Warszawa

March 15, 2011

Warszawa.
Warszawa (live, 1978).
Warszawa (Philip Glass, “Low Symphony,” 1993).
Warszawa (live, 2002).

I’d like to thank Warsaw’s Agata Pyzik for her generous help on this entry.

Your lightdarkblue morning light, O city.
…You run through the streets all night,
sensational hi-fi is still blasting through the housing blocks,
and the city cowers, it pastes its glass buildings
onto the future, but it’s getting bogged down, sinking, vanishing
into the mud…

Andrzej Sosnowski, “Warszawa” (collected in Lodgings, 1997).

Before he recorded “Warszawa,” Bowie had been in the city once in his life, for a few hours. He had gone through Poland in May 1973, traveling from Moscow to West Berlin, but he hadn’t left the train (with good reason: at some point in Poland an overzealous train official, demanding his papers, had tried to push into Bowie’s compartment). In April 1976, Bowie and Iggy Pop took a train from Zurich to Moscow, again via Poland. As per Paul Trynka’s bio of Iggy Pop: They saw towns still pockmarked with bullet holes and a landscape scarred by unrepaired bomb craters; drawing alongside a goods train in Warsaw, they witnessed a worker unloading coal piece by piece in the gray, freezing sleet.

In Warsaw, the train was kept for a few hours at Dworzec Gdański (Gdansk Railway Station), so Bowie went for a walk in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, in what was then called Plac Komuny Paryskiej (Paris Commune Square) (it’s since been rechristened its original name, Plac Wilsona). Years later, Bowie’s Polish fans would recount his walk, almost step by step. Bowie stopped at a record shop and bought a few LPs by the folk song and dance ensemble Śląsk, one of which featured Stanisław Hadyna’s composition “Helokanie.”

Of these scant impressions Bowie made a world, or at least a city. He named the six-minute-plus brooding hymn that opens Low‘s “night” side not after Moscow, a city of which he’d had some experience, nor Berlin, his future home, but Warsaw, a city that he had only glimpsed. Maybe Warsaw was just an emptier canvas, or perhaps something about the city resonated Bowie during his brief walk. He had just left Los Angeles, a city of professional dreams; he had grown up in a London experiencing a brief second childhood; he had made his art out of fabrications—imaginary rock singers, gleefully violent comic book dystopias. Warsaw had little of this. What Warsaw had was the iron residue of history: it was nearly leveled during the war, a great part of its population murdered—in death camps, in failed uprisings, in reprisals. For Bowie, it was a fallen city, a conquered city, a city left to the spies and the winter.

One of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities is Eusapia, “whose inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground,” where they bring all their corpses “to continue their former activities.” Slowly, imperceptibly, the dead begin to alter their surroundings, thus forcing the living to continually change their own city so as to retain the mirror image. They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.

The song that Bowie named after Warsaw begins with a slow tolling, the sound of a funeral bell as played by a child at a piano.

Brian Eno often was working alone in the last weeks of the Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville. Bowie had gone to Paris for a court case (he was breaking with his manager). Before he left, he asked Eno to write a slow piece, something with a “very emotive, almost religious feel to it.”

Eno heard Tony Visconti’s four-year-old son on the studio piano, pressing three consecutive white keys: A, B and C. He came in the room, sat down next to the boy at the piano, and played along with him, finishing the melody. This would become the main “Warszawa” theme, and Eno entwined it into a larger structure, one (again) formed through deliberate randomness.

As with “Art Decade,” Eno structured the piece to a series of metronomic clicks (in this case 430), each click numbered on another track, so that a chord change or a new bassline would be pegged to a random number. This was meant to free Eno from compositional crutches, from the routine of bar strictures and beats. And as with “Art Decade,” despite this deliberate randomness, “Warszawa”‘s layout is easily discernible and even rather traditional. It’s in four distinct sections (in generally 4/4 time): an opening 24-bar “overture” (0:00 to 1:17), a 48-bar “theme” (1:17 to 3:46), a 32-bar “chorus” (Bowie’s vocal, 3:47 to 5:25) and finally a 16-bar repeat of the theme.

The opening, in A major, begins with 8 bars of tolling piano (four consecutive A notes on the keyboard played together), then moves to D minor upon the appearance of the first fragmented melody, a progression that stalls on an E chord. After another round of A octaves, the melody started by Visconti’s son appears—A, B, C# (each played in four octaves). Again, there’s no progression after a certain point: the music freezes, staying on a C chord until the theme section begins.

The piece changes key to F-sharp major, and the three-note pattern returns; four bars in, with a move to D# minor, a second, even more gorgeous melody appears, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, a stepwise upward movement that begins on B. The simplicity, the cleanness of the three melodic lines is reminiscent of Satie’s first Gymnopédie; the slow coagulation of sound echoes the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh.

The instruments were primarily the small group of synthesizers that Bowie and Eno had brought to the sessions—Eno’s EMS and Minimoog, Bowie’s Chamberlin—along with the studio’s small collection of ARPs (and possibly some treated guitar). Both synthesizers and piano play the continually-tolling A or C octaves underneath much of the piece; the Chamberlin doubles for a wind section.

The theme section ends, the key returns to A major, there’s four bars of musings by a synthetic cello, and then the voices appear.

Bowie returned to the studio from Paris drained and irritable and decided to move operations to Berlin. Yet when he heard Eno’s music, he came up with a lyric in about ten minutes, and recorded it almost as quickly. He played Visconti what the latter recalled as a “Balkan boys choir record” (very likely the Śląsk records Bowie that had picked up in Warsaw). Bowie said he wanted to achieve a similar sound for his vocals, some of which echo the “helo helo” chorus of “Helokanie.”

Sula vie dilejo
Solo vie milejo
Cheli venco deho (x2)
Malio
Helibo seyoman
Cheli venco raero
Malio, malio

It seems like a newly-crafted dialect of Esperanto. Bowie’s lines aren’t nonsense words he dashed out: they’re a series of phonetics, with a rich internal rhyme scheme and a common rhythmic base (six syllables for each phrase except “malio,” which gets three, though Bowie varies the phrasing of his vocal—he sings the first “deho” in two notes, the second with a downward run of four notes). The lines are easy to sing, as the language seems to be a fusion of the most melodious Romance tongues—Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese—with a flavor of Slavic in it. (And the “East” appears as well, with the chanted “om” in the bass section).

And it’s not the hermetic, broken language of “Subterraneans.” There’s a richness, a warmth to the words: the long vowels, the easy lift of the mild consonants. It’s as though it was the lost language of a common Europe, some alternate blessed continent that escaped the wars. A tone poem from the world that wasn’t. (It’s fitting that “Warszawa”‘s partial inspiration was a choir named after a country that no longer exists: Silesia, first absorbed by Prussia in the 18th Century, then severed and distributed to Poland and Czechoslovakia after WWII.)

