Kooks

March 18, 2010

Kooks (BBC).
Kooks (demo).
Kooks (LP).

The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie, and the song came out like—if you’re gonna stay with us, you’re gonna grow up bananas.

David Bowie, promotional sheet for Hunky Dory.

On the last day of May 1971, David Bowie was sitting at home listening to a Neil Young record when someone from the hospital rang to tell him he had become a father. Angela Bowie, after a 30-hour labor, had given birth to a son, who would be named Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Over the next day or so Bowie wrote a song about his son—he debuted it at a BBC session less than a week after Duncan’s birth. It was Bowie’s Neil Young piece, or so he said. “For Small Z.,” he wrote on the LP sleeve.

“Kooks” is the obverse of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” in which parenthood is something odd and catastrophic, an unavoidable pre-determined obsolescence. “Kooks” is awkward, warm, funny and welcoming, and its lyric captures the bewilderment that many people (I’m assuming, not being a father) face upon becoming a parent—I’m such a complete mess myself, how on earth can I raise another human being?* With classic lines like:

Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘cos I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.

The song is basically a set of choruses occasionally broken up by four-bar “intros,” while the two verses serve more as bridges. “Kooks” opens with Bowie alternating between the D and Dsus4 chords on his guitar (just moving the middle finger between two frets)—this continues into the chorus until Bowie finally breaks the pattern by moving to C on “we believe in you.”

The song’s harmonic stasis (both choruses and verses start in D, with Bowie moving up a step finally in the fourth chorus repeat) is masked by a dense arrangement: Trevor Bolder doubles on bass (a very busy performance, full of runs and octave leaps) and trumpet—the latter mainly bridges the intros and choruses, with Bolder playing the vocal line of the chorus, though he gets a tiny solo when Bowie mentions the trumpet in the lyric. Rick Wakeman’s piano dominates the verses, veering between the cutesy and the slightly abrasive, while Mick Ronson’s string arrangements, a typically lovely, melodic accompaniment, sweeten the choruses.

Ken Scott, Bowie’s producer, loved the track and thought Bowie should do a whole album of children’s songs—Bowie allegedly considered the idea but sadly never followed through on it.

First performed 3 June 1971 at the BBC; recorded June-July 1971 (the early mix linked above was done for a promo version of Hunky Dory issued in August). Duncan Jones managed to have a fairly normal life, as lives go, and went into the film industry: his first picture, Moon, is worth viewing.

* Well, that’s not the only interpretation. James Perone offers the theory that “Kooks” is about a couple offering an invitation to a ménage à trois to “an individual of indeterminate gender.” If so, that would make lines like “we bought you…a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry” a bit perverse.

Top: The three Bowies, June 1971.


Album Poll, Day 3: 10-1

January 6, 2016

David Bowie

It’s the end. The album poll’s Top 10 results show that even for as diverse a group as Bowie fans are, the power of consensus is mighty and vast.

It’s interesting to note some rises and falls in fashion: album #4 likely would have been atop any Bowie LP survey until, maybe, 1995? As late as 1990, some critics considered the top-ranked album akin to The Buddha of Suburbia. And #9 wouldn’t have made the list as recently as five years ago, I’m betting.

Presenting: the Top 10 Favorite Bowie Albums, as determined by about 350 people at the end of 2015.

dblodg

10. Lodger (207 points, 179 votes, 7 #1 votes).

The true ‘lodger,’ the refugee from everywhere, would have more to say, more at stake, and could never be so passionless, so facile. There is still good music here, well-played, unusual, once in a while excellent. The LP is easy to listen to because it rarely challenges the listener; it only baits you with slick and highly embossed surfaces. It is not really a departure from Low and ‘Heroes’, but a rejection of their serious nature.

Paul Yamada, LP review, New York Rocker, 1979.

The oft-overlooked Lodger…is slight to the point of invisibility, ten tracks in 35 minutes with nary a grand statement in sight. And upon its release, everyone—Bowie, Eno, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar, the record label—was underwhelmed.  I come, however, not to bury Lodger but to praise it. We’ve had decades for the album to ingratiate itself to our ears, and it has been (partially) successful—Belew, for example, now dubs it “the greatest thing Bowie has given to the world”. It is perhaps the great lost Bowie album, with not a single dud to be found in the ten songs and maybe the finest second half of any of his efforts.

Ian Mathers, 2004.

And here’s the only post-1980 album to crack the Top 10. Your latter-day canonical pick is…

R-256507-1229520214.jpeg

9. 1. Outside (234 points, 162 votes, 18 #1 votes).

The new album is called Outside and what Brian and I were trying to achieve more than anything else was an album that was made up of components that were bitten off from the periphery of the mainstream, rather than jumping into the middle of what’s kind of artistically and commercially known.

Bowie, 1995.

If we were proper fine artists, we would be terribly concerned about which school we belonged to. The advantage the popular arts have is that they are not ideologically proud.

Eno, 1995.

I don’t think it’s easily accessible at all [laughs], and it’s 75 minutes, which is extremely long by most current CD standards, but, frankly, I don’t think accessibility was something that was at the top of our list when we were making it. I think, as always, when Brian and I work together, we tend to work very much for our own enjoyment and for whatever fulfillment we get out of it. We just hope and presume that somebody else will also like the things we find interesting.

Bowie, 1995.

from Oxford Town back to Hunger City…

bowietour

8.  Diamond Dogs (259 points, 215 votes, 11 #1 votes).

Diamond Dogs useta make me laugh; right now it scares the shit out of me.

Charles Shaar Murray, 1975.

A guitar chimes in, another churns the rhythm along, and a sax section blows a storm. All played by D. Bowie.  “Angie bought me a baritone sax, so I’ve got the whole set now and I can do a brass section,” David later informs me, “and I play all the guitars on this one, except for one bit on ‘1984’ which is Alan Parker.” He’s also playing a series of mellotrons and moog synthesizers, which give the first side of the album a ghostly mechanical effect. Between tracks you can hear those machines whirring and clicking away. They create the impression of a machine society, and yet it’s still strange that an album which is about the break-down of an over-mechanized society should rely so heavily upon machines. None of this album would be possible without 16-track tape machines, sophisticated recording studios, mellotrons, and moogs.

Rock, 1974.

His favorite album of his own – and always has been, no matter what he says in interviews – is Diamond Dogs.

A source familiar with Bowie.

R-7756078-1448127665-6848.jpeg

7. Aladdin Sane (276 points, 232 votes, 11 #1 votes).

Aladdin Sane was a result of my paranoia with America at the time. I hadn’t come to terms with it, then. I have now, I know the areas I like best in America…And I’m quite happy over here. I found different people.

But I ran into a very strange type of paranoid person when I was doing Aladdin. Very mixed up people, and I got very upset. It resulted in Aladdin … And I know I didn’t have very much more to say about rock’n’roll. I mean Ziggy really said as much as I meant to say all along. Aladdin was really Ziggy in America. Again, it was just looking around, seeing what’s in my head.

Bowie, 1974.

