Ziggy Stardust

April 26, 2010

Ziggy Stardust (demo).
Ziggy Stardust (LP).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1972).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1973).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1978).
Ziggy Stardust (Bauhaus, 1982).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1990).
Ziggy Stardust (broadcast, 2002).

You have to start with the riff, right? Two bars long, it repeats four times in the intro, twice after the first chorus, three-and-a-half times at the end. It’s only five seconds in each duration but is perfect and complete: a slammed G chord, a fanfare, then the tough connective tissue leading to the next G chord. To make a riff like this, for guitarists, is like forging a passkey to Valhalla. (That said, the song’s demo reveals that Bowie’s responsible for most of it.) And the riff’s only one of Mick Ronson’s voices on “Ziggy Stardust.” There’s also the motif under “Spiders From Mars” or “the kids were just crass” in the verses, the tonal colors Ronson provides throughout the track, the vicious root chords in the chorus.

“Ziggy Stardust,” theme and title song of its album, is a snapshot keepsake of Ronson and his band (“Weird and Gilly” being Bowie’s sometimes-nicknames for Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey) at the height of their powers, with the first and last words Bowie sings being “Ziggy played guitar.” (The sequencing on the LP is inspired, with “Suffragette City” erupting a second after “Ziggy” ends.)

But “Ziggy Stardust” wasn’t intended as a guitarist’s tribute. It has grandiosity bred into it—it’s a paradox epic (the song that births “Ziggy” also kills him off), a plastic ballad (the verses move from G to B minor and later E minor, transitions that Roger McGuinn, noting the same change in “She Loves You,” described as “folk music changes” pilfered by rock musicians), a eulogy for a phantom.


the riff, anatomized

Even by the meager standards of rock “concept” albums, The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a thin business. The collected songs are recycled Arnold Corns singles, random covers (Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” almost made the final cut), and a few Hunky Dory leftovers. Even the last batch of tracks cut for the LP in early 1972 (“Rock & Roll Suicide,” “Suffragette City,” “Starman”) are only tenuously linked. Bowie’s unifying lyrical theme basically consists of using the word “star” in a few songs.

Bowie seems to have cobbled the Ziggy “storyline” together after he made the record. As Bowie described the story to William S. Burroughs, the world is doomed (“Five Years”) via some sort of Long Emergency scenario and then a black-hole-jumping alien race (or sentient black holes, it’s a bit unclear) arrives on Earth. Bowie called them “the infinites” (nicking from Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Burroughs’ own Nova Express). The infinites make a drugged-out rock singer called Ziggy Stardust their herald, he writes about them (“Starman,” we’ll give ’em “Moonage Daydream” too) and so becomes a messiah figure for a doomed generation. Then who the hell knows what else happens. The climax, allegedly, has Ziggy ripped to pieces on stage by the black-hole jumpers (“Rock & Roll Suicide”) who then, in Bowie’s words, “take his elements and make themselves visible.”

Despite this nonsense,”Ziggy Stardust” himself is one of Bowie’s best conceits. Ziggy’s ancestry included Iggy Pop, the mad British rock & roller Vince Taylor, the American eccentric The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (and there’s probably a touch of Biff Rose in the mix too), and rock & roll casualties like Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Bowie pulped them all together. Ziggy’s been described as a “cartoon” rock & roller but that’s not quite right: cartoons have weight and presence, holding fixed positions in your memory (think of the eternal Charlie Brown or Superman). Ziggy is fluid and unknowable, a pictograph whose meaning alters depending on who looks at it.

His existence depends on his audience. By 1972, with rock music falling into nostalgia and self-parody, Bowie was able to paint a rock & roll life in a few broad strokes, taking from listeners’ collective memories (e.g., “he played left hand” references Hendrix), with the track serving another of Bowie’s mime performances. Bowie filled the lyric with pseudo-American slang (“jiving us that we were voodoo”), built Ziggy’s image out of pieces (“like some cat from Japan,” “well hung and snow-white tan”).

