Reissues: Sorrow

July 5, 2016

Can Pin Ups be redeemed? Arguably the least popular of Bowie’s Seventies albums (see the reader poll last year, in which only five songs out of the album’s 12 tracks even got votes), it feels overdue for someone to make a claim for it besides Greil Marcus, who called it Bowie’s “quirky triumph” decades ago.

For me, Pin Ups still sounds, as it did when I first heard it in the late Eighties, like a scattershot record whose occasional brilliant moments are overcrowded by adequate but uninspired renditions of songs that Bowie couldn’t quite master. I’ve come to appreciate how good it sounds—it’s Ken Scott’s brightest production—and the playing’s top-notch, as you’d expect.

So here’s a revisit to one of the album’s highlights, in which I make the case for the superiority of its contemporary rival, Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things (Stephen Ryan, who proofread a lot of the book, wasn’t convinced, to put it mildly–I’ve gotten other “really?” comments over the years).

Anyhow, reconsider Pin Ups if you’d like. I’m on vacation: see you in late July!

Originally posted on 4 August 2010, it’s “Sorrow”:

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weeks before Bowie recorded Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry cut a covers album in London. This was Ferry’s first solo record, made as Roxy Music was entering a less anarchic second edition without Brian Eno. Learning that Bowie was doing his own covers album, Ferry grew agitated, reportedly calling Pin Ups “a rip-off,” a charge with some heft, given that Bowie would steal the look of Roxy Music’s saxophonist Andy Mackay for the album sleeve.

Though some biographies have Ferry considering having his label file an injunction to prevent Pin Ups from being issued before his record, reality was apparently more polite. After some negotiations between managers, Bowie called Ferry, purportedly to ask permission to record a Roxy Music song (“Ladytron”) but also to drop the news about Pin Ups. “He’d heard that I was doing this thing and that he was going to do something similar,” Ferry told David Buckley. Ferry had to admire what Mick Rock called Bowie’s “marvelous street instinct.” “There doesn’t seem to be any great self-doubt there,” Ferry said. “Whereas I’m always riddled with doubts and self-criticism and God-knows-what.”

Ferry needn’t have worried. These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups could have been: bolder in ambition and scope (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), its arrangements fresher, its execution more consistent. Ferry considered his covers as Dadaist “readymades,” interpreting each song in a glam rococo style, singing in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice” and backed by a female chorus seemingly recruited from an Andy Williams session.

It wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new casing (his “It’s My Party” is tragic). Where Bowie stuck with the point of view of the macho teenage Mod, Ferry was catholic in tone, singing from female and male perspectives, elevating “trashy” songs and lowering “serious” ones. He made “Sympathy for the Devil” a Vegas revue number and sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, filling it with “grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take,” as Robert Forster wrote, and left the Dylan original in flames. Ferry closed the record with its title song, a straight cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard. It was the legend to his map: a song of how the ephemeral contains the eternal.

The Pin Ups track most worthy of These Foolish Things, and one of the few enduring pieces of music from its sessions, was Bowie’s version of “Sorrow.” Like “I Wish You Would,” it was a second-generation interpretation (Bowie covering the Merseys’ take on the McCoys’ original), with Bowie purpling a Romantic revision of a grungy teenage blues.

Written in 1965 by Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, “Sorrow” was the B-side of “Fever,” a single from the McCoys, an Indiana garage band led by Rick Derringer. It wasn’t much of a song, a clichéd lyric over three chords that Derringer sang sheepishly, swallowing “sorrow” like a pill. Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley, as the Merseys, transformed the song when covering it the following year. Opening the track with a bowed bass, the Merseys met insistence— jangling guitar and piano—with a hollowed-out longing. Crane and Kinsley, singing close harmonies, let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air and circled obsessively over two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair.” The Merseys’ “Sorrow” hit #4 in Britain and was treasured by the likes of George Harrison, who quoted its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much.”

Mick Ronson’s arrangement for Bowie’s “Sorrow” took the choicest bits of the Merseys’ and subtly improved them. He made the Merseys’ bowed bass a solitary violin, in line with how the opening verse was just Bowie, his 12-string acoustic guitar (its only appearance on the album), Trevor Bolder’s bass and Mike Garson’s processed piano. The Merseys’ half-bar-delayed harmony vocals became a hall of Bowie mirrors; their piping trumpets and trombones became a ruminative saxophone break: a baritone harmonic base and a tenor melodic line. Ronson’s scoring for strings rivaled his work on Hunky Dory, from the long-held high notes in the ultimate verse (matching Bowie’s gorgeous leap of an octave) to the waltz patterns that sweep through the last refrain.

As a last pip, Bowie’s “Sorrow” had a thirty-second F major outro, where Garson on electric piano worked a new melody until the fade consigns him to silence. It paralleled how Bowie had moved the lyric to the past tense—the disaster’s over and he’s left trying to pick up the pieces.

Recorded 9-31 July 1973, Château d’Hérouville, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” #3 UK). On Pin Ups, it was sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout). Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear as the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.

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Sorrow

August 4, 2010

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

A few weeks before Bowie began recording Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry made a covers album in London. It would be Ferry’s first solo record; he cut it as he was reconfiguring Roxy Music into its less anarchic second edition (minus Brian Eno). When he learned Bowie was doing his own covers LP, Ferry grew paranoid. “It’s a rip-off,” he allegedly said, and wanted his label, Island, to file an injunction against RCA to prevent Pin Ups from being released before his record.*

Ferry needn’t have worried, as These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups should have been. Bold where Bowie’s record was timid (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), brilliantly arranged where Pin Ups was often flat, These Foolish Things is most of all superior in the scope and execution of its ambitions. Ferry considered his covers “readymades”: he interpreted each song in a similar glam rococo style, delivering the lyric in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice,” bolstered by a female chorus who sounded like they could have backed Andy Williams. However, the aim wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new glitter casing, and often made the songs more pathetic and moving than they had been in their former incarnations. (Ferry’s “It’s My Party” seems tragic.)

‘A Hard Rain’ being a three-chord folk song, Ferry not only saw the possibilities of pounding it into a three-chord rock song, but the opportunity to add all the touches so characteristic of his work at that moment: grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take.

Robert Forster, “Bryan Looks Back,” 2007.

Ferry’s treatment leveled pop hierarchies, elevating “trashy” songs like “I Love How You Love Me” and lowering “serious” rock songs (so “Sympathy for the Devil” becomes a Vegas revue number, exposing the lyric’s silliness). He sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, his croon highlighting the surrealism in Dylan’s lyric, making the case that “Hard Rain” was far more aligned with “Tombstone Blues” or “Visions of Johanna” than it was with traditional folk; he placed “Don’t Worry Baby” deeper inside the singer’s head, where Brian Wilson had intended it to be. He closed the record with a cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard “These Foolish Things,” which served as the legend to his map: how the ephemeral contains the essential. “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses/The waiters whistling as the last bar closes/The song that Crosby sings…”

These Foolish Things made Pin Ups seem scatter-shot. One of the latter’s main failings is Bowie’s inability or unwillingness to settle on a coherent vocal style, even within a single song (Bowie was notorious for only doing one- or two-take vocals, which didn’t serve him well in these sessions). The overall feeling is that Bowie is just throwing out whatever he can think of at the moment, and it’s not surprising that the best Bowie managed was to match a few of the hard rock songs in attitude and volume (mainly the Pretty Things tracks).

