Mother

October 4, 2013

1998_10-Urlaub London mit Bruno

Mother (John Lennon, 1970).
Mother (Bowie, 1998).

At the corner of the settee nearest the fire, beneath a television which has long ceased to flicker its soundless images, 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.

Martin Hayman, “Outside David Bowie…Is The Closest You’re Gonna Get,” Rock, 8 October 1973.

Hayman was interviewing David Bowie at the Château d’Hérouville during the making of Pin-Ups. Twenty-five years later, Bowie was still taken by Lennon’s “Mother,” enough to record a version of the song with Tony Visconti.

Bowie’s “Mother” was intended for a tribute album meant to mark Lennon’s would-have-been 60th birthday in October 2000. The commemorative Lennon industry was thriving in the late Nineties. Following the Beatles’ Anthology series and Lennon’s return to the pop charts, albeit in ghost form, via “Free As a Bird,” there was the Lennon Anthology, a four-disc box of outtakes released for Christmas 1998. The all-star Lennon tribute CD, intended as the counterpart of an all-star tribute birthday concert, would cap this latest exhumation.

At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.

Arthur Janov, on Lennon in 1970.

“Mother” had led off Lennon’s first solo LP, Plastic Ono Band (it was also the single). It was a purge of a song. Neither his mother Julia nor his father Alf had been capable of raising him, flitting in and out of his childhood, using him as a bargaining chip in their chaotic relationship. His father eventually abandoned him; Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958.

Her death set the 18-year-old Lennon off; it hardened him, made him caustic, cruel, obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll (“rock and roll was real: everything else was unreal,” he later said). As critics like Ian MacDonald noted, Julia was a muse for Lennon the composer: her image, a nurturing artistic mother/lover figure, lies at the heart of songs like “Yes It Is” and “Girl.” Upon meeting Yoko Ono, his muse made flesh, Lennon could finally relinquish Julia, which he did in the gorgeous song he titled after her on the White Album, a love ballad and elegy in one (“her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering..in the sun,” both the sight of a lover and of his mother lying dead in a Liverpool street).

But he wasn’t done with her yet. The Plastic Ono Band album came out of Lennon and Ono’s “primal scream” sessions with Arthur Janov in 1970. The therapy, which entailed sitting in a room and screaming at the top of your lungs for hours, a sort of bloodletting for the soul, also helped Lennon get over his usual dislike of his singing voice, giving him license to shriek his songs out. So “Mother,” a curse on childhood, builds from ruminative verses to splenetic refrains, the latter growing in fervor with each repeat, Lennon’s larynx-scraping “dooon’t GOOOOs” matched by the descending knife-blows of “daddy-come-home.”* While its lyric was open, so that anyone could see themselves in the words, the pain that Lennon inflicted on his phrasings made it an intensely, uncomfortably personal recording, in a way that “Girl” or even “Julia” wasn’t. “Mother” seemed uncoverable. Naturally, Bowie tried.

mother

Lennon had been Bowie’s inspiration and friend, and perhaps because of this, Bowie proved incapable of interpreting Lennon’s songs with any perspective. He fell into gush or blundered through them: his takes on “Across the Universe,” “Imagine,” and “Working Class Hero” range from the misguided to the dreadful.

For “Mother” he recorded a demo in Nassau with Reeves Gabrels, an unknown session organ player and Andy Newmark (the latter’s first appearance on a Bowie record since Young Americans) on drums, then took the tape to New York to have Visconti craft it into releasable shape during the “Safe In This Sky Life” sessions. He and Visconti decided to keep his original vocal from the demo, despite it having some bleed-through from Newmark’s drums (Bowie did a few punch-ins, which required Visconti to track down the same microphone that Bowie had used in the Bahamas). They added Jordan Rudess’ piano (which quotes from Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” in the second verse) and Visconti’s bass and harmony vocals (along with Richard Barone). Visconti later said that “it’s [not] the most polished production of our careers. The recording was made on that now defunct digital system ADAT and it was one of my first attempts at manipulating music in a computer.”

It’s not the murky production that’s most at fault here, nor the arrangement (though Gabrels’ guitar in the choruses is a garish interloper at a wake). It’s that Bowie had set himself an impossible task: he couldn’t physically sing with as much mania and spleen as Lennon had (even Lennon couldn’t have done it after 1971 or so), but the song’s emotive fury, its petulance and its raw neediness (it’s an adult regressed to a child, screaming demands at his absent parents) demanded some unhinged passion from its interpreter.

But Bowie treated the song with reverence, as if making a church piece of it; he was careful not to embarrass himself, singing the verses in his rich lower register and not going too far over the top for the choruses. Where Lennon sang his lines as if arguing with ghosts, Bowie sang as if he was back in the Château d’Hérouville, singing along to Lennon’s record on the turntable. His “Mother” is tasteful and pointless: it gives nothing back to the song, it just takes. Not that it mattered. For still-obscure reasons, Ono scrapped the tribute CD idea and Bowie’s final Lennon tribute remains, as of this date, unreleased.

Recorded ca. August-September 1998, Nassau and New York.

* There’s also the sad irony that while Lennon was singing this, he was barely in touch with his own seven-year-old son, who he’d named after his late mother.

Top: “ShreddtoHell,” “London mit Bruno,” 1998; “Mother” US 45 sleeve.


Safe

October 2, 2013

ultimos amarres

Safe (remake of “Safe in this Sky Life”).

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1

The past, it almost shimmers down

“Safe.”

What happened in 1998?

The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.

He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.

Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.

He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.

Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.

golmin

Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.

As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.

Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.

“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.

rugrta

The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.

So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of  “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”

It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.

velvet

So what did he think about Glam being big again?

“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. 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,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”

Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.

When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4

Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had 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. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.

You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.

That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.

golmine

This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.

It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).

Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”

(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)

Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.

The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”

ratsfoiledagain

So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.

“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-‘Bowie'” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:

…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…

Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi'” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.

The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.

1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.

2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.

3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.

4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.

5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.

6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998”; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).


Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day)

September 24, 2013

guy98

A Foggy Day (in London Town) (Fred Astaire, 1937).
Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day) (Bowie and Angelo Badalamenti, 1998).

The only (released) studio recording that Bowie cut in 1998 was a collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti for one of the Red Hot compilations. Badalamenti had scored David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for which Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” had been used, and Bowie was a fan. Sometime after Bowie finished shooting a trio of films, most likely in July, the two worked in a New York studio on a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day.”

