The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously. Having inherited millennia of scientific and technological knowledge it used this knowledge to indulge in its richest fantasies…An earlier age would have seen the inhabitants of this world as ‘decadent’ or ‘amoral,’ to say the least. But even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time some unconscious knowledge informed their attitudes and made them lose interest in ideals, creeds, philosophies and the conflicts to which such things gave rise.
Michael Moorcock, An Alien Heat, 1972.
Our planet’s stock of minerals and fossil fuels, for instance, is already sadly depleted, and it is only a question of time before it is totally exhausted. Once this occurs, that already tottering technological superstructure—the “technosphere”—that is relentlessly swallowing up our biosphere, will collapse like a house of cards, and the swarming human masses brought into being to sustain it, will in turn find themselves deprived of even this imperfect means of sustenance.
I don’t see much of a future for the human race. I think we’ll probably disappear in the next fifty years.
Goldsmith to Andy Beckett, 2005. (Goldsmith predeceased the human race last year.)
Of all of Bowie’s dystopic and apocalyptic songs (and we’ve many to go), “Five Years” is the most unsettling. The key’s in the details, what Bowie discloses and, more importantly, what he doesn’t—that is, why the world is going to end. It’s as though the planet has received a terminal prognosis and has to get its affairs in order. And Bowie also wisely keeps his perspective on the street, on the masses who, having gotten the news (the same news that “all the young dudes” are carrying, Bowie later said), despair, collapse, debase themselves.
Yet there’s a joy in the refrains of “five years!!” that ring out the song. It’s a final jubilee, a celebration that the miserable struggles of the human race are finally over. The singalong chorus, which Bowie withholds for over half the song, comes as a relief after the string of despairing verses after despairing bridges. All of it is anchored by Woody Woodmansey’s unchanging drum pattern* (Woodmansey said he tried to put “hopelessness into a drumbeat”) and Mick Ronson’s piano chords.
In “Five Years” Bowie tapped into a current of pessimism and resignation that would define 1970s Britain, in novels, films, music and even newscasts (like a 1976 episode of the BBC’s The Money Programme that predicted a 1980 Britain in which “capitalism is but a fond memory”). It wasn’t a solely British phenomenon, of course. US science fiction of the early ’70s was chock full of societal collapses, whether the Planet of the Apes movies or The Omega Man, or novels like Wilson Tucker’s Year of the Quiet Sun, in which time-travelers discover that 20 years is all it takes for America to fall into utter barbarism. An iconic image of the early 1970s is a man standing alone, holding a gun, in a litter-strewn, gutted and empty downtown street.
The millennial fear (hope?) that Western civilization was on the brink of collapse came from all corners, from disillusioned hippies and embattled Leftist sects, from population-boom Cassandras and anti-urbanists (like Robert Allen, an associate editor for The Ecologist who in July 1975 wrote admiringly of the Khmer Rouge, as they were cleansing the cities and taking Cambodian civilization back to nature—“they deserve our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention”), as well as those on the Right who regarded such a collapse as the inevitable end to an indulgent, weak society. Take a film like Dirty Harry, whose contemporary San Francisco setting—a cesspool of muggers, perverts and killers, and the weak government that enables them—already seems post-apocalyptic.
Plus time was running at a Benzedrine pace. It was quite imaginable that human civilization could end in five years, as it seemed as though an age already had expired during the preceding five. To some in 1972, 1967 looked like a lost childhood while 1957 seemed to have occurred on another planet. The future was coming, mercilessly and quickly, to dispatch the present.
The buspeople, and there were many of them,
were shockedandsurprised and amused and annoyed, but when the
word got around that the world was coming to an end at
lunchtime, they put their pride in their pockets with their bustickets and
madelove one with the other.
For “Five Years,” along with the novels and films that had inspired earlier songs like “We Are Hungry Men” or “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie drew from a 1967 Roger McGough poem, “At Lunchtime—A Story of Love.” (Bowie had recited it during his cabaret audition in 1968.) The poem’s set on a bus whose riders, learning the world will end at lunchtime, start having random sex. There’s a funny twist at the end, which I won’t spoil.
In “Five Years” the world also turns upside-down upon hearing the news—policemen kneel to priests, teenage girls try to kill children. Bowie’s narrator makes his way through the wrack covering the streets, trying to chronicle whatever he sees (“my brain hurt like a warehouse”), and only despairs when he remembers seeing a friend (or a former lover) in an ice-cream shop, a moment of insignificance now made unbearably poignant. He joins in the chorus with the rest of the crowd, and sings down the world.
As with other Ziggy Stardust tracks, Bowie uses American slang (“news guy” and “TV” rather than “telly”) in the lyric. Even the clunky phrases (“all the fat skinny people” etc.) work, as they read as the discombobulated thoughts of an overwhelmed kid. Another Ziggy staple is the song’s diatonic chord progression, with G often set against E minor (James Perone pegs it as the “Heart and Soul” chord progression (I-vi-ii-V), the “harmonic core” of the 1950s.)
Bowie cut his vocal track in two takes—the first for the verses and bridges, the second for the chorus—because Ken Scott had to reset the sound levels for the throat-tearing chorus. Ronson mainly keeps to piano, while his scoring (a cello-heavy string section) for the track is a typically fine arrangement.
Recorded 8-15 November 1971. A version was cut for the BBC in January 1972, while the Old Grey Whistle Test TV performance is from 8 February. Featured on Bowie’s 1972-3, 1976 and 1978 tours, along with a stunning performance on the Dinah Shore Show on 3 January 1976. Revived for Bowie’s 2003 tour, while the Arcade Fire duet is from “Fashion Rocks” (if ever an audience deserved an apocalyptic death-curse of a song, it was that one) on 8 September 2005.
182 Let’s Dancedemo: only Nile Rodgers and Erdal Kizilcay have been credited on this—a photograph from the session shows three other people, presumably keyboards, drums and another guitarist or engineer?; sears through: to Timothy White, Musician, May 1983.
183avatar of pure fame: a wonderful phrase coined by “Magic Fly,” one of Tom Ewing’s commenters on Popular’s “Let’s Dance” entry, 27 May 2009; RCA: New York Times, 13 December 1985; Bertelsmann: RCA was folded into the newly-formed BMG which, in 2008, would be sold to Sony; ten million albums: Washington Post, 26 April 1987; Lodger sold: Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust lists purported Bowie global album sales as of 1983, noting that only Changesonebowie and Ziggy Stardust had gone platinum. But that doesn’t jibe with BPI platinum certifications in the UK for Scary Monsters and Best of Bowie (1981) and Hunky Dory (1982).
184 K-Tel: to Hopkins, 231. Best of Bowie was a UK #2; manager of the club: New York Post, 12 January 2016. There are lots of versions of this story—the funniest finds Rodgers desperately trying to get out of the way of a puking Idol, and that’s how he meets Bowie. Another version of the story has Bowie and Rodgers sitting side by side, silently, for hours until Rodgers gets the courage to say hello; in another, a less-inebriated Idol introduces Rodgers to Bowie, his fellow London suburbanite.
185 I want you to make hits…David’s directive: Juby, In Other Words, 187; urge to play around with musical ideas: to Chris Bohn, NME, 16 April 1983; two takes: to Robert Palmer, Penthouse, November 1983; old rock ‘n’ roll records…non-uptight music: quoted in Hopkins, 242, 244; vacuousness: Penthouse, November 1983.
186 my paint and canvas: to Jay Cocks, Time, 18 July 1983; that quality of necessity: to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983; not happening, man: to Trynka, Starman, 315; Donovan meets Newley: Rodgers, Le Freak, 189; youwon’t get played: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 337; strummy chords: Le Freak, 190; afraid to chuck anymore: Rodgers, 7 November 2014, speaking at the Oredev Conference.
187 don’t play that shit: Starman, 316; gated drums: for much more, see Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever. In 1983, Bowie described the Low drum sound as “that “mash” drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the clap sound we’ve got now.”; Collins fell in love with the gated snare: see the Collins-produced “I Know There’s Something Going On” by Frida, in which the former ABBA singer fights for her life against all-conquering drums; annihilates the drums: interview with Kevin Hilton, 21 February 2018; decay out fast…rhythm section was doing: to Stan Hyman and Vicki Greenleaf, Modern Recording and Music, July/August 1983.
188 snapshot of Bowie’s brain: Starman, 316; looked like the future…would be timeless: Oredev Conference, 7 November 2014. serious moonlight: a less occult origin for the line is that, according to Rodgers, Bowie would call a particularly good groove or track “serious.” Bowie once said the phrase was his attempt at an “Americanism”; red shoes: Tanja Stark’s “Confronting David Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses” brilliantly puts the use of the red shoes imagery into a universe of Bowie’s death imagery. David Mallet and Bowie made another iconic video, with red shoes as a corrupting symbol of modern capitalism. It’s best remembered for a few sequences: an Aboriginal boy dragging a machine down a Sydney street; an Aboriginal couple painting a snake on the wall of an art gallery; an immaculate-looking Bowie playing his song in an outback bar where some non-actors are growing agitated at the Aboriginal actors dancing.
189 Modern Loveclean-up single: pop albums once had diminishing returns. A third single, if even released, often charted low. But by the early Eighties, labels were milking one album for years. Epic led the way with Thriller (seven charting singles from a nine-track LP), but many huge mid-Eighties hits were third or fourth singles: “Borderline,” “Purple Rain,” “Hello,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Walk of Life,” “Born in the USA.” Ten years later, labels were harvesting albums so ruthlessly that no one wanted to hear anything else the artist ever did again (e.g., the Spin Doctors, Alanis Morrisette, Hootie and the Blowfish); it all comes from Little Richard: Guitar Player, June 1997.
190 the questions of chaos: The David Bowie Story, 1993. In 1990, talking to the LA Times, Bowie said “Modern Love” was “not one of my favorites,” that he’d tried “to cover two subjects…religion and love…and I don’t think they linked too well….lyrically it was too wishy-washy.”
191 Shake It a longer version of the track (5:20, compared to the album version’s 3:49) was the B-side of the “China Girl” 12″ single; singer’s album: Musician, May 1983; fresh ears: to Tom Doyle, Mojo, August 2018; thumbnails: Le Freak, 191; spiky about my stuff: MTV interview, 27 January 1983.
192 Ricochet fitting its outsider status, “Ricochet” was the only Let’s Dance track not to be issued on a single. It titled an odd promotional film, directed by Gerry Troyna, that documented Bowie’s Australasian tour in late 1983 (in which he didn’t perform the documentary’s title song); it should have rolled: Musician, August 1987.
193 just threw it out there: Rodgers, at a performance for Grammy Week, Village Recording Studio, 2015; “Night Mail”: the rhythm of Bowie’s “march of flowers, march of dimes” hook is a close match to Auden’s lines (“letters of thanks, letters from banks”)
194 Criminal World also the B-side of “Without You” biggest mistake: Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983; major miscalculation…image: Time, 18 July 1983; Robinson: interview tape, recorded ca. June-July 1983.
195banner over me: Penthouse, November 1983. In the first The Book of Lists (1977), Bowie made the list of “Famous Homosexuals,” along with Janis Joplin and Elton John; now it’s changing: Serious Moonlight, 168; puritanical place: Blender, August 2002; I am Rod Stewart: to Spitz, 326.
196 spice in his image: The Face, November 1980; only person who knows this?: to Tim De Lisle, The Independent, 10 September 1995; station to station: to David Keeps, Details, October 1995; Metro: Browne, who died of cancer in 1993, and Godwin had hits as solo acts in the Eighties: Godwin’s “Images of Heaven” and Browne’s “The Wild Places.”
197 Without You in the US, it was Let’s Dance’s fourth single, issued in February 1984, with a Keith Haring cover (EMI America 8190, #73); we’re the opening act: Sound on Sound, April 2005.
198like a hawk…proud to show off his genius: Le Freak, 191.
199 Waiataolder well-dressed audience…requests for tickets: Serious Moonlight, 44; literature of crowd psychology: New York Times, 26 July 1983; the guy who wrote about those people: Serious Moonlight, 54; for three concerts in Chicago…$1.2 million for a single show: Hopkins, 261; $50 million in 1983: Tremlett, 313; posh accent: Starman, 324.
201 Imagine The concert performance appears to have been filmed professionally, perhaps as part of the Ricochet documentary; hip ones of the Sixties: Lennon RKO radio interview, 8 December 1980; the unknown is what it is: Playboy, December 1980; might as well do ‘Imagine’: Starzone Interviews, 113. Tumble and Twirl the B-side of “Tonight,” whose 12″ single has an “extended dance mix” of this song by Steve Thompson, most notable for an up-mixed heavy bassline that sounds like a bowed cello at times.
202 certified platinum: Billboard, 15 December 1984; he does deliver: to David Fricke, Musician, December 1984; huge mistake…scantily-dressed: Washington Post, 26 April 1987; too soon: Rolling Stone: David Bowie: The Ultimate Guide, 2016; much further: Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983; searching for me: Soul Interviews, 16 December 2012. All Bowie had heard of Bramble’s work were demos he’d produced for Jaki Graham; conscious effort to distance himself: Buckley, 359; Heatwave: a band with a rather cursed history. A rhythm guitarist was stabbed to death, their original bassist was stabbed and left temporarily blinded and paralyzed, and the lead singer was paralyzed from the neck down after an auto accident; guy upstairs: Musician, December 1984.
203 going in and doing it…after the snow had gone: Juby, 119; Le Studio: an “environmental” studio that opened in 1974, it had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall (as seen in Rush’s video for “Limelight”). It closed in the 2000s, being essentially abandoned to the elements until it was partially destroyed by fire in 2017; jack shit…wanted to get the record out: Buckley, 360, 362; violent: Musician, August 1987; breathing space…buying time: Wipe-out (Hong Kong TV), December 1983.
204 Haiti: Pop and Friedman’s calamitous time in Haiti is well-depicted in Trynka’s Bleed; solitude in foreign climes: Musician, December 1984; Brooke Shields: NME, 29 September 1984.
205didn’t want what I earned for myself: David Bowie Story, 1993; frantic complex swing: Musician, December 1984. Don’t Look Down mix: its backing tracks were used as incidental music in Jazzin’ for Blue Jean.
206 proper reggae: NME, 29 September 1984; cut lines: Bowie changed the opening of the first verse, which Pop had repeated later in the song. Pop’s blunt “Why be bored? Who scared you? Why stay here? It’s no piece of cake” becomes “No, I won’t be bored/ I won’t be there. Look at life: it’s no piece of cake.” Blue Jean exact release date is hard to pin down. It’s reviewed in the 8 September 1984 Billboard and the 15 September 1984 Cash Box; it’s first reported being added to radio playlists in the 10 September 1984 Eurotipsheet and in the 7 September 1984 Radio & Records. As there are other indications that the single was out in the UK the week of 3 September 1984, that’s my guess; Padgham: After Tonight, he went to London to record Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, which in a way comes off as successful realization of Tonight: it has a similar production style and vocal treatments, rhythm guitar work that sounds like Carlos Alomar outtakes, horns, Arif Martin string arrangements. But NJR has an internal consistency—its uptempo singles are embedded within a wider set of gloomy pieces, making the former seem like manic flights in a depressive’s journal. Also, there are no covers.
207Jazzin’ for Blue Jean: the Julien Temple video used the age-old formula where the star plays both nerd and mean cool kid (for a relatively recent example, see Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist. Mike Sarne’s 1962 UK hit “Come Outside,” where Sarne’s hapless character, failing to pick up a bored-sounding girl (he’s “a smooth-talking East End horndog who’s nowhere near as suave as he thinks he is,” as Andy Zax noted), is almost certainly an influence on Bowie’s sad-sack “Vic” in the video. I Keep Forgettin’ given its more formal title (“I Keep Forgetting”) on Tonight’s first US release.
208 Smokey Robinson…wild dance: Ken Emerson, Always Magic In the Air, 170; the single: Wand 126, released in July 1962, charted in September (#55 pop). While Leiber and Stoller are credited as co-composers with occasional collaborator Gilbert Garfield on the Jackson single, they’re the only ones credited on Bowie’s and other cover versions. Loving the Alien issued as a single in May 1985. Its video (directed by Bowie and Mallet), with its mix of surreal imagery (the backing band out of de Chirico paintings; the Gilbert and George reference first seen on the LP cover) and high Eighties cheese (Bowie’s primary outfit and ur-Rick Astley dancing) sums up the song in a way.
209 Anderson: though Bowie took pains to say that Glass was his only inspiration, “Loving the Alien” has affinities to “O Superman” and plays with similar themes of faith and power; Fairlight: played by an uncredited musician, Rob Yale, who later claimed he was one of the first people in Canada to have mastered the instrument; Salibi: in The Bible Came from Arabia, he argued that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were in the Saudi provinces of Asir and the southern Hijaz. While Salibi’s book hadn’t been published when Bowie wrote “Loving the Alien,” his ideas were circulating in articles in the Christian Science Monitor and other publications. Bowie mentioned him to Charles Shaar Murray as a “historian [who] is putting forth the idea that Israel is wrong and that it was in fact in Saudi Arabia”; sins hooked upon the sky: suggestive of a line in the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s The Keeper of Sheep (“One day while God was sleeping…[Christ] went to the chest of miracles and stole three…With the third he created a Christ eternally stuck to the cross/ and left him nailed to the cross in the sky/ and it serves as the model for others.”). It’s possible Bowie had read Pessoa, whose work had been translated into English in the Seventies; had to do with Major Tom: Buckley, 363.
210 alien Christs: Davies, God and the New Physics, 71; inherent in the song…not even in the lyrics: NME, 29 September 1984.
211 God Only Knowsin our twenties: to Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal, 7 October 2011; instrumentation: some details from Albin Zak’s The Poetics of Rock.
212 original or better: Musician, December 1984; bit saccharine: NME, 29 November 1984.
213 Dancing with the Big Boysjust recorded it all: Musician, December 1984; threw out there: Juby, 119.
214 work together for survival: Musician, December 1984; one more set of pieces like that: Rolling Stone, 25 October 1984. This is Not Americarelease: Possibly the previous week (it’s reviewed in the 2 February 1985 Cash Box). The soundtrack album was released on 22 February 1985.
215 Boyce: He escaped from prison in 1980, became a bank robber for a time, and intended to fly to the Soviet Union to join the Red Army until being arrested again in 1981 (both he and Lee have since been paroled); Metheny: “He asked if any of us could sing (we couldn’t/can’t!), so he did all the background vocals himself, kind of transforming into what seemed to be two or three different people as he did each part.” (Metheny’s website, “DB RIP,” 11 Jan 2016); pop record: Billboard, 7 June 1986.
217 people in the film: Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography, 355; Lee: he was the one who named the goblin character Jareth; new challenger: Labyrinth: Ultimate Visual History, 29; David Lee Roth: Roth playing against Jennifer Connelly in this film would have been…well, something. Bowie got the nod in part because Henson’s son Brian thought Bowie “was cooler” and because Bowie had more film and stage experience than other candidates; I could see the potential…spoiled child: Inside the Labyrinth; June-August 1985: principal photography began on 15 April 1985 but Bowie didn’t report to the set until early June. Most of his scenes were filmed that month, including the “Magic Dance,” “As the World Falls Down” and “Within You” sequences. Barring a day’s shoot in August, Bowie had completed his scenes by the end of July; just this side of getting it: to Spitz, 336.
