Saviour Machine

January 7, 2010

Saviour Machine.

“Saviour Machine” is The Man Who Sold The World‘s topical song, as computers controlling every aspect of society and (without fail) eventually weakening, conquering and/or exterminating the human race was a basic doomsday scenario in 1970.

This fear now seems dated and mildly ridiculous, a nightmare of the Great Society era. By the late ’60s it seemed that, at least in US and UK science fiction, world government and centralized computer control of the planet were just around the corner. Patrick Troughton- and Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (1967-1974), for example, was often set on a standard near-future Earth (say, 1985) where the United Nations is the world’s government and military force, while various Controllers and Supervisors run the massive mainframe networks that control shipping, the weather, the moon colonies, and so forth.

The massive growth of government between 1940 and 1970, with the parallel rise of the mainframe computer network (the idea of a “personal computer” seemed absurd to all but a few cranks), had only one logical outcome: with power continuing to centralize, and with society growing ever more complex and burdensome (overpopulation, pollution, wars, crime, etc.), only a super-computer would eventually be able to keep things running.

Naturally, however, even the computers would crack under the strain. Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” opens with a liberal U.S. “President Joe” elected on a platform of installing a computer system, called “The Prayer,” to end war and hunger. The twist is that while The Prayer easily handles the job, perfection bores it; The Prayer contemplates introducing new wars and plagues simply as a bit of distraction, and because it’s grown to despise its human subjects, chastising them like an officious Old Testament God.

As a performance, “Saviour Machine” is unrelentingly strange. It makes constant demands on a listener, with its complex time changes (it opens in what seems to be 15/8 time (more likely 6/8, see comments), goes to 3/4 (or not) in the bridges*) and Bowie’s eerie seesawing vocal, which seems designed to thwart anyone else from attempting to sing it. Even the song’s structure is odd—there’s only one verse, followed by alternating bridges and choruses (in the former, Bowie continually holds notes, draining the blood from his words, as if fighting against his song’s rhythms).

Ronson gets a solo after nearly every sung section—the first and third (at 1:28 and 3:08), each 24 bars, reuse the wordless chorus of Bowie’s old “Ching a Ling,” the melody first carried on Ronson’s guitar, then by Ralph Mace’s Moog synthesizer. Ronson’s second solo is a dance between Am7 and D, while his outro performance grows noisier and more manic as the track fades out.

Recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970, on the second side of The Man Who Sold the World. “Saviour Machine” has generally been forgotten, though Redd Kross covered it in the ’80s and its name was appropriated by a Christian goth band.

Top: The IBM 360, made obsolescent in 1970 by the introduction of the System/370.

* I’ve never been able to determine musical time—these are just guesses, and likely very wrong ones.

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Heat

October 12, 2016

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Heat.

1. Mirror Contract

The photograph shows a room in a flat in West Berlin—155 Hauptstraße, Schöneberg. David Bowie lies on his side on his bed. Thirty years old, his face is that of a beautiful sleeping child.

This is Bowie-in-Berlin, in a stolen moment (or was it? was the photograph staged for possible use? I don’t know who took it). A man gone from the world, hiding in his bedroom. The headboard is a wooden sunrise. All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall is an enormous canvas: Bowie’s portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

One of Bowie’s favorite paintings, arguably his best, it’s a severe crop of Mishima’s head, which seems carved from stone. The almond eyes have a penetrating sadness.

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Well before he first toured the country in spring 1973, Bowie had immersed in Japan (he always did the research). He loved its art, photography (Sukita), fashion (Yamamoto), food, music (Toru Takemitsu), kabuki (Bando), film (Oshima), temples, and likely more than a few of its citizens. Perhaps above all, the work of Mishima, whose last books were being translated into English in the early Seventies.

For Bowie, Mishima was the extremity of Japan’s artistic culture. He stands most openly in Bowie’s “Berlin” songs. A tributary of “Heroes” is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, of whose sailor Mishima wrote “he was perfectly aware he would leave [his lover] in a day yet he was ready to happily die for her sake” (and recall that “sailor” was Bowie’s internet handle in the Nineties).

The sailor washes up in Lodger (“Red Sails”), an album with a Mishima counterpoint in “Fantastic Voyage” (Mishima, of the samurai: “there is dignity in serenity, there is dignity in clenched teeth and flashing eyes”; Bowie: “dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too”), Mishima’s decayed angel in “Look Back in Anger” and reference in “Yassassin” (“Look at us—sun and steel“). “Because You’re Young” and “Teenage Wildlife” tick to the quickened pulse of Mishima novels like Thieves, with their passionate, beautiful young suicides.

Consider Mishima’s description of a samurai preparing for seppuku (“the sense of beauty was always connected with death…the samurai was requested to make up his face by powder or lipstick, in order to keep his face beautiful after suffering death“) and Bowie’s makeup for the last Ziggy Stardust shows.

At dinner with Arcade Fire in New York in 2005, Bowie talked of his love of Mishima’s work and said he’d been in Tokyo when Mishima died. Like many Bowie stories, it was a perfect synchrony and quite untrue: on 25 November 1970, Bowie was likely sitting at his piano in Beckenham while Mishima stabbed himself in an army commander’s office in Tokyo.

2. Entrance to the Stage

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I had a desire to turn myself into my own opposite, even in real life…I cannot be certain whether I actually created my own opposite or merely an aspect of myself which until then had been ignored.

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

Like David Bowie, Yukio Mishima is a stage name. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, to a family of samurai heritage. Fifty days after his birth, his formidable grandmother essentially kidnapped him, having his cradle moved into her sickroom. He lived in her house, rarely seeing his parents or siblings, until he was 12 years old.

Allowed dolls and origami for playthings, his few friends (all girls) severely vetted, he was left alone to dream and read fairy tales. When his grandmother determined she finally was going to die, she returned him to his parents. His siblings saw him as a lodger; his father considered the would-be decadent scribbler a disgrace.

During World War II, Mishima was in college, waiting to be called up for the last battles of the Pacific. “A genius destined for death,” he described his 20-year-old self. “It was a rare time when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of the age perfectly corresponded.” His memory of 1945, the year of the atom bomb and surrender, was of merciless sunlight. “The summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before.” A sympathetic army recruiter rejected him (Mishima had played up a recent bout of tuberculosis), so Mishima never fought. The world gained a writer who wished he’d died a soldier.

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What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my own true nature. And it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was masquerade.

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

By the Fifties, he was Japan’s best-selling author. His books, full of death, scandal and glamour, were so popular that slang for an adulterous woman, yoromeki fujin (“lady misstep”), came from his novel A Misstepping of Virtue. He wrote and directed plays; he wrote, directed and/or starred in dozens of films (he liked playing toughs and gangsters) and once sang a film’s theme despite being tone deaf. “How wonderful to be a star!” he once said while sprawled upon a sofa backstage at one of his plays.

In whatever little compartment—as a clown (which he liked to be), as an actor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—every little thing he tried be, he also resisted,” the writer Nobuko Albery said. To the actress Hideko Muramatsu, Mishima said human beings are made of opposite halves: love and cruelty, tenderness and hatred. “Try to express both sides at the same time. Then the personality you create will be more profoundly expressed.”

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He was a gay man who married a woman and had two children; a Europe-loving aesthete obsessed with restoring traditional Japanese culture, the sovereignty of the emperor and the Japanese army (now with nuclear weapons). His dogged, precise work schedule was that of a banker while he dressed, as his biographer John Nathan described, in a “blend of Hollywood cool and Roman drugstore cowboy,” favoring shades, loud sport shirts, black pegged trousers, gold chains. (Nathan, who went to discos with Mishima in the Sixties, said “it was like watching a studied imitation of a dancer; he always looked horrifyingly sober“). Within his Western-style house with a statue of Apollo in its garden (“my despicable symbol of the rational“), Mishima wrote on a metal desk in a small, spartan room. At parties, he’d roll on his back to do impressions of a dog treeing a cat, would imitate Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Then he’d dismiss everyone before midnight so he could get in his writing hours.