It’s unclear who’s narrating. It could be a kid in the audience, remembering Ziggy years later (like the Christian Bale character in Velvet Goldmine), it could be one of Ziggy’s bandmates, Weird or Gilly, or it may be the disassociated memories of Ziggy himself, a fractured perspective through which Ziggy sees (and kills?) himself on stage. It could be all of them, recounting a story that had ended and now needed to begin. If “Ziggy Stardust” was the score, Bowie’ s life over the next two years would be the performance.

The “Ziggy Stardust” demo, recorded ca. summer-fall 1971, is on the Ryko 1990 CD of Ziggy Stardust. (Bowie didn’t give the demo to Ken Scott, his producer, or his band, instead just playing the song to them on guitar in the studio.) The LP cut was recorded 8-11 November 1971. Three versions of “Ziggy” were taped for the BBC during 1972, and it was central to the 1972 and 1973 tours (a version taped at Santa Monica, Calif., was released as a single in 1994). “Ziggy” returned in Bowie’s 1978 tour, with a recording from Philadelphia on Stage; the song also was a regular on the 1990 “Sound + Vision” tour, as well as many of Bowie’s shows in the past decade. Bauhaus’ remake hit #15 in the UK in 1982, and was later collected on David Bowie Songbook.

Top: Ziggy in his youth, ca. March 1972.

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Lady Stardust

April 22, 2010


Song For Marc (He Was Alright).
Lady Stardust.
Lady Stardust (live, 1972).

Lady Stardust (remake, 1997).

Bowie was fascinated by his contemporaries—dropping their names, covering their songs, producing their records. He traced their steps, aped their movements; he sought to remake them in his own image, or at least dress them in his own clothes. So Bowie turned Lou Reed into a glam rock icon, while making Iggy Pop an ongoing rehabilitation project. (Whether Bowie’s mix of Raw Power was salvage or vandalism is still a weary topic of debate). Bowie sparked Mick Jagger and was a shadow on John Lennon.

Most of all, there was Marc Bolan, Bowie’s greatest creative rival and, for a time, inspiration. While in early 1972 Bowie was still relatively unknown, Bolan had become a pop star (four consecutive UK #1s in 14 months) and the Ziggy Stardust storyline is in part a weird parody of Bolan’s rise to fame. Bowie watched Bolan as through a one-way mirror, mimicking his voice on “Black Country Rock,” drafting variations on Bolan in songs. A commenter noted that “The Prettiest Star” was likely as much a homage to Bolan as it (allegedly) was to Angela Bowie. “Lady Stardust,” originally called “Song For Marc,” was more overt: at the Rainbow Theater in August 1972, Bowie sang “Lady Stardust” while Bolan’s face was projected on a screen behind him.

“Lady Stardust” has a taste of fatality and loss; the song seems like a faded remnant of a lost era, Bowie imagining the future as a blighted past. The verses begin in A major and descend into the relative minor, F-sharp, while the chorus also has minor chords in its middle bars. “Lady Stardust” himself, whether Bolan or Ziggy, is both an object of worship for the boys and girls in the stalls, and a subject of abuse. In turn, he curses his audience, singing death ballads and imprecations with a smile, then withers into a black memory while still on stage.

As Nicholas Pegg noted, the lyric seems written in an “American” voice, with all its “outta sites” and “awful nice”s (also, Bowie mutters “get some pussy now” at 2:53 on the Ziggy cut). Mick Ronson’s piano playing has the somber, relaxed tone of an after-hours cabaret performance, while Bowie sounds a bit like Elton John.

“Song For Marc” was taped ca. April 1971 and eventually appeared on the Ryko Ziggy Stardust CD reissue. The Ziggy “Lady Stardust” was recorded on 12 November 1971. Bowie cut two versions of the song for the BBC in 1972, the latter of which is on Bowie At the Beeb. In January 1997, Bowie taped a remake of “Lady Stardust” with bass and backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey; it’s on ChangesNowBowie.

