Space Oddity

November 11, 2009

69NA

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

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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

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“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

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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.


The Past Grows Larger

January 8, 2019

stak_front_cover_1080sq

As you’ll see in Ashes to Ashes, I made a joke that I expected the Bowie estate to release “Blaze” or another Blackstar outtake on his birthday, thus rendering the book incomplete before it published. This, surprisingly, did not happen (still a few hours left, though). But there is “new” Bowie music today nonetheless.

This Parlophone set of demos, perversely to be issued only on 7-inch vinyl singles for the time being, could have been titled DB ’68, as it seems to be mostly material written and demoed that year (or at the dawn of 1969, with “Space Oddity”). The “new” songs are:

Angel, Angel, Grubby Face. Demoed for Bowie’s never-made second Deram album, it was described by Nicholas Pegg as Bowie still being under the influence of British writers Keith Waterhouse and Alan Sillitoe, from whom he’d taken plotlines and titles for his first album (“Uncle Arthur,” “There Is a Happy Land,” “Little Bombardier”).

Mother Grey seems to be along the same lines, another piece of DB’s “surreal naturalism” period, lyrically. Demoed around late 1967/early 1968, and likely another “2nd Deram LP” contender.

Goodbye 3d (Threepenny) Joe. A title circulating for years, and I wondered in Rebel Rebel if it was the midway point between the transformation of “London Bye Ta Ta” (which has a new demo version in this set) into “Threepenny Pierrot” for the Looking Glass Murders in 1970. It seems possibly not, but we’ll see soon enough!

Love All Around. The scoop! Not even the title had been mentioned in Bowie histories, lists of bootlegs, etc., until now, I believe.

In addition, an upcoming auction lists three more unknown DB demos from 1965—“How Can i Forget You,” “I Live In Dreams” (“which includes a false start and some discussion around the key of the song”) and “It’s My True Love.”

The Parlophone set seems in part to be a copyright dump (hence the notice that the songs appeared for likely six hours on “streaming services” in December) and thus suggests in the years to come, we might get official releases of the heap of unreleased Bowie demos from that period—“Right on Mother,” “Rupert the Riley,” etc.

So as the Strokes once said, the end has no end. Here’s to Bowie’s birthday, and hope all of you are well.

Requisite hype coda: bookNYC tour dates.

 

 


Chapter Thirteen: Inauthentic Reality (2003-2007)

December 18, 2018

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Epigraphs   Weiner: from an interview with Alan Sepinwall, March 2015; Bowie: from Esquire, March 2004. In mid-2016, I decided to title this chapter after a line from someone whom I thought would be president of the United States when this book published—it’s got a rather different connotation now.

526  Never Get Old   “Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up of “Rebel Rebel” and “Never Get Old” (among the most “early 2000s” things DB ever approved) was assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004 and issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971); thrusty…no through line: pretty much said in every 2003 interview, trust me; I can put out stuff: Virgin Radio interview with Dominic Mohan, 15 June 2003; going back on my word: Reality electronic press kit interview.

527  back at home: to Howard Cohen, Miami Herald, 8 September 2003; Studio B: To correct a perceived weak drum sound from this studio, Bowie and Visconti returned to Allaire to play Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, recording the result and mixing into Logic Audio; hardly redo anything: to Richard Buskin, Sound on Sound, October 2003, a source of many Reality recording details. The bulk of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board used for monitoring tracks; MCI board…all the synths and modules: Mix, 1 October 2002.

528  rather silly song: to Kurt Orzeck, interview transcript, 9 July 2003; petulant 56-year-old: to Dominic Mohan, The Sun, 12 September 2003; generation of angry old men: to Michael Streck, Der Stern, 21 September 2003.

529  chords: moves include a rise from C major (“forever”) to C# (“this feeling that we’re going to be”), then back to C (“living until the”) and down to B-flat (“end of time”). Then there’s a jarring run from Bb to Ab (“head hangs low”) to Eb (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the refrain; I desperately want to live forever…I don’t want to let her go: to Billy Sloan, Scottish Sunday Mail, 23 November 2003.

soma

530  Reality   in the last American boats: Paris Review, Winter 1995 (a source of Steiner biographical detail here); Western high culture was broken: Steiner used as an example John Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem difficult for today’s readers to untangle without footnotes. In its first lines alone, “ivy,” “myrtles,” and “laurels” have specific thematic meanings for which most 17th-19th Century readers would’ve needed no explication. See Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Bluebeard’s Castle: “Laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [“Lycidas”] intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a “vague musicality,” Milton’s references might as well be to Mars; cannot choose the dreams of unknowing: In Bluebeard’s Castle; don’t think there’s one truth: to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, October 2003; whole George Steiner-ism of life…world caught up really quickly: to Ken Scrudato, Soma, July 2003; I don’t think we want new things…we’ve got enough new: to Mikel Jollett, Filter, July/August 2003.

531  rather bad science fiction stories: Filter, July/August 2003; medium for a conglomerate of statements: People, 6 September 1976; who’s stolen this world: to Anthony DeCurtis, Beliefnet, July 2003; we live in absolute chaos…they are all crumbling: Soma, July 2003.

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532  Pablo Picasso     Roadrunner: Joshua Clover’s “Ring Road” (part of his “Terrorflu,” and collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great encapsulation of this song; Pablo Picasso: “I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought ‘well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.’ So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me,” Jonathan Richman to Boston Groupie News, 1980; more whimsy…little dirgelike…more contemporary: Interview, October 2003.

533  Fall Dog Bombs the Moon   the blade stands ready: as per my journal, 19 March 2003. North said this during the morning show on Fox (whatever the ur-“Fox and Friends” was then); fabulous storehouse: Soma, July 2003; Truthout.org: founded in 2001, it’s still kicking. Its top story during the presidential funeral in December 2018 was “George H.W. Bush Empowered Atrocity Abroad and Fascists at Home”; Kellogg, Brown & Root: Having broken off from Halliburton in 2007, in the following year it was accused of tax dodging. KBR has pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing Nigerian officials; its then-CEO was sentenced to 30 months in prison. It’s also been sued for human trafficking, for exposing US soldiers to harmful substances via “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and likely has been sued for something else since I wrote this.

2003-09-29

534  issue or policy manifests itself…ugly song for an ugly man: Interview, October 2003; thump about at loud volume: Bowie web journal, 7 March 2003; run by brutes for the common and stupid: Entertainment Weekly, 31 May 2002.

