Do Anything You Say

August 18, 2009

doanysay

Do Anything You Say.

Anatomy of a dud single: a patchwork lyric of place-filler phrases; a monotonous one-line chorus that wears on the nerves because it’s repeated so damn much; a would-be soul groove that, after a mildly inspiring start, seems to just skip in place; and some woeful backing vocals (I mean, you’re cutting a rock & roll single, guys—give it some zing: you sound like a bunch of conscripts). Pronounced dead on arrival the moment it was released.

“Do Anything You Say” is one of Bowie’s last soul-influenced compositions and one of his most inconsequential releases—it’s notable only for marking the full stop to a style Bowie never mastered and finally abandoned. (Pye was one of the major Northern Soul labels, so perhaps the label wanted Bowie to try his hand at something more uptempo and dance-oriented.)

The backing band is Bowie’s latest collection—The Buzz, consisting of John Hutchinson (lead guitarist, who would become one of Bowie’s closest collaborators in the late ’60s), Derek Fearnley (b), John Eager (d) and Derek Bayes (organ). They sound pretty much interchangeable with the ill-fated Lower Third and a frustrated Tony Hatch would replace them with session players for Bowie’s next single.

Recorded 7 March 1966 and released as Pye 17079 on 1 April 1966 (Pye Singles).

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How Does the Grass Grow?

July 16, 2015

pj-harvey

How Does the Grass Grow?

The Next Day was conceived and recorded in secrecy and there’s little of the contemporary in it. Supposedly. “We’re not very impressed with today’s music,” Tony Visconti said, in his role as Voice of Bowie in 2013. “We weren’t listening to anything current. It all sounds like it was made by the same person….It could be the same production crew, it could be the same singer, everybody is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are very flimsy.”

That said, one recent album casts a shadow on Next Day: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, released on Valentine’s Day 2011, and the heavyweight of its decade so far. At times Harvey goes up country and sends back gnomic reports, other times she sings in a city square. So her piano study White Chalk is countered by Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, a millennial New York album that elegized a New York about to die. (Harvey learned she’d won the Mercury Prize for Stories on 9/11/01, while stuck in a locked-down Washington D.C., watching tanks rumble around near her hotel.)

Let England Shake was another “public” album. Written in 2007-2009 and recorded over five weeks in 2010, its spark came when Harvey learned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had their official photographers and writers. She wondered if a war could have an official composer. To Drowned in Sound, she said: “My whole thinking around the writing of the record was very much around the idea of ‘if I was appointed the official “song correspondent”, how would I bring the stories home, how would I relay them to people.‘ “(See Wire’s “Reuters“: “sooner or later/the end will arrive…this is your correspondent, running out of tape…”).

With the Bush/Blair wars as her backdrop, Harvey used another generation’s wars for imagery, particularly World War One (one text was Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli, which inspired two lyrics) and its shorthand: trenches, barbed wire, gas, broken trees, shells, fields of poppies and blood. “In a way, I wanted [my] voice to be quite unobtrusive but just to relay the story,” she said. “Almost like a witness, who is just narrating the stories and bringing them back from the place that they happened.”

pjh

A set of love songs between doomed young men and the island for which they’re dying, Let England Shake is choked in sediment, its songs patched with pieces of older songs. The chassis of the great Police break-up song “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” becomes the spine of “The Glorious Land,” where blood makes the grass grow. “The Words That Maketh Murder” winks at “George of the Jungle” (Bush of the Desert) and quotes “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran’s United Nations joke seems sad here—for Cochran, the UN had meant authority, the faraway adult world, a place of prestige and power). “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” plays on xylophone during a lull in a battle. Said El Kurdi, recorded in 1920s Baghdad, wails as if he’s seen what’s coming; a British woman sings counterpoint 90 years later. More ghosts come and go—Niney the Observer‘s “Blood and Fire,” reveille trumpets, Russian folk songs, army chants, sea shanties, gabbled sounds of carnival nights and marching seasons.

