Let Me Sleep Beside You

October 16, 2009

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Let Me Sleep Beside You.
Let Me Sleep Beside You (live, BBC, 1969).
Let Me Sleep Beside You (Toy, 2000).

Tony Visconti, a 22-year-old bass player from Brooklyn, came to the UK in April 1967 to illegally work as an apprentice record producer. He managed to convince Customs that he was traveling with four guitars because he was a dedicated vacationing musician who had to practice on each guitar daily. In New York he had caught the eye of British producer Denny Cordell by writing a complete arrangement for a Georgie Fame overdub session in an hour’s time, and once in the UK Visconti was put to work on tracks by The Move (“Cherry Blossom Clinic,” “Flowers In the Rain,” “Mist on a Monday Morning“) and Manfred Mann (“So Long Dad“).

Soon after David Bowie’s LP was released in June ’67, Visconti met Bowie at the office of David Platz, Cordell’s business partner and Bowie’s song publisher. Platz thought the two might hit it off as Visconti already had a reputation of being able to work with “hard to understand” artists (e.g., Marc Bolan, whose band Tyrannosaurus Rex Visconti would soon convince Cordell to sign). The first thing Visconti noticed was that Bowie had different-colored eyes. The two talked about American music for hours (both were fans of Ken Nordine‘s Word Jazz LPs), went for a walk in Chelsea, saw Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water together and had become fast friends by the end of the day. So when Bowie went in to record a new prospective single for Deram at summer’s end, he asked Visconti to arrange and produce it.

Bowie often has been reliant on his producers, using them as interpreters, mirrors, secondary composers, performers, muses and casting directors. Along with Gus Dudgeon, Visconti was the first of the major Bowie producers, and where Dudgeon’s work is that of someone fleshing out an unusual, occasionally brilliant sketchwork (the role George Martin often played with John Lennon), Visconti’s style is both practical in its studio realism and aggressive in its scope: feeding, then realizing, Bowie’s nascent ambitions.

Visconti helped convince Bowie to push “Let Me Sleep Beside You” as his next single, flattering Bowie by pronouncing the song “almost American.” Also, Bowie was dead broke—his LP had stiffed—so “Sleep Beside You” was a bald attempt to ape the success of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (blunt requests were in vogue). It marks a turn away from the eccentricity and provincial theatrics of Bowie’s earlier Deram material, as “Sleep Beside You” is a basic rock & roll sex song, just sweetened up and given to putting on airs.

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It’s a fairly basic composition—the chord progression of the verse (C-Bb-F)  has become so cliched that it’s simply dubbed “the classic rock progression” in Richard Scott’s music theory guide (it’s used in everything from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”). Visconti offers stage settings and mood lighting: a cello section; a dominant bass that doubles Bowie’s initial sung hook; and drums (by Alan White, later of the Plastic Ono Band and Yes) that serve as accents and occasional fireworks—the acoustic guitar (Bowie?) is what really drives the track. The strings are a moody, luxurious contrast to the wind-based arrangements that had dominated Bowie’s first LP and “Laughing Gnome” single. In the first verse, the strings repeat a five-note pattern, then offer a series of long-held notes until, after the song peaks with the bridge, Visconti gives the cellists a whole eight-bar verse to sweep through.

What works is the restraint: Bowie and Visconti set up hooks but don’t overuse them (the opening distorted guitar riff (likely played by John McLaughlin) doesn’t appear again until the fadeout, for instance), while Bowie’s figured out how to best display his voice—go low on the verses, high and imperious on the bridge, where he’s trying to close the sale.

“Let Me Sleep Beside You” is a rake’s come-on in the well-worn style of Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick—the singer frames his seduction as being empowering, the rake merely serving as a means of liberation. He appeals to youth’s vanity; he flatters his conquest with the promise of her alleged maturity: “Brush the dust of youth from off your shoulder/because the years of threading daisies lie behind you now,” Bowie murmurs, keeping a straight face. “Lock away your childhood…child, you’re a woman now/your heart and soul are free.” (Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” had been released as a single in April ’67, and so might have been an influence, but then again the late ’60s were rife with “girl, you’re a woman now” type of lyrics.)

It’s the most lustful Bowie song since “Liza Jane,” but as the track goes on, its aim seems less about Bowie bedding the girl than Bowie wanting to convince the listener that he really is a seductive, charismatic rock star (the promo film for the song, made in early 1969, has Bowie burlesquing the image of rock-star-as-sex-god, years before Ziggy). Bowie’s at last hit on the idea that a reflection, perfectly arranged, of an Elvis-Jagger figure will serve just as well as the original.

Recorded on 1 September 1967. Deram’s review board uniformly rejected it as a single, and it wouldn’t be released until the 1970 patchwork LP World of David Bowie that Deram issued to cash in on Bowie’s post-“Space Oddity” fame; on Deram Anthology.

Photos: Kim Farber, Miss February 1967, with winter flower arrangement; the author Adam Diment in a fertility dance, London, 1967.

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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.


Nothing Has Changed Open Thread (& “‘Tis Pity” too, why not)

November 14, 2014

nothing has changed,

A place for discussion about the new compilation, plus the new B side, which is not found on said compilation.