Top: Keith Morris, “Marc Bolan arriving at JFK Airport, February 1972.”


Glastonbury 2000

November 30, 2018

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On stage in summer 2000, Bowie broke his Sound + Vision tour pact and flung open the catalog. His first gig at the Roseland in New York, a near three-hour set on 16 June 2000, began with “Wild Is the Wind” and went on through “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. In Britain he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup by this point). Two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

He’d last played it in 1971, when it was Glastonbury Fayre, one of the free festivals then cropping up around Britain (its pyramid-shaped stage was built on a ley line). In 2000, Glastonbury was now £87 tickets and 100,000-strong crowds. Wearing a glam bishop’s vestments, his hair at Hunky Dory length, Bowie made the rest of the bill look second-rate. For an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The UK press genuflected: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star” (the Times), “a level beyond and above anyone else at this festival” (NME). All was forgiven. In the prophecy year 2000, he rode in on the past.

setlist

After a decade of (relative) experimentation, Bowie at last gave his audiences what they wanted, or at least what his critics had said they wanted: the hits, performed with vigor, command, and humor. For much of the Nineties, roughly post-Tin Machine, he’d been an object of mockery and pity, even a source of irritation, for some in the UK press. “For God’s sake, man…play the old stuff and stop trying so hard,” as per an Observer review of a 1997 Bowie “drum ‘n’ bass” set.

“As of 1990, I got through the rest of the 20th century without having to do a big hits show. Yes, yes, I know I did four or five hits on the later shows but I held out pretty well I thought…[but] big, well known songs will litter the field at Glastonbury this year,” as Bowie told Time Out.

The band was developing into what would be his last touring group, with the rhythm section of Gail Ann Dorsey and Sterling Campbell, Earl Slick on guitar, and Mike Garson. Eventually departing were Mark Plati (guitar, bass, keyboards) and a vocal section—Emm Gryner and Holly Palmer. This was the band that, a few weeks afterward in New York, cut much of Bowie’s as-yet-released Toy.

He’d gotten laryngitis during his Roseland shows, having had to cancel one performance, and he was still hoarse at Glastonbury. And he was worried about how he’d be received. “I remember how nervous he was at Glastonbury,” Hanif Kureishi told Dylan Jones. “His voice was failing, he had to do a gig the next day at the BBC, and he was really worried…As soon as it was finished, he rushed offstage, grabbed Duncan, and then got in the car and went straight to bed. He hated it….I’d never seen so many people in my life as I did that night in Glastonbury. It was incredible to me that someone could be so nervous and yet still have the balls to go out there and make it all work.”

It was one of the crowning moments of his performing life. He’d been adamant that the BBC could only show the first songs of the set and an encore song or two, which seemed perverse to the viewers at home—why cut away from the great comeback? But as BBC producer Mark Cooper wrote recently, “I think Bowie knew exactly what he was doing on the night of 25 June 2000. He wasn’t about to give away his peak performance or his catalogue for nothing. He hoarded that night so that one day it could be shown in all its glory as his legacy, the culmination of his golden years and surely his greatest concert since he buried Ziggy Stardust at Hammersmith in July 1973. It’s a time capsule of his life.”

If you’ve never heard the concert before, I’m curious as to what you think of it.

(Over 700 pages more of stuff like this in Ashes to Ashes, coming soon to your favorite bookstore.)

ticket

Setlist above from “Georgi,” a Bowie fan on the now-shuttered (?) Teenage Wildlife website, who paid a hard price for it. “Had great time at Glasto but I’m afraid my fandom had a bad consequence. My two front teeth were knocked almost completely out by being pushed against the bar at the front line. I was at the very front!!! Woohoo! Anyway, ended up getting dragged to the med. centre behind stage and pleaded with the security guards to put me back at the centre front where I’d been since 9am. They eventually agreed and after a fantastic show one gave me the set list.”


