The Width of a Circle

January 3, 2010

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.

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Poll, Day 2: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 100-51

December 16, 2015

dbnew

“I’d better be impressed,” the taciturn man says as he turns on his laptop. So, here we go.

The issue with the lower stretches of the top 100 songs is, as you’ll soon see, that there are lots of tied songs. This isn’t often the case above the 50-song barrier. But get ready. If one of your picks is in a tie, well, you can say it’s the best of the bunch and no one can contradict you.

Let’s begin at Haddon Hall, 1971:

David Bowie in a dress, 1971 (3)

TIE: 100-99. Kooks. (30 points/votes).

Soul Love (30 points/votes).

98. Fascination (31 points, 27 votes, 1 #1 vote). Go Luther!

97. Watch That Man (32 points/votes).

96. Up the Hill Backwards (34 points/votes).

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.
..

bluejean

Hey, it’s a TIE 95-94.

Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (35 points/votes).

Blue Jean (35 points, 31 votes, 1 #1 vote). A strategic #1 vote by a certain music writer.

Bowie_Stardust_03

If you want it, boys, it’s a THREE-WAY TIE, 93-91.

Hang Onto Yourself (36 points/votes (2 for live 1972 recordings, 1 for Stage)).

I’m Deranged (36 points/votes, 1 for Lost Highway edit).

New Killer Star (36 points, 32 votes, 1 #1 vote).

DavidBowieLS03

Yeah, well now it’s a FOUR-WAY TIE, 90-87.

Love Is Lost. (37 points/votes, 7 for the James Murphy remix).

Slow Burn (37 points/votes).

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote). Toll the bell.

V-2 Schneider (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote).  “YES OKAY I PUT V2 SCHNEIDER AT NUMBER ONE OKAY WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME” email from its #1 voter.

37 Bowie a

What’s that? You say you want another FOUR-WAY TIE? 86-83.

Conversation Piece (38 points/votes, 7 specified the Toy version, 2 the original). One of the most surprising and loveliest of placings in the top 100. Well done, everyone: well done.

I’m Afraid of Americans (38 points/votes, 1 specified the Earthling version, 1 the NIN remix).

The Next Day (38 points, 34 votes, 1 #1 vote). Not quite dying indeed!

and another fun surprise:

Alternative Candidate (Candidate Demo), (38 points, 30 votes, 2 (!) #1 votes).

d98508e5

Ok, a break from the ties for a bit.

82. Cracked Actor (39 points/votes).

81. Heathen (the Rays) (42 points/votes). Bit of a surprise placement? More support than I expected.

80. China Girl (43 points, 39 votes, 1 #1 vote; 1 vote specified Iggy’s version, 1 Bowie’s).

79. Thru These Architects’ Eyes (44 points, 40 votes, 1 #1 vote).

78. Cat People (45 points/votes, 2 specified the Let’s Dance remake).

77. Diamond Dogs (46 points/votes).

76. DJ (48 points/votes).

75. Sunday (49 points/votes, 1 specified the Moby remix).

blackstar

and presenting, the rookie of the year:

74. Blackstar (50 points/votes). For a song that debuted midway through this poll, this is a pretty damn impressive showing. The big question: had it come out a month earlier, how high would it have been?

dbb

Now the hitters get heavier:

73. All the Madmen (51 points/votes).

72. Red Sails (52 points, 40 votes, 3 #1 votes).

71. Hallo Spaceboy (53 points/votes, 3 specified the Pet Shop Boys remix, 2 specified “NOT the Pet Shop Boys remix”).

Well, it’s been so long, time for a THREE-WAY TIE: 70-68.

Sons of the Silent Age (54 points/votes).

Jean Genie (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

We Are the Dead (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

David-Bowie-960x534

another high-speed TIE for 67-66.

Jump They Say (55 points/votes, 1 for “rock” mix).

Speed of Life (55 points, 51 votes, 1 #1 vote).

dbronno

and a hard rocking glam TIE for 65-64.

John, I’m Only Dancing (56 points, 52 votes, 1 #1 vote).

The Width of a Circle (56 points, 48 votes, 2 #1 votes).

tumblr_nitdvkxBMb1u49wbmo1_500

63. The Secret Life of Arabia (57 points, 53 votes, 1 #1 vote).  At one point, early on in the tabulations, this was in the top 30 songs, votes-wise. I knew that streak couldn’t last, but hey, I had no idea there was so much love for this one.

62. A New Career In a New Town (58 points/votes).

bowie-mercury

And a titan-clashing TIE, 61-60.

Under Pressure (60 points/votes, 1 specified the Dorsey-sung Reality Tour version).

The Motel (60 points, 48 votes, 3 #1 votes). Lights up, boys.

Bowi

was rooting for this to do a little better than it did, but still..

59. Uncle Floyd/Slip Away (61 points/votes, 4 specified “Uncle Floyd”).

It’s a post-apocalyptic Che Guevara TIE for 58-57.

Panic In Detroit (63 points/votes).

Loving the Alien (63 points, 59 votes, 1 #1 vote; 2 votes specified early 2000s live versions, 1 vote specified the full version on Tonight).

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Now the “too low!” yells from the crowd grow in number and fervor:

56. Lady Stardust (64 points, 52 votes, 3 #1 votes).

55. All the Young Dudes (66 points, 58 votes, 2 #1 votes; 1 vote specified Bowie live 1973, 2 specified Mott the Hoople, 2 specified Bowie live 2003.)

54. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). (68 points, 64 votes, 1 #1 vote).

53. Blackout. (69 points, 61 votes, 2 #1 votes).

db77

And finally, a tie for the almost-made-it-ins (from the class of 1977), 52 and 51.

Beauty and the Beast (71 points, 67 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Subterraneans. (71 points, 47 votes, 6 #1 votes). Broke my heart: it was so close to the top 50 but couldn’t go the last 100 meters. The last ten votes compiled sealed its fate.

Next: Winners’ Outer Circle: Songs 50-26.


Station To Station

December 23, 2010

Station to Station.
Station to Station (rehearsal, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1978).
Station to Station (’78 live edit, from Christiane F., 1981).
Station to Station (live, 1983).
Station to Station (live, 1990).
Station to Station (live, 2004).

1. One of the many lies we tell children is that there’s no limit to the imagination. Of course there is. Even the most consuming and perceptive of minds reaches its borders and retreats. Expanding the mind is dog’s work, as grueling as it’s often fruitless; few attempt it, fewer succeed in it, and those who do often come out twisted and torn. In 1975, binging on cocaine, living in paranoid isolation and making a rock record, David Bowie succeeded.

