Space Oddity At Half-Century

July 11, 2019

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Space Oddity (earliest demos, ca. December 1968-January 1969).
Space Oddity (“Clareville Grove” demo, ca. late January 1969).
Space Oddity (Love You Till Tuesday, full-band version, February 1969).
Space Oddity (“Mercury demo”).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (Hits à Gogo, 1969).
Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola.
Space Oddity (Ivor Novello Awards, 1970).
Space Oddity (live, 1971).
Space Oddity (live, 1972).
Space Oddity (BBC, 1972).
Space Oddity (live, Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show,” 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Space Oddity (Tibet House Benefit Concert, February 2002, w/ the Scorchio and Kronos Quartets, Adam Yauch & Philip Glass.)
Space Oddity (last live performance, 5 July 2002).
Space Oddity (a last snippet, March 2004.)

It was the beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury, his first British Top 5 hit, his first American Top 20 hit and, some years later, his first British #1. “Space Oddity” led off the album it titled; it leads off Bowie compilations and retrospectives. When he died, some television tributes led off with it; that night, they sang it in the streets.

An odd beginning, though. Its status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. Though it was a novelty single with a sell-by date (the July 1969 moon landing), “Space Oddity” didn’t chart until months after the moonshot and its highest chartings came in the mid-Seventies. Some in the Bowie camp thought it was a mistake at the time—his friend Tony Visconti refused to produce the single, considering it cheap, a publicity stunt (“it’s not a David Bowie record, it’s ‘Ernie the Milkman’,” he later said). Visconti wasn’t wrong. In hock to the great Bee Gees’ death bubblegum hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Major Tom to Ground Control: in the event of something happening to me; Ground Control to Major Tom: for once in your life you’re alone), “Space Oddity” is a gimmicky folk song clad in extravagant garb.

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In December 1968, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt funded the production of Love You Till Tuesday, a collection of promotional videos. He hoped to revive Bowie’s moribund career, with LYTT serving as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network (it wasn’t released until 1984). While there were films shot for David Bowie tracks, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a Feathers song, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”

It’s unknown when Bowie first got the idea for a “spaceman” song, but an almost certain starting point was May 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London. The film played there for months, mostly to the young and the altered. In a typical 2001 screening, Visconti, high from drinking cannabis tea, had to talk down a tripping couple terrified by the “Stargate” sequence, as he wrote in his autobiography. Bowie saw 2001 (allegedly “out of my gourd…very stoned”) several times and was taken by Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth’s shots: a star-child looming above the Earth; the dead astronaut Frank Poole floating off into space; a man in space talking to his daughter on Earth via video-phone.

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Like 2001, much of postwar SF had offered that humanity’s ventures into space would drive it mad or transfigure it in some way. In Gordon Walter’s “No Guarantee,” an astronaut violently hallucinates while talking to Ground Control. An astronaut in Terry Pratchett’s “The Night Dweller” realizes “we were in a void with nothing below us…it was cold and empty and hostile.”

And in Ray Bradbury’s “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut hurls himself into the void:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

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Jane Conrad, Barbara Cernan & Leslie Bean celebrate their husbands’ moonlaunch on Apollo 12; 16 November 1969 (Lee Balterman)

Against this stood the American astronauts: ex-athletes and Air Force pilots with pretty, television-ready wives and scads of healthy-looking children. They all seemed to live on the same suburban street. “NASA was vending space,” wrote Norman Mailer, who interviewed the Apollo 11 crew before the moonshot. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was “a salesman with a clear mild modest soft sell.” But there was something strange in the Apollo astronauts too, something that lay beyond the jokes about astronaut food and golf and the hundreds of tedious tasks they’d perform, as if they were celestial mechanics. For Mailer, an astronaut like Armstrong had “something close to schizophrenia in his lack of reaction to the dangers about him.”

The astronauts had an easy familiarity with death; they were salesmen over an abyss. Major Tom’s disaster (is it a disaster at all?) voiced the collective dread that the moon landing could go horribly wrong, with death or lunar exile (an extended death) shown on live TV. “A song-farce,” Bowie called “Space Oddity” not long after the moonshot. He’d written it as an “antidote to space-fever.” That “the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing but a human being.”

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It’s fitting that Bowie made “Space Oddity” demos while he had a serviceman’s haircut (due to a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in late 1968)

The man on earth, playing his 12-string acoustic in his room at 22 Clareville Grove in South Kensington, working up a song. After four years in pop music, David Bowie had no record contract and was reduced to a relative handful of folk and mime gigs. In 1968, he’d tried his hand at film parts and musical theater (he unsuccessfully auditioned for Hair), did a cabaret audition, some modeling. Though among his more lucrative jobs of the period was for a TV spot for Luv Ice Cream, his manager kept telling him that work would turn up. So Major Tom is sent into orbit by Establishment figures who monitor him and need him to do his share of media promotion. The song ends with Major Tom ignoring his cues and walking off stage.

Bowie also was writing as the first serious relationship of his life crumbled. He cut the first studio take of “Space Oddity” during his final break with Hermione Farthingale. There was a numbness in the song, a longing to sever ties and drift into the void. As Bowie said of it in summer 1969, “at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at…he’s fragmenting.”

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Among the first substantive interviews of Bowie’s professional life, by Mary Finnigan for the International Times (15-21 August 1969).

All of this was swirling in “Space Oddity”—a technocrat American astronaut cracking up, a failed pop singer out in space writing a letter to his lost girlfriend—but there were pantomime qualities in the song as well. The hand-wringing “she KNOWS!” cried by Ground Control when Major Tom tells his wife he loves her; the stage-Italian pronunciation of “most-a pe-cuil-ee-ah way.”

As with “When I’m Five” or “There Is a Happy Land,” it was fundamentally a child’s song, one they could perform via walkie-talkies. Using simple rhymes (“can you hear” jump-cuts to “here am I floating…”), Bowie favored the kid’s word over the bureaucrat’s: it’s “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence.” “Major Tom” was an action hero’s name, another Dan Dare. The Apollo 11 astronauts called their capsule “the cathedral.” But it was a tin can here: you could see the wires it hung from.

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Ground Control fears the worst (Love You Till Tuesday; Thomson, 1969)

In John Hutchinson’s memoir, he recalled first hearing “the bare bones” of “Space Oddity” a week or two before the Love You Till Tuesday filming. This would place its earliest extant demos (as heard on the Spying Through a Keyhole box) around the tail end of 1968 through mid-January 1969. Farthingale said she first heard “Space Oddity” in November 1968 (Bowie also once said that he wrote the lyrics in that month) and there’s an intriguing Feathers setlist from the period with an unknown piece called “Here Am I,” suggesting that its bridge may have been written first.

(There have been dubious co-authorship claims—LYTT’s director Malcolm Thomson once said some of “Space Oddity” was communally written over a few nights when he and his assistant Susie Mercer visited Clareville Grove—“we all produced lines. It was very much a spontaneous thing among a group of people”—and Marc Bolan told Spencer Leigh that he’d written “part” of the song (declining to say which part) and had suggested that Bowie sing it like Robin Gibb.)

What could be the first recording that Bowie ever made of “Space Oddity” is a fragmentary solo demo in which the bridge is all but completed, while the verse melody and the Ground Control/Major Tom dialogue structure are close to being set. The way that Bowie sings the verses reminds me a bit of John Lennon’s verse phrasings on the then-just-released “Bungalow Bill” (“he went out tiger hunting with his el-e-phant and gun”). There are some clunky early lines (“I think my life on earth is nearly through”), and a clearer depiction of what happens to Major Tom—his spaceship goes “off course, directions wrong”— but it’s striking how much of the song is already in place.

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Some “Space Oddity” chords, from Acoustic Guitar, February 2007.

Its chord sequence was the fruit of a year’s dabbling in folk music, with Hutchinson translating some of Bowie’s ideas into proper chord shapes (he was essential to tacking down the bridge, as Hutch contributed the opening Fmaj7 and the quick run of ninth chords (wrongly omitted in the above chord chart: see below).

Bowie had fingered through progressions on his 12-string, following internal voices of his guitar—playing chord changes that sounded right to his ear and that he achieved with easy movements, like converting a F major barre chord (“and I’m”) into F minor (“floating in a”) by lifting a finger. Later compositions like “Quicksand” would share this tactile sense of movement.

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Parallel movements of electric guitar and Stylophone (“Sty.”) in the opening verse

So the chord pairings of the intro (a slow dance of Fmaj7/E and E minor) and the first verse’s alternating C majors and E minors, present a division to be exploited. On the single recording, the guitarist Mick Wayne sounds two harmonics (E and B) while Bowie’s Stylophone drones two whole notes a half-step apart (C and B). Before the first verse starts, Major Tom is already high in space, Ground Control far below him.

The song was full of these resonances, its harmonic language telling half of the story. Take the E7 chord that appears in the second verse (“really made the grade”) to question the prospective key of C major. It was as dramatic a move harmonically as the vocal leap on the post-liftoff  “this is Ground Control to Major Tom” was melodically. Shifting to E7 instead of the expected E minor brightened the song, expanded it outward. Or take the bridge’s “planet earth is blue” section (B-flat major 9/ A minor add9/ G major add9/ F), a folk-style descending progression whose opening chord (Bbmaj9) was a far distance from C major, a move ratifying Major Tom’s choice (or doom) to stay out in space.

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The “liftoff” bars

He’d never written anything on such a scale before. In a touch over five minutes, there was a faded-in intro, a 12-bar solo verse, a “liftoff” sequence, a duet verse, a bridge, a two-bar acoustic guitar break, a six-bar guitar solo, a third verse, another run of bridge, break, and solo, and a “Day in the Life”-style outro to the fade.

In 2002, Bowie said he’d been “keen on…writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…[that’s] probably what I really wanted to do in the late Sixties. I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” He storyboarded the song, each section setting up the next. The spoken “countdown” backing vocal built suspense in the latter half of the opening verse, leading to a D major chord (“God’s love be with yoooou”) aching to be resolved by the “liftoff” sequence. The acoustic guitar breaks (C-F-G-A-A, Bowie slamming out the last two chords) worked as stage-clearing (they may well have come from the Fifth Dimension’s “Carpet Man”).

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At present, the only surviving video of DB’s 1969 TV appearances to promote “Space Oddity”: the Swiss Hits à Gogo, 3 November 1969 (the dry ice was a leftover from its Halloween show)

I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“It was a song always intended to be sung by a duo,” Hutchinson wrote of “Space Oddity,” whose initial vocal arrangement evoked another, more successful folk pair—Hutch as Ground Control Simon, Bowie as Major Tom Garfunkel. Hutchinson was the song’s primary voice until midway through the second verse, when Major Tom transmits back at last: Bowie soaring over a seventh for his opening phrase (because it’s a seventh interval rather than an octave, Bowie’s phrase has a yearning, striving quality; it’s a goal not quite reached.)

Hutchinson, having left working with Bowie in the spring, would be a ghost in the single recording, his absence heightening its sense of loss and dislocation. Bowie now sang the opening verse in imitation of his former partner, harmonizing with himself in octaves. (In live performances in 1972-1973, Mick Ronson took over harmonies.)

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A studio recording of “Space Oddity” was cut for Love You Till Tuesday on 2 February 1969, a few days before its tonally bizarre promo film was shot: a half-panto, half-borderline softcore short. Marred by leaden drumming and a wheezing Bowie ocarina solo, the LYTT “Space Oddity” oddly downplayed the Stylophone, which Bowie had started playing around Christmas 1968 and had been key to the song’s development—the Stylophone is central in all but the earliest demo.

A small portable synthesizer with two settings, “normal” and “vibrato,” the Stylophone was played by touching a stylus to its tiny metallic keyboard. Bowie worked out a progression on it for the opening verse, a two-note sequence that he later shifted up an octave (on “papers want to know,” the Stylophone moves between A-flat and G). Heard isolated in the mix, the Stylophone is a futurist police siren. In the single’s outro, while Wayne sends guitar notes into the exosphere, Bowie frantically taps at his little keyboard as if making one last SOS.

Making the Stylophone prominent in the “Space Oddity” mix gave the single a futuristic hook and added to its hokey charm. Although recorded at a top studio at a substantial budget (£493.18), the single had a winning sense of amateurishness. Orchestral instruments would play only secondary roles: the strings’ massed entrance in the liftoff sequence; the spacewalk of darting flute and moaning celli in the bridges; the bow scrapings in the outro, a homage to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” used in 2001. Meanwhile, the two synthesizers, doughty little Stylophone and brooding Mellotron (the latter played by Rick Wakeman and held in reserve until the first bridge), bore much of the song’s dramatic weight. They were its vocal chorus, its other string section.

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A Dudgeon memo right before the “Space Oddity” session, via Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now

Gus Dudgeon, who produced the single, mapped out its recording like a battle plan (much of it was cut on 20 June 1969, but there was an overdub session a few days later). Unable to write music, Dudgeon used colors and squiggly lines to mark where he wanted various instruments to come in, with Paul Buckmaster helpfully translating his scrawls into charts.

With only eight tracks at hand at Trident Studio, Dudgeon had to be economical, which led to such inspired moves as recording Wayne’s Gibson ES-335 on the same track as the Stylophone, furthering the sense that the two instruments were astronaut and home base. Struggling to keep his borrowed Gibson in tune, Wayne cut a take with a flat low E string, “the warped note swamped with reverb,” but Dudgeon liked the sound and told him not to retune. Wayne used any trick he could muster, picking between his guitar’s bridge and tailpiece, using a chrome-plated cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide for the takeoff sequence, giving a distorted pressure-drop tag to his first solo (he sounded like a bass synthesizer), moving off his fingerboard for the outro. His two solos, for which Bowie asked him to play like Wes Montgomery (“which meant to play octaves”), were a pair of sweeping orbits, the last escaping Earth’s pull.

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Flowers and Cox’s lines in some of the last bars of “Space Oddity”

Herbie Flowers and Terry Cox were the track’s secret movers. Drumming for Pentangle at the time, Cox served the song well—a man with a funkier bent would have struggled with what was basically a pop tone poem. Opening with parade-ground snare, Cox soon develops a pattern to drive the track: for each bar, two sets of kick drum/closed hi-hat eighth notes he punctuates with a pounded snare and crash cymbal. (He subtly shifts to ride cymbal 16ths and high toms for bridges and solos.) In Flowers’ bassline, a tolling root-note fixation in the opening verse warms to a dancing movement in the second, with a descending two-octave “spacewalk” to kick off the bridges.

Asked to ad lib in the outro, the two did a jazz duet, Flowers playing a roaming, chromatic line that peaked on a high A, Cox hissing his ride cymbal and retorting on his toms. (Cox recalled the session as being “loose,” with Bowie and Dudgeon letting players improvise many of their parts.)

Liftoff

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DB performing “Space Oddity” on the Irish “Like Now!,” 13 December 1969 (video likely wiped)

Major Tom isn’t hearing anything. Is he dead, David?

Probably, that’s left unanswered. But it is clear that he really enjoys being on the moon.

Bowie, to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, 30 August 1969

The world, or at least a small corner of London, first heard “Space Oddity” on 5 July 1969 when it played over the PA system during the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert. While the BBC reportedly played “Space Oddity” at some point during its moon landing coverage two weeks later (it far more favored “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the official soundtrack of space thanks to 2001), the single barely charted upon release and sales quickly tapered off despite Pitt paying a chart-rigger £140 to get the single into Record Retailer.

Here, it seemed, was the maddening last chapter of David Bowie’s career. The song that his label, manager, and friends thought was finally the one, the song he said he felt forced into recording, his big sell-out record, had suffered yet another chart death, performing little better than “Liza Jane.” Then he caught a break.

With a dearth of new releases in September, Philips’ new marketing director set his entire staff to flogging the single. “Space Oddity” rebounded, peaking at #5 in November. (It was the success Bowie might have had in 1967 if Deram had gone in on “Love You Till Tuesday.”) It helped that many “serious” rock acts were abandoning the singles charts, leaving room for “Continental” crooners, sex chansons, cartoons, the occasional reggae masterpiece and a few weird one-offs. “Space Oddity” sounded like nothing else, but it sounded like 1969.

And it kept being called back for encores. It was an American hit in 1973 and two years later RCA reissued it in Britain as a maxi-single. It hit #1 at last.

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He remade it at the end of the Seventies, recording a new version for a New Year’s Eve telecast, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? (he did). Bowie sheared the song to acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums. The great influence was John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, particularly “Mother.” Instead of a liftoff sequence, there were now 12 seconds of silence; instead of a spiraling-outward coda, a faded-out snare figure.

“[David] Mallet wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.’ I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments,” Bowie later said. “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.”

“Space Oddity” had ended unresolved, the door of the capsule left open. Bowie’s reduction of the song closed it off: space was empty. Soon afterward, Bowie decided to look up Major Tom to see what had become of him.

1969-1979-2009-2019-202?

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Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project, 1976).
Space Oddity (memorial crowd in Brixton, 11 January 2016).
Space Oddity (Chris Hadfield, 2013).
Space Oddity (Kristen Wiig, 2013).
Space Oddity (Flaming Lips, 2016).
Space Oddity (Seu Jorge, 2016).
Space Oddity (Gail Ann Dorsey, 2017).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

Bowie, 1980.

Knowing each night…I get that much closer to never singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly.

Bowie, on the “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990.

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“Space Oddity” is a half-century old today. Of course, we’re commemorating a non-event. Few people at the time—perhaps only David Bowie, his friends and manager—were aware of a new single that hit British record shops on Friday, the 11th of July 1969.

In the early Seventies, “Space Oddity” had its uses for him. It fit in his Ziggy Stardust scheme: a late 1972 Mick Rock promo video is Bowie as a bone-tired Ziggy, singing about his fellow lost cosmonaut. (“I really hadn’t much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song,” Bowie wrote in 2002.) Its after-hours cabaret 1974 tour version is a man in a phone booth dialing himself. But it was also a silly song that got him a freak hit, and he was wary of being shackled to it. Performing “Space Oddity” on the Ivor Novello Awards in 1970, he already looks a bit chagrined by it. A decade later, he did “Space Oddity” as fan service, with businesslike 1983 tour performances. There was more vigor in his 1990 tour, where “Space Oddity” was the usual set opener. It was the end of the line for the song, he said, so he’d give it a lengthy public burial.

He’d play it three more times. A farewell solo piece at his 1997 birthday concert, where he promised fans he’d keep surprising them. A gorgeous arrangement for Tibet House in February 2002, with a string octet and Adam Yauch on bass (someone else whose death still feels like a break in the world). And a last one-off performance later that summer in Denmark, a gift to his touring band.

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“Space Oddity” was born mournful, and became ever more so over the years. Bowie had linked the Apollo astronauts (who thought they’d be the opening act of a new age of space exploration and turned out to be one-hit-wonders) to the doomed astronauts of science fiction to the lost boys of the imploding counterculture, and had wrapped them up in a playground hymn.

The American space program soon became a series of loops, going nowhere (I wonder sometimes if I am of the last “space” generation, and I was just an infant during the last moon landings). The year 2001 would be remembered not for Jupiter missions but by fanatics destroying New York skyscrapers. In 2013, when we had gone no further into space than when “Space Oddity” first charted, a version sung by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral. It was a video of a man singing in a tin can that many had forgotten was out in space; Hadfield was a project manager with a glorious view from his office windows.

Bowie once said Major Tom was the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the void and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy: that humanity would sink back into the world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky really is the limit. Or as Hadfield sang from space: “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.”

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I wrote the first version of this essay in the late autumn of 2009, with an economy in pieces and a restlessness, a potential in the air. I did a revision for Rebel Rebel in the summer of 2014, a time that now feels stuck between stations. Here’s another revision, written in a world that would have appeared surreal even to that half-decade-gone summer. “Space Oddity” shifts with the weather: it can be eerie, “dated,” tragic, yearning, young, time-blighted. It’s a lost future for the present, a past for the future to discard or preserve. Where will it land in ten years’ time? And as its composer said, where are we now?

End Credits

Space Oddity.

Written by David Bowie (Essex Music International/ Onward Music Ltd).