Girl Loves Me

September 27, 2017

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Girl Loves Me.

The Blackstar sessions of early January 2015 were devoted to revisits (“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”) and to most of Bowie’s Lazarus songs. The next round, in the first week of February, began similarly—a revised “Sue” was first on the agenda. But on the second day of the session, Bowie and Donny McCaslin’s band turned to a bewildering-sounding demo.

Mark Guiliana recalled that the file “had two loops on top of each other, creating a very dense groove, which I couldn’t play all at once.” Where some demos had been taped in the studio with Tony Visconti and a small group, this one was pure Bowie—the work of hours of home tinkering. There were synthesized string parts, some of which McCaslin would score for flute. Then there was the lyric. As Jason Lindner said, “when we first heard the demo, we said, ‘what the hell? What are those words?’”

Cheena so sound so titi up this                  malchick say!
Party up moodge nanti vellocet round on            Tuesday!

The lyrics are wacky but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word,” Tony Visconti said before the album’s release. A charitable belief: it’s more fair to say that those fluent in the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could decipher about three-fourths of “Girl Loves Me”; those conversant in the secret gay language Polari could pick up a few other bits.

A single verse is chanted more than sung—Bowie harping on one note until the end of each phrase, when he moves up first by a third (“this-malchik”) and ultimately an octave, by almost yodeling the last note (“say-ay” “da-aay). The verse lines have a tumbling consonance (“dizzysnatch,” “popo blind to the pol-ly”) and a rhythm of chasing short-held notes (“chee-na”) with slightly longer ones (“so sound”). Momentum builds as Bowie crams in more syllables with each line. “As he was listening back, I could see him experimenting with different words,” McCaslin recalled, which likely explains why Bowie tweaked his Nadsat—“yarbles” (balls) became “garbles,” “spatchka” (sleep) became “spatchko,” and “malchick” (boy) is sung more as “malcheck.”

He’d had secret languages before, on Low: the trans-European un-language of “Warszawa”; the homonymic blurs of “Some Are” and “Subterraneans.” Then, he was dedicated to melody—the “nonsense” words of “Warszawa” are gorgeous to sing, with a gentle lift. Now he sang “Girl Loves Me” as raw pieces of sound—the words harsh, short, jagged, packed together like bullets.

Varda, omees!

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Of the two dialects in the song, Polari (or Palare) is a spoken tongue, dating back well over a century, a pidgin language with roots in Italian and Shelta, the tongue of Irish and British Travelers. As Ian Hancock wrote, it was “the language of the theater, the circus, show business, and…certain male homosexual communities, especially those with connections to show business and with life at sea.” Nadsat is fictional, devised in the late Fifties by Anthony Burgess, who raided Russian for many of his words, along with Cockney rhyming slang. Both are the tongues of subcultures, of outsiders, of young toughs, of (fictional, likely, inadvertent) criminals. Both connect to Bowie’s youth.

He’d loved Clockwork Orange in the Ziggy Stardust days, with Stanley Kubrick’s film a sartorial guide for the Spiders From Mars, and Nadsat heard in “Suffragette City” (“say droogie don’t crash here!”). “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”

He’d picked up Polari from the mid-Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne and its Polari-fluent camp pair “Julian and Sandy.” And more directly, from being a young, beautiful man at the hub of Sixties British gay life—the London-based theater and music scenes—and the intimate of gay men like the mime Lindsay Kemp and the composer Lionel Bart. “David uses words like “varda” and “super” quite a lot. He’s gay, he says,” as Michael Watts wrote in the 1972 Melody Maker “Bowie comes out” piece. Nicholas Pegg does a typically thorough job of noting various bits of Polari in Bowie lyrics of the period, from “traders” (“Bewlay Brothers”) to “trolling” (“Looking For a Friend”).