Frail in build after the hothouse years of his childhood, driven by his shame of failing the draft (and being kidded in gay clubs about being so skinny), Mishima began exercising and weight-training until he had the body of a lean Charles Atlas. He seemed to have custom-designed each muscle as he had each room of his house.

In Sun and Steel, he wrote that he began life as nothing but mind. “I was to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language.” Once he’d learned it, he knew he would lose it—the idea of his body’s inevitable decay appalled him. “I was the final heir to the tradition of Japanese beauty.”

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By the mid-Sixties, he’d set upon two goals: he would write his masterpiece and would die by ritual suicide. At first he thought these irreconcilable, but found a means to entwine them and bring them to fruition.

While writing Spring Snow, the first of his quartet of novels The Sea of Fertility, he befriended a group of nationalist students, whom he’d incorporate into his next book, Runaway Horses. He joined the Army Self-Defense Force (roughly Japan’s equivalent to the National Guard), going to boot camp at age 42. As he wrote The Temple of Dawn he created a civilian counterpart to the ASDF—-a private 90-man army called the Shield Society (he wrote their theme song). He debated left-wing students, starred as a terrorist in a film, hoped a leftist uprising would cause his civilian army to be activated.

He was playing war, which had a special excitement for him because he hadn’t been allowed to do so as a child,” his brother later said.

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On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society disciples went to the ASDF headquarters and held the commander hostage. Mishima stood on the balcony to orate to the soldiers. He called on them to overthrow the Japanese government and restore the emperor; they mostly jeered him: “Stop trying to be a hero!” “We can’t act in common with fellows like you!” He’d contacted the media to be sure the news cameras were there. Returning to the commander’s office, he knelt and drove a foot-long dagger into his left side, then drew it across his abdomen. His disciple fumbled the killing blow, failing twice to decapitate him as Mishima shook in pain and gushed blood and intestines. Another would-be hero finished the job.

That morning, Mishima had left home wearing his dress uniform. On his desk was the finished manuscript of the last book of his quartet, The Decay of the Angel, and a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune

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Then we saw
Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall

The first lines of “Heat,” the last song on Bowie’s The Next Day (the last next day), refer to a scene early in Mishima’s Spring Snow.

Mishima’s quartet is the life of Japanese man, Shigekuni Honda, and his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies each novel to be reincarnated in the following book. Kiyoaki, dead of heartbreak and illness in 1914, is reborn as Isao, a nationalist fanatic who commits seppuku in 1931. Isao is reborn as Ying Chan, a Thai princess who barely seems to exist in the world until she no longer does (snake bite, 1952). She reincarnates as Tōru, an arrogant shipping clerk whom an aged Honda adopts in 1970.

Honda—rational, dull, slave to routine, dedicated worker, faithful husband in a loveless marriage, reader, voyeur, survivor—is the control. The experiment is his reincarnated friend, whose various lives embody passion, beauty, bravery, depravity, improvisation, a will for death. Honda “was certain he had played a part in the crystallization of Kiyoaki and Isao’s transparent lives…he was a kind of harbor and not a ship,” (The Temple of Dawn). The quartet is Mishima’s life of opposites split into two beings—one continual, one reoccurring, each needing the other.

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Spring Snow begins with Honda and Kiyoaki as teenagers on the latter’s family estate in 1912. They’re part of an entourage walking to a waterfall on a hill overlooking the manor. “It’s a beautiful day,” Honda says. “In all our lives, we may not have many like this.”

Though the hill has been sculpted to provide a gently-flowing waterfall, water is being diverted midway up the slope. A black dog that “probably had been mortally sick or wounded when it came to the stream to drink, had fallen in. The force of the current had wedged the corpse into the cleft of rocks at the top of the falls…[Honda] felt oppressed by the sight of the dog hanging dead in the falls under a bright sky only faintly flecked with cloud.” The party gives the dog a burial, an abbess leads the funeral blessing.

A water-washed corpse of an aimless dog spoils the careful designs of human beings. It harbingers Kiyoaki’s death, his subsequent deaths, and the slow corruption of his various reincarnations; it foretells the Kiyoaki estate being bombed to pieces by American planes during the war and Honda’s sad withering. It is time and doom.

Bowie uses “we”: his perspective both Honda and Kiyoaki, Mishima’s halves in a single eye. But the oppressive mood of “Heat” is far from that of Spring Snow, whose setting is a jewel of a prewar Japanese world. “Heat” is more a blasted landscape.

Referencing a Mishima novel was in keeping with how Bowie wrote much of The Next Day. His circle reduced, since the mid-2000s, to his family and a few friends, Bowie seems to have retreated into books (in a way, he lived Mishima’s childhood as an older man). So lines from Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh turn up in “I’d Rather Be High,” Carole Anne Duffy and Svetlana Alliluyeva in “How Does the Grass Grow?,” Robert Palmer (writer, not singer) in “The Next Day,” Mishima here.

It was an older type of songwriting—he’d written many of his first album’s songs by taking stories and characters from Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. But it’s done far more obliquely and disjointedly here: a traceable reference links to an untraceable one, forming a lattice of broken images. The dog in the waterfall is the first square on the board; the rest of Bowie’s words are a series of jumps.

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky

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So in the first verse of “Heat,” after the Mishima lines, come some purgatorial images—songs of dust, the night always falling. Then “the peacock in the snow,” suggesting a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord (a film about children growing up in a surreal Fascist Italy):

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Which in turn, as the artist Tanja Stark noted, has echoes in one of Jimmy King’s photo shoots of Bowie, from winter 2013:

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And jump-cut to Scott Walker’s “Jolson and Jones,” from 2006’s The Drift:

Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted
Where dead children were born

It’s not that Bowie set out a map and said, “all right, x will take you to y, from which you can find z.” He’d always worked at angles, in shadows, never spelling things out (even to himself), making the listener do the work. It was a holdover from his glam rock years. The crowd had made Ziggy Stardust; here, the crowd (no longer a crowd, but a group of solitudes listening to his songs on computers or phones) decides which path a song like “Heat” takes.

There was a parallel in the work of an old influence. The later songs of Scott Walker are full of lines with little to tether them but their being sung by the same keening voice. Walker wrote bloody histories via arcane words quarried from the OED or from art movies, set to apocalyptic music.

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John

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The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

This blog’s gone at length into the connections between Scott Walker and David Bowie (see “Nite Flights” and “The Motel”; pack a lunch). For Walker, Bowie was of interest while he was making his 1978 album Nite Flights. For Bowie, Walker was nearly a lifelong influence.

A pop star in the Sixties, Walker spent much of his artistic life on the margins, while Bowie remained a genial mainstream presence (with some exceptions) whose secret ambitions were to be something like Scott Walker. In 1997, Bowie exhibited a painting titled The Walker Brothers Triptych. The three “brothers” were x-rays of himself, bracketed by then-collaborator Reeves Gabrels and the artist Tony Oursler. It’s a remnant of his most Walker-esque avant-garde period, the years of Outside and Modern Painters.

Then a funny thing happened in the 21st Century—the two swapped places. Bowie grew furtive, was out of the public eye; his life became speculation. Walker was, by his standards, a public figure.

Walker cut a song for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film, soundtracked Leos Carax’s Pola X, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2000, produced Pulp’s final album We Love Life, recorded a song with Bat For Lashes. He participated in a documentary about himself which he said he’s never watched, and let cameras into the studio as he recorded The Drift. Thanks to a sympathetic generation of music journalists, there are more interviews promoting The Drift and Bish Bosch than there are for the whole of his solo career pre-2006. He patiently explained what his intentions were, how the albums were recorded, how he was using his voice.