Like Bowie, Harvey took her time in writing the album (though doing so in reverse,  first writing the lyrics, then coming up with songs) and she used her reliable small crew of musicians (John Parish and Mick Harvey, with whom she’d worked for decades). And possibly like Bowie, she’d first considered making the record in Berlin but wound up recording it down the street from her home. “[Berlin] was a city I was finding quite interesting at the time and wanted to work there,” she told The Quietus. “But I went over to Berlin and couldn’t find a place that felt right, and then, just coincidentally, the man who runs this church [in Dorset] as an arts centre approached me and said if I ever wanted to use it for rehearsing I could, because he liked my music and knew I lived nearby.”

Helmand

There are a few Next Day songs in the England Shake mode: songs crammed with old violence, history as haunting. The title track comes to mind, as does the bizarre “How Does the Grass Grow?” whose refrain is the closest Bowie’s come to the cracked sound of “The Laughing Gnome” in decades.

Where Let England Shake was small, portable and sufficient in sound, like an early response to Cameronian austerity (Harvey mainly used her two-man pit crew, each of whom could play any instrument and sing when needed), “How Does the Grass Grow?” is like an overfilled mailbox, with its array of feedback squalls, keyboard lines doubled by vocal dubs, mutters and laughs lurking in the margins of the mix, treated cymbal crashes, organ swells, a great two-note groan of a synth bass hook. The distortion applied to Bowie’s voice in the verses even suggests the bandpass-filtered vocals in Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (a song also lurking in Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day”).

It likely began as a writing exercise in the Lodger vein, despite Visconti claiming the track “was very different, new-style Bowie.” Bowie started with a refrain from Jerry Lordan’s “Apache” (as performed by the Shadows), keeping the top melody while slightly altering the chords (so Lordan’s F-G-C/Am becomes F#6*-Ab-Bbm). Then he simply reversed the chord sequence to get his verse progression—Bbm-Ab-F#6. The key was a typical Bowie shadow-blend, a gloomy B-flat minor tonality with dreams of escape into D-flat major, giving the song a knotted-up tension that it can’t dispel even in the two guitar solos.

Bowie rewriting “Apache” recalls Iggy Pop’s claim that he and Bowie, on Lust for Life, had taken a bunch of old songs and messed around with them enough so that no one would recognize them anymore. Not quite the case here—Bowie left enough “Apache” in the mix to have to share co-composing credit with the Lordan estate.

The lyric’s some Eastern Europe of Bowie’s imagination: another of his war-bled Warsaws. The backdrop could be Bosnia or Hungary or Ukraine (the “official” Bowie words for the song appear to be “Balkan,” “burial” and “reverse”); the line about the village girls hail from a 1967 essay by Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, describing the Russian village of Zhukovka (“television antennas stick up from the gray, tumbledown roofs and the girls wear nylon blouses and sandals from Hungary. But the grass and birch forest have a sweet smell“). It’s life in the West’s broken mirror, with sandals from a country without a seashore, or wild boys riding cheap Latvian mopeds (the Riga-1 was the first model, ca. 1965, further grounding the song in the Sixties): kids making “a life out of nothing.”

These are minor details: the song mainly harps on sex and death (there’s a trysting place where “we struggled with our guns.”). Bowie sings like a fanatic wielding a megaphone, keeping to a small range of notes, his phrasing in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tradition of jamming in as many syllables as he can screw into a set of bars. The singer (a coward, “a white face in prison”) wants to reverse time so that “the girls would fill with blood”: the girls are slaughtered and he wishes he could somehow fill their veins full again, but it’s also a lurid menstrual image. Only the earth survives, its mud absorbing bones and blood and entrails. Blow a hole in the ground, and soon enough grass claims it; mow down a row of trees (which die like Spartans, standing firm in a line) and their corpses feed mosses.

The refrain “how does the grass grow? blood! blood! blood!” came from Bowie reading about military training camp chants. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a variation on the line is part of the chant that R. Lee Ermey leads his troops in (see also Johnny Rico’s 2007 Afghanistan memoir Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green.) “It’s about the way the soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers…part of a chant they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy,” Visconti said.

