Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

September 18, 2013

wildbills

Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bob Dylan, 1997).
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bowie, 1998).

Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati spent the first weeks of 1998 sifting through and mixing recordings from the Earthling tour, for what Bowie assumed would be his next release: a live CD provisionally (and excitingly) called Live and Well. However, Virgin balked at putting out a live album. Earthling itself hadn’t sold well and its supporting tour had mainly played clubs and small theaters, thus reducing the “audience souvenir” factor that typically drove live album purchases. So Live and Well died. Bowie went off to act in three films in quick succession, Gabrels started planning a solo album, Plati was busy producing Duncan Sheik and Hooverphonic.

During these mixing sessions, the trio also had recorded a few potential bonus tracks, one being a version of “Fun.” The curio was Bowie’s impromptu decision to cover Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a song from Dylan’s just-released Time Out of Mind. Plati, who confirmed that Bowie’s cover hailed from this session and wasn’t an outtake from Hours, saidas far as why it was chosen, hmm…..beats me! I’d hazard a guess that David liked the song, and liked singing it. It was kind of like ‘Planet of Dreams‘, it just sort of popped up from out of nowhere. Which was fine by me!…I was psyched about it because it was a completely live track, and after all the programming we’d been doing it was a nice break in the cycle.”

Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s latest critical rehabilitation, beating out OK Computer in the Pazz & Jop poll of 1997. While similar (in overall tempo and production) to his previous critical rehabilitation, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind was the first collected evidence of Dylan’s “mature” songwriting. Having immersed himself in playing old country and blues songs, Dylan began making magpie collages. He would pilfer and quote from ghosts (he always had, to some extent). His new songs were palimpsests, sewn through with the words of other writers, with Dylan answering their voices, mocking them, shoring up their words with his own. He’d started out as a kid fervently playing these songs; now he broke them up, as if using them for kindling. He became the folk tradition (“the songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs” as he told Newsweek in ’97); he seemed to be walking backwards in time.

“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” which Dylan rewrote repeatedly during the album sessions, was a case in point. In its five verses, Dylan draws from Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory,” “Poor Boy”), Furry Lewis (“Turn Your Money Green“), various trad. folk songs (“Miss Mary Jane,” “Lonesome Valley,” “The Rising Sun Blues”) and for its chorus, he used a variant of a 19th Century hymn that Southern black churches had kept alive until the Thirties: “The Old Ark’s a-Movering” (“she trying to get to heaven ‘fo they close the do.'”). Yet the song hangs together as a single purgatory: a blasted world in which Dylan’s character wanders, from New Orleans to Baltimore, through valleys and across train platforms, subsisting on memories that are becoming a debased currency. He lies on the parlor floor, hoping for sleep, wondering if death will come in its place.

soy-bomb

Maybe Bowie saw in Dylan’s developing late style a means to craft his own: the idea that history is over, or is merely repeating in lesser variations; accepting the past, or at least breaking it up and using it for spare parts; quarrying from memory; disappearing into your old, false selves. In 1971, Bowie had written his “Song For Bob Dylan” in the voice of a cult follower whose master’s gone to ground. In 1997, as he had back in the days of Self Portrait, Dylan had escaped into a songbook. But now he wasn’t in hiding anymore: he was living a public life again, seemingly touring every minor league baseball stadium and county fair that he came across (and his cult had become gentlemen academics).

Bowie’s version of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (which, at least in its circulating edit, cuts Dylan’s second verse and squeezes the fourth and fifth into one incoherent lump) is, essentially, a first draft of what would become Hours. The take begins somber and ashen enough. Yet the circularity of Dylan’s singing on “Tryin'”, conveying a journey undertaken but never in danger of ending, seemed to frustrate Bowie: he needed a narrative.

So in the “people on platforms” verse, Bowie builds to a manic desperation, as if he has to make an eleventh-hour sale or he’ll be sacked by his proprietor. We get a rattled “cha-hay-hay-hain,” a squeaked-out “looose,” the creaking onomatopoeia of “cloowwoose the door,” and a gargle. Having made a hash of Dylan’s last verses, Bowie latches onto a line as if he’d drawn it by lot to torture: “I’ve beeen! to Sugar Town-I shook! the su!gar down!” Dylan sang those words with an earned swagger, like a spendthrift man recalling a spent-out life. Bowie sang them as if he was just passingly familiar with the English language.

Whenever Bowie covered someone, he typically tended to go overboard in various directions (see “God Only Knows“). I once interviewed Tim Curry, who said when playing villains he’d give his directors different wattages for different takes: under the top, over the top, top over the top. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” seems to decide, midway through, to go top over the top. But what really murders the track is its backdrop: the cruddy reduction of Jim Keltner’s drum pattern on the Dylan track; the beyond-cliche blues licks that Gabrels plays; the somnolent keyboard “bed”; harmony vocals as a collective aural NyQuil. Bowie had been tasteless before, sure, but he’d never been so devotedly mediocre.

Recorded Looking Glass Studios?, ca. January-February 1998. Its only semi-official release was on a promo CD that also had the Danny Saber remixes of “Funhouse,” though fans learned of the Dylan cover when a Catalan radio station played the promo (and offered it as a download) in late 1999.

Top: Ted Barron, “Wild Bill’s, Memphis, Tennessee, 1998”; Dylan ambushed at the Grammys by Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy, 25 February 1998.


Heaven’s In Here

April 25, 2012

Heaven’s In Here.
Heaven’s In Here (video).
Heaven’s In Here (fragment, rehearsal, 1989).
Heaven’s In Here (International Rock Awards, 1989).
Heaven’s In Here (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
Heaven’s In Here (live, 1991).

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

Carlos Alomar.

…even Baudelaire’s Voyagers, who set out to look for the unheard-of and were ready to face shipwreck in the attempt, found in the unknown, and in spite of every unforeseen disaster, precisely the same tedium they had left at home. To be on the move, however, is better than nothing…The air creeps into one’s clothes. The ego dilates and contracts like a Portuguese man-of-war. This gentle loosening of the bonds, which replaces the uniform with a pair of pyjamas, is more like an hour’s break in the school timetable than the promise of the great demobilization.

Claudio Magris, Danube.

Bowie flew to Los Angeles in the spring of 1988 to try out a prospective band of studio guns picked by Bon Jovi’s producer, Bruce Fairbairn. These included two members of Bryan Adams’ band, guitarist Keith Scott and drummer Mickey Curry, the bassist Rene Worst and the keyboardist John Webster. Bowie and the group cut a few demos—an early version of “Pretty Pink Rose,” a song Bowie later reworked and gave to Adrian Belew; “Lucille Can’t Dance,” the ur-“Lucy Can’t Dance,” which Bowie would throw away as a bonus track on Black Tie White Noise; and a cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which Mick Ronson would later salvage.* Bowie found the sessions, intended to map out his next EMI album, dull and unrewarding. A few months after he’d burned the Glass Spider, he was falling into the same trap again: a fresh round of recording with top professionals, another glum search for a single, another turn on the treadmill.

So he returned to Switzerland, unearthed Reeves Gabrels. Once Gabrels and Bowie began working on songs in late summer 1988 (they soon discarded the West musical idea in favor of original compositions), Bowie found a producer, Tim Palmer, who had made a name recording the Cult and the Mission. As for the rhythm section, some provisional names included players with art-rock bona fides: Terry Bozzio, a Mothers of Invention veteran who had drummed for the Missing Persons, and an old Brian Eno hand, the bassist Percy Jones. After some consideration, Bowie balked again. He could do a new album of “edgy” rock, a Scary Monsters 2, and vie to outplay Peter Gabriel at the art-pop game, but wasn’t that just another version of the trap?

Bowie went back to his records, listening to Low and “Heroes” for the first time in years. What struck him was their emotional immediacy, their sense of having no mediation between the songs and the listener, of little forethought to the music: the records sounded as though they had been created and recorded in one fluid motion.

Of course that wasn’t true. He’d had top professional musicians working for him then, but they were men of an R&B/funk/jazz background who Bowie challenged by throwing odd, harmonically-vague, fragmented and at times highly personal pieces at them. They responded by translating the pieces into their language and playing them back for him. It was a conversation: neither party had known how it would end. But now Bowie felt that any musician that he chose, when offered an “envelope-pushing” Bowie song, would think, “oh, like “Heroes”” and play in that style. His avant-garde material had become a genre.

The answer came from Iggy Pop in absentia. Bowie listened to Lust for Life and had an inspiration: Hunt and Tony Sales, the Katzenjammer Kids of rhythm sections, whose antics had proved even too much for Iggy at the time (Pop had dismissed them during a 1977 tour, saying “you guys are like heroin.”) The Sales’ had been around the record industry, he knew their brutalist style well enough, but they weren’t “cheque-book musicians,” as Bowie later sniffed about the type of pros Bruce Fairbairn had offered him. Bowie also knew they wouldn’t treat him with any reverence. Subconsciously or no, Bowie was surrounding himself with people—Gabrels, Palmer and the Sales’—who all thought that his Eighties records and tours had been weak.

Tin Machine began in part as Bowie attempt to make an Iggy Pop album without Iggy: Pop is the ghost in the well. What else is the album’s lead-off track, “Heaven’s In Here,” than a six-minute Pop homage, with Bowie singing verses in a Pop-like croon (or summoning Pop’s own influence, Jim Morrison)? He even called back to their old collaboration “Tumble and Twirl” in the last verse.

Bowie had met Tony Sales again in Los Angeles, at a party for the end of the Glass Spider tour. Sales recalled Bowie sitting around looking bored, but he perked up once he saw Tony (the last time they’d met was the US Festival). He started bubbling about the new guitarist he’d found, and soon enough he recruited Tony and his brother into coming out to Switzerland.

Gabrels and Bowie had been working at a clip for about a week at Mountain Studios. They had written “Bus Stop,” the music for “Baby Universal,” and most of “Amazing,” “Baby Can Dance” and “I Can’t Read.” Then the Sales brothers arrived. They were like two sides of a vicious charismatic personality—Hunt, who walked into the studio wearing a “Fuck You I’m From Texas” T-shirt and had a knife tucked into his belt, was a walking piece of chaos, while Tony, who had nearly died in a car accident some years before, was cold order. He had become nearly straight-edge, even once lecturing Bowie about the perils of alcohol when he saw Bowie drinking a glass of wine.

