April’s Tooth of Gold

May 20, 2016

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April’s Tooth of Gold (demo, unreleased).

Long known only as a song title, “April’s Tooth of Gold” was finally bootlegged in 2010, revealing itself as a piece of mild psychedelia melodically similar to “Silver Tree Top School for Boys.”

Ray Davies was central to the development of Bowie’s songwriting and “April’s Tooth of Gold” discloses the debt as openly as Bowie ever allowed. Driven by a harshly-strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of the Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac,*” Bowie’s song concerned strange young people with blue hair and gold teeth, and the older generation bewildered by them—it was a first draft of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” with the old-timey affectations of “Rubber Band” not quite discarded yet. A minor but appealing piece that could’ve won a place on the never-recorded second Bowie Deram album.

* If it was inspired by “Almanac,” it would push the date of composition for “April’s Tooth” to post-October 1967, when the Kinks track was issued. There’s also a bit of The Lovin’ Spoonful in it.

Top: “Arbyreed,” “Hippies near Trafalgar Square, ca. 1968.”

Various business: I did a recent podcast for Zachary Stockill’s Travels in Music. You can hear me utterly blank on naming Eno’s Oblique Strategies (hey, it was early in the day).


C’est La Vie

April 21, 2016

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This entry, on a minor but sweet song from ca. late 1967, is in the book but never was on the blog. This was due to the fact that the recording didn’t leak until well after I’d covered the Sixties on the blog (2009, basically–I think “C’est” only popped up around 2012).

I am curious whether other demos from the messy “second (and never recorded) Bowie Deram LP” era of late 1967 to early 1968 will eventually surface. I wouldn’t be surprised if so. Looking forward to hearing “Angel Angel Grubby Face” and the Ernie Johnson tape someday.

C’est la Vie.

Bowie wrote “C’est la Vie” in summer 1967 and his manager Kenneth Pitt sent demos that October to song publishers and the American singer Chris Montez, to no response. The elaborate tape, which had eight instrumental and vocal versions of the song, with multiple vocal overdubs and prominent clunky bass (apparently Bowie), suggested Pitt thought “C’est la Vie” one of Bowie’s more commercially promising efforts.

Considered for Bowie’s second Deram album but never taken beyond the demo stage, “C’est la Vie” had a warm melody to suit its lyric’s homebody sentiments. Bowie’s content to watch the world pass by his window, hoping that time will pass him by in turn. It’s a lassitude found in a contemporary interview he gave to Chelsea News (“David is contented with contentment: he is a happy loving person with a gentle nature”). He later reworked one line for “An Occasional Dream” (“burns my wall with time”) and recycled some of its top melody for “Shadow Man.” You could also argue that “Conversation Piece” starts here.

Recorded: (demo, still unreleased) ca. September 1967, Essex Music. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine, bass?

Top: John Atherton, “London, 1967” (“September 13, 1967 at St. James’s park. She was from Germany.”)


Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

April 1, 2016

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Fitting for April Fool’s Day, it’s the one of the most knocked-about and belittled songs in the Bowie canon. But I stand by what I wrote in 2009, and the book version has even more love for the song. Below is a mingle of the two versions:

The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome and, a bit later, the gnome’s brother. It has sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie and engineer Gus Dudgeon. For the refrains, Bowie and the gnomes duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

During a state visit to Washington, DC in 1994, Boris Yeltsin was found dead drunk late one night, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear, trying to hail a cab because he wanted to get a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent in Bowie’s life. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on YouTube.

At the apex of Bowie’s global fame in 1984, Mick Farren (who’d known Bowie in the Sixties) wrote that “whenever [Bowie] comes under discussion and the folks around the bar start to get rapturous, a still, small voice pipes up in the back of my mind to remind me: This is the man who recorded ‘The Laughing Gnome.’” When Bowie asked fans to vote for which songs he’d perform on his “greatest hits” tour of 1990, the NME launched a write-in campaign to humiliate him by making him sing “Laughing Gnome” on stage.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. After “Space Oddity,” it was Bowie’s best single of the Sixties.

