Good Morning Girl

August 20, 2009

gmg

Good Morning Girl.

An odd one-off, the swing-pop “Good Morning Girl” (Bowie scats!) has more vitality than its flip-side, if it’s as much a stylistic dead-end. It’s something of a rough mix of the young Van Morrison (in Them), Georgie Fame and the Dave Clark Five’s “I Need Love.” A curio, but a fun one at least: Bowie never sounded quite this ebullient again.

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


Girl Loves Me

September 27, 2017

pic

Girl Loves Me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varda, omees!

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

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

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

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

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

Sloosh to Polezny Mr. Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantabulosa Prestoopniks

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

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

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

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

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

Bona nochy!

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

First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

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

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

 


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

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

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

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

db1

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

David-Bowie-1967

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

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

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

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

db69

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

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

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


Looking For Lester

October 12, 2012

Looking For Lester.

Arguments as to its quality aside, Black Tie White Noise is one of Bowie’s most thematically coherent records. It’s sequenced as a set of pairings, all framed within the union of Bowie and Iman (which opens and closes the record): a political reading of his marriage (the title track, again a duet), reckonings with his past (his half-brother Terry Burns, his surrogate brother Mick Ronson, his secret sharer Scott Walker) and with his would-be successors (Morrissey, Madonna). The interlude “Looking for Lester,” Bowie’s duet with the trumpeter Lester Bowie, is another past visitation, if a happy, light-footed one: it’s a boyhood dream of David Jones indulged by David Bowie.

Bowie had met the trombonist Joseph Bowie in London and through Joseph had discovered his brother Lester’s music. Throughout the Eighties, Bowie had wanted to work with Lester in some manner, and finally, crafting a jazz-flavored R&B record in New York, he had an opportunity, hiring Lester to play the trumpet solo on “Don’t Let Me Down and Down.” Lester hung around the sessions at the Power Station for weeks afterward, winding up playing on four other tracks, and his presence inspired Nile Rodgers to gin up a rhythm track for Lester to use as a springboard. This eventually became a full-out improvisatory performance, with lengthy trumpet, saxophone and piano solos, riffing on a theme carried by a set of trumpeters arranged by the bandleader Chico O’Farrill.1

Bowie had been a jazz fan before he’d been a Mod (and recall how much British pop in the Sixties was played by frustrated and diverted jazzmen like Charlie Watts, Alan Price, John Paul Jones and John Entwistle)2 and some of his first singles offer a glimpse of yet another alternate Bowie past, here a light jazz-pop figure in the vein of Georgie Fame (see the Fame-inspired “Take My Tip,” whose vocal melody seems like a transposed saxophone line, or “Good Morning Girl,” which Rosemary Clooney could’ve sung).

Lester Bowie (see here for my look at pieces of LB’s recorded legacy) embodied one branch of late 20th Century jazz. With his satyr’s goatee and his lab coat, Bowie was jazz’s mad scientist, emblematic of jazz’s freewheeling faction that imbibed R&B, rock, funk and pop music in all its mutations, a faction that favored noise, commotion, activism, makeup and spectacle instead of serving as the weary caretakers of “America’s Classical Music.” The likes of Lester were the collective retort to jazz’s New Traditionalists, like Wynton Marsalis, for whom jazz was an orthodoxy with a pedigree (New Orleans-originated blues), a canon3 and a narrow aesthetic, both instrumental (“analog” instruments, no synthesizers or electric guitars) and sartorial (suits on stage, no dashikis or glitter).

Whenever the Traditionalist strand of jazz deigned to recognize contemporary pop, it often produced gassy, self-serious works (Sting’s use of Branford Marsalis comes immediately to mind) in which jazz was the elder in the dance, providing “class” and sophistication to its uncouth partner: it was a boring Henry Higgins. This was an appalling thought for Lester, a musical catholic, who consumed and covered country music, the Notorious BIG and Sade, “The Great Pretender” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and who happily traded choruses with the man who’d sung “Fame” and “Let’s Dance.” For Lester, jazz was an omnivorous music, a music that fed the past with scraps of the future: he refused to accept that jazz wasn’t a popular music, despite it having lost its mass popularity decades before.

So “Looking For Lester” (the title was Bowie’s, a play on “Chasin’ the Trane”) is New Jazz Swing, a set of solos over a hammering (and rather harshly-mixed) 4/4 dance beat, with a synth bass and electric bassline and an impasto of synthesizer colors (Mike Garson’s piano crops up from time to time, offering little asides, preparing you for his late-in-the-day appearance). The track breaks down like so:

Intro/Theme 1: (0:01-0:36). Lester enters with a pair of phrases, descending triplets which land on a long-held F# note that he eventually yanks down a tone. The song’s main theme, played by massed trumpets over a constant shift between D and C chords (with an E bass throughout), is fairly simple, vaguely similar to the “Peter Gunn Theme”: an opening seesaw (F#-C#-G) that Lester quickly echoes, and a descending answering phrase.

Chorus 1 (0:37-1:20), (20 bars, Lester). The solo choruses shift to B minor, the relative minor of the theme’s D major (the pattern is Em-D-Bm-A).4 Lester mainly plays riffs and variations on the main theme, finding little pockets of melody and digging into them, closing with a sweet soaring phrase.

Theme 2 (1:21-1:39), 8 bars. An aggressively-played return of the theme, with Lester now doodling in the margins.

Chorus 2 (1:40-2:15), (16 bars, Lester). Lester is freer, casting off allegiance to the theme, sounding like a French horn (1:51) and building to a run of short, punchy phrases that are abruptly choked off by a massed trumpet retort.

Theme 3 (2:16-2:23), 4 bars. Just a tiny rest before the next solo, with the main theme harried by the massed trumpet line that had finished off Lester.

Chorus 3 (2:24-4:00), 44 bars, Bowie). It’s Bowie’s album, so he gets the longest solo, natch. He starts with two long, moaning phrases on his sax (the second one goes a bit astray), changes his tone to make it harmonica-like (3:00) and after a brief time in the wilderness, he finds a sweet spot and digs into a melody he likes, just grooving into it again and again. He closes with a nice bit of skronk.

Theme 4, (4:01-4:18), 8 bars. Stage clearing.

Chorus 4 (4:19 to fade), (30+ bars, Garson): And suddenly Mike Garson returns, back in the Bowie fold after nearly 20 years and acting as though no time had passed at all—he’s the same New York oddball, a fallen Scientologist and joker (if only he’d played with Lester more), who seems on the verge of playing a fresh variation on his “Aladdin Sane” solo just for kicks. Garson spikes out a set of dancing runs up and down the keyboard, rumbling on the bass keys and musing on the treble, and keeps on through the fadeout.

Sure, “Looking for Lester” isn’t entirely removed from those rock fantasy camps at which Baby Boomers spend $10,000 for a weekend spent jamming on guitar with Peter Frampton. It’s a mediocre-at-best saxophone player getting to duet with a master trumpeter and having his producer and record company shine up and sell the results. But if “Lester” is an indulgence, it’s not an embarrassment: Lester’s joie de vivre in turn inspired Bowie to forsake his occasional forays into avant-gardisms and just concentrate on honking out a meaty solo as though he was on a bandstand. With Garson as an added spice, “Lester” transcends its role as album filler, instead testifying to Bowie’s reviving senses of texture and melodicism. It’s a preview of what Bowie would accomplish on Buddha of Suburbia.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, the Power Station, NYC. Released on Black Tie White Noise and as the B-side of “Miracle Goodnight” in October 1993.

1 The trumpeters oddly aren’t credited on the album, though there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. There’s no evidence as to who wrote what on “Lester” (which was co-credited to Rodgers and Bowie, after the former raised a stink—he wasn’t credited on the first issue of the LP), but my guess is that Rodgers was responsible for much of the song—the chords, the rhythm tracks and perhaps the main horn theme—while Bowie likely provided his solo ideas, though of course it’s possible the theme was his.

2 Entwistle, for example, played in a variety of Dixieland bands in the early Sixties, while Jones played with John McLaughlin in a jazz collective, Jett Blacks. Bowie’s old bandmates in the Buzz, John Eager and Derek Fearnley, were also former jazzbos.

3 This canon essentially included any type of jazz pre-1960 and allowed a few stringent admissions of free jazz (basically the first Ornette Coleman records and the late Coltrane ones) but drew the dividing line at Miles Davis going electric in 1969. So much of the fantastic jazz of the Seventies was placed outside the pale thanks to this argument, which was voiced and generally unchallenged in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, for which Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray were primary voices and Lester Bowie was a footnote.

4: The choruses generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).

Top: Harry Benson, “Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Little Rock, Ark., 1992; Lester Bowie as off-kilter center of gravity, 1992.


This Is Not America

January 2, 2012

This Is Not America (Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group).
Chris (This Is Not America) (Pat Metheny Group, 1985).
This Is Not America (Pat Metheny Group, live, 1995).
This Is Not America (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
This Is Not America (Bowie, live, 2000).
American Dream (P. Diddy with Bowie, 2001).
This Is Not America (Pat Metheny Group and Anna Maria Jopek, 2002).
This Is Not America (Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, 2005).

As soon as he was done with Tonight, Bowie seemed to regret having made it. He all but apologized for the record* in interviews, and he had no intention of touring to promote it. He was in a trough; he tried to haul himself out of it through soundtrack work.

Bowie had only written the quarter-baked “Revolutionary Song” for Just a Gigolo and the scrapped soundtrack to Man Who Fell to Earth. Now, rather suddenly, he became a minor soundtrack regular in the mid-Eighties, writing and performing songs for four films, two of which he also acted in. A couple of these songs were some of his best material of the decade. It’s as though Bowie found a measure of inspiration in contract work. Given a plotline to work with, a lyrical cue or an incidental music requirement, he was briefly free from his inertia.

The first of these songs, “This Is Not America,” recorded with the Pat Metheny Group in late 1984, was written for the John Schlesinger film The Falcon and the Snowman, about two upper-class kids from California who committed espionage in the mid-Seventies. Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton), a CIA contractor disgusted by his employer—the final break came when he discovered that the CIA had helped cause the downfall of Australia’s Labor Party government in 1975—began passing on secrets to the Soviets. Boyce’s go-between was his boyhood friend Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), an addict who figured treason was an efficient way to get his cocaine money. They were arrested in 1977. However, as though sent back for revisions by a producer, Boyce’s story grew ever more bizarre. 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 he was arrested again in 1981 (both he and Lee have since been paroled).

