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 Cornssingles, random covers (Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” almost made the final cut), and a few Hunky Doryleftovers. 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.
1. The first sound that you hear, creeping in via Ken Scott’s faders, is Woody Woodmansey’s kick drum and closed hi-hat, in 3/4 time, with a snare hit (flutter) on the third beat, then (wham!) on the downbeat. Woodmansey later describes it as putting “hopelessness into a drumbeat.”
2.This is going to be something new…no one has ever seen anything like this before….it’s going to be entertainment. That’s what’s missing in pop music now—entertainment….You can’t remain at the top for five years and still be outrageous. You become accepted and the impact has gone. Me? I’m fantastically outrageous. Bowie, June 1972.
3. “Five Years,” one of Bowie’s last Sixties songs, could have been sung at his Arts Lab in Beckenham–you can imagine his folk trio Feathers doing it. It’s an acting troupe sketch, with scenario by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough, place setting of the Market Square, Aylesbury, location of the Friars Club (we’re pushing through, not pushing ahead), and various mimes (“queer” vomiting, soldier with broken arm, cop kneeling to priest, girl drinking milkshake).
4. Instruments stagger in. Double-tracked autoharp and piano (ZING! “pushing through the market square”). Trevor Bolder on bass, making interjections between lines (e.g., the octave jump after the news guy tells us the bad news). Bowie on 12-string acoustic guitar (“a girl my age”) shadowed by Mick Ronson-arranged strings (“went off her head”). Ronson’s electric guitar only appears on the refrain’s fourth go-round (cued by a “what a surprise!”). The verses of “Five Years” seem like they will never end, until, after curling into a ball, they become a doomsday pub singalong refrain. Five repeats in all, the rest of the song, which ends in screams, then fades away. Dennis MacKay, engineer on Ziggy: “Bowie’s screaming and what you hear on that song, the emotion is for real. I was in shock because he was also hitting every note spot on.”
5.It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s five years behind. There’s so much of it that seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back. Bowie on rock music, 1980.
6. “My brain hurt like a warehouse.” Ziggy is a work of Bowie writing about work. “Busting up my brains for the words.” “I’m so wiped out with things as they are.” “I felt like an actor.” Much of it is heard second-hand. Tapes, transmissions, backstage stories (“boy could he play guitar”). A record plays somewhere deep in the building, reduced by walls and floors to muffled basslines, ghost voices, the occasional piercing guitar note. Songs drift past on the radio. A band, sitting in a club long after hours, has gotten it together and can play all night, but few are there to hear them.
7.I thought of my brother and wrote ‘Five Years’. Bowie, 1975.
8. “Soul Love” again opens with Woodmansey alone, but he’s cheerier now. Hi-hat flourish, then rim-shots and kick drum, chased with handclaps and conga.
9. “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” Love as infestation (sweeping over cross and baby), as a priest talking to the empty sky.
10. Bowie’s baritone saxophone moves the action along in the second verse, then takes over, upturning the top melody and spooling it out, following a lengthy sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, ringing in the key change.
11.David Bowie and Marc Bolan were Sixties people who made it late…they were that much more grown up and that much more experienced…They’d been consuming media for a long time and, on a smaller scale, they’d been dealing with media already…their Sixties forebears had been making it up as they went along. The major work of art was actually the media events. The records and shows were part of the superstructure. Charles Shaar Murray.
12. The key to “Moonage Daydream” isn’t Ronson’s opening chords or Bowie’s opening blast of “I’m an all-ih-ga-torrr!” It’s the diminishing that follows them. “Moonage” is carried for the rest of its verse on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic, augmented by Ronson muting his Les Paul strings; it’s as if a dance floor has cleared out. The heavy guitar is there in corners, rarely where one expects it. The countermelodies in the refrain are low backing vocals and piano; the solo is a duet of recorder and baritone saxophone. Ziggy keeps rock at a distance, rationing its appearances, rehearsing for a play that we will never see.
13. Then, as “Moonage Daydream” draws to its close, Ronson steps into the center, boring through, pushing out, rocketing away.
14. The image of Ziggy Stardust in shuffle. The LP cover photo, of Bowie in a post-Hunky Dory look, still with mousy hair (tinted blonde), now in a jump suit. George Underwood’s illustration, used for early LP and tour advertisements: a sexualized Laughing Gnome. The Ziggy of the Top of the Pops “Starman,” a variation on Peter Cook’s Satan in Bedazzled (“Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation“). In late 1972 shows, Ziggy as a pantomime figure, an ominous Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s the post-Japan imperial Ziggy, a space empress. His wasted, gaunt final edition on the 1980 Floor Show, a shade without a corpse.
15.They tell me the next record is going to be the big one. RCA are very confident. Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s ex-manager, to George Tremlett, early 1972.
16. The strings of “Starman”—graceful cello ascension on the title line, high elaborations on Bowie’s la-la-las in the outro. Ronson used Cilla Black records as a primer for his arrangements: likely contenders include her mid-’60s heartbreakers “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (tensed strings take flight in the bridge) and the grand ballroom sweeps in “Love’s Just a Broken Heart.”
17. The verses are done in confidence: Bowie, You, and the Starman, communicating through radio receivers as if they’re walkie-talkies. Music played in a darkened bedroom, trying not to wake your parents.
18. On The Crown, dour Princess Anne sings the closing “lar lar la-lars” of “Starman” as she strides through a blacked-out Buckingham Palace. With its Judy Garland steals and clopping handclaps, it’s a song one can imagine the royals enjoying.
19. Lost pasts dept., part one:RCA PRESENTS DAVID BOWIE’S NEW RECORD: “ROUND AND ROUND.” Look out, you rock and rollers! The 15 December 1971 master was: Side 1: Five Years/ Soul Love/ Moonage Daydream/ Round and Round/ Amsterdam. Side 2: Hang Onto Yourself/ Ziggy Stardust/ Velvet Goldmine/ Star/ Lady Stardust.
20. It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story of Ziggy…so at the moment it’s a little fractured and a little fragmented…so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in…I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album, but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me. Bowie, radio interview, February 1972.
21. Having knocked “It Ain’t Easy” a lot over the years, I’ll try to make a case for it. The album needs a chunk of early Seventies Rawk to counter its flightier numbers. Despite being a Hunky Dory outtake, “It Ain’t Easy” still fits better in the LP sequence than “Amsterdam” (too folkie) or “Round and Round” (too scrappy). “Sweet Head” was never a contender; “Velvet Goldmine,” too magnificently singular. “It Ain’t Easy” is the communal closer to the LP side, the same role as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on the flip. When Bowie had performed it in 1971, he gave the verses to Geoff MacCormack, George Underwood and Dana Gillespie to sing (Gillespie is on the Ziggy take, as is Rick Wakeman on harpsichord). If five years is all we’ve got, spend them with your friends.
22. Still, “Velvet Goldmine.”
23. Lost pasts dept., part two; Bowie, to GQ, 2000: “I’ve pulled out a good deal of scraps that were never used at the time [on Ziggy Stardust]. Some of them are only 30 seconds long, but I’m extending those. I thought, ‘OK, is this crap and is that the reason why it never appeared on the first one or is it OK and should I try and do things with it?’ So I’ve taken those six tracks and thrashed them out and made them into songs that will support the original. One’s called the ‘Black Hole Kids’ which is fascinating.”
24. The demo of “Lady Stardust” is, ever since I first heard it on Ryko’s reissue in 1990, the song’s canonical recording for me. The strength of Bowie’s singing, the intimate grandeur of the track. It’s to the point that whenever I hear the Ziggy version, everything sounds off, especially Bowie’s phrasing. It’s become a retrospective outtake.
25. I knew someone who was in a band in the Nineties. They got signed by a major label, cut a record. Then, as often happens, there was a shift in label management, or the promo staff thought it wouldn’t hit on radio: something went wrong, a few bad rolls of the dice. The record was shelved, never to be released; the band split up. But during this time, they worked with Mick Ronson. One night, without prompting, Ronson sat at a piano and played “Lady Stardust” for the band, letting the song roll through him.
26. I guess it’s kind of that art school kind of posturing that the Brits usually have. And it was people like myself and Roxy Music that had a different agenda about taking up music. I think we all were kind of – well, maybe – I can’t speak for Roxy, of course. But some of us were failed artists or reluctant artists. You know, the choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music. And I think we opted for music: one, because it was more exciting. And two, you could actually earn a living at it. Bowie, 2002.
27. We’re as far away now from Ziggy Stardust as it was from Ulysses and The Waste Land, from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at their youthful peaks. As a child in the mid-1980s, I thought Ziggy, what I knew of it, seemed old and weird. Its film clips (bits from Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture and Mick Rock’s promos were pressed into service on occasion on Friday Night Videos) were like scenes from some ancient, decadent world. It was hard to reconcile Bowie of the then-present, a genial, medium-cool figure singing “Blue Jean” and “Dancing in the Street” and at Live Aid, with the jaundiced extraterrestrial in 16mm, this hollow-cheeked specter.
28. “Star”: A kid in her bedroom sings to the mirror; a school band struggles to get the song right for once (the drummer always fumbles the transitions) before the talent show. The opening number of the musical, actors spilling on stage, playing to the back rows. Soooooo exciting! to play the part!
29. The apparent reference to Nye Bevan “try[ing] to save the nation” in the second verse is one of Bowie’s more obscure lyrical nods, at least for non-UK listeners. Someone ages ago claimed to me it was actually a reference to ELO’s Bev Bevan, who I didn’t realize had been so ambitious.
30. Nickelodeon backing vocals in “Star”—air-raid siren “oooh wahs”; ch-ch-ch, ch-ch, cha-la-la-la!; you know that I couuuuld–end in Bowie’s ping-ponging hums and a whispered “just watch me now!”
31. “On stage when you are performing you are in total control. It is like a demon or spirit taking over. You have a congregation and you are the high priest.” But rock and roll doesn’t really fascinate him. “It is hardly a vocation.” Ziggy Stardust was conceived as a film. No one would make it, so he turned it into a record instead. David Lewin, “Will the Real David Bowie Stand Up?” Sunday Mirror, 20 July 1975.
32. How restrained “Hang Onto Yourself” is. The one-two opening punch of the riff is kept in check; the refrain’s an insinuation. Trevor Bolder’s bass as the focal point. Even Ronson’s slide guitar packs off without too much fuss.
33. “Layin’ on electric dreams.”
34. The guttural backing vocals that surge under “honey not my money” or “bitter comes out better” make those sections of the track sound as if the tape’s flaking apart.
35. Few have ever been in love with the sound of this album. Too tinny, too murky, too weedy, a rock record on which the rock has been boxed off. Audiophile message boards have hosted decades’ worth of battles over which pressing, which reissue, which remix salvages it. There will forever be some magnificent ideal Ziggy waiting for the right engineer to, at last, set it free.
36. The name, distilled from Bowie’s American trip of early 1971: the wild boy (Iggy Pop) and the wild man (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy). The character, bits taken from Nik Cohn’s chaos incarnate pop star Johnny Angelo and, as per Bowie legend, the acid-damaged Vince Taylor. Ziggy as a commemorative coin minted from the great rock ‘n’ roll dead: Brian Jones, Eddie Cochran, Hendrix, Morrison, Buddy Holly, countless more in the years since. Yet this misses Bowie’s point that Ziggy wasn’t supposed to be some great charismatic pop singer, but someone chosen, possibly at random, by “black hole jumpers” as their vessel. A middling performer, working through yet another set in yet another half-filled room, complaining to his manager that the latest single, “Liza Jane” or “I Dig Everything,” has gone nowhere.
37. While Ronson gives a grand ornamentation to “Ziggy Stardust”—the crunching chromatic bass figure under “Spiders from Mars” in the verse, the harmonics on “became the special man,” the vicious chords in the refrains—the memory may only recall him playing the main riff over and over again. The riff is Bowie’s version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”: each time it appears, the rest of the band stops to pay homage.
38. Like the New Testament gospels, the story of Ziggy is redacted from different, contradictory narrators. The timeline’s murky: a legendary past shot through with future premonitions. “He was the Nazz,” Bowie sings: Lord Buckley’s name for Christ, the Nazarene (is “god-given ass” a pun?). The Nazz never did nothin’ simple, Buckley would say. When He laid it, He laid it.
39. The opening riff of “Suffragette City”: played on Les Paul and 12-string acoustic guitar, soon bolstered by a monster ARP 2500 that got hauled down from another floor at Trident, all sounding as if they’re about to tear into Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.”
41. Ronson’s pick scratch as “wham bam!” hits. The ARP doubling Bolder’s bass; the bright rock ‘n’ roll rumble on the Trident Studios’ Bechstein. Woodmaney’s snare fills on the title phrase. How the front-mixed acoustic guitar works more as a percussion line (Ken Scott: “I wasn’t too into cymbals back then so I mixed them low”).
42. “Suffragette City” is the first Bowie song that I ever heard, or at least the first one I remember being a “David Bowie song.” Via a grade school friend whose sister, in college at the time, would come home on holiday breaks with the cool records. The nasally presence, the push of the track—it sounded diabolical.
43. Bowie atlas, with Suffragette City as sordid port town; its sister city across the water, Amsterdam; Hunger City, casting its long shadow on the plains. Oxford Town beyond the hills. Berlin, Jareth’s Labyrinth, Amlapura, Crack City. Freecloud Mountain to the north.
44.I dream about him a lot, but they’re always horrid dreams ’cause he always dies in the end. Teenage fan of pop idol Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), in Privilege (1967).
45.“What do you think?” she asked Peter. “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed. The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.
JM Barrie, Peter Pan (1904).
46.Gimme your hands!
47. In his hand-written lyrics for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie wrote “the water-wall is calling” in the first verse. Robin Mayhew, his tour sound engineer, was asked to proofread lyrics while visiting Gem Music one day, and thought he heard Bowie singing “wall-to-wall,” changing the line on the lyric sheet without telling Bowie (listen to the original—Bowie’s almost certainly singing ‘waw-ter wall’). “Wall-to-wall” has been the official lyric ever since. In the Bowie spirit, the mistake works as well as, if not better than, the intention.
48. Throughout Ziggy, horn lines are masqueraded by the ARP, or delivered alone by Bowie. Now, for the finale, Ronson at last scores a brass section—trumpets, trombones, tenor and bari saxes—as if inviting the neighbors in for a party.
49. Ronson’s won!-der-fuls towards the close.
50. The last thing that you hear: celli and double basses, a beat after everyone else departs, playing one last D-flat chord. An album that begins with a solitary drummer ends with four musicians bowing in unison. Oh no, love, you’re not alone.
