Andy Warhol

March 2, 2010

Andy Warhol (first performance w/Dana Gillespie, 1971).
Andy Warhol (Hunky Dory).
Andy Warhol (Dana Gillespie, 1971).
David Bowie’s Factory Screen Test (14 September 1971).
Andy Warhol (live, 1972).
Andy Warhol (live, 1996).

What kind of man would paint a Campbell’s soup can? That’s what aggravates people. That’s the premise behind anti-style, and anti-style is the premise behind me.

David Bowie, ca. 1972.

William S. Burroughs: I don’t think that there is any person there. It’s a very alien thing, completely and totally unemotional. [Warhol]’s really a science fiction character. He’s got a strange green color.

Bowie: That’s what struck me. He’s the wrong color, this man is the wrong color to be a human being.

Bowie/Burroughs interview, Rolling Stone, February 1974.

Unlike Bowie’s earlier records, Hunky Dory is sequenced clearly: the first side showcases David Bowie, bright young composer, while the flip is the “tribute” side—the opening Biff Rose cover is followed by back-to-back homages to Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. Then, finally dispelling the past, the record closes with “The Bewlay Brothers,” a song no one but Bowie could have written.

Of the three tributes, “Andy Warhol” is the briefest and oddest, reflecting that unlike Dylan and (especially) Reed, who had been formative influences on Bowie, Warhol was a relatively new interest. Still, it was an intense one: Bowie’s seeming attempts to found a Bromley outpost of Warhol’s Factory was part of his overall fascination with Warhol’s world, as was his hobnobbing in 1971 with the London cast of Pork. Warhol maxims like “if you want to know all about me, just look at the surface of my paintings and films…there’s nothing behind it” fed Bowie’s designs for his own plastic rock & roll star.

In “Andy Warhol”‘s two verses, Bowie uses Warhol as a paper doll, placing him against various backdrops (“Andy walking, Andy tired…send him on a pleasant cruise”), observing his absent reactions, clucking at the tedium of his life (Warhol would’ve agreed that making art is boring). The chorus rewrites Warhol’s statement that he was indistinguishable from his paintings; to hang a Warhol on your wall is the same as (if not superior to) having Warhol over for dinner. The lyric views Warhol as he would view himself: at a distance, without visible emotion, and with a faint sense of amusement.

On the studio recording, Bowie’s detached vocal is met by a harshly-strummed, “dry” acoustic guitar accompaniment by Bowie and Mick Ronson, who plays the sinuous hook that first appears in the intro and returns at the ends of verses. The verses are built around the home key of E minor, moving from Em to A to C and ending strangely on the “leading tone” of D, which also begins the eight-bar chorus.

Furthering the alienation, the Hunky Dory track is presented as a deliberately artificial construct, a brief performance (only two verses and three choruses) framed by a fifty-second intro in which two synthesizer lines play while Bowie checks that his guitar’s in tune, and corrects producer Ken Scott’s pronunciation (“Andy Warhall, take one.” “It’s War-HULL, actually,” Bowie replies. “As in HULLS”), and a nearly minute-long guitar outro that seems intended to disorient a listener’s sense of time (for instance, the seemingly random stomps and handclaps). There are three guitars in the outro: one hits over and over on the chord (Em), another plays two alternating notes on the off-beats and the third (Ronson, I’m assuming) is the same chord shapes transposed over various frets on the guitar (there’s a better tab visual at this site). It ends with Bowie and Ronson applauding themselves.

Bowie had written “Andy Warhol” for the singer Dana Gillespie, who debuted it at Bowie’s 3 June 1971 BBC session (Gillespie’s recording of it, while cut in the summer of 1971, wasn’t released until 1974’s Weren’t Born a Man), and the Hunky Dory version was recorded ca. June-July 1971 (it served as the B-side of “Changes” in 1972, with the intro excised). Bowie played “Warhol” in two subsequent BBC radio sessions, as well as in many of his 1972 shows, then retired it. He later recast the song as a drum & bass-inspired piece in the mid-’90s that sounds more dated than the original. (And then there’s Rachel Stevens’ “Funky Dory.”)

Bowie and Warhol first met in New York in September 1971—Bowie happily let Warhol film and photograph him, then played Warhol an acetate of “Andy Warhol” (which Warhol hated so much allegedly he fled the room). They would meet several times over the following decade but only formally. Warhol died in 1987, and Bowie closed the circle by playing him on screen (wearing one of Warhol’s own wigs) in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat.

Top: Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, 1971.

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The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

July 9, 2015

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The Stars (Are Out Tonight).
The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (video).

At first, it sounds like a comeback single from some lost 1987. Mike Campbell-esque lead guitar; a Traveling Wilburys acoustic shuffle. The huh-huh-HUH-HUH vocal tag goes further back—an Elvis loop or maybe a hook filched from the grotesque UK #1 “Cinderella Rockafella.”

But in 2013 “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” stiffed: peaking at 102 on the UK singles chart, 21 in Billboard‘s US Adult Alternative Songs and in the low 80s in the Irish and Dutch charts. Some of it was simply timing—“Stars” came out seven weeks after “Where Are We Now?,” which had soaked up the “Bowie’s back” hype. Floria Sigismondi’s video for “Stars” (see below) earned a few “think” pieces but evidently didn’t move sales that much.

Had “Stars” come first (Tony Visconti thought it a contender for debut single), would it have made a stronger mark? Most likely, but there’s something off about the track, despite it sounding like one would expect Bowie to sound in 2013. Familiar enough in voice; a lyric with “stars” in the title; the guitars genteelly distorted: enough to stand out in the mix but not causing trouble.

It’s oddly fashioned, for one thing, being hung up on refrains and verses that blur into each other, sung over endless shifts between F# minor and D major chords (hinting at an A major key that never establishes itself). So when a “bridge” section finally appears at 1:30, triggered by a fresh chord change at last (an E major on “their jealousy’s spilling down”), it hits far more like a refrain. Some other diverting moves follow: a “Spanish”-style guitar break after the third verse; the bridge repeated and used to carry the song out.

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What I noticed is that he had a lot of vocal changes but the chords stayed the same for a long time,” Gerry Leonard recalled in 2013. “I thought, if we’re going to be playing this for a long time, it might be good to have development in it…have two or three different parts I could overlay over the same chords…hopefully find a way to be part of the dynamic of the song, kind of sculpt it a little bit.” So for his lead guitar lines, Leonard played with and against the underlying F-sharp minor chords, often sounding high E notes (and so extending the chord to an F#m7),or sounding an open string for tonal contrasts. David Torn added some radio squiggles for lead figures, winking in at the ends of verses.

The track’s compressed mix converts Steve Elson’s baritone saxophone and contrabass clarinet into a secondary bassline, if one played through a blown amp. Lines by a quartet of New York string players (Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi and cellist Anja Wood) sound like Mellotron figures, while backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis are blurred garnishes (by contrast, a struck bell in the guitar break shines out in the mix). The four-note descending hook in the bridges is likely Tony Visconti’s recorder but it could as well be played on a Korg Trinity. Everyone is acting in a costume they didn’t choose.

Bowie’s phrasing mainly keeps to a narrow range of notes, biting on syllables for his consonant rhymes (“stars are never far away,” “Brigitte and Jack” “stars must stick,” “behind their tinted,” “toss and turn at night”). He sounds theatrically aggrieved, like a prosecutor opening a case; on occasion he stumbles (deliberately) through a line—take the odd timing on “we will never be rid of these stars” at 3:08 or the loping way he first sings the full title line.

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One word Bowie used to describe The Next Day to the novelist Rick Moody was “pantheon” (other applicable words: “vampyric” and “succubus, “mystification” and “domination”). As it happened, in the following summer, another pantheon arrived. (Likely heralded in Pantheon Weekly, the tabloid that Bowie picks up in the song’s video).

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine has a simple premise: every 90 years or so, a pantheon of a dozen gods appear on the earth. They captivate, have heaps of sex, are worshiped and die, all within the space of two years. These recurrences are meant to jump-start human creativity (it’s implied that Byron, Keats and the Shelleys were in a Regency-era pantheon).

The gods assume the form of whatever will garner the most worshipers in a particular era. So poets in 1820 and pop stars in 2013: Baal (an amalgam mostly of Kanye West and Jay-Z), Inanna (Prince), Amaterasu (Florence Welch with some Kate Bush), Minerva (some Grimes, some Gerard Way), Sakhmet (Rihanna), Woden (Daft Punk outfit, Rivers Cuomo personality) and so on. The morning star of the series is Lucifer, the Thin White Duke reborn in the body of a 20-year-old suburban woman (with a hint of “Sweet Dreams“-era Annie Lennox).

There’s a sense in Wic + Div that something’s going wrong in this recurrence. (Vague spoilers ahead.) Some gods are killed (apparently) ahead of their time, some fall into a sort of civil war and one of them wonders if this could be the last recurrence, that the human race may have no use for gods anymore. It’s the premise of modern celebrity made gorgeous metaphor: these once-anonymous people are no longer themselves, but become avatars of fame, to be loved, feared, shot at, jailed and hunted down. It’s Amy Winehouse, who starved and drank herself into the cartoon image of her music, and whose last concert before her death of alcohol poisoning found her stumbling on stage, the crowd screaming “sing!” at her. Though theatrically dead, Winehouse is still working, having joined the beautiful corpse company of Marilyn, Cobain, Morrison and Hendrix, her face on T-shirts and dorm room posters, worshiped on countless memorial Tumblrs.

luci

There are echoes in Bowie’s lyric, in which “stars” are figures of mystery and pity, sleepless desperate gods. (He sings a line of tabloid shorthand—Brigitte and Brad are easily enough identified, but Jack and Kate* are generic starnames, fit for 1920 or 2056.) Parasitic deities who need worshipers a bit too much, “they watch us from behind their shades” (a triple play on their sunglasses, the blinds of their mansions and their ghosts).