Falcon was a somber anomaly at the height of the Reagan years, when many films were refighting Vietnam (spoiler: this time, We Win), fervidly imagining Soviet or terrorist invasions of the heartland, or equating the Grenada invasion with Korea and Vietnam. Akin to the weary spymastering of John LeCarre’s Smiley novels, Falcon is a pair of jaded innocents bungling things abroad, two pawns given a few spaces of movement on the board before being swept off. Hutton’s Boyce is an idealist as well as something of a pompous fool; Penn’s Lee is a wretched user whose comeuppance at the hand of the Mexican police is awful and tragic.

John Schlesinger had helped invent Swinging Britain with Billy Liar and Darling and packed it off with Sunday Bloody Sunday. His subsequent work in the US coarsened him, with the gritty promise of Midnight Cowboy devolving into the exploitative dreck of Marathon Man in less than a decade. Falcon, Schlesinger’s last major film, seems like his last thoughts on the Sixties, the bombast and heroics of the decade reduced to the doings of two sad dupes, consumed and deluded by ideology or addiction, used and discarded by all sides. It offers no sense of liberation: the hero of the film is a traitor; his actions, while driven by moral outrage, damage no one in power, just other pawns.

How Bowie and Pat Metheny came to work together on Falcon‘s soundtrack is a bit of a mystery. None of the Bowie biographies offer anything on it, as most dismiss “This Is Not America” in a sentence, if not ignoring it entirely. I assume the collaboration was likely EMI’s doing, the label figuring Bowie could add pop appeal to an otherwise ambient/jazz fusion soundtrack that wasn’t going to rival Beverly Hills Cop‘s in terms of sales.

Perhaps working with a jazz quartet intrigued Bowie, who hadn’t tried his hand at jazz since “Good Morning Girl.” That said, “This Is Not America” isn’t jazz at all—there are no improvisations; Metheny plays rhythm guitar for the entire track, never soloing even in the long outro. The piece is a closed circuit: it’s built primarily on a repeating four-chord sequence (originally Gm-Dm/F-Ebmaj7-Dm/F, or I-IV-VImaj7-IV) with a constant rhythmic pulse courtesy of Metheny’s drummer Paul Wertico. Synthesizer motifs appear throughout: a rise-and-fall fanfare, a somber French horn-sounding counter-melody that begins in the second verse. Metheny said at the time that he intended the track to be mainstream: “It was the first time the group really committed itself to doing a real pop record,” he told Billboard.

Metheny and his keyboardist Lyle Mays had written a piece called “Chris” for the Falcon soundtrack, a tone poem for Hutton’s character. This served as the basic track for which Bowie wrote a lyric,** set to the perspective of the disillusioned Boyce. Bowie’s lyric has its faults: the apparent need to include the film title at some point leads to the leaden doom-laden lines about the falcon spiraling and the snowman melting, while the homophone rhymes of “piece” and “peace,” and, more thuddingly, the near-homophone “America” and “a miracle” (done already by Culture Club) are a bit creaky.

Still his vocal is one of his finest of the era: the way Bowie quietly twists and reshapes his phrasing of “America” in its various repeats; the descending phrases to match lyrical depictions of decay (blossoms failing to bloom, falcons tumbling); his fine, eerie singing on the bridge—the octave leap on “was a TIME,” the run of high Gs and As on “blew so pure.” (There’s a touch of Donald Fagen on “faintest idea“). Bowie deftly handles the jarring key change after the first bridge (to G-sharp minor), a move that puts an edge into the song but also seems like the composers forcing the drama a bit. The problem is that once the key change happens, the song doesn’t go anywhere new, settling into a repeat of the first verse and the entire bridge, plus a minute’s worth of outro. When he performed it live years later, Bowie wisely moved the change to the song’s climax.

The hook—the repeated refrain “this is not America”—is all the drama the song needed, as Bowie begins by softly reinforcing the declarations of his backing singers and eventually makes “this is not America” a mournful, wounding statement in its closing repetitions. There’s a world, an empty generation, within the words, their open accusation. Packaged in a quiet, near-Muzak setting, “This Is Not America” briefly hung in the air in the mid-Eighties, a hummable curse for an unsubtle time, offering no solutions, only one concrete statement: that we live in a fiction.

Released in conjunction with Falcon in January 1985, “This Is Not America” proved a minor hit for Bowie, having the greatest popularity in Western Europe (the Dutch and Germans especially loved it). Forgotten soon afterward, “America” was revived in 2000 for a Bowie BBC appearance. With the song removed from the synthetic precision of Metheny’s arrangement and Bob Clearmountain’s mix, it took on a bit of color, with Bowie playing up the song’s dramatics.

With the election of George W. Bush, the song’s title was irresistible, and it was soon used for blunt ends: P. Diddy, shaken out of his torpor to record a pissed-off rap, “American Dream,” for the film Training Day, sampled “This Is Not America,” with Bowie providing new vocals. The best of the latter-day covers was Charlie Haden’s, who in 2005 made “This Is Not America” a romp, a joyous collaboration that seems set out to disprove the song’s title: Haden’s version is America on one of its better, chaotic days.

Recorded ca. November 1984, Montreux, Switzerland (the backing track was likely cut in London, in September ’84). Released January 1985 as EMI America 190 (#14 UK, #32 US, #1 in Holland) and also on The Falcon and the Snowman OST (EMI America SV 17150).

* After Tonight, Hugh Padgham went to London to record Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. What’s striking about NJR (which I just listened to for the first time in probably 25 years) is how much it’s a successful revision of Tonight: it has a similar sound, similar vocal treatments, rhythm guitar work that seems like Carlos Alomar outtakes, similar horn arrangements (the “Phoenix Horns” here, rather than the Borneos), Arif Martin string arrangements. But NJR works far better, as it has an internal consistency—its uptempo irritating singles are embedded within a wider set of gloomy pieces, making the former seem like manic flights in a depressive’s journal.

** It was still novel for Bowie to write a lyric for another’s music:  he had hardly done so in his life (see “Pancho”, “Even a Fool Learns to Love” and “Music Is Lethal”/”Hey Ma, Get Papa”).

Top: Ray Mortenson, “Untitled,” South Bronx, NYC, 1983; Christopher Boyce’s second arrest, 1981.


Chapter Eight: Family Albums (1992-1993)

December 26, 2018

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Epigraph   DB to Robert Palmer (the other one), Penthouse, November 1983.

334  Real Cool World    38 Fresh: Black Tie White Noise is among the more opaque Bowie albums, in terms of when and where it was cut and who played on it. Several of its performers, such as the saxophonist Dan Wilensky, were uncredited; its creation was lengthy and convoluted, involving multiple studios, engineers, etc. (Reeves Gabrels recalled to me that at the Hit Factory sessions he worked on in 1992, Nile Rodgers wasn’t there). It’s unclear which Black Tie songs began at 38 Fresh in Los Angeles, a studio Bowie first started using at the end of the Tin Machine period. 38’s engineer Dale Schalow (who has confirmed “Jump They Say” started there) has written an article for the David Bowie Glamour fanzine that unfortunately came out after this book was completed—I look forward to reading it; Songs from the Cool World: a pretty hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era. Tracks included Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz,” and some early Moby tracks; first release: as with many Black Tie tracks, there’s a host of edits and remixes. For “Cool World” there is: a) the 3:47 edit used for the video; b) the 4:14 soundtrack cut, used in the closing credits of Cool World—this version appeared on the 2003 2-CD reissue of Black Tie; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the 12″ and CD single; d) an instrumental version on the B-side of the original 7″ single; funny, works with him…never go home again…always a lot of pressure: to Spitz, 354-355; hybrid of Eurocentric soul: to Dominic Wells, Q, January 1995.

335  You’ve Been Around   A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (of Meat Beat Manifesto) appeared on the 12″ “Black Tie White Noise” single; a longer edit of this remix is on the 2003 reissue of the album; live: performed once in 1989, at Tin Machine’s first gig in New York.

336  had the chance to mix Reevesno harmonic reference: Black Tie White Noise promotional video; Gabrels: While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track. His work on “Nite Flights” wasn’t credited in the album liner notes.

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337  The Wedding/ Wedding Song   St. James Episcopal Church: Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who later abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only subsequently to change his mind, become an Episcopalian and then sue his wife, who’d become a nun in the meantime, for “restitution of conjugal rights” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in his World So Wide as being an hour when the assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress”; I was totally confused: Times of London, 29 August 1992; troubled by our inability…being moved by it?: “Perfume, Defence and David Bowie’s Wedding,” a lecture that Eno gave at Sadlers Wells Theatre on 20 July 1992; had to happen at a church in Florence: Hello!, 13 June 1992.

338  hated Wagner: Hello!, 13 June 1992; important for me to find something: The David Bowie Story, 1993; all icing with a couple on top: to Steve Sutherland, NME, 20 March 1993.   Pallas Athena    first release: The original club 12″ single (MEAT 1) had the Don’t Stop Praying Remixes #1 and #2 and the Gone Midnight Mix (the album version, unsurprisingly, was first heard on the album). These mixes also appeared, respectively, on the B-side of “Jump They Say,” on the 2003 reissue of Black Tie, and on the 2003 reissue of Sound + Vision. Along with the album mix, they were released as a digital EP in 2010. A live version of “Pallas Athena,” recorded at Club Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997, was issued on the Tao Jones Index 12″ and the “Seven Years in Tibet” single that same August (it also appeared on the revised Sound + Vision). 