Essentials: The Ziggy Stardust Companion; Mark Paytress, Classic Rock Albums: Ziggy Stardust; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record (International Music Publications Ltd.)
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 (fourconsecutiveUK#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.”
David was born on 8th January . The midwife said to me, “this child has been on earth before,” and I thought that was rather an odd thing to say, but the midwife seemed quite adamant.
Margaret “Peggy” Burns Jones.
The very first memory I have is of being left in my pram in the hallway of 40 Stansfield Road [Brixton], facing the stairs—they were dark and shadowy.
If there was anything that caught his ear, he would tell everyone to be quiet and listen, and then fling himself about to the music.
So many people are born in a trap. And they don’t seem to have the courage to want to get out. And it’s so simple, really, so simple.
Gurney Slade (Anthony Newley), The Strange World of Gurney Slade.
So many of the things I wanted to do come from books.
He didn’t actually go out very much but preferred to stay home. I’d often invite him to a party and he would often say, “No, I’m going to stay in, I’ve got some work to do.”
David knew all the songs by heart and in his peculiar way could sing every song in our set [but] none of us liked his voice at all.
Alan Dodds, The Kon-Rads.
He looked like a young waiter who had blown his first check on a bad haircut.
John Bloom, recalling Davie Jones and the King Bees’ performance at Bloom’s birthday party, April 1964.
One of the ways we would write was I would bring my fingers down on the keyboard and David would say, “What’s that? Hold that chord.” And we would write something around it. I found it hard getting my fingers used to those chords, he never made things easy.
Denis Taylor, lead guitarist, The Lower Third.
You can’t give all you have to take something back.
He had written a lot of songs, they were not Rock and Roll but they were very good, very musical and they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff.
John “Hutch” Hutchinson, on first working with Bowie in The Buzz, 1966 (from Bowie & Hutch).
Now you know I’m not the warmest performer on stage, and I never have been…I’ve never felt comfortable talking on stage. With ‘Diamond Dogs’ I even wanted to have the band in an orchestra pit.
David, you’re working with a backing group, The Buzz. Have you always worked with them? As David Bowie, yes. I’ve always been with them, for about six months. Why do you say ‘as David Bowie’? I was someone else before that.
Radio London interview with Bowie at the Marquee Club, 1966.
I want to act. I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else. It takes some doing.
Bowie, to Melody Maker, 26 February 1966.
He would go down to Carnaby Street and get himself kitted in a fancy outfit. You would never see him walking around like a slob. He didn’t do slob.
Dana Gillespie, to Dylan Jones.
Lo, Palmer’s Green has been disrupted by a clown and two friends. Twenty-four people walked out the first night. Most of them were coppers off duty. One old man sat and read a newspaper: The Sketch, I think. And a couple of nice ladies talked about their babies, bingo, and bras in Row E. Lindsay [Kemp] was pissed, Jack [Birkett] was ill and I just sang.
Bowie, letter to Hermione Farthingale, 1967.
I’m not quite sure what We’re supposed to do So, I’ve been writing just for you
Bowie: What do you think you’ll be doing in ten or twenty years’ time? Writing—and you? Bowie: I might be writing, too. I think of myself more as a writer than a musician. I shall be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty, and I’ll spend the rest of my life doing other things.
Interview by George Tremlett in Ken Pitt’s apartment, 39 Manchester St., London, 17 November 1969.
David Bowie is 22 years old, thin, with a halo of fair hair, a delicately soft face and two cold eyes. One is pale kitten blue and the other green, and it makes it rather disconcerting to talk to him.
Penny Valentine, Disc, 11 October 1969.
I haven’t got a clue why Visconti didn’t like the song. The fact is, Mercury didn’t have any major acts with the exception of Rod Stewart, who at that point wasn’t a major act anyway…they took Bowie on specifically because of “Space Oddity.” They’d heard the demo and in those days a gimmick was a big deal, and people who had gimmicks were taken more seriously than those who hadn’t.
Gus Dudgeon, 1993.
I wasn’t interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television—that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.
J.G. Ballard, 2008.
With The Man Who Sold The World I wanted to work in some kind of strange micro-world where the human element had been taken out, where we were dealing with a technological society. That world [was] an experimental playground where you could do dangerous things without anybody taking too many risks, other than ideas risks….It was all family problems and analogies, put into science-fiction form.
Bowie, 1993; 1976.
The song breathes out the whole sweep of postwar British culture before the Beatles turned it on its head—the slow, squalid sink of pointless desires caught in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction—and places it squarely in the present. It’s a drama of ordinary life you can’t turn away from, because you’re seeing a life that you know, that you’re living, thrown up on the screen of the song. The quietest tinkling piano begins it; at the end, the piano trails off into a huge, harsh crescendo of movie-finale strings—hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms, wind propelling them into their future—as if the notes can’t remember the song.
The day will come when David Bowie is a star and the crushed remains of his melodies are broadcast from Muzak boxes in every elevator and hotel lobby in town.
Nancy Erlich, New York Times, 11 July 1971.
You had to make the two sides of the album roughly the same length. While parts were being worked out, I would spend time working out the timings and putting songs together so I could suggest which order would work best…Up to a point, the running order was dictated by the LP format. The whole idea about the concept album thing…there are some songs that fit together on a certain story. But I dispute the fact that it’s a concept album, because why would you have “It Ain’t Easy,” which was recorded for Hunky Dory?
Ken Scott, on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Writers like George Steiner had nailed the sexy term “post-culture” and it seemed a jolly good idea to join up the dots of rock…Everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves. The main platform would be, other than shoes, “we are the future, now” and the way of celebrating that was to create it by the only means at our disposal.
Bowie, introduction to Moonage Daydream, 2002.
Ziggy was this kind of megalomaniac little prophet figure who came down to tell us it was all over. We were never quite sure whether he meant it or not, whether he was from outer space or not.
Bowie, on 20/20, 1980.
As David Bowieappears, the child dies. The vision is profound – a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who – at last! – transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence. David Bowie is detached from everything, yet open to everything; stripped of the notion that both art and life are impossible. He is quite real, impossibly glamorous, fearless, and quite British. How could this possibly be?
How would you describe yourself? Bowie: Partly enigmatic, partly fossil.
Backstage interview at Carnegie Hall, 28 September 1972.
Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants— particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising—self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him.
Martin Amis, The New Statesman, 6 July 1973.
The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!
Neil Young, 1973.
Living in Dagenham, the appeal was that if you dyed your hair or had a little bit of make-up or wore a bangle, you’d get the piss taken out of you, but because it was David Bowie you didn’t. You could dress up like that…It was so obvious that girls liked it—thank you David Bowie! And good music to shag to, I have to say.
Steve Ignorant, of Crass (whose name came from “the kids were just crass” in “Ziggy Stardust”).
“Lady Grinning Soul”—to have all those runs on the piano, I was practicing eight hours a day at the time, year after year. You can’t play like that if you haven’t done tons of repetition….then when we did “Time” they found that truly humorous, and David being almost like a Broadway singer and knowing all the German stuff, everything about it was David Bowie. But I was playing the piano how I think he would have played if he could play at my level. He could play, he played well, but it was very basic piano. I think, if he had my chops, that’s what he would have done.
Mike Garson, on Aladdin Sane.
The ego is the instrument of living in this world. If the ego is broken up or destroyed…then the person may be exposed to other worlds, “real” in different ways.
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience.
I was already a 13-year-old fan when Diamond Dogs came out…Diamond Dogs is not a coherent story, but I’m not sure I wanted a coherent story. The inner sleeve’s photographs of a broken city, as if seen in a damaged kaleidoscope, aren’t coherent either, but they paint a place…it’s my favourite album because it was mine—in a way no other Bowie album had been, or would be again…because it contained complex lyrics on Sweet Thing and Candidate that made me feel like I was being shown a 12-hour drama through a letterbox slot; because the opening monologue pronounces the album unashamed science fiction; because it sent me to the school library aged 13 to borrow 1984, back then only a decade away; because the track listing on the cassette was all jumbled for reasons of time, so that story, whatever it was, and that sequence was what I first encountered and responded to, built up in my head, which meant that it would be another 32 years until I realised I could reorder the track listing on my computer and listen to Diamond Dogs in a way that felt right to me.
Diamond Dogs, as I remember it at the time, was trying to accomplish some great mockery of rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to be part of my manifesto at the time, I don’t know why.
It solidified..what I wanted to do with Devo. We’d spent way too much time smoking pot talking about ideas & doing nothing about it. Here was someone who’d taken the time to do it for real.
Jerry Casale, on seeing the Diamond Dogs tour in Cleveland, June 1974.
I ran to his room and looked at the thin white man singing on Soul Train. Bowie was wearing a dark suit with a light shirt. He was moving very slowly, as though he were high or drunk or too cool to sweat. “He sing ‘Fame'”? I said. We loved that song. “I thought he was black.” We stared at the television as though we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I’m trippin’,” Keith kept saying. “I am really trippin’.” “Me too,” I said. “He white?” “I don’t care,” Keith said. “He bad. He a bad dude.”…Who was this man who wasn’t anything close to what he looked and sounded like? Who let him do that? Who let him be white and weird and on Soul Train?
Dana Johnson, Elsewhere, California.
Plane comes into view, loud, knocks letters out. Hand places “The Young American.” Major Tom walks into vision. The letters drop and he passes the camera…We are in [an] aircraft and slide back to passenger section to find Major Tom watching English news TV of his sensational send-off.
Bowie, film scenario, 1974.
David played “Station to Station” to me at Cherokee. When he played that…it was cinematic in every respect…I was amazed how he could come up with that, having been in complete cocaine psychosis.
Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple).
The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.
William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).
I walked out on Bowie’s show. I thought it was dreadful. I got turned off by that whole ego trip. That ‘here I am, baby, and isn’t it wonderful to actually be able to see me, I’m the thin white duke’ bit. What is all that about? I could call myself the fat pink pulp, but I don’t.
Elton John, 1976.
“The first space-rock hero of the 70s,” as David has been called, has finished a book of “semi-autobiographical” short stories called “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” which will be published at Christmas—by his own company, natch.
The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1975.
And all of the imbeciles and cretins, who had been delegated to some other imperceivable providence of their own, have tumbled and fallen from the sky, soared spouting from the seas. The catastrophic menage is ripping and torturing their release from the soul of OM. And the rock bands just dirge and provacate [sic] the malforms into the frenzid waltz of [infinity symbol].
Excerpt from Chapter One of The Return of the Thin White Duke.
Because of the dark glasses Bryce could not see Newton’s eyes, but it seemed to him as though Newton were looking everywhere. “Easy come, easy go, Nathan,” he said. Newton began to tremble. His angular body began to lean forward and the felt hat fell silently on the table, showing his chalk-white hair. Then his Anthean head fell on to his spindly Anthean arms and Bryce saw that he was crying…
The bartender had come over and when Bryce looked up the bartender said, “I’m afraid this fellow needs help.”
“Yes,” Bryce said. “Yes, I guess he does.”
Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
In this movie, the forlorn, limp hero-David Bowie—a stranger on earth, doesn’t have a human sex drive. He isn’t even equipped for it: naked, he’s as devoid of sex differentiation as a child in sleepers. When he splashes down in a lake in the Southwest and drinks water like a vampire gulping down his lifeblood, one is drawn in, fascinated by the obliqueness and by the promise of an erotic sci-fi story. It is and it isn’t. The stranger has come to earth to obtain the water that will save his people, who are dying from drought, but he is corrupted, and then is so damaged that he can’t return…The plot, about big-business machinations, is so uninvolving that one watches Bowie traipsing around—looking like Katharine Hepburn in her transvestite role in Sylvia Scarlett—and either tunes out or allows the film, with its perverse pathos, to become a sci-fi framework for a sex-role-confusion fantasy. The wilted stranger can be said to represent everyone who feels misunderstood, everyone who feels sexually immature or “different,” everyone who has lost his way, and so the film is a gigantic launching pad for anything that viewers want to drift to.
Pauline Kael, review of The Man Who Fell To Earth, The New Yorker, 8 November 1976.
[Bowie’s] done something that I should have done but I backed out of doing, which is just split the album into two halves and said “Well, here’s all the fast songs—and here’s all the other things that I also like.” I’ve got this same problem coming up again now. Because it’s even more polarized. I’ve got on the one hand some really manic songs. Oh dear, they sound so bizarre I don’t know what I’m gonna do with them. They sound a bit like Captain Beefheart or my version of modern jazz or something like that.
Brian Eno, NME interview, 27 November 1976.
On this album David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion available to an individual working within the existing cultural forms of the West.
THE FIRST IMPRESSION Low imparts to the listener is that he is somehow hearing it sideways.
Ian MacDonald, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.
It’s decadent in the sense that it glamourises and glorifies passive decay and I don’t give a shit about how clever it may or may not be—David never makes minor errors, only fundamental ones—it stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeat and futility and emptiness.
We’re low enough already, David.
Give us a high or else just swap tapes with Eno by post and leave those of us who’d rather search for solutions than lie down and be counted to try and find ourselves instead of lose ourselves.
You’re a wonderful person but you’ve got problems.
Charles Shaar Murray, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.
From station to station back to Düsseldorf city Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.
Kraftwerk, “Trans-Europe Express.”
We went to East Berlin across Checkpoint Charlie where you have to show your passport to the East German police. David’s passport had a picture of him with curly hair from his “Space Oddity” days and Iggy Pop had platinum blonde hair in a Beatles cut. The guards took one look and burst out laughing at the two passports. David and Iggy were holding back their aggression and gritting their teeth, saying “very funny.”
I’m happy now. Content. I feel more than a product on an assembly line and no more a means of support for 10,000 persons who seem to revolve around every fart that I made.
My role as an artist in rock is rather different to most. I encapsulate things very quickly, in a very short space of time. Over two or three months usually. And generally my policy have been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area. Another piece of time.
You wouldn’t believe how much of it was entirely unwitting. I think I did play outside the boundaries of what is considered the general area of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of it, just pure petulance, some of it was arrogance, some of it was unwitting, but, inevitably, I kept moving ahead.
Ziggy, particularly, was created out of a certain arrogance. But, remember, at that time I was young and I was full of life, and that seemed like a very positive artistic statement. I thought that was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought that was a grand kitsch painting. The whole guy. Then that fucker would not leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to sour.
Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 29 October 1977.
[Marianne Faithfull] reminded me of Grace Kelly, or rather Kelly’s voice in the duet she sang with Bing Crosby in High Society, “True Love.” Kelly was almost speaking her parts in a captivating and sensual monotone. It was not unlike Crosby’s later duet, with David Bowie playing Princess Grace.