535  Love Missile on the “New Killer Star” CD single and only compiled on a bonus disc for the limited edition European release; anarchic dub sound: the Sputnik Story (http://www.sputnikworld.com/The_Sputnik_Story_7_3.html); £4 million: a complete fabrication, as James later said: Journalist Chris Salewitz had randomly plucked that figure out of the air for a piece he was writing about us in the Sunday Times and four million pounds translated into six million dollars, so we became the “six million dollar band” which appealed to me because I loved the “Six Million Dollar Man”; performative violence: from an NME review of a Sputnik gig in Reading, 1986: It was a fairly normal pop concert. Apart, that is, from the purple-faced Nazi on my left who screamed obscenities at a girl he barged past on his way to the front, or the rotund drunk who clutched his real ale and hollered “Bastards! Wankers! Violence!” while flailing towards the stage, and the Fleet Street photographers who eagerly raced around the building after a young man with a bloody head”; I want to be successful…cheated a lot of people: to Paul Morley, NME, 8 March 1986; Whitmore: Pegg, 174.

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536  New Killer Star  the album’s lead-off single, issued on 29 September (the single edit, which trims the intro and outro, is on Nothing Has Changed) but as it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for the singles charts; not a political commenter: Reality press release interview by David Wild; it’s not over yet…everyone’s mind: Virgin Radio, 15 June 2003; A minor to E-flat refrain: a transition readied by Bowie swapping out his former root chord (Am) for an A major in the pre-chorus; on holiday…feel like a stranger here: to Du Noyer, The Word, November 2003.

537  others are watching us now: Beliefnet, July 2003; ghost of the tragedy: to Bill Demain, Performing Songwriter, September 2003.   Looking For Water      virtually looped…melodic content on top: Sound on Sound, September 2003. The chorus hook nicks some of Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ For a Love” (1974); D major/F minor: You could make the case for either being the key: the tonic D major moving to the mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major; guitar-fattened: replicated on stage in the Reality tour by Slick, Leonard, Cat Russell and Bowie all playing the intro riff. Later performances in 2004 have the descending bass riff played more dominantly and choppier on guitar.

538  Queen of All the Tarts on the blog, I dared Momus to write an elaborate comment for this, the most inconsequential of Reality tracks. His response (20 December 2014) was a near-dissertation on Bowie’s use of diminished passing chords. “They seem to represent transition: the passing of time, the relationship of retrospect to prospect, past to future, nostalgia to uncertainty…As this song is an “overture” to we-know-not-what, the diminished passing chord is totally appropriate here. Since these cascading triads bear no diatonic relationship to the current key, they point the listener forward to some sort of promised resolution, making us long for something which hasn’t yet arrived, isn’t yet clear. A nostalgia for the future, perhaps?…Bowie songs which use diminished passing chords include Space Oddity, Changes, Quicksand, Golden Years, Absolute Beginners, Zeroes, and Buddha of Suburbia. They deal wistfully with time, nostalgia, transience. In Zeroes, for instance, we get one just after “a toothless past is asking you how it feels”….In Golden Years, there’s a stabbed diminished chord after “years”. In Absolute Beginners the chord arrives on “nothing much to take” and “nothing we can’t shake.” In Quicksand it’s on “deceive”…Bowie often resolves it in unexpected directions, making it a leap into the dark. In Zeroes it seems to resolve “wrong,” although nostalgic sitars soften the blow. The diminished passing chord…often comes like an antithesis to the triumphalism of a sequence of major chords — here, for instance, we get a confident stomp (V2 Schneider-ish) from A# to F# to D# which suddenly spirals into something much more romantic and wistful; the passing chord leads into the minors Dm and A#m. There’s a similar chord in Ashes to Ashes, on the last syllable of “pisTOL”. As in Absolute Beginners, it heralds a negative lyric: there’s NO smoking pistol, just as there’s NOTHING much to take…If a major chord is a shout of confidence and aggression, a passing chord is passive, a wise sigh, a note of Buddhist resignation…If we were being Bowie, blocking out the instrumental with words, what would we sing? The stomping I-VI-IV section would possibly feature a description of our tarty queen — a withered rocker in leather, possibly Tiresias in drag — arriving at a nightclub. She’s painted on a poor face today. She’s a butcher passing for a little girl. By the time the diminished chord arrives the triumphalism is spent. We’re now learning something sad about this character: she’s out of time, lost her mind, an Alice lost in Wonderland.”

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539  She’ll Drive the Big Car    favorite suicide song…all her plans: BowieNet chat, 7 September 2003; stuck with this middle-class family: Interview, October 2003; Riverside Drive: for those unfamiliar with Manhattan geography, it’s the furthest-west avenue on the west side of the island, paralleling the Hudson River—Riverside takes you from the Upper West Side up to the George Washington Bridge and west to New Jersey. That said, if the character’s planning to drive into the river while going “south along the Hudson,” she’s probably on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

540  comes up with the goods: Melody Maker, 14 February 1976.

541 Loneliest Guy    despairing piece of work…city taken over by weeds: Interview, October 2003; that sense of loneliness: Beliefnet, June 2003; miles of jerry-built: Hughes, The Shock of the New, 211; being taken back over again by the jungle: Interview, October 2003.

542 Brasilia population: As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live there, making it the fourth-largest city in Brazil.   Waterloo Sunset   first released as a “cyber-single” download (BowieNet members got it earlier, on a promo CD). It’s also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in September 2003; started writing a song about Liverpool: Davies, X-Ray, 338.

543 plangent harmonies: with the Kinks’ secret weapon, Ray’s wife Rasa Davies, taking the high harmonies, as she often did.

544  Days   descending bassline: guided downward by the baritone sax: “(Bb) my crazy brain (Bb/A) entangles (Gm) pleading for your (Bb/F)gentle voice.” An example of what Julian Cope once called “the glam descend.”   Try Some Buy Some  unchaste monk: Roth, The Ghost Writer, 5.

545  some kind of system: The Word, November 2003; unending series of harmonic steps: Leng, Music of George Harrison, 99. Ian MacDonald described Harrison’s writing in the Beatles years as using “chord changes as expressive, rather than functional, devices”; chromatic bassline: A-Ab-G-F#-E; Spector found uncomfortable: she’d come around on the song by 1999, when she described it as being “done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record”; ga-ga over Ronnie Spector: to Jonathan Ross, 2 August 2003.

546  for me it was a Ronnie Spector song: Virgin Radio, 15 June 2003; my connection to the song: Word, November 2003.

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547  Bring Me the Disco King  a note, if you needed one: all the sections in italics are fictions. At least in this world.