The Sales’ made it clear they weren’t going to be sidemen. They were going to sing, they were going to write songs, and they were going to veto whatever they didn’t like. They began by hazing Gabrels mercilessly, shooting down his solo ideas, until he learned to just ignore them. In an act of blunt symbolism, Hunt set up his massive drum kit on a 20-foot-high riser (he had to use a ladder to reach it) in the studio. He played so loudly, had such prominence in the room, that the guitarists Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong could barely hear themselves play. The Tin Machine mix wound up being drum-conquered.

The Sales’ also pushed for a punishing first-take philosophy, which Bowie found enticing. No overdubs unless necessary for guitar solos, no synths (the old Queen boast), and most of all, no lyric rewrites. The band would go to lunch and return to find that Bowie had written out a complete provisional lyric for whatever song they were working on. But that was as far as he was allowed to go: he was forced to keep to his first instincts. Sometimes this worked out, sometimes it didn’t (see “Crack City”).

Given these strictures, Bowie and the band stuck to music “that didn’t have too much orchestration about it,” as Bowie said in a 1989 interview. “If it got too chordy and arranged, it wouldn’t be anything what we wanted to do. The structure had to be as loose as possible so that we could improvise.” Rather than reworking songs, they just kept cutting more, with as many as 35 to 40 pieces coming out of the sessions. So most of Tin Machine is basic blues-centered rock, with the average song having no more than five chords: it lacked the harmonic ambiguity and structural games of Bowie’s older work. While the record often worked on a song level, with 14 tracks on the CD version, the album was a wearying listen. Few records are as exciting in miniature and as draining as a whole as Tin Machine.

The first track that the band completed, rehearsed and cut in a single day in Montreux, was the bluesy “Heaven’s In Here.”

It opens promisingly: a taste of studio ambiance, a hint of feedback, then a snarling riff (either Bowie or Kevin Armstrong, the ringer brought in to play the rhythm guitar parts that Bowie said he couldn’t do well enough) that’s overshadowed four bars later by the Sales’ bludgeoning entrance, while Gabrels plays a singing lead. Bowie’s first appearance is confident and poised, a sly, mid-register insinuation that’s escorted by Gabrels’ slide playing. Bowie often keeps to the third notes of the chord (so singing a G note (“dream,” “blade,” “stumble”) when the song’s in E), while the chorus finds him channeling Morrison (especially on “rock-et TO Mars“). He seems enlivened by the music (“I’m telling you loud but selling it small“): his lyric, an ode to sexual healing, is plain and artless by Bowie standards, thanks to the first-take rule.

Gabrels’ first solo is nice bit of peacocking offset by Hunt Sales’ blunt snare chastisements, and the “rave up” section after the second chorus, while a bit leaden, gives the track some punch. But after the last chorus, the track extends for another two minutes of soloing. And here we find a core problem with the Tin Machine material: the tortured interplay between Gabrels and Hunt Sales. It’s a pair of rivals trying to outplay each other, criticizing each other, failing to respond to each other’s cues, and sometimes actively working to undermine each other. Gabrels seems lost in his own squall-world while Hunt’s turnaround fills are often club-footed and seem like they’re trying to kill off the song every eight bars. As most of the tracks were cut live in the studio, they lack the nuances that overdubs could’ve provided while Hunt’s elephantine drums serve as a dictatorial presence in the mix.

So the first completed track from Bowie’s attempt at enforced community found him being sidelined in his own song, with one of his better vocals in years overrun by a fight between his shrieking guitarist and his madman drummer. The Tin Machine project began with Bowie under siege, which soon forced him to devise some sallies of his own.

On tour, the band would extend “Heaven” over ten minutes, making it a vehicle for mutual excess. The Oy Vey Baby version features a two-minute-plus Gabrels jackplug feedback solo, during which Hunt Sales seems about to nod off, while Bowie took over stretches by cobbling together bits of songs, everything from Sly Stone’s “You Caught Me Smilin'” to Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” to Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.”

Recorded ca. August 1988, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Released May 1989 on Tin Machine, while an edited version (4:14) was issued as a US-only promo 12″/CD (EMI SPRO 4374). The live version released on the Oy Vey Baby album and video was recorded at NYC’s Academy on 29 November 1991, and the Machine also played “Heaven” for the BBC in 1991.

* I’ll get to these songs when it makes more thematic sense to do so: during the Sound + Vision era and the Black Tie/White Noise era, respectively.

Top to bottom: the various editions of Tin Machine: LP, CD, cassette. [Edit]: the fourth variation, which I neglected to find, was on the CD longbox (see comments).


Poll, Day 4: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 25-1

December 18, 2015

First, an announcement.

I’m happy to say that I’ve signed with Repeater Books for Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Rebel Rebel. Repeater was co-founded by Tariq Goddard, who signed me at Zero for the first book, and I’m very happy to be working with him and the Repeater team. (You can follow Repeater on FB or Twitter.)

The new book will be larger than Rebel Rebel, which is quite a large book. It will start with “Sister Midnight” and will end with whatever songs Bowie’s put out by summer 2017. I hope you enjoy it. And thanks so much to everyone who bought the first book, or is considering buying it.

OK, the last bunch of songs. The big megillahs. The top of the heap. Here goes, with the first book’s namesake, as it turns out:

db

25. Rebel Rebel (105 points, 93 votes, 3 #1 votes, 3 specified the U.S. single because they have good taste).

It’s a fabulous riff. Just fabulous. When I stumbled onto it, it was ‘Oh, thank you!’

Bowie.

David Bowie hopped onto the stage…Right in front of my face, this beautiful, hypnotic, strange man was singing to me…I instinctively knew that what I was experiencing was something religious.

Cherie Currie.

Heaven loves ya, no. 24!

dbboys

24. Boys Keep Swinging (108 points, 104 votes, 1 #1 vote).

I played an over-the-top bass part, in the spirit of The Man Who Sold the World.

Tony Visconti.

Bowie played it for me, and said, ‘This is written for you, in the spirit of you.’ I think he saw me as a naive person who just enjoyed life.

Adrian Belew.

dis

23. Drive-In Saturday (109 points, 101 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 vote specified the 1999 VH1 Storytellers performance).

This takes place probably in the year 2033.

Bowie, debuting “Drive-In Saturday” on stage, 1972.

…the creaking Palais saxophones combining with post-Eno electronic whooshes, the references to Jung, Jagger and (yet to be realised!) Sylvian, Bowie’s sometimes reflective, other times barking vocals – the song is a warning about allowing the past to dominate our future so heavily if we cannot actively use it to get ourselves forward, or indeed back.

Marcello Carlin.

starman

22. Starman (113 points, 101 votes, 3 #1 votes).

After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.

Woody Woodmansey.

In 1972 I’d get girls on the bus saying to me, ‘Eh la, you got a lippy on?’ or ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Until [Bowie] turned up, it was a nightmare. All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking ‘you pillocks.’…With people like me, it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us to walk in a different way, metaphorically…

Ian McCulloch, in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination.

dbb

21. Lady Grinning Soul (115 points, 111 votes, 1 #1 vote.)

How can life become her point of view?

We reach the heights of the top 20, starting with an encounter on the stair:

lulu

20. The Man Who Sold the World (120 points, 116 votes, 1 #1 vote, 1 vote specifying the 1990s remake).

This is a David Boowie song.

Kurt Cobain.

I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for.

Bowie, 1997.

Top of the pops TIE for 19-18, though if “Shane75″‘s ballot had come through (see comments yesterday), he’d have given the vote to push “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” one step ahead of..

david-bowie-mugshot-rochester-ny-01

Stay (123 points, 111 votes, 3 #1 votes).

It started with a groove, and when I came up with the guitar bit at the front I could tell it would be a monster song. The funny thing about it is, I came up with that lick because we were messing around with an older song called ‘John, I’m Only Dancing.’

Earl Slick.

hold on a sec, while time takes a cigarette:

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-makeup

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (123 points, 107 votes, 4 #1 votes, 1 specifying live 1973 versions)

It looked good when he did that whole sort of Messiah thing.

Angela Bowie.

A declaration of the end of the effect of being young.

Bowie.

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17. It’s No Game (Pts. 1 and/or 2) (127 points, 119 votes, 2 #1 votes, 9 specified “Pt. 2,” 20 specified “Pt. 1”)

I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.

Bowie, 1980.

Well, this one had better have been on the list, seeing as how it named the blog. If I’d voted, this would’ve been my #1.

dbqueen

16. Queen Bitch (130 points, 122 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 specifying the “Bowie at the Beeb” performance).

There’s blood and glitter in this song: it’s as good as anything Bowie ever made.

Rebel Rebel.

and to start the top 15, a leap from the 11th floor of some cheap NYC hotel up to the exosphere:

garson

15. Aladdin Sane ( 138 points, 122 votes, 4 #1 votes).

The ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo actually shocked me when I heard it again and I realized… that it was pretty good.

Mike Garson, ca. 2005. (above: transcription of 2:20-2:29 of “Aladdin Sane”).

Bowie has created entire universes in my mind with his words. It’s just that, on one level (to the grammar Nazi English teacher in me, at least), they’re eccentric doggerel: “Passionate bright young things / Takes him away to war (don’t fake it) / Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense!

“They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical. Bowie has also said that he’d be delighted if his work allowed people to find different characters within themselves. In order to do that, you don’t overdetermine things. There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative. This is artistry on a higher level.

Momus.

THE LAST TIE: 14-13, TWO TALES OF ISOLATION

dbodd

Space Oddity (140 points, 136 votes, 1 #1 vote, 2 votes specified the 1979 remake, 2 the Italian version)

It’s not a David Bowie song, it’s “Ernie the Milkman.”

Tony Visconti, recalling his reaction to it in 1969.

This is the great control of Major Tom, so great, that in fact, I don’t know anything.

rough translation of Seu Jorge’s Portuguese lyric in The Life Aquatic.

“And there’s nothing I can do”—this is repeated. Initially, this is just an observation and Ground Control, at this point, is still in control. The repetition comes at a stage when Ground Control is just as helpless as Major Tom.

Nelson Thornes Framework English 2 textbook.

and buckle up, because he’s:

db76

Always Crashing In the Same Car (140 points, 128 votes, 3 #1 votes).