Andrew Loog Oldham (from Stoned).
I’m incredibly happy now, because I’m not ambitious anymore. I do have a strong paternal streak. I’m a born father. I want more children, but not ego children…You can stuff all your punk bands, give me three children instead.
Bowie to Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader, March 1978.
“You owe me a move,” say the bells of St. Groove “Come on and show me,” say the bells of Old Bowie.
The Clash, “Clash City Rockers” (1978).
They’re different from me, they actually go andread books, they don’t read walls.
Bowie, introducing Talking Heads’ “The Book I Read” on BBC1’s Star Special, 20 May 1979.
I’m so pleased that the conclusion of these three albums has been so up. I think it would have been terribly depressing if the third one had been down. At least this one has a kind of optimism.
Bowie, 1979, on Lodger.
The [Scary Monsters cover] character is based on Lindsay Kemp’s very wonderful-looking Victorian clown. I took that feeling and looked inside of that, that’s when you get the disheveled side of the clown. It’s a nod backwards to an element I started with. One always returns and looks back and reincorporates those old things and reevaluates them from time to time…There were an awful lot of mistakes on that album [Scary Monsters] that I went with rather than cut them out. [It’s hard] to put oneself on the line artistically ever since the Dadaists, who pronounced Art Is Dead. Once you’ve said Art is Dead, it’s very hard to get more radical then that. Since 1924 it’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing and looking at it from a very different point of view.
I must say I admire [Bowie] for his vast repertoire of talent the guy has, you know. I was never around when the Ziggy Stardust thing came, because I’d already left England while all that was going on, so I never really knew what he was. And meeting him doesn’t give you much more of a clue, you know…Because you don’t know which one you’re talking to.
John Lennon, BBC interview, 6 December 1980.
I enjoy David Bowie. He can stay right out of it all and enjoy his life, enjoy his music. I can enjoy my life like that when I’ve done a lot more work.
Adam Ant, NME interview, November 1981.
The subject matter of ‘Let’s Dance’ is nebulous. There is an undercurrent of commitment, but it’s not quite so straightforward… It’s a one-to-one thing, yes, but the danger, the terrifying conclusion is only intimated in the piece. It is not apparent what exactly the fear is that they’re running from. There’s an ominous quality about it, quite definitely. That was the dance song that has all the trappings of old disco music, but it’s almost like the last dance.
Bowie, NME interview, 16 April 1983.
Bowie: Having watched MTV over the last few months, it’s a solid enterprise…I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?…The only few black artists that one does see are on from about 2:30 in the morning to around six.
Mark Goodman: Of course we have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie, or pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces.
Bowie: That’s very interesting. Isn’t that interesting.
Goodman:We have to play the music that we think an entire country’s going to like…should PLJ play the Isley Brothers? Now you and I might say yeah, because we grew up in an era when the Isley Brothers mean something to millions…but what does it mean to a 17-year old?
Bowie: I’ll tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17 year old, and surely he’s part of America as well…Do you not find it is a frightening predicament to be in?…Is it not possible that it should be a conviction of the station and of other radio stations? It does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated? Especially, if anything, in musical terms.
Bowie MTV interview, January 1983
Somebody once said — who was it? It’s terribly important — that Harry Langdon, the silent comedian, cannot be taken on his own; you have to put him alongside that which went on around him, like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. He can only be seen by reference, and somebody said that about me, which is probably very true. I kind of quite like that, actually, that you can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference!
Bowie to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.
Mick wants to do new things. He would much prefer to be David Bowie than to work with Keith Richards because when he makes a record now he has to deal with the fact that Keith Richards wants to be like Muddy Waters and grow old and die playing the blues.
Pete Townshend, 2002.
August 1987: Cafe Luxembourg, following Bowie’s Madison Square Garden Glass Spider concert. Nick Rhodes, Jeremy Irons, Coco Schwab…Bowie asks me what I thought of the show. “A little busy,” I say, attempting to be flippant about the dancers, the huge props, the overkill. “No, really,” he says. “C’mon, you and I have known each other too long. What did you really think?” In no uncertain terms, I proceed to tell him what I thought. You can only fool some of the people some of the time, I say. Less is more, David. Put on a leather jacket and jeans and go out and sing your hits, for God’s sake. It’s a new generation: they’d love those songs. I finish; everyone is horrified. David is laughing.
Lisa Robinson, SPIN, August 1990.
I knew David wanted to do a different kind of music. [But] I always thought if I gave it back to him, it would end up going back to the Spiders from Mars. That’s exactly what happened.
Hunt Sales: But, man, those albums. I dunno. And the Glass Spider tour? Well, I didn’t go and see it but I saw it on TV and…
Bowie: But, Hunt (slips into music hall straight man mode), I thought you never missed any of my tours...
Hunt: I never miss any of your tours. I never go see ’em, so I never miss ’em…
Bowie: Boom boom!
Hunt: But I didn’t like Glass Spider. I mean that. Seriously. I thought it was a bit beneath you. That’s my opinion. I don’t need to sit here and say that I love something I didn’t think much of. I watched it thinking, This is the guy who did Spiders From Mars.
Bowie: What he’s saying is he hasn’t listened to anything of mine since Spiders From Mars!
Reeves Gabrels: But Glass Spider was cabaret. A lot of critics said…
Bowie: Yeah, critics. Give me your personal opinion.
Reeves: If you want my personal opinion you’ll have to ask my wife. But it seemed to me it was about entertainment more than music. I went to see a soundcheck in Chicago and that was better than the show.
Bowie: To come to its defence, I liked the video of it. But I overstretched. I made too much detail of… Oh Christ. Next question!
Tony Sales: He’s beginning to roast!
Tin Machine interview by Adrian Deevoy, Q, June 1989.
He was lying in bed, too weak to stand, losing his sight, going: “Have you heard Mrs Bowie’s new album, darling? What does she think she’s doing?“
Elton John, on Freddie Mercury in 1991.
Did you hear the latest Living Colour album? Vernon Reid wrote a song about bisexuality. I think that’s very good of him, very brave. Because I think especially today people shouldn’t be made to feel as if they should hide their sexuality. These are dangerous times for everyone that wants to explore their own sexuality. Sex is becoming a taboo again and I feel people should be able to talk about it. As long as the discussion remains open you’ll prevent so-called vigilantes from using AIDS as an excuse to discriminate and isolate certain groups from society. Because of this, people will turn inward or won’t experiment with their sexuality or worse: pretend to be something different sexually then they really are and that is very, very dangerous. It must be awful for young people today to be trapped into an existence that goes against their very nature, you have to continue to rebel against this. Sexual experimentation might be dangerous right now, but the danger should not be a reason to stop people from being who you want to be.
Bowie, interview with Oor, 1993.
My personal brief for this collection was to marry my present way of writing and playing with the stockpile of residue from the 1970’s.
Here is a partial list: Free association lyrics Pink Floyd Harry Partch Blues clubs Unter den Linden Brücke Museum Pet Sounds Friends of the Krays Roxy Music T. Rex Costume The Casserole Neu Kraftwerk Bromley Croydon Eno Prostitutes & Soho Ronnie Scott’s club Travels thru Russia Loneliness O’Jays Philip Glass in New York clubs Die Mauer Drugs.
Bowie, liner notes to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993).
Phillip Jeffries: Well now, I’m not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all, we’re gonna keep her out of it.
Special Agent Dale Cooper: [bewildered] Gordon?
Gordon Cole: I KNOW, COOP!
Jeffries: Who do you think this is there?
Albert Rosenfeld: Suffered some bumps on the old noggin, hey, Phil?
Cole: WHAT THE HELL DID HE SAY THERE, ALBERT? THAT’S SPECIAL AGENT DALE COOPER! FOR GOD’S SAKES, JEFFRIES, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? YOU’VE BEEN GONE DAMN NEAR TWO YEARS!
Jeffries : The stories that I wanna tell you about… It was a dream! We live inside a dream!
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
I see no way we can go back, philosophically, to a world of absolutes. Which I feel very comfortable with and I always have done…I think seeing the problems that historians themselves have with revisionism of history it seems almost nonsensical for the layman to even bother to try and analyze history any more in a straight narrative way. In a way history almost ceases to exist—possibly we can’t really entertain the idea of a future in the same way. Which may be not a bad thing…I mean, by hacking off the limbs of both past and future we might have created a workable future where we have to deal with things on a day-to-day basis, rather than having long term plans for a world which really can’t afford to have long term plans.
Bowie to Ian Penman, Esquire, 1995.
Brian and I had both felt resolutely out of it. I tried passionately hard in the first part of the ’80s to fit in, and I had my first overground success. I was suddenly no longer the world’s biggest cult artist in popular music. I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance”, and it was driving me mad – because it took all my passion for experimenting away. I went through the doldrums at approximately the same time as Brian. I felt I really wanted to back off from music completely and just work within the visual arts in some way. I started painting quite passionately at that time. Then, toward the end of the ’80s, everything started to fall back into place again. It was as though there had been this hiatus where everything had stood still. Birds hung in the sky; they didn’t finish their flight.
Bowie to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, 1995.
Caller: How did you get the title for the new album and why is the title split up on the album cover? Bowie: Well it was kind of lugubrious, it was a rather a weak pun on the fact that I feel quite happy with life and anything else you want to read into it, you know, the work is never finished until the audience participates and all that. But I think the idea if you change the content of something, if you look at something that you know very well for a long time, it starts to disappear. So if you change the context of what that thing looks like people notice it more, so we put spaces in the word just to make you take in the word “Earthling” in a different way to how you would normally receive it. Riki Rachtman: What was that word again, there, nugubrious? Bowie:…It’s an old graphic design trick. Rachtman: Well you gotta help me with that other word David, I wanna learn a new word. “Unagubrious”? Bowie: [laughs] Lugubrious. Rachtman: Oh OK, I just want to say I learned that one — Bowie: It’s from Alfonse Lugubri, the old silent actor.
Bowie radio interview, Rockline, 1997.
Wake up, people of Omikron! Reshev and his corrupt government are lulling you to sleep in order to control you better. They have transformed you into puppets that are manipulated by Ix and the demons. Join the Awakened Ones and rise up to fight for your freedom.
Boz (Bowie)’s message; Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1998).
Jeremy Paxman: You’ve got to think that some of the claims being made for [the internet] are hugely exaggerated. I mean, when the telephone was invented, people made amazing claims.
Bowie:…No, you see, I don’t agree. I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.
Paxman: It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?
Bowie. No, it’s not. No. It’s an alien life form. [Laughs] Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here… I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.
Bowie on Newsnight, 1999
Isn’t it all so personal, though, isn’t really all so personal? If by consensus an artist is great, if numerically enough people like that artist, that he becomes a great artist? [Roy] Lichtenstein that way isn’t a great artist. How can he be a great artist if I don’t think he’s a great artist? I mean he had a great gag for the first few years, and then he just did it and did it and did it and then he died.
Bowie on Charlie Rose, 1998.
Our ace boon Arthur Jafa likes to say that ”Andy Warhol was so white he was black.” Bowie (who played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat) was likewise so avant-garde he tipped over into the Avant-‘Groid—that Afro-outré dimension where Little Richard and Sun Ra define how far out you can go and command love from the folk. Like Joni Mitchell—another unguilty pleasure of many boho blackfolk—Bowie double-crossed back over to black culture by being his own transcendently pan-everything creation. But not even Queen Mother Joni can say she provoked James Brown to copycat action twice in his career. JB was so blown away by Bowie’s ”Fame,” he cut his own carbon-copy track, ”Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved),” and, years later, when Bowie optioned his publishing for stock points, the Godfather of Soul got the news about how lucrative the deal proved and quickly followed suit. Bowie once said, “The secret to my success was I was always the second guy to come up with the idea.” All hip-hop junkies can relate.
I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young – there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store. I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it – hopefully – like Strauss, at 84.
I don’t think we are going to destroy it at all. I’m not that pessimistic. I just believe we’re going through a transition where we will become a humankind that accepts chaos as our basic premise.
Bowie, Soma interview, 2003.
I’m grateful for any audience, you know? It’s fine; I don’t care if they’ve got two heads. As long as they are there to enjoy themselves, come listen. I suppose the only thing I’m fairly strong-armed about is that I really kind of require them to get involved with the new material I’m writing as well as the older things.
Bowie, Weekly Dig interview, 2003.
The last time I saw him was in New York at a party in the early 2000s. I arrived a bit late and was surprised to see Bowie stepping out of a yellow cab. I asked him how he traveled about Manhattan, unrecognized and un-harassed. Simple, he said. I carry a Greek newspaper. He held it up…People think, hey that’s David Bowie! Then they see the newspaper and realize it’s just some Greek guy who looks like him.
It was early 2007. She was out in the East Village on St. Mark’s Place in the middle of a blizzard, trying to hail a cab. [There was] only one other pedestrian on the sidewalk. When a lone pair of headlights appeared through the snow, the stranger gallantly said, “go ahead.” She said, “why don’t we share?”…It was only in the cab that the scarves and hats came off and she said, “Oh, I know who you are.” She made the split-second (but brilliant) decision to start talking about herself and tell him her entire life story, so he could relax and not have to entertain this stranger he was trapped with…She told him every last detail of her family life (“You’ve got to forgive, for your own sake,” he kept telling her) until the taxi reached Soho. As she got out, he said, “Now when you tell your friends about this, make sure you mention that I was wearing fabulous shoes.”
Rob Sheffield, on his friend’s encounter with Bowie (On Bowie, 2016).
“I’m not thinking of touring,” he said. “I’m comfortable.” He draws, paints and collects 20th Century British art.
Bowie’s last quote to the New York Times, in a profile of his wife, 6 June 2010.
Here’s what David sent me (and I should thank him for doing it, and so I fervently thank him here):
Bowie’s list was left-justified, but probably because he didn’t want to take the time to center justify, and also his list was purposefully double-spaced.
Rick Moody, 25 April 2013.
That’s why I’m so puzzled when people say [my work is] all dark, dark, dark, whereas I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. Obvious beauty. I’m not a religious man, but it’s a longing. For who knows. For existence itself. True existence. It’s a longing for a calling. It’s just a feeling that it might be there.
Scott Walker, 2012.
There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.
Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective.
I know something’s very wrong The pulse returns the prodigal sons The blackout hearts the flowered news With skull designs upon my shoes
“I Can’t Give Everything Away”
NEWTON: And I’m not of this world. And not yet marked by this place here. Not pinned down in this apartment—not divided into days and praying for my death—and bullied by this broken mind—and before all of this happened to me—and before the journey down here—to wake in the place where I was born. And to be up there.