548 crawled along through the years: Orzeck transcript, 9 July 2003; written with a sense of irony: to Ong Soh Chin, Straits Times, 9 April 1993, who described hearing the song on a “demo tape.” I imagine it was likely more a rough mix of some kind—I kept their phrase, though; trying to summarize my feelings…too cynical when doing it before: to George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune, 21 September 2003; sounded cheesy and kitschy: quoted in Pegg, 51.

550 Earthling sessions: as per Mark Plati’s production worksheet for Earthling, this “Disco King” had recorded contributions from all band members and was mixed; sort of muscular way: Orzeck transcript, 9 July 2003; more Kurt Weill…more anguish…strange gloss of the 70s: Matt Diehl, Rolling Stone, 12 December 1996.

552  never got in the room…sounds good: Electronic Musician, 1 November 2003.

553  120 beats a minute: Orzeck transcript, 7 September 2003; voicings improvised…never play it the same way twice…chordal solos can be interesting: Keyboard, January 2004.

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555  Song 2  An arbitrary song choice to title an entry far more about the last Bowie tour. I could have (should have? would have?) listed other tour “medley” songs as well: “It Can’t Happen Here,” “Puppet on a String,” “My Funny Valentine, “Here Comes the Sun,” etc.; live: following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane Festival). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version appeared on CD in 2010); not something I looked forward to…didn’t feel competent: to David Wildman, Weekly Dig, 3 December 2003.

556  any hope for the industry…source of irrelevance: Chicago Sun Times, 9 January 2004; grossing $46 million: Billboard, 25 December 2004; David’s voice sits on top: to Breeann Lingle, Mix, 1 March 2004; pushed his band to learn 60 songs: Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004; fumbled through a tough football match: Dorsey tour journal, 21 October 2003; karaoke machine: Paul Sexton, The Times, 14 November 2003; I think I’ve done the right thing…pieces everybody knows: to Sean Sennett, Time Off, February 2004; tattered jacket: In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie appeared wearing a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom; constantly grinning: Billboard, 15 December 2003; the Artful Dodger…Americans imitating the British: Mercury News, 19 April 2004.

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557  sense of seriousness: to Kathy McCabe, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; lose his shit for a moment: “Yeah, let’s do that again all fucking night! Where are you, creep? Yeah, I guess it’s easier to get lost in the crowd, you bastard. D’you remember, I’ve only got one [eye] anyway! Fortunately that’s the one that works.” Allegedly the culprit was a fan who claimed the lollipop got knocked out of her hand and became a missile: that’s not supposed to happen: Vulture, 22 January 2016; might have been a few boos: MH to CO, March 2015.

559  She Can (Do That)   do you want to do this?: Young, Facebook post, August 2016; Oh they don’t expect anything: to Courtney Pine, Jazz Crusade (BBC 2), 5 September 2005. Bowie’s last radio interview.

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560 The Cynic  Fortunately I’m not working: “Bowie: The Fashion Rocks Q&A,” Lucky, October 2005; seeing Bowie alone: Paris Review, 11 January 2016; Secret Machines: Bowie interviewed them for a BowieNet podcast in April 2006; very good from where I was sitting: Shears, Boys Keep Swinging, 276.

561 Kurt Cobain song…fresh as a daisy: Visconti on BowieNet, 1 September 2005; just roll the tape: Poison Ivy, 29 March 2010; role in the video: an animation derived from previous photos of Bowie—he didn’t do any filming.  Province   Bowie’s doorman:  Spin, August 2006;

562  be the boss of things: to David Harris, Tiny Mix Tapes, 22 September 2008.

563  Wake Up    Arcade Fire has a strong theatrical flair: Lucky, October 2005; steal it from you!: NME, 18 September 2013.

564  he sang quite a bit: Sound on Sound, March 2014.

565 Pug Nosed Face   filmed: Thanks to the BBC partnering with HBO for Extras, there was a substantial production budget that enabled, for Bowie’s one scene, the entire crew to relocate to Hertfordshire for a location shoot. The nightclub, Elberts in Peg Lane, was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire. Most information on recording/filming is from Clifford Slapper to CO, 2015—more details are in Slapper’s Garson biography.

566  Falling Down    sounded awful…I’ll drive you: Interview, 30 November 2008; cough medicine vibe: Rolling Stone, 13 February 2008. The quote has it as “tinker-bell,” so I kept it as is, but it was almost certainly meant to be “Tinkerbell.”

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Chapter Nine: In the Realms of the Unreal (1994-1995)

December 17, 2018

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Epigraphs   Johnson: quoted in Dwell, March 2007; Rodgers: quoted in Ted Fox’s In the Groove, 334; Robbe-Grillet: to Susha Guppy, Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction, No. 91”; Mac Liammoir: quoted in Simon Callow’s The Road to Xanadu, 168.

370  The unreleased Leon tapes and the “Segue” tracks that appear on 1. Outside are the work of the improvising set of musicians/co-composers in the initial March 1994 sessions at Mountain Studios. That said, I’ve also included in these credits musicians from the January 1995 New York sessions to cover what sound like, on occasion, different overdubs and rhythm tracks on the officially-released segues—in particular the first Nathan Adler segue—and on “Nothing to Be Desired.” It’s possible these overdubs were recorded in the West Side Studios sessions of late spring 1994, but given that Eno was working on “Segue” mixes and backing tracks in late 1994, there’s a decent chance that at least a few overdubs hail from January 1995; Eno: gear (including transistor radio) as per Eno to Musician, November 1995; commandeered the DJ’s system: as per DB to Steven Wheeler, Music Connection, September 1995. “We spent most of our time at the party afterwards talking about what we were both doing musically. We were going back and forth to the DJ putting on different tracks that we were both writing [laughs]. It almost became a listening session, with people dancing until the record was taken off, and then another one would go on”; distressed instruments: DB interview tape with Simon Witter, 4 October 1995; on the same course again: to Dominic Wells, Time Out, 23-30 August 1995; crank out a record of songs: to John Schaefer for “New Sounds,” 15 September 1989, reprinted in Opal No. 15 (Winter/Spring 1990). I wrote about Wrong Way Up for Pitchfork in 2017.