The exception is “Sorrow,” a series of reflections and removes—Bowie, who seems to be channeling Ferry, is covering a cover. It’s the only enduring piece of music to emerge from the Pin Ups sessions.

“Sorrow” was written in 1965 by the team of Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, who had written hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and, in the guise of their fake Australian group The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy.” It was the B-side of “Fever,” the follow-up single for the McCoys, an Indiana garage band (led by Rick Derringer) who had had a smash with “Hang On Sloopy.” As a composition, it’s not much—a cliche-filled lyric over mainly two chords (the song mostly stays on G, only venturing briefly to C on the title line, which is also the four-bar chorus). Derringer sang reservedly, swallowing the word “sorrow” like a pill, while the track, anchored on harmonica and a twining guitar line, hinted at despair but mainly kept on the surface.

In England, Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley had formed a duo, The Merseys, out of remnants of their old group The Merseybeats, which, like the Mojos, had formed in Liverpool during the first stirrings of Beatlemania. Their 1966 cover of “Sorrow” transformed the song. Opening with a bowed bass intro (originally played by Jack Bruce), the Merseys’ version combines aggression—the insistent four-to-the-bar guitar and piano—and longing. Crane and Kinsley let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air, and center the song around two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair,” which they circle back to, obsessively, as the song ends. The Merseys also used delayed echoing vocals in the last verse, while their instrumental middle eight pits horns against guitars (the earlier version not only has Bruce’s bass intro, but likely has Jimmy Page doing the guitar solo and John Paul Jones on bass).

It hit #4 in the UK, and was a favorite of a number of bands, particularly the Beatles. George Harrison sang its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much,” while Ian MacDonald suggested that the “rolling swing” of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” was possibly based on the tempo of the Merseys’ track.

Bowie’s version is a further refinement of the Merseys’ cover, which had already changed the song from mumbling teenage blues into a more florid piece of romanticism. Now Bowie turned “Sorrow” into a grandiose, DeLuxe-colored production, where a sudden sweep of strings erupts in the last verse, while Bowie seems to be imitating Ferry in his swooning, over-the-top vocal—he nearly weeps out “sorrow” towards the end. He made the Merseys’ echoing vocal into a hall of mirrors and used Ken Fordham’s melodic saxophone solo as the calm heart of the track. And Bowie extended the song with a thirty-second ruminative outro over F chords, where Mike Garson on piano struggles to piece together a new melody as the fadeout slowly silences him.

Recorded July-early August 1973, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” it hit #3 in the UK). On Pin Ups, it was oddly sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout) . Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear playing the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.

* This account is only mentioned in Christopher Sandford’s biography. By contrast, David Buckley’s bio depicts Ferry (who Buckley interviewed) as being far less combative, quoting him as saying he was only “apprehensive” when hearing about Pin Ups, with Ferry recalling that Bowie had phoned him first to settle any potential problems. Another bio, Stardust, claims Bowie told a companion he wanted “to get a jump on Ferry” after learning about the latter’s album.

Top: Bryan Ferry in blue silhouette, back cover of These Foolish Things.


Links: Chapters 6-8

March 25, 2015

Chapter 6: Ziggy In Nixonland: 1972-1973

db73

“You Got To Have a Job/ Hot Pants”
“I Feel Free”: (live, 1972) (1980 inst. outtake) (1993 remake)
“White Light/White Heat” (VU)
“All the Young Dudes”: (Mott the Hoople) (Bowie)
“John, I’m Only Dancing”
“My Death”
“The Jean Genie”
“Drive-In Saturday”
“Watch That Man”
“Panic In Detroit” (1979 remake)
“Cracked Actor”
“Time”
“Aladdin Sane”
“Let’s Spend the Night Together”
“Lady Grinning Soul”
“This Boy” “Love Me Do”

More: Ziggy Stardust tour, 1972: Aylesbury; Rainbow Theatre, London; Santa Monica. Rock and Roll (1995, Ep. 7, “The Wild Side“); Classic Albums: Transformer; Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies; Kazumi Hayashi, “Some Cat From Japan,” (on Kansai Yamamoto); Dirty Harry (1971, opening sequence); “Baader-Meinhof: In Love With Terror”; New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis” (Midnight Special, 1973); Mayor of the Sunset Strip; Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Chapter 7: The Anxiety of Influence (1973)

dblate73

“Everything’s Alright” (Mojos)
“I Wish You Would” (Billy Boy Arnold) (Yardbirds)
“Rosalyn” (Pretty Things)
“Don’t Bring Me Down” (Pretty Things)
“I Can’t Explain” (The Who)
“Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” (The Who)
“Here Comes the Night” (Them) (Lulu)
“Where Have All the Good Times Gone” (Kinks)
“Friday On My Mind” (Easybeats)
“Sorrow” (Merseys)
“Shapes of Things” (Yardbirds)
“See Emily Play” (Pink Floyd)
“Zion”
“Music Is Lethal”
“Hey Ma, Get Papa”
“Growing Up and I’m Fine”

More: Pin Ups (Bowie radio promo, 1973); Richie Unterberger, Billy Boy Arnold interview; The Yardbirds Story; Pete Townshend interviews: 1969, 1971, 1972, 1972, 1974; the Kinks: live, 1966; Ray Davies, interviews, 1971, 1977; Syd Barrett: interview, 1967; Mick Ronson: interview, ca. 1992.

Chapter 8: Tomorrow’s Double Feature (1973-1974)

db74

“I Got You Babe”
“Growin’ Up” (Springsteen, live, 1972)
“It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City” (Springsteen, live, 1975)
“Having a Good Time”
“Things To Do”* (the one clip not on YouTube! it’s on Spotify though)
“I Am Divine”
“People From Bad Homes”
“I Am a Laser” (Bowie, 1974, fragment)
“1984/Dodo” (“1984”) (“Dodo”)
“Big Brother”
“Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”

“We Are the Dead”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”
“Rebel Rebel” (1974 single version) (2003 remake)
“Future Legend”
“Diamond Dogs”
“Candidate 1 (Alternative Candidate)”
“Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)”

More: The 1980 Floor Show, 1973; J.G. Ballard, Future Now; “The Family,” BBC, 1974; Pathe, “West End of London,” 1973; John Lydon, on ’70s England (from The Filth and the Fury); Nineteen-Eighty Four (BBC, 1954); Jenny Diski, on Sonia Orwell; The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, “Mr. Apollo”, Colour Me Pop, 1968; John Rechy, City of Night; Marcello Carlin, “Diamond Dogs” (TPL).


Try Some, Buy Some

February 2, 2015

03Traces09

Try Some, Buy Some (Ronnie Spector, 1971).
Try Some, Buy Some (George Harrison, 1973).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie, live, 2003).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie, live, 2003).

Promoting Reality in 2003, Bowie took pains to say that one of his cover recordings, “Try Some, Buy Some,” was only an inadvertent homage to its composer, the recently-deceased George Harrison. “For me it was a Ronnie Spector song,” he said. “It never really occurred to me that I was actually covering a George Harrison song…it’s rather fitting and quite lovely that it is an unwitting tribute to George.”