Lazarus (Bowie/Walsh, 2015).
I remember when I found out about 2:30 in the morning that he’d passed, I was laying in bed, my partner woke me up; she’d heard from Duncan [Bowie’s son]. I just kind of laid in bed and I started laughing. She said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Because we had so much fun.“
The night of April 14, 1865, and Lincoln’s assassination. As Lincoln drew his last breath, all the worthies who had crowded into a little back bedroom in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre turned to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War, for a final word….Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
I picked up James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering…Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’ Now he belongs to the angels? Where had that come from?…In the endnotes, Swanson explained that his rendering was deliberately at variance with the scholarly consensus: “In my view, shared by Jay Winik, the most persuasive interpretation supports ‘angels’ and is also more consistent with Stanton’s character and faith.”
…I made up my mind about what must have happened: Stanton had muttered “angels,” been heard as saying “ages,” and, if he had been asked which afterward, would have been torn. He might have decided to enable the mishearing, in order to place Lincoln in history, not Heaven. It seemed possible that both versions were true, one to the intention and the other to the articulation, one to the emotion of the moment and one, in retrospect, to the meaning of the life. Angels or ages? Lincoln belongs to both.
…And then I knew that we probably would not have understood any better had we been standing there than we do now. Stanton was weeping, Lincoln had just died, the room was overwhelmed, whatever he said was broken by a sob—the sob, in a sense, is the story. History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn’t what’s heard, and what is heard isn’t what gets repeated…The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.
Adam Gopnik, “Angels and Ages,” The New Yorker, 28 May 2007.
Dr. Leah Kardos is a composer and musician, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, and the founder of Kingston University’s Stylophone Orchestra. She’s written a book on David Bowie, entitled Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie, which Bloomsbury Academic publishes in January in the U.S. and February in the UK. (The e-book is out now!)
Blackstar Theory isn’t a Bowie biography, nor is it something as foolhardy as a chronological song-by-song guide to Bowie’s music (cough). Instead, as Kardos writes in her introduction:
What this book does do is explore some of the interconnected webs of meaning that are observable in the work itself. By ‘the work’ I refer not only to the primary outputs of the period in question, but to the artistry embedded within that connects with Bowie’s entire sphere of activity – his career history and the totality of his observable creative practice across time. Although Blackstar Theory deals with death as a subject, it is not the aim of the book…The aim is to approach the realities of Bowie’s mortality using the same terms as he used in commenting and wrestling with it through his work.
Part of this entails Kardos breaking down every Blackstar song and some Next Day ones (I regret that these musical analyses weren’t available for me to rely on in Ashes to Ashes, but am also grateful that I didn’t have to match the caliber of Kardos’ work here—it’s thorough, intelligent, and definitive). She explores some likely influences on Bowie’s last works, including Carl Jung’s dream journal and Dennis Potter’s last teleplays, and has fresh interviews with the likes of Tony Visconti, with whom she’s worked for years. It’s a major addition to the Bowie critical “canon.”
Leah and I spoke via Zoom in early December—the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
CO: It’s still unclear to me, after all this time, whether Bowie, when he was putting out all of this stuff in his last years, had something like a complete design in mind. I guess I always saw him as someone who’d more draft extensive plans that would never come to fruition, as he’d abandon them to move onto something more interesting. But there’s a narrative logic to the 2013-2016 period, even if unintended. Do you think so, too? Do you see an overarching pattern?
Leah Kardos: I get the impression that he was an intuitive creator. He followed his nose and was really grabbing at anything to try out. However, certainly since diving into the last works and from that position looking back at the rest of the catalog…you recall all those interviews in 2003 when he was saying “I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always been the same question about isolation and identity, etc.” I started to think, “actually, yeah, you might be onto something there!” Because he really is just talking about the same things repeatedly, just putting a different costume on each time. Approaching the same question from different angles.
The consistency of his catalog is something that’s really struck me since he died. When he was alive, he’d provide something interesting and new, and because we didn’t have the full rear-view picture, it kind of felt like we were floating along with the changes. But I was really struck by the coherence of the catalog. One reason why Blackstar Theory came about was the realization that wow, it really does hang together. The longer you look at it, the better it gets.
CO: One thing I’ve found when I was writing about not just the Blackstar period but Hunky Dory and Station to Station is interacting with a few people, over the years, who really take the occult side of Bowie very seriously. Who appear to believe there is a master plan, that Bowie was dead serious about it all and had mapped everything out.
LK: That there’s a code to be cracked.
CO: Yes, all a bit Da Vinci Code. I do still love the Villa of Ormen Tumblr.1I love the unsolved mystery of that. That could have been him: it’s not out of speculation.
LK: It’s in the realm of possibility. And it seems on brand for him to fuck with people like that. He knew how to slide into a chatroom and pretend to be someone else. I think also all of that fulfilled the function, the drama, the theater, the fact that he was so officially quiet and yet so forthcoming in other ways. Sneaky. Putting this shroud of numinous energy over the last album. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to have done that. And the fact it’s unresolved is delicious.
Part One: The Set-Up (The Next Day)
CO: So, in your book, as this late period begins, another is winding down. You were a BowieNetter2, and that era seems like such a contrast to the late years. In the late Nineties, he’s Accessible Bowie. He’s chatting with fans, having in-studio live feeds, doing interviews with anybody who claimed to be a journalist. It must have been a fun period for you—does it feel bizarre in retrospect?
LK: It felt very normal for me—I joined BowieNet when I just came out of high school and was just starting to discover Bowie. Back then you bought a CD from HMV or whatever and it would have a card inside saying, ‘join BowieNet!’ I had no idea that being a fan could be any other way, and I discovered the career backstory retrospectively. It was strange when he left us all hanging, but of course we knew he was sick, what more you want? You don’t want to be that kind of fan.
Looking back now, what a remarkable thing it was. It felt so normal at the time, I made friends in the UK when I was still in Australia, probably the seeds of my immigration, to come to England and live here, began there. There are friends I met on BowieNet who I’m still close with today. It’s hugely important to me. His “dad jokes, everyguy, I’m just normal Dave” act, well I fell for it. Obviously he was right to get the hell off of the internet and away from social media when he did.
CO: Your book is primarily about The Next Day and Blackstar. Do you see the beginning of this period with his reunion with Tony Visconti in the early 2000s?
LK: That’s the way I see it, in two categories—the ‘late period’ from Heathen to Blackstar, and the ‘last works’ between 2013–2016. Because the sound of Heathen I feel is traceable right to the end. I also think Tony brought out a certain type of music from Bowie.
The period is also marked by Bowie’s autonomous process. He didn’t have a guitarist or co-writer coming up with material, so in a way the music there links further back to Buddha of Suburbia—that’s just the sound of David making his music, his way, that’s what he sounds like. Writing everything himself in his little home studio. And there’s the freedom of ISO.3 Also Heathen’s introspective anxiety seems to intensify throughout.
So when I pulled it all together, I thought I’d draw a line on it. Some people refer to this is his neoclassicist period, but I’d say it’s more accurately defined as his late period, due to him finding a more consistent approach to music making with Tony, free from label demands, and of course the conscious playing around with his own history.
I also wanted to put the focus back on the songcraft and not define things by the haircut he had at the time. I really wanted to get away from that.
CO: We’ve talked before about his love of the Korg.4How best to describe how odd his affection for this keyboard was—while it’s not a kid’s keyboard, it’s no state of the art synthesizer either.
LK; It was a pretty cool keyboard in 1997. If you needed to save patches on it, there was a module that attached to it and you could save them on floppy discs. I quizzed Tony about the Korg a lot, I was really fascinated by it. The sounds that come from it are weird and incongruous. Like, why choose that? The sounds in something like “Dancing Out in Space”: why are they choosing that? It always came down to this keyboard. He loved that thing.
CO: He was a big preset guy too, I recall Visconti saying.
LK: He did like the old preset but apparently he also knew how to go in and tweak a preset, making something more bespoke. I downloaded all the Korg effects, there’s a sample pack you can find online, and I went through them and I couldn’t find all of them [that were used on the albums], so I suspect there was some parameter fiddling going on.
CO: His composition style is often about what instrument he’s mostly using at the time, right? Space Oddity is the 12-string acoustic; Hunky Dory is the piano. Are the late records in part Korg compositions, deep in their bedrock?
LK: They are! And they’re also owed to the Zoom R24 multitrack unit he had,5 the way he was creating his demos. I spoke to Henry Hey and he got rough demos sent to him, Tony as well, and they had a particular sound about them. You listen to the Lazarus soundtrack, particularly “When I Met You” or that early version of “Lazarus,” you’ll hear these weird guitar parts in there. That was a detail on the demo and Henry said he wanted to honor that.
The demoing comes into its own in the late period, the particularity of the choices that David makes tended to get translated. Tony bought his own Zoom unit so he could figure out how to work with it. Reportedly David would say things like ‘I like the way I did it [on the demo], I don’t see why I have to do it again.’ So the demoing is bleeding into the end results.
CO: The demoing is far different from the old days when he’d go into the studio and tell Carlos Alomar, “okay, this is in A major, and have this funk riff here, and let’s work this out.”
LK: All those [Young Americans session] tapes at the Drexel Archive that Toby Seay has6 is literally that private process of him demoing, but he needed a band to do it back then. So [home demoing] gave him a lot of autonomy in the late period. He didn’t have to rely on a Reeves in the room, on Mark [Plati] in the room, and I think you can hear it in the choices he makes. Some of them sound naïve, some sound exquisite—you get both with Bowie’s demoing.
CO: You mention he’s even doing the scoring—again, this was something he always had to have Ronson or Visconti do—he’s even taking that in-house.
LK: The fact he was achieving this with his basic Zoom digital multitrack unit and not, say, ProTools on a Mac or PC…it’s amazing.
CO: Among my what-could-have-beens if Bowie was still alive, I wonder if he would’ve done a McCartney II7 at some point—a whole record from the Bowie home studio.
LK: Which is one of the oddest things he ever produced. And Tony was emphatic about how much he loves that version, he told me that for him it rivals the Blackstar version. It’s a very strange record indeed, I really enjoyed analyzing it.
CO: You go a lot into Bowie’s “late voice” which you describe wonderfully as having the “wow and flutter of ancient tape.”
LK: Tony is very keen to say whenever he has the opportunity that Bowie’s voice was brilliant to the end. And he was in the room, so who can argue. However in the Whatley Last Five Years documentary, when they isolate the ‘Lazarus’ vocal, you can hear how raspy he sounds. There’s a heavy frail grandeur to Bowie’s late voice that I spend a bit of time trying to frame in the book. Thankfully, another feature of the period is the consistently great vocal takes Tony manages to draw from him, so there’s a lot of musical examples to dig into.
Another thing about the late period is the ensemble singing. It’s often an orchestra of voices beautifully arranged, walls of harmony, call and response, octaves and unisons, left and right spread out, sometimes barely audible—you realize, wow, it must have taken ages to do all of that.
CO: He had on call a singer as good as Gail Ann Dorsey but he chose to do all the vocals himself, for the most part right? He used [engineer] Erin Tonkon for a few things.8
LK: There’s a heck of a lot of him, just walls of David on the Next Day even though he’s got Janice Pendarvis, Gail and Erin and what sounds like a gospel choir there, he uses voices in a painterly way. I mean think about “The Informer” and what’s going on with the vocal arrangement and its construction—that must have been a few days’ work at least. That’s a lot of architectural detail to render.
You know that footage of Lou Reed isolating the backing vocals of “Satellite of Love” and saying ‘how does David do this?’ That’s what I think about the backing vocals of The Next Day—they’re so intricate. Maybe he did spend a bit too much time on that record, those details are so gothic.
CO: The Next Day is in an interesting place right now, reputation wise. There was the initial “he’s back! this is great!” and then with Blackstar, it wasn’t quite a backlash but more a “Blackstar is what Next Day should have been” kind of revision. Where would you rank it now? I find it’s a major record but also an overlong one, and the sequencing feels off.
LK: When The Next Day came out remember feeling ambivalent about it— for me it felt like the album was trying too hard, perhaps overcompensating for something. But I wanted to love it, and of course the first half is super-strong. I think those appraisals were battered by information overload—that’s how I came into it, really loving the good bits on it and hating stuff I thought was badly executed.
Then when I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.
One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything. I found an interview with Tony Oursler where he said he and Bowie were involved with the V&A exhibition, they were involved with planning it, and Jonathan Barnbrook also confirmed [Bowie] had his hand in it. So you can add the V&A to the pile of Next Day and Next Day Extra: he was giving us a lot of information in a deliberately impersonal arrangement. An invitation to participate and construct something meaningful from the bits and pieces. One can really sense his directorial hand in all of it, the ‘David Bowie Is…’ question being explored on all sides.
CO: For Next Day and Blackstar, he turned over the promotion of the albums to all those who played on it. This was unusual: if you look back, say for Earthling, maybe Reeves did an interview with a guitar magazine but otherwise it was all Bowie Bowie Bowie, saying ‘this is what the album’s about.’ But now you have everybody but Bowie doing substantial interviews: the drummers, the backing singers, the engineers. It seems to be deliberate in that he was already removing himself from his work, quite early on.
LK: I agree. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Remystification’ where I’m trying to look at that movement, how he made that retreat. Also to think about ways he represented his own art: refusing to talk but at the same time laterally making more stuff for us to engage with: all the music videos embedded with Easter eggs, the lists, the books. I enjoyed that new kind of intimacy with his material, matched with his absolute disengagement with the media.
Part Two: The Performance (Lazarus)
CO: The middle section of your book is about Lazarus the play. You saw it in its first run in New York [December 2015-January 2016], as I did, and you describe the audience reaction as being much like the one I was in, with everyone walking out of the theater saying “what the fuck was that about?”
LK: The group I was with were like “What was that? Did you like it? I don’t know, I think I loved it. I hated it.”
CO: I’m glad it’s being staged more. At first, it was just this two-month off-Broadway run in this small theater, so it felt like a secret thing that lot of fans didn’t know about because they couldn’t see it. The missing piece of the puzzle.
LK: It’s so crucial, I felt. I think it’s successful. I think it does what it’s meant to do. But the timing of it, you know, it changed it. I saw it while he was alive and again after he died. There’s no way you can come to it the same way again, and no way the play could say the same thing that it first did. It really does exist separately in that first run up until he died. You can see the change in what the new directors are doing with it. It’s really not about [Thomas Jerome] Newton at all anymore, it’s more a Bowie-like character having a dream.