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He’s become, at 73, something of a cultural institution. While a few older fans may still harass him on the tube because “the stuff you’re doing now I fucking hate,” he’s mostly escaped at last being the glamorous Mod London Scott. Sporting skinny jeans and caps like a Williamsburg grandfather, he makes inscrutable albums that critics generally like.

Signing with 4AD in the 2000s, Walker was free to do whatever he wanted (if anything, 4AD pushed for “weird”). His late albums are as much a brand identity as the Scott albums of the Sixties. Their covers have muted colors, with photographs that could be lunar surfaces or microbe slides; tracks have titles like “Epizootics!” and “Psoriatic” and “Herod 2014.” You come to expect the sudden shifts in dynamics, esoteric percussion as primary rhythmic pulse, keening lead vocals that follow melodic lines unsupported by the backing music (or noises), abstract violence as organizing principle.

The Drift is a slasher film as art rock record. Listening to each track, you wait for the blow to strike—Satanic Donald Duck voice, horse-massacre horn, winter armies, massed strings summoned like ringwraiths. Walker’s voice is the only constant in a sequence of rapid set changes, his plaintive, haunted phrasings fall over telltale-heartbeat drums or gales of atonal strings. The Drift is the culmination of what he’d been moving towards since “The Electrician.” His masterpiece, it’s a brutalizing album to endure from start to finish.

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Bish Bosch, from 2012, works along the same lines, but there’s a growing sense of absurdity, as if the Walker project has reached its red giant phase (the title, Walker said, meant in part “job done, sorted”). Songs are longer, more ridiculous, goofier—the dog barks, fart and piss noises in “Corps de Blah” or how Walker’s ode to the fall of the Ceaucescus, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died,” has a lyric of multiple-choice personality test questions and ends with a snatch of “Jingle Bells.” At the same time, there’s a paring down—fewer strings, diminished basslines. “We just need to find silence and stillness to experience it,” Walker said.

Its gonzo peak is the 21-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an oblique history of a 5th Century jester dwarf, stuck on a pole, who becomes a brown dwarf star. Much of the lyric is a historical catalog of insults, from Catullan digs like “for gross Gauls, who won’t leave our sheep alone” to Don Rickles jibes like “does your face hurt? Cause it’s killing me.” What best survives the long centuries? The put-down jokes.

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After decades of frustration, Walker had found a way of working that suited him. Keeping to a tight budget (he had to record all the strings in a single day, would have to wait months for a few days of studio time to open up), he would use a small group of studio pros who knew what to expect from him, and could process his instructions quickly. Machetes as percussion? Electroshock guitar? Crickets? It got done.

His albums sold enough to justify their production costs; he got enough press. He was as free as any artist can be in the 2010s. So he could sit at home and write his dark Saturday-crossword-clue lyrics (there’s a similarity to Mishima’s prose: Mishima “knew the exact word for everything,” friends recalled, and loved archaic and obscure terms, making his books difficult to translate). Then he’d map out chords on his keyboard, get much of the song set in his head, go to the studio and have his musicians give the rest of it to him.

A workable aesthetic. One that Bowie followed as if using a blueprint when making Blackstar.

6. The First Step Toward Salvation

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Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip.

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

As I write this, on a nearby table is Mick Rock’s photo collection of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The book is the size of a small tombstone. It’s a public life in glam stills, whether Bowie applying makeup backstage, on a train somewhere, or out on stage. A record of Bowie assembling a grand personality, as if building a temple, then walking around in it.

The critic Donald Richie once said of his friend Mishima: “He knew one of the great and best-kept secrets of being alive is that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it. You become who you are by practicing it and, little by little, you will turn into who you want to be.”

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period was him rigging himself into being a star. For the rest of his life, he’d tear down the stage dressing and do it again, and again. It wasn’t the way of Mishima, who’d spent the whole of his life building to his suicidal climax. His books, films, plays, interviews, actions feel aligned in a single rising movement, a unified performance, all his halves fusing to form the man standing on the balcony in 1970. When he killed himself, the Japanese were stunned; he had acted. “Mishima has gone and actually done what these rightists only talk about,” a Japanese policeman told journalists. “And it is not only the rightists who are stirred. Here in Japan, there must be thousands of frustrated people. They have no outlet for their pent‐up feelings.”

Mishima doing karate, practicing kendo, flying in subsonic aircraft, plotting revolutions, gutting himself, making sure the camera caught his right profile. For Bowie, he existed as image: heat and light, sun and steel. By contrast, there was Scott Walker, hiding in London studios, having drummers thwack sides of meat. Existing, as he had since the early Walker Brothers singles, as voice, as form without being, artist without biography. “I’m just trying to be a person singing without any personality or anything else particularly,” Walker said.

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‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

In 1982, in the months before he made Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had been Mishima’s leftist political rival in the Sixties. Bowie said he once saw a TV interview in which the two fervently argued with each other for what boiled down to the same ideals. “I qualify that by saying that the Japanese left and right are quite different from Western ideas of left and right, where it is estranged left and estranged right,” Bowie said in 1983. “In Japan both would have probably have roots in the same source than they might have over here. They both say, let’s stay Japanese. And when you’ve got that, you’re almost cancelling out everything else!”

In Mr. Lawrence, Oshima cast the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, head of a World War II prison camp for British soldiers. Sakamoto essentially plays Mishima (call the movie a battle for aesthetic supremacy between Bowie and Mishima, a war fought via actors). Yonoi is a pop star out of time, obsessed with his own honor and Bowie’s character, the prisoner of war Jack Celliers; he’s consumed by Celliers’ blond purity, his beauty, his refusal to obey. Both characters are driven by past shames: Celliers’ betrayal of his younger brother, Yonoi failing to die honorably after the failure of a coup he participated in.

At the film’s climax, to prevent the POW commander from being executed, Celliers breaks ranks and walks up to Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks. Yonoi, outraged and in love, can’t act. He collapses in disgrace. Celliers is killed by being buried alive; Yonoi is executed at the end of the war, perhaps with the lock of hair he’d cut from Celliers still in his pocket.

7. The False Account and the True

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With its austere F-sharp major key, “Heat” seems like an outpost when compared to the rest of its loud, compressed album. It seems to play the curtain-closing role that “Bring Me the Disco King” did on Reality.

It’s a mix of Walker tropes. The usual “Electrician” moods, the Climate of Hunter fretless bass (Gail Ann Dorsey, playing an instrument she was unfamiliar with), the blurred instrumentation and semitonal shifts in melody and chords. The latter’s been a Walker trait since the Sixties—his hope of making “new chords” by binding contrasting tones together, strings hovering between tones.

The chord structure of “Heat” is sparse: a long stay on the home F# chord, then moving to the IV chord (B major, “songs of dust”) to a D major refrain (“I tell myself”); it’s a shift between E and F# for the coda (“I am a seer..”). But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C). It creates tension throughout the track; it’s as if a landscape is being shrouded in mist, then uncovered.

Bowie sings a handful of notes, making pawn’s moves (rising only by second or third intervals). He does this often on The Next Day, hunkering down on a few notes instead of writing his usual octave-spanning lines, as if unwilling to stray out of his confines. A movement repeats like Morse code: a two-note rise for each phrase, F# to G# (“Mi-shima’s dog,” “tell my-self,” “love is theft“)). He only moves to a third note to close a section, whether circularly (“blocking the water-fall” is F#-G#-F#) or ambiguously (“pea-cock in the snow” ends on an A note).

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The arrangement clouds things further. The rhythm is a brusque acoustic guitar (Bowie?), the drums embellish (cymbals hiss on the chord changes), Dorsey’s bass is a softly persistent querying voice. Despite Bowie’s dominant position in the mix, the background—meshes of keyboards that hold on a wavering chord, guitars making solitary gestures, vocal loops, wary strings that finally burst into flight in the coda—is as much central to the track.