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339   Arista fat on earnings: they dropped £10,000 to hold a “rave” promotional party in the summer of 1993, one of no doubt many extravagances; I had to try to make him cool: Watson to CO, 2012. Watson was a true Bowie fanatic (among his bona fides: attending all six Wembley shows in 1976). At the meeting, Arista sat him next to Bowie. While the rest of the table nodded along and deferentially complimented the mixes they were hearing, Watson was actually listening, and at one point leaned over to Bowie and said, “is that something from ‘Heroes’ there?” Bowie reached over and snapped off the tape. The room fell silent. Watson feared for his professional life. Then Bowie smiled, put his arm around Watson and said: “This guy’s got ears!” “I went from persona non grata to top boy,” Watson told me. “We got the gig”; mutually beneficial for his name: Larry Flick’s “Dance Trax” column, Billboard, 6 February 1993; unshakeable belief in God: to David Sinclair, Rolling Stone, 10 June 1993; cornerstone of my existence…own God: Hello!, 13 June 1992.

340   don’t know what it’s about: NME, 20 March 1993.    Lucy Can’t Dance  a CD “bonus track” on the original release, across most markets.  Star Wars 2…couldn’t all suck!…already accepting my Grammy: to Buckley, 416-417.

341  Madonna: as “Lucille Can’t Dance” hasn’t leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of the lyric was there in 1988. It may also be a nod to The Linguini Incident, as Lucy was the name of Bowie’s co-star Rosanna Arquette’s character; ex-husband: Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” winks at then-current tabloid stories about Madonna and Sean Penn —Madonna years later publicly denied these claims were true. Bowie made things worse by joking about “hanging out with Sean, and he told us a few things, you know what I mean?” in a 1989 interview; conventional in the extreme: ca. 1991 US TV interview (I did a transcript of it, which is no longer found on YouTube, but this line is also quoted in Pafford and Paytress’ BowieStyle, so I didn’t hallucinate it). He also told the Daily Mirror (18 October 1991) that “I wouldn’t know a Michael Jackson or Madonna record if I heard one”; anything in my video: i-d, July 1987; top-drawer plate spinner: Radio One Madonna special, 1998.    Don’t Let Me Down and Down   planned as the third single from Black Tie until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (preferable to the English one) appeared on Indonesian pressings of the album and later on the 2003 reissue of Black Tie.

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342   diary-like way: Black Tie promo video, 1993; Tahra: information on her life is still scant in the Western press, but I found biographical details in Le Monde’s review of Yamen Yamen, “Le premier album de Tahra, la belle Mauritanienne” (10 May 1989), and El Madios Ben Chérif’s “Tahra Mint Hembara : L’artiste-amazone,” Noor Info,‎ 5 April 2012. She’s been described as a model, a “princess,” and a friend of Iman by various Bowie resources but I couldn’t verify any of this and much of it seems dubious; “black” and “white” scales: As per 2009’s World Music: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, these modes derive from Arabic music and are always played in a precise order: karr, fagu, lakhal, labyad, lebtayt. These correspond to the concepts of “black” and “white” (the first two, and the last three, respectively), and also to the stages of a life, with lebtayt symbolizing the afterlife. The “ways” are al-bayda (white), al-kahla (black), and l’-gnaydia (mixed, or “spotted”). “Black” is considered more masculine and direct, “white” more feminine and refined. On Yamen Yamen, the song has an A-flat tonality—the verses and solo section move between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh chord  (vi11-Imaj7) while the refrain moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7); pidgin English lyric: Black Tie promo video, 1993.

343  Looking for Lester    uncredited musicians:  While the trumpeters aren’t credited on the album, there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. Dan Wilensky cut one saxophone performance that Bowie’s credited with on Black Tie but reportedly couldn’t recall which; America’s classical music: Basically, the “Ken Burns” story of jazz, in which the music loses its way, becoming too academic/ avant garde/ pop-oriented/ what-have-you after 1967 or so, until its rescue by neo-traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis. This scenario is thankfully on the wane, with younger performers like Kamasi Washington easily moving between influences in various genres and not confined to “fusion” or “traditional” modes—Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes documents this generational change, which very much includes the Donny McCaslin quartet; roll the tape…madly out of tunebasket of sounds: Graham Reid interview with DB, 1993; choruses: generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).; follow him around with a microphone: Record Collector, May 1993.

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344  Black Tie White Noise  The album’s second single, it had an exhausting set of remixes, detailed in depth on the Illustrated DB Discography site. Among the mixes were the “3rd Floor” mix, first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later on the Black Tie reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin’ out” coda chant as its central hook, be warned) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1); beginnings of a revolution: David Bowie Story, 1993; far too keen as white liberals…don’t want our advice: NME, 20 March 1993.

345   denial in America…museum of Black America: NME, 25 November 1995; change is no easy thing…positive outcome….often quite punishing for both of us: Record Collector, May 1993; Sure!: a regular chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). Appearing on “Black Tie” didn’t do much for him, to put it mildly: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

346  all bad poetry: often misquoted as “all bad poetry is sincere.” In Wilde’s essay The Critic as Artist, 1891.    Miracle Goodnight   Arista’s third single from the album. Remixes include the 12″ 2 Chord Philly Mix, the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix, and Dance Dub (all on the 12″ single) and the Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the Black Tie 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup out there of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Blunted Dub remix; opening riff: it’s three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D dyad) answered by a G note; and a repetition of three G notes. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but mainly played by two synthesizers parked far left and right in the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates an echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos; bridegroom reveries: Bowie calls her a “yellow dime”: a sun (morning star) that’s also a perfect 10; Handel’s Queen of Sheba: more in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes jump upward where Handel’s regally descend.

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347  I Know It’s Gonna Happen   Shit-kicking skinhead in a pack: to Paul Nolan, Hot Press, June 2008; pop moment: to Brian Boyd, Irish Times, 20 November 1999.

348  spoofing one of my earlier songs…weepy and silly: Record Collector, May 1993; Ronson having a laugh: as per Mark Levin to Uncut; we are your support group: quoted in David Bret, Morrissey: Scandal and Passion, 236; 11 rows deep: Melody Maker, 25 November 1995.

349   have to worship at the temple of David: The Importance of Being Morrissey, (Channel 4), 2003; only relevant by accident: GQ, 15 October 2012; last we heard of him: BowieNet chat, 1999.    Jump They Say   Again, a big heap of remixes. The UK 12″ single included the Hard Hands, Leftfield and Dub Oddity mixes (the latter, also by Leftfield is on the 2-CD Black Tie reissue); the Rock Mix (orig. on the Savage CD single, “Rock Mix” = banal guitar) and the Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix are also on that reissue.

350  no going back: New Zealand TV interview, ca. September 1982; my own hang-ups: David Bowie Story, 1993; two-chord progression: much of the song alternates between B-flat and C major, the chords shifting every other bar. The refrain progression (Dm7-F-Gm7-C5) offers a vague resolution, establishing the song in C, with Bb borrowed from F major as a substitute IV chord and so portending a key change to F that never happens. You could also make a case that the song’s been in F major the whole time, with the dueling Bb and C chords the IV and V chords of F; too many of my mother’s tendencies: “Evelyn McHale, Photojournalism as Iconography.” There’s another Bowie half-sibling: his half-sister Annette, born in 1943 (she was his father Haywood’s daughter), whose story ends far happier. As Bowie wrote in the introduction to I Am Iman (7): “When I was seven or thereabouts, my half-sister, Annette, left England for good. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and was to travel to his village to marry him. She would write. My father may have received news but if so those letters were not shared. I never heard another thing from or about her…[when] Annette had arrived in Egypt, she had converted to Islam, which had meant undergoing a name change. Being the first Western Christian girl to ever visit let alone live in her husband’s village, the most appropriate name for her was obvious. If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.” Is Annette (Iman) née Jones still alive? Still in Egypt? A last familial mystery.

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351  Nite Flights  according to Martyn Watson, the “Moodswings Back to Basics” remix was mislabeled and remains misidentified on current releases.  Noel Scott Engel: biographical and career information on Scott Walker from a heap of sources. Anthony Reynolds’ Walker Brothers biography, The Impossible Dream, is essential, as is the Rob Young-edited No Regrets, a 2012 anthology of critical writing on Walker’s music; the documentary 30 Century Man; and Walker’s various interviews for the NME, The Wire, the Guardian and other publications. I’m also indebted to Walker-related conversations I’ve had over the years with the producer and writer Andy Zax.

352   Any recognizable reality: No Regrets, 32; years of bad faith…pay off bills: to Alexis Petridis, The Guardian, 4 May 2006; Heroes…Eno character: Impossible Dream, 318.

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355  Like a Rolling Stone  Mellencamp: In a 2008 interview with Classic Rock, Mellencamp said “I’d thrown [“Jack and Diane”] on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks…All of a sudden, for ‘Jack and Diane’, Mick said “Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.” I thought, “What the fuck does ‘put baby rattles on the record’ mean?” So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part “let it rock, let it roll” as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.”    The Buddha of Suburbia  the first track on the CD single is a blend of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix.” The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995. The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993, so technically the title song’s debut was its first episode; commercial presence: Savage laid off its entire staff barely a month after Black Tie‘s release, which wasn’t great for the album’s US promotion. Savage would sue Bowie, claiming that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses, BMG/Arista, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million it allegedly owed. The case was dismissed and in July 1998, the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time (AP, 3 July 1998).

356  make some money out of it: Jones, 379; never existed: 1994 Bowie memo, shown as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; dangerous or attractive elements: original Buddha liner notes, 1993.

357  it’s a miracle…how all this happened: to Trynka, Starman, 7; gloom and immovable society: Seconds, August/September 1995; straightforward narrative to the past: Buddha liner notes; emotional contact…opening up a lot of other spaces: to J.D. Considine, Baltimore Sun, 6 April 1993.

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358  South Horizon  lead instrumentation…intercut arbitrarily: Buddha liner notes.

359   spaces between notes: Garson described his performance in detail to Clifford Slapper in the latter’s Piano Man.    The Mysteries  misprinted as “The Mysterie” on the most recent US CD issue of Buddha; converging on this little room: Kureishi, Buddha, 62; my entire world…out the front hall: Interview, May 1990; sanctity of the suburban bedroom: Pitchfork, 2 May 2018.

360   thematic information against it: Buddha liner notes. Dead Against It    house with five thousand rooms: Kureishi, Buddha, 126.

