And I Say To Myself

August 17, 2009

pyesay

And I Say to Myself.

A Sam Cooke tribute of sorts (both in Bowie’s vocal and in the chord structure, which Nicholas Pegg marks as that of Cooke’s “Wonderful World”), “And I Say To Myself” goes about its business in an interesting but ultimately aimless way. Bowie’s vocal is certainly ambitious enough (the introduction, built of chromatic harmonic changes, finds Bowie deliberately unsettling the listener—just when you think he’s leading into the chorus, he leaps elsewhere, until about 40 seconds in). The overall song, however, seems more a collection of striking moments than a unified piece, and it winds up sounding like exactly what it is: inspired apprentice work.

Released 14 January 1966, B-side of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”; 1966 Pye Singles.

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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.


Sound and Vision

February 25, 2011

Sound and Vision.
Sound and Vision (live, 1978).
Sound and Vision (live, 1990).
Sound and Vision (remix, 1991).
Sound and Vision (live, 2002).
Sound and Vision (live, 2004).

“Low” was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar… that dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, For God’s sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately. Find some people you don’t understand and a place you don’t want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries.

David Bowie, to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 12 November 1977.

Some years ago, in the depth of the winter, my marriage fell apart. My wife left the day after New Year’s Day, and I was alone in the house with the dog. A day or so later, squirrels got into the walls through a plank of rotted wood on the roof. You could hear them thumping around, scratching; at times it sounded like a dwarf was carving with a penknife into the wall. I lay on my bed, watching an endless procession of brightly waning winter afternoons pass by, listening to the squirrels. It was too much. I carried the dog up into the attic to let her run around and bark, skills at which she excels. It worked—you could hear the squirrels scrambling out—but they came back at night with renewed intentions. Finally I hired a pair of men to get rid of them.

A salve for personal catastrophe is routine. Life is reduced to a series of minor actions. Today I will arrange the bookcase. Today I will go to the store. Tonight I’ll listen to this record. But what to listen to? Dylan’s divorce album Blood on the Tracks seemed an obvious choice, but it sounded grandiose, a war correspondence, as did Shoot Out the Lights. Maybe those records were just too suffused with pain, and I’d had enough already. No, what I played, over and over again, was Low, and what I played on Low, most of all, was “Sound and Vision,” and what resonated most on “Sound and Vision” was:

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the color of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue.
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to read, nothing to say…

Purgatory is a safe place, even hells have their consolations (“Here at least we shall be free”: Milton’s Satan, always the booster). One small pleasure of an unexpected solitude is the prospect of order. Life takes on an exacting quality. Colors, sounds have a greater purchase on the mind. Bowie called “Sound and Vision” his ultimate retreat song…it was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.” And “Sound and Vision,” as it opens, seems like a locked room—a minimal set of players, everything in its place, a clockwork song. Eight bars, repeated exactly. Two guitars, panned to either channel; bass; Harmonized drums; whooshing percussion (likely a processed snare) that sounds like a radiator coming to life. Then a simple descending synthesizer line, a sudden sigh of delight.

“Sound and Vision” may be a depressive’s song, the few lucid thoughts of a man going cold turkey, but it’s also shot through with little moments of joy: Mary Hopkin’s charming cameo appearance; Bowie’s saxophone, which sounds like an old friend showing up unexpectedly; Dennis Davis’ exuberant drum fills. It’s the happiest song on Low. When Bowie’s vocal finally appears, in a long, slow movement that spans over an octave (“don’t you wonder sometiii-mes”), it’s as though he’s been listening along and just started singing, carried away by what he set in motion.

It’s also the breaking of a dry spell (unlike other Low tracks where Bowie had struggled to come up with lyrics, he wrote a long set for “Sound and Vision,” then pared the lines down). Invoking a muse is as old as poetry, and “Sound and Vision” offers a simple, muted hope for inspiration. I will sit right down, waiting for the gift. No grand gestures, no sacrifices, just a man sitting at a piano and hoping that the notes come, that a few words appear. It’s Bowie wondering out loud if he could ever write a song like “Life on Mars?” again, yet he doesn’t seem troubled if he can’t. He’s content to have gotten this far, grateful for what’s been left to him.

So “Sound and Vision” is a song about writing a song, and it assembles itself as it moves in time—first the rhythm section and the guitarists, then “strings” (the synth), then backing vocals, then horns, until finally even its author appears—and it seems to question why it works. Don’t you wonder sometimes? Why does music play on us? Why does A minor fit so well with G major, why is their marriage so happy? Why does Bowie singing in his lowest register work so well? What makes Hopkin’s throwaway “doo-doo-doo-doo” line, which she thought would be distorted in echo and parked low in the mix*, the linchpin of the song? (The latter fits with the meta-commentary of the whole track—there’s a woman singing backup because, after all, that’s what pop songs have).

Brian Eno mainly played walk-on roles on Low‘s first side, but Bowie wrote “Sound and Vision” with him in mind, and so it’s the first track in our survey to show Eno’s direct influence. For instance, Eno suggested that Bowie not sing until the track was well underway (1:30, almost exactly the song’s halfway mark), so as to build anticipation and confound listener expectations. Low is sequenced to start with one instrumental and close with another, so “Sound and Vision,” parked in the middle of the side, seems at first to be another instrumental, a midway mark. Yet delaying Bowie’s arrival also revived the past—it’s playing on the expectations of a ’20s-’30s pop music listener, who would have assumed that the singer wouldn’t appear until the band had played a chorus or two (for example, in George Olsen’s “Who” , from 1925, the singers don’t arrive until almost the two-minute mark).

If the musicians carry the first half, Bowie carries the rest, and there’s a wonderful precision to Bowie’s vocal here, a sense that he’s been allotted a short span of time and so has to plot his course exactly (the humbled way he offers “and I will sing,” keeping to a short span of low notes, or the sudden dawn of “over my HEAD!”) And then “Sound and Vision” suddenly fades out, long before one wishes it gone, and suggesting that what you’ve heard is just a small enclosure of some grander commons. It’s a sweet, generous piece of music, one of Bowie’s finest, most welcoming songs.

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville, September 1976, overdubs at Hansa, Berlin, Sept.-Oct. 1976. Released as a single (RCA PB 0905, #3 UK (the highest-charting Bowie UK single of the late ’70s, its performance aided by the BBC using parts of “S&V” in trailers), #69 US). Played once on the 1978 tour, at Earl’s Court (an off performance—Bowie’s not in the voice for it; compiled on the near-bootleg RarestOneBowie). Dormant in the ’80s, “Sound and Vision” had a sudden revival at decade’s end, titling Bowie’s career compilation and subsequent greatest-hits tour of 1990; Bowie had 808 State and others remix it. Played in the Heathen and Reality tours.

* Eno is credited on the LP as “Peter and Paul,” so completing the set with Mary Hopkin. Low is goofier than some give it credit for: the cover is a visual pun, for example.

Top: Esther Friedmann, “Iggy Pop,” Berlin, ca. 1977.


Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

becknhm

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

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

worthing

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

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

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

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

student-march4_300

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

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

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

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

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


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

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

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

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

db1

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

David-Bowie-1967

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

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

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

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

db69

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

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

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


Let’s Dance

October 20, 2011

Let’s Dance (single edit, video).
Let’s Dance (LP).
Let’s Dance (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live w/Tina Turner, 1985).
Let’s Dance (live, 1987).
Let’s Dance (live, 1990).
Let’s Dance (live, 1996).
Let’s Dance (live, 2002).
Let’s Dance (Live By Request, 2002).
Let’s Dance (live, 2003).

It begins in hysteria. A mass of singers urge each other upward, moving in thirds, pursued by a brittle-sounding guitar; the drums, bass and horns convulse in eighth notes. It’s a collective explosion, one you’ve heard before—it’s the climax of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” a rave-up to drive audiences mad. For “Let’s Dance,” it’s just the intro.

“Let’s Dance” is a mutant hybrid of a pop song, one bred to conquer. Bowie and his producer Nile Rodgers crafted the track to “pop” when heard on the radio (“It’s got a hard cut, very high on treble—it sears through,” Bowie said at the time) but also made the beat heavy enough to command the dance floor. The seven-minutes-plus version (on the LP and the 12″ single) is expansive: as it goes on, it becomes a series of set pieces (percussion solo, brass solo, guitar solo), as if a DJ is shuffling through dance instruction records. The single edit is remorseless, all economy and punch—Stevie Ray Vaughan’s early appearance is truncated to a single note, his later solo kept within bounds and faded out quickly.

Even in its long version “Let’s Dance” seems streamlined—it starts mid-leap, stays in the air. The verse and refrain are fused together (the falling “let’s dance!” phrase alternates with every verse line), while the hook-filled bridge could double for the chorus, and it ends with the track’s dramatic peak: Bowie, singing over the “Twist and Shout” buildup, makes two aborted attempts to move up (“if you should fall“…”into my arms…”)—he’s just baiting the listener now—until finally breaking out with the fifth-spanning “trem-ble like a FLOW-ER!

A still-reliable way to get a hit is to write a song that calls people out to dance, sets them spinning, the song celebrating its own power. “Let’s Dance” follows that script, but it’s still weird, in a Bowie way: it’s not quite comfortable as an emcee. The refrain chorus vocals sound hectoring; Bowie croaks out the second verse like he’s still in character from his vampire movie The Hunger; there are odd phrases in the lyric that read like poor translations (“serious moonlight,”1for fear your grace should fall“); the mainly “acoustic” instruments sound like synthesizers. There’s a severity to “Let’s Dance,” from the imperative mood of the refrain (a set of commands from one lover to another) to how the instruments are recorded (sharply, massively) and mixed: often separated, kept in their own worlds, each threatening to dominate the track. Listening to the final mix is like spinning past row after row of iron sculptures.

That said, “Let’s Dance” still works on the dance floor (I saw it first-hand the other weekend) and it fit the key of its time: few songs scream “1983” like it does. It’s arguably the most popular Bowie song, more than “Changes,” more than “Young Americans” or “Life On Mars” or “Rebel Rebel” or “Space Oddity.” A few bars of it herald Bowie’s cameo appearance in Zoolander; it could stand for Bowie’s entire canon, easily reduced to a ringtone. The biggest single of Bowie’s life, “Let’s Dance” hit #1 in the UK, #1 in the US, #1 in Canada, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway. It made him, at last, the colossal celebrity that he had always intended, had always pretended, to be.