Besides the fact we were in a different country, city, studio and I couldn’t touch the board, the general feel of the [Aladdin Sane] sessions in New York was a bit strange as well. For whatever reasons, it happens frequently that some members of English bands touring the States for the first time get involved in cults or religions.

Ken Scott.

Now, a set of albums that fought like scrappy (diamond) dogs for the 6-4 slots (they were often tied during the vote tallying):

R-6986619-1431051999-2399.jpeg

6. Scary Monsters (342 points, 258 votes, 21 #1 votes).

[Scary Monsters is] Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously. Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously — the city certainly has that effect. So his return to a degree of involvement with New York, I think, is very healthy.

Robert Fripp, 1980.

There are an awful lot of mistakes on that album that I went with, rather than cut them out. As much as possible, [one wants] to put oneself on the line artistically, ever since the Dadaists, who pronounced that art is dead. Once you’ve said art is dead, it’s very hard to get more radical then that. Since 1924 it’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing and looking at it from a very different point of view.

Bowie, 1980.

dbhres

5. “Heroes” (349 points, 253 votes, 24 #1 votes).

[Bowie] writes them in the studio now. He goes in with about four words and a few guys, and starts laying all this stuff down and he has virtually nothing—he’s making it up in the studio.

John Lennon, 1980.

I listened to the record for 72 hours. Day and night. Watching tv and in my sleep. Like Station To Station and Low, Heroes is a cryptic product of a high order of intelligence. Committed to survival….His new work is not immediately accessible but neither was Exile on Main Street. Beauty and the Beast is a shock that is eventually absorbed into shining acceptance. Joe the Lion is startling too, and stretched out by some great guitar. It takes some time to get under the skin…Records sound different in Europe. I think the turntables are faster. There’s more treble.

Patti Smith, 1978.

smith

4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (352 points, 256 votes, 24 #1 votes).

Ziggy was this kind of megalomaniac little prophet figure who came down to tell us it was all over. We never quite sure whether he meant it or not, whether he was from outer space or not.

Bowie, 1980.

What you have there on that album, when it does finally come out, is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth. It could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in. The times that I’ve listened to it—I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album…but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them, and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me.

Bowie, US radio interview, early 1972.

Before reaching the throne room, we pass through a small conservatory…

dbhunky

3. Hunky Dory (389 points, 265 votes, 31 #1 votes).

He really started to think about how he was going to have a kid. That was interesting to him. He got along very well with his father, so from that relationship, he had an optimistic prognosis on what it was going to be like. It wasn’t a scary thing for him. ‘Changes’ and ‘Eight Line Poem’ were about that. And of course, ‘Kooks’.

Angela Bowie.

The songs were more structured. Honestly, I didn’t think he had these songs in him.

Woody Woodmansey.

When Hunky Dory came out, I took one look at the album cover – a soft, vague picture of the artist looking soft and vague – and anticipated a soft, vague sensibility. Instead, Bowie turned out to be an intelligent, disciplined, wry Lou Reed freak.

Ellen Willis, 1972.

Which leaves us with…what you might have expected. The mid-1970s were Bowie’s golden age, at least according to this poll. Check out the numbers!

stat

2. Station to Station (593 points, 293 votes, 75 #1 votes).

If Bowie was James Brown he could well have entitled the second, up-tempo half of Station To StationDiamond Dogs ’76.” The dominant sound of this album overdubs the claustrophobic guitar-strangling garage band chording of Dogs (plus, to a lesser extent, the howling, wrenching lead guitar of The Man Who Sold The World) over the itchy-disco rhythms of the Young Americans album, while Bowie’s vocals evoke the lugubrious, heavily melodramatic vibratoed almost-crooning of Scott Walker.

Charles Shaar Murray, LP review, NME, 1976.

I love this record. I love it because it rocks like a bitch, because it has stupid lines like “It’s not the side effects of her [sic] cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love”, and because Bowie has the sense of humour to not only mumble half the songs, but mix them so low down it’s impossible to make out a word.

John Ingham, LP review, Sounds, 1976.

We tried to keep [Station to Station] on a private basis…We started at 10 or 11 at night and went to anywhere from eight in the morning to whatever, 36 hours later. David knows exactly what he wants, it’s just a matter of sitting there and doing it till it’s done…David knows a great deal about technical things. He doesn’t know everything, he’s not an engineer, but he knows more about arranging a song, he knows more about how to relate to people and get what he wants out of them…If you listen to the rhythms specifically on this album, there are very strange things going on rhythmically between all the instruments… If nothing else, David’s a genius when it comes to working out rhythmic feels. He was the mainstay behind it all.

Harry Maslin.

and lastly, your all-time #1 (at least for today).

lo

1. Low (621 points, 305 votes, 79 #1 votes).

On this album David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion available to an individual working within the existing cultural forms of the West. He vanishes. The first impression Low imparts to the listener is that he is somehow hearing it sideways.

Ian MacDonald, LP review, NME, 1977.

I loaded the second side of Bowie’s Low onto the cassette deck. Those ominous Berlin synthesizer sounds were probably never imagined as a soundtrack for a dawning stretch of highway on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, but they seemed perfect for my alien mood.

Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.

When you say ‘avant-garde’, you fall into a category of no melodies, very bizarre-sounding stuff, and [Low] is not like that at all. Some of it is very pretty, some of it is very up…

RCA PR exec to Wesley Strick, Circus, 1977.

It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.

Bowie, 1999.

And that’s it. Thanks to all who voted. No more polls! (Never again: my hat’s off to anyone who works in data entry.) We’ll be back with an open thread for Blackstar on Friday. I also should be on Norman B‘s radio show on Sunday to talk about my first impressions.

My ballot (I didn’t vote in the poll, though).

Photos: Mostly Discogs. Bowie holding “Heroes” (Claude Vanheye); Robert Smith and Ziggy (couldn’t find photog credit: via a Cure Tumblr); Bowie and Hunky Dory (Mick Rock).


Poll, Day 2: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 100-51

December 16, 2015

dbnew

“I’d better be impressed,” the taciturn man says as he turns on his laptop. So, here we go.

The issue with the lower stretches of the top 100 songs is, as you’ll soon see, that there are lots of tied songs. This isn’t often the case above the 50-song barrier. But get ready. If one of your picks is in a tie, well, you can say it’s the best of the bunch and no one can contradict you.

Let’s begin at Haddon Hall, 1971:

David Bowie in a dress, 1971 (3)

TIE: 100-99. Kooks. (30 points/votes).

Soul Love (30 points/votes).

98. Fascination (31 points, 27 votes, 1 #1 vote). Go Luther!

97. Watch That Man (32 points/votes).

96. Up the Hill Backwards (34 points/votes).

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.
..

bluejean

Hey, it’s a TIE 95-94.

Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (35 points/votes).

Blue Jean (35 points, 31 votes, 1 #1 vote). A strategic #1 vote by a certain music writer.

Bowie_Stardust_03

If you want it, boys, it’s a THREE-WAY TIE, 93-91.

