Seven

January 27, 2014

9900

Seven (“demo”).
Seven.
Seven (Omikron: The Nomad Soul version).
Seven (Marius De Vries mix).
Seven (Beck Mix 1).
Seven (Beck Mix 2).
Seven (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Seven (Musique Plus, 1999).
Seven (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Seven (TVE, 1999).
Seven (live, 1999).
Seven (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).

I’d be so unhappy if I’d got myself into a…rut, as my mother used to say. My dear old mum. (Loudly) “You’re in a bit of rut, aren’t you?” She said it about herself. “I’m in a rut.” I think I probably thought then, “I’m never gonna be in a rut if that’s how you turn out.”

“Seven” also mentions both your parents and your brother…

They’re not necessarily my mother, father and brother; it was the nuclear unit thing. Obviously I am totally aware of how people read things into stuff like this. I’m quite sure that some silly cow will come along and say, (adopts silly cow voice) “Oh, that’s about Terry, his brother, and he was very disappointed about this girl back in 1969, whenever he got over her…” That sort of thing comes with the territory, and because I have been an elliptical writer, I think people have—quite rightly–gotten used to interpreting the lyrics in their own way. I am only the person the greatest number of people believe that I am.

Bowie, interview with David Quantick, Q, October 1999.

Silly cow voice: “I forgot what my father said…” he begins, then quickly has to remind himself he’s still forgotten it. “I forgot what my mother said, as we lay on your bed.” The same goes for his brother. Of course, it’s presumptuous and dully literal to argue that Bowie has to be referring to Haywood and Peggy Jones (the latter causing grief as far back as “Can’t Help Thinking About Me“) and Terry Burns here. Of course, he is, in a way. He knows, if you’re a deep fan or a lazy journalist, that the words may call up long-gone Haywood and Terry (well, your ideas of them, of these people whom you’ll never know). So he plays with it: the family as a set of blank faces; the song an orphan’s.

Peggy Jones would die in 2001; Haywood and Terry had been dead for years, or decades. Losing your parents is the last act of becoming an adult: it’s as though you look up one day to find there’s no roof on your house. The gods forgot they made me/so I forgot them, too. It’s one of Bowie’s most Gnostic lines. God’s forgotten that He made our world; the archon ruling in His place has forgotten that he isn’t God; people on the sad earth have forgotten to believe in any of them. The latter line’s tense is key. Bowie forgot them a while ago: is he regretting it now?

Memory, they say, is fate’s shorthand. I do recall at some time in the Seventies the revolutionary Abbie Hoffman saying to me over a drink: “Tomorrow isn’t promised.”

Bowie, introducing “Seven” on VH1 Storytellers, 1999.

There’s a disenchantment in “Seven”; something about it feels half-finished. There’s arguably no final version of the song: its “demo” can sound more ornate than the album mix in places (the demo has Reeves Gabrels’ slide guitar hook in the intro, while acoustic guitars and organ are pushed up), as does the Omikron mix, with its thunking bassline. A Marius De Vries mix, pushed up in key, was the lead track on the single.

The singer has seven days left, so he plays in churches (graves of the gods), wanders through empty cities trying to remember what his parents sounded like. It’s a world as a set of monuments, honoring forgotten ghosts. His movements resound in the verses’ simple C major progression: he starts alone on C (“I forgot what my“), strikes out to G (“father said”), spends a wistful moment in A minor (“I forgot what he..”), uses an F major chord as a means to avoid going back home (“..said..“). And then he goes back home, alone, to start over again.

7

“Seven” also answers “Five Years,” which Bowie had written when he was 24, back when he seemed to welcome the apocalypse. “That’s all we’ve got!” he’d choked out, weeping in the vocal booth. But catastrophes can lose their charm with age. Life can seem a run of disappointed apocalypses. So the song he wrote on acoustic guitar in Bermuda at the close of 1998 was what he called, in its debut live performance, “a song of nowness.”

Seven days to live, seven ways to die,” he told Quantick. “I’d actually reduce that further to twenty-four hours to live. I’m very happy to deal and only deal with the existing twenty-four hours I’m going through. I’m not inclined to even think too heavily about the end of the week or the week I’ve just come through. The present is really the place to be.” Five years would’ve been nice, but seven days are enough. (Given the references to gods, these might be the seven “days” of biblical creation, each of which could’ve been eons. So Bowie may have some time to kill.)

As if to frustrate his “nowness” intentions, he used as a central image “seven,” with its millennia of signifiers—the deadly sins and holy virtues, the seals and veils and hells and penitential psalms, the days (and  ‘hours…‘) of the week. He once called “Seven” a “hippy dippy” thing, too: a song for Hoffman, who hadn’t made it out of the Eighties (in one mix, Bowie sang lines from “Sorrow” in the outro). A subtle bit of wordplay—the city “full of flowers” has a bridge full of “viole(n)t people“—offers that the hippies have let down the side as well; they turned out to be just another lost cause.

David Bowie: see you in the new year!
David Bowie: happy hols from all of us to all of you…
David Bowie: from over here to over there… happy trails, sweat dreams, good luck, you’ve got a lucky face… the drinks are on me…
David Bowie: …do you know where your children are?
David Bowie: do you know who your parents are?
David Bowie: Good night from David, and the man with rusty hair

Bowie’s last public words of the 20th Century, BowieNet, 23 December 1999.

He was supposed to end the millennium on stage in Vienna with Brian Eno, performing some massive conclusion to the Outside project. That idea shuffled off. Undeterred, he decided he’d go to the Antipodes. He was slated to headline the Gisborne 2000 “First Light” Festival, to be held in the most easterly city on the globe to greet the new millennium, along with a reunited Split Enz and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He said he would write a new song to welcome the new era. The promoters grossly overpriced the show: in August 1999, with only 1,000 of a proposed 35,000 seats sold, Bowie pulled out.

So after chatting with fans on BowieNet the night before Christmas Eve 1999, he saw off the century in private. Maybe just watching TV like the rest of us, to see if the lights would go out in Gisborne City or Sydney or Hong Kong once 2000 began to sweep westward. But it was just another year. No Bowie millennial song, either, which is as just well, as he’d already written one. Quiet and lovely, ash-emptied out, “Seven” was as good a way as any to close a chapter. A goodbye to the already-forgotten, it rang with the sound of Gabrels’ slide guitar, sustaining notes just long enough that it seemed as if they could break, then bending them anew.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released on ‘Hours’ and as the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a disc that led off with the DeVries Mix and included the demo, the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC, on 19 November 1999 (another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue.

Top: Aaron Miller, still from “December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000.” (“We got power! The lights are on!”)

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Thursday’s Child

January 21, 2014

99peckham

Thursday’s Child.
Thursday’s Child (instrumental).
Thursday’s Child (Omikron “slower” version).
Thursday’s Child (video).
Thursday’s Child (“rock mix”).
Thursday’s Child (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (TOTP, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Saturday Night Live, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Wetten Daß, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Francamente Me Ne Infischio, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Quelli Che…il Calcio, 1999)
Thursday’s Child (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Thursday’s Child, (TVE, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, Paris, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, NYC, 1999).

One summer day some ten years ago, I was helping to paint a house. On the boombox was Best of Bowie: a long, chronological march from the beachhead of “Space Oddity,” with most songs met by indifference and occasional hums. The caressing synthesizers of “Thursday’s Child” began, and as Bowie started crooning, a fellow painter stopped mid-swipe and looked over at the CD player.