As the music of “Warszawa” is the work of a synthetic orchestra, a handful of machines standing in for what would have been dozens of instruments, its vocals are a choir of one man’s manipulated voice. Bowie sings the first lines in his regular baritone. Then, beginning with “cheli venco” Bowie sang onto a tape that Visconti had slowed down two semitones: played back at normal speed, Bowie’s voice had become a child’s. The final lines seem sung by a dervish.

Bowie named “Warszawa” well after he and Eno had made it: he hadn’t set out to capture the city in a song. If Low‘s A side was a series of brief communiques from a shattered man, its second side was a set of quiet interior landscapes, a psychic desolation embodied in an imaginary Eastern Europe. Berlin was the setpiece, but Warsaw, the gloomy city Bowie had walked through one lost afternoon, was its heart. The song is a broken, brooding man reincarnated in a city.

The creative peak of Low, “Warszawa” is one of Bowie’s most sublime works, and its influence would echo for years to come. Ian Curtis was so obsessed with the song that he named his punk group after it. Scott Walker’s “The Electrician” seems inspired by “Warszawa”‘s tolling opening (most of Walker’s contributions to Nite Flights, a 1978 Walker Brothers record, are reactions to Low and “Heroes”).

And how was it heard in Warsaw itself? The Polish punk rock groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s tended to draw on other influences than Bowie. Yet it was a touchstone for the poet Andrzej Sosnowski, who would use “Warszawa” as a hidden reference in his work. Sosnowski’s Warszawa “is always filtered through Bowie’s Warszawa, meaning there’s a mythical, concrete, bleak Warszawa that Bowie had in mind, that only partially is the real Warsaw,” the writer Agata Pyzik told me. “The image that has been prolonged in Western minds is very much like this, but you may also say that Bowie immortalized a certain image of the city, his inner Warsaw. I thought it always one of the most solemn, uncanny Bowie songs, and a proper homage to my city, which is until this day quite sinister.”

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville in September 1976 and Hansa, Berlin, September-October 1976. It was the standard opener of the 1978 tour (a version from Philadelphia is on Stage, while the clip linked above is from a Tokyo concert on 12 December 1978, filmed for the “Young Music Show”) and for some of the Heathen tour, 2002. Used by Philip Glass for the “Low” Symphony, 1992-93.

From top: unknown photog., “Construction of the Palace of Culture and Science,” Warsaw, ca. 1955; Nancy JM Blake, “Warsaw, 1976”;  “Anty Rama,” “Metro Plac Wilsona, Zoliborz, Warszawa,” 2009; Edek Giejgo, “Warszawa- Ulica Swietojanska 1976.”


Poll, Day 3: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 50-26

December 17, 2015

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We enter the outer circle of top Bowie songs, as chosen by blog readers. If, like me, you were a sorta-Catholic kid who was weirdly fascinated by the hierarchy of angels (oh, you weren’t, eh?), you might say we’re in the Second Sphere, home of Powers, Virtues and Dominions.

Speaking of angels, the speaker in the first song of the Top 50 was one:

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50. Look Back In Anger (73 points, 69 votes, 1 #1 vote).

If I’m going to take a solo, I’m going to take a rhythm guitar solo.

Carlos Alomar.

It’s a TIE for 49-48 (don’t worry! there aren’t many now): matrimony and blood.

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Be My Wife (74 points, 70 votes, 1 #1 vote).

A mime sketch of a rock star making a rock video, yet too comically glum and sulky to go through the required hoops, and lacking the necessary gung-ho conviction…the character (because it isn’t really Bowie, it’s a fellow, a sad sack, a thin-lipped melancholic) makes to play his guitar and gives up halfway through the phrase. He just can’t be bothered.

Momus, on the promo video.

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The Hearts Filthy Lesson (74 points, 66 votes, 2 #1 votes).

The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.

Bowie, 1995.

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47. Oh! You Pretty Things (75 points, 71 votes, 1 #1 vote).

All the nightmares came today and it looks as though they’re here to stay.

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46. Bring Me the Disco King (77 points, 65 votes, 3 #1 votes, one specified the “Loner” remix).

Once we’d put down the song against Garson tinkering away, it didn’t need any more. That was the song.

Bowie, 2003.

It’s a TIE for 45-44, with a drunk John Lennon or Chris Burden (RIP, both) drawing something awful on the carpet.

Joe the Lion! (78 points, 70 votes, 2 #1 votes).

Art doesn’t have a purpose. It’s a free spot in society, where you can do anything.

Chris Burden.

It’s Monday.
You slither down the greasy pipe—so far so good—no one SAW you
hobble over any FREEway
you will be like your DREEEEEEEEEEEEEAMS
tonight!

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Breaking Glass (78 points/votes).

He probably did that shit yesterday in somebody’s room! David’s writing some shit about life here!

Dennis Davis, recalling hearing Bowie’s vocal for the first time.

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43. Fantastic Voyage (79 points, 71 votes, 2 #1 votes).

The recurrent “learning to live with somebody’s depression” motif that forms the song’s chorus reminds us that we all get whacked out when we’re depressed, but that the chief of a nuclear nation can get whacked out, too, and then we’re all in trouble.

Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr.

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42. TVC 15 (80 points, 76 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Despite its quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, “TVC 15” was at heart a Fifties teenage death ballad, like “Teen Angel,” “Endless Sleep” or “Last Kiss,” where the singer recalls how his girl perished and wonders whether to join her in death.

Rebel Rebel (still available for Christmas gifting).

Anybody who can merge Lou Reed, disco and Huey Smith — the best I can do with the irresistible ‘TVC 15’— deserves to keep doing it for 5:29.

Robert Christgau.

Onward. Though I admit I’ll never love this song, over the years I’ve come to respect it, and how much it means to a lot of people. I’m glad it’s here…

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41. Time (81 points, 73 votes, 2 #1 votes).

I’ve written a new song on the new album which is just called “Time,” and I thought it was about time, and I wrote very heavily about time, and the way I felt about time—at times!—and I played it back after we recorded it and, my God, it was a gay song!

Bowie, 1973.

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40. Fame (82 points, 78 votes, 1 #1 vote, one specified for the “Fame 90” remix).

When ‘Fame’ came out, that was the first time Bowie had bridged going to AM–he was always FM.

Carlos Alomar.

The fucking price of fame. Somebody had made a transfusion of the wrong blood type into Yoko. I was there when it happened, and she starts to go rigid, and then shake, from the pain and the trauma. I run up to this nurse and say, ‘Go get the doctor!’ I’m holding on tight to Yoko while this guy gets to the hospital room. He walks in, hardly notices that Yoko is going through fucking convulsions, goes straight for me, smiles, shakes my hand and says, ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you, Mr. Lennon, I always enjoyed your music.’ I start screaming: ‘My wife’s dying and you wanna talk about my music!’ Christ!