And while Walker is there in “Heat,” it’s a frozen conception of him. This is still the Scott of “It’s Raining Today” and “Nite Flights,” not the man howling and laughing on his latter records. The 21st Century’s Walker doesn’t exist here. Much of The Next Day is Bowie assessing his past, “sampling” it, playing cut-up with it. He does the same to Walker here—“Heat” feels like the end of a long admiration. A man finally packing things up, starting to look beyond the horizon.

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial

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All art is like the evening glow. It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky, even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile…The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending.

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

Of “Heat,” Tony Visconti said “the lyrics are so bleak that I asked David what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer…He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind.

“Tragic, Nerve, Mystification” are the last words in the list that Bowie gave the writer Rick Moody, in what would be his only public statement on The Next Day. The 42 words, in order, seem to have a structure: each three-word set corresponds to the equivalent song on the LP sequence. If this is “Heat” in miniature, the words fit. A tragic loss of nerve. Making an end by fading into the mystic.

The violence throughout The Next Day—dying men shoved in trees, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—comes to a rest in “Heat,” which is a world bled free of killing as much as anything else. If The Next Day is a war album, the sad tale of how the 21st Century became more like the religious-war-plagued 16th Century than the world of Major Tom and the Saviour Machine, “Heat” is its tattered epilogue, its cease-fire.

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It has one of Bowie’s winking self-epitaphs: I am a seer, and I am a liar. A pun: a see-er, a seer. A man who only sees what’s right before him, or a prophet. And a liar, which he always claimed he was.

My father ran the prison. I’m not guilty, but you can’t believe a word I say, mind. I never wanted to be a rock star, he said in 1974. But I was there, that’s what happened.

It became a personal song in the sense of Self. Not ego-self or knowable self but in the way of whatever the Self is,” Walker once said of his song “Cue.” Who is singing “Heat”?

If much of The Next Day is a romp with his touring band, getting the gang back together for one last caper, “Heat” points to the end of Bowie’s recording life. You could call it a dock, from which he went off on a last trip.

Or a pier, which, as James Joyce once wrote, is a disappointed bridge.

9. Grand Finale

dbsp

You hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.

Bowie, “Bring Me the Disco King” video, 2003.

In 2014, Scott Walker recorded with a band, Sunn O))). The album, Soused, has the usual droning guitars and obscure lyrics but there’s something fresh in it. It’s an artist who’s been locked in his mind having to balance himself against a set of younger players (all members of Sunn O))) were born after the Scott albums were released). Though it’s a drone record, there’s a lightness of tone, a looseness of structure, that other Late Scott albums lack. It could be a one-off; it could be his future.

The same year, David Bowie was at a New York jazz club, sizing up a combo of musicians a generation or two younger than him. Donny McCaslin, after Bowie had hired his group for his new album, began exploring Bowie’s back catalog (he only knew the Eighties hits). But Bowie warned him off. “That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now.”

walkers

In the autumn of 1970, a few months before his suicide, Yukio Mishima mounts an exhibition of himself in a department store. It ranges from photographs of his stolen childhood to a recent series of homoerotic shots in which he’s posed as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows.

In 2008, Scott Walker helps create Drifting and Tilting at the Barbican, in which his post-Eighties songs are performed live for the first time. He doesn’t sing them, nor does he appear on stage. Instead singers inspired by him (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) perform his songs. Walker is at the sound desk, watching his music escape him. He notes that most of the audience is well under 50.

It’s 2015. David Bowie Is, a museum exhibition of David Bowie’s life, moves from Paris to Melbourne to the Netherlands. Among the works on display is the painting of Yukio Mishima that once hung on a West Berlin wall. Bowie’s last public appearance is at the opening night of his musical; he sits and watches actors sing his songs to him.

Clear the waterfall, let the stream go where it will.

Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!

Mishima, Runaway Horses.

dbmish

Recorded: (backing tracks) May 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released: 8 March 2013, The Next Day.

Credits: (Mishima) John Nathan, Mishima-A Biography (1974); Naoki Inose, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (2013); The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (Arena, 1985); Mishima: His Life and Literature; Philip Shabecof’s “You’ve Heard of Yukio Mishima…”from the NYT, 2 August 1970, and subsequent NYT articles after Mishima’s suicide. Of Mishima’s novels, essential works include: Confessions of a Mask (1949), Thirst For Love (1950), Forbidden Colors (1951), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) and his last quartet: Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (posthumously p., 1971). The essay Sun and Steel (1968) is critical for a sense of Mishima’s philosophy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a fusion of Mishima’s biography and fiction, is worth watching, as is Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, of course! (Walker) In addition to sources listed in the previous entries (esp. No Regrets and Anthony Reynolds’ biography), I’m indebted to articles and broadcasts, 1966-2016, that I’ve listed here. (Walker, DB and “Heat”) ‘Crayon to Crayon,’ as always. Tanja Stark’s “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses,” collected in Exploring David Bowie, is a compelling analysis of mortality in Bowie’s work.

For Kevin Smith, 1972-2016. Tell me all about it on the next bardo, Kev. For Rahawa, defeater of mountains.

Photos inc.: 1. DB, 1977 (unknown photog.); Johannes Eisele, “David Bowie Is… exhibit, Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin,” 2014; 3. Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-2005); 4:  King, 2013; Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). All DB shots: King, 2013; 8: Mishima, 1968. 9: Bowie: self-portrait “D Head V,” ca. 1995; “Walker Brothers Triptych” 1996,”Head of Mishima” 1977.

If You Can See Me

September 18, 2015

nikola

If You Can See Me.

“If You Can See Me” is dead-center in The Next Day‘s original sequence, like a scarecrow meant to send the half-hearted listener packing, with its chromatic chord changes, gear-shifts in meter, aggressive off-kilter top melodies and a lyric gnomic even by Bowie standards. Tony Visconti was struck by Bowie’s writing here, praising the “very wide, beautiful, crunchy jazz chords, with time signatures that Dave Brubeck would be proud of.”

Much of The Next Day reflects earlier periods in Bowie’s creative life—Bowie not sampling himself so much as he’ll “remix” the style of a Scary Monsters or Man Who Sold the World to fit current moods and obsessions. Seen in this light, The Next Day is something of a parallel world’s Bowie greatest hits record—slightly familiar songs as seen darkly through funhouse mirrors.

So “If You Can See Me” (and “Heat”) are the album’s most direct representatives of the Leon/Outside years. Yet where the Leon/Outside tracks were born from a band’s free improvisations, guided by Brian Eno’s “random” suggestions and steered by the likes of Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson, “If You Can See Me” is essentially Bowie, sitting at a keyboard at home, rigging together an Outside song by himself, as if working with memories of old parameters.

The song’s built, as Bowie sings in one verse, as “chutes and ladders….from nowhere to nothing.” The D-flat intro and refrains, in a punishing 5/4 time, slowly climb from an opening G-flat chord to A-flat to B-flat minor until, after briefly losing footing and sliding down to Ab, it finally reaches the peak, resolving hard home on D-flat to end the sequence. This feeling of a desperate upward movement is furthered by Bowie’s phrasing in the refrains, where he sounds as if he’s moving with a great weight on his back, until ending with an exhausted, manically triumphant boast.

And the 4/4 verses are a shaky huddle around F minor, mainly sung over a drum loop and a stabbing keyboard line, with a syncopated bass pattern (with a flatted fifth note) that buttresses an E major chord guitar riff. As Clifford Slapper (who kindly puzzled out the song for me) said, the verses feel “jumpy, nervous, as if dancing on hot coals, before finding brief respite on F minor periodically (e.g., on “and meet me across the river”).” Again, Bowie added to the unsettled harmonic mood with a phrasing in which he’s a contrary force to the bassline hook, mainly keeping to one note, dragging lines across bars.