Hang Onto Yourself (36 points/votes (2 for live 1972 recordings, 1 for Stage)).

I’m Deranged (36 points/votes, 1 for Lost Highway edit).

New Killer Star (36 points, 32 votes, 1 #1 vote).

DavidBowieLS03

Yeah, well now it’s a FOUR-WAY TIE, 90-87.

Love Is Lost. (37 points/votes, 7 for the James Murphy remix).

Slow Burn (37 points/votes).

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote). Toll the bell.

V-2 Schneider (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote).  “YES OKAY I PUT V2 SCHNEIDER AT NUMBER ONE OKAY WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME” email from its #1 voter.

37 Bowie a

What’s that? You say you want another FOUR-WAY TIE? 86-83.

Conversation Piece (38 points/votes, 7 specified the Toy version, 2 the original). One of the most surprising and loveliest of placings in the top 100. Well done, everyone: well done.

I’m Afraid of Americans (38 points/votes, 1 specified the Earthling version, 1 the NIN remix).

The Next Day (38 points, 34 votes, 1 #1 vote). Not quite dying indeed!

and another fun surprise:

Alternative Candidate (Candidate Demo), (38 points, 30 votes, 2 (!) #1 votes).

d98508e5

Ok, a break from the ties for a bit.

82. Cracked Actor (39 points/votes).

81. Heathen (the Rays) (42 points/votes). Bit of a surprise placement? More support than I expected.

80. China Girl (43 points, 39 votes, 1 #1 vote; 1 vote specified Iggy’s version, 1 Bowie’s).

79. Thru These Architects’ Eyes (44 points, 40 votes, 1 #1 vote).

78. Cat People (45 points/votes, 2 specified the Let’s Dance remake).

77. Diamond Dogs (46 points/votes).

76. DJ (48 points/votes).

75. Sunday (49 points/votes, 1 specified the Moby remix).

blackstar

and presenting, the rookie of the year:

74. Blackstar (50 points/votes). For a song that debuted midway through this poll, this is a pretty damn impressive showing. The big question: had it come out a month earlier, how high would it have been?

dbb

Now the hitters get heavier:

73. All the Madmen (51 points/votes).

72. Red Sails (52 points, 40 votes, 3 #1 votes).

71. Hallo Spaceboy (53 points/votes, 3 specified the Pet Shop Boys remix, 2 specified “NOT the Pet Shop Boys remix”).

Well, it’s been so long, time for a THREE-WAY TIE: 70-68.

Sons of the Silent Age (54 points/votes).

Jean Genie (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

We Are the Dead (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

David-Bowie-960x534

another high-speed TIE for 67-66.

Jump They Say (55 points/votes, 1 for “rock” mix).

Speed of Life (55 points, 51 votes, 1 #1 vote).

dbronno

and a hard rocking glam TIE for 65-64.

John, I’m Only Dancing (56 points, 52 votes, 1 #1 vote).

The Width of a Circle (56 points, 48 votes, 2 #1 votes).

tumblr_nitdvkxBMb1u49wbmo1_500

63. The Secret Life of Arabia (57 points, 53 votes, 1 #1 vote).  At one point, early on in the tabulations, this was in the top 30 songs, votes-wise. I knew that streak couldn’t last, but hey, I had no idea there was so much love for this one.

62. A New Career In a New Town (58 points/votes).

bowie-mercury

And a titan-clashing TIE, 61-60.

Under Pressure (60 points/votes, 1 specified the Dorsey-sung Reality Tour version).

The Motel (60 points, 48 votes, 3 #1 votes). Lights up, boys.

Bowi

was rooting for this to do a little better than it did, but still..

59. Uncle Floyd/Slip Away (61 points/votes, 4 specified “Uncle Floyd”).

It’s a post-apocalyptic Che Guevara TIE for 58-57.

Panic In Detroit (63 points/votes).

Loving the Alien (63 points, 59 votes, 1 #1 vote; 2 votes specified early 2000s live versions, 1 vote specified the full version on Tonight).

27d114a5e1d745980fcd7fe66c9e1ea3

Now the “too low!” yells from the crowd grow in number and fervor:

56. Lady Stardust (64 points, 52 votes, 3 #1 votes).

55. All the Young Dudes (66 points, 58 votes, 2 #1 votes; 1 vote specified Bowie live 1973, 2 specified Mott the Hoople, 2 specified Bowie live 2003.)

54. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). (68 points, 64 votes, 1 #1 vote).

53. Blackout. (69 points, 61 votes, 2 #1 votes).

db77

And finally, a tie for the almost-made-it-ins (from the class of 1977), 52 and 51.

Beauty and the Beast (71 points, 67 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Subterraneans. (71 points, 47 votes, 6 #1 votes). Broke my heart: it was so close to the top 50 but couldn’t go the last 100 meters. The last ten votes compiled sealed its fate.

Next: Winners’ Outer Circle: Songs 50-26.


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

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

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

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

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

72db

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

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


Reality

February 12, 2015

db

Reality.
Reality (live, 2003).
Reality (live, 2004).

I prefer the enormous risks. There were indeed errors, there were inaccuracies, because a book that’s worth living with is the act of one voice, the act of a passion, the act of a persona.

George Steiner.

George Steiner was born in 1929 into an established Viennese Jewish family, the sort of multilingual, culturally distinguished clan (his mother’s great uncle had discovered a manuscript of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck) that often wound up being murdered and dispossessed during the war.

The Steiners were luckier than many. On a business trip to New York in early 1940, his father was tipped off by an old Viennese friend (now procuring oil and equipment for the Nazis) to get his family out of France, where they’d moved in the Thirties. There had already been anti-Semitic marches on their street. Steiner recalled “the parades of people out there shouting, “Death to the Jews!” Papa comes home and says, “Up with those shades!” and takes me by the hand to look outside. I was fascinated, of course; any child would be. And he says, “You must never be frightened; what you’re looking at is called history.” I think that sentence may have formed my whole life.” They fled “in the last of the American boats” to New York.

He became a novelist, poet, professor and critic, shuttling from American to European to British universities and writing for the New Yorker. Thirty years after his family had escaped their possible slaughter in a concentration camp, he was asked to deliver the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Collected in book form, Steiner’s four lectures became In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. Here Steiner ranged from the weight of the past on the present day to the argument that, post-World War I (“decisive reserves of intelligence, of nervous resilience, of political talent, had been annihilated“) and the Holocaust (“[Walter] Gieseking was playing the complete Debussy piano music on the nights when one could hear the screams of the people in the sealed railway cars at the station in Munich, on the way to Dachau“), the long, knotted chain of Western high culture that had extended back to the Athenian Greeks was now broken.

tumblr_nge7ow3RA81qaszffo1_500

The past became a lost country. Pindar, Virgil, Theocritus, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Auden and Yeats share a frame of reference, a common pool of metaphor and imagery. Steiner used Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem whose analogies are hard for today’s reader to untangle without a handy page of references and copious footnotes. In the first stanza alone, “ivy,””myrtle,” and “laurel” all have specific traditional meanings, for which a ‘common’ reader immersed in “high” culture would’ve required no explication. Today only an academic would know them, and even then perhaps not. Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Steiner’s book, said “laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [the poem] intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a “vague musicality,” Milton’s references might as well be to Mars.”