What I wrote a few weeks ago:

The reversed-time sequencing (Disc 1: “Sue” to the Outside “Strangers When We Meet”; Disc 2: “Buddha of Suburbia” to “Wild Is the Wind”; Disc 3: “Fame” to “Liza Jane”) is a fascinating gambit. It’s not just that Bowie’s opening the set with the long recitative piece “Sue.” After “Where Are We Now” the first real “hit” comes 13 tracks in (“Thursday’s Child”). For casual American fans, the entire first disc could prove a blank: only “I’m Afraid of Americans” may register.

All compilations wind up creating narratives, if inadvertent ones: even a hack job by an estranged label can still tell a story. The earlier major Bowie career retrospectives (ChangesBowie, The Singles) centered on establishing “classic” Bowie parameters: pretending Bowie didn’t record anything before 1969; lots of Ziggy and Scary Monsters; proposing the idea Bowie took long sabbaticals in the late Eighties and Nineties.

So a new twist here with Bowie placing accents on latter-day work. Ziggy gets dispatched in three songs (as many as …hours gets), The “Berlin” albums get one song apiece (there as many songs from the Toy sessions). Tin Machine gets written out (as, essentially, does Reeves Gabrels: the …hours singles are mixes that excised much of Gabrels’ guitar work; “Hallo Spaceboy” is the Pet Shop Boys remix, etc). There’s no “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Holy Holy,” no “Station to Station” or “Quicksand.” But “Silly Boy Blue” is there, as is the gawky “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.”

The second disc is the Bowie pop sequence spooled backward: the peak of “Absolute Beginners” crumbles into “Dancing In the Street” and “Blue Jean” before coalescing again into the bright run of “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance,” “Under Pressure” and “Fashion.” Following this group, the Berlin pieces seem like fractured pop songs, odd, distorted echoes of what’s come “before” (esp. “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Sound and Vision”).

And the last disc is like the old legend about Merlin aging in reverse: you begin with the mature wizard (“Diamond Dogs,” “Young Americans”) and watch him sink into adolescence (“All the Young Dudes” “Drive-In Saturday”) and childhood: “Starman” and “Space Oddity” seem more like kid’s songs than ever. Back and back you go, until you end with “Liza Jane,” with a barely 18-year-old amateur screaming his way into an ancient American piece of minstrelsy and theft.

Some of the sequencing is inspired: the opening trio of “Sue”–>“Where Are We Now”–>Murphy remix of “Love Is Lost” works marvelously. There’s a decade-long jump-cut from “Stars Are Out Tonight” to “New Killer Star,” and a lovely melancholic sequence of “Your Turn to Drive” (with a slightly longer fade than the original release) to “Shadow Man” to “Seven.” “Loving the Alien” and “This Is Not America” make a fine shadow pair.

And some of it’s not. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” seems like thin gruel when bracketed by “New Killer Star” and “Slow Burn.” The overdone remake “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (a different, more “upfront” mix than the Toy bootleg, with some notable changes (a new backing vocal on the chorus, for example)). “Time Will Crawl” stands bewildered and alone, like a survivor of an airplane crash. The block of …hours songs sap the comp’s energy. Using the single edits of the likes of “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes” (presumably for CD space reasons?) is cutting corners for no reason in 2014. Outside and Earthling get shortchanged. And damn it, “Laughing Gnome” should’ve been on here.

Nothing_Has_Changed

Thoughts?


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.


Be My Wife

February 17, 2011

Be My Wife.
Be My Wife (live, 1978).
Be My Wife (live, 1990).
Be My Wife (live, 2002).
Be My Wife (live, 2004).

RCA, Bowie’s bewildered label, considered “Be My Wife” the closest thing on Low to a conventional pop song, and issued it as a single six months after the LP’s release. It flopped, the first Bowie single since 1971 not to chart in the UK. Its failure isn’t that surprising, as “Be My Wife” is far odder than it first appears; it’s as radical in its glum way as a track like “Subterraneans.”

Its promo film, directed by Stanley Dorfman, offers one way to consider it—a pop song by a sad Pierrot (see “the Mime Songs”). Momus, as always one of Bowie’s most perceptive critics, described the film as “a mime sketch of a rock star making a rock video, yet too comically glum and sulky to go through the required hoops, and lacking the necessary gung-ho conviction…the character (because it isn’t really Bowie, it’s a fellow, a sad sack, a thin-lipped melancholic) makes to play his guitar and gives up halfway through the phrase. He just can’t be bothered.” (as quoted by Hugo Wilcken).

(The “Be My Wife” promo also parodies and draws on earlier Bowie videos—Bowie/Pierrot’s flailing, awkward body movements are a sad diminution of the Jagger-esque camping of “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” while the film’s white-room setting and washed-out lighting are nearly identical to the promo for “Life on Mars.”)

When Bowie/Pierrot sings the chorus for the first time, after he sings “share my life,” he cocks his head and stares directly into the camera, as if noticing the viewer at last. There’s no readable expression on his face—he could be suppressing a smile, he could be about to scream—and just before the image fades, the life drains from his face. It’s unnerving to watch, as though a marionette is suddenly professing love to you, and worse, that the marionette may not really mean it.

It’s a visual analogue to how Bowie sings “Be My Wife.” His vocal is trapped in a five-note range, and Bowie sings his brief lyric (four verse lines, four chorus lines) in the East End accent of his mid-’60s records, a move particularly jarring when heard in sequence, as “Wife” directly follows “Sound and Vision” and “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” both of which Bowie sang in his then-standard croon.

