Reissues: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

February 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Freecloud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

November 30, 2009

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (LP).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1973).

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Freecloud

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

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

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

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

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass (not cello, as many references have it)—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

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

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


Nature Boy

April 7, 2014

01cheneyball

Nature Boy (Nat King Cole).
Nature Boy (Nat King Cole, live).
Nature Boy (Bowie).
Nature Boy (Bowie and Massive Attack).

When I was young I dreamed of a boy searching for God. Now I am old and dream of God searching for a boy.

eden ahbez, 1977.

One spring night in Los Angeles in 1947, a strange man on a bicycle tried to go backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. Thwarted, he gave Cole’s manager Mort Ruby a soiled, rolled-up score which Ruby passed on to Cole, noting that it came from a man who, with his shoulder-length hair and tunic, resembled Jesus Christ.

Cole read the score, was taken with the song, began singing it live. As it played well with audiences, Cole wanted to record it but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address. After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR copy) found ahbez camped underneath one of the “L”s of the Hollywood sign.

As Space Age Pop notes, Cole perceived that beneath the vaguely-mystic parable of the lyric was a catchy Yiddish tune (ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle, a Jew in Brooklyn in 1908). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, allowing Cole to leisurely scale ahbez’s wide intervals (e.g., the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”), Cole recorded ahbez’s “Nature Boy” on 22 August 1947. By the following summer it was a #1 pop hit, covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra and parodied by Red Ingle’s Unnatural Seven. Cole made “Nature Boy” a standard and it in turn made him. Thanks to its success (and that of “The Christmas Song,” cut around the same time), Cole was no longer the sharp leader of an adventurous modern jazz trio but a mainstream crooner, a figure too easily written off in jazz histories.1

The Wild Eyed Boy lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life. He loves the mountain and the mountain loves him. I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure.

David Bowie, on “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” 1969.

“Nature Boy” made ahbez as well, got him written up in Life, Time and Newsweek. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was the first postwar media hippie, a transition figure between Wandervogel nature cults and the gestating counterculture (in the Sixties, ahbez would hang out with Donovan, have his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attend Beach Boys Smile sessions). He was one of a group of bohemians (“Gypsy Boots” was another) living around LA at the time, promoting vegetarianism, health food and outdoor living and basically drafting modern California. Ahbez’s look, his “Eastern” philosophies and his live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos were a primer for at least one generation (some say R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him).

After selling a few more songs to Cole, ahbez (he said only God was entitled to capital letters) recorded his first album in 1960: Eden’s Island, the sort of beatnik exotica that the young David Jones of Bromley treasured (see another of Bowie’s teenage favorites, Ken Nordine’s Word Jazz albums). Ahbez’s East Coast counterpart was Moondog, a jazz composer who dressed up as a Viking warrior and stood on the street in midtown Manhattan (Bowie was delighted to see Moondog upon first visiting New York in 1971). But though ahbez and Gypsy Boots and Moondog were reduced to jokes, cast as court jesters for the space age, their mere appearance on a TV talk show or in some Time feature, or even just the slow, questing melody of “Nature Boy” on yet another recording of it, was a rebuke for a culture consumed with death, sex and merchandising. You don’t have to live like you think you have to.

Ahbez lived in LA for the rest of his life, watched it become the world he’d offered in the Forties, watched that world fade away in turn. He spent his last years preparing a final statement, a book and an album, both of which he never finished. He died at the age of 86 in 1995, reportedly after being struck by a car [turns out it was just a car accident—see comments].

ahbez-sinatra-modrn-screen-1948

Like most songwriters worth their salt, ahbez had a magpie’s ear. For “Nature Boy,” he took his melody from Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 and probably from “Shvayg Mayn Harts,” a Yiddish pop song from 1935. The latter’s composer, Herman Yablokoff, sued ahbez, who called to protest, saying the melody had come to him while he was up in the California mountains, “as if angels were singing it,” to which Yablokoff replied that if angels had been singing it, “they must have bought a copy of my song.” (They settled out of court.)

“Nature Boy” had no refrains, just two 16-bar verses, with only slight harmonic and melodic differences between the latter. Its D minor progression offered a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roaming over land and sea in the middle bars and feinted at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Despite its legendary first appearance on a soiled piece of parchment (as though ahbez had written “Nature Boy” up on a mountain like some Epistle to the Californians), the song showed evidence of more painstaking craft, of ahbez spending nights at a piano to assemble the song: take how most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on).

What Cole and later interpreters like John Coltrane and Bowie found was that the song, already rhythmically free, allowed freedom of movement on other fronts: you could twist and belabor the vocal melody all you’d like, or you could stick to ahbez’s notes over an assault on his chord structures (if you were Coltrane, you did both). For Cole, a hip musician who’d become the voice of Brylcreem America in the Fifties, singing “Nature Boy” was a way of letting his inner hipster self out to play for a few minutes. For Coltrane, who recorded the song twice in 1965, “Nature Boy” served notice that he was done with the earth and was off to annex space.