His lyric has further shades of Outside—hints at ritual sacrifice (“take this knife”) and serial killing (“a love of violence and dread of sighs”). The ghost of Ramona A. Stone walks again (“I should wear your old red dress”—recall “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?”), as do older specters—the utopian genocidal Saviour Machine, the dictator of “We Are Hungry Men,” the Führerling Alternative Candidate. (“Identities switch between someone who may be Bowie and a politician,” Visconti said of “If You Can See Me”.) Its last refrain finds Bowie in the ecstatic register of a fanatic, a conqueror or perhaps even God Himself, leveling curses, sacking the towns, threatening annihilation. The last calls of “If you can see me, I can see you“, slowly decreasing in tempo, are like a child-god’s taunts (“crusade, tyrant, domination,” Bowie offered as a précis.) But Bowie has always enjoyed playing villains, as they tend to get the best lines.

Does it all hold together? The production veers all over the place, with Bowie’s chintzy-sounding synthesizer lines getting more prominence in the mix than Zachary Alford’s kinetic drum patterns; Tony Levin is a quagmire foundation (in the brief post-apocalyptic coda, Levin grumbles off into the distance); Gail Ann Dorsey gets her most prominent spot on the album with her whirling vocal intro (shades of Clare Torrey on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky“) and adds a high ceiling to some of Bowie’s lines. Bowie seems delighted to have managed to set the thing in motion, relishing the rhythm of lines like “American Anna, fantastic Alsatian” and having a blast playing Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds in his last refrain.

Impenetrable, viciously-sung, a strange dark work of labored ambition, “If You Can See Me” wound up being the Next Day track which most hinted at Bowie’s next move, the “Sue”/”Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” single in 2014.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Again, much thanks owed to Clifford Slapper (this song was a monster to figure out).

Top: Nikola Tamindzic, “SS1,” from his series “Interbeing.” See you next month, Nikola. (Again, October 17 in NYC.)


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

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

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

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

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

72db

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

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


Omikron: The Nomad Soul (& BowieBanc & BowieNet)

October 28, 2013

sketch by boz

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (play-through).*
Boz’s Speech (Bowie, from Omikron).
Jahangir.
Awakened 2.
Thrust.
“Demon Fight Music.”

He practiced statuesque positions and gave the impression of being a superhuman character by speaking very little and never eating in public.

Edward Burman, on Rashid ad-din Sinan.

Back in the Crusades, Sinan knew the game. As did Greta Garbo, who played it for high stakes. So did David Bowie in 1972. The point of the game, regardless the board on which it was played, was for the idol to escape from life, with its shrieky children, gas bills and installment plans. There should be a pane of thick, darkened glass between idol and audience. To be accessible was to lose. The man who sits in a cafe all day, mumbling as he reads the papers: he’s accessible. A taxi driver is accessible. A star shouldn’t even be seen eating. So Bowie, once a shy hippie hanging around Beckenham folk clubs, became Ziggy Stardust. He moved on, through various avatars of fame, each unknowable in its own way.

He’d chafe under his reputation sometimes, rubbish it, say that he was just an ordinary guy. Make a big deal of walking to a corner store and buying bread. And at the turn of the century, Bowie made himself more ordinary than ever before, as if he was following a weight-loss regimen for the mystique.

On his website he posted journal entries (once musing how, in another life, he could be walking his grandchildren around Bromley by now), and offered low-resolution files of his paintings. He took part in chat rooms, allegedly under the handle “sailor.” He submitted to Internet Q&A sessions with fans. Here are some questions from one from September 1998: Do you shop at Wal-Mart? Is it possible for you to market some of your better paintings in poster versions for like much cheeper (sic)? SqueakieTampaxTwin: Bowie when you were filming Exhuming Mr. Rice in Vancouver, did you ever stop by Subeez Cafe??

$T2eC16Z,!ygE9s7HJ-StBRZJ3K1)8!~~60_57

It was as if, while Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school, Bowie was bracing for the 21st Century, the demand for everyone to “share” accessible versions of themselves. The self as a business card, to be distributed to anyone who asked for it. He also saw opportunity: on 1 September 1998, he launched BowieNet.

Recall what the typical rock star’s webpage looked like in 1998, if it wasn’t just an empty cupboard of a site thrown up to claim “rodstewart.com” during the internet boom. Maybe a tinny-sounding track would blare via RealPlayer when you loaded the page, which might crash your computer. Maybe there was a link to a page of pixelated concert photos. The text seemed plagiarized from fan sites. It was updated once an equinox.

Bowie’s site was fresh, fluid, offered legitimate exclusives: downloadable material, in particular Earthling tour recordings; his journals; his recommendations for books and films. He seemed intent on hosting an actual community. In 1999, he held a fan songwriting contest (see the upcoming “What’s Really Happening?”); he had fans pick their favorite mixes for Bowie At the Beeb and choose the cover of his All Saints compilation. “I do think it’s fair to say that music sites like Pitchfork exist—or at least the cool music blog model exists—because of BowieNet,” Wired editor Nancy Miller told Marc Spitz. “The idea of a singular, serious, legit indie music site with great influence, where you can get music news, videos, downloads of genuinely cool music?…Bowie was coming up with ideas to save the music industry [in 1998].

And he actually seemed to make a little money, rather a novelty for websites. Unlike the New York Times or Sports Illustrated or countless newspapers now shuttered or decimated, Bowie charged his readers from the start: $20 a month ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, BowieNet was being valued at $500 million. (Bowie was more blunt about how much he really was earning: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies.“)

Bowienet

Everybody has a voice

Greeting on BowieNet, late 1990s.

I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society—both good and bad—is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.

Bowie, Newsnight interview, December 1999.

In one of his BowieNet chats, Bowie was reminded by a fan about “Saviour Machine,” his mainframe-turned-killer-god song from 1970. “This machine did such a good job that, to create something for it to do, it had to make things bad again,” he recalled to Time Out. “I think, without knowing it, the Internet was something I was always desperate to get involved with.”

He began to veer between evangelism for the Internet and a cold-eyed realization that it would eviscerate the pop music industry (he also took the Y2K scare seriously).** “Once everyone can sample what they want at home on a cheap computer, the medium suddenly becomes the message,” he said in 2000. “And the message seems to be ‘This is lifestyle music, not attitude music.’ I think we will probably buy our music in the same way as we buy our clothes now; it’s no longer the replacement to church.”

Was this over-egging it? The young Mod Bowie had considered his music to be on a par with his clothes, and he and Marc Bolan had been the ones who rubbished the idea of rock music as church, which was something for the redbrick academics and tiresome hippie older brothers. Glam itself had been fabulous lifestyle music. The Internet could be a sequel, even more transformative.

Yet in the boom years of the century’s end, Bowie also recognized how much of a hustle one’s professional life would have to become. Constantly refreshing your site, constantly tending to your users, watching hit rates tick upward and downward. Users “are looking for things that represent their own interests, similar minds,” he told Uncut in 1999. “And so I became the first autonomous individual!”

LiveAndWell-US-CD

By early 2000, the Financial Times noticed that Bowie was branching into realms “unrelated to [what you] might call his core competencies.”

He had started the David Bowie Radio Network for Rolling Stone‘s website. And to run BowieNet, he had co-formed Ultrastar, an internet service provider that ran the websites of the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees (“we create little generic ISPs for different companies and universities and colleges,” he said. “It’s actually quite a major company now.“)

One of his business partners, Robert Goodale, not-quite-jokingly said that a Bowie Trading Desk could be in the future. Things didn’t go that far, but there was BowieBanc.

bowiebanc

When suggested the cobranding arrangement, Bowie immediately seized the marketing potential. “People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’” says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.

J. Alex Tarquinio, “Banking on Bowie’s Brand,” Forbes, 4 March 2000.

When I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep.

Bowie, 1998.