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. It was Bowie’s best Mod soul single: its propulsive 4/4 slammed home by drums, bass, harpsichord and guitar all locked in, the guitar shifting from topping the bassline to biting down hard on each beat. (It was the first of many Bowie attempts to match the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”) Even the gnome voices were basically drum fills. His melody, reminiscent of “The Tennessee Waltz,” was a rhythm guitar line in a vocal. Bowie started each verse with short upward moves (“I was walk-ing, down the high street”), took a long stride down an octave (“heard-foot-steps-be-hind-me”) echoed by a closing set of short, descending lines (“scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way”). The refrains were a four-part harmony: soaring oboe, playing whole or half notes; huffing bassoon happy to act the clown; Bowie’s lead vocal; the gnome chorus.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired.

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your hair cut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus for making an LSE joke about Mick Jagger.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, in the early 2000s, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. The son of a half-century’s worth of British novelty records, from Charles Penrose’s “laughing” discs in the Twenties to Anthony Newley’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “That Noise,” “Laughing Gnome” suited the frothy mood of its time, preceding Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” by a few months. Syd Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers a general benediction, honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying”:

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. The chromatic three-octave-descending oboe/bassoon riff would be a through-line in Bowie’s songs, heard in everything from “Fame,” “Speed of Life” and “Fall in Love With Me” to “Scream Like a Baby” and “Real Cool World.” And the varisped gnome voices returned as ghouls in “After All,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and Bowie’s cover of “See Emily Play,” among others.

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”) For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent weeks coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds, cutting multiple versions of the track (the musician Mike Scott said he once slowed down the track enough to hear that Dudgeon’s doing most of the gnome voices). Bowie and Dudgeon even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” Bowie recalled in 1993.

The single’s failure to chart and some critical pasting pushed Bowie towards a darker path: soon enough came Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. This would become his regular maneuver. Whenever he did something too silly (say, Labyrinth or the Glass Spider Tour) he’d make amends by dressing as a “serious” artiste for a time. While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the “Gnome” went missing for much of the Seventies, Bowie kept quietly drawing from its stores.

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out. But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knew the track was one of the finest things he ever did.

Recorded 26 January, 7 & 10 February and 8 March 1967 and released on 14 April 1967 as Deram DM 123. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. The Gnome will rise again, one day.

See also: “Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.


Ching-a-Ling

November 4, 2009

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Ching-a-Ling.
Ching-a-Ling (edited version, promo film).
Ching-a-Ling (demo, 1969).

He had avoided it as long as possible, but by the summer of 1968 David Bowie had become a hippie. He grew his hair down to his shoulders, sat around his manager’s house naked, cooked macrobiotic meals, joined a communal arts lab and, saddest of all, formed a folk music trio.

This was Turquoise, soon to be rechristened Feathers. Turquoise was founded by Bowie, his first serious girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, ballet dancer and amateur singer, and London folkie (and former guitarist for The Misunderstood) Tony Hill, who soon was replaced by John “Hutch” Hutchinson, former lead guitarist of Bowie’s old band The Buzz. Hutchinson had recently returned to the UK from Canada, his head full of the new Canadian folk music (Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen), and he found that Bowie now “was into softer things…he didn’t need a band to pump it out anymore.”

Following in the path of grubby hippie groups before them and the countless numbers after them, Feathers played a meager circuit of university halls and folk clubs. It was a bit of passive rebellion on Bowie’s part—his manager Ken Pitt, desperate to get Bowie some paying gigs, had pushed him to develop a cabaret act, which went nowhere, and landed him a brief spot in a Lyons Maid “Luv” ice cream commercial (directed by Ridley Scott!). Bowie later described Turquoise/Feathers as being in part just a device to spend more time with his girlfriend, but the group also reflected Bowie’s belief that since he wasn’t getting paid anyhow, why not form a “non-commercial” band that performed just for the joy of it?