003

That’s why we’ve got audiences who clap and cheer at the songs in cinemas. They’re not cheering the projectionist. What they are doing is communing with everyone else in the room and saying, ‘Ha ha ha. I get it, too.”

Baz Luhrmann.

As Bowie was recording Toy in 2000, the Australian director Baz Luhrmann was filming Moulin Rouge, a musical in which Belle Epoque France bohemians sing Elton John, T. Rex and Labelle songs.

Luhrmann, never low in ambition, said he aimed to reinvent the musical and restore it to its former populist role. Take Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in Saint Louis, he said.The film’s set in 1904 but its music is mostly Forties big-band Hollywood. “In an old musical, the audience had a relationship with the music before they went in [the theater],” Luhrmann said. They’d heard the songs in other contexts, in a stage musical or on the radio or in another film. So in Moulin Rouge when Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman fall in love by singing the refrains of a dozen pop songs (“I Will Always Love You,” “Silly Love Songs,” “I Was Made for Loving You,” “Love Is Like Oxygen” etc.) to each other, it’s pop as a common emotional language, the sequence is a love song meant more for the audience than the characters. And the mash-ups of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge sequences, with “Lady Marmalade,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Offenbach’s “Can Can” overlapping on the soundtrack, predicted the anarchy of a random YouTube playlist.

Luhrmann originally wanted to use Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” to open his film but Stevens turned him down, citing religious objections. Bowie, who’d already agreed to let Luhrmann use “Heroes” and “Diamond Dogs“, offered to sing “Nature Boy” as a new opener. As it happened, Stevens’ rejection helped Luhrmann clarify his film. “Nature Boy” became Moulin Rouge‘s theme song, its last line a motif for his storyline.

Yet the bohemians of Luhrmann’s film (John Leguizamo as a grotesque caricature of Toulouse-Lautrec, McGregor as a sunnier Frédéric Moreau) were far from the world of eden ahbez. This was bohemia as a visual shorthand—ratty clothes, cold-water flats, tasteful drug use, tasteful sex, noble pure-heart characters set against corrupted squares—and it owed an unacknowledged debt to Jonathan Larson’s Rent (both musicals had used Puccini’s La Boheme for their plot). You could say ahbez’s Life profile in 1948 had begun this, the sense of fashioning a bohemian life from a few magazine features and well-chosen songs. Moulin Rouge suggested any viable counterculture was gone, was now kitsch, was just one color in a catalog, a specialty TV channel. It was play-acting by beautiful people, which perhaps bohemia always was.

Moulin-Rouge-nicole-kidman-750637_1600_900

Still, there remained “Nature Boy,” odd and unassimilable. Neither of Bowie’s takes on the song were integral to the film (Leguizamo sang “Nature Boy” in the opening; McGregor sang its last line throughout). Bowie’s “orchestral” version was only heard, mixed distantly, in a few shots, while the take that he cut with Massive Attack, slotted for the end credits, was ditched because “Bowie and Massive ended up being so dark [while] we had to resurrect the audience during the credits,” Luhrmann said.

In Bowie’s “orchestral” version of “Nature Boy,” he tinkers with the melody in the expected way, alters a few phrasings, changes a few emphases: he sidesteps the expected rise on “very far,” stresses fools rather than kings. It’s “Nature Boy” as a European art song, Bowie gravely responding to the various scarlet moods of Craig Armstrong’s orchestration. Yet just when the song’s about to tastefully wind down, Bowie gives a pole-vault for a last note: “RETUUUUURRRRN!” It’s a welcome grand dame moment, up there with “Lady Grinning Soul” in Bowie closing grandiosities.

It also was close to ahbez’s intended reworking of his song. Up until his death, ahbez had recorded tracks with the engineer Joe Romersa, including a new version of “Nature Boy” that reflected what he’d taken in over the long haul. “He said to me, ‘Joe, that lyric, ‘To love and be loved in return’… it’s too much of a deal. There’s no deal in love.’ He wanted it to say, The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just love and be loved,'” Romersa said in an interview. “The final recording would’ve also altered the melody slightly, with “Nature Boy” rising up in a grand Ben Hur-like cadence that reflects love’s ultimate triumph.” As ahbez’s version has never been released, Bowie’s should suffice.