So that initial period in Berlin produced Low, which is ‘isn’t it great to be on your own, let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ’em all.’ The first side of Low was all about me: “Always Crashing In The Same Car” and all that self-pitying crap,

Bowie, 1977.

Roaring out of Berlin and into Philly…

dbcavv

12. Young Americans (141 points, 133 votes, 2 #1 votes).

I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe…Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984… Don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself.

Lester Bangs, 1974.

We come now to a fine example of how the “#1 vote bonus” worked out. The following song would’ve been nowhere near the Top 10 but for the fact that 12 people chose it as their number one. Borne aloft on pure love, this was.

dbauto

11. Teenage Wildlife (149 points, 101 votes, 12 #1 votes).

The lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, 1980.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self.

Bowie, 2008.

and here we go, at the height of heights. Your Top 10 (don’t blame me!)

DB-Terry

10. Bewlay Brothers (150 points, 118 votes, 8 #1 votes, 1 specified the alternate mix).

I was never quite sure what real position Terry [Burns] had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.

Bowie, 2000.

This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

Bowie, 2008.

dd

9. Five Years (155 points, 147 votes, 2 #1 votes).

The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously.

Michael Moorcock, 1972.

Maybe the bleak future Bowie likes to scare his fans with is a metaphor for his own present.

Robert Christgau.

but cheer up! if we’ve only got five years left, at least they’ll be:

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8. Golden Years (169 points, 149 votes, 5 #1 votes).

David goes to the piano and plays, ‘they say the neon lights are bright, on Broadway…come de dum ma baby.’ That’s the kind of vibe he wanted…I play the opening guitar riff and he says, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, like that, do that, do that.'”

Carlos Alomar.

When we came to recording the backing vocals [for “Golden Years”], David lost his voice halfway through. That meant I had to sing the series of impossibly high notes before the chorus, which were difficult enough for David but were absolute murder for me.

Geoff MacCormack.

One last burst of glam majesty:

dbsanta

7. Moonage Daydream (173 points, 153 votes, 5 #1 votes, 1 specified the 1973 concert film version).

BAMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAMMMMMMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder.

Now, the big gap. During the vote tabulation, the remaining songs quickly segregated themselves from the rest of the rabble. But the next song always kept to itself, never threatening the top 5, yet never in danger of being overtaken by any other song. A perfectly isolated entity, and so fitting for the song…

db77

6. Sound and Vision (244 points, 184 votes, 15 #1 votes).

“Low” was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar… that dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, For God’s sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately.

Bowie, 1977.

Bowie adopts a distanced, contemplative attitude. He studies his own depression. Typically, rock music is presented by the frontman — virile, confident, strident, desirable — as Bowie himself was in 1973. In 1977, we find him frail, reticent and seemingly doubting his very self. Not nightclubbing. He is the anti-rockstar, alone in his room, thinking:

Blue, blue, electric blue.
That’s the color of my room, where I will live.

Lloyd Cole.

1971_window_shirt_600h

5. Life on Mars? (312 points, 228 votes, 21 #1 votes, 2 specifying 2000s-era live versions).

“Life on Mars?” remains the decadent aesthete’s first and last question—his whole world’s proof there’s none here.

Greil Marcus.

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.

Bowie, 2008.

Next, did being a suite help inflate its vote total? Probably, but one can’t imagine it without all of its constituent parts..

db74

4. Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise) (323 points, 215 votes, 27 #1 votes, 1 specifying the live 1974 version).

Sounding like a B-movie Scott Walker, Anthony Newley and Mae West, Bowie tour-guides the brothel district of his Armageddon city…Mike Garson’s florid piano qualifies it as one of the few legitimate successors to Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Scott Miller.

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.

George Gissing, The Nether World.

and now….Each of these final songs at some point in the tabulations were leading the pack. Only in the last 50 to 75 votes did a winner clearly emerge. But it was a long, hard battle.

Presenting, your bronze medalist:

ashes-to-ashes

3. Ashes to Ashes (358 points, 238 votes, 30 #1 votes).

It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. That’s the major thing. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen or just say “Oh I was different then.”

Bowie, 1990.

So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C. Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K. Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent.

Tom Ewing.

Bowie may still release more songs. But “Ashes to Ashes” is his last song. It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.

and your runner up…

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2. Station to Station (364 points, 236 votes, 32 #1 votes, 1 for the Stage version).

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.

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.

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.

So you know what’s left. Too obvious? Too popular? Too epic to be denied? Well this is David Bowie’s finest song, if just for one day…

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1.“Heroes” (385 points, 237 votes, 37 #1 votes (the most in the poll), 5 specifying “Helden,” one noting it was for the LP cut, not the single)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

Bowie, 1999.

And that’s it.

Honor roll: Songs that got #1 votes but not enough points to make the Top 100.

Right (29 points); Letter to Hermione (28 points); Untitled No. 1 (28 points); What In the World (24 points); 5:15 The Angels Have Gone (22 points); Time Will Crawl (22 points); Memory of a Free Festival (21 points); Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (20 points); Art Decade (18 points); A Small Plot of Land (18 points); We Prick You (17 points); It’s Gonna Be Me (15 points); Repetition (14 points); See Emily Play (11 points); Glass Spider (8 points); Ian Fish, U.K. Heir (8 points); Tonight (7 points). And When the Boys Come Marching Home, which got only 2 votes, but one was a #1 (6 points).

Thanks to everyone for participating. Album poll results at some point before Xmas.

Top 100 Songs Spotify link.

Complete list of votes.


The Next Day

August 10, 2015

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The Next Day.
The Next Day (video).

Object one: Album cover art (CD: 5″ x 5.5″; LP: 12.5″ x 12.4″). Designer: Jonathan Barnbrook (photo: Masayoshi Sukita). Designed September-December 2012; issued 8 March 2013.

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I thought that some fan made a joke cover,” Tony Visconti recalled his reaction upon first seeing Jonathan Barnbrook’s The Next Day image. He wasn’t alone.

Commissioned by Bowie in September 2012, Barnbrook proposed that the Next Day cover image should be the defaced cover of an earlier Bowie album. “I thought it would be quite a shocking thing to do and also play with this idea of image,” he told the journalist Rob Meyers. He experimented on nearly every Bowie LP cover, with Aladdin Sane a promising candidate. But “subverting [Aladdin] didn’t work because it’s subversive already…if you subvert Aladdin Sane, you’re adding to it, not destroying it.”

In Sukita’s “Heroes” cover photograph, by contrast, “there’s a distance.” The photo is highly stylized (Bowie replicating a hand gesture from a favorite Egon Schiele painting) and completely contained: it’s Bowie as a god in a universe of one.

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Barnbrook first scrawled over the “Heroes” photograph and titles: it looked like a bitter ex-fan had wielded a magic marker (it was the scabrous recycled look of some Fall and Pavement album covers). It didn’t quite work. Then he struck upon having a white square obscure much of the photo. “It had to be something that was in direct contrast to the image underneath but that wasn’t too contrived (we know all design is contrived, that is the essence of the word ‘design’),” Barnbrook wrote in a blog entry in January 2013. “It would have been clearer to many people if we had scribbled all over the cover but that didn’t have the detachment of intent necessary to express the melancholy of the songs on the album.”

Although the album hadn’t been titled when Barnbrook started his work (the code name for the design project was “Table”), The Next Day and the defaced “Heroes” image worked in tandem. “We can be heroes—just for one day,” Bowie had sung. Now his beautiful alien 1977 visage is covered by what looks like a Post-it note. Because it’s the next day, the day after being heroes, back to her being mean and him drinking all the time.

It’s also Bowie’s first album cover not to show his “current” image.* At some point, out of boredom or necessity, the likes of Dylan and Paul McCartney and Neil Young have issued albums whose covers were a painting or a photograph of something other than the aging artist. Not Bowie: his albums are a sequence of magazine covers, his “current” look as important as his current sound. (And recall that “Heroes” had extra impact because it was the first commissioned Bowie cover photo since Young Americans.) The Next Day offers messy shorthand. Bowie isn’t quite “back”: no interviews, no tours, no new cover picture. And rather than claiming he’s offering any new sound, he’s openly scribbling and pasting over his old work.

* Exceptions include Tin Machine II and the original Buddha of Suburbia.

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Object two: Music video (2:58). Dir: Floria Sigismondi. Starring: David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Megan Neal Bodul, Catherine Jolleys, Brigitte Hagerman, Folake Olowofoyeku, Joshua Blake Shiver. Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth. Executive producer: Colleen Haynes (Black Dog Films.) Producers: Jennifer Chavaria, Oualid Mouaness. Released 8 May 2013.

A corrupt priest goes to his favorite bar, populated some possibly depraved Catholic icons, and dances with a woman working there. The music is courtesy of a prophet who’s apparently been out in the desert for a while. The woman develops stigmata, blood sprays everywhere, the prophet’s attacked by false priests and harlots until the deus ex machina ending, complete with heaven-sent white light and the prophet being raptured away.

The reaction was to be expected. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue attacked Bowie, though more for aesthetic incoherence than blasphemy (“it’s a sure bet [Bowie] can’t stop thinking about the Cadillac of all religions, namely Roman Catholicism. There is hope for him yet,” he concluded). A former Archbishop of Canterbury said Bowie didn’t have the guts to make a video that played with Islamic imagery. YouTube briefly deleted the video (though apparently in error, not in response to complaints), which made fans excited for a moment that Bowie was “dangerous” again. A few tabloids got to run some two-page spreads with blood and half-dressed women, which they always like doing.

It does all seem a bit tired: épater le bourgeois catholique is a very Eighties thing, and Madonna had gotten there first. What saves Floria Sigismondi’s video is its cracked sense of humor, its taste for the grotesque and Sigismondi’s eye for a shot: the way Gary Oldman’s priest, with his ducktail haircut, looks like an aged greaser; the way Marion Cotillard seems to be willing herself out of the frame though abstracted bliss.

“‘The Next Day’ is a song about a tyrant, let me leave it at that,” Visconti said in an interview, while in another he described the tyrant as a medieval Englishman [or “Catholic cardinal”] who “was very insignificant. I didn’t even know who Bowie was talking about. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a horrific story.”

