhere else.

Gabrels, interviewed by Spin at the album’s release, said “tin” was symbolic because while it seems like an “archaic material” it’s actually found everywhere—cans in supermarkets, rusted scraps on the street. The band in turn tried to be deliberately archaic, reactionary, not using synthesizers or sequencers (“we were sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines, which I think in the business they call ‘crap,'” Tony Sales said in the same interview); Gabrels and Bowie favored older gear, like a 1963 Stratocaster once owned by Marc Bolan and a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead amp that Bowie had lying around in Switzerland. Bowie, Gabrels and second guitarist Kevin Armstrong even tried to limit their use of chorus and delay effects (Gabrels claimed no guitar effects he used were post-1974). That said, they weren’t entirely Luddites, as Gabrels often played a prototype Steinberger guitar with a transposing tremolo mechanism on its neck.

So Tin Machine the band came after “Tin Machine” the song. The Sales brothers liked the idea of having a theme song like the Monkees (Hunt, who emblazoned his kick drum with his first name, was especially keen). It added a hint of silliness to a deadpan group, as there’s often something inherently ridiculous when a band uses its name for a chorus: take Bad Company’s “Bad Company” or the Clash, who kept at it with diminishing returns (“Clash City Rockers,” “This is Radio Clash,” “We Are the Clash,” a sad declaration issued after half the band had quit).

But a key ancestor here is Minor Threat’s 1981 hardcore anthem “Minor Threat,” (though in this case the band’s name—a joke about Ian MacKaye et al‘s youth and unassuming appearance—had preceded the song), as “Tin Machine” is arguably Bowie and crew having a run at making hardcore. So I asked my cousin Robb, who played in hardcore bands in his youth, what he thought:

It’s like [Bowie] listened to a 1987/88 New York Hardcore compilation once and decided to emulate it. It sounds like it’s the “idea” of hardcore—“We’ll make it simple, short and fast”—but DB’s idea of simple and fast has key changes, too many chords, and is still too slow. Also, there’s no real conclusion—no buildup or breakdown, it just kind of ends. [This is in reference to the “single” edit of the video, which cuts the track off after its first chorus. Upon hearing the full version of “Tin Machine,” Robb said it was an improvement but was now far too long. I agree—by the time Bowie’s scatting what sounds like “dooby dooby dooby” in the coda, you’re praying for the engineer to stop the tape.]

The riff at the end [in the bridge, starting at 1:09 on the album cut] could work as hardcore, but the rest of the song sounds like a regular rock song with extra distortion. I suppose you could claim it’s the first “Art Core” song, but it sounds more like a hastily put together attempt to associate Tin Machine with the next big underground, up-and-coming genre. I can’t tell if it’s a sincere failure or a cynical failure.

I’d put my chips on sincere, as the track seems to be a valiant attempt, in Bowie’s words, at making [Glenn] “Branca-sonic,” with its multi-tracked pack of guitars and Bowie’s flat, clipped-out vocal, which mainly keeps to a two-note range in the verse/refrain. The problem was that Tin Machine had too much collective chops to let the song lie. So “Tin Machine” is more harmonically “dense” than it needs to be—the 44-bar opening refrain/verse shifts between G and A major, while the “bridge” moves to a run of B minor/E minor, with a A/D/G tag at the turnaround back to the verse.

It also sounds as if the not-fast-enough tempo is still leaving the Machine winded, though it’s one of the few tracks that suits Hunt Sales’ drumming, which has some nuance—Hunt’s sparing use of crash cymbals or the little fill that fuels the track midway through the second verse (after “glare”). Gabrels also got crafty: he created the sound of “facsimile bagpipes” for his main riff by playing his guitar like a slide in his lap, “fingering from the top, with one foot on his Wah-Wah pedal and the other pumping volume.” (Spin).

And Bowie’s likely first-draft lyric is a choice example of the allegedly topical, “fractured word” writing that blighted much of Tin Machine, with lines including “mindless maggot glare,” “night that spews out watchmen” (DB reading Moore/Gibbons?), and the fan favorite, “humping Tories/spittle on their cheeks.” There’s wordplay of sorts (“blue-suede tuneless“) and callbacks to old songs, here the recently-revived “All the Madmen” (“I’m not exactly well“) As with the guitars, Bowie’s at his most convincing when he’s raging in the bridges, his spray of descending lines culminating in a choked-out “hell.”