So Feathers played sets consisting of recited poetry, a few recent Bowie compositions (like “When I’m Five”) and some Jacques Brel covers, interspersed with mime routines. “Ghastly,” the mime Lindsay Kemp recalls in Marc Spitz’s new Bowie biography. The band’s enforced democratic vibe (everyone sang, everyone played guitar) resulted in, as it typically does, a determined sense of mediocrity.

The only Feathers record was “Ching-a-ling,” which Tony Visconti recorded on the sly—booking a session at Trident Studios without managerial approval and hoping the track would get picked up by a label. The b-side was meant to be Tony Hill’s “Back to Where You’ve Never Been,” but as Hill was suddenly replaced by Hutchinson, that idea naturally fell through. “Ching-a-Ling” is not bad and not memorable: it simply floats along like a soap bubble. It may be the most depressing thing that Bowie recorded in the entire decade.

Recorded on 24 October 1968 (Bowie’s sung verse is cut on most versions of the track; it’s no loss); on Deram Anthology (the full version finally appeared on the David Bowie reissue). Bowie and Hutchinson recorded a demo version in mid-April 1969.

Top: (l to r) Hermione Farthingale, David Bowie (cropped hair due to his role as an extra in The Virgin Soldiers), Tony Visconti, John Hutchinson. Ca. October 1968.


When I’m Five

November 2, 2009

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When I’m Five (demo, 1968).
When I’m Five (BBC Top Gear 1968 recording; promo film).
When I’m Five (1969 demo).

Als das Kind Kind war,
erwachte es einmal in einem fremden Bett
und jetzt immer wieder,
erschienen ihm viele Menschen schön
und jetzt nur noch im Glücksfall.

(When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again,
many people seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by chance.)

Peter Handke, “Lied vom Kindsein.”

Thereafter all his dreams and plays were inspired by the magic words, “When I’m five an’ can see.” The sentence served as a mental spring-board to jump his imagination off into a world of wonder where he could see “dest—dest as good as big folks.”

Margaret Prescott Montague, “What Mr. Grey Said.”

“When I’m Five” is a sung by a child who wants to be a child. Or to be more precise, a true child, a child of five or seven, one who seemingly has the business of childhood sorted out. Age is the most salient of childhood’s hierarchies; age truly matters, each year has its own weight and presence, in a way it never quite does again. To a four-year-old, a seven-year-old (the first climacteric year, the year of permanent teeth) is an aspiration, a 10-year-old is a high master, while those over 13 belong to the Great Otherwhere, a sullen land full of dark, awful mystery.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” is a thematic sequel to “There Is a Happy Land” (not just thematic—Bowie reuses “Happy Land”‘s bridge). Where the latter was sung by an all-seeing narrator who occasionally took the voice of the children he observed, “When I’m Five” is entirely first-person. It’s both endearing and embarrassing—Bowie sings in a pinched, awkward voice (matched visually by his mime-like performance in the promo film Love You Till Tuesday) and performs without a trace of self-consciousness. It feels quite personal for a Bowie lyric, which up until now have rarely been autobiographical: there’s a reference to “my Grandfather Jones,” as well as a crying father and a mother who keeps secrets tucked away in a drawer.

While “When I’m Five” is embedded deep in the mind of childhood, there’s also a flavor of departure in it—the child wants to grow up, if at first just to be a greater child, but escape and adulthood are his final aims. The adult world, with all its worries, pettiness and wonders (spitting tobacco, marching in army parades, marriage), has come flooding in. After a period in which British pop music had been besotted with childhood, a change appears to be coming, darkness and strife on the horizon.