Recorded: (1st “Keyhole” demo) ca. December 1968–mid-January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, South Kensington, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; (2nd “Keyhole” demo, “Clareville Grove” demo) ca. mid-to-late January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: also Stylophone; John Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar; (1st studio take) 2 February 1969, Morgan Studios, 169 High Road, Willesden. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, ocarina, Stylophone; Hutchinson: acoustic guitar, lead and harmony vocals; Colin Wood: Hammond organ, Mellotron, flute; Dave Clague: bass; Tat Meager: drums. Produced: Jonathan Weston; (“Mercury” demo) ca. early-to-mid March 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone; Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocal, acoustic guitar; (single) 20 + ca. 23 June 1969, Trident Studios, 17 St. Anne’s Court, London. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone, 12-string acoustic guitar, handclaps; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman: Mellotron; Herbie Flowers: bass; Terry Cox: drums; unknown musicians: piano, organ, 2 flutes, 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 2 arco basses. Produced: Gus Dudgeon; engineered: Barry Sheffield; arranged: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster; (Italian version, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”) 20 December 1969, Morgan Studios. Bowie: lead vocal (Mogol, trans.); (Visconti/DB remake) ca. early September 1979, Good Earth Studios, 59 Dean Street, Soho, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Hans Zimmer: piano; Zaine Griff: bass; Andy Duncan: drums. Produced: Bowie, Tony Visconti.

First release: (single) 11 July 1969 (Philips BF 1801, UK #5); (“Ragazzo Solo”) ca. February 1970 (Philips 704 208 BW); (Visconti/DB remake) 15 February 1980 (RCA BOW 5, UK#23); (“1st studio”) 13 May 1984, Love You Till Tuesday; (“Mercury demo”) 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision; (“Clareville Grove” demo) 12 October 2009, Space Oddity (reissue, DBSOCD 40); (“Keyhole” demos) 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Broadcast: (recording dates) 25 August 1969, Doebiedoe; 2 October 1969, Top of the Pops; 29 October 1969, Musik Für Junge Leute; 3 November 1969, Hits à Gogo; 5 December 1969, Like Now!; 10 May 1970, The Ivor Novello Awards; 22 May 1972, Johnnie Walker Lunchtime Show; 20 October 1973, The 1980 Floor Show; 18 September 1979, Kenny Everett’s Video Show. Live: 1969-1974, 1983, 1990, 1997, 2002.

Among the many sources for this multi-revised beast over the past decade: Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now, Kenneth Pitt’s The Pitt Report, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination, Paul Trynka’s Starman, The David Bowie Story (radio documentary), the Gilmans’ Alias David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roger Griffin’s Golden Years, and, most of all, the complete band score David Bowie: Space Oddity—Off the Record. Also a number of contemporary articles, especially Mary Finnigan’s International Times interview (15-21 August 1969), Jojanneke Claassen’s “David Bowie’s Great Love Is His Arts Lab” (Het Parool, 30 August 1969) and Penny Valentine’s “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969). Larry Hardesty figured out the mechanics of this song for me during book revisions. Around the time of the original entry in 2009, Tom Ewing made mention of the blog, which got it some substantial attention and, ultimately, led to a book contract. So thanks again to Tom, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to meet in the years since.


Space Oddity

November 11, 2009

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Space Oddity (first version).
Space Oddity (Bowie and Hutchinson demo).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (first live TV performance, 1970).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show” rehearsal, 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (live, 2002).

“Space Oddity” is an officially sanctioned beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury; his first Top 10 hit (and, years later, his first UK #1); lead-off and title track of the subsequent LP; lead-off track of every greatest hits compilation from ChangesOneBowie on; lead-off track on his Sound and Vision career retrospective. When Bowie dies, the TV tributes will lead off with it.

So it’s “classic” Bowie, its now-iconic status won slowly and circuitously, but then “Space Oddity” has always seemed slightly out of time (its biggest chart placings, both in the US and the UK, came years after its first release). It began as a novelty song with a sell-by date (the first moon landing in July 1969), something like a grandiose, more dignified “Laughing Gnome,” and Tony Visconti, for one, refused to have anything to do with it, considering the song a cynical sell-out. Which it was. “Space Oddity” is close company to early Bee Gees hits like “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and Zager and Evans’ dire “In the Year 2525”: it’s a gimmicky folk song dressed up in extravagant clothes.

“Space Oddity” has come to define Bowie, perhaps because it’s as protean as its creator has tried to be. It’s a breakup song, an existential lullaby, consumer tie-in, product test, an alternate space program history, calculated career move, and a symbolic end to the counterculture dream—the “psychedelic astronaut” drifting off impotently into space (Camille Paglia suggested the last); it’s a kid’s song, drug song, death song, and it marks the birth of the first successful Bowie mythic character, one whose motives and fate are still unknown to us.

The major

2001

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London in May 1968 and played for months. As in many cities, its most frequent repeat viewers were the young and the altered. Visconti, in his autobiography, recounts a typical 2001 viewing—while high from drinking cannabis tea, Visconti had to talk down the tripping couple behind him who were terrified by the film’s “Star Gate” sequence. Bowie saw the film (stoned “off my gourd” he recalled) several times that summer and was especially struck by the final images of a “child” floating in space over the Earth.

So when at the end of 1968 Bowie’s manager asked him to write a new song for his Love You Till Tuesday promo film, Bowie had a scenario in mind. While 2001 was a primary influence, Bowie, an SF fan (e.g., “We Are Hungry Men“), may have raided other sources. One candidate is Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man story collection, which includes “The Rocket Man” (later used by Bernie Taupin), where an astronaut’s life is as dull and isolating as a traveling salesman’s; “Kaleidoscope,” where astronauts burn up in space, their dying embers seen as a shooting star on Earth; and, most of all, “No Particular Night or Morning,” where an astronaut in deep space doubts whether the Earth or even the stars are real and kills himself by going out the airlock:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

 

01frank

And of course there was the ongoing Apollo moonshot program, which many hippies and New Left types detested for embodying the absurdities of “plastic America”: a made-for-TV waste of resources undertaken at a time of war, repression and political chaos. Bowie wrote “Space Oddity” around the time of Apollo 8 near Christmas 1968, the first manned rocket to the moon, which made two TV broadcasts during the flight (on Christmas Eve, the three astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, a performance immediately followed by a rocket-eye view of the Earth hanging cold and alone in space).

The disaster that befalls Major Tom (is it a disaster at all?) also reflects the general, if unspoken, fear at the time that the Apollo missions could go terribly wrong, with gruesome death or exile shown on live global television. Richard Nixon had on his desk a memorial speech in case the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the moon (its author, William Safire, had suggested that a clergyman should “adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea”).

The musician

spaceodd

When Bowie began writing the song, working with his then-partner John Hutchinson (who likely came up with a few of the chord sequences), he was at low ebb. His prospects as a pop singer had faded and his intense relationship with Hermione Farthingale was ending. (During 1968 Bowie also had “a flirtation with smack,” he admitted years later, and some have argued the icy majesty of “Space Oddity” suggests it’s really a heroin song, the “liftoff” section marking when the needle hits the vein.)

So it’s not surprising that Bowie created a character who’s been sent into orbit by Establishment figures, who monitor him, give him orders and want him to do his share of media promotion. The line “Now it’s time to leave the capsule—if you dare” suggests Major Tom could even be a contestant on a television show. Bowie made the first recording of the song the day after his final break with Farthingale, which has led biographers to speculate that Bowie’s state of mind at the time reflected Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void.

Yet while alienation is key to the song, it’s not a bleak or despairing track at all, as it has childlike qualities: the lyric at the start sounds like a game played by two boys on walkie-talkies; it has simple wordplay based on common sounds (the way “Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear” segues directly into “here am I floating round my tin can“) and as David Buckley notes, Bowie often uses a child’s word to replace an “official” one: so “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence,” and even the name “Major Tom” seems that of a ’50s action hero rather than of a legitimate astronaut.

The composition

db69

I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“Space Oddity” was the most intricate song Bowie had yet written, and you could consider it a neatly controlled collision of two forces—the often-simple lyric, with its memorable, childlike lines (“the stars look very different today“); and the density and complexity of the song’s structure.

In the span of five minutes, there’s an intro, two verses, two bridges, two four-bar acoustic guitar breaks, a “liftoff” sequence with guitar and strings, a 12-bar electric guitar solo, a third extended verse that’s partially a refrain (the “Can you hear me Major Tom?” bit) and a long outro which also contains a second guitar solo. There are something like 15 different chords used and the lyric at times seems synchronized to the changes (in the bridge, when Major Tom is floating alone in space “far above the world,” the first chords are Fmaj7 and Em7, the two chords that the ominous intro had moved between). Despite this complexity, the song has atmosphere and space; constantly in motion, it has a stillness at its center.

It was intended to be a duet: the opening verse was originally sung by Hutchinson (as you can hear in the demo), who had a lower range, while Bowie harmonized an octave higher. Hutchinson as “ground control” again opened the second verse until the big reveal: Major Tom speaks at last, with Bowie finally appearing in his most resonant tone. Hutchinson recalled that he and Bowie loved Bookends, and here Hutchinson keeps to the ground as “Simon” while Bowie wafts in as “Garfunkel.” Bowie’s skill as a singer had developed enough, however, that he could play all the roles when he recorded the song as a solo vocal a few months later.

The song is a series of neatly-designed stages, as though it was a rocket itself—the way the “countdown” verse (a descending number marking the start of each bar) is met by the eight-bar liftoff (something of a neatly-tailored version of the orchestral upward sweep in the Beatles “A Day in the Life”); the bridge that begins weightlessly and then slowly falls to earth in its last four bars; or the way Bowie’s sharp acoustic break (C-F-G-A-A, strumming hard on the last two chords) serves as stage-clearing, first to set up the dreamy electric guitar solo, then to prepare for the long outro.

The recordings

69dbphone

“Space Oddity”‘s first recording, cut for the Love You Till Tuesday promo on 2 February 1969, sounds like a tentative full-band rehearsal. While it shows that most of the song structure was in place at an early stage, the rhythm’s not right, much of it sounds thin and reedy, and a few sections are just lousy (the flute squawk solo was thankfully replaced by electric guitar). By the time Bowie and Hutchinson re-recorded the song as a demo (as part of Bowie’s successful audition for Philips/Mercury) in March-April 1969, Bowie had introduced the Stylophone, which would become one of the track’s defining sounds.

The Stylophone, whose manufacturer had sent a promotional copy to Bowie’s manager, was a primitive portable synthesizer that had two settings, “normal” and “vibrato.” You played it by touching a stylus to a tiny keyboard, which closed a circuit and emitted a tone. Bowie toyed with it for a bit and figured out how to create a basic droning progression that would become the backbone of the song’s early verses. (It naturally gave the song some SF cred to have an “alien” computer noise in much of the mix.)

The Stylophone was just one facet of Gus Dudgeon’s production for the Philips/Mercury single (Visconti had turned Bowie down, saying he’d produce the LP but not the cheesy single), a session that Dudgeon plotted like a military operation, mapping the song’s progress out on paper—Dudgeon couldn’t write music, so he used colors (cellos were brown, for instance) and squiggly lines to indicate where various instruments came in. Paul Buckmaster had to translate it into charts for the players.

This past summer Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” as a digital EP, including, wonderfully, the original eight-track Dudgeon recording now broken into its separate tracks, revealing some of the production’s tricks—for example:

The signal: Bowie’s Stylophone and Mick Wayne’s electric guitar share the same track. In the opening, the two instruments seem an extension of each other, the drone of the Stylophone pricked, every two bars, by a plucked note on the guitar. It sounds like an interstellar radio transmission. The Stylophone is the defining instrument of the song: it plays only three tones in the opening verse, the highest setting held and “waggled” as the verse gives way to the liftoff sequence; it plays a repeated two-note pattern that sounds like a police siren whenever Bowie extends a line (for example, on “made the GRADE” or “most peculiar WAY”); it underpins the guitar solo with a single held note. And in the outro sequence, while the guitar spirals out a string of notes the Stylophone frantically taps away as if making an SOS call.

Strings, old and new: Much as the song is a balancing act between its lyric and its knotty chord structure, the recording contrasts traditional orchestral instrumentation (eight violins, two violas, two celli, two double basses and two flutes) and the synthesizer future. The synths serve as the primary colors (while the Stylophone appears in the first verse and extends through most of the song, the richer-sounding mellotron (played by Rick Wakeman) is held back until the bridge, then replaces the Stylophone for much of the third verse). The orchestral instruments are used more as sound effects (the note-by-note string buildup during the liftoff sequence, the darting flute and moaning celli and basses in the bridges) and backdrops.

The bottom: One revelation is the isolated track of Herbie Flowers’ bass and Terry Cox’s drums. This was Flowers’ first-ever session (he’d go on to craft the trademark bassline of “Walk on the Wild Side” and played on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs), and he’s a marvel—buried under the layers of “Space Oddity” is a bassline that goes from a stark single-note repetition to a jazzy fluid movement in the later verses to a full-on bass solo during the song’s outro. Cox’s drumming isn’t very funky—he was the drummer for Pentangle, after all—but it serves the material well, from the parade-ground snare warmups at the beginning, to the bolero pattern Cox develops in the first verse, to coming down hard on the third beat in the later verses.

The single

so

The Philips “Space Oddity,” recorded on 20 June 1969, debuted over the PA system at the Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert on 5 July, which had become an impromptu funeral service for Brian Jones. The BBC did play “Space Oddity” during the moon launch (though they mainly used “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which had become the official soundtrack of outer space thanks to 2001). It’s impossible to verify when or how often “Space Oddity” was played during the coverage, however, as the BBC later erased its recordings of the moon landing (along with scads of Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell Doctor Whos, performances by every British band of the ’60s, early appearances by pre-Python Michael Palin and John Cleese, etc., etc.).

“Space Oddity” didn’t chart upon release, however, and initially seemed yet another Bowie flop. Then (possibly due to Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, who offered some payola) the single rebounded in the fall and finally hit the UK Top 10, reaching #5 in November 1969. Mercury had released the single in the U.S. to utter indifference, but when Bowie finally broke in America in 1972, his then-label RCA (which had purchased most of Bowie’s Mercury material) re-released “Space Oddity,” forcing an exhausted Bowie to make a Mick Rock promo film while in full Ziggy garb. This reissue hit #15 in the US in 1973.

And in 1975, a slack year for pop music, RCA boosted its back catalog in the UK with its “Maximillion” series, repackaging singles by Elvis and reissuing “Space Oddity” backed with “Changes” and “Velvet Goldmine.” Whether it was due to a lack of chart competition, or whether the record had gone from being the voice of an ominous future to the sad, reassuring sound of a lost past, “Space Oddity” at last hit #1 in the UK.

Epilogue

Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project version, 1976).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing, Popular entry on “Space Oddity”.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, USSR cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

David Bowie, interview with NME, 1980.

Bowie cut a new version of “Space Oddity” in late 1979, which he debuted on Kenny Everett’s New Years Eve Show; in it, he sheared the song down to its skin—just Bowie’s harrowed voice, acoustic guitar, basic accompaniment and, in place of the liftoff sequence, 12 seconds of silence. He performed the song with an intensity it had never had before, and soon afterward, he decided to exhume Major Tom and see what had become of him (but that’s a tale for later).

“Space Oddity” is forty years old, and listening to it now it seems prematurely but accurately mournful. Few at the time of its birth, not even its creator, could have imagined that after the moonshots, the American space program would decline into irrelevance, waste and pointlessness; that the year 2001 would not be marked by lunar bases and a Jupiter mission, but the barbaric destruction of NYC skyscrapers and fresh, endless war; that in 2009 mankind would have gone no further into space than it had when “Space Oddity” first charted.

Major Tom’s fate is a resignation of sorts to the cosmos—Bowie had intended it to be the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the unknown and blanking out—but the song wound up being a harbinger of our cultural resignation, predicting that we would eventually lose our nerve, give up on the dream, and sink back into the depths of the old world. Perhaps we aren’t built for transcendence, and the sky sadly is the limit. Or as the song goes, “planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”

Photos (top to bottom): Neil Armstrong, en route to the moon, July 1969; Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) meets fate, and the last spacewalk of Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968; the original Philips single, BF 1801; Bowie’s 1969 self-titled LP, later renamed after its hit single; a spacesuit-clad Bowie demonstrates the Stylophone to the world; Dutch single, 1969.


I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship

August 7, 2014

karach01

I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, 1969).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie, Top Of the Pops, 2002).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Bowie, live, Meltdown, 2002).
I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship (Legendary Stardust Cowboy, live, 2007).

What is it with spaceships?

Bowie: Well it’s an interior dialogue that you manifest physically. It’s my little inner space isn’t it, writ large. I wouldn’t dream of getting on a spaceship. It would scare the shit out of me. I’ve absolutely no ambition or interest to go into space whatsoever. I’m scared going down to the end of the garden.

Radio 4 “Front Row,” interview, June 2002.

God is my partner and he is on my side. It looks like that I will be able to record Gospel records, be on Johnny Carson, have my first date, and later on be in the Western movies.

The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, autobiography, 1969.

On one of his rambles through the Internet, Bowie found a delight: the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Norman C. Odam, had a web page. Compared to BowieNet, it was primitive (“just two pages!” Bowie crowed) but its contents were enough to fascinate him, like a JPEG of “The Ledge”‘s birth certificate.

There was also a handwritten letter from the Ledge, in which he gave the webmaster his blessing “to put me on the Internet” and said he’d had some financial troubles of late. “I’ve reached the point where I need help in going further…It sure would be nice if David Bowie would pay me something for using part of my name in “Ziggie Stardust,” as appeared in the August 20, 1984 issue of People magazine with Richard Burton on the cover.” (This was a “Picks and Pans” review of the Cowboy’s latest album—a pick, happily.)

Bowie was contrite. He’d “chewed off” Stardust’s name for his own plastic rock ‘n’ roll star to use, and now here was the original Stardust Cowboy, so broke he couldn’t buy a computer to see his own website. “When I read on his site that he thought that because I’d borrowed his name that, at least I should sing one of his songs, I got guilty and wanted to make amends immediately,” Bowie told LiveWire. “So I covered one of his best songs, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship,’ although he sings ‘Spacecraft’ on the record.”*

Talking up the Ledge also fit in with Bowie’s “outsider music” designs. He was the guest editor of the June 2002 issue of Mojo, where he commissioned pieces about various things that had caught his eye over the decades (he wrote a tribute to The Ledge himself), and was the curator of the 2002 Meltdown, whose performers he chose partly for their weirdness (that said, Coldplay and Pete Yorn made the cut). “Being an editor for just one day is a lovely excuse to clean out the closet. I found all my old Legendary Stardust singles in there, all on Mercury, and that got me into a quiet reverie or two,” he wrote. “Along with Wild Man Fischer and solo Syd Barrett, the Ledge was instrumental in creating, unwittingly, the now current Outsider Music genre. Mr. Stardust takes the title of World’s Most Influential Cult Artist in my small world for maybe obvious reasons.”

Like Bowie’s Daniel Johnston analogue “Wood Jackson,” the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was everything you’d want from “outsider” music—obscurity; an insane-seeming singer wholly devoted to (or consumed by) his persona, and whose music was both fascinating and unbearable. To Jools Holland, Bowie said the Cowboy’s singles “were unbelievably atrocious but in that wonderful way that you couldn’t stop listening to them.” One of the Ledge’s guitarists, Frank Novicki, once said that “Norman can’t carry a tune, and he doesn’t really sing in time, but you don’t have to know any of that stuff to be good at music. Boy, is he proof of that.”

ledge

When Bowie came to America for the first time, in January 1971 on a promotional tour, he was hungry for new, weird records. Ron Oberman, the Mercury promo man who met Bowie at Dulles Airport, passed on the Ledge’s three Mercury singles. “Back home, I choked on ‘Paralyzed,’ gasped in awe at ‘Down in the Wrecking Yard’ and fell all about the floor at ‘I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship,’” wrote Bowie in Mojo. “It was the laugh of love. I could not believe that such a talent was unrecognized…I became a lifelong fan, and Ziggy got a surname.

Born in 1947, Norman Odam came from Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly’s hometown; a school friend was the singer/guitarist Joe Ely, who once called the Ledge West Texas’ finest jazz musician. Odam would stand on the steps of Monterrey High School, singing stuff like “My Underwear Froze Down to the Clothesline,” sometimes getting pelted by hard candy, pennies and clods of dirt thrown by unimpressed classmates. Seeing Odam perform in the 2000s, Ely said that the Cowboy’s set list hadn’t changed that much from the steps of Monterrey.