John Lennon, 1980.

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39. Modern Love (85 points/votes).

I’ve left behind “Ziggy Stardust” in favor of “Modern Love,” though the endless “ah-dern-LOW-OH-OVE” vamping at the end of the latter gets exhausting.

Rob Sheffield, on his Bowie karaoke picks.

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38. Fashion (88 points, 84 votes, 1 #1 vote).

[The disco scene] seems now to be replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it.

Bowie, 1980.

When I started this blog in 2009, I didn’t know the next song—I’d heard the album a few times but the track had left no impression on me. But when I got to it in due course, I was stunned: why did no one talk about how great it was? So I tried to make the case for its brilliance in the blog entry, and I hope, in some way, that I helped its standing here:

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37. Win (89 points, 81 votes, 2 #1 votes.)

I would listen to the album in my room and when ‘Win’ came on I would feel as though I was swimming in my fish tank.

Commenter “Red Fields,” 2013.

A mild, precautionary sort of morality song.

Bowie, 1975.

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36. Absolute Beginners (90 points/votes).

When Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were producing the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, heard Bowie’s studio demo of “Beginners,” they were flummoxed, as they had no idea how to improve it. “We’ve been handed this one on a plate,” Langer recalled saying in the elevator afterwards.

When I started going through the ballots, I was wondering what the post-“retirement” consensus pick would be. Pretty soon, it was obvious…

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35. Where Are We Now? (93 points, 89 votes, 1 #1 vote).

It did make me cry. It’s what the song is about. I totally identify with what he has done. I know exactly how he feels. It’s like a lament.

Herbie Flowers.

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34. Suffragette City (95 points, 83 votes, 2 #1 votes).

“Suffragette City” is just so cool.

Woody Woodmansey.

I remember very clearly the physical reaction I felt listening to “Suffragette City” [for the first time]. The sheer bodily excitement of that noise was too much to bear. I guess it sounded like…sex. Not that I knew what sex was.

Simon Critchley.

And it’s a straight run from Suffragette City across the plains to..

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33. Warszawa (96 points, 92 votes, 1 #1 vote).

You may also say that Bowie immortalized a certain image of the city, his inner Warsaw. I thought it always one of the most solemn, uncanny Bowie songs, and a proper homage to my city, which is until this day quite sinister.

Agata Pyzik (who’s now writing a 33 1/3 book on Japan’s Tin Drum).

It’s time for a TIE for 32 and 31 (hey, it’s been a while). Possibly the oddest cohabitation of the survey, but both songs are about transcendence, in a way.

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Let’s Dance (97 points, 89 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 vote specifying the single edit).

When David and I were doing tons and tons of pre-promotion on the album that would become “Let’s Dance”, after we did all this research, David summed what this album was going to be, by a picture he found of Little Richard getting into a Cadillac. Little Richard was getting into his red drop-top Cadillac with his ‘do’ like that (leans forward) and he had a red suit, red Cadillac, bam, had the pomp, and David held it up and said: “(English accent) Nile, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

Nile Rodgers.

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Word On a Wing (97 points, 81 votes, 4 #1 votes).

In times of spiritual crisis, when the very self is being swept away, the Higher Self comes to the rescue, terrible as an army with banners. [If successful, one has a sense of calm] like a ship hove-to, securely riding out the storm.

Dion Fortune.

Well, so much for the epic ‘Station to Station’ ballads…but wait?

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30. Wild Is The Wind (99 points, 87 votes, 3 #1 votes).

“Romance is coming back, Warren,” I said.

“You know what’s coming back?” Warren said. “Everything. And then it’s going away for good.”

George W.S. Trow.

I recorded it as a homage to Nina [Simone]…Her performance of this song really affected me.

Bowie, 1993.

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29. Strangers When We Meet (101 points, 85 votes, 4 #1 votes, 12 votes specified the Outside version, 2 the Buddha of Suburbia one).

The only time his cut-up lyrics moved me, thanks to that gorgeous vocal. All the stresses fall on unexpected places.

Alfred Soto.

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28. Quicksand (102 points, 98 votes, 1 #1 vote, 1 vote specified the 1971 demo).

My knowledge had to be the only important knowledge. I wouldn’t own up to the fact I didn’t know it all.

Bowie, 1999.

Brett Anderson: You mention [Aleister Crowley] in ‘Quicksand.’

Bowie: Well that was before I tried reading him. Hahaha! That’s when I had his biography in my raincoat so the title showed. That was reading on the tube.

NME interview, 1993.

Well, he had to show up at some point: all hail the leper messiah. And the last song in this list to have reached its position solely by strength of numbers, no #1 votes:

Ziggy Stardust

27. Ziggy Stardust (103 points/votes).

Later, Dave [Marsh] and I talked about Bowie. What was it that was missing? ‘Innocence,’ Dave suggested. But maybe it’s just that unlike Lou Reed (who will never be a star here, either) or Iggy (who just might), Bowie doesn’t seem quite real. Real to me, that is—which in rock-and-roll is the only fantasy that counts.

Ellen Willis, 1972.

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

Morrissey, Autobiography.

And a fitting end just before the Top 25. Turn and face the strange..

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26. Changes (104 points, 100 votes, 1#1 vote).

Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it!

Next: The Top 25 Bowie Songs.


Love Is Lost

September 1, 2015

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Love Is Lost.
Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix).
Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix, single edit).

Bowie’s public relationship with love is one of a man who’s never shaken his suspicions. There were times when he’d write a “Letter To Hermione” or a “Be My Wife” in his soul’s winter hours, “The Wedding” to crown a summertime. But the garden-variety love song has rarely interested him, nor has he done them well. A key song remains “Soul Love,” which he wrote when he was 24 and which, seemingly, became the guiding principle for much of his adult life.

Love, in “Soul Love,” is a plague, an infestation, a communal delusion. Love manifests itself, it binds and corrupts, it blinds and weakens. Love is a thing unto itself, not a feeling shared by two people; it’s summoned into existence like a djinn from a bottle, or born like some ill-starred child. It wreaks havoc by doing just what you wish it to. Black magic. How does the line go again? It’s not really work: it’s just the power to charm. Best to keep clear of it.

“Love Is Lost,” one of the great tracks on The Next Day, finds an older man talking up the years to an older self. “It’s the darkest hour,” he begins, mainly hovering on the root note. “You’re 22.” The year when he and Hermione broke up, the year when he wrote “Space Oddity.” When you’re developing as an artist, when “your voice is new,” that’s when love can really fork you off the path, send you off into the woods.

(In 1979, a 32-year-old Bowie told the interviewer Mavis Nicholson that where he’d once fallen in love easily, he now avoided it. If he were to love, he’d do so from “afar.” “But if you then decided to not love from afar, you, as an artist, would have to give up quite a lot of your time for them,” she said. “Yes, and I can’t do that,” Bowie replied. “No, no, love can’t get quite in my way. I shelter myself from it incredibly.” “What are you sheltering yourself from?” “From losing the other eye!”)