Bowie cut a demo of the song in early 1968, while the only proper recording he made of it was at a BBC session on 13 May 1968—the BBC version was the soundtrack to the “When I’m Five” sequence in Love You Till Tuesday. The Beatstalkers were convinced to cover the song, and released their bewildered version on their last single, c/w, appropriately, “Little Boy” (CBS 3936). It marked the end, both of the band’s connection to Bowie’s music and of the band itself.


London Bye Ta-Ta

October 29, 2009

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London Bye Ta-Ta.

In Victoria Station Bowie overheard a West Indian family calling “London bye ta-ta!” to relatives boarding a train out of town. And the song Bowie wrote with that title is, in part, about immigrant London: a city that, by the end of the ’60s, had a rising population of West Indians, various Africans, Pakistanis, Indians and other nationalities. Many of the newcomers had been members of the British Commonwealth or of its former colonies—the result was a new complexion for the UK (the BBC: in 1945, Britain’s non-white residents were in the low thousands, by 1970 they were approximately 1.4 million). Reaction was swift: Enoch Powell‘s notoriety (or infamy) began a month after Bowie first recorded “London Bye Ta-Ta,” one of several songs of the period to touch on immigration (not only was The Beatles’ “Get Back” originally a satire on Powell, the “get back to where you once belonged” addressed to Pakistanis, but “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”‘s title was coined by the Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney’s.)

One of Bowie’s prettiest ’60s songs, “London Bye Ta-Ta” is also the latest variation on Bowie’s provincials-come-to London theme, in the line of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “The London Boys.” What’s fine here is a broadening of perspective—two young bohemians meet and flirt, but the singer also realizes they’re part of a greater exodus, mere ripples in a sea of population change. Everyone flooding into town is looking for some form of renewal: a new name, a new face, a better job. “The poet in the clothes shop sold me curry for a pound,” the singer recalls in passing. London has become, seemingly overnight, a strange young town.

It’s a rewrite of “Threepenny Pierrot,” though Bowie greatly improves the song in revision. “Threepenny” is just a catchy chorus and a tinkly little verse; “London Bye Ta-Ta” keeps the chorus but the verse is now in three stages—first just four descending notes (“gi-gi-gi-gi,” “red light green light”) countered by four rising ones (“take me away,” “make up your mind”) punctuated by a clang, then four bars of developing melody (with a third chord, G, finally introduced—it’s only been D and C up to now). It leads to the verse’s final and loveliest four-bar section, in which a neat guitar riff anchors an upward sweep of Tony Visconti’s strings arrangement and, even higher, Bowie’s vocal.

“London Bye Ta-Ta,” as much as it captures the beauty and sweep of a city in the flush of reinventing itself, winds up a tragedy. The two kids don’t make it:

She loves to love all beauty,
And she says the norm is funny
But she whimpers in the morning
When she finds she has no money

“I loved her! I loved her!” the singer pleads with us. But he’s out the door all the same.

Recorded on 12 March 1968 (it was proposed as the B-side to the rejected “In the Heat of the Morning” single); also cut a day later for the BBC (the version linked to above, which is on Bowie at the Beeb). Bowie still thought it had potential and considered it as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity,” cutting a revised version (with Marc Bolan on guitar) between 8-15 January 1970. But it was ultimately scrapped, and the Bolan version wasn’t released until the 1989 Sound and Vision compilation.

Top: London, May Day 1968.


In the Heat of the Morning

October 27, 2009

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In the Heat of the Morning (BBC performance, 1967).
In the Heat of the Morning.
In the Heat of the Morning (Toy, 2000).

This marks the end of the line for David Bowie and his label Deram: it was the second single Bowie recorded that Deram rejected, despite the fact that, as with “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” Bowie was writing more commercial songs than he had in the past. It didn’t matter: Deram just wanted rid of him and Bowie left the label in April 1968.