Not sleeping for days, unable to turn off his mind, Bowie instead read, book after book: on the occult (Aleister Crowley, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians), on tarot and defensive magic (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense), on the historic/symbolic obsessions of Nazis (Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), on numerology, on the secret history of Christianity, on UFOs, on the Kabbalah, on political conspiracies (it’s unknown whether Bowie picked up The Illuminatus! Trilogy, first published in 1975, but it sure seems like he did). He supplemented his diet with Krautrock records (especially Neu! and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn) and German Expressionist films.

So by the time he wrote “Station to Station,” mainly in the studio, Bowie’s mind was like a swath of exposed film in a camera whose shutter was stuck open. “Station to Station” inventories his obsessions, makes a mandala of his loose thoughts. The lyric often reads like grandiose gibberish and yet it hits upon the sublime. “Station to Station” seems the culmination of Bowie’s musical life; it’s his masterpiece, for better or worse. Bowie’s previous work seems like preludes to it, his subsequent music lives in its shadow.

2.

Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.

Ian MacDonald.

As a child in Bromley, Bowie had wanted to be an American. This was a fairly common aspiration among his generation, but Bowie took it seriously, as he did most things. The first public mention of David Robert Jones is the Bromley Kentish Times of 11 November 1960 (“Limey Kid Loves Yank Football”), in which the 13-year-old Jones is shown introducing American football into his London suburb, equipped with shoulder pads and a helmet that he received from the US Embassy. A few years later, Bowie and his friend George Underwood would walk around Bromley pretending they were Yanks, so as to better pull girls. And the first Bowie singles were fumbling attempts at code cracking—“Liza Jane,” a noisy ghost of an American Civil War-era ballad; “Take My Tip”’s milkbar beatnik vamp; Bowie’s attempts in “I Pity The Fool,” or “And I Say to Myself” to mimic a black American’s singing voice.

Now, in ’75, Bowie was living in America, feted by Americans, a regular guest star on American TV. He wasn’t just living in America: he was in Hollywood, in the westernmost reaches of an ungovernable, adolescent country. To get there, he had left behind seemingly everyone who had helped to form him—his wife, his child, his half-brother Terry, his mother, his old manager Ken Pitt, the mime Lindsay Kemp. His old fellow players: Hutch, Bolan, Ronno, Bolder and Woodmansey. To live in America, even as a guest or an observer, was for Bowie something like becoming an original Christian—divesting yourself of everything you own or love. And he was left with himself.

In the opening lines of “Station to Station,” Bowie paints himself as a Prospero in an exile of his own devising. Here am I,” Bowie sang. Tall in my room overlooking the ocean.” As uncanny, as wonderfully weird, as these first incantatory lines of “Station to Station” are, they ultimately suggest a diminished figure, a man reduced to his shadow. Bowie had once sung about exploring space, transcending time, becoming a rock god: now he’s confined to a room, casting spells that flash back on himself, pacing in his circle.

3.

Oh, Mother Goose,
she’s on the skids.
Shoe ain’t happy,
neither are the kids.

Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”

For much of this time, Bowie was living as a guest in a mansion in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood. The stories of his confinement have piled up over the years, rumors and half-lies and intricate fictions. They make the fleshy center of most Bowie biographies, of course, because it’s the juicy stuff: Bowie was convinced someone was trying to kill him and kept a loaded gun in the house. Bowie saw UFOs daily, often at sunset. A groupie recalled him tracing swastikas on windows. He lit candles, drew pentagrams on the floors. He thought he was being tailed by the CIA, who sent undercover agents into his home in the guise of aspiring scriptwriters. Bowie stored his piss in jars in his refrigerator. He was convinced the Rolling Stones were talking to him via their LP covers. Bowie believed he was in a secret duel with Jimmy Page to become head warlock and chief Aleister Crowley acolyte. He thought he would be named Prime Minister of the UK after some transition to neo-Fascism.

Most of these tales weren’t true, but they could have been. Bowie was living in a fetid pool of rumors, echoes, junkie laments; he was holding court in a circle of vampires. Having staked his lot with the future, Bowie instead wound up shackled by the past, lost in the old heresies, the moonlit religions, tales from the plague years. The Sixties had churned much of this stuff up: it had risen to the surface in the wake of the failed revolutions, had been reborn in airport paperbacks, radio call-in programs, newspaper astrology columns.

So “Station to Station” is filled with the wrack of a dozen religions and cults. Flashing no color—the Golden Dawn Tattva, a meditational system. Does my face show some kind of glowKirlian photography, with which Bowie was enamored, photographing his fingertips before and after using cocaine. The European canon—a play on the Pāli Canon, a set of Theravadan Buddhist scriptures. The stations to stations themselves, both of the Cross and, perhaps, of the train trip Bowie had made across the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1973. Making sure white stains—an Aleister Crowley poem (who also, according to legend, once threw a dart at a pair of lovers). Drink to the men who protect you and I—fascist icons, or the seven world-bringing Archons of the Gnostics, or Buddhist lamas (Bowie reportedly telephoned his old mentor, Chimi Rinpoche (“Silly Boy Blue”) and begged him to come to Los Angeles to rescue him). And the reference to the 10 sephirot of the Kabbalistic tree of life, with Bowie falling from kether, the godhead, to malkuth, the material world, the sphere at the greatest remove from God.*

As such,”Station” is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier “Quicksand,” another inventory of obsessions, another dalliance with Crowley and Nazi imagery. Yet the singer of “Quicksand” seems harrowed, terrified of going mad: the man singing “Station to Station” already is, or welcomes it.

4.

Like over here, it’s bright young Americans, you know, the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo. In England it’s a dirge—the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying.

Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.

The return of the Thin White Duke. Bowie’s agent of liberation from America was a wastrel aristocrat, some collateral descendant of minor royalty, roaming from city to city, leaving behind a string of rent boys and unpaid hotel bills. (A “thin white duke” could also be read as a line of cocaine, but really, about every line in the song could double as a coke metaphor.)

The visual inspiration for Bowie’s Thin White Duke character—emaciated, ghoulish, dapper—seems partly to have been Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret. Most of all, though, the Duke seems like a disco-era Edward VIII, who Bowie mildly resembled. Like Bowie’s Duke, Edward VIII (who became a Duke after his abdication) had an air of shabby gentility, impeccable manners masking an amoral heart, and had the taint of Nazism—here the former king is reviewing SS troopers on a pleasant visit to Germany in 1937.