Once it had seemed easier. Bowie liked Andy Warhol’s concept of a “superstar” as being someone who’d convinced enough other people that they were a star. It was how he and his manager sold the American press in 1972 that an oddball who’d barely hit in his home country was somehow a rock celebrity equal to Jagger or Lennon. The premise eventually wore Bowie down but at least it was open to anyone with the gumption to go for it.

But in “Stars,” there’s a sense that stardom has become yet another type of 21st Century spec work, being on the clock whenever an employer needs you. It’s a job in which even the dead stars still have to put in their hours. Consumed by their workloads, the stars are left “sexless and unaroused” like porn actors off camera; they infest our dreams but envy our sleep.

It’s a stardom suited for a world in which the concept of “youth” seems to be eroding. A piece Tom Ewing wrote this week, inspired by the latest UK budget announcements, broke it down: more and more, the young are condemned to barely-veiled conscription. Take on massive debt to get an education, or live off your parents and be accused of being a parasite, or work without labor protections and even for free, to get all-important “exposure.” “The breaking of youth independence and autonomy, the formalisation of young adulthood for the working and lower-middle classes as a time of indenture or debt feels like turning social trends into social engineering, a return to a long-ago conception of Youth that damn well better know its place.”

This feeling is found in Wic + Div as well—the sense that the gods are being exhausted in this recurrence, that their hustle is becoming desperate, that their employer isn’t happy with their productivity. And that their bright, chaotic lives have become inconsequential in the world. They still have their worshipers and altars made to them, but they’re mostly projecting outward, getting little back from the crowd.

iselin_steiro_db_stars_shoot_600sq

Sigismondi’s video for “Stars” played another variation. Apparently inspired by Sophie Miller’s video for the Eurythmics’ “Beethoven,” it dresses Bowie and Tilda Swinton as an older, well-off suburban couple who are stalked, and eventually consumed, by their vampyric counterparts: a beautiful young celebrity couple.

There are mirrors within mirrors, like the use of Swinton, Bowie’s unearthlier counterpart for decades, and the Norwegian model Iselin Steiro, who’d dressed up as some classic Bowie characters for a spread in Paris Vogue in 2010. There’s the reference to Bowie’s work in The Hunger (the vampire couple play off Bowie and Catherine Deneuve’s nightclub-foraging vampires) and of course, on his characterization in the press as a stylistic vampire. It’s also Bowie having fun with the horrific idea that David Bowie Is Old, playing a cranky pensioner enraged by his next door neighbor singing “Jean Genie” at all hours.

You’d expect the video to mock the idea of settled domesticity, that Bowie’s line “we have a nice life” is meant as a joke. But it turns out to be quite true. The star couple simply wants to escape their circuit of limousines and paparazzi spreads and are happy to be found sitting on a sofa, watching other stars work on TV.

david-bowie-tilda-swinton

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released as a digital single on 26 February 2013 (UK #102).

Top: Gillen and McKelvie, The Wicked + the Divine (all panels from the first five issues, collected in The Faust Act); Bowie with Iselin Steiro, 2013; Bowie, Andreja Pejić, Saskia de Brauw and Swinton.

*wait, was Bowie a Lost fan? (An earlier draft of the lyric shows that Ms. Johansson was originally in the pantheon, as was “Bob”.)


The Cynic

March 31, 2015

2005torres

The Cynic (Kashmir, with David Bowie).

My integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I’m doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you’re sick, you’re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I’m gonna watch movies I want to see. I’m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.”

Matthew Weiner, on the end of Mad Men.

I’ve erased several months
It’s turning into a year now…

Kashmir, “The Cynic.”

Whether on doctor’s orders or due to his own misgivings about getting back on the merry-go-round, as an old friend once put it, Bowie spent the 12 months after his heart operation in semi-retirement, doing only the occasional guest vocal session. But he wasn’t in seclusion. Living in Soho, Bowie sampled the hip new bands who came to town, avoiding attention by wearing a cap and glasses and sporting, at various times, a mustache and beard. It was his “Berliner workman” days again, only now he wasn’t working.

How did he have so much time to see all of these bands? Dave Itzkoff asked in 2005 (in what would be Bowie’s last to-date print interview). He had nothing but time, he replied. “Fortunately, I’m not working [laughs]. So I’m resting. I get out a lot. I am a New Yorker, very much, and I get out in New York. It’s just a place that I adore. And I love seeing new theater; I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere—very quietly and never above 14th Street. I’m very downtown.

So he saw TV On the Radio and the Secret Machines. He saw Franz Ferdinand at the Roseland Ballroom, twice (introducing himself to the starstruck band backstage, Bowie baffled them by doing an impersonation of the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer). Interpol at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Knitting Factory. Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. The Killers at Irving Plaza.*

Tony Visconti attended the latter, bringing as his plus-one the Danish singer and guitarist Kasper Eistrup of Kashmir, a band Visconti was readying to produce. So Eistrup, in town “on a guitar shopping spree,” wound up meeting Bowie in the VIP balcony. True to form, Bowie said he was a fan of Kashmir and had some of their albums, then began talking about culture, politics and whatever other subjects he was musing on that evening. The three wound up sharing a ride afterward.

Visconti and Bowie had been vaguely planning a new record, which Bowie seemed in little hurry to begin recording. He told the jazz musician Courtney Pine, in a radio interview in September 2005, that he’d started writing songs for a new album (“it looks pretty weird, so I’m happy”), but there were apparently no studio sessions booked. If there were demos, Bowie cut them at home: Visconti wasn’t hearing them.

There was an ambivalence in Bowie’s conversation with Pine (the former’s last radio interview to date). Asked what his fans were expecting from the new album, Bowie responded, “Oh they don’t expect anything these days, I think they just sorta see what I put out…you know, it’s the luck of the draw and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s godawful and…but that’s the way it goes and I like that.

kashmr

As he had from the renewal of their friendship, Visconti offered Bowie walk-on roles on his other productions (see the Rustic Overtones or “Saviour”).** Working on Kashmir’s album in Copenhagen in March 2005, Visconti was convinced that one track, “The Cynic” (“it had the vibe of a Kurt Cobain song influenced by Bowie”), could use a Bowie vocal, to the point where Visconti sang Bowie imitations (“I can do a decent ‘Heroes'”) for scratch vocals in the second verse. He emailed Bowie the rough mix and Bowie agreed to sing on it. For Kashmir, “it was everyone’s birthday and Christmas morning at the same time,” Visconti said.

Returning to New York in late April 2005, Visconti, Eistrup and Kashmir bassist Mads Tunebjerg did mixing and post-production work at Looking Glass Studios. One morning Bowie appeared, “fresh as a daisy and enthusiastically sang the be-Dickens out of ‘The Cynic’ as if he’d written it himself,” Visconti said. Tunebjerg recalled that once he was in the booth, Bowie said “‘Tony, just roll the tape for me. I’m going to try and have a go at it.’ He knew the song, he had it on his iPod (afterward, Bowie played the band other selections from his current track list). He had one or two runs and he was there. We were sitting on the sofa. We couldn’t move or speak because the atmosphere was so intense.

Bowie even had a role in the video, a Constructivist-inspired piece in which Bowie, looking like the Patrick Troughton edition of Doctor Who, is Death as a butler.

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Kashmir started in 1991 and had become one of Denmark’s biggest “alternative” bands by the turn of the century. “We are like a boy band with four different characters: there is the little thin one and there is the tall guy and there is the media guy who is good looking and then there is the semi-fat guy who is dancing around,” Eistrup said. Their Visconti-produced record was a bid to break the American market, which didn’t happen. But the band has persevered until this day, still playing and recording, still believers that rock music can offer something to its audience. “That’s one of the most important things about art and that is the actual answer to why art is important because it can be out of time, it can be out of reason, it can be just commenting whatever is in the mind of the person who expresses it,” Eistrup said in 2013. “That little country of freedom can inspire the rest of the assholes to do things in a different way.”

“The Cynic” was a decent piece of brooding post-Radiohead rock, with Bowie’s verse finding him easily handling Eistrup’s knotty melody, then biting into the long vowels in the refrains. Bowie sounded comfortably decayed; he could’ve fashioned a bespoke version of Kashmir or Interpol or Franz Ferdinand easily enough in 2006. The question was whether he wanted to anymore. The answer seems apparent now: No, I’m happy in the audience.

Recorded: March-April 2005, Sun Studio, Copenhagen; (vocals) ca. April-May 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 October 2005 on No Balance Palace (Columbia 82876 72767 2).

* Some of these venues are above 14th St., so Mr. “Very Downtown” apparently had to take a cab once in a while.