So “In the Heat of the Morning” is a fragment of an uncompleted work. It was meant to be the centerpiece of Bowie’s second Deram LP, and Bowie and Tony Visconti do their best to shine it up: another luxurious strings arrangement, some odd instrumentation (guitar doubled with the Sooty Pixie Xylophone, the latter played by Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Steve Peregrin Took, who dubbed it the “Pixiephone”) and a Bowie vocal that’s ditched the Anthony Newley-isms for a sultrier, more commanding tone. Like “Sleep Beside You,” it’s basically a come-on with pretensions, but, hey, those can work sometimes.

First recorded in a BBC session on 18 December 1967, though the lyric was different and worse (“where cunning magpies steal your name“) and the opening riff hadn’t been developed yet. The proposed Deram single version was cut on 12 March 1968 and another BBC version was recorded a day later (as with “Karma Man,” the BBC version of this song might be its definitive recording—there’s more guitar, and Bowie’s vocal and the beat are much stronger, IMO). On Deram Anthology. Covered by The Last Shadow Puppets on their 2008 EP “The Age of The Understatement.”

Top: Shopping on King’s Road, 1968 (Another Nickel In the Machine).


Even a Fool Learns to Love

October 25, 2009

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Even A Fool Learns to Love.

Someone must have enjoyed or at least tolerated Bowie’s lyrics for “Pancho,” as Bowie was offered further translation work at the start of 1968. This time it was for Claude François’ “Comme D’Habitude,” written by François, Gilles Thibault and Jacques Revaux.

“Comme D’Habitude” in the original French (here’s a multi-language translation guide) has the singer stoically noting that something has died—his lover, he’s realized, responds to his actions out of habit, “as usual,” and he goes on to admit that he too has been living without inspiration: it’s a post-mortem for a failed relationship, in which even the various infidelities, despairs and fights have a weary, bloodless feel to them. (François allegedly liked it because the song encapsulated his recent breakup with France Gall.)

By contrast, Bowie’s translation, “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” is purple, self-pitying and, worse, full of sad clowns—it’s basically another version of “When I Live My Dream” combined with some Pierrot-isms. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, and unsurprisingly Bowie’s lyric got shot down (Geoffrey Heath, who worked at Essex Music, later said that the powers that be “wanted a star to record the song, not this yobbo from Bromley”).

Soon afterward, Paul Anka heard “Comme D’Habitude” on French television and wrote a new set of lyrics for it, again completely at odds with the original song. Anka titled it “My Way.” You know the rest.

Bowie’s demo (which weirdly consisted of Bowie singing over François’ original recording) was recorded in January-February 1968. Bowie seemed to regret not getting the song—he performed it as part of his failed cabaret auditions later in 1968, and as Nicholas Pegg has noted, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is something of a rewrite.

Top: Rudy Meisel, “Piccadilly Circus, 1968.”


The Mime Songs

October 21, 2009

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Threepenny Pierrot.
Columbine.
The Mirror.
The Mask.

For a time, during the tail end of the ’60s, David Bowie became a professional mime who occasionally sang on stage. His label wanted to be rid of him, every record that he had released had flopped, he didn’t have a band, and often his only regular work came from mime shows, whether in stage productions or even (disastrously) opening for rock bands like Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Mime, like it or loathe it, is essential to Bowie’s art—it’s as important an influence as Bowie’s love of R&B and jazz, or science fiction, or Buddhism, or Lou Reed. It lies behind everything that he did after 1968: Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, The Thin White Duke, even the wan extraterrestrial figure of his “Berlin” trilogy are basically all mimetic interpretations of rock musicians. Coming full circle, Bowie dressed as Pierrot in his 1980 video for “Ashes to Ashes,” winding down his most creative period.

Bowie had followed the path of a typical British would-be rock star—leaving school early, playing in beat groups, getting a manager, cutting singles, making a moderately psychedelic LP. His mime years broke this frame; it marked him with a different aesthetic than the typical rocker. It’s in part why Bowie is hard to fit into the standard “’70s rock star” slot, though radio stations and retrospectives try, and why some critics have considered him a poseur, a campy thief, a heartless vampire figure. Was Bowie really only a mime who “played” a rock musician? Or was he someone who considered mime to be an aesthetic equivalent to rock & roll, thus denying one of the music’s core myths—that its purity and simplicity made it superior to more elaborate, ‘higher” forms of art? When a mime can do rock as well as a “real” rock & roll singer, what does it say about the latter?

