Karma Man

October 19, 2009

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Karma Man.
Karma Man (BBC, 1968).

The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.

John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.

George Harrison, Holiday, February 1968.

All at once, or so it seemed, the pop aristocracy of the UK turned to “Eastern” religion. Seemingly everyone was now devising his or her personal path to enlightenment: Pete Townshend with Meher Baba, Richard Thompson with Sufi Islam, even Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. And of course The Beach Boys, Donovan and The Beatles had found the Spiritual Regeneration teachings of the Maharishi, a sort of pop fusion of Buddhism, Hinduism and even stray bits of American “power of positive thinking” boosterism.

The mystery is explained in part when you consider that many of these people had been taking LSD in great doses for a long time (Tony Visconti and his wife tripped once a week for a whole year, for example, and Visconti eventually became a Tibetan Buddhist). Eastern teachings resounded with celebrities who were trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed” (Bernice Martin). Also appealing was that many of the Eastern religion varietals on display didn’t require much in terms of material renunciation or moral strictures from novitiates.

The “new” religions also had appeared in somewhat of a vacuum. Since the late ’50s, there had been a general falling off in religious observance among the young in the UK (you might recall John Lennon’s infamous “we’re more popular than Christ” comment was specifically about British teenagers). So Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, particularly the watery blends offered by various celebrity mystics and sages, found little competition. Buddhism in particular was hip with the young because it had no ruling omniscient god who mandated antiquated moral codes, and its priest caste was best known for a) protesting war and b) wearing colorful psychedelic outfits. It was seemingly devoted solely to the “now,” and was misinterpreted as something of a Pop religion.

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David Bowie had been studying Tibetan Buddhism since 1965, if not earlier. So while his “Karma Man,” which he cut a few days after The Beatles and their spouses had decamped (in a blaze of press coverage) for Bangor, Wales, to be initiated into the Maharishi’s teachings, may have seemed like a trendy affectation, it was actually a sequel to Bowie’s earlier Tibetan homage “Silly Boy Blue.”

That said, by late ’67, Tibetan Buddhism was just as trendy as the rest of the lot. For many weekend Buddhists, “Tibet” was something of an Atlantis in the mountains, the land of Shangri-La, the site of the Lost Continent of Mu; it was a magic kingdom in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. ITC’s 1968 TV drama The Champions, for example, featured secret agents crashing their plane in Tibet and being healed (and given superpowers) by lamas. (Identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist would eventually become a political act, as taking the side of the Tibetans drew down the wrath of the student Maoists of 1968, some of whom heckled Bowie’s mime performance Yet-San and the Eagle, which featured “Silly Boy Blue.”)*

So something has changed since the days of “Silly Boy Blue,” which was a realist attempt to depict Tibetan culture, to the point where it sounded a bit like a National Geographic article turned into a pop song. “Karma Man” is nowhere as literal—its title figure, clad in saffron robes and kneeling on the floor in meditation, is something of a Buddhist superhero (even the name’s right out of Doctor Strange). He seems akin to Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, with sigils and runes tattooed on his skin that offer lost wisdom and future prophecies. Bowie’s Karma Man is also now set in opposition to the West—the deceived and the blind mock him, consider him a carnival freak, and keep trying to slow him down.

Recorded on 1 September 1967 as the proposed B-side to “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (an attempt at nirvana for the flip side of an ode to maya); on Deram Anthology. A live recording (a BBC session arranged by Visconti on 13 May 1968 and available on Bowie at the Beeb) is so superior to the studio take that I think of the latter as merely a rough draft. A version was allegedly recorded for Toy: one of the few recordings from those sessions yet to leak.

Top: The Beatles seek enlightenment in Bangor, August 1967; Romano Cagnoni, “British Museum,” 1967.

*A point originally made by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, in About Time 2, a study of cultural influences on Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who.


Mother Grey

April 9, 2019

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Mother Grey (demo).

What’s the point of an archive set of murky-sounding demos from fifty years ago? Spying Through a Keyhole, a box of four 7″ 45 RPM singles ($35.95 retail at Newbury Comics in Northampton, MA), seems meant to be faced-out on a shelf. “What’s that, then? David Bowie?” “Yes, nice, isn’t it? I should get around to listening to it one of these days…”

Format fetishism (soon to continue with the upcoming Clareville Grove Demos set) is inevitable at a time when vinyl packaging drives “physical media” buys. The justification here, as per Parlophone, is that having these demos on 7″ singles honors how they were sent to publishers and performers in the late Sixties (Why not go whole hog then?—put them on acetates that wear out after ten plays.) You, humble buyer, can imagine you’re an overworked staffer for Tom Jones’ management company.

For Keyhole, these are (mostly) songs which Bowie registered with the publisher Essex Music in the mid-to-late Sixties and over which his estate doesn’t have full control—Essex was reportedly why astronaut Chris Hadfield briefly had to pull his “Space Oddity” cover off YouTube. The specter of unissued Bowie songs entering EU public domain was one impetus for its release (the set notes that tracks were “previously available as an internet download only for a strictly limited period in December 2018,” a period so limited that I believe no one on the globe actually downloaded them).