What happened to that guy?” he said.

We’d made it through “Dancing In the Street” with a few chuckles and “Under the God” without comment. But “Thursday’s Child,” on that hot afternoon, sounded awful: treacly, gaspy, wan; the limp expiration of a career. When heard as the close of a sequence that runs through “Rebel Rebel,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Modern Love” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Thursday’s Child” sounds like a man falling down in the street, a hasty end scene tacked onto an overlong Act V. “I’m done with the future: here’s a song for your grandmother.” Dies, borne off stage right.

Sure, any slow, fragile-sounding number could’ve gotten a raspberry that day from our collection of young and recently-young NYC snobs. It’s not as if “Thursday’s Child” is an ill-constructed or poorly-sung track: if anything, it’s one of the few Bowie compositions of the period sturdy enough to withstand being a cover, whether a trumpet solo or a busker’s guitar piece (solo electric guitar interpretation by Jake Reichbart here). Its verse melody, a dance of mild leaps and modest falls, suits a lyric crafted for common use. In the verses, an older man regrets the paths he’s taken; in the choruses, he dares to hope a new love can give his life meaning. It’s Bowie’s “September Song.”

But “Thursday’s Child” wasn’t hip; it didn’t offer any pretense that it was—it sat in a comfortable present tense and stewed on the past. It felt genteel and a bit shabby. After a few years of running across stages in his bottle imp incarnation, after his stabs at industrial and jungle, after all the interviews about Damien Hirst and body scarifications and Millennial doom and Internet-as-cultural-dynamite, Bowie suddenly turned up as the sad clown again. He’d dusted off his Buster Keaton suit and reclaimed the shadow bloodline of his “rock” one: the Bowie of “When I Live My Dream” and “As The World Falls Down,” the cabaret and mime Bowie, the “light entertainment” regional thespian, the bedsit saddo, the Mod who worshiped Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt (see below).

The singer of “Thursday’s Child” is another of the Pierrots he’d played since the Sixties: a perpetual loser at love, like the glum figure of his “Be My Wife” promo. Take the Mr. Pitiful tone of the opening verse—

All of my life I’ve tried so hard
doing the best with what I had:
nothing much happened all the same…

—with its most desperate emphases (“best,” “hope”) cued to gloomy B minor chords, while the verse’s circular structure strands the singer back where he started, on an augmented E major (“breaking my life in two”). You can take the song as a straight-faced lament, as a quietly over-the-top spoof of the same, or both (it is Bowie, after all).

And while the chorus offers a hope of release from the cycle, its alternation of F# majors (“falling”) and F# minors (“really got,” “my past”) suggest the hope’s rather thin. The repetitions of “throw me tomorrow” start to feel desperate; Bowie’s “everything’s falling into place!” is someone trying to hypnotize himself. It’s as if Bowie’s answering Joni Mitchell:

It’s got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past

earthak

Ours was the most exciting show that had hit London since the war…I was glad that I was born in a part of the world that had been so well protected, but I was also ashamed of my protection. I carried guilt inside for being a privileged character when the rest of the world was being destroyed.

Eartha Kitt, Thursday’s Child, 1956.

This song, I might point out, is not actually about Eartha Kitt.

Bowie, 1999.

He’d taken the song’s title from Eartha Kitt, Bowie said upon introducing “Thursday’s Child” on VH1 Storytellers. Writing the song, he’d recalled the paperback cover of her first autobiography (“it just kind of bubbled up the other month”). It had been an erotic memory of his youth (that and D.H. Lawrence, he said).* Using Kitt as a starting point suited Hours’ theme of a middle-aged assessment of lost youth, a 50-year-old flipping through a box of mold-speckled records shipped from his childhood home (Ray Charles’ “Lucky Old Sun” —a man stuck in the middle of life and envying death—also gets a nod).

The title also plays with an old prediction rhyme—“Thursday’s child has far to go” (another variant is “Thursday’s child is merry and glad”)—that had come out of the ground somewhere in medieval England. The rhyme was a popular corruption of court astrology: Thursday was considered a day of great fortune as it was under the sway of Jupiter, kingpin of gods. The Book of Knowledge, by one Erra Pater (1745), notes a “child born on Thursday shall arrive to Great Honour and Dignity” (By contrast, David Robert Jones was born on a Wednesday “full of woe”).**

So the refrain of “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday born, I was Thursday’s Child” was Bowie spading up his old occult interests, presenting them in anodyne forms: the little boxes tucked away on a newspaper’s comics page: horoscopes, birth stones, fortunes, lucky numbers (see “Seven”). It’s the “secret histories” of the Sixties reduced to syndicated copy; it’s another diminishing of unearthly power into ordinary life.

It’s also a clever way to cloud the lyric. What to make of the chorus kicker: “only for you I don’t regret/that I was Thursday’s child“? It’s at odds with the picture the singer’s painted so far: that he’s someone for whom little’s worked out, someone who’s estranged from everyday life yet firmly stuck within it (“He’s a teethgrinding, I’ll-get-this-job-done guy,” Bowie said of the narrator). (It’s also possible that, as Nicholas Pegg noted, Bowie’s referencing the VU’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties“: “For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown.“) But a Thursday’s child would be a lucky child: someone with pull, some who had far to go: a Kitt, or a Bowie.

ekitt

Go back to Eartha Kitt for a moment. Born in South Carolina, she’d reinvented herself in the early Fifties as a nightclub goddess who’d seemingly flown in from the Continent; she played the seductress, the gold-digger with taste (“Santa Baby”) who captured men with her boxful of languages. She’d be cast in that role for the rest of her days: a life spent forever vamping. But what a role! As her biographer John L. Williams wrote of her performance of “Monotonous” in the film New Faces: Eartha is playing a character that’s almost unimaginable in reality [in 1954]: a black American woman who’s tasted all of the world’s delicacies and found them lacking…we wonder, who on earth is this woman? And how can she seem to be so indifferent to the laws and mores of her time? A question that could have been asked, with a gender change, about another performer in 1973.

So maybe the singer is someone like Kitt: not some teeth-grinding anonymous drone but a bright public figure, someone whose name everyone knows, someone to whom things seem have come easily. Doing the best with what I had becomes a modest boast; shuffling days and lonely nights are those of a stage life. Or maybe even the common life of an office drone is a stage life. Bowie had called himself “the Actor,” but in a way, we’re all actors.

tc

Composed in Bermuda in late 1998, “Thursday’s Child” appears to have been mainly Bowie’s work, written on acoustic guitar. It was earmarked as a potential single, with a prominent role for backing singers. The question of who those should be became a bit contentious once Bowie and Gabrels were back in New York.

After toying with having Mark Plati’s six-year-old daughter sing the “Inchworm”-inspired “Monday, Tuesday..” line (she turned Bowie down! “she said she’d rather sing with her friends than with grown-ups,” Plati told David Buckley), Bowie thought of contacting the trio TLC. In 1999, they were arguably the premier female R&B vocal group of the decade. But they were tottering. Rife with personality and financial squabbles and having taken five years to cut their follow-up LP, they were about to be dethroned by Destiny’s Child.