218free hand: Inside the Labyrinth; virtually finished tracks: Labyrinth: UVH, 164; wasn’t a nightmare: Labyrinth: UVH, 123; re-do that whole sequence: Labyrinth: UVH, 131; Wild Things: after Bowie’s death, the demo went up on YouTube, complete with photographs of the session, which showed Eric Idle in attendance.
219 Magic DancePortnow: 2 August 1986, Billboard. He later became head of NARAS; filmed: by a 4 June 1985 script draft, the full lyric of “Magic Dance” was complete, though Jareth was originally supposed to sing the “puppy dog tails” line (as he does on the soundtrack version); baby gurgles: Inside the Labyrinth.
220 As the World Falls Down exactly the same age: Heather Henson and Jennifer Connelly were born within a week of each other in December 1970.
221 Velimirovic: Labyrinth: UVH, 41; inner fantasies of this girl: Labyrinth: UVH, 53; Hollywood talent scout: Henson script memo, 24 September 1984; old-fashioned: Inside the Labyrinth; oh how she wants: lines from Laura Phillips’ script revision of August 1984.
222Ferry: his Girls and Boys was released during the shooting of Labyrinth, in June 1985, Within YouStone walls and crumbling power: Inside the Labyrinth.
223 little audiocassette: Labyrinth: UVH, 162. Underground The 7″ single edit (EMI EA 216, trimmed by over a minute), was backed by an instrumental version; the 12″ has an Extended Dance Version, Dub Mix and another instrumental (no choir this time). The sheet music has an extra verse not found in any mix, to my knowledge (“when will I afford you?/ don’t turn around./ You’re turning slower/ That’s underground”).
225 That’s Motivation Various release dates are cited for the release of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, typically sometime in April 1986. Given that it was reviewed as a new release in the 23 March 1986 Observer, I went with the following day, the by-then-typical UK release day of Monday. Further evidence is that the soundtrack was reviewed in the 5 April 1986 issue of Billboard along with the Stones’ Dirty Work, which came out on 24 March.
226 sexless sparrows: “A Short Guide for Jumbles (to the Life of their Coloured Brethren in England)” (1954); wavering accent: Bowie said he took the idea from a “con man” ad executive he’d known (“there was this continual fluctuation between English and American”). See also MacInnes’ “Young English, Half English” (1957), about Tommy Steele: “[when Steele] speaks to his admirers, his voice takes on the flat, wise, dryly comical tones of purest Bermondsey. When he sings, the words (where intelligible) are intoned in the shrill international American-style drone”; high-falooting…real big number in the old tradition: to Tom Hibbert, Smash Hits, 26 March- 8 April 1986; scenes were shot: dates courtesy of Graham Rinaldi, whose upcoming book on Bowie’s films looks to be definitive; pied piper: Juby, 123; kind of devil: Spin, May 1986; million pounds over budget: The Guardian, 21 September 2005; Sinfield: Literature, Politics, 170.
227 Release: “Volare” was only included on the 2-LP complete soundtrack, which didn’t get an American release at the time.
228 Absolute Beginners hey, it’s yet another difficult-to-determine release date! “Absolute Beginners” first charted the week of 15 March 1986 in the UK and Australia (and 29 March 1986 in the Billboard Hot 100), but it was reviewed in the 12-25 February 1986 Smash Hits. While the release date was most likely 3 March 1986, it’s possible it came out the week before, on 24 February 1986; people forget they love: a commenter on Tom Ewing’s “Popular” whose comment I can no longer find. But I swear it once existed; glass eye: to Sandford, 242; Wakeman: added what he described as “classical piano/ Rachmaninoff type stuff” in a later mixing session, where he and Bowie (neighbors in Switzerland) spent a few hours reminiscing; cocaine: a goodbye indulgence, as it’s the last reported time that Bowie used it, as per Kevin Armstrong in Trynka’s bio (the source of the coke was allegedly Angela Bowie—it’s a bit too good a story). But Neil Conti disputed that account on my blog: “It’s absolute rubbish that Bowie was doing cocaine in the studio. He was very calm, happy and healthy, if a little overweight”; tension: The A major 7th possibly came about by Bowie moving a finger while fretting an A major chord (he’d played his chord ideas on guitar to Armstrong in the studio). Chord substitutions brighten the song—a C major chord is swapped in for what should be C# minor on “I’m absolutely,” so affirming that declaration; chords: “Magic Dance” in particular has similar D-Bm-G and F#-E progressions in its refrain (an insight of commenter Y. Tyrell); on a plate: to Buckley, 368; Janet Armstrong: Kevin’s sister, who worked at the clothing store Dorothy Perkins, as per Trynka (332). I say first “major label” performance as she seems to have been the vocalist on a few post-punk singles from the early Eighties.
230 Dancing in the Street its B-side was an “instrumental” version (the sort with vocals) with some Saturday Night Live segue-style saxophone noodling and a guitar solo.
231 music-less video: as per Donny McCaslin and other Blackstar musicians; healthy relationship with Mick: Musiek Express, June 1983.
232cabaret band: Buckley, 367; ego trip…sphinxlike: Sandford, 246; Madison Square Garden: Saunders’ blog (www.marksaunders.com), 22 January 2016; smiling, indulgent one: Starman, 332; Stones: The album the Stones were making in the summer of 1985, Dirty Work, sounded like the final, chaotic days of a marriage, with Jagger singing about nuclear war, money-grubbers, and violent sex, with a reoccurring motif of wanting to beat the shit out of someone. It should have been their last album.
234 When the Fires Broke OutLooney Tunes: Its official title was The Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes 50th Anniversary Special, first airing on 14 January 1986. Other guests included Steve Martin, Billy Dee Williams, Bill Murray, Quincy Jones, Cher, Chuck Yeager, and Molly Ringwald.
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As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).
Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.
Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!
Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.
Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.
For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.
First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.
The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).
Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”
Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”
Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”
Here’s my baby, lost that’s all
“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”
The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).
Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.
Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.
Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)
*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.
You often ask me why I don’t write. I could answer you by saying I have no sense of history. It costs me an entire day’s effort to think about the next day.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Tres Tristes Tigres.
EFFIGIES INDULGENCES ANARCHIST
When I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.
One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything.
Not long ago at all, was it? Not very. Find a photograph from 2013 and have a look: not much has changed. Lots of superhero movies. Something ridiculous or awful happens and you complain about it on some social medium. The fashions, the haircuts, even the phones haven’t altered much. Well, you were younger: there’s that.
Number one hits include “Harlem Shake,” “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky,” “Roar,” “Thrift Shop”: songs for which I can’t imagine anyone having nostalgia (cue young nostalgists). There are no scuffed stand-six-feet-apart footprint marks on store floors, no masks on airplanes. The President of the United States is Barack Obama. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a member state of the European Union, is David Cameron. The President of Russia is Vladimir Putin, who in September writes an editorial in the New York Times: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
In 2013, I’m doing this blog and slowly writing the book that will become Rebel Rebel. I don’t know the woman to whom I’m now married, but she has recently moved to New York from London. I’m living in a place where I don’t live anymore.
David Bowie is alive in 2013. So is Prince, Anna Karina, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Petty, Leonard Cohen, Walter Abish, Tom Verlaine, George Michael, Queen Elizabeth II, my dog.
VAMPYRIC PANTHEON SUCCUBUS
Who was “David Bowie” in 2013? That’s what was gnawing at him: was he past it? Was this a folly? Did the world need a new David Bowie record? Would he be better off remaining an absence?
The Next Day came out on the same day that Eric Clapton released Old Sock, whose cover photo is a selfie. Old Sock: now that’s a title you give an album released in your sixth performing decade, an album which only your devoted longtime fans will buy. A dad Christmas present: you’ll find it on a shelf a year later, still in its shrink wrap. Was Bowie making an Old Sock? (As it turned out, Bowie gave Clapton that title.)
“The Next Day is an album that didn’t need to be made. Plenty of his contemporaries—including Elton and the Stones —still release albums at his level of craft, a couple of which sundry publications have even patted on the head and cited in year-end lists. But because Bowie requires context and reactive poses for vitality—and uses distance as a muse—his albums don’t function as mere singer-songwriter collections; they demand to be accepted as statements. He can’t, at 66, suddenly cultivate a new imaginary universe commensurate with the demands of such an infamous style thief and aesthetic flâneur. Does he still require vampiric devotion at the level described in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”?”
The secrecy of the LP’s making, its sense of being a heist in which the aim was to smuggle something into the museum, was in part meant to lessen the inevitable letdown—the first new Bowie album in ten years would be defined more by its surprise existence. The deftness of its making was more notable in the press than any of its tracks. Marketed by silence, with vigorous obscurity: no interviews, no explanations, no glad-handing, just cryptic slogans, masks, and code words. The album cover was the absence of one, an erasure of one.
HOSTAGE TRANSFERENCE IDENTITY
That was the public context, the scaffolding, of The Next Day—the Bowie “comeback” record, the one that he made as if in witness protection, the opening chapter of what would be the last Bowie narrative.
As time spools on, the scaffolding drops away. It always does. There was a context that we no longer have for Young Americans—-how a diehard Ziggy Stardust fan felt when he heard Bowie doing “soul.” How the soul Bowie fan felt when she first put on Low. How someone who loved Low felt when she first heard “Let’s Dance” on the radio, knowing Bowie was no longer hers. How a kid who only knew Bowie through “Let’s Dance” felt when he saw Bowie sing “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” on Letterman.
The privilege of a point in time is to experience something in a way that everyone who comes later can only approximate. The mistake is to think this will matter. Like a gambling house, the future always wins.
Ten years on, what is The Next Day? A Bowie “late work,” the crankier older sister to Reality, the lead-up to Blackstar, that wasn’t as good as Blackstar, that’s underrated compared to Blackstar (I’ve seen the latter argument of late). Even this sort of cause-and-effect structuring is shaky. The Next Day, Bowie’s first streaming-era album, already lacked definition: it existed in competing editions, with various songs appended (three bonus tracks currently aren’t streaming and thus, to many, no longer exist—the album already has apocrypha). Its sequencing never seemed right, as if Bowie knew its fate was to be shuffled through, to wind up as another source of Bowie Content: songs guided by inscrutable algorithm into a “Heavy Moods” playlist (“Where Are We Now”), or licensed for a moderately edgy Showtime drama in 2026 (“Love Is Lost”).
MAUER INTERFACE FLITTING
The truth was that now that I had time to stop in front of the stores after months of ignoring their existence, they had too much to say to me.
Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps.
Its first set of songs were tracked in early May 2011, though vocals were done sometimes over a year later. Many of these share a mood: they’re loud, raucous, a bit strained. Working back into shape with his fists, it’s Bowie in training montage, as if in a Rocky movie. (With asides by commenters from the original blog entries in 2015.)
The Next Day. The first track Bowie cut upon his return to the studio, and it sounds like a starter: a sparse construction, with long stays on the home chord. Here I am, not quite dying!; a lyric in part inspired by Robert Palmer’s study of Senegambian griots, who are thought to converse with evil spirits, their bodies left to rot in hollow trees. Momus: It feels to me like a movie trailer, which hypes up an action film by packing way too much catastrophe into too little space. DB self-references: “Repetition,””New Killer Star.”
Atomica. Sharing with “Next Day” a harmonic stinginess and a guitar sound that manages to seem dated without quite having a time to date back to (so, very Bowie). Meta-banality? Some lines now read as if generated by ChatGPT. It goes on too long. Deanna K: And that’s the problem with the album! Songs don’t die on their own terms, they’re put on life support but then eventually shot when it gets too expensive for everyone. ‘Just die already!’, they yell.
How Does the Grass Grow? Along with the title track, a sign that The Next Day will be stocked with old violence; the guitar solos sample Bowie eras as if moving between aisles in a warehouse. Though Tony Visconti once said the track “was very different, new Bowie, new-style Bowie,” its refrain is that of Jerry Lordan’s 1960 “Apache,” overt enough for Lordan’s estate to get co-composition credit. Gcreptile: It sounds a bit as if all the unused ideas for this album were crammed into a single song. I do like the high voice in the bridge, which reminds me of old 60s/70s songs like “Sugar Baby Love” or something like that. DB self-reference: “Boys Keep Swinging.”
You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. A keeper—it sounds even more sumptuous today. A line that makes me crack up now: how Bowie sings “you got the blues, my friend!” in this dotty, vicious register, making this nondescript line a curse by a petty God (“people don’t like you!”). Billter: I’ve been thinking more about this song’s relationship with “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” The latter’s message was “You may think you’re alone in the world, but you’re not. There are others out there who will understand you–you may not know them yet, but they exist.” The newer song’s message is “In case you were wondering whether you’re alone in the world…yes, you are. People don’t like you and they all wish you would die.” (Shades of “Pug Nosed Face.”) DB self-references: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” “Five Years.”
If You Can See Me. One of the weirdest pieces, temporally and harmonically, that Bowie wrote in his later years. Leah Kardos, in her Blackstar Theory: “The drumbeat, guitar and percussion rhythms are in 4/4, but the bass and changing harmony is in 5/4. This creates a phase relationship where downbeats only come into alignment after five bars (counting in 4/4), or four bars (counting in 5/4)…The polymetric interplay between these elements is disorienting and cumbersome, cogs of uneven size turning at different speeds.” In retrospect, the signal change for “Sue” and Blackstar to come. Like “You Feel So Lonely,” it could be sung by a vengeful deity. David [not DB, to my knowledge]: The apocalyptic vagaries of 1Outside, Man Who Sold, Five Years and Diamond Dogs are all in attendance, but this one has a blacker soul, a buzzing, crawling feeling of imminent dread running through. DB self-references: “Ricochet,” “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.”
ISOLATION REVENGE OSMOSIS
I didn’t think it was going to be controversial. As I say, it’s just me and David talking so I didn’t realise. But I think that’s good because I think that people don’t normally discuss albums because the golden age of record sleeve design has gone…The design process was all very secretive, as requested, to be safe. And we never used David Bowie’s name or the album name–we had a code word for it: he was just called The Artist and the album was called Table. I don’t know why.
Jonathan Barnbrook, on his album cover, 2013
CRUSADE TYRANT DOMINATION
Dancing Out In Space: Engagingly minor; a joy for the vocal arrangement alone (“big bay-bee”) Momus: If The Next Day sounds geriatric in some ways—this backward-looking, death-oriented, future-oblivious thematic—it’s worth remembering that the medium itself, rock music, is essentially an oldies artform now, with a rock press firmly in retro mode. DB self-reference: “Lust for Life.”
Like a Rocket Man: As close as Bowie came to a first-person account of being a cocaine addict, of someone who had found, as per the novelist Edward St Aubyn, that cocaine “was an opportunity to explore the arctic landscape of pure terror.” Or as John Lennon once sang, help! I need somebody! I’ve come to love this one. Postpunkmonk: What really stood out for me when listening to this was The Return Of Anthony Newley®, for perhaps the last time, in Bowie’s vocal performance. DB self-reference: “Starman” via the knock on Elton John. EJ: “David and I were not the best of friends towards the end.”
Born In a UFO: First tracked in May 2011, then rebuilt from scratch in summer 2012: a lot of work for a song in which Bowie falls in love with his alien inamorata’s fashion sense: her A-line skirt, clutch bag, Perugia shoes, and lavender mesh (“she was all Courrèges!” he swoons). Afterallalong: I like the sound of DB cutting loose. Or, a bit looser, anyway. DB self-reference: “Shopping for Girls” (the verse melody).
INDIFFERENCE MIASMA PRESSGANG
Heat: The endemic violence of The Next Day—dying men in trees, soldiers pinned down on beaches, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—stops at last in “Heat,” a world bled free of killing as anything else. Mishima’s dog is already dead, just obstructing the flow of water. MC: For me, its pastiche of Scott made it a fantastic closer for TND; it’s right in line with the album’s backward-looking (in Anger) tendencies, but with its eerie sense of movement – a perfect distillation of mid-period Walker – setting it apart from the preceding album, as you say in the entry… in retrospect Heat points pretty clearly toward The End, more than anything else on TND. DB self-references: “Nite Flights,” “The Motel.”
The Stars (Are Out Tonight): The stars of the 2010s are in the late-capitalist cycle of working longer for fewer rewards. “We have a nice life,” Bowie tells Tilda Swinton in the video. Compared to the ever-hustling celebrities of today, he’d gotten off easily, and he knew it. Soto: The album’s best track: mania as done by an aging man. Bowie’s sounding out of breath works for the track. I’m taken with the doubletracked harmonies on the “toss and TURN at night” line–an echo of a Hunky Dory moment, gone forever. DB self-references: “Looking for Water,” “Starman,” “Star” and so on.
So She: One of the three songs from the Next Day bonus CD currently unavailable on [US at least] streaming, and so deepening an already-obscure song’s obscurity. A shame, as it’s lovely. Jubany: “When I first heard this track I thought: “Bowie wrote a Neil Hannon tune!” DB self-reference: “I Would Be Your Slave.”
DISPLACED FLIGHT RESETTLEMENT
Tony Visconti, on The Next Day: “[It] started out trying to do something new but something old kept creeping in…”
The Next Day is a catalog missing half its pages. A museum exhibit, one without …’hours’ or order, without curatorial notes, the cracked mirror of the actual museum exhibit, which opened in London a week after this record came out. The exhibition of a process, no results. Bowie’s own Museum of Jurassic Technology, with its dioramas and miniatures and stuffed oddities. Lawrence Weschler, on the Museum: “It’s here that you’ll encounter, across a maze of discreet alcoves, in meticulous displays exactingly laid out, the ant, the bat, the falls, the diva, the insomniac…”
Bowie walking through David Bowie Is with his family. A knowing smile on his face, bringing to mind what he once told Nicholas Pegg, about Pegg’s definitive guides to his music. “An amazing job, but, of course, it’s all wrong!”
Did songs come out of the 100 Favorite Books list? (Nabokov via Otto Friedrich, Mishima, Waugh, etc.). So many lists made. The compilations, the redactions, the archival digs. The contracts, the bills of lading. The Amazon wishlist. Getting things done: remix Lodger, redo Never Let Me Down, talk to Brian about 2. Contamination. Piling everything up, trying to cram everything in. The man in “Conversation Piece,” with his papers strewn on the floor of Ken Pitt’s apartment. The man in Berlin in 1978, watching the skies. Any sudden movement, I’ve got to write it down. The man a decade before, looking for UFOs on Hampstead Heath with Lesley Duncan, who’s been playing him albums by her ex, Scott Walker. A see-er, also a liar.
Were the songs about exile and emigration intended for Lazarus (named after Emma, after all)? Are all of them about Thomas Jerome Newton? How much of this record is Bowie simply doing a tribute to Dennis Potter, whose works he apparently gorged on during the “retirement” years? (“Heat” is the second episode of The Singing Detective.)