“Let’s Dance” was also coronation music for Bowie’s latest incarnation, the hipster CEO figure seen on stage throughout 1983 and starring in Let’s Dance‘s run of hit videos—the blond bouffant, the lockjaw, the designer suits with the dangling, unknotted neckties, the golf gloves, the modest dancing. As one of Tom Ewing’s commenters said, this was Bowie as “an avatar of pure fame,” becoming an international trademark of his own music, like the Apple logo or the Nike swish. The Man Who Sold Himself to the World, which bought him.

Bromley’s Billy Idol was an inadvertent parent. Late one night in the autumn of 1982, in the drafty VIP section of a New York club called The Continental, an inebriated Idol was babbling to Nile Rodgers until he nearly vomited on him. Dodging Idol’s spew, Rodgers escaped from the table and spied Bowie sitting alone in a corner of the room.2 The two began to chat and spent hours talking about everyone from Henry Mancini to Louis Jordan, swapping Iggy Pop stories (one of Rodgers’ early bands had opened for the Stooges in the late Sixties). Soon afterward, Bowie asked Rodgers to produce his next record, dumping Tony Visconti, who had already booked time to work with Bowie in December—an irked Visconti wouldn’t produce Bowie again for nearly 20 years.

Visconti’s ouster wasn’t a surprise. Bowie, looking for a new record contract and wanting hits, wanted to work with an entirely new cast. He already had broken up his classic rhythm section. Now even Carlos Alomar was gone (temporarily), with Bowie’s people refusing Alomar’s customary request for a raise and instead just offering him scale: Alomar, insulted, walked.

In Rodgers, Bowie saw a proven hitmaker and also a hidden classicist: someone who had kept black popular music traditions alive within a contemporary sound, first with the coiled precision of Chic (whose records seem like a jazz trio’s interpretation of disco, with Bernard Edwards’ bass as the saxophone) and then with a harsher, “post disco” minimalist sound that Rodgers had developed on Debbie Harry’s Koo Koo, Material’s “Come Down,” and his own Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove (recorded just before Let’s Dance). The latter records, however, hadn’t sold: Rodgers was coming off a string of flops before Bowie enlisted him. And Rodgers was at first disappointed to learn Bowie wanted him to make hits, because Rodgers thought he’d have the chance to make an avant-garde rock LP, a “Scary Monsters 2,” as he later said.

Bowie, spending much of 1982 making The Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, had brought along on his travels mix tapes of Sixties soul records: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Marvin Gaye, Etta James. The immediacy of these records, their collective insistence, their open air of simplicity masking stark emotional depths, appealed to Bowie, who had spent the past half-decade writing gnomic parables, prying apart his old songs, trying to erase himself. Bowie wanted a public again, so he set about writing public songs—exhortations, common causes—keeping his lines (relatively) simple, writing words meant to be sung back at him.

Bowie being inspired by black music wasn’t anything new, of course. He began by slavishly imitating R&B (“Liza Jane,” “I Pity the Fool,” “And I Say to Myself“) and again a decade later with the Philly Soul Young Americans. And apart from his folk-plagued late Sixties, soul had been the continual undercurrent of Bowie’s music. The core of the Berlin records is the doings of a mysterious funk band; Station to Station is apocalypse disco; Bowie sang James Brown songs onstage as Ziggy Stardust; Diamond Dogs owed as much to Isaac Hayes as it did George Orwell. Let’s Dance was just exposing the foundation again.

In late 1982, Rodgers flew to Switzerland to hear Bowie’s new material. Bowie played him “Let’s Dance” on acoustic guitar: it was a folk ballad, a Byrds-like piece, which it remains. When stripped down to its melody and chords, “Let’s Dance” is a somber song, one tinged with melancholy. Its verse/refrain is mainly built on the dark, ominous sound of B-flat minor,3 with only a few fleeting escapes to Gb major (by contrast, the bridge is centered on the steadier Db major). Pried out of the metallic casing that Rodgers devised for it, “Let’s Dance” can seem fragile, prematurely regretful. The singer hopes that the dance he’s asking for, the moment that he’s devising, will cause his lover to finally commit to him, to give him the life he’s always wanted, but he fears that even if his plan works, it will only be for a moment. There’s a jittery impermanence in “Let’s Dance,” a desperation beneath its imperious tone; it’s the song of a man trying to cheat fate, to make his own luck. Bowie returned to this original vision of the song in his later years, turning “Let’s Dance” into a mood piece.

At the time, though, Bowie told Rodgers he thought “Dance” was a potential hit. Rodgers just shook his head. How could you have a song called “Let’s Dance” that you couldn’t dance to? For Rodgers, this paradox was a sign of white privilege. Black artists, Rodgers later contended, are usually forced to work far more literally—if a black band has a song called “Let’s Dance,” it has to be a dance song, he said. “It’s not because there isn’t interesting intellectual subject matter for black artists to delve into, it’s the fact that you won’t get played,” he told David Buckley.

So Rodgers got to work in Switzerland, making a studio demo of “Let’s Dance” with Erdal Kizilcay, who first played a florid, Jaco Pastorius-inspired bassline. Rodgers, trying to beat the song into a single, reportedly told Kizilcay “don’t play that shit—it’s not your solo album, it’s David Bowie’s.” The two worked out a more restrained bassline, a set of alternating hooks: a four-note stepwise descent, and a more static five-note pattern that either fell a step or stayed on the same note (first heard at 0:15 and 0:11, respectively, on the LP). On the studio “Let’s Dance,” the line’s played by Carmine Rojas, whose Fender bass is mixed with a synthesized one (an old Bowie trick—Visconti’s bass on The Man Who Sold the World is often echoed by a synth bass.)

While Rodgers was in Switzerland, Bowie kept showing him things: jazz album sleeves, Little Richard photographs, Bowie’s enormous LP collection that dated back to his teenage days in Bromley. Rodgers later told Paul Trynka that it was like being offered “a snapshot of Bowie’s brain” at the time; it was Bowie, subtly, getting Rodgers into the state of mind that Bowie required, leavening Rodgers’ contemporary music knowledge with a revisionist’s deliberate perspective.

“Let’s Dance” is the fruit of this approach: it’s an Eighties pop song that “organically” samples Fifties and Sixties hits (even the title calls back to the old Chris Montez hit Bowie had played with the Kon-Rads). There’s not only the “Twist and Shout” raveup, but the main horn riffs are inspired by (almost taken wholesale from, actually) Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn soundtrack. And Stevie Ray Vaughan, after taping his guitar solo, admitted he was straight-out playing Albert King licks. Rodgers thought Bowie’s hiring of Vaughan was a mistake, but Bowie, who had seen Vaughan weather a poor reception at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of ’82, had a veteran stock-picker’s sense of a future winner. Vaughan’s blues guitar solo is in keeping with “Let’s Dance”‘s sense of being a sampler of American musics, a catalog in jumps: electric blues, funk, Hollywood jazz, rock & roll, Latin (the highly-mixed presence of Sammy Figueroa‘s woodblocks).

“Let’s Dance,” the first song recorded for the album that it named, was crafted in the Power Station. Bowie already had recorded Scary Monsters there, but by 1982, the Station had developed its trademark drum sound: gated snare reverb. It was the crushing beat of Let’s Dance, as well of the Eighties. While Visconti’s Harmonizer-altered drums on Low was a predecessor of the sound,4 the “classic” Eighties gated snare was developed concurrently at the Power Station by engineers like Bob Clearmountain, and at London’s Townhouse, where in 1980, on Peter Gabriel’s third album, Hugh Padham developed the sound for Phil Collins’ drum tracks.5

Engineers were always trying to better record the “snap” of a snare drum being hit. It’s an endless task, as a recording never quite captures the exact sound when heard live. Attempts at miking the snare in a reverb-heavy room like the Power Station wound up with the mike also picking up all of the echoes of the snare hit, and so muddying/dissipating its power. Power Station and Townhouse engineers hit upon the same solution: place a close mike (to capture the actual hit) and then a pair of stereo “ambiance” mikes above the kit, the latter using high compression and equipped with noise gates (so the mikes would capture the reverb of a stick hitting the snare for a half second or so, then snap off). This way engineers could get the hard “snap” of the hit with a dose of explosive reverb, yet without any secondary echoes.

So the snare hit became abstracted—it became a block of pure force, as precise and as alien-sounding as a drum machine but with more power. This sort of inhuman precision, an acoustic instrument turned into a synthetic giant of itself, defines “Let’s Dance”—not just Omar Hakim’s drums but even Figueroa’s percussion sounds like a mechanical rattlesnake. That’s not to downplay the brilliant workings of Rodgers’ arrangement: the way the horns and the bass play off each other, Hakim’s intricate bass drum pattern, which only repeats every eight bars (Duran Duran later admitted stealing it for “Union of the Snake”), the wide use of space in the mix, so that every instrument’s appearance seems like an event.

The single mix boiled all of this down to an ultimatum; the extended take allowed some room to breathe, letting Rodgers do a Chic-style “breakdown,” gave Vaughan his first moment in the spotlight, and a few oddities slipped in, like the cacophonous 22-bar brass solo that sounds more like the World Saxophone Quartet than any contemporary R&B horn section.

The producer Tony Bongiovi had wanted his Power Station to replace the intimacy of the Seventies “dry” sound (which he compared to that of a doctor’s office) with a hotter, more “live,” more communal sound. (It didn’t really turn out that way—many Eighties records sound far less “live” today than their Seventies counterparts.) “Let’s Dance” is metaphorically Bowie attempting a similar move, exchanging mystery for mass connection. Bowie songs tend to be from fractured individual perspectives: even “Changes” or “Rebel Rebel,” songs that audiences have taken for themselves, are at their core weirdly personal songs, still unknowable. “Let’s Dance,” is Bowie trying to be communal: it seems intended to be shared, with its lyric’s emphasis on the plural (even “they” are playing music on the radio), how its chorus is like a pep cheer. It’s open, expansive, a song meant to be flung out to a crowd.

But go back to that day in Switzerland, when Bowie played his sad, fragile song to Rodgers. Was he sacrificing it?  Bowie knew that Rodgers, a brilliant arranger, could make a wallflower ballad into a shining dance anthem, could case its insecurities in a dazzling set of mirrors. He gave the song away to be corrupted: wonderfully, as it turned out. “Let’s Dance” finally made Bowie. But what had it made of him?