Using TLC sat poorly with Gabrels, who thought it stunk of Bowie’s “New Jack Swing” moves in 1992: “Thursday’s Child” could be another potential Al B. Sure! fiasco. Gabrels had positioned himself as the house purist: some faint analogue in the Bowie camp to Steve Albini. He’d met Bowie during the nadir of Never Let Me Down and he saw it as his charge to keep Bowie honest and weird, to stop him from embarrassing himself by chasing trends after their sell-by date. During the making of ‘Hours’ Gabrels came to feel that his time with Bowie was over (we’ll get into this more in next week’s entry); his veto of TLC would be his last strategic win.

His alternative proposal had a touch of self-interest: he recommended a Boston friend, Holly Palmer, who Bowie auditioned via speakerphone (“let’s hear it with more vibrato now”). You could argue that Palmer’s vocals were just as time-stamped as any TLC vocals would have been: the Liz Fraser-inspired vocalese, the coffee-shop ambiance (a slightly edgier Dido). But Bowie liked what he heard and Palmer joined his touring band in 1999-2001.**

Another question was how far to take the production. David Buckley argued that the song was “crying out for strings,” and the various synthesizer fill-ins for woodwinds, strings and brass can make the song seem stuck in an embryonic state. Had Bowie held “Thursday’s Child” back for what he was calling the “Visconti album,” slated for 2000, it likely would’ve had a much grander production. Perhaps what kept “Thursday’s Child” from being a monstrous hit was that it hedged its bets too much.

dbb

The last piece was Walter Stern’s video. “Bowie,” with little makeup to mask his plus-fifty face, and his partner prepare for bed. They brush their teeth, she takes out her contacts (verrry slooowly). There’s a naturalist feel to counter the tasteful Wiliams Sonoma bedroom set: you hear Bowie cough, mumble and half-sing over the recorded track (taken from Elvis Costello’s “I Wanna Be Loved” video), and the plash of water in the sink. He looks in the mirror, transfixed by his aged but still beautiful face; he’s a veteran Narcissist. A twist of the glass and he sees younger versions of himself and his partner.

The mirror pair have the easy, arrogant confidence of youth; they stare at the older couple with the cold pity of  what Bowie once called “the coming race.” They seem like beautiful wraiths. Bowie, seemingly infatuated with his younger self, does the Marx Brothers Duck Soup mirror game with him. The double plays along for a while, then stops, bored and disgusted with his older self. We passed upon the stair, Bowie had sung long ago, upon meeting another double. He’d been on his way up then, his life still mostly potential. This is the other end of the staircase: a man realizing that time has changed him, that the majority share of his life lies behind him now, that his younger self would’ve regarded the current him like some threadbare costume. Perhaps that was the right question to ask after all: What happened to that guy? He kisses his wife in his imagination, and so to bed.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0, UK #16). BowieNet members voted on the single mix, though both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube in places; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) were included on the UK/EC CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version appeared in the Omikron: The Nomad Soul game: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours,’ as was the Rock Mix. Performed live throughout Bowie’s promotional tour of 1999 and once in 2000, at his Roseland Ballroom concert on Bloomsday.

* Seeing that Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties, and that the title song’s lyric has some affinities to Bowie’s, it seems likely Bowie recalled the record as well.)

** The rhyme was tinkered with during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, with Friday now “full of woe” and Sunday getting some of Thursday’s former glory.

*** Dorsey, Palmer and Emm Gryner made the most handsome Bowie stage lineup since DB and Mick Ronson.

Top: Liz Johnson-Artur, “Peckham, 1999.”


What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014

99seattle

What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.

wrhh

They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.

wrh

“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1” songs and the “Side 2” rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).


The Dreamers

January 2, 2014

99paris

The Dreamers.
The Dreamers (instrumental).

Of all the closing tracks of all the Bowie albums, “The Dreamers” is the most cynical: it’s a finale as if scripted by a committee of fans. So you have Bowie in his imperious croon for essentially the entire track, dropping references to old obscurities (“Shadow Man“) and old classics (“Sweet Thing,” in the “these are the days, booooys” line) in a lyric—a sky is both “flame-filled” and “vermillion”—that comes off as a gross approximation of his old apocalyptica.

It’s an attempt to twine the two strands of ‘Hours’—video-game dark theatrics and middle-aged life laments. So “The Dreamers” is the name of Bowie’s band of musical insurrectionists in Omikron: The Nomad Soul and could be the title of some photo retrospective of the lost counterculture (although the Bertolucci movie of the same title came out after it). The song refines each strain until achieving a shining mass of dullness. Scott Walker’s in there as well, of course: the way Bowie sings “as the darken falls” is straight Climate of Hunter-era Scott. But this is the thinnest of the Bowie/Walker connections, with Walker here a parody figure, a man embodying his worst affectations (was the whole song a spoof on Walker? Bowie trying, and failing, to exorcise an old ghost?)

If you were to mount a defense of “The Dreamers,” you could offer the song’s acerbic harmonic structure, fashioned almost entirely from flat and sharp chords, and its few subtle musical cues, like the nod to T. Rex’s “Jeepster” in the bridges (and its not-so-subtle ones, like the keyboard/guitar line filched from Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me.”) And despite generally singing as a carbon of himself, Bowie still manages some striking moments—the final runs of “dreamers” have some blood in them. I tried, but I can’t see this as anything other than a sad failure. It’s the sort of music that one would expect from an art rock singer post-fifty: a piece that relies on its audience’s sunnier memories and indulgences to make up for that fact that, to quote James Brown, Bowie’s talking loud and saying nothing.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. There was a slightly different and slightly longer (just an extended outro) mix used on the Omikron game and later included on the 2004 ‘Hours‘ reissue.

Top: Igor Mukhin, “Paris, 1999.”


If I’m Dreaming My Life

December 31, 2013

rushmore

If I’m Dreaming My Life.
If I’m Dreaming My Life (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
If I’m Dreaming My Life (only live performance, 1999).

“If I’m Dreaming My Life” wasn’t just the longest track on ‘Hours’: it was one of the longest studio recordings that Bowie made in his life. Its contemporaries (length-wise) were epics and scene-changers: “Station to Station,” “Width of a Circle,” “Cygnet Committee,” “The Motel,” “Memory of a Free Festival,” the upcoming “Bring Me the Disco King.” If Bowie songs were comic books, these would be the Jack Kirbys. So when considered in this grand company, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” comes off as aridly grandiose.

On ‘Hours,’ though, its odd structure (four verses broken up by guitar solos, the second and last verses given tagged-on refrains, and a three-minute bloodletting of a coda) and its occasionally disconcerting chord progressions* gave it a presence, if a blank one, on the album: it’s an empty quadrant of the map. “Dreaming My Life” seems half-finished at times—Bowie sings emotive “ooohhhs” in lieu of words; the second guitar solo appears to have started as a parody of “Under the Bridge” and hardly developed further. Nothing pans out; the timing’s off. Lights fade. A father “steps aside/at the wrong time:” a bungled bit of wedding stagecraft—a father giving the bride away too soon—or the bitter thought of an estranged husband: he shouldn’t have given her away at all? Or the line “was it air she breathed?”: it’s a man seeming to fancy, like four hundred songwriters before him, that his lover seems scarcely human. Then he concludes the line with another “at the wrong time.” She wasn’t as much perfect as poisoned.