So Bowie spent some of America’s bicentennial year touring around the country in the guise of some rotten offspring of Junkers and counts, a walking revenge from the Old World. Even if Bowie had intended to curse or mock his adopted country, it hardly mattered, because the music he was performing was so compelling, so merciless in its precision and power. He opened nearly every show with “Station to Station,” making his audiences witnesses to a nightly communal exorcism.

Of course Bowie, like his old costume Ziggy, soon took it too far. When he returned to England in the summer of 1976, he gave interviews intimating that a great fascist power was coming soon to the UK, which he approved of, and called Hitler the first rock star. Rumors spread of Bowie giving a Nazi salute upon his arrival in Victoria Station (unconvincing video here), and biographers later dug up Bowie’s mother’s flirtation with the British Union of Fascists in the ’30s as evidence of original sin.

Bowie was tasting what was already in the air in Europe, a resurgence of interest in fascism and Nazism. The compromises and shames of the war, the allure of fascist imagery (often mixed with sadism), as seen in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, or Cavani’s The Night Porter, or Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, which treated Vichy collaborators with a measure of sympathy, culminating in Pasolini’s repellent fascist nightmare Salò, premiered at the same time Bowie was cutting Station. A year later, some British punks would be wearing swastikas on their clothing as a ready-made outrage.

Still, Bowie’s acts proved too outrageous even for the times (the Rock Against Racism coalition would cite Bowie as a main offender), and he spent the next few decades publicly repenting. Far from having escaped from delusions and bad magic in Los Angeles, Bowie had turned out to be an infected host, bringing his cocaine-fueled necromancy back to Europe.

5.

Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

What was at the root of it all? As MacDonald suggested, since the mid-’60s, Bowie had been moving towards some form of Gnosticism—a belief that we were born elsewhere, in a higher realm, and have fallen into this world, conquered by what a nameless Gnostic prophet termed “love and sleep,” with only a self-elected few aware of the true nature of things. Gnosticism lies behind Bowie’s early Tibetan songs (“Karma Man,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”), his generational changing-of-the-guard songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the Teutonic cod-myths of “The Supermen,” and culminates in the dream journals “Quicksand” and its monolithic successor “Station to Station.”

Yet “Station” is also the end. The iciness of Bowie’s singing in its early sections, the sense of confinement and the joy of an eventual escape, with release only coming from renouncing magic and getting out of town, suggests that the promises of Gnosticism—the belief that somewhere in us is a fragment of the original, true God, that the material world is a prison without a lock—wound up not being enough for Bowie. He had unlocked doors that led to further doors, he translated symbols into further symbols, and he came out of it all as lost as he began. What if there was nothing, after all? What if all there was was the world, its sordid histories, its empty words?

All that remained certain was work. However outlandish his imagination grew, however much he punished his body, Bowie still was able, night after night, to slavishly craft his music. “Station to Station,” a transcription of a man shaking off madness, is also a near-perfect studio recording. Most crack-ups happen off screen, with unusable studio tapes or half-finished manuscripts their only evidence, but Bowie’s was mixed as brightly as an ELO record.

6.

Like a child, playing with sound.

Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.

“Station to Station” opens with a minute of train noises, a juddering and whistling that wends from right to left speaker: Bowie’s tribute to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, which started with a car engine revving to life. It’s an ironic tribute. Bowie’s response to a West German car on the sparkling Autobahn, driving through the Ruhr valley in purring bliss, is the ominous iron sound of the locomotive, which, not so far off in the European past, had meant troop movements and mass deportations. The train intro, later reproduced on stage with synthesizers, was taken from a sound-effects LP, with producer Harry Maslin and Bowie first equalizing the recording, then doctoring it with phasing methods.

As the train fades into the distance, a single note on Earl Slick’s guitar bleeds into feedback. A rhythm assembles in arithmetic: four quiet beats, a metronomic two-note piano pattern (which, eventually bolstered by guitar tracks, underlies much of the opening section), a trio of notes repeated on bass. Carlos Alomar offers minimalist arpeggios, a ghostly organ plays chords, and then, with four kicks of Dennis Davis’ bass drum, the song lurches to life.

Alomar, as he had with most of Station to Station, served as Bowie’s creative interpreter, especially in the opening section, layering in guitars once the rhythm tracks were completed. Earl Slick, called on to provide the guitar feedback that hangs like a metallic cloud over much of the opening, struggled at first. Slick “was trying to hold this note for about two minutes for that opening section,” Alomar later told David Buckley, and kept being defeated by the limits of sound, unable to sustain guitar notes for that long. The solution was, as Alomar recalled, “Plug in another amplifier! Just keep the chain of amplifiers going until the sound just keeps going.” So Slick and Bowie eventually played via a “row of amps chained together,” six in all, each amp with a different effect, with a single microphone to capture the din. For the final mix, Maslin took some of Bowie and Slick’s guitar tracks and merged them together, along with additional Alomar overdubs.

Set in cut time in A minor, the opening section is built on a five-bar repeat (the band, like Bowie, going in a circle): three bars of A minor, centered on the two-note pattern originally played on piano, then a roller-coaster ride over two bars (F to G), capped off each time with an octave leap-and-drop in the bass. A six-bar “thin white duke” section opens and closes the sequence, but otherwise, the entire section is nothing but the repeated five-bar pattern, with Bowie’s vocal sometimes flowing against the song structure (so for instance, “dreams are/wo-ven” bridges over the end of one pattern repeat and the start of the next). Bowie’s vocal is precise down to its basic elements, with Bowie ending verses either harshly (a dental fricative like “mal-kuth“) or with a caress (‘wo-ven, “Ohh-cean”), and often acting out his lines (singing “bending sound” with an extended half note and a fall over four tones).

7.

Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?

After Bowie quietly sings “white stains” and Alomar’s guitar dances for three more bars, the world opens up. A key change and a slamming shift to 4/4 begins the middle section, essentially a 21-bar bridge. In MacDonald’s words, there’s a “drunken grandiloquence” to this part of the song, an audible sense of escape from the bad mojo of Los Angeles. With a romping piano line (the two-note water torture finally over) and Bowie’s soaring, waltzing vocal, almost entirely consisting of triplets (“once-there-were moun-tains-on /mount-ains-and once-there-were/sun-birds-to soar-with-and…”)

After two-bar break (drum fills, a spray of piano notes, a tongue-twister (‘wonder-who-wonder who-wonder when“)), comes the peak of the section and the song, Bowie offering a question, a toast, and a command, each of his lines followed by a rapid chord progression over six beats, from station to station, C/D/E/A/E/F#m, leading to the G chord that starts the next phrase. At the end of this, there’s a seamless move (only a bar of 5/4 lets on that another change is coming) to the final section, which opens with Bowie’s best lines in the song, if not his life:

8.