A room of bloody history, you made sure of that
FUNEREAL GLIDE TRACE
Writing is the art of disorganizing an order and organizing a disorder.
Severo Sarduy, Cobra.
BALKAN BURIAL REVERSE
The second block of tracking for the album, in early-mid September 2011, yields:
God Bless the Girl: Originally “Gospel.” At the close, he sings “the years pass so swiftly” in a despairing tone, all but lost in the swirl of voices. RB: All great Bowie songs are also a little bit about himself. And this is one of them. It should be used for a soundtrack, and maybe someday it will be. DB self-references: “Underground,” “Panic in Detroit.”
I’ll Take You There: One of the Gerry Leonard co-compositions, one of the songs of exile, displacement, refugees and emigrants. Anonymous: Chris O’Leary dropped the ball on this one. There’s clearly a little bit more going on in this song than just a raucous re-tread of dippy, disgusting, guilty pleasure ‘Beat Of Your Drum’ and O’Leary…should be ashamed for not giving some of it notice….dude are you burning out? DB self-reference: “Beat of Your Drum”
Love Is Lost: Along with “Where Are We Now,” the track from TND that will likely go the longest distance. Always conceived as a Lazarus song? As “Jane” wrote on the blog entry: Makes me think of “The man who fell to earth” with the new accent, maid, and eyes. The fear of losing his family. What have you done, Newton? DB self-reference: Low (viva Harmonizer).
Boss of Me: Time doesn’t improve some things. Ric: One of those where the co-writer is there to share the responsibility, rather than the credit. DB self-reference: “Shake It.”
The Informer: Hitman holed up in a bathroom, windows shattered, down to his last clip. The end is closing in, so he arraigns his employers, tries to balance his accounts. Gcreptile: The end of an era that has run all out of gas. All guitar-rich swagger and bleak lyrics, with underdeveloped melody and very standard instrumentation.” DB self-reference: “Changes” (“I still don’t know/what we were looking for”).
I’d Rather Be High: With “How Does the Grass Grow?,” “The Informer,” and “Valentine’s Day,” “I’d Rather Be High” is part of a broader theme —civilization’s recursive betrayal of its youth. Bowie’s was a generation that, for once, hadn’t been slaughtered in its prime by the wars of old men. Had he been born in 1895 or 1920, he would have been on a beach, bullets spraying around him, dreaming of pleasures that postwar British teenagers took as their birthright. Sylvie D: I find it quite extraordinary that a song about young people getting killed in stupid wars ended up in Louis Vuitton commercials.
Dirty Boys: One of the best pieces of sequencing on TND, a clean break between the title opener and “Stars.” Momus: I think what troubles me about it is the slightly reedy and strained vocal. It’s one of the tracks in which Bowie sounds old, and that disturbs me in all sorts of ways. DB self-reference: “The Gospel According to Tony Day.”
MANIPULATE ORIGIN TEXT
There’ll probably be another album not far behind this. I don’t know. I don’t think he knows. He doesn’t owe pop music anything. The next album could be this one defaced again, you don’t know.
The moment you know, you know you know
TRAITOR URBAN COMEUPPANCE
The subject of our testimony is an exceptional case. It is the story of a man who, unlike us, could not or would not adjust to this practical world. On the contrary: he explored absurd and desperate paths, and worse yet, paths where he attempted to take with him everyone he met.
Reinaldo Arenas, The Doorman.
The last songs, cut in summer-autumn 2012. As if Bowie couldn’t stop working on the album, that there was another, better version of it always just out of reach.
(You Will) Set the World on Fire: As per the Michael Cunningham piece, Bowie in the late 2000s/early 2010s was working on a musical which included “fake Bob Dylan songs”—if true, this one was perhaps a refugee from it. Recorded late in the day, and an addition to the record that never made sense; perhaps why it was included. Tresilaze: I have a quarter-baked theory that The Next Day is a muddled, non-linear narrative, maybe one that’s made of multiple abandoned stories that were forged together. Basically, it’s about someone fleeing a country torn by war and/or paranoia for America and trying to become a star. Songs dealing with where she left: The Next Day, Dirty Boys, Valentine’s Day, If You Can See Me, I’d Rather Be High, How Does…, You Feel So Lonely, Heat. The “father” in Heat is the subject of You Feel So Lonely. Songs about the girl: I’ll Take You There, Set The World on Fire, Boss of Me, The Stars Are Out Tonight, God Bless The Girl, Where Are We Now (this could be a return to her home country, or it could be set there and about living in a totalitarian state. DB self-reference: “Bang Bang.”
Valentine’s Day: Just after the blog post published in 2015, there was Umpqua Community College. As I was finishing the book revision in 2018, there was Parkland High. The line central to the refrain—he’s got something to say—perverts what Bowie had offered his fans: the belief you can transform yourself, become a star in your own world, build a life on change. Now it’s a demand— listen to me, look at me— at the point of a gun. The terrorist position, as Leonard Cohen called it in the early Nineties. “So seductive that everybody has embraced it,” Cohen said. “Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.” DB self-reference: “Everyone Says ‘Hi,'” his cover of “Waterloo Sunset.”
ENDCREDITS: SUBHEADS: DB. DB PHOTOS: THE EVER MYSTERIOUS JIMMY KING, 2013. BARNBROOK TND PHOTOS: BARNBROOK. DETOURNAMENDED TEXTS REPEATER BOOKS OTHERS USED IN THE SPIRIT OF GOODWILL AND FAIR USE. FOR L, R, & J. EASTHAMPTON 2013 EASTHAMPTON 2015 EASTHAMPTON 2018 SOUTHAMPTON 2023.
1. The first sound that you hear, creeping in via Ken Scott’s faders, is Woody Woodmansey’s kick drum and closed hi-hat, in 3/4 time, with a snare hit (flutter) on the third beat, then (wham!) on the downbeat. Woodmansey later describes it as putting “hopelessness into a drumbeat.”
2.This is going to be something new…no one has ever seen anything like this before….it’s going to be entertainment. That’s what’s missing in pop music now—entertainment….You can’t remain at the top for five years and still be outrageous. You become accepted and the impact has gone. Me? I’m fantastically outrageous. Bowie, June 1972.
3. “Five Years,” one of Bowie’s last Sixties songs, could have been sung at his Arts Lab in Beckenham–you can imagine his folk trio Feathers doing it. It’s an acting troupe sketch, with scenario by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough, place setting of the Market Square, Aylesbury, location of the Friars Club (we’re pushing through, not pushing ahead), and various mimes (“queer” vomiting, soldier with broken arm, cop kneeling to priest, girl drinking milkshake).
4. Instruments stagger in. Double-tracked autoharp and piano (ZING! “pushing through the market square”). Trevor Bolder on bass, making interjections between lines (e.g., the octave jump after the news guy tells us the bad news). Bowie on 12-string acoustic guitar (“a girl my age”) shadowed by Mick Ronson-arranged strings (“went off her head”). Ronson’s electric guitar only appears on the refrain’s fourth go-round (cued by a “what a surprise!”). The verses of “Five Years” seem like they will never end, until, after curling into a ball, they become a doomsday pub singalong refrain. Five repeats in all, the rest of the song, which ends in screams, then fades away. Dennis MacKay, engineer on Ziggy: “Bowie’s screaming and what you hear on that song, the emotion is for real. I was in shock because he was also hitting every note spot on.”
5.It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s five years behind. There’s so much of it that seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back. Bowie on rock music, 1980.
6. “My brain hurt like a warehouse.” Ziggy is a work of Bowie writing about work. “Busting up my brains for the words.” “I’m so wiped out with things as they are.” “I felt like an actor.” Much of it is heard second-hand. Tapes, transmissions, backstage stories (“boy could he play guitar”). A record plays somewhere deep in the building, reduced by walls and floors to muffled basslines, ghost voices, the occasional piercing guitar note. Songs drift past on the radio. A band, sitting in a club long after hours, has gotten it together and can play all night, but few are there to hear them.
7.I thought of my brother and wrote ‘Five Years’. Bowie, 1975.
8. “Soul Love” again opens with Woodmansey alone, but he’s cheerier now. Hi-hat flourish, then rim-shots and kick drum, chased with handclaps and conga.
9. “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” Love as infestation (sweeping over cross and baby), as a priest talking to the empty sky.
10. Bowie’s baritone saxophone moves the action along in the second verse, then takes over, upturning the top melody and spooling it out, following a lengthy sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, ringing in the key change.
11.David Bowie and Marc Bolan were Sixties people who made it late…they were that much more grown up and that much more experienced…They’d been consuming media for a long time and, on a smaller scale, they’d been dealing with media already…their Sixties forebears had been making it up as they went along. The major work of art was actually the media events. The records and shows were part of the superstructure. Charles Shaar Murray.
12. The key to “Moonage Daydream” isn’t Ronson’s opening chords or Bowie’s opening blast of “I’m an all-ih-ga-torrr!” It’s the diminishing that follows them. “Moonage” is carried for the rest of its verse on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic, augmented by Ronson muting his Les Paul strings; it’s as if a dance floor has cleared out. The heavy guitar is there in corners, rarely where one expects it. The countermelodies in the refrain are low backing vocals and piano; the solo is a duet of recorder and baritone saxophone. Ziggy keeps rock at a distance, rationing its appearances, rehearsing for a play that we will never see.
13. Then, as “Moonage Daydream” draws to its close, Ronson steps into the center, boring through, pushing out, rocketing away.
14. The image of Ziggy Stardust in shuffle. The LP cover photo, of Bowie in a post-Hunky Dory look, still with mousy hair (tinted blonde), now in a jump suit. George Underwood’s illustration, used for early LP and tour advertisements: a sexualized Laughing Gnome. The Ziggy of the Top of the Pops “Starman,” a variation on Peter Cook’s Satan in Bedazzled (“Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation“). In late 1972 shows, Ziggy as a pantomime figure, an ominous Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s the post-Japan imperial Ziggy, a space empress. His wasted, gaunt final edition on the 1980 Floor Show, a shade without a corpse.
15.They tell me the next record is going to be the big one. RCA are very confident. Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s ex-manager, to George Tremlett, early 1972.
16. The strings of “Starman”—graceful cello ascension on the title line, high elaborations on Bowie’s la-la-las in the outro. Ronson used Cilla Black records as a primer for his arrangements: likely contenders include her mid-’60s heartbreakers “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (tensed strings take flight in the bridge) and the grand ballroom sweeps in “Love’s Just a Broken Heart.”
17. The verses are done in confidence: Bowie, You, and the Starman, communicating through radio receivers as if they’re walkie-talkies. Music played in a darkened bedroom, trying not to wake your parents.
18. On The Crown, dour Princess Anne sings the closing “lar lar la-lars” of “Starman” as she strides through a blacked-out Buckingham Palace. With its Judy Garland steals and clopping handclaps, it’s a song one can imagine the royals enjoying.
19. Lost pasts dept., part one:RCA PRESENTS DAVID BOWIE’S NEW RECORD: “ROUND AND ROUND.” Look out, you rock and rollers! The 15 December 1971 master was: Side 1: Five Years/ Soul Love/ Moonage Daydream/ Round and Round/ Amsterdam. Side 2: Hang Onto Yourself/ Ziggy Stardust/ Velvet Goldmine/ Star/ Lady Stardust.
20. It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story of Ziggy…so at the moment it’s a little fractured and a little fragmented…so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in…I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album, but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me. Bowie, radio interview, February 1972.
21. Having knocked “It Ain’t Easy” a lot over the years, I’ll try to make a case for it. The album needs a chunk of early Seventies Rawk to counter its flightier numbers. Despite being a Hunky Dory outtake, “It Ain’t Easy” still fits better in the LP sequence than “Amsterdam” (too folkie) or “Round and Round” (too scrappy). “Sweet Head” was never a contender; “Velvet Goldmine,” too magnificently singular. “It Ain’t Easy” is the communal closer to the LP side, the same role as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on the flip. When Bowie had performed it in 1971, he gave the verses to Geoff MacCormack, George Underwood and Dana Gillespie to sing (Gillespie is on the Ziggy take, as is Rick Wakeman on harpsichord). If five years is all we’ve got, spend them with your friends.
22. Still, “Velvet Goldmine.”
23. Lost pasts dept., part two; Bowie, to GQ, 2000: “I’ve pulled out a good deal of scraps that were never used at the time [on Ziggy Stardust]. Some of them are only 30 seconds long, but I’m extending those. I thought, ‘OK, is this crap and is that the reason why it never appeared on the first one or is it OK and should I try and do things with it?’ So I’ve taken those six tracks and thrashed them out and made them into songs that will support the original. One’s called the ‘Black Hole Kids’ which is fascinating.”
24. The demo of “Lady Stardust” is, ever since I first heard it on Ryko’s reissue in 1990, the song’s canonical recording for me. The strength of Bowie’s singing, the intimate grandeur of the track. It’s to the point that whenever I hear the Ziggy version, everything sounds off, especially Bowie’s phrasing. It’s become a retrospective outtake.
25. I knew someone who was in a band in the Nineties. They got signed by a major label, cut a record. Then, as often happens, there was a shift in label management, or the promo staff thought it wouldn’t hit on radio: something went wrong, a few bad rolls of the dice. The record was shelved, never to be released; the band split up. But during this time, they worked with Mick Ronson. One night, without prompting, Ronson sat at a piano and played “Lady Stardust” for the band, letting the song roll through him.
26. I guess it’s kind of that art school kind of posturing that the Brits usually have. And it was people like myself and Roxy Music that had a different agenda about taking up music. I think we all were kind of – well, maybe – I can’t speak for Roxy, of course. But some of us were failed artists or reluctant artists. You know, the choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music. And I think we opted for music: one, because it was more exciting. And two, you could actually earn a living at it. Bowie, 2002.
27. We’re as far away now from Ziggy Stardust as it was from Ulysses and The Waste Land, from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at their youthful peaks. As a child in the mid-1980s, I thought Ziggy, what I knew of it, seemed old and weird. Its film clips (bits from Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture and Mick Rock’s promos were pressed into service on occasion on Friday Night Videos) were like scenes from some ancient, decadent world. It was hard to reconcile Bowie of the then-present, a genial, medium-cool figure singing “Blue Jean” and “Dancing in the Street” and at Live Aid, with the jaundiced extraterrestrial in 16mm, this hollow-cheeked specter.
28. “Star”: A kid in her bedroom sings to the mirror; a school band struggles to get the song right for once (the drummer always fumbles the transitions) before the talent show. The opening number of the musical, actors spilling on stage, playing to the back rows. Soooooo exciting! to play the part!
29. The apparent reference to Nye Bevan “try[ing] to save the nation” in the second verse is one of Bowie’s more obscure lyrical nods, at least for non-UK listeners. Someone ages ago claimed to me it was actually a reference to ELO’s Bev Bevan, who I didn’t realize had been so ambitious.
30. Nickelodeon backing vocals in “Star”—air-raid siren “oooh wahs”; ch-ch-ch, ch-ch, cha-la-la-la!; you know that I couuuuld–end in Bowie’s ping-ponging hums and a whispered “just watch me now!”
31. “On stage when you are performing you are in total control. It is like a demon or spirit taking over. You have a congregation and you are the high priest.” But rock and roll doesn’t really fascinate him. “It is hardly a vocation.” Ziggy Stardust was conceived as a film. No one would make it, so he turned it into a record instead. David Lewin, “Will the Real David Bowie Stand Up?” Sunday Mirror, 20 July 1975.
32. How restrained “Hang Onto Yourself” is. The one-two opening punch of the riff is kept in check; the refrain’s an insinuation. Trevor Bolder’s bass as the focal point. Even Ronson’s slide guitar packs off without too much fuss.
33. “Layin’ on electric dreams.”
34. The guttural backing vocals that surge under “honey not my money” or “bitter comes out better” make those sections of the track sound as if the tape’s flaking apart.
35. Few have ever been in love with the sound of this album. Too tinny, too murky, too weedy, a rock record on which the rock has been boxed off. Audiophile message boards have hosted decades’ worth of battles over which pressing, which reissue, which remix salvages it. There will forever be some magnificent ideal Ziggy waiting for the right engineer to, at last, set it free.
36. The name, distilled from Bowie’s American trip of early 1971: the wild boy (Iggy Pop) and the wild man (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy). The character, bits taken from Nik Cohn’s chaos incarnate pop star Johnny Angelo and, as per Bowie legend, the acid-damaged Vince Taylor. Ziggy as a commemorative coin minted from the great rock ‘n’ roll dead: Brian Jones, Eddie Cochran, Hendrix, Morrison, Buddy Holly, countless more in the years since. Yet this misses Bowie’s point that Ziggy wasn’t supposed to be some great charismatic pop singer, but someone chosen, possibly at random, by “black hole jumpers” as their vessel. A middling performer, working through yet another set in yet another half-filled room, complaining to his manager that the latest single, “Liza Jane” or “I Dig Everything,” has gone nowhere.
37. While Ronson gives a grand ornamentation to “Ziggy Stardust”—the crunching chromatic bass figure under “Spiders from Mars” in the verse, the harmonics on “became the special man,” the vicious chords in the refrains—the memory may only recall him playing the main riff over and over again. The riff is Bowie’s version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”: each time it appears, the rest of the band stops to pay homage.
38. Like the New Testament gospels, the story of Ziggy is redacted from different, contradictory narrators. The timeline’s murky: a legendary past shot through with future premonitions. “He was the Nazz,” Bowie sings: Lord Buckley’s name for Christ, the Nazarene (is “god-given ass” a pun?). The Nazz never did nothin’ simple, Buckley would say. When He laid it, He laid it.
39. The opening riff of “Suffragette City”: played on Les Paul and 12-string acoustic guitar, soon bolstered by a monster ARP 2500 that got hauled down from another floor at Trident, all sounding as if they’re about to tear into Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.”
41. Ronson’s pick scratch as “wham bam!” hits. The ARP doubling Bolder’s bass; the bright rock ‘n’ roll rumble on the Trident Studios’ Bechstein. Woodmaney’s snare fills on the title phrase. How the front-mixed acoustic guitar works more as a percussion line (Ken Scott: “I wasn’t too into cymbals back then so I mixed them low”).
42. “Suffragette City” is the first Bowie song that I ever heard, or at least the first one I remember being a “David Bowie song.” Via a grade school friend whose sister, in college at the time, would come home on holiday breaks with the cool records. The nasally presence, the push of the track—it sounded diabolical.
43. Bowie atlas, with Suffragette City as sordid port town; its sister city across the water, Amsterdam; Hunger City, casting its long shadow on the plains. Oxford Town beyond the hills. Berlin, Jareth’s Labyrinth, Amlapura, Crack City. Freecloud Mountain to the north.
44.I dream about him a lot, but they’re always horrid dreams ’cause he always dies in the end. Teenage fan of pop idol Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), in Privilege (1967).
45.“What do you think?” she asked Peter. “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed. The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.
JM Barrie, Peter Pan (1904).
46.Gimme your hands!