A weary sense of obligation led me to spend a couple days trying to track down which “English tyrant” Bowie had read about, but searches for tyrants who were stuffed in hollow trees, or who cavorted with whores, or who were chased through alleys, turned up nothing in particular. Anyway Bowie’s character is far more a general idea of some grasping second-tier Shakespearean villain, a rabble-rousing priest who winds up being killed by his rabble. The video plays with this: all of its medieval Catholic imagery (Joan of Arc is at the bar, as is the eyeless St. Lucy, though the flagellant barback is more a Dan Brown nod than anything else).

It’s all a bit of theater, but the main joke is about Bowie. The sequence of Next Day videos is a storyline. “Where Are We Now” is the returned ‘Bowie’ as a mummified museum exhibit, supervised by the “real” Bowie who keeps off stage. “The Stars Are Out Tonight” is Bowie playing himself as a senior citizen. And “The Next Day” is his big, vulgar Cinescope resurrection, with Bowie howling, jumping around, cursing, performing ‘live’ again. “The normalisation,” as the blogger How Upsetting described it. “Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.”

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Object three: Musical composition/recording (3:27). Composer: D. Bowie. Performers: D. Bowie, vocals, guitar; David Torn: guitar; Gerry Leonard: guitar; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Zachary Alford: drums; Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi, Anja Wood: violins, viola, cello (string arrangement: Bowie, Tony Visconti). Producers: D. Bowie, T. Visconti. Spiritual influences: Mick Ronson, Macbeth. Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 March 2013.

The doctors tell me I shouldn’t be here now. But I don’t go to the doctors for chemotherapy or anything anymore. I just put one foot in front of the other, and the next day is the next day, and you do your best. I’ve still got so much to do.

Mick Ronson, 1993.

You can talk about the drums: Zachary Alford harping on the beat, brooking no distractions, sparing little time for fills, pacing everyone with his hi-hat. Or the guitars: the crunchy off-beat figure that comments throughout the track, and the trebly guitar that comments on its comments, and the spectral guitar that plays a rising E Dorian line to ladder up to the refrains, or all the other dubs happy to make the occasional clatter. Or the other touches, like the barely-audible rising string lines in the refrains.

You can talk about the song, happy to stay in its bright E major (some verses seem to pull off into G major, only to be dragged up or down, depending where they are, back to E), with its chassis a set of fat seventh chords (G7-C7-E7, and so on).

All well and good. But “The Next Day” is Bowie’s vocal and little else. Sequenced as the opening track, it’s Bowie offering a demonstration, in a few minutes, that he’s alive and unwell and full of piss and vinegar. His phrasings are delicious consonant runs (“ignoring the pain of their partic-u-lar dis-ease-es“), hooked on simple dumb rhymes (“yeah” with “yeah,” ending with “yeah”). His words blur into runs of aggressive sound, as if Bowie’s been penned up for a decade and needs to get this stuff out. Can you believe this? Echoing “Breaking Glass,” he kills off a verse by saying: Listen! Or how a stray line catches the ear—listen to the whores, he tells her—but before you process it, here comes another refrain battering at you.

And what a refrain. Bowie, seemingly doubled by a pantheon of himself, hollers down a world that wants him dead (it wants everyone dead, if you think about it). Who knows whether a line from one of Mick Ronson’s last interviews was in his mind as he wrote it, but “The Next Day” winds up being a curse at death from the ranks of the living. Whatever credos Bowie has offered, whatever dreams he’s encouraged, his work boils down to a line he’d sung at age 22, in “Cygnet Committee“: We want to live.

Even if you’re left half-dead, some near-corpse stuffed into a tree by fanatics, you’re not dead yet. So give ’em the finger, if you can. HERE I AM: NOT QUITE DYING. The anti-epitaph. The bitter pleasure derived from living despite God or the fates’ best intentions. The joy of the numbing business of life, all the small routines, all the breaths and footsteps, the eye-blinks and stomach rumbles. The small beauty of just keeping on, however pointless it all may seem. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, a doomed Scot once said. And the NEXT DAY and the NEXT and ANOTHER DAY, offers the man from Bromley, roaring out those last words. One foot in front of the other. Live, live, goddamn you: live.


The Last Tour

March 11, 2015

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some postcards from a very long trip:

Song 2 (Rotterdam, 15 October 2003).
It Can’t Happen Here (Vienna, 29 October 2003).
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (San Jose, 27 January 2004).

“A Reality Tour”—nine months, 22 countries, 59 songs (+ more snippets*) performed, 112 shows—may be Bowie’s last. Even should he play live again, he won’t undertake the relentless global campaign that his 2003-04 tour was. The people of Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong may never see Bowie again and in North America, it’s fair to say Uncasville (CT), the Quad Cities, Manchester (New Hampshire), Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Hershey (PA) have seen their last Bowie concert.

Tour in capsule: The 57-year-old Bowie, playing markets that, in some cases, he’d last visited in the Eighties, embarked on a grueling schedule that, originally planned for seven months, soon grew to span nearly a year. Each night he played at least two hours and up to 35-song sets. There were a few signs of wear—a bout of flu caused Bowie to cancel a run of shows in December 2003, highly unusual for him (Lou Reed once said that “David never seems to exercise, but he never gets sick”) and his voice was frayed in some mid-winter shows. Upon finishing the last US tour leg, he moved directly to a run of European summer festivals in June 2004. In Prague, he appeared to have a heart attack and after getting through one more show in Germany, he had a heart operation and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

He’s never headlined a full concert again. His live appearances dwindled to a handful of guest spots and small sets; after 2007, he was no longer a public performer.

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The future distorts the past. The “Reality” shows now seem hubristic in their energy, pacing and length—why was Bowie pushing himself so much? Take it easy, man! you want to yell at the computer screen when you see a concert clip. But this belies the evidence of the time. Fan reports, newspaper concert reviews, tour diaries of players like Gail Ann Dorsey, video footage of the shows—all document a man seemingly in robust health, in fine voice, eager to play each night.

He said he really was, at last. He’d been wary of singing live since the Sixties. “It was not something I looked forward to very much,” he told the Weekly Dig in late 2003. “I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing—one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist.”

But after Tin Machine and his road-heavy mid-Nineties, he’d developed a taste for the stage. “We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many,” he told an interviewer. “We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn’t been amongst that many bands continually so it was like, ‘Phew, got to measure myself against this every night’. And it was like, ‘You know what, we’re going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age.'”

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Touring as “himself” to say goodbye, if unknowingly, to the world, Bowie quietly solved the problem of how to reconcile his hits (“singalong time,” he called it) with newer, lesser-known material by just putting the songs cheek-by-jowl in a set, sequencing them so that the crowd wouldn’t get restless and he wouldn’t get bored playing too many old chestnuts. “I can’t do a full evening’s worth of those songs [like “Starman”] because I’ll go barmy. You become a karaoke machine,” he said in 2003 (“look mum, I’m a jukebox!” he snarked after singing “Starman” one night). On stage he used the image of travel to describe his sets to crowds—you’ll go down an unfamiliar road for a while, so just enjoy the sights, and soon enough “you’ll recognize a street, then a house.” (“You’ll recognize this house,” he said, introducing “Ashes to Ashes.”)

He didn’t go easy on his audiences: “Heathen (The Rays)” was occasionally a set-closer or encore piece. “Sunday,”The Motel” and “The Loneliest Guy” (the latter a bathroom break for some griping concertgoers) were regulars. Nor were the oldies only his top-charting hits. There was no “Space Oddity” or “Golden Years,” but plenty of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Be My Wife” and a somber “Loving the Alien.” Over the months, Bowie slowly reshaped his sets into being more retrospective—by spring 2004 he was playing only a handful of Reality songs while cycling in “Queen Bitch,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Five Years,” “Quicksand,” “Panic In Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs,” mainly for encores.

Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I’ve done the right thing,” he told a reporter midway through the tour, in February 2004. “I think I’ve chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.” That said, fan recollections of the shows recounted a fairweather portion of audiences growing impatient at times. “Give us some hits, Davy!” one man loudly yelled in Toronto between songs.

An inspiration was Bob Dylan, who in 2003 was well over a decade into his “Never Ending Tour.” Learning that Dylan made his band keep 70 songs in their repertoire, so that if the mood struck him one night he could play “Lenny Bruce,” Bowie pushed his band to learn around 60 songs and he altered set lists regularly to bring in new pieces and shuffle out old ones. At first this churn was trying for the band—Dorsey wrote in her tour journal that after one show in Paris where Bowie swapped in a bunch of under-rehearsed songs, the band “all felt as if we had fumbled through a tough football match we knew we had lost from the beginning.”** But soon they had it tacked down, capable of playing any era that Bowie threw at them.

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In the works since 2001, the tour’s impetus was in great part financial (which, of course, is the impetus behind every rock tour in history). Despite high chart placings in Britain and Europe, Bowie’s later albums had sold relatively modestly and he got scant airplay for his new singles. It didn’t help matters that the music industry was in free-fall, tottering thanks to Napster, plummeting once the iPod hit critical mass in 2004. Making a living by selling albums was for suckers, Bowie said. “I don’t see any hope for the industry at all. We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a source of irrelevance.

So touring was Bowie’s main source of new revenue (at the time, all earnings from much of his back catalog were going to Prudential Insurance, holder of the Bowie Bonds). And his Area 2 festival shows of 2002 had grossed $4.7 million, with attendance down from earlier “mini tours.” Bowie’s people surveyed fans and found them unhappy with the recent shows, which had been built around festivals and sharing the stage with other headliners. There was a hunger for an undiluted Bowie, by a global market. He hadn’t been to Singapore and Hong Kong since 1983, Australia and New Zealand since 1987, Japan since 1996, South America since 1997 (and he never would make it back to South America).

Using goliath Clear Channel Entertainment, Bowie and his advisers drafted a flexible tour schedule—he’d play the arenas he knew could sell out (like Wembley) but he’d also book 2,000-seat theaters in less predictable markets. And he often underestimated demand: he booked the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre for his Chicago stop, but sales were enough to justify playing the Rosemont two more nights. The tour wound up grossing $46 million, even with its premature end.

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I know I’m a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don’t particularly enjoy, being separated from the others. I don’t like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I’ve always liked being part of a band—I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us.

Bowie, Scotland on Sunday, June 2004 (his last newspaper interview to date).