It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine!
I’m thinking that it must be love.

On stage, Bowie typically hurled out these lines—as a joke, a defiance, a happy mockery of romance. But the way Bowie originally sings them on the record is the first human moment of the song. His voice hiccups on “cocaine” and it croaks out “love,” as if he’s so unaware of the latter that he can’t conceive of how to properly say the word.

And the more resigned the lyric grows—it’s too late for hate, for hope, for anything, really—the more elated the music becomes. Roy Bittan’s piano dances, Dennis Davis and George Murray slam down the foundation, Slick and Alomar drag race. Bowie gets caught up in it—rushing through his lines, savoring the repetitive locomotive sounds of “the European canon is here.” The song ends in a long vamp, a romp; it’s a retreat by a deliriously happy army.

9.

This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.

David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY, 23 March 1976. Rather than with train noises, this version opens with a four-minute-plus Stacy Heydon guitar fusillade, part “Flight of the Bumblebee,” part surf music, part heavy metal, finally brought to a close by the Duke’s belated appearance. The band, mainly the same unit that cut the studio version, aims here for pure power, all subjugation and spectacle. Bowie already delivers the “side effects of the cocaine” line with bravado. The Duke returns in the outro, which becomes the template for every subsequent live version. On the Station to Station reissue.

Tower Theatre, Philadephia, 28-29 May 1978. From a mammoth synth train reproduction to the young Adrian Belew staking his claim as the song’s definitive guitarist to a Bowie vocal that’s all sinew, it’s arguably the song’s finest performance. The band uses the key change as a signal to rocket off: there’s an intense communal joy to this music, and even Bowie gets carried away by it. This is the recording used in the 1981 German film Christiane F., as mimed by Bowie’s then-current band (with G.E. Smith on lead guitar). In the film, the audience seems mainly comprised of kids coming off bad highs; the enigmatic junkie Christiane makes her way to the stage and stares at Bowie as if she’s far older than he is. Later on Stage.

Pacific National Exhibition Colosseum, Vancouver, 11-12 September 1983. By this point, the Thin White Duke, drained of menace, had been incorporated into the menagerie of official Bowie personae, which in the ’80s were a sort of Super Friends contingent Bowie would bring out when given musical cues. This is the least essential version of “Station” by a long shot, with twinkling keyboard fills, a superfluous brass section, a solo by a guitarist who seems an amalgamation of Born In the USA Springsteen and a ’70s Keith Richards with routine medical check-ups, and a Bowie vocal that, while still sturdy, veers into Anthony Newley-isms on certain lines. Later on Serious Moonlight.

Tokyo Dome, 19 May 1990. For the greatest-hits tour, it’s Belew again, now with a decade of prog rock under his belt, so what were once habits are now vices. Somewhat akin to the ’76 version, with an emphasis on brute force. Bowie comes in on rhythm guitar towards the end.

Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY, 4 June 2004. Bowie’s second-to-last (to date) American concert, with Earl Slick back on lead guitar after nearly three decades and the excellent Gail Ann Dorsey enveloping Bowie’s vocals. Though it’s possibly one of the last times Bowie will ever perform “Station,” it’s a youthful-sounding, muscular performance, with no claims made and no debts collected.

10. Sephirah Kether. The Crown, The Summit, 1.

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

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

In February 1976, taking a break from his ongoing tour, Bowie went back to Los Angeles, packed up everything he owned, and shipped it to Switzerland. He was going to live there, partly on advice from his accountants, who wanted him to go into tax exile, and partly because he wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles as humanly possible. On 28 March, he left New York via ocean liner, heading for Italy. He was casting his lot with Europe, burrowing back into history, going back to the weary Old World, rededicating himself to the European canon—he was done with being an American. Of course Bowie would return to the US again, and he’s lived in New York for over a decade now. But whenever he returned it would be on his own terms.

John Lennon had proclaimed the ’60s dream over in 1970, but Bowie had, in his odd way, remained a believer for far longer. Tom Carson wrote, some 20 years ago: That is, [Bowie] took it for granted that the music would always be consequential and associated with radical impulses towards change. Even his most revisionist Seventies work depended for its point and urgency on having those Sixties assumptions constant in the background. It’s hardly unprecedented…for a figure originally perceived as breaking with tradition to be understood in the long run as that tradition’s last upholder—which, in relation to Sixties utopianism, was just what Bowie was.

There’s a real pain, a sense of a grand disillusion, underlying much of “Station to Station,” an abdication in a song, an imaginative disarmament. Retreating to Europe and a hoped-for anonymity, Bowie would spend the next few years breaking apart his music while trying to piece together himself again. He would go on to make some of his finest records, certainly some of his most popular. But “Station to Station” is the terminus, if not of some utopian or Gnostic dream, perhaps at least a belief that such dreams were viable. If you were to draft a map of Bowie’s complete works, “Station to Station,” plotted somewhere near the margins, would be marked: here he went no further.

Recorded October-November 1975.

Ian MacDonald’s 1999 article, “White Lines, Black Magic” originally published in Uncut, is one of the finest pieces written about Bowie in this era, and this essay is in hock to it. Available in the collection The People’s Music. Other sources: Marc Spitz’s Bowie (Spitz uncovered the “Yank Football” article), Hugo Wilcken’s Low, Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” in the March 1976 Circus, David Buckley’s Strange Facscination and liner notes to the reisssued StoS, Tom Carson’s essay on Bowie in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992 edition).

Top to bottom: Bowie in New Mexico, summer 1975 (Geoff MacCormack); the infamous return to Victoria Station, May 1976; Bowie in Cherokee Studios, fall 1975; Bowie drawing the tree of life (first used as back cover of the Ryko StoS reissue) ca. late 1975; newspaper ad for the Isolar tour, 1976. Otherwise, stills from Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, filmed summer 1975, released 1976.

* At the time of its release, I doubt few knew what Bowie was singing about here, though he always accompanied the line on stage with a hand movement sliding from “top” to “bottom.” Robert Matthew-Walker, apparently lacking a lyric sheet, thought Bowie had just made up the words “kettner” and “malkuth.” I originally heard “Melkur,” which is a Doctor Who monster.


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

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

Stage

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

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

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

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

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

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

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

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Script (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon (2)

Emma_Lazarus

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

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

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

emma

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

Script (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newton, Lazarus.

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

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

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

Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (2)

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

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

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

Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

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

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

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

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


‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

February 16, 2017

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‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Bowie home demo, single).
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Blackstar remake).