“Translated” (my attempt here), “Girl Loves Me” mixes droogs and drag queens, police and cheenas. Tacky things drive the gang wild; party now because we’ll be out of drugs tomorrow. Set up the old men and take their cash; screw in the street, sleep it off in jail. It’s the balls-out, perhaps literally, sequel to “Dirty Boys.”

Where did it come from? Bowie’s late-in-life fandom for shows like Peaky Blinders, full of sharp young Birmingham toughs rumbling in the streets, maybe. A few books, as usual (see below). An older man with an unpromising diagnosis, who wakes one morning to wonder where the time has gone. Or, more succinctly: Where the FUCK did Monday go?

Sloosh to Polezny Mr. Murphy

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“We will have a new ‘body’ in the studio as of Tuesday,” Bowie reportedly told his group. “He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.”

James Murphy had struck up a friendship with Bowie around 2013. Having retired LCD Soundsystem (temporarily), he was producing Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, on which Bowie cut a guest vocal. Introduced in the studio, Murphy opened with “you know I’m an enormous fan of your work, because I steal from you liberally,” to which Bowie lobbed back, “you can’t steal from a thief, darling.” Upon Bowie’s return to making music, Murphy was often talked up as a future producer. It seemed apt. Murphy was a dance-rock classicist who lived in awe of Bowie’s late Seventies albums, forever trekking back to them, then building shrines to them.

He was too much in the sun, it turned out. In recent interviews, Murphy said he’d been slated as a co-producer on Blackstar but had backed out, feeling “overwhelmed” by the idea. “It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me,” he told Radio One this summer.

Instead Murphy envisioned himself as being the Brian Eno of the sessions, to the point of bringing in an EMS Synthi AKS, Eno’s weapon of choice in the Seventies. But he lacked the nerve to go the full Eno—he wouldn’t be directing ace musicians to play random chords at arbitrary cues, or erasing a half-finished track that wasn’t working. He kept to the sidelines, filtering guitars and keyboards through the “briefcase” EMS, including some of Lindner’s keyboard and synth lines on “Girl Loves Me” (see the burbling percussive line mixed left through much of the track). Murphy “was just in there hanging out,” Lindner recalled. “They weren’t clear on his role.”

That said, the final shape of “Girl Loves Me” apparently owes a good deal to him. “James took ‘Girl Loves Me’ to his home studio and did this whole other thing with it,” McCaslin said. “Mark and Jason heard snippets of it when they were over there working. Mark was saying it was really different from how he recorded it.”

Despite Murphy’s textures, the track is one of the more spare productions on the album, its minimal harmonic structure (shifts between two chords for all but the bridge) borne for long stretches by low-mixed keyboard or synthesized strings. The driving wheel is Guiliana’s drum ‘n’ bass-inspired snare and kick figures, with rapid bursts of notes on his cymbals. “I tried to capture the feeling of the halftime backbeat with the undercurrent of the busier 16th-note details,” he said. “The ghost notes in the groove are heard through the close mic on the snare, but the backbeat is being captured through David’s vocal mic. There was lots of bleed since we were all in the same room, which often led to very interesting sonic results. This, like many of the other songs, is a full drum take.”

Tim Lefebvre doubled his twisting, harmonically free bassline (as Lindner noted of his friend’s performance, “the bass note is not representative of the key or the root—it’s really coloristic” ) on guitar, borrowing Bowie’s instrument along with his “little multi-effects pedal…it was a cheap little thing but it sounded great.” McCaslin worked in the backline, tracking alto flute and C flutes for a gorgeous interlude in which the song breaks character for some twenty seconds to let in the sunlight. Then it’s nightfall again.

The center of it all is Bowie’s vocal, tracked to become an echoing patrol in the verse, cheering himself in the refrains (the wonderful GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! that starts at 1:26); doubled over an octave for the bridge; murmuring conspiratorial sleazy “heey cheena”s under high, wavering “girl…loves…mes,” reminiscent of his vocals on “No One Calls.”