The Bowie/Massive Attack “Nature Boy,” mainly the work of Robert “3D” Del Naja, starts like a machine waking itself up. A repeating two-note bassline becomes a pulsebeat and a few other characters appear: a three-note phrase on plucked strings, an ebb-and-flow synth figure. Bowie’s set back in the mix. His voice sounds sped up, thinned out, reduced to a texture. He’s a gear in a clock; his phrasings and his melodic choices are minor colors in the mix. His “he passed my way” is now somber, his rise on “many things” is washed out by the roar of a guitar loop. And his last line’s drained of any drama or triumph. It’s just Bowie slowly singing the words as if he’s trying to piece together a memory. It’s enough; the song still shines in the box Del Naja built to house it. In its last seconds comes Kidman’s whispered “I love you.” As ahbez said, just love and be loved.

Recorded (Bowie vocal) ca. February 2001, Looking Glass Studios?, prod. Visconti; (orchestra) ca. late 2000, Sydney, Craig Armstrong: conductor/arranger; (Massive Attack version) (Bowie vocal) February 2001, New York; (music, mixing Del Naja) London. Both versions were released 8 May 2001 on the Moulin Rouge OST (Interscope 06949 3035 2).

Sources: Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island”; Jack Gottlieb’s Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish; Life, 10 May 1948; Harvey Kubernik’s interview with Luhrmann (collected in Hollywood Shack Job); Brian Chidester, “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.

1: That said, Cole made the occasional great jazz record well into his mainstream days (see “I Know That You Know,” with Stuff Smith, from 1957).

Other recommended naturals: Etta Jones (1963), James Brown (1965), Peggy Lee (1948), Miles Davis (1955 w/Mingus, Teddy Charles, Elvin Jones), Big Star (1975), Milt Jackson Big 4 (1975), George Benson (1977), Kurt Elling (1996).

Top: The new vice president and his wife take a spin, 20 January 2001; ahbez and Sinatra, ahbez and Cole (both 1948); McGregor and Kidman, Moulin Rouge (Luhrmann, 2001).


1965 Demos Revisited

January 28, 2019

r-4491526-1367099319-9235.jpeg

That’s Where My Heart Is.
I Want My Baby Back.
Bars of the County Jail.
How Can I Forget You (fragment).
It’s True, My Love (fragment).
I Live In Dreams (fragment).

With the surfacing of three 1965 Bowie demos that no one (barring, presumably, some Bowie friends and his archivist) knew about before, his development as a songwriter has a touch more light shed upon it.

Only three of his mid-1965 solo demos have been released, on the Rhino CD collection Early On, and apparently only then because Bowie’s once-producer Shel Talmy had them. Given that these “new” demos—“How Can I Forget You,” “It’s True, My Love” and “I Live in Dreams”—are similar in tone and construction to Early On‘s “That’s Where My Heart Is” and “I Want My Baby Back,” this suggests these hail from the same period.

(“Bars of the County Jail,” Bowie’s jaunty singalong Western, whose lyric he took from an English composition written during his days at Bromley Tech, was an outlier, although it’s an ancestor, thematically, of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“).

david-bowie-1965

In 1965, Talmy was looking to corner the market on young British rock & roll songwriters. With Pete Townshend and Ray Davies in his stable, he set aside occasional studio time for Bowie, whom he considered a viable, if rough prospect. Bowie’s demo sessions, hailing from around the time he left the Manish Boys and joined the Lower Third, produced nothing of remote commercial appeal, something that Talmy realized at the time (“it was weird music”). (It’s unknown if these newly-unearthed demos were cut in a studio or (more likely) at Bowie’s home or at his then-manager’s London flat.)

The mid-1965 demos document an ambitious young man, with two flop “hard” R&B singles under his belt, shifting into a softer, more pop-oriented sound. It’s the start of the trail that will lead to “Sell Me a Coat” and “When I Live My Dream,” and ultimately to Hunky Dory.

Of the “new” demos (which have been heard in 30-second fragments offered by the auction house), “How Can I Forget You” has Bowie working up a lower-pitched crooning voice in the opening verse. It’s similar in that regard to “That’s Where My Heart Is,” where a fledgling Bowie baritone is heard at about fifty seconds in.

“That’s Where My Heart Is” uses the blueprint of Gene Pitney singles like “I’m Gonna Be Strong” and “Yesterday’s Hero,” whose near-conversational verses built to manically-sung choruses. Bowie pegged his verse melody to rigid down-strums on his guitar, gave a touch of Petula Clark to his looser-phrased pre-chorus, and then shot for the heights in his refrains. The lyric is hokum and its bridge sounds like the work of an even greener songwriter, suggesting that was an older piece Bowie wedged into the song.

“I Live in Dreams,” at least from the opening verse in the fragment, could be the font of some of Bowie’s Sixties lyrical preoccupations—a yen to escape mundane suburban reality (sometimes even through astral projection—see “Did You Ever Have a Dream?“) and the isolation of the self. He’s yearning to find a soulmate on his narrow wavelength but resisting the idea of “falling in love.” “You own my heart but not my mind/ Whatever I do, I shall be free!” Bowie sings, a line that could have been in “Cygnet Committee.”

