No Plan

March 23, 2020

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No Plan (Bowie).
No Plan (Bowie, video, 2017).
No Plan (Sophia Anne Caruso, Lazarus, 2015).
No Plan (Caruso, Lazarus cast recording, 2016).

When he dies, his spirit rises a meter. No music, but there’s sound. Nowhere, but Second Avenue just out of sight. The pieces of his soul—memories, loves and hates, dreams, idle ambitions, all his arable and barren selves—hold together but may soon drift apart. There’s no recognizable street plan anymore. North could now be west, Broadway could cross Avenue D. “This is no place,” the spirit says. “But here I am.” It steps aside into the not-quite-yet.

“No Plan” (called “Wistful (This Is Not Quite Yet)” in one Bowie draft of a Blackstar LP sequence) was always intended for Lazarus, Donny McCaslin believed. And Enda Walsh, the play’s co-author, said Bowie had asked him if Walsh had any lyrical ideas for the song. The most “Broadway” of the Blackstar-era pieces, its melody’s intervals are a bit suggestive of the leaps in Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” or “Something’s Coming.”

It’s unknown if Bowie originally had a woman’s voice in mind for the song, but by the time Lazarus was cast in summer 2015, he wanted a young female singer for it. He found her in the then-fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso, who once described “No Plan” as “a new song by David Bowie just for my character.” Bowie sent her a card on Lazarus’ opening night to say how much he appreciated her interpretations of his songs (in an act worthy of great karmic retribution, someone stole the card afterward).

In Lazarus, “No Plan” is one of the spotlight songs for Caruso’s character, Marley, known mostly in the play as The Girl, a not-quite-dead murder victim who becomes the guardian angel of the exiled alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Singing “No Plan” is how she introduces herself, stating the terms of her confinement while Newton pours himself another drink.

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Bowie’s recorded version of “No Plan” predates Lazarus by nearly a year—it was among the earliest tracks that he and the McCaslin Quartet cut in January 2015, in the first batch of the Blackstar sessions.

McCaslin recalled to Mojo of Bowie’s “No Plan” “that there was more tinkering with the instrumentation than we did with the others, and more takes… It’s a bit more like a show tune. In fact the second time we approached it, he sent a new demo. First time was David and guitar. This one had acoustic piano [Henry Hey] and a female singer, and she had a dramatic musical theater approach.” McCaslin was central to Bowie’s arrangement, doing multiple overdubs: “I play a bunch of flutes and some clarinet and low-end tenor sax stuff,” he said. Also key is Mark Guiliana, whose drum pattern is a ribbon of tension in the verses—the Lazarus recording sounds weightless by comparison.

(Given the timing (early 2015), the demo singer couldn’t have been Caruso, who was cast the following summer—presumably it was someone with whom Hey worked. McCaslin also recalled the band remaking “No Plan” in the last Blackstar sessions of March 2015, though Nicholas Pegg has that the released “No Plan” was mostly tracked in the January 2015 sessions, including Bowie’s full vocals. Perhaps there was a March retake that wound up being discarded? Or maybe McCaslin was recalling the flute and sax overdubs he did in that period—Ben Monder’s guitar was recorded then as well.)

Sparse in its harmonic structure—the verses often hold on a B-flat major seventh chord, with a few feints, like a move to F# (“I’m lost” “nowhere now”); the refrains move to E-flat minor, now with shifts to F major (“without a plan” “here I am”)—“No Plan” is also subtly clever in its construction, having a five-bar verse that Bowie later extends. As McCaslin said, “he was playing with form, dropping this unusual five-bar phrase, then next time you come round to it, it’s a seven-bar phrase. And this diminished triad he inverts.”

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Bowie’s “No Plan” first appeared as a bonus track on the Lazarus cast recording, then was issued as the title track of the last “new” Bowie EP, on his birthday in January 2017.

Tom Hingston shot a video, in which that deathless YouTube artifact, the “lyric video,” is eerie and moving. Where the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos depict the fall and death of “David Bowie,” “No Plan” is Bowie beyond the veil, turning up for a few minutes in odd corners of the city, an electrical ghost.

“The words of the song do play a central part, of course, but it’s as much about the surrounding situation and setting,” Hingston told Jenny Brewer in 2017. “There is a theme of disembodiment within the track and this sense of occupying another space, which is not of this time, indeed in places the song itself is out of time. So I wanted to create a situation which felt familiar, yet somehow out of place; a recognisable street setting, with its day-to-day rhythms and an otherworldly scene playing out within it.”

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There’s a heap of Bowie references—Newton Electrical, on Foxgrove Road (where Bowie lived in 1969), with its Man Who Fell to Earth-esque rows of televisions with their blue, blue, electric blue screens. (The actual location is a launderette in Brockley.) The first person drawn to the TV screens looks a bit like Leon Blank, from 1. Outside, and wears red shoes; screens show bluebirds and rockets.

Hingston said he also wanted to honor Lazarus, recalling an interview in which Walsh described his and Bowie’s structural idea for the play as “the notion of a stained glass window and how this could be used as a visual metaphor to tell a series of stories through one central image,” Hingston said in 2017. “I thought that was such a lovely point of reference. For me, the shop window and the screens form a device which allows the story to play out, yet viewed through a somewhat fractured lens.”