We were in a “post culture,” Steiner wrote. This wasn’t necessarily a tragedy. The grand sweep of Western civilization had required the subjection of entire cultures and the annihilation of vast numbers of animal species and environments in the name of “progress.” It might have been an evolutionary mistake: maybe we should have stayed in the trees. Leonard Cohen’s description of Mozart and Shakespeare as being merely “the nail polish on the claws” can seem apt enough most days.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing,” Steiner concluded. Instead, one should enjoy the fact that “it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs…It may well be that our post-culture will be marked by a readiness to endure rather than curtail the risks of thought. To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction, yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.”

73press

We feel ourselves tangled in a constant, lashing web of crisis.

Steiner, “Tomorrow.”

We don’t have a God. We don’t really have a trust in any kind of politics. We are completely and totally at sea, philosophically. And I don’t think we want new things. I think we’re kind of scrounging around among the things we know to see if we can salvage some kind of civilization which will help us endure and survive into the future. We don’t need new. We are fucked. We’ve got enough new. Enough!…There is no structure, there is no plan. We are not evolving. We have to make the best of what we’ve got.

Bowie, Filter interview, 2003.

Why the long digression about Steiner and the death of Western civilization in an entry about a Bowie rock song? Well, it’s Bowie’s fault. He named In Bluebeard’s Castle one of his top 100 books, and in interviews for Reality, he kept bringing up Steiner to frame what he intended with the title track.

Steiner “was the first thing I read on post-modernism,” Bowie told Ingrid Sischy. “That book just confirmed for me that there was actually some kind of theory behind what I was doing with my work…I have an undiminished idea of variability. I don’t think there’s one truth, one absolute.”

What he found in Steiner was a vocabulary to explain his innate catholicity of taste, his love for Anthony Newley and Lou Reed, Little Richard and Steve Reich, The Beano and William Burroughs. There was never a “high” or “low” culture for Bowie, who’d absorbed the whole of Sixties London, steered by his brother Terry’s love for Beat novels and jazz, his former manager Kenneth Pitt’s access to the London theater scene and the influence of various showbiz pros like Lindsay Kemp, Lionel Bart and Lesley Duncan. Bowie ate up America in the early Seventies; in Berlin in 1976-78, he dressed as Christopher Isherwood and spent much of his free time in museums and night clubs.

83mrlawrence

There were several of us dealing in this newly-found pluralistic vocabulary,” he recalled of the glam era to Ken Scrudato (Bryan Ferry and Eno were the other obvious examples). “This whole George Steiner-ism of life, you know? But I think that the world caught up really quickly and everybody is so totally aware of the kind of vocabulary that we were throwing around at the time, that one feels kind of superfluous now. I still enjoy what I do. But I don’t think what I do is terribly necessary…at all.”

So “Reality” is Bowie crediting his performing self in helping to create a world. When he was young, he’d enjoyed playing the vanguard of a civilizational collapse. At a press conference in 1972, he said he and Lou Reed “were probably predicting the end of an era….any society that allows people like Lou and I to become rampant is pretty well lost.” “They’re in the Seventies,” Neil Young had admired at the time. Bowie and Reed “don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care.”

He enjoyed admitting to being a fraud. I’m not a real musician, he’d say. I’m not a real singer. He called himself a pastischist, a collagist, someone happy to throw up things he’d dug out from the ruins, not concerned with how long they’d stand upright. His songs were readymades, genre-mucks. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” married Jacques Brel to a Fifties doo-wop ballad, then threw in Peter Pan and James Brown. He nicked lyrics from short stories and films, scripted films from his songs, cannibalized the lost films into new songs. “I hid among the junk of wretched highs,” as he’d sing in “Reality,” punning on the idea of cultural detritus as being cheap dope. This was life in the post-culture: you’ll have live off the land more, so learn to compost.

87press

In 2003, Bowie said he’d done his job perhaps too well. Millennial culture had beaten him at his game. “Over the last 20 years, many of our ideas of the absolute, the ideas we all have held sacred, have been taken apart,” he told the New York Post. The reporter pushed back, saying “that seems slightly superficial.” To which Bowie smiled. “It’s flippant in a post-modern way.” And in a privileged way. “If you’re struggling to find a job and get food and shelter for your family, you’re going to have a very accurate idea of what reality is.”

But for the middle-class Westerner in the 21st Century, your life could be an anodyne version of David Bowie’s in 1972. You make a mash-up of X-Files dialogue over “99 Luftballoons,” post it on YouTube, maybe get picked up by Buzzfeed. David Bowie “is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions,” Bowie had said in 1976, to get a rise out of People magazine.* Today much of our cultural life is the property, and the workings, of a literal conglomerate of statements and illusions: Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook, what have you. “David Bowie” is an algorithm.

Or an avatar. The cover of the CD is a saucer-eyed “anime” Bowie that, once you flip the cover open, is replaced by the “real” Bowie. Who is, of course, also a fake—it’s just the latest magazine cover that David Jones has made to represent himself in 2003. “There’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines” its title, Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis. “It’s the old chestnut. What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.”

decrca72b

If we accept that we live in absolute chaos, it doesn’t look like futility anymore. It only looks like futility if you believe in this bang up structure we’ve created called ‘God’ and all. [But] all of these structures were self-created, just to survive, that’s all…It wasn’t handed down to us from anywhere…What people are beginning to feel, is that there’s a transition taking place. We’re leaving those old structures behind, whether we like it or not; they are all crumbling.

Bowie, to Ken Scrudato, 2003.

There was also a conservatism in Bowie’s statements. For all his fluid mercurial qualities, there was also an internal consistency to his work and a literate depth that he’d tried to disguise with flip interview statements. In 1995, he contrasted his filmmaker son Duncan’s dealings with art to his own:

He seems to be able to scan things so much quicker than myself. He can make sense of the surface of things. It gives him some foundation. My natural inclination, coming from a different time, is that I don’t just want a surface image; I want to read depth into everything,” Bowie said. “And that isn’t part of the vocabulary now in quite the same way as when I was young. My son can just whiz around it and get what he needs to get on to the next place. And it looks like lethargy. But there again, he’s now doing a doctorate in philosophy. (Laughs). So what I presumed was lethargy is not—it’s all being internalized. He just doesn’t assimilate things the way I think you’re supposed to.”

The title also referred to a common source of newspaper complaint at the time—the surge of “reality” television (Bowie wasn’t a fan, mocking American Idol as being “cruise ship entertainment”). “The word has become so devalued, it’s like it’s been damaged,” he said. “Reality TV” was, of course, nothing like “reality”—its contestants were often would-be actors, its conflicts were scripted and spun out of crafty editing. What reality TV represented—replacing unionized writing jobs with freelance “creators,” and using unpaid non-actors instead of unionized actors requiring scale payments—reflected 21st Century economics as much as it did any new cultural coarseness.