Fantabulosa Prestoopniks

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The brilliance of that writing,” Lefebvre recalled. “How it’s all dark gibberish and then it turns into this beautiful melody. The chords are very interesting—aggressive but at the same time very languid and soft.”

There was a disgraced ancestor, as often with Bowie. Did he recall something he’d written decades before about dealers, druggies, and hustlers, whose semi-spoken nasally-intoned verses spooled into great, bounding refrains? In “Girl Loves Me,” the oft-maligned “Shining Star (Making My Love)” lives again. All that’s missing is the Mickey Rourke rap.

Why write the song as dark gibberish anyway? For a laugh, in part; for the joy of doing it. As Hancock wrote about Polari, its function wasn’t to be a separate tongue “but rather a pool of secret words sufficient to make cryptic any utterance that needs to be kept from outsiders” (essential for a time when homosexuality was illegal) and “a factor of social cohesion for those who need it.” Polari was an outsider’s inside language. And Burgess wrote his novel in Nadsat because he wanted to wall off his youth subculture from merciless time. It worked. Alex and his fellow droogs remain in the present today, and still suggest a brutal future, where they would have been defanged had they been saying “daddy-o” and “groovy.”

The refrain of “Girl Loves Me” stands outside of its own song: Where the FUCK did Monday go? cracks it open. Bowie’s line about sitting in the chestnut tree bred all sorts of speculations. Is it the Chestnut Tree Cafe of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and so suggesting betrayal? (Bowie could never shake free of that book; it was to him what his Berlin albums are to Murphy.) Or, in an inspired suggestion by Yanko Tsvetkov, is it a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude? In the latter, the patriarch José Arcadio Buendía is visited by the ghost of a man he’d killed years before. They chat for so long that time stops for him—José Arcadio has gone mad, trapped in a perpetual Monday, while for the rest of his family the week proceeds as usual. Raging, he starts to destroy his house: “Ten men were needed to get him down, fourteen to tie him up, twenty to drag him to the chestnut tree in the courtyard, where they left him tied up, barking in the strange language and giving off a green froth at the mouth.”

Barking in the strange language. Words from futures that never were, from bubble-cultures lost to time, jumbled and mangled and chewed up, made into a cipher of lust and spite, called out with malicious glee. But you can go lost when you go back too far to find the sources. Stay in the present—keep in the sound. “Girl Loves Me” should be done after two and a half minutes but it hangs on for longer, unwilling to stop. The defiant joy of the refrains; the pleasure Bowie takes in yelling FUCK! at the world. He’s in his tree (even if he’s been stuffed in it, left to rot), piling up what he can. All the lost dirty boys and dirty old men, the traders and droogs and crooked cops. Sex, money, pills, schemes—the great roil and filth of life, another tide sweeping out. Who the fuck’s going to mess with him? Nobody.

Bona nochy!

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 February 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, treatments) ca. March-April 2015, Murphy’s home studio; (vocals) 16 April, 17 May 2015, Human Worldwide.

First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources, thanks: “Crayon to Crayon” for the “No One Calls” tip; Ian Hancock’s “Shelta and Polari,” from Language in the British Isles, and Paul Baker’s Polari: the Secret Language of Gay Men (Polari’s spoken in a scene in Velvet Goldmine, and, of course, in Morrissey’s “Piccadilly Palare” (“so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah“). Musician quotes: Uncut, Modern Drummer, Pedals and Effects, Mojo.

Photos, top to bottom: Wayne S. Grazio, “Sharing a Text Message”; Henrik Johansson, “Snapple”; Oleg Dulin, “Buried in Their Smartphones”; Paolo Briauca, “Couple In the Park.” All taken 2015.

 


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

lazarus

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

Stage

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

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

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

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

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

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

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

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Script (1)

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Songs

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

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

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

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

Script (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newton, Lazarus.