371  stop mucking about: Jones, David Bowie: A Life, 394; why am I like this?: Rose to Kerrang!, 21-28 April 1990. (Soon after the “I’m gonna kill you Tin Man!” exchange, Rose and Bowie made up); extreme positions: to David Gritten, LA Times, 27 September 1992; mini manifestosboring and bland in popular music: to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, September 1995; songs in 11/8: as Gabrels described it to Trebuchet, 22 November 2014, adding that he sometimes used graph paper to figure it out; bigger landscape in play: to Mark Rowland, Musician, November 1995; full participation creatively: 1 July 1994, “Hollywood Online” web chat (Bowie’s first-ever web Q&A); disastrous new media adventure: to Paul Schütze, The Wire, September 1995.

372  you sort it out: LA Times, 27 September 1992; make the medium fail: to Robert L. Doerschuk, Keyboard, March 1995; evolving on the cuspSim Earth: to Kevin Kelly, Wired, May 1995; endless puzzles: DB’s London press conference for the Outside tour, 14 November 1995; armed with fodder: Interview, September 1995; it’s a visual society now: to David Lister, The Independent, 24 September 1994; musicians always have to be catching up: McLaren’s “end of the Eighties” essay for the Village Voice, 2 January 1990; periphery of the mainstream: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995; Rudolf Schwarzkogler: (1940-1969). In 1965, he and other Viennese artists—Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Günter Brus—formed the Wiener Aktionsgruppe (‘Vienna Action Group’). The self-castration myth apparently began with a 1972 Robert Hughes article in Time, which described Schwarzkogler as the “Vincent Van Gogh of body art.. [who] amputated his own penis while a photographer recorded the act as an art event.” Needless to say, the castration imagery in Schwarzkogler’s Aktion series was simulated. Further, the model was Heinz Cibulka—they weren’t self-portraits; Nitsch: (1938-). The artist whose work Bowie most drew on for Outside, as the ritual murder of Baby Grace seems influenced by descriptions of Nitsch’s Orgies Mysterien Theater. Nitsch and Bowie met several times, including a 1997 concert in Vienna (“Here was a short, plump, red cheeked, long gray bearded perky Prof…The tiny baby soft hands. Full of crinkly smiles and of sparkling eye he came over as a little like Santa on a night off. Try as I might, I could not combine the beautific (sic) face in front of me with the barely whispered of horrors of his chosen artistic expression. For even today, in this post-Hirstian era, his 1970s’ exploits still leave one’s mind whirling and the blood curdling.. After our show, with band in tow, we all went off to an industrial style club where, my goodness yes, Herman cut-a-rug, jiggling like some frenzied Friar Tuck.” (Bowie web journal, 23 August 1998)); Ron Athey: (1961-) his “crown of thorns” is referenced in the “Hearts Filthy Lesson” video, and a computer-manipulated image of Athey appeared in Bowie’s “Diary of Nathan Adler” article in Q.

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373  O.J. Simpson: Humo, 5 December 1995; role playing is essential: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995; Whole Earth Review: e.g., “A new profession, meme-inspector, comes into being”; characters: descriptions from Eno’s “Notes on the Vernacular Music of the Acrux Region” (an appendix of his 1995 diary) cross-referenced with Trynka’s various interviews in Starman (364-365); all the events of the day: Interview, September 1995; Oriental stuff: Trynka, Starman, 364; cannot even play four bars: Spitz, 359.

374  inhibiting or embarrassing position: to Paul Gorman, Music Week, 26 September 1995; fellow pirates: Interview, September 1995; weren’t any good: Jones, 394; over-coherent: Dominic Wells DB/Eno interview, Q, January 1995; archive of strange sounds: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995.

375  3 March 1994: journal entry was part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; blindingly orgiastic: Ray Gun, October 1995; entirely different spin: to Chris Roberts, Ikon, October 1995; had to do with the art world: to Melinda Newman, Billboard, 19 August 1995; bootlegged: details on the development of Leon, its bootlegging and the assessment of its bootlegger are per Gabrels to CO, August 2018. By the early 2010s, the “I Am With Name” suite was circulating in full, while the other two suites only existed as fragments on various bootlegs. When I began writing blog entries about Leon in January 2013, a mysterious figure (who has never emailed me again, at least via that same address) contacted me and sent me the full three “suites,” with the caveat that I could not share them with anyone, nor post audio excerpts of them on the blog. While this was a bit cheeky for someone sharing pilfered goods, I upheld my end of the deal—the subsequent leaking of the three “full’ suites wasn’t my doing.

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379  incredibly boring: Billboard, 19 August 1995 (“because we did all our recording in Switzerland, it’s about ‘Day One: went skiing, looked at mountain, looked at lake Day Two: bought fromage’”); what the lyric contentafter the fact: Gabrels email to Nicholas Greco, 25 January 2000; cut up the tape: Jones, 397; all based on me: Ray Gun, October 1995; great skeleton…around in 1995: Music Week, 26 August 1995.

380  Adler: another likely reference is to Albert Adler, founder of the individual psychology school; fragmented kind of state: Ray Gun, October 1995.

381  wants to be God: 2003 interview with Koenig; Baby Grace’s voice…that kind of man each time: Humo, 5 December 1995.

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382 Blair Witch Project: “I really wanted to give it a chance but I completely lost interest around fifteen minutes in. Iman was far more objective and felt that without all the hype it would have worked for her a lot better and that there was ‘the kernel of a good idea in there’. Nuts!!” (Bowie web journal, 16 August 1999); Charrington: From Bowie’s interview with George Petros and Steven Blush, Seconds, August/September 1995. S: Do I detect a character from 1984 lurking on your new album? B: Not intentionally. The guy who rents the room… A-ha – Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in 1984. That’s a little bit of him, I thought. It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner. 1984’s dystopian imagery has always played a role in your music. It has, indeed. I think it comes out of my background. For those of us born in South London, you always felt you were in 1984. That’s the kind of gloom and immovable society that a lot of us felt we grew up in.”

383  held back a year: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999; pissed off more people than Tin Machine: Reevz.net, ca. 2003.

384  Nicholas Nickelby: Ray Gun, October 1995; Grand Guignol: Billboard, 19 August 1995.

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385  Small plot of new land: A Thousand Plateaus, 161. The phrase was a potential response to a question posited a page before: “how can we unhook ourselves from the points of subjectification that secure us, nail us down to a dominant reality?” (Chapter title is “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”) Duncan Jones was a philosophy major at college around this time, though ATP‘s absolutely the sort of book Bowie would love in any regard; Thou Swell: by Rodgers and Hart; functional theatricality: Gabrels email to Greco, 19 March 2000.