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released 17 March 1983 (EA 152, c/w “Cat People,” #1 US/UK). David Mallet and Bowie made another iconic video, with the “red shoes” of the lyric serving as a corrupting symbol of modern capitalism. It’s best remembered for a few random images: an Aboriginal boy dragging a machine down a Sydney street, the boy and his girlfriend painting a snake on the wall of an art gallery, an immaculate Bowie playing his song in an outback bar.

1: “Serious moonlight,” according to Rodgers, was Bowie referencing Rodgers’ habit of calling a particularly good groove or track “serious.” Bowie once called the phrase as his attempt at an “Americanism.” However, Nicholas Pegg offered the mad and quite possibly accurate theory that Bowie was referencing an Aleister Crowley poem, “Lyric of Love to Leah,” whose lines include “let us dance beneath the palm/moving in the moonlight” and later “come my love, let us dance/to the moon and Sirius!” I.e., the Sirius Moonlight.

2: This is the most colorful and hence my favorite version of the meeting at the Continental (Rodgers told it to Buckley). The reality may have been more prosaic: there are other stories where Bowie and Rodgers sit side by side, silently, for hours until Rodgers gets the courage to say hello, or where a less-drunk Idol graciously introduces Rodgers to Bowie.

3: According to the official sheet music, it’s A minor/F major for the verses, G/C/D  for the bridge. However, a Japanese full band score puts the song more accurately (IMO) in the key of D-flat, with Bb minor/Gb for the verse/refrain, and Ab/Db/Eb for the bridge.

4: In 1983, Bowie described the Low drum sound as “that “mash” drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the “clap” sound we’ve got now.

5 Collins fell in love with the gated snare. Besotted, he dedicated his work in the Eighties to its worship: cf. the Collins-produced “I Know There Something Going On” by Frida, in which the former ABBA singer fights for her life against a set of all-devouring drums.

Greg Milner’s excellent Perfecting Sound Forever was key to understanding the development of the gated snare. Thanks to Lance Hoskins for sending me the Let’s Dance full band score some time ago.

Top: Martin Scorsese, The King of Comedy (1983); Aboriginals witness the nuking of Sydney in the “Let’s Dance” video; Nile Rodgers at the Power Station, ca. 1984; Let’s Dance, LP, 12″ single front and back (the latter illustration either predicting or ripping off Keith Haring).


Station To Station

December 23, 2010

Station to Station.
Station to Station (rehearsal, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1978).
Station to Station (’78 live edit, from Christiane F., 1981).
Station to Station (live, 1983).
Station to Station (live, 1990).
Station to Station (live, 2004).

1. One of the many lies we tell children is that there’s no limit to the imagination. Of course there is. Even the most consuming and perceptive of minds reaches its borders and retreats. Expanding the mind is dog’s work, as grueling as it’s often fruitless; few attempt it, fewer succeed in it, and those who do often come out twisted and torn. In 1975, binging on cocaine, living in paranoid isolation and making a rock record, David Bowie succeeded.

Not sleeping for days, unable to turn off his mind, Bowie instead read, book after book: on the occult (Aleister Crowley, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians), on tarot and defensive magic (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense), on the historic/symbolic obsessions of Nazis (Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), on numerology, on the secret history of Christianity, on UFOs, on the Kabbalah, on political conspiracies (it’s unknown whether Bowie picked up The Illuminatus! Trilogy, first published in 1975, but it sure seems like he did). He supplemented his diet with Krautrock records (especially Neu! and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn) and German Expressionist films.

So by the time he wrote “Station to Station,” mainly in the studio, Bowie’s mind was like a swath of exposed film in a camera whose shutter was stuck open. “Station to Station” inventories his obsessions, makes a mandala of his loose thoughts. The lyric often reads like grandiose gibberish and yet it hits upon the sublime. “Station to Station” seems the culmination of Bowie’s musical life; it’s his masterpiece, for better or worse. Bowie’s previous work seems like preludes to it, his subsequent music lives in its shadow.

2.

Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.

Ian MacDonald.

As a child in Bromley, Bowie had wanted to be an American. This was a fairly common aspiration among his generation, but Bowie took it seriously, as he did most things. The first public mention of David Robert Jones is the Bromley Kentish Times of 11 November 1960 (“Limey Kid Loves Yank Football”), in which the 13-year-old Jones is shown introducing American football into his London suburb, equipped with shoulder pads and a helmet that he received from the US Embassy. A few years later, Bowie and his friend George Underwood would walk around Bromley pretending they were Yanks, so as to better pull girls. And the first Bowie singles were fumbling attempts at code cracking—“Liza Jane,” a noisy ghost of an American Civil War-era ballad; “Take My Tip”’s milkbar beatnik vamp; Bowie’s attempts in “I Pity The Fool,” or “And I Say to Myself” to mimic a black American’s singing voice.

Now, in ’75, Bowie was living in America, feted by Americans, a regular guest star on American TV. He wasn’t just living in America: he was in Hollywood, in the westernmost reaches of an ungovernable, adolescent country. To get there, he had left behind seemingly everyone who had helped to form him—his wife, his child, his half-brother Terry, his mother, his old manager Ken Pitt, the mime Lindsay Kemp. His old fellow players: Hutch, Bolan, Ronno, Bolder and Woodmansey. To live in America, even as a guest or an observer, was for Bowie something like becoming an original Christian—divesting yourself of everything you own or love. And he was left with himself.

In the opening lines of “Station to Station,” Bowie paints himself as a Prospero in an exile of his own devising. Here am I,” Bowie sang. Tall in my room overlooking the ocean.” As uncanny, as wonderfully weird, as these first incantatory lines of “Station to Station” are, they ultimately suggest a diminished figure, a man reduced to his shadow. Bowie had once sung about exploring space, transcending time, becoming a rock god: now he’s confined to a room, casting spells that flash back on himself, pacing in his circle.

3.

Oh, Mother Goose,
she’s on the skids.
Shoe ain’t happy,
neither are the kids.

Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”

For much of this time, Bowie was living as a guest in a mansion in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood. The stories of his confinement have piled up over the years, rumors and half-lies and intricate fictions. They make the fleshy center of most Bowie biographies, of course, because it’s the juicy stuff: Bowie was convinced someone was trying to kill him and kept a loaded gun in the house. Bowie saw UFOs daily, often at sunset. A groupie recalled him tracing swastikas on windows. He lit candles, drew pentagrams on the floors. He thought he was being tailed by the CIA, who sent undercover agents into his home in the guise of aspiring scriptwriters. Bowie stored his piss in jars in his refrigerator. He was convinced the Rolling Stones were talking to him via their LP covers. Bowie believed he was in a secret duel with Jimmy Page to become head warlock and chief Aleister Crowley acolyte. He thought he would be named Prime Minister of the UK after some transition to neo-Fascism.

Most of these tales weren’t true, but they could have been. Bowie was living in a fetid pool of rumors, echoes, junkie laments; he was holding court in a circle of vampires. Having staked his lot with the future, Bowie instead wound up shackled by the past, lost in the old heresies, the moonlit religions, tales from the plague years. The Sixties had churned much of this stuff up: it had risen to the surface in the wake of the failed revolutions, had been reborn in airport paperbacks, radio call-in programs, newspaper astrology columns.

So “Station to Station” is filled with the wrack of a dozen religions and cults. Flashing no color—the Golden Dawn Tattva, a meditational system. Does my face show some kind of glowKirlian photography, with which Bowie was enamored, photographing his fingertips before and after using cocaine. The European canon—a play on the Pāli Canon, a set of Theravadan Buddhist scriptures. The stations to stations themselves, both of the Cross and, perhaps, of the train trip Bowie had made across the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1973. Making sure white stains—an Aleister Crowley poem (who also, according to legend, once threw a dart at a pair of lovers). Drink to the men who protect you and I—fascist icons, or the seven world-bringing Archons of the Gnostics, or Buddhist lamas (Bowie reportedly telephoned his old mentor, Chimi Rinpoche (“Silly Boy Blue”) and begged him to come to Los Angeles to rescue him). And the reference to the 10 sephirot of the Kabbalistic tree of life, with Bowie falling from kether, the godhead, to malkuth, the material world, the sphere at the greatest remove from God.*

As such,”Station” is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier “Quicksand,” another inventory of obsessions, another dalliance with Crowley and Nazi imagery. Yet the singer of “Quicksand” seems harrowed, terrified of going mad: the man singing “Station to Station” already is, or welcomes it.

4.

Like over here, it’s bright young Americans, you know, the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo. In England it’s a dirge—the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying.

Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.

The return of the Thin White Duke. Bowie’s agent of liberation from America was a wastrel aristocrat, some collateral descendant of minor royalty, roaming from city to city, leaving behind a string of rent boys and unpaid hotel bills. (A “thin white duke” could also be read as a line of cocaine, but really, about every line in the song could double as a coke metaphor.)

The visual inspiration for Bowie’s Thin White Duke character—emaciated, ghoulish, dapper—seems partly to have been Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret. Most of all, though, the Duke seems like a disco-era Edward VIII, who Bowie mildly resembled. Like Bowie’s Duke, Edward VIII (who became a Duke after his abdication) had an air of shabby gentility, impeccable manners masking an amoral heart, and had the taint of Nazism—here the former king is reviewing SS troopers on a pleasant visit to Germany in 1937.

So Bowie spent some of America’s bicentennial year touring around the country in the guise of some rotten offspring of Junkers and counts, a walking revenge from the Old World. Even if Bowie had intended to curse or mock his adopted country, it hardly mattered, because the music he was performing was so compelling, so merciless in its precision and power. He opened nearly every show with “Station to Station,” making his audiences witnesses to a nightly communal exorcism.

Of course Bowie, like his old costume Ziggy, soon took it too far. When he returned to England in the summer of 1976, he gave interviews intimating that a great fascist power was coming soon to the UK, which he approved of, and called Hitler the first rock star. Rumors spread of Bowie giving a Nazi salute upon his arrival in Victoria Station (unconvincing video here), and biographers later dug up Bowie’s mother’s flirtation with the British Union of Fascists in the ’30s as evidence of original sin.

Bowie was tasting what was already in the air in Europe, a resurgence of interest in fascism and Nazism. The compromises and shames of the war, the allure of fascist imagery (often mixed with sadism), as seen in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, or Cavani’s The Night Porter, or Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, which treated Vichy collaborators with a measure of sympathy, culminating in Pasolini’s repellent fascist nightmare Salò, premiered at the same time Bowie was cutting Station. A year later, some British punks would be wearing swastikas on their clothing as a ready-made outrage.