The least of the demos are “It’s True, My Love,” which from available evidence aims to be a poor man’s Herman’s Hermits song, and Early On‘s “I Want My Baby Back.” Both demos find Bowie attempting vocal harmonies beyond the roughneck call-and-responses of his first singles. “I Want My Baby Back” is double-tracked throughout, with an additional Bowie lead for the refrains; “It’s True, My Love” has what’s possibly an octave-higher Bowie on the refrain, first answering the lead, then harmonizing on the last line.

“I Want My Baby Back” needed a catchier guitar riff and a lyrical rewrite (its verses marry clichés with lines like “I tried to phone her but the cable was broke by a storm”) to go anywhere, and didn’t. While it’s hard to give a verdict on  “It’s True, My Love,” given its fragmented form, it’s unlikely that it greatly transformed in its latter minutes.

By the end of 1965, Bowie had moved further across the board as a songwriter, as he’d written his Mod version of “Silly Boy Blue” and “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” by that point. But it’s enjoyable to get a peek at him while still in the early stages of becoming himself. The sudden appearance of these “new” demos suggest a number of unknown lost Bowie songs from the Sixties, more of which may surface in the near future.

Recorded: ca. spring-summer 1965, IBC Studios? Bowie home studios? Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar. First release (That’s Where, Baby Back, Bars): 30 July 1991, Early On (1964-1966) (Rhino R2 70526).

REQUISITE PROMO BIT:  Far more on Bowie’ Sixties is found in Rebel Rebel. Also, hey Ashes to Ashes is publishing in less than a month! Various New York readings and radio things are happening from 20 to 25 February. It looks very likely there will be an event in London on 14 March 2019, and hopefully a Manchester event soon before or afterward. More information soon, with hope.


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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:

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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…

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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:

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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…

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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.

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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..

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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…

David_Bowie_1976

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…

david-bowie-heroes

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.


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

“Liza Jane” (Toy)
“Louie Louie Go Home”
“I Pity The Fool”
“Take My Tip”
“That’s Where My Heart Is”
“I Want My Baby Back”
Bars of the County Jail”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
(Toy)
“Baby Loves That Way”
(Toy)
“I’ll Follow You”
“Glad I’ve Got Nobody”
“Baby, That’s a Promise”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”
“And I Say to Myself”
“Do Anything You Say”
“Good Morning Girl”
“I Dig Everything”
(Toy)
“I’m Not Losing Sleep”

More: Britain on Film (Look at Life): “Fashion,” London on Film: “Suburbs,” “Why I Hate the Sixties” (2004); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (conclusion); Devin McKinney on Colin MacInnes; Nick Bentley, “Translating English: Youth, Race and Nation in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners;” Bowie: Tonight interview, November 1964; The Beatles Anthology: 1963, 1964, 1965; “British Mods and Rockers” (BBC); scenes from Billy Liar;  Georgie Fame, “Yeh Yeh“; Glenn Gould, “The Search for Petula Clark“(1967); Bowie, radio interview, Marquee Club, 1966; Pye Studios.

Chapter 2: Gnome Man’s Land (1966-1968)

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“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
(Toy)
“Over the Wall We Go”
“Uncle Arthur”
“She’s Got Medals”
“Join the Gang”
“Did You Ever Have a Dream”
“There Is a Happy Land”
“We Are Hungry Men”
“Sell Me a Coat
” (remake)
“Little Bombardier”
“Maid of Bond Street”
“Silly Boy Blue”
(Toy)
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
(remake)
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)

David-Bowie-1967

“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Pancho
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
(Toy)
“Karma Man”
(BBC, 1968)
“C’est La Vie”

“Even a Fool Learns to Love”
“In the Heat of the Morning” (Toy)
“London Bye Ta-Ta”
(1970 remake)
“When I’m Five” (BBC, 1968
) (demo, 1969)
“Social Kind of Girl”
“Ching-a-Ling”
“The Mask”

More: The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960: Ep. 1, opening sequence); Anthony Newley, live, 1964; Alan Klein, “I Wanna Be a Beatnik“, 1964; Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (esp. “Uncle Ernest,” “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” and “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”); There Is a Happy Land (1974 adaptation); Heinrich Harrer, “My Life in Forbidden Lhasa” (1955); Ophiel, The Art and Practice of Astral Projection (1961);  David Guy, “Christmas Humphreys”; The Prisoner, excerpt from “Fall Out” (1967); “Forgotten Heroes: Big Jim Sullivan“; The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966); The Fugs, “Dirty Old Man,”(1966); Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” (1957); The Image (Armstrong, 1967, excerpts).