Inspired by Tiny Tim’s appearances on the Tonight Show, the Ledge set off for New York in 1968, only to wind up stuck in Fort Worth. Two vacuum cleaner salesmen, awed by a gonzo Cowboy performance at a nightclub, hustled him into a local recording studio, where a 21-year-old T. Bone Burnett and another engineer had been up all night and were on the verge of hallucinating, Burnett recalled. The salesmen waved some money around, so Burnett rigged up two microphones and put a fresh tape reel on the deck. He got behind the drums. The Ledge told him “play in the same tempo I’m singing in” and they were off: the result was “Paralyzed.” “The only thing I wanted was to write a song that was wilder than anything Elvis had ever done. His music was too slow for me!” the Ledge recalled decades later. After a Burnett drum solo that seemed intended to make Keith Moon’s work on “Happy Jack” look staid, Odam played a cracked-sounding bugle for a few bars. Along with his war whoops, it was as if he was playing both sides of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Above the studio was a radio station, KXOL. Burnett took the tape upstairs as a joke but the DJ flipped out (he allegedly screamed “this is IT! This is the NEW MUSIC!”) and started playing “Paralyzed” on air. Fort Worthers, wondering what in hell they’d just heard on the radio, kept requesting the song. A Fort Worth music impresario, “Major Bill Smith,” soon became the Ledge’s “manager” and pressed a single that led to a deal with Mercury, which released “Paralyzed” nationally. It cracked the US Top 200 and landed the Ledge on Laugh-In, where the smug comedians treated him like a freak.

laughin

And like The Uncle Floyd Show, the Ledge struck out in the major leagues. A musicians’ union strike in early 1969 meant that none of the other TV variety shows could book live musicians (the Ledge qualified as “union” because he’d strummed a guitar on Laugh-In). He’d had offers from the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show and American Bandstand but he could play none of them. By the time the strike ended, “Paralyzed” was off the charts and his two other Mercury singles (including “Gemini Spaceship”) had flopped. Mercury dropped him just as another of their 1969 signings, one David Bowie, finally got a hit with “Space Oddity.”

The rest of the century was a long, bizarre epilogue: an arrest and brief jailing for vagrancy; the Ledge spooling 50 (or 52) songs’ worth of master tape down Henderson Street in Fort Worth to spite Major Bill, who was ripping him off; decades of wild club performances (where the Ledge often stripped down to his underwear) and a few more records in which the Ledge assembled a pick-up band, got them in the studio and started to sing, forcing the band to chase him. By 2001, the Ledge was working as a security guard at a defense plant and living with eight roommates in an apartment in San Jose’s Evergreen Valley. “Two stop signs and nine traffic lights from the freeway,” he told the reporter Brad Kava.

bowieledge

Was he a musical influence as well?

Bowie: (laughs) Not really. Have you heard the records? They are out there. He has great integrity: he has no idea that any judgements will be made on what he does or delivers…there’s an incredible naivety to him. He really is solidly outside. He’s quite spectacularly outside.

Radio 4 interview.

Bowie chose his Stardust Cowboy cover well: he couldn’t have done anything with “Paralyzed” besides seem ridiculous and ordinary. But “I Took a Trip On a Gemini Spaceship” was melancholy, sad, mysterious. It was a metaphor for Odam’s life in West Texas, where he’d painted a map of the moon’s Sea of Tranquility on the roof of his car and would spend nights staring up at a sky that he wanted to hide in. Moon shining down/ on some little town/ and with each beam/ the same old dreeeeam. How the repeated “tomorrow nights” call back to the moonlit loneliness of Elvis’s Sun single. The self-recriminating last verse, where the Cowboy looks back “at a stardust trail leading back to yoooou.” What did I do? he moaned. The last, mumbled line sounded like “abandon you.”

“Gemini Spacehip” was a less refined Captain Beefheart. Take the Cowboy’s vocal—the outrageous pronunciations that turn names into alien beings (“Gem-uh-nee,’ “Jew-pit-err”) or the way he’ll collide phrases into another like boxcars (“I jumped into miiine-we’ll orbit the mooon”). The drummer (was it Burnett again?) obstinately kept to his clunking pattern until, as if the Cowboy’s been baiting him, he started clubbing fills for every phrase. The B-movie organ occasionally sobered up, playing lines of haunting beauty.

Bowie turned “Gemini Spaceship” into a “rave uncle” song, a sudden return to the sound of Earthling—it was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy kitted up for the festival circuit, with Bowie singing the Ledge’s words in a nightclub seducer’s croon, turning seemingly every line into an innuendo (“I shot my space gun“), while dramatically sighing, drawling and even plummeting to the absolute depths of his register (the “weeellllllll” at 3:14 is his lowest-sung note on record). He piled on glum-Gus baritone saxophone, a keening theremin, Tony Visconti-scored strings that have a touch of Bollywood in them and washes of David Torn guitar, cemented in a Visconti bassline that mainly hops along on root notes, breaking off to make a few interjections, and Matt Chamberlain as convulsive pulsebeat.

It was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy performed straight-faced, which is how the Ledge always played it. Bowie sang it a few times on stage in 2002 and bopped along to the music like some antic kid.

legendarystardust2

Bowie, Paralyzed (L.S. Cowboy), Later With Jools Holland, 2002.
Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Space Oddity (D. Bowie), 2003.

Unlike many stories these days, this one has a happy ending. The Ledge got some decent royalty checks from the sales of Heathen and Bowie flew him and his band out to London in June 2002 for the Meltdown Festival, where he happily bewildered the British. And two months later, when Bowie’s tour hit the San Francisco area, the two met for the first time.

The Ledge, with two friends and his documentarian, a filmmaker named Tony Philputt, showed up at the Shoreline Ampitheatre, happy to find there was no charge for parking. They told the ticket counter attendant to let Bowie’s people know “the Ledge is here!” “Within five minutes, four tickets and four backstage passes came shooting out the window slot. It was great fun walking around with Norman, decked in hat, boots, garish jacket and all, amongst the kids. Got a lot of strange looks,” Philputt said.

After watching the show backstage via closed-circuit TV and regretting they hadn’t brought earplugs, the Ledge and crew got into the meet-and-greet line. Bowie entered the room and saw a man with whom he’d been obsessed since 1971. “I knew instantly that David Bowie was much more intimidated by the Ledge than vice versa,” Philputt recalled. “When he came walking into to the room, he yelled out ‘Ledge!’ and ran to him to try and hug him. And Norman was having none of that—he stepped back slightly and David ended up giving him the two hands on the arms squeeze as opposed to a full hug. And they just stood around taking pictures, and Bowie had this grin on his face like somebody had just handed him a syringe of the sweetest smack in the world.

So dreams do come true (though more for David Jones of Bromley than for Norman Odam of Lubbock, who calmly took Bowie’s fanboy effusions as payment long overdue). And if anything, the whole story just serves to show just how damned normal Bowie is, relatively speaking.

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. A “Deepsky’s Space Cowboy” remix appeared on the promo US 12″ single for “Everyone Says ‘Hi.'”

* Wonderfully, the Cowboy’s website refers to the song as “I Took a Trip (On a Space Shuttle).” I like the idea that the song will continue to molt over the next centuries (“I Took a Trip (On a Generational Starliner to Alpha Centauri)”).

Sources: Irwin Chusid’s Songs in the Key of Z (excerpted on Perfect Sound Forever); “Flesh-and-Blood Ziggy Stardust Inspiration Gets Gig on Bowie Bill,” Brad Kava, San Jose Mercury News, 12 June 2002; “Out on a Ledge: The Legend of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy,” Richard Skanse, Texas Music Magazine, Winter 2003.

Top: Ian Cowe, “Local bus, Karachi, Pakistan, August 2001”; Ledge on Laugh-In, 1968; meeting of Stardust and Starman, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Santa Clara, 14 August 2002; a Ledge performance ca. late 2000s.


Hallo Spaceboy

April 2, 2013

chloe95

Hallo Spaceboy.
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys remix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Lost In Space mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Double Click mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Later With Jools Holland, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Det Kommer Mera, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (Karel, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, TOTP, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, Brit Awards, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with the Foo Fighters, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys, live, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (BBC, 2000).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2003).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2004).

Brion Gysin died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, July 13, 1986. He was the only man I have ever respected. I have admired many others, esteemed and valued others, but respected only him. His presence was regal without a trace of pretension. He was at all times impeccable…Brion was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. He knew he had only a few weeks to live. I was preparing to go to Paris when Brion died. I have this last glimpse through a letter in her own English, from my friend Rosine Buhler:

“…After occurs a dreamlike talk about to have a large house by the sea in August, the shadowed room where all is burning hot outside. Brion said he knew he would sleep well and was really happy of that good day. He wanted no help to lift himself up from his green armchair, and went to his room. I was watching his tall straight way to walk, his secure path…only kings and wild people have this way.”

William S. Burroughs, introduction to Gysin’s The Last Museum.

Brion Gysin liked to say he was a man from nowhere. Even his name was a mistake: his mother had christened him John Clifford Brian, but a passport clerk, misreading Gysin’s crabbed handwriting, swapped in an “o” for an “a” in the latter name (“like the famous wine of Bordeaux, Haut Brion,” Gysin said.) Born in London during the First World War, which claimed his father, he lived in Canada, New York, where he was a ship welder and Broadway costume designer, Tangier, where he ran a restaurant called The 1001 Nights, whose house band was the Master Musicians of Joujouka, and Paris, where he died.

In life and art he was transient—he was Bowie’s world-roaming Lodger in the flesh. Gysin could never commit to one spouse: he was a poet, historian, mystic, painter, filmmaker, musician, inventor (of “the Dreamachine,” a trance-inducing flickering light-box that he thought would make his fortune and didn’t). He had a habit of leaving a city soon before something occurred—an exhibit, a new publisher—that could have “discovered” him.

For Bowie, Gysin was most obviously influential as being the creator of the cut-up method in 1959; a method that came about, Gysin said, when he tried to apply the techniques of painting and film (collage and montage) to the assembly of words, He started by slicing through a stack of newspapers and making poems out of the shreds. By the mid-Sixties, Bowie was cutting up his lyric sheets, throwing pieces in the air and seeing what came from picking them up; three decades later, he had custom-made software to do the equivalent. But Gysin also served a symbolic role for Bowie, as an image of an unrefined creativity. Gysin made being a dilettante into a noble calling. Life is a game, not a career, as he said.

He might’ve lived a much more traditional artistic life, but he was always outside of that, and that was very much to his advantage as an artist.

John Geiger, on Gysin.

“Hallo Spaceboy” is, among many other things, a eulogy to Gysin: a tribute to a force of motion that was stilled only by death. You’re so sleepy now…your silhouette is so stationary…Don’t you want to be free? Even if Bowie hadn’t consciously intended to reference Gysin (“If I fall, moondust will cover me” (a line heard in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Spaceboy”) were rumored to be Gysin’s last words*), the latter’s ghost still possessed the song. The Pet Shop Boys remix used Gysin’s cut-up to rip a hole in the song, transforming it into a sequel to “Space Oddity,” much to Bowie’s initial dismay.

Unlike friends like Burroughs and rivals like André Breton (who had Gysin’s paintings yanked from a surrealist exhibit in 1935), Gysin left no definitive works; there was no Naked Lunch or Surrealist Manifestos to his name, only a series of pieces scattered across various mediums: scripts, sound poems, novels, calligraphic paintings, the Dreamachine. A body of work treasured by a few, and remaining fundamentally obscure. Gysin’s most public legacy was a method used by rock stars like Bowie and Mick Jagger to write pop lyrics. But Gysin had lived his entire life as a performance. Lacking commercial ambitions and any desire for a mass audience, Gysin was a free agent, a man who spent decades on this planet without having any sort of “proper” occupation (his stint as restauranteur was as domestic as he ever got); he was a figure who earned respect by keeping in flux.

On Outside, Bowie was trying to reconcile, as he’d done time and time before (see the Glass Spider tour), his ambition to be considered an avant-garde artist with his more prosaic reality: that he was a pop star who was still on a major label, and who was still mainly known for singing about Major Tom and dueting with Mick Jagger. So figures like Scott Walker and Gysin wound up in the sediment of Bowie’s art-rock album, as potent but discarded influences, especially in the last stages of recording Outside, when Bowie had scrapped his Leon song-montages in favor of a fresh run of hook-filled pop songs like “Spaceboy.” If he was burying Gysin, he’d do it to the sound of slamming drums.

gysburr

“Spaceboy” is a negative of “Moonage Daydream.” “Daydream” opens with Mick Ronson’s slammed power chords and Bowie’s solo vocal, a double-hook (“ALL-i-GAH-tor! BAM-BLAMMM!”) so captivating that the rest of the song is a homage to it. “Spaceboy” begins with 16 bars of suspense: a swirl of synthesizer loops, an ominous chopping loop mixed right, a distorted guitar line. There’s a sense that something’s coming to break this into pieces, a tornado glimpsed on the horizon, and thirty seconds in the hook finally arrives. Instead of the expected guitars, it’s a moving wall of percussion, a cannonade of electronic beats and crushing 4/4 drums undergirded by a low-mixed bassline and dirtied by static bursts of distorted guitar. It’s a sonic cancer at the heart of the song, perversely giving it strength.

The “Moonage Daydream” intro hook was glam in miniature: here, dream this: go! “Spaceboy” wasn’t open, but an imposition—the hook found you out, hunted you down, and all you could do was submit to it and bang your head. BAMBAMBAMBAMDUNNADUNNADUNNA (there’s a bit of “Detroit Rock City” in it). In the choruses, two distorted guitars spit and tear, shifting from a B to a G chord and back (that’s the main harmonic sequence of the song, which also moves to a brief A major progression in the bridges). When Bowie comes in for the first verse, “Spaceboy” shifts back to its initial state of dread. The beat’s out there, and it’s coming back. By the second verse, a muted strain of it pounds beneath Bowie’s vocal, triggered by “Spaceboy!”; before the second chorus, Bowie holds off the onslaught for a few bars, whispering “moondust” before the door is kicked in. Everything in the mix serves as a counter-rhythm: there are ping-ponged electric guitars, snapping riffs back and forth; later, there’s a mouse-chase across Mike Garson’s piano. A muttering Bowie curses across the spectrum, his inaudible syllables sounding like crash cymbals.

One starting point was Eno’s “Third Uncle” (esp. via Bauhaus); another was the Swiss industrial band the Young Gods, who were as much an influence on Outside as the more-hyped Trent Reznor. Particularly the Gods’ T.V. Sky (1992): “Skin Flowers,” for instance, with its buzz-swaths of guitar and its relentless beat, is an ur-“Spaceboy” (the hollered “OUTSIDE!” also might’ve attracted notice); see also the juxtaposition of guitar loops and percussion fills on “Dame Chance.” (And Bowie’s 20-minute Leon suites seem in part inspired by T.V. Sky‘s closer, a 20-minute song-churn called “Summer Eyes.”)

Conjured up in a handful of days in the studio, “Spaceboy” was a liberating track for Bowie, who rode its beat and reveled in the trash. This chaos is killing me! he screamed, sounding delighted to die, mocking his past selves with “do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” And some of the song was due to Reeves Gabrels, uncredited.

sapce

In mid-1994, a few months after the first Leon sessions, Gabrels returned to Switzerland to work on overdubs and new recordings with Bowie. No other musicians from the Leon sessions were around (including Eno) except for an occasional visit by Erdal Kizilcay. Towards the end of a month-long stay in Montreux, Gabrels played Bowie an “ambient” instrumental piece, which he then recorded as a demo. Bowie recited some lines over the track, including “moon dust,” which Gabrels said Bowie had found in a book of poems he was reading in the studio (he speculated the poet was John Giorno).

After [Bowie’s] vocal/spoken word tracks were done, I did a bunch of long sustain guitars thru a vocal formant patch from an Eventide 4000 signal processor (which makes it sound like a human voice) and I used a slight variation on the ava rava middle eastern scale,”** Gabrels wrote on his website. That was the end of it. On a subsequent visit to Montreux in late 1994, Gabrels asked about the track, provisionally called “Moondust,” and Bowie said “he didn’t feel there was anything special going on with that piece and that he’d pretty much forgotten about it.”

However, Bowie seemed to have remembered “Moondust” during the final Outside sessions in New York, in January 1995. On 17 January, using Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron, Bowie broke the song down to a handful of chords, reducing the original track “to almost nothing,” Eno recalled in his diary. “I wrote some lightning chords and spaces…and suddenly, miraculously, we had something.” Bowie quickly came up with the “hallo spaceboy” vocal hook, and the track was completed within days.

Bowie played “Hallo Spaceboy” for Gabrels when the latter turned up at the Hit Factory. “When I pointed out the similarities in harmonic motion [to “Moondust”] and the lyrics (etc.), there was zero interest in doing what the writers I continue to work with would have done, what I have done in this situation, and what I consider to be the fair, honest, and right thing,” Gabrels wrote. Having already fought Bowie and Eno to get co-credit for himself, Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell for Leon songs like “Hearts Filthy Lesson” and the segues, Gabrels felt he couldn’t win on a new front. “Because…I will always owe David a debt of thanks for dragging me into the music major leagues…I eventually dropped the subject.”

But a few years after an apparently sharp breakup with Bowie, Gabrels was ready to let it rip. “The track “Spaceboy” follows the chord changes of my original “ambient” track which was dismissed as just being “ambient” and not really a song or contributing to the existence of “Spaceboy” (which if it did contribute, writing credit should be shared). At its most basic level, [if] I hadn’t come up with the ambient track, that ball would would never have rolled itself into a song. I found it odd to have my original piece of music treated as though ambient music has no chord changes or melody and that people who write ambient music cannot copyright their songs to protect their ideas as it isn’t really writing music. (Someone should tell Eno.) What I really wonder about is the poet who wrote “Moondust”…his name isn’t in the writing credits either. But then again those are just words in a certain order, right?

Bowie has never commented on this claim, and to be fair we only have Gabrels’ side of the story, from ten years ago; Gabrels has never released “Moondust” for people to make their own comparisons. From Eno’s diary entry, it seems that the track was pretty heavily overhauled, from new guitar riffs to new chords, and one can see Bowie’s perspective: “Spaceboy” was a new song he had alchemized out of an unpromising ambient jam track. But this begs the question of who actually “authors” rock songs, as Bowie’s songwriting credits can seem arbitrary: Mick Ronson never got a single credit for songs that he obviously contributed riffs and melodies to; Dennis Davis and George Murray are credited for “Breaking Glass” but not “Stay,” and so on.

But God can be an ironist sometimes: Bowie’s “stolen” song was soon enough stolen from him.

boyspace

Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? ‘Your very own words,’ indeed! And who are you?

Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” Brion Gysin Let the Mice In.

Neil Tennant had started as a music journalist, so he had an eye for a lead. When Outside was released, he saw an obvious interpretation of “Spaceboy” that its author apparently hadn’t considered, or had deliberately avoided. In none of the dozens of interviews Bowie gave to promote Outside did he say that “Spaceboy” was connected to “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” (He even directly denied the connection during a press conference: “I only used [the word] ‘space’—there’s nothing about it that’s even remotely like ‘Space Oddity,’ frankly.”] When the Pet Shop Boys offered to remix “Spaceboy,” Bowie quickly agreed, as he seemingly let anyone remix his songs. But when Tennant told Bowie he was going to sing new lyrics and would use “Space Oddity” to get them, Bowie was taken aback by Tennant’s “nerve.” He went into the studio with Tennant, allegedly to get the performance right, but one wonders if he was irked about it.

After all, Outside was supposed to be his fresh, pre-millennial record, crafted to speak to a new audience, and now here was Major Tom/Starman come back again. The revised “Spaceboy” threatened to convert the project into yet another spew of Baby Boomer nostalgia, to throw Bowie back into his past. What saved “Spaceboy” from being cheap audience-bait was Tennant’s use of cut-up. He broke the well-worn words of “Space Oddity” into strange, fresh alignments:

Ground to major bye-bye Tom
Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong
Planet Earth is control on?

Still, the remix shifted the song’s axis. Bowie had written off Major Tom on “Ashes to Ashes”: he’d drifted off into the inexplicable and was content to stay there, roll end credits. Now, with Tennant’s new verse in “Spaceboy”, Bowie had been cast as Major Tom again, against his will; he was a fly caught on wax paper. This chaos is killing me! now became the words of Major Tom, strung out in heaven, worn through with transcendence and longing for death. Bye bye love! No longer just Gysin, dying in Paris, but Bowie’s own legend, being exhumed only to be buried again.

All Bowie could do was play along. The remix was issued as Outside‘s third single and it nearly broke the top 10 in the UK—it was Bowie’s highest charting post-1995 until “Where Are We Now?” this year. In the two performances Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys gave of it, Bowie looked immaculate and ageless, thrashing about on stage, but he also looked trapped. Tennant calmly sang (or mimed) his interrogation, while Bowie struggled against a song that now seemed to confine him.