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The refrain, merely the last bars of the verse, is a spin of words: love is lost, lost is love. Echoes come from everywhere, books (Love’s Labour’s Lost), lost friends (John Lennon’s “Love“: “love is real, real is love”) and, of course, “Soul Love” again: all I have is my love of love, and love is not loving. The last phrase bites the hardest. Love is not loving. Lost is love. Love only exists when it’s absent.

The music deepens the trap. Crouched in a bleak B-flat minor (the key of “Let’s Dance”—recall how much work Nile Rodgers had to do to drag that song onstage), the only movement comes from a descending eighth-note bassline (G#-F#-Eb) and Bowie’s organ, on which he keeps the same hand shape and moves it down the keyboard, keeping to black keys, playing two-note chords.* It’s how Bowie wrote “Changes” and “Bombers” and other piano pieces during his compositional breakthrough of 1970-1971—hold one position, then move around the board like a chessman. See what happens.

And yet more echoes: Tony Visconti “Harmonizing” the tone of Zachary Alford’s snare to summon the loud ghosts of Low. Or Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar, which he wanted to sound like Peter Green on old Fleetwood Mac records. Or the refrain of “Sexy Sadie,” heard in the later verses: what have you done? oh what have you done? (“You made a fool of everyone,” a ghost sings back.)

The first verse was a warning, but the kid paid the old man no mind. So a set change. Now the kid’s in love and Bowie, having used images of refugees, exiles and wanderers throughout the album, recycles them again. (“Hostage, transference, identity,” as he described “Love Is Lost” to Rick Moody.) “Your country’s new, your friends are new.” Being in love as having to live under witness protection, of love being the half-life of an ex-spy or a defector, someone rewarded for their treachery. New house, new maid, new tongue (the way Bowie snaps “ack-scent” into two sharp little syllables), new eyes, new teeth (one presumes). But the same swindled old soul.

Bowie uses the bridge, as often on this album, as a feint, a false ray of hope. A grand move to E major, escape at last. (The engineer Mario McNulty: “One part he played on the bridge of “Love Is Lost” made me shiver. The chord progression came out of nowhere when David put it down on the Trinity; it was pure magic.“) But the perspective remains back in the safe house; it’s someone looking through the blinds to spy upon the street, or staring into the mirror. Love as an induction, as a maze with no exit; after eight bars, an A major chord sends you hurtling back down to B-flat minor again.

It’s not about a love affair but how everyone has cut down their feelings in the internet age,” Visconti offered, in one of his duller readings of Bowie’s work (but who knows, maybe an earlier lyric had Bowie complaining about Facebook). The last verses, where Leonard’s guitar thrashes into life and Alford moves to his cymbals, retain the spy/refugee imagery but cut in images from an asylum. Love is like being held in an isolation cell, interrogated endlessly, the lights always kept on, no sleep.

And then the voices. Bowie’s love of the grotesque has been a constant of his life, from the Dalek rant of “We Are Hungry Men,” to the gargoyles of “After All” and “Bewlay Brothers,” to the smacked-out mumbler on “Ashes to Ashes” to the bedlam shrieks in the 1. Outside tracks. Here his backing vocals are, as he sings, “the lunatic men,” the goon squad (they’ve come to town—beep beep!) who torture those trapped in love. Say HELLO HELLO! they chant, working the winches (“hello! hello!” a Silesian choir sings, on a record playing in a haunted chateau in 1976). TELL THEM ALL YOU KNOW! and the last rising waves of You KNOW…YOU KNOW! …YOU KNOW! …YOU KNOW!

It’s a hell of one’s happy devising. The old man tried to warn you, but look what you’ve gone and done. No use. Hard stop. Cut lights. Strike set.

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James Murphy’s remix of “Love Is Lost,” which Bowie (or at least his financial adviser) considered essential enough to include on his most recent hits compilation, took the song out of its box, lengthened it to nearly 10 minutes.

To a track already freighted with the past, Murphy layered in more callbacks, scribbled more lines upon the palimpsest. Most notably Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (hence the subtitle), which becomes the fulcrum of the new beat, and, of course, Roy Bittan’s keyboard line from “Ashes to Ashes,” which appears like a special guest on a variety show, entering at a peak moment to rounds of applause. Murphy reversed the song’s mood-charts. The verses now seem sharper, more aggressive, where the bridge, instead of offering escape, becomes the cold heart of the track—Bowie’s vocal, freed from the major chord underpinnings, is left morosely hanging like a pennant in the air.

The video (for the single edit—the full edit got another one, which appeared to have scenes from a corrupted virtual reality sex program) was yet more attic-clearing. Grotesque puppets intended for “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” in 1999 are pulled out of their crates, dumped on the ground, looking like exhibits from an opening that never was, while Bowie stands in the bathroom of the “Thursday’s Child” video. He’s back in somber curator mode, a quiet contrast to the warlock face he makes by using Tony Oursler’s video projectors again (see “Where Are We Now?”)

He shot much of the video himself, reportedly turning a darkened corner of his office into a set and filming the whole thing for $12.99 (the cost of a new USB flash drive). There’s so much of the past racked up now that you can use it nearly for free.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. 3-15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day; the Murphy remix first appeared (in full) on The Next Day Extra (released 4 November 2013) and also issued as a limited edition single (both full and single edits) on 16 December.

* The piano sheet music has the verse progression as Bbm/Bbm7-Ab/Gb5/Gb6. On keyboard, Bowie’s playing Bb-Eb, Ab-Db, Gb-Bb, Eb-Ab. Thanks again to “Crayon to Crayon” for insights.

Top: Pierrot Pierrot; thin white wooden duke.


A Contest

February 27, 2015

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We’re now a month away from the release of Rebel Rebel, and as a first bit of hype I offer a reader contest. The winner will receive (drum roll)….a copy of the book mailed to them, before the publishing date. If you’d like, I’ll sign the thing, too. And I will write whatever you’d like me to, barring it being obscene or potentially libelous.

The “Bring Me the Disco King” entry opens with a fictional account of a woman who attended a Bowie concert at Madison Square Garden in August 1977. The conceit is that in this alternate universe Bowie, instead of escaping to France and Berlin in late 1976 and recording Low and “Heroes,” instead found himself back in Los Angeles and, a year later, was touring again.

So, my challenge: what would the set list of this 1977 show be? The most inspired one wins a book.

Some parameters. Here are a bunch of set lists from the 1976 tour as a first guideline. Bowie typically played 15-20 songs a night in ’76, which would likely be what an even Thinner White Duke would do in 1977. Let’s not have him doing some marathon 35-song set, for my sake.

My fake account begins with him singing “Five Years” and later has him playing “Sister Midnight,” “Sweet Head,” “Fame” and “Stay,” but you don’t have to include these songs. Feel free to do so, though.