47. In his hand-written lyrics for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie wrote “the water-wall is calling” in the first verse. Robin Mayhew, his tour sound engineer, was asked to proofread lyrics while visiting Gem Music one day, and thought he heard Bowie singing “wall-to-wall,” changing the line on the lyric sheet without telling Bowie (listen to the original—Bowie’s almost certainly singing ‘waw-ter wall’). “Wall-to-wall” has been the official lyric ever since. In the Bowie spirit, the mistake works as well as, if not better than, the intention.
48. Throughout Ziggy, horn lines are masqueraded by the ARP, or delivered alone by Bowie. Now, for the finale, Ronson at last scores a brass section—trumpets, trombones, tenor and bari saxes—as if inviting the neighbors in for a party.
49. Ronson’s won!-der-fuls towards the close.
50. The last thing that you hear: celli and double basses, a beat after everyone else departs, playing one last D-flat chord. An album that begins with a solitary drummer ends with four musicians bowing in unison. Oh no, love, you’re not alone.
Essentials: The Ziggy Stardust Companion; Mark Paytress, Classic Rock Albums: Ziggy Stardust; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record (International Music Publications Ltd.)
Dr. Leah Kardos is a composer and musician, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, and the founder of Kingston University’s Stylophone Orchestra. She’s written a book on David Bowie, entitled Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie, which Bloomsbury Academic publishes in January in the U.S. and February in the UK. (The e-book is out now!)
Blackstar Theory isn’t a Bowie biography, nor is it something as foolhardy as a chronological song-by-song guide to Bowie’s music (cough). Instead, as Kardos writes in her introduction:
What this book does do is explore some of the interconnected webs of meaning that are observable in the work itself. By ‘the work’ I refer not only to the primary outputs of the period in question, but to the artistry embedded within that connects with Bowie’s entire sphere of activity – his career history and the totality of his observable creative practice across time. Although Blackstar Theory deals with death as a subject, it is not the aim of the book…The aim is to approach the realities of Bowie’s mortality using the same terms as he used in commenting and wrestling with it through his work.
Part of this entails Kardos breaking down every Blackstar song and some Next Day ones (I regret that these musical analyses weren’t available for me to rely on in Ashes to Ashes, but am also grateful that I didn’t have to match the caliber of Kardos’ work here—it’s thorough, intelligent, and definitive). She explores some likely influences on Bowie’s last works, including Carl Jung’s dream journal and Dennis Potter’s last teleplays, and has fresh interviews with the likes of Tony Visconti, with whom she’s worked for years. It’s a major addition to the Bowie critical “canon.”
Leah and I spoke via Zoom in early December—the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
CO: It’s still unclear to me, after all this time, whether Bowie, when he was putting out all of this stuff in his last years, had something like a complete design in mind. I guess I always saw him as someone who’d more draft extensive plans that would never come to fruition, as he’d abandon them to move onto something more interesting. But there’s a narrative logic to the 2013-2016 period, even if unintended. Do you think so, too? Do you see an overarching pattern?
Leah Kardos: I get the impression that he was an intuitive creator. He followed his nose and was really grabbing at anything to try out. However, certainly since diving into the last works and from that position looking back at the rest of the catalog…you recall all those interviews in 2003 when he was saying “I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always been the same question about isolation and identity, etc.” I started to think, “actually, yeah, you might be onto something there!” Because he really is just talking about the same things repeatedly, just putting a different costume on each time. Approaching the same question from different angles.
The consistency of his catalog is something that’s really struck me since he died. When he was alive, he’d provide something interesting and new, and because we didn’t have the full rear-view picture, it kind of felt like we were floating along with the changes. But I was really struck by the coherence of the catalog. One reason why Blackstar Theory came about was the realization that wow, it really does hang together. The longer you look at it, the better it gets.
CO: One thing I’ve found when I was writing about not just the Blackstar period but Hunky Dory and Station to Station is interacting with a few people, over the years, who really take the occult side of Bowie very seriously. Who appear to believe there is a master plan, that Bowie was dead serious about it all and had mapped everything out.
LK: That there’s a code to be cracked.
CO: Yes, all a bit Da Vinci Code. I do still love the Villa of Ormen Tumblr.1I love the unsolved mystery of that. That could have been him: it’s not out of speculation.
LK: It’s in the realm of possibility. And it seems on brand for him to fuck with people like that. He knew how to slide into a chatroom and pretend to be someone else. I think also all of that fulfilled the function, the drama, the theater, the fact that he was so officially quiet and yet so forthcoming in other ways. Sneaky. Putting this shroud of numinous energy over the last album. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to have done that. And the fact it’s unresolved is delicious.
Part One: The Set-Up (The Next Day)
CO: So, in your book, as this late period begins, another is winding down. You were a BowieNetter2, and that era seems like such a contrast to the late years. In the late Nineties, he’s Accessible Bowie. He’s chatting with fans, having in-studio live feeds, doing interviews with anybody who claimed to be a journalist. It must have been a fun period for you—does it feel bizarre in retrospect?
LK: It felt very normal for me—I joined BowieNet when I just came out of high school and was just starting to discover Bowie. Back then you bought a CD from HMV or whatever and it would have a card inside saying, ‘join BowieNet!’ I had no idea that being a fan could be any other way, and I discovered the career backstory retrospectively. It was strange when he left us all hanging, but of course we knew he was sick, what more you want? You don’t want to be that kind of fan.
Looking back now, what a remarkable thing it was. It felt so normal at the time, I made friends in the UK when I was still in Australia, probably the seeds of my immigration, to come to England and live here, began there. There are friends I met on BowieNet who I’m still close with today. It’s hugely important to me. His “dad jokes, everyguy, I’m just normal Dave” act, well I fell for it. Obviously he was right to get the hell off of the internet and away from social media when he did.
CO: Your book is primarily about The Next Day and Blackstar. Do you see the beginning of this period with his reunion with Tony Visconti in the early 2000s?
LK: That’s the way I see it, in two categories—the ‘late period’ from Heathen to Blackstar, and the ‘last works’ between 2013–2016. Because the sound of Heathen I feel is traceable right to the end. I also think Tony brought out a certain type of music from Bowie.
The period is also marked by Bowie’s autonomous process. He didn’t have a guitarist or co-writer coming up with material, so in a way the music there links further back to Buddha of Suburbia—that’s just the sound of David making his music, his way, that’s what he sounds like. Writing everything himself in his little home studio. And there’s the freedom of ISO.3 Also Heathen’s introspective anxiety seems to intensify throughout.
So when I pulled it all together, I thought I’d draw a line on it. Some people refer to this is his neoclassicist period, but I’d say it’s more accurately defined as his late period, due to him finding a more consistent approach to music making with Tony, free from label demands, and of course the conscious playing around with his own history.
I also wanted to put the focus back on the songcraft and not define things by the haircut he had at the time. I really wanted to get away from that.
CO: We’ve talked before about his love of the Korg.4How best to describe how odd his affection for this keyboard was—while it’s not a kid’s keyboard, it’s no state of the art synthesizer either.
LK; It was a pretty cool keyboard in 1997. If you needed to save patches on it, there was a module that attached to it and you could save them on floppy discs. I quizzed Tony about the Korg a lot, I was really fascinated by it. The sounds that come from it are weird and incongruous. Like, why choose that? The sounds in something like “Dancing Out in Space”: why are they choosing that? It always came down to this keyboard. He loved that thing.
CO: He was a big preset guy too, I recall Visconti saying.
LK: He did like the old preset but apparently he also knew how to go in and tweak a preset, making something more bespoke. I downloaded all the Korg effects, there’s a sample pack you can find online, and I went through them and I couldn’t find all of them [that were used on the albums], so I suspect there was some parameter fiddling going on.
CO: His composition style is often about what instrument he’s mostly using at the time, right? Space Oddity is the 12-string acoustic; Hunky Dory is the piano. Are the late records in part Korg compositions, deep in their bedrock?
LK: They are! And they’re also owed to the Zoom R24 multitrack unit he had,5 the way he was creating his demos. I spoke to Henry Hey and he got rough demos sent to him, Tony as well, and they had a particular sound about them. You listen to the Lazarus soundtrack, particularly “When I Met You” or that early version of “Lazarus,” you’ll hear these weird guitar parts in there. That was a detail on the demo and Henry said he wanted to honor that.
The demoing comes into its own in the late period, the particularity of the choices that David makes tended to get translated. Tony bought his own Zoom unit so he could figure out how to work with it. Reportedly David would say things like ‘I like the way I did it [on the demo], I don’t see why I have to do it again.’ So the demoing is bleeding into the end results.
CO: The demoing is far different from the old days when he’d go into the studio and tell Carlos Alomar, “okay, this is in A major, and have this funk riff here, and let’s work this out.”
LK: All those [Young Americans session] tapes at the Drexel Archive that Toby Seay has6 is literally that private process of him demoing, but he needed a band to do it back then. So [home demoing] gave him a lot of autonomy in the late period. He didn’t have to rely on a Reeves in the room, on Mark [Plati] in the room, and I think you can hear it in the choices he makes. Some of them sound naïve, some sound exquisite—you get both with Bowie’s demoing.
CO: You mention he’s even doing the scoring—again, this was something he always had to have Ronson or Visconti do—he’s even taking that in-house.
LK: The fact he was achieving this with his basic Zoom digital multitrack unit and not, say, ProTools on a Mac or PC…it’s amazing.
CO: Among my what-could-have-beens if Bowie was still alive, I wonder if he would’ve done a McCartney II7 at some point—a whole record from the Bowie home studio.
LK: Which is one of the oddest things he ever produced. And Tony was emphatic about how much he loves that version, he told me that for him it rivals the Blackstar version. It’s a very strange record indeed, I really enjoyed analyzing it.
CO: You go a lot into Bowie’s “late voice” which you describe wonderfully as having the “wow and flutter of ancient tape.”
LK: Tony is very keen to say whenever he has the opportunity that Bowie’s voice was brilliant to the end. And he was in the room, so who can argue. However in the Whatley Last Five Years documentary, when they isolate the ‘Lazarus’ vocal, you can hear how raspy he sounds. There’s a heavy frail grandeur to Bowie’s late voice that I spend a bit of time trying to frame in the book. Thankfully, another feature of the period is the consistently great vocal takes Tony manages to draw from him, so there’s a lot of musical examples to dig into.
Another thing about the late period is the ensemble singing. It’s often an orchestra of voices beautifully arranged, walls of harmony, call and response, octaves and unisons, left and right spread out, sometimes barely audible—you realize, wow, it must have taken ages to do all of that.
CO: He had on call a singer as good as Gail Ann Dorsey but he chose to do all the vocals himself, for the most part right? He used [engineer] Erin Tonkon for a few things.8
LK: There’s a heck of a lot of him, just walls of David on the Next Day even though he’s got Janice Pendarvis, Gail and Erin and what sounds like a gospel choir there, he uses voices in a painterly way. I mean think about “The Informer” and what’s going on with the vocal arrangement and its construction—that must have been a few days’ work at least. That’s a lot of architectural detail to render.
You know that footage of Lou Reed isolating the backing vocals of “Satellite of Love” and saying ‘how does David do this?’ That’s what I think about the backing vocals of The Next Day—they’re so intricate. Maybe he did spend a bit too much time on that record, those details are so gothic.
CO: The Next Day is in an interesting place right now, reputation wise. There was the initial “he’s back! this is great!” and then with Blackstar, it wasn’t quite a backlash but more a “Blackstar is what Next Day should have been” kind of revision. Where would you rank it now? I find it’s a major record but also an overlong one, and the sequencing feels off.
LK: When The Next Day came out remember feeling ambivalent about it— for me it felt like the album was trying too hard, perhaps overcompensating for something. But I wanted to love it, and of course the first half is super-strong. I think those appraisals were battered by information overload—that’s how I came into it, really loving the good bits on it and hating stuff I thought was badly executed.
Then when I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.
One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything. I found an interview with Tony Oursler where he said he and Bowie were involved with the V&A exhibition, they were involved with planning it, and Jonathan Barnbrook also confirmed [Bowie] had his hand in it. So you can add the V&A to the pile of Next Day and Next Day Extra: he was giving us a lot of information in a deliberately impersonal arrangement. An invitation to participate and construct something meaningful from the bits and pieces. One can really sense his directorial hand in all of it, the ‘David Bowie Is…’ question being explored on all sides.
CO: For Next Day and Blackstar, he turned over the promotion of the albums to all those who played on it. This was unusual: if you look back, say for Earthling, maybe Reeves did an interview with a guitar magazine but otherwise it was all Bowie Bowie Bowie, saying ‘this is what the album’s about.’ But now you have everybody but Bowie doing substantial interviews: the drummers, the backing singers, the engineers. It seems to be deliberate in that he was already removing himself from his work, quite early on.
LK: I agree. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Remystification’ where I’m trying to look at that movement, how he made that retreat. Also to think about ways he represented his own art: refusing to talk but at the same time laterally making more stuff for us to engage with: all the music videos embedded with Easter eggs, the lists, the books. I enjoyed that new kind of intimacy with his material, matched with his absolute disengagement with the media.
Part Two: The Performance (Lazarus)
CO: The middle section of your book is about Lazarus the play. You saw it in its first run in New York [December 2015-January 2016], as I did, and you describe the audience reaction as being much like the one I was in, with everyone walking out of the theater saying “what the fuck was that about?”
LK: The group I was with were like “What was that? Did you like it? I don’t know, I think I loved it. I hated it.”
CO: I’m glad it’s being staged more. At first, it was just this two-month off-Broadway run in this small theater, so it felt like a secret thing that lot of fans didn’t know about because they couldn’t see it. The missing piece of the puzzle.
LK: It’s so crucial, I felt. I think it’s successful. I think it does what it’s meant to do. But the timing of it, you know, it changed it. I saw it while he was alive and again after he died. There’s no way you can come to it the same way again, and no way the play could say the same thing that it first did. It really does exist separately in that first run up until he died. You can see the change in what the new directors are doing with it. It’s really not about [Thomas Jerome] Newton at all anymore, it’s more a Bowie-like character having a dream.
He worked so hard on it and I felt the need to really go deep on it in the book because he devoted and sequestered a lot of his time on it in his final two years. It deserves a deep diving analysis, absolutely.
CO: I’m curious if it will survive as a piece of drama, if it could be staged in 2070, when few people will still have memories of David Bowie while he was alive. Or will it have a short life? I still find Lazarus hard to grapple with. It’s the closest I ever felt to seeing how Bowie’s mind worked, being able to peep in on his thought processes. Like someone recounting a dream to you.
LK: I really love it, and I’m still kind of afraid of it. As a theater piece, if you come into it cold, in one sitting it’s really difficult to grasp because it shunts you about between violence and pantomime and comedy and Bowie songs you love, followed by murders and blood. It’s a lot. As an audience member you come out of there feeling quite punch-drunk: is this what he wanted us to see and feel before he left us? There’s a lot there that works with Bowie’s established archetypes, all the Jungian stuff, the lines all but ripped from the Red Book.9The Looking Glass Murders redux.10
CO: You devote a good amount of space to the late works of Dennis Potter, which I really thought was right on the money. I had no idea Potter had a piece called Cold Lazarus! When I read that I cracked up: “Bowie, you thief.”
LK: Based on something Enda said, I checked out The Singing Detective11 and my jaw was on the floor—there are so many references I recognized from Next Day and Lazarus. Also Potter’s deliberate merging of his biography and his legacy and his myth in the fictions he was creating, muddling it up on purpose to make it richer and more emotionally dense and confusing. You recall the Bowie quote “I think I like complications… I like thickly textured things.”
In Cold Lazarus,12 there is this sequence where the memories of this detached head are projected on screen and go backwards, not through the character’s life but Dennis Potter’s life: this was staged with his direction from beyond the grave. Same in Lazarus: Newton is completely woven into Bowie’s myth almost to point of interchangeability: people see Newton and see Bowie. The blurring allows the show to function like a performed closure of a public life.
CO: It’s amazing how much of a through line Newton is for Bowie. I heard “Looking For Water” playing a while ago and thought “that’s another Newton song.” Is it strange how much he identified with the character?
LK: I was digging around those issues of Modern Painters from the mid-Nineties, and in that interview he does with Balthus he brings up the Bruegel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus again. That’s another detail directly lifted from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film. He really did keep referencing and returning to that text.
CO: The recurrence of stars is another one. Towards the end, he’s playing with the idea of a star aging, or dying, like a red giant.
LK: Which I took from you!
CO: Which I may have gotten from one of my commenters, Deanna Kerry, who was an astrophysics grad student at the time—I later asked her to explain blackstars, which she did as well as she could to a scientifically-challenged person like me. It seems like a cliché that everything with Bowie is stars, everything is black holes, but as you said the consistency is unnerving at times. You wonder: did he really have it all figured out in 1968? Maybe that’s all on the Ernie Johnson tape,13which is why we’ll never hear it.
LK: My favorite dead star metaphor reference is in that conversation with Burroughs where he’s describing, down to the costumes, the Ziggy Stardust storyline of dead stars, and aliens traveling along the black holes, all this stuff borrowed from Kubrick’s movie and Quatermass. With immaculate consistency following through with it.
Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.
Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the Infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.
Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense.
From Craig Copetas, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman,” Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.
CO: In the late work, Bowie seems to be in dialogue with other older musicians, you note. Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is very much an influence on Heathen, I’ve thought.
LK: I think so too, so many great parallels. The more you look at them, you think, were they looking over each other’s shoulders? While Dylan was writing Chronicles, Bowie’s working on his books. There are the musicals with Irish playwrights14; the archives.
Part Three: The Prestige (Blackstar)
CO: Moving to the third part of your book, “the prestige” as you call it: Blackstar itself. How essential is the Maria Schneider “Sue”—is that necessary to get to Blackstar?
LK: It’s exciting [the 2014 “Sue”], isn’t it—it’s such a great noir, so dark and elegant. That said, I do prefer the roughness and aggro of the album version, it’s got a lot more emotion in it for me. For the big band version Maria keeps it firmly in control. But there’s something about “Sue” on Blackstar that’s out of control, it’s fucking nuts. I really appreciate the chaos and mess of the Blackstar version.
CO: I have wondered what a full album of Bowie/Schneider would have been like, but I wonder if it was best as this one-off thing.
LK: Would it have been too glamorous sounding? Those large jazz orchestras sound so luxe and shiny to my ear. I wonder if an all Schneider/Bowie project would have felt like a detour in the grand album narrative, like Baal, or that Badalamenti collab. It’s hard to imagine because I love the Blackstar stuff so much.
CO: On Blackstar, while Bowie lets Donny McCaslin and the band have plenty of space, he’s the middle of it all, he’s the controlling figure. Whereas Schneider and Bowie are kind of equals and combating each other, influence wise, in “Sue.”
LK: I’d agree and I love the presence of Donny as being something like Bowie’s emotional avatar, not vying for equal billing, but supplying a musical commentary underneath Bowie’s vocal performance. And it really articulates something: the solo on “Lazarus,” the way it dramatizes a song which on paper is quite simple. The soling on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also. It reaches towards those inexpressible things, the unsayable stuff. And I’m so glad the last song didn’t end up being “Heat.”