Still, Keyhole offers something new. It clears, somewhat, a muddy picture—it documents Bowie’s steady improvement as a songwriter in 1968. This is considered his lost year, a year without a record deal, the year of Feathers and Hermione, of various failed advert, cabaret, and musical auditions. A holding-pattern year, one devoted to mime and Buddhism (“there were times when I felt I was the only person in the world who believed in his talent,” his then-manager Kenneth Pitt wrote about summer 1968.)*

As it turns out, Bowie was toiling away throughout 1968—even his apparent lassitude was for show. Keyhole is David Bowie as grubbing songwriter, blotting out lyrics, trying out hooks, recasting songs, sketching vocal arrangements. During his life, he wasn’t much interested in making these sort of drafting-room sketches public. Sure he’d rework and recycle lyrics, hooks, chord changes and voices throughout his career, but that was his purview. Make something fresh with it. Otherwise, let’s move on, as he’d sing. With Bowie gone, his past is his last undiscovered country. We’ll see soon enough how much of it will come to light.

Singing in the Silver Kitchen

DB1_1968

“Mother Grey,” registered with Essex in December 1967, is a storied “unreleased” Bowie song, as its title was known as early as 1973, when Essex sued Bowie for its copyright.** Released at last in 2019, it’s striking even in bleary demo form—for me, the highlight of the set.

Presumably a candidate (the timing fits) for Bowie’s never-made second album on Deram, slated to be cut in spring 1968, “Mother Grey” is Bowie keeping the thematic framework of his 1967 album—it’s another third-person lyric about a slightly-surreal domestic situation—while toying with structure. So while all 14 David Bowie songs have a (usually) instrumental intro, “Mother Grey” opens with its chorus! (something Bowie rarely did again until “Let’s Dance,” and then he’d credit Nile Rodgers for pushing him).

In two verses, Bowie moves against a bass figure (on guitar here) while varying phrasings to make a ladder of hooks. A five-beat line with a slight weight on the last syllable (“sil-ver kit-chen full of pots and pans“), followed by a goofy aside, often harmonized (“mee-eee oh-myy-ay-ay!”) that in turn trims the closing phrase to four beats (“that’s a way for Mother Grey”). He’s smoothing out and breaking up the lengthy, twisting verse phrasings of late 1967’s “Karma Man“—it’s tighter, hookier writing, with Bowie keeping to a short span of notes.

You assume the awkward “join” linking verse to chorus (esp. at 1:08, which sounds like a clunk-fingered tape edit) would have been improved had “Mother Grey” gotten a full-band recording. Instead you’re left to imagine the ghost arrangement—scored low strings for the refrains? Harmonica replaced by lead guitar? The outro seems to be readying itself for the sort of rambling jam heard on Space Oddity tracks.

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It’s a day-to-night portrait—Mother Grey makes beds, cleans the kitchen, cooks tea for her husband (he “tries to kiss but she ain’t in the mood”), scrubs floors, polishes a picture frame of her son, who’s moved out and left her alone in an empty house. She goes to sleep “so alone,” as harmonized Bowies sing in the closing refrain.

Some Ray Davies is in it—see Priscilla’s domestic drudgery in “Two Sisters” (and there’s a Kinks-esque little skip between opening refrain and first verse)—and the liner notes argue for “Mother’s Little Helper” as an influence. But there’s a vicious, joyful contempt in the Stones track, where getting old is a failure and domestic life is a hell of your own making. Take your pep pills for the tennis court, some Valiums to knock yourself out: if you never wake up, who’ll miss you? Jagger soon enough played the devil, but he sounds like an Old Testament-style scourge here, his voice tuned to a sharp, pitiless scale. He’s cursing all he sees, all this horrific prosperity.

There’s nothing like this in “Mother Grey,” who’s confined to her house, like a zoo animal that can’t survive in the wild; she’s trapped in cyclical existence and even seems vaguely aware of it at times—see Bowie’s line about her, for a moment, being suddenly on “the outside” and seeing the starry sky, which looks down on “her hands”; she’s nothing but labor, a hollow tool. His sympathies are with his character here, if coldly. Bowie’s perspective, from early in his work, was of someone trying to puzzle out why “normal” people behave as they do. Everyday life as seen at a remove, as if from the deck of a ship.

It’s most aligned with another 1968 Bowie song, “When I’m Five.” Mother Grey could be that kid’s mother: a towering yet pitiful figure whose life makes no sense (note the child’s-eye name for her, like the soon-to-come President Joe and Major Tom). Bowie’s strained relationship with his mother (who at times would call journalists to complain about him neglecting her) is an unavoidable aspect of the song, as is his long-developed theme of suburbia as a frozen landscape he was lucky to have escaped. It’s frustrating to hear it forever trapped in sketch form. Still, the greatest compliment you can give “Mother Grey” is to mourn the track that it never became.

Recorded: ca. December 1967?-early spring 1968. Possible locations (London): Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street; Essex Music, 68 Oxford Street. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, acoustic guitars, harmonica, percussion. First release: 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

[If you’d like, print this out and put it between the “London Bye Ta-Ta” and “When I’m Five” entries in Rebel Rebel.]

*In his memoir, Pitt (per usual) exactingly detailed Bowie’s total income for 1968: £905.19.10. Given that, inflation-adjusted, this is something like £16,000 at a much higher pound-to-dollar exchange rate, this is a not-horrible? income for someone who didn’t put out a record and barely performed that year.

**In May 1973, Essex entered a writ in the High Court of Justice in London, claiming that “Mother Grey,” “April’s Tooth of Gold,” and “Ching-a-Ling” should have been assigned to them as part of a 1967 agreement, and alleged Bowie had broken his contract with them when he signed with Chrysalis Music—this would be one of the many legal headaches of the MainMan era).

News, etc.

I want to say thanks again to everyone who came out to the readings and conversations in New York, London, and Manchester in the past months—it was a delight to meet all of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed Ashes to Ashes. If you haven’t gotten it, well, you still can.

I’ll put up more new entries here in a while (the rest of the ‘new’ ’68 demos and probably the last Blackstar songs at some point). And I’m fairly close to finishing the first piece of an “interim” project, a sort of ‘variety show’ thing, you could say. More soon.