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

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“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
(demo)
“An Occasional Dream”
(demo)
“Janine”
“Conversation Piece”
(Toy)
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (B-side)
(LP remake)
“Don’t Sit Down”

“God Knows I’m Good”
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
“Cygnet Committee”
” (“Lover to the Dawn”, demo version)
“Memory of a Free Festival”
” (1970 remake)

More:  2001: A Space Odyssey (“Stargate” sequence); The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941“; Apollo 11, pre-flight conference, July 1969;  International Times (1969 archive); Scott Walker, live in Japan, 1970; Jean Itard, Victor de l’Aveyron (French) (English); Prof. John Merryman, France: May 1968; MC5, “Kick Out the Jams” live, Detroit, 1969; Rolling Stones, Hyde Park free concert, July 1969; George McKay, “The Free Festivals and Fairs of Albion” (in Senseless Acts of Beauty); Beckenham Free Festival, 1969.


I Have Not Been to Oxford Town

April 22, 2013

95staten

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (rehearsal, fragment, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (first live performance, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1996).

It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.

Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable—long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’

There was a simple G major harmonic structure to work with: the verses held on G, with a descending turnaround through F and A minor; the refrain just shifted between G and its IV chord, C major; the bridge finally introduced the dominant (V) chord, a D major. As per Eno’s account, Bowie seems to have sewed together a vocal out of rhythms (one likely starting point was using the F-Am turnaround to underpin the two-note backing vocal melody: “all’s…well“), auditioning meters, playing with vowel alignments and consonance: e.g., my attorney seems sincere, with the little internal rhyme of “ney” and “seem” and the four consecutive “ess” sounds. There’s a severity to his verse phrasings, with their short vowels and Bowie’s curt appraisal of each syllable, letting some pass, haranguing others (Baby Grace is the victimm). And it’s countered by the almost jovial lightness in the chorus, one long dancing line of melody, with its easy phrases and rich rhymes: take “toll the bell,” both a consonant rhyme and onomatopoeiac (& the tolling’s echoed by the “all’s well” hook two bars later).

The fact that Bowie came up with the lyric (and top melody?) in a half-hour is witness to his creative strength at the time. Working at a steady pace since Buddha of Suburbia, gaining the confidence and insight to abandon most of one idea (the Leon suites) in favor of, at the relatively last minute, new, improvised material, it’s as if Bowie had physically willed himself back into an earlier state of creativity. It couldn’t, and it didn’t, last for long. But it produced “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is a marvel, the best song Bowie wrote in the Nineties.

oxfrd

As a rhythm guitarist, I do my stuff knowing a lead guitarist will come in. So I stay away from certain frequencies, concentrate on making a sturdy frame.

Carlos Alomar, 1995.

It’s all just paint, right?

Nile Rodgers, on making recordings.

“Oxford Town” isn’t the end of Carlos Alomar’s work with Bowie: he would play on the subsequent Outside tour and he’ll turn up to take two last bows in the early 2000s. But “Oxford Town” is his finale, his last great accompaniment.

Reeves Gabrels is in the mix as well: he’s likely playing the distorted, seething line, mixed left, that lingers throughout the first verse and chorus like a bad conscience. Alomar’s first unmistakably heard* in the second pre-chorus, playing a little dancing line, mixed center, that jabs against the verse melody, and then, gathering confidence, he starts conniving against the beat in the main chorus. There’s the nervy arpeggios in the bridge and then, when the verse returns, Alomar stays on, riffing, converting Gabrels in the process (or is it another Alomar track? Whoever’s responsible, the distorted guitar stops sulking and begins dancing as well).

And the coda is a last duet, Bowie and arguably his finest collaborator. By the last forty seconds of the track, there are at least three Alomar guitar dubs, talking to each other, making filigrees around the sturdy, constant melody that Bowie sings. Alomar, either on his Parker Fly or, even more fitting, his classic Alembic Maverick, plays bright, hook-filled lines, mainly keeping to the top three strings. The last few seconds of “Oxford Town” are Alomar alone, a sideman having taken the spotlight by force, hooked into a riff that seems like it will never end until it drops dead.

dbb

There’s a ghost in “Oxford Town,” too. Bowie’s vocal echoes someone who he’d never acknowledged before: David Byrne (compare Bowie’s “lord, get me out of here” to Byrne’s phrasing on lines like “wasting precious time” in “Found a Job”).