It was a fitting ending, or as fitting as you get these days. “Spaceboy,” one of the last great Bowie pop moments, never quite seemed his own property; it was fluid, a coalescing held together by a beat that seemed to invade it. Bowie spent the last decade of his performing life singing “Spaceboy” again and again, trying to get it back under his thumb, sometimes succeeding (using three drummers to beat the song into shape at his 50th birthday party), sometimes seeming as though he was covering it.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Released, in its Pet Shop Boys form, as a single in February 1996 (BMG/RCA 74321 353847, #12 UK). A 12″ remix, the Lost in Space mix and the Double Click mix were included on a promo 12″ and later on the 2-CD Outside reissue. “Spaceboy” was played on seemingly every TV show in Europe, including Jools Holland (2 December 1995); Det Kommer Mera (Sweden) 19 January 1996; Taratata (France) 26 January 1996; Karel (Dutch) 29 January 1996, and a broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre on 27 June 2000. A recording from the Phoenix Festival in 1996 was issued on a bonus CD single that came with the French edition of Earthling. “Spaceboy” was a regular in most of Bowie’s last decade of touring.

Sources: Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (ed. Jason Weiss); John Geiger, Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted (pretty much the only Gysin bio).

* Nicholas Pegg wrote without attribution that “if I fall, moondust will cover me” was rumored to be Gysin’s last words. I’ve found no other reference to this, via the Internet and by rummaging through the libraries of Smith College and Amherst College, so I’ll conclude this claim is false unless someone points me to a source that I’ve missed. Gysin did use “moondust” in his novel The Process (1969) (“a familiar indigo rag flutters out of the sand where I look for my guide to find him, too, buried in moondust.“) I’ve found no reference to a Giorno poem mentioning “moon dust” either. The line could just as well be Bowie’s.

** I think Gabrels meant the Ahava Rabbah, or the Phrygian dominant scale. Maybe not? Ava rava, anyone?

Top: Chloe Sevigny, Kids (Clark, 1995); Gysin, Burroughs and stone-faced ancestors (via BrionGysin.com); various Spaceboys.


Changes75Bowie

January 8, 2022

Changes (demo).
Changes.

Changes (live, Glastonbury, 1971).
Changes (live, 1973).
Changes (live, 1974).
Changes (rehearsal, 1976).
Changes (live, 1990).
Changes (live, 1999).
Changes (live, Glastonbury, 2000).
Changes (A&E Live By Request, 2002).
Changes (live, 2002).
Changes (Ellen, 2004).
Changes (Butterfly Boucher with David Bowie, 2004).
Changes (with Mike Garson and Alicia Keys (Bowie’s last performed song), 2006.)
Changes (Cristin Milioti, 2016).

Changes (50th anniversary remix).

David was born on 8th January [1947]. The midwife said to me, “this child has been on earth before,” and I thought that was rather an odd thing to say, but the midwife seemed quite adamant.

Margaret “Peggy” Burns Jones.

The very first memory I have is of being left in my pram in the hallway of 40 Stansfield Road [Brixton], facing the stairs—they were dark and shadowy.

Bowie, 2003.

If there was anything that caught his ear, he would tell everyone to be quiet and listen, and then fling himself about to the music.

Peggy Jones.

So many people are born in a trap. And they don’t seem to have the courage to want to get out. And it’s so simple, really, so simple.

Gurney Slade (Anthony Newley), The Strange World of Gurney Slade.

So many of the things I wanted to do come from books.

Bowie, 1993.

He didn’t actually go out very much but preferred to stay home. I’d often invite him to a party and he would often say, “No, I’m going to stay in, I’ve got some work to do.”

George Underwood.

Bowie (“Dave Jay”) sketch for a Kon-Rads suit, ca. 1963

David knew all the songs by heart and in his peculiar way could sing every song in our set [but] none of us liked his voice at all.

Alan Dodds, The Kon-Rads.

He looked like a young waiter who had blown his first check on a bad haircut.

John Bloom, recalling Davie Jones and the King Bees’ performance at Bloom’s birthday party, April 1964.

One of the ways we would write was I would bring my fingers down on the keyboard and David would say, “What’s that? Hold that chord.” And we would write something around it. I found it hard getting my fingers used to those chords, he never made things easy.

Denis Taylor, lead guitarist, The Lower Third.

You can’t give all you have to take something back.

“Take My Tip” (1965).

Bowie and the Lower Third’s BBC rejection, 23 November 1965

He had written a lot of songs, they were not Rock and Roll but they were very good, very musical and they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff.

John “Hutch” Hutchinson, on first working with Bowie in The Buzz, 1966 (from Bowie & Hutch).

Now you know I’m not the warmest performer on stage, and I never have been…I’ve never felt comfortable talking on stage. With ‘Diamond Dogs’ I even wanted to have the band in an orchestra pit.

Bowie, 1976.

David, you’re working with a backing group, The Buzz. Have you always worked with them?
As David Bowie, yes. I’ve always been with them, for about six months.
Why do you say ‘as David Bowie’?
I was someone else before that.

Radio London interview with Bowie at the Marquee Club, 1966.

Bowie recalls a typical Buzz setlist from 1966 (BowieNet journal, 26 December 1998)

I want to act. I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else. It takes some doing.

Bowie, to Melody Maker, 26 February 1966.

He would go down to Carnaby Street and get himself kitted in a fancy outfit. You would never see him walking around like a slob. He didn’t do slob.

Dana Gillespie, to Dylan Jones.

Record Mirror, June 1967 (via DB Glamour)

Lo, Palmer’s Green has been disrupted by a clown and two friends. Twenty-four people walked out the first night. Most of them were coppers off duty. One old man sat and read a newspaper: The Sketch, I think. And a couple of nice ladies talked about their babies, bingo, and bras in Row E. Lindsay [Kemp] was pissed, Jack [Birkett] was ill and I just sang.

Bowie, letter to Hermione Farthingale, 1967.

I’m not quite sure what
We’re supposed to do
So, I’ve been writing just for you

“Letter to Hermione”

Bowie: What do you think you’ll be doing in ten or twenty years’ time?
Writing—and you?
Bowie: I might be writing, too. I think of myself more as a writer than a musician. I shall be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty, and I’ll spend the rest of my life doing other things.

Interview by George Tremlett in Ken Pitt’s apartment, 39 Manchester St., London, 17 November 1969.

David Bowie is 22 years old, thin, with a halo of fair hair, a delicately soft face and two cold eyes. One is pale kitten blue and the other green, and it makes it rather disconcerting to talk to him.

Penny Valentine, Disc, 11 October 1969.

Ken Pitt’s budget for “Space Oddity” the single (from The Pitt Report).

I haven’t got a clue why Visconti didn’t like the song. The fact is, Mercury didn’t have any major acts with the exception of Rod Stewart, who at that point wasn’t a major act anyway…they took Bowie on specifically because of “Space Oddity.” They’d heard the demo and in those days a gimmick was a big deal, and people who had gimmicks were taken more seriously than those who hadn’t.

Gus Dudgeon, 1993.

Lucifer as 1969 Bowie, Sandman No. 4, April 1989 (Gaiman/Keith/Dringenberg).

I wasn’t interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television—that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.

J.G. Ballard, 2008.

With The Man Who Sold The World I wanted to work in some kind of strange micro-world where the human element had been taken out, where we were dealing with a technological society. That world [was] an experimental playground where you could do dangerous things without anybody taking too many risks, other than ideas risks….It was all family problems and analogies, put into science-fiction form.

Bowie, 1993; 1976.

The start of David Rome’s “There’s a Starman in Ward 7,” New Worlds No. 146 (Jan. 1965), a possible influence on Bowie’s song.

The song breathes out the whole sweep of postwar British culture before the Beatles turned it on its head—the slow, squalid sink of pointless desires caught in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction—and places it squarely in the present. It’s a drama of ordinary life you can’t turn away from, because you’re seeing a life that you know, that you’re living, thrown up on the screen of the song. The quietest tinkling piano begins it; at the end, the piano trails off into a huge, harsh crescendo of movie-finale strings—hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms, wind propelling them into their future—as if the notes can’t remember the song.

Greil Marcus, on “Life on Mars?”

The day will come when David Bowie is a star and the crushed remains of his melodies are broadcast from Muzak boxes in every elevator and hotel lobby in town.

Nancy Erlich, New York Times, 11 July 1971.

You had to make the two sides of the album roughly the same length. While parts were being worked out, I would spend time working out the timings and putting songs together so I could suggest which order would work best…Up to a point, the running order was dictated by the LP format. The whole idea about the concept album thing…there are some songs that fit together on a certain story. But I dispute the fact that it’s a concept album, because why would you have “It Ain’t Easy,” which was recorded for Hunky Dory?

Ken Scott, on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

Writers like George Steiner had nailed the sexy term “post-culture” and it seemed a jolly good idea to join up the dots of rock…Everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves. The main platform would be, other than shoes, “we are the future, now” and the way of celebrating that was to create it by the only means at our disposal.

Bowie, introduction to Moonage Daydream, 2002.

“I am a David Bowie doll,” NY Daily News, 18 June 1972.

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

Bowie, on 20/20, 1980.

As David Bowie appears, the child dies. The vision is profound – a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who – at last! – transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence. David Bowie is detached from everything, yet open to everything; stripped of the notion that both art and life are impossible. He is quite real, impossibly glamorous, fearless, and quite British. How could this possibly be?

Morrissey, Autobiography.

from Masayoshi Sukita’s first Bowie photos, 13 July 1972

How would you describe yourself?
Bowie: Partly enigmatic, partly fossil.

Backstage interview at Carnegie Hall, 28 September 1972.

Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants— particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising—self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him.

Martin Amis, The New Statesman, 6 July 1973.

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

Neil Young, 1973.

Bowie, 1973 (Barrie Wentzell)

Living in Dagenham, the appeal was that if you dyed your hair or had a little bit of make-up or wore a bangle, you’d get the piss taken out of you, but because it was David Bowie you didn’t. You could dress up like that…It was so obvious that girls liked it—thank you David Bowie! And good music to shag to, I have to say.

Steve Ignorant, of Crass (whose name came from “the kids were just crass” in “Ziggy Stardust”).

Lady Grinning Soul”—to have all those runs on the piano, I was practicing eight hours a day at the time, year after year. You can’t play like that if you haven’t done tons of repetition….then when we did “Time” they found that truly humorous, and David being almost like a Broadway singer and knowing all the German stuff, everything about it was David Bowie. But I was playing the piano how I think he would have played if he could play at my level. He could play, he played well, but it was very basic piano. I think, if he had my chops, that’s what he would have done.

Mike Garson, on Aladdin Sane.

DB/WB, 1974 (Terry O’Neill); 2013 (Jimmy King)

The ego is the instrument of living in this world. If the ego is broken up or destroyed…then the person may be exposed to other worlds, “real” in different ways.

R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience.

I was already a 13-year-old fan when Diamond Dogs came out…Diamond Dogs is not a coherent story, but I’m not sure I wanted a coherent story. The inner sleeve’s photographs of a broken city, as if seen in a damaged kaleidoscope, aren’t coherent either, but they paint a place…it’s my favourite album because it was mine—in a way no other Bowie album had been, or would be again…because it contained complex lyrics on Sweet Thing and Candidate that made me feel like I was being shown a 12-hour drama through a letterbox slot; because the opening monologue pronounces the album unashamed science fiction; because it sent me to the school library aged 13 to borrow 1984, back then only a decade away; because the track listing on the cassette was all jumbled for reasons of time, so that story, whatever it was, and that sequence was what I first encountered and responded to, built up in my head, which meant that it would be another 32 years until I realised I could reorder the track listing on my computer and listen to Diamond Dogs in a way that felt right to me.

Neil Gaiman.

I just remember I wanted to write something that would read the way Diamond Dogs sounded.

William Gibson, on writing Neuromancer.

Diamond Dogs, as I remember it at the time, was trying to accomplish some great mockery of rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to be part of my manifesto at the time, I don’t know why.

Bowie, 1991.

Sigma Sound session tape, August 1974 (Drexel Univ. collection)

It solidified..what I wanted to do with Devo. We’d spent way too much time smoking pot talking about ideas & doing nothing about it. Here was someone who’d taken the time to do it for real.

Jerry Casale, on seeing the Diamond Dogs tour in Cleveland, June 1974.

I ran to his room and looked at the thin white man singing on Soul Train. Bowie was wearing a dark suit with a light shirt. He was moving very slowly, as though he were high or drunk or too cool to sweat. “He sing ‘Fame'”? I said. We loved that song. “I thought he was black.” We stared at the television as though we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I’m trippin’,” Keith kept saying. “I am really trippin’.” “Me too,” I said. “He white?” “I don’t care,” Keith said. “He bad. He a bad dude.”…Who was this man who wasn’t anything close to what he looked and sounded like? Who let him do that? Who let him be white and weird and on Soul Train?

Dana Johnson, Elsewhere, California.

Plane comes into view, loud, knocks letters out. Hand places “The Young American.” Major Tom walks into vision. The letters drop and he passes the camera…We are in [an] aircraft and slide back to passenger section to find Major Tom watching English news TV of his sensational send-off.

Bowie, film scenario, 1974.

David played “Station to Station” to me at Cherokee. When he played that…it was cinematic in every respect…I was amazed how he could come up with that, having been in complete cocaine psychosis.

Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple).

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

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

I walked out on Bowie’s show. I thought it was dreadful. I got turned off by that whole ego trip. That ‘here I am, baby, and isn’t it wonderful to actually be able to see me, I’m the thin white duke’ bit. What is all that about? I could call myself the fat pink pulp, but I don’t.

Elton John, 1976.

Bowie fans Trixie and Polly, watching Bowie on stage in Los Angeles, 1976 (Andrew Kent)

“The first space-rock hero of the 70s,” as David has been called, has finished a book of “semi-autobiographical” short stories called “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” which will be published at Christmas—by his own company, natch.

The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1975.

And all of the imbeciles and cretins, who had been delegated to some other imperceivable providence of their own, have tumbled and fallen from the sky, soared spouting from the seas. The catastrophic menage is ripping and torturing their release from the soul of OM. And the rock bands just dirge and provacate [sic] the malforms into the frenzid waltz of [infinity symbol].

Excerpt from Chapter One of The Return of the Thin White Duke.

Because of the dark glasses Bryce could not see Newton’s eyes, but it seemed to him as though Newton were looking everywhere. “Easy come, easy go, Nathan,” he said. Newton began to tremble. His angular body began to lean forward and the felt hat fell silently on the table, showing his chalk-white hair. Then his Anthean head fell on to his spindly Anthean arms and Bryce saw that he was crying…

The bartender had come over and when Bryce looked up the bartender said, “I’m afraid this fellow needs help.”

“Yes,” Bryce said. “Yes, I guess he does.”

Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Defenders No. 52 (Oct. 1977, Kraft/Giffen/Stone).

In this movie, the forlorn, limp hero-David Bowie—a stranger on earth, doesn’t have a human sex drive. He isn’t even equipped for it: naked, he’s as devoid of sex differentiation as a child in sleepers. When he splashes down in a lake in the Southwest and drinks water like a vampire gulping down his lifeblood, one is drawn in, fascinated by the obliqueness and by the promise of an erotic sci-fi story. It is and it isn’t. The stranger has come to earth to obtain the water that will save his people, who are dying from drought, but he is corrupted, and then is so damaged that he can’t return…The plot, about big-business machinations, is so uninvolving that one watches Bowie traipsing around—looking like Katharine Hepburn in her transvestite role in Sylvia Scarlett—and either tunes out or allows the film, with its perverse pathos, to become a sci-fi framework for a sex-role-confusion fantasy. The wilted stranger can be said to represent everyone who feels misunderstood, everyone who feels sexually immature or “different,” everyone who has lost his way, and so the film is a gigantic launching pad for anything that viewers want to drift to.

Pauline Kael, review of The Man Who Fell To Earth, The New Yorker, 8 November 1976.

Guest book at the Chateau d’Herouville, September 1976

[Bowie’s] done something that I should have done but I backed out of doing, which is just split the album into two halves and said “Well, here’s all the fast songs—and here’s all the other things that I also like.” I’ve got this same problem coming up again now. Because it’s even more polarized. I’ve got on the one hand some really manic songs. Oh dear, they sound so bizarre I don’t know what I’m gonna do with them. They sound a bit like Captain Beefheart or my version of modern jazz or something like that. 

Brian Eno, NME interview, 27 November 1976.

On this album David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion available to an individual working within the existing cultural forms of the West. 

He vanishes. 

THE FIRST IMPRESSION Low imparts to the listener is that he is somehow hearing it sideways

Ian MacDonald, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.

It’s decadent in the sense that it glamourises and glorifies passive decay and I don’t give a shit about how clever it may or may not be—David never makes minor errors, only fundamental ones—it stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeat and futility and emptiness. 

We’re low enough already, David. 

Give us a high or else just swap tapes with Eno by post and leave those of us who’d rather search for solutions than lie down and be counted to try and find ourselves instead of lose ourselves. 

You’re a wonderful person but you’ve got problems.

Charles Shaar Murray, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.

From station to station back to Düsseldorf city
Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

Kraftwerk, “Trans-Europe Express.”

We went to East Berlin across Checkpoint Charlie where you have to show your passport to the East German police. David’s passport had a picture of him with curly hair from his “Space Oddity” days and Iggy Pop had platinum blonde hair in a Beatles cut. The guards took one look and burst out laughing at the two passports. David and Iggy were holding back their aggression and gritting their teeth, saying “very funny.”

Tony Visconti.

I’m happy now. Content. I feel more than a product on an assembly line and no more a means of support for 10,000 persons who seem to revolve around every fart that I made. 

My role as an artist in rock is rather different to most. I encapsulate things very quickly, in a very short space of time. Over two or three months usually. And generally my policy have been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area. Another piece of time. 

You wouldn’t believe how much of it was entirely unwitting. I think I did play outside the boundaries of what is considered the general area of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of it, just pure petulance, some of it was arrogance, some of it was unwitting, but, inevitably, I kept moving ahead. 

Ziggy, particularly, was created out of a certain arrogance. But, remember, at that time I was young and I was full of life, and that seemed like a very positive artistic statement. I thought that was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought that was a grand kitsch painting. The whole guy. Then that fucker would not leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to sour.

Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 29 October 1977.

[Marianne Faithfull] reminded me of Grace Kelly, or rather Kelly’s voice in the duet she sang with Bing Crosby in High Society, “True Love.” Kelly was almost speaking her parts in a captivating and sensual monotone. It was not unlike Crosby’s later duet, with David Bowie playing Princess Grace.

Andrew Loog Oldham (from Stoned).

I’m incredibly happy now, because I’m not ambitious anymore. I do have a strong paternal streak. I’m a born father. I want more children, but not ego children…You can stuff all your punk bands, give me three children instead.

Bowie to Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader, March 1978.

“You owe me a move,” say the bells of St. Groove
“Come on and show me,” say the bells of Old Bowie.

The Clash, “Clash City Rockers” (1978).

Bowie and Devo at Max’s Kansas City, 1977 (Bob Gruen)

They’re different from me, they actually go and read books, they don’t read walls.

Bowie, introducing Talking Heads’ “The Book I Read” on BBC1’s Star Special, 20 May 1979.

I’m so pleased that the conclusion of these three albums has been so up. I think it would have been terribly depressing if the third one had been down. At least this one has a kind of optimism.

Bowie, 1979, on Lodger.

Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, 1964.

The [Scary Monsters cover] character is based on Lindsay Kemp’s very wonderful-looking Victorian clown. I took that feeling and looked inside of that, that’s when you get the disheveled side of the clown. It’s a nod backwards to an element I started with. One always returns and looks back and reincorporates those old things and reevaluates them from time to time…There were an awful lot of mistakes on that album [Scary Monsters] that I went with rather than cut them out. [It’s hard] to put oneself on the line artistically ever since the Dadaists, who pronounced Art Is Dead. Once you’ve said Art is Dead, it’s very hard to get more radical then that. Since 1924 it’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing and looking at it from a very different point of view.

Bowie, 1980.

I must say I admire [Bowie] for his vast repertoire of talent the guy has, you know. I was never around when the Ziggy Stardust thing came, because I’d already left England while all that was going on, so I never really knew what he was. And meeting him doesn’t give you much more of a clue, you know…Because you don’t know which one you’re talking to.

John Lennon, BBC interview, 6 December 1980.

I enjoy David Bowie. He can stay right out of it all and enjoy his life, enjoy his music. I can enjoy my life like that when I’ve done a lot more work.

Adam Ant, NME interview, November 1981.

The subject matter of ‘Let’s Dance’ is nebulous. There is an undercurrent of commitment, but it’s not quite so straightforward… It’s a one-to-one thing, yes, but the danger, the terrifying conclusion is only intimated in the piece. It is not apparent what exactly the fear is that they’re running from. There’s an ominous quality about it, quite definitely. That was the dance song that has all the trappings of old disco music, but it’s almost like the last dance.

Bowie, NME interview, 16 April 1983.