This was his first recorded jazz standard since “Wild Is the Wind.“* The move suggested, on its surface, a growing conservatism, a sense that he was finally acting his age. If you were a rocker in your fifties, recording “the Great American Songbook” was something you were supposed to do, like having a prostate exam. (Starting in 2002, Rod Stewart would go to the bank with a seemingly endless sequence of “Songbook” albums). You were too old to rock and roll, so you had put on a tie and sing the music of your parents to your peers. For some rockers, purging one’s sins in purgatory begins in one’s temporal life.

Happily, Bowie and Badalamenti’s take on “Foggy Day” is so brooding and weird that it escapes the trap of reverence and taste: if you played this track as background music in Urban Outfitters, it could possibly irritate a customer. This is partly due to Badalamenti’s ambition: he had the gall to incorporate two of his own compositions, “Overcast” and “The Rainbow,” into George Gershwin’s music, opening the piece (officially titled “Suite for a Foggy Day”) with a minute-long suite with a rising four-note motif, massing his strings on one note for Bowie’s entrance.

The Gershwins had dashed out “A Foggy Day” for a Fred Astaire film, Damsel in Distress. Ira was sitting up at 1 AM reading when his brother came in from a party, sat down at the keyboard and said “how about some work? Got any ideas?” Ira offered the idea of doing a song about fog in London and in an hour they had the chorus worked out. The next day they wrote “an Irish verse” for their London song, and that was that. Astaire sang it on film and recorded it, and George died of a brain tumor a few months later: “A Foggy Day” was one of his last pieces.

“A Foggy Day” was a Gershwin musical fingerprint: the repeated notes in the melody; the rich chords for jazz players to feast on (e.g., the B-flat minor sixth on “town”); a feel of melancholy lifted by sudden jumps of fourths and fifths (take the elated leap on “for su-ddenly”), paralleling the sun breaking through the fog in the lyric; the unusual structure, with the song escaping its expected 32-bar confines with two additional bars, full of harmonic movement and melodically winking at the folk tune “English Country Gardens.”

In the Bowie/Badalamenti version, the moody “Irish” verse is lighter in feel, with an oboe line suggesting that the sun is breaking through early. When it’s time to transition to the chorus, night and fog descend: ominous low strings and winds (bass clarinet and bassoon), a drooping line on fretless bass. Bowie sings the chorus as if he’s walking into a headwind. He valiantly keeps the Gershwin vocal melody aloft while getting little support from the instruments—if anything, they seem to be retarding his progress, undermining him. Finally, there’s a feeling of movement: Bowie sees her, the fog lifts and for a moment the song breaks open. But in Bowie’s voice, the final line “through foggy London town, the sun was shining” has a weary sadness in it: it’s a moment of long-departed happiness, remembered now as a brief break in the battle. He’s still, and always will be, a stranger in the city. One of his finest covers.

Recorded ca. July 1998, National Edison and/or Excalibur Sound, New York. Released 6 October 1998 on Red Hot + Rhapsody (Antilles 314 557 788-2).

Bonus: recommended Foggy Days: Charles Mingus (beep! beep!) (1956), Oscar Peterson (1959), Billie Holiday (1957), Joe Pass (1988), Sarah Vaughan (1957), Petula Clark (1965), Frank Sinatra (1953), Judy Garland (1963).

* You could argue for “Volare,” I suppose.

Top:  Steven V-L Lee, “Penny for the Guy,” Columbia Road Market, London, November 1998,


The Battle Hymn of the Republic

September 20, 2013

western

The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Il Mio West, 1998).

Whether to clear his head or to do his part for low-budget cinema, Bowie acted in three movies, almost back to back, in the spring and summer of 1998. First he went to the Isle of Man and Liverpool for Everybody Loves Sunshine with Goldie. Then he flew to Tuscany in June (reason enough to do the film) to shoot a neo-spaghetti Western with Harvey Keitel.

This was Il Mio West, directed by Giovanni Veronesi. Bowie was to play the villain, a “psychopath” (the people of this 19th Century Western town diagnose Bowie with a just-coined term from German therapeutic circles; “you need medical help!” one yells at Bowie before the climactic gunfight)* named Jack Sikora. Bowie wore shades and delivered his lines in a squirrel’s soup of an accent: sounding alternately (or at once) like an Australian, a Hollywood cowboy and a British comedian lampooning Yanks. Followed around by a photographer for most of the picture, Sikora’s mainly in it for the headlines (“I’m gonna suck the fame outta you!” he hisses at Keitel).

It’s a testament to Bowie’s screen charisma that the first 45 minutes of the film, which mainly entail a neutered Keitel reuniting with his family of dreadful actors, feel like place-setting. When Bowie finally arrives, with his crew of albino, Rastafarian and fashion plate gunfighters, the film becomes entertaining at least (first Bowie line: “Well now this place stinks worse’n a mule’s ass…and somebody’s already shittin’ their pants!“), if it soon indulges in cheap sadism and misogyny. But it’s mainly just dismal: the final fight between Keitel and Bowie is so poorly shot, scripted and blocked that it can be read as an intentional deflation of the Western myth, if said myth hadn’t been intentionally deflated dozens of times before.

One of its only good scenes is, not surprisingly, when Bowie sings. In homage to (and ripping off) The Night of the Hunter, Bowie and his crew surround Keitel’s house at night, and Bowie rasps out a serenade. Where Robert Mitchum in Hunter had sung “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Bowie sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”** and caps off his performance by breaking his guitar over the head of the village idiot.

Recorded in Garfagnana, Tuscany, during the filming of Il Mio West, June 1998. The film was released in Italy in December 1998 and, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a US DVD in 2005.

* It’s a very hip Western backwater: the telegraph operator also has a film projector in his office.

** As Nicholas Pegg noted, as Bowie’s just singing the chorus of the song, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body.” But as he seems to be wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union’s marching song (but perhaps he’s doing so ironically). And with this footnote, I have thought more on this subject than anyone involved in the film did.

Top: Bowie as Method gunslinger, Il Mio West (Veronesi, 1998) (from Teenage Wildlife, which has a host of fan and official photos from the film).


Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

September 18, 2013

wildbills

Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bob Dylan, 1997).
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bowie, 1998).

Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati spent the first weeks of 1998 sifting through and mixing recordings from the Earthling tour, for what Bowie assumed would be his next release: a live CD provisionally (and excitingly) called Live and Well. However, Virgin balked at putting out a live album. Earthling itself hadn’t sold well and its supporting tour had mainly played clubs and small theaters, thus reducing the “audience souvenir” factor that typically drove live album purchases. So Live and Well died. Bowie went off to act in three films in quick succession, Gabrels started planning a solo album, Plati was busy producing Duncan Sheik and Hooverphonic.