** A shame Visconti didn’t get Bowie into his finest production of the 2000s, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ L’Avventura. That said, it would have been hard for Bowie to find a place to work on such an intimate album. L’Avventura is a document of two ridiculously attractive people falling in love, yet avoiding solipsism to make their union some public ideal of romance.

*** Visconti also roped in Lou Reed, who recited an Eistrup poem, “Black Building.” “It took a long time to actually get Lou into the studio, but when he came he was well-rehearsed and even prepared a special character for the part. He said he’s got about seven voice characters he uses when he does readings of his poetry. Lou was fabulous, he did about three or four takes for us to choose from and even took a phone call from a Tibetan lama in-between takes. Then, like a New York ninja, he disappeared into the chaos of Broadway as soon as he was finished.”

Eistrup’s memories were less reverent. Reed “was anything but sociable. He demanded that the studio be vacated, then that the whole band smoke. He gave me the vaguest handshake I have ever had in my life… He looked at [my] poem and straightened it. I had used words like pubs that he straightened to bars.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Tenis (Torres de Satélite),” Mexico, 2005.


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

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

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

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

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

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

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


A Contest Winner

March 13, 2015

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First, a few book-related things:

Amazon has started shipping copies of Rebel Rebel, which I imagine a number of you have received by now. My cousin, seen above, got his copy and already has incorporated it into his daily life. But the official release date is March 27, which is when (hopefully) the e-book will be ready and when the book should be available in stores. If you’ve received the book via Amazon already and if you like it, please consider giving it a rating on the site. If you hate it, maybe hold off on the rating bit.

OK. The contest. I received 60! entries, all of which were inspired, many of which were astonishing in their inventiveness. After I narrowed the entries down to five (itself a difficult process), it became all but impossible to choose one. But a contest’s a contest: someone’s gotta win it. One of the darker scenarios submitted for 1977 Bowie was also leavened with some inspired comical moments. And when I found myself cracking up in the supermarket thinking about “the Ritual of Da’at,” I realized I had a possible winner…

(drum roll)

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Congrats to Tymothi Valentine Loving. Here’s his entry.

“A brief song-by-song recap of the legendary David Bowie Madison Square Garden concert of 1977. It was released posthumously several times, with most versions leaving out several of the end songs, this discusses the only complete, non-bootleg release, 2005’s “DBMSG77.”

1. Five Years

Bowie starts the show as if it were starting with “Station to Station,” only to have it go in to a tar-heroin-slow version of “Five Years,” which then devolved into one of the many noisy jams of the night.  Apocryphally, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was played at the opening of the show, manipulated through several effects pedals, to create the twisted version of “Station to Station”‘s live “train sound”. The true story is even stranger; apparently Lou Reed and David Bowie indulged in some “speedballs” before the show, and the sound is actually Reed backstage playing a guitar while Bowie “played” the pedals.  After finally tiring of this, Bowie finally staggered out to start the show.  So, technically, although he was never on stage, this was Lou Reed’s last live performance, since he ODed the next year, infamously exactly one month after Bowie’s own fatal OD.

2. Andy Warhol

The shortest, straightest played song of the night.  Notable only for the minute & 30 seconds after the song is over that Bowie spends repeating “Can’t tell them apart at all”, with different emphasis each time (“CAN’T tell them apart at all”, “Can’t tell them APART at all”, etc.) with the final “Can’t tell them apart at AAAAALLLLLL” howled into a feedbacking mike as the band starts:

3. Red Money/Calling Sister Midnight (Just “Red Money” in the DBMSG77 track listing)

The title of this song is questionable. The version that Bowie performed at this show combines the lyrics of the two known recorded versions; “Calling Sister Midnight” that appears on the 1979 Iggy Pop album Idiot’s Lantern, and the 1980 posthumous Bowie collection “David Lives!“, which, among other things, contains tracks from Bowie’s final, incomplete album, What I Will. Who wrote what on which version is still up for debate. What isn’t however, is the performance itself. The dynamic of the fast pace combined with the stop/start cadence, and the quiet verses and loud choruses is still influential to this day, and some version of this song has been covered by bands ranging from Einsturzende Neubauten to Nirvana on their single studio album.

4. Fame
Seven minutes of the band jamming on a sped up version of the riff, while Bowie was offstage (possibly apocryphally) doing more cocaine. This is where the first signs of serious crowd unrest can be heard. Infamously, this was the inspiration for Suicide’s 1978 performance piece “27 Minutes Over New York”, where they would play a synth version of the riff until, basically, forced by the crowd and/or venue to stop. Nobody stopped Bowie that night, however, and when he comes out at 7:13 to finally start singing, the crowd goes wild. And, as clumsy as the increase in tempo makes some of the transitions in the song, the contrast between the band’s frantic pace and Bowie’s deadpan delivery just works.

5. Stay
Probably the clunker of the show. Although the pace of the song is increased, similar to “Fame,” there’s a notable lack of energy, and the bit of attempted free form disco jamming in the middle is as bad an idea as it sounds on paper, and never really coheres. Mainly known for the brief bit in the middle where, apropos of nothing, Bowie points into the crowd and yells “I see you, Pierrot!”.

6. Sweet Head/Cracked Actor (“Gimme Sweet Head” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
Interestingly enough, an early studio recording of this song has surfaced. Quite a bit less abrasive and charged then this version. It’s also quite a bit slower than the manic pace of this performance. And, it must be said, quite a bit shorter. More signs of crowd unrest are evident on the recording, with some angry catcalling at the end of the song.

7. The Ritual of Da’at
This song has no known recording other than this one. Bowie announced the song title at the beginning (“This here, this is The Ritual of Da’at”). The lyrics are mostly incomprehensible, and gibberish where they can be understood, although the line “Oh my sweet milk and peppers, you are all I can love!” has resurfaced in popular culture after famously being uttered in the midst of a nervous breakdown by the protagonist of Todd Haynes’ brutal, Dogme 96-ish takedown of the glam era, My Velvet Goldmine!. This song shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Something about how slow it starts, and the incredible, proto-speedmetal finish just coheres into what, despite the sloppiness, many consider to be one of the best Bowie live performance ever captured, and if not the best, then certainly one of the most intense.

8. “Bring Me The Disco King” (“The Disco King” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
This improvisational piece, never recorded other than this once, has no known title other than the line Bowie repeats for the first and last couple minutes, quietly at the beginning of the song, yelling at the end. During the middle section, he is offstage, presumably doing more coke, although it’s not true that he mutters “more cocaine” before leaving the stage, it is, fairly clearly, “keep playing”. The crowd, whipped into a seething frenzy by the previous song, seems bemused by this somewhat melancholy (in comparison, anyway) piece.

9. Blackout
Bowie’s intro to this song (“Here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!”) was famously sampled on the title track of the debut album of 80’s New York rap pioneers Power Station, Here Comes the Blackout. And, if I can be pardoned the obvious pun, Bowie gave an electric performance here. And the crowd went, in the famously un-bleeped words of one of the attending medics who was interviewed on the live news in the aftermath of the show, “Absolutely fucking bugshit insane”. Reportedly, at least 3 people who had never had an epileptic seizure before experienced one due to the severe strobe light effects employed during this number.

This is where most official releases of the show ended until DBMSG77 was released, although the rest of the show has been available in bootleg form for years. Much has been written about the violence of the near-riot that broke out and the damage done to the classic venue by the small fires set at the end (although, as far as I can tell, the number of fires is often exaggerated, there appear to have been only 2). Even more has been written about the investigation afterwards. I’m going to skip most of that here, and focus on the music itself, other than to say that, no, there’s nothing there that can be considered an incitement to riot, at least not in any legal way. The investigation was a witch-hunt, plain and simple. Edward Koch needed a scapegoat for the underlying tensions of his city (although Abraham Beame earns much of the blame), and he chose Bowie. OK, enough of that, on to the music:

10. Station to Station
A strange version of this song. This was the opener of the previous tour; a sprawling, shambling, genius mass of a song that seems like it would fit right into this show, but here, it runs an abbreviated 4 minutes and change. Starting with “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lovers eyes” sung a cappella a few times, with “making sure white stains!” screamed in the last line, skipping the instrumental jam, and ending after only one time through the last few lines of the song, this is a tight, severe performance.

11. Queen Bitch/God Save The Queen (“God Save The Queen Bitch” in the possibly too clever DMBSG77 track listing)
Truly amazing. Bowie performs his song in a vicious, camped up punk cabaret style. And then he throws in a couple of verses and choruses of The Sex Pistols’ single in the middle. Most of the people at the show probably had no idea who The Sex Pistols were at this point. And Bowie handles their song with relish. Makes you wonder what could have been if he’d been around to make music in the 80s, an angry, anti-commercial punk Bowie may have saved that decade from some of its own excesses.

12. White Light/White Heat
A perennial Bowie cover, since at least the Ziggy Stardust tour, the band tears into this one and leaves it bleeding at the end. Bowie, on the other hand, seems disengaged again, forgetting some lyrics (a somewhat impressive feat, considering how few there are in the song). Which leads to him leaving the stage again as the band rides the riff (for 12! minutes!). He does, once again, seem more energized upon his return.

13. Panic In Detroit (Panic In New York on the DBMSG77 track listing).
This song is what was supposedly being focused on in the investigation of Bowie possibly inciting a riot. And yes, he does change the location city in the lyrics, but it’s a very thin thing to hang such a charge on. Anyway, an intense, stripped down version of the song. And yes, Bowie does seem, in some way, to be feeding off of the negative energy of the crowd. His strident, repeated “Panic in NEW YORK!” starts off brutally, and ends up like nothing else Bowie ever performed, at least that’s been saved for posterity.