386  Hearts Filthy Lesson along with the single edit, it has five remixes found on various single issues—most on the UK 12″ (Trent Reznor’s Alternative Mix; Tim Simenon’s mix (called, variously, the Simenon Mix and the Good Karma Mix); and Tony Maserati’s Rubber Mix, Simple Test Mix and Filthy Mix); juxtapositions and fragments…it makes things a lot clearer: Outside promotional video, 1995; more hooklike: Gabrels email to Greco, 23 January 2000.

388  Thru these Architects Eyes   Live: only performed twice in the 1995 tour, at Tacoma and Hollywood dates in October.

389  boys in leather: quoted in Gregory Woods’ Homintern, 158; we, the best: in Johnson’s review of Mein Kampf for the Examiner, quoted by Kazys Varnelis in “Philip Johnson’s Politics and Cynical Survival,” Journal of Architectural Education, November 1994.

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391  Wishful Beginnings its exile (cut from the second European CD issue of the album) was short-lived, as it was restored to the 2003-2004 reissues; Joni Ve Sadd…Macintosh Quadra 650: shown as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; going back to the Romans: Seconds, August/September 1995; Rothko: stomach-churning details on his suicide are in James E.B. Breslin’s biography; many sources inaccurately say that Rothko slashed his wrists.

392 called 1. Outside: BowieNet chat, 13 November 1998.

394 The Motel    could occupy the territory of Bowie’s: Eno diary, 11 April 1995; NME offices: recalled in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man; traitors to themselves: Humo, 5 December 1995.

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395 Outside  outsider art: In early 1972, Cardinal, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury, published a survey of “marginalized” artists that he wanted to title Art Brut, referencing how the painter Jean Dubuffet had classed similar artists. His publisher wanted “something more easy to get on with the English ear”: hence Outsider Art. Reviewing the book, Corinne Robins (“A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NY Times, 8 April 1973) pinpointed the flaws of Cardinal’s approach, that he conflated surreal, obscure artists with those who suffered from schizophrenia, and treated the latter as Noble Madmen. Some claimed that “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, was more pure, spontaneous, and resonant (Dubuffet in 1951: “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”) Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of “outsider” purity became even more alluring. The only remaining real artists were Sunday painters, weird retirees, Jesus enthusiasts, and assorted hermits; Tuchmanhappy looking at them: Parallel Visions, 10; exhilaration watching them work: quoted in Thompson, Hallo Spaceboy, 118.

396  Wild Man Fischer: A Frank Zappa discovery from the late Sixties (how Bowie heard of him). Fischer was a typical “outsider” artist  in that he recorded sporadically, was bipolar and diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later in life was on the street for a time. He died in 2011; no longer felt scrambled: Q, January 1995; Henry Darger: the full title of his opus was The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Its influence on early 21st Century culture is inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover art of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s poem sequence Girls on the Run; strong, muddy, prolix…wish it was shorter: Eno diary, 18 June 1995; Armstrong: while Armstrong is credited on “Thru These Architects Eyes” (an overdub from the West Side sessions in summer 1994), he apparently isn’t heard on his own song, “Outside.”

397 We Prick You    full of tangential ideas: Eno diary, 11 January 1995.

398  something to be desired…lovely melodies in his rhythm lines: Eno diary, 16 January 1995.

399  I’m Deranged  a remixed/edited (2:37) version appeared on the Lost Highway OST, released 18 February 1997 (a longer edit was used for end credits); just after lunch…totally reborn: Ray Gun, October 1995; serious orchestrated guitar stuff: Musician, November 1995; the bit you liked never happens again: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; F minor progression: i-II7-v-III-i (Fm-G7-Cm-A flat-Fm), with the major chords delaying the progress of F minor to its dominant chord, C minor, and its return home again.

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400  really rather disturbed words: Detour, March 1997. Hallo Spaceboy the Pet Shop Boys remix was issued as 1. Outside‘s third single in February 1996 (four other remixes appear on a Virgin promo 12″ and were collected on the 2004 2-CD album reissue).

401 buried in moondust: Gysin, The Process, 35. There’s an unsubstantiated report that “if I die, moondust will cover me” were Gysin’s last words in 1986 (over the years, I’ve grown dubious of anything that’s allegedly a famous person’s last words). Gabrels’ reference to Bowie finding “moondust” in a book of poems, possibly John Giorno, was possibly a misremembering of seeing Bowie reading Gysin; long sustain guitars…middle eastern scale…pretty much forgotten about it: Gabrels’ response to a query on his website, Reevz.net, ca. 2003 (some quoted in Pegg, 103).

402  almost nothing…we had something…Lagos Mack-truck weight: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; follows the chord changes: Reevz.net, ca. 2003; Space Oddity, frankly: London press conference, 14 November 1995.

403 Oxford Town  hunter to my pastoralist: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; kept us in suspense: Eno diary, 19 January 1995; text almost turned into music: Byrne, Stop Making Sense DVD commentary.

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404  No Control  sturdy frame: Musician, November 1995.

405  body of a great song…extended to the future: Eno diary, 20 January 1995; down a chordal slope: Momus on the “No Control” blog entry, 8 April 2013; Jonathan Coulton: in a very minor coincidence, Coulton and I went to high school together—he graduated the year before me.

406  Onion: written by Nathan Rabin, 21 April 1999; vaguely offered financial backing: Eno diary, 19 January 1995; Indonesian pirates…a peculiar piece of work: Ray Gun, March 1997; Saint Petersburg: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he’d moved to Russia because “London is now the hippest city in the world [and] if you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events”; far out…put it on at a party: Music Connection, September 1995; St. Petersburg and wherever I amRipley’s Believe It Or Not…that new tuberculosis: USA Today, 12 March 1997.

407  Salzburg cancelled: in August 1998, Gerard Mortier, the director of the Salzburg Festival, was quoted in the Austrian press that the Bowie/Wilson opera concept was “stagnating” and that he wouldn’t have the Festival finance Bowie’s proposed stage design, describing the opera’s progress as being at an “impasse”; over 24 hours of material: BowieNet web chat, 17 October 1999; pieced together: Eden.vmg chat, 2 February 2000 (I realize I mistakenly called this a BowieNet chat in the text—pedants get a half-point); Afrikaans: this title apparently originated from a fan’s posting on a long-defunct Bowie message board in July 1997; Ebola Jazz: the origin of this 17-track fake setlist was apparently an anonymous email sent to the Teenage Wildlife site in March 1999. You’ll still find the occasional bootleg or torrent listing these names: caveat non-emptor!; falsifying a concert: a March 1994 diary entry displayed in David Bowie Is; never took place: London press conference, 14 November 1995; I think Brian would have the patience: Soma, July 2003.