Top: Britt-Marie Sohlström, “Mors dag (Mother’s Day), Sweden, 1968.”

 


Reissues: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

February 17, 2016

A song with some personal resonance (the first Bowie non-“hit” to really hook me, it was sequenced as the 2nd track on the Sound + Vision set), “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the first Bowie epics: very much of its time but transcendent as well.

The book entry goes deeper into the “feral child” myth and its appeal in the Sixties (including a look at Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron), incorporates new information about the song’s creation (such as Bowie having written the basic storyline as an essay at school and having been inspired by his time with Mary Finnigan’s children in 1969), and wages a long battle against Tony Visconti’s arrangement for the LP version of the song (one of Visconti’s rare lapses of taste, IMO). And it ends with a homage to the song’s magnificent last performance at the last Ziggy Stardust show. Bowie would never return to the song again, and he seemed to know it that night.

Originally posted on 30 November 2009: it’s the Wild Eyed Boy again.

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (1st recording; B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (remake, album version).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (BBC, 1970).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1972).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud/All the Young Dudes (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

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

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

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

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

David-Bowie-1967

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

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

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

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

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

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

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


Never Get Old

November 5, 2014

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Never Get Old.
Never Get Old (video).
Never Get Old (Vittel ad, edit).
Never Get Old (Today Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2003).
Never Get Old (Riverside Studio performance, 2003).
Never Get Old (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (live, 2003).
Never Get Old (The Tonight Show, 2004).
Never Get Old (live, 2004).
Rebel Never Gets Old (2004).

Issued as a hook for Bowie’s first world tour in nearly 15 years, Reality became something else by the late 2000s: Bowie’s Last Album. With Bowie seemingly in retirement, there was a fair bit of fan resentment and bewilderment about this. Reality was really going to be the end? This was his Abbey Road, his Avalon? A “thrusty” (Bowie’s official adjective for it) album with a few covers? It would be as if he’d left the stage with Lodger, another oft-unloved record with which Reality has some affinities.

His return in 2013 loosed Reality from this trap. Now you can consider the record on more favorable terms: as an album whose songs were built to be blasted on stage, whose compositions were written quickly and fairly loosely, its tracks assembled like an Ikea table. The album of an older working artist, of a man used to himself, at an armistice with himself; someone happy not to take himself seriously (hope you’re happy, too). It’s the work of a man pissed off at the world but trying to keep it together for his kid’s sake. Not Bowie’s last album, but his latest album.

In interviews, Bowie hammered home that Reality lacked the thematic arc of Heathen, that there was “no through line” (he said this a half-dozen times) in the album, that it was just a collection of songs and a few covers pulled from a “Pin Ups 2” list. Yet as he said in the album’s promotional video, “going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you. Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

There’s far more thematic structure in Reality than Bowie let on. Like Man Who Sold the World, it’s full of extreme figures—Picasso as a cock of the walk; a gluttonous rock star vampire (see below); a Dick Cheney stand-in—and diminished ones: disappointed wives and desperate husbands; various lonelyhearts. There’s death and scars and a long, shadowy sub-sequence in which David Jones buries David Bowie, one more time. And Bowie pulled all of this off lightly, even flippantly, as if he would keep doing it forever.

Some jokes, too. Take the Tezuka-eyed anime figure on the album cover: a record called Reality with a video-game avatar as its marquee artist. Another was the TV ad Bowie made for Vittel water (he had no qualms about this—“basic” TV was a primary means of promotion left to him, as radio and MTV wouldn’t play his new songs). Here he’s a chic brownstone owner (playing on the press’ current image of him) sharing house with his discarded personae. He walks off into the Soho morning, out for a coffee or a Bikram yoga session, leaving the old freaks back at home. He still looks great; he’s in on the joke.

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For some time, Bowie had been planning a major world tour, his first since Sound + Vision in 1990, once his daughter was old enough to travel regularly. The Heathen/Low-dominated sets of the 2002 tour needed an overhaul: some more oldies, but also some new, uptempo material. The fast pace and smaller clubs of his “Five Boroughs” NYC shows in October 2002 invigorated him. By year’s end, he was “percolating” with new songs, making demos via his home setup at the time: a Korg Trinity and a Seventies ARP Odyssey, a Korg Pandora effects processor and a lifetime’s accumulation of guitars (“I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things, and I started writing immediately,” he told the Miami Herald). He got Tony Visconti back in the studio in January 2003.

At the time, Visconti was often renting the small Studio B in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios on Broadway, walking distance from Bowie’s Soho home. So Bowie could keep to a domestic schedule—Internet binging or neighborhood walks in the early morning, breakfast with his daughter, off to the studio around 10 or 11 AM and back home by 7 PM for dinner. He could try out something on a keyboard at home, play it in the studio a few hours later, take the file home and listen to it that night.

Bowie and Visconti demoed about seven tracks (top melody sketches and scratch keyboard, bass and guitars over a click track), then began some overdubs, mainly guitar, vocals and keyboards. “Inevitably we’d hardly redo anything,” Visconti recalled to Sound on Sound. “I always record things carefully in the first place because I know we’re not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version.” (Visconti said “the bulk” of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board mainly used for monitoring tracks.)

After a break in which Bowie wrote and demoed more songs, he assembled a small group for rhythm tracks (cutting eight tracks in about eight days). It was just Bowie and Visconti, drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist/guitarist Mark Plati, all cramped into Studio B, with its 12′ x 10′ isolation booth. While Bowie could have rented the more spacious Studio A, he preferred being boxed in to get “a real tight New York sound,” as Visconti called it (Visconti also said he could better judge bass-end tones in the smaller studio).