Harrison died in November 2001, the capstone to a dreadful year. Having fought off throat cancer in 1997, he was subsequently beaten and stabbed by a psychotic housebreaker. Friends like Keith Richards blamed the attack (which was close to fatal: Harrison had five stab wounds, one of which punctured his lung) for leaving Harrison weakened against a renewed bout of lung and brain cancer, which swiftly killed him. So, essentially, half of the members of the 20th Century’s biggest pop group were murdered at their homes by obsessed fans.

Harrison was the Beatles’ house moralist (to use a Philip Roth line, he was their “unchaste monk”). His was the voice interrupting the party to say: you’re really only very small and life goes on within you and without you. A lifetime is so short: a new one can’t be bought. Try thinking more, if just for your own sake. The farther one travels, the less one knows. And the last-ever recorded Beatles track, a waltz on egoism: Even those tears/I me MINE I me MINE I me MINE.

A bus driver’s son from working-class Liverpool, Harrison was a pop emperor by 21. In the late Sixties, he tried to ground his wealth and fame in some working philosophical system, a sort of Hare Krishna stoicism. By middle age he was more interested in his gardening than making records (it showed), and of all the Beatles, he treated the band’s legend with the least reverence: The Rutles is in part snarky secret autobiography. The three Beatles songwriter voices were autobiographer (Lennon), novelist (McCartney) and, with Harrison, sermonizer. Had they been a medieval troupe, Harrison would have been the friar who lectured on Hell in breaks between the acrobats and hurdy-gurdy acts. And then pulled a toad out of his sleeve.

For [Harrison], there is a belief in some kind of system,” Bowie told Paul du Noyer in 2003 (Harrison had chanted ‘Hare Krishna’ at his attacker that night, though mainly to distract him). “But I really find that hard. Not on a day to day basis,because there are habits of life that have convinced me there is something solid to believe in. But when I become philosophical, in those ‘long, lonely hours’ it’s the source of all my frustrations, hammering away at the same questions I’ve had since I was 19. Nothing has really changed for me.”

Beatles fans could find Harrison’s spiritualism trying, too—my father tended to skip the needle over “Within You Without You” when he played Sgt. Pepper‘s second side. And yes, there’s something grating about a millionaire (one of whose best songs griped about the marginal tax rate of Harold Wilson’s Britain) banging on about the illusory nature of material life while living in a mansion, or decrying the false wisdom of drugs after having spent years of his life tripping.

But as the Beatles finally become installed in the past (I imagine we’ve one more commemorative decade ahead of us), Harrison seems their most fundamentally sound member, the band’s reality principle, and, at his best, their most profound writer (see “Long Long Long,” a torch song for God). From his earliest to last songs, he kept at the same home truths. Life is brief, we spend the great part of it worrying over pointless things, we lie to ourselves and each other too much, everything we love will die, and we ultimately know nothing about existence. So why not try to make peace with your god, or at least spend your days gardening?

trysome

Harrison wrote “Try Some, Buy Some” during the All Things Must Pass sessions of 1970. It was one of his songs about maya, the Hindu/Krishna concept that much of the perceived world is illusory and that reality is only found at the spiritual level. Maya is ever-changing, and as such the cause of human unhappiness and sorrow. Or, to ground “Try Some” in provincial terms, material life is a funfair. You go for a visit, overeat, go on the rides, buy some trinkets. But one day you have to go home. So in “Try Some,” the verses look back to the Sixties—the drugs, the sex, meeting “big fry”–while the refrains turn to the future, a humbled reconciliation with God. The last refrain finds Harrison back at the funfair, but in an evangelist’s booth: “try some” spirituality on for size.

The song was a platonic ideal of Harrison’s compositions, his labored style marked by clockwork chord progressions in which he used “chord changes as expressive, rather than functional, devices” (Ian MacDonald). His songs seemed like orreries, moving in slow, weighty orbits. “The extreme example of Harrison’s circular melodic style, [“Try Some” seems] to snake through an unending series of harmonic steps,” as Simon Leng wrote. Composed on piano and organ (rare for Harrison, who had Klaus Voormann play the bass keys), which Harrison said inspired all the “weird chords,” its vertebrae was a descending chromatic bassline, hitting every semitone from E to B, and an another descending harmonic sequence in which Harrison starts on A minor and corkscrews down to D major (Am-Ab-G-F#-E-A-D).

As if aiming to make the song more ungainly, Harrison gave it a seesawing top melody and set it an unforgiving 3/4 time and in a key that Ronnie Spector, for whom it was intended, found uncomfortable to sing in.* “I know you can hit those notes,” her husband and producer Phil Spector told her, while vetoing her suggestion of using vibrato (“Vibrato is Sixties. This is 1971.“).

Ronnie, who flew into London to record what was supposed to be the lead-off single for her debut solo LP, said she first thought Harrison’s song was a joke, like the B-side jam “Tandoori Chicken” (the studio’s takeaway order). She didn’t understand a word of the lyric (nor did he, its composer reportedly said) and found it hard to sing, but she was a trooper, mastering the song’s jarring rhythms and hitting all of the high notes (throwing in her trademark “Be My Baby” hook at 1:23).

“Try Some” was a colossal flop, only hitting #77 in the US and not even charting in Britain (some DJs favored “Tandoori Chicken”). Its disastrous performance killed Ronnie’s solo album, with her husband, who believed he’d recorded a spiritual masterpiece unappreciated by Philistines, falling deeper into alcoholism and paranoia. Some of Ronnie’s supporters found the choice of debut single ridiculous, a clunky Harrison downer that would’ve sunk anyone forced to sing it, and blamed Phil for sabotaging her comeback. (Ronnie, who’d been kept a virtual prisoner by Phil in the late Sixties, escaped his mansion on foot soon after “Try Some” was issued).

One of the few who bought “Try Some” at the time was a Beckenham songwriter with a taste for obscurities. “I got [the single] because I was totally ga-ga over Ronnie Spector,” Bowie recalled in 2003. “I always thought she was absolutely fantastic.”**

trys

Bowie had wanted to cover “Try Some, Buy Some” for years, and he’d been taken with Ronnie Spector’s sound as far back as “Teenage Wildlife.” “We were pretty true to the original arrangement but the overall atmosphere is somewhat different. It’s a dense piece,” he said of his version.

He meant to free the song from Spector’s over-arrangement and let it have its say in a more subtle, forgiving setting. Unfortunately this wound up being a cheap-sounding Korg Trinity backing track that possibly survived from the demo stages. There are some nice touches—Bowie’s baritone saxophone leading the march to the basement, and a new two-note guitar hook, which seems an attempt to distract the ear from all the harmonic grinding going on underneath—but the piece comes off both chintzy and too much in the shadow of the original recording. It attempts grandeur on the cheap. Bowie doesn’t try to out-sing Spector (he couldn’t, at this point) and he takes the song in a comfortable range, where Harrison had strained at the top of his range, giving his version a desperate quality—Harrison doesn’t quite believe in what he’s selling. There’s little yearning in Bowie’s version, but far more sadness. It’s a man recounting a lost battle.