Bowie: Having watched MTV over the last few months, it’s a solid enterprise…I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?…The only few black artists that one does see are on from about 2:30 in the morning to around six.

Mark Goodman: Of course we have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie, or pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces.

Bowie: That’s very interesting. Isn’t that interesting.

Goodman: We have to play the music that we think an entire country’s going to like…should PLJ play the Isley Brothers? Now you and I might say yeah, because we grew up in an era when the Isley Brothers mean something to millions…but what does it mean to a 17-year old?

Bowie: I’ll tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17 year old, and surely he’s part of America as well…Do you not find it is a frightening predicament to be in?…Is it not possible that it should be a conviction of the station and of other radio stations? It does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated? Especially, if anything, in musical terms.

Bowie MTV interview, January 1983

“Bowie is the personification of everything that’s ever been wrong with rock & roll.” Byron Coley’s DB evisceration, LA Weekly (10-16 June 1983)

Somebody once said — who was it? It’s terribly important — that Harry Langdon, the silent comedian, cannot be taken on his own; you have to put him alongside that which went on around him, like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. He can only be seen by reference, and somebody said that about me, which is probably very true. I kind of quite like that, actually, that you can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference!

Bowie to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.

“Tommy Stone” in Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998)

Mick wants to do new things. He would much prefer to be David Bowie than to work with Keith Richards because when he makes a record now he has to deal with the fact that Keith Richards wants to be like Muddy Waters and grow old and die playing the blues.

Pete Townshend, 2002.

August 1987: Cafe Luxembourg, following Bowie’s Madison Square Garden Glass Spider concert. Nick Rhodes, Jeremy Irons, Coco Schwab…Bowie asks me what I thought of the show. “A little busy,” I say, attempting to be flippant about the dancers, the huge props, the overkill. “No, really,” he says. “C’mon, you and I have known each other too long. What did you really think?” In no uncertain terms, I proceed to tell him what I thought. You can only fool some of the people some of the time, I say. Less is more, David. Put on a leather jacket and jeans and go out and sing your hits, for God’s sake. It’s a new generation: they’d love those songs. I finish; everyone is horrified. David is laughing.

Lisa Robinson, SPIN, August 1990.

I knew David wanted to do a different kind of music. [But] I always thought if I gave it back to him, it would end up going back to the Spiders from Mars. That’s exactly what happened.

Carlos Alomar.

Hunt Sales: But, man, those albums. I dunno. And the Glass Spider tour? Well, I didn’t go and see it but I saw it on TV and…

Bowie: But, Hunt (slips into music hall straight man mode), I thought you never missed any of my tours...

Hunt: I never miss any of your tours. I never go see ’em, so I never miss ’em…

Bowie: Boom boom!

Hunt: But I didn’t like Glass Spider. I mean that. Seriously. I thought it was a bit beneath you. That’s my opinion. I don’t need to sit here and say that I love something I didn’t think much of. I watched it thinking, This is the guy who did Spiders From Mars.

Bowie: What he’s saying is he hasn’t listened to anything of mine since Spiders From Mars!

Reeves Gabrels: But Glass Spider was cabaret. A lot of critics said…

Bowie: Yeah, critics. Give me your personal opinion.

Reeves: If you want my personal opinion you’ll have to ask my wife. But it seemed to me it was about entertainment more than music. I went to see a soundcheck in Chicago and that was better than the show.

Bowie: To come to its defence, I liked the video of it. But I overstretched. I made too much detail of… Oh Christ. Next question!

Tony Sales: He’s beginning to roast!

Tin Machine interview by Adrian Deevoy, Q, June 1989.


He was lying in bed, too weak to stand, losing his sight, going: “Have you heard Mrs Bowie’s new album, darling? What does she think she’s doing?

Elton John, on Freddie Mercury in 1991.

Brian Eno, “David Bowie’s Wedding” (1992)

Did you hear the latest Living Colour album? Vernon Reid wrote a song about bisexuality. I think that’s very good of him, very brave. Because I think especially today people shouldn’t be made to feel as if they should hide their sexuality. These are dangerous times for everyone that wants to explore their own sexuality. Sex is becoming a taboo again and I feel people should be able to talk about it. As long as the discussion remains open you’ll prevent so-called vigilantes from using AIDS as an excuse to discriminate and isolate certain groups from society. Because of this, people will turn inward or won’t experiment with their sexuality or worse: pretend to be something different sexually then they really are and that is very, very dangerous.  It must be awful for young people today to be trapped into an existence that goes against their very nature, you have to continue to rebel against this. Sexual experimentation might be dangerous right now, but the danger should not be a reason to stop people from being who you want to be.

Bowie, interview with Oor, 1993.

My personal brief for this collection was to marry my present way of writing and playing with the stockpile of residue from the 1970’s. 

Here is a partial list: Free association lyrics Pink Floyd Harry Partch Blues clubs Unter den Linden Brücke Museum Pet Sounds Friends of the Krays Roxy Music T. Rex Costume The Casserole Neu Kraftwerk Bromley  Croydon Eno Prostitutes & Soho Ronnie Scott’s club Travels thru Russia Loneliness O’Jays Philip Glass in New York clubs Die Mauer Drugs. 

Bowie, liner notes to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993).

Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (1993)

Phillip Jeffries: Well now, I’m not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all, we’re gonna keep her out of it.

Special Agent Dale Cooper: [bewildered] Gordon?

Gordon Cole: I KNOW, COOP!

Jeffries: Who do you think this is there?

Albert Rosenfeld: Suffered some bumps on the old noggin, hey, Phil?

Cole: WHAT THE HELL DID HE SAY THERE, ALBERT? THAT’S SPECIAL AGENT DALE COOPER! FOR GOD’S SAKES, JEFFRIES, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? YOU’VE BEEN GONE DAMN NEAR TWO YEARS!

Jeffries : The stories that I wanna tell you about… It was a dream! We live inside a dream!

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).

I see no way we can go back, philosophically, to a world of absolutes. Which I feel very comfortable with and I always have done…I think seeing the problems that historians themselves have with revisionism of history it seems almost nonsensical for the layman to even bother to try and analyze history any more in a straight narrative way. In a way history almost ceases to exist—possibly we can’t really entertain the idea of a future in the same way. Which may be not a bad thing…I mean, by hacking off the limbs of both past and future we might have created a workable future where we have to deal with things on a day-to-day basis, rather than having long term plans for a world which really can’t afford to have long term plans.

Bowie to Ian Penman, Esquire, 1995.

Brian and I had both felt resolutely out of it. I tried passionately hard in the first part of the ’80s to fit in, and I had my first overground success. I was suddenly no longer the world’s biggest cult artist in popular music. I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance”, and it was driving me mad – because it took all my passion for experimenting away. I went through the doldrums at approximately the same time as Brian. I felt I really wanted to back off from music completely and just work within the visual arts in some way. I started painting quite passionately at that time. Then, toward the end of the ’80s, everything started to fall back into place again. It was as though there had been this hiatus where everything had stood still. Birds hung in the sky; they didn’t finish their flight. 

Bowie to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, 1995.

Caller: How did you get the title for the new album and why is the title split up on the album cover?
Bowie: Well it was kind of lugubrious, it was a rather a weak pun on the fact that I feel quite happy with life and anything else you want to read into it, you know, the work is never finished until the audience participates and all that. But I think the idea if you change the content of something, if you look at something that you know very well for a long time, it starts to disappear. So if you change the context of what that thing looks like people notice it more, so we put spaces in the word just to make you take in the word “Earthling” in a different way to how you would normally receive it.
Riki Rachtman: What was that word again, there, nugubrious?
Bowie:…It’s an old graphic design trick.
Rachtman: Well you gotta help me with that other word David, I wanna learn a new word. “Unagubrious”?
Bowie: [laughs] Lugubrious.
Rachtman: Oh OK, I just want to say I learned that one —
Bowie: It’s from Alfonse Lugubri, the old silent actor.  

Bowie radio interview, Rockline, 1997.

Wake up, people of Omikron! Reshev and his corrupt government are lulling you to sleep in order to control you better. They have transformed you into puppets that are manipulated by Ix and the demons. Join the Awakened Ones and rise up to fight for your freedom.

Boz (Bowie)’s message; Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1998).

Jeremy Paxman: You’ve got to think that some of the claims being made for [the internet] are hugely exaggerated. I mean, when the telephone was invented, people made amazing claims.

Bowie:…No, you see, I don’t agree. I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. 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.

Paxman: It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?

Bowie. No, it’s not. No. It’s an alien life form. [Laughs] Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here… I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.

Bowie on Newsnight, 1999

“The world abandons Thursday child” (DB orig. lyrics for “Thursday’s Child,” 1999)

Isn’t it all so personal, though, isn’t really all so personal? If by consensus an artist is great, if numerically enough people like that artist, that he becomes a great artist? [Roy] Lichtenstein that way isn’t a great artist. How can he be a great artist if I don’t think he’s a great artist? I mean he had a great gag for the first few years, and then he just did it and did it and did it and then he died.

Bowie on Charlie Rose, 1998.

Our ace boon Arthur Jafa likes to say that ”Andy Warhol was so white he was black.” Bowie (who played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat) was likewise so avant-garde he tipped over into the Avant-‘Groid—that Afro-outré dimension where Little Richard and Sun Ra define how far out you can go and command love from the folk. Like Joni Mitchell—another unguilty pleasure of many boho blackfolk—Bowie double-crossed back over to black culture by being his own transcendently pan-everything creation. But not even Queen Mother Joni can say she provoked James Brown to copycat action twice in his career. JB was so blown away by Bowie’s ”Fame,” he cut his own carbon-copy track, ”Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved),” and, years later, when Bowie optioned his publishing for stock points, the Godfather of Soul got the news about how lucrative the deal proved and quickly followed suit. Bowie once said, “The secret to my success was I was always the second guy to come up with the idea.” All hip-hop junkies can relate.

Greg Tate, “Brother From Another Planet,” 2016.

Road leading to Allaire Studios, Shokan, NY (from summer 2021, when my fiancee & I went on a drive looking for it)

I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young – there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store. I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it – hopefully – like Strauss, at 84.

Bowie, to The Observer, June 2002.

Down in space it’s always 1982.

“Uncle Floyd”/ “Slip Away”

I don’t think we are going to destroy it at all. I’m not that pessimistic. I just believe we’re going through a transition where we will become a humankind that accepts chaos as our basic premise.

Bowie, Soma interview, 2003.

I’m grateful for any audience, you know? It’s fine; I don’t care if they’ve got two heads. As long as they are there to enjoy themselves, come listen. I suppose the only thing I’m fairly strong-armed about is that I really kind of require them to get involved with the new material I’m writing as well as the older things.

Bowie, Weekly Dig interview, 2003.

The last time I saw him was in New York at a party in the early 2000s. I arrived a bit late and was surprised to see Bowie stepping out of a yellow cab. I asked him how he traveled about Manhattan, unrecognized and un-harassed. Simple, he said. I carry a Greek newspaper. He held it up…People think, hey that’s David Bowie! Then they see the newspaper and realize it’s just some Greek guy who looks like him.

William Boyd.

It was early 2007. She was out in the East Village on St. Mark’s Place in the middle of a blizzard, trying to hail a cab. [There was] only one other pedestrian on the sidewalk. When a lone pair of headlights appeared through the snow, the stranger gallantly said, “go ahead.” She said, “why don’t we share?”…It was only in the cab that the scarves and hats came off and she said, “Oh, I know who you are.” She made the split-second (but brilliant) decision to start talking about herself and tell him her entire life story, so he could relax and not have to entertain this stranger he was trapped with…She told him every last detail of her family life (“You’ve got to forgive, for your own sake,” he kept telling her) until the taxi reached Soho. As she got out, he said, “Now when you tell your friends about this, make sure you mention that I was wearing fabulous shoes.”

Rob Sheffield, on his friend’s encounter with Bowie (On Bowie, 2016).

“I’m not thinking of touring,” he said. “I’m comfortable.” He draws, paints and collects 20th Century British art.

Bowie’s last quote to the New York Times, in a profile of his wife, 6 June 2010.

Here’s what David sent me (and I should thank him for doing it, and so I fervently thank him here): 

Effigies 

Indulgences 

Anarchist 

Violence 

Chthonic 

Intimidation 

Vampyric 

Pantheon 

Succubus 

Hostage 

Transference 

Identity 

Mauer 

Interface 

Flitting 

Isolation 

Revenge 

Osmosis 

Crusade 

Tyrant 

Domination 

Indifference 

Miasma 

Pressgang 

Displaced 

Flight 

Resettlement 

Funereal 

Glide 

Trace 

Balkan 

Burial 

Reverse 

Manipulate 

Origin 

Text 

Traitor 

Urban 

Comeuppance 

Tragic 

Nerve 

Mystification 

Bowie’s list was left-justified, but probably because he didn’t want to take the time to center justify, and also his list was purposefully double-spaced.

Rick Moody, 25 April 2013.

That’s why I’m so puzzled when people say [my work is] all dark, dark, dark, whereas I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. Obvious beauty. I’m not a religious man, but it’s a longing. For who knows. For existence itself. True existence. It’s a longing for a calling. It’s just a feeling that it might be there.

Scott Walker, 2012.

There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.

Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective.

Bowie and Johan Renck filming “Blackstar,” 2015.

I know something’s very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout hearts the flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

“I Can’t Give Everything Away”

NEWTON: And I’m not of this world. And not yet marked by this place here. Not pinned down in this apartment—not divided into days and praying for my death—and bullied by this broken mind—and before all of this happened to me—and before the journey down here—to wake in the place where I was born. And to be up there.

Lazarus (Bowie/Walsh, 2015).

I remember when I found out about 2:30 in the morning that he’d passed, I was laying in bed, my partner woke me up; she’d heard from Duncan [Bowie’s son]. I just kind of laid in bed and I started laughing. She said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Because we had so much fun.

Reeves Gabrels.

The night of April 14, 1865, and Lincoln’s assassination. As Lincoln drew his last breath, all the worthies who had crowded into a little back bedroom in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre turned to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War, for a final word….Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

I picked up James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering…Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’ Now he belongs to the angels? Where had that come from?…In the endnotes, Swanson explained that his rendering was deliberately at variance with the scholarly consensus: “In my view, shared by Jay Winik, the most persuasive interpretation supports ‘angels’ and is also more consistent with Stanton’s character and faith.”

I made up my mind about what must have happened: Stanton had muttered “angels,” been heard as saying “ages,” and, if he had been asked which afterward, would have been torn. He might have decided to enable the mishearing, in order to place Lincoln in history, not Heaven. It seemed possible that both versions were true, one to the intention and the other to the articulation, one to the emotion of the moment and one, in retrospect, to the meaning of the life. Angels or ages? Lincoln belongs to both.

…And then I knew that we probably would not have understood any better had we been standing there than we do now. Stanton was weeping, Lincoln had just died, the room was overwhelmed, whatever he said was broken by a sob—the sob, in a sense, is the story. History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn’t what’s heard, and what is heard isn’t what gets repeated…The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.

Adam Gopnik, “Angels and Ages,” The New Yorker, 28 May 2007.

Something happened on the day he died.

Plaque on 4 Plaistow Grove, Bromley.

Leah Kardos and ‘Blackstar Theory’: The Interview

December 20, 2021

Dr. Leah Kardos is a composer and musician, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, and the founder of Kingston University’s Stylophone Orchestra. She’s written a book on David Bowie, entitled Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie, which Bloomsbury Academic publishes in January in the U.S. and February in the UK. (The e-book is out now!)

Blackstar Theory isn’t a Bowie biography, nor is it something as foolhardy as a chronological song-by-song guide to Bowie’s music (cough). Instead, as Kardos writes in her introduction:

What this book does do is explore some of the interconnected webs of meaning that are observable in the work itself. By ‘the work’ I refer not only to the primary outputs of the period in question, but to the artistry embedded within that connects with Bowie’s entire sphere of activity – his career history and the totality of his observable creative practice across time. Although Blackstar Theory deals with death as a subject, it is not the aim of the book…The aim is to approach the realities of Bowie’s mortality using the same terms as he used in commenting and wrestling with it through his work.

Part of this entails Kardos breaking down every Blackstar song and some Next Day ones (I regret that these musical analyses weren’t available for me to rely on in Ashes to Ashes, but am also grateful that I didn’t have to match the caliber of Kardos’ work here—it’s thorough, intelligent, and definitive). She explores some likely influences on Bowie’s last works, including Carl Jung’s dream journal and Dennis Potter’s last teleplays, and has fresh interviews with the likes of Tony Visconti, with whom she’s worked for years. It’s a major addition to the Bowie critical “canon.”

Leah and I spoke via Zoom in early December—the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CO: It’s still unclear to me, after all this time, whether Bowie, when he was putting out all of this stuff in his last years, had something like a complete design in mind. I guess I always saw him as someone who’d more draft extensive plans that would never come to fruition, as he’d abandon them to move onto something more interesting. But there’s a narrative logic to the 2013-2016 period, even if unintended. Do you think so, too? Do you see an overarching pattern?

Leah Kardos: I get the impression that he was an intuitive creator. He followed his nose and was really grabbing at anything to try out. However, certainly since diving into the last works and from that position looking back at the rest of the catalog…you recall all those interviews in 2003 when he was saying “I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always been the same question about isolation and identity, etc.” I started to think, “actually, yeah, you might be onto something there!” Because he really is just talking about the same things repeatedly, just putting a different costume on each time. Approaching the same question from different angles.

The consistency of his catalog is something that’s really struck me since he died. When he was alive, he’d provide something interesting and new, and because we didn’t have the full rear-view picture, it kind of felt like we were floating along with the changes. But I was really struck by the coherence of the catalog. One reason why Blackstar Theory came about was the realization that wow, it really does hang together. The longer you look at it, the better it gets.

CO: One thing I’ve found when I was writing about not just the Blackstar period but Hunky Dory and Station to Station is interacting with a few people, over the years, who really take the occult side of Bowie very seriously. Who appear to believe there is a master plan, that Bowie was dead serious about it all and had mapped everything out.

LK: That there’s a code to be cracked.

CO: Yes, all a bit Da Vinci Code. I do still love the Villa of Ormen Tumblr.1 I love the unsolved mystery of that. That could have been him: it’s not out of speculation.

LK: It’s in the realm of possibility. And it seems on brand for him to fuck with people like that. He knew how to slide into a chatroom and pretend to be someone else. I think also all of that fulfilled the function, the drama, the theater, the fact that he was so officially quiet and yet so forthcoming in other ways. Sneaky. Putting this shroud of numinous energy over the last album. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to have done that. And the fact it’s unresolved is delicious.

Part One: The Set-Up (The Next Day)

CO: So, in your book, as this late period begins, another is winding down. You were a BowieNetter2, and that era seems like such a contrast to the late years. In the late Nineties, he’s Accessible Bowie. He’s chatting with fans, having in-studio live feeds, doing interviews with anybody who claimed to be a journalist. It must have been a fun period for you—does it feel bizarre in retrospect?

LK: It felt very normal for me—I joined BowieNet when I just came out of high school and was just starting to discover Bowie. Back then you bought a CD from HMV or whatever and it would have a card inside saying, ‘join BowieNet!’ I had no idea that being a fan could be any other way, and I discovered the career backstory retrospectively. It was strange when he left us all hanging, but of course we knew he was sick, what more you want? You don’t want to be that kind of fan.

Looking back now, what a remarkable thing it was. It felt so normal at the time, I made friends in the UK when I was still in Australia, probably the seeds of my immigration, to come to England and live here, began there. There are friends I met on BowieNet who I’m still close with today. It’s hugely important to me. His “dad jokes, everyguy, I’m just normal Dave” act, well I fell for it. Obviously he was right to get the hell off of the internet and away from social media when he did.

Heathen hijinks, ca. August 2001, Allaire Studios, NY.

CO: Your book is primarily about The Next Day and Blackstar. Do you see the beginning of this period with his reunion with Tony Visconti in the early 2000s?

LK: That’s the way I see it, in two categories—the ‘late period’ from Heathen to Blackstar, and the ‘last works’ between 2013–2016. Because the sound of Heathen I feel is traceable right to the end. I also think Tony brought out a certain type of music from Bowie.

The period is also marked by Bowie’s autonomous process. He didn’t have a guitarist or co-writer coming up with material, so in a way the music there links further back to Buddha of Suburbia—that’s just the sound of David making his music, his way, that’s what he sounds like. Writing everything himself in his little home studio. And there’s the freedom of ISO.3 Also Heathen’s introspective anxiety seems to intensify throughout.

So when I pulled it all together, I thought I’d draw a line on it. Some people refer to this is his neoclassicist period, but I’d say it’s more accurately defined as his late period, due to him finding a more consistent approach to music making with Tony, free from label demands, and of course the conscious playing around with his own history.