This was the end of Plati’s work with Bowie. In the late Nineties, Plati had positioned himself as Bowie’s new right-hand man, and once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels parted company in 1999, Plati was ready to move up. But he hadn’t banked on the return of Tony Visconti to the fold, and the collapse of Toy (Plati’s baby) meant Visconti had the dominant hand. A source familiar with most of the musicians at the time noted Visconti had been gunning for Plati for a while and that Bowie had enjoyed the rivalry, as it bred good creative energy (he was an old hand at this, pitting Earl Slick against Carlos Alomar, Eno against Alomar, Reeves Gabrels against Mike Garson, etc.)

For Reality, Visconti recorded all the bass parts at the demo stage, often leaving Plati to have to trace over his lines (and Bowie preferred Visconti’s original takes on “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon”). Visconti had looked a bit askance at Plati’s use of the Line 6 Bass Pod (a preamp that could let the player “dial up” the sound of whichever bass amp and cabinet they wanted), preferring to direct-inject his “very souped up ’67 [Fender] Precision” into the console.

Plati left before the Reality tour to take a gig with Robbie Williams, which he later regretted. He’d been used to Bowie fans, who were so devoted to the music that they knew every player’s name and backstory; now he was just an anonymous face backing a Star.

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By February 2003, a good chunk of the record was cut, though Bowie and Visconti weren’t happy with the drum sound, ultimately driving up to Allaire Studios near Woodstock, where they’d cut Heathen, to play Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, then mixing that reverbed sound into Logic Audio.

For lead guitars, they brought in Earl Slick (cranking out his lines through an “enormous” Marshall stack), David Torn (charged with providing “atmospheres” as on Heathen, though he also got some lead riffs, like “New Killer Star”) and Gerry Leonard (mainly incidental work and solo spots, like the “Spanish” guitar on “Pablo Picasso”). Bowie also was keen to get into the mix some old Supro guitars that he’d bought on eBay, including a 1957 Dual Tone retrofitted by Flip Scipio and another patched-up 12-string Supro (heard on “Never Get Old,” among other tracks). Bowie also played scads of Korg Trinity, retrieved his old Selmer baritone saxophone for a few tracks and tried his hand at harmonica again (not heard since “Never Let Me Down” unless I’m (likely) forgetting something).

By May, Bowie and Visconti had pasted together a record, mixing sounds from a wide palette. Mike Garson recorded both synth and piano parts (the latter in California, with Garson putting the finished pieces into a ProTools file). Bowie typically sang three lead vocals for each track—one right after the rhythm tracks were cut, one midway through the sessions and one towards the start of mixing. Visconti synced them up (he’d made sure Bowie had used the same mic, a Manley Gold, for all takes) so that he could make a neat stitching job for a last vocal, following a line Bowie had sung in February with one he’d sung in May. And Bowie was in strong voice—having finally given up cigarettes, he’d recovered at least five semitones.

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You gotta stay young, man, you can never be old.

Mott the Hoople, “All the Way From Memphis.”

Unlike every other great genre of American pop, rock is all about being young or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be young.

James Miller.

Wouldn’t that be fun, to age disgracefully?

Bowie, to the Sydney Morning Herald, 2003.

In 2001, the New York Press editor John Strausbaugh issued a manifesto, Rock ’til You Drop, attacking “colostomy rock” (the book had a cover photo of a wizened, grotesque-looking Mick Jagger): “Rock should simply not be played by 55-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs they wrote 30 or 35 years ago…its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads…Rock ‘n’ roll is not family entertainment.” (Bowie got a few brickbats, with Strausbaugh labeling him a “self-serving, egomaniacal, 52-year-old creep [conflating] all of rock ‘n’ roll with his own way-past-prime career”).

This was a sharper-pitched (Strausbaugh’s book is full of lurid Hogarth-esque descriptions of sadly aging musicians) version of an old argument: can a youth music grow old with dignity? Should there be some sort of Logan’s Run scenario where rock stars, after they hit 35, agree to kill themselves to spare us the sight of their aging? Bowie had avoided some of this by staying thin, keeping his hair and simply not seeming to age that much (even Strausbaugh admitted Bowie still looked hale in his 50s). But his sheer perseverance rankled Strausbaugh and other critics. Didn’t he know it was over? Wasn’t it a bit embarrassing, all the Internet Bowiebanc Omikron drum’n’bass business?

“Never Get Old” is Bowie’s response (did he read the book? you never know). Fuck you: I am the aging letch you hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. “It’s a rather silly song,” he told Kurt Orzeck. “It’s kind of [about] a petulant 56-year-old.” To the Sun, Bowie added that “there’s the image of a petulant rock singer sitting in a half-darkened room saying, ‘I’m not gonna get old.’ I thought it was a funny image and I had to write it before someone else my age did.”

After all, this sort of “get off the stage, old man” warfare was in great part intra-generational: it was late Baby Boomers attacking early Baby Boomers. “Today we’re a generation of angry old men,” Bowie told Der Stern. He had a three-year old daughter for whom Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Lady Miss Keir and Trent Reznor would all be one great jumble, a collective past that would be as easy to pare and remix as he’d done for his latest album. But playing an aging, vain Baby Boomer egomaniacal creep was too juicy a role not to take on.