His band was the “Hours” tour rhythm section (Dorsey and Sterling Campbell), old standby Mike Garson, guitarists Gerry Leonard (playing the “Fripp,” “Belew” and “Gabrels” roles) and Earl Slick (playing himself) and the most recent addition, from 2002: Catherine Russell, a utility player who sang, played keyboards, percussion and guitar. They were a no-nonsense crew who’d worked with Bowie, in some cases, over decades. If they lacked in improvisation, mainly keeping to established arrangements, they made up for it in power and precision, aided by a cracking sound mix in which “David’s voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be,” said front-of-the-house engineer Pete Keppler.

The aim was to make the band heard clearly throughout the room, even the largest stadium gigs. So Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda used a JBL VerTec PA system, with 14 cabinets and subwoofers on each side of the stage and Prowda mixing each song live with a 14-track console (“Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes”). Bowie used a vocal effects system that included a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger to alter his voice on a whim. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He’s hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house,” Prowda said.

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Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and scarf, leather boots or Chuck Taylors and a tattered jacket to be discarded after a few songs*** (“it’s a T-shirt and jeans type show, believe me that’s what it is”), Bowie became something of a traveling politician and emcee, pulling the same jokes each night, gurning, pantomiming (doing a runway strut for “Fashion,” Pierrot-isms for “Ashes to Ashes,” drag queen moves for “China Girl”), bantering with the crowd (“how DO you get your hair that color? What product do you use?” to a fan in Copenhagen; calling one guy in Atlanta “fancy pants”), having the crowd sing verses of “All the Young Dudes” and “China Girl.” “Constantly grinning,” Billboard noted of Bowie’s performance in New York. In Berkeley he “pranced theatrically, calling himself the Artful Dodger, imitated Americans and Americans imitating the British,” a reviewer wrote. In Denver, he did a bit of his old Elephant Man performance. He usually opened shows with “[YOUR CITY HERE] you bunch of crazy motherfuckers!”

It was all his “schtick,” as he described it to journalists. “I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don’t want it any other way,” he said. “If there’s a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves….Performing isn’t a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things.” Or as the Kinks once sang, it’s only jukebox music.

This was a return to an old form: the fey, witty folk musician of “Bowie and Hutch,” who’d made his hippie audiences crack up between numbers. Or the would-be cabaret star of 1968, the “all-round entertainer” persona that his old manager Kenneth Pitt had believed was Bowie’s best bet for stardom. Reviving this glad-handing figure for the “A Reality Tour” (the indefinite article, mind) was a theatrical bit, a way for Bowie to serve as stage manager and frontman.

But he also seemed intent on de-mystifying “Bowie” at last. I’ll do songs I like, I’ll play songs you like, let’s have fun. The only stage props were catwalks, video screens and some tree branches suspended in mid-air. Each night of the tour found a magician walking on stage in shirt sleeves, showing you how he made his assistant disappear via a set of mirrors, recalling favorite sleights of hand. And then still making you fall for the trick.

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Then his luck turned.

Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind. At the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, on 18 June, he was struck in the eye by a lollipop, causing him to understandably lose his shit for a moment. Gerry Leonard said a fan had somehow hit a bullseye (the thrower was a mortified thirtysomething who claimed she’d just been waving her hands when someone knocked into her and caused her to project the lollipop). The next festival, in Finland, passed uneventfully in rain. Then came Prague.

He opened with “Life on Mars?” for the first time on the tour, and eight songs in, while singing “Reality,” it was obvious to fans in the front rows that Bowie was in pain, struggling to finish the song. He left the stage, the band keeping going with “New Career In a New Town” and “Be My Wife” (sung by Cat Russell). “‘That’s not supposed to happen,” Leonard recalled thinking. “He was really feeling terrible. it happened right there on the stage: that’s showbiz.” Returning to apologize, Bowie blamed a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He sang “China Girl,” still in noticeable pain, and left the stage again after an aborted “Station to Station.”

It was as if the persona he’d developed for the tour, the music man who gave you a bang for the buck, wouldn’t let him end a set early. So he went back out again to finish “Station” and sing “Modern Love” and “The Man Who Sold the World” while sitting on a stool and clutching his arm. Finally he pulled the plug. Our Czech correspondent, longtime commenter Maj, was there: she told me that the crowd soon grew aware something was wrong: “There might have been a few boos because it got cut short, but I think mostly we were confused & a bit worried.”

While not confirmed, it seems apparent that Bowie had a heart attack that night, possibly while singing. It may not have been the first time, either. Gabrels told Marc Spitz, one of Bowie’s biographers, that “I knew for years that he was having some chest pains, but he swore me to secrecy, and I should have told Iman.”

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If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).

Bowie, Weekly Dig.

There would be one more show.

The annual Hurricane Festival is held on a motorcycle racetrack in Scheeßel, a German village southwest of Hamburg. An unassuming place to close a story that began on Bloomsday, 16 June 1962, with 15-year-old David Jones’ first-ever public gig, playing Shadows covers at the Bromley Tech PTA Fete.

Fans noticed nothing amiss during the set, with Bowie moving around on stage and playing some guitar (he did seem to have a moment of pain during “Ashes to Ashes,” clutching his arm again). As evening drew in, it got colder, the North Sea winds coming across the Lower Saxony plains, and Bowie donned a simple grey sweatshirt. It’s poignant: Bowie finally reduced to the human, looking like a handsome, tired dad at a football game. Or a fishing boat captain weathering a storm (via Chris Barrus).

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“Heroes” (Hurricane Festival).

He closed the set with “Heroes.” Leonard starts with an ascending, choppy figure on guitar, jabbing against a backdrop of Sterling Campbell’s snare and cymbals. Bowie holds back, knotting his fingers below his chin, as if he’s outside looking in, even slightly bemused by his old dramatics (he does a little dolphin dance). Dorsey’s pensive, working down the song. Slick comes in, cool and indifferent, chewing gum. At last, the wailing Fripp riff (courtesy of Leonard’s E-bow) appears and Bowie starts drawing power from somewhere in him, diving into the song, resurfacing, torching through its last verses. And the SHAME spread on the OTHER SIDE!, gesturing off towards a lost Berlin to the east. And NOTHING and NO ONE will HELP us! while Campbell plays hard enough to power a city.

Do they, does he, know it’s the end? But it is the end. An end, at least. The moment has chosen itself. This is the wake for David Bowie. We’ll never see his like again. Nor will he.

UK: The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004 - Day Three

He encored with “Life On Mars?” (opening with it was bad mojo), “Suffragette City” and he closed the show, as he had for almost every other show on the tour, with “Ziggy Stardust.” The next day, at St. Georg Hospital in Hamburg, a surgeon performed an angioplasty to treat a blocked artery in Bowie’s heart, inserting a stent to open up a blood vessel narrowed by plaque.

Bowie was in hospital for over a week. One by one, his appearances at the remaining June festivals and the eleven July festival dates were cancelled. Scotland’s T in the Park, where Bowie had hoped to meet one of his new favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand. The Xacobeo Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where he would have shared a bill with Iggy Pop again.

He gave a public statement, said he was irked that the tour had to end this way but that he was feeling better and hoped to “get back to work” within a month. It would be a touch longer than that.

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Following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version was released on CD in 2010).

Of immense help to this entry was the site Bowie Wonderworld, which provided a day-by-day account of the tour while it happened, compiling set lists and fan testimonies.

* No clips on YT, but Bowie also sang bits of songs like “Puppet On a String,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Here Comes the Sun” at other dates.

** Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004.

*** In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie showed up in a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom.

Photos: a curtain call (unsure from which show); Melbourne, 26 February 2004 (Trevor Wilson); Pittsburgh, 17 May 2004 (Keith Sparbanie); Bowie and Debbie Harry backstage in Manchester, 17 November 2003 (Ian Hodgson); Houston, 24 April 2004 (Mark Jeremy); Kansas City, 10 May 2004 (Deryck Higgins); Indianapolis, 20 May 2004; Isle of Wight Festival, 13 June 2004 (Anthony Abbott); Hurricane Festival; Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1972.


Wood Jackson

July 31, 2014

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Wood Jackson.

[The Legendary Stardust Cowboy] is an outsider artist, he’s playing with a different deck of cards…[and] Daniel Johnston is like a one-man Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking. He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.

Bowie to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, 2002.

I bet you never knew
What I went through
What I had to do
Just to bring you a lonely song

Daniel Johnston, “A Lonely Song.”

In early 1972, as Bowie was finishing Ziggy Stardust, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury named Roger Cardinal published a survey of “marginalized” artists, some of whom were schizophrenic and confined to mental institutions. Cardinal wanted to call his book Art Brut, honoring the term the painter Jean Dubuffet used for such artists, but his publisher blanched, wanting “something more easy to get on with the English ear.” So Cardinal went through hundreds of potential titles (one was “the art of the artless”) until settling on Outsider Art.

Given a name, the genre soon accumulated critics, collectors, exhibitions. But reviewing Cardinal’s book in the New York Times, Corrinne Robins pinpointed flaws of his approach: the conflation of surreal, obscure artists with artists who suffered from schizophrenia; the treatment of these artists as Noble Madmen (with an element of the freakshow to it); the idea of “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, as being more “pure” than the contemporary art scene. As Dubuffet said in 1951, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”

Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of outsider purity further blossomed, even though outsider art itself became more collected and so more valuable. It could seem as if the only remaining uncorrupted artists were Sunday painters, odd grandmothers, troubled children, Jesus enthusiasts, recluses and hermits, few of whom were recognized in their lifetime. And at its best, outsider art truly was visionary and astonishing: James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a new Ark of the Covenant that Hampton built in a rented garage (see below), or Henry Darger‘s 15,145-page illustrated epic The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.*

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I think David thought that he was more practical and that they were loonier artists in the real sense of artists as madmen. He felt guilty. Because David was never a madman [and] how could you be a really good artist without being a madman? And now he had two of the maddest madmen in the world, one on each arm.

Danny Fields, on Bowie’s recruitment of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in 1971.

Bowie had become taken with “outsider” painters while working up Leon/Outside in the mid-Nineties (visiting the Gugging Clinic’s artist wing with Eno), but his affinities for musical outsiders went much further back. As a teenager, he sought out the professional or actual deranged, in part inspired by a favorite book of his adolescence, Frank Edwards’ Strange People, a chronicle of various real or fictional persons who had ESP or third eyes or who’d been struck by lightning and now could talk to ghosts.