But again, this showed a growing sophistication among the public. If the glam era was the first pop era meant for kids fluent in the language of pop, the popularity of reality TV suggested that TV viewers had grown bored with the old cop/office/family life TV show scenarios. They wanted to see “real” people, who were playing to the cameras, at least for a novelty.

For Bowie, all of these qualms reflected the old generational terrors of “Kooks” and “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The kids keep coming, keep crowding you up. No matter how hard you try, you wind up obsolete. Even David Bowie?

99netaid

As for the song itself, among the first he wrote for the album, “Reality” seems too flip, loud and pummeling a track to have to embody all of this cultural hand-wringing. Built on a typical Bowie volley between two major chords (D and E for verses, C and F# for refrains) and given a lyric that mashes “Teenage Wildlife,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “Beat of Your Drum,” it sets up Bowie as an aging rake, lusting for youth in the mirror. There was a touch of Monty Python in it: tragic youth was going down on me! Well, I swear—hoo! hoo!–Yes I swear!

Deeper in, the song starts shaking open—the guitars seem in open warfare against it, the beat is remorseless. The refrain’s a boast of a man about to walk off the set—whatever you say kids, I got there before you—with Bowie’s vicious run of ha-ha-ha-has feeling like slaps to the face. And then he gives as much of an epitaph as he may ever offer:

I still don’t remember how this happened
I still don’t get the ‘wherefores’ and the ‘whys’**
I look for sense but I get next to nothing

Then in a brief acoustic aside that reminds you of the pause for breath in “Big Brother,” just before the final conversion:

I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong
Now I’m back where I started from…

A drum fill, and the guitars knock him off into space again.

74cav

Once upon a time, when “Reality” was sequenced near the end of Bowie’s ‘last’ album, the title track could seem the work of a man trying to settle his long-overdue accounts, and finding that he was just as broke as when he started.

That a life of perpetual movement and change is just as pre-determined and fruitless as one where you stayed in one place and hunkered down. That the David Jones who stayed in Beckenham, watching Survivor with his grandchildren in his living room in 2002, may have regarded post-modern life much the same as the pop singer who was promoting his 23rd album and talking about George Steiner.

But Bowie’s having a blast in “Reality,” both in its guitar-crazy recording and its raucous live performances —throwing himself around in the song, clowning, making an ass of himself, refusing the dignity that the aging are supposed to take up, like a post-retirement hobby. If he’s never done good things, bad things, or anything out of the blue, he doesn’t give a toss. In a post-culture, “progress” is for suckers, and Bowie always played the grifter.

76-04-26-stockholm-press-1

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

* People, regarded by the likes of George Trow as the vanguard of a surface-level celebrity culture being hatched in the Seventies, now seems quaint whenever you see it in the newsstand, desperately trying to catch the eye with some Kardashian headline. It’s another pioneer made obsolete by the world it discovered.

** A possible Steiner-esque joke. “Wherefore” means much the same as “why,” but as anyone who’s seen an American TV commercial referencing Romeo and Juliet can attest, the former word is often taken to mean “where are you?,” with the Juliet actress peering off her balcony, looking for her beau.

Top: Bowie, a life in press conferences and interviews: 2004, 1977, 1983, 1987, 1972, 1999, 1974, 1976.


I’ve Been Waiting For You

May 5, 2014

2001oyos

I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, 1968).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (The Pixies, 1990).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Tin Machine, live, 1991).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, live, 2001.)
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Bowie, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Live By Request, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2003).

The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!

Neil Young, 1973.

Sometime in June 2001, David Bowie drove up from New York City to West Nyack, where Tony Visconti had a modest studio in a modest house. His girlfriend cracked that Bowie would step out of his limo, take one look at their place, say that he’d forgotten something in NYC and head home. Instead, Bowie was Visconti’s lodger for a few days.

Since the late Nineties, the two had planned to make an album but Bowie had felt the times, and his moods, hadn’t been right. Now he’d cooled to a proper degree. He was in the vestibule of life, an eye on each door. That April, his mother had died at 88. A month later, Freddi Burretti, his former project, muse and costume designer, had died of cancer at age 49. And he was a father again at 54, with an infant daughter at home.

Meeting in NYC earlier that spring, Bowie and Visconti spent a day listening to recent albums (Beck’s Midnite Vultures, among others) and “looking for little creative tags to incorporate for the new album,” Visconti wrote in his autobiography. Struck by how Bowie had harnessed old addictions into socially acceptable habits, brewing pot after strong pot of coffee on the hour (he was even trying to shake cigarettes), Visconti wrote: “I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that we’d survived the indulgences of rock ‘n’ roll. We were alive and sober.”

Alive and Sober could’ve been the new album’s title. Visconti found in Bowie, with whom he hadn’t worked on an LP since the Carter administration, a new deliberateness that could pass for maturity. “His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure had vastly improved,” he said. “This had already been good when I last worked with him, but now there was more depth to his melodic and harmonic writing.”

Aware that “Bowie and Visconti” would generate scads of expectations for fans and the aging portion of the music press, the pair figured that some measure of grandiosity was inevitable. So Visconti proposed a “magnum opus” concept: a group of songs sharing an autumnal feel, fattened with “layers of layers of overdubs,” which suited Bowie’s introspective mood (he was still expecting Toy to be issued any month). But Bowie was adamant that he wanted the album to sound fresh, not to traffic in expected memory. It would be compared to Scary Monsters, sure, but it shouldn’t sound like Scary Monsters. It would be old age made new.

In West Nyack, they cut four demos in Visconti’s loft studio. Visconti had started using Pro Tools and Logic Pro, and he took pains to show Bowie how the software worked. “I cut up beats and sections of a song, made beat loops and pasted them in other places.”

The next day they drove north, up to the Catskill mountains, where there was a recording studio called Allaire.

allare

A swath of the Hudson River Valley and the hunched shoulders of the Catskills is something of a rock ‘n’ roll historical theme park. The Band’s “Big Pink” house is in West Saugerties; Steely Dan’s Annandale-on-Hudson and Barrytown are across the river; Mercury Rev‘s Opus 40 is off the NY Thruway; the former Bearsville Studios (Todd Rundgren, etc.) is near Woodstock, where Dylan once crashed his motorcycle on Striebel Road. Off to the west is Bethel, where the Woodstock Festival took place (its 1994 sequel was in Saugerties, the catastrophic 1999 edition farther upstate, in Rome).

Southwest of Woodstock is Mount Tonche, atop whose crest the Pittsburgh Plate Glass heir Raymond Pitcairn built a summer manse, Glen Tonche, in 1928. Pitcairn, a devoted enemy of the New Deal and foe of indulgences like child labor laws, erected an 18,000-square-foot hideaway with a commanding view of the Ashokan Reservoir. Its fleets of rooms were garnished with what Bowie described as “very American but aristocratic pieces of work,” like sections of yachts: it’s as though a tide of wealth had ebbed through the house, leaving behind a wrack of costly toys.