So we’ve reached the last studio-recorded Bowie cover of this survey. This blog has been unforgiving to many of his covers—“Friday On My Mind,” “Across the Universe,” “Kingdom Come,” “God Only Knows,” “If There Is Something,” to pick a few. And it’s fair to say that few Bowie fans approach a new album with the hope of “maybe there’ll be a lot of covers on this one!”

What drove him to do so many? Bowie’s always been a pop fan, and his covers were often fan tributes (fan fictions, even)—a key to understanding Pin Ups is that Bowie’s pantomiming all of these butch Sixties singers as well as playing the gawky fans dancing along to the records at home, typically in the same performance. There’s a common thread of tastelessness in Bowie covers, and it’s in part owed to this—Bowie gets so wrapped up in how much he loves these songs that he doesn’t care what he sounds like, and he’s too much in love to change the songs to suit his strengths.

Some of it was lab work—Bowie picking apart other songwriters to see how they’d done it, and absconding with their best bits (so he did a Kinks cover on Pin Ups and then used various Ray Davies tricks on The Idiot and Low). His decades’ worth of covering “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” suggested he was trying to hypnotize himself into writing like Lou Reed. “Nite Flights” is an offering to a household saint.

By the early 2000s, Bowie was ticking off things he’d meant to tribute years before, which gives the last round of Heathen and Reality covers poignancy and looseness. “Pablo Picasso” and “Cactus” are hoots, with Bowie grandly refusing to act his age; “Gemini Spaceship” and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” tip the hat to long-standing, multi-generational influences.

And “Try Some, Buy Some”? Bowie’s favorite Beatle, or at least the Beatle who’d most governed him, had been his friend John Lennon (Bowie never had much time for McCartney, except stealing a few tricks for songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Right On Mother”). But in Harrison, a songwriter who, like Bowie, had a long public apprenticeship (see “You Like Me Too Much”), Bowie also found affinities. Reaching his mid-fifties, Bowie found Harrison’s spirituality alluring, even if he could never bring himself to become a believer (or even a gardener).

So “Try Some, Buy Some,” an oddball’s tribute to a forgotten single, sits there near the end of Reality, taking up space on an already-overlong album, and slightly spoiling the mood. Harrison would have approved: the song was never meant to go down easy.

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

* Harrison also wrote for Spector “You,” which was catchy and well-suited to her voice. She recorded a version in 1971 but it was never released (Harrison used the backing track for his version). Looking back in 1999, Ronnie said “Try Some” had become one of her favorite singles. It “was done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record.”

** Not merely as a singer. “She’s a terrific looking woman,” Bowie said.

Top: Ara Oshagan, from “Traces of Identity: An Insider’s View of the LA Armenian Community, 2000-2004.”

Hype notice: There’s now a “Book” section of the blog (see top, next to “About”). This page will serve as a place for pre-order links, readings, notices about any possible interviews, that sort of thing.


Sunday

May 12, 2014

01amciti

Sunday.
Sunday (Visconti mix).
Sunday (Moby remix).
Sunday (live, Meltdown Festival, 2002).
Sunday (live, 2002).
Sunday (live, 2003).
Sunday (live, 2004).
Sunday (live, 2004).

It’s long been Bowie’s habit to rewrite his albums in the press once he’s made them. The Ziggy Stardust “storyline” wasn’t cooked up until 1973, when Bowie described it to William S. Burroughs. So in 2002, a year after having composed the songs on Heathen, Bowie began giving them a narrative structure. Some of Heathen was his version of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, or so he claimed.

There’s a certain sense of universality in those songs that Strauss wrote at the end of his life when he was 84…they’re the most terribly romantic, sad, poignant pieces that I think have ever been written,” he told Interview in 2002. “I kind of used them as a template.” (His preferred recording was Gundula Janowitz‘s performance (with Herbert von Karajan, 1973), which he described as “ach[ing] with love for a life that is quietly fading.”)

His own Four Last Songs were the album’s bookends, “Sunday” and “Heathen (The Rays),” and two mid-sequenced songs, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” and “I Would Be Your Slave.” These were end-of-life musings, thoughts on death, parceled regrets, “hard questions.” He’d reached the point, he told Interview‘s Ingrid Sischy, where he felt was no longer growing. “Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.” In another interview he said mid-life was a time of no longer becoming, but simply being.

For a man who’d staked his life on continually becoming, wasn’t this state essentially death? Bowie’s Four Last Songs are barren landscapes, a set of departure lounges, wings of abandoned houses, empty train stations, beaches without footprints.

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Of course, the grand old man persona of Heathen was as much a fictive personality as Ziggy Stardust had been. Recall that Bowie was only 54—an age when things start to get creaky and the weight of memory is more of a burden, but generally an age still fat in the middle of life. There’s far more pain, loss, resignation, bewilderment and brutal aging to come (my dear acerbic great-aunt, at age 80 or so, once sighed wistfully to me: “ah, to be 50 again!”).

Bowie was playing with our perception of how pop stars age in dog years: if you’ve been kicking around for 20 years (or nearly 40, in his case) in pop music, you might as well be Methuselah. So if the world saw him as an old man, he’d play the old man: someone so bogged with life that he can barely move.

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Richard Strauss was a true old man, one who’d lived too long.

American soldiers driving through Bavaria days after Hitler’s death, looking for a house to commandeer as a base of operations, came upon a stately villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. An ancient man strode from the front door, announced he was Richard Strauss, composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, and told them to leave. Kind fate allotted one of the soldiers to be a classical musician, who gave Strauss the cover of deference and defused any chance that Strauss would’ve been hauled into a collaborators’ prison. Soon enough, troops had spilled into Strauss’ villa, asking “Hey Maestro! Who’s this guy?” when seeing a bust of Beethoven. Classical Germany fell to gum-cracking Americans at last.

By now, the 20th Century seemed a colossal joke to Strauss. Born in 1864 in a Bavaria still ruled by its mad emperor, Strauss lived through Bavaria’s absorption into grey Prussia to form Germany, the whirling spree of Kaiser Wilhelm’s lost empire, four years of catastrophic war, Germany’s subsequent fall into fascism, genocide and thuggery (which Strauss, to his great discredit, partly condoned), another horrific war and now, in 1945, utter defeat. He would even see the carving up of Germany into capitalist and Communist halves. “I have outlived even myself,” he said in 1949, upon which he finally died.

Strauss didn’t intend his Four Last Songs as a last statement: the title wasn’t his, for one thing. In 1948 Strauss scored three Hermann Hesse poems and one by Joseph von Eichendorff. Only after his death, when the four songs were grouped as a single work and re-sequenced by Ernst Roth, did the songs become his Four Last.* But the songs obviously shared a sense of reminiscence (they were scored for soprano, as if Strauss was writing songs for the memory of his wife’s singing voice) and cyclicality: in one, he quoted from a tone poem of his youth, Tod und Verklärung.

And as much as the songs spoke of resignation, death and transformation, there was a thick vein of defiance in the music. Their beauty could be smothering (Hesse, hearing Strauss’ adaptations of his poems, said they “were full of well-crafted beauty but lacking in core, merely an end to themselves.”), their vocal lines cathedrals to a woman’s voice, their brass-and strings orchestration that of a royal court. The songs proposed that the mad century had never happened: it was Strauss willing away history in the last of his music.  The Songswere so potent as to render the idea of relevance irrelevant,” Alex Ross wrote in 1999. “They destroyed, single-handedly, the modernist imperative of progress—the notion that music must always be made new. Strauss, in fact, had gone neither forward nor backward…A progressive had become a reactionary by standing absolutely still.