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A man of property and standing, believing his new wife virtuous, is deceived. She grows sick, though the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine—she just ate some bad melons. Yet the truth’s soon inescapable: she’s pregnant, by another man. Worse, by her brother. I know you have a son, her husband says. O folly! I’m such a fool: you went with that clown.

He’s persuaded to forgive her, but plans revenge. In a season of crime, none need atone. Instead, the brother stabs her to death, skewers his sister’s heart on his dagger, murders her husband, then at last is dispatched by thugs. A cardinal gets the closing lines:

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The last words of John Ford’s 1633 play are its title, and they also title David Bowie’s 2014 single, in which Bowie potted Ford’s revenge tragedy into a film noir setting. Incestuous, doomed Annabella becomes Sue in the weeds.

Wait, no, Bowie’s single is called “Sue.” Turn the disc over. There, the B-side has Ford’s title.

But if “Sue” is “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” under an assumed name, then what’s this song?

WITNESS: FEMALE ASSAILANT HAD ‘MASCULINE’ STRENGTH

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It’s Sunday in the late Seventies. In downtown Santa Cruz, the Pacific Garden Mall, “a playland of urban design,” winds along Pacific Street. A few blocks east is the San Lorenzo River; a half hour’s walk brings you the ocean. A jazz band plays in front of the Cooper House, a buff-brick old grandeur that was born a courthouse and now holds shops, bars, and restaurants. It’s the maypole around which downtown dances, as a Santa Cruz journalist wrote.

The band’s called Warmth, fitting for an outfit that carries shoppers and idlers through the Californian afternoons. The bandleader hops from Wurlitzer to piano to marimba; the tie-dye-clad saxophonist uses his solos to tear off into space, with great skronks, broils, and bleats. They play Cal Tjader, some Cannonball Adderley. As the afternoon ebbs, the tempo picks up. “Feel Like Making Love” and “Mustang Sally,” organ notes bouncing off the Cooper House walls. Couples tipsy from white wine over lunch get up to dance. Just offstage, sitting in a chair, is a boy of 10 or 12, watching his father’s band.

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Donny McCaslin, born in 1966, is the work of postwar American systems: a well-funded public school with a top-notch jazz band; a community college with professional jazz instructors; a municipal infrastructure that supported concerts by Warmth, and a community center to host concerts and seminars. “It was a place and time where all of these elements were together in place and I could just plug myself into them,” McCaslin said recently. Today, many are gone. His high school jazz program “is nowhere near what it was…budget cuts have decimated [it],” though the music program of Cabrillo Community College, where he took courses as a teenager, is somewhat intact. The Cooper House and the original Pacific Garden Mall are not, as they were demolished after a 1989 earthquake.

When McCaslin was 12, he made an “impulsive decision to switch out of a class in junior high into beginner’s orchestra,” mainly because a friend was in the latter. Asked what he wanted to play, McCaslin chose tenor saxophone, in part because he was in awe of Warmth’s bohemian saxophonist, Wesley Braxton (“I remember looking into the bell of his saxophone and there was like a pool of condensation and a cigarette butt floating in it”).

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Throughout his teenage years, McCaslin was steeped in jazz. He was lucky in his teachers: his professional musician father, and his band director, whose friendship with a Duke Ellington trumpeter meant that a student band had a book of Ellington charts. In location, too. Santa Cruz was a stop for jazz musicians heading from LA to San Francisco, so on any given Monday night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he could see the likes of Elvin Jones.

He was a pro by college (Berklee, class of ’88), playing in Gary Burton’s band before graduating. Moving to New York, McCaslin did stints with the Gil Evans Project, Steps Ahead, Danilo Perez, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He found that he thrived in groups. “It would be harder for me to live in a place where I was isolated and alone, and it was up to me in terms of my musical development.”

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A John Coltrane fanatic at Berklee, McCaslin’s core influences would shift to Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. He loved that Rollins once called himself a “blue-collar improviser,” and “the compositional nature of [Shorter’s] improvising.” With Perez, he developed his rhythms (“I grew up when jazz education for sax players was focused on…chord scales and chromatic substitutions, and there wasn’t much emphasis on time and rhythmic variation“). From Schneider, he learned how to deploy soloists, to loosen structure—his solo on her “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” is one of his first definitive moments on record.

McCaslin stands at 6′ 3″, a great presence on stage, at times bowing to the ground as if gravity’s bent on claiming his saxophone, while his lungs seem as large as mainsails. In 2007 Nate Chinen wrote of McCaslin “unfurling intricate lines as if they were streamers, in great gusts of exhalation.” A melodically dedicated improviser, he works in volume and tone, with a taste for long crescendos, slowly-accumulating builds that splinter into rapid-fire sprays of notes.

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His albums mark his progress. Soar (2006) is McCaslin working through immersions in Latin music, under the sway of tango vocalist Roberto Goyeneche (“the way he sings, half of the time he’s talking, and it’s really over the bar line, it’s got this real vibe“). The aptly-named Declaration (2009) was one grand solo after another, like a man wheeling Cadillac models off a factory floor, from the title track through “M” and “Rock Me.”

At the turn of the decade, McCaslin started assembling his current quartet. Perpetual Motion (2010), his first album with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, was also the start of electronica as a compositional influence, at the urging of his producer/mentor David Binney (by 2014, McCaslin was tackling Aphex Twin’s “54 Cymru Beats“). It was also McCaslin looking back to afternoons at the Pacific Garden Mall, cutting jazz fusion pieces like “LZCM” (i.e., “Led Zeppelin Christian McBride”), “Impossible Machine” and “Memphis Redux” (inspired by “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a Warmth favorite).

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By 2012, when Jason Lindner had joined on keyboards, the McCaslin Quartet settled into its current form. With Guiliana, McCaslin had a drummer who could groove but also could replicate the rigor of electronic percussion, from the uncanny precision of his beats to how he varied the pitch of his snare hits via sleight-of-hand like placing a bottom-hat cymbal on the snare head. In Lefebvre, he had a road-seasoned, genial monster of a player who got thunderclaps from his pedals. And Lindner could glide from providing washes of synthesizer to the sudden clarity of a piano passage to a Wurlitzer groove that, again, called back to McCaslin’s father vamping on “Mustang Sally” for mall dancers.

Casting For Gravity was a first statement of purpose. “Says Who” has McCaslin alternating types of solos: melodically expansive ones based off a lopsided theme, minimalist ones in which he keeps to a handful of notes while his rhythm section spins around him like bumper cars. Its lead-off track got its title from Guiliana’s comment that one live performance had been so hot that it felt like “stadium jazz.”