If Low is something of Bowie’s rebellion (or act of petulance, RCA would have said) against being an American-approved rock star, then “Be My Wife” is a love song that questions the act of singing a love song. Its lyric is simple; its arrangement, with its crashing piano (a set of pounding G6 and F chords serve as a hook in every other bar of the verse, each time bolstered by Dennis Davis’ drum fills) and guitar solos, is in the common language of ’70s pop. Yet you can never determine where Bowie stands; it’s unclear whether he knows.

“I’ve lived all over the world,” Bowie sings, rising a note on the last word. It’s a standard rock star line, reminiscent of everything from Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” to Deep Purple’s “Woman From Tokyo”: the singer’s validating himself, talking up the weary business of life on the road. It’s a set-up line, and you might think it’s leading to a typical follow-up: but I’ve never met someone like you or but I’m with you tonight or I’m still lonely or something. Instead Bowie follows that line with the meek, barren “I’ve left every place.”* And that’s the end of it: the verse is over, another begins, only it’s an instrumental. Later in the song, Bowie just sings the first line of the verse (“sometimes you get so lonely”) and then stops, as if the effort isn’t worth it.

The backing track for “Be My Wife” was cut before Bowie had decided on a lyric or a vocal, so it’s a rambunctious performance that seems at odds with Bowie’s muted vocal—the players are trying to force a resolution, inspire some sort of emotion, while Bowie simply stands still. When he moves, it’s grudgingly. The song, in A minor, builds to a climax in its chorus—as Bowie sings the last line, “be my wife,” the players are moving from C up to G, with everyone pushing: George Murray’s bass, Davis’ drum fills, Roy Young’s washes of Farfisa organ. Yet Bowie only moves up a tone, then immediately slides downward on “my wife,” defusing the excitement. A bar later, he’s back singing “sometimes you get so lonely.”

Of course “Wife” just as easily could be read as a straight, unironic plea (Bowie in 1978 said the lyric was “genuinely anguished”). It’s a marriage proposal scraped free of affection, an offer to be alone together (and of course, Bowie was writing the song at the same time his marriage was in its last, bitter months). And the song does have a union. The first 8-bar verse is Bowie singing, the second is an instrumental centered on Ricky Gardiner’s guitar, and the third 16-bar verse is their marriage—Bowie gets two bars, then Gardiner gets two, and so on. Yet Bowie doesn’t change a word of what he sang before and Gardiner plays the same riff, so there’s no true collaboration: each remains in his own world, and Gardiner is just delaying Bowie’s cold repetitions. A fine, strange song: Bowie at his most brilliantly unreadable.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, with overdubs in September-October 1976 at Hansa, Berlin. Issued as a single (RCA PB 1017) in June 1977. Performed in 1978 (a recording is on the reissued Stage) and on the Heathen and Reality tours, 2002-2004.

* For a long time, I thought this line was “I’ve lived every place,” which works just as well: you can find emptiness anywhere in the world you go.

Top: Mummenschanz on “The Muppet Show,” November 1976.


In the Heat of the Morning

October 27, 2009

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In the Heat of the Morning (BBC performance, 1967).
In the Heat of the Morning.
In the Heat of the Morning (Toy, 2000).

This marks the end of the line for David Bowie and his label Deram: it was the second single Bowie recorded that Deram rejected, despite the fact that, as with “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” Bowie was writing more commercial songs than he had in the past. It didn’t matter: Deram just wanted rid of him and Bowie left the label in April 1968.

So “In the Heat of the Morning” is a fragment of an uncompleted work. It was meant to be the centerpiece of Bowie’s second Deram LP, and Bowie and Tony Visconti do their best to shine it up: another luxurious strings arrangement, some odd instrumentation (guitar doubled with the Sooty Pixie Xylophone, the latter played by Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Steve Peregrin Took, who dubbed it the “Pixiephone”) and a Bowie vocal that’s ditched the Anthony Newley-isms for a sultrier, more commanding tone. Like “Sleep Beside You,” it’s basically a come-on with pretensions, but, hey, those can work sometimes.

First recorded in a BBC session on 18 December 1967, though the lyric was different and worse (“where cunning magpies steal your name“) and the opening riff hadn’t been developed yet. The proposed Deram single version was cut on 12 March 1968 and another BBC version was recorded a day later (as with “Karma Man,” the BBC version of this song might be its definitive recording—there’s more guitar, and Bowie’s vocal and the beat are much stronger, IMO). On Deram Anthology. Covered by The Last Shadow Puppets on their 2008 EP “The Age of The Understatement.”

Top: Shopping on King’s Road, 1968 (Another Nickel In the Machine).


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.


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

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

Stage

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

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

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

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

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

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

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

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Script (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

Lazarus_Athens

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

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

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

Sermon (2)

Emma_Lazarus

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

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

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

emma

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

Script (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newton, Lazarus.

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

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

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

Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (2)

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

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

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

Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

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

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

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

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


The Motel

March 6, 2013

95scott

The Motel (early mix, fragment).
The Motel.
The Motel (live, 1995).
The Motel (live, 1996).
The Motel (live, 1997).
The Motel (live, 2003).