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Bowie was looking out a window of Allaire Studios early one July morning in 2001, drinking his first cup of coffee. He saw two deer grazing on the mountainside and beyond them, a car slowly passing along the Ashokan Reservoir to the south. “There was something so still and primal about what I was looking at outside,” he recalled. He began to weep, began to write.

What had the image triggered? Not simply the idea of a depeopled world, one left to the deer and the crows to forage. The man or woman in the car was part of it. Were they, for a moment, in harmony with the plants and animals, or were they in the usual role of oblivious despoiler? Or did the view suggest how the world’s oblivious to our comings and goings? We depart from life one morning and the animals take no notice, the sun keeps on its paces. The slight absurdity of a man in a luxurious recording studio built in a plutocrat’s mansion weeping over the thought.

“Sunday” begins on a remote E-flat minor chord, and over a long, looping vine of a verse it tentatively grounds itself in A-flat minor. There are few voices at first: a treated guitar playing the same birdsong figure again and again; the occasional bass note, like a man quietly sounding the depth of a wall; a bed of voices to cushion the lead vocal and establish the chords, rising and ebbing in volume with each loop (the vocals were mainly Tony Visconti, who taught himself to sing “two notes at once after singing Tuvan and Mongolian music”).

The lead voice could be a man who’s survived an apocalypse, offering instructions to fellow foragers. Watch out for drifters and cars (an echo of the Mekons’ “Trouble Down South,” with its England as an American war zone: look out for wires…stay underground). It’s equally the voice of an animal, one making its way through a world ruled by indifferent nature and malicious homo sapiens. Watch for shafts of light on the road: they mean death. Crawl under the bracken for safety.** Run when the rain lessens. Follow the sun (where the heat goes). Man and animal are no different. The world is no place for either of them. A song from decades before plays in an empty room: when the rich die last, like the rabbits running...

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Yet just as “Sunday” seems lost in its meander of a verse, the song gathers force. There’s movement. An elevation to F minor; the guitar is loosed from its trap; a bass drum pattern sets a floor. A paradoxical declaration: nothing has changed, everything has changed, so everything is nothing? “Nothing” is an active force: it has a beginning, it remains, it’s mutable.

The song becomes a chant. A mantra chorus of Bowie and Visconti voices is mixed right (“in your fear seek only peace…in your fear, seek only love”) while mixed left is Bowie’s lead vocal, in grand Scott Walker register, offering hints of resurrection—burning in the pyre, rising through the air, off to do it again. The associations with the fires and the smoke of the World Trade Center were unintentional, Bowie said: he’d written the lines before the attack (though he crafted the track in the studio in the months afterward). At 3:09 the track skips, resets itself.

Something has changed, though. The second verse is shorter, Bowie’s voice now harried by an electronic drum pattern. This is the trip (a lifetime), this the business we take (our souls, our baggage of dreams and fears). Then another ghost: Hush little baby, don’t you cry. You know your mother was born to die. It’s the refrain of the folkie standard of the Sixties, “All My Trials,” as sung by Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk and Nick Drake, and maybe even Bowie himself on stage with John Hutchinson and Hermione Farthingale in 1968. All my trials, Lord, soon be over.*** This world’s spent out: I’m going home. But Bowie sings that his trials will be remembered (by who?): he’s still in love with the world he’s leaving. Strauss would have approved.

His last word is a last defiance, Bowie hanging onto “chaaaaaanged” as long as he can while Matt Chamberlain roars in, brutally chastising his snare drum. Visconti’s bass is a jungle line. On stage, Bowie let his guitarists play “Sunday” out for minutes, letting his audience bask in the triumph, but on the studio version the heroics get faded out quickly, the rebirth hardly mattering. Sunday may be a day of resurrection, but night falls without fail on it.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. There were alternate mixes by Visconti (included on the European “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single and the Canadian “I’ve Been Waiting For You” single) and Moby (included on the 2-CD version of Heathen). The former managed to make “Sunday” into a pop song, its undercarriage now a jogging loop of “ah ah ah ah” voices a la “O Superman”; the latter was pointless.

* Strauss also orchestrated an 1894 song, Ruhe, mein Seele!, in 1948 and was working on another piece—it’s arguable he was considering the songs as discrete units (the Hesse poems as one opus number, the von Eichendorff as another, etc.) and never would have classed them as a single work.

** Probably the only time “bracken” has been used in a rock song. [edit: no, “bracken” turns up in Robyn Hitchcock’s “No, I Don’t Remember Guilford” and XTC’s “The Meeting Place” and likely others—thanks crayontocrayon & Casey W.] The phrase “under the bracken” is in D.H. Lawrence’s “A Fragment of Stained Glass” (a narrative with some similarities to Bowie’s lyric here) and Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs.

*** “All My Trials”/”All My Sorrows” is a fascinating piece of American ersatz folklore. Though often claimed to have been derived from a 19th Century slave spiritual, the song is likely a cuckoo’s egg—a piece cobbled together ca. 1955, its lines a hash of cod-spirituals and John Bunyan-esque imagery over a melody nicked from a Barbadian lullaby.

Top: Catherine Opie, “Untitled #5 (Wall Street),” 2001.


Seven

January 27, 2014

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Seven (“demo”).
Seven.
Seven (Omikron: The Nomad Soul version).
Seven (Marius De Vries mix).
Seven (Beck Mix 1).
Seven (Beck Mix 2).
Seven (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Seven (Musique Plus, 1999).
Seven (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Seven (TVE, 1999).
Seven (live, 1999).
Seven (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).

I’d be so unhappy if I’d got myself into a…rut, as my mother used to say. My dear old mum. (Loudly) “You’re in a bit of rut, aren’t you?” She said it about herself. “I’m in a rut.” I think I probably thought then, “I’m never gonna be in a rut if that’s how you turn out.”

“Seven” also mentions both your parents and your brother…

They’re not necessarily my mother, father and brother; it was the nuclear unit thing. Obviously I am totally aware of how people read things into stuff like this. I’m quite sure that some silly cow will come along and say, (adopts silly cow voice) “Oh, that’s about Terry, his brother, and he was very disappointed about this girl back in 1969, whenever he got over her…” That sort of thing comes with the territory, and because I have been an elliptical writer, I think people have—quite rightly–gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am.

Bowie, interview with David Quantick, Q, October 1999.

Silly cow voice: “I forgot what my father said…” he begins, then quickly has to remind himself he’s still forgotten it. “I forgot what my mother said, as we lay on your bed.” The same goes for his brother. Of course, it’s presumptuous and dully literal to argue that Bowie has to be referring to Haywood and Peggy Jones (the latter causing grief as far back as “Can’t Help Thinking About Me“) and Terry Burns here. Of course, he is, in a way. He knows, if you’re a deep fan or a lazy journalist, that the words may call up long-gone Haywood and Terry (well, your ideas of them, of these people whom you’ll never know). So he plays with it: the family as a set of blank faces; the song an orphan’s.