The Pitcairn family sold Glen Tonche in the mid-Nineties to the musician Randall Wallace, who converted some rooms, like a dining hall blessed with 40-foot-high ceilings, into recording studios.*

Bowie and Visconti, who’d been tipped off about Wallace’s Allaire Studios by the guitarist David Torn, were on a reconnaissance visit. They were stunned by the place, by its imposing isolation. “This is not cute, on top of this mountain: it’s stark and it has a Spartan quality about it,” Bowie recalled. Though not far from Woodstock, Allaire seemed to exist in another sylvan dimension: a luxurious human colony nestled in a wood-world of black bear, wild pigs and deer.

It was almost an epiphany that I had,” Bowie told Interview in June 2002. “Walking through the door, everything that my album should be about was galvanized for me into one focal point…I knew what the lyrics were already. They were all suddenly accumulated in my mind.”

As we’ll see, the area’s feeling of refuge appealed to Bowie. In the following years, he’d buy a whole side of a mountain in the area, and he’s still up in the Woodstock region, an occasional sight at local coffee shops.

allaire

At Allaire, Bowie and Visconti ran into the drummer Matt Chamberlain, who was recording an album with Natalie Merchant and T-Bone Burnett at the time, and they quickly decided to recruit him. Having booked their drummer and their studio, the pair began work in July 2001, with Bowie settling his family in a cottage on the grounds.

The album that became Heathen was (initially) one of the more sparsely-assembled works of Bowie’s recorded life. It was The Buddha of Suburbia in a grander key. For the first sessions at Allaire, the players were only Bowie (guide vocals, guitars, keyboards, Stylophone, even occasional drums), Visconti (bass, guitar, recorder) and Chamberlain (drums, loops). A routine fell into place. Bowie rose at 5 or 6 AM to work on songs in the studio or write lyrics, while Visconti and Chamberlain woke at a more civilized hour, exercised and showed up around 10:30 AM, upon which Bowie would present them with their “songs of the day,” Visconti said. As dinner at Allaire was 7 PM sharp, that marked the cut-off point. Bowie would keep working at night while Visconti and Chamberlain watched DVDs or sacked out early. “This certainly wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll life, by any stretch of the imagination,” Visconti wrote.

Still, the pace was vigorous enough that in roughly two weeks the trio cut basic tracks for 19 songs. Bowie wrote a sequence of brooding, lengthy pieces early in the sessions, so as to get the heavy stuff out of the way first, he said (see the next four entries). But he’d also drafted a list of prospective covers that he’d wanted to try.

Over the years, this blog hasn’t been very kind to Bowie’s covers. The likes of “Across the Universe,” “God Only Knows,” “Bang Bang,” “Kingdom Come,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “It Ain’t Easy” and so on form a rather grim canon. But now there was an urgency, a lightness to his covers on Heathen (and Reality). Maybe all of his lyrical dwellings on cyclicality and fleeting time played a part; maybe, rather than just singing over some track that his musicians cooked up, actually working out songs on guitar or keyboard let him take firmer root in the compositions. Something had fallen away, some bitter strain of ambition, some habit of overthinking that had hobbled so many of his earlier takes of others’ songs. He became an inspired interpreter at last; he sounded at home singing someone else’s lines.

roskilde

The three covers on Heathen, along with being spry lightweights set against the slab-like big bruiser tracks, were memory tokens. So start with Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” This was Bowie paying a debt to an old influence (he’d been consumed with Young while writing Hunky Dory: you can hear Young’s melodies and phrasings in “Kooks” and “Bombers,” even “Bewlay Brothers”) as well as a nod to his departed collaborator Reeves Gabrels. Tin Machine had played “I’ve Been Waiting For You” during its 1991-92 tour, with Gabrels on lead vocal and wearying lead guitar.

On Earthling‘s “Dead Man Walking,” Bowie had toyed with the image of Young and Crazy Horse converting rock and roll into some earth-worshiping religion; old men stomping about on stage like Tolkien’s Ents. Bowie also used Young as a map of how to age in a music where old age is a personal failing. As he told the Kansas City Star (9 May 2004):

When things go bad, I’ve always looked to my peers and, in a way, my musical mentors to see what they’ve done in similar situations. Neil Young and Bob Dylan have done similar things: They have both made a few disastrous albums, but they always end up coming back to the point of what they started in the first place. You’ve got to go back to what you were doing when you were rooting around with experimentation, ideas that are going to work for me, not my audience.

folder

Singing “I’ve Been Waiting For You” had another angle. The track was from Young’s 1968 debut album. Much like Deram’s David Bowie, Neil Young is a first impression of a mutable performer, the work of an ambitious, dreamy man who’d struck loose from a band and wanted to sound out his whims. So Young and David Briggs had rotated through Los Angeles studios during summer 1968, cutting overdubs, playing games in the mixes (a favorite move was to shimmer guitars back and forth across the stereo spectrum) and spending days on guitar tones (“that record is a masterpiece of tones,” Briggs later told Jimmy McDonough. “We got tones nobody’s ever got except Hendrix.”). Young’s debut has an piece for string quartet, dolorous folkie ballads, unending folkie ballads, a Western movie theme and a few beautiful obsessional songs devoted to a typical set of unattainable, mystifying women.

The latter songs channeled Jimi Hendrix, of whom Young was in awe (“there was no one even in the same building as that guy,” he later said of Hendrix). In particular there was “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” with its “Foxy Lady”-esque heavy breathing and its squall of a guitar solo, for which Young’s guitar was sent through an organ’s Leslie speaker and then piped directly into the soundboard.

Anchored in A minor, the song’s reappearing D9 chord (“for a woman,” “with the feeling“) is a liberation declined: instead of using the D9 as a means to brighten into A major (or move to D), the song sinks back into A minor. It reflects how Young’s been passively waiting for some life-redeeming woman, who’s always just about to appear and never does. (Also take how the intro/later chorus opens with a D suspended 2nd chord that aches to resolve to D major but the sequence instead cools into, naturally, A minor). A brief obsessional, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is a single verse, a refrain with a descending chromatic bassline for drama (“waiting for you...and you’ve been coming to mee“) and Young’s piped anguish via guitars.

On Neil Young, the track was the future: the Neil Young of the Seventies (and 2000s) roamed around in its confines. Everything Young would become was corked in it; the feel and the weight of his grand old age was there already, summoned up in a track that a 23-year-old cut in summer 1968, happily oblivious to what would become his life.

R-1556857-1228166141

Bowie knew the track from his days listening to Young, but “I’ve Been Waiting for You” was also one of Kim Deal’s favorite Neil Young songs. During the Bossanova sessions, the Pixies knocked off a version of the song and issued it as a B-side. They dumped the loping bassline/clopping drums of the Young original (the rhythm section was Poco, basically) for a drum track that was all hard business. Black Francis and Joey Santiago warred over it. Deal sang blankly, indulging in none of Young’s mystics; there was a cold rasp in how she delivered “a woman with a feeling…of losing once or twice.” Though playing the searcher, she had some sympathy for the pursued.