362  Sex and the Church  wedding thing: DB “Hollywood Online” web chat, 1 July 1994.

364  Ian Fish, U.K. Heir    As a listener you’re happy with a lot less: “A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music,” Pitchfork, 16 February 2017; something of a refrain: I owe a debt to “Magnus Genioso,” the public face of the Mad Genius collective, for their insights into this track and for helping me to hear it with sharper ears.

365  Strangers When We Meet   A different mix of the Buddha “Strangers” is on a Dutch promotional cassette—notable differences are the lack of the “Gimme Some Lovin’” hook and a greater emphasis on the synth drums. The Outside “Strangers” was released in November 1995 as RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2 (c/w “Man Who Sold the World,” UK #39). Tom Frish: this appears to have been his only musician credit—searching for variants like “Frisch” or “Fish” on Discogs didn’t turn up anything.

366 It wasn’t built on honesty…we were worlds apart: Daily Mirror, 19 August 1991; resonance on the road: Gabrels, email to Nicholas Greco, 23 February 2000, quoted in the latter’s master’s thesis, David Bowie’s 1. Outside: The Creation of a Liminoid Space as a Metaphor for Pre-Millennial Society, subsequently published as David Bowie in Darkness.


Chapter Thirteen: Inauthentic Reality (2003-2007)

December 18, 2018

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Epigraphs   Weiner: from an interview with Alan Sepinwall, March 2015; Bowie: from Esquire, March 2004. In mid-2016, I decided to title this chapter after a line from someone whom I thought would be president of the United States when this book published—it’s got a rather different connotation now.

526  Never Get Old   “Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up of “Rebel Rebel” and “Never Get Old” (among the most “early 2000s” things DB ever approved) was assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004 and issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971); thrusty…no through line: pretty much said in every 2003 interview, trust me; I can put out stuff: Virgin Radio interview with Dominic Mohan, 15 June 2003; going back on my word: Reality electronic press kit interview.

527  back at home: to Howard Cohen, Miami Herald, 8 September 2003; Studio B: To correct a perceived weak drum sound from this studio, Bowie and Visconti returned to Allaire to play Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, recording the result and mixing into Logic Audio; hardly redo anything: to Richard Buskin, Sound on Sound, October 2003, a source of many Reality recording details. The bulk of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board used for monitoring tracks; MCI board…all the synths and modules: Mix, 1 October 2002.

528  rather silly song: to Kurt Orzeck, interview transcript, 9 July 2003; petulant 56-year-old: to Dominic Mohan, The Sun, 12 September 2003; generation of angry old men: to Michael Streck, Der Stern, 21 September 2003.

529  chords: moves include a rise from C major (“forever”) to C# (“this feeling that we’re going to be”), then back to C (“living until the”) and down to B-flat (“end of time”). Then there’s a jarring run from Bb to Ab (“head hangs low”) to Eb (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the refrain; I desperately want to live forever…I don’t want to let her go: to Billy Sloan, Scottish Sunday Mail, 23 November 2003.

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530  Reality   in the last American boats: Paris Review, Winter 1995 (a source of Steiner biographical detail here); Western high culture was broken: Steiner used as an example John Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem difficult for today’s readers to untangle without footnotes. In its first lines alone, “ivy,” “myrtles,” and “laurels” have specific thematic meanings for which most 17th-19th Century readers would’ve needed no explication. See Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Bluebeard’s Castle: “Laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [“Lycidas”] intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a “vague musicality,” Milton’s references might as well be to Mars; cannot choose the dreams of unknowing: In Bluebeard’s Castle; don’t think there’s one truth: to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, October 2003; whole George Steiner-ism of life…world caught up really quickly: to Ken Scrudato, Soma, July 2003; I don’t think we want new things…we’ve got enough new: to Mikel Jollett, Filter, July/August 2003.

531  rather bad science fiction stories: Filter, July/August 2003; medium for a conglomerate of statements: People, 6 September 1976; who’s stolen this world: to Anthony DeCurtis, Beliefnet, July 2003; we live in absolute chaos…they are all crumbling: Soma, July 2003.

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532  Pablo Picasso     Roadrunner: Joshua Clover’s “Ring Road” (part of his “Terrorflu,” and collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great encapsulation of this song; Pablo Picasso: “I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought ‘well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.’ So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me,” Jonathan Richman to Boston Groupie News, 1980; more whimsy…little dirgelike…more contemporary: Interview, October 2003.

533  Fall Dog Bombs the Moon   the blade stands ready: as per my journal, 19 March 2003. North said this during the morning show on Fox (whatever the ur-“Fox and Friends” was then); fabulous storehouse: Soma, July 2003; Truthout.org: founded in 2001, it’s still kicking. Its top story during the presidential funeral in December 2018 was “George H.W. Bush Empowered Atrocity Abroad and Fascists at Home”; Kellogg, Brown & Root: Having broken off from Halliburton in 2007, in the following year it was accused of tax dodging. KBR has pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing Nigerian officials; its then-CEO was sentenced to 30 months in prison. It’s also been sued for human trafficking, for exposing US soldiers to harmful substances via “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and likely has been sued for something else since I wrote this.

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534  issue or policy manifests itself…ugly song for an ugly man: Interview, October 2003; thump about at loud volume: Bowie web journal, 7 March 2003; run by brutes for the common and stupid: Entertainment Weekly, 31 May 2002.

535  Love Missile on the “New Killer Star” CD single and only compiled on a bonus disc for the limited edition European release; anarchic dub sound: the Sputnik Story (http://www.sputnikworld.com/The_Sputnik_Story_7_3.html); £4 million: a complete fabrication, as James later said: Journalist Chris Salewitz had randomly plucked that figure out of the air for a piece he was writing about us in the Sunday Times and four million pounds translated into six million dollars, so we became the “six million dollar band” which appealed to me because I loved the “Six Million Dollar Man”; performative violence: from an NME review of a Sputnik gig in Reading, 1986: It was a fairly normal pop concert. Apart, that is, from the purple-faced Nazi on my left who screamed obscenities at a girl he barged past on his way to the front, or the rotund drunk who clutched his real ale and hollered “Bastards! Wankers! Violence!” while flailing towards the stage, and the Fleet Street photographers who eagerly raced around the building after a young man with a bloody head”; I want to be successful…cheated a lot of people: to Paul Morley, NME, 8 March 1986; Whitmore: Pegg, 174.

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536  New Killer Star  the album’s lead-off single, issued on 29 September (the single edit, which trims the intro and outro, is on Nothing Has Changed) but as it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for the singles charts; not a political commenter: Reality press release interview by David Wild; it’s not over yet…everyone’s mind: Virgin Radio, 15 June 2003; A minor to E-flat refrain: a transition readied by Bowie swapping out his former root chord (Am) for an A major in the pre-chorus; on holiday…feel like a stranger here: to Du Noyer, The Word, November 2003.

537  others are watching us now: Beliefnet, July 2003; ghost of the tragedy: to Bill Demain, Performing Songwriter, September 2003.   Looking For Water      virtually looped…melodic content on top: Sound on Sound, September 2003. The chorus hook nicks some of Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ For a Love” (1974); D major/F minor: You could make the case for either being the key: the tonic D major moving to the mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major; guitar-fattened: replicated on stage in the Reality tour by Slick, Leonard, Cat Russell and Bowie all playing the intro riff. Later performances in 2004 have the descending bass riff played more dominantly and choppier on guitar.

538  Queen of All the Tarts on the blog, I dared Momus to write an elaborate comment for this, the most inconsequential of Reality tracks. His response (20 December 2014) was a near-dissertation on Bowie’s use of diminished passing chords. “They seem to represent transition: the passing of time, the relationship of retrospect to prospect, past to future, nostalgia to uncertainty…As this song is an “overture” to we-know-not-what, the diminished passing chord is totally appropriate here. Since these cascading triads bear no diatonic relationship to the current key, they point the listener forward to some sort of promised resolution, making us long for something which hasn’t yet arrived, isn’t yet clear. A nostalgia for the future, perhaps?…Bowie songs which use diminished passing chords include Space Oddity, Changes, Quicksand, Golden Years, Absolute Beginners, Zeroes, and Buddha of Suburbia. They deal wistfully with time, nostalgia, transience. In Zeroes, for instance, we get one just after “a toothless past is asking you how it feels”….In Golden Years, there’s a stabbed diminished chord after “years”. In Absolute Beginners the chord arrives on “nothing much to take” and “nothing we can’t shake.” In Quicksand it’s on “deceive”…Bowie often resolves it in unexpected directions, making it a leap into the dark. In Zeroes it seems to resolve “wrong,” although nostalgic sitars soften the blow. The diminished passing chord…often comes like an antithesis to the triumphalism of a sequence of major chords — here, for instance, we get a confident stomp (V2 Schneider-ish) from A# to F# to D# which suddenly spirals into something much more romantic and wistful; the passing chord leads into the minors Dm and A#m. There’s a similar chord in Ashes to Ashes, on the last syllable of “pisTOL”. As in Absolute Beginners, it heralds a negative lyric: there’s NO smoking pistol, just as there’s NOTHING much to take…If a major chord is a shout of confidence and aggression, a passing chord is passive, a wise sigh, a note of Buddhist resignation…If we were being Bowie, blocking out the instrumental with words, what would we sing? The stomping I-VI-IV section would possibly feature a description of our tarty queen — a withered rocker in leather, possibly Tiresias in drag — arriving at a nightclub. She’s painted on a poor face today. She’s a butcher passing for a little girl. By the time the diminished chord arrives the triumphalism is spent. We’re now learning something sad about this character: she’s out of time, lost her mind, an Alice lost in Wonderland.”

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539  She’ll Drive the Big Car    favorite suicide song…all her plans: BowieNet chat, 7 September 2003; stuck with this middle-class family: Interview, October 2003; Riverside Drive: for those unfamiliar with Manhattan geography, it’s the furthest-west avenue on the west side of the island, paralleling the Hudson River—Riverside takes you from the Upper West Side up to the George Washington Bridge and west to New Jersey. That said, if the character’s planning to drive into the river while going “south along the Hudson,” she’s probably on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

540  comes up with the goods: Melody Maker, 14 February 1976.