Chapter Two: Berliners (1977)

October 7, 2018

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Epigraphs Brasch emigrated to West Germany in 1976. These lines are from his “Sleeping Beauty and Pork” (1980): “Abschied von morgen Ankuft gestern/ Das ist der deutsche Traum”; Mann: from 1921, quoted in Gay, 131 (in turn found in Ludwig Marcuse’s Mein Zwanzigstest Jahrhundert, 54); Smith: Hit Parader, April 1978. The rest are self-explanatory, with hope.

66  Turn Blue   Peace, Lacey: Geoff MacCormack, known as “Warren Peace” at the time, was Bowie’s childhood friend, traveling companion, and occasional collaborator (“Rock and Roll With Me”). He drops out of the picture roughly after Station to Station, though he and Bowie remained close until the latter’s death. While Pop once said that MacCormack “had become more Hollywood than was great for [MacCormack and Bowie’s] relationship,” it seems a bit more likely it was the other way around. As for Walter Lacey, the only reference I’ve ever found was of him reportedly performing a spoken-word piece called “Meatpack Man” in 1982. He’s without a doubt the all-time most obscure Bowie co-composer; recorded: as per Trynka’s Bleed, Eduard Meyer’s diary lists Lust for Life sessions on 8-12 and 14 June 1977. As Pop and other musicians recall the album as being cut in one go, in about nine or 10 days, I’ve estimated that Lust for Life was recorded ca. 4-16 June 1977. The sessions could have ended no later than 25 June, when Bowie was in France; Gardiner: spelled “Gardner” on the Lust For Life LP sleeve/label and in copyright filings for “The Passenger” and “Neighborhood Threat” (and he’s listed as “Gardener” on Low, though possibly that was a pun?); first release: another inconclusive date: some sources (e.g., Cann) list 9 September 1977, but Lust was reviewed in the 27 August 1977 issues of Billboard and Cash Box, suggesting a slightly earlier date in the US at least. Given Elvis Presley’s death’s impact on RCA’s LP shipments, Lust possibly didn’t reach some stores until well into September; care not a sot…person again: to Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone, 12 January 1978; eyes turned toward him: Pitt, The Pitt File, 175. Bowie was appearing on Musik Fur Junge Leute, whose usual studio was in Hamburg but the West German government had been pushing to have shows taped in West Berlin “to reduce the sense of abandonment felt by West Berliners,” Pitt wrote; soldiers like film extras…we were home: MacCormack, Station to Station.

67   Isherwood myth: Ash, The File, 36; a year all told: to the Daily Mirror (22 October 1977), Bowie claimed he’d only spent two months in Berlin at that point (a slight understatement, as recording Lust for Life and “Heroes” alone had taken up roughly that time and he’d spent considerable time in Berlin in autumn 1976), and that he’d “drained himself of enthusiasm” for the city, calling it a “ghost town…everyone seems to be leaving”; temporary stop off: Rüther, Heroes, 67; very claustrophobic: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977; island of luxury: Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, 46; total isolation: Heroes, 41; gunners on the Wall: Five Years; 40% of budget: Clay Large, Berlin, 464.

68  particular dilemma: to Angus MacKinnon, NME, 13 September 1980; grumpy, snotty students: Kerrang!, 8 September 2001; little in between: I Want More, 95, 101; sleep it off: 1990 radio interview with Nicky Campbell. “They’d pick me up and take me home, which is nice in a way”; rockism: to Trynka, Bleed, 349; one jump ahead of them: Starman, 271-272.

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69  drug use was unbelievable: to Adrian Deevoy, Q, May 1993; tinker toy: NME, 12 March 1977; no excess of any kind: Stephen Dobson, The Man Who Killed the Hamsters, 52; punk rock: CBC interview, 11 March 1977. Pop said he was impressed by Johnny Rotten (“he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did”); second fiddle to Iggy: Bleed, 222.

71  Some Weird Sin   edits: live, Gardiner typically played a 16-bar solo after the second verse. On the studio cut, it’s cut in half (at the 2:12 mark); angry poem: quoted in Adams, Complete Iggy Pop, 96.

72  Tonight   remake: issued as a single in November 1984, it was a trans-Atlantic stiff (EMI EA 187, stalling out at #53 in both the UK and US). Bowie sang it with Turner on 23 March 1985, in Birmingham, UK, a performance included on Turner’s Live In Europe; barren thing: to Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.

73  Neighborhood Threat    it went totally wrong: to Scott Isler, Musician, August 1987.

74  Oompa-Loompas: Stylus, 12 July 2005.   Lust for Life  issued at last as a UK single in 1996 (it hit #26, Pop’s highest-charting single since “Real Wild Child” a decade earlier)  Call this one Lust for Life: Krautrock: Rebirth of Germany; Morris: Uncut, April 2001; had to follow: Bleed, 226; Burroughs: see “control addicts…were to be seen on every corner of the city hypnotizing chickens,” from The Ticket That Exploded. Pop also borrowed from Naked Lunch (“No one talks, no one reads, no one walks”) for the chorus of “Tonight.”

75  fuck somebody over: Rolling Stone, 5 April 2011; small mountain of cocaine: Bleed, 261.

76  Success  issued as a single in October 1977 c/w “The Passenger” (RCA PB 9160; didn’t chart); damn crooning thing: Bleed, 227. Pop recalled that his strategy was to “wait until [Bowie] walked out of the studio and then I changed everything”; Lonely at the Top: Randy Newman, to Rolling Stone, 15 September 2017: “There was a massive drive at Warner Bros. Records to get Frank a hit. I thought – maybe stupidly – that he would be ready to make fun of that leaning-against-the-lamp-post shit: “Oh, I’m so lonely and miserable and the biggest singer in the world.” I never bought that part of him. I thought he’d appreciate that. I played it for him, at his office on the Warner Bros. lot. His reaction? Nothing. He said, “Next.” I also played “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” He said, “I like that one.” But he couldn’t hide his bitterness at young people’s music”; money in rugs: Viz, 1980.

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77  Passenger  It had the same chord progression as “Neighborhood Threat” (Am-F-C-G); The Lords: the key passage is Morrison’s “Modern life is a journey by car. The Passengers change terribly in their reeking seats, or roam from car to car, subject to unceasing transformation. Inevitable progress is made toward the beginning(there is no difference in terminals), as we slice through cities, whose ripped backsides present a moving picture of windows, signs, streets, buildings.”