So for his cover, Bowie used the Pixies’ structure of recycling half the verse after the solo and halving the solo’s length, and he added a few Tin Machine flavors, like the wailing harmony vocals that he’d sung to buttress Gabrels on stage (here, they were a distorted-sounding synthetic “choir,” an effect he’d use on “Sunday,” among other tracks).

He recruited for lead guitar Dave Grohl (it was a mailbox transaction: Bowie sent the tapes to Grohl, who recorded his parts and sent them back), who was working up his current role as genial Gen X ambassador from classic rock. Grohl’s playing was fine if not memorable, with Grohl worrying the solo’s underlying chords in a less cheeky way than Santiago had on the Pixies version. Bowie should’ve had a go at the guitars himself (for all we know, he did): his whining Diamond Dogs tone would have been an nice spice in the mix.

The guitars came under fire from the drums, with Chamberlain’s dominant position in the mix seemingly won in battle. In the verse, Bowie sounded more callow than Young had in 1968 but in the refrains, a second vocal sunk down an octave gave his hopes a dimension of menace. How long has he been waiting, after all? In the closing refrain, Bowie sang “long time now” as if he could taste every hour of every wasted year. Having thrashed and wailed for three minutes, the track gave up the ghost with an unmoored bassline, a guitar clanging like a ship’s bell and the choir of bottled voices snuffed out in a breath.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (guitar solo) Dave Grohl’s home studio, ca. October 2001; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and also as a Canadian-only CD single (Columbia 38K 3369).

* The Glen Tonche estate has been up for sale for years: it’s yours for $4.5 million.

Top: Vassilis D. Gonis, from series “Christina Hoyos at Lycabetus Hill Theater,” Athens, 2001. (“I started this blog…to send my photos out there to the world with the hope of communication and as a motivation to keep clear away from the depressing feeling that comes along with the economic crisis in Greece.”); Walters-Storyk Design Group, Allaire Studios, New York (from without; from within); Neil Young at Roskilde Festival, 2001; Bowie’s philtrum as CD single art.


Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

am02

Hole In the Ground.

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

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

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

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

am09

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

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

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

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

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

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

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

sm04

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

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

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

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

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

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

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

am08

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).

am20

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

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

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

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

stella02

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

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

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

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

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

bbc02

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

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

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

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

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

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

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

/cover.jpg

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.


Dead Man Walking

July 9, 2013

Neil_Young_1996

Dead Man Walking.
Dead Man Walking (single edit, video).
Dead Man Walking (“house” mix).
Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 1).
Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 2).
Dead Man Walking (Top of the Pops, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (Jack Docherty Show, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (acoustic w/ Gabrels, radio, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (acoustic w/ Gabrels, Live 105, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (live, 1997).

There’s something sage-like about [Neil] Young, this grand old man of American rock, a pioneer loaded with integrity…

Bowie, 1997.

People my age, they don’t do the things I do.

Neil Young, “I’m the Ocean.”

He idly considered writing an ode to his former co-star Susan Sarandon, using as a kick-off point the title of her most recent film. But upon seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse play one night,* Bowie found “Dead Man Walking” better suited someone who’d become the California redwood of rock musicians.

He’d discovered Young during his “oddball folkie” period of high influence, ca. 1970-1971, when other favorites on the Haddon Hall turntable were Biff Rose and Ron Davies. And it was Young’s After the Gold Rush Bowie was listening to when he learned his son Duncan was born. “Kooks,” the song he wrote in commemoration, was also a tribute to Young, both lyrically (“we believe in you“) and instrumentally (Trevor Bolder’s trumpet solo on the track is a close cousin to the one on Young’s “Till the Morning Comes.”)

Like Bowie, Young’s finest work came in the Seventies; unlike Bowie, his Eighties were commercially barren, his records seemed willfully obscure. In his crooked way, Young was doing what Bowie had tried with his “Berlin” records—to erase a persona that he felt trapped in. While in the Seventies he’d slaved to be contrarian, driving “into the ditch” after a time in the middle of the road, Young still mainly played two alternating roles: heavy rocker and somber folkie. So in the Eighties he rubbished the idea of “Neil Young.” He made a synthesizer album, a country record, a blues-bar album and a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll tribute LP that led his label’s head David Geffen to sue him for making “unrepresentative” albums.

Around the turn of the Nineties, Young seemed to settle on being “himself” again and soon was anointed the only Baby Boomer musician who wasn’t a joke. He was slower, craggier, he looked like someone’s hippie dad, stumping around on stage. But he became immaculately hip, recording with Pearl Jam, touring with Sonic Youth; he seemed more of the time than his counterparts a generation younger.

What Bowie seemed hell-bent on being in the Nineties—a 50-year-old rocker who was still in the bloodstream of current music—Young simply was. And he did this not by playing drum ‘n’ bass or Pixies riffs, but the same old first-gear/second-gear grind, feedback-bloodied, juddering, two-guitars-bass-drums music that he’d played in the Sixties. He had stood still and the world had revolved back around to him.

Bowie was taken by the idea of Young as some kind of shaman figure for audiences half his age. Watching Young and his old bandmates in Crazy Horse channel music seemingly through their bodies, he thought “there was a sense of grace and dignity about what they were doing, and also an incredible verve and energy. It was very moving, watching them work under the moon,” he said.

In another interview, he expanded on what he’d seen that night. During a long instrumental section of a song, “they began to dance, turning around, like in a tribal circle, very slowly. And it seemed to me that they were doing that to catch back their dreams, to find youth again, to not allow the energy to escape…”Dead Man Walking” is a sort of homage to rock and roll that is still young while we are all growing old.”

The song’s second verse is Bowie’s dream memory of that night, a realization that he, too, had become a crazy old man dancing under the moon:

Three old men dancing under the lamplight
Shaking their sex and their bones
And the boys that we were..

dead man yowling

So one tributary of “Dead Man Walking” began the night Bowie saw Young play. Another was a far older stream, starting in a London studio one day in January 1965.

Two ambitious young men are in the room that day: one is an 18-year-old from Bromley who’s cutting his second-ever single, a muddled cover of Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool.” The other, despite being just 21, is a storied professional guitarist, a studio hired gun who quietly exudes cool and who’s happy to show off his latest gear: in this case, a fuzzbox. So David Jones sings “Pity the Fool,” and Jimmy Page doubles on lead for it. Page doesn’t think it’s a hit, and it isn’t. As if in recompense he plays Jones a riff that he’s not going to use. It’s a lumbering sway between two chords, a brontosaurus stomp. Duh-nuh duh-nuh dunna-nuh duh-nuh. Page doesn’t realize just how much of a packrat he’s talking to. Jones will keep the riff in his head: he’ll use it on “The Supermen” five years later, then he’ll revive it in another lifetime, in New York in 1996.