14. Hang On To Yourself
This wasn’t supposed to be the last song of the show. Although no known printed version of the setlist still exists, according to members of the band, there was supposed to at least be Suffragette City, Let’s Spend the Night Together, TVC15, Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie, with Diamond Dogs as the closer. Notable in their lack are softer songs such as Changes or Time, or anything similar. It seems the intention was to just have the show almost entirely be amped up versions of (mostly) already fast songs. “TVC15” may have been a bit of a reprieve (although I really, really wish I could have heard the version that would have performed at this show). At any rate, this song barely gets started before the show is shut down, due to the (2, not several) fires that had started. An ignoble end to an astounding show that seemed to indicate an amazing new direction for David Bowie.

Although, I am indescribably happy that DBMSG77 has the complete audio of the end of the show, with Bowie screaming “I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!” at the NYFD and NYPD just before his mike was cut.”

Runner-up: A masterful piece of writing by Steven Hanna, in the style of Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, detailing not just the MSG concert but the whole “1977 ‘New Wave’ Tour,” with Blondie’s Chris Stein as ill-fated lead guitarist and an opening medley of “Can You Hear Me”/”Son of a Preacher Man.” This was a redemptive tale for Bowie, who cleans up and escapes to Europe after the disastrous Low sessions.

Here it is: enjoy!

Other top contenders: James Scott Maloy, who wrote a retrospective in the voice of a Lester Bangs still alive in 1993; James Alex Gabriel Phillips, whose phenomenal 2,000-word piece included the return of Tony Defries as ringmaster; Alon Schmul, who had Mick Ronson, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Hall as guests at a Bowie 30th birthday extravaganza; Aaron Rice, who had Bowie sing nothing but duets, including “Win” with Sinatra and “Be My Wife” with Barry Manilow; Ean McNamara, whose set opened with a Buffy St. Marie cover (“sung mostly off stage”) and ended with “Wolves Song” (aka “Some Are”). [Most of these are now in the comments.]

I wish I could send a book to everyone who contributed an entry: I’m very grateful to everyone who took part in this, and the volume of responses bodes well for something I’m planning to mark the blog’s end later this year: a reader survey/ranking of favorite Bowie songs (essentially voting for the Bowiesongs Top 50, or maybe 100).


Pablo Picasso

November 12, 2014

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Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, 1972).
Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, live, ca. 1971).
Pablo Picasso (John Cale, 1975).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Talking Heads, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Simple Minds, live, 1980).
Pablo Picasso (Burning Sensations, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, Rockpalast, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Iggy Pop, broadcast, 1994).

Pablo Picasso (Television Personalities, ca. 1995).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, Riverside Studios performance, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2004).
Pablo Picasso (Jonathan Richman, live, 2007).

BGN: Who do you get your direction from in life and music? Does your song “Pablo Picasso” give us an idea? Do you love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no, you don’t love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?

Jonathan Richman: I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought “well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.” So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me.

Boston Groupie News, 1980.

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, a suburb west of Boston, in 1951. Like Lewis Reed of Freeport, Long Island (born a decade earlier), Richman was a suburban Jew estranged from his parents who used rock ‘n’ roll music as a passkey. Richman’s catalyst was Reed’s band the Velvet Underground, whom Richman saw whenever they played Boston. By 1971 Richman had formed his own band, the Modern Lovers; a year later, they were recording demos with John Cale.

Like Ray Davies, a spiritual counterpart across the Atlantic, Richman wrote about the straights of the Sixties, those getting left behind, the suburbanites who read about the counterculture in newsweeklies. Richman’s masterpiece “Roadrunner” isn’t celebrating the freedom of the open road, as a drive around Natick or on the name-checked Route 128 (a traffic-calcified beltway that encircles Boston—its early Seventies incarnation aptly described by Joshua Clover as “a scungy corridor of doughnut shops and furniture stores”) will demonstrate. “Roadrunner” is about finding traces of the sublime in suburbia, taking refuge in your car when you drive through it: Stop ‘n’ Shop supermarkets, AM radio, McDonald’s, decaying tire outlets and car dealerships (“the spirit of 1956”). Richman sang about the dead Fifties, the dignity of old people, the secretaries and functionaries of Boston’s charmless Government Center. Hippies, when they showed up, were wastrels and creeps.

Yet Richman didn’t celebrate this prosperous middlebrow America (also the world of They Might Be Giants—Johns Linnell and Flansburgh were growing up in nearby Lincoln) as much he saw the beauty in its oddness, its sobriety, and saw how he stood apart from it. There’s darkness in his early songs. Richman’s girls get institutionalized (“She Cracked,” “Hospital“) and his first-person characters aren’t as guileless and sweet as they say they are. Instead they often come off as early-edition “nice guys,” putting girls on pedestals and growing resentful they aren’t appreciated for their efforts. “Hippie Johnny,” Richman’s rival on “I’m Straight,” sounds more fun than clingy straight-edge Jojo does, to be honest.

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“Pablo Picasso,” written around 1970, was one of the Cale demos later released on the 1976 Modern Lovers (a time-bomb of a record—while the band had broken up years before its issue, and Richman had moved to a softer style by ’76, the likes of “Roadrunner” and “Picasso” suddenly appeared for the fledgling punks to take up). As Richman said, he didn’t know anything about Picasso except what any suburban kid could’ve gleaned at the time. This was the Picasso of Life magazine profiles: an intense, bald, short man who lived with a string of impossibly beautiful women in canvas-strewn ateliers. He seemed older than America: he’d known Braque, James Joyce, Hemingway, probably King Henry VIII. He was often photographed shirtless, thrusting his chest out, striking poses like a boxer. He made painting seem like a war he’d won in single combat. A caricature of masculinity, king gorilla of the art world.

The song came from a trip to New York that Richman made right after graduating high school. Hoping to find a place in NYC bohemia, he instead was mainly left on his own. He found his idol Lou Reed distant and soon gone (Reed left the VU to go home to Long Island, working for his dad for a while). Richman hung around Warhol’s Factory but was merely tolerated. After a month, Richman went to Israel, where he only found a more intense degree of loneliness. Standing out in the desert, he realized “he had to start a band,” his friend (and bandmate) John Felice recalled. “He wanted people around him.”

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They were like the Velvet Underground, except with whimsy.

Bowie on the Modern Lovers.

When I started out, I was kind of lonely…when I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody.

Jonathan Richman, to Julia Sweeney, SPIN, February 1993.

“Pablo Picasso” was funny (Picasso as king greaser on the block, scoping out women while driving a Cadillac), envious, a piece of dating advice (be confident, don’t be a schmuck, get out of your head), prophetic—it’s a song that barely seems to exist as one (just jamming on one easy-to-play chord), a joke that goes on forever.

It was Richman’s low-rent take on a VU track like “Sister Ray”: a clattering vamp on E minor. On the demo, Cale establishes the drone on piano, offering a few variations as the song goes on; the drums (David Robinson) keep to one chugging pattern (Richman wanted the feel of a New York subway train), Jerry Harrison’s bassline is mainly one string bothered for four minutes; the guitar solos (Richman and Ernie Brooks) are screaming, whining jitters along the Em scale. “The original is a little dirgelike,” Bowie told Interview in 2003. “It doesn’t move much, which gives it a power, but it gives it the power of another era.”

In its various covers over the years, you can hear others trying to channel and variate its power. Cale* (officially the song’s debut performer, as his cover on Helen of Troy came out half a year before Modern Lovers) hardened the drone with a whinnying Chris Spedding guitar riff and shook up the percussion line—some tom fills, some little jumpy start-stops on guitar and bass (playing “Picasso” live, Cale kept things simpler, hanging the song back on a hammered Em chord). Coke-fueled and frustrated, Cale howled out the lyric: “never GOT called an ARSEHOLE—TOO BAD!!!…NOT LIKE YEEEW!!” The LA band Burning Sensations, for the soundtrack of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, changed the bassline, throwing in a bit of the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Television Personalities’ Daniel Treacy, centering “Picasso” on haunted-house piano and filling the mix with sirens, phone rings and wails, made it obsessive.

Bowie wanted “a more contemporary feel,” so he changed the lyric (no big deal: everyone from Iggy Pop to Richman himself already had done so) and added some chords. While Bowie’s “Picasso” still keeps for long stretches on a single chord (E-flat), Bowie threw in a new sequence (Bb-C#-G#-Bb-G#-F#) for a “refrain” (“swinging on the back porch, jumping off a big log…”) that’s has a touch of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And he sang Richman’s verses over a three-chord shift: (F#)”girls could not resist his stare/(G#)Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole/(Eb) Not in New York!”

For an intro, Gerry Leonard added an out-of-phase, panned “Spanish” lead guitar,** which later gets a solo with glum backing by Bowie’s foghorn of a baritone saxophone. There’s a chirpy hook on Yamaha Digital piano that sounds like it was incidental music for a Dell desktop, and some scraping rhythm guitar dubs mixed right (possibly Bowie’s refurbished Supro). Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks were among those Bowie had remixed at Allaire Studios to get a “bigger,” reverb-laden sound.