I also wanted to put the focus back on the songcraft and not define things by the haircut he had at the time. I really wanted to get away from that.

DB in NYC, October 2002 (Myriam Santos)

CO: We’ve talked before about his love of the Korg.4 How best to describe how odd his affection for this keyboard was—while it’s not a kid’s keyboard, it’s no state of the art synthesizer either.

LK; It was a pretty cool keyboard in 1997. If you needed to save patches on it, there was a module that attached to it and you could save them on floppy discs. I quizzed Tony about the Korg a lot, I was really fascinated by it. The sounds that come from it are weird and incongruous. Like, why choose that? The sounds in something like “Dancing Out in Space”: why are they choosing that? It always came down to this keyboard. He loved that thing.

CO: He was a big preset guy too, I recall Visconti saying.

LK: He did like the old preset but apparently he also knew how to go in and tweak a preset, making something more bespoke. I downloaded all the Korg effects, there’s a sample pack you can find online, and I went through them and I couldn’t find all of them [that were used on the albums], so I suspect there was some parameter fiddling going on.

CO: His composition style is often about what instrument he’s mostly using at the time, right? Space Oddity is the 12-string acoustic; Hunky Dory is the piano. Are the late records in part Korg compositions, deep in their bedrock?

LK: They are! And they’re also owed to the Zoom R24 multitrack unit he had,5 the way he was creating his demos. I spoke to Henry Hey and he got rough demos sent to him, Tony as well, and they had a particular sound about them. You listen to the Lazarus soundtrack, particularly “When I Met You” or that early version of “Lazarus,” you’ll hear these weird guitar parts in there. That was a detail on the demo and Henry said he wanted to honor that.

The demoing comes into its own in the late period, the particularity of the choices that David makes tended to get translated. Tony bought his own Zoom unit so he could figure out how to work with it. Reportedly David would say things like ‘I like the way I did it [on the demo], I don’t see why I have to do it again.’ So the demoing is bleeding into the end results.

CO: The demoing is far different from the old days when he’d go into the studio and tell Carlos Alomar, “okay, this is in A major, and have this funk riff here, and let’s work this out.”

LK: All those [Young Americans session] tapes at the Drexel Archive that Toby Seay has6 is literally that private process of him demoing, but he needed a band to do it back then. So [home demoing] gave him a lot of autonomy in the late period. He didn’t have to rely on a Reeves in the room, on Mark [Plati] in the room, and I think you can hear it in the choices he makes. Some of them sound naïve, some sound exquisite—you get both with Bowie’s demoing.

CO: You mention he’s even doing the scoringagain, this was something he always had to have Ronson or Visconti do—he’s even taking that in-house.

LK: The fact he was achieving this with his basic Zoom digital multitrack unit and not, say, ProTools on a Mac or PC…it’s amazing.

CO: Among my what-could-have-beens if Bowie was still alive, I wonder if he would’ve done a McCartney II7 at some pointa whole record from the Bowie home studio.

LK: His lockdown project.

CO: Because he did a test run with the “Tis a Pity” B-side.

LK: Which is one of the oddest things he ever produced. And Tony was emphatic about how much he loves that version, he told me that for him it rivals the Blackstar version. It’s a very strange record indeed, I really enjoyed analyzing it.

Transcription, by Kardos, from Blackstar Theory

CO: You go a lot into Bowie’s “late voice” which you describe wonderfully as having the “wow and flutter of ancient tape.”

LK: Tony is very keen to say whenever he has the opportunity that Bowie’s voice was brilliant to the end. And he was in the room, so who can argue. However in the Whatley Last Five Years documentary, when they isolate the ‘Lazarus’ vocal, you can hear how raspy he sounds. There’s a heavy frail grandeur to Bowie’s late voice that I spend a bit of time trying to frame in the book. Thankfully, another feature of the period is the consistently great vocal takes Tony manages to draw from him, so there’s a lot of musical examples to dig into.

Another thing about the late period is the ensemble singing. It’s often an orchestra of voices beautifully arranged, walls of harmony, call and response, octaves and unisons, left and right spread out, sometimes barely audible—you realize, wow, it must have taken ages to do all of that.

CO: He had on call a singer as good as Gail Ann Dorsey but he chose to do all the vocals himself, for the most part right? He used [engineer] Erin Tonkon for a few things.8

LK: There’s a heck of a lot of him, just walls of David on the Next Day even though he’s got Janice Pendarvis, Gail and Erin and what sounds like a gospel choir there, he uses voices in a painterly way. I mean think about “The Informer” and what’s going on with the vocal arrangement and its construction—that must have been a few days’ work at least. That’s a lot of architectural detail to render.

You know that footage of Lou Reed isolating the backing vocals of “Satellite of Love” and saying ‘how does David do this?’ That’s what I think about the backing vocals of The Next Day—they’re so intricate. Maybe he did spend a bit too much time on that record, those details are so gothic.

CO: The Next Day is in an interesting place right now, reputation wise. There was the initial “he’s back! this is great!” and then with Blackstar, it wasn’t quite a backlash but more a “Blackstar is what Next Day should have been” kind of revision. Where would you rank it now? I find it’s a major record but also an overlong one, and the sequencing feels off.

LK: When The Next Day came out  remember feeling ambivalent about it— for me it felt like the album was trying too hard, perhaps overcompensating for something. But I wanted to love it, and of course the first half is super-strong. I think those appraisals were battered by information overload—that’s how I came into it, really loving the good bits on it and hating stuff I thought was badly executed.

Then when I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.

One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything. I found an interview with Tony Oursler where he said he and Bowie were involved with the V&A exhibition, they were involved with planning it, and Jonathan Barnbrook also confirmed [Bowie] had his hand in it. So you can add the V&A to the pile of Next Day and Next Day Extra: he was giving us a lot of information in a deliberately impersonal arrangement. An invitation to participate and construct something meaningful from the bits and pieces. One can really sense his directorial hand in all of it, the ‘David Bowie Is…’ question being explored on all sides.

CO: For Next Day and Blackstar, he turned over the promotion of the albums to all those who played on it. This was unusual: if you look back, say for Earthling, maybe Reeves did an interview with a guitar magazine but otherwise it was all Bowie Bowie Bowie, saying ‘this is what the album’s about.’ But now you have everybody but Bowie doing substantial interviews: the drummers, the backing singers, the engineers. It seems to be deliberate in that he was already removing himself from his work, quite early on.

LK: I agree. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Remystification’ where I’m trying to look at that movement, how he made that retreat. Also to think about ways he represented his own art: refusing to talk but at the same time laterally making more stuff for us to engage with: all the music videos embedded with Easter eggs, the lists, the books. I enjoyed that new kind of intimacy with his material, matched with his absolute disengagement with the media.

Part Two: The Performance (Lazarus)

CO: The middle section of your book is about Lazarus the play. You saw it in its first run in New York [December 2015-January 2016], as I did, and you describe the audience reaction as being much like the one I was in, with everyone walking out of the theater saying “what the fuck was that about?”

LK: The group I was with were like “What was that? Did you like it? I don’t know, I think I loved it. I hated it.”

CO: I’m glad it’s being staged more. At first, it was just this two-month off-Broadway run in this small theater, so it felt like a secret thing that lot of fans didn’t know about because they couldn’t see it. The missing piece of the puzzle.

LK: It’s so crucial, I felt. I think it’s successful. I think it does what it’s meant to do. But the timing of it, you know, it changed it. I saw it while he was alive and again after he died. There’s no way you can come to it the same way again, and no way the play could say the same thing that it first did. It really does exist separately in that first run up until he died. You can see the change in what the new directors are doing with it. It’s really not about [Thomas Jerome] Newton at all anymore, it’s more a Bowie-like character having a dream.

He worked so hard on it and I felt the need to really go deep on it in the book because he devoted and sequestered a lot of his time on it in his final two years. It deserves a deep diving analysis, absolutely.

CO: I’m curious if it will survive as a piece of drama, if it could be staged in 2070, when few people will still have memories of David Bowie while he was alive. Or will it have a short life? I still find Lazarus hard to grapple with. It’s the closest I ever felt to seeing how Bowie’s mind worked, being able to peep in on his thought processes. Like someone recounting a dream to you.

LK: I really love it, and I’m still kind of afraid of it. As a theater piece, if you come into it cold, in one sitting it’s really difficult to grasp because it shunts you about between violence and pantomime and comedy and Bowie songs you love, followed by murders and blood. It’s a lot. As an audience member you come out of there feeling quite punch-drunk: is this what he wanted us to see and feel before he left us? There’s a lot there that works with Bowie’s established archetypes, all the Jungian stuff, the lines all but ripped from the Red Book.9 The Looking Glass Murders redux.10

CO: You devote a good amount of space to the late works of Dennis Potter, which I really thought was right on the money. I had no idea Potter had a piece called Cold Lazarus! When I read that I cracked up: “Bowie, you thief.”

LK: Based on something Enda said, I checked out The Singing Detective11 and my jaw was on the floor—there are so many references I recognized from Next Day and Lazarus. Also Potter’s deliberate merging of his biography and his legacy and his myth in the fictions he was creating, muddling it up on purpose to make it richer and more emotionally dense and confusing. You recall the Bowie quote “I think I like complications… I like thickly textured things.”

In Cold Lazarus,12 there is this sequence where the memories of this detached head are projected on screen and go backwards, not through the character’s life but Dennis Potter’s life: this was staged with his direction from beyond the grave. Same in Lazarus: Newton is completely woven into Bowie’s myth almost to point of interchangeability: people see Newton and see Bowie. The blurring allows the show to function like a performed closure of a public life.

CO: It’s amazing how much of a through line Newton is for Bowie. I heard “Looking For Water” playing a while ago and thought “that’s another Newton song.”  Is it strange how much he identified with the character?

LK: I was digging around those issues of Modern Painters from the mid-Nineties, and in that interview he does with Balthus he brings up the Bruegel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus again. That’s another detail directly lifted from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film. He really did keep referencing and returning to that text.

CO: The recurrence of stars is another one. Towards the end, he’s playing with the idea of a star aging, or dying, like a red giant.

LK: Which I took from you!

CO: Which I may have gotten from one of my commenters, Deanna Kerry, who was an astrophysics grad student at the time—I later asked her to explain blackstars, which she did as well as she could to a scientifically-challenged person like me. It seems like a cliché that everything with Bowie is stars, everything is black holes, but as you said the consistency is unnerving at times. You wonder: did he really have it all figured out in 1968? Maybe that’s all on the Ernie Johnson tape,13 which is why we’ll never hear it.

LK: My favorite dead star metaphor reference is in that conversation with Burroughs where he’s describing, down to the costumes, the Ziggy Stardust storyline of dead stars, and aliens traveling along the black holes, all this stuff borrowed from Kubrick’s movie and Quatermass. With immaculate consistency following through with it.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the Infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.

Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense.

From Craig Copetas, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman,” Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.

CO: In the late work, Bowie seems to be in dialogue with other older musicians, you note. Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is very much an influence on Heathen, I’ve thought.

LK: I think so too, so many great parallels. The more you look at them, you think, were they looking over each other’s shoulders? While Dylan was writing Chronicles, Bowie’s working on his books. There are the musicals with Irish playwrights14; the archives.

Part Three: The Prestige (Blackstar)

The Somnabulist and the Handsome Family (from David Bowie Is..)

CO: Moving to the third part of your book, “the prestige” as you call it: Blackstar itself. How essential is the Maria Schneider “Sue”—is that necessary to get to Blackstar?

LK: It’s exciting [the 2014 “Sue”], isn’t it—it’s such a great noir, so dark and elegant. That said, I do prefer the roughness and aggro of the album version, it’s got a lot more emotion in it for me. For the big band version Maria keeps it firmly in control. But there’s something about “Sue” on Blackstar that’s out of control, it’s fucking nuts. I really appreciate the chaos and mess of the Blackstar version.

CO: I have wondered what a full album of Bowie/Schneider would have been like, but I wonder if it was best as this one-off thing.

LK: Would it have been too glamorous sounding? Those large jazz orchestras sound so luxe and shiny to my ear. I wonder if an all Schneider/Bowie project would have felt like a detour in the grand album narrative, like Baal, or that Badalamenti collab. It’s hard to imagine because I love the Blackstar stuff so much.

CO: On Blackstar, while Bowie lets Donny McCaslin and the band have plenty of space, he’s the middle of it all, he’s the controlling figure. Whereas Schneider and Bowie are kind of equals and combating each other, influence wise, in “Sue.”

LK: I’d agree and I love the presence of Donny as being something like Bowie’s emotional avatar, not vying for equal billing, but supplying a musical commentary underneath Bowie’s vocal performance. And it really articulates something: the solo on “Lazarus,” the way it dramatizes a song which on paper is quite simple. The soling on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also. It reaches towards those inexpressible things, the unsayable stuff. And I’m so glad the last song didn’t end up being “Heat.”

CO: As the legendary Crayon to Crayon said, it’s a blast that the last song on the last Bowie album ends with this noodling, almost prog guitar.

LK: I love it—I’m so thankful for that. The rest of the albums from the late period end on a somber note, so I’m glad he chose to do that with the last one.

“Dollar Days” (excerpt of full transcription by Gary Franklin)

CO: For me “Dollar Days” feels like an epilogue, the calm after the storm, a song about wanting to go home but knowing you will never go home again.

LK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it—slipping off the mask a bit, a vulnerable moment. A song about being English and missing England and being okay with it. What I particularly love about that song is Bowie’s thoughtful use of harmony and structure to dramatize the lyric. He’s really mindful of the chords he’s using and the relationships between them, he’s playing with tension.

A lot of these details can get missed—people concentrate on the lyric, or the voice, understandably. But he’s there on his Korg putting a lot of thought and effort into the musical details, embedding references, playing into and against expectations. One reason I wanted to write this book was to give space to unpacking these kinds of details.

CO: He obviously knew a lot about music, having written it for 50 years—how much did you get a sense of how advanced his knowledge was of composition and theory? He’d sometimes say he was more of a ‘that sounds cool!’ type of composer. You mention on “Love Is Lost” an organ figure Bowie got by playing only black keys on his Korg. Schneider described this sort of thing to me as “the element of surprise,” which she thought was fundamental to his work.

LK: He was so omnivorous with his listening. There’s so much he takes from jazz, classical and experimental music and I really think he downplayed his musicianship a lot in public: the catalog tells another story.

The way he commands harmony even in some of his earliest pieces of music: it’s not someone playing a keyboard and saying, ‘that sounds cool.’ You’ve got “Moonage Daydream” transporting you through secondary dominant progressions15 in the first few bars. You’ve got beautiful chromatic transpositions treading through the bridge of “Life on Mars.” All the way through to the cadences of “Dollar Days.”

The chords of “Buddha of Suburbia” are amazing to look at. The way it’s pinned down on D with E minor and a G minor over the top, and then he flips it into B minor, then to B-flat—this isn’t a dude who just knows two chords on the guitar and can only play five notes. There’s immense sophistication going on. This kind of Eno ‘I’m not a musician, I’m just a dabbler’ thing allows him to engage in rule breaking, like he’s never claimed to be authentic about his music or belonging to any formal tradition with it. I will forever be an advocate for Bowie’s compositional prowess. It’s the reason why I love his music.

However he also struggled with his confidence. I asked Tony about The Next Day: why did it take so long? He said it was his confidence.

CO: It’s amazing to think of Bowie sitting there going “am I past it? Do the kids not want to hear from me anymore?”

LK: Which again is so touching. Sometimes I go a few years without making music and then I try to go back to it and think ‘can I really do this?’ Particularly if music creativity is intuitive for you, if you’re not engaging with it all the time, that kind of magic can disappear and you don’t have ready access to it anymore–you have to build it up again from nothing. I see Bowie as a modern romantic—in his best moments showing uniquely exquisite songcraft easily on par with Sondheim,16 Bacharach, or McCartney.

Ben Monder’s closing guitar solo on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (transc. John Hendow)

CO: Does the last work need to be the last work? Does it lose its power if Bowie lives five more years and makes two more records?

LK: It’s the question that drove me to change the nature of the book. I originally pitched it as Bowie’s Death Art…does the last work need to be the last in order to work? I don’t think so. I think those couple of days when he was alive and we had Blackstar: it was great, and I remember listening to it and thinking “oh my gosh, he’s given us a gem. He’s given us a diamond.” I was really looking forward to spending a few months digging into it. And then he died and it changed it immediately. So many people went back and revised their takes, kinda shutting the book on it quickly and shutting down the album’s lovely sense of ambiguity.

CO: Seemingly everyone who worked with him on the last record has said he wanted to do more.

LK: I think it’s disrespectful for us to presume Bowie made his last work while he waited for death. All evidence suggests that he was deep in the middle of a creative momentum, that he had sessions booked, he had people on the phone, “I’ve got ideas, I’ve got demos, I’ve got new songs.” He’d found a purple patch! He was making some amazing work and he knew it. He knew he was back in. Blackstar has such a momentum about it. You feel like if they’d had a few more sessions they would have come up even more incredible stuff.

CO: The idea of him doing a show with the McCaslin quartet [as McCaslin said he and Bowie discussed in 2015] is…just incredible.

LK: I can picture it as well. Imagine hearing ‘Tis a Pity’ live!

CO: He was never going to go on tour again and sing “Rebel Rebel” to a stadium. But a jazz club within walking distance of his apartment, that was more his style. That was the story of his last years, right?17

LK: “If I can walk there.”

CO: Is there a sense there are outtakes from these last albums that will one day be heard? There’s “Blaze,” we know.18 Are there other songs kicking around, do you think?

LK: The estate has got a lid on whatever exists. It seems that Donny’s got demos and bits of song ideas we’ve never heard before sitting in his inbox. It’s totally feasible that there’s unfinished files and sketches left on the Zoom R24 recorder. But you know, I don’t need it. I’d be devastated if someone went through my files and published my unfinished stuff.

CO: He was never much of an archival guy, musically—getting demos and outtakes from him for reissues was like pulling teeth at times. The idea of him doing a Dylan Bootleg Series is unlikely.

LK: Yeah I think so. Consider his process. For most of his career the way he developed songs was with the help of others. He would have been in a room with the tape or Pro Tools rolling, messing around with musicians and finding what sticks. He needed everyone to respect his privacy, to realize this is process, this is not the finished article. It would be highly rude for someone to share some half-baked shit with the world now that he’s gone. I’m sure there are process-based demos that have Donny’s band, bits of music they didn’t use, and if anything features Donny’s band I bet those sketches would sound especially great and listenable. Hopefully people can keep it all under wraps—I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!

Thanks again to Leah Kardos! Blackstar Theory can be purchased as an e-book now or, in Jan/Feb, in your favorite indie bookstore.

Notes

1. A now-defunct Tumblr page (originally: http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com/archive) from November-December 2015 that contained a number of black-and-white photos, some of which had eerie similarities to images that appear in the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos. No further posts were made after Bowie’s death, and to this day, no one can say with certainty who was responsible for it.

2. Bowie’s webpage/ISP/message board of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, on which he regularly took part in chat rooms, usually under the moniker “sailor,” and shared journal entries and photos. His appearances became much more sporadic after his heart operation in 2004, and as per Kardos, his last interaction as “sailor” was in 2007, around the same time that he stopped doing live appearances for good.

3. Bowie’s independent label, artist roster of one, which he started in 2001; EMI’s rejection of Toy was the last straw for him, in re working for major labels, though ISO has always had a distribution arrangement with one.

4. The Korg Trinity (Bowie also used a Korg Pandora effects unit and a vintage ARP Odyssey), which dates to 1995. You first hear it on the Omikron soundtrack and ‘hours,’ though as Kardos notes, the Korg is a fundamental part of Bowie’s music right until the end.

5. As per Kardos, “the Bowie home studio setup was connected to a Zoom R24 digital multitrack recorder, which came with an on-board drum machine, bass synthesizer, audio loop editor and a step/real-time sequencer. Even as home recording practices quickly evolved in the early millennium towards software applications like Logic and Pro Tools, Bowie preferred to stick with his Zoom hard disc recorder, a relatively limited and old-fashioned piece of kit by the time he used it to produce the 2014 version of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’.”

6. Both Leah and I have visited this archive, located a quick walk from Philadelphia’s 30th St. station. You can read more about these tapes in Rebel Rebel, though Leah went one better and played excerpts from the tapes at a conference with Drexel’s Toby Seay.

7. A thread on the Vintage Synth board (https://forum.vintagesynth.com/viewtopic.php?t=42109) as to what synths McCartney might have used on that record (“that awful album,” as per one poster): consensus is Minimoog, CS-80, ARP Pro Soloist, Jupiter 4.