He worked so hard on it and I felt the need to really go deep on it in the book because he devoted and sequestered a lot of his time on it in his final two years. It deserves a deep diving analysis, absolutely.
CO: I’m curious if it will survive as a piece of drama, if it could be staged in 2070, when few people will still have memories of David Bowie while he was alive. Or will it have a short life? I still find Lazarus hard to grapple with. It’s the closest I ever felt to seeing how Bowie’s mind worked, being able to peep in on his thought processes. Like someone recounting a dream to you.
LK: I really love it, and I’m still kind of afraid of it. As a theater piece, if you come into it cold, in one sitting it’s really difficult to grasp because it shunts you about between violence and pantomime and comedy and Bowie songs you love, followed by murders and blood. It’s a lot. As an audience member you come out of there feeling quite punch-drunk: is this what he wanted us to see and feel before he left us? There’s a lot there that works with Bowie’s established archetypes, all the Jungian stuff, the lines all but ripped from the Red Book.9The Looking Glass Murders redux.10
CO: You devote a good amount of space to the late works of Dennis Potter, which I really thought was right on the money. I had no idea Potter had a piece called Cold Lazarus! When I read that I cracked up: “Bowie, you thief.”
LK: Based on something Enda said, I checked out The Singing Detective11 and my jaw was on the floor—there are so many references I recognized from Next Day and Lazarus. Also Potter’s deliberate merging of his biography and his legacy and his myth in the fictions he was creating, muddling it up on purpose to make it richer and more emotionally dense and confusing. You recall the Bowie quote “I think I like complications… I like thickly textured things.”
In Cold Lazarus,12 there is this sequence where the memories of this detached head are projected on screen and go backwards, not through the character’s life but Dennis Potter’s life: this was staged with his direction from beyond the grave. Same in Lazarus: Newton is completely woven into Bowie’s myth almost to point of interchangeability: people see Newton and see Bowie. The blurring allows the show to function like a performed closure of a public life.
CO: It’s amazing how much of a through line Newton is for Bowie. I heard “Looking For Water” playing a while ago and thought “that’s another Newton song.” Is it strange how much he identified with the character?
LK: I was digging around those issues of Modern Painters from the mid-Nineties, and in that interview he does with Balthus he brings up the Bruegel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus again. That’s another detail directly lifted from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film. He really did keep referencing and returning to that text.
CO: The recurrence of stars is another one. Towards the end, he’s playing with the idea of a star aging, or dying, like a red giant.
LK: Which I took from you!
CO: Which I may have gotten from one of my commenters, Deanna Kerry, who was an astrophysics grad student at the time—I later asked her to explain blackstars, which she did as well as she could to a scientifically-challenged person like me. It seems like a cliché that everything with Bowie is stars, everything is black holes, but as you said the consistency is unnerving at times. You wonder: did he really have it all figured out in 1968? Maybe that’s all on the Ernie Johnson tape,13which is why we’ll never hear it.
LK: My favorite dead star metaphor reference is in that conversation with Burroughs where he’s describing, down to the costumes, the Ziggy Stardust storyline of dead stars, and aliens traveling along the black holes, all this stuff borrowed from Kubrick’s movie and Quatermass. With immaculate consistency following through with it.
Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.
Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the Infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.
Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense.
From Craig Copetas, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman,” Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.
CO: In the late work, Bowie seems to be in dialogue with other older musicians, you note. Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is very much an influence on Heathen, I’ve thought.
LK: I think so too, so many great parallels. The more you look at them, you think, were they looking over each other’s shoulders? While Dylan was writing Chronicles, Bowie’s working on his books. There are the musicals with Irish playwrights14; the archives.
Part Three: The Prestige (Blackstar)
CO: Moving to the third part of your book, “the prestige” as you call it: Blackstar itself. How essential is the Maria Schneider “Sue”—is that necessary to get to Blackstar?
LK: It’s exciting [the 2014 “Sue”], isn’t it—it’s such a great noir, so dark and elegant. That said, I do prefer the roughness and aggro of the album version, it’s got a lot more emotion in it for me. For the big band version Maria keeps it firmly in control. But there’s something about “Sue” on Blackstar that’s out of control, it’s fucking nuts. I really appreciate the chaos and mess of the Blackstar version.
CO: I have wondered what a full album of Bowie/Schneider would have been like, but I wonder if it was best as this one-off thing.
LK: Would it have been too glamorous sounding? Those large jazz orchestras sound so luxe and shiny to my ear. I wonder if an all Schneider/Bowie project would have felt like a detour in the grand album narrative, like Baal, or that Badalamenti collab. It’s hard to imagine because I love the Blackstar stuff so much.
CO: On Blackstar, while Bowie lets Donny McCaslin and the band have plenty of space, he’s the middle of it all, he’s the controlling figure. Whereas Schneider and Bowie are kind of equals and combating each other, influence wise, in “Sue.”
LK: I’d agree and I love the presence of Donny as being something like Bowie’s emotional avatar, not vying for equal billing, but supplying a musical commentary underneath Bowie’s vocal performance. And it really articulates something: the solo on “Lazarus,” the way it dramatizes a song which on paper is quite simple. The soling on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also. It reaches towards those inexpressible things, the unsayable stuff. And I’m so glad the last song didn’t end up being “Heat.”
CO: As the legendary Crayon to Crayon said, it’s a blast that the last song on the last Bowie album ends with this noodling, almost prog guitar.
LK: I love it—I’m so thankful for that. The rest of the albums from the late period end on a somber note, so I’m glad he chose to do that with the last one.
CO: For me “Dollar Days” feels like an epilogue, the calm after the storm, a song about wanting to go home but knowing you will never go home again.
LK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it—slipping off the mask a bit, a vulnerable moment. A song about being English and missing England and being okay with it. What I particularly love about that song is Bowie’s thoughtful use of harmony and structure to dramatize the lyric. He’s really mindful of the chords he’s using and the relationships between them, he’s playing with tension.
A lot of these details can get missed—people concentrate on the lyric, or the voice, understandably. But he’s there on his Korg putting a lot of thought and effort into the musical details, embedding references, playing into and against expectations. One reason I wanted to write this book was to give space to unpacking these kinds of details.
CO: He obviously knew a lot about music, having written it for 50 years—how much did you get a sense of how advanced his knowledge was of composition and theory? He’d sometimes say he was more of a ‘that sounds cool!’ type of composer. You mention on “Love Is Lost” an organ figure Bowie got by playing only black keys on his Korg. Schneider described this sort of thing to me as “the element of surprise,” which she thought was fundamental to his work.
LK: He was so omnivorous with his listening. There’s so much he takes from jazz, classical and experimental music and I really think he downplayed his musicianship a lot in public: the catalog tells another story.
The way he commands harmony even in some of his earliest pieces of music: it’s not someone playing a keyboard and saying, ‘that sounds cool.’ You’ve got “Moonage Daydream” transporting you through secondary dominant progressions15 in the first few bars. You’ve got beautiful chromatic transpositions treading through the bridge of “Life on Mars.” All the way through to the cadences of “Dollar Days.”
The chords of “Buddha of Suburbia” are amazing to look at. The way it’s pinned down on D with E minor and a G minor over the top, and then he flips it into B minor, then to B-flat—this isn’t a dude who just knows two chords on the guitar and can only play five notes. There’s immense sophistication going on. This kind of Eno ‘I’m not a musician, I’m just a dabbler’ thing allows him to engage in rule breaking, like he’s never claimed to be authentic about his music or belonging to any formal tradition with it. I will forever be an advocate for Bowie’s compositional prowess. It’s the reason why I love his music.
However he also struggled with his confidence. I asked Tony about The Next Day: why did it take so long? He said it was his confidence.
CO: It’s amazing to think of Bowie sitting there going “am I past it? Do the kids not want to hear from me anymore?”
LK: Which again is so touching. Sometimes I go a few years without making music and then I try to go back to it and think ‘can I really do this?’ Particularly if music creativity is intuitive for you, if you’re not engaging with it all the time, that kind of magic can disappear and you don’t have ready access to it anymore–you have to build it up again from nothing. I see Bowie as a modern romantic—in his best moments showing uniquely exquisite songcraft easily on par with Sondheim,16 Bacharach, or McCartney.
CO: Does the last work need to be the last work? Does it lose its power if Bowie lives five more years and makes two more records?
LK: It’s the question that drove me to change the nature of the book. I originally pitched it as Bowie’s Death Art…does the last work need to be the last in order to work? I don’t think so. I think those couple of days when he was alive and we had Blackstar: it was great, and I remember listening to it and thinking “oh my gosh, he’s given us a gem. He’s given us a diamond.” I was really looking forward to spending a few months digging into it. And then he died and it changed it immediately. So many people went back and revised their takes, kinda shutting the book on it quickly and shutting down the album’s lovely sense of ambiguity.
CO: Seemingly everyone who worked with him on the last record has said he wanted to do more.
LK: I think it’s disrespectful for us to presume Bowie made his last work while he waited for death. All evidence suggests that he was deep in the middle of a creative momentum, that he had sessions booked, he had people on the phone, “I’ve got ideas, I’ve got demos, I’ve got new songs.” He’d found a purple patch! He was making some amazing work and he knew it. He knew he was back in. Blackstar has such a momentum about it. You feel like if they’d had a few more sessions they would have come up even more incredible stuff.
CO: The idea of him doing a show with the McCaslin quartet [as McCaslin said he and Bowie discussed in 2015] is…just incredible.
LK: I can picture it as well. Imagine hearing ‘Tis a Pity’ live!
CO: He was never going to go on tour again and sing “Rebel Rebel” to a stadium. But a jazz club within walking distance of his apartment, that was more his style. That was the story of his last years, right?17
LK: “If I can walk there.”
CO: Is there a sense there are outtakes from these last albums that will one day be heard? There’s “Blaze,” we know.18Are there other songs kicking around, do you think?
LK: The estate has got a lid on whatever exists. It seems that Donny’s got demos and bits of song ideas we’ve never heard before sitting in his inbox. It’s totally feasible that there’s unfinished files and sketches left on the Zoom R24 recorder. But you know, I don’t need it. I’d be devastated if someone went through my files and published my unfinished stuff.
CO: He was never much of an archival guy, musically—getting demos and outtakes from him for reissues was like pulling teeth at times. The idea of him doing a Dylan Bootleg Series is unlikely.
LK: Yeah I think so. Consider his process. For most of his career the way he developed songs was with the help of others. He would have been in a room with the tape or Pro Tools rolling, messing around with musicians and finding what sticks. He needed everyone to respect his privacy, to realize this is process, this is not the finished article. It would be highly rude for someone to share some half-baked shit with the world now that he’s gone. I’m sure there are process-based demos that have Donny’s band, bits of music they didn’t use, and if anything features Donny’s band I bet those sketches would sound especially great and listenable. Hopefully people can keep it all under wraps—I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!
Thanks again to Leah Kardos! Blackstar Theory can be purchased as an e-book now or, in Jan/Feb, in your favorite indie bookstore.
1. A now-defunct Tumblr page (originally: http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com/archive) from November-December 2015 that contained a number of black-and-white photos, some of which had eerie similarities to images that appear in the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos. No further posts were made after Bowie’s death, and to this day, no one can say with certainty who was responsible for it.
2. Bowie’s webpage/ISP/message board of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, on which he regularly took part in chat rooms, usually under the moniker “sailor,” and shared journal entries and photos. His appearances became much more sporadic after his heart operation in 2004, and as per Kardos, his last interaction as “sailor” was in 2007, around the same time that he stopped doing live appearances for good.
3. Bowie’s independent label, artist roster of one, which he started in 2001; EMI’s rejection of Toy was the last straw for him, in re working for major labels, though ISO has always had a distribution arrangement with one.
4. The Korg Trinity (Bowie also used a Korg Pandora effects unit and a vintage ARP Odyssey), which dates to 1995. You first hear it on the Omikron soundtrack and ‘hours,’ though as Kardos notes, the Korg is a fundamental part of Bowie’s music right until the end.
5. As per Kardos, “the Bowie home studio setup was connected to a Zoom R24 digital multitrack recorder, which came with an on-board drum machine, bass synthesizer, audio loop editor and a step/real-time sequencer. Even as home recording practices quickly evolved in the early millennium towards software applications like Logic and Pro Tools, Bowie preferred to stick with his Zoom hard disc recorder, a relatively limited and old-fashioned piece of kit by the time he used it to produce the 2014 version of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’.”
6. Both Leah and I have visited this archive, located a quick walk from Philadelphia’s 30th St. station. You can read more about these tapes in Rebel Rebel, though Leah went one better and played excerpts from the tapes at a conference with Drexel’s Toby Seay.
8. Tonkon, to Kardos in Blackstar Theory: “For women, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you work in studios, times when you have to smile and put on a happy face and put up with things, but working with David was the opposite of that. I was able to learn so much from him – creative lessons, life lessons … I learned an incredible amount. He was a good person.”
9. Kardos: “The Red Book was Jung’s own private dream journal-cum-art project, a personal record of his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, a series of disturbing visions that he experienced during a time when he was close to having a psychotic breakdown as Europe stood at the edge of the First World War. It was finally published in 2009 and its handwritten pages, paintings and drawings were shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (October 2009 to February 2010),” an exhibit which Bowie and Oursler saw at the time.
10. Lindsay Kemp’s 1970 televised version of Pierrot in Turquoise, for which Bowie sang “When I Live My Dream” and other compositions. Lots of dreams, mirrors, bedrooms, killings.
11. One of Potter’s masterpieces, The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) has Michael Gambon as a writer, Philip Marlow, recovering from a vicious bout of psoriatic arthritis in a hospital ward. The second episode is entitled “Heat.” Kardos’ book lists a number of fascinating parallels between Singing Detective and Bowie’s last works.
12. Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC, 1996), was, along with its twin production Karaoke, Potter’s last work, written as he was dying from pancreatic cancer and produced after his death in 1994.
13. Legendary 1968 “rock opera” demo tape of Bowie’s that was auctioned to a record collector in the Nineties.
14. Enda Walsh (Lazarus) and Conor McPherson (Girl From the North Country).
15. A secondary dominant is, typically, a chord that’s “borrowed” from a key other than that of the song, often employed to anticipate the arrival of the key’s true dominant (the V chord). So “Moonage,” which is in D major, opens: “I’m an all-i-ga-tor!” (D, the I or “home” chord), “I’m a mamapapa comin’ for you!” (F-sharp major, a III chord (the secondary dominant), quickly resolving to B minor, the vi chord of D, with a root note of A (the root of the key’s true V chord): “I’m a space invader.”