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Instead of Giants Stadium, the McCaslin Quartet had 55 Bar, a former speakeasy that’s been on Christopher Street in New York since the Red Scare. Cecil Taylor would hang out by the ice machine, talking about Coltrane and Martha Graham; Norah Jones was there in her first years, Jaco Pastorius in his last. By the early 2010s, it had become “a clubhouse of sorts for players in McCaslin’s circle.”

On 1 June 2014, the Quartet was booked at the 55. On his web page, Lefebvre noted it as a “gig before we record Donny’s new record.” It wasn’t a flawless performance, as Lefebvre recalled struggling with his pedals at times (“the outlets there are janky“). During a break, a waitress came by to say there was a guy at one table “who looks like an old David Bowie.”

WAR DECLARED: RESERVISTS CALLED TO THE FRONT

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McCaslin, though not his band, knew to expect Bowie in the room. The latter was composing “Sue” with Schneider at the time, and she’d recommended he check out the McCaslin Quartet for a few songs on his next album (soon enough, McCaslin and Guiliana would be in rehearsals for the “Sue” recording). Bowie and McCaslin didn’t meet that night, but a day or so later, Bowie sent him an email.

And the first song Bowie sent McCaslin, not long after they started emailing, was a demo he’d recorded at his apartment, a song inspired by what he’d heard at 55 Bar that night.”I sat there in stunned silence for a while,” McCaslin said, recalling first hearing it. Although Bowie was in the studio in summer 2014 to record full demos with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford and Jack Spann, the B-side of “Sue,” issued that November, was Bowie alone: the same home demo he’d sent McCaslin, full of keyboard presets and crackling with cheap distortion.”The B-side was a demo. It was just kickass,” Visconti said. “His production skills have gone up 5,000%.”

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He’d been recording home demos since his teens. His former manager, Kenneth Pitt, recalled one bedroom studio set-up for which Bowie piled different-sized stacks of books to serve as tom and kick drums. There were a slew of tapes from those years, most of which were done for his publisher (to no surprise, the majority of bootlegged “lost” Bowie compositions hail from this period—the tapes circulated among London song-pluggers).

Bowie’s demos are his shadow songbook. What do they sound like? Are they fresher, wilder, more strange than their finished takes? You could project anything onto them, make them the “real” versions of disappointing album cuts. The early “Scary Monsters” that Bowie made for Iggy Pop in LA, ca. 1975. Whatever the first version of “Bring Me the Disco King” was. His producers were struck by the tapes, from Nile Rodgers (“I said ‘wow, that’s the way ‘Cat People’ goes?'” Rodgers recalled of hearing the original demo) to Hugh Padgham, who described the legendary “soul” demos for Tonight as being livelier and better than some released tracks.

Sometimes he’d dispense with the crutch of pre-recording songs—his late Seventies and mid-Nineties come to mind, when worked without a net in the studio. But by his last years, he’d essentially become a home-studio indie musician—the McCaslin Quartet recalled each demo being a miniature performance, full of surprising sounds, with bass and drumlines intricate enough that the players often based their performances on them. “The demos he sent us were nuts: so off and quirky and awesome,” Lefebvre said.

HEARTBROKEN MAN SAYS MEMBER IN LADYLOVE’S POSSESSION

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Having gone through McCaslin’s catalogue in preparation for working with him (Lefebvre: “usually it’s the other way around—you research the guy who hired you“), Bowie focused on two pieces from Casting For Gravity. One was McCaslin’s take on Boards of Canada‘s “Alpha and Omega,” in which a multi-tracked McCaslin played a looped, phased melodic theme over variations driven by drum and bass. The other was “Praia Grande,” which built to a maximalist McCaslin solo full of great bass note waggles, riding a wave of drums (lots of splash and tom fills), Lindner’s synth and Binney’s vocals.

In the demo of “‘Tis a Pity,” the song’s development is driven by Bowie’s saxophone and piano lines, which pivot off a relatively-unchanging rhythmic base. “Compositionally the bass is more arhythmic and less of a harmonic function,” Lindner said. “It remains pretty much the same through the harmonic changes, with a couple of notes shifting to complement the progression.” (“That’s one where I was using a lot of octave pedal,” Lefebvre added.)

The same was true for the drum pattern. “The groove on the demo was a driving one-bar loop,” Guiliana said. “The challenge was to play this repetitive part but stay in the moment and keep pushing the intensity.” In overdubs, Guiliana played a Roland SPD-SX “full of 808 sounds,” almost all of which were kept in the final mix (e.g. the burst against Bowie’s “’tis my fate” at 3:33).

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Another starting point was likely Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct,” which like “‘Tis a Pity,” begins with a sonic barrage (taken from THX-1138) and whose timbre is similar. It’s possible Bowie was working out how to create a Steve Reich-esque sense of phasing, acceleration and heightening, and as he had the Nineties on his mind (see future entries), “Mr. Self Destruct” soon emerged as a rock-beat-driven template he could use. (A commenter in 2015 suggested yet another possible ancestor: the soundtrack of the 2005 film Lemming, which also has lots of acceleration and odd timings).

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There’s a fundamental instability in “‘Tis a Pity,” which spends much of its span shading between F major and F minor, from its intro and solo sections (Fm-Bb-F) to the coda, where Bowie’s waves of backing vocals shift from singing A-flat to A major notes, in turn coloring the underlying F chord from major to minor and back again.

But the greatest destabilizer is Bowie’s accelerandorallentando saxophone, moving in and out of phase with a plinking keyboard line. The feeling is of a song laboring to assemble itself, with the saxophone sounding like a locomotive slowly taking on steam until, when Bowie starts singing, the saxophone then slows in tempo, as if out of breath, only to build up again. This struggle continues throughout the song—Bowie’s saxophone disregards whatever role was planned for it to move in its own way, often keeping on the same note as if out of spite, taking an occasional cue from the vocal but more a corrosive agent that winds up ruling the track.

THEFT OF PURSE REPORTED, A DEXTEROUS CRIME

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Indulge yet another theory. David Bowie sits down to write a song based on John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore, turns the Annabella character into “Sue,” winds up with a song called “Sue.” But he still likes Ford’s title (even if he keeps putting an “a” before Pity) and wants to use it. Having transferred Ford’s “plot” into “Sue,” he has an empty stage where once there was a play. A scratch-space to populate.