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

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

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

Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (2)

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

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

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

Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

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

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

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

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


‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

February 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

WITNESS: FEMALE ASSAILANT HAD ‘MASCULINE’ STRENGTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WAR DECLARED: RESERVISTS CALLED TO THE FRONT

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

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

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

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

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

HEARTBROKEN MAN SAYS MEMBER IN LADYLOVE’S POSSESSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

THEFT OF PURSE REPORTED, A DEXTEROUS CRIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOICE URGES CROWD TO RESTRAIN WOMAN, CHAOS ENSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bowie: Object/ David Bowie Is…

October 26, 2016

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I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.

Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.

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In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:

My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.

I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.

Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.

Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).

But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.

Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.

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News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.

A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”

It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.

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The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).

He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:

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What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.

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A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.

Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”

Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.

Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.

David Bowie exhibition

The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.

Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”

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During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.

The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.

The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.

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Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.

Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.

And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.

First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.


Heat

October 12, 2016

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Heat.

1. Mirror Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Entrance to the Stage

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

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

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

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

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

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

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John

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The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. The First Step Toward Salvation

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Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

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

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

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

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

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

7. The False Account and the True

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial

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

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Grand Finale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mishima, Runaway Horses.

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

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

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

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

Reissues: Panic In Detroit

March 23, 2016

Here’s one that didn’t get many comments back when, and whose lyrical scenario seems more true to life today than it did in 1973, sadly. One of those songs whose simplicity, drive, power and wit kept it in the Bowie repertoire throughout his touring years.

Originally posted on 10 June 2010: It’s “Panic In Detroit.”

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976 (here’s to Dennis Davis)).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
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Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

The leading man of “Panic In Detroit” is a fading revolutionary/sex symbol whose last act is suicide, though he graciously leaves behind a last autograph. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots and the rise of the White Panther Party, the song’s last main ingredient was Bowie’s encounter at his Carnegie Hall show with a former classmate from Bromley Tech. This nondescript middle-class British kid had become a drug dealer operating out of South America; he’d flown his private plane to the show.

“Panic In Detroit” came as the New Left was devolving into celebrity personality-cult terrorism. The White Panthers’ John Sinclair (former jazz critic and the MC5’s former manager, commemorated by John Lennon on Some Time in New York City) and the late world-trotting revolutionary Che Guevara (whose Korda photograph, once an icon for radicals, now hangs in dorm rooms) were just the starting rounds. Now there was the Weather Underground, whose internal politics were those of a touring, squabbling rock group; Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang (Baader, who owned a Che poster, paid a designer to make his group’s machine-gun-and-star logo), and California’s Symbionese Liberation Army, whose kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 was one of America’s most popular TV programs.(See Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening.”)

Political violence was a means of self-expression; revolutionary cells became performance artists, their various alliances with criminal groups a form of patronage. It was catnip for Bowie. In “Panic In Detroit,” he gave his provincial Che (late of the perfectly-named National People’s Gang) a backdrop of riot-torn streets and bloodless authority, the latter embodied by a cringing teacher and a student who runs to smash a slot machine in the chaos.

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s snapshot of the America that he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late 1972: an America he spied through bus and limo windows and from hotel balconies: a country of empty spaces and fallen cities.

“There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” he recalled in 1990. (There weren’t, really; Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film by picking off a woman swimming in a rooftop pool.) For Bowie, America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. In Texas, Los Angeles and New York, he’d been harassed and even attacked by strangers. “It was really happening. Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place,” he said.

Opening with a power chord riff, its monstrous-sounding tone soon tracked with another Wah-Wahed guitar, Mick Ronson shadows Bowie with bombing runs down the scale that end with thick clots of E chordal figures. In the refrain he needles Bowie’s vocal with lines that expire in clouds of feedback. Given leave to solo in the bridge, he sneers.