Bowie took “Picasso” at a brisk tempo (Cale had always wanted Richman to play the song faster) and sang it like a carnival barker with long, loopy phrases—he seems to be always trying to get one step ahead of the song. He said it was meant to be Reality‘s equivalent to his cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus” on Heathen, but his fizzy “Picasso” was more like the latter album’s goofy take on “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” Filming a concert in Rotterdam in 2003, a fan kept panning into the audience during this song—you can see various people singing “never got called an ASSHOLE!” at the top of their lungs. “Pablo Picasso” was always an anthem in spirit. Bowie just gave it some amplification, some bits of sweetening, kicked it out into the world again.

It’s a fitting bookend to Bowie’s other painter song, “Andy Warhol.” The latter is Bowie peering into a man who isn’t there, the song of a chancer looking to pick up a few tricks. “Pablo Picasso” is a happy cartoon, a bit of advice from a man who knows. After all, you could replace “Pablo Picasso” with “David Bowie” in the lyric and it would work nearly as well. Good luck coming up with a better rhyme, though.

pablo

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

Sources: Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk is good for Richman backstory; Joshua Clover’s “Terrorflu” (collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great one-page encapsulation on Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Any Richman interview that you come across is charming and funny.

* Cale was the band’s evangelist, distributing cassettes of the demo sessions to journalists and musicians in the mid-Seventies; it’s possible Bowie first heard the Modern Lovers this way.

** As you’ll see in the last clip, Richman also played cod-Spanish acoustic guitar solos when performing “Picasso” live in the 2000s.

Top: Tony Soprano, never called an asshole (well, sometimes). From Sopranos Season 4: “Mergers and Acquisitions,” first aired 3 November 2002; virile Pablo; Danny Fields, “Modern Lovers on the beach” ca. 1972.


Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

am02

Hole In the Ground.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Be like the sun
Never gone
Sleep long and fast
Let the past be the past

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

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Aaargh, that Tony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favor.

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

For a long time, Bowie’s Sixties had begun in 1969: he hadn’t existed prior to “Space Oddity.” Whatever came before that record was mere juvenilia. His Decca, Parlophone and Pye singles, his Deram album, “The Laughing Gnome,” the King Bees and Manish Boys and the Buzz and the Riot Squad, five years of candled ambition: all of it was buried, its obscurity encouraged.

It was also hard to find some of these records—they crept in and out of print, the tracks shuffled through decades’ worth of shabby collections. Bowie didn’t own the rights to the songs, and seemed indisposed to licensing them, so “The London Boys” was never on any career retrospective despite the song being a foundational work—“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Diamond Dogs, among a fleet of others, are inconceivable without it.

A few things aligned at last. His pre-Philips material was thoroughly compiled on two CD reissues: Rhino’s 1991 Early On and 1997’s Deram Anthology (Bowie was involved in producing the latter, which unfortunately meant two outtakes from David Bowie—“Bunny Thing” and “Pussy Cat”—were cut from the track list). And the Sixties affectations of high Britpop—Blur’s “Country House” wasn’t that far removed from “Join the Gang“— gave the oldest Bowie records a context: they had somehow become hip. It’s surprising one of Bowie’s Pye singles didn’t wind up on the Rushmore soundtrack. “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ’90s generation, but they don’t know the early stuff,” Bowie told GQ in 2000. “I think it’s a surprise when they hear them…and think ‘did he write that?‘”

It could’ve been a preemptive strike, covering himself before someone like Oasis did. Bowie, taping a VH1 Storytellers in August 1999, resurrected his first major composition, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” playing it for the first time since the Marquee Club days of 1966. While he introduced the song by ridiculing its lyric, it cooked on stage, thanks to Sterling Campbell’s drumming—it felt fresher than the ‘hours’ songs he was debuting. (Playing it allowed Mark Plati “to work out a lot of Who fantasies on stage, thank you very much.”) And in a few live dates later that year, Bowie revived “I Dig Everything.” (Mike Garson said they played “Karma Man” and “Conversation Piece” in rehearsals.)

So Bowie’s first web journal entry of the new century noted that he would re-record songs he’d released between 1964-1969, “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I.” As typical with Bowie, the idea quickly ballooned in scope. As with “What’s Really Happening?” the recording sessions for Up Date I would be broadcast via webcam. And he wouldn’t only remake his old singles, he’d revive songs which hadn’t even made the cut back then. He would draw from his legion of ghost songs, those that fans knew only as their titles: Ernie Johnson, “Black Hole Kids,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and, see below, “Hole In the Ground.”

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“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers a little impatiently. “So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which I frankly don’t need.”

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

In February 2000, Bowie and Iman told the press that she was pregnant. He would be a father again at 53. He also said he would play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time since 1971 (when he’d also been a new father). Soon afterward he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour, as his new lead guitarist: a sharp swerve from the now-confirmed-departed Reeves Gabrels.

As Iman was due in August, Bowie planned a burst of activity for June and early July: a handful of NYC live shows that would double as rehearsals for the Glastonbury gig and for what he was now calling “the Sixties album,” which he planned to cut immediately upon his return to New York. “I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band,” he told Time Out. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” Plati would go to work mixing Bowie’s 1968-1972 BBC sessions (yet another reclamation: Bowie at the Beeb would be issued in September) and then would pivot to mixing “the Sixties album” in the fall.

During rehearsals, Bowie worked his band (the Hours touring unit plus Slick) through his abandoned catalog, reviving all but two of his 1964-1966 singles (“I Pity the Fool” was superfluous, “Do Anything You Say” perhaps too dire a composition to salvage) and the cream of the Deram years (sadly, not the Gnome). He didn’t want the band to be reverent; he wanted them to crack their way into the songs, pull them out of their shells. “We weren’t out to duplicate the original tracks at all,” Plati said.

As a prelude, Bowie fully gave himself over to his past, with setlists meant to make old Bowie fans weep. The first Roseland gig, a three-hour extravagance that blew out Bowie’s voice, opened with the four-shot of “Wild Is the Wind,” “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. He unearthed rarely-played classics (“Absolute Beginners,” not performed since 1987) and debuted “This Is Not America” on stage; at the June 19 gig, he played “London Boys” for the first time in nearly 35 years. It also gave Gail Ann Dorsey a rare chance to play clarinet.

He flew to the UK, where he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (why not? it was getting to the point where you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup); two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

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I haven’t been here for 30 years and I’m having a fucking great time!

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

In the year of its birth, 1971, Glastonbury was among the free festivals starting to crop up around Britain. Fitting for a show held in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, its pyramid-shaped stage was constructed on a ley-line. It was free admission for the 12,000 or so hippies who’d made their way out to Somerset. Bowie played a set at dawn: just him, his 12-string acoustic and a piano. For the wakening crowd, he offered, for the first time, the breadth of Hunky Dory, from “Quicksand” to “Kooks.”

Glastonbury was in retrospect one of Bowie’s most critical live performances: the sunny reception he got was the best experience he’d had in years. He’d stopped solo live performance after his acoustic/mime shows had bombed in 1969. In the summer of 1971, Bowie was still unsure whether he wanted to be a performer at all. Given the songs he was now racking up, he thought he could be primarily a songwriter, like his friend Lesley Duncan. But that morning in Glastonbury confirmed him as a stageman: Ziggy Stardust would play his first show half a year later.

In 2000, Glastonbury was charging £87 tickets and drawing crowds of 100,000. Its recent headliners had included Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp and Prodigy. Bowie came back as some lost king regnant of British music, wearing what looked like an eccentric bishop’s vestments, his hair in flowing golden locks; he gently proceeded to make everyone else on the bill (his co-headliners were Travis and the Chemical Brothers) look second-rate. He led off with “Wild Is the Wind,” exorcised “Station to Station” with Slick in tow: for an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “‘Heroes’,” “Let’s Dance” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The papers went mad: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star”(the Times); “a level beyond and above everyone else at this festival” (NME).

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BBC executive producer Mark Cooper, who was recording the festival, was frustrated that Bowie’s management let him only broadcast six songs from the set (presumably because they were considering releasing the Glastonbury show as a live CD). “It was painful” to cut away from Bowie, he told Paul Trynka. “An artist can be reborn with a performance like that, get another 10 years in their career…I think [denying the full broadcast] was a mistake. Because this was the moment.”

But what was the moment? Was there something sad in all of this ecstatic reclamation, this genial reconquest, with Bowie even wearing his hair at Hunky Dory length? You could regard it as some traveling grand self-entombment. In the year 2000, which he’d feared and talked up and prophesied for much of his life, Bowie wound up playing the nostalgist. A stunningly capable one, sure, but still, he was someone who’d greeted the new millennium by playing songs from 1966 again.

That said, he was in line with one mood of the time. The hooks of the old century were still barbed in the new one: it was as if the culture still couldn’t shake the Sixties’ idea of the future, a future that, of course, hadn’t come true, but one which still seemed more of a “real” future than the one we were now living in. There were still ghosts everywhere. Take the through-line of “Sixties” droning organ across a swath of 2000 records: Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” Blonde Redhead’s “This Is Not,” Ladytron’s “Another Breakfast with You,” Clinic’s “Distortions,” Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” (If you wanted the sound of a new future, you had to listen to Aaliyah or OutKast.)

So what did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”? He’d let in the past again: what was he going to do with it?