You could say Ford’s lustful and murderous players are still here, hidden behind screens and made absurd. But the second line, ‘hold your mad hands!’ I cried,” in quotations on the lyric sheet, is an apparent reference to Robert Southey’s Sonnet I (1797), which begins a sequence of poems condemning the slave trade, and whose opening lines are:

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This led Nicholas Pegg, in his newest revision, to go off on an interpretative spree that includes Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I won’t spoil it—you should get the book). “‘Tis a Pity” is a hub around which the grandest, most bizarre interpretations can wheel. Like the now-demolished Cooper House in Santa Cruz, it’s a maypole.

There’s also the inevitable biographical reading. Bowie, apparently having suffered multiple heart attacks in the 2000s, faced worse medical news. Hence the references to disease and theft, to the idea that life is no longer skirmishes but has become a final, consuming battle that the singer knows he’ll lose in time.

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And then, Bowie’s only public statement on the song: “If Vorticists wrote Rock Music, it might have sounded like this.” The Vorticists, Britain’s answer group to the Futurists, had been on his mind for a while—they’re creeping around The Next Day and the Vorticist Blast is listed in his Top 100 Books.

Sitting in the crowded 55 Bar that night in New York, watching a jazz band blast away on stage, his brain being its usual warehouse, did Bowie flash on a parallel? The Cave of the Golden Calf, the notorious Vorticist cabaret of the early 1910s, combination gay bar and avant-garde hobnobbing gallery. A low-ceilinged club in the basement of a cloth manufacturer, its walls adorned with Ballet Russe murals and Wyndham Lewis’ stencils.

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Calling up wild mad nights in London in the early 1910s, comparing them with a crowd of polite young jazz enthusiasts gathered that night in New York in the last years of the Obama Administration. The Vorticists had demanded the future, wanted a world of dynamism, machines, color and noise, and they got the war instead, the war that began the summer that the Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt. The war that killed several Vorticists and sent Wyndham Lewis to the Western Front, on patrol for the Royal Artillery, spying on German positions from forward observation posts, calling in artillery strikes.

We say we want the future, but when it comes, it’s always the war.

The Cave of the Golden Calf was located at 9 Heddon Street, London. Its former building is in the background of the cover photo of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, with Bowie posed right up the street.

VOICE URGES CROWD TO RESTRAIN WOMAN, CHAOS ENSUES

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Making a “proper” version of “‘Tis a Pity” for Blackstar was a top order of business—it was one of the first tracks taped for the album, on 5 January 2015. “When we got together that first week, David said he wanted to re-record [it],” McCaslin said. “We were playing hard and going for it. That just happened in like ten minutes. That might’ve been the first take.”

The Blackstar “Pity” opens with two sharp intakes of breath, like a man readying himself to walk up another flight of stairs. Or, to be fair, like someone snorting coke.

The demo vocal is quieter, its laments humbler; it’s a man making strange asides in a corner of the room, trying to find an angle into the song, which is rolling along without any need of him. The Blackstar singer is more gregarious: he has an audience. Man, she punched me like a dude, he begins in a conspiratorial tone, trying to cadge a drink from a stranger in a bar. He rubs his cheek in wincing recollection. My curse, I suppose, in a tootling phrase; his four-note closing emphases—that-was-pa-trol—broken with a piping lift up an octave to a high F on “waaaaar.”

He keeps on, his muddled tale growing murkier (maybe he got that drink), cracking the hard “ks” of “kept my cock” like walnuts, oddly dramatizing her “rattling speed” by slowing his notes down, crowning “whore” by making it his new octave-jump. Each time he repeats the title phrase, he grows more absurd until, in the last go-round, his voice seems to have crawled into his pocket: teeshapeetysheeewarseurhoooor.

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The other great change lies in how the saxophone’s deployed. On the demo, it’s always there in the verses, essentially becoming the lead vocal, the chief color in a whirlwind of noise. On Blackstar, with McCaslin now taking the part and breaking it in two (he did sax overdubs months after the initial take), its use is more precise and dramatic. In the first verse, McCaslin only enters with a slow dancing phrase after “my curse”; in the third, he arrives with some Albert Ayler-esque trumpeting phrases. His multiple sax tracks take on much of the work of the piano on the demo, making an upspeed-downshift duet of stereo-scoped saxophones.

As McCaslin spirals outward into the coda, tearing into notes and discarding them, David Bowie breaks character. A whoo! as if he’s startled by something, then two shouts—goddamn, this is happening—and a last yell like a man coming off a roller-coaster loop. Standing in the studio, facing this miraculous band he’d found seemingly from out of nowhere, stepping back to see what’s in front of him.

It’s the Vorticists’ “separating, ungregarious British grin.” It’s Jacobean incest-murder noir, or God’s judgment on slave traders or just whatever strange jokes floated through his head on the day he sat in his apartment and started taping his demo. A ridiculous bloody history of this broken world is within “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore,” a latter-life masterpiece, with no top and no bottom.

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Recorded: (demo, B-side) ca. June 2014, Bowie’s home studio, Lafayette St., NYC; (album) (backing tracks) 5 January 2015, Magic Shop; (McCaslin overdubs) ca. March-April 2015, Human Worldwide; (vocals) 20, 22 April 2015, Human Worldwide. Released: (demo) 17 November 2014, B-side of “Sue”; (album) 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources: Quotes on Pacific Garden Mall from the Santa Cruz Sentinel: Wallace Bain, 3 Oct 2009 (“urban design”) & Jason Hoppin, 14 Oct 2014 (“maypole”). McCaslin bio: primarily from David Adler, Jazztimes, 13 June 2011, and DM’s interview with Neon Jazz, 12 February 2016. Also Nate Chinen, NYT, 14 June 2007; Jason Crane, All About Jazz, 8 September 2008. Other quotes from Jazztimes (Lindner), Modern Drummer (Guiliana), No Treble, Pedals & Effects (Lefebvre), Mojo (Visconti, McCaslin), Uncut (McCaslin), New Yorker Radio Hour (McCaslin). Insights on composition: Alex Reed; “Crayon to Crayon.” Momus, in 2014, brought up the Cave of the Golden Calf; his album The Ultraconformist claims to have been recorded on wax cylinders at the club in 1910.

Photos/art: Ian McDuffie, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, 2015; panel from Hawkeye No. 9, 2013 (Matt Fraction/David Aja; suggestion of Fraction); Warmth at the Cooper House, ca. 1970s; Santa Cruz Sentinel, 31 March 1989; Nadja van Massow, “Donny McCaslin, Jazz Baltica,” 30 June 2007; McCaslin & band at 55 Bar, 2015; Lydia Wilson as Annabella, ‘Tis Pity.., Barbican, 2012; Wyndham Lewis, Cave of Golden Calf brochure, 1912; mash-up of Cave of Golden Calf, 1912, & 55 Bar, 2015. All text breaks from Blast No. 1 (1914), the 1915 D.C. Heath & Co. edition of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or the NYT, 9 August 1914.