One of the hooks of BowieNet was that subscribers had their own personal Bowie email address. You could impress your friends by sending Clinton/Lewinsky jokes via “jojo@bowie.net.” So BowieBanc was the next step of fan identification. Starting in January 2000, BowieBanc offered an Internet-only bank account whose holders would receive Bowie brand ATM cards. One of the promos for opening a BowieBanc account was a year’s subscription to BowieNet.

His financial advisor Bill Zysblat told the FT: What [Bowie] is doing is taking his fan base, which 20 years ago had an affinity for wearing a T-shirt of his, and maybe 10 years ago graduated to wearing a golf shirt of his, and in the last three or four years has developed to being part of his online service, and trying to create that same affinity with what he is doing with online banking.”

Running this venture was USABancShares.com. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company, as it’s such a ridiculous metaphor for modern America you’d expect to find it in a Tom Wolfe novel. In 1887, a group of Quakers started the Peoples’ Thrift Savings Bank, an institution that thriftily endured for over a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized names were hip for banks), bought some other local banks, took it public, renamed it again to USABancShares, increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. He launched an on-line bank division in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture.

Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital and got paid for the use of his name and image. He was possibly the only person who came out unscathed from the venture, which only had 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. The company spent $6 million in marketing and lost $4 million in a year. Tepper soon left; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share. “The expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper said. A customer reportedly also had committed fraud, allegedly leaving the bank with a $3 million debt. By March 2001, an ailing USABancShares was under the heel of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Pennsylvania Department of Banking. It was sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, who took it private and returned to community banking. The whole affair seemed like a quiet Philadelphia bank’s mid-life crisis.

Sure, BowieBanc is a footnote in Bowie’s life, but it’s a jarring one. What was he doing having his face put on ATM cards? Imagine Greta Garbo letting her face appear on a box of breakfast cereal. It seemed the mad culmination of all of these whirligig ambitions: the need to be seemingly everywhere for his fans, to be accessible and down-to-earth, yet also having to exploit one’s legend enough that some fan would actually open a bank account to get Bowie’s face emblazoned on a checkbook.

dbomikron

When you arrive in Qualisar go up the ramp in front of you. Look for a sign that says Harvey’s Bar and enter it. Inside, first find the bathroom there is 10 Seteks in the first stall. Now go to the stage and enjoy the show. If you’re wondering why that guy sounds like David Bowie it is because he is. When the band is done go to the next building which is the Sex Shop.

Cody Pitre, Omikron Walkthrough Strategy Guide.

You’re not the first video game player to get your soul trapped in this dimension.

“Boz” (Bowie).

There was another Bowie computer-based venture in the late Nineties that was a stranger, and subtler take on this confusion. Omikron: the Nomad Soul was a game designed and developed by Quantic Dream and Eidos Interactive. The premise mingled Tron (gamers sucked into a videogame, where they have to fight for their lives) and Blade Runner, the Final Fantasy franchise (gamers could go “off narrative,” walk around virtual cities and hang out in bars) and Buddhism. The latter was a hook for Bowie. One of the premises of Omikron was that your “nomad soul” could transfer from body to body in the course of the game, using reincarnation as a means of advancement.

Further, Bowie had himself appear in the game, as “Boz,” leader of The Awakened (there was a futurist-Gnosticism going on in Omikron, similar to The Matrix, released the same year). “I saw Boz as being a kind of digital patchwork quilt, made up of all sorts of shifting patterns, fleeting thoughts, and fractured memories—someone who would slip in and out of focus, one moment drifting and world-weary, the next absolutely concise and direct,” Bowie said in an interview.

While back in reality he was listing his favorite coffees on his website, running baseball team ISPs and conferencing with bankers, in the game he was 25 again, hiding in catacombs and playing in dive bars, running a musical resistance unit. Sometimes he envisioned his ISP business to be the same. In interviews, he compared BowieNet and Ultrastar to “smaller cartels,” a sort of Rebel Alliance against the Empire (he liked to mentioned Bill Gates as an example of the latter).

tracklisting

Composing much of the Omikron soundtrack (Xavier Despas wrote about half of the instrumentals, Gabrels and Bowie the remainder) would be one impetus for “hours,” as we’ll see. There are in-game performances of “New Angels of Promise,” “Survive” and “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” while mixes of many other “hours” tracks and outtakes can be heard over laser gunfights and demonic wrestling matches.

Four Bowie/Gabrels instrumentals were allegedly made specifically for the game, listed (on a French bootleg) as “Awaken 2,” “Thrust,” “Jangir” (though the region in the game was called “Jahangir”) and “Qualisar.” However, as some commenters on the Illustrated DB board noted, most of these instrumentals were actually early/different versions of “hours” B-sides. “Awakened 2,” for instance, is an instrumental version of “No One Calls,” while “Thrust,” heard during a rooftop battle with a demon, would become “1917.” There may be a few lost Bowie/Gabrels instrumentals buried in Omikron. A piece that I cleverly labeled “Demon Fight Music,” a grunting loop of what sounds like Bowie’s voice and Gabrels’ guitar heard during a battle scene, could be one [nope: turns out it’s a Gabrels-only composition, see comments.]

omi

<David\bBowie> But I will be back sooner than I was
last time. I’m not sure that makes any sense.
What have you done to me?!
<David\bBowie> Good night Earthlings!
<hj>Beautiful! That’s it kids
<RaMOANa>WE love ya – bye bye luv
<hj>Bowie has left the building!
<Electric\bWarrior> nite all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
*** Electric\bWarrior (ronroy@DPA) has left
#ChatGuest
End of #ChatGuest buffer Tue Apr 27 23:30:20 1999

Reeves Gabrels, interviewed by David Buckley for a Bowie biography, was blunt about what he thought of internet branding ventures. “Your legacy, your story is what gets remembered.” Recalling his reputation as Tin Machine’s “art snob,” he happily owned it. “It did point out an aspect of my respect for what I do. I personally don’t believe that using your music to sell products is cool. It devalues the art…it devalues its meaning and emotional content.” He and Bowie soon parted company.

Around 2004, coinciding with Bowie’s sudden retirement, BowieNet slowly began to stagnate. There would be fewer updates; the exclusives dried up. Generations of internet cycles passed it by: it slumbered through the rise of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. In 2006, Bowie’s ISP business quietly shut down. Finally in March 2012, the Bowie Facebook page confirmed what had been obvious for five years: BowieNet was dead.

dbcom

On his birthday this year, without warning, Bowie offered a new song. He put it up on YouTube and let people buy it on iTunes.

So he was back in the game, working the Internet hype cycle like a pro, but he wasn’t the glad-handing figure of the dot-com years. He gave no interviews. He wasn’t chatting, he wasn’t taking part in Q&As. His revived website is clean, functional, and updated regularly, and makes no pretense that it’s any sort of interactive realm between Bowie and his fans. Now he just makes videos and songs and puts them up on the Web with little notice or explanation. He’s back behind the glass: happy to be there, hope you’re happy too.

Many of the Omikron instrumentals were recorded ca. January 1999, in various studios in London and Paris (some may have been cut in Bermuda in late 1998). Omikron was released on 1 November 1999. Its soundtrack was never released as a stand-alone recording apart from a French “official” bootleg.

* This is part 1 (labeled as 2) of a multi-part walk-through of the entire game. Usually the next part will appear in the top-right corner of the screen should you like to keep going. There’s also a sped-up walkthrough on YT. Or you could make a rational choice and just not watch any of it.

** Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, Bowie predicted MP3s would replace albums and music would be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he imagined that record stores would somehow remain central. He thought you would go to a record store in 2013 to have a clerk download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player.


Loving the Alien

December 14, 2011

Loving the Alien.
Loving the Alien (single remix, video).
Loving the Alien (live, 1987).
Loving the Alien (remix, “The Scumfrog vs. Bowie,” 2002).
Loving the Alien (live, 2003).
Loving the Alien (live, Tibet House Benefit, 2003).