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92.

* Later reissues reclaimed the album as a “David Bowie” release.

Top: Misha Erwitt, “Marilyns, New York, 1988.”


I Wanna Be Your Dog

April 12, 2012

I Wanna Be Your Dog (Iggy Pop with Bowie, live, 1977).
I Wanna Be Your Dog (Bowie with Charlie Sexton, live, 1987).

I had all these thwarted dreams of what I’d tried to do with rock ‘n roll in the early ’70s, and I was trying to do all that a bit late.

David Bowie, 1991.

Glass Spider was a supernova of a concert which saw the old version of Bowie finally explode under the weight of self-parody, only to shrink to the red dwarf of Tin Machine.

David Buckley.

The Glass Spider tour, 1987: 86 shows, six months, three continents. The spider itself, designed by Mark Ravitz, was 60 feet high and 64 feet wide, spun out of fiberglass and metal, with vacuum tubes for legs. Bowie began each concert by descending in a chair from its maw, while on the encore (“Time”) he sang from atop the structure’s head, precariously standing on a three-foot-square steel plate. When the winds were up, it was too dangerous for him to be there; after a while, Bowie began hoping each night that the winds would be up.

The summer of 1987, in Europe and the UK, was soured by winds and rain, and as it generally stayed light until 10 PM, it meant that the Spider often wouldn’t be fully lit until the concert was nearly over, while the video-projected backdrops were often hard to see (worse, many of the open-air arenas that Bowie played in Britain had strict 10:30 PM or 11 PM curfews, causing Bowie to sprint through his encores). Most concertgoers just saw an enormous, immobile, occasionally-glowing spider and, beneath it, some dozen performers running around in circles. Bowie wore bright red and gold suits in part so that those in the nosebleed seats could at least determine which speck he was. (See below, a photograph from a Manchester show in July 1987.)

The tour was plagued by technical foul-ups. The limitations of the sound system and of the headsets that Bowie and his dancers wore meant that their spoken “dialogue” often sounded like babble punctuated by the occasional burst of feedback. Bowie took to miming a pre-recorded vocal track on his opening “Glass Spider” as he was generally inaudible singing into his headset mike while in his chair. Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton groused that the dancers kept pushing them up-stage and sometimes stepped on their effects pedals—once, during a quiet song, a dancer turned on Frampton’s fuzzbox by accident. There were also a string of greater disasters—a lighting engineer fell to his death in Florence, there was a riot in Milan, Bowie was sued for sexual assault in America (a grand jury later cleared him of all charges).

And the mood backstage was raw at times. Carlos Alomar, at last fed up with being the eternally-agreeable sidekick, gave a few truculent interviews in which he emphasized his importance to Bowie’s records (undeniable, but this was never a good thing for your long-term health in Bowie’s organization), and he asked to start off the concert with an extended squalling guitar solo to show that he was Frampton’s equal: “On that tour I was tired of being the sideman. I wanted my place. Give me a bone, Jesus!” he told David Buckley years later. Alomar and the bassist Carmine Rojas formed a hard-partying, irreverent faction (much to the alleged ire of Coco Schwab), while Frampton and Erdal Kizilcay, by contrast, were reserved and often worn out, and even thought about bailing once the tour had reached America.

And Bowie? He was both tour manager and ringmaster, dancer as well as director: painstakingly mapping out choreographed dance and lighting sequences during soundchecks. He had to sing while performing like a triathlete (climbing up to a catwalk on “Scary Monsters,” being thrown around like a sack of grain by his dancers on “Fashion”). To no surprise, Bowie grew exhausted and irritable, especially once the bad reviews poured in (the NME: “unmemorable tedium,” Melody Maker: “the paucity of ideas is quite incredible,” Sounds: “frenzied schlock”), and his voice occasionally gave out as the months wore on. A member of Big Country, one of Bowie’s opening acts, recalled to Marc Spitz a time when Bowie had a “volcanic” meltdown because the hair stylist had used the wrong lacquer on his mullet. Bowie publicly dressed down Alomar, even once the genial Kizilcay.