CO: As the legendary Crayon to Crayon said, it’s a blast that the last song on the last Bowie album ends with this noodling, almost prog guitar.
LK: I love it—I’m so thankful for that. The rest of the albums from the late period end on a somber note, so I’m glad he chose to do that with the last one.
CO: For me “Dollar Days” feels like an epilogue, the calm after the storm, a song about wanting to go home but knowing you will never go home again.
LK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it—slipping off the mask a bit, a vulnerable moment. A song about being English and missing England and being okay with it. What I particularly love about that song is Bowie’s thoughtful use of harmony and structure to dramatize the lyric. He’s really mindful of the chords he’s using and the relationships between them, he’s playing with tension.
A lot of these details can get missed—people concentrate on the lyric, or the voice, understandably. But he’s there on his Korg putting a lot of thought and effort into the musical details, embedding references, playing into and against expectations. One reason I wanted to write this book was to give space to unpacking these kinds of details.
CO: He obviously knew a lot about music, having written it for 50 years—how much did you get a sense of how advanced his knowledge was of composition and theory? He’d sometimes say he was more of a ‘that sounds cool!’ type of composer. You mention on “Love Is Lost” an organ figure Bowie got by playing only black keys on his Korg. Schneider described this sort of thing to me as “the element of surprise,” which she thought was fundamental to his work.
LK: He was so omnivorous with his listening. There’s so much he takes from jazz, classical and experimental music and I really think he downplayed his musicianship a lot in public: the catalog tells another story.
The way he commands harmony even in some of his earliest pieces of music: it’s not someone playing a keyboard and saying, ‘that sounds cool.’ You’ve got “Moonage Daydream” transporting you through secondary dominant progressions15 in the first few bars. You’ve got beautiful chromatic transpositions treading through the bridge of “Life on Mars.” All the way through to the cadences of “Dollar Days.”
The chords of “Buddha of Suburbia” are amazing to look at. The way it’s pinned down on D with E minor and a G minor over the top, and then he flips it into B minor, then to B-flat—this isn’t a dude who just knows two chords on the guitar and can only play five notes. There’s immense sophistication going on. This kind of Eno ‘I’m not a musician, I’m just a dabbler’ thing allows him to engage in rule breaking, like he’s never claimed to be authentic about his music or belonging to any formal tradition with it. I will forever be an advocate for Bowie’s compositional prowess. It’s the reason why I love his music.
However he also struggled with his confidence. I asked Tony about The Next Day: why did it take so long? He said it was his confidence.
CO: It’s amazing to think of Bowie sitting there going “am I past it? Do the kids not want to hear from me anymore?”
LK: Which again is so touching. Sometimes I go a few years without making music and then I try to go back to it and think ‘can I really do this?’ Particularly if music creativity is intuitive for you, if you’re not engaging with it all the time, that kind of magic can disappear and you don’t have ready access to it anymore–you have to build it up again from nothing. I see Bowie as a modern romantic—in his best moments showing uniquely exquisite songcraft easily on par with Sondheim,16 Bacharach, or McCartney.
CO: Does the last work need to be the last work? Does it lose its power if Bowie lives five more years and makes two more records?
LK: It’s the question that drove me to change the nature of the book. I originally pitched it as Bowie’s Death Art…does the last work need to be the last in order to work? I don’t think so. I think those couple of days when he was alive and we had Blackstar: it was great, and I remember listening to it and thinking “oh my gosh, he’s given us a gem. He’s given us a diamond.” I was really looking forward to spending a few months digging into it. And then he died and it changed it immediately. So many people went back and revised their takes, kinda shutting the book on it quickly and shutting down the album’s lovely sense of ambiguity.
CO: Seemingly everyone who worked with him on the last record has said he wanted to do more.
LK: I think it’s disrespectful for us to presume Bowie made his last work while he waited for death. All evidence suggests that he was deep in the middle of a creative momentum, that he had sessions booked, he had people on the phone, “I’ve got ideas, I’ve got demos, I’ve got new songs.” He’d found a purple patch! He was making some amazing work and he knew it. He knew he was back in. Blackstar has such a momentum about it. You feel like if they’d had a few more sessions they would have come up even more incredible stuff.
CO: The idea of him doing a show with the McCaslin quartet [as McCaslin said he and Bowie discussed in 2015] is…just incredible.
LK: I can picture it as well. Imagine hearing ‘Tis a Pity’ live!
CO: He was never going to go on tour again and sing “Rebel Rebel” to a stadium. But a jazz club within walking distance of his apartment, that was more his style. That was the story of his last years, right?17
LK: “If I can walk there.”
CO: Is there a sense there are outtakes from these last albums that will one day be heard? There’s “Blaze,” we know.18Are there other songs kicking around, do you think?
LK: The estate has got a lid on whatever exists. It seems that Donny’s got demos and bits of song ideas we’ve never heard before sitting in his inbox. It’s totally feasible that there’s unfinished files and sketches left on the Zoom R24 recorder. But you know, I don’t need it. I’d be devastated if someone went through my files and published my unfinished stuff.
CO: He was never much of an archival guy, musically—getting demos and outtakes from him for reissues was like pulling teeth at times. The idea of him doing a Dylan Bootleg Series is unlikely.
LK: Yeah I think so. Consider his process. For most of his career the way he developed songs was with the help of others. He would have been in a room with the tape or Pro Tools rolling, messing around with musicians and finding what sticks. He needed everyone to respect his privacy, to realize this is process, this is not the finished article. It would be highly rude for someone to share some half-baked shit with the world now that he’s gone. I’m sure there are process-based demos that have Donny’s band, bits of music they didn’t use, and if anything features Donny’s band I bet those sketches would sound especially great and listenable. Hopefully people can keep it all under wraps—I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!
Thanks again to Leah Kardos! Blackstar Theory can be purchased as an e-book now or, in Jan/Feb, in your favorite indie bookstore.
1. A now-defunct Tumblr page (originally: http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com/archive) from November-December 2015 that contained a number of black-and-white photos, some of which had eerie similarities to images that appear in the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos. No further posts were made after Bowie’s death, and to this day, no one can say with certainty who was responsible for it.
2. Bowie’s webpage/ISP/message board of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, on which he regularly took part in chat rooms, usually under the moniker “sailor,” and shared journal entries and photos. His appearances became much more sporadic after his heart operation in 2004, and as per Kardos, his last interaction as “sailor” was in 2007, around the same time that he stopped doing live appearances for good.
3. Bowie’s independent label, artist roster of one, which he started in 2001; EMI’s rejection of Toy was the last straw for him, in re working for major labels, though ISO has always had a distribution arrangement with one.
4. The Korg Trinity (Bowie also used a Korg Pandora effects unit and a vintage ARP Odyssey), which dates to 1995. You first hear it on the Omikron soundtrack and ‘hours,’ though as Kardos notes, the Korg is a fundamental part of Bowie’s music right until the end.
5. As per Kardos, “the Bowie home studio setup was connected to a Zoom R24 digital multitrack recorder, which came with an on-board drum machine, bass synthesizer, audio loop editor and a step/real-time sequencer. Even as home recording practices quickly evolved in the early millennium towards software applications like Logic and Pro Tools, Bowie preferred to stick with his Zoom hard disc recorder, a relatively limited and old-fashioned piece of kit by the time he used it to produce the 2014 version of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’.”
6. Both Leah and I have visited this archive, located a quick walk from Philadelphia’s 30th St. station. You can read more about these tapes in Rebel Rebel, though Leah went one better and played excerpts from the tapes at a conference with Drexel’s Toby Seay.
8. Tonkon, to Kardos in Blackstar Theory: “For women, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you work in studios, times when you have to smile and put on a happy face and put up with things, but working with David was the opposite of that. I was able to learn so much from him – creative lessons, life lessons … I learned an incredible amount. He was a good person.”
9. Kardos: “The Red Book was Jung’s own private dream journal-cum-art project, a personal record of his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, a series of disturbing visions that he experienced during a time when he was close to having a psychotic breakdown as Europe stood at the edge of the First World War. It was finally published in 2009 and its handwritten pages, paintings and drawings were shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (October 2009 to February 2010),” an exhibit which Bowie and Oursler saw at the time.
10. Lindsay Kemp’s 1970 televised version of Pierrot in Turquoise, for which Bowie sang “When I Live My Dream” and other compositions. Lots of dreams, mirrors, bedrooms, killings.
11. One of Potter’s masterpieces, The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) has Michael Gambon as a writer, Philip Marlow, recovering from a vicious bout of psoriatic arthritis in a hospital ward. The second episode is entitled “Heat.” Kardos’ book lists a number of fascinating parallels between Singing Detective and Bowie’s last works.
12. Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC, 1996), was, along with its twin production Karaoke, Potter’s last work, written as he was dying from pancreatic cancer and produced after his death in 1994.
13. Legendary 1968 “rock opera” demo tape of Bowie’s that was auctioned to a record collector in the Nineties.
14. Enda Walsh (Lazarus) and Conor McPherson (Girl From the North Country).
15. A secondary dominant is, typically, a chord that’s “borrowed” from a key other than that of the song, often employed to anticipate the arrival of the key’s true dominant (the V chord). So “Moonage,” which is in D major, opens: “I’m an all-i-ga-tor!” (D, the I or “home” chord), “I’m a mamapapa comin’ for you!” (F-sharp major, a III chord (the secondary dominant), quickly resolving to B minor, the vi chord of D, with a root note of A (the root of the key’s true V chord): “I’m a space invader.”
16. Bowie, 2008: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.“
17. Well, he’d have taken the limo, most likely.
18. Of the various outtakes rumored to have come from The Next Day and Blackstar, only “Blaze” from the latter sessions, which Nicholas Pegg and other sources have heard, is verified to have a complete Bowie vocal/lyric. Many other outtakes of the period likely only have place-filler DB top melodies, Kardos speculates from her research and interviews.
Five years is what they’re going to write, and one can’t blame them. It’s a good headline, and it’s the only time they can use it. A strange temporal distance: far enough away to be the past, yet it still feels like it happened a couple of months ago, or maybe in a dream.
It felt like a dream to me, that day. Sitting in my kitchen, putting up a tribute post on the blog, approving comments, turning the Twitter into a tribute feed. I did this for twelve hours or so, then wrote out John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X on Twitter, shut off the laptop, fell asleep on the couch with the dog. It was what I imagine being an air traffic controller is like on a heavy day.
I did this for lack of anything else to do, for fear that I wasn’t doing enough. I’d written about David Bowie for years, had released a book about his music. I felt an obligation to maintain one place where people could go, to talk, to mourn, to just announce their disbelief. For the people who had teared up on the bus that morning, or broke down in a supermarket, for no “logical” reason—after all, this was a famous pop star, whom you never met, whom you never knew. But your grief was real, as you were grieving your life, which had changed overnight, one piece of it suddenly removed, as if you woke up to learn that the moon had disappeared, that there would never be a moon again, just old photographs and films, your memories of it and those of your friends.
One grating performative bit of the past five years is the person who says David Bowie was holding the universe together and it all went to hell after his death, as if he was a Timelord or an Ent or something. Well, the lifespan of David Jones, which encompassed the Korean and Vietnam wars, the assassinations of many beloved public figures, the Rwandan genocide, the Indonesian massacres and so forth, was no golden age. I suppose the most generous reading of this lament is that Bowie’s death was an unmistakable sign that the 20th Century was fading into dust and smoke, taking with it things that had once seemed permanent—newspapers, comprehensible politics, rock and roll. The news of late that nearly every old rock star is selling off their publishing suggests a fire sale that’s grown more desperate. Everywhere one looks now is tumult and chaos; turning a calendar page becomes an act of optimism.
As were Bowie’s last years. He was a 20th Century man from stern to stem. In his relatively brief time in the 21st, he quickly grew disenchanted with it, like someone who regretted buying shares in a disastrous joint venture. I demand a better future, he’d sung, not long after the century began. His last surge of creative life—producing in a few years The Next Day, the “Sue” single with Maria Schneider, Lazarus, and Blackstar—was this demand restated, ever more firmly, a demand to want more, to expect more, from oneself, from the world. Yet there was also an element of finality in this, of knowing this would be the last campaign.
Cut in the final Blackstar sessions of March 2015, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” was “trancelike,” the keyboardist Jason Lindner said. “I just had this piano figure I played on the Wurlitzer that keeps going and stays consistent through the bass notes moving down. It keeps repeating and gets bigger and bigger.”
For Blackstar, Lindner translated what he heard on Bowie’s demos into lush backdrops, converting guitar parts into synthesizer lines, and he gave “I Can’t Give Everything Away” overlapping, swirling layers of Moogs and Prophets: “I would dial in a basic patch on my Prophet ‘08 as a sort of blank canvas sound… It has an organic quality and it matches incredibly well with acoustic instruments. The Prophet 12 produced some beautifully edgy, full pads with ringing metallic overtones that really fit the more intense moments.” (There’s an odd mixing choice to abruptly cut off one of Lindner’s high-pitched drones at 4:28.)
The drum loop that links the track to its Blackstar predecessor “Dollar Days” came from Bowie’s home demo, as did his harmonica parts, unavoidably calling back to “A New Career in a New Town.” As on much of the album, Mark Guiliana had to play a drum part that would hold true to Bowie’s demo, to “accommodate this simple part but also interact with the rest of the guys and build the song in a spontaneous way.”
Guiliana’s work was the fulfillment of what Bowie, Mark Plati, and Zachary Alford had done on Earthling (a favorite album of Guiliana’s teenage years): live drum tracks with the roll and rigor of synthetic ones, playing human variations on an electronic theme. On “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” Guiliana takes Bowie’s drum loop and builds it out—laying off his snare in verses to play subtly-changing hi-hat patterns and kick beats, getting in sharp fills to round out refrains, quietly building in intensity and dynamics when responding to Donny McCaslin’s solo.
Bowie starts out low in range, his notes mostly those of the underlying F chord. He makes a quiet assertion, moving up a third (“something’s ve-”) and down (“-ry wrong”), ending a tone higher than where he started. Two steps up, a step down. He makes the same movement, only going higher, when the chord changes. He keeps pushing upward until, with the plaintive “GIVE” that opens the refrain, he’s on the peak, looking down at the valley. In a breath, he tumbles down (“ev-ry thing”). He does it again: a striving, a collapse. At last he reaches a compromise on the last “awaaaay,” holding on a C note that’s an octave up from where he’d started in the verse.
It’s a monologue, a surging lifeline against repetitions of drums and keyboards. But after a time, Bowie’s refrain vocal freezes into a pattern. He’s fallen into the song. No longer the lead actor, he moves into the background, his refrain phrasing becoming another loop, now working in support of his soloists. First McCaslin, who plays a melody to wreathe Bowie’s “away” and then takes a journey to parallel Bowie’s: lightly stepping up, sliding down, fixating on notes, urging himself onward, finding new pockets of melody as means to keep aloft; it’s an aeronaut’s solo.
Then the guitarist Ben Monder (like McCaslin, another Maria Schneider Orchestra regular). On Blackstar he’s often the touch-up man, working in overdubs, the inker and colorist who moves in once pages have been penciled. Yet when he appears on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” it’s as if the whole song has been laid out for his benefit, to be raw materials for his coruscating, shredding solo. Monder is another force pushing upward, again and again moving to his highest two strings, peaking on a sky-high A note, then making a tumbling chromatic fall. As “I Can’t Give Everything Away” moves into its outro, Monder plays a ritardando figure of alternating high notes, closing out broadly, no longer in tempo.
And where the ear expects the song to close on its F major home chord, it instead ends on D minor, its vi chord, which aches to be resolved but never will.
This is the last song on the last album that David Bowie would release in his lifetime. And it’s called “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” You can hear his mordant wit in the title—he might have called it “What Else Do You Want, Enough Already.”
When I first heard it, Bowie’s verse reminded me of Roy Orbison’s on “Blue Bayou.” I feel so bad, I got a worried mind, Orbison begins. He’s in exile, separated from his love, far away from his home, and he longs to go back there, saving dimes, working night shifts. But you sense in his voice that he may never make it back, that Blue Bayou, whose details are those of an afterlife or lost childhood (often one and the same in the imagination), isn’t there. Or it once was, but the world has changed and swept it away. As John Crowley once wrote, the world is older than it once was. Orbison could save up, take the train back, only to find nothing but a piece of swampland.
I know something’s very wrong The pulse returns, the prodigal sons…
Who is this “I,” anyway? Mr. David Jones has brought back David Bowie by popular demand. It’s a show that could play for years, but he knows it won’t—the spells aren’t holding, the bindings are cracking.
Bowie’s stunning lines in the second verse are his Prospero moment, in which an old magician drowns his books in the sea, makes amends for his art and witchcraft:
Bowie sings one last riddle. He saw more than he felt, he said no when he meant yes. This is all I ever meant, he says, with a trace of a smile. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is the last scene of a mystery in which the detective reveals there’s been no crime.
Here he stands in his deaths-head shoes, smiling and waving and looking so fine. The image to recall is one of Jimmy King’s last photographs of Bowie. On a downtown New York street, before a grated door, dressed for a tea social, grinning from ear to ear, he looks ready to leap into the air.
Recorded: (drum loop, harmonica) Bowie home studio, ca. mid-late 2014; (backing tracks, vocals) 21 March 2015, Magic Shop; (guitar overdubs) ca. late March 2015; (vocals) 7 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.
Photos: Jimmy King, “David Bowie,” New York, ca. September 2015.
I’ve known Michaelangelo Matos for some time and greatly enjoyed his 2015 book, The Underground Is Massive. Today he has a new one out: Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, which I enjoyed even more.
Can’t Slow Down is Matos’ massively-researched, sharply-written, concise, and intelligent history of one of pop music’s biggest years, the year of Purple Rain, Private Dancer, and Born in the USA; of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Madonna, Van Halen, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and, most of all, the towering presence of Michael Jackson. An era of spectacles, from Stop Making Sense in movie theaters to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” from the Reaganite apotheosis that was the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA to the concluding chapter on Live Aid in 1985. It also covers “underground” scenes on the verge of breaking big—1984 is a golden year for U.S. indie rock, for example (Let It Be, Double Nickels on the Dime, Reckoning, Zen Arcade, etc.), and is also foundational for house and hip-hop.
It’s a year in which seemingly everyone who ever recorded pop music was seen out in public—there’s a wonderful chapter centered on a panel at the New Music Seminar in New York that featured, among others, James Brown, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Madonna, Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall, John Oates, Joe Ely, and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. Yet it’s as often concerned with the doings of music business pros—the A&R scouts, radio programmers, producers, label execs, journalists, TV talent bookers, etc., who made “1984” happen.
Though David Bowie is often a spectral presence in 1984, as Matos says in this interview, he’s still seemingly everywhere that year, as influence and rival, and he does still get a #1 album and Top 10 hit. The pop world of 1984 is one that Bowie both revels in and hides away from—much of his subsequent career is him coming to terms with how popular he’d become then. After all, it was a time when, as Wham!s album was titled, you were supposed to Make It Big.
The following is edited from a talk Matos and I had last week. If you’re interested in the book, please buy it from your local bookstore!(or Indiebound).