541 Loneliest Guy    despairing piece of work…city taken over by weeds: Interview, October 2003; that sense of loneliness: Beliefnet, June 2003; miles of jerry-built: Hughes, The Shock of the New, 211; being taken back over again by the jungle: Interview, October 2003.

542 Brasilia population: As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live there, making it the fourth-largest city in Brazil.   Waterloo Sunset   first released as a “cyber-single” download (BowieNet members got it earlier, on a promo CD). It’s also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in September 2003; started writing a song about Liverpool: Davies, X-Ray, 338.

543 plangent harmonies: with the Kinks’ secret weapon, Ray’s wife Rasa Davies, taking the high harmonies, as she often did.

544  Days   descending bassline: guided downward by the baritone sax: “(Bb) my crazy brain (Bb/A) entangles (Gm) pleading for your (Bb/F)gentle voice.” An example of what Julian Cope once called “the glam descend.”   Try Some Buy Some  unchaste monk: Roth, The Ghost Writer, 5.

545  some kind of system: The Word, November 2003; unending series of harmonic steps: Leng, Music of George Harrison, 99. Ian MacDonald described Harrison’s writing in the Beatles years as using “chord changes as expressive, rather than functional, devices”; chromatic bassline: A-Ab-G-F#-E; Spector found uncomfortable: she’d come around on the song by 1999, when she described it as being “done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record”; ga-ga over Ronnie Spector: to Jonathan Ross, 2 August 2003.

546  for me it was a Ronnie Spector song: Virgin Radio, 15 June 2003; my connection to the song: Word, November 2003.

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547  Bring Me the Disco King  a note, if you needed one: all the sections in italics are fictions. At least in this world.

548 crawled along through the years: Orzeck transcript, 9 July 2003; written with a sense of irony: to Ong Soh Chin, Straits Times, 9 April 1993, who described hearing the song on a “demo tape.” I imagine it was likely more a rough mix of some kind—I kept their phrase, though; trying to summarize my feelings…too cynical when doing it before: to George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune, 21 September 2003; sounded cheesy and kitschy: quoted in Pegg, 51.

550 Earthling sessions: as per Mark Plati’s production worksheet for Earthling, this “Disco King” had recorded contributions from all band members and was mixed; sort of muscular way: Orzeck transcript, 9 July 2003; more Kurt Weill…more anguish…strange gloss of the 70s: Matt Diehl, Rolling Stone, 12 December 1996.

552  never got in the room…sounds good: Electronic Musician, 1 November 2003.

553  120 beats a minute: Orzeck transcript, 7 September 2003; voicings improvised…never play it the same way twice…chordal solos can be interesting: Keyboard, January 2004.

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555  Song 2  An arbitrary song choice to title an entry far more about the last Bowie tour. I could have (should have? would have?) listed other tour “medley” songs as well: “It Can’t Happen Here,” “Puppet on a String,” “My Funny Valentine, “Here Comes the Sun,” etc.; live: following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane Festival). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version appeared on CD in 2010); not something I looked forward to…didn’t feel competent: to David Wildman, Weekly Dig, 3 December 2003.

556  any hope for the industry…source of irrelevance: Chicago Sun Times, 9 January 2004; grossing $46 million: Billboard, 25 December 2004; David’s voice sits on top: to Breeann Lingle, Mix, 1 March 2004; pushed his band to learn 60 songs: Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004; fumbled through a tough football match: Dorsey tour journal, 21 October 2003; karaoke machine: Paul Sexton, The Times, 14 November 2003; I think I’ve done the right thing…pieces everybody knows: to Sean Sennett, Time Off, February 2004; tattered jacket: In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie appeared wearing a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom; constantly grinning: Billboard, 15 December 2003; the Artful Dodger…Americans imitating the British: Mercury News, 19 April 2004.

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557  sense of seriousness: to Kathy McCabe, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; lose his shit for a moment: “Yeah, let’s do that again all fucking night! Where are you, creep? Yeah, I guess it’s easier to get lost in the crowd, you bastard. D’you remember, I’ve only got one [eye] anyway! Fortunately that’s the one that works.” Allegedly the culprit was a fan who claimed the lollipop got knocked out of her hand and became a missile: that’s not supposed to happen: Vulture, 22 January 2016; might have been a few boos: MH to CO, March 2015.

559  She Can (Do That)   do you want to do this?: Young, Facebook post, August 2016; Oh they don’t expect anything: to Courtney Pine, Jazz Crusade (BBC 2), 5 September 2005. Bowie’s last radio interview.

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560 The Cynic  Fortunately I’m not working: “Bowie: The Fashion Rocks Q&A,” Lucky, October 2005; seeing Bowie alone: Paris Review, 11 January 2016; Secret Machines: Bowie interviewed them for a BowieNet podcast in April 2006; very good from where I was sitting: Shears, Boys Keep Swinging, 276.

561 Kurt Cobain song…fresh as a daisy: Visconti on BowieNet, 1 September 2005; just roll the tape: Poison Ivy, 29 March 2010; role in the video: an animation derived from previous photos of Bowie—he didn’t do any filming.  Province   Bowie’s doorman:  Spin, August 2006;

562  be the boss of things: to David Harris, Tiny Mix Tapes, 22 September 2008.

563  Wake Up    Arcade Fire has a strong theatrical flair: Lucky, October 2005; steal it from you!: NME, 18 September 2013.

564  he sang quite a bit: Sound on Sound, March 2014.

565 Pug Nosed Face   filmed: Thanks to the BBC partnering with HBO for Extras, there was a substantial production budget that enabled, for Bowie’s one scene, the entire crew to relocate to Hertfordshire for a location shoot. The nightclub, Elberts in Peg Lane, was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire. Most information on recording/filming is from Clifford Slapper to CO, 2015—more details are in Slapper’s Garson biography.

566  Falling Down    sounded awful…I’ll drive you: Interview, 30 November 2008; cough medicine vibe: Rolling Stone, 13 February 2008. The quote has it as “tinker-bell,” so I kept it as is, but it was almost certainly meant to be “Tinkerbell.”

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Lazarus

June 15, 2017

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

Stage

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

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

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

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

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

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

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

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Script (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon (2)

Emma_Lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

Script (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newton, Lazarus.

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

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

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

Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (2)

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

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

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

Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

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

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

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

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


The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

July 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where Are We Now?

June 24, 2015

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Where Are We Now?

The Wall was probably the most famous structure that will ever stand in Berlin…and if a monument can be decommissioned, that is apparently what happened to it.

Brian Ladd.

We Were Like a Museum Exhibit.

Title of a Wolf Vostell 1965 collage.

Wedding

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An older man, wearing a grey topcoat and knit cap, is walking through Berlin one winter morning. If you were to follow him, he would appear to be rambling for no obvious purpose, towards no apparent destination; just wending through neighborhoods, sometimes doubling back.

But if you were to watch his progress from the air, it would seem, over time, as though he was slowly stitching a pattern across the heart of the old city, making a fresh suture over an old scar.

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Berlin,_Grenzübergang_Bornholmer_Straße

We lived in a vacuum over a void.

Peter Schneider, on West Berlin.

Nothing was asked of West Berlin “beyond its own complicity in surviving.

Jane Kramer.

On the sunless, modestly-cold morning of the 8th of January, 2013, I walked the dog, made coffee, ate breakfast, checked the laptop. The blog, though not updated for a week, had some 20 new comments overnight; the twitter had at least as many notices; my mailbox was overflowing. I could only think the worst, and said to the dog: “Oh no, is he dead? And on his birthday, too.”

As it turned out, he had risen. At 5 AM GMT, Bowie’s website uploaded the video of “Where Are We Now?”, with the notice that one could buy the track on iTunes, as well as pre-order a new, unanticipated album. By the time the British workday started, the news had hit every media outlet, which gave Bowie’s return the treatment usually reserved for royal births and divorces. Each longitude of the Western Hemisphere woke up to the news in turn.

“It was his idea to just announce the album on his birthday and just watch the thing avalanche,” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. Bowie and Visconti had done a countdown in December, sending each other emails with subject lines like “two weeks eight hours.” At midnight in New York, Visconti sat at his computer to see “Where Are We Now?” pop up in the iTunes store. He’d produced the thing but couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It took about 15 minutes, he recalled, before fans realized what was happening and the first “holy shit!” posts appeared on message boards.

Bowie’s was among the first of the “surprise” album releases of the 2010s (MBV came later the same month, Beyoncé at the end of the year). Like the others (and a precursor, Radiohead’s The King of Limbs), The Next Day was a catalog artist gaming a broken system. Avoid the pointless hype cycle and throw a new album out into the world, generating scads of free press by leveraging the reputation that your former labels paid for.

Bowie pulled off his surprise because he only used musicians whom he knew and could trust (even then, he had them sign non-disclosure agreements) and he ran a tight ship: just Corinne Schwab and Bill Zysblat for logistics and finance; no office managers, no PR staff. At Sony, with whom he had a distribution relationship, he had no A&R supervision. The label was in the dark: Sony president Rob Stringer only learned Bowie had cut a new album in December 2012, when Bowie brought him into a studio to hear tracks. “Stringer said, ‘what about the PR campaign?’ and David said, ‘there is no PR campaign. We’re just going to drop it on 8 January’,” Visconti recalled. And so they did.

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Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010.

I became a rock star. It’s what I do. It’s not my whole life.

Bowie, to a friend in Berlin, ca. 1977.

It could have been the beginning of a really boring career. You know, the typical rock star life cycle. So fortunately for me my right lung collapsed…I felt a great sense of relief, as if once again I’d been left off the hook.

Brian Eno, to Ian MacDonald, 1977.

He said: I know what it’s like to be dead. He said…did he? Oh that’s very nice indeed.

John Lennon, demo, 1966.

Of the “lost years” between Bowie’s heart operation in July 2004 and the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, many know little. He had stopped emailing a lot of friends after his heart surgery, even Visconti: in late 2006, Visconti was startled when Bowie popped in during a Dean and Britta session in NYC (“as much as I wanted him to sing on a track, I was too shocked to make my mouth work“). In the late 2000s, however, Bowie and Visconti began having semi-monthly lunches, during which Bowie said he had no interest in writing new music.