8. Tonkon, to Kardos in Blackstar Theory: “For women, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you work in studios, times when you have to smile and put on a happy face and put up with things, but working with David was the opposite of that. I was able to learn so much from him – creative lessons, life lessons … I learned an incredible amount. He was a good person.”

9. Kardos: “The Red Book was Jung’s own private dream journal-cum-art project, a personal record of his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, a series of disturbing visions that he experienced during a time when he was close to having a psychotic breakdown as Europe stood at the edge of the First World War. It was finally published in 2009 and its handwritten pages, paintings and drawings were shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (October 2009 to February 2010),” an exhibit which Bowie and Oursler saw at the time.

10. Lindsay Kemp’s 1970 televised version of Pierrot in Turquoise, for which Bowie sang “When I Live My Dream” and other compositions. Lots of dreams, mirrors, bedrooms, killings.

11. One of Potter’s masterpieces, The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) has Michael Gambon as a writer, Philip Marlow, recovering from a vicious bout of psoriatic arthritis in a hospital ward. The second episode is entitled “Heat.” Kardos’ book lists a number of fascinating parallels between Singing Detective and Bowie’s last works. 

12. Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC, 1996), was, along with its twin production Karaoke, Potter’s last work, written as he was dying from pancreatic cancer and produced after his death in 1994.

13. Legendary 1968 “rock opera” demo tape of Bowie’s that was auctioned to a record collector in the Nineties.

14. Enda Walsh (Lazarus) and Conor McPherson (Girl From the North Country).

15. A secondary dominant is, typically, a chord that’s “borrowed” from a key other than that of the song, often employed to anticipate the arrival of the key’s true dominant (the V chord). So “Moonage,” which is in D major, opens: “I’m an all-i-ga-tor!” (D, the I or “home” chord), “I’m a mamapapa comin’ for you!” (F-sharp major, a III chord (the secondary dominant), quickly resolving to B minor, the vi chord of D, with a root note of A (the root of the key’s true V chord): “I’m a space invader.”

16. Bowie, 2008: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to  suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.

17. Well, he’d have taken the limo, most likely.

18. Of the various outtakes rumored to have come from The Next Day and Blackstar, only “Blaze” from the latter sessions, which Nicholas Pegg and other sources have heard, is verified to have a complete Bowie vocal/lyric. Many other outtakes of the period likely only have place-filler DB top melodies, Kardos speculates from her research and interviews.


Karma Man (Revisited)

October 18, 2021

Karma Man (rejected Deram single, 1967).
Karma Man (Top Gear (BBC), 1968).
Karma Man (The Sunday Show (BBC), 1970).
Karma Man (Toy, 2000).

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

John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

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

George Harrison, quoted in Holiday, February 1968.

All at once, or so it seemed, the British pop aristocracy turned to “Eastern” religion. Pete Townshend found Meher Baba, Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. Donovan and the Beatles became adherents of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Spiritual Regeneration Movement, an offshoot of Hindu teachings centered on the practice of transcendental meditation.

The mystery of this burst of religiosity is somewhat dispelled if you consider that many of these people had taken LSD for some time—Tony Visconti and his wife Siegrid tripped once a week for a year, for instance, and John Lennon all but lived on acid in 1966. Eastern teachings resounded with young celebrities trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed,” as Bernice Martin wrote.

In Britain, where Christian observance was in great decline among the young (Lennon’s “we’re more popular than Jesus” comment was specifically about this generation), watery varietals of Buddhism and Hinduism became alluring. To Western youth, Buddhism had no edict-heavy god and its spiritual leaders were best known for protesting war and wearing colorful outfits. Seemingly devoted to the “now,” it was misinterpreted as a Pop religion. “I only live now and I don’t know why,” as David Bowie sang in “Karma Man.”

Bowie’s interest in Buddhism dated to his early teens, sparked in part by his half-brother Terry, Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and Penguin paperbacks on Zen Buddhism by the British convert Christmas Humphreys. But the essential book, Bowie later said, was Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the wellspring of Bowie’s first Buddhist-influenced song,“Silly Boy Blue.” Harrer was a German national who’d made his way into Tibet, a country few Westerners had ever visited. Much of his book concerned his stay in Lhasa, his meetings with the young Dalai Lama, and his thoughts on life in a Buddhist theocracy.

Bowie was a regular at the Tibetan Buddhist Society by late 1965, a time when he often stayed at his manager Ralph Horton’s apartment, a five-minute walk from the Society’s office in Eccleston Square. There he met and befriended a Tibetan lama in exile, Chime Rinpoche, who became Bowie’s spiritual mentor. He would ask Rinpoche and his fellow monks questions about Buddhism that the monks would answer with other questions, a circularity that delighted him.

The more frustrated Bowie became with his pop music career, the deeper his immersion in Mahayana Buddhism: late 1967 and much of 1968, when his debut album tanked and Deram kept rejecting his singles, marked the peak of his self-identification as a Buddhist. He said he was “going to chuck it all in” to become a monk, to the point of claiming to have visited a monastery in Scotland, allegedly sleeping upright in a box and keeping to a vow of silence. (It’s worth noting the latter practices have nothing do to with Mahayana Buddhism. This suggests a strong element of fiction in Bowie’s tale or that this Scottish Buddhist monastery was rather unorthodox.)

Chime Rinpoche, ca. 1960s

Buddhist-derived concepts, such as the ultimate emptiness of the self, intrigued Bowie. The line “his overself pays the bill” in “Silly Boy Blue” suggests that he’d read the Tathāgatagarbha Sutras, Mahayana sutras that claimed within everyone is an immortal, transcendental “overself” (a rough equivalent to the Christian concept of the soul, and sometimes referred to as Ātman, or the “Buddha nature”). Yet while anyone could be a Buddha, this potential was hidden within you, obscured by your own flaws of perception (“colored shades that blind your eyes”)— you wrongly perceived the world and, often, wrongly lived in the world.

So Bowie’s devotion was more dedicated than the average weekend Buddhist of his era, for whom “Tibet” was an Atlantis up in the mountains, a Shangri-La in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. The fevered political atmosphere of 1968 meant that identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist (and so by default protesting China’s occupation of Tibet) could get you flak from Maoist radicals. Even the apolitical Bowie reportedly was heckled by an American Maoist during his pro-Tibet mime Jetsun and the Eagle.

Spanish bootleg 45, ca. 1980

“Karma Man,” written in early-to-mid 1967, was slated as the B-side of Bowie’s proposed autumn single for Deram, a chaste counterpart to the lustful “Let Me Sleep Beside You.” Bowie’s tribute to monks in exile like Rinpoche, its title character prays in a carnival tent as one of the exhibits: a metaphor for the lama in the West, a “freak” living ascetically in the world of ice cream cones and sideshow stalls. There’s the concept of life as perpetual impermanence, which would turn up again in “After All” and “Changes,” and an obvious homage to Ray Bradbury’s tattooed Illustrated Man (“fairytale skin depicting scenes from human zoos”), with the lama as living storybook.

Down-and-out Strange (Strange Tales 115, Dec. 1963, Lee/Ditko)

Where “Silly Boy Blue” had the measured tone of a National Geographic article, “Karma Man” was more fantastical. Bowie had taken to describing Buddhist monks as superhuman figures, claiming to the Melody Maker that monks could go days without eating, spend months underground and could live for centuries (traces of this appear in “The Supermen”  and “Sons of the Silent Age”). This suggested that Bowie was up on one of the counterculture’s new heroes, Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange, an arrogant ex-surgeon reborn as a chela to the Ancient One and who, as per Geoffrey O’Brien, “spends his days sitting lotus fashion within his tastefully decorated Greenwich Village pied-à-terre and tuning into the brainwaves reaching him from across the universe.” Steve Ditko’s Strange Tales was full of astral projections, trips to psychedelic bardos and battles with occult powers like the Dread Dormammu.

Strange Tales 133, June 1965 (Lee/Ditko)

“Karma Man” was a fragile beauty of a song, its syllable-stuffed D major verses calmed by harmonized B major refrains, whose melody had for an opening hook a grand descending phrase (“slooow down, sloooow down,” F#-D#-C#-B) that set up the spotlight moment, an Anthony Newley-style elongation of “do–oh–ow–ownnnnnn,” with Bowie really wringing out the concluding en sound. It would have a strange, frustrated life as a recording.

Its 1967 studio take was a rush-job, as Bowie and Visconti had to cut it on the same day they did “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (Deram soon rejected both tracks.) Bowie sounds tentative in his phrasings at times, putting hard emphases on filler words like “he’s” and “but,” sounding as if he’s stalling for time while changing lyric sheets. There’s a fundamental imbalance between Visconti’s cello scoring, which dominates much of the track, and the subdued rhythm section—John McLaughlin vanishing for much of the song after playing the opening riff, some professional busker guitar by “Big Jim” Sullivan, a bass mostly content to shadow the cello (a modest Visconti), Alan White’s drums trying to make peace with the track. Siegrid Visconti sang the high harmonies, blending well with Bowie’s voice and kicking off a tradition of Visconti spouses making cameo appearances on Bowie tracks or videos.

Far better was the “Karma Man” done for the BBC’s Top Gear in May 1968, which I still consider the song’s canonical version. Visconti’s strings are lusher, with a broader tonal range; the tempo has subtly but essentially increased, making the song move at last. Having a stronger rhythmic template to work with (see also, more dynamic drumming and livelier guitar strum patterns), Bowie sounds at ease in the song, better handling the tricky rhythms of his verse lines, luxuriating in his refrains.

He returned to “Karma Man” in early 1970, as it was being released at last, on a Deram compilation LP cashing in on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” success. Performing it alone for a John Peel session, Bowie alters the guitar pattern to the sort of chugging Bo Diddley-esque line he favored in the “Space Oddity” era, while he has a similar plaintive tone as on likes of “Columbine” and “God Knows I’m Good.” He’s more inventive as a singer by now—listen to how he subtly shifts emphases and holds his notes with more assurance in the refrains—and he makes “Karma Man” sound fresh. You can imagine it having further life on stage in the Hunky Dory/Ziggy years, but this was the end of it.

Thirty years later, Bowie remade many of his “lost” Sixties songs. “Silly Boy Blue” got a gravid, respectful reinvention; “Let Me Sleep Beside You” became an aging roue’s come-on. “Karma Man,” never bootlegged but said to have been cut in the Toy sessions, would remain a rumor until last Friday, when it appeared on streaming sites.

I wish that I could say its Toy version gave the song a new perspective. But so far I just hear a cluttered, fumbled cover, a reheated “oldie” with Bowie in a diminished voice—was he getting over a cold when he cut this vocal?—that feels more dated than its Sixties versions. The arrangement, with Mike Garson filigrees in the verses, a trumpet opening hook and radio ident bumper vocal tags, sounds at times like a band trying to replicate a Badly Drawn Boy track from memory. Sterling Campbell tries to pound some life into the thing, and there may well be some good guitar lines somewhere in the mix. The 1968 “Karma Man” had grace; the 1970 version held mystery—it left an opening. Its 2000 incarnation is airless.

There would be no going back, it turned out, and this wouldn’t be the way forward. The world that created “Karma Man” now seems ten lifetimes away. Bowie’s song was a butterfly, never meant to last more than a summer.

End credits

(Deram version) Recorded: 1 September 1967, Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal; John McLaughlin: lead guitar; Jim Sullivan: acoustic guitar; Tony Visconti: bass; Alan White: drums; Siegrid Visconti: harmony vocals; unknown player(s): cello. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Gerald Chevin. First release: 6 March 1970, The World of David Bowie (Decca SPA 58)

(Top Gear version) Recorded: 13 May 1968, Piccadilly 1 Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; McLaughlin: lead guitar; Alan Hawkshaw: keyboards; Herbie Flowers: bass; Barry Morgan: drums; Visconti, Steve “Peregrin” Took: harmony vocals; The Tony Visconti Orchestra (uncredited): violins, violas, celli. Produced: Bernie Andrews; engineered: Alan Harris. First release: 26 September 2000, Bowie at the Beeb (EMI/Virgin 7243 5 28629 2 4).

(Sunday Show version) Recorded: 5 February 1970, BBC Paris Studio, London. Bowie: vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar. First release: 28 May 2021, The Width of a Circle.

(Toy version). Recorded: (tracking) July 2000, Sear Sound, New York; (vocals, overdubs) October 2000, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Bowie: lead vocal; Earl Slick: lead guitar; Mark Plati: rhythm guitar, keyboards; Mike Garson: keyboards; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Sterling Campbell: drums; Cuong Vu: trumpet?; Holly Palmer, Emm Gryner: harmony vocals. Produced: Plati; engineered: Pete Keppler. First release: (streaming) 15 October 2021.


John Hutchinson (1944-2021)

July 27, 2021

The likes of Tony Visconti will have most probably omitted any mention of me in their books, because I will have been to them (just as they were to me) a peripheral character in their David Bowie stories. 

John Hutchinson, Bowie & Hutch

Greil Marcus once called John Lennon “the reality principle” of the Beatles: the quadrant of the Beatles who reminded you that life goes on elsewhere, the one who questioned what the group was for, who said why it had to be abandoned (though I’ve long thought this better applied to George Harrison). John “Hutch” Hutchinson, who died a few days past, was something like this for his friend David Bowie. 

To his once-partner, Hutch was normality, steadiness, humility, domesticity. Hutch as the control to Bowie’s variable. The Ground Control, as it turned out—“Space Oddity” was originally a duet in which Hutch is left on earth, calling out into the void, fearing that his astronaut counterpart has gone lost.

A few years Bowie’s elder, Hutchinson had a similar trajectory as Bowie in the early-to-mid Sixties: growing up in an un-hip English town (Scarborough), forming an R&B band with an American name (The Tennesseans, of whom Hutch wrote “played most of the Beatles’ cover repertoire before we heard the Beatles”), spending the Beatlemania years scratching out a performing life, looking for the big break. In 1965, Hutchinson moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he got notice simply for being the only English rock guitarist in the city.

In January 1966, having turned up at the Marquee Club to ask if anyone needed a guitarist, Hutchinson auditioned a few days later there for David Bowie’s new band, The Buzz. Hutchinson played some Bo Diddley riffs and got the job. In his memoir, he noted that the main requirements for The Buzz were that “the musician could not be too good-looking or trendy, and he must be prepared to adopt a nickname.” Thus, “Hutch.”

The Buzz set the parameters of Hutch’s time with Bowie. Hutch as the genial journeyman guitarist who was able to make Bowie’s odd songs work on stage (“they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff”—“Good Morning Girl” came about when Bowie scatted to a jazz riff Hutch was playing); Bowie as the driven, occasionally moody artiste, absorbing every speck of music that he came across.

Married and with a pregnant wife, tired of not getting paid, and wary of Bowie’s new manager, Ken Pitt, who was positioning Bowie as a pure solo act, Hutchinson left The Buzz in June 1966 to get a proper job, soon moving to Montreal for a year or so. In 1969, he’d do the same—leaving Bowie again to go back to the real world. Hutch had responsibilities and obligations. Rock and roll was a circus that he’d work for a few summers, but at some point it was time to go home. 

Hutch’s departures, Hutch’s time in normie exile, became one of Bowie’s shadow-mirror lives. What if he’d given up, too? Gotten married, gotten a proper job in Beckenham, turned music into a hobby. Driving through Brixton with Tin Machine in 1991, Bowie wept, said that he still wondered sometimes how all of it happened, that he should have been an accountant or something.

Hutchinson was most of value to Bowie upon his return from Canada, having forsaken R&B for contemporary folk: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. In 1968, Bowie stood at one of his crossroads. His first, gloriously weird solo album had flopped; he had no record deal, and Ken Pitt was edging him towards cabaret, stage musicals and film roles. Hutch gave him a new grounding, a fresh backdrop. Hutch was a folkie; now Bowie would be a folkie. 

At first, it was indulgent: Feathers (nee Turquoise), a “mixed media” acoustic trio with Hermione Farthingale that’s commemorated by the hippie doodle “Ching-a-Ling,” a song that Donovan would’ve considered too fey. It drove Ken Pitt up a wall, Bowie frittering away his talent on this stuff, which already sounded dated in its first performances.

But when Bowie and Hermione broke up, leading to the “Bowie and Hutch” acoustic duo of early 1969, something caught fire. Bowie needed to be in a double act at the time, with Hutch as his straight man on stage, his friend and harmonizer. The obvious template was Simon and Garfunkel, with the twist that in this incarnation, “Garfunkel,” the mushroom-haired, extravagantly-voiced half of the group, would be the dominant creative force, while Hutch’s “Simon” would play the intricate guitar chords and mostly stay out of his way.

Bowie and Hutch’s 1969 demos, on which Hutchinson sang lead on Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” and Roger Bunn’s “Life is a Circus,” come off mostly as David Bowie With Accompaniment. Hutchinson stays in Bowie’s shadow; Bowie, making leaps as a composer, sounds ready to leave Hutch behind. But you can hear their friendship in their harmonies and inside jokes. Their time together established what would be Bowie’s standard working relationship: Bowie as director and scenarist; Hutch as facilitator, the one who drafted the storyboards and filled in details. Hutch as the 1.0 version of Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, Donny McCaslin.

Their epilogue was marvelous. Hutchinson returned yet again to play rhythm guitar in the Spiders from Mars’ 1973 tour. What must they have made of each other then! Hutch watching his once-Mod frontman stalking around, with a flame-colored mullet and dressed in Japanese extraterrestrial outfits; Bowie glancing upstage to see good old reliable Hutch standing there, memento of the hungry years. 

They’d stay in contact until the end, exchanging the occasional email. In his humble way, Hutchinson wrote in his memoir he “had to remember not to pester David, mind you, as we are many years and many miles apart now and there are constraints that lifestyle and fame impose upon old friends of stars like David Bowie.” No more effacing now. Raise a glass to Hutch, a star in his own right.


The Shore at Pett Level

June 11, 2020
ashes

The shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, is steep; and covered with shingles. There is no bathing machine here; and a man should be an expert swimmer to venture in, excepting in calmer weather.

Baker Peter Smith, A Journal of an Excursion Round the South-Eastern Coast of England, 1834.

The shore at Pett Level has been a forest, a feeding ground for dinosaurs, a graveyard for ships; at the time of the Roman conquest, it slept underwater; during the Napoleonic wars and for some time afterward, the beach had eight manned, brick-built Martello towers, each a quarter-mile apart, each with a gun on its roof and a small window facing seaward. During the Second World War, the government evacuated Pett, whose population at the time was greatly holidaymakers and beachcombers.

One morning in late spring 1980 (no one recalls the precise day, and while May is the consensus pick for month, it may not be so*) a thin man in a clown costume walks along this beach.

He’s accompanied by a ballerina, two space nuns, and a gothic bride. Not far behind them rumbles a JCB bulldozer.

This is David Mallet’s video for “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that its creator, David Bowie, had only recently completed at Tony Visconti’s studio in London. It was his most expensive video to date (£25,000–some say more) and would be his most memorable, despite it pre-dating MTV. (MTV feasted on it, though: “Ashes to Ashes” was core to its rotation during its lean first months in 1981.)

Mallet suggested the location for a practical reason (see below) and because “I’d known [Pett Level] since I was a little boy. One of the very rare places you can get right down to the water and there’s a cliff towering over you.” The dreamscape was Bowie’s.

I think video is there to be used as an art form as well as a sort of commercial device for illustration and promotion. In fact, I fell in love with video in the early Seventies when I got a Sony reel-to-reel, black-and-white thing and videoed everything and whatever. I got a small editing machine…and developed some scenarios for Diamond Dogs. I worked with miniature sets and cut video animation techniques which I’ve never seen used since. A dreadful but interesting failure.

Bowie in “David Bowie—Plus Five,” 1981.

By 1979, Bowie had sensed that music video, those cheap promos you sent Top of the Pops and label conventions if you were touring or couldn’t be bothered, was becoming more central, that songs would need visual accomplices. For Lodger, he made three with Mallet: “D.J.” was recluse DJ/ extrovert DB; “Look Back in Anger” was an artist plagued by art, a mix of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Image, a short film Bowie had done in the Sixties; “Boys Keep Swinging” was a farewell to glam and ambiguity.

As opposed to the Lodger videos, which Mallet had shot from Bowie concepts, for “Ashes to Ashes” “I story-boarded [it] myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” Bowie told the NME‘s Angus MacKinnon. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say [adopts Edward Heath voice] publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start—to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.” (Over the years, Mallet has described a more collaborative effort, with his suggestions having equal weight.)