Songs on the list should be confined to anything Bowie recorded prior to 1977, and given the path of our fictional narrative, it’s unlikely any of the Eno instrumentals would have been written, so no “Warszawa” exists in this world, for instance. If you make the case that Bowie would be singing something from the ’80s, explain why, and it had better be a good reason.

Points awarded for originality and flow (would this have worked as an actual set? Don’t just throw a bunch of songs together). May the best person win!

Send your ballot to: bowiesongs@gmail.com (put “setlist” in the subject line) by Friday, March 6. I’ll choose a winner on the auspicious date of Friday, March 13, and will try to get the book in the mail that weekend. Obviously, if you’re outside the US (where I live), the book will take a bit longer to reach you, but you should get it prior to the official publication date (edit: well, it looks like the book’s begun shipping to pre-orderers,so you won’t get it before they do. But hey, you won’t have to pay for it).

Best of luck.

CONTEST OVER: THANKS FOR THE AMAZING ENTRIES. IT WILL BE MURDER TO PICK ONE OF ‘EM AS A “WINNER.”


I Feel So Bad/ One Night (2002 Tour)

October 2, 2014

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Part 1: Taxidermy

Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11 June 2002).
Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Meltdown, London, 29 June 2002).
Half-complete Low (live, E-Werk Festival, Cologne, 12 July 2002).
Near-complete Low (live, Montreux Festival, 18 July 2002).

The closest Bowie has come to being the curator of himself was the 2002 tour to promote Heathen. This was first intended as a minor tour of the European summer festival circuit, with a few TV dates between gigs, but soon Bowie’s theatrical instincts kicked in and he devised the most fannish set-list of his life.

He would perform all of Low in sequential order, wearing a (slightly) looser version of his Thin White Duke outfit. Then, after a change to Burberry tweed, he would perform all of Heathen in sequential order. The albums “feel like cousins to each other,” he said. “They’ve got a certain sonic similarity.” His recent work with Lou Reed (see “Hop Frog“) may have been an influence, as Reed had performed full-album live sets for New York and Magic & Loss.

But Bowie was also doing a bit of trend-chasing. Around 1998, it became increasingly common for bands (especially older bands) to play their “classic” LPs in sequential order live. The trend ballooned in the 2000s once live performance became a primary way for musicians to make a living. (“You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen,” Bowie told the New York Times in June 2002). You could see why the “play your whole LP” shtick worked: get the old fans who’d stopped buying CD reissues out of the house to hear It Takes a Nation of Millions or Fun House or Entertainment! on stage.

Was choosing Low a cynical touch? The album had little to do with Heathen besides some superficial resemblances (it’s as if Bowie recalled Low being eleven variations on “Warszawa” and had forgotten the little fractured funk tracks on its first side). But 2002 was the apex of Low‘s critical reputation: it was now considered, in the Pitchfork age, to be his masterpiece and most influential release. So there was some ad man’s hustle (“Heathen is the new Low“) and keyed-in nostalgia in the mix.

The full performances of Low were tailored to what fans wanted (on the Montreux tape, you can hear some guy lose his marbles when “Breaking Glass” kicks in)—the performances were sung well and played well, with Earl Slick tracing over his old nemesis Carlos Alomar’s guitar lines, Gail Ann Dorsey singing “Warszawa” like a muezzin and Sterling Campbell as a dynamic foundation (he’s a monster on stuff like “Speed of Life”). The guitar-heavy arrangements (Slick on lead, Mark Plati on rhythm and acoustic, Gerry Leonard on what Bowie termed “atmos”) and the supplemental vocals of Catherine Russell and Dorsey gave a density to the sound.

But there’s a constriction in some of the performances: there’s a sense that Bowie’s working with a common audience memory of each song and feels unwilling to challenge it. This was most noticeable in the instrumentals, which cried out for some sort of revision, some fresh improvisation or just an instrument swap. Instead Bowie kept reverent, a tour guide pacing his audience through an old cathedral of his making.

The track-by-track album live homage also suggested a sad endgame for Bowie: to be doomed, ever so often, to trot out another classic to showcase to fans. The Second Year of the Diamond Dogs. Major Tom’s 40th Birthday Party. Hunkier Dorier 2011.

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Boredom (the most constant of Bowie’s muses) soon put an end to it. After playing Low and Heathen in their entirety at a BowieNet-only show at the Roseland in NYC, he began monkeying with the song order, first jumbling the Low songs to break up the run of instrumentals. By his 1 July 2002 performance in Paris, he’d made a salad of the set-list, also throwing in oldies like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fame.”

On he went, through Horsens and Oostende, from Manchester to Cologne to Lucca, earning the sort of reviews that had become de rigueur by now. “The hits were pitch perfect” (Daily Star). “An incredible rebirth as a performer” (Daily Telegraph), “More relaxed than he’s been for years” (Manchester Evening News), “His voice: that indispensable sound which ricocheted against the square’s walls like some operatic singer” (Sunday Times of Malta). Having done enough, he sailed home to New York on the QE2.

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Part 2: Theology

I Feel So Bad (Chuck Willis, 1954).
I Feel So Bad (Elvis Presley, 1961).
One Night (Smiley Lewis, 1955).
One Night (Elvis, 1958).
One Night (Elvis, 1968).
I Feel So Bad/ One Night (Bowie, live, 2002).

[Elvis was] a kid who was monstrously acquisitive, but also fundamentally passive, looking to be counselled and led. In his own wholly pragmatic way, Col. Parker foresaw several future directions that showbiz would take. He saw how Elvis, the real Elvis, with all his moods and problems, could be left to sit at home and do whatever he did, while the spangly, malleable Elvis image could be sent out into the world to work…

Ian Penman, “Shapeshifter,” London Review of Books, 25 September 2014.

The next leg was an alternating-headline slot Moby’s Area 2 Festival, a three-week cross-country North American tour that also included Busta Rhymes (sometimes a no-show) and the Blue Man Group. (“What’s most striking about this collection of acts is the lack of novelty,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his review of a Holmdel, NJ, stop.) Bowie said he didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Moby on some nights, as it let him cut out early and (if he was in the Northeast) get home to say goodnight to his daughter.

The set-lists were essentially the same as the latter European shows: a mingle of Low and Heathen tracks, with some popular oldies for seasoning (“Fashion,” “Life on Mars?” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance”). Bowie was drawing the sort of crowd for whom the appearance of “Stay” in the set-list “generated a bit of puzzlement,” according to a review of a Toronto gig. “Bowie devoted two-thirds of his set to songs that were 20 or even 30 years old. But the move didn’t seem like a surrender to the commercial reality that fans want to hear the familiar,” wrote Robert Hilburn, reviewing the LA stop. On and on it went, in the pages of American and Canadian papers: Timeless perfection. A still-commanding voice. He’s still beautiful. As steely as sinuous as ever. A nearly flawless musical time capsule.