Prologue: Eat This, Crows!

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game…

“Nite Flights”, November 2012.

He usually isn’t stuck for words. Well, he’s stuck for words these days. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. It’s odd, he was always around, there was always something cooking. I wish he’d make a record.

Scott Walker, on David Bowie, Mojo, December 2012.

He opened his laptop and read the morning’s collection of news about himself. Once he’d had an assistant sift through the papers and magazines and stuff thick packets of clippings into manila envelopes, delivered via courier. Now some custom-rigged alliance of Google News and other secretive algorithms did it all. It made for duller reading, he’d found. Drinking a cup of coffee, he read of a Tyrolean fashion show with an Aladdin Sane theme; of a boy, born in Elkhart, Indiana, whose parents had named him Thin White Duke (they were Dukes, her mother’s maiden name was White, but the child was ten pounds, six ounces). Another entry from the ridiculous blog. A long one this time: well, they tended towards the gaseous, didn’t they?

He finished reading, lingering over the last paragraphs, and let out a laugh with some violence in it. He fished into the pocket of a jacket draped over a nearby chair and found the flash drive. He danced it between his fingers. Another laugh, more ruminative, carrying a trace of his old smoker’s cough. “Oh, if only,” he said lightly. He thought of typing “No, Where Are We Now?” into the comment box.

Instead he dressed, put on his cap and coat, went outside, had a cab hailed. He was murmuring. Lifeless planet…Out of the game. Like you’re in the game. Looks like it’s going to be one of Mr. B’s odd days, the doorman considered.

I: This Is How You Disappear

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I took what I was given
And I took what I had stole
But I took nobody with me,
Not a soul, not a soul.

Tennessee Williams, draft of “Blanket Roll Blues.”

The last time Bowie and Brian Eno had been in a studio together was in 1979, when they were listening to the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights. Fifteen years later, Bowie and Eno finally made another record: in part a Scott Walker record, as it turned out.

The album, Leon, which would become Outside, had begun with paints and role-playing, with Eno assigning Bowie the part of a village storyteller. But as the sessions in Montreux went on, Bowie considered another role. He would create a Scott Walker album, an album that Walker, apparently lost to silence, would never make. The challenge was: where would Walker have gone after his then-last record, Climate of Hunter? Where would he be in 1994, after he’d been reduced to a set of speculations? He’s ill. All he does is sit in a pub in Vauxhall and watch ’em play darts. He’s done with music, he’s washed up. The Sunday People had even offered a reward for Walker sightings, as if he was a Yeti.

I just decided to stop for a while and concentrate on art, painting and drawing and things like that.

Walker, interview, 1995.

Both Bowie and Eno had wanted to produce Climate of Hunter; much to his label’s irritation, Walker had declined them both. Eno had tried again a few years later, offering his and Daniel Lanois’ services. There were a few preliminary sessions, but it didn’t work out—Walker allegedly later said of Lanois, “I didn’t get on with that guy,” and Walker collaborator Brian Gascoigne said “Eno hadn’t the faintest idea of what Scott was up to…[Scott] is happy to listen to suggestions…as long as nobody tries to insist on one that’s been sidestepped. And they, as hired producers, never understood that.” Now with Bowie’s scheme, Eno could produce a Walker record at last, and free of the burden of dealing with Walker.

Lodger had answered Nite Flights, as the latter had answered “Heroes,” but it had been a superficial response: a name-check, a song or two where Bowie had dug out his old “Scott” voice. Bowie and Eno didn’t take on “The Electrician,” which had stunned them: Eno once described the track as a future of music not taken. Bowie seemed obsessed with the song. Tackling “Nite Flights,” as he did in 1992, had been easy. “The Electrician” was more formidable. In the fifteen years since its release, he’d barely gotten its measure.

ElectricianFront

What was it about “The Electrician”? The only other song to rival it for Bowie was “I’m Waiting For the Man.” I once described “Man” as a song Bowie felt that he ought to have written; his recycling of its riff and rhythm in his own songs (everything from “Laughing Gnome” to “Heroes”) and his endless covering of “Waiting For the Man” on stage suggested that he was possessive of the song, that he had as much a claim to it as Lou Reed had.

“The Electrician” opens with massed atonal strings, a bass note tolling the downbeat and Walker’s groaning baritone; it shifts to a section where Walker and John Maus harmonize twistedly; it suddenly becomes a gorgeous flight of strings and Spanish guitar. Strings, bass and baritone return. There’s no help, no. A last shift of the strings and it ends. What’s striking about “The Electrician” is that these shifts have no dramatic impetus; they don’t feel scripted, they aren’t leading to or following each other. The song just resets itself each time it changes. A song about torture is now a love song is both is neither. The perspectives are fluid. The opening lines are set in the torture room, and on paper, they read like an Ink Spots song: Baby, it’s slow/when lights go low. The torture itself is erotic: the torturer jerks the handle, the victim’s body writhes.

In 1994, Bowie was writing about ritual murder and art crimes, mapping killers and lovers (were his Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone the torture/tortured pair, now stranded in some cybernetic gumshoe fantasy?). “The Electrician,” with its tropical extremes of mood, its indecipherable strains of romance and brutality, its sense of violation (the torturer is drilling through the spiritus sanctus, violating the spirit as much as the body) and resistance (whose dream is the strings and guitar idyll? the torturer or the person on the rack?), was at the root of the project. Bowie couldn’t claim “Electrician” as he’d tried with “Waiting for the Man”: he could only try to channel the song’s uncanny power into his own creations.