Peggy Jones would die in 2001; Haywood and Terry had been dead for years, or decades. Losing your parents is the last act of becoming an adult: it’s as though you look up one day to find there’s no roof on your house. The gods forgot they made me/so I forgot them, too. It’s one of Bowie’s most Gnostic lines. God’s forgotten that He made our world; the archon ruling in His place has forgotten that he isn’t God; people on the sad earth have forgotten to believe in any of them. The latter line’s tense is key. Bowie forgot them a while ago: is he regretting it now?

Memory, they say, is fate’s shorthand. I do recall at some time in the Seventies the revolutionary Abbie Hoffman saying to me over a drink: “Tomorrow isn’t promised.”

Bowie, introducing “Seven” on VH1 Storytellers, 1999.

There’s a disenchantment in “Seven”; something about it feels half-finished. There’s arguably no final version of the song: its “demo” can sound more ornate than the album mix in places (the demo has Reeves Gabrels’ slide guitar hook in the intro, while acoustic guitars and organ are pushed up), as does the Omikron mix, with its thunking bassline. A Marius De Vries mix, pushed up in key, was the lead track on the single.

The singer has seven days left, so he plays in churches (graves of the gods), wanders through empty cities trying to remember what his parents sounded like. It’s a world as a set of monuments, honoring forgotten ghosts. His movements resound in the verses’ simple C major progression: he starts alone on C (“I forgot what my“), strikes out to G (“father said”), spends a wistful moment in A minor (“I forgot what he..”), uses an F major chord as a means to avoid going back home (“..said..“). And then he goes back home, alone, to start over again.

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“Seven” also answers “Five Years,” which Bowie had written when he was 24, back when he seemed to welcome the apocalypse. “That’s all we’ve got!” he’d choked out, weeping in the vocal booth. But catastrophes can lose their charm with age. Life can seem a run of disappointed apocalypses. So the song he wrote on acoustic guitar in Bermuda at the close of 1998 was what he called, in its debut live performance, “a song of nowness.”

Seven days to live, seven ways to die,” he told Quantick. “I’d actually reduce that further to twenty-four hours to live. I’m very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I’m going through. I’m not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I’ve just come through. The present is really the place to be.” Five years would’ve been nice, but seven days are enough. (Given the references to gods, these might be the seven “days” of biblical creation, each of which could’ve been eons. So Bowie may have some time to kill.)

As if to frustrate his “nowness” intentions, he used as a central image “seven,” with its millennia of signifiers—the deadly sins and holy virtues, the seals and veils and hells and penitential psalms, the days (and  ‘hours…‘) of the week. He once called “Seven” a “hippy dippy” thing, too: a song for Hoffman, who hadn’t made it out of the Eighties (in one mix, Bowie sang lines from “Sorrow” in the outro). A subtle bit of wordplay—the city “full of flowers” has a bridge full of “viole(n)t people“—offers that the hippies have let down the side as well; they turned out to be just another lost cause.

David Bowie: see you in the new year!
David Bowie: happy hols from all of us to all of you…
David Bowie: from over here to over there… happy trails, sweat dreams, good luck, you’ve got a lucky face… the drinks are on me…
David Bowie: …do you know where your children are?
David Bowie: do you know who your parents are?
David Bowie: Good night from David, and the man with rusty hair

Bowie’s last public words of the 20th Century, BowieNet, 23 December 1999.

He was supposed to end the millennium on stage in Vienna with Brian Eno, performing some massive conclusion to the Outside project. That idea shuffled off. Undeterred, he decided he’d go to the Antipodes. He was slated to headline the Gisborne 2000 “First Light” Festival, to be held in the most easterly city on the globe to greet the new millennium, along with a reunited Split Enz and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He said he would write a new song to welcome the new era. The promoters grossly overpriced the show: in August 1999, with only 1,000 of a proposed 35,000 seats sold, Bowie pulled out.

So after chatting with fans on BowieNet the night before Christmas Eve 1999, he saw off the century in private. Maybe just watching TV like the rest of us, to see if the lights would go out in Gisborne City or Sydney or Hong Kong once 2000 began to sweep westward. But it was just another year. No Bowie millennial song, either, which is as just well, as he’d already written one. Quiet and lovely, ash-emptied out, “Seven” was as good a way as any to close a chapter. A goodbye to the already-forgotten, it rang with the sound of Gabrels’ slide guitar, sustaining notes just long enough that it seemed as if they could break, then bending them anew.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released on ‘Hours’ and as the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a disc that led off with the DeVries Mix and included the demo, the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC, on 19 November 1999 (another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue.

Top: Aaron Miller, still from “December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000.” (“We got power! The lights are on!”)


Truth

September 3, 2013

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Truth (Goldie and Bowie).
Truth (& The Dream Within).

The paths of Goldie and David Bowie intersected in the mid-Nineties, when Goldie was crown prince of the drum ‘n’ bass scene and Bowie an eager ambassador from rock. Goldie gave Bowie cred, Bowie gave him class. Together they would make a film (Everybody Loves Sunshine, gruesomely retitled B.U.S.T.E.D. for some markets) and a track, “Truth.”

Born in Walsall in 1965 to a Scottish pub singer and a Jamaican immigrant, Clifford Price was the sort of child that Bowie’s father, Haywood Jones, could have come across in his work at the charity Dr. Barnardo’s Homes: Price, abandoned by his mother at age 3, grew up shuttling between group homes and various sets of foster families. (Years later, Goldie noted that despite its chaos, his childhood and adolescence were also ruthlessly recorded and annotated: day-by-day accounts of his doings are in the files of the UK social services). Success as a graffiti artist at age 17 got him out of Britain, first to New York, then Miami, where he sold the gold grills he by now sported on his own teeth. He returned home around 1989 and set about giving the rave scene a bad conscience.

His first major record (under the name Rufige Kru) was aptly called “Menace” and in 1992 came “Terminator,” a piece of metal agitation. For his tracks, Goldie drew from what he called his “case of sonics”: a collection of samples that he dubbed and overdubbed, distorted and flanged, and sped up and down until they’d become a set of mutated sonic junk that would be the bedrock of his music. His records grew longer the more they grew dense: “Timeless” (1994), his masterpiece, was over twenty minutes; his follow-up album, Saturnz Return, began with an hour-long track, “Mother.

Having become the public face of drum ‘n’ bass, Goldie by 1997 had a high-profile club gig (Metalheadz Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note), a label and film roles. For the latter he was typecast as a gangster (EastEnders, Snatch) and as he looked like a Bond villain, he inevitably played one in The World Is Not Enough. He even got into the tabloids when he dated Bjork.

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Bowie had been talking up Timeless as the first great jungle album and he’d become curious about its maker, with whom he saw some affinities. Goldie, with his easy flitting between art, film and music, and his public persona which he once described as being “a chameleon. I can change shape any time I want to,” was a sally port into a world that Bowie had little means to enter otherwise. They struck up a friendship (“I don’t really care if everything he does from now is rubbish,” Bowie cracked in the documentary When Saturn Returnz).