16. Bowie, 2008: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.“
17. Well, he’d have taken the limo, most likely.
18. Of the various outtakes rumored to have come from The Next Day and Blackstar, only “Blaze” from the latter sessions, which Nicholas Pegg and other sources have heard, is verified to have a complete Bowie vocal/lyric. Many other outtakes of the period likely only have place-filler DB top melodies, Kardos speculates from her research and interviews.
A happy surprise in a season of unhappy ones is the recent leak of an Olympic Studios tape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” from January 1974. The source is, apparently, someone who made a digital copy of the tape, which was auctioned off by Omega last fall. The winning bidder paid £2,100. Now the world has it—who knows, perhaps the bidder was feeling generous.
As per Omega’s description of the session, from 9 January 1974: “The tape features Bowie pausing frequently to direct the musicians – in total there are six different takes with three being complete. The label lists a final version as “MASTER” but this is no longer present on the reel, presumably having been spliced off to be compiled with other album master tracks, possibly for further overdubbing etc.”
This is exactly the sort of thing—a series of studio takes, with Bowie shifting lyrics around, trying out phrasings and tempos, hitting bum notes, cracking up—that he had no interest in ever releasing. “Official” Bowie outtakes are almost always a complete performance, whether it’s a demo, live recording, fully-mixed studio take, alternate mix of a song, or, a DB favorite, a sketch that he monkeyed with years later to create a fake “lost” song (see “I Pray Ole”). Twenty minutes of Bowie running Mike Garson, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman through a song that he’d not quite finished: not so much.
So is it worth a listen? I found it pretty compelling—played it twice through. Not quite sure why, apart from its novelty. Maybe just to hear Bowie and his musicians doing a normal act—working out backing tracks of a song in a studio one night—is now comforting, similar to how films with scenes in restaurants or offices or crowded streets have a sudden, painful nostalgia to them. Random shots of life as we’ve known it our entire lives can seem as remote as film footage of a Cossack charge.
Bowie had been working on what became Diamond Dogs for months when he cut these takes in early January. This period at Olympic, with just Bowie, Garson, Flowers, and Newman on the session, was when the album, which had been a loose collection of songs from various prospective theatrical ventures, finally took shape—they cut much of the “Sweet Thing” sequence, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” “We Are The Dead,” “Big Brother” and “Diamond Dogs” alone in roughly 10 days (along with an early version of “Can You Hear Me”).
Hearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” in a stripped-down, developing state improves the song for me. It was always an odd fit for Diamond Dogs, playing the role that a cover song like “Fill Your Heart” or “It Ain’t Easy” had on Bowie’s earlier Seventies albums. A spot of reassurance on a diseased-sounding record, as I once called it—the brass hinge between the “Hunger City” songs on side one and the Nineteen Eighty Four pieces on the second side.
Co-composed by Bowie’s childhood friend (and 1974 tour vocalist) Geoff MacCormack, who came up with some of the verse chords, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was apparently first slotted for the sketchiest of Bowie’s mid-Seventies plans: a Ziggy Stardust musical intended for the stage or TV. Talking to William S. Burroughs two months before this recording, Bowie said this musical would be a cut-up performance. He’d write some 40 scenes and then “shuffle [them] around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out…it would change every night.”
A precursor of “We Are the Champions” and other arena standards, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is made of “rock spiritual” timber—a “Lean On Me”/”Let It Be”-esque piano intro, a Garson organ hymn and a Bowie vocal that takes predictable flight: low and confined in the first verse, swoops up an octave for the second, capping it off with roared refrains and scats (“I’m in tears...I’m in tears”). In the rehearsal takes, you can hear Bowie plotting this course out (“the next time it comes around it keeps straight, like a 4/4 thing…that’s right, the high verse: AH la la la lah-dah!”)
What saves the song from sentimentality is its acerbic take on the relations of audience and actor (“they sold us for the likes of you”). “There are two stars in rock ‘n’ roll—me and the audience,” Bowie had said at one of the last Ziggy Stardust concerts in Newcastle, irritated by bouncers hitting some kids. “And if these stewards don’t stop…the stars are going to make this place into a matchbox.” If it’s meant to be the voice of Ziggy, it’s a Ziggy tartly explaining why he broke up the band and was renting a room somewhere in America to get away from his fans (“I’ve found a door that lets me out!”).
Asked in summer 1974 whether his fans considered him as a leader, Bowie said that “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was his response: “you’re doing it to me. Stop it.” Eventually-scrapped lyrics in the rehearsal takes show how he was playing with this idea: “I would take invaders into hand/ tens of millions fail to understand.”
He could be frustrated by fans who got stuck on a persona he’d discarded. They were content to “adopt the stance of a character that didn’t exist at all, and a life-style that hadn’t been created…they created their own life-style for Ziggy,” he later said, baffled that anyone had taken him seriously. On stage in 1974, he used performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” to have gnomic dialogues with his crowds. In Boston, he broke off midway through it to ramble “this one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me and singing,” he said during another performance.) On the Diamond Dogs cut, he gave the last word to his lead guitar.
The rehearsal takes have a lightness and a dedication to them, the latter especially in Bowie’s singing—after being in a fog, he was seeing the way out. Diamond Dogs was a defiant album: the album after Ziggy and the Spiders died, the one that showed that Bowie could stand on his own without a Ronson or Visconti (though the latter helped with mixing it), the one he made after Sonia Orwell turned him down for Nineteen Eighty Four; the last album that he cut (mostly) in England. It was, in many ways, his first true solo album, and it always meant a great deal to him. Now, until the YouTube links dry up, you can hear Bowie singing part of it into being.
It was the beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury, his first British Top 5 hit, his first American Top 20 hit and, some years later, his first British #1. “Space Oddity” led off the album it titled; it leads off Bowie compilations and retrospectives. When he died, some television tributes led off with it; that night, they sang it in the streets.
An odd beginning, though. Its status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. Though it was a novelty single with a sell-by date (the July 1969 moon landing), “Space Oddity” didn’t chart until months after the moonshot and its highest chartings came in the mid-Seventies. Some in the Bowie camp thought it was a mistake at the time—his friend Tony Visconti refused to produce the single, considering it cheap, a publicity stunt (“it’s not a David Bowie record, it’s ‘Ernie the Milkman’,” he later said). Visconti wasn’t wrong. In hock to the great Bee Gees’ death bubblegum hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Major Tom to Ground Control: in the event of something happening to me; Ground Control to Major Tom: for once in your life you’re alone), “Space Oddity” is a gimmicky folk song clad in extravagant garb.
In December 1968, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt funded the production of Love You Till Tuesday, a collection of promotional videos. He hoped to revive Bowie’s moribund career, with LYTT serving as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network (it wasn’t released until 1984). While there were films shot for David Bowie tracks, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a Feathers song, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”
It’s unknown when Bowie first got the idea for a “spaceman” song, but an almost certain starting point was May 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London. The film played there for months, mostly to the young and the altered. In a typical 2001 screening, Visconti, high from drinking cannabis tea, had to talk down a tripping couple terrified by the “Stargate” sequence, as he wrote in his autobiography. Bowie saw 2001 (allegedly “out of my gourd…very stoned”) several times and was taken by Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth’s shots: a star-child looming above the Earth; the dead astronaut Frank Poole floating off into space; a man in space talking to his daughter on Earth via video-phone.
Like 2001, much of postwar SF had offered that humanity’s ventures into space would drive it mad or transfigure it in some way. In Gordon Walter’s “No Guarantee,” an astronaut violently hallucinates while talking to Ground Control. An astronaut in Terry Pratchett’s “The Night Dweller” realizes “we were in a void with nothing below us…it was cold and empty and hostile.”
And in Ray Bradbury’s “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut hurls himself into the void:
Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”
“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”
Jane Conrad, Barbara Cernan & Leslie Bean celebrate their husbands’ moonlaunch on Apollo 12; 16 November 1969 (Lee Balterman)
Against this stood the American astronauts: ex-athletes and Air Force pilots with pretty, television-ready wives and scads of healthy-looking children. They all seemed to live on the same suburban street. “NASA was vending space,” wrote Norman Mailer, who interviewed the Apollo 11 crew before the moonshot. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was “a salesman with a clear mild modest soft sell.” But there was something strange in the Apollo astronauts too, something that lay beyond the jokes about astronaut food and golf and the hundreds of tedious tasks they’d perform, as if they were celestial mechanics. For Mailer, an astronaut like Armstrong had “something close to schizophrenia in his lack of reaction to the dangers about him.”
The astronauts had an easy familiarity with death; they were salesmen over an abyss. Major Tom’s disaster (is it a disaster at all?) voiced the collective dread that the moon landing could go horribly wrong, with death or lunar exile (an extended death) shown on live TV. “A song-farce,” Bowie called “Space Oddity” not long after the moonshot. He’d written it as an “antidote to space-fever.” That “the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing but a human being.”
It’s fitting that Bowie made “Space Oddity” demos while he had a serviceman’s haircut (due to a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in late 1968)
The man on earth, playing his 12-string acoustic in his room at 22 Clareville Grove in South Kensington, working up a song. After four years in pop music, David Bowie had no record contract and was reduced to a relative handful of folk and mime gigs. In 1968, he’d tried his hand at film parts and musical theater (he unsuccessfully auditioned for Hair), did a cabaret audition, some modeling. Though among his more lucrative jobs of the period was for a TV spot for Luv Ice Cream, his manager kept telling him that work would turn up. So Major Tom is sent into orbit by Establishment figures who monitor him and need him to do his share of media promotion. The song ends with Major Tom ignoring his cues and walking off stage.
Bowie also was writing as the first serious relationship of his life crumbled. He cut the first studio take of “Space Oddity” during his final break with Hermione Farthingale. There was a numbness in the song, a longing to sever ties and drift into the void. As Bowie said of it in summer 1969, “at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at…he’s fragmenting.”
Among the first substantive interviews of Bowie’s professional life, by Mary Finnigan for the International Times (15-21 August 1969).
All of this was swirling in “Space Oddity”—a technocrat American astronaut cracking up, a failed pop singer out in space writing a letter to his lost girlfriend—but there were pantomime qualities in the song as well. The hand-wringing “she KNOWS!” cried by Ground Control when Major Tom tells his wife he loves her; the stage-Italian pronunciation of “most-a pe-cuil-ee-ah way.”
As with “When I’m Five” or “There Is a Happy Land,” it was fundamentally a child’s song, one they could perform via walkie-talkies. Using simple rhymes (“can you hear” jump-cuts to “here am I floating…”), Bowie favored the kid’s word over the bureaucrat’s: it’s “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence.” “Major Tom” was an action hero’s name, another Dan Dare. The Apollo 11 astronauts called their capsule “the cathedral.” But it was a tin can here: you could see the wires it hung from.
Ground Control fears the worst (Love You Till Tuesday; Thomson, 1969)
In John Hutchinson’s memoir, he recalled first hearing “the bare bones” of “Space Oddity” a week or two before the Love You Till Tuesday filming. This would place its earliest extant demos (as heard on the Spying Through a Keyhole box) around the tail end of 1968 through mid-January 1969. Farthingale said she first heard “Space Oddity” in November 1968 (Bowie also once said that he wrote the lyrics in that month) and there’s an intriguing Feathers setlist from the period with an unknown piece called “Here Am I,” suggesting that its bridge may have been written first.
(There have been dubious co-authorship claims—LYTT’s director Malcolm Thomson once said some of “Space Oddity” was communally written over a few nights when he and his assistant Susie Mercer visited Clareville Grove—“we all produced lines. It was very much a spontaneous thing among a group of people”—and Marc Bolan told Spencer Leigh that he’d written “part” of the song (declining to say which part) and had suggested that Bowie sing it like Robin Gibb.)
What could be the first recording that Bowie ever made of “Space Oddity” is a fragmentary solo demo in which the bridge is all but completed, while the verse melody and the Ground Control/Major Tom dialogue structure are close to being set. The way that Bowie sings the verses reminds me a bit of John Lennon’s verse phrasings on the then-just-released “Bungalow Bill” (“he went out tiger hunting with his el-e-phant and gun”). There are some clunky early lines (“I think my life on earth is nearly through”), and a clearer depiction of what happens to Major Tom—his spaceship goes “off course, directions wrong”— but it’s striking how much of the song is already in place.
Its chord sequence was the fruit of a year’s dabbling in folk music, with Hutchinson translating some of Bowie’s ideas into proper chord shapes (he was essential to tacking down the bridge, as Hutch contributed the opening Fmaj7 and the quick run of ninth chords (wrongly omitted in the above chord chart: see below).
Bowie had fingered through progressions on his 12-string, following internal voices of his guitar—playing chord changes that sounded right to his ear and that he achieved with easy movements, like converting a F major barre chord (“and I’m”) into F minor (“floating in a”) by lifting a finger. Later compositions like “Quicksand” would share this tactile sense of movement.
Parallel movements of electric guitar and Stylophone (“Sty.”) in the opening verse
So the chord pairings of the intro (a slow dance of Fmaj7/E and E minor) and the first verse’s alternating C majors and E minors, present a division to be exploited. On the single recording, the guitarist Mick Wayne sounds two harmonics (E and B) while Bowie’s Stylophone drones two whole notes a half-step apart (C and B). Before the first verse starts, Major Tom is already high in space, Ground Control far below him.
The song was full of these resonances, its harmonic language telling half of the story. Take the E7 chord that appears in the second verse (“really made the grade”) to question the prospective key of C major. It was as dramatic a move harmonically as the vocal leap on the post-liftoff “this is Ground Control to Major Tom” was melodically. Shifting to E7 instead of the expected E minor brightened the song, expanded it outward. Or take the bridge’s “planet earth is blue” section (B-flat major 9/ A minor add9/ G major add9/ F), a folk-style descending progression whose opening chord (Bbmaj9) was a far distance from C major, a move ratifying Major Tom’s choice (or doom) to stay out in space.
The “liftoff” bars
He’d never written anything on such a scale before. In a touch over five minutes, there was a faded-in intro, a 12-bar solo verse, a “liftoff” sequence, a duet verse, a bridge, a two-bar acoustic guitar break, a six-bar guitar solo, a third verse, another run of bridge, break, and solo, and a “Day in the Life”-style outro to the fade.