Singing “Never Get Old” was part of a growing cheekiness, a lack of reverence for his legend. Bowie had become grand enough of a monument that he could scrawl on it. Around this time he cut a remake of “Changes” with Butterfly Boucher, where he sang “look out, you rock ‘n rollers—pretty soon you’re gonna get older!” with gusto and happy irony. He recut “Rebel Rebel” as an aging rocker still playing at youth, then had it mashed up into “Never Get Old” for a tawdry single that would have made the likes of Strausbaugh retch.

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“Never Get Old” is a bipolar song. The E major refrains are hectoring and bloated, with their set of whining guitars stuck in second gear. A grotesque rock star refuses to leave the table, instead filling his belly with more: cash, food, drugs, women (live, Bowie sang “never gonna be enough bullets!” while making a gun shape with his fingers: you’re never gonna be able to kill all of us). Underneath the latter half of the refrains is a grunting, moaning distorted bass figure: the gurgling stomach of the singer, or the factory work keeping his enterprise going.

He’s also feeding on his past. The winding verse melody is similar to that of “Karma Man,” while there’s a pun on old glories (“never gonna get Low“) and maybe even an Iggy Pop nod (“street of life” calls back to the “street of chance” of Pop/Bowie’s “Baby“). And not just his past. The last vocal tag, a soaring bit by Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, mirrors the close of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Yet the verses and pre-choruses have none of this cheek. They’re built on tentative shifts up and down, like a man struck with doubts on a stairway. The verse starts on G major (“better take care”), sharpens the chord (“I think I’d better go better”) and in a breath makes it natural again (“get a room better take”) then moves down to F major (“care of me”). The second time round’s a lower descent, to E minor (..”history”). The pre-chorus does the same moves with C major (C: “forever,” C#: “this feeling that we’re going to be,” C: “living until the,” B-flat: “end of time”), then in a classic “really, Bowie?” progression, there’s a jarring shift from Bb to G# (“head hangs low”) to E-flat (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the chorus.

These qualified, shaky movements, paced by a rhythm guitar (Torn?) that mainly nags at its G string, underscores a lyric marked by regret and loneliness. A man locks himself up in his room (painted blue, blue electric blue?). He goes to the movies, like the mousy-haired girl of “Life on Mars?,” hoping that when the star turns around for his close-up, he’ll acknowledge the little man in the stalls. The moon floats along with its stolen light (its airy progress the little piano break). The refrain is a lie.

A while ago, someone wrote on the “Space Oddity” post, arguing with my choice of words. I’d written “when Bowie dies” and the commenter took me to task: “surely you meant if?” It’s a wonderful protest, and a true one. It seems wrong to write that Bowie will ever die. He can’t die, he won’t die: we just won’t let him.

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Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality (ISO/Columbia COL 512555 2/ CK 90576, UK #3, US #29). A video for the song is included on the DualDisc version, one of the several supplemental editions of Reality, whose numbers also include the 2-CD version (with bonus tracks “Fly,” “Queen of the Tarts” and a remade “Rebel Rebel”), the “tour” version (which had a bonus DVD with the LP sequence performed live at Riverside Studio, plus “Waterloo Sunset” as a bonus (the Japanese CD also had the latter track)) and the SACD, which had Visconti’s Dolby 5.1 mixes for all tracks.

“Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004, was issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971) and also was available as an iTunes download.

Sources: Of particular help (to this and upcoming entries) was the marvelously detailed piece “Recording Reality” by Richard Buskin in the October 2003 issue of Sound on Sound. All technical details come from this article.

Top: Damiano, “Rainbow [Gathering] in Italia, 2002”; art for Reality (photos: Frank W. Ockenfels; design: Jonathan Barnbrook; illustrations: Rex Ray).


Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

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Hole In the Ground.

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

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

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

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

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seven Years in Tibet

June 18, 2013

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Seven Years in Tibet (first performance, fragment, 1996).
Seven Years in Tibet.
Seven Years in Tibet (single edit).
Seven Years in Tibet (Mandarin version).
Seven Years in Tibet (with Dave Grohl, 50th Birthday Concert).
Seven Years in Tibet (The Rosie O’Donnell Show).
Seven Years in Tibet (acoustic, radio broadcast, 1997).
Seven Years in Tibet (live, 1997.)

So much of what first appealed to me about Buddhism has stayed with me. The idea of transience, and that there is nothing to hold onto pragmatically, that we do at some point or another have to let go of that which we consider most dear to us, because it’s a very short life.

Bowie, interview, Daily Telegraph, December 1996.

Lhasa

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Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, had been in a British prisoner-of-war camp in India for the length of the war. While he’d escaped in 1944, he didn’t try to join the Nazi army but instead ventured into Tibet, spurred by curiosity about a country considered off limits to the West. He was acting as a remnant of old Germany, the land of mountaineers and mapmakers, of the Wandervogel, the German naturalist movement which the Nazis had plundered for members and imagery, then banned. Crossing the Himalayas by foot and yak, Harrer spent the late Forties in Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, befriending and tutoring the young Dalai Lama, designing structural improvements for the city and chronicling in journals and photographs life in the last years of independent Tibet. He fled just before the Chinese came in 1950.

At the time, Harrer offered the prospect of a “clean” German/Austrian, a man who had the moral stature to depict Communist abuses. As is often the case, he wasn’t that clean. After Austria had been absorbed by Nazi Germany, Harrer had joined the SS in 1938 and had asked Himmler permission to marry, certifying that he and his fiancee were pure Aryans. So Tibet wasn’t just an appealing curiosity for him—it was one of the few countries bordering India that Harrer could have gone to in 1945 without facing the implications of his past. From most accounts, Harrer seemed primarily guilty of ambition in his youth: there is no evidence of him committing atrocities. Joining the Nazis was a good career move for him in the Thirties, much as how obscuring his Nazi past was a great career move in the Fifties.