Almost three minutes into this loud, claustrophobic track, the tempo slows and a D major bridge begins, the song shaking out of a bad dream. Bowie sings as “Bowie” for the first time, sounding mournful, if a bit removed. Though more ghosts appear—there are hints of “Shadow Man” and “Under Pressure” in the phrasing—there’s a feeling of stolen beauty, a hard-won peace (or at least that a cease-fire’s been called). Then it’s a staircase fall into another guitar solo, more “Apache” refrains and blood chants. Dancing out in A major, hanging on Gail Ann Dorsey’s circular bassline, “How Does the Grass Grow?” ends by unearthing yet another old song: “Boys Keep Swinging.” Remember how that one goes: You can wear a uniform. Other boys check out you out, at least before they take aim at you.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

*The F-sharp chord’s made an F#6 (F#-A#-C#-Eb) because Bowie’s hitting an Eb note when singing over the chord. (A detail noticed by Clifford Slapper, to whom I’m indebted for puzzling out the song and noting the “Boys Keep Swinging” reference). Augmenting chords is central to the track: Gerry Leonard extends B-flat minor chords in the refrains by playing F, G, Ab and G guitar notes that make the underlying Bbms  consecutively, Bbm, Bbm6, Bbm7 and Bbm6. See also the keyboards augmenting D major chords in the bridge (playing A-F#-G#). (Thanks again to Clifford for spotting these.)

Top: Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, 2011; band, church, Dorset; British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011 (Reuters).


Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

November 21, 2014

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

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

Oliver North, Fox News, 18 March 2003.

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

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

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

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

falldog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Everyone Says ‘Hi’

August 15, 2014

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Everyone Says ‘Hi.’
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Metro Mix).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (live, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Top of the Pops, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi.’ (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Parkinson, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Hypershow, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Quelli Che…Il Calcio, 2002.)
Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (Live with Regis and Kelly, 2002).
Everyone Says ‘Hi.’ (Claudia Brücken, 2012).

We all feel very alone, don’t we: often. Too often: that’s why we make such a thing about being with people [and] become social animals. It’s very scary to know that in those last moments we’ll be absolutely alone.

Bowie, TV interview, 2002.

We thought we lost you: it will all come back

New Pornographers, “Adventures In Solitude.”

Slotted early on as a single, “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” was partially outsourced to the London-based production team of Brian Rawling and Gary Miller (the architects of Cher’s “Believe“). At Looking Glass Studios in New York, Bowie and Tony Visconti recorded vocals, and Carlos Alomar marked his return to the fold with some guitar dubs, but much of the track was the work of London pros: bassist John Read, percussionist Sola Akingbola (Jamiroquai), cellist Philip Sheppard (who worked with Jeff Buckley, Scott Walker and Jarvis Cocker) and keyboardist Dave Clayton (ABC, Simply Red). (Miller also played some guitar; he and Rawling added synthesizer overdubs).

The result was a glittering bauble of a track, its main hook Sheppard’s electric cello line, its undercarriage a chugging acoustic guitar (and some unmistakable Alomar rhythm fills) and its mix garnished with whooshing loops, Akingbola’s chimes and rattles, synthesizers playing games of charades (now an accordion, now a whistle, now a bassoon) and some doo-wop backing vocals by Bowie and Visconti in the bridge. An apparent influence was Jeff Lynne, from the ELO-style dramatically-bowed celli to the lead guitar in the bridge, which has the feel of Lynne’s work “recreating” the Beatles in the mid-Nineties (esp. “Real Love“).

Sometimes when Bowie sang “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” live in 2002, he performed with a big cheery smile on his face, urging the crowd to raise their hands and become “swaybots,” to use a term coined by my dear friend Mike Slezak to describe the coached, arrhythmic American Idol audience. (Other times he was more somber.)

“Everyone Says ‘Hi'” fared poorly, barely cracking the Top 20 in the UK (the only country where it charted). To some, it was the work of an aging rocker losing the plot. Compared to the grand ferocity of “Slow Burn” (a single which, in some markets, “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” replaced), “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” felt a bit sappy, sentimental, indulgent. Some reviewers assumed it was just an old dad’s song, intended for Duncan Jones.

Yet it was as much a rumination on death, loss and lack of belief as the grand “Last Songs” of Heathen, and one far more human-scaled. We tend to face tragedy with platitudes, busy-work, weak jokes and “making do.” If “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” is a shallow-seeming response to death, it’s one more emotionally resonant, at least for me, than the epic register of “Sunday.” Take the broken way that Bowie sings Didn’t know the right thing…to say. It sounds hollow as he sings it—he knows it—he sings it anyway.