During these mixing sessions, the trio also had recorded a few potential bonus tracks, one being a version of “Fun.” The curio was Bowie’s impromptu decision to cover Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a song from Dylan’s just-released Time Out of Mind. Plati, who confirmed that Bowie’s cover hailed from this session and wasn’t an outtake from Hours, saidas far as why it was chosen, hmm…..beats me! I’d hazard a guess that David liked the song, and liked singing it. It was kind of like ‘Planet of Dreams‘, it just sort of popped up from out of nowhere. Which was fine by me!…I was psyched about it because it was a completely live track, and after all the programming we’d been doing it was a nice break in the cycle.”

Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s latest critical rehabilitation, beating out OK Computer in the Pazz & Jop poll of 1997. While similar (in overall tempo and production) to his previous critical rehabilitation, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind was the first collected evidence of Dylan’s “mature” songwriting. Having immersed himself in playing old country and blues songs, Dylan began making magpie collages. He would pilfer and quote from ghosts (he always had, to some extent). His new songs were palimpsests, sewn through with the words of other writers, with Dylan answering their voices, mocking them, shoring up their words with his own. He’d started out as a kid fervently playing these songs; now he broke them up, as if using them for kindling. He became the folk tradition (“the songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs” as he told Newsweek in ’97); he seemed to be walking backwards in time.

“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” which Dylan rewrote repeatedly during the album sessions, was a case in point. In its five verses, Dylan draws from Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory,” “Poor Boy”), Furry Lewis (“Turn Your Money Green“), various trad. folk songs (“Miss Mary Jane,” “Lonesome Valley,” “The Rising Sun Blues”) and for its chorus, he used a variant of a 19th Century hymn that Southern black churches had kept alive until the Thirties: “The Old Ark’s a-Movering” (“she trying to get to heaven ‘fo they close the do.'”). Yet the song hangs together as a single purgatory: a blasted world in which Dylan’s character wanders, from New Orleans to Baltimore, through valleys and across train platforms, subsisting on memories that are becoming a debased currency. He lies on the parlor floor, hoping for sleep, wondering if death will come in its place.

soy-bomb

Maybe Bowie saw in Dylan’s developing late style a means to craft his own: the idea that history is over, or is merely repeating in lesser variations; accepting the past, or at least breaking it up and using it for spare parts; quarrying from memory; disappearing into your old, false selves. In 1971, Bowie had written his “Song For Bob Dylan” in the voice of a cult follower whose master’s gone to ground. In 1997, as he had back in the days of Self Portrait, Dylan had escaped into a songbook. But now he wasn’t in hiding anymore: he was living a public life again, seemingly touring every minor league baseball stadium and county fair that he came across (and his cult had become gentlemen academics).

Bowie’s version of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (which, at least in its circulating edit, cuts Dylan’s second verse and squeezes the fourth and fifth into one incoherent lump) is, essentially, a first draft of what would become Hours. The take begins somber and ashen enough. Yet the circularity of Dylan’s singing on “Tryin'”, conveying a journey undertaken but never in danger of ending, seemed to frustrate Bowie: he needed a narrative.

So in the “people on platforms” verse, Bowie builds to a manic desperation, as if he has to make an eleventh-hour sale or he’ll be sacked by his proprietor. We get a rattled “cha-hay-hay-hain,” a squeaked-out “looose,” the creaking onomatopoeia of “cloowwoose the door,” and a gargle. Having made a hash of Dylan’s last verses, Bowie latches onto a line as if he’d drawn it by lot to torture: “I’ve beeen! to Sugar Town-I shook! the su!gar down!” Dylan sang those words with an earned swagger, like a spendthrift man recalling a spent-out life. Bowie sang them as if he was just passingly familiar with the English language.

Whenever Bowie covered someone, he typically tended to go overboard in various directions (see “God Only Knows“). I once interviewed Tim Curry, who said when playing villains he’d give his directors different wattages for different takes: under the top, over the top, top over the top. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” seems to decide, midway through, to go top over the top. But what really murders the track is its backdrop: the cruddy reduction of Jim Keltner’s drum pattern on the Dylan track; the beyond-cliche blues licks that Gabrels plays; the somnolent keyboard “bed”; harmony vocals as a collective aural NyQuil. Bowie had been tasteless before, sure, but he’d never been so devotedly mediocre.

Recorded Looking Glass Studios?, ca. January-February 1998. Its only semi-official release was on a promo CD that also had the Danny Saber remixes of “Funhouse,” though fans learned of the Dylan cover when a Catalan radio station played the promo (and offered it as a download) in late 1999.

Top: Ted Barron, “Wild Bill’s, Memphis, Tennessee, 1998”; Dylan ambushed at the Grammys by Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy, 25 February 1998.


Perfect Day

September 16, 2013

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Perfect Day (Lou Reed, 1972).
Perfect Day (BBC promotional film, 1997).

In an ideal world, it probably wouldn’t be necessary for the BBC to advertise itself like this.

Jane Frost, 1999.

Blame Trainspotting: Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” arranged and produced in 1972 by Mick Ronson and Bowie, had a second life a quarter of a century later, thanks in part to Danny Boyle’s film. As Boyle used it to score a heroin overdose sequence, “Perfect Day” was subsequently interpreted by an entire generation as being a song about scag.

Sure, maybe it was: you could read the song that way. But it’s more interesting to take “Perfect Day” at its word. An alienated, drugged-out wastrel spends a day in the park with his girlfriend or boyfriend. He does “normal” things—goes to a zoo, sees a film, has a picnic—which seem surreal to him. His life is so bent out of shape, his way of viewing the world so corroded, that banal existence has become strange and beautiful. The perfect day for him is one that the good and prosperous people of the world would forget about in a week. And what to make of the closing line? You’re going to reap just what you sow, Reed sings sweetly and ominously. Has he reformed? Or is he just clearing his head to ruin his partner’s life with greater force?

A few months after the first Labour parliamentary victory in nearly 20 years, the BBC made a celebration and a justification of itself, a four-minute promotional film featuring the stars of pop, country, R&B, jazz (well, they got Courtney Pine) and classical. All singing lines from “Perfect Day.” The promo film was masterfully shot and cut (Simon Hanhart produced the music), making a smooth whole out of what could have been an ungainly patchwork. There was a clamoring for the track to be released as a single, and soon enough it was, with all proceeds going to Children in Need: it would be Bowie’s last (collaborative) #1.