Bowie and Byrne had kept to separate worlds, with Eno as their only nexus point (edit: “DJ” is allegedly Bowie imitating Byrne, as per a Talking Heads bio—see comments). But as Outside was supposed to be an American album, Leon Blank an alleged American suspect, this gave Bowie a way to use Byrne, particularly his vocal on “Once In a Lifetime,” as a thread in his backdrop. And Bowie and Byrne’s takes on America were fundamentally similar. Byrne was born in Scotland, grew up in Ontario before winding up in Maryland. For him, America would always be a foreign country, especially the vast heartland that he spied from airplanes or bus windows (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,” he’d later sing.) This alienation gave him a way to appreciate “native” American artifacts as works of art: he transcribed game shows and acted them out, and in the late Seventies, he became fascinated by radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers.

Like “Oxford Town,” “Once in a Lifetime” had started as a rhythm track, anchored on Tina Weymouth’s alternating three-note bassline. What Bowie mainly took from “Lifetime” was Byrne’s patter in the verses, a chant-like phrasing Byrne himself had taken from evangelical radio**: You may find yourself! in another part of the world! Hectoring repetition, mainly keeping to one note (“you may find yourself”), balanced with elated, upward-tugging, rhyme-heavy phrases (“behind the wheel of a large automobile!“) You can hear Byrne in Bowie’s last verse, the repetition and rhythmic variations as”Leon” confesses/denies his crimes, sounding as if the words are ripping out of him. If I had not ripped the fabric…if I had not met Ramona…

There’s also a similarity in the two songs’ refrains, which offer a way out from the claustrophobia of their verses. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the exit’s through water: whether metaphor (the aridity of materialist America in the verse met by the communist bounty of water) or religion (Christian baptism, the Islamic ideal of submission to God) or just signalling the freer, more rhythmically dense music (Byrne was referencing Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy”) that the Heads had started playing.

In “Oxford Town,” the escape is through sound: tolling bells, collective hums, chants (and after all, only sound can escape a prison cell). But who’s in the cell, anyhow? Time for Leon Blank to speak.

six

Manager: I should like to know if anyone has ever heard of a character who gets right out of his part and perorates and speechifies as you do. Have you ever heard of a case? I haven’t.

Father: You have never met such a case, sir, because authors, as a rule, hide the labor of their creations…Imagine such a misfortune as I have described to you: to be born of an author’s fantasy, and be denied life by him; and then answer me if these characters left alive, and yet without life, weren’t right in doing what they did do and are doing now to persuade him to give them their stage life.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Act III.

Outside was the first time “in 20 years” (or so he told Billboard) that Bowie had played characters. It was different from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, where he’d gone too deep into the characters, tailored their costumes too tightly to his “real” self, he said. On Outside, Bowie would play a more traditional narrator/author role.

But the characters couldn’t even attain the depth of cartoons. Those that had the most signs of life were those that had something akin to Bowie: the alternate-life suburban dreamer in Algeria Touchshriek and the all-conquering artistic ego in Ramona Stone. The nebulous narrator figures, the Artist and Minotaur, were just Bowie “doing the police in different voices.” The rest were press-ganged from movies that Bowie liked: Baby Grace was Bowie imitating David Lynch’s Laura Palmer, while Nathan Adler was a private-eye mingle: Rick Deckard, Philip Marlowe (more Elliott Gould than Bogart), Gary Oldman’s Jack Grimaldi.

This left Leon Blank, accused killer. Leon began as Bowie riffing on Tricky (with a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat thrown in) but the character was reactive, passive, only seen through the eyes of others. Then Bowie, dashing out the lyric that became “Oxford Town,” finally gave Leon a monologue. The character took on life, began pushing back against its erstwhile creator.

“Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s song, some last words from a jailhouse, which had been a favorite scenario of Bowie’s youth (see “Bars of the County Jail” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”). The first verses find Leon pacing his cell, giving a sketch of his confinement: the food’s foul, the bedsheets are decent, his attorney means well, the priest seems willing to listen. The cold, slightly hectoring tone that Bowie uses makes Leon’s report seem like a man ticking off a list before he goes on a trip.

Then there’s a bridge, and Leon stops reading his lines and starts talking to his author:

This is your shadow on my wall…
This is what I could have been.

I have not been to Oxford Town isn’t just an alibi, it’s a criticism. Bowie failed to give his creations life, stuck them in ridiculous situations, gave them nothing to feed on. Leon kicks against the cheap story that he was folded into: If I had not met Ramona (who was Ramona anyhow?)….If I had not ripped the fabric. “Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s retort: yes, look at the blankets and the priest you gave me—they’re just cheap props. What did you really give me? Nothing. Here, this is what I could have been.

On stage in Paris a year later, Bowie gave one possible ending. Someone threw a white scarf on stage and Bowie, with his old mime’s instincts, played with the scarf, twining it around his neck, making a sling with it for his arm. Then he strung it into a noose, and, while singing the end choruses, aped hanging himself.

lb

[Outside] is only symbolically anguished. I think we are in for a very good time when we get to the next millennium.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

There would be no sequel albums to Outside, no 2. Inside or 3. Afrikaans or A Night in Oxford Town. No more clues or red herrings or murder revelations or narratives. No grand concert with Eno to mark the millennium in Vienna. No more work (ever?) with Eno. Outside was, arguably, a failure. The album that came out of the implosion of the Leon project was hard to digest: even its die-hard fans may admit it’s overlong and oddly sequenced.