Still, Bowie’s acts proved too outrageous even for the times (the Rock Against Racism coalition would cite Bowie as a main offender), and he spent the next few decades publicly repenting. Far from having escaped from delusions and bad magic in Los Angeles, Bowie had turned out to be an infected host, bringing his cocaine-fueled necromancy back to Europe.

5.

Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

What was at the root of it all? As MacDonald suggested, since the mid-’60s, Bowie had been moving towards some form of Gnosticism—a belief that we were born elsewhere, in a higher realm, and have fallen into this world, conquered by what a nameless Gnostic prophet termed “love and sleep,” with only a self-elected few aware of the true nature of things. Gnosticism lies behind Bowie’s early Tibetan songs (“Karma Man,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”), his generational changing-of-the-guard songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the Teutonic cod-myths of “The Supermen,” and culminates in the dream journals “Quicksand” and its monolithic successor “Station to Station.”

Yet “Station” is also the end. The iciness of Bowie’s singing in its early sections, the sense of confinement and the joy of an eventual escape, with release only coming from renouncing magic and getting out of town, suggests that the promises of Gnosticism—the belief that somewhere in us is a fragment of the original, true God, that the material world is a prison without a lock—wound up not being enough for Bowie. He had unlocked doors that led to further doors, he translated symbols into further symbols, and he came out of it all as lost as he began. What if there was nothing, after all? What if all there was was the world, its sordid histories, its empty words?

All that remained certain was work. However outlandish his imagination grew, however much he punished his body, Bowie still was able, night after night, to slavishly craft his music. “Station to Station,” a transcription of a man shaking off madness, is also a near-perfect studio recording. Most crack-ups happen off screen, with unusable studio tapes or half-finished manuscripts their only evidence, but Bowie’s was mixed as brightly as an ELO record.

6.

Like a child, playing with sound.

Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.

“Station to Station” opens with a minute of train noises, a juddering and whistling that wends from right to left speaker: Bowie’s tribute to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, which started with a car engine revving to life. It’s an ironic tribute. Bowie’s response to a West German car on the sparkling Autobahn, driving through the Ruhr valley in purring bliss, is the ominous iron sound of the locomotive, which, not so far off in the European past, had meant troop movements and mass deportations. The train intro, later reproduced on stage with synthesizers, was taken from a sound-effects LP, with producer Harry Maslin and Bowie first equalizing the recording, then doctoring it with phasing methods.

As the train fades into the distance, a single note on Earl Slick’s guitar bleeds into feedback. A rhythm assembles in arithmetic: four quiet beats, a metronomic two-note piano pattern (which, eventually bolstered by guitar tracks, underlies much of the opening section), a trio of notes repeated on bass. Carlos Alomar offers minimalist arpeggios, a ghostly organ plays chords, and then, with four kicks of Dennis Davis’ bass drum, the song lurches to life.

Alomar, as he had with most of Station to Station, served as Bowie’s creative interpreter, especially in the opening section, layering in guitars once the rhythm tracks were completed. Earl Slick, called on to provide the guitar feedback that hangs like a metallic cloud over much of the opening, struggled at first. Slick “was trying to hold this note for about two minutes for that opening section,” Alomar later told David Buckley, and kept being defeated by the limits of sound, unable to sustain guitar notes for that long. The solution was, as Alomar recalled, “Plug in another amplifier! Just keep the chain of amplifiers going until the sound just keeps going.” So Slick and Bowie eventually played via a “row of amps chained together,” six in all, each amp with a different effect, with a single microphone to capture the din. For the final mix, Maslin took some of Bowie and Slick’s guitar tracks and merged them together, along with additional Alomar overdubs.

Set in cut time in A minor, the opening section is built on a five-bar repeat (the band, like Bowie, going in a circle): three bars of A minor, centered on the two-note pattern originally played on piano, then a roller-coaster ride over two bars (F to G), capped off each time with an octave leap-and-drop in the bass. A six-bar “thin white duke” section opens and closes the sequence, but otherwise, the entire section is nothing but the repeated five-bar pattern, with Bowie’s vocal sometimes flowing against the song structure (so for instance, “dreams are/wo-ven” bridges over the end of one pattern repeat and the start of the next). Bowie’s vocal is precise down to its basic elements, with Bowie ending verses either harshly (a dental fricative like “mal-kuth“) or with a caress (‘wo-ven, “Ohh-cean”), and often acting out his lines (singing “bending sound” with an extended half note and a fall over four tones).

7.

Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?

After Bowie quietly sings “white stains” and Alomar’s guitar dances for three more bars, the world opens up. A key change and a slamming shift to 4/4 begins the middle section, essentially a 21-bar bridge. In MacDonald’s words, there’s a “drunken grandiloquence” to this part of the song, an audible sense of escape from the bad mojo of Los Angeles. With a romping piano line (the two-note water torture finally over) and Bowie’s soaring, waltzing vocal, almost entirely consisting of triplets (“once-there-were moun-tains-on /mount-ains-and once-there-were/sun-birds-to soar-with-and…”)

After two-bar break (drum fills, a spray of piano notes, a tongue-twister (‘wonder-who-wonder who-wonder when“)), comes the peak of the section and the song, Bowie offering a question, a toast, and a command, each of his lines followed by a rapid chord progression over six beats, from station to station, C/D/E/A/E/F#m, leading to the G chord that starts the next phrase. At the end of this, there’s a seamless move (only a bar of 5/4 lets on that another change is coming) to the final section, which opens with Bowie’s best lines in the song, if not his life:

8.

It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine!
I’m thinking that it must be love.

On stage, Bowie typically hurled out these lines—as a joke, a defiance, a happy mockery of romance. But the way Bowie originally sings them on the record is the first human moment of the song. His voice hiccups on “cocaine” and it croaks out “love,” as if he’s so unaware of the latter that he can’t conceive of how to properly say the word.

And the more resigned the lyric grows—it’s too late for hate, for hope, for anything, really—the more elated the music becomes. Roy Bittan’s piano dances, Dennis Davis and George Murray slam down the foundation, Slick and Alomar drag race. Bowie gets caught up in it—rushing through his lines, savoring the repetitive locomotive sounds of “the European canon is here.” The song ends in a long vamp, a romp; it’s a retreat by a deliriously happy army.

9.

This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.

David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY, 23 March 1976. Rather than with train noises, this version opens with a four-minute-plus Stacy Heydon guitar fusillade, part “Flight of the Bumblebee,” part surf music, part heavy metal, finally brought to a close by the Duke’s belated appearance. The band, mainly the same unit that cut the studio version, aims here for pure power, all subjugation and spectacle. Bowie already delivers the “side effects of the cocaine” line with bravado. The Duke returns in the outro, which becomes the template for every subsequent live version. On the Station to Station reissue.

Tower Theatre, Philadephia, 28-29 May 1978. From a mammoth synth train reproduction to the young Adrian Belew staking his claim as the song’s definitive guitarist to a Bowie vocal that’s all sinew, it’s arguably the song’s finest performance. The band uses the key change as a signal to rocket off: there’s an intense communal joy to this music, and even Bowie gets carried away by it. This is the recording used in the 1981 German film Christiane F., as mimed by Bowie’s then-current band (with G.E. Smith on lead guitar). In the film, the audience seems mainly comprised of kids coming off bad highs; the enigmatic junkie Christiane makes her way to the stage and stares at Bowie as if she’s far older than he is. Later on Stage.

Pacific National Exhibition Colosseum, Vancouver, 11-12 September 1983. By this point, the Thin White Duke, drained of menace, had been incorporated into the menagerie of official Bowie personae, which in the ’80s were a sort of Super Friends contingent Bowie would bring out when given musical cues. This is the least essential version of “Station” by a long shot, with twinkling keyboard fills, a superfluous brass section, a solo by a guitarist who seems an amalgamation of Born In the USA Springsteen and a ’70s Keith Richards with routine medical check-ups, and a Bowie vocal that, while still sturdy, veers into Anthony Newley-isms on certain lines. Later on Serious Moonlight.

Tokyo Dome, 19 May 1990. For the greatest-hits tour, it’s Belew again, now with a decade of prog rock under his belt, so what were once habits are now vices. Somewhat akin to the ’76 version, with an emphasis on brute force. Bowie comes in on rhythm guitar towards the end.

Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY, 4 June 2004. Bowie’s second-to-last (to date) American concert, with Earl Slick back on lead guitar after nearly three decades and the excellent Gail Ann Dorsey enveloping Bowie’s vocals. Though it’s possibly one of the last times Bowie will ever perform “Station,” it’s a youthful-sounding, muscular performance, with no claims made and no debts collected.

10. Sephirah Kether. The Crown, The Summit, 1.

The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.

William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).

In February 1976, taking a break from his ongoing tour, Bowie went back to Los Angeles, packed up everything he owned, and shipped it to Switzerland. He was going to live there, partly on advice from his accountants, who wanted him to go into tax exile, and partly because he wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles as humanly possible. On 28 March, he left New York via ocean liner, heading for Italy. He was casting his lot with Europe, burrowing back into history, going back to the weary Old World, rededicating himself to the European canon—he was done with being an American. Of course Bowie would return to the US again, and he’s lived in New York for over a decade now. But whenever he returned it would be on his own terms.

John Lennon had proclaimed the ’60s dream over in 1970, but Bowie had, in his odd way, remained a believer for far longer. Tom Carson wrote, some 20 years ago: That is, [Bowie] took it for granted that the music would always be consequential and associated with radical impulses towards change. Even his most revisionist Seventies work depended for its point and urgency on having those Sixties assumptions constant in the background. It’s hardly unprecedented…for a figure originally perceived as breaking with tradition to be understood in the long run as that tradition’s last upholder—which, in relation to Sixties utopianism, was just what Bowie was.

There’s a real pain, a sense of a grand disillusion, underlying much of “Station to Station,” an abdication in a song, an imaginative disarmament. Retreating to Europe and a hoped-for anonymity, Bowie would spend the next few years breaking apart his music while trying to piece together himself again. He would go on to make some of his finest records, certainly some of his most popular. But “Station to Station” is the terminus, if not of some utopian or Gnostic dream, perhaps at least a belief that such dreams were viable. If you were to draft a map of Bowie’s complete works, “Station to Station,” plotted somewhere near the margins, would be marked: here he went no further.

Recorded October-November 1975.