Jane Frost, the BBC’s head of corporate marketing, was the force behind it. After tenures in marketing for Lever Brothers and Shell, Frost was recruited by the BBC in 1995: her main job was to explain the service’s role to a new generation, using the language of pop videos and advertisements. The BBC had just won a battle to raise its license fee (the fee for color TVs would increase from £71 in 1990 to £104 in 2000) and in Frost’s words, it wanted to remind viewers what they would miss if it ever went away (“if it disappeared, you really would be losing something”).*

Assembling an all-star cast to sing Reed’s “Perfect Day” was Frost’s first big set-piece. “The production values are high, because we want to catch people’s attention—they’ve got to be a cut above the standard of the old public information films,” she told the Guardian in 1999. “But you’d be surprised how cheaply you can make something when the goodwill is there.” Most performers accepted standard minimum Equity payments of £250, while Bowie went one further: he waived his fee, citing the “years of pleasure” given to him by The Flower Pot Men.

reaping what you sow

As for the production itself, it’s easy enough to criticize: its overstuffed wedding cake of an arrangement, the pomposity of some of its performers (Bono, giving off a comfortable smugness here, takes the crown, though Huey Morgan is a viable contender), its inadvertent comic moments (Reed apparently doing a Stevie Wonder impersonation; a ludicrous Evan Dando cameo). For Bowie fans, his two lines, which he sings with a trace of wry bemusement, was evidence that Bowie should’ve covered the song himself, though there’s no evidence he ever considered it.

Still, of all the Bowie collaborations, “Perfect Day” contains the greatest amount of sheer vocal talent (Tammy Wynette, Heather Small, Emmylou Harris, Gabrielle) and it’s the only Bowie duet, if only by montage, with the likes of Brett Anderson, Boyzone, Dr. John, Shane MacGowan (appearing with great comic timing) and Tom Jones, the latter filmed singing “you’re gonna REEEAAAAP” as if auditioning for the part of Galactus.

Amid all the exquisitely-framed shots and cheery goodwill and sense of “culture,” was there someone forgotten? The man from Hull who, sitting down and hearing Reed play “Perfect Day” on guitar at Trident Studios, had suggested it would work better as a piano song? And who’d then played the piano line himself, and later scored the strings? So take the Beeb’s “Perfect Day” for whatever you’d like—as a fine or a ludicrous spectacle, as a pleasant way to support charity, as a latter-day career boost for Reed, as a fine public service message. I’ll take it as a secret requiem for Mick Ronson; a world’s worth of performers unknowingly singing their respects to him.

Recorded ca. summer 1997 and released as a single on 3 October 1997 (Chrysalis CDNEED01, UK #1). (& so I’ve passed Tom Ewing at last (happy 10th birthday, Popular!)).

* In this context, a few critics at the time noted an implied threat in the increasingly ecstatic repeats of “you’re going to reap what you sow.”

Top: promo poster for Toby Mott’s “Made in London” exhibition, Maureen Paley Interim Art, autumn 1997.


O Superman

September 12, 2013

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O Superman (Laurie Anderson, 1981).
O Superman (Anderson, live, 1983).
O Superman (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Anderson, live, NYC, 19 September 2001).

Bowie chose Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)” as the token cover song for the Earthling tour: it was in the set of the first preview gig in Dublin and it would stay there until the tour’s penultimate show in Santiago. He intended it as Gail Ann Dorsey’s solo moment, often sequencing the song late in sets as a climactic piece.

Dorsey sang it as if she’d summoned it (even if at times she’d have trouble precisely hitting Anderson’s first “O JUUUUdge”–she could be a bit sharp)*, and when Bowie joined her, providing a lower harmony for the voices of the mothers and the mad on Anderson’s answering machine, the effect could be stunning. Supplanting Anderson’s rhythmic pulse—her voice looped on an Eventide sampler (Isaac Butler: “a pulmonic egressive ha repeats, calling out from 1981, exhaling middle C”)—with first a thudding kick drum and then some jittery drum ‘n’ bass loops, Bowie also introduced a few new secondary players: Reeves Gabrels’ guitar, the wailing of his own baritone saxophone.

Anderson’s “O Superman” was nearly a #1 single in Britain in 1981; it hit the Top 10 in Holland and the Top 20 in Ireland (if MTV had had more of a foothold in the US then, “Superman” could’ve even charted in America). It was downtown boho synth-pop, a span between “high” culture (Philip Glass, from whose Einstein at the Beach Anderson derived her “ha ha has” and the track’s organ tone and Jules Massenet, whose Le Cid she directly references in her lyric—“O superman, O judge, O mom and dad” plays off Massenet’s aria “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père“) and “low” culture (answering machines, Top of the Pops performances, vocoders).

I can say little more about the song than Butler did in his piece “Here Come the Planes,” which I recommend reading. As Butler wrote, “O Superman” is, for all its sublime weirdness, a straight narrative. A woman sits at home, the phone rings, she lets her machine get it. The first call is from her worried mother; the second is from a mysterious voice that mutters prophecies and warnings. These unnerve her so much that she finally picks up the phone: Who is this really? The voice says: This is the hand. The hand that takes. The rest of the song is a lullaby, the woman falling under the spell of the voice, falling in love with a pure, abstracted power, a power that’s like a refined religion. Anderson even corrupts the language of the Tao te Ching: when justice is gone, there’s always force.

“O Superman” was “a dream about imperialism—about a supernation that has done with the rest of the world and has turned back to colonize itself,” Greil Marcus wrote in 1987. “Beginning, as dreams do, in triviality, the song becomes a totality: an impenetrable whole,” he wrote, a whole made of natural life (the sounds of birds and cats, hunted and hunters), private life (Hi mom!) and public life (Anderson recites the unofficial creed of the US Mail, carved onto the James Farley Post Office in NYC, and which equally could be the creed of the drone planes that the US hunts with today).

“O Superman” is also a horror movie, domestic technology fallen into darkness. First there’s the answering machine, which, while it turned out to be merely a transitional technology, inspired some crack songs in its time: see the Replacements‘ and Green Velvet‘s respective “Answering Machines.” There are no comparable songs about texting or email (yet): perhaps the aesthetic of the answering machine (broken, distorted communication) was more compelling than that of smart phones (constant, trivial communication). The allure of the answering machine was control and removal: you could put up a screen against the outside world, you didn’t have to be a slave to the ringing phone anymore. You set the terms. But the machine also recorded: a stray call by a crank may have gone unheard in the past; a threat could only be heard once. Now the voices were permanent, if you wanted them to be; you could preserve the intrusions of the world so that they could have greater purchase in you.

Then there are the planes. (American planes, made in America!) Death, fear and airplanes have been intertwined since the Wright Brothers; as Orson Welles once said, there are only two emotions in a plane, boredom and terror. And when heard in the context of Anderson’s “United States Live” show, “O Superman” was another variation on the JG Ballardian plane crashes that Anderson used as motifs throughout: using her vocoder to impersonate the voice of a pilot calmly telling his passengers they’re about to crash, for instance. The airplane had always been an aesthetic as much as it was a simple means of transport; Anderson’s use of them was part of a century-long tradition.