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The album soon got the working title of Toy (likely from “Baby Loves That Way” and/or “London Boys”). Its basic tracks were cut in about nine days in early July 2000 at Sear Sound, whose 2,500-square-foot studio boasted two isolation booths: one set aside for vocals, the other housing Mike Garson’s collection of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes (which he hadn’t played since Young Americans) and a Hammond B3 organ. Earl Slick soon had a sense of déjà vu. A walk around the place made him realize that he was in the old Hit Factory, where he’d cut Double Fantasy with John Lennon twenty years earlier. “It really freaked him out,” Plati recalled.

True to his plans, Bowie had flown in his band days after the Glastonbury concert and essentially had them plug in and rip through the songs. (He’d ditched the webcast idea.) In roughly a week they cut 13 tracks, complete with full Bowie vocals. The engineer Pete Keppler recalled Bowie “belting his brains out while the band was just roaring away behind him,” while Plati hadn’t seen Bowie so excited since the first Earthling sessions (another album cut right after a tour to feed off a band’s energy). Bowie was economical beyond his usual habits: he’d cut a first-take lead vocal, then overdub himself on the second take, then add further harmonies for every further take (Plati: “his final vocal would be finished by the time the band had gotten it right!”). Bowie and Plati even managed to hustle in Tony Visconti to score a 14-piece string section for a few tracks.

What Bowie had at the end of the Sear Sound sessions almost certainly included these 11 revivals—a link to the Toy track, if extant, is found in the original entry (* = not circulating, but reportedly recorded):

“Liza Jane”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”*
“I Dig Everything”
“The London Boys”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”*
“In the Heat of the Morning”
“Conversation Piece”

There was also a track known as “Secret 1” (allegedly Dorsey’s favorite) which Nicholas Pegg rightly (IMO) surmises was likely the revived “Shadow Man.” My guess for the other completed track is another ghost song.

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‘Hole in the Ground’ was written by David, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tim Renwick on guitar and Terry Cox on drums. Also David was playing guitar on it. What year was it?…1971, I think. Apart from David, I think I have the only copy in existence.

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

It was fitting that George Underwood got caught up in Bowie’s Sixties revival, if indirectly. Underwood was one of Bowie’s oldest friends: he’d played with him in the King Bees; his girlfriend had inspired Bowie’s “Janine”; he’d accompanied Bowie on his first US tour (where he may have kicked off “Jean Genie” by playing Yardbirds songs on the bus). Most of all, Underwood was partially responsible for Bowie’s look (starting, of course, by hitting Bowie in the eye as a teenager and so leaving Bowie’s pupil permanently dilated): he drew the back cover of Space Oddity and designed the covers of albums from Hunky Dory to Low.

Underwood is the control in an experiment in which Bowie’s the radical element: his life can seem an alternate edition of Bowie’s. Considered as handsome, charismatic and talented as his bandmate in the King Bees, Underwood also cut an unsuccessful single or two in the mid-Sixties. But by the end of the decade, he’d become the artist that Bowie would occasionally play at being, founding the Main Artery Studio in 1971. And sometime in the Seventies, Underwood bailed out of the professional music game for good (one story is that a bad acid trip led to a nervous breakdown).

Bowie wrote “Hole in the Ground” for Underwood around 1970. It was his part of his bid to help Underwood make it as a singer—he also wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” and “We Should Be on By Now” (the ur-“Time”) for him—but it was also a feint to benefit his own career. In 1971, Bowie couldn’t release songs under his own name for a time due to his manager’s label/publisher negotiations, so he put out his new compositions under aliases (see the Arnold Corns) or used his friends as masks (see Mickey King’s “Rupert the Riley” or Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol”).

As the original “Hole in the Ground” has never leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of it was altered for the Toy remake. Mike Garson described the Toy version as a jam that the band developed in the studio. If I had to guess, I’d say little fundamentally was changed. The lyric’s in line with Bowie’s lesser works of 1970-1971 (its title may homage Bernard Cribbins): it’s a depressive love ballad with some apocalyptic portents (the hole in the ground mirrors of the “crack in the sky” in “Oh! You Pretty Things”). Some of its vocal phrasing, and the acoustic guitar strum patterns in the verse, call back to “Janine,” and the song shares with “Janine” a slacking-off in lieu of an ending, with its chorus repeated long enough to double as a coda.

Its revival was performed well—Garson’s keyboards gave fresh backdrops to the verses and refrains, and Campbell and Dorsey (who homages Herbie Flowers’ bassline on “Walk on the Wild Side”* and gets in a nice sloping bass fill or two) shone in particular—but its reappearance mainly argued that Bowie had been right in deep-sixing “Hole In the Ground” back in 1970. Time hadn’t improved the song, only made it somewhat novel.

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So Bowie had the basics for a new record, one that would capstone a year he’d dedicated to his youth. After taking some time off to be a father, all he’d have to do is a cut few overdubs, mix the tracks and send Toy on its way. Then onto something new with Visconti. Toy would take its seat in the canon, and the past would be the past again… [to be continued]

* Of course the intriguing question is whether Flowers had originally come up with that bassline for “Hole in the Ground” and later recycled it for Lou Reed.

Sources: For this, and the upcoming run of entries, Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold, which devotes a chapter to Toy, was invaluable. Also, Teenage Wildlife and Bowie Wonderworld, as each was founded in the late Nineties, serve as “real time” documentation of Bowie during this time: interviews, setlists, BowieNet comments, journal entries and chats, etc. Having spent some frustrating months trying to verify details from the shakily-remembered and legend-prone Diamond Dogs era, it’s a blessing to have such an amount of concrete information available.

Top to bottom: Bowie’s life in pictures, 2000.


Outside Tour: The Nine Inch Nails Duets

May 2, 2013

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Reptile (Nine Inch Nails).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hurt (Nine Inch Nails).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Complete Bowie/NIN “transition” sequence (live, 1995).

And remember, with all original numbers the audiences are hearing numbers they’ve never heard before—so this makes for a varied stage act. It’s risky, because the kids aren’t familiar with the tunes, but I’m sure it makes their musical life more interesting.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, February 1966.

He didn’t want to tour again. Each of the last three times had been unhappy in its own way: Glass Spider had exhausted him; Sound + Vision had been soul-eroding; the Tin Machine “It’s My Life” tour had been soured by a bandmate’s addiction. But Virgin Records believed Bowie finally had something with Outside—pre-orders were starting to pile up and the reunion with Eno was getting press—and urged him to consider at least doing a short promotional tour.

So in May 1995 he began rehearsing for a provisional half-dozen shows. He retained the core Outside group of Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson and hired a new rhythm section. Sterling Campbell had the chance to join a band (unfortunately it was Soul Asylum), so he begged off and recommended his friend Zachary Alford, who had drummed for the B-52s and Bruce Springsteen. And Erdal Kizilcay, after having served as a bassist/Johnny do-it-all since the mid-Eighties, was unceremoniously cut loose, for good. Bowie’s new bassist was Gail Ann Dorsey, a busy session musician and occasional solo artist, who Bowie had first seen playing Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop on By” on The Tube.

Pleased with his band and intrigued to play his new Outside material, Bowie agreed to expand the tour: six weeks in America and another four months, off and on, in the UK and Europe. Bowie hired a keyboardist, Peter Schwartz, to serve as musical director. As Paul Trynka noted, this was a political move, getting Bowie off the hook, as he didn’t have to choose a “favorite son” among Garson, Alomar and Gabrels, all of whom had been directors in past tours.

I really want, for the rest of my working career, to put myself in a place where I’m doing something that’s keeping my creative juices going, and you can’t do that if you’re just trotting out cabaret-style big hits.

Bowie, 1995.

With “Sound + Vision” as the template for what he didn’t want to do, Bowie crafted a fairly radical set: over half of the songs were from a record that, for the first few weeks of the tour, hadn’t been released. (And were still fresh for Bowie: a reviewer noticed him cribbing lyrics from sheets of paper.) Bowie claimed his revived songs were “obscure even to my oldest fans,” a bit of an overstatement. But even those who knew the likes of “Andy Warhol” (its inclusion owed to Bowie’s recent portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat) may not have recognized them at first: e.g., the trip-hop reclamation of “Man Who Sold the World,” with its signature guitar riff erased. Many younger attendees thought Bowie was covering the late Kurt Cobain.

Some old songs were included for thematic or sonic ties to Outside: “Joe the Lion,My Death” and “Nite Flights.” Bowie mainly harvested from his late Seventies works, an acknowledgement that the “Berlin” records had become the hippest Bowie albums of the Nineties and that he was bored with glam-era standards. “I compile cassettes of the obscurer stuff for the car. It would be wonderful to play live stuff I want to hear myself. Before I tended to pander to the audience,” he said.