His love of oddballs like Biff Rose and Ken Nordine, and of the “feral” Iggy Pop, stemmed from this. He savored performers who lived in their own bright, strange worlds, whose moves didn’t seem calculated, whereas his entire career had been nothing but calculation. His discovery of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was another glorious find (and of course Ziggy Stardust was the marriage of Iggy and “The Ledge”). Bowie was fascinated by the singer. Was “The Ledge” a put-on, or was he actually insane? Did he really think he could sing? Was he a genius or some talentless clown? The Cowboy’s appearance on Laugh-In offers the 1968 equivalent of a crowd baiting a medieval fool. (See next entry.)

Punk and indie rock purists (I’ve been and known some in my time) followed a similar route. The more obscure and penniless the band, the more mentally disturbed the singer, the better. It became a game of oneupmanship: who can find the biggest unknown weirdo? When I visited an old high-school friend in Chicago in 1995, he pulled out a cassette from “this unbelievable fucked-up amazing homeless dude” and played me Wesley Willis. Every song seemed to have the same refrain: Kurt-Co-bain, Kurt Co-bain; Re-tard bus, re-tard bus. “It’s amazing, amazing,” he said, laughing a bit too hard. Something felt off about it all—sitting in his brick-walled loft apartment in Wicker Park (we were far away from the old punk days by now), listening to and laughing at a man who sounded mentally disturbed.

The tunes they call creative when they’re running out of names…

kurt-cobain-hi-how-are-you-alien-tshirt

“Wood Jackson,” though Bowie didn’t quite admit it to Paul Du Noyer, was his tribute to the musician Daniel Johnston. (The name possibly came from an SF pulp writer; another Nicholas Pegg suggestion, a reoccurring private eye character of the mystery writer M. Scott Michel (“Wood Jaxon”), seems less likely, though as it is Bowie, you can’t write anything off).

Born in 1961, Johnston kicked around the country and wound up in Austin, Texas, where he worked at McDonald’s and was a musician who handed out demo cassettes; sometimes, as Bowie mentioned, he bartered with his tapes for comics. Taken up by Austinites, who have a studied taste for the eccentric, Johnston appeared in a few local concert films and was recruited by the New York producer/musician Kramer, with whom he recorded his first professional record, 1990. His reputation was made on his self-recorded cassettes of the Eighties, though, particularly Hi, How Are You, whose cover Kurt Cobain often sported as a t-shirt.

Johnston suffered from manic depression and suffered schizophrenic episodes. Convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, he nearly killed himself and his father in 1990 by yanking the keys from the ignition of a two-seater plane, forcing his father to land the stalled plane in a forest. Committed to a mental institution after causing an old woman to leap from a two-story window (he was trying to exorcise demons from her), Johnston also rejected a deal by Elektra Records (the label of Metallica, whose music he considered Satanic) to keep issuing his own tapes.

These stories gilded his legend. “When a child hits a piano, he makes untainted music, and that’s there in Daniel,” Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce once said. This “untainted” art ideal went back to the counterculture and far beyond—the idea of the child’s nascent creativity as a pure state, untouched by ambition or money or labels or journalists. The child may not know how to draw a straight line, but what matter? A bourgeois sniffing in a gallery that a child could draw that! was a badge of honor for modern painters.**

Everything about Johnston—his wavering, sometimes-tuneless voice; his lack of interest in production “values”; his vivid imaginative world (which resembled Henry Darger’s with its battles of light and dark by cartoon avatars); his artless, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“hearts upon his sleeve and his blade,” as Bowie sang)—was a rebuke to the singer who takes two weeks to cut a lead vocal, the guitarist who’s deliberately referencing John Fahey in a riff, the lyricist who makes Sartre references or spins intricate rhyme schemes. He was an artist’s “anti-artist.”

As Sean O’Hagan wrote, this all removed Johnston’s agency, ignored his intelligence and his own self-awareness, to make of him a sort of Holy Fool for indie music. To wax how “untainted” Johnston’s music is, to rack up the stories of his breakdowns and institutionalizations as if they were batting statistics, is to diminish Johnston as a human being, making him some primitivist art project for your secret benefit. You hear something in Johnston—a deep privacy, an inner richness that dwarfs your own—and you eagerly pass him on to others, and soon it’s easy to regard him as an exotic object; you become a collector, a Victorian slum-tourist, despite your best intentions. But Johnston was aware of the game. Listening to Johnston’s songs, you can hear cynicism and sadness, a weariness at life and the role he’s been assigned in it.

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Released as a B-side but recorded in the Heathen sessions, Bowie’s “Wood Jackson” had ties to “Uncle Floyd,” another song about an obscure “savant” figure who never quite made prime time. If “Wood Jackson” was Bowie’s interpretation of a Johnston song, rather than cutting it on four-track or a boombox cassette, he made his track as spacious as a three-story house. It was as though he was making the song that Johnston was hearing in his head.

Bowie also couldn’t resist playing on his own history, with references to “The Bewlay Brothers” (“to tayke away“) and “All the Madmen” (see Tony Visconti’s recorder accompaniment). It’s a man going back over old ground, looking for landmarks. “Bewlay” and “Madmen” were songs about his lost half-brother, his odes to madness, his pledges of allegiance to the raving men who lived in a way that he couldn’t. As with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, all Bowie could do was tip his hat to Johnston and use him as the meat of a song.

It opens with Jordan Rudess on Hammond organ, a grand version of the toy organ Johnston would use. A Matt Chamberlain drum loop, Visconti’s bass and David Torn’s sliding, spectral lead guitar are other main players. Bowie’s Wood Jackson is both Christlike (taking beatings, being threatened by mobs) and Satanic, giving away his cassettes in exchange for souls. Such a shay-hay-hayme, Bowie sings. Jackson just wants to play: he just wants to be heard, not pitied or honored.

Back when Heathen seemed like one of Bowie’s last records, a track like “Wood Jackson” had finality—it was the last word on old obsessions: the raving men, the mad saints, those who’d burned more brightly than him. And it was a confession of sorts: he’d used these sad, lonely men for his own ends, he’d tasted their madness and their eccentricities, and had stolen from them happily. Now he was saying goodbye, shuffling off, wishing them well.

One of his saddest and loveliest B-sides, with its autumnal vocal melody, its jostling rhythms (see how the shaker and congas play off each other, or how the late-arriving acoustic guitar serves as another percussion line) and its gorgeous tapestry of organ, guitar and backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti), “Wood Jackson” still seems one of Bowie’s last chapters, regardless of where it now falls in his work.

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Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a CD bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single.

* The influence of Darger on early 21st Century pop culture is near-inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run to a photo spread in Rookie and so on.

** I have a London friend whose mother was rather set in her ways. He took her once to the Tate Gallery and she spent the entire trip tromping from painting to painting, each time saying loudly, “Well, I could’ve done that!” After a time he started mumbling “but you didn’t, did you” under his breath. “Never take your mother to an art gallery,” he said afterward.

Sources, quotes: Robins, “A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NYT, 8 April 1973; Willem Volkersz, “Roger Cardinal on Outsider Art,” Raw Vision No. 22; Fields quote from Marc Spitz’s Bowie; O’Hagan, “At War With His Demons…and Metallica,” Observer, 1 April 2006.

Top: Darger, “GIGANTIC ROVERINE WITH YOUNG ALL POISONOUS ALL ISLANDS OF UNIVERSAN SEAS AND OCEANS. ALSO IN CALVERINA ANGELINIA AND ABBIEANNA,”; Hampton’s Throne; Kurt Cobain sporting Daniel Johnston t-shirt, ca. 1992; more Darger; Simon Sparrow (b. West Africa, c. 1925; d. USA, 2000), Assemblage with Painted Frame.


Hallo Spaceboy

April 2, 2013

chloe95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Geiger, on Gysin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sapce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

boyspace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Real Cool World

September 17, 2012

Real Cool World (single mix, video).
Real Cool World (soundtrack LP).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Overture).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Thing #2).

Prologue: Three Scenes From a Public Life in the Early Nineties

11 November 1991: Tin Machine are en route to the Brixton Academy for their last UK gig. Bowie has asked the bus driver to take a “scenic” way to get there, so that he can see what’s become of the neighborhood of his early childhood. The bus goes along Stansfield Road. Eric Schermerhorn, the Machine’s rhythm guitarist, notices Bowie quietly weeping. “It’s a miracle,” Bowie says. “I probably should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.”

20 April 1992: Bowie plays the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He sings “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, who’s dressed as a mingle of his discarded selves. He plays saxophone on “All the Young Dudes.” As Ian Hunter lurches into the song, Bowie sings along with him, not into the mike but absently, murmuring into the air, as though he’s only now recalling the words that he’d written for Hunter, the words which are the only reason Hunter’s on stage this evening. Later in the performance, Bowie pulls Mick Ronson over to him, in a slight echo of the Top of the Pops “Starman” moment. But they’re only sharing a private joke here.

Bowie plays “Heroes” with Ronson, who uses an E-bow to mimic Robert Fripp’s keening lines, and for a moment you can imagine some alternate 1977 where Bowie and Ronson had made “Heroes.” Ronson will be dead in a year. Bowie thanks the crowd, sinks to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Some guy yells “whoo-hoo” after Bowie intones “who art in heaven,” then Wembley seemingly holds its breath until he finishes. Bowie’s friend, a playwright named Craig, had slipped into an AIDS-related coma the day before—he would die two days after the show. Bowie had the bad taste to remind a stadium that the concert they’ve been screaming at is supposed to be a requiem. He later said offering the prayer was a spontaneous decision (Brian May: “I remember thinking that it would have been nice if he’d warned me about that”) and called it the most “rock and roll” episode of his latter-day career. Call it a humble moment of submission or galling pantomime, it’s one of the last moments that the general public will recall from Bowie’s life.

6 June 1992: Bowie marries Iman for a second time, in Florence (they had been married by a magistrate in Lausanne in April). He grants Hello! magazine exclusive rights to the coverage, which results in a 23-page spread. The second wedding is a public art installation: two celebrities, the groom’s teeth newly capped, pledging their troth to flashing cameras and to the sound of screaming fans, massed outside the St. James Episcopal Church.* In the Hello! photographs, the couple are stunningly beautiful mannequins; the wedding party is a taxidermist’s masterpiece.