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On the last night of the Area 2 tour, at the Gorge Amphitheatre east of Seattle, Bowie did something different at last for the encore. He noted that it was the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death (which he’d learned about while on safari in Kenya in 1977). He mock-griped that Presley’s birthday had always eclipsed his own. “He gets all the birthday shit and nobody knows that I ever got born…Jimmy Page was born on the 9th: you can make something out of that. But the 8th of January? You lose out, innit.” And he sang two Presley songs in commemoration.

Like any British rocker born in the Forties, Bowie was fascinated by Elvis, who’d seemed like an extraterrestrial to him at age 10. Elvis was a swiveling mass of American bad intentions. There’s even a touch of Elvis in Bowie’s singing at times, in the swagger of “Janine” and, oddly enough, in some of his “Song For Bob Dylan.”

At first Bowie seemed to be paying tribute to the pantomime Elvis, the dead Elvis of common tabloid memory. Fat, pilled-up Elvis, the sweaty kung-fu-chopping “thankyouverramuch” Elvis: rock and roll in its buffoonish red giant phase. But the songs that he chose were a fan’s picks.

“I Feel So Bad,” which Presley cut in Nashville in March 1961, was Presley’s take on a Chuck Willis R&B number. It was fitting for Elvis at the time, about to vanish into a morass of cheap, endless movies and soulless soundtrack LPs (“sometimes I wanna stay here/then again, I wanna leave“): its moroseness chased away by an alliance of Floyd Cramer’s piano and Hank Garland’s guitar, and capped with a Boots Randolph saxophone solo that Presley walked over to cheer during the take, as if he’d bet on Randolph in a horse race.

“One Night” was a dirty Smiley Lewis song, an open account of a man caught in an orgy (“the things I did and I saw/would make the earth stand still“), that Elvis cleaned up (slightly) in his 1958 take, a minor hit. Elvis went back to “One Night” in his 1968 TV special, where he tore into the song, retrieving the original Lewis lyric. You can see in the clip what made him maddeningly, exotically Elvis. He’s joking around, mugging for the camera and his friends, parodying himself, not seeming to give a shit about the song and then suddenly in a breath he’s there, committed like a zealot, screaming BEEN TOO LONELY TOO LONG! like he’s confessing to a killing. He lurches up, forcing one of his buddies to rig up a mike for him, and he stands there, balancing his weight with his foot, slashing at his guitar as if he wants the strings to snap off in a pack.

Bowie’s versions of the songs (respectful, even modest) couldn’t compare. Elvis was too high a cliff to climb, to even consider climbing. He paid his respects and called it a tour.

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Part 3: Cartography

The New York Marathon:
Music Hall at Snug Harbor, Staten Island, 11 October 2002.
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 12 October 2002.
Colden Center at Queens College, Queens (queen borough of the 5), 16 October 2002.
Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, Bronx, 17 October 2002.
Beacon Theater, Manhattan, 20 October 2002.

Well, not yet. Bowie seemed unwilling to stop playing. He went back to Europe in September for more TV and radio spots, some record store signings. At a Radio 2 concert he filmed some of the audience with a handheld camera (“to show my daughter exactly what sort of person I associate with”). He offered more prizes for lucky winners, like the first-ever live performance of “Bewlay Brothers.”

On 22 September he played Max-Schmelling-Halle, his first concert in Berlin since 1995. The hall, built in 1996, was at the edge of the Mauerpark, near where the Wall once had cut through Prenzlauer Berg. “Half the audience [that night] had been in East Berlin that time way before [in 1987],” Bowie told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “So now I was face to face with the people I had been singing to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together.”

It was as if his tour had become a leyline of his past lives. A stop in Munich, where he’d recorded some of The Idiot. A return to the once-Hammersmith Odeon (in 2002 it was “the Carling Apollo”; it later became the “HMV Hammersmith Apollo” and is currently the “Eventim Apollo”), with Eno, Bowie’s old schoolfriend George Underwood and his once-drummer John Cambridge in attendance. This gig, finally, was supposed to be the finale.

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But back in New York, Bowie realized he still had some TV appearances booked for October, so why not keep the band together a bit longer (“before they drifted off to family and friends for the winter“)? Bowie credited a friend “Bill” (likely his financial adviser, Bill Zysblat) with the idea of doing a set of shows that roughly followed the route of the New York marathon. It would be a tribute to his still-recovering adopted city, with Bowie playing clubs.

First Snug Harbor, a park two miles west of the Ferry terminal on Staten Island (“Earl Slick country,” Bowie wrote. “Earl was freaked and excited at the same time. ‘Oh God, I’m gonna see some really old faces. We’re gonna get Joey Bag-a-Doughnuts…And then there’s family. I’m never gonna survive this.”). Then up to the rapidly-gentrifying DUMBO (one sign of gentrification: getting an acronym like “DUMBO”) neighborhood of Brooklyn, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I’d seen Joe Strummer play there earlier that year: he’d been late, complaining his cab didn’t know where to go, then ripped into “Bank Robber,” singing it like Elvis.

Colden Center at Queens College, which the band likened to a high school hall. Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, visited by everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby (and which would close its doors in 2004). Finally the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. Bowie closed with “Ziggy Stardust.”

When Gail Ann and I slow-danced through ‘Absolute Beginners’ that night…it didn’t seem like the end of a long and grueling year, but a new time with a horizon that went on forever,” Bowie wrote in 2003, when he was making a new album and planning a global tour. Was this hyperbole? Of course not. It would go on forever. Wouldn’t it?

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“One Night” and “Feel So Bad” were performed 16 August 2002, The Gorge, WA.

Photos: “Elvis Bombay” and “Vigil One: Elvis Death March, Memphis,” Ted Barron, 2002; Giacomo Pepe, “Bowie in Lucca,” 15 July 2002; Adam Bielawski, “Bowie in Chicago,” 8 August 2002. The other shots of Bowie in NYC, mid-October 2002, are from David Bowie: Live in New York, a fine photo collection by Myriam Santos-Kayda.


What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014

99seattle

What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.

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They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.

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“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1” songs and the “Side 2” rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).


Untitled No. 1

January 3, 2013

bleu

Untitled No. 1.

Words are floated together with a dyslexia that is music itself—a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do.

Greil Marcus, on Bob Dylan’s “I’m Not There.

One idea pulled another behind it, like conjurers’ handkerchiefs…I felt more solid myself, and not as if my mind were just a kind of cinema for myriad impressions and emotions to flicker through.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie has called Buddha of Suburbia one of his favorite records. Maybe he said that as a bit of mischief, touting his most obscure record as one of his best, like a hipster connoisseur of his own work (and he was). But Buddha did seem to have resonance for Bowie; something about its creation had felt right with him.