So the “Outside” tour included a pair from Low (“What in the World,”Breaking Glass”), a trio from Lodger (“Look Back in Anger,“Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ”) and, for an occasional closer, the live debut of “Teenage Wildlife.” A few concessions came later in the tour, when Bowie brought in “Under Pressure” as a duet with Dorsey. When he moved to the UK and Europe, he occasionally played “Moonage Daydream” as a closer and “Diamond Dogs” as a mid-set booster.1

bowieNIN

Bowie’s gambit was choosing Nine Inch Nails as his opening act for the US leg. He had never done anything like this before: having a younger, hungrier band open for him. (“The most aggressive band ever to enter the Top Five,” Bowie crowed to the New York Daily News.) He risked being blown off the stage, being made to look old.2

But he needed to upgrade the brand again. His management team had commissioned a survey of teenagers in the summer of 1995 and found the kids had “a brutal disregard for history and legacies.” When asked what words came to mind when they heard “David Bowie,” responses included “gay” and “Let’s Dance.” As per David Buckley’s bio, the survey writers suggested a radical revision of the Bowie image, such as making “a new-blood hip hop and rave album of new workings of old songs.” (Another suggestion: collaborate with DeVante Swing).

By the summer of 1995, Nine Inch Nails had become the most popular “industrial” band in the US: The Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine were both certified platinum, “Closer” was a constant on MTV and NIN had been touring almost non-stop for a year.  Introduced to NIN’s music by Reeves Gabrels during the Tin Machine tours, Bowie also was flattered to read interviews with Trent Reznor in which Reznor had praised him, saying he’d listened to Low daily while making Downward Spiral. He was also taken by Reznor’s melodicism, finding that the man who howled “I wanna fuck you like an ANIMAL!” in arenas each night was a secret rock classicist. “Once you get past the sonic information, [his] actual writing abilities are very well grounded…every era of rock is actually in there, even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music,” Bowie said of Reznor. “There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there.”

I think [Reznor] is a keenly intelligent young man, very focused, and quite shy. I guess people said that about me as well.

Bowie, Hartford Courant, 1995.

Although he was exhausted from touring, Reznor agreed to support Bowie. He later said he was terrified of Bowie at first, that he would inwardly recoil when seeing him backstage, not wanting to talk to him. I felt I had to impress him. I had to impress his band. I couldn’t just let my hair down. (That said, this interview with MTV’s Kennedy, shot the night before the first concert, finds Bowie and Reznor being goofy and self-effacing, and seemingly comfortable with each other.)

Their lives had parallels: both had been suburban misfits and dreamers (although Reznor, who came from Mercer, Pennsylvania, had a far more isolated childhood, culturally), both had done time in the minor leagues. Bowie’s journeyman Sixties were similar to Reznor’s Eighties, where he bounced between bands, got bit parts in movies (he’s in the Michael J. Fox “rock” movie Light of Day), worked as a janitor/engineer at a Cleveland studio.

And Reznor in 1995 was where Bowie had been two decades earlier: famous, controversial, cracking up, hooked on cocaine. On the Outside tour, Bowie quietly served as a grounding point for Reznor; he offered, in his music and his performances (on and off stage), the potential of a future. His main vice now was chain-smoking Gitanes. He seemed comfortable in himself, but he wasn’t self-satisfied; he wanted a new audience, and was willing to work for them; he was confident enough, or unhinged enough, to risk embarrassing himself by howling about Ramona A. Stone on stage instead of playing “Changes” again. (Well, perhaps Bowie had become a bit stodgy: NIN’s dressing room was a haven for some of his band, who, according to Reznor, “didn’t want to sit around talking about fucking German art movies. They wanted to hang out.”)

Bowie and Reznor designed an interim sequence to bridge their sets. There would be no NIN encore. Instead Bowie, then his band, would join NIN on stage, then NIN would depart, leaving Reznor singing with Bowie’s band. The sequence also worked, thematically, as a lead-in to the Outside songs. The inter-set began with “Subterraneans” and “Scary Monsters,” the latter ret-conned into a song about Baby Grace. Then Bowie, in a duet with Reznor, sang NIN’s “Reptile.”3

dbtren

[Adolescents] go through a grimly day-to-day existence. There doesn’t seem to be the bounce that I remember when I was the same age.

Bowie, ca. 1995.

The Downward Spiral, Reznor said, was a 14-track document of someone who was systematically purging himself of anything that tied him to humanity. The record is sequenced to build to “a certain degree of madness,” climaxing with “Big Man With a Gun,” whose lyric was later cited by the likes of Bob Dole and William Bennett as being so morally degenerate that Reznor’s record company should have dumped him for making it. (The furor was one reason Time Warner sold its shares in Interscope, Reznor’s label, in late 1995.)

Two tracks later was “Reptile,” where alienation has corroded even the idea of sex, the singer equating ejaculation with contamination, his girlfriend with a reptile, a whore, a succubus. She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in…seeds from a thousand others drip down from within. The singer turns the blade on himself in the second verse: he’s worthless, vile, a corrupter corrupted (“Reptile” can seem like Reznor’s sideways sequel to “Scary Monsters.”)

The NIN cut began with pizzicato string loops set against clanking mass production noises, its verses sung over a percussion battery that was punctuated by what sounded like piston/carriage returns. But Reznor countered this mechanical ominousness with glimpses of tonality, still moments of beauty: take the interlude (5:14) marked by a whole-tone rise on keyboard from D to A-flat, reminiscent of a Low Side B instrumental. This had been Reznor’s trait since he started Nine Inch Nails: he humanized the societal indictments of classic industrial music, leavened the industrial sound with, as Bowie pointed out, classic rock melodies and chords. As Alec Wilkinson wrote, “industrial music insisted that modern life had become a shipwreck. Reznor made the ruination specific to a single person.”

Playing “Reptile,” Bowie and Reznor traded off lines in the verses (Bowie, still in character from “Scary Monsters,” gave his best Mockney to lines like “leaves a trayyl of hunn-eey“) and harmonized in the chorus. Reznor kept the big dramatic vocal moments (“REPTILE!” or the howled “LOVELESS!”), while Bowie, when he wasn’t singing, swayed and kept upstage, as if being buffeted by the noise the two bands were churning out.

Bowie delighted in singing the type of lyric that would be cited by the PMRC in press releases as a sign of cultural decay and the “seedy artist” persona that he favored for the early Outside shows also suited the song. Bowie added a necessary theatricality to performances of “Reptile” that otherwise veered towards the bludgeoning—the melodic/industrial tension of the studio “Reptile” was often diminished live in favor of a thudding, corrosive power.

dbnin

[“Hurt”] sounded like something I could have recorded in the 60s. There’s more heart and soul and pain in that song than any that’s come along in a long time.

Johnny Cash.

That song came from a pretty private, personal place for me. So it seemed like, well, that’s my song…Here’s this thing I wrote in my bedroom in a moment of frailty and now Johnny Cash is singing it. It kind of freaked me out..It felt invasive. It was like my child. It was like I was building a home and someone else moved into it…[But] I haven’t listened to my version since then.

Trent Reznor, on Cash’s version of “Hurt.”

After “Hallo Spaceboy,” the NIN/Bowie sequence ended with a performance of “Hurt,” the closing track of Downward Spiral. Where “Reptile” was bluster and comic vileness, “Hurt” was a kid alone in his bedroom, staring at a wall, rubbing the barely-scabbed scar on his wrist, too numb to even hate himself.  The song was a “valentine to the sufferer,” Reznor later said. There’s a defiance in Reznor’s singing on the studio track, moving from the steady whisper of the early verses (suggesting that if Reznor had taken up guitar instead of keyboard, he would’ve sounded like Elliot Smith) to the bravado of the chorus: the kid delights in still being able to hurt someone else.

In 2002, a dying Johnny Cash recorded “Hurt” for what would be his last album. Rick Rubin had given Cash a mix tape of potential covers, including the Cure’s “Lovesong” and Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was struck by the latter. He sang it “100 times before I went and recorded it, because I had to make it mine.” Cash’s “Hurt,” with the cold gravitas he gave to Reznor’s words, the way he seemed to inhabit the song’s plaintive melody, made Reznor’s original seem like an imitation. It was an old man sacking a young man’s lament, taking up residence in the ruins.

Cash’s “Hurt” rebuked the future that Bowie had offered Reznor in 1995. A dying old man tells a teenager that no, it really doesn’t get better, that your losses and your miseries only deepen with age, that life is, at its root, catastrophic. But it’s still terrible when you have to leave it behind. A teenager cutting himself in his bedroom at least still has his premises; death still has an air of romance. Cash, in “Hurt,” just has shot memories that aren’t worth the price of salt. Cash took “Hurt” to its serest limits, singing it as if Cormac McCarthy had written it for Blood Meridian. Take the power with which he sings Reznor’s chorus, the best lyric Reznor ever wrote, Cash’s steady roar paced by the repeated staccato piano note:

What have I become,
My sweetest friend.
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end.

Cash grew up Pentecostal and he never deserted Christianity, though at times it seemed that his relations with God were like Tolstoy’s (“two bears in the same den,” as Gorky said of the latter). Cash’s “Hurt” is a broken Calvinism: we are mostly damned, mortal life can never provide transcendence. If there’s another life, well, maybe there’s meaning there, but this one’s shot. Then, the last verse: Cash wonders if he could start again. He considers a resurrection somewhere else, he’s so emptied of his life that he’s finally entertaining hope.