Though demoed and partially tracked in Bermuda, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” was completely remade once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels returned to New York for overdub and mixing sessions. Former Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett was recruited to play rhythm guitar; he’s echoed, in places, by a stabbing keyboard line. Mark Plati and Mike Levesque, perhaps energized by playing “live” on the backing track instead of cutting their typical overdubs, provide one of the more supple foundations on the album. Plati’s bass is the lead melodic voice of the intro, while his roaming fills in the coda are a counter-melody to Bowie’s static refrain; Levesque, charged with flooring life into the song in the refrain verses, serves as a gravity well (for all its faults, ‘Hours’ has some of Bowie’s more dynamic-sounding drum tracks).

The song’s bid for “greatness,” or at least to hold its head up among the likes of “Station to Station,” is Bowie’s performance in the coda. It’s a simple conceit: he tries to complete a single phrase yet hardly seems able to make the effort (often he’ll just get out a “dreaming my….” before stumbling back to the start); it’s a man reduced to his voice. Beginning with keyboards masked as a horn/wind quartet (in the song’s few live performances, this role was assumed by Mike Garson’s “church” organ chords), the coda gains fresh dimensions whenever Bowie manages to finish the phrase: a distorted, chiming guitar; a choir of secondary Bowies; the melodic generosity of Plati’s bass. If it’s a triumph, it’s a barren one. Compared to the imaginative density of a “Station” or “Width of a Circle,” “Dreaming My Life” seems like an abandoned outpost of some crumbling empire.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Performed on VH1 Storytellers and once live, at Libro Music Hall, Vienna, 17 October 1999.

* The verses are basically in G minor, though a motivic chord sequence—found in the intro, refrain tags and coda—is Gm-Eb-C-F-D, suggesting a move to the parallel major. There’s a quintessential odd Bowie progression in the first round of the coda, where a C-sharp major chord crops up where the ear expects (by now) C major (the first “dreaming my…”).

Top: Rushmore (Anderson, 1998).


Something In the Air

December 16, 2013

99riotponcho

Something In the Air.
Something In the Air (Omikron sequence).
Something In the Air (Jools Holland, 1999).
Something In the Air (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Something In the Air (Musique Plus, 1999).
Something In the Air (live, 1999).
Something In the Air (American Psycho remix, 2000).

I haven’t given that up, but it’s a dream; a dream that can come true. It came true once and it can come true again…And all the time I wander round this plot of land, and I still keep the dream…We all move on, all of us. You, you should have taken your chances, made the most of it—always make the most of it, never let go, it might be the only one, ever…I’m in another city. And it’s wonderful. It might be the last. It might be the only one. Any road, I’m not letting go. Make the most of it. I’m not letting go, not ever.

Ray Gosling, Sum Total, 1962.

I don’t think people take much time to look back these days. They don’t look back anywhere near as much as we used to, as I used to. History has receded into the distance, and so has the future.

Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Ray Gosling died last month, a lifetime after he wrote an autobiography at age 22, Sum Total. As the title said, it was a short life tallied up, biography as a few jottings on a map. The moves and wanderings of the Me towards some point of definition, some lines of discipline. Gosling would spend his life chronicling movements, making films and radio documentaries, a life that he foreshadowed in the jittery staccato rhythms of his prose. The England I love is an England of constant change.

And in 1956 and 1957, in lorry driver caffs and in shabby pubs in shabby corners of towns, he felt a new change coming on. When he saw Rock Around the Clock in a Northampton cinema, when he heard the first Elvis singles at a “Yank pub” on its great German-made jukebox, it was the start of something. Everyone felt this—the start of the teenage thing. It was like the start of a revolution; coming in with the big noise right at the beginning of the whole thing.

It was a revolution that worked, he wrote. Pop, for lack of a better word, offered a new way of living that worked–primary passions, primary colours. The idea that the world could be new again, or at least that you could be; that the new was something actual, something real, something coming, unexpected. That tradition held no power over you anymore. That you weren’t fated to be your parents; you weren’t a serf. I don’t want to be ground down, Gosling wrote in 1962. Don’t drag me down. And when the bastards get their hands on you, you’ve got to fight them.

gos

Bowie was a student at Bromley Tech when Sum Total came out. Seven years later, when Bowie was running an Arts Lab in Beckenham whose aim was to “turn on” kids and convert their parents, a #1 hit of that summer was Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In the Air,” a fragile pop record that called for mass insurrection—block up the streets and houses, hand out the arms and ammo (“we’re going to blast our way through here!“)—with a Goon Show arrangement: its brass band and “Lonely Surfer” horns, its temporary cease-fire for a barrelhouse piano solo. (It was a Pete Townshend solo record in all but name: he assembled the band from his ex-chauffeur (John “Speedy” Keen); a post office engineer and Dixieland pianist whom Townshend had idolized since art school (Andy “Thunderclap” Newman) and a 15-year old guitarist, Jimmy McCulloch.)

As the revolution that Gosling had seen in its cradle seemed about to push over—a dusty world swept away for a clean one—there was a fatal lack of nerve. Or perhaps those doing the pushing woke up in time. “Something In the Air” captures the feeling of imminence that suffused the late Sixties, as Dave Marsh once wrote, but it also knows that nothing will ever arrive. “You know it’s right,” Keen sang, sounding like he couldn’t convince himself anymore, that he was more desperate to believe again than he was in the rightness of the cause. Time was tight. Pretty soon you’d have to start rationing it. “We have got to get it together…now,” a line echoed by Mick Jagger on stage at Altamont that December: “let’s get it together, people. Who’s fighting, and what for?” A girl in the crowd yelled back: “Everybody!”

the-limey

Bowie said of his “Something In the Air,” recorded three decades after the year of the Arts Lab and Major Tom, of Thunderclap Newman and Altamont, that “there’s a terrible conflict there…it’s probably the most tragic song on the album.” The song autopsied a relationship. A man tells a woman that he wants to love her but he doesn’t know how to do it anymore. He’d worshiped his life with her; now he’s an unbeliever. Bowie summarized the man’s plight to Gil Kaufman: “‘I can’t believe I’m asking you to go, you, my entire life. I imbued you with so many future inspirations.’ It’s terrible.”

The lyric, while clunky in places, was cold and precise about life in a dead marriage: We smile too fast/then can’t think of a thing to say. Mark Plati’s bassline, twinned with a synthesizer, paces the couple through their last days as one, ticking away the cold seconds and minutes. In a 1999 interview, Bowie said the future now seemed far away to him, that the world had a “present sensibility now.” The couple in “Something In the Air” live in this airless present tense, with no hope of movement. The song’s chord progressions are sets of arguing couples: a C minor moves to a C minor ninth and back, a D minor to an F major and back, an F#, reduced to an F major, sharpens again. Scraps of melody from “The Motel,” another Bowie purgatory, turn up in the pre-chorus.