It wasn’t as if Bowie was in hiding (ever so often, the paparazzi would nab a fresh photo of a downtown-walking Bowie, armed with ubiquitous laptop bag). He cut the occasional guest-vocal (see the past two months’ entries) and even was in a studio in 2008 to record new vocals and overdubs for a revision of “Time Will Crawl.” He issued a statement praising Barack Obama’s victory; he spoke to the press as late as 2010, telling the Observer what allegedly was on his iPod (Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” and John Adams’ “El Nino,” among others); in a New York Times profile of Iman, he said “I’m not thinking of touring. I’m comfortable.”

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As the empty years went on, the Bowie enterprise began to seem like a carnival which had shuttered for the season but would never open again. Fan websites were reduced to announcing the occasional reissue, or the death of yet another old Bowie friend or collaborator (Lesley Duncan, Natasha Kornilof, Derek Fearnley, Guy Pelleart), or the doings of Bowie tribute bands. “I really don’t know what he’s up to at the moment,” his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey said in early 2010. “I wish I could…I just hope, as much as anyone else, as a fan of music, that he returns.”

Rumors circulated that Bowie was ailing, that he’d contracted terminal cancer. It got to the point where Noel Gallagher lamented in 2011 that “I know [Bowie] hasn’t been very well, but we need him,” and where Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas began preparing a Bowie obituary in late June 2012, after Grantland‘s editor got a solid tip that Bowie was on his deathbed.

Prenzlauer Berg

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Almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

As it turned out, he rather liked being dead.

For all intents and purposes, he had stopped being David Bowie. He was just David Jones, a wealthy late-middle-aged landowner, art collector, expatriate and dad, gassing on to his wife and daughter about whatever history or biography book he was reading (it’s a near-universal rule that by the age of 60, all men become bores about history) and watching police shows, whether American (The Shield), British (Foyle’s War) or French (Spiral).

It was as though he’d decommissioned himself. Here was a man who still led a public life—attending various charity galas with Iman—but who was no longer public. His biographer Paul Trynka, whose book published in 2010, speculated that Bowie had pulled a slow-motion disappearing act in the 2000s, and had retired without letting anyone know. His absence felt louder each year; his blank refusal to play the game anymore could seem an affront to some fans. Bowie was always supposed to be there, on the margins or in the wings, reacting, stealing, sometimes embarrassing himself, sometimes creating the future. Then he just stopped.

Until something brought him back. In early autumn 2010, while in London recording the Kaiser Chiefs’ The Future Is Medieval, Visconti heard from Bowie out of the blue. “He said, when you get back, do you fancy doing some demos with me?” Visconti told the Daily Telegraph. “There was no preamble, no warning. It was really weird.”

“Schtum” was the subject line of an email Bowie sent the guitarist Gerry Leonard (it was a German-sounding word meaning “keep mum” whose origins lay in the criminal world of Fifties Britain—it’s the sort of word you’d expect Bowie to use in an email). Like Visconti, Leonard had no clue that Bowie was considering making a record. “I was like, whoa! he’s going to do something?

And Sterling Campbell, the last of Bowie’s contacts, said “my relationship with David has always been like this—I just get a call out of nowhere and it’s great if it works out.” So he was used to sudden changes of face.From what I understand, he didn’t even wanna think about music for a number of years,” he told the NME. “Then all of a sudden, he’s got 20 songs he wants to record.”

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For a week in November 2010, Bowie, Leonard, Visconti and Campbell got together at 6/8 Studios in the East Village (they used Studio A, which you can rent for $50/hour today). For the first four days, Bowie brought in demos he’d made on eight- and 16-track digital recorders at home.

Because as it turned out, David Jones hadn’t shaken the habit of writing songs. To Visconti, “they were obviously things that had built up over the past 10 years, sketches he’d had all along,” complete with ideas for basslines and drum patterns. (“It seemed evident that he had been writing a lot—[it was as if] he was pulling ideas for songs from a hat,” Leonard concurred). Bowie would play a demo, had Leonard (back in his bandleader role from the Reality tour) transcribe a chord progression, and then asked the group to play their interpretation of his fledgling song.

On the last day, in a studio described variously as “a matchbox” and “a small grimy room,” they cut about a dozen full-band demos (Bowie played keyboards and sang guide vocals, mainly wordless melodies) on what Visconti called “a basic Pro Tools rig.” Bowie packed up, said his goodbyes. No one heard from him for another four months.

Mitte

IslBG

I wasn’t [in Berlin] for very long, only four months; one whole spring. But it was crazy. Really crazy. It was like a film of Fritz Lang’s. You had the feeling that all of life was being directed by Lang…There was a black cloud of hatred over the whole east end of the city…You felt the catastrophe coming.

Paul Bowles.

After the danger dissipated in Berlin, nothing was left.

Klaus Schultz.

At some point, he decided the demos were worth trying on a broader canvas. Bowie wanted to use the same crew to make backing tracks for a possible album, but with Campbell on tour with the B-52s in spring 2011, his Nineties drummer, Zachary Alford, instead got the nod. As did Gail Ann Dorsey. She hadn’t played bass on any Bowie album since Toy, in part because the producer was also an ace bassist, but Visconti told Dorsey that he wanted to concentrate on producing and not have to work in the rhythm section, too. David Torn, the “atmospheric” element of the Heathen and Reality albums, also came in.

Right at the start, the secret nearly leaked. Someone at the originally-booked NYC studio tipped off a freelance photographer, who called Bowie’s office asking to shoot the sessions. This prompted an eleventh-hour relocation to the Magic Shop on Crosby Street (conveniently, less than a ten-minute walk from Bowie’s home). Visconti was cagy to the studio about who he was recording, and Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal said “it’s not an exaggeration [that] we didn’t know what was going on until the day Bowie showed up.” (One assumes Bowie would have preferred to use his favorite NYC studio, Looking Glass Studios, but it had closed in 2009.) They would call Bowie’s project “The Secret” at the Magic Shop: “Is The Secret in today?”

Bowie and his musicians began recording on 3 May 2011, for about two weeks, in what would be “Block One” of the Next Day sessions. The players were all old hands: he knew their styles and what to expect from them (though he urged Dorsey to play fretless bass for the first time). It suggests he realized the new songs weren’t that dissimilar from his Heathen/Reality compositions, and that his new album could be like one he might have made in 2005. After all, he’d told both Leonard and Campbell during the Reality tour’s last leg that he was considering hustling the band into a studio right after the tour ended, in the hopes of cutting a road-hardened album like Earthling. Fate intervened.

The Next Day would be the most tentative, and the slowest-paced, album that he had ever made. Bowie kept stressing that the sessions were only an experiment, one he could well scrap. It was similar to how he’d pitched Low to his musicians in 1976. Yet Low had come together in about a month. The Next Day would take two years.

Gasmaske-Plakat-1979-

Alford described the sessions as being “matter of fact.” Bowie came in each morning, played them a home demo, then played the song’s full-band demo, then had the players start recording. (They were encouraged to ask him questions: the sessions had a seminar feel, with Bowie as a professor emeritus working with some former grad students.) There were no more than five takes for each song; they got through about two tracks a day.

They worked in the Magic Shop’s “live” room, Studio A, with no separation between instruments, barring some amp baffling. Bowie set up at a Baldwin piano, creating a work-station at which he could play a Korg Trinity (as on Reality), strum his old 12-string acoustic or use a digital mixer which he used to reference demos. Engineer Mario McNulty said Bowie and Visconti wanted a treated sound at the point of recording, so that in-studio playback would “sound like a record.” (This was Bowie’s long-preferred method—he’d been taken aback in early Young Americans sessions when he heard his untreated voice on tape for the first time in years). So McNulty, using the studio’s custom Neve 80 series wraparound 56-input console, applied EQ in each stereo channel and added generous compression on the vocal mikes, bass, guitar and drum tracks.

“Block One” produced about 20 tracks, of a variety of styles: Alford recalled cutting a “straight up country song,” while another was based on a blues riff, though the players were given the Eno-like instruction “not to make it sound like a blues.” Neither Bowie or Visconti were interested aping the sound of contemporary records (perhaps for the good: Bowie was talking up Mumford and Sons in the demo sessions), using instead for sonic context the Bowie back catalog and never-released outtakes, particularly from Lodger (see the upcoming “Born In a UFO”). Nine tracks from the session wound up on The Next Day or its bonus releases, but in May 2011, they were still only pieces of an ongoing experiment.

Tiergarten

wallover

So began the album’s desultory creation. Bowie would take away tapes, book the occasional overdub session, then go away again. He visited Leonard in Woodstock, NY, that summer and the two of them did some songwriting (coming up with “Boss of Me” and “I’ll Take You There” after Leonard scrambled to find a Roland TR-808 drum machine).

Around September or October 2011, Bowie organized another rhythm section date (call it “Block Two”) at the Magic Shop. As Dorsey was now touring with Lenny Kravitz, the storied bassist Tony Levin came in play with Leonard, Torn and Alford.

It was much the same mood as the spring session: listen to demos, take notes, play a few takes, “I’ll call you later.” (The tracks getting their start in this block included “Where Are We Now?,” “Boss of Me,” “I’d Rather Be High” and “God Bless the Girl.”)

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Around year-end 2011, there was a notable ebb in the album’s (already-tenuous) progress. Bowie was slowly working on lyrics and he’d spend over a year, in fits and starts, on his vocals. “In the beginning he was finding his voice,” Visconti said. “He’s not an opera singer, he doesn’t practice every day.”

Both Dorsey and Leonard said that around this time, they feared that Bowie might just deep-six the album, and keep silent for who knows how many more years. Brian Thorn, the Magic Shop’s assistant engineer, said “I had no idea if the album would even be released. I was prepared to sit on it for as long as I needed to.” Rosenthal summed up the general mood. “From beginning to end, this has not been a typical music business project. This has been like an art project that he’s created and is executing upon us all. I don’t think any of us really believed it was going to come out until we saw the song online.

If there had been a period of indecision, a turning point came when Bowie called up Earl Slick to do what he’d done since 1974: add some “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar parts. Contacted in May, Slick turned up at the Magic Shop in July 2012. “He never let me hear the demos,” Slick told Rock et Folk. “I played where he needed me. I always worked like that with him.”