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Heat

October 12, 2016

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Heat.

1. Mirror Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Entrance to the Stage

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

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

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

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

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

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

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John

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The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The First Step Toward Salvation

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Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

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

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

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

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

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

7. The False Account and the True

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial

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

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Grand Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mishima, Runaway Horses.

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

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

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

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

Reissues: Sorrow

July 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

May 10, 2016

One of the more radically transformed entries in the book, with good reason. This was the “cut up” entry of the blog, and it didn’t quite work (well, maybe you thought it did).

I’d planned to do one Diamond Dogs entry in the spirit of 1974: assembling it through Bowie’s favorite method of cutting up lines of verse, jumbling them, selecting the pieces in random order and then pasting together something new from the sequences. Originally it was going to be “We Are the Dead,” but the need for that entry to spell out the George Orwell connections of Diamond Dogs required some coherence and form. In its place: the big triptych of the album.

So I wrote out a “straight” entry on paper and then cut it up, typically in paragraphs but sometimes just sentences. I also cut up quotes that I found in a few books, particularly in Jonathan Raban’s wonderful urban study Soft City and also in a couple of London histories. The Thatcher stuff came from (I believe) Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Other bits came from a never-finished 1974 entry on my old blog, Locust St., and from other things that I’ve since forgotten.

I cut it all up, tossed the pieces of paper in a cap, pulled them out one by one and…it was weirdly coherent. The Bowie stuff was all together, generally in order, and most of the quotes were in one clump in the “middle.” Not cut-up enough! So I did it again, then again. At last it was far more jumbled, which was nice. But then I started tinkering with the sequence—it’s got to make some kinda sense, I thought—and wound up smoothing and rejiggering things until I had the below entry. In retrospect, this was likely how Bowie worked as well.

The book entry is far better, I believe, or at least it’s more expansive, delving into things like the guitar solo, John Rechy’s City of Night (a big influence on the lyric), the draft lyric, more on the 1974 tour and the end of Bowie’s life in the UK, and so forth. But the beast below is the untouched original.

A last note: the source of the photos (some of my favorites in the blog’s history) has vanished due to the death of Picasa, and I can’t locate who “Bruce” was anymore. So the blog at present has become the only place on the web to find Maggie Sollars of Brixton, in 1974. I hope she’s doing well these days.

Originally posted on 23 September 2010, it’s:

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

***
Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

***
During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

***
It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

***
The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

***
It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

***
In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

***
George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

***
There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

***
Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

***
Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

***
Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

***
Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

***
Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

***
Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

***
Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

***
“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

***
James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

***
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

***
Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

***
To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

***
The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

***
Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

***
“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

***
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.


Reissues: Life On Mars?

February 25, 2016

Given Lorde’s tribute to Bowie at the BRIT Awards, it feels like the right time to revive this grand dame.

It was one of the book revisions that took seemingly forever to finish, and then it wound up being not that different from the blog entry. Just a touch more concise, I suppose, and a few new quotes and such. I’ve swapped in the book’s paragraphs on the chords, etc., as the original entry was clunky. If you want to see the warts-and-all version, it’s back here.

Originally posted on 23 March 2010, it’s “Life On Mars?”

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

A sullen teenage girl goes to the movies, gets stood up by her friend and dejectedly takes her seat. She’s the subject of the song, not the typical rock ‘n’ roll object of beauty or lust or distraction. In a few lines, Bowie captures a teenager’s life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness (he starts nearly every line with a conjunction), its uneasy cynicism. The movie screen flickers to life, showers the girl with images. The song becomes the screen, its pre-chorus is an extended trailer—soaring strings, thunderous piano, ascending chords—for the refrain, one of the most shameless, gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio [voice of 2016: a cynic would be partially wrong, as there were further verses written, but Bowie rewrote them at some point before recording]; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

It starts with a cold opening—a single piano note, a rest, two sung notes to kick-start the verse (“It’s a/god-awful”), the latter becoming a rhythmic motif (“But her/friend is…,” “She could/spit”). A harmony vocal appears, a third below Bowie’s lead; Bolder deepens “sunken dream” with a bass fill. By the pre-chorus, a sense of movement has become relentless. All of its players are conscripted: strings and bass slam downbeats; Rick Wakeman’s piano drums out chords; Bowie vaults from a D to a high B-flat (“fo-cus on/SAI-LORS”) as a last flourish. Yet the refrain plays another game of suspense. After his opening gymnastic, Bowie feigns as if he’s losing strength, as he hits the next Bb briefly (“OH man”) and his next leap is a shorter interval, from E to B (“law-man”). It’s all a ruse: his final jump is his grandest—holding a three-bars-long Bb on “MARS!” The whole song is a clockwork. Everything has led up to this glorious indulgence. All that’s left to do is replay the whole sequence and close with fireworks.

There’s a parallel game in the song’s structure. The verses are comfortably in F major, with a C7 chord (“told her to go”) shuttling back home to F (“but her friend”) but at the close, a now-C9 chord jarringly leads to A-flat chords (“lived it ten times”). The pre-chorus becomes a battle for control between waning F major and B-flat, which assures its victory with a triumphant B-flat that opens the refrain as Bowie leaps to sing its root note. Bolder’s bass prepares the ear: in the pre-chorus, his rising chromatic line (inching up from Eb to E, from F to Gb) heralds the transition; in the refrain he tacks things down, keeping to the roots of the newly-established Bb key.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely double-recorder accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse.

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73  and in’76 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and the last tours. It’s been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.


Reissues: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

February 17, 2016

A song with some personal resonance (the first Bowie non-“hit” to really hook me, it was sequenced as the 2nd track on the Sound + Vision set), “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the first Bowie epics: very much of its time but transcendent as well.

The book entry goes deeper into the “feral child” myth and its appeal in the Sixties (including a look at Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron), incorporates new information about the song’s creation (such as Bowie having written the basic storyline as an essay at school and having been inspired by his time with Mary Finnigan’s children in 1969), and wages a long battle against Tony Visconti’s arrangement for the LP version of the song (one of Visconti’s rare lapses of taste, IMO). And it ends with a homage to the song’s magnificent last performance at the last Ziggy Stardust show. Bowie would never return to the song again, and he seemed to know it that night.

Originally posted on 30 November 2009: it’s the Wild Eyed Boy again.

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (1st recording; B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (remake, album version).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (BBC, 1970).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1972).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud/All the Young Dudes (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.