You could stay, if you’d like, with this faceless couple, with Bowie playing his hand at being a “faux novelist,” in his words. A Bowie take on John Updike: middle-aged people having middle-aged crises. But there’s all this other information in the song: what to do with it? How its title references a long-failed revolution (“Something In the Air” wound up used for an ad in the late 2000s, the “revolution” now a faster mobile service). How Reeves Gabrels’ guitar calls up another languid ghost of 1969, Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” How Bowie sings the opening line, “your coat and hat are gone,” so that it sounds like “you’re cold and had a gun.” How buried in the verses is the jabbing guitar riff of “Straight to Hell” (“we can’t avoid the Clash,” Bowie regrets in the second verse), a song by another band of failed would-be pop revolutionaries.

tn

Or how its coda references Annette Peacock’s “I’m the One.” Back in his Beckenham days, Bowie had loved Peacock’s music; he’d had her signed by MainMan, he’d wanted her to to support him on the “Aladdin Sane” tour. She spent two decades making brilliant, uncompromising records and supporting radical movements. But even she, by 1989, was done with any hope of societal change: I used to be extremely optimistic. Now I’m more realistic about man’s ability to transcend his basic nature, or his basic conditioning,” Peacock said. “Unless people start becoming active, in terms of doing what they can actually do in their own sphere of activity (within their family, socially, within their circle of friends, whatever), yeah, there is no hope.

A failed marriage, a failed revolution, a failed world: they nest within each other. Ray Gosling’s revolution, the shiny liberating promise of Mod and Pop, was supposed to be fun. When the promise reached Thunderclap Newman, when it was caught up with the barricades and letter bombs, it was already too far gone, too weighed down by the muck of history. It was already a beautiful failure. But what did Bowie have to mourn? He’d never been much of a hippie and the counterculture’s collapse had been the best thing for his career: his public image in the Seventies was of the man who came after everything went south.

Perhaps having invested so much in the future, having been the future’s champion, or at least its logo, for so long, he was tired of it. The future hadn’t been worth it, after all. Let me go. Let me go back into history, let someone else for once offer some alternatives. His “Something In the Air” is a goodbye to failure dressed as a goodbye to a dead marriage; it’s a goodbye to the future and all its oppressive what-could-bes. Danced with you too long, Bowie sings. Nothing left to save. Let’s take what we can.

Bowie sings the song, especially its latter half, in a scraping, brooding performance. He seems to be singing under the melody that he wrote; he distorts his voice on some lines via a ring modulator, making him sound like a radio signal cutting out. He sounds deflated, mopey, spent: he’s the sad Pierrot again. It’s a happily married man mourning a fictional lifeless marriage, it’s a reflection on a lost revolution by someone who kept far away from the barricades: fittingly it’s one of the songs his band of video-game rebels performs in Omikron. It’s a song carved out of old dreamers’ songs (recall how much Bowie uses “dreamers” as a motif on this record) but it has no dreams in it. Goodbye 20th Century.

Recorded April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NY. A Mark Plati remix appeared on the American Psycho soundtrack. Performed live only twice, in 1999.

Top: “Go Jake,” “Riot Police with Ponchos,” Seattle (during the WTO protests), 30 November 1999; Gosling’s Sum Total; Terence Stamp, The Limey (Soderbergh, 1999).


Brilliant Adventure

November 26, 2013

all the way to memphis

Brilliant Adventure.

‘Brill’ is a luverly instrumental, again with koto, that Reeves and I did in the front room in Bermuda,” Bowie recalled in a web chat. Considered as incidental music for an Omikron game sequence, “Brilliant Adventure” wound up sequenced on ‘Hours’ as an ampersand between sturm (“New Angels of Promise“) and drang (“The Dreamers”).

As with other ‘Hours’ tracks, “Brilliant Adventure” is echo-music, here of “Moss Garden,” Bowie’s koto piece on “Heroes” (which itself echoed Edgar Froese’s “Epsilon in Malaysian Pale,” as commenter Gnomemansland noted). “Moss Garden” had ambition (an attempt, successful or not, to interweave “Western” and “Eastern” soundscapes) and fearlessness: it was the work of a man seemingly intent on becoming an inspired amateur again, plucking the strings of an instrument he could scarcely play. The piece kept opening up as it went on, disclosing new perspectives as it wandered.

By comparison, “Brilliant Adventure” is a tiny ship corked in a tiny bottle. It begins with an eight-bar sequence: over a bed of synthetic chimes and a (soon-diminishing) repeating bass note, its only melody is a descending five-note koto and synthesizer “flute” line that, with a chord change, diminishes to solitary koto. First seeming to wane, the koto rallies to tidily close with a four-note rising figure, ending back on the opening note. The synth flute, freed from the shackles of the top melody, indulges a few notes and then quietly seizes control of the piece, whose tempo suddenly slows to a crawl.

At 42 seconds, the track ends; it’s reborn a moment later. The entire sequence repeats, with barely any variation. Again, there’s an ending; again, a stubborn resurrection. This rebirth proves too much: midway through the first eight-bar sequence, the track finally, gracefully expires. Life, as it turns out, isn’t quite worth the effort after a few rounds.

Recorded late 1998, Bowie’s house, Bermuda?; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda? with overdubs at Chung King Studios and Looking Glass Studios, New York.

Top: “Zerokra,” “Memphis, 1999.”


The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

November 18, 2013

99eminbed

The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Stigmata mix)).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TOTP, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Late Show with David Letterman, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, NetAid, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Musique Plus, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TVE 2, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, 1999).

Then there’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” That’s not a song, that’s a CV.

Ha ha! That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it?

Bowie, Q interview, October 1999.

Rock as put-down or stand-up, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” began as a guitar riff that Reeves Gabrels cut in 20 minutes in February 1999, then earmarked the developing track for his solo album. In May, during the ‘Hours’ sessions in Bermuda, Bowie came up with a vocal; soon afterward in New York, Mark Plati added what he called a “boneheaded” bassline. Soon enough Bowie claimed the song, considering it a likely single, a good fit for a section of the Omikron video game “where they want[ed] something more rambunctious” and a potentially hot live piece.

He could have called it something like “The Dirty Things Are In Your Face” and let the track sink or swim by its own merits. Instead he impishly made it a reference/homage to (take your pick) the Stooges’ “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” the band the Pretty Things, the Bo Diddley song which named said band, the two Pretty Things songs that Bowie covered on Pin Ups, Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” and his own.

Upon the album’s release, Bowie kept throwing out scenarios: it was like he was playing a game of charades with his song. In interviews (and on stage at the Roseland in 2000) he called the song a take-off (or “put-down”) of the early glam era. And talking to Chris Roberts for an Uncut feature, Bowie said he’d been inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” from Vile Bodies, itself the impetus of “Aladdin Sane.” “I think their day is numbered,” Bowie said of Waugh’s lovelies. “So I thought, well, let’s close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y’know, there’s not much room for that now. It’s a very serious little world.” So “Pretty Things” was a coda for the pre-millennial blues of Outside: a world, hardening and shrinking, that has no space left for the glamsters and assorted fops who’d made the 20th Century remotely tolerable.

The interpretation Bowie offered that struck closest to home, though, was that “Pretty Things” was a comedy song: rock ‘n’ roll as a creaky burlesque. It was a dig at his current status and what had become of a once-“revolutionary” music at the end of the century. Picking through his career in a SPIN interview at the time, Bowie said “I wasn’t sure if I was doing songs or stand-up. Not that I minded. There’s a British thing where rock singers and comedians are envious of each other’s careers.” (True, that: how many rockers wished they were as cool as Peter Cook?).