And then, despite its creator’s influences and intentions (Anderson had written the song in part about Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue mission from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980), the song became horrifically prophetic after 9/11. The line Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America. Smoking…or non-smoking? was now tainted. There was no going back to whatever images the words had conveyed before that morning. History had brutally colonized them; the hand that takes had taken them. You can hear Anderson, performing “O Superman” a week after the attacks, singing the lines with reserve, with a palpable sadness; the song’s not hers anymore, and she knows it: she sings it and lets it go.

Where does Bowie and Dorsey’s “O Superman” fit into the picture? An alternate reading, a more humane revision, the hand in a glove? Dorsey lacked Anderson’s precise alienation: her voice of Mom was warm and funny. The deepness and richness of her voice made “the hand that takes” seem even more alluring than Anderson had; she gave it a gorgeous power. The song builds and builds. So hold me now…in your long arms, she sings, as Anderson did: as a broken surrender, a woman being assaulted, a submission to power. The 21st Century was being summoned again, building on Anderson’s first incantation. Almost every night during the 1997 tour, Bowie and Dorsey stood on stage and hurled the prophecy to their audiences. All of this is coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So dance: later on, we might play “Heroes.”

* Acc. to the sheet music it’s a high G, but Anderson’s vocoder makes it more slippery. Other alterations included a shift of Anderson’s 2/4 to (mainly) 4/4, and to play the “ha ha ha” bass pedal as a waltzing figure.

First performed at the Factory, Dublin, 17 May 1997.

Top: Karen Kasmauski, “Teenage Telemarketer, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1997.”


Is It Any Wonder/ Fun/Funhouse

September 10, 2013

97crossingted

Is It Any Wonder (live, 1997).
Is It Any Wonder (studio?, 1997).
Fun (Dillinja Mix).
Funhouse.

In the 17 years between Lodger and Outside, Bowie treated touring as a politician would re-election campaigns. He had three grand efforts (Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Sound + Vision) and two small-scale ones (Tin Machine), and he’d mounted the larger productions as global carnivals, with exhausting rounds of publicity to make the shows “events.” At the close of each, he’d been spent: it would take him years to play live again.

Then in the mid-Nineties he became a road dog, following up his lengthy Outside tour with a round of summer festival gigs in 1996, then spending another five months touring from Germany to Argentina in 1997. It was his most sustained period of live performance since the Ziggy Stardust days.

So by the Earthling tour, the novelty of a “revived” Bowie playing live had waned a bit. With essentially the same band that he’d had since 1995, he used some of the same stage props, and his set lists, despite the new Earthling material and a few revived pieces, weren’t radically different from those of the Outside tour. So the 1997 tour tends to be forgotten, or folded into the overall “Outside” period; none of the Bowie bios devote more than a couple of paragraphs to it.

What the tour was, however, was a chance for fans to see Bowie with essentially nothing left to prove, on a more intimate scale and with a lower price-tag (this time round, he mainly played mid-size ballrooms and clubs rather than try to fill arenas). The shows were more casual in feel and wider in scope than the Outside gigs. There was more overt use of DATs for supplemental beats, vocal choruses and synthesizer lines, which freed up the players: Gail Ann Dorsey shifted to keyboard at times, and she had two vocal spotlights (“Under Pressure” and the next entry). The tour wound up as the blueprint for most of his subsequent shows: a set list ranging across the catalog, performed by a tight, crack band with little choreography and no more “concepts.”

thethinker

The Earthling tour was a compromise. In his “dress rehearsal” concerts (four gigs in Dublin and London), Bowie unveiled his original template for the tour. There were would be two sets, a traditional “rock” set and a “drum ‘n’ bass” dance set. So for instance, at the Hanover in London (2 June), the drum ‘n’ bass set began with “I’m Deranged,” moved through “Pallas Athena” and a revived “V-2 Schneider” and closed with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Telling Lies.”

The split sets got a mixed response. Reportedly, much of the audience at the first Hanover gig left after the “rock” set was over, prompting Bowie to open with the dance set the following night. Some journalists attending the shows wrote up the drum ‘n’ bass sets as if Bowie had been igniting farts on stage. (The Observer‘s Barbara Ellen: “we all have to stand around for an aeon to what sounds like the cast of Star Wars falling down a fire escape…for God’s sake man, you’re a living legend. In future, play the old stuff and stop trying so hard.”)

After a few German dates, Bowie scrapped the split-set plan,* with the drum ‘n’ bass pieces now interwoven with the rock songs. This arguably improved the shows, as Bowie could create an arc—starting shows playing “Quicksand” alone on acoustic guitar and building to the dance songs midway through, so that a “Last Thing You Should Do” would be chased by “Under Pressure.” This made the newer pieces seem less like alien artifacts and more elaborations on his earlier work.

During the drum ‘n’ bass sets, the band had played an instrumental jam which apparently had come out of rehearsals of “Fame.” It opened with a DAT-generated beat that Zach Alford supplemented on drums, and had occasional vocal hooks (included what sounded like a vocoded Dorsey singing “is it any wonder?”); Bowie played tenor saxophone, then switched to baritone. As the first link above shows, he was often barely audible over the barrage, though he managed to make the bari sax groan like a trumpeting elephant.

This piece’s subsequent life is one of the more confounding in the Bowie catalog. As he’d intended to release a live album from the Earthling tour, “Is It Any Wonder” seemed a likely candidate for inclusion, either as a live take or a studio remake (or both: take the alleged “live” version taped at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997. I agree with the Illustrated DB site that this recording seems like a studio take with canned applause mixed in).

Then in 1998 a 3:31 studio take of “Is It Any Wonder,” now retitled “Fun” (or “Funhouse,” as Gabrels once called it) was issued to BowieNet subscribers on a CD-ROM (you had to log onto the site first before you could play the track—in the days of dial-up Internet, this may have consumed an entire evening). By now, Bowie had come up with a few random lyrics for the track, referencing his old work with Iggy Pop (“Funtime”) and throwing in a pinch of world weariness (“my summer turns to fall…and I’ll miss you”).

A remix of the track by Dillinja, presumably from the same era, was included on the 2000 liveandwell.com CD. (Five other “Clownboy” mixes of “Fun” were made, though none were officially released). In all of its incarnations, the track never escaped being an enjoyable live filler promoted to being a fairly dull record.

First performed (“Is It Any Wonder”) at the Hanover, London, on 2 June 1997. “Fun” was likely recorded/mixed ca. January 1998 during the “Earthling Live” mixing sessions.