II: Rawhide and Bloody Bones

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They do not know her here. That is,
I am free to invent her! sweet
dogs.

Anne Carson, “Canicula di Anna.”

So if he was to make a ghost Scott Walker album, Bowie’s other reference besides “The Electrician” was Climate of Hunter. Outside was in part a corrective swerve away from Hunter. The latter, released soon before Bowie’s Tonight in 1984, is an odd duck: it sounds, as @discographies said, as if Walker hadn’t heard any contemporary music since the late Seventies. It’s cold and glossy, a “commercial” record by Walker’s standards, especially when compared to “The Electrician,” and it’s also a funeral for his past selves, an oblique way to prepare his audience for what would come next.

As Damon Krukowski and Lewis Williams noted, Hunter was rigidly sequenced. There are four songs on each side, mirrors of each other—each side was a move from “difficulty” to reassurance and goodbyes. So the openers, “Rawhide” and “Track Five,” begin with an isolated, odd sound (a panned, erratic cowbell and bass guitar harmonics, respectively) and remain bewildering—“Rawhide” is a Western “round ’em up” ballad with Cro-Magnon sheep herders. “Dealer” and “Track Six,” the knottiest tracks on the album, have Evan Parker’s saxophone (Parker recalled Walker, over a bottle of Chablis, asking for clouds of saxophones); “Track Three” and “Track Seven” were Walker’s idea of pop singles, with Peter Van Hooke’s hi-hat pushed up in the mix (just like his work on Nite Flights) and each with bloodless guitar solos by Ray Russell, who had to play “blind” in the studio, with no sense of the top melody.

And each side’s closer was a throwback: “Sleepwalkers Woman,” a gorgeous, string- somber ballad that opened like “Boy Child” and, as it went on, became a farewell, a man abandoning those who had known him in his beautiful youth. I am returned, he sang, but only to say farewell. Its Side 2 counterpart was “Blanket Roll Blues,” Walker’s last cover on record, a wisp of a song that Tennessee Williams wrote and Marlon Brando sang on The Fugitive Kind. A hobo’s song, a few lines hummed while a man breaks camp and heads off.

Hunter was a work of isolated individuals. Walker had written the songs alone, cooped up in a “workman’s cabin in Tunbridge Wells” during the summer of 1983, and he’d “kept his melodies a secret from his players,” often waiting until everyone had left the studio before cutting his vocals. There’s a cold, disjointed feel to the album: Mark Knopfler and Walker, the two performers of “Blanket Roll Blues,” are seemingly on different continents.

So Bowie would make Walker communal—he’d carve his songs out of the collisions of his players, playing live in a single room. Outside would be set in an imagined America, compared with Walker’s increasingly abstracted Europe (“I developed a European imagination, which probably doesn’t have anything to do with Europe at all,” Walker once said). And where Walker slaved over his lyrics, not recording until all of his lines were set (“I sit down and notate it all, the top line, rough idea of the bars. It’s an old fashioned way of working,” he said), Bowie had a computer program churn up a string of random text which he would pillage, calling out lines during group improvisations.

And as the Outside sessions went on, Bowie’s new “Walker” songs developed. The eerie moments of the Leon suites, like “We’ll Creep Together.”Wishful Beginnings,” with its keening ode to murder, set over drum and synth loops. The world’s-end sad sack lament “A Small Plot of Land.” And finally, his big roll of the dice: the song where he finally met “The Electrician.”

III: From a Motel 6

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He arose laden with doubt as to how he should begin. He looked back at the bed where the grindstone lay. He looked out at the world, the most famous experimental prison of its time. Beyond the torture stakes he could see, nothing. Yet he could see.

Anne Carson, “On the King and His Courage.”

“The Motel” opens in the lobby. Murmured conversations, barely heard over a duo playing in a corner of the room. A garrulous pianist, a secretive bassist. The latter* plays a fretless bass, another callback to Climate of Hunter. Nearly a minute in, Bowie wanders over from the bar, begins singing as if in mid-sentence. For we’re living in the safety zoneliving from hour to hour down here. Everything’s provisional, wavering—chords oscillate between F and F-sharp, Bowie often shifts between singing A or B-flat notes. An interlude: synthesizer, Mike Garson’s querying piano, bass fills. Bowie continues: It’s a kind of living which recognizes…the death…of the odorless man…

Its title suited it. A motel, especially the David Lynch-esque one Bowie’s checked into here, can be a purgatorial place, a shabby limbo (or, more fitting for Bowie’s past, a bardo, a vestibule between reincarnations; see “Quicksand”). Then drums kick in, cementing the song in 4/4, and Bowie sharpens his tone: There is no hell. There is no shame. It’s a (deliberate?) mishearing, an echo, of Walker’s “there is no help,” in “Electrician.” Bowie conflates Walker’s line with something he’d recalled from his visit to Gugging Asylum: “THIS IS HELL,” scrawled on a wall in the murderer’s wing. There is no hell…like an old hell. The chorus expires with Bowie hitting his highest notes so far: “it’s LIGHTS UP BOYS.” He builds on his dual references: Lights up, boys: a body twisting in an electric chair; lights up, boys-–it’s not a bar’s closing time, but the morning, when the inmates are rousted from their beds.