In its old age, Page’s riff was still basically the same: E-flat and F major, a steady foot-clomp of harmonic rhythm. But on the studio take of “Dead Man Walking,” the riff is a beast in a cage. It collides with a second Reeves Gabrels synthesized guitar line, which buzzes along and jabs at it. Its rhythms are overwhelmed by synthesizer arpeggios, tea-kettle feedback noises, various percussive loops. Yet despite this it still has its power: whenever the riff plays to close out a chorus, it’s a gavel pounding, making the other jabbering voices fall in line for a moment.

gail

“Dead Man Walking” was nearly abandoned during the Earthling sessions until the co-producer Mark Plati spent five days salvaging the song, painstakingly putting a mix together that was built on a dramatic arc. As Plati said, the track “begins completely programmed and ends completely live.” It opens with solitary synthesizer flourishes and ends with the sound of live musicians making themselves heard above the din: Zachary Alford’s snare fills and hissing cymbals, Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass (she’s often gliding between notes, as if looking to outflank the rest of the band, and while she holds back during Alford’s solo, she slides in afterward and lays down a sinuous foundation for the outro) and Mike Garson, who closes out the song by playing a new, Latin-sounding melody on his piano, as if saying: no, look we could go here now just at the fade.

Bowie opens his verse with an older man, perhaps an entertainer, watching a clip of his youth on a screen, recalling some show or deal in Atlantic City. He gets up, dismisses his idle thoughts while he “walks down the aisle”: (he’s on an airplane? or maybe he’s getting married again). As the pre-chorus begins, with its downshift to E-flat minor, he feels oddly clear of the past, as if he’s suddenly outlived it: in a marvelous line, he feels “older than movies.” Like Young, he’s been around enough that the world’s swiveling back round to him. A counterpoint chorus, Bowie holding on two alternating notes, finds him hanging in mid-air, spinning slack through reality, falling “up” through time. Just before the riff kicks in (it’s the “earthling” of the song, its gravity well), as he sings across a four-chord descending progression (A-flat through G minor and F-sharp, ending on the riff’s bedrock F major), he tweaks his nose and dives away:

And I’m gone!
Like I’m dancing on angels
And I’m gone
through a crack in the past..
.

It’s bluster, playing japes: he can’t shed the weight of the past. He’ll wake up in his torn Union Jack coat and dried makeup and feel the hangover deep in his bones. (This is essentially the acoustic revision of “Dead Man Walking” that Bowie and Gabrels played for a number of TV and radio spots in 1997. It’s lovely and graceful but it’s an old man’s song now.) The chorus lines subtly acknowledge this, with their echoes of Young’s “Sleeps With Angels” (a man mourning a kid who took his old path and went astray) and, in perhaps the ultimate Bowie in-joke, his lost “Shilling the Rubes,” where a woman is played for a sucker by a man who’s skipped out on her (“Gone! the day he left town!”) The title line itself is a cruel joke: he’s escaped the past and wound up a zombie.

But there are a few moments in the song—whenever the riff’s playing (it’s like an extended middle finger pointed at time) or during Gabrels’ jabbing solo that has him relentlessly moving down his guitar neck, or when Alford slips in a sharp little tom-snare fill (4:52)—when Bowie seems free, when he’s gone lighter than air, toe-tapping on an angel’s head. It’s a youth of the mind, sure, but that’s really all youth ever was.

dbb

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released as Earthling‘s third single in April 1997 (RCA 74321 475842, #32 UK). The single mix lops four lines from the pre-chorus (moving from “older than movies” straight to “And I know who’s there”), which does get to the chorus hook faster (Bowie used this edit for his acoustic versions as well), but diminishes the narrative of the song—its pleasures come a bit too easily.

There were a mind-fogging array of mixes. In Britain, there was a 12″ single with the House Mix and the Vigor Mortis remix (BMG/RCA 74321 475841 (oh, for the sunny days of “BOW 5″) as well as a promo single (RCA/BMG DMW02) that had the Moby Mix 1, the This One’s Not Dead Yet Remix as well as the two previous mixes. The EC and the US offered different variations, including a Moby Mix 2 on a US promo 12” that was later included on the 2004 reissue of Earthling. There were three acoustic versions of the song broadcast in 1997 subsequently issued on CD (including the Conan O’Brien performance): please see the Illustrated DB entry for more details.

Top: Shakey and Crazy Horse, ca. 1996 (found this on Tumblr–don’t know photog. if someone does, let me know.)

* Bowie claimed this was the Bridge Benefit Concert that he’d played with Young in October 1996. However, Earthling was mainly cut in August 1996. So perhaps Bowie rewrote the lyric to “Dead Man” after the Bridge show, or in interviews he confused that show with his memories of an earlier Young concert, or he was just making it up. All seem plausible.


Peter and the Wolf

December 21, 2012

bowie wolf

Peter and the Wolf (pt. 1).
Peter and the Wolf (pt. 2).
Peter and the Wolf (pt. 3).
Peter and the Wolf (pt. 4).

I have held this one back (it should have been slotted in the “Heroes” era), as I had intended it as the final Christmas post on this blog, which I assumed would be in 2012. However, given my recently slowed pace (mild illness, overwork, burnout) and the still-massive amount of songs left to get through, it seems likely that the blog will still be active in December 2013, though blessedly it will be quite near the end by then.

So: Peter and the Wolf. Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow to write a symphony that would encourage musical taste in children. He wrote it allegedly in four days; it premiered on 5 March 1936, and according to Prokofiev, got a lukewarm reception. During the Thirties, Soviet art was often concerned with magic, fairy tales, legends and domestic happiness, with a consequent cult of the child and Stalin as a sort of national paterfamilias; Stalin was rehabilitating the idea of the “traditional family” (despite, or because, the fact that a housing shortage meant that a set of families were often jammed together in communal apartments).

Peter and the Wolf soon made its way to the West, its permanence assured a decade later, when Walt Disney made a film of it. From the late Thirties on, record labels made a habit of finding seemingly any actor with a spare afternoon to do the narration: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Jose Ferrer, Paul Hogan, Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, Dame Edna Everidge, and Sharon Stone. “The piece has become the classical equivalent of The Vagina Monologues,” wrote Cynthia Kaplan (who wound up buying the Bowie version) in her Leave the Building Quickly.

In 1977, RCA was looking to release a new version with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. They were reportedly turned down by Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness (the latter was in demand, as Star Wars had just come out) and decided on Bowie. He later said he agreed to do it as a Christmas present for his son, and in December ’77 he flew to New York to record his narration.

It’s one of the more charming versions of Peter and the Wolf ever recorded. Bowie was always inspired when he did children’s material (see his narration of The Snowman), giving it dignity and grace, never being condescending (he’s great in particular as the pissy cat: “Is it worth climbing up so high? By the time I get there the bird will have flown away!“). His old producer Ken Scott, after hearing “Kooks,” said he wished that Bowie would do a whole album of kid’s songs. This is as closest as Bowie ever came.

Here’s hoping that everyone has a merry Xmas and a fine New Year. We’ll be back around the New Year to finish off Buddha of Suburbia, and then onward to greater things Outside. Thanks, once again, to all readers and commenters.

See you in 2013.

C. O.