So Bowie name-checked Goldie as an influence on Earthling, and Goldie in turn praised the album (notably more for its ambition than its quality). In the spring of 1997, as Bowie was rehearsing the Earthling tour in London, he was recruited to sing on a track for Goldie’s ongoing Saturnz Return sessions, which were bloating with ambition: the album would be 2 CDs, the first of which had only two tracks, and was built on over 9,000 audio files, 48 tracks of tape and ProTools and would feature a 40-piece orchestra and guest appearances by Bowie, KRS-One and Noel Gallagher. The album was an architectural dig into Goldie’s life, the title referring to the moment when the alignment of planets is the same as that of your birth.

Goldie asked Bowie to sing on “Truth,” a track he’d written and arranged with some programming by his engineer Mark Sayfritz. It was the first time in ages that Bowie was essentially a hired hand on a record. Goldie recalled Bowie standing in front of the mic, chain-smoking, and taking direction from him, much to his amusement. “I was telling him what I could see in my head. He was great, totally tuned in. He’s the other side of the glass and I’m telling him what to do. I tell you what, I was laughing my bollocks off, man. I mean, David Bowie being told what to do by me!

So Bowie found himself doing a highwire act over a trio of panned, delayed and flanged synthesizer washes, variations of which play throughout the track as its sole instrumental backing. Goldie’s lyric seems in part an attempt to write “Bowie” lines (let sorrow hide in sculpture, tomorrow for you to know) as well as phrases in the vein of Seal’s then-recent hit “Kiss from a Rose” (if a kiss could cry for you, etc.)

Bowie pitched his performance to the underlying sound effects: on quieter, ambient-sounding stretches of the track, where the underlying synth was slow in tempo or holding on one note, he sang more melodic phrases; over jarring jump-cut synth washes, he was freer in range, soaring up and sinking down to the bottom of his register, sometimes taking a sprechstimme approach to the lyric. Goldie then treated Bowie’s vocal like another synth track: applying liberal echo to it (which, while it seems to be pieced together from different takes, could well be another single-take Bowie performance), and often drowning Bowie in the mix (sometimes this strategy works as a joke: Bowie sings “if I could change my ways/maybe I would/ But” and the rest is incomprehensible).

Upon its release, Saturnz Return was panned by many in the press as an act of elephantine hubris (he was even accused of killing drum ‘n’ bass) and it sold poorly. Goldie didn’t release another album for nearly a decade, though this was in part due to his growing interests in film. Buried in the vastness of an album whose time apparently has yet to arrive (I wonder if the musicians of the 2020s will treasure this record), “Truth” is one of the last pieces of Outside-era Bowie battiness in the Nineties before his swerve back to rock formalism.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) May 1997 at Rob Playford’s Manic One Studio, London, and/or Trident Studios, London. Released 1 February 1998 on Saturnz Return (only on the 2-CD version, where it’s segued to a hidden track called “The Dream Within”).

Top: Walt Jabsco, “New York,” 1997.


I Got You Babe

August 17, 2010

Marianne Faithfull and David Bowie, I Got You Babe.

Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered to the trivial.

The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.

It is bewitching

Celebrities have an intimate life and a life in the grid of two hundred million. For them, there is no distance between the two grids in American life. Of all Americans, only they are complete.

George W.S. Trow, “Within the Context of No Context.”

Between 1973 and 1977, David Bowie waged an inadvertent guerrilla war against television, particularly American television. In these years, Bowie appeared on some of the most popular TV programs of the era and disrupted them. He may not even have meant to, for it wasn’t that Bowie was wild or outrageous when he showed up on Dinah!, or Cher, or Soul Train, or The Dick Cavett Show. If anything, he was gracious, charming, polite, and happy to flatter the host.

Yet Bowie’s emaciated coke-wraith appearance was disturbing purely as a visual, and even while sitting on a couch bantering with a host, or singing a medley of awful contemporary hits with Cher, Bowie came across as estranged, permanently distracted, standing at a remove from humanity, as if he was an extraterrestrial who had learned to speak English by watching television.

TV, with its rituals and its rhythms, was meant to reassure, to serve as the commons for millions of atomized people, but Bowie’s appearances upset the timing. Bowie, whether he wanted to or no, couldn’t fit properly into the frame, and his freakish appearance, the way he seemed tuned to a different key than everyone else on the screen, in turn distorted the “normal” TV celebrities. His oddness brought out their falseness. He made Cher inexplicable, he made Dinah Shore seem like a malevolent cartoon. Bowie broke the contract of celebrity, which is that famous, beautiful people exist in bright excess purely for our enjoyment. He was a celebrity who made no sense; he seemed like a visitation. Television was relieved when he finally left it alone.

If this era ended with the bizarre pairing of Bowie and Bing Crosby for a Christmas special in 1977, the project having reached the limit of absurdity, it began in October 1973 with Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, a televised stage revue shot in London’s Marquee Club, meant to promote the just-released Pin Ups for NBC’s The Midnight Special.

The 1980 Floor Show lacked the cool and reserve of Bowie’s later TV appearances, as Bowie was still determining how to kill off Ziggy Stardust: the compromise was to do glam rock as avant-garde theater. (The performance is a mix of Bowie’s past and future—Mick Ronson’s still there, while the backing singers are the Astronettes, on whom Bowie tried out early sketches of Young Americans compositions.) Much of the Floor Show is intended to visually shock, with Bowie wearing a succession of bizarre outfits, from a fishnet body-stocking adorned with a pair of gold lamé hands grasping Bowie’s chest, to a Tristan Tzara-inspired leotard with a keyhole on Bowie’s torso. It ended with Bowie in ostrich plumes and Marianne Faithfull wearing a backless nun’s habit, singing “I Got You Babe.”

As Dave Marsh wrote of the original Sonny and Cher single, “both the voices on ‘I Got You Babe’ are young and dumb [but] what they’re saying boils down to this: Love redeems everything, no matter how ridiculous, moronic, or grotesque. Noisy and misshapen as those declarations may be, they’re also an essence of what rock & roll brought to pop music that hadn’t been there before:…a willingness to reach for effects and worry about decorum later, an understanding of where to find the sublime amidst the trivial.” Bowie and Faithfull live up to this, somehow crafting a touching, human performance out of the most outlandish of materials.

Top: Bowie and Faithfull, in love.

Here is the complete 1980 Floor Show, in televised order, as found in fragments: 1984/Dodo, Sorrow, Bulerias (the Spanish prog band Carmen), Everything’s Alright, Space Oddity, I Can’t Explain, As Tears Go By (Faithfull), Time, Wild Thing (The Troggs), The Jean Genie, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (not broadcast), 20th Century Blues (Faithfull), I Got You Babe.


Everything’s Alright

July 13, 2010

Everything’s Alright (The Mojos, 1964).
Everything’s Alright (Bowie).
Everything’s Alright (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Everything’s Alright (1980 Floor Show outtakes).

Pin Ups is the oft-forgotten runt of David Bowie’s Seventies albums. By the summer of 1973, Bowie, who had been touring since spring ’72, was exhausted and empty. He hadn’t written a song in half a year and RCA wanted a new record. So he made a covers album. RCA would have some fresh product for Christmas (and it would sell, too, hitting #1 in the UK) and Bowie would buy some time.