(This line recalls another story, one Walker may have known, if not Bowie: that Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film was to be shot in an asylum. Inmates were brought in, Antonioni put them into formation, was surprised at how well they took his requests, then he turned on his lights for a take. The inmates recoiled and convulsed on the floor. (“I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors…they started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor….they tried desperately to get away from the light, as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster.“) Antonioni abandoned the film, but the poet Anne Carson used it as a starting point years later, her poem offering that the inmates were only feigning their reactions so that they could roll around and try to kiss each other, stealing a moment of mass intimacy.)

The entire sequence repeats. A new intro (Garson at his tackiest; he’s the hotel pianist from an old hell), a last verse where Bowie disdainfully rips up stage props, like he once did to the paper skyscrapers of his Diamond Dogs set (“we’re living in a SEA of SHAM“), another chorus. But now Bowie keeps surging, gaining strength, hitting a high E-flat as the song itself solidifies in E-flat major, while Reeves Gabrels slams in with distorted power chords. The lobby’s become a stage in an arena. We’re back at the close of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song that also had begun in obscurity and despair and which had climaxed in a Judy Garland moment. GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! RE-EXPLODING YOU!!! ‘COS YOU’RE WONDERFUL!! LIKE EVERYBODY DO!

And here “The Motel” faltered. Its lyric collapsed into gabble; its motion felt strained. It’s as if Bowie needed to have the song “pay off” in some way. This left “The Motel” in a curious state.  On Outside, “The Motel” is the blank at the center of the record. Sequenced between the battering “Hallo Spaceboy” and the jaunty “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “The Motel” can seem like a seven-minute void. It seems actively hostile to the memory. I still don’t know what to make of it: sometimes I think it’s a latter-day flawed Bowie masterpiece, with a grisly beauty; other times, it can seem a failure, a self-sabotaged attempt to redo the “Electrician” that remains far in the original’s shadow.

Outside was done. And one day in early 1995, as he was mixing the record, Bowie read in a list of upcoming releases that Fontana was putting out a new Scott Walker album.

IV: Farmers in the City

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Bowie: What do you think of his latest, Tilt?

The first half an hour was disappointing, because he does everything except what he’s best at…and the last 30 minutes are fabulous. It’s like Walker is saying: Okay, you’ve done your best and now you’re rewarded.

Bowie: I agree. I find it a sensational record, very brave too. I’ve got a lot of respect for his integrity. He’s true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves. He really works without compromising and there are very few artists like that…What you said about not doing what you’re best at. Well, it may sound arrogant but I don’t feel like adapting to wishes and expectations of the big audience anymore.

Bowie, interview by Humo, 1995.

I just want to connect with as many people as I can with it. I know it’s not easy but I’m always hoping.

Walker, interview for Tilt.

It became a farce: Bowie making his secret Scott Walker sequel while, unbeknownst to him, Walker was quietly making his own. And the Walker sequel lapped Bowie’s shadow one, coming out five months earlier! This caused a spot of apprehension, especially as Bowie was in the midst of negotiating a record deal. Eno wrote in his diary that the Walker record “could occupy much of the territory of Bowie’s” and feared what effect this could have on a record Eno was already worrying Bowie was compromising. “Bowie won’t release those things and, as time passes, more will get chipped away or submerged under later additions.

In April 1995, Bowie got an advance copy of Tilt. He phoned Eno and played him a track, said he was relieved: it sounded nothing like Outside. Crisis averted.

The best album that came out this year in terms of being an adventurous album was Scott Walker’s Tilt which of course died after about a week. It was bought by three people, me being one of them.

Bowie, Prodigy chat, 1995.

He was right: Tilt sounded nothing like Outside. What it had more affinities with was the now-buried and maimed Leon. Not musically but in both pieces’ hermeticism, their arrogant self-sufficiency, their strangeness. Hunter had been Walker’s conversation with his listeners: he’d challenged them and had dismissed them. Tilt offered no entry point: it simply begins and defies you to keep listening to it. The opener, “Farmer in the City,” allegedly had NME staff members yelling for the CD to be yanked while Marc Almond, upon hearing it, thought Scott had completely lost the plot. It was the most accessible track on the record.

If you’d made it through Walker keening, like the world’s loneliest auctioneer, “do I hear 21? 21? 21?”, then there came “The Cockfighter,” the true sequel to “The Electrician.” It was a piece of historical fascist erotica, with Walker connecting the trial of Adolf Eichmann to that of the allegedly adulterous Queen Caroline. Some of its lines could be said by a seducer, a torturer or a man conducting an autopsy: if you could turn on your side, move your touch to that hip…easy now, easy now. Walker first sings over what sounds like a rat gnawing through a wad of paper. The track is occasionally consumed in pummeling metallic sprays of noise. Later on there’s a horn that sounds like a horse being slaughtered. “Cockfighter” ends in another industrial noise-attack, dying off in a second as if someone had flipped a breaker as an act of mercy. And on the record went. The title song exhumed the Scott of Scott 3 and kicked him around a bit. “Rosary” found Scott alone on the far margins, muttering “and I gotta quit…and I gotta quit.