* The last show to use the template was apparently the Utrecht gig on 11 June. The following show, in Dortmund on 13 June, had an incorporated set and the French concerts (14-19 June) solidified what would be the main set of the European leg of the tour, with “Is It Any Wonder” often slated midway through.

Top: Ted Barron, “Crossing, Brooklyn, NY” 1997; Bowie does his best Rodin at the Q Club, Birmingham, UK, 1 August 1997 (via “bowieinleith”).


Truth

September 3, 2013

97nyc

Truth (Goldie and Bowie).
Truth (& The Dream Within).

The paths of Goldie and David Bowie intersected in the mid-Nineties, when Goldie was crown prince of the drum ‘n’ bass scene and Bowie an eager ambassador from rock. Goldie gave Bowie cred, Bowie gave him class. Together they would make a film (Everybody Loves Sunshine, gruesomely retitled B.U.S.T.E.D. for some markets) and a track, “Truth.”

Born in Walsall in 1965 to a Scottish pub singer and a Jamaican immigrant, Clifford Price was the sort of child that Bowie’s father, Haywood Jones, could have come across in his work at the charity Dr. Barnardo’s Homes: Price, abandoned by his mother at age 3, grew up shuttling between group homes and various sets of foster families. (Years later, Goldie noted that despite its chaos, his childhood and adolescence were also ruthlessly recorded and annotated: day-by-day accounts of his doings are in the files of the UK social services). Success as a graffiti artist at age 17 got him out of Britain, first to New York, then Miami, where he sold the gold grills he by now sported on his own teeth. He returned home around 1989 and set about giving the rave scene a bad conscience.

His first major record (under the name Rufige Kru) was aptly called “Menace” and in 1992 came “Terminator,” a piece of metal agitation. For his tracks, Goldie drew from what he called his “case of sonics”: a collection of samples that he dubbed and overdubbed, distorted and flanged, and sped up and down until they’d become a set of mutated sonic junk that would be the bedrock of his music. His records grew longer the more they grew dense: “Timeless” (1994), his masterpiece, was over twenty minutes; his follow-up album, Saturnz Return, began with an hour-long track, “Mother.

Having become the public face of drum ‘n’ bass, Goldie by 1997 had a high-profile club gig (Metalheadz Sunday Sessions at the Blue Note), a label and film roles. For the latter he was typecast as a gangster (EastEnders, Snatch) and as he looked like a Bond villain, he inevitably played one in The World Is Not Enough. He even got into the tabloids when he dated Bjork.

g

Bowie had been talking up Timeless as the first great jungle album and he’d become curious about its maker, with whom he saw some affinities. Goldie, with his easy flitting between art, film and music, and his public persona which he once described as being “a chameleon. I can change shape any time I want to,” was a sally port into a world that Bowie had little means to enter otherwise. They struck up a friendship (“I don’t really care if everything he does from now is rubbish,” Bowie cracked in the documentary When Saturn Returnz).

So Bowie name-checked Goldie as an influence on Earthling, and Goldie in turn praised the album (notably more for its ambition than its quality). In the spring of 1997, as Bowie was rehearsing the Earthling tour in London, he was recruited to sing on a track for Goldie’s ongoing Saturnz Return sessions, which were bloating with ambition: the album would be 2 CDs, the first of which had only two tracks, and was built on over 9,000 audio files, 48 tracks of tape and ProTools and would feature a 40-piece orchestra and guest appearances by Bowie, KRS-One and Noel Gallagher. The album was an architectural dig into Goldie’s life, the title referring to the moment when the alignment of planets is the same as that of your birth.

Goldie asked Bowie to sing on “Truth,” a track he’d written and arranged with some programming by his engineer Mark Sayfritz. It was the first time in ages that Bowie was essentially a hired hand on a record. Goldie recalled Bowie standing in front of the mic, chain-smoking, and taking direction from him, much to his amusement. “I was telling him what I could see in my head. He was great, totally tuned in. He’s the other side of the glass and I’m telling him what to do. I tell you what, I was laughing my bollocks off, man. I mean, David Bowie being told what to do by me!

So Bowie found himself doing a highwire act over a trio of panned, delayed and flanged synthesizer washes, variations of which play throughout the track as its sole instrumental backing. Goldie’s lyric seems in part an attempt to write “Bowie” lines (let sorrow hide in sculpture, tomorrow for you to know) as well as phrases in the vein of Seal’s then-recent hit “Kiss from a Rose” (if a kiss could cry for you, etc.)

Bowie pitched his performance to the underlying sound effects: on quieter, ambient-sounding stretches of the track, where the underlying synth was slow in tempo or holding on one note, he sang more melodic phrases; over jarring jump-cut synth washes, he was freer in range, soaring up and sinking down to the bottom of his register, sometimes taking a sprechstimme approach to the lyric. Goldie then treated Bowie’s vocal like another synth track: applying liberal echo to it (which, while it seems to be pieced together from different takes, could well be another single-take Bowie performance), and often drowning Bowie in the mix (sometimes this strategy works as a joke: Bowie sings “if I could change my ways/maybe I would/ But” and the rest is incomprehensible).

Upon its release, Saturnz Return was panned by many in the press as an act of elephantine hubris (he was even accused of killing drum ‘n’ bass) and it sold poorly. Goldie didn’t release another album for nearly a decade, though this was in part due to his growing interests in film. Buried in the vastness of an album whose time apparently has yet to arrive (I wonder if the musicians of the 2020s will treasure this record), “Truth” is one of the last pieces of Outside-era Bowie battiness in the Nineties before his swerve back to rock formalism.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) May 1997 at Rob Playford’s Manic One Studio, London, and/or Trident Studios, London. Released 1 February 1998 on Saturnz Return (only on the 2-CD version, where it’s segued to a hidden track called “The Dream Within”).

Top: Walt Jabsco, “New York,” 1997.


The “Bowie Bonds”

August 27, 2013

gold star

Warning: this is a long digression about, among other things, mortgage finance and royalties securitizations. If the post on Tibet was too much for you, perhaps give this one a miss. See you next week.

David Bowie released a new album and toured three continents in 1997, but this was of little interest to the press when compared to the state of his finances. In February of that year, news broke that Bowie was lending Wall Street his song catalog for $55 million.

At the time, I was working at 2 World Trade Center, writing for a financial industry newsletter. The Bowie story was a rare moment when the public took notice of our obscure world. I recall an editor standing at his cubicle, asking for headline ideas: “Glass-Steagall Spider?” “The Man Who Sold the Bonds?” It helped that the banker organizing the sale, David Pullman, would return a phone call seemingly a minute after it was placed, and was eminently quotable. He was a bull of self-promotion and got great press.