Along with overdubbing guitar on the likes of “Dirty Boys,” Slick also helped cut some fresh songs on the spot with Visconti on bass and the now-returned Sterling Campbell. This last session (call it “Block Three”) was the start of the likes of “Valentine’s Day” and “Born In a UFO.”

So after two years of sporadic sessions, Bowie and Visconti had about 30 tracks. Those still needing work were earmarked as future B-sides or bonus releases (most of which have come out by now). Having winnowed the prospective track list down to 20, Bowie played with the sequencing for months, pulling “God Bless the Girl” on and off and on again (he finally slotted it as a bonus track on the Japanese issue).

The final sequence wound up being a three-part movement (paralleling its three-block creation). Tracks 1 to 6 were the “hits,” 7-11 the weird shit; the remainder was a bitter old man’s coda.

Kreuzberg

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Each Berlin is worlds distant from, and a stranger to, the other…indeed I have to admit that the Berlin of which I speak is actually not really Berlin anymore.

Georg Hermann, Kubinke, 1910.

Bowie came in one day and said, “I wrote a song about Berlin.” Visconti recalled.

He’d been kicking it around for some time, as Dorsey, who didn’t play in the song’s backing track sessions, recalled Bowie saying early on that he “had this idea of writing about his time in Berlin. That it was a very intense time for him.”

“Bowie in Berlin” had become, over the decades, among his most enduring characters, though at the time he’d taken pains to say that he was no longer playing a role. The rising critical eminence of the “Berlin” trilogy had wound up creating a myth as vivid as Ziggy Stardust’s.

It was Bowie singing “Heroes” at Hansa Tonstudio (which he’d portentously renamed “Hansa By The Wall” on the LP sleeve), setting off three microphones when moving to his apocalyptic register, while East German guards paced in their tower on the Wall. It was Bowie living with Iggy Pop on Hauptstraße, swapping clothes; Bowie biking around the city, unnoticed or ignored; making paintings of Pop and Yukio Mishima; dressing and wearing his hair as if he was an actor playing Christopher Isherwood in 1929; taking his breakfasts in the gay cafe down the street. Days at the Brücke-Museum, nights at the Dschungel or Chez Romy Haag.

The city was his sickbed, hospital, recovery ward, detox mansion; Berlin was where he went to vanish, and where he was found on the street seemingly every night, sometimes drinking himself oblivious in a bar. His estranged wife Angela thought it all ridiculous: he and Iggy dressing up like bohemian painters, or recreating scenes from Jules et Jim with Corinne Schwab; his label RCA found the work he made there indulgent, baffling and poor-selling, and wondered if he was sabotaging his career to reduce his ex-manager’s take of LP royalties.

But Berlin was reality, Bowie said, where America and Britain were fictions. John Lennon had once claimed that rock ‘n’ roll was real and everything else was unreal. Instead, Bowie had found rock ‘n’ roll to be the most unreal thing of all, a poison: Berlin was where he got free of it. He came out of the city in 1979 far different from the desperate man who’d taken refuge there in 1976. “David aged about 20 years in Berlin,” Mick Ronson once said.

geisterbahnhof

He travels all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it, because he doesn’t want you to,” Visconti said of Bowie today. An obvious question: did Bowie go back to Berlin in the late 2000s? Walk through Schöneberg again, visit Hansa, catch a train at Postdamer Platz? Stay in the hotel on Nürnberger Straße which was once the Dschungel? After all, his nostalgic drives through Brixton and Bromley in the early Nineties had sparked The Buddha of Suburbia. Did a similar visit inspire “Where Are We Now?”

Another speculation (offered by Momus): did Bowie and Visconti ever consider making his comeback record at Hansa? It would have made the perfect last turn of the circle, a lost man returning to the city he’d tried to get lost in, and maybe the symbolism was a bit too perfect. Plus, keeping the secret from a city of Germans would’ve been harder than doing so with a few New York engineers and his old touring band. After all, it was getting harder to go missing in Berlin these days.

Freidrichshain

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Thomas Kunja, an East Berliner who escaped to West Berlin several years ago and now distributes Electrolux vacuum cleaners, knows exactly what they’ll buy. “A video recorder–half already have color TVs,” says Kunja. “And everybody will take a trip.” Why? “What do you do when you get out of jail? You run. You have to prove you’re really out with a trip west. After that, people need everything: a decent car, decent kitchen stuff, a decent rug. If only 1 percent of them want a decent vacuum cleaner, I’m going to be rich.”

Newsweek, “The Wealth of a Nation,”  July 1990.

One night in 1997, I was at a party on the Upper West Side in NYC. A German man, standing alone, was looking offended by how dull the party was. I began talking to him, said I’d always wanted to go to Berlin. “Berlin?” he said, with some disgust. “Munich is where it is now. Berlin is dead! Dead!”

The Berlin of “Heroes” is deep in the grave now. The Wall is gone except for a few scruffily-maintained parks. The old city districts have been consolidated; some streets have new names. The battered, half-empty neighborhoods are being gentrified. Berlin’s even back to being a capital: Germany once again claiming the alien city on the Spree as its centerpiece, despite the fact that many Germans always have found Berlin a bit suspect, and some back in the early Cold War had wished the Russians had taken the whole place.

Agata Pyzik wrote in her Poor But Sexy that “Berlin is an Eastern city, by geography, spirit, architecture and expression. Yet it remains half-Western by politics and history.” During the Cold War, divided Berlin was a stage-set battlefield, the front line where the West and East sported their colors. The city itself was an island, a prison (West Berlin the little prison surrounded by the big prison), a mental ward. Berlin lived on its nerves, a city “so restless at night that even the animals in the zoo pace around,” as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson once said of it.

So where was it now? A creaky voice starts recounting a story, but it’s not much of a story—he forgets where he’s going after a line. “Had to get the train from Postdamer Platz,” he begins, not quite getting the accent right. A tourist, maybe. “You never knew...that I could do that,” with an air of faint amazement. It suggests he may be singing to a ghost, someone who didn’t outlive the Wall. The Postdamer Platz of “Heroes”-era Berlin was a wasteland, a stopped portal—the train station was a ghost stop on the S-bahn, a station that you only saw in passing (and which few East Germans ever saw). And today you can go underground and catch an eastbound train without giving it a second thought. Tens of thousands of people a day in Berlin perform what would have been impossible in 1989.

The man rummages up other names, as if seeing if anything rings a bell: the ghost’s not talking. The lost Dschungel club on Nürnberger Straße; even the department store KaDeWe (which would be like writing a song about post 9/11 New York and talking about Macy’s).

And 20,000 East Germans crossing Bösebrücke (again, it’s a tourist’s formal language—a German likely would have said Bornholmerstrasse) one autumn night in 1989, fingers crossed, fearing it might be a trap, that the guards will open fire on them. But no, out into the West they go, puncturing a hole in the Wall, soon followed by other holes, soon followed by no Wall at all.

Could it really have fallen apart so easily? The end of divided Berlin was like the end of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice standing up and saying “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and the Queen of Hearts howling in paper outrage. Maybe all that you ever needed to do was walk across the bridge, fingers crossed.

Treptow

Machen auf Demo

In the bars and clubs of [1987] West Berlin things felt relentlessly trendy. I kept running into Blixa Bargeld everywhere. I remember going to a club (I think it was called the Beehive) and seeing people with miniature record players strapped to their heads. I’d never seen people that self-consciously Dada before anywhere!

Momus.

The writer Christopher Isherwood went back to Berlin once after the war, in 1952, “to do one of those Berlin-revisited things for the Observer.” The city was still in shambles. “Everything was very much smashed up. They simply pushed the rubble to the sides of the streets. I wonder what became of that rubble?

The rubble was the pulverized bits of Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin, all the cornices and stoops and windowpanes and picture frames of the lost city of Isherwood, Brecht, Sally Bowles and the Landauers, of a city bombed to pieces during the war. The detritus was swept up, dumped in piles, was carted off to form three great hills in the outskirts of Berlin. In the Grunewald Forest, the highest pile became Teufelsberg, on which the Germans planted trees and shrubs and built a ski jump. The Americans built a radar station atop it.

It’s how Berlin has always adapted: junk what’s been ruined, build over the rest. Most cities in the West would have likely tried to preserve the Wall, turn it into some city-long memorial park. The Germans chipped it down, hauled it off, sold some bits, threw some in the garbage. Berlin seems impervious to nostalgia, so it’s an inspired setting for a nostalgic Bowie song. Walking the dead, he sings, but he might as well have said walking on the dead, because the city has likely paved over thousands of bodies.

My friend Michael Dumiak, who’s from South Carolina, has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. “You hear lots of Spanish and Italian and American English in the streets these days.The Bowie / Pop myth is strong here, but he wasn’t here that long, maybe didn’t need to, they already loved him so much here (see Christiane F.) I guess probably they wouldn’t bug him; it was a whole island city tense with military and full of arty misfits. And cheap. The place does make an impression on you. They’re gradually repainting everything—check it out while you still can!”

Or as regular commenter “Crayon to Crayon,” another current Berlin resident, says: “It’s an amazing city to be poor in. And it feels like you have far more freedom than in any other big city I’ve lived in…There is a palpable feeling that things are changing slowly for the worse as developers get their hands on more of the city and rents go up. But it is still 20 years ahead/behind of the rest of Germany and, say, London or Paris. I’m not planning on leaving any time soon.”

Neukölln

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Even at the demo stage, Gerry Leonard was struck by a song known only as “067,” the file’s name on Bowie’s digital recorder.

There are beautiful changes to it,” he said. “He had these chords on his keyboard. David is an amazing writer, but he’s not a schooled guy, he just goes by his ear.” Talking of song structures, Bowie would typically say “the middle bit” or “the other bit” when referring to a bridge or chorus.

Leonard took Bowie’s keyboard progression and transferred it to guitar, writing down chords as he went. There was a verse that slowly circled, like a man walking back and forth along a street—Fmaj7 (“had to get”) to Dm/G (“Potsdamer”). An odd seesaw movement—Db/Eb (“never knew that”), Eb/Db (“that I could”)—that hints at a vault into an Ab major key but instead sinks back to the home chord, F, now with a C bass note (“do that”). The verse sags off, but grandly: G/C (“just walking the”), Ebm/C (“dead”), closing on a C7 chord, the dominant chord of the song’s F major key, soon resolved by another return home to F.