Tilt was ignored. No one knew what to make of it. Tilt was irreconcilably strange, the sound of a man pursuing what’s in his head, using musicians “who are extensions of yourself,” as Walker said. It was an actual millennial doom record, bled through with history and death: Eichmann on the scaffold; Pier Paolo Pasolini crushed under the wheels of his own car on a beach in Ostia. Walker quoted “Dry Bones,” Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not, Desi Arnaz’s “Babalu. He sang over the sound of the organ in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, strangled guitar and shaken bells. It was Bowie’s favorite album of the year; it was the record Outside pretended to be.

V: Lights Up, Boys

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What would make me happy is to be an artist living in a garret in a cold water flat somewhere, as long as I could afford art material.

Bowie, to John Dove, 1974 (as per Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust).

He concedes there was a point in the mid-’80s when he thought about giving up music altogether to retire as a “garret-type art person with a loft in Soho. I fell foul of the marketplace…I suddenly felt, for the first time, inhibited about being creative…I was quite willing to opt into a life of crime and art. Or at least a life of art.”

Bowie interview, Vox, August/September 1995.

Throughout his professional life, Bowie has occasionally said that he wished he could chuck it all away. Become a real artist, live in a loft somewhere, not bother with record labels and tours and MTV. A few times he went through with it, sort of; his years with Iggy Pop in Berlin; his flirtations with the British art scene around the time he was recording Outside.

And in the Nineties, Bowie’s public effusions about Scott Walker’s integrity suggested that he was using Walker as a symbol, an embodiment of this sort of uncompromised artistic life. Bowie seemed to consider Walker as a boundary rider, off in the wilderness somewhere, using Walker’s sporadic progress reports to chart his own movements: he’s there, here’s where I’ll set up camp. He’d be the railroad that followed the first wave of settlers (the Hearst to Walker’s Swearengen, if you’ve seen Deadwood).

Bowie had always had a taste for musical eccentrics, those who’d gone further out on the branch, those who’d be fated only to be remembered by hipsters like himself: Ken Nordine, Biff Rose, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. And Scott Walker, who he classed in this lot of Sixties oddballs, the great artist among them. Bowie treasured them, he treasured Walker, but despite whatever proclamations he made, Bowie needed a public. He worked in the public realm, he was its ambassador of the weird, and to indulge himself to make something like Tilt, to flay himself enough to really match “The Electrician,” now seemed beyond his powers, or his interests.

Sure, Bowie could have done what Eno and Reeves Gabrels had argued: put out the Leon sessions as one fearsome bundle. A CD of twenty-minute suites, full of gnomic dialogue, anxiety raps, shrieks, arcane beauties. His own Tilt. How would it have been received? With bafflement and irritation, condemned to quick obscurity, like Tilt was? Or with utter ridicule: Bowie’s folly? His own Life of Chris Gaines, to be used as a punchline by entertainment writers for their decade summaries in 1999?

This is just idle speculation, because the Outside that was released was a compromised record, in the best sense of the word. Some of its finest moments were its pop songs, its songs with catchy choruses and hooks, its songs seemingly intended for those Walker had left behind.

End Credits

Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with poss. overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. A live version from Amsterdam, 10 June 1997, was included on liveandwell.com. This story will conclude (?) with “Heat.”

Sources: Again, The Wire’s essay compilation No Regrets was of great help, in particular Damon Krukowski on Climate of Hunter, Brian Morton on Tilt and the 1995 interview with Walker conducted by Richard Cook. A dissertation on Outside by Nicholas P. Greco (2000) has a detailed analysis of “The Motel” at the close of its second chapter. Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is the source of the Gasciogne quotes. The Anne Carson quotes are from her marvelous Plainwater (1995). Thanks to Andy Zax for bouncing ideas (esp. on the nature of “The Electrician”), offering phrases and suggestions, and for scanning “The Electrician” sleeve.

* Very likely Yossi Fine, not Erdal Kizilcay. This decade-old post on the TW board by someone who’d met Fine claims that Fine played on some “track with a fretless bass” which he couldn’t remember, but which I’d venture is “Motel.” The bass is similar to “Small Plot of Land,” which Fine said he did play on.

Top to bottom: Walker playing “Rosary” on Later With Jools Holland, 1995; Bowie, The Walker Brothers Triptych, 1996; “The Electrician” single, 1978; “Track Three” single, 1984; lyrics (alleged) of “The Motel,” Outside; LP inner sleeve of Tilt, 1995; The Wire #135, 1995.


Dead Against It

December 6, 2012

93etienne

Dead Against It.

When we meet for a while, Tuesday morning ten a.m…
Everyone’s dreaming of all they’ve got to live for.

Saint Etienne, “Mario’s Cafe.”

I couldn’t yet see how the city worked, but I began to find out. London seemed like a house with five thousand rooms, all different; the trick was to work out how they all connected, and eventually to walk through all of them.

Kureishi, Buddha of Suburbia.

Getting free of the suburbs is just the half of it. In Buddha, Karim’s first encounters with London are riddled with insecurities (“We could have been from Bombay. We’d never catch up,” he says of himself and a friend, when compared to the sharply-dressed city kids “who walked like little gods“), and he soon beats a retreat to his Bromley home.