In 2002, Bowie said he’d been “keen on…writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…[that’s] probably what I really wanted to do in the late Sixties. I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” He storyboarded the song, each section setting up the next. The spoken “countdown” backing vocal built suspense in the latter half of the opening verse, leading to a D major chord (“God’s love be with yoooou”) aching to be resolved by the “liftoff” sequence. The acoustic guitar breaks (C-F-G-A-A, Bowie slamming out the last two chords) worked as stage-clearing (they may well have come from the Fifth Dimension’s “Carpet Man”).
At present, the only surviving video of DB’s 1969 TV appearances to promote “Space Oddity”: the Swiss Hits à Gogo, 3 November 1969 (the dry ice was a leftover from its Halloween show)
I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.
Roddy Frame, 2002.
“It was a song always intended to be sung by a duo,” Hutchinson wrote of “Space Oddity,” whose initial vocal arrangement evoked another, more successful folk pair—Hutch as Ground Control Simon, Bowie as Major Tom Garfunkel. Hutchinson was the song’s primary voice until midway through the second verse, when Major Tom transmits back at last: Bowie soaring over a seventh for his opening phrase (because it’s a seventh interval rather than an octave, Bowie’s phrase has a yearning, striving quality; it’s a goal not quite reached.)
Hutchinson, having left working with Bowie in the spring, would be a ghost in the single recording, his absence heightening its sense of loss and dislocation. Bowie now sang the opening verse in imitation of his former partner, harmonizing with himself in octaves. (In live performances in 1972-1973, Mick Ronson took over harmonies.)
A studio recording of “Space Oddity” was cut for Love You Till Tuesday on 2 February 1969, a few days before its tonally bizarre promo film was shot: a half-panto, half-borderline softcore short. Marred by leaden drumming and a wheezing Bowie ocarina solo, the LYTT “Space Oddity” oddly downplayed the Stylophone, which Bowie had started playing around Christmas 1968 and had been key to the song’s development—the Stylophone is central in all but the earliest demo.
A small portable synthesizer with two settings, “normal” and “vibrato,” the Stylophone was played by touching a stylus to its tiny metallic keyboard. Bowie worked out a progression on it for the opening verse, a two-note sequence that he later shifted up an octave (on “papers want to know,” the Stylophone moves between A-flat and G). Heard isolated in the mix, the Stylophone is a futurist police siren. In the single’s outro, while Wayne sends guitar notes into the exosphere, Bowie frantically taps at his little keyboard as if making one last SOS.
Making the Stylophone prominent in the “Space Oddity” mix gave the single a futuristic hook and added to its hokey charm. Although recorded at a top studio at a substantial budget (£493.18), the single had a winning sense of amateurishness. Orchestral instruments would play only secondary roles: the strings’ massed entrance in the liftoff sequence; the spacewalk of darting flute and moaning celli in the bridges; the bow scrapings in the outro, a homage to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” used in 2001. Meanwhile, the two synthesizers, doughty little Stylophone and brooding Mellotron (the latter played by Rick Wakeman and held in reserve until the first bridge), bore much of the song’s dramatic weight. They were its vocal chorus, its other string section.
A Dudgeon memo right before the “Space Oddity” session, via Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now
Gus Dudgeon, who produced the single, mapped out its recording like a battle plan (much of it was cut on 20 June 1969, but there was an overdub session a few days later). Unable to write music, Dudgeon used colors and squiggly lines to mark where he wanted various instruments to come in, with Paul Buckmaster helpfully translating his scrawls into charts.
With only eight tracks at hand at Trident Studio, Dudgeon had to be economical, which led to such inspired moves as recording Wayne’s Gibson ES-335 on the same track as the Stylophone, furthering the sense that the two instruments were astronaut and home base. Struggling to keep his borrowed Gibson in tune, Wayne cut a take with a flat low E string, “the warped note swamped with reverb,” but Dudgeon liked the sound and told him not to retune. Wayne used any trick he could muster, picking between his guitar’s bridge and tailpiece, using a chrome-plated cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide for the takeoff sequence, giving a distorted pressure-drop tag to his first solo (he sounded like a bass synthesizer), moving off his fingerboard for the outro. His two solos, for which Bowie asked him to play like Wes Montgomery (“which meant to play octaves”), were a pair of sweeping orbits, the last escaping Earth’s pull.
Flowers and Cox’s lines in some of the last bars of “Space Oddity”
Herbie Flowers and Terry Cox were the track’s secret movers. Drumming for Pentangle at the time, Cox served the song well—a man with a funkier bent would have struggled with what was basically a pop tone poem. Opening with parade-ground snare, Cox soon develops a pattern to drive the track: for each bar, two sets of kick drum/closed hi-hat eighth notes he punctuates with a pounded snare and crash cymbal. (He subtly shifts to ride cymbal 16ths and high toms for bridges and solos.) In Flowers’ bassline, a tolling root-note fixation in the opening verse warms to a dancing movement in the second, with a descending two-octave “spacewalk” to kick off the bridges.
Asked to ad lib in the outro, the two did a jazz duet, Flowers playing a roaming, chromatic line that peaked on a high A, Cox hissing his ride cymbal and retorting on his toms. (Cox recalled the session as being “loose,” with Bowie and Dudgeon letting players improvise many of their parts.)
DB performing “Space Oddity” on the Irish “Like Now!,” 13 December 1969 (video likely wiped)
Major Tom isn’t hearing anything. Is he dead, David?
Probably, that’s left unanswered. But it is clear that he really enjoys being on the moon.
Bowie, to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, 30 August 1969
The world, or at least a small corner of London, first heard “Space Oddity” on 5 July 1969 when it played over the PA system during the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert. While the BBC reportedly played “Space Oddity” at some point during its moon landing coverage two weeks later (it far more favored “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the official soundtrack of space thanks to 2001), the single barely charted upon release and sales quickly tapered off despite Pitt paying a chart-rigger £140 to get the single into Record Retailer.
Here, it seemed, was the maddening last chapter of David Bowie’s career. The song that his label, manager, and friends thought was finally the one, the song he said he felt forced into recording, his big sell-out record, had suffered yet another chart death, performing little better than “Liza Jane.” Then he caught a break.
With a dearth of new releases in September, Philips’ new marketing director set his entire staff to flogging the single. “Space Oddity” rebounded, peaking at #5 in November. (It was the success Bowie might have had in 1967 if Deram had gone in on “Love You Till Tuesday.”) It helped that many “serious” rock acts were abandoning the singles charts, leaving room for “Continental” crooners, sex chansons, cartoons, the occasional reggae masterpiece and a few weird one-offs. “Space Oddity” sounded like nothing else, but it sounded like 1969.
And it kept being called back for encores. It was an American hit in 1973 and two years later RCA reissued it in Britain as a maxi-single. It hit #1 at last.
He remade it at the end of the Seventies, recording a new version for a New Year’s Eve telecast, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? (he did). Bowie sheared the song to acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums. The great influence was John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, particularly “Mother.” Instead of a liftoff sequence, there were now 12 seconds of silence; instead of a spiraling-outward coda, a faded-out snare figure.
“[David] Mallet wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.’ I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments,” Bowie later said. “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.”
“Space Oddity” had ended unresolved, the door of the capsule left open. Bowie’s reduction of the song closed it off: space was empty. Soon afterward, Bowie decided to look up Major Tom to see what had become of him.
The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.
When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.
Knowing each night…I get that much closer to never singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly.
Bowie, on the “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990.
“Space Oddity” is a half-century old today. Of course, we’re commemorating a non-event. Few people at the time—perhaps only David Bowie, his friends and manager—were aware of a new single that hit British record shops on Friday, the 11th of July 1969.
In the early Seventies, “Space Oddity” had its uses for him. It fit in his Ziggy Stardust scheme: a late 1972 Mick Rock promo video is Bowie as a bone-tired Ziggy, singing about his fellow lost cosmonaut. (“I really hadn’t much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song,” Bowie wrote in 2002.) Its after-hours cabaret 1974 tour version is a man in a phone booth dialing himself. But it was also a silly song that got him a freak hit, and he was wary of being shackled to it. Performing “Space Oddity” on the Ivor Novello Awards in 1970, he already looks a bit chagrined by it. A decade later, he did “Space Oddity” as fan service, with businesslike 1983 tour performances. There was more vigor in his 1990 tour, where “Space Oddity” was the usual set opener. It was the end of the line for the song, he said, so he’d give it a lengthy public burial.
He’d play it three more times. A farewell solo piece at his 1997 birthday concert, where he promised fans he’d keep surprising them. A gorgeous arrangement for Tibet House in February 2002, with a string octet and Adam Yauch on bass (someone else whose death still feels like a break in the world). And a last one-off performance later that summer in Denmark, a gift to his touring band.
“Space Oddity” was born mournful, and became ever more so over the years. Bowie had linked the Apollo astronauts (who thought they’d be the opening act of a new age of space exploration and turned out to be one-hit-wonders) to the doomed astronauts of science fiction to the lost boys of the imploding counterculture, and had wrapped them up in a playground hymn.
The American space program soon became a series of loops, going nowhere (I wonder sometimes if I am of the last “space” generation, and I was just an infant during the last moon landings). The year 2001 would be remembered not for Jupiter missions but by fanatics destroying New York skyscrapers. In 2013, when we had gone no further into space than when “Space Oddity” first charted, a version sung by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral. It was a video of a man singing in a tin can that many had forgotten was out in space; Hadfield was a project manager with a glorious view from his office windows.
Bowie once said Major Tom was the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the void and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy: that humanity would sink back into the world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky really is the limit. Or as Hadfield sang from space: “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.”
I wrote the first version of this essay in the late autumn of 2009, with an economy in pieces and a restlessness, a potential in the air. I did a revision for Rebel Rebel in the summer of 2014, a time that now feels stuck between stations. Here’s another revision, written in a world that would have appeared surreal even to that half-decade-gone summer. “Space Oddity” shifts with the weather: it can be eerie, “dated,” tragic, yearning, young, time-blighted. It’s a lost future for the present, a past for the future to discard or preserve. Where will it land in ten years’ time? And as its composer said, where are we now?
Written by David Bowie (Essex Music International/ Onward Music Ltd).
Recorded: (1st “Keyhole” demo) ca. December 1968–mid-January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, South Kensington, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; (2nd “Keyhole” demo, “Clareville Grove” demo) ca. mid-to-late January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: also Stylophone; John Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar; (1st studio take) 2 February 1969, Morgan Studios, 169 High Road, Willesden. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, ocarina, Stylophone; Hutchinson: acoustic guitar, lead and harmony vocals; Colin Wood: Hammond organ, Mellotron, flute; Dave Clague: bass; Tat Meager: drums. Produced: Jonathan Weston; (“Mercury” demo) ca. early-to-mid March 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone; Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocal, acoustic guitar; (single) 20 + ca. 23 June 1969, Trident Studios, 17 St. Anne’s Court, London. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone, 12-string acoustic guitar, handclaps; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman: Mellotron; Herbie Flowers: bass; Terry Cox: drums; unknown musicians: piano, organ, 2 flutes, 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 2 arco basses. Produced: Gus Dudgeon; engineered: Barry Sheffield; arranged: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster; (Italian version, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”) 20 December 1969, Morgan Studios. Bowie: lead vocal (Mogol, trans.); (Visconti/DB remake) ca. early September 1979, Good Earth Studios, 59 Dean Street, Soho, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Hans Zimmer: piano; Zaine Griff: bass; Andy Duncan: drums. Produced: Bowie, Tony Visconti.
First release: (single) 11 July 1969 (Philips BF 1801, UK #5); (“Ragazzo Solo”) ca. February 1970 (Philips 704 208 BW); (Visconti/DB remake) 15 February 1980 (RCA BOW 5, UK#23); (“1st studio”) 13 May 1984, Love You Till Tuesday; (“Mercury demo”) 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision; (“Clareville Grove” demo) 12 October 2009, Space Oddity (reissue, DBSOCD 40); (“Keyhole” demos) 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.
Broadcast: (recording dates) 25 August 1969, Doebiedoe; 2 October 1969, Top of the Pops; 29 October 1969, Musik Für Junge Leute; 3 November 1969, Hits à Gogo; 5 December 1969, Like Now!; 10 May 1970, The Ivor Novello Awards; 22 May 1972, Johnnie Walker Lunchtime Show; 20 October 1973, The 1980 Floor Show; 18 September 1979, Kenny Everett’s Video Show. Live: 1969-1974, 1983, 1990, 1997, 2002.
Among the many sources for this multi-revised beast over the past decade: Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now, Kenneth Pitt’s The Pitt Report, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination, Paul Trynka’s Starman, The David Bowie Story (radio documentary), the Gilmans’ Alias David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roger Griffin’s Golden Years, and, most of all, the complete band score David Bowie: Space Oddity—Off the Record. Also a number of contemporary articles, especially Mary Finnigan’s International Times interview (15-21 August 1969), Jojanneke Claassen’s “David Bowie’s Great Love Is His Arts Lab” (Het Parool, 30 August 1969) and Penny Valentine’s “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969). Larry Hardesty figured out the mechanics of this song for me during book revisions. Around the time of the original entry in 2009, Tom Ewing made mention of the blog, which got it some substantial attention and, ultimately, led to a book contract. So thanks again to Tom, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to meet in the years since.
EpigraphsEno: to Mark Sinker, The Wire, 1992; Pyzik: in Helibo Seyoman.
442 Trying to Get to Heaven it appeared on a Virgin promo CD-R that also had a Danny Saber remix of “Fun” (photographic evidence on this Illustrated DB thread); Time Out of Mind: for instance, it topped OK Computer in the Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” critics poll of 1997; nice break in the cycle: Plati, on his website’s message board (reprinted on Teenage Wildlife); should just give up: to Michael Kimmelman, NY Times, 14 June 1998; Tim Curry: said to young CO at a press junket in October 1993. Curry was the villain in a now-forgotten remake of The Three Musketeers, and was talking about his performance in that film in particular.
443 Battle Hymn As Bowie’s only singing the chorus, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body,” the song that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was adapted from. But as his character Sikora looks as if he’s wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union marching song. Perhaps he’s doing so ironically; perhaps this is an alternate Earth where the Confederacy won; perhaps (here’s a guess) no one involved in the film had a clue about this issue; first release: it didn’t appear in the US until was issued, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a DVD in 2005.
444 Suite for a Foggy Day apparently its official title, though the Red Hot + Rhapsody CD just uses the Gershwin title, which I also use as the primary way to identify this track; make it very Badalamenti: East Village Radio interview, ca. March 2014; transcription by Pieter Dom, 13 January 2016. There’s of course the story that Bono wanted to do this song but Badalamenti had already booked DB—I didn’t mention it in this essay because it seemed like the story had been recounted by 200 websites in the months after Bowie’s death, so I figured you didn’t need reminding.