Ian MacDonald’s 1999 article, “White Lines, Black Magic” originally published in Uncut, is one of the finest pieces written about Bowie in this era, and this essay is in hock to it. Available in the collection The People’s Music. Other sources: Marc Spitz’s Bowie (Spitz uncovered the “Yank Football” article), Hugo Wilcken’s Low, Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” in the March 1976 Circus, David Buckley’s Strange Facscination and liner notes to the reisssued StoS, Tom Carson’s essay on Bowie in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992 edition).

Top to bottom: Bowie in New Mexico, summer 1975 (Geoff MacCormack); the infamous return to Victoria Station, May 1976; Bowie in Cherokee Studios, fall 1975; Bowie drawing the tree of life (first used as back cover of the Ryko StoS reissue) ca. late 1975; newspaper ad for the Isolar tour, 1976. Otherwise, stills from Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, filmed summer 1975, released 1976.

* At the time of its release, I doubt few knew what Bowie was singing about here, though he always accompanied the line on stage with a hand movement sliding from “top” to “bottom.” Robert Matthew-Walker, apparently lacking a lyric sheet, thought Bowie had just made up the words “kettner” and “malkuth.” I originally heard “Melkur,” which is a Doctor Who monster.


Knock On Wood

September 29, 2010

Knock on Wood (Eddie Floyd, 1966).
Knock On Wood (Bowie, David Live, 1974).
Knock on Wood (Bowie, live, 1974).

[America] filled a vast expanse of my imagination; I was always pretty imaginative. Imagination can dry up in wherever, living in England, often—if there’s nothing to keep it going. It just supplied a need in me, America, became a myth-land for me. I think every kid goes through it, eventually. I just got onto it earlier.

David Bowie, Cracked Actor, 1974.

In the opening minutes of Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor, a BBC documentary of David Bowie in the US in mid-1974, Bowie is shot sitting in the back of a limousine driving through the California desert. It’s a bit like Nosferatu touring Death Valley. Throughout the performance, as it’s very much a performance, Bowie keeps picking up on the song playing in the car, Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” wanly delighting in its call-and-response vocals: he seems to be craving the song, using it as a means to keep himself in focus. So begins Bowie’s soul era.

Bowie’s move into soul/R&B in 1974 could be seen as a calculated, even slightly exploitative move: Bowie giving his secretary a list of contemporary R&B records to purchase as research, Bowie going to Sigma Sound to have the Philadelphia International house musicians craft a soul album for him. Yet this ignores Bowie’s long-documented love of soul and jazz, and that he had started out making records as a Mod soul singer, covering Bobby “Blue” Bland (“I Pity The Fool”) and writing Sam Cooke tributes (“And I Say to Myself”); even at the height of the Ziggy Stardust era he had covered James Brown songs on stage.

So the soul-inspired ’74 Philly Dogs tour, and the subsequent Young Americans record, can seem like a return to first things for Bowie, a further step back after his psychedelic/Mod tribute Pin Ups. Of course this wasn’t quite the case, either. Bowie would use soul as a way to get out of an aesthetic dead-end, as a way to finally get an American hit record. He treated the music with respect but also without much reverence, using soul as a means, making his own twisted version of it. As it turned out, this made him a trenchant interpreter of contemporary black music (it’s no surprise that Bowie was one of the first white artists to play Soul Train).

Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour began in June 1974 in Canada and in mid-July the tour was in residence at Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre, with the five Philly shows taped for a prospective live record. Until Philadelphia, the shows had consisted of revamped hits like “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and the new Diamond Dogs material, but now Bowie put Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” in the middle of the set list.

“Knock on Wood” seemed at first intended to be a breather for Bowie’s band and his audience, as it brightened the mood after the dark extravagance of the “Sweet Thing” suite and, often slated to follow the uptempo “Watch That Man,” built up the show’s momentum. “Knock on Wood” is soul at its most welcoming and democratic, whether in the easy, undemanding vocal (a good fit for Eddie Floyd’s voice, though originally intended for Otis Redding), or the utter basics of its groove (Al Jackson playing ones and threes on the bass drum, twos and fours on the snare) or structure.

It was written by Floyd and Steve Cropper, with Floyd providing the lyric and vocal melody and Cropper the chords/riffs. Cooked up in Memphis one evening in June 1966, “Knock on Wood” was built by committee, as everyone in the studio that night offered something: Isaac Hayes wrote the sprightly horn line for the bridge, while Jackson contributed the “knock-knock-knock-knock” drum hook (Floyd later said Jackson was inspired by “Open the Door Richard”). While initially rejected by Stax owner Jim Stewart, who thought it was too much of an “In the Midnight Hour” knock-off (which, admittedly, it was), “Knock on Wood” topped the US soul charts upon its eventual release, and was a UK hit as well.

Bowie’s performance recorded for David Live is anchored by his new guitarist Earl Slick (whose guitar replaces the horn riffs in the verses) and his now-established rhythm section: Herbie Flowers on bass and drummer Tony Newman. While the trio aren’t quite Booker T and the MGs, they keep a vigorous groove, with Slick on offense while Flowers follows Donald “Duck” Dunn on the Floyd single, providing melodic variations on bass. Letting down the side are Mike Garson, who seems unwilling to commit to the groove, and the stiff horn playing of David Sanborn and Richard Grando (the latter in part because much of the brass was overdubbed in the studio later). Bowie, his voice worn down after a month of nightly concerts, delivers the song credibly, if keeping very close to the record (by contrast, Floyd often riffed and improvised on stage).

Recorded 8-12 July 1974 at the Tower Theatre, Philadelphia. On David Live, and also released as a single in September ’74 (RCA 2466; #10 in the UK) (odd TOTP clip here). Bowie’s relative hit single revived “Knock On Wood,” arguably inspiring a host of further covers, some majestic (the high disco of Amii Stewart‘s 1978 single), some dull (Rachel Stevens).

Top: Steve Schapiro, “Ike and Tina Turner, Los Angeles, 1974.”

Much of “Knock on Wood”‘s history is from Rob Bowman’s fine Soulsville, USA.


Girl Loves Me

September 27, 2017

pic

Girl Loves Me.

The Blackstar sessions of early January 2015 were devoted to revisits (“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”) and to most of Bowie’s Lazarus songs. The next round, in the first week of February, began similarly—a revised “Sue” was first on the agenda. But on the second day of the session, Bowie and Donny McCaslin’s band turned to a bewildering-sounding demo.

Mark Guiliana recalled that the file “had two loops on top of each other, creating a very dense groove, which I couldn’t play all at once.” Where some demos had been taped in the studio with Tony Visconti and a small group, this one was pure Bowie—the work of hours of home tinkering. There were synthesized string parts, some of which McCaslin would score for flute. Then there was the lyric. As Jason Lindner said, “when we first heard the demo, we said, ‘what the hell? What are those words?’”

Cheena so sound so titi up this                  malchick say!
Party up moodge nanti vellocet round on            Tuesday!

The lyrics are wacky but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word,” Tony Visconti said before the album’s release. A charitable belief: it’s more fair to say that those fluent in the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could decipher about three-fourths of “Girl Loves Me”; those conversant in the secret gay language Polari could pick up a few other bits.

A single verse is chanted more than sung—Bowie harping on one note until the end of each phrase, when he moves up first by a third (“this-malchik”) and ultimately an octave, by almost yodeling the last note (“say-ay” “da-aay). The verse lines have a tumbling consonance (“dizzysnatch,” “popo blind to the pol-ly”) and a rhythm of chasing short-held notes (“chee-na”) with slightly longer ones (“so sound”). Momentum builds as Bowie crams in more syllables with each line. “As he was listening back, I could see him experimenting with different words,” McCaslin recalled, which likely explains why Bowie tweaked his Nadsat—“yarbles” (balls) became “garbles,” “spatchka” (sleep) became “spatchko,” and “malchick” (boy) is sung more as “malcheck.”

He’d had secret languages before, on Low: the trans-European un-language of “Warszawa”; the homonymic blurs of “Some Are” and “Subterraneans.” Then, he was dedicated to melody—the “nonsense” words of “Warszawa” are gorgeous to sing, with a gentle lift. Now he sang “Girl Loves Me” as raw pieces of sound—the words harsh, short, jagged, packed together like bullets.

Varda, omees!

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Of the two dialects in the song, Polari (or Palare) is a spoken tongue, dating back well over a century, a pidgin language with roots in Italian and Shelta, the tongue of Irish and British Travelers. As Ian Hancock wrote, it was “the language of the theater, the circus, show business, and…certain male homosexual communities, especially those with connections to show business and with life at sea.” Nadsat is fictional, devised in the late Fifties by Anthony Burgess, who raided Russian for many of his words, along with Cockney rhyming slang. Both are the tongues of subcultures, of outsiders, of young toughs, of (fictional, likely, inadvertent) criminals. Both connect to Bowie’s youth.

He’d loved Clockwork Orange in the Ziggy Stardust days, with Stanley Kubrick’s film a sartorial guide for the Spiders From Mars, and Nadsat heard in “Suffragette City” (“say droogie don’t crash here!”). “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”

He’d picked up Polari from the mid-Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne and its Polari-fluent camp pair “Julian and Sandy.” And more directly, from being a young, beautiful man at the hub of Sixties British gay life—the London-based theater and music scenes—and the intimate of gay men like the mime Lindsay Kemp and the composer Lionel Bart. “David uses words like “varda” and “super” quite a lot. He’s gay, he says,” as Michael Watts wrote in the 1972 Melody Maker “Bowie comes out” piece. Nicholas Pegg does a typically thorough job of noting various bits of Polari in Bowie lyrics of the period, from “traders” (“Bewlay Brothers”) to “trolling” (“Looking For a Friend”).

“Translated” (my attempt here), “Girl Loves Me” mixes droogs and drag queens, police and cheenas. Tacky things drive the gang wild; party now because we’ll be out of drugs tomorrow. Set up the old men and take their cash; screw in the street, sleep it off in jail. It’s the balls-out, perhaps literally, sequel to “Dirty Boys.”

Where did it come from? Bowie’s late-in-life fandom for shows like Peaky Blinders, full of sharp young Birmingham toughs rumbling in the streets, maybe. A few books, as usual (see below). An older man with an unpromising diagnosis, who wakes one morning to wonder where the time has gone. Or, more succinctly: Where the FUCK did Monday go?

Sloosh to Polezny Mr. Murphy

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“We will have a new ‘body’ in the studio as of Tuesday,” Bowie reportedly told his group. “He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.”