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Rosy won’t you please come home?
Your room’s clean and no one’s in it.

The Kinks, “Rosy, Won’t You Please Come Home.”

In an interview at the time, Bowie said the song’s impetus came from his memory of his father’s death in 1969: how his mind couldn’t accept that his father was dead. “I kind of thought that he’d just put his raincoat and his cap on and that he’d be back in a few weeks or something. And I felt like that for years.”

News of death comes, as it often does, in pieces and rumors, with the mind trying, and often unwilling, to accept it. The singer puts blame on others: he’s still holding out hope. “They said you moved away/Happened oh so quietly/…they say.” (Bowie had the departed “you” leave by ship rather than fly away: taking a ship seemed sadder, more of a one-way voyage). He’s left in regret, gets tongue-tied, makes a lame, dark joke (“hope it’s not too hot” where you are now).

It’s a song for anyone who’s drifted away; it’s an open letter to a depressed friend or lover (“you can always come home,” Bowie sings, calling back to Ray Davies’ sad “Rosy, Won’t You Please Come Home”*). Its last refrain could be the voice of our collected dead, calling back from the other side: your old dogs are there, your mother and father, even “the guy upstairs” whom you may get to meet one day. And when Claudia Brücken covered “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” in 2012, complete with Major Tom video, it was a song for the then-vanished David Bowie, a performer who’d gone away quietly, with no one noticing; it was a note that the world missed him, wished he’d send a letter to let us know how he was doing.

There’s a pippy energy to “Everyone Says ‘Hi'”: it’s not going to be a downer. Bowie does a few tricks (“a BIG trip” is a jolt up a seventh, then down a third) and jostles the song’s A minor key in the bridge, with its E-flat (“if the money”) and G# (…home”) chords. The coda alternates two major chords (F/G “girl next door”) with two minor ones (Dm/Em “guy upstairs”). The key line is “buy a little frame: something cheap.” It’s a joke, a bluff: the singer’s trying to play off how much the loss has hit him. It’s also a clue to the song itself: the sweet melody, the bright, fizzy mix, is the cheap frame.

“Everyone Says ‘Hi'” is modest and tinny, sweet and amenable—it sounds as if it’s meant to be piped over a shopping mall PA or played on a Virgin Airlines in-flight promo video—and heartbroken. We will do anything but accept the knowledge that everyone we love will go away and that we may never see them again, that everything ends (even The Uncle Floyd Show). By fate or coincidence, the single was released in Britain on the same day, 25 years earlier, that Marc Bolan died.

rw2002

Recorded: (vocal, guitar tracks) October-November 2001, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (overdubs, mixing) ca. December 2001-January 2002, Sub Urban Studios, London. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and as a single (Columbia/ISO 673134 3, UK #20) that September (see the upcoming “Slow Burn” entry for more on the jumbled single releases for this album). The “METRO” remix was issued as a US 12″ promo in January 2003.

* Written about Ray Davies’ sister, who’d moved to Australia, there’s a troubling undercurrent to the song—Rosy could be dead or disappeared, the singer keeping her room empty and clean to avoid reality. Davies later wrote “Come Dancing” about his sister Rene, who had died of a heart attack one night after dancing—the song’s mix of cheeriness, anger and melancholy has a bit in common, tonally, with “Everyone Says ‘Hi’.”

Top: Sarah Glidden, “Beijing Airport,” 2001; Robin Williams, 2002.


I Got You Babe

August 17, 2010

Marianne Faithfull and David Bowie, I Got You Babe.

Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered to the trivial.

The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.

It is bewitching

Celebrities have an intimate life and a life in the grid of two hundred million. For them, there is no distance between the two grids in American life. Of all Americans, only they are complete.

George W.S. Trow, “Within the Context of No Context.”

Between 1973 and 1977, David Bowie waged an inadvertent guerrilla war against television, particularly American television. In these years, Bowie appeared on some of the most popular TV programs of the era and disrupted them. He may not even have meant to, for it wasn’t that Bowie was wild or outrageous when he showed up on Dinah!, or Cher, or Soul Train, or The Dick Cavett Show. If anything, he was gracious, charming, polite, and happy to flatter the host.