78  Fall In Love With Me   Julian Casablancas owes his career to this and a few other Pop vocals on Lust.

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79  Sons of the Silent Age  Used as the basis of the fourth movement of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (“Heroes”), premiered September 1996. Scored for: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 3 percussion (side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, triangle, vibes, tam-tam, castanets, glockenspiel), harp, piano, celesta, strings.   Recorded: I’ve used the recording dates listed on a Hansa telegram sent to Visconti in August 1977, included as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit (these dates were also referenced in the New Career in a New Town box set). Some final overdubs were done at Mountain Studios in August, marking the start of a nearly 20-year relationship between Bowie and that studio; Brel: Bowie was familiar with Scott Walker’s version of “Sons Of” (off Scott 3, 1969) and Elly Stone’s from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, both of which used Mort Shuman’s translation. Stone’s version of “Old Folks” (“the old folks never die/ they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day” and also “you lived too long” (see “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”)) may have been a starting point for Bowie and Visconti’s vocal harmonies; melody: the refrain melody mainly draws from the E-flat scale until, on “all I see,” it flats the seventh chord, turning the scale into either Ab or Eb mixolydian. As Larry Hardesty noted to me, of Eb, D, Db, and C, only Eb is natural in the key of Eb, while Eb and Db are both natural in the key of Ab. Thus when the chromatic sequence finally breaks with a move to Ab, right as the melody appears to have switched to the Ab scale, it makes Ab sound like the home key. But this gets immediately undermined by the move to Bb and Eb— the standard-issue cadence in Eb. The oddball chord progression and the ambiguities in the pitch class of the melody, create a tonal instability until that cadence; major step up: Hardesty: “In What in the World, the verse rocks back and forth between two chords a whole step apart — F and Eb— and then the chorus modulates to G, which is a whole step higher than the top chord of the verse. In Sons of the Silent Age, the verse rocks back and forth between two chords a whole step apart — G and F — and then the chorus modulates to Eb, which is a whole step lower than the bottom chord of the verse. In both cases, the modulation maps out a sequence of three major triads a whole step apart. That’s the same relationship that gives the famous guitar break in “Space Oddity” its extra oomph: C F G A…A Bowie signature trick.”

80   Beauty and the Beast    whole thing evolved: NME, 26 November 1977; weird amp: Sound International, September 1978.

81  best, most positive album…no bad scenes: Juby, In Other Words, 88; he had a life!: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 276; ray of light: Heroes, 121; nook in the unconscious: Uncut, April 2001.

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82  Blackout     Dennis Davis: years later, Eno said in a New Yorker interview, “the question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us? Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure to say they do.” (25 April 2011); most abstract: Sound International, September 1978; jazz metronome: to Richard Buskin, Sound on Sound, October 2004. Visconti: “‘Heroes’ wasn’t played to a click track, but its tempo is virtually the same through the entire six minutes. He’s not only an innovative drummer but a human metronome, and he’s also a jazz guy who never plays the same thing twice”; built on two structures: Mayes, On Tour, 114.

83   bit of a distance: Rock On, 20 October 1977; angst in the air: to Jonathan Mantle, Vogue, September 1978.         Joe the Lion   A pointless remix appeared on the Ryko reissue of “Heroes” in 1991, mostly beefing up the drums; Alice Cooper: Peter Plagens, “He Got Shot For His Art,” New York Times, 2 September 1973.

84  Art doesn’t have a purpose: Donald Carroll, “Chris Burden: Art on the Firing Line,” Coast, August 1974; Carr: On Edge, 16; take dangerous risks…started with the characters…same kind of risks: to Nicky Horne, Capital Radio interview, 13 February 1979; like a Roman arena…a protest against himself: Bleed, 157-158; Matterhorn of cocaine: Times of London, 12 January 2013; working on getting drunk: Backstage Passes, 158; clashing set of chords: Much of the song moves from B major to E major, with F# cropping up for one line. But I think the opening is D-G-D.  There’s also an apparent flaw at 2:38, with the left channel of the stereo mix vanishing for a second.

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86  Heroes   Bowie’s German vocal (“Helden”) became far more well-known among fans in the late Eighties when it was chosen for the Sound + Vision box set over the English version (an odd decision, though Jeff Rougvie has repeatedly said that the set was meant as a Bowie sampler, not a greatest hits compilation). As I first knew “Heroes” in its German form, DB’s wildly over-the-top “ICH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ICH BIN DANN KOE-NIG!” still sounds like the “real” version of that section to me.

87   Reagan was a survivor: Cannon, Governor Reagan’s Rise to Power; failure of nerve: Village Voice, 17 December 1979.

88   motive was guilt…offices were nearby: Rolling Stone, 12 January 1978.

89   beautiful spatial noises: Music Moguls: Melody Makers (BBC), January 2016; both dastardly, like the Velvet Underground: Capital Radio, 13 February 1979; horizontal groove: Uncut, June 2008; shuddering, chattering effect: Sound on Sound, October 2004.

90 four feet away was an A: Mat Snow, Mojo: 60 Years of Bowie, January 2007; dreamy, wailing quality: Sound Opinions, Show 381, 15 March 2013; weedy violin patch: Sound on Sound, October 2004; David lived with it…master level: Roland blog interview, 2014; fairly heavy compression: Sound on Sound, October 2004.

91   Grave for a Dolphin: of course, Bowie went on to marry a Somalian woman. He referenced Denti’s novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001); Antonia Maaß: “No way was it us,” she told Rüther (Heroes, 122-123).

92  swimming with dolphins: David Bowie Blackstar, 22 September 2017 (https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/our-interview-with-clare-shenstone/); we all knew never would come to pass: Uncut, October 1999.

93 continue to live: Finnish television (YLE) interview, 16 January 1996.   Secret Life of Arabia   Billy MacKenzie’s 1982 cover with the BEF is one of few Bowie covers that pretty much blows the original out of the water.

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94  V-2 Schneider  The last movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (the “V-2-Schnei-der” chorus melody, initially played on woodwinds, is shifted to open the piece)  live:  a recording from the Paradiso, Amsterdam, on 6 October 1997 was issued as a b-side of “Pallas Athena”; insider knowledge: the earliest reference I found in the US/UK press was Hütter and Schneider telling Glenn O’Brien these nicknames in a 1977 Interview; neo-Nazi kind of thing: Circus, 27 April 1976. Schneider’s father, architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, served in the German army during the war but wasn’t a Nazi party member. His Fifties work was associated with the “Year Zero” movement of rejecting Nazi-era neo-classicism and championing the modernism of the Bauhaus school; they’re like craftsmen: to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987; lazy analyzes…music was spontaneous for the most part: Uncut, April 2001.