Brian Eno attends. “It was a lovely wedding,” he said later. “And I was totally confused.” During his stay, Bowie plays Eno a tape of what he calls his “wedding songs.”

We used to laugh about Nile Rodgers and then it’s funny he goes back and works with him…Nile Rodgers is a very talented guy. [Bowie’s] idea to work with him was to recapture what they had, but that’s bullshit. You can never go home again.

Hunt Sales.

We’d put all this effort into trying to get rid of the stuff that followed Let’s Dance to change expectations and allow David to be an artist again. So I was irritated by the notion, but, for whatever reason, they decided to do it.

Reeves Gabrels.

These quotes can seem like grumblings of a pair of discarded suitors. But let’s grant them the argument: what had been the point of the abrasive Tin Machine records and tours, of the grand public funeral of “Sound + Vision,” if the next move was just to make Let’s Dance II?

Bowie’s decision to reunite with Nile Rodgers to make a “mainstream” pop album was in some part financial. Bowie no longer had an EMI contract, he’d funded the “It’s My Life” tour out of his own pocket, and he was a married man now, buying houses around the world for the setting of his new domestic life. And he admitted to friends that he missed it sometimes, regretted he was no longer part of the pop conversation, missed hearing himself on the radio. He got a new contract with Savage Records that was predicated on delivering a radio-ready album.

But Black Tie White Noise, though it briefly hit #1 in the UK and produced Bowie’s last Top 10 UK hit, was a global dud, much to Rodgers’ and Savage’s frustration (though the latter was in great part to blame, as we’ll see). Bowie had steeled himself to become a mainstream entertainer again, then had seemed to balk in the process, sabotaging his own compromises. He consigned the best pop song of the sessions to a CD bonus track and left another possible hit on the shelf, not to revive it for a decade; he filled half the record with instrumentals and covers.

So BTWN is one of the stranger albums of Bowie’s life: a pop record that seems intent on denying itself; an album jammed full of ghosts and memories, with a restless creative spirit running through it, along with a seeming indifference to quality at times; it’s a funeral album as much as a wedding album, its moods ranging from glossy pap to uxoriousness on a global scale to ham-handed public commentary to a studied alienation. Bowie would alter his voice beyond recognition, sing on some tracks as a seeming parody of his public self, sing on others as though he’s desperately answering a question someone had posed years before. He seemed to have trawled through his past and picked up whatever came to hand: it’s an album on which not only Mick Ronson and Mike Garson reappear but also the Tonight-era Frank Simms and Phillipe Saisse. While making BTWN Bowie seemed incredibly happy, a man sunk into domestic bliss, and one who also was vaguely disgusted with having to recompose himself, yet again, as a public figure.

Bowie had been writing the BTWN material throughout late 1991 and 1992. The first track that emerged from a desultory series of sessions (Rodgers later groaned that where Let’s Dance took three weeks to make, BTWN “took a year”) was “Real Cool World,” a song written for Cool World, Ralph Bakshi’s disastrous animated film, a crass rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, complete with a cartoon temptress (Kim Basinger’s “Holli Wood”) and human-toon interactions (a bewildered Gabriel Byrne and a sadly game Brad Pitt). While the title obviously came from the movie’s title, there’s a chance Bowie was also referencing the Greatest Show on Earth hit of the same name from 1970.

“Real Cool World” was a try-out session to see if Rodgers and Bowie could work together again (Rodgers had just finished a new Chic record, Chic-ism, and was in the mood for reunions), and the result was enough to convince Bowie to have Rodgers run the album sessions, which would stretch into late 1992, alternating between Bowie’s home base in Switzerland and Rodgers’ at the Power Station in New York.

The appearance of “Real Cool World” was well received at the time by the likes of Billboard, as it showed that the “real” Bowie (there’s always a “real” Bowie who’s gone missing) was back, not the scowling man who had been hiding out in some rock band. Along with Bowie’s sudden return to celebrity A-list status with his wedding, “Cool World” was a sign that Bowie intended to be a commercial force again, although the single charted modestly.

And “Cool World” did sound as though Bowie had gone to sleep around 1985 and had woken up seven years later at the Power Station, lying on a stack of R&B and house promo CDs. There was a crispness and a buoyancy to the track, a vibrancy that Bowie’s music had lacked for ages: if he was playing Rip Van Winkle, he was a sprightly one at least. Rodgers’ intro alone, with its mesh of percussive synthesizers (a hi-hat pattern in the left channel that’s soon drowned out by snares), two syncopated sequencer lines and a third synthesizer keeping on a high root note, and a staggered introduction of bass and Bowie’s saxophone, was the sharpest production that Bowie’d had in a decade. There were instrumental callbacks in the mix—a truncated version of the stepwise descending “Laughing Gnome” line on synthesizer, and another synth fill suggestive of “Speed of Life” (the former appearing towards the close of each verse, the latter midway through).

The track’s B minor verses are hooked to a lower-register Bowie vocal (doubled and tripled in some phrases, with what sounds like a synth bass effect applied to the lowest harmony) that’s a series of progressively sinking phrases, with Bowie plummeting to a low B on the last “world” of the verse, while the chorus, even with a cheery “do-Do-do-do-do” refrain, remains muted in sentiment. Only in the bridge/refrains, which shift to a bright C major, does Bowie seem to rouse himself, but even then he hardly ventures above a middle C. It suits the tentativeness of the lyric, in which the singer finds himself in love but can’t bring himself to fully accept it, trying to verify that what he’s feeling is real. “Color me doubtful,” he murmurs towards the end, still listening for footsteps: it’s a sentiment that could apply to the album that he was about to make.

Recorded ca. spring-June 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released in August 1992 as Warner W0127 (#53, UK) and on Songs From the Cool World OST (the latter is an impressively hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era, including the Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz”, and some early Moby tracks.)

The BTWN tracks have a bewildering set of remixes and edits. So for “Cool World” there is: a) the single edit (4:14), used for the video; b) the album cut, used for the closing credits of Cool World and found on the OST—this version later appeared on the 2-CD reissue of BTWN; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the CD single; d) an instrumental version used for the B-side of a few 7″ singles.

* Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. It’s a colorful place. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only later to change his mind, becoming an Episcopalian, and then suing his wife (who’d become a nun in the meantime) for “restitution of conjugal rights.” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in World So Wide as a hour when assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress.”

Sources: first anecdote is from Trynka’s Starman. The Sales quote is from Spitz’s biography, the Gabrels from Trynka’s.

Top: Shimon and Lindemann, “Hutch With His Bowling Ball,” Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1992; Bowie and Lennox at Wembley, April 1992.


Baby Universal

June 26, 2012

Baby Universal.
Baby Universal (Paramount City, 1991).
Baby Universal (video, 1991).
Baby Universal (live, 1991).
Baby Universal (Saturday Night Live, 1991).
Baby Universal (live, 1996).

Hot tramp! We loved you so. Now sit down, man. You’re a fucking disgrace.

So ended the Melody Maker‘s review of Tin Machine II. Jon Wilde, responsible for the bludgeoning, said on a Guardian comment thread that “Bowie’s PR later told me that Bowie read it and cried when he got to the last line. I’m not proud of that. But that was the last we heard of Tin Machine. If my review had any small influence on Bowie’s decision to disband, then at least my career as a music hack wasn’t entirely pointless.”

Tin Machine had been received in the press with some bafflement but mainly with relief that Bowie seemed to be trying to put the Eighties behind him. Tin Machine II, issued two years later, was spat on. In Spin. Jonathan Bernstein called the record “a follow-up as eagerly awaited as Mannequin 2: On the Move” and Bowie “a man made ridiculous by adhering to rules he wrote for his most rickety and least publicly subscribed persona.” Bill Wyman, in Entertainment Weekly: “Anonymous, grinding rockers…songs with passable chorus hooks and nothing in the verses to support them. Meaningless lyric after meaningless lyric.”

Two decades on, Tin Machine II remains an ignored, unloved album, a commercial and critical failure (peaking at #23 in the UK, #126 in the US) that killed Bowie’s relationship with EMI, which had refused to release it. When Bowie shopped the TMII tapes around to other labels, one exec said “a band like Tin Machine could bankrupt the whole enterprise” (as per C. Sandford’s bio).

TMII‘s reception is unsurprising if one considers the perspective of the average Bowie fan at the turn of the Nineties. Summer 1989: Bowie puts out Tin Machine, tours a bit to support it. Okay. Fall 1989: the Sound + Vision career retrospective appears, followed by a staggered CD reissue of the classic Bowie catalog, some of which had fallen out of print. The likes of “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head,” “Some Are” and “Who Can I Be Now” are finally released. Reappraisal of Bowie’s genius in the press. March-September 1990: Bowie tours the world, singing the old hits, winning adulation and forgiveness for past musical sins. He seemed restored to his former place in collective memory. He was “relevant” again. Who knew what he would do next? September 1991: hold on, it’s another goddamn Tin Machine album?

The record came at the wrong time: its creation had been a mess. While most of TMII was cut in a few weeks in the autumn of 1989, with the band, fresh from their mini-tour, in good spirits and working at a fast clip, a combination of delays—EMI’s refusal to release TMII and Bowie subsequently not having a record deal, and Bowie’s decision to put TMII on the back burner to concentrate on the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective—led to TMII being released two years after its main sessions.

And during their album and tour promotions in late 1991, Tin Machine itself seemed an abrasive and desperate collection. It wasn’t just the “we’re four dicks” album cover illustration, which caused an inane mini-controversy when US record dealers refused to carry it until the statues’ genitalia were obscured. The group persona of Tin Machine could seem smug, mildly bullying and pathetic. Bowie in particular has never been as unpleasant a public figure than he was during this time, whether condescendingly telling an interviewer “you seem like a smart girl—why are you asking me this” when she brought up the cover art controversy (the only newsworthy thing about the record) or acting like a boor to Paula Yates and on the Wogan show (Terry Wogan later said Bowie’s behavior nearly earned him a slap in the face).*

The album, nearly forgotten amidst the teacup tempests of its promotion, deserved better. Tin Machine II, at its best, is Bowie trying to create a viable template to move forward—it’s the rough draft of Outside, Earthling and the last records—and to better wed his commercial instincts with his avant-garde ones. Of course, that had been Bowie’s intent with Never Let Me Down as well, though that record wound up being a compromise which failed all sides.