One image dated back more than a decade. A Pierrot consoling an elderly woman is part of George Underwood’s illustration for the back cover of David Bowie (1969), an illustration Underwood had done based on a Bowie sketch. Recall that Bowie’s father had died that August, leaving an estranged, bereaved son tied to his bereaved mother.

Detail: Bowie sketch (l), Underwood illustration (r) for David Bowie (1969)

“Ashes to Ashes” began when Bowie remade “Space Oddity” in September 1979, stripping down the latter in the vein of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. “That came about because Mallet wanted me to do something for his show [Kenny Everett, where the two had first met in April 1979], and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.'” Doing the remake led Bowie to wonder where Major Tom would be a decade on: home at last, strung out, craving the high he’d had in space. Making Scary Monsters early in 1980, Bowie took a track titled “People Are Turning to Gold” and made it his sequel song.

In the “Space Oddity” remake that Bowie and Mallet did for a Kenny Everett special (aired on New Year’s Eve 1979), there were two scenarios reused in “Ashes to Ashes.” One was Major Tom at home, reading the paper while sitting in a spaceship chair in a black-and-white “Fifties” kitchen (it became more of a dentist’s chair in “Ashes”). Trash bins and ranges explode around him while his nurse? director?—in the Everett video, she’s shown filming him—calmly does the dishes.

Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?, filmed 18 September 1979

The other concept was a figure in an asylum, a large padded wall behind him as a backdrop. In the Everett “Space Oddity,” Bowie commits himself to the ward, walking in, sitting down to sing about Major Tom. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he no longer has a guitar and seems to be more of a prisoner, a feeling heightened by new shots of Bowie shackled to a wall in what looks like the asylum’s basement, with tubes and hoses attached to his torso (“a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar, dark and grim,” as he’d sung in “All the Madmen”).

The two asylum sets, with slight differences: Kenny Everett (1979), “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

As Bowie told MacKinnon, this latter shot (directly above) “was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling [emphasis mine] of what he looks like—and in that particular sequence the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there [specifically, Giger’s work on the just-released Alien]: the organic meets hi-tech.”

But Pierrot-on-the-beach would be the video’s central image—it’s easy to forget its other sections. The David Bowie Is exhibit had one of Bowie’s sketches for it. As with the 1969 David Bowie illustration, the Pierrot walks with a woman, though here it’s at night, under the moon, and she’s a shabbier figure. By the filming, the woman had resumed the “middle-class mum” appearance of the David Bowie illustration, with a long-standing rumor that she was played by Peggy Jones.

“We went down to the beach, and I took a woman there who looked like my mother,” Bowie said in 1993. “That’s the surrealistic part of making movies.” (The actress was reportedly Wyn Mac, wife of British comedian Jimmy Mac.)

Bowie wanted to stage the Pierrot sequence on a shore, somewhere in England. “A clown on a beach with a bonfire,” Mallet recalled of the brief that Bowie gave him.

As Nicholas Pegg discovered a while back, a long-missing piece of the puzzle is a Justin Hayward performance of “Forever Autumn” on the Kenny Everett Show in July 1978—Hayward sits on the Pett Level beach, with the cliff behind him seen at roughly the same angle as in Bowie’s video, and with similar video distortion effects applied to land, water, and sky. It seems obvious the Pett location came quickly to mind for Mallet when Bowie said he needed a beach.

In keeping with how Scary Monsters, and in particular “Ashes to Ashes,” was Bowie “eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…you have to accommodate your pasts within your persona,” as he later said, the three Bowie figures in the video all hail from his turn-of-the-Seventies: Major Tom, the urban spaceman; the asylum dweller of “All the Madmen” (the unluckier of the Bewlay Brothers); and the sad Pierrot of Bowie’s mime years, whose persona Bowie would use as a narrative voice from “An Occasional Dream” to “Thursday’s Child.”

The shore is the line between solidity and liquidity: it is a border that’s forever eroding, broadening, receding, secreting and revealing objects like a magician, never to look the same upon your next visit. The site of evacuations and invasions, it is permanent transition. I wonder if the opening of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) came to mind for Bowie, too:

The Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-colored beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered…[later] Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether…

This is an Earth of the far distant future, at the tail end of time, where humanity is reduced to a decadent few who loll about in their glorious collapsing cities and freak pleasure gardens. As Moorcock wrote in his introduction to his trilogy (Alien Heat is the first book of his Dancers at the End of Time), “even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time…their schemes—often grandiose and perverse—were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret.”

transition, transmission

While the other parts of the video—Major Tom in the asylum, or sitting anesthetized in his stage-set “home”—suggest that the Pierrot sections are Major Tom’s hallucinations or dreams, it’s the Pierrot figure who has the control. He’s the only Bowie character in the video who moves, who exists outside of a set, who’s directing the action. He performs acts of purification—a sacrificial bonfire, the release of a white dove—before his dissolution. First, in spirit: he winces in pain when a snapping photographer takes his soul; later in body, as the Pierrot sinks into the ocean. (Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin Power delve more into the symbolism in their essay on “Ashes to Ashes”).

There’s a funeral march along the shore. The Pierrot walks with the children who will succeed him; he is their divine mother. The sexton machine grumbles behind them, loud and impatient, but it will bury nothing—the clown will be taken by the sea. Walk five abreast, strike the earth, recite the old rhyme (“my mother said, to get things done…”), clasp hands. Do this in memory of me. I will soon be nothing but old lies and air.

For a funeral, one needs mourners, if only a handful, and Bowie knew where to find them.

Blitz, Covent Garden, 1980. © Dick Scott-Stewart Archive (Museum of London)

The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and in my mind for Bowie as an innovator. It was my first peek beneath the veneer of public perception and its contrast with reality. Bowie was actually a pilferer and a follower stylistically – finger on the pulse but a follower nevertheless.

Christos Tolera, artist and ex-Blitz Kid, to David Johnson, 2010.

Around 1976, London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs played Bowie records and clubgoers dressed as an edition of him. By 1978, the big Bowie night was at Billy’s in Soho, where Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. By the turn of the Eighties, the scene had shifted to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, where Bowie nights became competitive pose-offs. Egan and Strange would form Visage, later described by Simon Reynolds as “a confederacy of punk failures looking for a second shot at stardom” (so, very Bowie).

Bowie was naturally intrigued and visited the Blitz one night, slipping through the back door and being ensconced in an upper room, like slumming royalty. Each party had reservations about the other. Strange, like other Blitz Kids, regarded Bowie as a skilled operator, someone “allowed to get his ideas across quicker than up-and-coming bands. He’s always in the right place at the right time, checking out ideas. When he was in London he was always at the Blitz or at Hell.” And Bowie bottled his thoughts into “Teenage Wildlife,” his early midlife crisis song.

For “Ashes to Ashes,” he wanted some Blitz Kids, his spiritual and sartorial children, on the beach with his clown. So he and Coco Schwab went on safari at the club for the most intriguing-looking numbers (it suggests the opening scene of The Hunger). Strange, who was an operator himself, was an obvious pick. As Strange wrote in his biography, Bowie told him, “’Look, I’d like you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video. But there is only one snag. We have to meet tomorrow morning at 6 AM outside the Hilton to leave for the location shoot.’ I rushed around and found Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, and another girl for the video.”

The “another girl,” the ballerina of the set, is the mystery of the group. Her name, reportedly, was Elise Brazier and nothing has been heard from her since, as far as I know.

Some stills appear to predict Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on The New Mutants

The other Blitz kids in the video were a pair of brilliant young designers: Judith Frankland, a recent graduate of Ravensbourne College of Art, and Saint Martin’s alum Darla Jane Gilroy.

“I was invited, as was Darla Jane, over to the table where David Bowie and his PA Coco were sitting, and offered a glass of champagne,” Frankland wrote in 2011. “Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style and were asked to take part [in the video] for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students.” This was £50—not bad for 1980.

Frankland was the costumer for the Blitz quartet. She had gotten attention for her Ravensbourne graduation collection, which had a show at Cafe Royal in London. Her style was once called “Romantic monasticism” and “Balenciaga hears The Sound of Music” (the latter was dead-on, as it was Frankland’s favorite film as a child—the evening-gown habits that she designed came from her memories of it).

Frankland’s 1980 graduation collection show (Niall McInerney, via The Swelle Life).

Frankland’s designs (in “Ashes,” she and Gilroy wore her nun’s habits, while Strange was in her black wedding gown, whose veil and hat had been made by their friend Stephen Jones) tapped into an eerie key at the end of the Seventies. A sort of neo-medieval formality, as if in homage to a future that was never going to come. Court clothes for a lost extraterrestrial aristocracy, whisked together from scraps across the centuries. A look that, again, calls to mind Moorcock’s decadents at the end of time:

Lord Jagged…concocted for himself a loose, lilac-colored robe with the kind of high, stiff collar he often favoured, and huge puffed sleeves from which peeped the tips of his fingers, and silver slippers with long, pointed toes, and a circlet to contain his long platinum hair: a circlet in the form of a rippling, living 54th Century Uranian lizard.

An Alien Heat
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parallels, variations, echoes: Frankland’s 1980 “nun” collection in Viz; Ylla and Yll in The Martian Chronicles (1980; designer: Cynthia Tingey); Alia Atreides in Dune (1984; Bob Ringwood)

The making of the video was a touch less romantic. Frankland recalled waking up in her bedsit in South Kensington and wondering if meeting Bowie and Schwab the previous night had been a dream, until the communal phone rang and she got instructions (presumably from Schwab). She was to wear what she’d had on at the Blitz, and the same makeup, and to be outside the Hilton “at some ungodly hour…to get on a coach to a secret location,” which turned out to be Pett Level.

The four Blitz Kids arrived at the beach to be greeted by Bowie already in costume. “He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in sinking sand and mud,” Frankland wrote.

Happenstance and accidents played their parts. Bowie had noticed an idle bulldozer, property of the local government, parked down the beach. Struck by the idea of having the bulldozer as a “symbol of oncoming violence,” Bowie wanted it in the shoot. A few phone calls later (no doubt Schwab on the case again), a local driver was rolling the machine behind Bowie and the kids.

Blitz Kids take five at Pett Level (from a now-defunct? Blitz Kids website)

It was difficult for everyone to keep the same pace. “If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing,” Strange wrote. “There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in.”

A perfect example of how Bowie could seize upon a chance accident and expand it—he had Gilroy do the ground-slapping gesture as well, so that the two “wings” of the group seem to perform acts of consecration. And he’d turn the gesture into a dance move in his subsequent video for “Fashion.”

The original idea was to have the Blitz Kids only in the beach sequence, but Bowie, happy with how things were turning out, asked them to come to Ewart Studios in Wandsworth, where interiors were being shot. They would be a Greek chorus during the Major Tom “kitchen” scene.

“The scene we were to do at the studio involved an explosion and I was at the back,” Frankland wrote. “In fact if you look at the video you can see my crucifix swing in. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our piece or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me.”

And that was it. The Blitz Kids were driven back to London and spent the night clubbing at Hell. Mallet enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects from the brand-new Quantel Paintbox. The video set the topsy-turvy colors of the outdoor shots against the high-contrast black-and-white of the “kitchen” ones, with the asylum shots as an intermediary.

What did Bowie and Mallet have with it? It’s too much to say they’d invented the grammar of MTV (Kate Bush was doing similar stuff at the same time, for instance) but “Ashes to Ashes” certainly provided a template. First, it just looked cool. Fantastic-looking weirdos on a candy-colored beach, leavened by explosions. There was nothing remotely like it on American television, at least.

Bowie managed, for the first time, to convey on film the sort of jump-cut, indirect narrative of his best songs—he was overdubbing a dense layer of new information upon an already-complex set of tracks (the Visconti-produced master). The sensation, watching the video, was something like the Choose Your Own Adventure books—a set of scenarios and decisions, some leading you deeper in, some killing you off.

“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched,” Bowie said in 1980. “The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”

It’s the visualization of a cusp song—an old world is falling away, the edges are blurring, but the new world that it shakes into view is still unclear. The careerist fabulousness of the Blitz Kids? A return to a falsified Fifties? A time when dreams need to be repressed, stowed away in the cellars and asylums? Bowie was winding down his Sixties and Seventies, disassembling his past, with a sense of foreboding as to what would take its place: could he have foreseen Tonight and Glass Spider? No, directly ahead of him was respectability, class, nuance—The Elephant Man, Baal, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The Eighties were going to be a serious time.

The past will be burned and buried: toll the bell, pay the private eye, as Bowie later sang. Only a few exiles will be left to recall it. The future is to be found on the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea. It is steep, and covered with shingles.

Coda: In 1993, Michael Dignum was working on the video for Bowie’s “Miracle Goodnight.” “We had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete,” he later said. So he struck up a conversation with Bowie, his childhood hero, and asked him what he thought the biggest moment of his career was. “His reply was EPIC. And it went like this:”

“I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ do you know the one?…So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer…I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera…

As he was walking by the camera, the director said, excuse me, mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…’Of course I do!!!! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”

Michael Dignum, Facebook post, 11 January 2016

Ashes to Ashes.” Directors: David Mallet, David Bowie; Concept: Bowie. Starring: Bowie, Steve Strange, Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Wyn Mac? Costumes: Natasha Korniloff (Pierrot suit), Frankland (Blitz kids outfits), Stephen Jones, Fiona Dealey, Richard Ostell (hats, veil); makeup: Richard Sharah. First release: 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision (on a VCD likely unplayable today).

Sources: [background] the (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s; Roger Griffin, Golden Years; Nicholas Pegg, Complete David Bowie; Kevin Cann, A Chronology; [quotes] Bowie, to NME (13 September 1980), to Musician (April 1990), in “David Bowie Weekend” on MTV (4-5 April 1993), A&E Biography (“David Bowie: Sound and Vision”) (2002); Mallet, to Marc Spitz (Bowie, 2009) and Dylan Jones (Bowie: A Life, 2017); Strange, in autobiography (Blitzed!, 2002) and to Spitz; Frankland, in “Frankly Frankland: The Blitz, David Bowie and Ashes To Ashes” (The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011). Dillaine, Devereux & Power’s essay “Culminating Sounds and (En)visions: Ashes to Ashes and the Case for Pierrot” is collected in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; on the history of Pett, sources inc. Christa Cloutier’s “The Blessed Little Sea Shanty,” (Guardian, 30 Sept 2009), Michael Foley’s Martello Towers (2013) & description of latter comes from BP Smith’s Journal (1834). Most of the Pett towers had to be abandoned due to beach erosion by the end of the 19th C.

*Most Bowie references (Pegg, Cann, Griffin) note that the video was shot in May 1980, but Strange once said it was in early July. Given the English climate, it’s impossible to determine by sight if the beach shoot is in summer or no (Brazier, who has the only skimpy costume, is wearing an overcoat to cover herself in one “off-stage” photograph, seen above—but again, this proves nothing, as it’s a beach near Hastings). It would make a bit more sense if the video had been filmed later than May, given that Bowie had just completed “Ashes” that month—a shoot a few weeks later, which still left enough time for post-production before the single’s release in early August, is perhaps more likely?


The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)

December 2, 2019

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The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green).

The release of the five-disc Conversation Piece hammers shut the year of “Sixties Bowie Redux.” The total, in terms of tracks unreleased until now: some 30 home demos, recorded between the autumns of 1967 and 1969.

At last in one place (expect to see more Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove sets, over-optimistically priced, in used record stores), these demos make a decent pile and give a sharper picture of Bowie’s work life in the late Sixties. How sharp, though? Is it really worth one’s time to sit through these rough drafts, these murky tapes of old songs, many of which didn’t make the cut for Bowie at the time? (You can hear his laugh: “ah yes, a real treasure trove you’ve got for 80 quid.”)

Well, of course I’m interested. And the devoted fan—I’ll define this as someone who’s voluntarily listened to a Tin Machine bootleg—may find some of it fascinating. The “average” fan, whoever they may be? I’m not sure what they’ll make of it, if they’ll even hear it.

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The collected demos* do a couple of things. They further document how the late Sixties were a proving ground for Bowie as a songwriter—his frustrations about lacking a record contract strengthened him as a composer; his songs develop in craft and form. “Space Oddity,” included here in what appears to be every demo ever made of it, no longer sounds like a sudden leap forward but more the culmination of years spent sitting at a reel-to-reel in his manager’s flat or in various bedsits and rented rooms.**

We also have a smoother transition between “psychedelic Mod” suburban Bowie and hippie Arts Lab Bowie of 1969. The Conversation Piece “demo” disc sequence opens with the set’s earliest recordings, in terms of composition: “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “Mother Grey,” “In the Heat of the Morning” and “When I’m Five” (the former two were copyrighted in December 1967; the latter two had studio versions cut in March 1968).

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“The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)” (hereafter referred to, for sanity’s sake, as “Rev. Brown”) almost certainly hails from the same compositional period—late 1967 through the first months of 1968. Its earliest appearance is as a title in Kenneth Pitt’s 1985 memoir, where it appears in a list of prospective songs to be recorded for Bowie’s second (and never-recorded) Deram album.

It makes sense: “Rev. Brown” isn’t far removed from Bowie’s Deram debut, in terms of subject matter (another jaundiced look at suburban England) and song structure—there’s still a lot of Ray Davies being processed, along with a newer influence, Syd Barrett, while the outro is all but Bowie saying on tape “and then it ends like a Who track.”

Its lyric is a film sketch. Quick shots of various supporting characters (a nameless milkman and magistrate; Mrs. MacGoony and Grouse and “naughty Fitzwilliam”) build to (in the four-bar refrains) the introduction of the title character: Rev. Raymond Brown, shown leading the band at a village fete, “noting down sin” with a pencil, and guiltily lusting after the “beauty of Thatchwick.” Bowie’s word-choked bridges have similar phrasings as those in “When I’m Five”—here done to imitate the chatter of a “women’s guild” who compare their hats and gossip about a local girl getting pregnant (Sally, perhaps the future/former wife of Uncle Arthur).

Clever but shallow, “Rev. Brown” is apparently among Bowie’s last attempts to do an “Angry Young Man”-type short story in music, as he had done repeatedly on his 1967 album. It feels compromised in tone, as if he was already writing with Peter Noone in mind to sing it—it’s far less weird than the likes of “She’s Got Medals” or “Little Bombardier” or “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” That said, all we have is a rough sketch—perhaps “Rev. Brown” could’ve been transformed in the studio, getting brass or woodwind accompaniment for the refrains.

What I do find a hoot is that the verse phrasings, especially at 1:20 (the introduction of the Beauty of Thatchwick, who seems written for Julie Christie or Jane Asher to play), appear again in Bowie’s work—I hear them in “Little Wonder,” thirty years later. As Earthling is one of Bowie’s “return to Britain” records, so Rev. Raymond Brown, “musical priest” and would-be dirty old man, gets dug up as an ancestor to Blur’s Tracy Jacks and Ernold Same. Whether for “Little Wonder” Bowie went back to his Sixties demos or recalled some traces of a long-abandoned song is something we’ll never know.

Recorded: ca. late autumn 1967-March 1968, (most likely) Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street, London. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitars, bass, percussion. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Self-Promotional Paragraph. 1) Ashes to Ashes and Rebel Rebel are here for your Christmas shopping needs. They make great stocking stuffers—well, not in Ashes‘ case, as its weight would likely bring down the stocking. Put that one in a shoebox or something. 2) Those who have joined the Patreon got to read this entry early and are delighted, I’m told. They also get to read early versions of the 64 Quartets essays, my new series on the films of Howard Hawks, and some Bowie-related exclusives. Thanks to all; happy December! End of Self-Promotional Paragraph.

* Collected but far from complete. Still unreleased are “Social Kind of Girl” and “Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” “C’est la Vie,” etc. “Tiny Tim” remains a title. The absence of the 1968 demo of Bowie’s rock opera Ernie Johnson is no surprise—it’s possible the estate no longer owns the tape (one copy was auctioned in the Nineties) and EJ is my guess as to one of the things DB never wanted to become public.

** Despite the track on Conversation Piece sounding like a third-generation cassette dub, “Rev. Brown” appears to have been made on a sophisticated, costly set-up for a struggling musician in 1967. The “Rev. Brown” demo—done to copyright the song, distribute it for potential cover versions and, possibly, as a blueprint for Tony Visconti (who was supposed to produce Bowie Deram 2)—has a complete bassline, tambourine and “drum” track, lead and harmony vocals and possibly two guitar tracks. It’s surprisingly intricate for the period. Maybe Kenneth Pitt got the set-up for a short-term period by a vendor, and Bowie no longer had regular access to it once he moved in with Hermione Farthingale. Later DB Sixties demos sound more like “hit ‘record’ and hope the mike picks it all up.”

Top: Batman (Adam West) in Kennington, May 1967; “St John Vianney Garden Fete, 1967” (Hartlepool Museum Service).