His memoir, Seven Years In Tibet, was published in 1953 and was an international bestseller. Regarded as a paean for a lost country crushed by the Communists, Tibet is more hard-headed than its reputation suggests. Harrer balanced the beauty of the Tibetan landscape and of its culture with the sordid reality he found: filthy bodies, filthy streets, high rates of venereal disease, appalling levels of child mortality, and a cultural passivity mixed with occasional spates of chaos, like palace coups and monk rebellions. The Chinese, when they conquered Tibet, claimed to be modernizers. They abolished serfdom, paved roads, brought sanitation and political order, and suffocated an ancient culture in the process. Tibet became, among many things, a parable of modernity: life made easier and cleaner at the cost of the inconvenient past. Old Tibet was a culture the modern world had no more time for.

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In Tibet, one is not hunted from morning till night by the calls of ‘civilization.’ Here one has time to occupy oneself with religion and to call one’s soul one’s own. Here it is religion which takes up most room in the life of the individual as it did in olden days in the west.

Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet.

David Bowie discovered Buddhism in his early teens, thanks to his step-brother Terry’s beatnik leanings, the novels of Jack Kerouac and a few Penguin paperbacks that gave him the basic schematics of the religion. It was Harrer’s book that set him a-boil: “When I was about nineteen I became an overnight Buddhist,” he recalled in 1997. “At that age a very influential book for me was called “Seven Years In Tibet”…[Harrer] was one of the very first Westerners to ever spend any time in Tibet; in fact, one of the very first Westerners actually to go into Tibet and discover for himself this extraordinary existence and this incredibly sublime philosophy.”Silly Boy Blue,” Bowie’s first Buddhist song, was inspired by Harrer’s descriptions of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama’s winter palace of Potala, the song opening with the yak-butter statues made for celebration days.

What resonated with Bowie was the figure Harrer cut in his memoir. Though he was accompanied on his trip by another German national, Harrer comes across as a classic existentialist hero—a solitary man, unburdened by religion, nationality, politics or family (he doesn’t mention his wife once in the book)—making his way into a hidden kingdom where everyone is holy. There, the Outsider falls in love. The book was a preview of the Beat Fifties giving way to the psychedelic Sixties. “Religion is the heart of the fabric of the State,” Harrer wrote. “Prayer wheels turn without ceasing; prayer-flags wave on the roofs of houses…the life of the people is regulated by the divine will, whose interpreters the lamas are.”

Though Harrer was quick to describe the Tibetans’ shortcomings, his enchantment with the life he found in Lhasa permeates his writing, and he closed his book sounding like a man exiled from a dream.

London

I managed to cope with most things when I worked with David—except the Buddha.

Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s manager in the late Sixties.

For a young, irreligious British suburbanite in 1966, Harrer’s Tibet wasn’t any heaven on earth or a mystic theme park, as some weekend Buddhists considered Tibet to be. It was a culture where spirituality, and maintaining the health of the soul, was far more important than making money, than acquiring fame and attending to family.

So Buddhism took root in Bowie. Though some of his colleagues and friends in the late Sixties considered Bowie’s Buddhist leanings to be hip affectations, others saw a more fervent side of him. The journalist George Tremlett and Bowie’s housemate/lover Mary Finnigan attested that Bowie was serious about Buddhism, speaking to them for hours about it. Whether he truly meant to join a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland, which he visited in late 1967, is very questionable.1 What’s not is that the symbols of Buddhism, its sutras, its concepts like reincarnation (see “Quicksand”), the Oversoul and astral projection (see “Did You Ever Have a Dream“), were essential to Bowie’s growth as a songwriter. Buddhism gave him a reservoir of imagery to use: it gave him a spiritual scaffolding.

And the status of Tibet in 1966-7 made him, for one of the few times in his life, publicly political. After a decade of ‘tolerance,’ the Chinese government, now in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, was cracking down on Tibet. The 1959 uprising had been snuffed out by a vicious repression, in which possibly 80,000 Tibetans were killed, and the brutalities continued into the Sixties. The Dalai Lama went into exile, along with a number of other Buddhist lamas. Some of the latter made their way to London’s Buddhist Society, where they encountered an eager teenager from Bromley with a myriad questions for them (see “Karma Man,” his 1967 song about a Tibetan exile lost in the funfair of the West). Stories escaped of horrors: Tibetan monks tortured, sexually degraded, murdered; monasteries and holy places sacked and burned.

A friend of Bowie’s at the time recalled him being “filled with anger” about Tibet, which began to appear in his art. His mime Jet-Sun and the Eagle, which he performed in 1968 and 1969, in part depicted a Chinese boy under the foot of Chinese Communists (it drew the indignation of a student Maoist, who reportedly heckled one performance), and his song “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” was a thinly-disguised rewrite of the scenario, in which a “wild boy” brings down the wrath of ancient Nature upon a village of dreadful occupiers.

New York

7years

When you’re kind of young and idealist we were protesting the invasion of Tibet by China. And thirty years later they’re still there. Nothing has really moved. And more than anything else it was the lectures that the Dalai Lama has been doing over the last couple of years that really prodded me a bit. Made me feel quite guilty that I’ve known about this situation quite well and quite intimately for many, many years—that I hadn’t actually come out and made my stance on what I feel about it. So I guess that song in a way was to make some kind of amends.

Bowie, radio interview, 1997.

It had been a long time since Jet-Sun and the London Buddhist Society. It was the summer of 1996, in New York City, where Bowie was dashing out a new record.