James Murphy had struck up a friendship with Bowie around 2013. Having retired LCD Soundsystem (temporarily), he was producing Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, on which Bowie cut a guest vocal. Introduced in the studio, Murphy opened with “you know I’m an enormous fan of your work, because I steal from you liberally,” to which Bowie lobbed back, “you can’t steal from a thief, darling.” Upon Bowie’s return to making music, Murphy was often talked up as a future producer. It seemed apt. Murphy was a dance-rock classicist who lived in awe of Bowie’s late Seventies albums, forever trekking back to them, then building shrines to them.

He was too much in the sun, it turned out. In recent interviews, Murphy said he’d been slated as a co-producer on Blackstar but had backed out, feeling “overwhelmed” by the idea. “It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me,” he told Radio One this summer.

Instead Murphy envisioned himself as being the Brian Eno of the sessions, to the point of bringing in an EMS Synthi AKS, Eno’s weapon of choice in the Seventies. But he lacked the nerve to go the full Eno—he wouldn’t be directing ace musicians to play random chords at arbitrary cues, or erasing a half-finished track that wasn’t working. He kept to the sidelines, filtering guitars and keyboards through the “briefcase” EMS, including some of Lindner’s keyboard and synth lines on “Girl Loves Me” (see the burbling percussive line mixed left through much of the track). Murphy “was just in there hanging out,” Lindner recalled. “They weren’t clear on his role.”

That said, the final shape of “Girl Loves Me” apparently owes a good deal to him. “James took ‘Girl Loves Me’ to his home studio and did this whole other thing with it,” McCaslin said. “Mark and Jason heard snippets of it when they were over there working. Mark was saying it was really different from how he recorded it.”

Despite Murphy’s textures, the track is one of the more spare productions on the album, its minimal harmonic structure (shifts between two chords for all but the bridge) borne for long stretches by low-mixed keyboard or synthesized strings. The driving wheel is Guiliana’s drum ‘n’ bass-inspired snare and kick figures, with rapid bursts of notes on his cymbals. “I tried to capture the feeling of the halftime backbeat with the undercurrent of the busier 16th-note details,” he said. “The ghost notes in the groove are heard through the close mic on the snare, but the backbeat is being captured through David’s vocal mic. There was lots of bleed since we were all in the same room, which often led to very interesting sonic results. This, like many of the other songs, is a full drum take.”

Tim Lefebvre doubled his twisting, harmonically free bassline (as Lindner noted of his friend’s performance, “the bass note is not representative of the key or the root—it’s really coloristic” ) on guitar, borrowing Bowie’s instrument along with his “little multi-effects pedal…it was a cheap little thing but it sounded great.” McCaslin worked in the backline, tracking alto flute and C flutes for a gorgeous interlude in which the song breaks character for some twenty seconds to let in the sunlight. Then it’s nightfall again.

The center of it all is Bowie’s vocal, tracked to become an echoing patrol in the verse, cheering himself in the refrains (the wonderful GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! that starts at 1:26); doubled over an octave for the bridge; murmuring conspiratorial sleazy “heey cheena”s under high, wavering “girl…loves…mes,” reminiscent of his vocals on “No One Calls.”

Fantabulosa Prestoopniks

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The brilliance of that writing,” Lefebvre recalled. “How it’s all dark gibberish and then it turns into this beautiful melody. The chords are very interesting—aggressive but at the same time very languid and soft.”

There was a disgraced ancestor, as often with Bowie. Did he recall something he’d written decades before about dealers, druggies, and hustlers, whose semi-spoken nasally-intoned verses spooled into great, bounding refrains? In “Girl Loves Me,” the oft-maligned “Shining Star (Making My Love)” lives again. All that’s missing is the Mickey Rourke rap.

Why write the song as dark gibberish anyway? For a laugh, in part; for the joy of doing it. As Hancock wrote about Polari, its function wasn’t to be a separate tongue “but rather a pool of secret words sufficient to make cryptic any utterance that needs to be kept from outsiders” (essential for a time when homosexuality was illegal) and “a factor of social cohesion for those who need it.” Polari was an outsider’s inside language. And Burgess wrote his novel in Nadsat because he wanted to wall off his youth subculture from merciless time. It worked. Alex and his fellow droogs remain in the present today, and still suggest a brutal future, where they would have been defanged had they been saying “daddy-o” and “groovy.”

The refrain of “Girl Loves Me” stands outside of its own song: Where the FUCK did Monday go? cracks it open. Bowie’s line about sitting in the chestnut tree bred all sorts of speculations. Is it the Chestnut Tree Cafe of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and so suggesting betrayal? (Bowie could never shake free of that book; it was to him what his Berlin albums are to Murphy.) Or, in an inspired suggestion by Yanko Tsvetkov, is it a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude? In the latter, the patriarch José Arcadio Buendía is visited by the ghost of a man he’d killed years before. They chat for so long that time stops for him—José Arcadio has gone mad, trapped in a perpetual Monday, while for the rest of his family the week proceeds as usual. Raging, he starts to destroy his house: “Ten men were needed to get him down, fourteen to tie him up, twenty to drag him to the chestnut tree in the courtyard, where they left him tied up, barking in the strange language and giving off a green froth at the mouth.”

Barking in the strange language. Words from futures that never were, from bubble-cultures lost to time, jumbled and mangled and chewed up, made into a cipher of lust and spite, called out with malicious glee. But you can go lost when you go back too far to find the sources. Stay in the present—keep in the sound. “Girl Loves Me” should be done after two and a half minutes but it hangs on for longer, unwilling to stop. The defiant joy of the refrains; the pleasure Bowie takes in yelling FUCK! at the world. He’s in his tree (even if he’s been stuffed in it, left to rot), piling up what he can. All the lost dirty boys and dirty old men, the traders and droogs and crooked cops. Sex, money, pills, schemes—the great roil and filth of life, another tide sweeping out. Who the fuck’s going to mess with him? Nobody.

Bona nochy!

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 February 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, treatments) ca. March-April 2015, Murphy’s home studio; (vocals) 16 April, 17 May 2015, Human Worldwide.

First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources, thanks: “Crayon to Crayon” for the “No One Calls” tip; Ian Hancock’s “Shelta and Polari,” from Language in the British Isles, and Paul Baker’s Polari: the Secret Language of Gay Men (Polari’s spoken in a scene in Velvet Goldmine, and, of course, in Morrissey’s “Piccadilly Palare” (“so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah“). Musician quotes: Uncut, Modern Drummer, Pedals and Effects, Mojo.

Photos, top to bottom: Wayne S. Grazio, “Sharing a Text Message”; Henrik Johansson, “Snapple”; Oleg Dulin, “Buried in Their Smartphones”; Paolo Briauca, “Couple In the Park.” All taken 2015.

 


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

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Lazarus (Michael C. Hall, Lazarus stage performance, 2015).
Lazarus (Hall, The Late Show, 2015).
Lazarus (Bowie).
Lazarus (Bowie, video edit).
Lazarus (Hall, Lazarus soundtrack).
Lazarus (Hall, live, 2016).
Lazarus (Donny McCaslin Quartet, live, 2016).
Lazarus (Gail Ann Dorsey and McCaslin, live, 2017).

Stage

Walking into a performance of Lazarus at the New York Theater Workshop in December 2015, the first thing you noticed was a man lying on his back on stage. You might have recognized the play’s lead actor, Michael C. Hall; if not, you might have thought it was someone playing a corpse, one whose presence would spark the drama once other characters shuffled in.

It felt a bit like being at a wake, those fifteen minutes before the lights dimmed. Hall didn’t move, barely seemed to breathe; people taking their seats spoke in hushed tones. (At a post-Christmas performance that I attended, my friend Rahawa and I sat directly behind Duncan Jones. Something had come full circle: not sure what.)

Lights dim. The alien Thomas Jerome Newton grudgingly resurrects. He stretches, stands up, walks over to his bed. An old friend appears, asks him “don’t you remember the person you were? Your life outside?” “That was before,” Newton replies. “There’s nothing left of the past. It left. This is it now.”

Behind a glass wall upstage is a band, who have been onlookers: a smaller audience to mirror the larger in the seats. Now, a keyboard line, a call to attention on snare, guitar and saxophone riffs. Newton starts to sing:

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

When he was 21, he drafted Ernie Johnson, a rock opera about a man throwing a suicide party. In 1971, he envisioned Ziggy Stardust as a hipper Jesus Christ Superstar: he’d originate the role, other singers would take it over for road productions. He was “keen on writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” Soon enough, he wanted to make 1984 a musical. He’d play Winston Smith, Marianne Faithfull was considered for Julia, the project was scotched. On it went: countless rumors, nothing produced. Outside was once talked up as a Robert Wilson production in Vienna. Around 1998, Bowie considered reviving Ziggy Stardust in a multi-tiered offering: play, film, website, album.

His itch to move on, to play at something new, was at odds with the time and drudgery needed to write and stage a play. There was always another tour, another album to make. And then there wasn’t.

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Script (1)

Around 2007, Bowie was done with long-term touring, was ambivalent about making new albums. He’d acquired the rights to Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth and was looking for a collaborator to turn the novel into a musical play.

An article by the novelist Michael Cunningham, published in GQ this January, sheds some light on this dim period. Cunningham’s prose style, his caginess about certain details and odd specificity about others, makes the piece read like a man recounting a long, bizarre dream, which is perhaps what collaboration with Bowie was like. (And there’s always the chance Cunningham made up the whole thing.)

Bowie allegedly contacted Cunningham and the two met for lunch in New York, where Bowie “admitted that he was intrigued by the idea of an alien marooned on Earth,” Cunningham wrote. “He’d never been entirely satisfied with the alien he’d played [in the Nicolas Roeg film adaptation]. He acknowledged that he’d like at least one of the major characters to be an alien.”

What apparently caught Bowie’s eye was Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005), a collection of three novellas set in the past, present, and future, with Walt Whitman as a through-line. The SF story, “Like Beauty,” begins in a New York City full of reptilian refugees from the first inhabited planet contacted by Earth. A female refugee and a male cyborg flee the city, heading west. They meet a group who are planning to leave Earth in a spaceship and take their chances on an unknown planet, but the alien is old and dying, and she can’t escape her exile.

He imagined the musical taking place in the future,” Cunningham wrote. “The plot would revolve around a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died. David himself would write the hitherto-unknown songs.” Also, there should be mariachi music. “He’d be pleased if [it] could be incorporated, mariachi music being under-appreciated outside Mexico.”

Sermon

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For his play, Bowie was toying with the idea of using “Lazarus” in some way. A name with many stories corked within it. Notably, Lazarus is a double in the New Testament. He’s two different men, with no specific relation to each other.