CO: There’s an anecdote that you open the book with that really rang true to me. You’re nine years old, you’re cleaning your room and listening to Top 40 radio and you realize that you’ve been listening for hours and you don’t hate any of the songs playing. I was 12 and it was the same deal for me. And…that’s not the case for long, even very soon afterward, right? The “1984 moment” feels very brief—when is it over, as early as 1986, 1987?
Michaelangelo Matos: The moment wasn’t just gone but completely formulized. Part of what makes the ‘84 moment is a great deal about professionals being professional. That’s a lot of it. It’s not fair to say it was this great shining moment and it had nothing to do with the business. It had everything to do with the biz. The biz is what made the moment. It just happened to be a high-water mark of a certain way of doing things that quickly became pomp and circumstance. It was a much faster version of the difference between, say, ’65 and ‘74.
But for a while, suddenly, there was this thing that seemed so promising and playful and the people who were doing it really seemed to be enjoying it. There was a real spark of energy. It wasn’t just, “oh we have to calibrate our business plan according to Thriller.” It was more: “wouldn’t it be fun to make hit songs of all these titles? Wouldn’t it be fun to make a whole album of hit singles?” People were pushing themselves to make good hits. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get on the radio, though you can never understate the mercenary nature of the business. There’s a great deal of cold-faced greed there too. The thing I really enjoyed was writing the chapter about AOR. That was fun.What rock history doesn’t treat these guys as demigods? Well, let me be the first.
CO: It’s striking to realize how old, relatively, many of the big 1984 pop stars were. Phil Collins, Bowie, Tina Turner, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis—some of these people had been around for decades at this point.
MM: Purple Rain is Prince’s sixth album. It had been seven years at that point since he’d signed a contract and six years since his debut.
And Phil Collins is not just somebody who’s been doing it for a long time, but someone who’s absolutely comfortable in the pop field. He is completely comfortable making pop music for large audiences. There is no weird divide for him between that and what he’s done since the ‘70s, because Genesis evolves along with it, Genesis turns into a singles band right as AOR is hitting the skids.
CO: MTV is obviously a big part of the 1984 story, but has it been overstated over the years?
MM: One thing to keep in mind is that MTV is not the be-all and end-all. MTV has a great deal to do with ’81 to ’83, but by ’84, MTV wasn’t the whole story by any means. By ’84, radio has really come back into its own. Top 40 is making hits on its own, in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.
The other thing that is relevant here: when we’re talking about video, we’re not just talking about MTV and not only talking about television, but also talking about clubs. In the early ‘80s every club got a fucking video screen and started playing videos. That was new. And a lot of the big club hits that wound up becoming ‘80s standards first got played as videos in clubs. That’s very important to the whole thing.
CO: One thing you note is that by 1984 the “Second British Invasion” of America is already falling apart, not long after it begins. Duran Duran is falling apart, Culture Club is a mess.
MM: I was looking through some ’89 magazine issues and this was the point when they were “Duranduran”: one word. It’s so funny—the ‘80s get glossed over so much in rock history. The impulse is to glorify these people and it’s often their least glorious era. People overlook all the crazy shit that happened in this period. Like “Duranduran”—what, are you some kind of arthouse thing now? What the fuck! Did Wong Kar-Wai film you? No, Wong Kar-Wai wouldn’t fucking do that with your name—that is a bad manager decision. It’s a glorious era for terrible ideas and decisions on the part of these people. It’s not like all I want to do is point and laugh, but there is some element of that to it. There has to be, it can be so fucking absurd.
CO: One of the last times you could be ridiculous in an unironic way.
MM: All of late ‘80s culture in some ways seems to be leading up to and is almost redeemed by Road House. It’s like, this should suck but it’s so rich and funny and entertaining and you know they knew this, even if they’re doing it totally straight-faced. They know how ridiculous this is. And you get that but in a sadder way when watching a Jefferson Airplane video from 1989.
MM: That’s what I’m thinking of. It’s not like I sat down and watched more than that. I didn’t go “hmm, what else?” I’m happy to let certain lost worlds stay lost.
CO: In your country music chapter, I was taken by one quote [by MCA Nashville’s Jimmy Bowen], that in the early ‘80s “pop music became very stale, the albums were not that good…and country music filled those slots…now pop music got its act back together…[and] they simply pushed us back off of those slots.” You can see this swing back sometime in the ‘90s.
MM: I think he’s really talking about the crossover market. That’s a fairly distinct sector. One thing about that chapter is that it’s kind of an outlier for the subject matter. I think I treat it well and I think it’s a decent overview, I’m not trying to minimize what I’ve done there. But it’s an outlier for me in terms of when I wrote it—it was a Pop Conference presentation that I added a few things to. Most of that was done in a very contained period. I went to Nashville and that’s when I did the research for it. I had things of my own before that and from books from the library here and I sort of melded it all back together. I have a strong memory of that chapter of being a very self-contained unit of time and writing, whereas some others sprawled along and I rewrote things and overhauled things.
CO: I got the sense that you read scads of Billboards, Gavin Reports, Radio & Records for this era, is that fair to say?
MM: Absolutely. There’s a website, World Radio History, that has scans of incredible numbers of trade magazines, music magazines, regular coverage music magazines, sometimes stuff that’s completely offline, completely gone—publications that ended decades ago. This incredible resource. I started working on this book essentially in September 2015, and I moved back to the Twin Cities in February of 2016. So I’d been working on it pretty diligently for six months when I got here and then I discovered that website. I realized I’d been working with very incomplete data with regard to Billboard because I was using Google’s archive.
CO: Yeah, there are pretty big holes in that collection.
MM: Most of 1984 is gone. The gap was something like April 1983 to September 1984. So I was using a little bit of ‘83 and I thought, well I’ll find other things to fill in those gaps, and then I discovered Radio History and they have all the Billboards. That meant putting them all on my iPad and reading them everywhere. Get on the bus, read Billboard. At the same time I discovered [an archive of] all the Smash Hits from 1984 and read them. What was happening was that Radio History was expanding as I worked. I’d check it again after a month and, oh my God, there’s all the Cash Boxes. This was constant. This happened for a good two years until I finally couldn’t do it anymore. There’s a point at which you just have to stop doing research.
CO: When did you have the structure of the book in place?
MM: It’s funny: I’ve had more or less the same chapter list going back eleven years. I started working on this book in 2009. I wrote a proposal, and it wasn’t a good proposal, because I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to manifest that, so I was hedging a lot. So I thought, “I’ve got to downscale.” The proposal I wrote had twelve chapters, one for each of these major artists, and I thought, that’ll be okay, it’ll be like a book of essays. But I didn’t want to write a book of essays. I wanted to write a real history but I had no idea how to do it, because at that point most of my living was still in writing record reviews. That was most of my work. Over the next two years, it became almost none of my work because there stopped being a market for record reviews, for the most part. I had to re-orientate myself to writing features, and as soon as I did, I thought, my God, this is so much more fun, you know?
I remember I’d see things that I’d written about a year or two earlier or six months earlier [in a review] being discussed in a feature and see people linking to it and talking about it, and I’d be like, “I talked about that. I said that very fucking thing.” And nobody had read it because nobody read record reviews anymore. It was a reality check. I realized this is not sustainable, I can’t keep doing this because I’m going to starve to death.
Also, I had come up writing in late ‘90s alternative weeklies, where ideas on the page were expected. You were expected to be thinking about shit in a real way. That’s gone. That left. Suddenly it was like nobody took it seriously anymore. There was no market for it, and I had all these ideas that really needed to be explored at length. That was a frustration, too. That was manifesting in wanting to write a book that wasn’t a book of essays.
CO: There’s a cinematic quality to how you introduce characters in the book—you’ll have a central location, say an awards show, and then you “pull back the camera” when someone appears on stage and give a couple pages of backstory.
MM: That was very deliberate. What I had to do is write the other book. I had to write The Underground Is Massive in order to write this one. It took me a long time to generate the edifice of it. What happened was that I kept a Tumblr page and I would just put shit on it—this is funny, here’s an interesting photo, here’s a song I’m thinking about. With [TUIM], I knew the structure immediately and I knew what the structure of this book would be as well, but I had no idea until I’d written it how one might fill those structures out. What about this, what about that? With [TUIM] I had the lineups of everything, so I knew where the holes were. There isn’t that much drum ‘n’ bass in that book, but I knew where the drum ‘n’ bass piece would lie.
It’s a process—you have to learn as you go. There’s no map to write a book, every fucking book is different. So where I did all those interviews [for TUIM], I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do as many for this one, and I didn’t want to. Because I’d already known, just by looking through the material I already had, that I hadn’t seen anyone talking about any of the shit that I’m reading about from that period. The interesting stuff, the things that I was finding where I was like, “I didn’t know that.”
I set out to write a book about stuff that surprised me. And that was pretty easy to do, because a lot of it surprised me.
When I had my back against the wall and realized okay, I’ve got to put up or shut up and write this goddamned proposal. And what I realized, I looked at the Tumblr and said, wait a minute, why don’t I just use this stuff? I have all this stuff that I already thought was interesting enough to show people—why don’t I just put it all in order? That’s how I wound up writing the outline of the proposal. It was like, you’ve done the work, you just haven’t put the work in order. Once I put all of those things into chapters, it was a matter of connecting the dots.
CO: Was Live Aid always intended to be the last chapter, the close of the book?
MM: I’ve had some version of the twenty-chapter list since 2009. The minute I thought of the idea, [Live Aid] was the logical, obvious, you-can’t-have-a-different-ending ending. There was no second choice: that’s where it ends.
CO: Could something like Live Aid happen now? Obviously, there could be a big charity concert with lots of celebrities, but could there be an equivalent to what “Live Aid” was in 1985?
MM: The culture has lost a lot of the innocence that fueled it. We do not have an innocent culture in any way now. Not that anyone thought anything was innocent then, either. Music culture has become more purely mercenary and is more outward about it, and I don’t think that’s altogether a terrible thing (laughs)—the devil you know. But I don’t know enough about the business as it stands today frankly to make an assessment. I have a very partial overview of current music and it’s been that way for a while and it’s going to stay that way for a while. I don’t want to cover pop—I gave that up a while ago. Not because I dislike pop as an idea but just because my specialties are elsewhere, when it comes to current music. And I think that the question I know how to answer is whether I’d want to watch such a thing, and I think the answer is no.
CO: One thing that struck me in the book was just the colossal sales of physical media. People bought so many records, tapes, CDs in 1984. It’s crazy to think about now.
MM: It’s only crazy to think of it now because physical media doesn’t exist. The very idea that there would be no physical media sales sounded lunatic for a really long time.
CO: You have that quote from Quincy Jones in the intro where he’s basically predicting Spotify in a trade magazine interview in 1984. [Jones: “It could be possible…for you to have no inventory in your house. No books, tapes, anything, if you had access to a satellite, a code book/catalog and a television set…”]
MM: That threw me for a loop. It was one of those things that when I found it I thought, “this is too good not to show people, but I shouldn’t be showing people this.” But I also realized it’s social media and everyone forgets. People put up the same stuff that they wrote every few months and not only will you get a different audience for it every time, you will get the same audience that’s forgotten about it.
CO: I recently did a joke on Twitter and apologized that I’d done a variation on it five years ago, and then realized nobody would remember that or care.
MM: Nobody fucking remembers anything anymore. Nobody retains anything anymore. I have a very old man complaint about it that I’ll spare you.
CO: We finally should talk about Bowie a bit, I suppose. [Matos: I was just gonna say!] He’s somewhat of a marginal presence in the book, although he releases a #1 album in the UK that year—he’s both there and not there in 1984, which is kind of where you’d expect him to be.
MM: He is big in ’83—the book about ’83 would be a whole different thing. And in a sense it is a book about ’83, because so much of what happens in ’84 germinates in ’83. Bowie was too big a presence to ignore. There’s no way to write this book without including some Bowie, and he’s fun to write about, as you know. But I also knew I wasn’t going to be writing a ton about him. He’s not at the Grammys, he’s only on the VMAs because he recorded something earlier. He’s spectral that year. He takes most of the year off, aside from releasing Tonight. Doesn’t go on tour behind it. He does like one interview, and it’s with Charles Shaar Murray and Murray puts it out to three different publications with different stuff in it. That’s that. And Kurt Loder or somebody goes and watches him film the Blue Jean video. He doesn’t do any press. He’s absenting himself. He’s basically like, I’m going to make this record to give me some money, to give Jim [Iggy Pop] some money, and he’s going to take it easy. He’s moved to the Alps and he likes his life.
CO: Tonight is this outlier in the context of top-charting 1984 albums. It’s a bad record but a strange bad record.
MM: Is it an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? It’s completely half-assed: of course it’s a strange record, it’s scraps.
CO: It’s bizarre, the idea he thought someone would appreciate his take on an obscure Chuck Jackson single, or his take on “God Only Knows.”
MM: [In the book], it’s all just a lead-up to Live Aid, where he slays. I hadn’t watched the Live Aid performance in full—I remembered it well—until I read you, you were talking about it was one of the great performances of his career, and it was, wasn’t it? I didn’t think I was ready to understand that, because it took me a long time to get to Bowie. Bowie was such a has-been at the time [the late ‘80s & early ‘90s].
CO: People still forget that.
MM: I was also overly reliant on [Robert] Christgau’s record grades, and there are so many B-pluses and Bs in there—I was just trying to hear the A-minuses, so I missed a lot of good things that way. I didn’t realize for a long time just how fucking indebted Prince was to Bowie. So that took a while.
One reason for Bowie’s spectral presence in other parts of the book is that you can’t just introduce him at Live Aid. It doesn’t make sense in the narrative, and it also would be false. Whereas you can introduce Queen there.
CO: You told me a while back that MTV in the U.S. cut away from Queen’s Live Aid performance midway through, which seems bizarre now, given the rep of that performance.
MM: Cut away from Queen’s performance to an interview with Marilyn McCoo. Who was then the co-host of Solid Gold.
CO: Yeah, it was like “wait, we’ve got McCoo on camera three? Cut away!”
MM: It really does tell you just how little Queen were cared for at that point in the States.
CO: Is the prominence of Queen’s Live Aid performance now something that grew over time, a product of YouTube and the movie?
MM: In Britain then it was obvious they’d stolen the show. That was the triumph of all triumphs, and the close of the book tells that story pretty well. This Melody Maker guy is just like fulminating. It’s against his code of conduct to be saying he liked it. You can sense, oh yes you’ve been indoctrinated by punk and you’ve internalized all the rules but [Freddie Mercury] got to you. Because I was the same way—I hated Queen growing up, I hated them! I didn’t like them all! I still don’t really like them much—I will never ever voluntarily put on a Queen recording. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, it’s just not my taste in the least. But I will watch that fucking performance any time because it’s glorious. It’s everything you could possibly want from that band in 22 minutes.
The internet has really shown us how wide and also narrow a canon can be. One of the things I wrote about for an upcoming issue of the Wire was on “what kept you sane in 2020.” And I wrote about Don Giller’s YouTube David Letterman archives. The Tom Waits collection is like 2 ½ hours, it’s every Tom Waits appearance on Letterman from 1983 to 2015. Every one of them is a song followed by banter, and he’s Tom Waits, he’s funny as hell. I was watching this thinking that you cannot have a better introduction to him. This is genuinely the best way to learn about this guy.
CO: The Queen performance is even more striking when, as you write, so many other of the “legend” performances at Live Aid were under-rehearsed and sloppy, like Led Zeppelin. I recall as a kid waiting for this big Bob Dylan/Keith Richards climactic performance and then they stumble out and look like winos.
MM: Not just look.
CO: Did you wind up cutting any chapters?
MM: The book is 40% what I wrote, but no chapter ideas were abandoned. What got cut were profiles of groups, profiles of artists. I left a number on the cutting room floor—Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. I wrote [the latter two] together because ’84 is when they make their duets album that gets released in ’85 in the U.S. as Omona Wapi. I really wanted that in the book because those are the two biggest African acts at the time—those guys were way bigger than Fela [who made the cut for the book]. But I couldn’t include them.
I didn’t get around to writing about Billy Idol. I kept pushing him back, thinking “he’s not going to be in this chapter, he’ll be in the later chapters.” And then I got to the MTV Awards chapter where he performed and I said, “I just can’t do it—this is already overstuffed and I cannot include anything more.” I’ve already got three times as much as what this thing will allow, it’s the Madonna chapter and that’s really the fucking point of it.
I had to cut a long DeBarge thing which actually dovetailed with the Janet Jackson piece, because that’s when she marries James DeBarge. I had a treatment of all of that and then realized, this is not going to work, I have too much here and I have to cut. It became obvious when I did Underground Is Massive that these books are not about my tastes. That [earlier] book would be entirely different if were about what I liked, and so is this.
CO: How do you edit?
MM: I write long and cut. What happens is that I take forever to write the damn thing because I chase every fucking lead down, I try to find everything I’m curious about within that framework and I go to work. I do the whole thing and it takes forever, but when it comes to cutting it I’m emotionless. All that matters is if it works. I’m looking at it completely coldly. I don’t have to think about it because I did it. I wrote what I set out to write, so if it doesn’t work that means it wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t space for it. I cut Underground Is Massive to size in about two weeks and I did the same thing with this.
Every book has a wordcount—it’s math. I spend the whole day doing math and what I spend the day doing is figuring out how many words I want each chapter to be, and how many words there are in total, and how much I’ll need to cut. If I’m cutting each chapter down to one-third of its [original] size, it has to be this many words. I do that for the whole book and it makes it really easy. Again, you’re taking your ego completely out of it. Now you’re just doing math. Or say you’ve read through one section and think, “this is rock solid, I can’t do anything.” That means you have to cut the other section out. It clarifies things.
CO: This might be off the mark but one book that yours seems to be in conversation with is Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock & Soul, from 1989 [a list of Marsh’s 1001 top-ever singles, which included, somewhat controversially at the time, lots of Madonna and even a Billy Ocean track].
MM: Very much so. I’d say even more [Marsh’s] FirstRock and Roll Confidential Report ..it’s both. Another section that I had to cut was about the proliferation of rock books in ’84.
CO: The Book of Rock Lists, things like that?
MM: If you remember the bibliography of the First Rock and Roll Confidential Report, it’s like 200 books—this is when those books all came out. There were pieces about this—there were pieces about the proliferation of rock books. Marsh had like a book out every six months it seemed; Born to Run had been a best seller.
CO: Yeah the mid-‘80s is when the first wave of serious Bowie biographies all appear, I recall. There wasn’t much before then.
MM: I really enjoyed the photo book about the Serious Moonlight Tour. With Dennis O’Regan. I had so much in there at one point about the making of that tour…that was a lot of what I cut. I quoted the fuck out of that book and then I realized there was no space for it. Chet Flippo wrote it—I was like, oh, you got a real writer. It’s a perfect example of Bowie’s extremely good taste. Bowie had very good taste in music writing. Greg Tate once wrote for MTV News that he went to interview some startup that Iman was working on and apparently they were sitting there talking, she was behind her desk, and she gets a call and “it’s for you, it’s my husband.” And Bowie is lavishing Tate with praise. And of course, Mystery Train is in his 100 favorite books.