Still, perhaps this unwieldy apparatus, this compilation of role-playing games and Verbasized cut-up lyrics, of computer-generated portraits and vocoded voices, Minotaur paintings and barely-readable “diaries,” was what Bowie needed to finally work on a grand scale again. It’s as if a man who’d once been able to fly now needed some great jerry-rigged dirigible to get him off the ground. But he was still flying. If this was the price paid to get “Oxford Town” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,“The Motel” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” well, it wasn’t that dear a price.

In Bowie’s promotional interviews for Outside, he kept saying that his millennial obsessions, the blood and mayhem and piercings and scarifications of the Nineties art world and pop culture, were a purging. We needed to burn the dross and relics of the old century to clear a way for the new one, which would be a calmer time. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Nineties can now seem like a soap bubble, a playtime in which a world that could have gone anywhere scared itself with trifles and serial killer stories and “art murders.” Despite the murdered girl at the heart of it, Outside generally sounds optimistic, open. It was of its time: the Nineties sometimes felt like they were the gangway to the future we’d imagined, certainly not the future we got.

All’s well. A town crier’s words, after all. Let the old century die, move on. Bowie did: he went on tour to promote Outside, fell in love with his band, made his next record a tribute to them. Pay off Nathan Adler, write him out of the series. Toll the bell, strike the set, say goodbye, baby, and amen.

Recorded 17-20 January (poss. overdubs in February) 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Covered as “I Have Not Been to Paradise” by Zoe Poledouris on the Starship Troopers soundtrack in 1996.

* I’m thinking that Alomar also plays the sliding hook that begins in the first verse, but it could’ve been Gabrels.

**Byrne was taping broadcasts of these preachers around 1979-1980 for what later became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Top: Andreas Freund, “Staten Island Ferry,” 1995; Jean-Baptiste Mondino, back cover of David Byrne, 1994; Ian McKellen, Alison Prior, Margaret Drabble and John Fortune rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 1959; “Oxford Town” lyrics (in theory); Bowie/Leon.



Station To Station

December 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

2.

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

Ian MacDonald.

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

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

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

3.

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

Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”

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

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

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

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

4.

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

Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

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

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

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

6.

Like a child, playing with sound.

Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.

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

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

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

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

7.

Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?

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

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

8.

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

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

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

9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded October-November 1975.

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

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

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


Oh! You Pretty Things

February 5, 2010

Oh! You Pretty Things (LP, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Peter Noone, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (broadcast, 1972).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).


You must face the fact that yours is the last generation of homo sapiens. As to the nature of that change, we can tell you very little. All we have discovered is that it starts with a single individual—always a child—and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals around the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.

In a few years it will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them…

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End.

He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

John Updike, Rabbit, Run.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” was the first composition to emerge from Bowie’s composition binge in late 1970 (Bowie’s new publisher nabbed it for Peter Noone to record as his debut single) and it signals a change in Bowie’s writing. For one thing, it’s likely the first song Bowie composed on piano rather than on guitar. Songs composed on piano are often more harmonically adventurous than guitar songs—in “Pretty Things,” some fifteen different chords appear over the course of a three-minute song (with every pitch in the D-flat scale (the home key) eventually used). John Lennon in the late ’60s started composing on piano because it led him to unexpected chord progressions, and some of Bowie’s songs from this period suggest he was following a similar design.

There’s also a greater irony and clarity in Bowie’s lyric. Sure, Bowie’s singing about the supplanting of homo sapiens by a more evolved species (you know, your basic pop lyric), territory he already covered in “The Supermen,” but where “The Supermen” is brutish and ridiculous, with its naked Titans grappling each other on some lost island, “Oh! You Pretty Things” is charming, eerie and domestic. It opens one peaceful morning in a quiet English home:

Wake up you sleepy head,
Put on your clothes, shake off your bed.
Put another log on the fire for me,
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee.

And when the cataclysm comes, the singer regards it as he would a traffic accident:

Look out my window, what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me…

The lyric owes a great deal to Clarke’s Childhood’s End (Nicholas Pegg suggests another likely inspiration, Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, which Bowie namechecks). In Childhood’s End, a race of aliens called the Overlords arrive on Earth to end war, hunger and unrest. (Spoilers ahead.) But the Overlords are revealed as midwives, here to supervise the birth of the next species of humanity. It ends with the final generation of homo sapiens living out their days in empty peace while their children roam about the stars, acting in unknowable ways.