Bowie complained to Addicted to Noise‘s Gil Kaufman that reviewers had bungled his favorite pun in the song, writing that he was moaning “life’s a bitch and then you die” when he actually was singing “life’s a bit and sometimes you die.” It’s stand-up! I wrote a song about stand-up! he snapped. You can go further on this line: what’s a stand-up routine but a man standing center-stage, trying to convert an indifferent, even hostile crowd of strangers to his side? It was a reminder that Bowie’s greatest achievement of the Nineties wasn’t the would-be concept albums or the hip collaborations. He had remade himself into a formidable live performer, and without using the crutch of nostalgia. “Pretty Things” may have been a spoof, but the few times he played it on stage in 1999 and 2000 it had a pushy, boisterous life in it.

pt

What would have furthered the sense of “Pretty Things” being a dark comic send-up is if Bowie hadn’t scrapped its Dom & Nic-helmed video, shot in September 1999. Bowie hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design four puppets (allegedly for £28,000): the dress-wearing neo-Pre-Raphaelite of Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and the Scary Monsters Pierrot (the latter two just turned up in the “Love Is Lost” video). In the video, the “current” Bowie was stalked and battered by the puppets of his past lives. In an on-line chat in October 2000, Bowie said he killed the video because “the puppets wound up looking like puppets” and thus failed to achieve the intended “Eastern European” vibe that Dom and Nic rather tediously had wanted. Admitting that parts of the video were “downright funny,” Bowie said he expected the video to leak: so far, it hasn’t.

Then there’s the song itself, a rock ‘n’ roll dunce-show where everything’s kept at meathead level: the barely-there C major progression that nods out on an F major chord for the entire verse and pre-chorus (the only spice is an A-flat chord swapped in from the parallel minor in the chorus (“don’t know why,” “just can’t tell”)); Gabrels’ lead riff is essentially a bend and release of a single string, tarted up with various artificial harmonics, while his thudding verse power chords are panto heavy metal—it’s like a shiver of sharks traveling in formation. His two solos are confined to corners of the mix, scribbles in the margins. Plati described his bassline as being “low and ugly and simple—and perfect” (“it’s harder to do than you think—it’s always easier to play loads of things,” he told David Buckley.) Only Mike Leveseque, under the influence of a Keith Moon biography he’d read recently, isn’t playing in quotations. His drumming, agitated with tambourine in the choruses and by cowbell during Gabrels’ breaks, keeps the track honest, punishing each beat. When he sneaks in the occasional fill, it’s like getting a punch in the ribs.

As a studio track, “Pretty Things” goes on far too long (the single edit mercifully crops a bridge repeat) and its mix grows progressively cluttered and wearying on the ear, especially once Bowie starts double-tracking his lead vocal with zombified, distorted voices. There are some subtle puns and occasional wit in the lyric (the singer’s looking for a dance partner on a wild Sunday night) but there’s also some portentous hooey (“I am a dragon, I am the sky…what is eternal, what is damned“). Back in his glam years, Bowie had said he made “plastic” rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, but his bands had been too alive, too irreconcilable, to merit the label. Here, making a hard rock preset track for video games and horror movies, he made as good on the claim as he ever would.

Recorded February 1999, London; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass and Chung King Studios. A different “Pretty Things” (essentially the same track given a dreadful, murky mix, with an occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop for variety) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though perversely another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours’); the Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the “Hours” “Pretty Things” was issued as the album’s lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. The live NYC version linked above (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) was included on the “Seven” single. (Bless the Illustrated DB Discography for making sense of this one.)

Top: Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998-1999; “Pretty Things” US promo CD.


New Angels of Promise

November 7, 2013

99ricecake

New Angels of Promise.
New Angels of Promise (Omikron intro sequence).
New Angels of Promise (full Omikron version).

To the Angel of Approved Estimates,
to the Angels of Promise Across the Entire
Spectrum. To the Surplus Angels of Acquisition,
I cannot hear the new instructions,
let alone obey them.

Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love, 1998.

“New Angels of Promise,” used to score the opening credits of the Omikron: the Nomad Soul video game, has a reservoir of memory to give it depth: it’s a direct descendent of, and answer to, “Sons of the Silent Age” and “Look Back in Anger.” As with several ‘Hours’ tracks, Bowie seems to be presuming a familiar audience here. The drive to convert new listeners, or to aggravate old ones, is no longer a factor: this is Bowie making a “Bowie song” intended for the faithful. It’s a song so riddled through with the past that it’s barely coherent as its own piece.

“Sons” gave “New Angels” melodies—Bowie used some of the same phrasings (“I am a blind man, she is my eyes” is almost note-for-note “Sam Therapy and King Dice“)—and structure. Both songs have a snaky instrumental opening; an eight-line verse, where Bowie’s almost conversational voice alternates with a guitar/keyboard establishing the chords; a sudden modulation to a harmonized chorus. “New Angels” sits within the traces of “Sons”: it’s as if the 1999 song inhabits the same radio frequency at a different point in time.

And lyrically, “New Angels” is a sequel of “Look Back in Anger.” In the latter, Bowie had encountered a bored, bureaucratic angel who’d indifferently summoned him: the world could be ending, or at least the singer’s part in it, but hey, there’s no hurry. This was an “angel of promise,” a vague concept in Christian theology, essentially an angel who comes in advance of some covenant with God being enacted. Take, for instance, the angels who heralded, to their respective parents, the births of John the Baptist and Christ. As the centuries went on, and particularly once America got going, the angel of promise was often domesticated, reduced to something like a guardian angel, a soul’s personal advocate or a genial harbinger of prosperity.

But the angels of promise aren’t necessarily bringing good news: any memos from the top office should fill we temporary employees with foreboding. Their growing rarity also indicated a spiritually diminished time: as per a late 19th Century sermon by George Davis Herron, these angels are actually found all over time and space, just unseen: “the angels of promise are always on the wing. God is always speaking, but man does not hear.”

So Bowie sets his new angels (God having rebranded his angels like a box of cereal) as a pair of cold, despairing passersby, lost in a crowd: one’s blind, the other serves as his eyes. In the last verse he calls them, in a wonderful phrase, “tabular lovers.” An obvious play on his earlier “fabulous lovers,” it conveys an image of the angels being immovable objects, like two pillars (or the stone and wax Bewlay Brothers), as well as being two lines of data, rows of binary code. They haunt the song, but they’re motionless figures; if they’ve made a judgment, it’s happened already and they’re just sticking around to see how it plays out.

Given this dense interweaving of Bowie memory and favorite symbolism, the music seems almost secondary. Its arrangement and rhythms are uninspired, the repetition of an entire verse is overkill, the odd synthesizer squeaks (“hey, remember I made Earthling?”) are just clutter, its production is oddly murky and thin in places. Sterling Campbell sounds like he’s playing through a wall; Reeves Gabrels’ rhythm guitar in the chorus is parked so far back in the mix it’s as if it’s bleeding through from an earlier take. (To be fair, the Omikron mix is much livelier: it’s far and away the best version.) The verse chords are essentially those of “Survive”: a tonic and flatted VII chord gravitating off each other, while the chorus’ shift to F# minor is a dogged advance through the key, like someone climbing a hill only to fall back to the ground.*

Still there are some pleasures to be found: take the intricacies of Bowie’s backing vocals in the verses, like the descending “sooo-far” that collides with the start of a phrase, and it’s good for a game of spot-the-reference. Is the descending “oh-oh-oh-oh” hook in the verse from Elvis Costello’s “Blue Chair”? Is its Mellotron intro a tweak of Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto”? It’s as if the music is enacting the spiritually-barren, memory-clotted world of the lyric. Its parts are greater than its sum.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studios, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios. Released on ‘Hours’; the Omikron version was later included on a 2004 reissue (Bowie flew in “suspicious minds” to replace “Omikron” to start the ‘Hours’ version’s chorus. It was apparently a last-minute call, as the lyric sheet still has “Omikron”). Never performed live.