Working on Ronson’s behalf are a rockabilly Trevor Bolder bassline and a mesh of percussion. Emboldened by his conversion to Scientology and bitter about his paltry wages, Woody Woodmansey refused to play a Bo Diddley-esque shuffle Ronson and Bowie had requested, saying it was corny. Instead he played 16ths on his medium toms and punctuated chorus phrases with his crash cymbal (phased, like the backing vocals). So Bowie brought in his friend Geoff MacCormack to play congas and maracas to cook up a Diddley-style “swamp” groove. The track’s central pulse is MacCormack’s moves between high and low congas, occasionally muting the high conga for effect, as on the title phrase. Gliding between B minor and D major, “Panic In Detroit” descends into the maelstrom for its minute-plus coda, with Ronson’s pick scratches, Woodmansey’s crashes, MacCormack’s congas and the wails of Juanita Franklin and Linda Lewis sounding like a collective murder.

Mostly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, it was a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the B-side of “Knock on Wood”) and in many later tours: Bowie played it up until the end. He also remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan in 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve show, but another remake (of “Space Oddity”) took its place in the show —this revised “Panic in Detroit” (with a cameo by either a Speak n Spell or an imitation of one) later appeared on reissues of Scary Monsters and Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972? “Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).


Reissues: Amsterdam

March 11, 2016

Along with the VU’s “Waiting For the Man,” Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (and Scott Walker’s interpretation of it) is one of the essential building blocks of Bowie’s development as a songwriter. Diamond Dogs couldn’t exist without it, nor could “Time”; “Amsterdam” was even once slotted to appear on  Ziggy Stardust: Bowie wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in part as his Brel substitute.

There’s a spot of confusion as to when the released Bowie studio take of “Amsterdam” was recorded: the reliable Kevin Cann slots it into the Pin Ups sessions of summer 1973, which is possible (that’s when it finally came out, as a B-side) but that seems like a rare error on his part. Unless the “Amsterdam” recorded in 1971 for Ziggy Stardust was a different take from the B-side version? There’s also another studio version circulating (see below) which sounds like a demo. And the version included on Rare is yet another take, of unknown origin: was this the Ziggy take? One day, perhaps, it will all get cleared up.

Originally posted on 21 December 2009, it’s “Amsterdam” (or “Port of Amsterdam,” if you prefer):

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel, 1964).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (Bowie, demo? 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Amsterdam (alternate studio take?, 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, live, 1971).
Amsterdam (live, 1990).

Jacques Brel composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. He read his lyric to a fisherman friend, who wept while he carved open sea urchins. “Amsterdam” inspired these sort of visceral responses. After Robert Guillaume debuted the English version of “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

By late 1968 Bowie was playing “Amsterdam” with his folk trio and he’d keep the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Like “Waiting for the Man,” another song Bowie was obsessed with during the glam years, “Amsterdam” offered street life as stage material. Where “Waiting For the Man” was confined to the narrow lens of its junkie narrator, “Amsterdam” was a sprawling Brueghelian canvas: a port overrun with drunk, paunchy sailors who gnaw on fish heads, piss and fight in the street and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” “Amsterdam” also gave Bowie a primer in how to craft an apocalypse in song, as it opened quietly, with the port waking up, and steadily built to a wild, drunken carnival (it was the template for everything from “Five Years” to “Station to Station.”)

After performing the song twice for the BBC, Bowie cut a studio take of “Amsterdam” that was issued as a B-side in 1973. Where Walker’s “Amsterdam” had been a reel of accordion, strings and horns, Bowie sang accompanied only by his (and in the studio take, possibly Mick Ronson’s) acoustic guitar. In early live recordings Bowie seemed in awe of the song, but by the studio take and his last live performances, he’d developed a saucy tone for the opening verses, boldly inflating and compressing phrases. Yet when he vied to match Brel and Walker in intensity in the last verse, he still audibly strained for effect. His last apprentice work.

Recorded (presumably) autumn 1971. Released 12 October 1973 (RCA 2424). Broadcast on 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show and 21 September 1971, Sounds of the 70s. After retiring “Amsterdam” as a stage piece in 1972, Bowie gave it a very brief revival for the Sound + Vision tour of 1990: its only appearance, I believe, was the aborted attempt in Brussels, linked above.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.