Then there was a simple refrain, just descending F-Em-Dm-C. Another verse, but cut shorter; another refrain, but now opening up, blossoming into a lengthy outro that slightly altered the descending set of chords to F-Dm-C/E-C, repeating again and again to the fade.

It was a typical Bowie construction, as the song is odder than it may first appear to the ear. Its progression is a slow, listless struggle between F major and C major, with the former seeming to rule the verses and the latter the refrains, though their claims are far from settled. By contrast there’s a severity to its structure: a sense of not wanting to waste time. Take the slam right back to the verse after the refrain, where the ear expects a solo or a recapitulation of the intro sequence, or the no-nonsense move to the outro after the second refrain.

Bowie and Visconti kept the track sparse, particularly in the context of the other Next Day tracks: it’s just carried by Leonard’s lead guitar, Bowie’s piano and synthesizer lines (and some Henry Hey piano overdubs in the outro), Levin’s bass and Alford’s drums. At first just Alford’s drum pattern keeps the song moving forward, as Leonard and Bowie augment chords and Levin is a torpid foundation. The song only takes flight as it ends—Alford shifts to a martial snare pattern and Leonard starts to elaborate on pieces of Bowie’s vocal melody, arpeggiating chords and then moving down his guitar neck, wringing higher and higher-pitched notes, slowly weaving a line that’s more mournful than Bowie’s vocal. Words fail to do it justice: listen here.

Tempelhof

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People think you have to remove everything to make a nice habitat. This is not the best idea. The grasshopper likes the concrete here.

Ingo Kowarick, on Templehofer Field.

“Where Are We Now?” made an odd choice for a opening single, Visconti thought. He and other players took pains in pre-release interviews to stress how anomalous the song was, and that much of the rest of the album was uptempo, guitar-fattened and loud.

Issuing this as the first “new” Bowie song in a decade was a feinting maneuver, and perhaps even something of a macabre joke, much as how Bowie showed up at a 2005 awards show dressed as if he’d been in a car crash. If the world believed Bowie to be on death’s door, well, here he was croaking this somber song about his lost youth, as if he was dictating a will. Final curtain stuff. Yet even the fragility of his voice was an old trick. “That’s a vulnerable voice he has used time and time again,” Visconti noted, offering “Fantastic Voyage” as an earlier example. “It’s part of his technique, to sing that way. He put that voice on like he’s vulnerable, but he’s not frail.”

The ploy worked, for some. “Elegiac” was common in reviews, e.g.: “the only one that moved me was the elegiac “Where Are We Now?”, which has a haunting Berlin cabaret feel to it,” wrote Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, upon hearing the album. “It sounded good, but it also sounded right for a 66-year-old man. If you’re still trying to rock as hard at 66 as you did at 26 and even 36, you’re not maturing… not every genre is equally suited to one’s maturity. It’s just that Bowie sounds so much more — what’s the word? — credible on the brooding, pensive “Where Are We Now?” than on the harder stuff on the record.

“Where Are We Now?” is the song Bowie is supposed to be singing at age 66. By this age, you are supposed to be left stranded in time, to be burdened by great sacks of memory. It’s what the young expect of the old; it’s the task they charge the old with. In a world where the past is considered an embarrassment, the old are left as the past’s sad representatives, sexless and voiceless ambassadors, fit for the young to ignore. “When they die, we will move forward,” the young say. The old die, and we don’t.

So there’s an irony in the song. Its lament is removed, abstract; its narrator isn’t “Bowie” as much as it’s the voice of a man whose Berlin memories seem to have been derived from a few old Time magazines and Wikipedia searches. Bowie took the title from his son’s movie Moon: there, “Where Are We Now?” is the start of a promotional film celebrating a beautiful future. In the song, Bowie asks a question he doesn’t answer, only offering the beautifully Zen the moment you know, you know you know.

The promise of the outro opens up the song, Bowie offering a promise of endurance against the fading memories of the verses. As long as there’s sun…as long as there’s fire. Yet Bowie never finishes the phrases. As long as these endure…well, what else will? Me and you, he finally says, but we’re  not going to last much longer. Even the elements fade. One day the sun will wink out, and fire (usually a man-made thing, after all) will have gone well before that. A man looks at the ground and up in the sky for something that’ll be there after he’s gone. Yet the more he thinks about it, he’s not quite sure what will stand. The Wall was made of concrete, and look, they broke it down with chisels and hammers.

Schöneberg

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All that was left was to shoot a video. Bowie chose Tony Oursler, whom he’d worked with in the Nineties, and it was filmed in Oursler’s New York studio. In a cluttered loft, Bowie’s and Jacqueline Humphries’ faces are video-projected onto two lumpen mannequins sitting on a pommel horse, while playing on a screen behind them are film clips of contemporary Berlin—Haupstrasse, KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag. Bowie’s face looks like a sad turtle’s. He’s still lip-syncing, though it seems like his head’s been stuck in a fishbowl; he comes off like some misshapen laboratory transplant who’s still valiantly following directions. Humphries (an artist Bowie admired, as well as being Oursler’s wife) was chosen in part because she resembled Corinne Schwab, who might as well have been conjoined to Bowie during the Berlin years.

Bowie came up with the entire concept: the linked dummies, the piles of junk, what should be playing on the screen. “It was a crystal vision of what it was going to look like,” Oursler said. “It was really his conception. I was completely flattered that he wanted to come to my cave and fulfill this.”

Towards the end of the clip, you see the “real” Bowie at last, trim and impassive, wearing a “Song of Norway” t-shirt (perhaps referencing a film that his longago girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, had acted in), watching the apparatus at work. It’s a visual analogue for the entire making of The Next Day: Bowie, having sorted through piles of discards (like the rubble of postwar Berlin), has finally set up a dummy figure and screens his “public” memories behind it, like he’s got an installation at the Whitney. It’s as if to say: here, this is your “Bowie” now, so take him: I’m staying on the sidelines.

Bowie now has “this kind of cross between a John Hurt look and like George Smiley…a wounded arty kind of anonymous spook look,” as Dumiak told me, which I found an inspired observation. Bowie as the spy who stayed out in the cold, someone like Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker, an old British spy who’s become a man of honor just by standing still while the world corroded around him.

Hauptstraße 155

iggybowie77berlin

Things go on and become other things. The whole character of the country has changed beyond recognition since my childhood. One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless. What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead. The future will be infinitely “worse” than the present; and in that future, the future will be immeasurably “worse” than the future that we can see. Naturally.

Paul Bowles.

It is the evening of the 8th of January, 1977. Bowie and Iggy Pop, Romy Haag and Corinne Schwab are in a West Berlin nightclub to celebrate Bowie’s 30th birthday.

A few photographs, taken by Andrew Kent, are all that remain of that night. Bowie and Iggy, as often in Berlin, sport near-identical outfits; Haag is the most beautiful woman in the room. The look of the club, the Sally Bowles costumes of the waitresses, even the texture and lighting of the photographs, all seem meant to invoke a common memory of decadent Weimar cabaret.

But the expressions on Bowie and Schwab and Pop are something else. They look gleeful, even goofy; they seem like kids on holiday, or students taking a semester abroad and seeing how far their dollars and pounds will go in a battered city.

A German interviewer, around the turn of the century, asked Bowie where he’d lived in Berlin, and Bowie said immediately: “Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg.” The interviewer was startled. “You still remember it after 25 years?.” “I will never forget it,” Bowie said to him. “They were very important years.”

Haag, upon hearing “Where Are They Now?,” said Bowie sounded homesick. He’d only lived in Berlin for little more than a year, once you account for his tours and travels in the late Seventies. But Berlin was the place he’d run away to, and it was the city he had to leave when he had to get back to work, to get things done. Berlin was the last place he was young.

db13

It is the morning of the 8th of January 2013. David Bowie is 66, and has released a new song.

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Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop and Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2013 as an MP3 file (886443826403) (UK #6).

Sources: Over 30 articles and TV/radio interviews provided information and quotes for this piece; the most valuable included Alexis Petridis and Kate Connolly’s features in The Guardian (12 January 2013), Andy Greene’s interviews of most of The Next Day musicians for Rolling Stone in January-February 2013 and Jerome Soligny’s similar work in Rock et Folk (March 2013), Barry Nicolson’s in-depth chronology/interviews for the NME (2 March 2013), Gerry Leonard’s wonderful songwriting seminar at Xmusic in Dublin, 31 March 2013; Simon Goddard and David Buckley’s pieces in the March 2013 issues of, respectively, Q and Mojo.

I’m indebted to the personal recollections of past and present Berliners Momus, Crayon and, especially, Dumiak, to whom this entry is dedicated.

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Photos: top to bottom: Dennis Skley, “Time Isn’t Passing,” 2012; Michael Dumiak, “map of former geisterbahnhoefe [ghost stations]”;  Bundesarchiv Bild, “Crowds crossing the Bösebrücke at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing on 18 November 1989″; Montecruz Foto, “Mira la nada: Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Chris Carter, “TG at Checkpoint Charlie, 1980”; Georgie Pauwels, “Sky Over Berlin,” 2013.

David Bowie Archive, “Gasmask Street Poster, 1979”; Raphaël Thiémard, “Fall der Mauer, 1989”; Urbanartcore.eu, “Guy Fawkes in Berlin, 2012”; ‘Kadrik,’ “May Day, Berlin, 2012”; Matthias Rhomberg, “Ghost Station [Nordbahnhof], 2010”; Rolf B., “Berlin Gropiusbau Landing, 1977”; ; H. Fuller, “Madchen auf Demo,” 2010; Rainer Wieczorek, “Neuköllnerstrasse,” 1977; Dschungel, ca. early 198os (unknown photog); ‘Michael’, “Bahnhof Schoeneberg Wannseebahn,” 2010; Andrew Kent, Bowie’s 30th birthday, 1977; Jimmy King, Next Day sleeve photo; Bowie listening to playback at Hansa, 1977.