During the Earthling sessions, Reeves Gabrels introduced a piece he’d written earlier, provisionally called “Brussels.” Bowie didn’t think much of it. The song seemed, he said, “incredibly hack, with a very predictable self-serious quality. I said, ‘dump this one, Reeves.’ “But Mark Plati recalled Gabrels being obstinate. He kept revising it, and with Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to bounce ideas off of, he eventually worked it into a compelling piece, its dreamy guitar work in the verses inspired by the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental “Albatross.”2

Bowie came round on the track, began to call it his favorite on the album. For a lyric, he began by improvising a verse in the booth. An image came to mind: “a young Tibetan monk who’s just been shot. His last experiences in the snow as the Chinese helicopters fly over.”

‘Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains,’
The old woman said…

The lyric was a death mumble. A monk bleeds out in the snow, watches the sky fade, gets off a last prayer. Bowie’s voice in the verses was processed through a ring modulator, which gave it a crackly, papery sound, making it sound as if he was heard murmuring through an old radio. The landscape of the verse was filled with ‘past’ signifiers: Gabrels’ “Albatross” guitar; Mike Garson’s Farfisa organ; Bowie’s alto saxophone riff, meant to suggest “a Stax influence…the sort of sound you might imagine behind Al Green or Ann Peebles,” a line that’s eventually taken over by a second guitar. The rhythm was a set of loops that sounded like kettle drums and distorted tympani beats, and an agile foundation supplied by Dorsey, who had space and agility enough for quick, descending fills during turnarounds (for instance, at 1:18).

This was all a feint. The A minor verses were “the Sixties” as sonic brand, a shined-up, loop-filled edition suitable for Britpop, with the dying monk of its lyric also a Sixties affectation—the monk as fallen revolutionary student. “It’s sometimes good to be able to conjure the emotions we automatically associate with classic guitar sounds, but all those tones are sounding more and more like beer commercials,” Gabrels said. “I deliberately evoked a Fleetwood Mac “Albatross” feeling, but mainly so I could oppose it to the ton-of-bricks chorus.

With little warning, the track shifts to a distortion-fatted wall of guitars and keyboards (meant to evoke the Pixies, Bowie said). The first go-round doesn’t even have a lyric; it’s just 10 bars of bludgeoning. In its next go-round, a double-tracked Bowie offers a simple invocation: I praise to you, nothing ever goes away. And on the song goes, shifting between a preserved past and the loud, graceless present, with Bowie’s mantra caught up in the works. There’s a dark sense of humor in places: Bowie’s first verse lyric reads as a bit of black comedy, while the second has lines like “the yoga zone” and “pigs could fly.” There are velociraptor shrieks, mosquito buzzes and gruesome baby cries scattered in the mix, while Mike Garson’s B-movie Farfisa organ solo occupies the middle of the track (Garson even gets the last word, closing with a droning E major chord).3

Hong Kong

time

The subtext of the song is really some of the desperation and agony felt by young Tibetans who have had their families killed and themselves have been reduced to mere ciphers in their own country.

Bowie, 1997.

What inspired Bowie to revive the old passion? There was one obvious fact: two months before he cut the track, the first Tibetan Freedom Concert was held in San Francisco. While Bowie didn’t perform at any of these annual events, the Tibetan Concerts featured most of the top alternative acts of the Nineties (Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, etc.). They were a regular feature on MTV, and succeeded in making Tibet the hippest political cause of the era. So a cynic would note that Bowie’s renewed interest in Tibet was acutely well-timed.4

The Free Tibet movement was a protest lodged against a country whose idea of handling dissent was crude, if efficient: black out the newscasts and send in the army, a situation that only worsened in the past decade. Today, China holds much of the West’s debt, has too great a grip on the world’s economy: the idea of it somehow being coerced into making Tibet independent seems akin to the United States agreeing to give back Florida to the surviving Seminoles. Worse, “Free Tibet” became a cliche, the favorite political cause of the affluent white hipster (Tibet was entry #124 in Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like), a cause that required nothing from its advocates but a pleasant afternoon spent watching alternative bands, and a few bucks to buy rugs and amulets.

Still, this makes light of the blood on the ground, and denies the Tibetan cause its agency: the 2008 riots, the protests of the late Eighties happened despite any hipster affectations. And Bowie wasn’t just a revived dilettante. After cutting “Seven Years,” he became more involved, publicly and privately, in Tibetan causes, playing at benefits for New York’s Tibet House, speaking out in the press. And he recorded a version of “Seven Years” in Mandarin Chinese, hoping, perhaps, it could be heard in Lhasa somewhere. It was the last #1 song of British-controlled Hong Kong, topping the charts in June 1997 as the Union Jack was lowered and the red flag raised.

“Seven Years In Tibet,” as with much of Bowie’s Tibetan Buddhism, was an Eastern culture filtered through the eyes of the West: a lyric (and a sensibility) inspired by a book by an Austrian Nazi, later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Still, the core of Bowie’s last Tibetan song, the sequel of his youthful religious infatuation, kept true to Buddhism: that there is something eternal in us that can’t be destroyed, something that will outlast the depredations of conquerors and debasements of advertisers. It’s in Dorsey’s voice, suddenly heard in the final chorus, singing “nothing!” as a triumph, offering that Tibet, despite the world’s best efforts, is still free.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. An edited version of the track was issued as the fourth UK single from Earthling, in August 1997 (RCA/BMG 74321512542, UK #64), which included the Mandarin version and a live version of “Pallas Athena.” “Seven Years” was debuted at the Avalon, in Boston, on 13 September 1996. An acoustic version was taped at Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta, on 8 April 1997.

1 In yet another parallel, a fame-weary Scott Walker visited a monastery (a Christian one) around the same time.

2 “Albatross” inspired John Lennon and George Harrison for “Sun King” the following year.