Now Bowie had Reeves Gabrels serving as prosecutor. For Gabrels, rock music had stagnated after punk had died—in 1989, guitarists were still hung up on trying to play Jimi Hendrix, he said, which had chloroformed the instrument’s development. Why play the same blues licks Albert King could’ve played in 1965? Taking inspiration from Adrian Belew and Allan Holdsworth, Gabrels tried to recast the role of lead guitar. He considered lead playing as a series of disparate events, he told Musician in 1991. “The events get people from the verse to the chorus, or through the second verse after they’ve heard the melody once…the current listener’s horizon time is shorter in terms of how often you have to give them things to keep them interested.” While avant-garde in theory, the strategy also suggested developments in commercial film in the Nineties, with action movies, for example, becoming a series of explosive spectacles connecting plot point to plot point.

For Gabrels, an “event” could be anything—the tone of a vibrator pressed against the guitar neck, for instance, or a riff stolen from a speed metal record cropping up in a ballad—and he coupled that with an attempt to work in a “modal chromaticism,” that is, using a combination of various modes with a common tonic chord, and so letting the player essentially use any note on a variety of scales.** In Gabrels’ words, the rule was to “play any note you want, as long as you end on a right note.” So if a Tin Machine song was in E major, for example, Gabrels could play in E Phrygian, a scale that would let him play “notes that shouldn’t be there” (say an F when it should be an F-sharp). It was a seat-of-the-pants strategy that sometimes led (deliberately) to bizarre excesses, but in other cases created passages of uncanny melodies, or shocking counterpoints that elevated a banal chord progression.

And TMII became Gabrels’ record. With Bowie occupied for much of 1990 on Sound + Vision, Gabrels kept toying with the roughs, adding more and more guitar overdubs, recording dozens of new solos, sometimes just a few tweaked or buzzed notes. The finished result was a Glenn Branca-esque wall of battling guitars—on some tracks like “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Gabrels’ collected overdubs took up the vast majority of the 56-track master.

As a counterweight to Gabrels’ ambitions was a more collected and tighter band, with Bowie contributing more rhythm guitar than on the first Tin Machine. When the band assembled in Sydney in September 1989 to record the album, they were in high spirits. A group camaraderie had developed, as Bowie had traveled with the rest of Tin Machine in buses throughout that summer’s tour, playing cards and pretending he was 20 years old again. So although Bowie and Gabrels had been reluctant to make another record so soon (Bowie’s attention was becoming consumed with the Sound +Vision project), they bowed to the Sales brothers’ wishes to capitalize on the generous collaborative mood.

It helped that they had some material stockpiled: “Baby Universal” and a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” had been tried out in the first LP sessions, while Hunt Sales’ “Sorry” had been road-tested. Other tracks came together quickly, over a few days in the studio. And a general agreement to reduce the guitar-drum artillery of the first record to focus more on melody and structure lessened the monotony of the Machine’s debut album—there was brutalist surf music, pop metal, dressing-room blues.

So yes, a distracted Bowie allowed his drummer to write and sing two songs, both of which are among the most hated pieces in the Bowie catalog, and Tin Machine hadn’t lost its habit of overplaying and throttling promising material to death. But at its best, which I would argue is about half of the album, Tin Machine II had some of Bowie’s strongest writing since Let’s Dance. Rather than being a throwback to reclaim past glories (as would happen in 1992), TMII is the record of a man finally coming to terms with his extremities, and being helped, rather than being buried, by his bandmates.

Bowie and Gabrels had written some of “Baby Universal” in their first extended songwriting collaboration, back in the summer of 1988, so it hails from the same period that produced “I Can’t Read” and “Amazing.” While he worked on “Baby Universal” during Tin Machine, Bowie had soon set the song aside—from the producer Tim Palmer’s perspective, it seemed as though Bowie considered the song too catchy, too rewarding, to suit his hard rock deconstructionist manifesto.

“Baby Universal” is a boundary work for Bowie, calling back to past songs yet setting terms for the future (both “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Looking For Satellites” seem to have come out of it). Its lyric concerns another of Bowie’s space messiah figures, first viewed skeptically in the verse (where he’s compared to a spoiled child, a product of awful, chaotic parents) then with a grand annunciation in the chorus. Where earlier incarnations, the Supermen, Ziggy, the Pretty Things or the Starman, had promised some sort of liberation, the space messiah here is self-contained, jaded (“it doesn’t matter–I’ve seen everything anyway,” he says in the brief second verse), imploding into himself, with humanity an afterthought. The chanted opening, where a repeated “baby” is mixed with barely-audible interjections (including “thinking/walk” and “lost/found”), suggests that the messiah’s been reborn as stream of binary code.

In A major for its verses, “Baby” shifts to a vague G major for the start of its chorus until an E dominant chord (on “I’m the baby now“) brings the song back into A. The past bleeds through: the first prechorus vocal melody (“failures as fathers”) seems a rewrite of the chorus of “Under the God,” while the “no baby no baby NO” tag calls back to some of Eno’s rock tracks from the Seventies, like “King’s Lead Hat.” The chorus itself, with its eerie guitar/organ accompaniment, matches the lyric’s attempted grandeur—it seems a deliberate attempt to hint at “Space Oddity” at first—and then builds to the thrashing title refrain, with Bowie howling the line twice, then letting it expire with a final slurred “U-ni-vers-ULL.”

It’s an ideal album opener: a tight, contained performance, with Tony Sales playing Kim Deal to Gabrels’ Joey Santiago, its mix littered with fine details (the tambourine in the pre-chorus, Hunt Sales’ lightning-fast drum fills to trigger chord changes in the verse) and with a Bowie lyric that’s as well-crafted (the nice internal rhymes of “humans” and “assume you’re”) as it’s sloppy (Bowie rhymes “thinking” with “thinking” in the chorus). The Nineties would be Bowie’s long battle of reconquest, a bid for the throne by an exile who seemed not to care anymore, so paradoxically his ambitions grew in stature; all of it starts here.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney (w/overdubs throughout 1990 and at A&M Studios, March 1991). Released in October 1991 as Tin Machine II‘s second and last single (LOCDT310 c/w BBC versions of “Stateside,” “If There Is Something” and “Heaven’s In Here,” #48 UK). Performed throughout the 1991-92 tour, often with Bowie and Gabrels on dueling “headless” Steinbergers. It was played a number of times on TV, including Top of the Pops and Saturday Night Live on 23 November 1991, Bowie’s second of three appearances on SNL.

* To be fair, Bowie was irritated that the BBC had made him lip-sync “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll” for the show, and Wogan does come off as a dim, gaseous uncle here.

** Gabrels, in the Musician interview, said the term had been coined by “a couple of jazz oriented friends of mine,” but it actually was Bela Bartok, who was not a regular in the Boston music scene.

Top: Andrew McDonald, “Drag Queens, Sydney, 1990.”


Shakin’ All Over

June 19, 2012

Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, 1960).
Shakin’ All Over (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Shakin’ All Over (as part of “Heaven’s In Here,” live, 1992).

Another regular cover in the first Tin Machine tour was the band’s typically brass-knuckled take on Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over.” Released in 1960 into a British pop market that had offered Cliff Richard as the UK’s answer to Elvis, Kidd’s “Shakin’,” with its lust-addled vocal, its creeping bassline and its cranked-up guitars, hit like a cannonball: “Shakin'” soon reached #1 and British rock bands would spend the next decade trying to live up to it (Led Zeppelin played a number of Kidd songs in their early rehearsals, while the Who kept trying to crack “Shakin'” on stage).

According to a tongue-in-cheek recollection by the track’s lead guitarist Joe Moretti, “Shakin’ All Over” began as the less euphonious “Shakin’ All Over Except For My Left Foot.” The inspiration was Kidd’s reaction upon seeing a pretty girl—she puts the quivers in me membranes!—and for the song Kidd kept in the passive role, a victim of erotic circumstance. As Tom Ewing wrote, “in a sense “Shaking All Over” is a premonition of the Stones—English boys turned wild by rock. But Mick Jagger sang as a predator, focusing and using his lust: Johnny Kidd feels the same energies but he can’t control them.

With “Shakin'” originally intended as a B-side, the band was relaxed and loose for the take, which contributed to its spooky energy. Moretti’s solo, though preceded by an ill-timed drum fill that was left in to pad out the track, remains a marvel (it’s reminiscent of Vic Flick’s playing on Adam Faith’s “Made You,” though “Shakin'” was cut before the Faith track was released). Mick Ronson paid homage to Moretti by playing some of his lines in Bowie’s cover of “I Can’t Explain” on Pin Ups.

Bowie had a history with the song: he had played “Shakin'” with some of his early bands (the Lower Third had opened for Johnny Kidd at the Isle of Wight, in the summer of ’65), as well as in the early 1970 Haddon Hall rehearsals that had generated most of the songs for the Man Who Sold The World. (Bowie reconnected with the drummer from that era, John Cambridge, at the Bradford gig on 2 July—Cambridge told him the lyric, which Bowie said he’d forgotten.)* But playing “Shakin'” with Tin Machine, Bowie just oversang, blowing his voice out on the choruses. Similar to their “Maggie’s Farm,” the Machine turned “Shakin'” into a mash-up, here a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll catch-all, with Kevin Armstrong playing Duane Eddy riffs throughout while Bowie seemed on the verge of spinning into other “period” hits—“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and Sam Cooke’s “Shake”—as if he was back on the Cher Show.

So the Machine took a 1960 track that sounded like nothing else from its era, a proto-modernist hard rock groove song, and turned it into an “oldie”; the audience cheered them for it. In the 1991-92 tour, Bowie incorporated “Shakin'” into his long “Heaven’s In Here” medleys.

The Machine played “Shakin'” in most of the UK dates of their 1989 tour, starting with the National Ballroom in Kilburn on 29 June. A version from Newport, Wales (1 July 1989), was released two years later as a B-side of the 12″ single version of “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll” (LONX 305)

More shakin’: Ziggy Stardust inspiration Vince Taylor, The Shindogs, The Who, Swinging Blue Jeans, the Guess Who, Suzi Quatro, Wanda Jackson with Jack White, Eilen Jewel.

* This was an odd claim, as Bowie had sung “Shakin'” a few times before Bradford. Perhaps he’d just been mumbling his way through the lyric before then.

Top to bottom: the Wall comes down, Berlin, November 1989.