“Loving the Alien” is a deliberate “Bowie masterpiece” that aims for the heights of “Station to Station” and “Heroes” and misses. “Alien” obviously meant a great deal to its composer, as he worked to hone the song throughout the Tonight sessions, he led off the record with it, he spent a chunk of his most substantive interview in 1984 trying to make sense of it and he later refitted the song with a simpler arrangement that better suited it. But in all of its incarnations “Alien” seems ultimately a failed promise: it yearns to be more substantial than it is.

On the album, the sheen of the track’s production and its somnolent tempo smothered the song, but “Alien” also had some fundamental flaws that its later, tasteful arrangements couldn’t disguise, either. As a song it doesn’t quite hold together: it feels padded and its joins are shaky, while its frustrating lyric ranges from banality to brilliance in the course of a line.

“Alien” began as a full-band demo that Bowie cut in Switzerland before the Tonight sessions. Known as “Demo No. 1,” cutting a releasable version of it became a focal point of the Tonight sessions. Bowie realized that “Alien,” obviously one of the better-quality pieces on the album, would have to serve double duty—not only the Epic Bowie Song of the record (“Ricochet” had this role last time around), it also had to be a potential single. So the version of “Alien” that wound up on Tonight is, in its somber way, compromised. It can seem like a down-tempo remake of “Let’s Dance” in places—Carmine Rojas’ near-identical descending bass hook is there, and the guitar solo that closes out the track sounds like an outtake from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s work.

Bowie wrote the song out of anger, he said. He had worn a crucifix since his chaotic days in Los Angeles and had come to believe the cross held some beneficial power over him—not as a religious symbol (Bowie wasn’t a Christian except in the nominal sense) but as a good-luck charm, a tangible piece of white magic. Musing on this, he began to piece together a vague theory on religion: that much of it, from Judaism to Islam, had been built on a consecutive series of mistranslations.

“Loving the Alien” is Bowie’s last Los Angeles song, as he later admitted. Its lyric is a pulp of a variety of crackpot religious “hidden history” books popular in the Seventies and Eighties—Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail and, most of all, Donovan Joyce’s The Jesus Scroll, which Bowie mentioned in his interview with Shaar Murray. The common thread of these books (from which Dan Brown cherry-picked conspiracies for his Da Vinci Code) is that the official Christian Gospel is a lie, with Jesus Christ having not died on the cross but having fake-engineered his own death for political reasons (Schonfield) or having lived in obscurity until 80, dying a forgotten mortal (Joyce), his descendents still around today (Baigent –> Brown).

One of Bowie’s consistent themes, from the start of his mature work, was the allure and abuses of power. So he took from this jumble of religious hearsay the idea of a Church holding dominion over the dreams and desires of countless generations of human beings, despite its teachings being at heart false, or based on botched translations. For Bowie, the Church is the ultimate Saviour Machine, having the same contempt for the people that it’s allegedly serving (remember that Bowie’s super-computer in that song was called “The Prayer”).

The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective on God’s relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity, which postulates that Jesus Christ was God incarnate whose mission was to provide salvation for man on Earth. The prospect of a host of “alien Christs” systematically visiting every planet in the physical form of the local creatures has a rather absurd aspect. Yet otherwise how are the aliens to be saved?

Paul Davies, God and the New Physics.

“Loving the Alien” “had to do with Major Tom,” Carlos Alomar once told David Buckley. This was an error—the lyric has nothing in it to suggest a follow-up to “Space Oddity,” and there’s no evidence that Bowie had intended “Alien” to fall in the sequence after “Ashes to Ashes.” But Alomar hit home indirectly, as “Alien” does seem like an apocryphal sequel to “Space Oddity,” in which a transformed man (a Major Tom come home) is misinterpreted as a savior, Bowie drawing on various cod-mythic histories in which Jesus Christ was said to literally be an alien being worshiped by an ignorant population—a Starman waiting in the sky.

Bowie sets his lyric in the Holy Land, with Crusaders and Saracens, and their counterparts in Israel/Palestine a millennium later, battling to hold a place that may not have been holy at all (in the Murray interview, Bowie also said he was reading a “historian” who claimed that Ancient Israel was actually in today’s Saudi Arabia—I couldn’t determine who he was talking about). If the verses are a jumbled historical narrative, actors caught up in an endless cycle, time folding into itself, the chorus offers escape: salvation by collective delusion. But if you pray, all your sins are hooked upon the sky, Bowie sings, in his best line of the song. Pray away your enemies, pray away your sins, by loving something you don’t understand, even something false, he sings. Then again, prayers sometimes work. Bowie didn’t get rid of his crucifix, after all.

Bowie had always had a soft spot for conspiracies and wild, speculative cod-histories, with “Quicksand” and “Station to Station” being compendiums of the strands of thought that the books had generated in his mind. But the strength, the uncanny power, of those earlier songs is their interiority—they are more dream journals and stream-of-consciousness fictions than they are any valid speculations on life. They are, in their gnomic ways, true, because everything is true in the mind.

Where “Alien” goes astray is its attempt to impose this sort of dream-speculative scheme upon a real, bloody political situation, especially in its weak second verse—the Middle East of 1984, with the Lebanese Civil War raging and the First Intifada only a few years away. Doing so brings Bowie’s muddled thoughts out into the sharp air, where they expire—his speculations seem trite, his viewpoint that a privileged, rich man idly wondering why people act the way they do, with the abstracted air of someone watching the convulsions of an anthill. The sympathies he has in the chorus, the way Bowie joins with the desire for prayer and release, removes some of this coldness, but there’s still a slight condescension in it.

It’s a fortunate thing in music that so much of the subconscious comes through with the melody and the placement of a particular word on a particular note. For better or for worse, the information is inherent in the song, not in the writer or his intentions or even in the lyrics. It’s probably my strongest point that I write evocatively in terms of musical and verbal expression.

Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1984.

“Loving the Alien” was intended as an epic, so it opens with an extended 20-bar intro sequence broken into three stages—an assembling of players, then a brief vocal hook of repeating “ah ah ah”s—inspired by Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach via Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a song Bowie covered on stage a decade later.* Then Guy St. Onge plays the opening riff on marimba (a bit suggestive of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” from two years before), and the song coalesces with Alomar’s arpeggios set against Rojas’ bassline.

After two albums of fairly basic chord progressions, here Bowie offers a murky one worthy of Space Oddity. “Alien” has an indeterminate key. While the sheet music sets it in G major, its tonality is much vaguer—the verse fits in with G major (Bm/D/Cmaj7/D6, which is III-V-IVmaj7-V6 in G), but the chorus ranges far outside that key, with the arrival of a B-flat, a C minor and an F minor 7th, all of which suggest a move to C minor. The change fits Bowie’s lyrical shift from “earth” in the verses to “heaven” in the choruses.

Bowie’s vocal is also crafted well, with his verse lines often starting with hopeful slight ascents and then descending whenever he hits a piece of reality, a Saracen or a telegram. Or take the way he slightly lowers the high note with each repetition of “pray” or “prayer” in the chorus, as if dialing down expectations—the initial “if you PRAY” has Bowie hitting a high G (the dominant note in the C minor chord the band is playing), the subsequent “PRAY and the heathen” falls to a natural F, and “PRAYERS they hide” falls to an E. And he sings his lines well and passionately, ripping his voice on “SKY.”

But there’s a real strain in “Alien’s” construction at times: take the brutal way the pre-chorus is dragged to the chorus, with three bars of upward jolts in quintuplets. Or how the extended coda sequence, which drags on for two minutes, goes nowhere at all, just recycling the intro sequence and eventually throwing in an uninspired guitar solo.