Bowie, in his performances of “Hurt” with Reznor, stood at a remove from the Reznor’s original adolescent misery and the valetudinarian misery of Cash’s. As with “Reptile,” he slightly burlesqued the song, intoning the opening verse in the Dracula-is-risen voice he’d used for high camp moments like “Cat People.” In 1995, standing in the middle of life, his pains behind him, Bowie got a kick in trying on an adolescent’s garb again. He took “NIN’s nihilistic anthems and twisted them into perverse serenades,” wrote the critic Ken Bogle, who saw the Seattle gig. Compared to the Cash cover, Bowie’s performances of “Hurt” can seem flimsy, grandiose. But he’s also reassuring. In his chorus duets with Reznor, Bowie has authority, taking the higher harmony, with Reznor sounding like a kid singing along (flatly at times) to a record. In his odd way, Bowie’s an embodiment of hope here. The young and the old can become so dedicated to misery; Bowie makes middle age seem like a lark, the only time when we have the freedom not to be serious.

db

I’m playing to a hardcore Nails fan between the ages of 14 and 22…they can often be found body-surfing during my version of Jacques Brel’s “My Death.”

Bowie, 1995.

Reeves Gabrels described the audiences at the NIN/Bowie shows as a changing of the tribes. When NIN was playing, most of the Bowie fans were in the lobby; when Bowie was on, the NIN fans went to the lobby, or just left. So Bowie had keep up the momentum of the NIN sets or he’d soon face rows of empty seats. At times it didn’t work: only half the audience remained by the end of one Meadowlands show, and in Seattle “most of Bowie’s newer stuff left the crowd arm-crossingly bored,” Bogle wrote. Bowie tightened his performances, pushed his band. “We had to adjust emotionally to the fact that we were going to be challenged every night,” he said. “It did help me understand a certain aesthetic that was needed to do live performances in front of younger crowds.” Alford recalled to Marc Spitz that this tension is what “made it seem real for David…not knowing what the audience would do at the end of each song.”

The Outside tour generally got fair to poor reviews. Hearing the likes of “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “I’m Deranged” for the first time on stage, some reviewers found the new songs incoherent and unmemorable. The Philadelphia Inquirer: Charged with bringing life to his dim new works, Bowie looked like a stiff, robot-ish shell of his former self. This was…the sound of a lost soul, an artist so determined to position himself “ahead” of the culture that he’d neglected the basics. Like songwriting.” The New York Times: “His new songs are oddly made, as if designed to envelop the listener rather than to leave catchy memories…[Bowie] was trying to hold together songs that seemed to dissolve before they ended.”

When the tour moved to the UK in November 1995, with Morrissey now (briefly) the opening act, Bowie’s fight against nostalgia grew more pitched, as he lacked the potential young converts the NIN gigs had brought him.4 Christopher Sandford, attending one of the Wembley gigs, recalled seeing businessmen in hospitality suites, drinking wine and networking, while a raving Bowie performed below them. Fans came dressed as Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack and got “Small Plot of Land” instead. The UK papers were often harsh. The Times: an uphill slog…Bowie appeared from behind the drum kit singing and walking as if in his sleep. Or the amazing splenetic rant by Simon Williams in the NME: “El Bowza’s latest lurch away from reality is entitled Outside, which is kind of about ‘outsiders’ and involves all these strange neo-futuristic characters running around El Bowza’s head and it’s sort of a concept album blah blah bollocks blah blah ARSE!!!!!!!

All that remains are the recordings of the shows. Here, removed from the din of expectations and resentments and bewilderments, is Bowie in fighting trim, backed by one of the finest stage bands of his career, remorselessly blasting through one of his most adventurous sets. It’s fair to say that posterity backed Bowie’s play: the Outside tour was a marvel, with Bowie at his most alive and shameless.

hurt

1: Consider the Outside tour the one Bowie never gave after Scary Monsters. The set lists were fluid throughout the US leg (14 September-31 October 1995). The “pre-release” shows in September often opened (after the NIN hand-off) with “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson.” Bowie front-loaded the Outside songs until, triggered by “Jump They Say,” he closed with a run of older pieces (often with “Nite Flights” or “Wildlife” as a set-ender). By mid-October, sets were starting with “Look Back in Anger” or “Architects Eyes.” Reeves Gabrels opened before NIN but eventually gave up after being worn out by the collected indifference of NIN fans.

The UK/Ireland shows (14 November-13 December 1995) had a more stable setlist. No longer having to slot uptempo songs first to keep momentum going from the NIN sets, Bowie was free to begin moodily, and he did: “The Motel” and “Small Plot of Land” were usual openers. This leg is where “DJ,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Daydream” were incorporated into sets. Bowie’s live staple “White Light/White Heat” turned up in some of the last European shows (17 January-20 February 1996) and would appear during the 1996 festival tour (see “Telling Lies”).

2: Sure, Duran Duran had opened for some dates of the Glass Spider tour in 1987, but they were past their peak. NIN opening for Bowie in 1995 was as if the Clash had opened for him in 1978.

3: This is how the sequence worked, at least in the early shows, but as seen in the “complete” clip above, the Bowie band and NIN were playing together on “Scary Monsters” at some point.

4: It’s telling that Bowie chose not to attend his induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January 1996, instead playing a gig in Helsinki that night. (Madonna and David Byrne inducted him.)

Sources: Reznor & Cash quotes on “Hurt”: Anthony DeCurtis, In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work; on Cash and “Hurt”: Graeme Thomson, The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings; on “Reptile”: Mitchell Morris, “Musical Virtues”; on Reznor: Alec Wilkinson, “Music From the Machine,” New Yorker, 12 December 2012. Bowie quotes are from various interviews of the 1995-1996 period, mainly compiled by Pegg, Thompson, Buckley, Trynka and Spitz.

Top-bottom: shots from various Bowie/NIN shows, September-October 1995.


A Small Plot of Land

February 14, 2013

ted untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leon Takes Us Outside

January 28, 2013

tricky bird

Leon Takes Us Outside (Leon suite w/”I’d Rather Be Chrome,” “We’ll Creep Together,” annotation/links).
Leon Takes Us Outside (Outside).

Of what was once a tangled forest, all that remains are a few saplings. So the opening track of Outside, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” a minute-and-a-half piece consisting of guitar, piano and synthesizer accompaniment for a voice that murmurs a list of random dates and holidays, is the only surviving piece of a 21-minute musical suite.

Likely planned as the first of the three Leon suites, the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, which begins with the “Leon Takes” fragment, devotes much of its length to two movements that have been bootlegged —the “OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence and “We’ll Creep Together,” the latter unfortunately circulating in a maimed version. Where the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite featured a set of paired characters (detective/suspect, child victim/elderly witness), “Leon” centers on the mysterious figure of “Leon Blank,” outsider artist and possible killer/martyr. The only other voices appearing in the suite are those of Bowie’s various deranged narrators and of the detective Nathan Adler, who apparently sings the climactic “I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence.

While Leon Blank’s perspective survives in several of the Outside songs (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” whose ancestor may be in the “Leon Takes” suite, is from his POV, for example), this intro fragment is the only time that you hear Leon “speak.” He’s just whispering a stream of random information, a conflation of American and British (Leon mentions both Michaelmas Day and Martin Luther King Day, says both “July 6th” and “5th March”), as though he’s programming a string of code, a sequence to wake up the machine. As Nicholas Pegg noted, its similarity to the buzz-and-murmur opening of one of Eno’s most recent projects at the time, U2’s Zooropa, is likely no coincidence.

leon can ya hear?

These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live.’

Bowie, co-interview with Eno for Time Out, by Dominic Wells, 1995.

Bowie’s only published information about the Leon character was in the “Nathan Adler Diary,” which noted that Leon was a 22-year old of mixed race who had a rap sheet (including “plagiarism without a license”), and in one of the official Adler segues, where Adler recalled Leon jumping on stage at midnight and, wielding a machete, cutting “zeroes” in everything, and eventually ripping a hole in “the fabric of time itself.”

Even by the standards of the Outside “non-narrative,” the Leon character is a cipher. Still, he generally seems meant to represent the “outsider” artist figure that so fascinated Bowie and Eno at the time (e.g., their visit to the artist’s wing of Gugging Asylum). And in particular, the character seems partially inspired by Tricky, a young British musician who was a favorite of Bowie’s in the mid-Nineties and who Bowie would soon “interview” in a bizarre article for (see the upcoming “The Narratives.”)

Leon’s rap sheet seems to reference Tricky’s life. The son of a Ghanaian-English mother and Jamaican father, Tricky had spent time in prison as a youth for allegedly buying counterfeit £50 notes from a friend, who later grassed on him to the police. And by 1994, when Tricky had split from the rap collective Massive Attack and was finishing his debut Maxinquaye, he was arguably the most vital musician working in Britain. Bowie rewrote him as Leon, a boundary-shattering artist who gets caught in a narrative web, and he used some of Tricky’s sonic trademarks—ambient street noise, esp. the sound of rain, and Tricky’s own murmuring flow, which Bowie is arguably imitating on “Leon Takes”—as signifiers on Outside.

Was Bowie guilty here of fetishizing Tricky, or “outsider” artists (esp. racial minorities) in general? (The late Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is also in the mix here—soon after he made Outside, Bowie would play Andy Warhol in Julian Schabel’s bio-pic of Basquiat.) We’ll dig into this more in the upcoming “Narratives” entry. But it was in keeping with an established Bowie strategy. He was an adventurer who needed occasionally to replenish his stock of forward scouts, so he appropriated various “outsiders” for his own ends, whether as collaborators or as symbols (or, in Iggy Pop’s case, both).

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released (“Leon Takes” song fragment) in September 1995 on 1. Outside.

Top: Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, 1994.