Thanks, Matos! Again, if you’re interested in this period of pop history, I think you’ll enjoy the book.
138 It’s No Game Pts. 1 & 2: While these songs are titled “No. 1” and “No. 2” on sleeves of some editions of the album, primarily UK and European pressings, “Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” are always the LP/cassette/CD/download/stream label. Was this a late-in-the-day title alteration that didn’t get a follow-through? The change in name subtly alters the relationship of the two songs. Being “Pt. 2” makes the slower, less manic track the sequel to, or continuation of, “Pt. 1,” rather than being, as “No. 2” would suggest, another edition of the same song. There’s also a scatological pun with “No. 2” (“camel shit ”); recorded: sessions went at least to mid-March, as Bowie was in New York on 13 March 1980 for the opening party of an ill-fated musical staged by his former tour arranger, Michael Kamen; release: 12 September was the UK date; contemporary ads in the Los Angeles Times have the US date as 19 September; Scary Monsters: though sometimes referred to as Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), it’s mostly been identified as Scary Monsters on LP spines and tape, disc, etc. labels. But to make things confusing, it has on occasion had the full title, such as the original 1980 UK cassette , the first (1984) European CD issue and currently on Spotify; Fripp: to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 13 November 1980; most glossy studio…stop experimenting: In Other Words, 100-101. Originally a Con Edison plant on West 53rd St. and 10th Avenue, the Power Station (hence the name) had opened in 1977. It was owned by Tony Bongiovi (cousin of Jon) and Bob Walters. Among its first users were Chic, who at times would book Studio B for months. After a long period as Avatar Studios in the late Nineties and 2000s, it’s now owned by Berklee and remains in operation: the last studio in Manhattan that’s large enough for a symphony or Broadway cast recording; awful lot of mistakes: Radio One interview (Andy Peebles), 5 December 1980, later issued as a promotional 12″; not as immediately as I used to: to Angus MacKinnon, NME, 13 September 1980; grinding and intense: Illustrated Record, 112.
139 Three Steps to Heaven: also the source of the “Queen Bitch” riff; mid-tempo beat: an earlier (bootlegged) take of “Pt. 2″ has a slower tempo, though that may be in part due to tape distortion; angry vehement statement: Peebles, 5 December 1980.
140 flange the combined sound electronically…Swiss chalet: High Fidelity, July 1982.
141 Japanesetranslation: the full Japanese lyric, as translated by Stephen Ryan: shiruetto ya kage ga kakumei wo miteiru (silhouettes and shadows are watching the revolution)/ mo tengoku no jiyu no kaidan wa nai (free [without restrictions] steps of heaven are no longer there/here)/ ore wa genjitsu kara shime dasare ([a ‘tough’ ‘masculine’ I] have been excluded from reality)/ nani ga okotteiru no ka wakaranai (I don’t understand what’s going on)/ doko ni kyoukun wa aruno ka hitobito wa yubi wo orareteiru (where’s the lesson [moral]? people’s fingers are being broken)/ konna dokusaisya ni iyashimerareru no wa kanashii (to be abused [taunted] by this strong-willed leader [dictator] is sad)/ nanmin no kiroku eiga (documented films of refugees)/ hyoutekini se wo shita koibitotachi (lovers are set as a background to the target)/ michi ni ishi wo nagereba (if you throw a stone into the road)/ konagona ni kudake (it is shattered into a powder)/ kino ni futa wo sureba (if you cover up [put a lid on] yesterday) /kyoufu wa masu (the terror [fear] grows)/ ore no atama ni tama wo uchikomeba (if you shoot a bullet into my head)/ shinbun wa kakitateru (the newspapers will write about it in an exaggerated way); Japanese girl typifies it…samurai kind of thing: Peebles, 5 December 1980.
142 Tired of My Life: with a slight variation—the original lyric has “I’ll make all the papers”: list of targets: confusion and legend abound in re Mark Chapman and Bowie. Various accounts have: a) Chapman attending an Elephant Man performance days before he shot Lennon (possible but unlikely, as Chapman had arrived in New York on 6 December and spent most of his time over the next two days casing the Dakota, trying to meet Lennon); b) Chapman planning to shoot Bowie at the theater on the 8th if he hadn’t been able to get to Lennon that night (almost certainly wrong, as it was a Monday, the night when a Broadway show is usually dark, and Bowie was out on a date that evening, according to May Pang); c) Chapman had gotten a front-row ticket for Elephant Man on the 9th, the night that Lennon and Ono allegedly were supposed to attend. In 1999, Bowie told the radio host Redbeard this latter (Dec. 9) story, as well as that the NYPD had told him that his name was second on Chapman’s list of targets; going on in this world: as per Pang to Paul Trynka. An old friend (Lennon’s ex-girlfriend and Tony Visconti’s future wife), she was asked by Corinne Schwab to come to Bowie’s apartment once news of the shooting broke; Pang and Bowie arrived around the same time (Starman, 299.) Because You’re Young Never performed live, but as with “Scream Like a Baby,” it was played in 1987 tour rehearsals.
143 pretending to be a rock ‘n’ roll band: to Tom Hibbert, Q, July 1989; behind a desk: to Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 17 September 1977; hitting out at everybody: to Steve Rosen, Sound International, April 1980; personification of my worst fears: to Mick Brown, Sunday Times, 1985; Power Station: not confirmed, but it’s far more likely that Townshend cut his solo there rather than in London in April-May 1980. Townshend was already in the US in February 1980 to meet up with Nicolas Roeg about a potential film of Lifehouse; in April-May, the Who were on tour much of the time; wine: Townshend snapped “there’s no such thing as white wine!” when Visconti offered him a choice of bottles; bottle of brandy…can’t pull it off: Sound International, April 1980; old men…right rave-up: to Hopkins, Bowie, 217; foul, laconic mood…oh windmills: Brooklyn Boy, 285; chord as a drone: Sound International, April 1980.
144old roué: Peebles, 5 December 1980 (a reference to Jacques Brel’s “My Death”); felt old all my life: see Melody Maker, 14 October 1978 & NME, 12 March 1983, among other interviews. Kingdom Come Verlaine’s song used the title of an unreleased Television song, but the two are otherwise unrelated; New York’s finest new writers: Peebles, 5 December 1980; Tom Verlaine look: Circus, 19 February 1980.
145 scattered scheme of things: NME, 13 September 1980; Porter: the connection here was Hazel O’Connor, on whose debut album Porter worked and whose follow-up Visconti produced. Porter went on to engineer hits like George Michael’s “Faith”; lugubrious…used a note of his playing: Brooklyn Boy, 285; Verlaine: to Kristine McKenna, in the November 1981 New York Rocker, he said “I didn’t go along with the Bowie version of “Kingdom Come” myself, but it’s always a thrill to hear someone else interpret your work even if you don’t like what they do with it. I’d love to hear Ray Charles do that song—I bet he’d do a great version.”
146 Up the Hill Backwards the last Scary Monsters single, issued in March 1981 and hitting #32 in the UK. Its Top of the Pops performance by Legs & Co. is a marvel—dry ice, hand chops, deadpan expressions. Few TOTP dance routines were ever choreographed to a 7/8 intro and a Fripp guitar line; poem for children: I found it in a 1964 kindergarten textbook, which may have been its only appearance; music carries its own message…ball of middle-classness: NME, 13 September 1980; Richter: Art and Anti-Art, 122; since 1924…high-energy Fripp: Peebles, 5 December 1980.
147 most exploratory of all the tracks: to Thomas Jerome Seabrook, Record Collector 299, March 2012; system of echo repeats: interview for Recorder Three, 1981; disguised in indifference: Peebles, 5 December 1980.
148 Scream Like a Baby rehearsed for, but not performed in, the 1987 tour; kleen machine: NME, 13 September 1980; anti-tech: Peebles, 5 December 1980; Brother D: Daryl Aamaa Nubyahn, a Brooklyn math teacher/activist who recorded, with the Collective Effort, for the Clappers label, founded as a Maoist effort; retrospection and pastiche: Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 14.
149 key: verses are built of two clusters of three chords (Cm-Abj7-G7 (“hide under blankets”) and Bb-Ab6-Eb (“mixed with other colors”)), two descending progressions in the key of Eb. The refrain, however, builds to a major chord resolution, while the six-bar bridge centers on a troubled iii chord—Gm7/sus4, C#dim7, F5, C#°, Gm9, Gm7. Is There Life After Marriageother track: it’s been reported (but unconfirmed) that the real “Is There Life After Marriage” track was intended as a duet with Iggy Pop. After the book went to press, I realized I should have put quotes around this title, as it’s not the actual name of the bootlegged track. I also had thought of combining this entry with the “I Feel Free” one in Chapter 8, but thought some readers might have been confused by that. It may have been the wrong call. But hey, let’s move on; revue:An Evening With Quentin Crisp (the “life after marriage” line is quoted in the 7 January 1979 New York Times review). The phrase was also a feminist slogan and titled a chapter in a self-help book of the period, so who knows where DB picked it up.
150Scary Monsters(and Super Creeps) issued as a single in January 1981; WXRT: this acoustic version by Reeves Gabrels and Bowie was released in 2005 on ONXRT: Live From The Archives Vol. 8; Londonism: Peebles, 5 December 1980; worked it up: Rolling Stone, 27 January 2016; major-chord: verses push between home chord (E major) and flattened VII chord (D major); refrains pit dominant and subdominant (B and A) against each other; British punk group: WNYC interview, March 2009.
151 right there at the Power Station: Momus blog, 5 March 2010; Kellogg’s: Bowie claimed this, but I found no evidence of this campaign, sadly; EDP Wasp: Designed by Chris Huggett and introduced in 1978, the Wasp was indeed wasp-colored in yellow and black. With a two-octave keyboard, it was one of the first digital/analog hybrid synthesizers (digital oscillators, analog filters) and would be key to early Eighties synth-pop: Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran loved it. Visconti possibly used the deluxe model, which had a three-octave keyboard and oscillator mixer; equalization changes…triggered the sequence: Brooklyn Boy, 286, 283.
152 Teenage WildlifeSavage: The Face, November 1980; punk failures: Reynolds, Rip It Up, 326; checking out ideas…escape route: Record Mirror, 29 November 1980; Elms: The Way We Wore, 188-89.
153 most creative people: Blitzed, 43; Frith: Music For Pleasure, 176; TV show: the 1979 Kenny Everett’s Christmas Special. Numan had already filmed his performance and was hanging around to see Bowie play. “All of a sudden, this bloke I’d adored for years was throwing me out of a building because he hated me so much,” Numan told the Independent in 2003; image is to be copied: Trouser Press, January 1981; note to younger brother: Peebles, 5 December 1980; first convention: “The 1980 Floor Show: Bowiecon 1,” as per Cann, Chronology, 236 (the date listed was 27 April 1980—Kenneth Pitt and Cherry Vanilla were among the speakers). An article in the 7 June 1980 Sounds describes the day-long convention, which about 1,000 attended. There were screenings of Bowie films and videos and a Bowie lookalike contest that didn’t make the grade, according to Sounds (“13 very feeble entrants. Each one would come and on wriggle about to ‘Rebel Rebel’ for about five seconds. One man in a red plastic cape came on wearing rollers skates and did an Evel Knievel bit by jumping four chairs on stage.”) It ended with Pitt auctioning off memorabilia, including the jock strap Bowie wore in “The Mask,” his 1969 mime.
154 Conservative radicals: Peter York, Style Wars, 15; wanted heroes: Beckett, Miracle, 189; service industry: Q, July 1989; warm up to this track: Brooklyn Boy, 284; Hammer: Record Collector, March 2012.
155splintery guitar…still enamoured: Mail on Sunday, 22 June 2008. Ashes to AshesTonight Show: Alomar put together the band: G.E. Smith (guitar), John Kumnick (bass), Gordon Grody (keyboards), Steve Goulding (drums). The Tonight Show was their only public performance, though they’re also seen in the concert filmed at Hurrah for Christiane F, and most are in the “Fashion” video. There’s some debate over the date of taping: Pegg has 3 September, Griffin 5 September 1980 (which is definitely the date of broadcast) Watching the entire episode, it’s obvious that Bowie taped his performance at a different time than the rest of the guests, but it’s quite possible it was earlier that day.
156accommodate your pasts: to Timothy White, Musician, July 1990.
157 where I left him: NME, 13 September 1980; complete dissolution…from whence he came: Peebles, 5 December 1980.
158 nursery rhyme: Peebles, 5 December 1980; old ska beat…chair and a cardboard box: to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.
159 decent moving stereo image: Brooklyn Boy, 279-80; People Are Turning to Gold: are the “little green wheels” in “Ashes to Ashes” and Bowie’s legendary lost Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack piece “Wheels” connected? If so, is it then possible “Ashes” is yet another Scary Monsters song whose origins lie in the mid-Seventies? Perhaps we’ll know one day; riff: a fine, concise analysis is found in Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin J. Power’s “Culminating Sounds and (en)Visions.” As they note, the riff is a six-bar sequence. The first three bars are the complete melody: F-Bb-C/ C- F/ Bb-Eb. The fourth bar repeats the opening F-Bb-C melody, so the ear expects the two-note C-F bar to follow. Instead there’s an empty bar, then the Bb-Eb “closing” bar; chords: much of the verse and refrain is in Ab major, but the intro/outro is Bb minor7/ Ab major/ Eb minor/ Bb min7, in which both the Bbm and Ebm chords work against Ab establishing itself as the home chord; chord inversions: Record Collector, March 2012.
161 Tom Ewing: Popular, “Ashes to Ashes,” November 2008. Fashion issued as a single in October 1980, hitting #5 in the UK.
162 strange aura about it: Peebles, 5 December 1980; structural similarities: “Golden Years” also has two chords playing off each other for the verse. “Fashion” is in F major (with the Bb7 in the refrain the IV chord, and the bridge a slow game of moving from the iv chord, Dm, back home to F); Fripp: Graham Coxon allegedly was so intent on trying to capture the sound of Fripp’s “Fashion” solo on Blur’s “London Loves” that the song’s working title was “Fripp”; contemporary grammar: Rock et Folk, May 1995. Fripp’s Scary Monsters work was consistent with the guitar sounds on his own Exposure a year earlier. Compare “Breathless” and “Disengage” to “It’s No Game” and “Fashion”; just out of a truck: Electronic Musician, June 1987; end of Davis & Murray: Bowie let them go because he didn’t record or tour for over two years, and couldn’t keep them on retainer. Davis joined up with Stevie Wonder, with whom he played for most of the Eighties, and became a teacher: among his students was future Bowie drummer Sterling Campbell. Davis died a few months after Bowie in 2016. His son, Hikaru, has started a wonderful YouTube series, The HD Projects, in which he interviews his father’s old collaborators. George Murray got out of the game soon after leaving Bowie—his last appearance on record is Jerry Harrison’s 1981 The Red and the Black. He stayed close friends with Alomar and Davis, and is alive and well as of this writing (Hikaru Davis interviewed him in 2017).
163 more techno: Brooklyn Boy, 284 (the original idea was to remove the drum machine and just use Davis’ drums); grew into a monster: Five Years. Crystal Japan unclear when first issued in Japan, but the single (c/w “Alabama Song”) has a 1980 copyright on the label. Crystal Jun Rock: incorrectly described as sake (by me, among others), it’s instead shochu, more of a vodka-like liquor; money is a useful thing: March 1980 Japanese interview quoted in Cann, Chronology, 205; B-side: an unknown Bowie track for many until its appearance on the 1992 Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters. That’s where Trent Reznor, who subconsciously nicked its melody for “A Warm Place,” first heard it.
164 Cat People Lots of different release dates out there. My source is the 27 March 1982 Cash Box, which reported the single was released on 12 March and the soundtrack LP on 1 April 1982; doesn’t speak French well: Sunday People, 10 May 1981.
165time immemorial: Esquire, July 1982 (quoted in Kouvaros, 47); dream state…took it lyrically: New Zealand TV interview, filmed on the set of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, ca. September 1982; I said ‘Jim’: comment on “Cat People” blog post, 6 March 2014.
166 really bothered him…same tempo: High Fidelity, February 1984; took instruments away: The Face, May 1983. Under Pressure first release: date as per the 17 October 1981 Record World.
167 Ewing:Popular, “Under Pressure,” 4 February 2009; booked Mountain Studios: trying to pre-empt the pedants here. Yes, Queen owned the studio, but I think it’s fair to say they would still “book time” to record there; under the influence of Switzerland: NME, 16 April 1983; who paid what?: Sandford, 209; vocals removed: Brian May, in International Musician and Recording World, November 1982: “David just did a backing track. I don’t think anyone thought any more about it, except that it was a nice ornamentation. We just sent him a courtesy note telling him that we had used it and he said, ‘I want it taken off, because I’m not satisfied with it.’ Unfortunately he didn’t tell us until about a day before the album was supposed to be released, so it really set us back. It delayed the album’s release”; inevitable jams: NME, 16 April 1983; other people’s stuff: Absolute Radio interview (for “Killer Queen” documentary), 22 August 2011.
168 get a bit twitchy: New Zealand TV interview, ca. September 1982; from the ground up: response to BowieNet fan question, 19 April 2004; skeleton of a song…better as a demo: NME, 16 April 1983; this song appears: David Bowie Story, 1993; My God it’s caught fire: as recalled by Freddie Mercury to Simon Bates, Radio One interview, June 1985; press on instinctively…why the words are so curious…template for the final vocals: May, Daily Mirror, 11 January 2016; what he felt they should say: to Alan di Perna, Guitar World, October 2002.
169 West Side Story meets Queen: David Bowie Story, 1993; bassline: The case for Deacon: various interviews with May and Taylor over the years, including May’s 2016 article for the Daily Mirror. The case for Bowie: “The song itself is mainly David’s and Freddie’s idea. But we were all included in the credits. It was an interesting experience, because David wrote the bass-line, he owes the responsibility for it,” Deacon to Mizuno Kumiko, Viva Rock (December 1982) and “The bass line came from David, it took me a certain time to learn it. But there was also a strong influence from Brian for the middle part. It was an interesting experience which we might do repeat if we have a chance with David and other people,” Deacon to Guido Harari, Petite Reine (1984); pedal point: Ethan Hein delves more into this on his site); mixing: producer and author Bobby Owsinski first noted some apparent minor “UP” performance flaws on his Big Picture Music Production blog, 27 April 2010.
170 quite simply about love: International Musician and Recording World, November 1982.