One guess: Buddha finally got Bowie past something that had plagued him since 1987, which was the sour legacy of Never Let Me Down. Recall that Bowie originally felt he’d had a creative resurgence making that album, that he’d come back from the slough of Tonight in fighting trim. Then the record got panned as an all-time-low while its subsequent tour became a symbol of clueless excess. The press seemed to want Bowie to make a barefoot pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to atone for it. The blow to his confidence was staggering; he stumbled through half a decade. After NLMD, he fashioned an anti-“Bowie”-persona with Tin Machine, while he paced his “public” self through soulless exercises like the Sound + Vision tour. Even Black Tie White Noise, for which he was in happier spirits, found him undermining an alleged commercial comeback without much in the way of “art” songs to compensate.

On Buddha, he finally just seemed to let it all go. Maybe the process of the album’s creation, with Bowie thumbing through the past, letting 30 years of songs, memories and film clips flicker by as if in a child’s flipbook, gave him perspective enough to realize that the whole NLMD era would be a footnote. And he had nothing at stake on Buddha, which was just a weird spin-off of an obscure BBC soundtrack. He sat in his studio for a week and, using Erdal Kizilcay as a second pair of hands, fashioned whatever came into his head. Some of it was lovely, some of it was odd, but it was all of a piece, it held together; it was a humbly coherent record.

He closed the record with a thematic pair of songs. One, “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” was an ebbing, a long subtraction, a song made out of what’s left when the tub’s drained (we’ll get to it next week). The other, “Untitled No. 1,” was the sound of the waters rushing in. It was so filled with melody, so dedicated to simple beauties, so easily and blissfully content as music, that it seems to have brokered a creative peace within Bowie. He came to rest here.

blanche

The title was a joke, Bowie naming a pop song as though it was a painting (reflecting a growing interest in contemporary art that, as we’ll soon see, would dominate his life in the mid-Nineties) and reflecting its lyric. The latter’s nonsensical, in the best sense of the word. It’s two verses and a chorus built of words chosen entirely for their flavor, their internal rhymes and rhythms. Lines extend in happy strings of consonance and assonance, cut to fit the generous spread of music that Bowie and Kizilcay laid out.

Bowie had his secret alphabets in “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa,” and he’d used cut-up to generate “random” lyrics since the early Seventies (and he was about to go whole-hog again on Outside, having upgraded to using cut-up software on a Mac Powerbook). But there’s a languid ease in his “non-lyric” here, in his long, slightly descending phrases of indeterminable English. Most of them begin with Bowie in his high register, dwelling on some lovely, opaque words, until he relaxes his grip and slides downward:  In mornings she’s so regal that the [valley/curlew] sighs or Now we’re swimming rock [farther/by there] with [the doll/the idol] by our sides…

Or the indecipherable chorus hook: Shimi Kapoor? See Me Kapoor? City Kapo? There’s no right answer: it’s simply a giddy bubble of emotion, carried in a few swoops of sound. It’s reminiscent of how the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser phrased her songs, breaking lines down to syllables, turning common English into a gorgeous glossolalia (on paper, one line in “Lorelei” is “Lift up your toes /in my mouth,” but Fraser sings it like a Venusian would). Or Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” who, asked to improvise a vocal, decided instead to be an instrument.

There’s possibly a prayer buried in the second verse. The only line that Bowie sings distinctly is “it’s clear that some things never take.

rouge

Still, to stay too long on a lyric that Bowie deliberately obscured is to neglect the track’s other pleasures. The little melodies that Bowie and Kizilcay keep dazzling you with, as if they’re adding more and more spinning plates upon a table: the rising scale motif that’s occasionally met by a groaning bass, like sunlight rousing a sleeper; the swirling gypsy synth figure in the breaks; the simple guitar solo, its player (Bowie?) opening with a line that entrances him so much that he just plays the last notes again and again; the jangling countermelody to the opening scale motif that soon molts into a trebly barrelhouse piano. Or in its most gonzo moment, when “Untitled” suddenly breaks down into a quasi-Indian dance track until the rhythm guitar, which has been the track’s quiet powerhouse from the start, noses in and closes things out.

And then there’s the bleating, neighing sound in the later choruses, which seems like Bowie’s parody of Marc Bolan’s singing voice (see “Black Country Rock”). Had the whole song been a secret requiem for Bolan, Bowie’s fellow traveler, one who had gone lost so many years before? (One can easily imagine Bolan singing something like “Sleepy Kapo.”) If so, it’s a tribute that more honors the living, the gracious hours that we have left to us. “Untitled” burgeons. There are a few times where it seemed as though Bowie could have stood up, then and there, and never recorded another note again: these tiny eddies of finality, in which everything in Bowie’s work and life reconciled for a moment before they broke apart again. This is one of them.

Recorded June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Top to bottom: Juliette Binoche, Trois Coleurs: Bleu; Julie Delphy, Trois Couleurs: Blanc; Irene Jacob, Trois Couleurs: Rouge. (Kieslowski, 1993-1994).


Within You

January 25, 2012

Within You (film).
Within You (soundtrack).

Labyrinth‘s climactic song is a brief piece of psychotic recitative with an unstable time signature (it’s shifting between 3/4, 4/4 and 6/4, though much of the first half is in free time); it lacks a melody and its refrain, if there is one, is a wailing three-line expiration. Who knows what Jim Henson made of “Within You” when he heard it, but he gamely built a sequence around it.

The scene: Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) finally reaches the heart of the Labyrinth, where she discovers an M.C. Escher-inspired three-dimensional set of stairwells. Sarah, like many bright teenagers in the Eighties, has Escher’s Relativity poster on her wall—it’s another clue that the entire Labyrinth world has been assembled out of her mind. Bowie confronts her—only now he’s apparently a hologram able to walk on walls—and she defeats his stratagem by choosing to sacrifice herself (or her potential adulthood) to save her brother.

But the histrionic “Within You” doesn’t really work here. The problem (as commenter Pinstripe Hourglass noted on “As the World Falls Down”) is that Labyrinth has consistently retreated into pretending it’s only a girl’s adventure story whenever it’s encountered signs of adolescent turmoil, so that Sarah and Jareth’s connection is based on a single scene, the ballroom hallucination sequence. Having Jareth act like a catastrophically devastated lover here seems off base. You could argue that he’s offering a variant of the alluring sexual fantasy of the “World Falls Down” scene, with Sarah here shown the operatic emotions of an imagined adulthood, the potential to be heartbroken so much that you can’t breathe. That said, Sarah spends most the sequence running up and down stairs to fetch her brother, as if she’s playing the last level of Dragon’s Lair.

“Within You” begins an octave-spanning bass-synth motif that Bowie’s opening phrases parallel, then there’s a quartet of higher-pitched, more desperate lines (e.g., “your EYES can be so CRUEL”, with Bowie peaking on a high G for each line) that lead to a collapse: the quasi-refrain that expires with the four-bar “I—I can’t live within you.” The portentous vocal and the chimes-of-doom synthesizers suggest that Bowie’s slightly mocking the high dramatics of his Berlin records—it’s like “Warszawa” reworked by a heartsick Goth.