Yet Bowie’s emaciated coke-wraith appearance was disturbing purely as a visual, and even while sitting on a couch bantering with a host, or singing a medley of awful contemporary hits with Cher, Bowie came across as estranged, permanently distracted, standing at a remove from humanity, as if he was an extraterrestrial who had learned to speak English by watching television.

TV, with its rituals and its rhythms, was meant to reassure, to serve as the commons for millions of atomized people, but Bowie’s appearances upset the timing. Bowie, whether he wanted to or no, couldn’t fit properly into the frame, and his freakish appearance, the way he seemed tuned to a different key than everyone else on the screen, in turn distorted the “normal” TV celebrities. His oddness brought out their falseness. He made Cher inexplicable, he made Dinah Shore seem like a malevolent cartoon. Bowie broke the contract of celebrity, which is that famous, beautiful people exist in bright excess purely for our enjoyment. He was a celebrity who made no sense; he seemed like a visitation. Television was relieved when he finally left it alone.

If this era ended with the bizarre pairing of Bowie and Bing Crosby for a Christmas special in 1977, the project having reached the limit of absurdity, it began in October 1973 with Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, a televised stage revue shot in London’s Marquee Club, meant to promote the just-released Pin Ups for NBC’s The Midnight Special.

The 1980 Floor Show lacked the cool and reserve of Bowie’s later TV appearances, as Bowie was still determining how to kill off Ziggy Stardust: the compromise was to do glam rock as avant-garde theater. (The performance is a mix of Bowie’s past and future—Mick Ronson’s still there, while the backing singers are the Astronettes, on whom Bowie tried out early sketches of Young Americans compositions.) Much of the Floor Show is intended to visually shock, with Bowie wearing a succession of bizarre outfits, from a fishnet body-stocking adorned with a pair of gold lamé hands grasping Bowie’s chest, to a Tristan Tzara-inspired leotard with a keyhole on Bowie’s torso. It ended with Bowie in ostrich plumes and Marianne Faithfull wearing a backless nun’s habit, singing “I Got You Babe.”

As Dave Marsh wrote of the original Sonny and Cher single, “both the voices on ‘I Got You Babe’ are young and dumb [but] what they’re saying boils down to this: Love redeems everything, no matter how ridiculous, moronic, or grotesque. Noisy and misshapen as those declarations may be, they’re also an essence of what rock & roll brought to pop music that hadn’t been there before:…a willingness to reach for effects and worry about decorum later, an understanding of where to find the sublime amidst the trivial.” Bowie and Faithfull live up to this, somehow crafting a touching, human performance out of the most outlandish of materials.

Top: Bowie and Faithfull, in love.

Here is the complete 1980 Floor Show, in televised order, as found in fragments: 1984/Dodo, Sorrow, Bulerias (the Spanish prog band Carmen), Everything’s Alright, Space Oddity, I Can’t Explain, As Tears Go By (Faithfull), Time, Wild Thing (The Troggs), The Jean Genie, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (not broadcast), 20th Century Blues (Faithfull), I Got You Babe.


Poll, Day 1: Somebody Up There Likes Us

December 15, 2015

bowie-624-1363820672

To begin, I thought we should honor the songs that, of the 351 songs that placed, only got one single vote.

It’s a motley of: a) Iggy Pop songs, b) Bowie bonus tracks, oddments and rarities, c) Tin Machine stuff, and d) songs sometimes mocked by Bowie fandom and critics (cough). But they all got a vote! Someone thinks enough of each one of these songs to have included them in a list of their top 30 favorite Bowie songs ever.

So, raise a glass to the single-vote songs. Have cheer, lonelyhearts: somebody up there likes you.

Amazing. Amlapura. Atomica. Baby Can Dance. Beat of Your Drum. A Better Future. Betty Wrong. Bleed Like a Craze, Dad. Chilly Down. Ching-a-Ling. Crack City. The Cynic. Dancing Out in Space. Day-In, Day-Out. Did You Ever Have a Dream. Do Anything You Say. Dodo. Don’t Bring Me Down. Don’t Look Down. Fall In Love With Me. Fill Your Heart. Future Legend.