[Bowie] in class would drink up my words and do exactly as I asked of him. And a few years later, when he invited me to stage Ziggy Stardust for him at the Rainbow, he was still a joy to direct. I would keep encouraging him to simplify his performance, which he did, and we never had any artistic disagreements. He was an ideal student.

Lindsay Kemp, quoted in The Bowie Companion.

It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.

David Bowie, 1997, on working with Kemp.

Bowie met the mime Lindsay Kemp in mid-1967 and by the fall was taking dance lessons from him. Kemp later claimed, deliberately creating a legend, that he had saved Bowie from becoming a Buddhist monk, as Bowie had visited a Buddhist monastery in Scotland and allegedly was considering taking vows. Kemp asked Bowie to perform and write songs for a new production he was mounting, Pierrot in Turquoise. (Bowie suggested “turquoise” as it was the Buddhist symbol of eternity.) The play featured Pierrot, the sad, ever-trusting cuckold, his love Columbine and her lover Harlequin, variations on classic Commedia dell’arte types. The production became a traveling soap opera: Bowie was having simultaneous affairs with Kemp and the costume designer Natasha Korniloff, and once Kemp found out, he lived up to the role of the betrayed Pierrot and slashed his wrists before a show. When he reopened the wounds while performing that night, blood stained his Pierrot costume and the audience roared at the audacious realism.

For Pierrot in Turquoise, Bowie wrote “Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” and revived, yet again, “When I Live My Dream.” While the jaunty “Threepenny Pierrot” (soon to be rewritten as “London Bye Ta-Ta“) could have fit on Bowie’s debut LP, “Columbine” and “The Mirror” show a new, emerging compositional style for Bowie—somber folk-esque songs, in which an elaborate lyric is countered by a basic, repetitive acoustic guitar figure. The type would dominate the Space Oddity LP. Bowie quarried from “Columbine” in particular—its guitar line is reused in “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” and a variation turns up at the end of “Width of a Circle.”

Bowie continued to work as a mime and dancer throughout 1968 and 1969, dancing in a Kemp-choreographed version of Pushkin’s The Pistol Shot and performing his own Tibetan-inspired production Yet-San and The Eagle. When Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, seeking to revive his client’s career, arranged for Bowie to record a promo film, Bowie included in the mix a mime piece (with narration) he had written entitled “The Mask.” During its five minute span, Bowie calmly and ominously depicts his future stardom and the subsequent near-madness it caused him. He acted out his future, then endured it.

“Threepenny Pierrot,” “Columbine” and “The Mirror” were debuted at the premiere of Pierrot in Turquoise in Oxford on 28 December 1967; their only recordings are from a 1970 production of the show, The Looking Glass Murders, that aired on the BBC. “The Mask” was recorded for Bowie’s promo film Love You Till Tuesday on 5 February 1969.

Top: David Bowie at the Middle Earth Club, 19 May 1968.


Karma Man

October 19, 2009

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Karma Man.
Karma Man (BBC, 1968).

The much-discussed surrender of John, Paul, George and Ringo to the soothing influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi makes, in my view, depressing reading…The unfortunate Beatles, like many of us, it seems, are in grave danger of coming into contact with the Spirit of Universal Truth, an unhelpful tipple which has in the past turned the great mind of Aldous Huxley to mystical blotting paper.

John Mortimer, The New Statesman, 29 September 1967.

There’s high, and there’s high, and to get really high—I mean so high you can walk on water, that high—that’s where I’m going. The answer’s not pot, but yoga and meditation, and working and discipline, working out your karma.