445 Safe oddly difficult to determine when exactly it was offered to BowieNetters. Its first physical release was on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” CD single, issued on 16 September 2002; a real old woman: The David Bowie Story, 1993; three hours reminiscing:Billboard, 26 September 1998. The reunion had begun a year or so before, but had a pause when Bowie apparently got irked with Visconti talking to Mojo in 1997 about how he and Mick Ronson had been essentially co-composers of some of The Man Who Sold the World; far beyond my wildest dreams…doesn’t fit in: MTV News, 9 October 1998.
446 objective piece: to Stuart Clark, Hot Press, 10 November 1999; more internal…world really is: to Chris Norriss, Spin, November 1999. Responding to a fan query on a web-chat on BowieNet (27 April 1999), Bowie said:
At the time of Ziggy, there was so
much more going on in my head than just the idea
of a new synthetic rock star
<David\bBowie> that I want to fully explore all the
fragments that made up in my own mind the Ziggy
<David\bBowie> And hopefully I'll be able to do
quite a complex overview in 2002.
<David\bBowie> And it will have great shoes...
<hj> 28BebeBuell says:rnSpeaking of Ziggy will the
1980 Floor Show ever see the light of day again??
<David\bBowie> What a charming name, Bebe...
<David\bBowie> I'm very keen to try and get this
released and I would like to combine it with
outtakes from that night.
<David\bBowie> It should be this century...maybe
next century, but we've all got patience haven't
info-packed maps: Hot Press, 10 November 1999; Ziggy’s parents perspective: shown in a plot sketch included in the David Bowie Is exhibit; I’ve found bits and pieces…keeping the sound of the material in the period: Radio One “The Net” interview, 23 July 1998 (Ziggy Stardust Companion is a good source for more details about the ‘Ziggy 2002’ project.)
447 Velvet Goldmine: Haynes sent Bowie an early version of the script and asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. “When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film, frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into Also there was a lot more shopping,” Bowie said to Andrew Davies (The Big Issue, 11-17 January 1999); so ecstatic about Tommy Stone: Haynes, conversation with Julia Leyda, 29 March 2012; got really nervous: Jones, 379.
448 running like fuck from that one…slack-arsed script: to Michael Dwyer, Rolling Stone (Australia), June 2002. Mother it’s unclear whatever happened to this Lennon tribute album, still unreleased as of this writing. You’d think at some point, tracks recorded for it would have come out, as seemingly everything else Lennon-related has; lonely little kid: quoted in Jonathan Cott’s Days That I’ll Remember; journalist saw him: Martin Hayman, Rock, 8 October 1973. “At the corner of the settee nearest the fire…sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother” growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.”
449 stepping stone: to Jérome Soligny, Rock et Folk, December 1998; first attempts at manipulating music in a computer: Visconti message to Bowie Wonderworld, ca. September 2006 (the year I believe “Mother” was bootlegged).
450 20th Century Boy we were in key at least: Melody Maker, 17 April 1999; old Judy Garland thing: Gay Times, December 1998.
451 New Angels of Promise The Omikron: The Nomad Soul version appeared on the 2004 ‘hours…’ 2-CD reissue. BowieNet: users were charged $20 a month to use it as their internet service provider ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, it was reportedly valued at $500 million (as per Time Out, December 1998), though Bowie was skeptical about how much he really was earning from it: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies”; Subeez Café: 30 September 1998 BowieNet web chat. I’m being mean in choosing these particular questions—there were some funny and perceptive ones, too; almost metaphysical…on the cusp of something: BBC2 Newsnight, 3 December 1999.
452 once everyone can sample…no longer church: Bowie, chat on Eden.vmg.co.uk, 2 February 2000. Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, he predicted music would soon be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he still imagined that record stores would remain central to music consumption, predicting that clerks would download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player”; bit Bond Street: Mojo, October 1994; core competencies: FinancialTimes, 26 January 2000; Bowie bonds: among the more misunderstood things that Bowie was ever involved in. He didn’t “go public,” he didn’t put himself on the stock market, fans almost certainly couldn’t have bought them, etc. For more, see the blog post; Bowie’s trading desk: to J. Alex Tarquinio, Forbes, 4 March 2000 (“People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’ says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.”) To Peter Paphides (Time Out, December 1998), Bowie said “when I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep”; BowieBanc: run by USABancShares.com Inc. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company. In 1887, the Peoples Thrift Savings Bank was founded, which thriftily endured for a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized bank names were in vogue), bought other local banks and merged their operations, took this company public, renamed it again to USABancShares, which increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. Its internet bank division launched in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture. Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital, and was paid for the use of his name and image. So he was possibly the only person left unscathed from the venture, which had a mere 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. Tepper resigned in March 2001; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share (“the expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper told the Philadelphia Business Journal (1 April 2002—much of the above comes from various Philadelphia Business Journal articles of the period).) USABancShares was soon sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, which in turn went out of business in 2017; Zysblat: FT, 26 January 2000.
453 Boz as a patchwork quilt: Game Center, 25 October 1999; plenty of strip clubs: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999.
454 man does not hear: Herron, Call of the Cross, “The Divine Method of Culture,” 74.
455 Jahangir labeled “Jangir” on the Omikron game booklet, so I threw in both names.
456 Survive first distributed on a promo giveaway CD included with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. It was also a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999.
457 composed throughout the year: descriptions of the ‘hours’ composing/recording process as per Gabrels to CO, August 2018; window of opportunity was there: Buckley, 463; stripped-down affair…music for Omikron: Plati interview with Trynka, ca. late 2000s; see what will come out of it: Rock et Folk, December 1998. “Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.”
458 had my druthers, not put out an album…how I tend to think: to Robert Phoenix, Dirt, 5 October 1999; full album in London: Gabrels to CO, August 2018; Diamond Dogs quality…fretless bass: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; looking where songs would land: Trynka interview, ca. late 2000s.
459 just like a bloke: Chris Roberts, DB interview tape for Uncut, 29 July 1999; circle of friends…feel claustrophobic to me: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; evolves as an artist…why he’s not old: David Bowie Story, 1993; wrinkled, shaggy-haired: AP, 9 September 1999; every cliché in the book…poignant, sad life: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 9 February 1997.
460 people get mellow…aren’t true to their lives: to Stuart Maconie, NME, 13 September 1991; flounder a little…when they were younger: to Gil Kaufman, ATN, October 1999; living a lie or mistake: Liquid Love, 55; boy was the flame dead: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.
461 Something in the Air The American Psycho remix appeared, unsurprisingly, on the soundtrack of Mary Harron’s 2000 film and was later collected on the 2004 ‘hours…’ reissue.
462 terrible conflict…it’s terrible: ATN, October 1999; present sensibility…so has the future: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; pairs of chords: both verse and refrain open by shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the refrain just sinks back to D); faux novelist: ATN, October 1999; Peacock: to Bill Reynolds, Crawdaddy, April 1989. Bowie had been a fan since the early Seventies, having his Astronettes record Peacock’s “Seven Days” in 1973, and had apparently wanted to work with Peacock on what became ‘hours…’ But as with Bowie’s oft-expressed wish to work with Glenn Branca, the collaboration never came to be.
464 Brilliant Adventure luverly instrumental: DB, web-chat on BowieNet, 4 July 1999; something very odd came from all this: Bowie, 24 August 1998 web journal entry.
465 Thursday’s Child BowieNet members voted on the single mix: both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) appeared on the UK/EU CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version is in Omikron: The Nomad Soul: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue, as was the Rock Mix; Eartha Kitt: in addition to titling her autobiography, Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties; prediction rhyme: altered during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, as Friday was now “full of woe” and Sunday got some of Thursday’s glory.
466 teeth-grinding get it done guy: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; her friends rather than grown-ups: Buckley, 471.
467 We All Go Through faux-psychedelic: DB on BowieNet, 27 July 1999; a series of transitions without scenes: Momus, 10 January 2014.
468 Seven the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a CD that included the DeVries Mix, the “demo,” the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC (19 November 1999; another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue; song of nowness: VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; seven days to live…the present is the place to be: to David Quantick, Q, October 1999; each day to be really good…until death strikes: to Charlie Rose, 31 March 1998; only the person the greatest number of people believe I am: Q, October 1999.
469 Pretty Things Going to Hell a different mix (notable mostly for the occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though oddly another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘hours…’). The Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the album version was issued as a lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. A live NYC performance (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) is on the “Seven” single; something more rambunctious: ATN, October 1999; their day is numbered…very serious little world: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.
470 I wrote a song about stand-up:ATN, October 1999; low ugly simple perfect: to Buckley, 472. We Shall Go to Town Confusing its B-sides, Virgin listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single; key track…less jolly than Thursday’s Child: Ives interview, 20 February 2017.
471 done in a heartbeat…went to town as it were: Plati to CO, April 2016.
473 What’s Really Happening very soul searching: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; impertinent, scanned well: ZDTV interview, shot at the overdub session, aired 14 June 1999; color commentary: BowieNet transcript from 24 May 1999.
474 Jewel pursuit of the new…diverging from what I needed: Buckley, 476. That said, Gabrels soon took his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”; becoming too VH1…imposing my will: to Kenneally, October 2000 “Noneradio” interview; drug myself to death: to Trynka, Starman, 376; workload got heavier: to Spitz, 384.
475 descriptions of the “Jewel” session via RG to CO, August 2018, and Bowie’s web journal entries, 1998-1999. Sector Zoverriding feature: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 342; we freaked out: Gutter to CO, February 2014 (source of recording details in this entry). Gutter once played a prank on Visconti in which he called him up pretending to be Bowie, not knowing that Bowie and Visconti were now regularly talking to each other.
476 Hole in the Ground As Toy, as of this book’s publication, is still a bootleg, it couldn’t appear in the Discography (well, it could have, I suppose). The sequence of the 2011 leak, which has not been verified as the intended release sequence, is: Uncle Floyd*/Afraid*/Baby Loves That Way/ I Dig Everything*/ Conversation Piece/ Let Me Sleep Beside You/ Your Turn to Drive (Toy)/ Hole in the Ground*/ Shadow Man/ In the Heat of the Morning*/ You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving/ Silly Boy Blue*/ Liza Jane*/ London Boys. (* = tracks or mixes still unreleased); Anthony Newley stuff: Q, April 1990.
477 invigorated sense of purpose: ATN, April 1997; re-recording some early songs: Bowie web journal, 29 October 1998; Up Date I: Bowie web journal, 3 January 2000; waste the energy of a show-honed band…sing till my tits drop off: Bowie journal, printed in Time Out, 21-28 June 2000; weren’t out to reduplicate original tracks: Plati essay for The Voyeur, April-Sept. 2002.
478 belting his brains out: to Dan LeRoy, Greatest Music Never Sold, 42.
479 her vibe would be perfect…arsenal of eccentric instruments…beg it to stay together: Plati, Voyeur, Aug.-Sept. 2002; cool drones, like a John Cale vibe: Germano to LeRoy, 47; hard to believe they were written so long ago…in the Sixties: 28 September 2000 Bowie web journal.
480 Pictures of Lily glam version of Crazy Horse: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000.
481 Afraid until he had the goods: LeRoy, 53; interesting deceit: quoted in Pegg, 15.
482 everything will be alright: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.
483 The Uncle Floyd Show: the life of Floyd Vivino and the Uncle Floyd Show comes from a number of sources including Amy Krakow’s profile for New York (21 January 1980), Jack Silbert’s NY Times interview with Vivino (8 December 2002) and most of all Beth Knobel’s profile, written as the show entered syndication, for the Columbia Daily Spectator (21 July 1982). Other details are from a long-shuttered website run by Floyd Show alum “Muggsy” (http://archive.is/I6boc); show’s production values: One example of the show’s rhythms: R. Stevie Moore is playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly says that his guitar is wrapped in a sheet of newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king; Bones and Oogie: “If you didn’t know about Uncle Floyd, you’d think the characters in the song were Bowie characters,” Bowie introducing “Slip Away” on A&E, 23 June 2002; living room in New Jersey: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.
484 doing a song about me: NY Times, 8 December 2002; semi out of tune piano: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000; Mark Ryden painting: LeRoy, 42.
485 Toy is finished and ready to go: BowieNet chat, 4 June 2001; complicated scheduling negotiations: BowieNet, 4 July 2001; new material over Toy: BowieNet, 29 October 2001; Bowie would never talk about it: LeRoy, 60; new writing takes precedence: quoted in Pegg, 403.
486 so much more haunting: LeRoy, 55; a nicer time…anxiously into the future: Rolling Stone, June 2002.
487 Isn’t It Evening one street guy in there: to Jeff Slate, Music Radar, 26 February 2013; almost like making a demo: to Gerry Galipault, Pause and Play, 9 December 2003; doing a little something: Billboard, 31 December 2003; seven rough pieces: to Lisa Sharken, Vintage Guitar, March 2004; sat around for a long time…just had a thing: Plati to CO, April 2016.
488 Nature Boy resurrect the audience: to Harvey Kubernick, 2006 (collected in Kubernick’s Hollywood Shack Job); eden ahbez: Born George Alexander Aberle, in Brooklyn, 1908. We first meet him in Los Angeles in 1947, failing to get backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. He gave Cole’s manager a soiled, rolled-up score for “Nature Boy.” Cole was taken with it, but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address (ahbez said only God was entitled to capital letters). After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR legend) found him camped underneath an “L” of the Hollywood sign. By summer 1948, Cole’s “Nature Boy” was a #1 pop hit, soon covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was an ur-hippie, promoting vegetarianism, outdoor living, “Eastern” philosophies, and a live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos. (In the Sixties, he hung out with Donovan, had his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attended Beach Boys Smile sessions; R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him). He stayed in California for the rest of his life, spending his last years working on a book and album, neither of which he finished. He died at 86, in 1995. (Sources include Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island“; a profile of ahbez for Life, 10 May 1948; and Brian Chidester’s “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.)
489 Yiddish pop song: “Nature Boy” is just two 16-bar verses, with slight harmonic and melodic differences between the two. Its D minor progression has a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roam over land and sea in the middle bars and feints at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, Cole leisurely scaled ahbez’s wide intervals (like the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”); Luhrmann: to Jones, 418-420.
Comments Off on Chapter Eleven: Tomorrow Isn’t Promised (1998-2000) | | Permalink Posted by col1234
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.
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.)
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.”
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 (“diz–zy–snatch,” “po–po 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.
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
“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.”
“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.
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.