Of course, there’s much to admire in “Alien”: it’s cryptic in the best Bowie way, and it sounds good, with Arif Mardin’s strings tasteful by the standards of Tonight, and the vocal chorus, usually a catastrophic force on the record, is put to fine use here, with the choir-sounding backing vocals. But there’s something off about “Alien”: there’s a sense of misfiring, of the song pushing for a grandiosity it doesn’t quite earn. It’s a magician not quite pulling off an old trick, though believing that the cards are still speaking to him.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in May 1985 (EA 195, #19 UK)—its video, with its mix of surreal imagery (the backing band out of de Chirico paintings) and Eighties cheese (Bowie’s outfit and ur-Rick Astley dancing) sums up the song’s muddled impact. Performed during the Glass Spider tour and, in a somber reincarnation, in some of the Reality Tour shows.

* While Bowie took pains to dismiss “O Superman”‘s influence on “Alien,” saying that Glass was the only inspiration, this seems a bit too Anxiety of Influence, as “Superman” has obvious lyrical affinities with “Alien” and plays with the same themes of faith and power. Anderson’s opening lyrics (“O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad”) are her play on Le Cid’s aria “O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere.” “In the opera, these words are uttered as a prayer of resignation, the hero putting his fate in God’s hands. In the Anderson song, the three O’s change meaning. First, she prays to Superman (Truth! Justice! The American Way!) but by the end she longs for Mom and Dad.” (Isaac Butler, “Here Come the Planes.”).

Top: Sibylle Bergemann, “Ohne Titel (Gummlin, Usedom),” 1984; from the series Das Denkmal (A Monument), 1975–86. (Reportedly statues of Marx and Engels, East Germany).



The Cynic

March 31, 2015

2005torres

The Cynic (Kashmir, with David Bowie).

My integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I’m doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you’re sick, you’re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I’m gonna watch movies I want to see. I’m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.”

Matthew Weiner, on the end of Mad Men.

I’ve erased several months
It’s turning into a year now…

Kashmir, “The Cynic.”

Whether on doctor’s orders or due to his own misgivings about getting back on the merry-go-round, as an old friend once put it, Bowie spent the 12 months after his heart operation in semi-retirement, doing only the occasional guest vocal session. But he wasn’t in seclusion. Living in Soho, Bowie sampled the hip new bands who came to town, avoiding attention by wearing a cap and glasses and sporting, at various times, a mustache and beard. It was his “Berliner workman” days again, only now he wasn’t working.

How did he have so much time to see all of these bands? Dave Itzkoff asked in 2005 (in what would be Bowie’s last to-date print interview). He had nothing but time, he replied. “Fortunately, I’m not working [laughs]. So I’m resting. I get out a lot. I am a New Yorker, very much, and I get out in New York. It’s just a place that I adore. And I love seeing new theater; I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere—very quietly and never above 14th Street. I’m very downtown.

So he saw TV On the Radio and the Secret Machines. He saw Franz Ferdinand at the Roseland Ballroom, twice (introducing himself to the starstruck band backstage, Bowie baffled them by doing an impersonation of the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer). Interpol at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Knitting Factory. Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. The Killers at Irving Plaza.*

Tony Visconti attended the latter, bringing as his plus-one the Danish singer and guitarist Kasper Eistrup of Kashmir, a band Visconti was readying to produce. So Eistrup, in town “on a guitar shopping spree,” wound up meeting Bowie in the VIP balcony. True to form, Bowie said he was a fan of Kashmir and had some of their albums, then began talking about culture, politics and whatever other subjects he was musing on that evening. The three wound up sharing a ride afterward.

Visconti and Bowie had been vaguely planning a new record, which Bowie seemed in little hurry to begin recording. He told the jazz musician Courtney Pine, in a radio interview in September 2005, that he’d started writing songs for a new album (“it looks pretty weird, so I’m happy”), but there were apparently no studio sessions booked. If there were demos, Bowie cut them at home: Visconti wasn’t hearing them.

There was an ambivalence in Bowie’s conversation with Pine (the former’s last radio interview to date). Asked what his fans were expecting from the new album, Bowie responded, “Oh they don’t expect anything these days, I think they just sorta see what I put out…you know, it’s the luck of the draw and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s godawful and…but that’s the way it goes and I like that.

kashmr

As he had from the renewal of their friendship, Visconti offered Bowie walk-on roles on his other productions (see the Rustic Overtones or “Saviour”).** Working on Kashmir’s album in Copenhagen in March 2005, Visconti was convinced that one track, “The Cynic” (“it had the vibe of a Kurt Cobain song influenced by Bowie”), could use a Bowie vocal, to the point where Visconti sang Bowie imitations (“I can do a decent ‘Heroes'”) for scratch vocals in the second verse. He emailed Bowie the rough mix and Bowie agreed to sing on it. For Kashmir, “it was everyone’s birthday and Christmas morning at the same time,” Visconti said.

Returning to New York in late April 2005, Visconti, Eistrup and Kashmir bassist Mads Tunebjerg did mixing and post-production work at Looking Glass Studios. One morning Bowie appeared, “fresh as a daisy and enthusiastically sang the be-Dickens out of ‘The Cynic’ as if he’d written it himself,” Visconti said. Tunebjerg recalled that once he was in the booth, Bowie said “‘Tony, just roll the tape for me. I’m going to try and have a go at it.’ He knew the song, he had it on his iPod (afterward, Bowie played the band other selections from his current track list). He had one or two runs and he was there. We were sitting on the sofa. We couldn’t move or speak because the atmosphere was so intense.

Bowie even had a role in the video, a Constructivist-inspired piece in which Bowie, looking like the Patrick Troughton edition of Doctor Who, is Death as a butler.

db_kashmir_300k

Kashmir started in 1991 and had become one of Denmark’s biggest “alternative” bands by the turn of the century. “We are like a boy band with four different characters: there is the little thin one and there is the tall guy and there is the media guy who is good looking and then there is the semi-fat guy who is dancing around,” Eistrup said. Their Visconti-produced record was a bid to break the American market, which didn’t happen. But the band has persevered until this day, still playing and recording, still believers that rock music can offer something to its audience. “That’s one of the most important things about art and that is the actual answer to why art is important because it can be out of time, it can be out of reason, it can be just commenting whatever is in the mind of the person who expresses it,” Eistrup said in 2013. “That little country of freedom can inspire the rest of the assholes to do things in a different way.”

“The Cynic” was a decent piece of brooding post-Radiohead rock, with Bowie’s verse finding him easily handling Eistrup’s knotty melody, then biting into the long vowels in the refrains. Bowie sounded comfortably decayed; he could’ve fashioned a bespoke version of Kashmir or Interpol or Franz Ferdinand easily enough in 2006. The question was whether he wanted to anymore. The answer seems apparent now: No, I’m happy in the audience.

Recorded: March-April 2005, Sun Studio, Copenhagen; (vocals) ca. April-May 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 October 2005 on No Balance Palace (Columbia 82876 72767 2).

* Some of these venues are above 14th St., so Mr. “Very Downtown” apparently had to take a cab once in a while.

** A shame Visconti didn’t get Bowie into his finest production of the 2000s, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ L’Avventura. That said, it would have been hard for Bowie to find a place to work on such an intimate album. L’Avventura is a document of two ridiculously attractive people falling in love, yet avoiding solipsism to make their union some public ideal of romance.

*** Visconti also roped in Lou Reed, who recited an Eistrup poem, “Black Building.” “It took a long time to actually get Lou into the studio, but when he came he was well-rehearsed and even prepared a special character for the part. He said he’s got about seven voice characters he uses when he does readings of his poetry. Lou was fabulous, he did about three or four takes for us to choose from and even took a phone call from a Tibetan lama in-between takes. Then, like a New York ninja, he disappeared into the chaos of Broadway as soon as he was finished.”

Eistrup’s memories were less reverent. Reed “was anything but sociable. He demanded that the studio be vacated, then that the whole band smoke. He gave me the vaguest handshake I have ever had in my life… He looked at [my] poem and straightened it. I had used words like pubs that he straightened to bars.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Tenis (Torres de Satélite),” Mexico, 2005.