95   no fathers: Movie Maker, 1 December 1995; German entertainment…parents bombed out of their homes: my conflation of two Hütter interviews, with Lester Bangs (1975) and Mark Cooper (1982); Witts: from “Vorsprungdurchtechnik,” Chapter 8 of Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop; we influenced Bowie: Keyboard, October 1991; weeble sounds: to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, July 2002.

96  they have their reasons: to Buckley, Kraftwerk, 88; reassuring…in his work: Soho Weekly News, 29 September 1977; pzzt: Sounds, 20 September 1975; Visconti: from FAQ on former website; wrong way round…impossible to write that: MM, 18 February 1978 (a longer version of the interview appears in Egan, Bowie On Bowie, 95).

97   Abdulmajid   At present, only available on the All Saints compilation. Used as the second movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4—Glass gave it an “Iberian” feel, with an initial rhythmic base of castanets. Visconti: to Pegg, 13 (as with all Pegg references, the most recent 2016 ed.)

98  Sense of Doubt    broadcast: A “video” of sorts, it’s a filmed performance of Bowie miming the piano line, then staring moodily into space, in the empty RCA Studios in Rome, done for an Italian television appearance (Odeon) on 8 October 1977. The song was the third movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4, and among its weakest, with Glass mostly keeping to the original’s melodic confines, losing the strangeness and severity of the “Heroes” recording while adding little else; trying to do the opposite: to Lisa Robinson, Interview, June 1978; organic sound: quoted in Pegg, 237; Eno: liner notes for Music for Airports.

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99  Moss Garden  koto: first brought to Japan in the early Nara Period (8th Century), the modern koto is about 70 inches long and has 13 strings tuned according to the placement of bridges and plucked with three picks, called tsume, worn on the thumb, index and middle finger. Bowie’s koto was much smaller, not much longer than a foot (likely the same one used on “Brilliant Adventure” 20 years later): it was included in the David Bowie Is exhibit. dog’s ears: multiple tests conducted with D. Lucy O’Leary, Easthampton, 2011-2018.

100   Neukoln  Used as the fifth movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4, with the lead saxophone lines in part taken up by strings. Also the neighborhood of Christiane F. Bowie’s misspelling was…maybe? him punning on the band Neu! and the city of Köln but it was more likely a mistake; good relationship…it’s not a good one…thick wedge of sound…humorous aspect: to Steve Weitzman, Musician, May 1983. Bowie described his “Turkish modal” scale as having “whole notes where one could take a half note,” suggesting possibly the Phrygian dominant scale; critics: a recent example, far from unique: “In Neukoln, Bowie looked to embody the culture clash of displaced immigrant communities in mid-‘70s Berlin against the cold war backdrop,” All About Jazz, 24 November 2014.


Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

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Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

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The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

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Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.


Reissues: Golden Years

April 11, 2016

As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).

Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.

Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!

Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.

First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.

The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).

Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”

Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”

Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”

The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).

Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.

Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.


Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

April 1, 2016

Bowiegnome

Fitting for April Fool’s Day, it’s the one of the most knocked-about and belittled songs in the Bowie canon. But I stand by what I wrote in 2009, and the book version has even more love for the song. Below is a mingle of the two versions:

The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome and, a bit later, the gnome’s brother. It has sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie and engineer Gus Dudgeon. For the refrains, Bowie and the gnomes duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

During a state visit to Washington, DC in 1994, Boris Yeltsin was found dead drunk late one night, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear, trying to hail a cab because he wanted to get a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent in Bowie’s life. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on YouTube.

At the apex of Bowie’s global fame in 1984, Mick Farren (who’d known Bowie in the Sixties) wrote that “whenever [Bowie] comes under discussion and the folks around the bar start to get rapturous, a still, small voice pipes up in the back of my mind to remind me: This is the man who recorded ‘The Laughing Gnome.’” When Bowie asked fans to vote for which songs he’d perform on his “greatest hits” tour of 1990, the NME launched a write-in campaign to humiliate him by making him sing “Laughing Gnome” on stage.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. After “Space Oddity,” it was Bowie’s best single of the Sixties.

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. It was Bowie’s best Mod soul single: its propulsive 4/4 slammed home by drums, bass, harpsichord and guitar all locked in, the guitar shifting from topping the bassline to biting down hard on each beat. (It was the first of many Bowie attempts to match the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”) Even the gnome voices were basically drum fills. His melody, reminiscent of “The Tennessee Waltz,” was a rhythm guitar line in a vocal. Bowie started each verse with short upward moves (“I was walk-ing, down the high street”), took a long stride down an octave (“heard-foot-steps-be-hind-me”) echoed by a closing set of short, descending lines (“scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way”). The refrains were a four-part harmony: soaring oboe, playing whole or half notes; huffing bassoon happy to act the clown; Bowie’s lead vocal; the gnome chorus.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired.

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your hair cut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus for making an LSE joke about Mick Jagger.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, in the early 2000s, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. The son of a half-century’s worth of British novelty records, from Charles Penrose’s “laughing” discs in the Twenties to Anthony Newley’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “That Noise,” “Laughing Gnome” suited the frothy mood of its time, preceding Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” by a few months. Syd Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers a general benediction, honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying”:

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. The chromatic three-octave-descending oboe/bassoon riff would be a through-line in Bowie’s songs, heard in everything from “Fame,” “Speed of Life” and “Fall in Love With Me” to “Scream Like a Baby” and “Real Cool World.” And the varisped gnome voices returned as ghouls in “After All,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and Bowie’s cover of “See Emily Play,” among others.

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”) For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent weeks coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds, cutting multiple versions of the track (the musician Mike Scott said he once slowed down the track enough to hear that Dudgeon’s doing most of the gnome voices). Bowie and Dudgeon even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” Bowie recalled in 1993.

The single’s failure to chart and some critical pasting pushed Bowie towards a darker path: soon enough came Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. This would become his regular maneuver. Whenever he did something too silly (say, Labyrinth or the Glass Spider Tour) he’d make amends by dressing as a “serious” artiste for a time. While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the “Gnome” went missing for much of the Seventies, Bowie kept quietly drawing from its stores.

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out. But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knew the track was one of the finest things he ever did.

Recorded 26 January, 7 & 10 February and 8 March 1967 and released on 14 April 1967 as Deram DM 123. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. The Gnome will rise again, one day.

See also: “Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.