As did Bowie, who in the Sixties mainly knew London as a Mod commuter (see “The London Boys” or “I Dig Everything,” the latter the fantasy of a kid going home on the train and wishing he was waking up in Chelsea instead) and who had to set up house in Beckenham to mature as a songwriter. Hunky Dory is a suburban record; only on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs did Bowie really move to the city. (He once described his dystopia Hunger City as the place that “Ziggy comes from.” So Ziggy Stardust was an exile in suburbia, a hipster who’d fled the city to bring the message to kids in Orpington and Croydon.)

The wonderful “Dead Against It,” with its whirligig instrumentation (a battery of synthesizers, sequencers and thin-sounding drum machines and, after the first chorus, dueling guitars), its trebly mix and caffeinated tempo, could soundtrack a suburbanite first set loose in the city, overwhelmed by the bounty of available actions and unable even to keep on the sidewalk (recall the scene in Murnau’s Sunrise when the country couple first comes to town and get nearly mowed over by cars, trams and pedestrians). It’s a throwback in sound, both to the “Mod Sixties” and, in its tangle of synth/keyboard lines, to the madcap organists of the New Wave, like Steve Nieve, Barry Andrews and Jimmy Destri (a keyboard hook in the chorus has a taste of the one in Blondie’s “Dreaming”).

Mod and punk were urban movements; the latter a retort to the rural pretensions of early Seventies rock, all the back-to-nature records, all the weary songs about life on the highway (disco and hip-hop were other answers). Bowie, by reviving this line of attack, was in sync with some young groups of the early Nineties. The latter were raiding the same jumble of Sixties pop “trash” and punk novelties, retrieving a few shiny bits from the wreckage (often the “square” records mocked by the hipsters of the period, the Lee Hazelwood and Herb Alpert LPs that their parents had owned) and they remade the Sixties from fresh aspects, offered editions of the decade that never were. A Sixties where France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg had been as central as Bob Dylan. Or where the Soixante-Huitards had heard Neu! (see Stereolab’s “Jenny Ondioline,” which tapes over “Hallogallo” for a decade in which revolution seemed beside the point. “I don’t care if the fascists have to win/I don’t care democracy’s being fucked,” Laetitia Sadier sang. “The world is exciting.”)

Or “Cool Britannia.” This would soon enough calcify into a subject for in-flight airplane magazines, but the movement began as a re-engagement with the city: Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield, or the London of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, with its barely-hanging-on bedsit dwellers getting a reprieve by going to Primrose Hill. Or Saint Etienne’s “Mario’s Cafe,” with its characters buzzing on the prospects of London life, catching a free hour to grab a bite, compare notes and make plans, trying to top each other’s suggestions. (As one ILX poster wrote recently, “The really specific references in ‘Mario’s Cafe’ and ‘London Belongs to Me’ gave me such a potent sense of who [Etienne] were and the life they led—that spring-like sense of arrival in London from the suburbs and the sheer joy of gigs and cafes and meeting up with friends—and it felt like a life that was potentially accessible to me.“)

dbdead

Of the Buddha tracks, “Dead Against It” especially sounds like its creation: the product of Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay, camped out in their Montreux studio for a week, eating hamburgers and listening to Prince CDs while dashing out odd little tracks. But the cheap-sounding synthesizers, the tinniness of the mix, the no-frills Kizilcay drumming all fit here. “Dead” is pop seemingly made from cast-off instruments, rock and roll played on whatever Bowie had found in a toy store.

It likely began as an instrumental, as three lengthy instrumental stretches bookend and break up the two sets of verses and choruses, and there’s some development in them, as an arpeggiated synthesizer line in the opening section is echoed later by electric guitar (the track closes with intertwining guitars, calling back to the end of “A Hard Day’s Night”). Bowie’s vocal sounds as though it began as a lark. His verses are collections of four-note phrases, mainly ascending (dropping only when the lyric turns dour, like “begins to sigh” or “my words are worn”), to which he set a cut-up derived lyric clotted with internal rhymes. It’s a love letter to the basics of the English language, its vowel sounds, alliterations and phonemes. Take how Bowie reverses where a “dee” plosive sound lands in one barrage, using it to both start and close rhymes:

She is the a-
-ple in my eye
She talked to God
I couldn’t cope
or’d hope eloped
a dope she roped
This salty lie

The moody, distracted girl in question is a sister of those in “Bus Stop” or “What in the World.” She has a long pop history: the girl who doesn’t give the boy the attention he feels he deserves but who escapes to an imaginary world, likely to avoid him (“Western Movies,”She Watch Channel Zero?,” “Books About UFOs,” etc.) Is there something menacing about the singer in “Dead Against It,” his need for control, the way he seems to stare at her while she sleeps? There’s desolation in him, too (take how sadly Bowie sings “salty lie”), the testimony of someone trying to communicate to a lover who’s just as happy to talk to random strangers on the phone. Their drama, oblique and unending as it is, is inconsequential; it’s just what’s happening in one room of the city that Bowie and Kizilcay jerry-rigged. Soon enough the lovers are forgotten, lost in the waves of sound that close out the track.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Issued as a B-side of “Buddha of Suburbia.”

Top: “John A-P,” Saint Etienne at the Cardiff Students’ Union, March 1993.