I’m not a rat. It must be lighter out there. My dear Baal, you’ll get to the door. You still have knees. It’s better in the doorway…
Brecht, Baal (his last words).
“Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s last will and testament. After years of living out in the woods, he and his friend Ekart return to civilization, only to find that the bars have grown filthier and everyone’s grown older, shabbier and drunker. But Baal’s older and more pathetic as well (“nothing’s changed here…only you, it seems, have grown more refined,” a barfly sneers at him).
Asked for a song, Baal offers a final tribute to those “who were flung out alike from heaven and from Hades” (like the cursed harlot Evelyn Roe, of Brecht’s early poem). Regretting ever having left the womb, they wander across “absinthe-green oceans,” solacing their tortured minds with the image of a little meadow with “blue sky overhead and nothing else.” The adventurers of Baal’s song are the last bohemians, tearing through their short, appalling lives, hungry for sensation, settling for violence.
Ekart paws at a barmaid while he baits Baal (“why shouldn’t I have women? Am I your lover?“) until Baal, enraged, stabs him to death. Baal flees town for the last time, heading north, “following the underside of the leaves.” Sick and weary, he winds up in a logger’s camp, where the loggers jeer his impending death; one even spits on his face. Baal dies as he had lived: in mockery, curses and rebellion. His last act is to haul himself outside, so he can expire in the open air. “Stars—hmm,” he mutters as he crawls.
The least melodic of the Baal songs, “Adventurers,” far more than the rest of the EP, sounds like an exercise, an overly ambitious attempt to do an art song. Still, could Baal have been a beginning, rather than a footnote?
As a goof, I once wrote an alternate Bowie history (“Love You Till Tuesday”) in which Bowie’s jaunty, irritating pop singles of the mid-Sixties were smash hits, setting him off on a life much like Englebert Humperdinck’s. So what could Bowie’s Eighties have been, had Baal been an initial foray into, for lack of a better term, the commercial avant-garde? Bowie collaborations with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Laurie Anderson or John Zorn? A run of art-rock soundscape records like Tom Waits’ mid–Eighties trilogy? Minimalist synthesizer instrumentals? Bowie scoring Jarmusch or Wenders films, producing Sonic Youth?
Some of Bowie’s moves in the Nineties hint at this sort of revision: it’s as though Bowie beat his way back to the fork and peered down the other path, wondering where it could have led him. But he wouldn’t have been “David Bowie” had he gone the other way. The David Bowie of Let’s Dance is also the world’s Bowie; in a way, his vast commercial success became his final, most enduring incarnation. So Baal remains forgotten; it’s just a trace of a world in which Bowie was a lesser, if greater figure.
A Prologue on Money and Ambition
In 1982, Bowie was looking for a new record deal. His current label RCA was battered: it had lost $14.5 million in 1981 alone, with its bet on manufacturing videodiscs proving, with the advent of VCRs, to be a disaster. For its record label, RCA’s main pop acts remained Elvis Presley (unfortunately dead since 1977) and Bowie (who, in RCA’s eyes, was in much the same condition). In a few years, RCA would be eaten up by General Electric.
So RCA, in its last days as a stand-alone company, had neither the desire nor the capital to humor an artist who was their Bob Dylan: great press, great prestige, mediocre to poor sales. With his contract up, Bowie now wanted Michael Jackson-level, Fleetwood Mac-level money, but his past performance was nowhere in their range. As of June 1983, Bowie’s total global album sales were as follows (according to Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust, figures rounded up/down):
Three top sellers: Ziggy Stardust (1.38 million units moved), ChangesOneBowie (1.33 million), Young Americans (923,000). A few gold records: Diamond Dogs (745,000), David Live (598,000), Station to Station (552,800), Aladdin Sane (533,000); a few mid-list sellers: Space Oddity (455,600), Hunky Dory (445,600), Pin Ups (421,250), Scary Monsters (347,400). With the “Berlin” records, a complete cratering: “Heroes” (279,000), Low (265,900), Lodger (153,360), Stage (127,350). Between 1977 and 1983, one of every two new Bowie LPs was returned unsold by retailers. By contrast, Michael Jackson sold over a million copies of Off the Wall between August and December 1979 alone.
Finally free from having to pay his former manager mechanical royalties, and feeling unappreciated and (relatively) underpaid by RCA, Bowie wanted, essentially, to cash in at last. So he needed an album that, when shopped around, would get a label excited enough to provide his payday. According to George Tremlett, Bowie first had his staff write profiles of all of the major labels, “detailing their commercial strengths and weaknesses, their key personnel and their willingness to invest in promotion” (the latter a key point for Bowie, who felt RCA had bungled the promotion of his Berlin albums.) He finally targeted EMI, aiming for a 3-LP deal reportedly worth $17 million ($36 million, inflation-adjusted).
In late 1982, Nile Rodgers flew to Switzerland to stay at Bowie’s house in Lausanne. The two had recently met and Rodgers had agreed to produce Bowie’s next record. Bowie sat down with his 12-string acoustic guitar (Rodgers recalled being baffled that Bowie only had six strings on it, though) and ran through a batch of new songs: they were mainly sketches, sometimes just chords, top melodies, a few choruses. Before he started to play one song, Bowie told Rodgers he thought this was the hit. It was a folky piece that reminded Rodgers of the Byrds. “I was like, ‘that’s not happening, man,”” Rodgers recalled to Paul Trynka. “It totally threw me. It was not a song you could dance to.”…
Top: Don Hudson, “Detroit, MI 1981.”