Even by that standard, the arrangement is overkill, with four keyboardists (Brian Gascoigne , David Lawson, Robbie Buchanan and Simon Lloyd) apparently in a contest to see who could go most over the top—maybe Arif Mardin was offering a prize at the end of the session. The laurel should’ve gone to whoever did the synth arpeggios.

Recorded: ca. July-September 1985, London. On the Labyrinth OST.

Top: Simon Knott, “Moscow, 1985.”


Blue Jean

December 7, 2011

Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (alternate video).
Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (12″ remix, Jellybean Benitez).
Blue Jean (live, 1987).
Blue Jean (live, 1990).
Blue Jean (live, 2004).

You can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference.

David Bowie, interview, 1984.

“Blue Jean,” the only track to escape the morass of Tonight, was written off as a cheap score by its creators. Hugh Padgham regretted that of all the promising demos he’d heard, “Blue Jean” was one of the handful that Bowie developed. It was Padgham’s least favorite of the lot. Padgham had always wanted to work with Bowie; cruel fate assigned him Tonight (it’s like a lifelong Hitchcock fan collaborating on Topaz).

And Bowie didn’t think much of “Blue Jean” either—it was the single, it got him on the radio again and let him do a slapstick extended video. It was a vehicle: he used it, he had no love for it. Bit of a sexist rock & roll thing, he later said. Music for picking up girls.

Bowie seemed mired in vague nostalgia at the time of Tonight, pining for the London of his teenage years. He liked working on the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video with Julien Temple because he got to play-act being caught up in London life again (he hadn’t lived there for over a decade now), and he felt Temple was part of a fresh pack. Temple, along with Alex Cox, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, was waking up the moribund British film industry, so working with him made Bowie feel contemporary again. (Bowie soon had a role in Temple’s Absolute Beginners.)

Missing what he called the vitality of the Sixties, the smartness in dress, the sudden dominance of youth, Bowie found in Thatcherite London at least a simulacrum of it. After all, there was money, fashion, swinging parties, respectable drugs. But Sixties London also had taken its savor from working-class life and provincial imports, creating, if for a moment, a “classless” society of the young, wild and hip. Not quite the case in aspirational Eighties London, an after-hours playground for young professionals.

So “Blue Jean” is a throwback in a period of throwbacks. It’s even more retro than “Let’s Dance,” taking cues from Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Sam Cooke (“somebody send me“), Sixties rock & roll (Carlos Alomar’s arpeggiated guitar in the verses has echoes of “If I Needed Someone”). Bowie’s low-pitched word-tumbling vocal in the verse suggests an uptempo Jacques Dutronc, the alto saxophonist sounds like a Georgie Fame player who’s been given a slightly longer leash. Taking Robin Clark out of the vocal chorus alters its sound, making the now-all-male backing singers sound conspiratorial and even slightly lustful.

“Blue Jean” herself is an exotic temptress out of a Frankie Laine song, or, worse, a Tom Jones track (she’s got “Latin roots”). If she has an ancestor in the Bowie catalog, it’s the original manic pixie hippie girl “Janine.”

A basic workout in D major (the slight tension in the early bars of each verse is owed to a wavering between D and a D suspended fourth), “Blue Jean”‘s chorus moves between the dominant, A major, and the mediant, F# minor—so the song is mainly keeping to the basic tones of the D chord (D, F#, A); there are no real surprises except swapping in a natural C (on “police bike”) for a sharp one. Two verses, three choruses, no bridges or solos save a four-bar Alomar riffing transition. “Blue Jean” ends just when you get sick of it.

There’s a lot of small pleasures to be found: take how Omar Hakim slightly varies the climactic drum fill at the end of each verse—first hard on the snare, then quick on the bass drum. Or Alomar’s typically crafty rhythm playing (there’s the sweet way that he lags against the beat midway through the verse (as on “always let you down when you need ’em“)). And the marimba player Guy St. Onge makes the track, accenting Alomar’s guitar in the verses, meshing with the drums to build up to the chorus, where it plays counter-melodies to the vocals. “Blue Jean” is fun, catchy, flash; it moves well, it does its business quickly. One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in September 1984 (EA 181, #6 UK, #8 US). The Temple-directed 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” promotional video used the age-old “doppleganger” formula where the star plays both nerd and cool kid (for a more recent example, see Taylor Swift). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist, though the highlight for me is “Screamin’ Lord Byron” applying his makeup while listening to “Warszawa.”

Top: Miami police officer Tina Hicks in simulator training, November 1984. (via the fantastic If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… blog).


Crystal Japan

September 1, 2011



Crystal Japan.
Crystal Jun Rock advert (starring D. Bowie).

A minor cultural oddity exposed by the all-seeing Internet is how various celebrities get a quick paycheck by doing TV ads in countries where they once assumed their primary fan base wouldn’t see them, touting everything from Polish banks to Japanese beers. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation captures a time when this type of sell-out was more discreet.

In early 1980, Bowie did a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer, Crystal Jun Rock, filming a spot at a Kyoto temple and licensing out an instrumental outtake called “Fuji Moto San” (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “Fuje San Moto”). “The money is a useful thing,” Bowie later said, also noting that he got more airplay via TV ads then he did with radio at the time.

Though often referred to as a Scary Monsters outtake, and originally intended to be the album’s closer (a Japanese counterpart to “It’s No Game (No. 1)”), it’s possible that at least some of “Crystal Japan” was recorded prior to those sessions, perhaps in Mountain Studios in Switzerland. (It’s established that Bowie filmed the ad in March 1980, in a break between Monsters‘ recording sessions.) “Japan” sounds unlike anything else from Scary Monsters, too—it’s far more in line with earlier ambient pieces like “Moss Garden.”

While it made sense to cut it from Scary Monsters, where “Japan” would have been an even more anomalous LP closer than “Secret Life of Arabia,” it’s a shame that “Crystal Japan” has been generally forgotten, as it has some of Bowie’s most gorgeous melodies of the period: the first childlike motif that begins at :25, the subsequent “choral” melody and development that follow it, and the resolution, with a rising-and-falling synthesized bass (almost gong-like), and the tiny three-note patterns that appear before the curtain falls. It’s “Warszawa” in miniature.

Recorded: Jan 1980?, Mountain Studios?, February 1980, Power Station, NYC. Released as a Japan-only single (RCA SS-3270) in spring 1980 (c/w “Alabama Song”) and then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” in March 1981. Later included on the Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters and All Saints. Trent Reznor (subconsciously) nicked the melody for Nine Inch Nails’ “A Warm Place” from it (confession to Bowie @2:00 in this interview).

Top: The Young Marble Giants, 1980.