In the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31), Christ tells a parable. Lazarus is a beggar at a rich man’s gate. He desires “to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” Lazarus dies, is carried up to heaven; the rich man dies, goes to hell. He cries out to “Father Abraham,” asking for Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool the rich man’s burning tongue for a moment. Tough luck, Abraham says (imagine him in the voice of Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited”). “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The rich man lowers his hopes. He asks for the resurrected Lazarus to go to his home and convince his family to change their ways. They already have the words of Moses and the prophets, don’t they? Abraham says. If that’s not good enough, well, even a dead man at the door won’t make a difference.

You can see John Calvin nodding in his Geneva study while reading this, his thin lips pursed. The rich man isn’t shown to be particularly cruel, Lazarus doesn’t appear to have been particularly holy. But each holds his position: the rich man prospers on earth, burns in hell; the poor man suffers in this life, sits at the head of the table in the next. There are no crossings between heaven, earth, and hell; there are no last-minute favors to be called in. Lazarus has grace; the rich man does not.

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But in the Gospel of John (11), there’s another Lazarus: Lazarus of Bethany, a friend of Christ. Lazarus is expiring of an illness, and his sisters ask Christ to intervene. But Christ hangs back for two days; when he arrives, Lazarus is dead. Christ is mournful, even seemingly angry. ““Where have ye laid him?” They said unto Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.” He restores Lazarus to life, calls him forth from the tomb.

You can wonder why Lazarus, of all mortals, gets a second chance at life; two millennia of biblical scholars have. Was the resurrection done for political reasons, to shore up the Christians in Bethany? To show that death is not the end, but merely a sleep in which we wake to another life? Was Christ despairing about the cruelty of death and just said, no, not today?

Lazarus has no lines in the gospel. We don’t know how he felt, waking up in a tomb after four days of death, his body stinking, swathed in bandages. He briefly intersects with the divine and then he’s left behind in the story. An exile, a resurrected alien stranded among the living. The man fated to die twice.

Sermon (2)

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There were plenty of Bowie’s usual themes here—exile, doubles, death, resurrection, fate. And legend: the Biblical story echoes in the African-American folk songPoor Lazarus,” an outlaw hunted by a high sheriff and his deputy (“they blowed him down with a great ol’ .44”), and who’s left to die on a commissary table after asking his mother for a glass of water (the Luke parable is overturned—now it’s Lazarus who asks for his thirst to be quenched). But Bowie had another Lazarus on his mind.

David hesitantly said he’d been thinking about popular artists who are not considered great artists, particularly the poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” Cunningham wrote. “What, said David, are we to make of a poet taught in few universities, included in few anthologies, but whose work, nevertheless, is more familiar to more people than that of the most exalted and immortal writers?” (Again, even if the Cunningham story is BS, Emma Lazarus was part of the play’s conception early on—“The New Colossus” is quoted in the script book.)

Emma Lazarus was a lifelong New Yorker (she’s buried in Brooklyn—to my knowledge, she was not resurrected), one of the first major Jewish-American writers. She wrote poems, polemics, translations, novels; she knew Browning and William Morris. And today she’s remembered for a few lines from one sonnet that she wrote for the Statue of Liberty (to be fair, I doubt many today could recall as many lines from Browning or Morris), a poem that her New York Times obituary didn’t mention.

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Perhaps another New Yorker, after a health scare or two, was wondering how his work would last. Would he also be reduced to a handful of lines? “Ground control to Major Tom.” “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” “Ziggy played guitar.” And yet those lines would still be alive—kids would hum them, ad campaigns would keep churning them up. Fragments of Bowie would still be around in 2117, where the complete oeuvre of John Ashbery could be forgotten.

Emma Lazarus would be central to Bowie’s play—a character who falls in love with Thomas Newton, “this most travelled of immigrants” (Enda Walsh), believes that she’s Emma reincarnated. (This character eventually became Newton’s assistant Elly, played by Cristin Milioti in the original run of Lazarus, who sang “Changes” in the spirit of Dorothy Parker.)

Songs

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Cunningham allegedly would suggest plot points or characters and Bowie would respond with “brief passages of music on a piano or synthesizer.” These pieces “had what I can only call a dark buzz of underlayer. They had urgency.” At one point, Cunningham devised a big climactic moment: the alien reveals his true self to his human lover. “I read that passage to David over the phone. The next day he phoned me back and played me a few minutes of music he’d composed for the scene. It was, unmistakably, a fucked-up, slightly dissonant love ballad.” (Bowie also apparently didn’t remind Cunningham that such a scene was central to Roeg’s film; another possible sign this memoir isn’t what it seems.) Halfway through a first draft, Bowie’s heart trouble returned and he needed immediate surgery, Cunningham wrote. “Our musical was put on hold. We never revived it.”

Bowie’s attention was returning to music. By 2010, he’d written many of the songs that would appear on The Next Day. His usual move would’ve been to devote himself to the album and ditch any idea of doing a play: maybe he’d bring up his latest lost idea years later. But Bowie wouldn’t let it go this time—he pressed on with developing his play even as he labored to finish The Next Day.

Maybe one morning over coffee Bowie realized doing a musical about lost Bob Dylan songs, extraterrestrials, and mariachi music was ridiculous even by his own standards. (And of course maybe Cunningham made it all up.) Whatever it was, he grew a touch more realistic about his play. To get it staged in New York, he’d have to offer some type of “jukebox musical.” If people are going to see a David Bowie play, sure, let them hear “Changes” or “All the Young Dudes” along with getting a lot of weirdness thrown at them.

An established playwright collaborator seemed preferable: two absolute beginners at musicals was too many. In the summer of 2013, Bowie asked his producer Robert Fox for suggestions—who’s a great young playwright? Enda Walsh, Fox said.

Script (2)

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Enda Walsh was born in Kilbarrack, a suburb northeast of Dublin, in 1967. Before he turned 30, he’d written Disco Pigs, a play about two teenagers fatally obsessed with each other (the play and its movie version starred Bowie favorite Cillian Murphy).

Reading up on Walsh, Bowie found a voice seemingly born to write his alien-exile play. Describing his Misterman (2011; another Murphy performance), Walsh told the Guardian: “I wanted it to be about a man and a building and for the audience to be asking from the off: ‘How did he end up there? What’s he trying to tell us and why?’ He’s looking for some rest, but his guilt is overwhelming and, besides, he’s existing on Fanta and Jammie Dodgers and cheap cheesecake, so there is no rest.” This is Lazarus in a nutshell.

When Walsh first met Bowie in New York, in autumn 2014, he recalled entering “a secret lift [and] arriving in a completely grey corridor, with this huge ridiculous fucking door at the end of it.” The door (Walsh later told Bowie, “that’s a really stupid door”) led to a gallery, where he found Bowie. Embracing Walsh, Bowie said “you’ve been in my head for three weeks.” True to form, he’d read every Walsh play, and started the conversation by asking about Walsh’s work. “I was just thinking, ‘this is easy,’ because I was talking about myself,” Walsh recalled.

Then Bowie slid four pages’ worth of ideas across the table, and that was the start of it. The two would collaborate for over 18 months, often by Skype: Bowie in New York, Walsh in London.

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He had it mapped out for me,” Walsh recalled. There was Thomas Jerome Newton; his savior, a dead girl; a woman (“Ellie Lazarus”) “who over this short period has a mental breakdown;” and the psychotic murderer Valentine, “who just wants to kill fucking love!” There wouldn’t be a straight narrative as much as a series of events refracted through Newton’s distorted mind: the perspective of a man who can’t leave earth and who can’t die.

Walsh described their writing process as “like making a weather report…I said to him, “Jesus, all we’re doing is constructing weather—it’s all atmospheres and rhythms clashing together.” The bizarre grocery list of earlier versions was gone. Now the play was becoming an ominous mood-piece centered on Newton’s exile and madness. The aim was to create an hour-and-a-half play that felt like a song. “It’s this dream piece, connecting sort of but not fully,” Walsh said. “We talked a lot about a man who effectively wants to die…can we make a piece that feels like it’s been infused with morphine?”

When Walsh learned Bowie had cancer, he wondered how much Bowie was grappling with mortality during the writing. “What must it be like to be David Bowie? [When you die,] are you truly dead?” When they were writing Newton’s final speech, Walsh thought “can you imagine the last moments of your life…to have that grief and fight with yourself, wanting to live, wanting to continue, but wanting rest. That’s what we ended up making…having a silent conversation with each other without it being, ‘let’s go down and have a pint’…how do you deal with the fact you’re not going to be here in three months’ time?”

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I’m done with this life—so a new universe I’ll dream big up there.

Newton, Lazarus.

Caged in his apartment, Newton begins Lazarus in the same condition as at the end of Roeg’s film: drunk, isolated, bereft, numb, missing his home planet. He’s the hollowed-out center of the play, around whom brighter, livelier personalities circle: the grinning murderer Valentine (Michael Esper), the angelic lost girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), and Newton’s assistant, Elly, who’s a set of walking nerves, scrabbling in and out of her clothes.

It was, among many things, a look into how Bowie’s mind worked: an early scene where Newton is thrown around the stage by a female Japanese samurai while they duet on “It’s No Game” could well be how Bowie envisioned the song in his head in 1980. An opportunity to have new songs performed on stage that Bowie never would play live (“Where Are We Now?” is essentially Hall covering Bowie). After January 2016, another layer of the play was revealed: a dying man saying goodbye to his teenage daughter.

“Visionary crap,” pronounced a man sitting behind me at the end of a preview performance.

Studio

lazbass1At first Bowie considered only using his catalog songs for the revised play, but his producer Fox suggested that he write a few new ones.

It’s unclear when Bowie started what became the play’s title and opening song. By 2014, he had a sketch known as “Bluebird,” which he proposed developing with Maria Schneider after “Sue.” That same summer, he demoed the song (now called “The Hunger”) in the studio with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford, and the pianist Jack Spann. Renamed “Lazarus,” it would be one of the first tracks recorded in the first Blackstar session in January 2015.

“Lazarus” moves at morphine-drip tempo (it takes a minute to get through 16 bars—there are reservoirs of space between each hit of Mark Guiliana’s snare drum), and it’s harmonically bare—the verse dazedly moves from the home chord of A minor (“look up here, I’m in”) out to the VI chord, F major (“heaven”) and slowly back home again. There’s more turbulence in the bridge, which jolts from C major (“I was”) through E-flat major (“looking for your”) to land on D major (“ass”). A possible inspiration, at least for mood and tone, was the Cure’s “The Big Hand” (“it traces back to the Cure and New Order,” bassist Tim Lefebvre said of his opening bassline).