* (F#m/G/G#/A/F#m, or i-IIb-II-III-i—though you could make the case the intro/chorus is still in the verse’s A major (it would be vi-VIIb-VII-I-vi in that case).

Top: “Corey,” “New Year Rice Cake, January 1999.”


Survive

November 1, 2013

Anloo wheat field

Survive.
Survive (Omikron sequence).
Survive (video).
Survive (instrumental).
Survive (Marius DeVries UK single mix).
Survive (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, rehearsal, 1999). (& another rehearsal.)
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, 1999).
Survive (TFI Friday, 1999).
Survive (live, Net Aid, 1999).
Survive (Cosas Que Importan, 1999).
Survive (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999.)
Survive (live, 1999, later on single).
Survive (Musique Plus, 1999).
Survive (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Survive (live, 1999).
Survive (Quelli Che Il Calcio,’ 1999).
Survive (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Survive (TVE Spain, 1999).
Survive (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Survive (live, 2002).

The End

We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really was every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.

Bowie, interview by Ken Scrudato, SOMA, July 2003.

For two years after the release of 1. Outside, Bowie kept promising its sequel albums would appear by the end of the millennium, in conjunction with a theatrical production commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, to be staged in Vienna in 1999 or 2000. There also would be a CD-ROM piece of the Outside puzzle, optimistically scheduled for 1996.

Interviewed by Ray Gun at the end of that year, Bowie said 2. Contamination (“hopefully that should be out by spring ’97“) would have “some bearing on the first one, but it’s completely different. It goes backwards and forwards between Indonesian pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and today…it’s really becoming a peculiar piece of work.” There were at least 25 characters in the piece now: whether these included the likes of Nathan Adler and Ramona Stone was unclear, possibly even to its composer.

Life intervened. Brian Eno sold his house in Britain and relocated his family to St. Petersburg1, while Bowie spent much of 1997 touring Earthling. The more unfeasible the Outside project seemed, the grander Bowie’s plans for it became.

In an April 1997 interview on the Mr. Showbiz website, Bowie said he and Eno had “formulated the storyline and decided to do it ourselves with no other musicians and to not meet while we’re making it…we’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am.” Contamination’s Internet arm was carrying much of the dramatic weight by now (“we’d like to bump up all kinds of stuff on the Internet, so you get lots of photographic references…it’s kind of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not premise.”) While the 17th Century pirates were still in the mix, the “narrative” now also included diseases (“Ebola, AIDS, that new tuberculosis“), hence the title. Trent Reznor and Goldie were rumored to have been roped into it.

And even when the century was done and nothing had come about, Bowie wouldn’t let Outside go. In a web-chat in late 1999, he said he and Eno had recorded “over 24 hours of material. Problem is finding the time to sift through.” In February 2000, he told BowieNet users that, yes, finally, this would be the year he “pieced together” Contamination. Instead he re-recorded some of his old Sixties songs.

thegrad

So in the end there was nothing: no CD-ROMs, no websites, no Robert Wilson-produced operas, no new Nathan Adler diaries, no new albums. Instead Bowie had spent the last years of the 20th Century trying his hand at seemingly everything else but Outside sequels: acting in films, hosting The Hunger, launching BowieNet, agreeing to BowieBanc, planning a Ziggy Stardust film/website/play, scoring the videogame Omikron: the Nomad Soul (see the past month’s entries).

No more Outside chapters may have been a blessing. 2. Contamination and 3. Afrikaans (a rumored but never confirmed title, likely a fan’s doing) could’ve been Bowie’s version of the Matrix sequels: more clues! more characters! more time-hopping! And smothering Outside‘s atmosphere in sub-Neal Stephenson exposition and garrulous mythology. When some fans distributed hoax sequences of 2. Contamination (“Ebola Jazz,” “Segue: The Mad Ramblings of Long Beard”) and even fake Nathan Adler diaries it was as inspired an end to the project as any Bowie could have offered.

Still, the slow collapse of the Outside trilogy left a hole in his ambitions. It’s arguable his frenetic activity in 1998-1999 was in part him looking for something, anything to replace his grand millennial folly. But the album he released in the waning months of the 20th Century was something far different from his and Eno’s projects. Its title could have been Inside.

hrs

Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months and we might just record all these songs to see what will come out of it…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.

Bowie, Rock & Folk interview, 1998.

If ‘Hours’2 has a counterpart in the Bowie canon, it’s Diamond Dogs: both albums are salvage jobs, their tracks refugees from a set of other, mainly stillborn projects, assembled higgledy-piggledy yet somehow managing to have a unified tone.

‘Hours’ had a few tributaries. One was the aforementioned Outside sequels. If Bowie really had recorded a day’s worth of music with Eno for 2. Contamination, it’s possible that something from it—a chord sequence, a stray lyric or a top melody—wound up on ‘Hours.’3 David Buckley, who interviewed Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson in 1998-1999 for his biography, recalled in 2011 that both had told him there was still a lot of material recorded that had never been used (whether this was the Leon suites from 1994 or newer Contamination tracks is unclear).

Then there was Reeves Gabrels’ upcoming solo album. Gabrels had taken one for the team in 1995 by promoting Outside instead of his own debut solo LP, The Sacred Squall of Now. The plan was for Gabrels to finally have a big-ticket release, with an LP of songs co-composed with Bowie. He and Bowie, working in Bowie’s house in Bermuda in late 1998, wrote what Bowie estimated variously as anywhere from 30 or 100 songs, some of which were intended for Gabrels, including “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” “We All Go Through” and “Survive.”

Finally there was Omikron. Bowie and Gabrels also were writing pieces that had to serve two masters: the songs had to work as incidental music for a game sequence as well as on a Bowie or Gabrels album. The songs needed less abrasive guitar, more “ambient” synthesizer and steady basslines; they needed to be structurally loose, so that pieces (a bridge or a chorus, say) could repeat over and over again if a player got stuck on a particular screen.

surv

By now, Gabrels was becoming creatively frustrated. He felt there should have been a follow-up to Earthling, cut in early 1998, to be the Aladdin Sane to Earthling‘s Ziggy Stardust: an elaboration and expansion of a sound, honed by months on stage. “The music had evolved, the band was playing great, the window of opportunity was there,” he told Buckley. So all the time that he, Mark Plati and Bowie had spent sifting through live recordings for a rejected live album was wasted: why couldn’t they have gotten Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford into the studio and cut a trio record?

So when he went to Bermuda in autumn 1998, Gabrels hoped for another start, that this could be finally the album he and Bowie had thought of making a decade ago, before Tin Machine had come along. An open collaboration, ranging from electronic music to hard, avant-garde rock, with no record label interests considered. After all, Bowie had a website now: he could just distribute the tracks to his fans should Virgin get cold feet.

Yet Bowie had different aims. Beyond taking the needs of Omikron into consideration, he was in a more traditionalist frame of mind. He’d enjoyed a carnival phase in the mid-Nineties; now he was in a Lenten mood. “There was very little experimentation in the studio,” Bowie said. “A lot of it was just straightforward songwriting. I enjoy that; I still like writing that way.”