Bowie had never put on a show on the level of “Glass Spider” and he soon came to feel trapped within it. In 1974, he had ditched the Diamond Dogs concept three months into the tour, scrapping the Hunger City sets in favor of soul-inspired group performances. But now Pepsi was footing much of the bill, and everyone expected the spectacle: the giant spider, the routine where Bowie pulled his girlfriend out of the crowd on “Bang Bang,” the abseiling and kickboxing dancers.

So the “Glass Spider” tour became an extended acting-out of the conflicting impulses that had bedeviled Never Let Me Down. On one hand, the tour was meant to be an arena-based summer hot-ticket event (and the shows generally sold out—Bowie didn’t lose money on it, by any means), but Bowie also intended it to be a traveling performance-art show, an avant-garde rock and roll circus, featuring modern dances inspired by Pina Bausch: he originally wanted the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps to be his dancers, but they were unavailable (he would work with them in 1988).

The band generally turned in solid, even inspired performances (“Heroes” in the Berlin concert in June 1987 remains one of Bowie’s most resonant moments), while the set list was fresh, with few nostalgic favorites or greatest hits on the bill. In the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie had performed only the hits off of Let’s Dance and had filled the rest of his set with classics. Even in 1978, he had leavened the Low/”Heroes” material with Ziggy Stardust songs. But “Glass Spider” featured almost all of Never Let Me Down (except, wisely, “Shining Star” and “Too Dizzy”), while its older songs were as much obscurities (“Sons of the Silent Age,” “All the Madmen,” “Big Brother”) as they were hits (“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Fame”).*

As the tour wound down in Europe, Bowie began swapping out some of his new material for storied rockers (“Jean Genie,” “White Light/White Heat”), in part because he didn’t have to dance during the new numbers: he could just stay in one place on stage and even strap on a guitar. And soon into the American leg of the tour, he began playing the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in encores (the first set list that I found with it is, appropriately, Iggy Pop’s backyard: Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 September 1987).

It’s not that Bowie’s performances of “Wanna Be Your Dog” were revelatory—in fact, they were often dull, especially compared to the caustic performances that he and Pop had unleashed a decade before. The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Sydney for the Glass Spider video), with its almost cheery uptempo rhythms, and with Sexton and Frampton vying to out-cliche each other, is particularly grating. But reviving “White Light” and “Wanna Be Your Dog” served a purpose for Bowie: it let him revel in a fantasy that, for a moment, he was happily reduced to being in a rock band again, that the only spectacle he had to pull off was the song itself.

The tour ended in Auckland on 28 November 1987. Bowie would never attempt anything of its like again (though “Glass Spider” would be the template for a host of succeeding tours, from Paula Abdul‘s abseiling dancers to U2’s PopMart and 360 tours). It had been a long, hard purging of illusions. Bowie would never again attempt to so fully reconcile his avant-garde theatrical side with the hard business of filling arenas. He had been ridiculed for it, the process had nearly broken him, and now he was done. Bowie the global pop icon died on the same night that he torched the spider in a New Zealand field.

Still, there were a few moments during 1987 when Bowie stumbled upon his future. At a party to celebrate the end of the tour, a depressed-looking Bowie saw Hunt Sales across the room and embraced him like a lost brother. And before he left for the last leg in Australia, his publicist Sara handed him a cassette. It was a few demos by her husband, who Bowie had befriended during the tour. Bowie was bemused: he had thought that Reeves Gabrels was a painter. He put the tape in his coat pocket and soon forgot about it. Six months later, back home in Switzerland, Bowie came across the tape and figured it was worth a listen…

*In rehearsals, Bowie tried out “Scream Like a Baby” (Frampton again taking part of the vocals), “Because You’re Young,” and “Joe the Lion.”

The version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” linked above was filmed by David Mallet in Sydney on 6 November 1987, and released as part of the Glass Spider concert video.

Photos (top to bottom): unknown show/photog. (let me know);  pommieken (Manchester,UK, 14 or 15 July 1987); Wikipedia (Nürburgring, Germany, 7 June 1987);  Turistadeguerra (Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1 or 2 September 1987).