Bowie told an interviewer that Pin Ups‘ dozen covers were all “records I have back at home,” while on the LP sleeve he wrote that he had seen most of the bands at clubs like the Marquee or the Ricky-Tick. But these songs weren’t, for the most part, by Bowie’s primary musical influences. There’s no Jacques Brel, Lou Reed, John Lennon, Scott Walker, Anthony Newley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. Only Pete Townshend and Ray Davies perhaps qualified. On Pin Ups, Bowie mainly covered his jobbing contemporaries: the bands who had beat him out on the charts, who had outperformed him on stage, and who he had outlived.

Pin Ups was also crafted to serve two distinct audiences. For the British, it was a nostalgic tribute, with Bowie revisiting pop hits from nearly a decade before. So the record fit in well with the future-throwback ethos of the period, with the burgeoning “Fifties” revival (see “Drive In Saturday”), David Essex getting a hit song with a lyric composted from ’50s rock & roll choruses, or neo-Teddy Boy bands like Mud.

For Americans, though, Pin Ups might as well have been marketed as a new Bowie record. Only “Friday on My Mind,” “Here Comes the Night” and “Shapes of Things” had been US Top 40 hits. Bowie’s picks were generally obscurities, like a Kinks B-side, or tracks by bands unknown to Americans like The Mojos and the Merseys.

Most of these groups were young, decidedly unprofessional, seemingly more at home practicing for a teen dance than going out on national tour…they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on stage outrageous, the relentless middle-finger drive and determination offered only by rock & roll at its finest.

Lenny Kaye, Nuggets liner notes.

Most of all, Pin Ups‘ key counterpart was Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets 2-LP garage rock compilation, released in fall 1972*. The early ’70s, a time when the first generation who had grown up with rock & roll were having children, was unsurprisingly when the “official” history of rock & roll was being drafted. Call it the Whig (or Rolling Stone) theory of rock music, one which begins with, say, Bill Haley and culminates in Dark Side of the Moon: basically, it’s a steady climb from primitive teenage dance music up towards “relevance” and “complexity” with occasional refreshing dips back into “roots” music.

Nuggets/Pin Ups created a counter-narrative, which basically became the punk rebuttal: immediacy over history, the disposable trashy single over the concept LP, spontaneity over chops, with lyrics centered on dancing, alienation and sex. Yet Bowie didn’t commit to this line either, as on Pin Ups he often interpreted basic pop singles as campy affectations, sometimes seemingly at war with his more traditionalist band.

The oldest track Bowie covered on Pin Ups was The Mojos‘ “Everything’s Alright,” which had hit the Top 10 in Britain in March 1964. The Mojos were a Liverpool band who got better gigs and national singles by riding The Beatles’ coattails, along with other Mersey acts like The Big Three, Billy J. Kramer and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The Mojos followed their first single, the fantastic envy-ridden “They Say You Found a New Baby”, with “Everything’s Alright” (written as “Al’right” on the label), which seems inspired by the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout”: it’s a primal stomper crafted to get a club audience screaming.

“Everything’s Alright” barely has a verse, just a couple of lines to fill spaces between choruses, where the beatific promise of “everything’s alright” is fulfilled with “let me hold your hand—be your lovin’ man” or “let me give you lovin’ like nobody can” repeated like mantras. The chorus is standard IV-I-V, with the dominant (G) coming on “let me hold your hand”: the band rides the chorus until it nearly breaks, then spurs the song further with a step-by-step move from C to F. It’s a record of pure pleasure, offering the wonderful lie that it, or the dance, or the teenage night, will somehow never end, and just keep building to greater and greater excitement. So the single’s sudden collapse ending, with the final “everything’s alright” delivered with exhaustion, seems tragic.

Bowie’s version has some tight playing by Mick Ronson, Mike Garson and Trevor Bolder, and it’s dominated by Bowie’s new drummer, Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar not only gave Bowie some cred, as he had played on the original Mojos track (so possibly he suggested covering it) but he’s also a far more dynamic presence on record then the steady but unspectacular Woody Woodmansey, who’d been sacked before the Pin Ups sessions (on his wedding day!). Bowie sings the verses pretty straight, undermines his chorus with a set of goony backing vocals.

“Everything’s Alright” ultimately lacks the original’s punch, as is the case with most of the Pin Ups covers. The original tracks were mainly recorded live in the studio, direct to two- or four-track, and mixed in mono, while the Pin Ups covers were given clinical, dry production by Ken Scott, with a stereo mix that sometimes confines Ronson’s guitar to one channel and often buries Bowie’s backing vocals. Back-to-back comparison of the originals and Pin Ups often makes the Bowie versions sound dissipated.

Recorded ca. July 1973, and Bowie performed “Everything’s Alright” in his 1980 Floor Show on 19 October 1973. It’s a respectably manic version that comes close to parody thanks to the spastic dance moves of Bowie’s backing singers.

Top: Don McCullin, “East End, London, 1973.”

* I’ll get to other major counterpart to Pin Ups, Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things, when we hit “Sorrow” in a few weeks.


Amsterdam

December 21, 2009

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (David Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio version 1971).

Jacques Brel, according to legend, composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean. He read the completed lyrics to a fisherman friend, who wept and cut open some sea urchins. After Robert Guillaume first sang “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, he recalled in his memoir there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie likely first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, which was the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

In late 1968 Bowie began covering “Amsterdam” with his folk trio, keeping the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Bowie even originally intended to end side 1 of Ziggy Stardust with his studio version of “Amsterdam,” with Side 2’s closing song, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” being a thematic twin of sorts, Bowie’s own rock & roll Brel song.

Like “Waiting for the Man,” the other song Bowie obsessively covered in this period, “Amsterdam” offers street life as stage material, but where Lou Reed’s lyric is the narrow perceptions of its junkie narrator, Brel’s “Amsterdam” is sprawling, a Bruegelian vision: a port filled with drunken, paunchy sailors who chew fish heads with their rotten teeth, piss in the street, fight, sing in broken voices and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” The sense of life as a canvas, the vulgar proletarians as actors in their own dramas, appealed to Bowie, whose ’60s lyrics had tended to be obscure or bloodless—he sensed a method, via Brel, to connect with reality more directly, to use stagecraft to build more resonant songs.

Bowie also took from “Amsterdam” its sense of apocalyptic timing (such as how “Amsterdam” begins quietly, with the port slowly waking up, and builds to a wild, drunken spectacle) and its exacting demands on a singer, who has to deliver the entire lyric without barely a pause in three minutes, the intoned words “in the port of Amsterdam” serving as the unchanging hub of the song.

Bowie’s various covers of “Amsterdam” are as much interpretations of Scott Walker’s recording as they are Brel’s. In all his attempts, Bowie seems too much in awe of the material: when he tries to outdo Brel in intensity and Walker in moodiness (particularly in the studio recording) his vocal is stagy and strained, the lyric’s judgments seem unearned. It’s Bowie’s last apprentice work.

Bowie first recorded “Amsterdam” for the BBC’s Sunday Show on 5 February 1970 (on Bowie at the Beeb), and also for “Sounds of the ’70s” on 21 September 1971. The studio recording of “Amsterdam,” made in the summer of 1971 during the early Ziggy Stardust sessions, was eventually cut from the LP (though it was on the first master recording) and wound up issued as the B-side of “Sorrow” in 1973.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.