171 Baal’s Hymn a wild lack of clarity on the release date for this EP. We have Bowie’s website in 2013 claiming that the EP came out on 13 February 1982. As this was a Saturday and weeks before the broadcast, this is…not likely? The recent New Career in a New Town set instead has the date as being 13 March 1982. But the only contemporary source I found, the UK trade paper Record Business (22 February 1982 issue), lists the EP’s release date as being 2 March 1982, the same day of the broadcast. Out of exhaustion, I’ve chosen this date, but it was perhaps the 1st (a Monday) or 26 February (a Friday); UK #29:Baal’s amazing UK chart placing—#29 on the singles chart for an EP of obscure Brecht—is a testament to refined British taste and/or undiscerning Bowie fandom; broadcast: I’m deviating from my usual listing of the date of filming in favor here of listing the actual broadcast date. I did so for clarity, as Bowie’s Baal performances were shot over five days, 8-12 August 1981; Marks: was a BBC stalwart, even writing four Doctor Who scripts; alienation: Verfremdungseffekt (also translated as “estrangement affect”), in which audiences are prevented from emotionally identifying with actors on stage via actions like having actors break character and directly address the audience or, as in the Baal production, using split-screen intertitles as narrative commentary on actions taking place “on stage”; lead actor: Clarke originally wanted Steven Berkoff, whom he’d used in Scum; Marks favored Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage). Willett claimed he’d been the first to suggest Bowie; career of acting: Juby, 104.
172 quintessential amoral artist: Juby, 104-105; human race…wants that: Radio Times, 27 February 1982.
173 two stanzas: stanzas seven and nine, the most redundant, were cut. For the BBC production, stanza three (“so through hospital…”) appeared between stanzas six and eight, but was restored to its proper place in the EP recording. Like the BBC take, the EP version puts stanza 11 (“Baal can spot the vultures”) after stanza 12; Willett’s translation: Brecht’s first line, “Als im weißen Mutterschoße aufwuchs Baal,” is translated by Eric Bentley and Martin Esslin as “in the white womb of his mother Baal did lie.” Willett instead keeps the Germanic sentence structure: “whilst his mother’s womb contained the growing Baal.” It gives the line more of a punch and lets Bowie dig into the bleating vowel in “Baaal”; construction noise: Bowie allegedly tried to stop it by going out into the hallway and yelling “lunch!” while another story has Marks storming through the studios to find the worker, who was using a pneumatic drill; bandoneónist…four strings: Starman, 307.
175 Remembering Marie A.Brecht, arr. trad.: the lyric is Willett’s 1970 translation. Odd that he’s not listed as a co-songwriter but perhaps this was a BBC work-for-hire standard; Amman: her name is sometimes spelled “Aman.” In 1978, around age 80, she was the subject of an East German short film; “Marie A.” in German, it sounds like “Maria,” the Virgin Mary. Brecht was fond of “Marie” (as the name “spanned the distance between housemaids and Saint Mary”), using it in several poems (via Hugo Schmidt’s notes on Brecht’s Manual of Piety); Zuckmayer: Willett, 166; 1926 Baal: recollection of Oskar Homolka (note in Brecht, Poems, 527).
176 The Drowned Girl RCA requested a video for “Drowned Girl.” Shot by David Mallet, its supporting band (the same used for a “Wild Is the Wind” video to promote Changestwobowie) is all ringers: Tony Visconti, Simple Minds drummer Mel Gaynor, Andy Hamilton (a British saxophonist heard on Duran Duran’s “Rio”), and Coco Schwab; magic spell…his own will on anybody: Fuegi, Brecht & Co., 128-129; Rimbaud: “Ophélie” also begins with a dead “white” girl in the water (“Sur l’onde calme et noire où dorment les étoiles/ La blanche Ophélia flotte comme un grand lys”). Rainer Nägele’s “Phantom of a Corpse: Ophelia From Rimbaud to Brecht” (2002) notes what Brecht owed to Rimbaud as well as connections that “Drowned Girl” has with other Brecht poems of the period.
177phenomenon of death: “A Note Concerning Das Berliner Requiem,” May 1929, quoted in Kowalke, Kurt Weill in Europe, 504; Lotte Lenya: Bowie knew her version from Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (1955). She sang “Drowned Girl” to Brecht shortly before the latter died. When she asked if her performance suited his idea of epic theater, Brecht replied: “Lenya, you are always epic enough for me”; absolute tutorial:Starman, 367.
178 Dirty Song: Brecht allegedly cut it for being too insubstantial; Lud Prestel: enjoyed the fate of many Brecht collaborators in that he wasn’t credited.
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Epigraphs Brasch emigrated to West Germany in 1976. These lines are from his “Sleeping Beauty and Pork” (1980): “Abschied von morgen Ankuft gestern/ Das ist der deutsche Traum”; Mann: from 1921, quoted in Gay, 131 (in turn found in Ludwig Marcuse’s Mein Zwanzigstest Jahrhundert, 54); Smith: Hit Parader, April 1978. The rest are self-explanatory, with hope.
66 Turn Blue Peace, Lacey: Geoff MacCormack, known as “Warren Peace” at the time, was Bowie’s childhood friend, traveling companion, and occasional collaborator (“Rock and Roll With Me”). He drops out of the picture roughly after Station to Station, though he and Bowie remained close until the latter’s death. While Pop once said that MacCormack “had become more Hollywood than was great for [MacCormack and Bowie’s] relationship,” it seems a bit more likely it was the other way around. As for Walter Lacey, the only reference I’ve ever found was of him reportedly performing a spoken-word piece called “Meatpack Man” in 1982. He’s without a doubt the all-time most obscure Bowie co-composer; recorded: as per Trynka’s Bleed, Eduard Meyer’s diary lists Lust for Life sessions on 8-12 and 14 June 1977. As Pop and other musicians recall the album as being cut in one go, in about nine or 10 days, I’ve estimated that Lust for Life was recorded ca. 4-16 June 1977. The sessions could have ended no later than 25 June, when Bowie was in France; Gardiner: spelled “Gardner” on the Lust For Life LP sleeve/label and in copyright filings for “The Passenger” and “Neighborhood Threat” (and he’s listed as “Gardener” on Low, though possibly that was a pun?); first release: another inconclusive date: some sources (e.g., Cann) list 9 September 1977, but Lust was reviewed in the 27 August 1977 issues of Billboard and Cash Box, suggesting a slightly earlier date in the US at least. Given Elvis Presley’s death’s impact on RCA’s LP shipments, Lust possibly didn’t reach some stores until well into September; care not a sot…person again: to Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone, 12 January 1978; eyes turned toward him: Pitt, The Pitt File, 175. Bowie was appearing on Musik Fur Junge Leute, whose usual studio was in Hamburg but the West German government had been pushing to have shows taped in West Berlin “to reduce the sense of abandonment felt by West Berliners,” Pitt wrote; soldiers like film extras…we were home: MacCormack, Station to Station.
67 Isherwood myth: Ash, The File, 36; a year all told: to the Daily Mirror (22 October 1977), Bowie claimed he’d only spent two months in Berlin at that point (a slight understatement, as recording Lust for Life and “Heroes” alone had taken up roughly that time and he’d spent considerable time in Berlin in autumn 1976), and that he’d “drained himself of enthusiasm” for the city, calling it a “ghost town…everyone seems to be leaving”; temporary stop off: Rüther, Heroes, 67; very claustrophobic: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977; island of luxury: Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, 46; total isolation: Heroes, 41; gunners on the Wall: Five Years; 40% of budget: Clay Large, Berlin, 464.
68 particular dilemma: to Angus MacKinnon, NME, 13 September 1980; grumpy, snotty students: Kerrang!, 8 September 2001; little in between: I Want More, 95, 101; sleep it off: 1990 radio interview with Nicky Campbell. “They’d pick me up and take me home, which is nice in a way”; rockism: to Trynka, Bleed, 349; one jump ahead of them: Starman, 271-272.
69 drug use was unbelievable: to Adrian Deevoy, Q, May 1993; tinker toy: NME, 12 March 1977; no excess of any kind: Stephen Dobson, The Man Who Killed the Hamsters, 52; punk rock: CBC interview, 11 March 1977. Pop said he was impressed by Johnny Rotten (“he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did”); second fiddle to Iggy: Bleed, 222.
71 Some Weird Sin edits: live, Gardiner typically played a 16-bar solo after the second verse. On the studio cut, it’s cut in half (at the 2:12 mark); angry poem: quoted in Adams, Complete Iggy Pop, 96.
72 Tonight remake: issued as a single in November 1984, it was a trans-Atlantic stiff (EMI EA 187, stalling out at #53 in both the UK and US). Bowie sang it with Turner on 23 March 1985, in Birmingham, UK, a performance included on Turner’s Live In Europe; barren thing: to Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.
73 Neighborhood Threat it went totally wrong: to Scott Isler, Musician, August 1987.
74Oompa-Loompas: Stylus, 12 July 2005. Lust for Life issued at last as a UK single in 1996 (it hit #26, Pop’s highest-charting single since “Real Wild Child” a decade earlier) Call this one Lust for Life: Krautrock: Rebirth of Germany; Morris: Uncut, April 2001; had to follow: Bleed, 226; Burroughs: see “control addicts…were to be seen on every corner of the city hypnotizing chickens,” from The Ticket That Exploded. Pop also borrowed from Naked Lunch (“No one talks, no one reads, no one walks”) for the chorus of “Tonight.”
75 fuck somebody over: Rolling Stone, 5 April 2011; small mountain of cocaine: Bleed, 261.
76 Success issued as a single in October 1977 c/w “The Passenger” (RCA PB 9160; didn’t chart); damn crooning thing: Bleed, 227. Pop recalled that his strategy was to “wait until [Bowie] walked out of the studio and then I changed everything”; Lonely at the Top: Randy Newman, to RollingStone, 15 September 2017: “There was a massive drive at Warner Bros. Records to get Frank a hit. I thought – maybe stupidly – that he would be ready to make fun of that leaning-against-the-lamp-post shit: “Oh, I’m so lonely and miserable and the biggest singer in the world.” I never bought that part of him. I thought he’d appreciate that. I played it for him, at his office on the Warner Bros. lot. His reaction? Nothing. He said, “Next.” I also played “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” He said, “I like that one.” But he couldn’t hide his bitterness at young people’s music”; money in rugs: Viz, 1980.
77 Passenger It had the same chord progression as “Neighborhood Threat” (Am-F-C-G); The Lords: the key passage is Morrison’s “Modern life is a journey by car. The Passengers change terribly in their reeking seats, or roam from car to car, subject to unceasing transformation. Inevitable progress is made toward the beginning(there is no difference in terminals), as we slice through cities, whose ripped backsides present a moving picture of windows, signs, streets, buildings.”
78 Fall In Love With Me Julian Casablancas owes his career to this and a few other Pop vocals on Lust.
79 Sons of the Silent Age Used as the basis of the fourth movement of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (“Heroes”), premiered September 1996. Scored for: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 3 percussion (side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, triangle, vibes, tam-tam, castanets, glockenspiel), harp, piano, celesta, strings. Recorded: I’ve used the recording dates listed on a Hansa telegram sent to Visconti in August 1977, included as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit (these dates were also referenced in the New Career in a New Town box set). Some final overdubs were done at Mountain Studios in August, marking the start of a nearly 20-year relationship between Bowie and that studio; Brel: Bowie was familiar with Scott Walker’s version of “Sons Of” (off Scott 3, 1969) and Elly Stone’s from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, both of which used Mort Shuman’s translation. Stone’s version of “Old Folks” (“the old folks never die/ they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day” and also “you lived too long” (see “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”)) may have been a starting point for Bowie and Visconti’s vocal harmonies; melody: the refrain melody mainly draws from the E-flat scale until, on “all I see,” it flats the seventh chord, turning the scale into either Ab or Eb mixolydian. As Larry Hardesty noted to me, of Eb, D, Db, and C, only Eb is natural in the key of Eb, while Eb and Db are both natural in the key of Ab. Thus when the chromatic sequence finally breaks with a move to Ab, right as the melody appears to have switched to the Ab scale, it makes Ab sound like the home key. But this gets immediately undermined by the move to Bb and Eb— the standard-issue cadence in Eb. The oddball chord progression and the ambiguities in the pitch class of the melody, create a tonal instability until that cadence; major step up: Hardesty: “In What in the World, the verse rocks back and forth between two chords a whole step apart — F and Eb— and then the chorus modulates to G, which is a whole step higher than the top chord of the verse. In Sons of the Silent Age, the verse rocks back and forth between two chords a whole step apart — G and F — and then the chorus modulates to Eb, which is a whole step lower than the bottom chord of the verse. In both cases, the modulation maps out a sequence of three major triads a whole step apart. That’s the same relationship that gives the famous guitar break in “Space Oddity” its extra oomph: C F G A…A Bowie signature trick.”
80 Beauty and the Beast whole thing evolved: NME, 26 November 1977; weird amp: Sound International, September 1978.
81 best, most positive album…no bad scenes: Juby, In Other Words, 88; hehad a life!: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 276; ray of light: Heroes, 121; nook in the unconscious: Uncut, April 2001.
82 Blackout Dennis Davis: years later, Eno said in a New Yorker interview, “the question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us? Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure to say they do.” (25 April 2011); most abstract: Sound International, September 1978; jazz metronome: to Richard Buskin, Sound on Sound, October 2004. Visconti: “‘Heroes’ wasn’t played to a click track, but its tempo is virtually the same through the entire six minutes. He’s not only an innovative drummer but a human metronome, and he’s also a jazz guy who never plays the same thing twice”; built on two structures: Mayes, On Tour, 114.
83 bit of a distance: Rock On, 20 October 1977; angst in the air: to Jonathan Mantle, Vogue, September 1978. Joe the Lion A pointless remix appeared on the Ryko reissue of “Heroes” in 1991, mostly beefing up the drums; Alice Cooper: Peter Plagens, “He Got Shot For His Art,” New York Times, 2 September 1973.
84 Art doesn’t have a purpose: Donald Carroll, “Chris Burden: Art on the Firing Line,” Coast, August 1974; Carr: On Edge, 16; take dangerous risks…started with the characters…same kind of risks: to Nicky Horne, Capital Radio interview, 13 February 1979; like a Roman arena…a protest against himself: Bleed, 157-158; Matterhorn of cocaine: Times of London, 12 January 2013; working on getting drunk: Backstage Passes, 158; clashing set of chords: Much of the song moves from B major to E major, with F# cropping up for one line. But I think the opening is D-G-D. There’s also an apparent flaw at 2:38, with the left channel of the stereo mix vanishing for a second.
86 Heroes Bowie’s German vocal (“Helden”) became far more well-known among fans in the late Eighties when it was chosen for the Sound + Vision box set over the English version (an odd decision, though Jeff Rougvie has repeatedly said that the set was meant as a Bowie sampler, not a greatest hits compilation). As I first knew “Heroes” in its German form, DB’s wildly over-the-top “ICH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ICH BIN DANN KOE-NIG!” still sounds like the “real” version of that section to me.
87Reagan was a survivor: Cannon, Governor Reagan’s Rise to Power; failure of nerve: Village Voice, 17 December 1979.
88 motive was guilt…offices were nearby: Rolling Stone, 12 January 1978.
89 beautiful spatial noises: Music Moguls: Melody Makers (BBC), January 2016; both dastardly, like the Velvet Underground: Capital Radio, 13 February 1979; horizontal groove: Uncut, June 2008; shuddering, chattering effect: Sound on Sound, October 2004.
90four feet away was an A: Mat Snow, Mojo: 60 Years of Bowie, January 2007; dreamy,wailing quality: Sound Opinions, Show 381, 15 March 2013; weedy violin patch:Sound on Sound, October 2004; David lived with it…master level: Roland blog interview, 2014; fairlyheavy compression: Sound on Sound, October 2004.
91 Grave for a Dolphin: of course, Bowie went on to marry a Somalian woman. He referenced Denti’s novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001); Antonia Maaß: “No way was it us,” she told Rüther (Heroes, 122-123).
93continue to live: Finnish television (YLE) interview, 16 January 1996. Secret Life of Arabia Billy MacKenzie’s 1982 cover with the BEF is one of few Bowie covers that pretty much blows the original out of the water.
94 V-2 Schneider The last movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (the “V-2-Schnei-der” chorus melody, initially played on woodwinds, is shifted to open the piece) live: a recording from the Paradiso, Amsterdam, on 6 October 1997 was issued as a b-side of “Pallas Athena”; insider knowledge: the earliest reference I found in the US/UK press was Hütter and Schneider telling Glenn O’Brien these nicknames in a 1977 Interview; neo-Nazi kind of thing: Circus, 27 April 1976. Schneider’s father, architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, served in the German army during the war but wasn’t a Nazi party member. His Fifties work was associated with the “Year Zero” movement of rejecting Nazi-era neo-classicism and championing the modernism of the Bauhaus school; they’re like craftsmen: to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987; lazy analyzes…music was spontaneous for the most part: Uncut, April 2001.
95 no fathers: Movie Maker, 1 December 1995; German entertainment…parents bombed out of their homes: my conflation of two Hütter interviews, with Lester Bangs (1975) and Mark Cooper (1982); Witts: from “Vorsprungdurchtechnik,” Chapter 8 of Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop; we influenced Bowie: Keyboard, October 1991; weeble sounds: to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, July 2002.
96 they have their reasons: to Buckley, Kraftwerk, 88; reassuring…in his work: Soho Weekly News, 29 September 1977; pzzt: Sounds, 20 September 1975; Visconti: from FAQ on former website; wrong way round…impossible to write that: MM, 18 February 1978 (a longer version of the interview appears in Egan, Bowie On Bowie, 95).
97 Abdulmajid At present, only available on the All Saints compilation. Used as the second movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4—Glass gave it an “Iberian” feel, with an initial rhythmic base of castanets. Visconti: to Pegg, 13 (as with all Pegg references, the most recent 2016 ed.)
98 Sense of Doubt broadcast: A “video” of sorts, it’s a filmed performance of Bowie miming the piano line, then staring moodily into space, in the empty RCA Studios in Rome, done for an Italian television appearance (Odeon) on 8 October 1977. The song was the third movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4, and among its weakest, with Glass mostly keeping to the original’s melodic confines, losing the strangeness and severity of the “Heroes” recording while adding little else; trying to do the opposite: to Lisa Robinson, Interview, June 1978; organic sound: quoted in Pegg, 237; Eno: liner notes for Music for Airports.
99 Moss Gardenkoto: first brought to Japan in the early Nara Period (8th Century), the modern koto is about 70 inches long and has 13 strings tuned according to the placement of bridges and plucked with three picks, called tsume, worn on the thumb, index and middle finger. Bowie’s koto was much smaller, not much longer than a foot: it was included in the David Bowie Is exhibit. dog’s ears: multiple tests conducted with D. Lucy O’Leary, Easthampton, 2011-2018.
100 Neukoln Used as the fifth movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4, with the lead saxophone lines in part taken up by strings. Also the neighborhood of Christiane F. Bowie’s misspelling was…maybe? him punning on the band Neu! and the city of Köln but it was more likely a mistake; good relationship…it’s not a good one…thick wedge of sound…humorous aspect: to Steve Weitzman, Musician, May 1983. Bowie described his “Turkish modal” scale as having “whole notes where one could take a half note,” suggesting possibly the Phrygian dominant scale; critics: a recent example, far from unique: “In Neukoln, Bowie looked to embody the culture clash of displaced immigrant communities in mid-‘70s Berlin against the cold war backdrop,” All About Jazz, 24 November 2014.
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