I think that we have created a child who will be so exposed to the media that he will be lost to his parents by the time he is 12.

David Bowie, new father, interview with Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

The resonance of “Oh! You Pretty Things” comes from how it uses these Nietzschean SF trappings as a metaphor for how a generation regards its successor with longing, fear and resentment (never more so than with the so-called Greatest Generation and their children the Boomers), or, even closer to home, how a parent can regard his or her children. Once you become a parent, you lose precedence in your own life—your own needs and desires are shunted aside, and you spend years as servant and guide to your replacement, who will go on to have richer experiences and greater opportunities than you ever had (that’s if you’re lucky). More bluntly, once you reproduce, your genetic purpose is fulfilled and all that remains is age, redundancy and death.

So Bowie, who was about to become a father when he wrote this song, offered a funny, extravagant depiction of paternal anxiety, something of a kinder cousin to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (which in part was inspired by Lynch’s fears after the birth of his daughter).

There’s as much acceptance in it as there is anxiety. Just listen to the way Bowie delivers the lines “All the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay,” with a shrug, even sounding a bit cavalier (the only harsh note comes with the jarring line “the earth is a bitch”). Wry acceptance is all one can offer when the world is so eager to leave you behind. After all, the world into which we are born and which forms us—its people, its colors and faces, its houses, its music and smells—dies so many years before we do, leaving us to spend much of our lives in unconscious mourning for it.

“Pretty Things” isn’t mournful. It ruefully celebrates its generational turmoil, in the way of a man faintly grinning while his house is being torn down; if it’s also a coming-out song, as some have argued, it’s from the perspective of an older man watching liberated boys cavort on a street he was afraid to be seen on. It marvels at the young, beautiful and allegedly revolutionary (the way Michelangelo Antonioni made two vacant pretty kids into icons in Zabriskie Point) and takes comfort that the kids are doomed to suffer the same displacement.

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Hunky Dory is Bowie’s early self-compilation, a shop window for his wares to date: folk meditations (“Quicksand”), mime performances (“Eight Line Poem”), Velvets-esque rock (“Queen Bitch”), tributes to elders (“Andy Warhol,” “Song For Bob Dylan”), fractured music hall (“Fill Your Heart”), marquee pop (“Changes,” “Life on Mars”) and even an oddity epilogue, “The Bewlay Brothers,” in which Bowie brings back the Laughing Gnomes.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” would seem to fall in the music-hall category, its three verses carried entirely by Bowie’s voice and piano*, while Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder are confined to support work in the choruses. The track denies the pleasures of simple pop, however—the piano sounds harsh and dry, and the song itself is constructed oddly. It has a 9-bar opening in F major that moves from 2/4 time to a single bar of 3/4 and ends with two 4/4 bars of pounded chords, and in the verses the piano accompaniment is restless and agitating, never letting the vocal rest comfortably: chords are constantly shifting (“a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me,” scarcely more than a bar’s length, goes from Bb7/D to Ebm to Gb/Fb to Cb/Eb), while the bass often alternates between single notes and repeated octave leaps, and even falls suddenly out in the penultimate bar of the verse. An odd 2 1/2 bar break, briefly changing time, separates the first and second verses.

The chorus—hummable, harmonized, pounding (a piano chord for each beat), jaunty—comes twice as a relief. It’s the song’s sunny public face. But the restlessness returns soon enough, and the song closes with a ritardando bar ending in C, the dominant of F, leaving the song with a sense of unease (cleverly, however, Bowie sequenced the track so that it was followed immediately by “Eight Line Poem,” which starts in F, and so resolving the earlier song).

“Oh! You Pretty Things” was demoed ca. December 1970, and its studio take was recorded ca. July-August 1971: on side A of Hunky Dory. Bowie’s version was preceded by the Noone single (RAK 114), which was released in April 1971 and reached #13, the best showing of a Bowie song since the ’60s (to appease censors Noone changed one line to “the Earth is a beast,” which is an improvement).

Bowie played “Pretty Things” three times in BBC sessions—the first is lost, the second (3 June 1971) is on the Japanese Bowie at the Beeb, while the third (22 May 1972) is on the standard Bowie at the Beeb. Bowie also played it on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test on 8 February 1972, and during the Ziggy Stardust tour of ’72-’73 he often included the song in a medley with “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “All the Young Dudes.” The last murky recording here is from the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, on 3 July 1973.

* Rick Wakeman (of Yes fame) played the piano for most of the Hunky Dory sessions, but I’m pretty sure Bowie’s on piano here—the rawness of the performance, for one thing (compare it to the assured playing in “Changes,” for example), and also because Bowie’s piano during the BBC sessions is very close to the studio track.

Top: Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, “Children in the backlane of Kendal Street,” 1971.