3 It’s a fairly minimal chord structure, with the sharpening of minor chords driving  harmonic momentum (Am-A#m-Gm in the intro and verses, for instance, or the Gm-G#m move at the end of the chorus) and a chorus that seems to be in a hidden F major (Gm-Am-Bb).

4 The film adaptation of Harrer’s book, with Pitt making a convincing Aryan, was released in October 1997, well after Earthling was recorded and released. So the fact that there was a “Seven Years in Tibet” song and movie released in the same year seems to be simply coincidence, though it’s possible Bowie knew they were filming the book when he wrote the lyric.

Top: The Saltmen of Tibet,(Koch, 1997); Harrer’s article on Tibet for Time, 1951.



Station To Station

December 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

2.

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

Ian MacDonald.

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

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

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

3.

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

Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”

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

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

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

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

4.

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

Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

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

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

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

6.

Like a child, playing with sound.

Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.

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

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

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

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

7.

Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?

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

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

8.

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

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

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

9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded October-November 1975.

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

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

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


The Supermen

January 5, 2010

The Supermen (LP version).
The Supermen (1971 remake).
The Supermen (live, 1972).
The Supermen (live, 2004).

I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the superman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”

His other great inspiration is mythology. He has a great need to believe in the legends of the past, particularly those of Atlantis; and for the same need he has crafted a myth of the future, a belief in an imminent race of supermen called homo superior. It’s his only glimpse of hope, he says—“all the things that we can’t do they will.”

Michael Watts, Bowie profile in Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

Bowie, who never had the sunniest of dispositions, grew apocalyptic at the dawn of the 1970s. He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end (he gave the human race 40 years to live, soon cut it down to five). Worse, he had started reading Nietzsche, mainly Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and took from the former the concept of a new race of overmen who would supplant homo sapiens. For Bowie, this was cause for slight optimism.

“The Supermen,” the first fruit of this new infatuation, isn’t as much future prediction as it is primordial memory, with overmen at the dawn of time on their “loveless isle,” playing and battling (which seem to be one and the same). It’s akin to Donovan’s “Atlantis,” from 1968, but where Donovan had envisioned the few survivors of Atlantis bestowing art and civilization upon the human race, Bowie’s supermen are brutes, nightmare Teutonic demigods. In a 1976 interview, Bowie called the song “pre-fascist.”

Nietzsche wasn’t the only influence: Bowie’s overmen also have (no surprise) some resemblance to the Buddhist monks of his ’60s songs, like the carnival sage of “Karma Man.” Bowie also was likely inspired by the supermen and mutants who populated postwar SF novels and comics, whether The Mule, the superhuman of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who is the unforeseen variable that alters the predicted path of “psycho-history,” or the mutant children of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, who discover that together they form a new entity, homo gestalt, a plural form of human being (cf. Bowie’s line: “where all were minds in uni-thought.”)

Even though he is immortal…mankind is affected by mortality…above the cosmic framework, he became a slave in it…He never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.

Bowie’s supermen, however, are locked in the past, once-gods who became mortal. As the very Gnostic lyric says, they are “wondrous beings chained to life.” The song chronicles their fall: the chorus boasts that the perfect men cannot die, but then the overmen dream of murder and rotting flesh; in the last repeat of the chorus, Bowie alters the final word and releases his supermen into death.

Strange games

Jimmy Page allegedly gave Bowie the lumbering riff that opens “The Supermen”—a primal sway between F and G—which on the LP is first played on Tony Visconti’s bass, then Mick Ronson’s guitar. (Page supposedly gave Bowie the riff during the session for Bowie’s 1965 single “I Pity the Fool“—if true, you have to admire Bowie’s packrat sensibilities, stowing away the riff for half a decade.)

For the album cut, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti made, as Visconti later said, an “outrageous sonic landscape.” The track opens with a fanfare on echo-tracked drums, which, like the end of “Width of a Circle,” suggests the tympani of the first movement of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” (This marks the debut of Woody Woodmansey, who Ronson brought in to replace John Cambridge on drums after Cambridge couldn’t master the song’s odd time signatures.) There’s a wordless, moaning chorus soaring throughout, while Ronson offers a solo constructed from three harmonized guitar tracks.

Bowie, for whatever perverse reason, sings his lyric in an exaggerated, nasal, near-Cockney tone (“strAYnge gAYmes thAY would plAY then”), even gasping horribly while he sings “nightmAYre dreams no mortal mind could ‘OLD”. It causes the track to war between self-parody and stone-faced seriousness.

Bowie re-recorded “The Supermen” in November 1971 during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and gave the track to a compilation LP to benefit the Glastonbury Fair (causing at times the remake to be erroneously labeled as a live recording). The new arrangement suggests a rethink of the song, with the verses now only carried by Bowie’s acoustic guitar while Ronson comes in hard on the choruses. The band would use this arrangement in most of its 1972-1973 live performances (see the 1972 recording from Boston above). Bowie has occasionally exhumed his master race on a few recent tours.

“The Supermen” was first recorded at a BBC session on 25 March 1970 (I’ve not heard it, but Nicholas Pegg writes that it’s close to the studio version, with a few slightly altered lyrics and Cambridge’s “dodgy” drumming); the studio track (sequenced as the final cut on the LP, and so ending the record with the death of gods) was recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970. The remake, recorded on 12 November 1971, was first included on Glastonbury Fayre and is now on the reissue of Ziggy Stardust; the Boston recording, from 1 October 1972, is on the 30th anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane.

Top: Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1; detail from cover of Sturgeon’s More Than Human.