Get Real. God Only Knows. Gunman. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. If I’m Dreaming My Life. Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary). I’ve Been Waiting For You. Law (Earthling’s On Fire). Leon Takes Us Outside. Lightning Frightening. The Loneliest Guy. Love Song.

Maid of Bond Street. Man In the Middle. Mass Production. New York Telephone Conversation.* New York’s In Love. Real Cool World. Reflektor.** Running Gun Blues. (She Can) Do That.*** Shining Star (Makin’ My Love). Silver Treetop School for Boys. Success. Tiny Girls. Tired of My Life. Uncle Arthur. Waterloo Sunset. Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Wishful Beginnings. Without You I’m Nothing. Working Class Hero. You Can’t Talk. Zion.

And “Dancing in the Street” got two votes.

*Doesn’t qualify, but meant as a ‘protest’ vote against the cruelty of having to decide which Bowie song should get the #30 slot on a ballot. Hey, I understand.
** Doesn’t technically qualify, but if you love “Reflektor” enough for it to make your top Bowie 30, I’ll record it.
*** Regular readers will likely guess who this voter was.

Next: the almost-theres. Songs 100-51.

Top: a semi-retired gentleman salutes your picks. (“Crack City”? Nice!”)


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

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

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

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

db1

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

David-Bowie-1967

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

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

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

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

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

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

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


A Press Bibliography, 1960-1970

March 23, 2015

David Bowie, 1965 image

There was no room in the book for this (bibliography was already rather enormous) but I thought it necessary to credit these pieces somewhere.

So here’s the front line of Bowie reporting. So many impressions, quotes, descriptions, etc. that make up much of any Bowie biography or critical study are owed to the work of ill-paid music journalists, who went to the shows and backstage, who talked to Bowie, his managers and his labels. Collectively these articles offer an invaluable resource: the eyes, ears and thoughts of Bowie’s contemporaries, untainted by revision. And it’s important to note that many of these writers were women—Penny Valentine, Lisa Robinson, Sheila More, Mary Harron, Ellen Willis, Kate Simpson, Lillian Roxon and more.

Below is a list of articles I found in my research (1971-1976 are on another page). I read the majority of them, but some I know only via references in other books and compilations. Kevin Cann’s essential Any Day Now is an enormous reference for documenting and sometimes reprinting 1960-1974 articles. Bowie Wonderworld has a decent number reprinted, as do (starting in 1972) Ziggy Stardust Companion and (starting in 1974) Golden Years.

If you know of any other contemporary Bowie articles not found in these lists, let me know and I’ll add them.

1960

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“David (13) Leads Sport Revolution,” Bromley & Kentish Times, 11 November 1960.

1962

“Nearly 4,000 at School Fete,” Bromley & Kentish Times, 22 June 1962.

1963

“Konrads to Cut a Disc,” Bromley & Kentish Times, 23 August 1963.
“A.C.B.,” “West Wickham Strikes Blow for the ‘Pops,” unknown paper, ca. 25 October 1963.

1964
djco

“Bloom Goes Into Pop,” Evening News, 4 June 1964.
“Liza Jane (review),” Bromley Times, 5 June 1964.
“Liza Jane (review), New Musical Express, 5 June 1964.
Thomas, Leslie, Evening News (column on DB and the King Bees), 5 June 1964.
Nightingale, Anne, “Liza Jane” (review), Evening Argus, 17 June 1964.
“D. Jones and Co,” Record Mirror, 20 June 1964.
Chatham Standard (article on Bowie joining Manish Boys), 18 August 1964.
Beat 64 (diary item on Bowie), September 1964.
“Hair Abounds!,” Beat 64, October 1964.
Beat 64, (article on Bowie and Manish Boys), November 1964.
Thomas, Leslie, “For Those Beyond the Fringe,” Evening News, 2 November 1964.
Chatham Standard (interview with Manish Boys’ Paul Rodriguez), 15 December 1964.