George Harrison, Holiday, February 1968.

All at once, or so it seemed, the pop aristocracy of the UK turned to “Eastern” religion. Seemingly everyone was now devising his or her personal path to enlightenment: Pete Townshend with Meher Baba, Richard Thompson with Sufi Islam, even Dave Davies was reading Vivekananda’s Rajah Yoga. And of course The Beach Boys, Donovan and The Beatles had found the Spiritual Regeneration teachings of the Maharishi, a sort of pop fusion of Buddhism, Hinduism and even stray bits of American “power of positive thinking” boosterism.

The mystery is explained in part when you consider that many of these people had been taking LSD in great doses for a long time (Tony Visconti and his wife tripped once a week for a whole year, for example, and Visconti eventually became a Tibetan Buddhist). Eastern teachings resounded with celebrities who were trying to make sense of a world in which “all limits had been magically removed” (Bernice Martin). Also appealing was that many of the Eastern religion varietals on display didn’t require much in terms of material renunciation or moral strictures from novitiates.

The “new” religions also had appeared in somewhat of a vacuum. Since the late ’50s, there had been a general falling off in religious observance among the young in the UK (you might recall John Lennon’s infamous “we’re more popular than Christ” comment was specifically about British teenagers). So Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, particularly the watery blends offered by various celebrity mystics and sages, found little competition. Buddhism in particular was hip with the young because it had no ruling omniscient god who mandated antiquated moral codes, and its priest caste was best known for a) protesting war and b) wearing colorful psychedelic outfits. It was seemingly devoted solely to the “now,” and was misinterpreted as something of a Pop religion.

cagbritmus

David Bowie had been studying Tibetan Buddhism since 1965, if not earlier. So while his “Karma Man,” which he cut a few days after The Beatles and their spouses had decamped (in a blaze of press coverage) for Bangor, Wales, to be initiated into the Maharishi’s teachings, may have seemed like a trendy affectation, it was actually a sequel to Bowie’s earlier Tibetan homage “Silly Boy Blue.”

That said, by late ’67, Tibetan Buddhism was just as trendy as the rest of the lot. For many weekend Buddhists, “Tibet” was something of an Atlantis in the mountains, the land of Shangri-La, the site of the Lost Continent of Mu; it was a magic kingdom in which everyone was holy and wasn’t hung up on material things. ITC’s 1968 TV drama The Champions, for example, featured secret agents crashing their plane in Tibet and being healed (and given superpowers) by lamas. (Identifying as a Tibetan Buddhist would eventually become a political act, as taking the side of the Tibetans drew down the wrath of the student Maoists of 1968, some of whom heckled Bowie’s mime performance Yet-San and the Eagle, which featured “Silly Boy Blue.”)*

So something has changed since the days of “Silly Boy Blue,” which was a realist attempt to depict Tibetan culture, to the point where it sounded a bit like a National Geographic article turned into a pop song. “Karma Man” is nowhere as literal—its title figure, clad in saffron robes and kneeling on the floor in meditation, is something of a Buddhist superhero (even the name’s right out of Doctor Strange). He seems akin to Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, with sigils and runes tattooed on his skin that offer lost wisdom and future prophecies. Bowie’s Karma Man is also now set in opposition to the West—the deceived and the blind mock him, consider him a carnival freak, and keep trying to slow him down.

Recorded on 1 September 1967 as the proposed B-side to “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (an attempt at nirvana for the flip side of an ode to maya); on Deram Anthology. A live recording (a BBC session arranged by Visconti on 13 May 1968 and available on Bowie at the Beeb) is so superior to the studio take that I think of the latter as merely a rough draft. A version was allegedly recorded for Toy: one of the few recordings from those sessions yet to leak.

Top: The Beatles seek enlightenment in Bangor, August 1967; Romano Cagnoni, “British Museum,” 1967.

*A point originally made by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, in About Time 2, a study of cultural influences on Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who.


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