This new album would be his severance from his Nineties obscurantist period: to make it obvious, he had the cover of “Hours” play on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with his new, somber curator persona cradling the dying “rave uncle” of Earthling. Both videos for the album would set Bowie in surreal domestic situations, with muted colors and lighting; the actor looking his age for once.

Gabrels conceded. As the album, as it took shape, was becoming somber and introspective, he needed to dampen down the guitars, to be sure that he wasn’t undermining the songs. It’s a small irony that the one album for which Gabrels received full co-composition credit is the one on which he’s essentially muted on guitar. And Bowie in turn wanted his vocals not to sound mannered. “I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs. They’re not difficult.”

hurr

Once he’d assembled enough songs for his own album (and so claiming the lion’s share of them—sorry, Reeves), Bowie began working on a narrative voice. He described this as being a distillation of some of his friends who, at age 50, were regretting their lives. “I’ve watched them flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life,” he told Gil Kaufman. “Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.”

You could call this a bluff, the equivalent of the man who asks a doctor about an embarrassing rash “a friend” has contracted. Sure Bowie was, by all accounts, happily married and would soon be a father again. He was rich, established, world-famous. Not that these conditions will prevent depression and regret from striking. But he was also creatively exhausted. He had fought and fought, for years, to make his music new again, to risk making a fool of himself on stage. Now his latest spectacle had failed due, in part, to his own lack of commitment; perhaps he was left wondering what he even had left to say anymore.

That said, the voice that Bowie used on much of ‘Hours,’ a melancholy sad sack, does seem crafted, even affected. The vocals are restrained, the lyrics are more quotidian, with dull rhymes and shopworn images. Was this in character, or was Bowie papering over, in his interviews, a sharp decline in his own songwriting? Was he charging his generation with his own creative depletion?

I’ll argue that ‘Hours’ is a flawed experiment, a secret parody: it’s Bowie attempting to do a record “proper” for a man of his age and stature. It’s his aging Baby Boomer lament album, his “September Songs” for a generation (the title played on unforgiving time and a common bond: hours/ours). He’d listened to nothing but his old songs before he wrote this album, he claimed, but he’d also obviously listened to his aging peers. Because ‘Hours’ is riddled with ghosts of old songs, with strains of lost singers: he’s mocking them, answering them, humbled by them. It’s one of his hardest albums to grasp, because it can be dull and ordinary and can feel strained: it’s like watching a once-great track runner struggling to run a 5k race. The question, left to each listener, is whether this mood is intentional: if the diminished figure in these songs is a subtle mask or if it’s simply the only voice Bowie could muster.

singl

“Survive” was the first track to be released from the ‘Hours’ sessions. Its title wasn’t promising.

As I wrote in the “Heroes” entry, Greil Marcus around 1975 had noticed the growing popularity of the word “survivor,” in films, on TV chat shows, and especially rock music: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival,” “I Will Survive.” It seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured an unspeakable horror; it became an aging person’s self-deprecating boast. “I will get by…I will survive,” Jerry Garcia had tootled in 1987 (he didn’t, but again, neither will any of us in the long run).

So a song in which a 52-year old man sings about surviving seems emblematic of this rot: a reduction of life to its greyest elements. It could have been a song about his failing digestion. What saves “Survive” is the sour, occasionally defiant sense of regret in it: the singer’s not regretting a path he didn’t take, but simply noting that there are no more paths left for him anymore. In one interview, Bowie said that “there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl—and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! ” So it’s tempting to speculate that the woman in “Survive” came from a retrieved memory of Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s lost love, who he’d used to symbolize everything he’d left behind in the Sixties. But the woman in “Survive” is still abstract to the singer, a place-filler he uses to stand for something else he can’t quite explain: a loss of his own potential.

surv

There are a few Sixties shadows in the track: Mark Plati’s Mellotron, the Beatles playing clubs, “Time Is On My Side,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the guitar hook heard at the fade, of course referencing Bowie’s nicking of it for “Starman” too). But the song “Survive” answers, very obliquely, is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First.

In Drake’s song, a young man sits and thumbs through possible lives: he’s like a boy watching soap bubbles floating in the air. “Could’ve been a sailor, could’ve been a cook.” He could have been reliable, steady; he chose not to be. He’s callous in how much he could hurt the person he’s speaking to. Could’ve been a real live lover, not the half-one that you got. “Could have been your friend,” he sings, attaching as much weight to that word as to his musings about being clocks and books. “A whole long lifetime/could have been the end.” Committing to someone would mean the end of his freedom, closing off all the other avenues that snake out beyond him. Drake wants to remain in the conditional perfect, in a happy state of possibility. He sings with graceful lightness, supported by Paul Harris’ piano, itself eager to break off into yet another line of thought, while Ed Carter’s bass is a squirrelly movement underground.

“Survive” turns up that singer again, finds him at the ebb of his life. No more mornings left for him. But he’s still committed to the what-could-have been, still bluntly denying reality, still wanting his space. “I should’ve kept you,” he mumbles. “I should’ve tried.” The verses seem to run out of breath, slouching into dull rhymes (“I should’ve been a wiser kind of guy“) and weary expiration phrases: “Iiii love you.” The choruses, feinting at a move to A major but winding up stuck back in the verse’s D major, struggle to voice the man’s few hopes. A descending bassline tugs him down to earth.

(Gabrels, who’d written much of the song’s music for his solo album, gets the best part in the play: the lead guitar, representing the noblest piece of the man who’s singing. Gabrels is the only bright color in the song: the little dancing phrase after “I miss you,” the counter-melody in the second chorus, the eight-bar solo that’s like a puff of hope uncorked from a bottle, the descending arpeggios that shadow the man’s growing ambivalence.)

He sees a woman across the floor somewhere, maybe at some class reunion. They could’ve been something once: they both know it, they both may not regret it. You’re the mistake I never made, he sings. She sees through him, as an old fraud, as someone who never settled for life in the hopes of finding something better. And he knows how she sees him, and that she’s right. But I’ll survive your naked eyes, as the song ends. There’s nothing but delusion, never was anything else but it (the song itself is a loop: opening and ending on the same Dadd9 chord, the two choruses bracketed by the two verses)4. The song ends with an older man’s sad defiance, which loses strength each time he says it, until he gives up and lets the song expire in his place.

Recorded April-early May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. It was the first release from ‘Hours,’ issued on a promo giveaway with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. Subsequently on ‘Hours’ and as a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999. Performed on a host of TV and radio shows and played live in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

1: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he moved to Russia because “since London is now the hippest city in the world, I thought I’d get out for a bit…If you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events.”

2: Yeah, the official title of the album is ‘hours…’ I’ll refer to it simply as ‘Hours’ in all further references because the lower-case affectation irritates me and having to put in three ellipses every bloody time I mention the album would be a bother.

3: That said, the most obvious candidate for a Contamination leftover, the instrumental “Brilliant Adventure,” is confirmed by Bowie to have been written in Bermuda and was intended as part of the Omikron soundtrack.

4: Both verse and chorus open shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the chorus just sinks back to D).

Top: Thierry Gregorius, “Anloo wheat field, Holland, 1999”; Bowie receiving honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, May 1999; ‘Hours’ cover photos (Tim Bret Day); still from “Survive” video (Walter Stern); “Survive” CD sleeve.