1965

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“Row Over Davie’s Hair,” Daily Mirror, 3 March 1965.
“All Set! As Davy Jones Has a Trim and a Set,” Evening News and Star, 8 March 1965.
“Gadzooks! It’s All Happening,” Radio Times, 8 March 1965.
“Home Grown (“I Pity the Fool” review),” Chatham Standard, March 1965.
Kent Messenger (article on breakup of Manish Boys), 21 May 1965.
“Bit Much,” Bowie letter to Melody Maker, 10 July 1965.
“Davie…,” photo caption (p: Roy Carson), Record Mirror, 14 August 1965.
“Davie Changes His Hairstyle and His Group,” Kentish Times, 20 August 1965.
“Thanet Group Should Reach Top 30,” Kent Messenger, ca. 20 August 1965.
“’You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving’ (review),” Record Mirror, 11 September 1965.
Fabulous (fashion photo shoot & caption), 2 October 1965.
Boyfriend, (fashion photo shoot), October 1965.

1966

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“Can’t Help Thinking About Me (review),” Record Retailer, 6 January 1966.
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me (review), NME, 14 January 1966.
“Pop Star Changes His Image,” Kentish Times, 14 January 1966.
“Hey Presto—There’s a New Name From Davie Jones’ Locker,” Music Echo, 22 January 1966.
Kentish Times (article on Bowie and Ralph Norton), 28 January 1966.
King, Jonathan, “Bowie’s Record Does Not Deserve to Die,” Music Echo, 13 February 1966.
“A Message to London from Dave,” Melody Maker, 26 February 1966.
“Pop Group’s Hopes Dashed,” (Phil Lancaster interview on Lower Third’s breakup), Walthamstow Independent, 11 March 1966.
Springfield, Dusty, “’Do Anything You Say’ (review),” Melody Maker, 2 April 1966.
Fabulous (Bowie mention), 16 April 1966.
“Crowning Moment” (article on Bowie at the Bromley May Queens), 6 May 1966.
“Big L Disc Night,” Kent Messenger, 26 August 1966.
“’Rubber Band’ (review),” Disc & Music Echo, 2 December 1966.
“Are These the ’67 Chartbusters?” Disc & Music Echo, 31 December 1966.

1967

newspaper-1

“’The Laughing Gnome’ (review),” NME, 15 April 1967.
David Bowie (LP review),” Record Retailer, 3 June 1967.
“Hear David Bowie—He’s Something New,” Disc & Music Echo, 10 June 1967.
David Bowie (LP review),” NME, 24 June 1967.
Jackie, 8 July 1967.
“Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Record Retailer, 15 July 1967.
Jones, Peter, “Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Record Mirror, July 1967.
Valentine, Penny, “Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Disc, July 1967.
Welch, Chris, “Blind Date With Syd Barrett (inc. ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ review),” Melody Maker, 22 July 1967.
Jackie (item on DB), 22 July 1967.
Osbourne, Christine, “On Our Wavelength,” Fabulous 208, 29 July 1967.
“Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Cashbox, 2 September 1967.
Deane, Barbara Marilyn, “Today I Feel So Happy,” Chelsea News (Bowie interview), 15 September 1967.

67fab

“Bowie Bows to Age,” Fabulous 208, 30 September 1967.
Hyland, Mike, “In the Groove,” Schenectady Gazette, 21 October 1967.
“The Lean and Dreamy David,” Fabulous 208, 25 November 1967.
“On the Air and On the Boards,” Bromley Advertiser, 21 December 1967.
Bromley Times (article on DB current activities), 22 December 1967.
Chapman, Don, “Miming Promise (review of ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’),” Oxford Mail, 29 December 1967.
Young, B.A., Financial Times (review of ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’), 29 December 1967.

1968

times11dec68restlessgen

“Pierrot in Turquoise (review),” The Stage, 1 January 1968.
“Eye Spy!,” Jackie, 3 February 1968.
Roberts, Peter, “Burlesque in Rhyme,” The Times, 8 March 1968.
Farjeon, Annabel, Evening Standard (‘Pierrot in Turquoise’ review), 8 March 1968.
“Bromley 21-Year-old Songwriter Goes On Stage,” Bromley Times, 8 March 1968.
“Pierrot in Turquoise (review)”, Stage and Television Today, 14 March 1968.
“Rex Set: Festival Hall, June 3,” International Times (review of T. Rex/DB show), 14-27 June 1968.
More, Sheila, “The Restless Generation: 2,” The Times, 11 December 1968.