In the verse, the vocal line is confined to a five-note range, mostly keeping to the root notes of chords, with closing phrases dragged across bars (“see-een,” “loo-oose,” “be-low”). Bowie (and Hall) change their phrasing in the bridge: more declamatory phrases that sink a third to expire (“then I used up all-my-money“). They stick with this phrasing when the chords resume the verse’s Am/F pairing, which conveys Newton’s growing frustration at being stuck in limbo, and creates a structural tension—is this still a bridge? is it a new verse? an outro? The song winds down, unresolved; it feels like it’s been expiring for a long time.

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The Lazarus performance, on stage and in its cast recording, is meant for Newton to bring the audience into his state of mind, so Michael Hall quickly gets into the song. The intro is shorter, the bridge is the dramatic peak (complete with backing singers), and the song soon packs off so as to cut to a scene with Elly and her husband.

In the studio, the Donny McCaslin group began by replicating lines from Bowie’s studio demo, with McCaslin playing what were originally Bowie saxophone parts in the verse. But Bowie wanted the song to linger more, to open up, build. “I remember that we played a really nice first take—everyone played very musically, but politely,” Mark Guiliana said. “David said something like, ‘Great, but now let’s really do it.’ He was always pushing us. The version on the record is the next take, where we are all taking a few more chances.”

Compare the Lazarus version’s quick-sweep keyboard intro to the long, brooding opening of the Blackstar take: a chordal bass run by Lefebvre, improvised early in the “Lazarus” session. “The intro didn’t exist on his demo, but after the first take we kept playing, and Tim started playing this beautiful line with the pick, which David liked and thought it would make for a nice intro,” Guiliana said. “He was very much in the moment crafting the music.

For the opening Lefebvre plays a run of eighth notes on his E string, moving up the neck, playing such high notes at first (at the 19th fret) that many have thought it’s a guitar line. It began as an embellishment during the first take’s outro. “I’m a big fan of this band Fink, and their guitar parts are like that, where they move roots around,” he said. “So I did it at the beginning, too, and it became the thing. Anybody that’s heard my playing had heard me do that five billion times…I just improvised the high stuff.”

There was a raw element needed—a clanging, distorted guitar to abrade the verses and outro. Though Ben Monder was on hand for guitar overdubs later in the Blackstar sessions, Bowie played these lines. As Nicholas Pegg discovered, Bowie used the Fender Stratocaster that Marc Bolan had given him in 1977, weeks before Bolan’s death. The power chords—three sliding stops down the neck—at first stand alone, tearing through the opening verse; the scars that can’t be seen but heard well enough. Later they close ranks with McCaslin’s saxophone.

Stage (2)

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Bowie’s “Lazarus” builds as it closes, with McCaslin’s roaring saxophone (at times colored with overdubs McCaslin recorded months later) urged on by Guiliana’s drums and Lefebvre’s rolling bassline. But compared to some of his wilder moments on Blackstar, McCaslin seems controlled, precise, slightly held in check.

Then a show in London, in November 2016. McCaslin starts by announcing “Lazarus” with its three-chord banner, plays the verse melody somberly, then in a higher register. By the bridge, he slowly lifts into the song, begins boring and twisting through it while Guiliana detonates around him. Five minutes in, he’s pushing out, whirling in the air, with higher and higher phrases, holding and choking off notes: the song offers endless territories for him to move into.

In February 2017, in New York, he played with Gail Ann Dorsey. She captures the song with her first line—it’s as if Bowie had turned out to have written it for her: the way she sings “I was living like a king” with cold dignity. McCaslin follows, counter-weaves. She finishes singing and sits down on the stage, letting McCaslin take her place in the relay. There’s no warmup—he tears into his solo, running up and down scales, boiling and rolling while Dorsey nods along in time, her eyes closed. It’s a seance where the spirit doesn’t need to talk, where the living happily do the work.

Screen

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I just thought of it as the Biblical tale of Lazarus rising from the bed. In hindsight, he obviously saw it as the tale of a person in his last nights,” said Johan Renck, who directed the “Lazarus” video.

Shot in November 2015, it’s Bowie’s last public image, and it’s easy to view the video as Lefebvre once described it: “the references to his own mortality, the symbolism in the ‘Lazarus’ video, it’s all spelled out. And he went out in a ball of flames.”

“Lazarus” was meant to be distributed—it was as if Bowie was selecting heirs, passing on estates, shifting properties around. So it was Michael C. Hall’s song, too—the song through which Hall introduced Newton on stage. Hall was the one who first played “Lazarus” to an audience beyond the confines of the NY Theater Workshop, singing it on the Late Show in December 2015. It was McCaslin’s song, though it took him time to fully find his way in. It was Dorsey’s song—when she sang it that night at the Cutting Room, it was as if it had been waiting for her all along, and now she’d finally gotten there. There will be more inheritors to come.

But the video is Bowie’s copyright tag—he makes “Lazarus” impossible for the song ever to fully escape his orbit. A jovial not so fast, loves. He plays two roles (beggarman and resurrectee), both seen in Renck’s earlier “Blackstar” video, and the symbolism is clear, isn’t it? “Jones”: the dying mortal, reaching out to heaven, his wasted body being tugged away from his hospital bed. “Bowie”: the impish trickster daemon, still at work, still plotting, wearing his Station to Station jumpsuit, scoffing at how dully serious death is. Jones sings the mournful verses, while Bowie gets the bridge lines, which derails the song’s doom-and-gloom sensibility with some score settling:

Then I used up all my money!
I was looking for your ass!

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So British, the wit, like a guilt thing, making sure it’s not coming across as too serious or pretentious—and yet that enhances the humanity of it,” Renck said. The video even ends with “Bowie” going back into the closet.

But “Button Eyes,” as Bowie and Renck called the terminal character, was as much of a viciously ironic performance. This is “Dying Bowie” for the tabloids to use, with his Late David Lynch hair and wild gesticulations; a man seemingly older than the planet. It’s how a young person may regard someone old—how do they keep at it, the olds, with so much weight and tear on them? It’s his burlesque of Jacques Brel’s “Old Folks,” a song he’d raided as a young man, for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (“you live so far away, when you’ve lived too long”) and “Sons of the Silent Age” (“the old don’t die, they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day”).

It’s a mockery of death, a pantomime, a refusal to take it seriously, for why should we? “Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breath of the universe,” as Walt Whitman wrote (did he ever meet Emma Lazarus? did they pass on the street?) “Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.”

And meantime the grinning trickster Bowie is a slave to work: frantically writing, settling the accounts, trying to keep the balls in the air. New titles, names, chord changes. Another play—maybe 1984 at last! 2. Outside: Infection! Should write Brian. More albums. A small residency with McCaslin somewhere in New York—it’ll start at a comfortable hour, we’ll be in bed by 11. More, always more.

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When he was 26, Bowie had sung a curse on time. Time as an addled bureaucrat, pacing in the wings like a stage manager. A bad playwright. A wanker, a puppet dancer. Time took the insults in stride. He was back now, watching Bowie work at the candle’s end with the rest of us. Time’s sympathetic but really, we should be on by now.

Stage (3)

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At first, the cast and crew of Lazarus didn’t know whether Bowie would make the opening night, on 7 December 2015. His health was still a secret kept among Walsh, director Ivo van Hove, and a few others. But he was there. At the end of the performance, Bowie “went around to everyone in the the theater…he wanted to celebrate the stage managers and the doormen—he thanked everyone,” Walsh said. When Bowie left through the front door, out onto East 4th St., Walsh “knew that was going to be the last time I would see him.”

Michael Cunningham said he was there as well. He’d spied a notice at the NY Theater Workshop for Lazarus. “Realizing that David had gone ahead with another writer was a little like running into a lover from the deep past, on the arm of his new lover, and finding that you ceased to miss him so long ago that you felt nothing but happiness for him,” Cunningham wrote.

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A month or two earlier, Bowie’s at an early run-through performance of Lazarus. The bandleader Henry Hey asks for his thoughts. “Is everything OK? Would you like anything else?”

“Yes,” Bowie says. “I think I’d like a sing.”

A keyboard intro, a call to attention on the snare. David Bowie sings before an audience for the last time in his life. The performance is the memory of a dozen or so actors, a dozen or so musicians; some lighting techs, a stage manager or two.

He closes his accounts with “Lazarus.” A New Yorker at death. Pop poet of the downtrodden. Beggar in heaven, twice-dead man, outlaw. Exiled alien, living on Twinkies and gin. Old Button Eyes.

Look up here, Bowie begins, finding his foothold in the song, the musicians there to back him up. I’m in heaven…

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The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

Recorded: 3 January 2015 (backing tracks), Magic Shop, NYC; 23-24 April, 7 May 2015 (vocals, overdubs), Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: 18 December 2015, digital single (UK #45, US #40). Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus.

Photos/illus: Gustav Dore, Resurrection of Lazarus; MC Hall on stage at the New York Theater Workshop, 2015 (Sara Krulwich, NYT); Tevis, first edition of Man Who Fell to Earth; Woodcut illustration of Luke 16:19-31 by Jacob Locher, used by Silvan Otmar of Augsburg (d. 1540); Resurrection of Lazarus, unknown painter, Athens, 12th-13th C; portrait of Emma Lazarus, unknown painter; Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh, 1996 (Corcadorca Theatre Company); transcription of Tim Lefebvre’s bassline during the saxophone solo on “Lazarus” by Brian Woten; stills and GIFs from the “Lazarus” video (Renck); Bowie at rehearsals (Jan Versweyveld); the cast & creators take a bow, 7 December 2015.

Sources: Cunningham, GQ, January 2017; Walsh, quotes primarily from a conversation filmed at the Dublin Bowie Festival, 10 January 2017, and an interview with the Daily Telegraph (24 October 2016); McCaslin, New Yorker Radio Hour; Guiliana, Modern Drummer; Lefebvre: No Treble, Pedals and Effects; Renck: The Guardian. Also essential resources: Paul Trynka’s piece in Mojo (“Final Curtain,” December 2016) and the latest edition of Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie.

Some lines of this piece originally appeared in a review that I wrote for Slate on 8 December 2015. Thanks to Alex Reed for the Cure suggestion and to Rahawa Haile and Nikola Tamindzic, Lazarus companions.