There have been a few misconceptions about the Bowie securitizations over the years. I’ll try to describe, in relatively plain English, what happened.

lonely at the top

1) They weren’t exactly “bonds”. While Pullman pushed for reporters to use his (trademarked) “Bowie Bond” name, the Bowie deal was, technically, a privately-placed securitization of music royalties future receivables. This isn’t the “bond” of vague public imagination: a piece of stock paper, issued by the electric company or Sears, that your grandmother kept in the family strongbox along with birth certificates, marriage licenses and Mercury dimes.

What Bowie did begins in home mortgages. Go back to 1969 and buy a house. You make a substantial down payment (20% or more) and get a 15-year or 30-year mortgage, at a fixed interest rate, from a bank. The bank keeps your mortgage on its books. You mail your payment to them each month. The bank sometimes will sell your mortgage, in a portfolio of similar mortgages, to another bank, but that’s often a headache involving reams of paperwork. Home finance is a quiet, modest and “illiquid” world.

In the early Seventies, banks began to pool their mortgages into a new type of security (called a “pass-through”). This made it easier to compile and sell mortgages to investors or other banks; as the name implied, banks just “passed through” mortgage payments to some new owner. A decade later, this concept had mushroomed, mutating into more complex securities, in great part due to a man named Lewis Ranieri, who worked at Salomon Brothers. Ranieri, who allegedly coined the word “securitization” to describe the process and who once boasted that “mortgages are math,” was the first banker to realize the implications of packaging hundreds and thousands of disparate mortgages, dicing them into sections and selling them to investors as high-rated securities. This wasn’t just home finance made easier; this was one of the biggest trading markets in the world. (The book to read is Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker.)

A bank could now funnel thousands of its mortgages into various mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and the likes of Salomon Brothers would arrange the MBS into “tranches” (ranks) of quality. The top tranche (rated AAA) would have the most protection if anything went to smash. The lowest tranche was, say, BBB-rated. If you bought that tranche, the issuer paid you a higher interest rate (“the coupon”) for the risk. [Edit: as a commenter on another site pointed out, I blundered earlier in describing the structure:  the AAA/BBB etc rating structure was not tied to borrower quality—that is, any losses that the mortgage pools took would simply hit the lowest tranche (BBB) first, and then go up the ladder of tranches,etc.]

Everyone benefited. Banks took mortgages off their books, reducing their risk, and got all of their money up-front. Bankers could charge higher fees to arrange, package and sell the MBS: Ranieri’s desk was an enormous profit generator for Salomon in the Eighties. Investors had a liquid (they could sell MBS easily, as there was a booming secondary trading market for them) and safe investment, implicitly guaranteed by the federal government (which had its fingers in most mortgages). And mortgage holders got easier credit terms, because banks wanted to make more and more mortgages to create more and more MBS.

So by 1997 mortgage finance had been nationalized (a mortgage made in Schenectady could be pooled in an MBS with a mortgage from Kankakee, with pieces of them owned by a pension fund based in Fresno and a hedge fund in Bermuda) and radicalized. A house was no longer a place in which you merely lived. It was an investment; it was your retirement package; it was an income generator. There were so many varieties of home debt now: no-money-down mortgages; adjustable-rate mortgages; “balloon” mortgages (pay little now, pay a hell of a lot later); “subprime” (i.e., you don’t need a job to buy a house) mortgages.

futureflow

I wish all our clients were as innovative as David Bowie…David’s ability to embrace new ideas is a testament to his position as a living rock legend.

David Pullman, quoted by Bloomberg, 4 February 1997.

The brilliance of the securitization concept was that it could be applied to seemingly anything, not just mortgages. All you needed was an asset that generated a predictable return over a set period of time. There were a lot of these assets around by now. By the Nineties, Americans had become, quietly and with little fuss, a nation of exuberant debtors. With wages deteriorating or stagnating, for middle-class Americans to keep being middle-class, to put a kid through college or buy a car, meant acquiring more debt. This was now easy. My mother recalled how hard it was to get a Sears credit card in 1971; it was like applying for a passport that you might well be denied. Whereas in today’s mail, I’ve received three offers for no-approval-needed credit cards.

So today, any debt that you owe any institution is likely packaged somewhere in a securitization. Your student loans: securitized. Your credit-card debt: securitized. Your home-improvement loan: securitized. Your car lease: securitized. And so on. Writing about this was my job. On down weeks, we would speculate about which market sector would be next: Shipping returns? Drug patents? Highway project finance? Baseball park revenues? And, thanks to David Bowie, music royalties.

chart

The “Bowie Bond” negotiations happened in late 1996. Pullman recalled to Bowie’s biographer Marc Spitz that it was a clandestine process, involving having to get his former manager Tony Defries to sign off on the project. While Pullman says the idea was his, Paul Trynka’s bio speculates that Bowie’s new financial manager, William Zysblat, was also heavily involved in its creation. By January 1997, the deal was assembled and pre-sold.

Bowie was fairly unusual among rock stars in that he owned both his master recordings and most of his music copyrights. His current arrangements were expiring, and normally he would’ve just signed another distribution agreement with a label and/or a song publisher. Instead, Zysblat and Pullman determined that a securitization would give him far more money up-front.

So Bowie, with Pullman’s bank Fahnestock as his representative, packaged 287 of his copyrights and recordings, from “Life on Mars? to “Ashes to Ashes” and “Sound and Vision,” into a security.* Every crumb of income that the songs generated—royalties from broadcast and performance, record sales, commercial use, licensing in films—would now go into a “special purpose vehicle” that would in turn give regular payments to whoever bought the bonds. To entice investors, the bonds paid a 7.9% rate of interest, which was higher than the 10-year Treasury note (6.37% at the time).

terms of psychic warfare

”This was a very good deal, offering a superior return compared to the risk,” said Rick Matthews, a spokesman for Prudential. ”And because it was the first, you’re going a higher rate than the next.”

Bowie’s Latest Hit,” New York Times, 21 February 1997.

2) You could never have owned them. Once the news broke, some Bowie fans thought they could own a Bowie Bond: imagine, the next time you heard “Let’s Dance” on TV, you’d receive 1/2,344th of its royalties. They never had a chance. It’s not as though the Bowie Bonds were bid on by traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or were available on E-Trade. The bonds “changed hands” once. The securitization was issued by Fahnestock’s computer and purchased, in its entirety, by the computer of the Prudential Insurance Co. of America. Prudential held onto the bonds for their whole lifetime.

3) They (probably) were a mediocre investment? In 2004, the rating agency Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the Bowie bonds (to Baa1, a step above “junk” status). This was not due to anything Bowie had done but because by 2004 the music industry was up the creek, and any investment tied to music royalties looked like a bet gone badly wrong.