1969

IT_1969-08-15_B-IT-Volume-1_Iss-62_0012

Evening News (article/photo on Love You Till Tuesday), 14 February 1969.
Croydon Advertiser (poss. DB article? unconfirmed), 21 February 1969.
Finnigan, Mary, “Announcement of Beckenham Arts Lab,” International Times, 23 May-5 June 1969.
Valentine, Penny, “David Bowie—Amazing Sound! (“Space Oddity” review),” Disc & Music Echo, 12 July 1969.
Welch, Chris, “Space Oddity (review),” Melody Maker, 12 July 1969.
Finnigan, Mary, “An Interview With David Bowie,” International Times, 15-21 August 1969.
Classen, Jojanneke, “Bowie’s Great Love is His Arts Lab,” Het Parool, 30 August 1969.
Welch, Chris, “Beckenham Arts Lab,” Melody Maker, ca. September 1969.
Welch, Chris, “A Mixture of Dali, 2001 and the Bee Gees,” Melody Maker, 11 October 1969.
Record Mirror (Bowie interview), 11 October 1969.
“Chart Control to David Bowie,” Disc & Music Echo, 11 October 1969.
Norman, Tony, “David Bowie Hopes to Take Over a Road!,” Top Pops, 25 October 1969.
Valentine, Penny, “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (& “David Bowie: track by track”), Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969.
“This Is David Bowie (Space Oddity review)”, Music Now!, November 1969.
“Bowie TV Special, Solo Concert,” NME, ca. November 1969.
Coxhill, Gordon, “Don’t Dig Too Deep, Pleads Oddity David Bowie,” NME, 15 November 1969.

69bb

“Popsterren Over Popplaten [Pop Stars on Pop Records]” (Bowie reviews new singles), “David Bowie: Hit After 5 Years,” Muziek Expres, November 1969.
“Outsaspace, Outasight,” Fabulous 208, 27 November 1969.
Palmer, Tony, “Up to Date Minstrel,” The Observer, 7 December 1969.
Simpson, Kate, “David Bowie: His Thoughts and Ideas Revealed,” Music Now!, 20 December 1969.
“New Sound” (photo caption, DB and Stylophone), Billboard, 27 December 1969.
Fabulous 208, 27 December 1969 (Bowie and Angela Barnett on cover).

1970

nme70

Robbie, Sandie, “A Real Pop Oddity,” Mirabelle (DB as cover model), 31 January 1970.
Valentine, Penny, “A New Star Shoots Upwards and One Still Shines,” Disc, 14 February 1970.
Nightingale, Anne, Daily Sketch (column mentioning Bowie), 14 February 1970.
“He Likes Our Fish ‘N Chips!” Hull Times, ca. mid-February 1970.
“Bowie Group,” NME, 5 March 1970.
Johnson, Derek, “The Prettiest Star (review), NME, 7 March 1970.
Jones, Peter, “The Prettiest Star (review),” Record Mirror, 7 March 1970.
Valentine, Penny, “The Prettiest Star (review),” Disc & Music Echo, 7 March 1970.
Music Business Weekly, (Prettiest Star review), 7 March 1970.
Daily Mirror, (Prettiest Star review), 7 March 1970.
“David Bowie: A Real Cool Guy,” Mirabelle, 7 March 1970.
Petrie, Gavin, “Bowie’s Bow,” Disc and Music Echo, 12 March 1970.
“The Bridegroom Wore Satin…” (DB wedding), Bromley Times, 27 March 1970.
Telford, Raymond, “Hype and David Bowie’s Future,” Melody Maker, 28 March 1970.
Hughes, Tim and Trevor Richardson, “Bowie For a Song,” Jeremy, March 1970.
Tremlett, George, “Face to Face With David Bowie—My Lost Year,” Jackie, 10 May 1970.
Valentine, Penny, “David Bowie: Music and Life,” Sounds, ? 1970.


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.”

am09

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.”

sm04

“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?

stella02

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.

bbc02

‘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.


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

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

Stage

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

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

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

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

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

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

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

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Script (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

Script (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newton, Lazarus.

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

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

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

Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (2)

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

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

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

Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

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

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

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

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