Yet this downgrade only would’ve been a problem had Prudential wanted to sell its bonds, as they were now considered to be of lesser credit quality. As far as we know, Prudential didn’t. Instead, the Bowie bonds sat in Prudential’s coffers, generating who knows how much in terms of royalty payments for a decade. It’s likely his royalties decreased in the early 2000s, but Bowie was never in any remote danger of losing his songs.

brixton-money-bowi

The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing…Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.

Bowie, interview by Jon Pareles, New York Times, 9 June 2002.

4) They will never happen again (probably). Bowie’s sense of timing was uncanny here: 1997 was the ideal moment to issue these securities. Wall Street and the music industry were fat and happy. The labels were making billions by selling $17 CDs via armies of Tower Records and Sam Goody’s. Every few years a catalog artist like Bowie reissued his old albums in boxed sets or in remastered special editions. It was a never-ending stream of revenue, and already the industry was imagining how to get people to buy their old records yet again: SACD? Blu-Ray? The next year, Shawn Fanning started Napster.

(This reminds me, indirectly, of a conference I attended around 2000. One discussion was about how, as the United States was quickly paying down its federal budget deficit, there could be no need for the government to issue new Treasury notes. This would be a problem, as other bonds were priced off Treasurys. What could replace them? The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, speaking via satellite, suggested one idea would be to use Ford and General Motors corporate debt as a pricing peg. Why not? What could be steadier than the American automakers?)

The Bowie securitizations did kick off a small wave of similar deals in the late Nineties: James Brown, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson. But the implosion of the music industry post-Napster, coupled with the lack of prospects for future top-name securitizations (the likes of the Beatles and the Stones couldn’t do it, as their catalogs were tied up with the likes of Michael Jackson and Allen Klein), meant that the deals dried up. And the worst excesses of securitization, of course, helped dynamite the global economy in 2008, from which it’s hardly recovered. The Bowie Bond was supposed to herald the future but it now seems like a relic from a shattered world (so, very Bowie).

wld

It’s horrible, it’s gross, it’s obscene. It turns his music into a commodity. It’s like [Bowie] could be a water company or gas company.

Dustan Bruce (Chumbawumba), quoted in People, 20 July 1998.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…

Marx, Communist Manifesto.

There was much ado about Bowie’s financing at the time. Some wrote the deal up as another innovation by rock’s equivalent to Nicola Tesla; some even found tying Wall Street to rock and roll had sex appeal (see Linda Davies’ Something Wild, a 2001 novel in which the heroine investigates if the rock star securitizing his assets has a dark secret in his past). Others mocked Bowie for being a sell-out, a shill of the highest order: see the gruesome prose of Mark Steyn (Once upon a time, rock stars weren’t rated by Moody’s. They were moody.”). The deal was yet another way the Baby Boom generation had failed, yet another sign of rock ‘n’ roll gone corporate. It was gross and tasteless. How much more money did Bowie need, anyway?

And yes, it crumbles the spirit to look back through the thick catalog of Bowie songs—their happy inspirations, their twists of composition; the tone of Mick Ronson’s guitar, the sonic density of Dennis Davis’ kick drum; all of the distractions and karaoke heroics and fantasies that this music has given to countless people—and to know that this messy human ambition was reduced to a tradeable commodity. That a computer at Prudential tracked and collated the royalties of “Changes” as it did a pool of credit-card obligations by American Express. A moment in someone’s life (a song that David Bowie wrote on a piano in Haddon Hall, one afternoon in 1971, and recorded on tape with two now-dead fellow musicians) had been abstracted, had been reduced to a piece of a piece of a synthetic compilation of debts.

bustd

There’s another take on the story. A young man in Britain is a talented songwriter but is unable to manage himself and remains oblivious to finance. He acquires a manager and signs a typically egregious rock ‘n’ roll contract, in which the manager has, outright, 50% ownership of the singer’s catalog for a decade, and will retain ownership of a smaller portion of that (on a sliding scale, reportedly) for decades thereafter.

The young man grew older. He became a parent. He had a costly split from his manager. He moved to Switzerland to reduce his taxes. He had a costly split from his wife. He married again, he would have another child. Now he was 50. How long could he keep at his racket? The papers had wanted him gone years before. So he and his financial adviser devised a scheme. He would give away the royalties to his songs for a decade in exchange for a considerable pile of money. As much as half of which, some $27 million, reportedly would buy out his old manager for once and for all. Then he (and his children) would finally and wholly own his songs.

Consider the course Bowie took in the years that he worked, indirectly, for Prudential. He performed his older songs more. He supervised new releases of his old CDs in 1999 and various 30th Anniversary reissues in the early 2000s. He recorded an album where he reworked his obscure Sixties compositions (though his label shot it down). He played 83 shows in 1997 and from 2002 to 2004, he toured almost ceaselessly, racking up over 150 dates, to the apparent detriment of his health.

And around 2006, the bonds matured and his songs returned to him, and now to him alone. By then he’d stopped recording and playing live. He had (temporarily) retired; you could say that he’d earned it.

Released February 1997.

* As it was a private deal and had no prospectus, it’s never been revealed which songs were in the package. I’m assuming that Bowie’s co-compositions, including “Fame,” “Breaking Glass,” much of the Berlin-era Eno-Bowie instrumentals, the Tin Machine stuff and the immortal “Too Dizzy,” were not part of the securitization, due to the complication of having to get a co-author’s approval, but who knows.

“Bowie Bonds” are trademarked by Pullman & Co.

Sources:

James Damron and Joseph Labbadia, “Comments on Music Royalty Securitizations,” Duff & Phelps Special Report, September 1999.

Karen Richardson, “Bankers Hope for a Reprise of ‘Bowie Bonds’,” Wall Street Journal, 23 August 2005.

Jennifer Sylva, Comment, Bowie Bonds Sold for Far More Than a Song: The Securitization of Intellectual Property as a Super-Charged Vehicle for High Technology Financing, 15 Santa Clara Computer & High Tech. L.J. 195 (1999). (Sylva must have been a fan: one subhead is a play on “Sweet Thing/Candidate”)

Paul Trynka, Starman; Marc Spitz, Bowie.

Top to bottom: Starman gets star on Hollywood Blvd., February 1997; Pullman promo, 1999; chart of the beanstalk-like growth of the ABS market, 1990-2001 (Bond Market Association); Bowie bond schematics (via Dr. Martin Kretschmer’s 2001 paper here);  Brixton’s 10-pound Bowie note; cover of Linda Davies’ Something Wild, 2001; Bowie and Goldie acquire working capital in Everybody Loves Sunshine (aka BUSTED), 1998.