It was an inspired way to depict the unreality of the days after Bowie’s death in January 2016, the collective disbelief that he was gone, the common response to gather in groups and play his music. That in mourning there could be a new community. From the perspective of March 2020, that’s something else that’s been taken from us now.

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Bowie starts “No Plan” in what Tony Visconti, referring to how Bowie sang “Where Are We Now?,” described as the “fragile” Bowie voice. A weary-sounding voice without authority, one grappling its way into the melody and then, at once, surging with hidden strengths. It’s among the most beautiful of Bowie’s final vocals. His last phrase—a sinking “not…quite…yet,” each note held for a bar (or two, for the last), with the consonance of the “t”s as endstops—is answered by a McCaslin solo that sounds as if a sleeper is considering facing the day and then drifts off again, in bliss.

As Bowie’s humbled, yearning take on “No Plan” was cut before Caruso’s wide-eyed one, listening to the tracks in their recording order reverses the progression of Toy, where Bowie had remade his earliest songs as an older man, imposing the costs of age upon youth. It’s a different degree of tragedy here—Bowie’s “No Plan” assesses a full life at its end, while Caruso’s mourns one that was barely allowed to begin.

Recorded: (backing tracks, vocals) 7, 10 January 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, retake?) ca. March-April 2015. Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitar?; McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, alto flute, C flute; Ben Monder: guitar; Jason Lindner: keyboards and synthesizers; Tim Lefebvre: bass; Mark Guiliana: drums. Produced: Bowie, Visconti; engineered: Kevin Killen, Visconti.

First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Zara Yaari, “New York, 2015.”


When I Met You

July 26, 2017

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When I Met You (Michael C. Hall and Krystina Alabado, Lazarus perf., 2015).
When I Met You (Hall and Alabado, Lazarus cast recording).
When I Met You (Bowie).

At the end of Lazarus, Thomas Jerome Newton discovers that the teenage girl he’s been talking to throughout the play is actually dead. “Not properly dead,” she notes. She’s the Baby Grace Blue of Lazarus—the girl whose murderer is never apprehended and whose death needs a ritual act to complete. Until then, she’s condemned to wander the earth (or at least Second Avenue) as a ghost. “I’m sorry, Mr. Newton, but it’s not me that’s going to help you get to the stars, but it’s you who’ll help me to die properly.”

You’re my last hope,” Newton replies. “How can I kill that?” Cue the duet “When I Met You,” the play’s penultimate song.

Yet “When I Met You” isn’t sung by Newton (Michael C. Hall) and the Girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), as one might expect, given the narrative—its performers were misidentified as such when an audience recording from Lazarus was bootlegged. Instead it’s Newton and the “First Teenage Girl” (Krystina Alabado), one of a trio of singers/actors who serve as a Greek chorus of sorts (there are a wearying number of “Girls” in this play). When Bowie recorded the song during the Blackstar sessions, he took both parts.

“When I Met You” is a duet between a man and a voice in his broken mind—a dialogue on love, despair, and redemption by someone staring into a cracked mirror. On Bowie’s recording, the vocals are mixed to tumble, the lead voice gaining ground, the chorus vocals mounting a response. On the Lazarus cast recording, the space between Hall and Alabado’s voices is so great that each seems in a different world—their harmonizing is all top and bottom, with no middle.

A slow-paced composition that takes its time getting anywhere (the intro alone is 32 bars), “When I Met You” moves from Newton-sung verses to Newton/ Teenage Girl counterpoint/ harmony refrains to a harsh “bridge” section that’s the tension point of the song, where the home chord of G major is altered, diminished, augmented. It suggests the convulsions of Newton’s perspective, where nothing is solid anymore.

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In ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came,” the singer’s waiting for someone, for something to happen, but we never learn who she’s waiting for, nor what they brought. Agnetha Fältskog crosses off the stations of her day—breakfast, train, work, lunch, train, Chinese food, TV, a Marilyn French novel before bed. She hasn’t been living as much as she’s been maintaining, and the romantic assumption is that she’s about to meet someone who opens up her life. Yet there are hints (in corners of the lyric, in the dark colors of Agnetha’s phrasing) that the “you” of the title is malignant: the murderer at the door, the tumor on the chart, the driver that doesn’t brake in time.

In “When I Met You,” the other has already come, has saved Newton in some way, and now the spell is wearing thin. “You knew just everything,” Newton begins. “And nothing at all.” (Bowie changed it to “but nothing at all” in his recording.) If Newton is Lazarus, the girl in his head has been Christ—she called him from the tomb, opened his eyes, let him speak. He was a zombie, a madman, someone lost in himself; she freed him from his trap.

In its way, it’s a long-delayed response to “Word on a Wing,” Bowie’s prayer for protection and deliverance in a dry season. “A scuzzier version of one of his grand ballads—imagine “Word on a Wing” with three-day growth and hangover,” as Alfred Soto wrote of “When I Met You.” A biographical reading is easy, perhaps too easy: Bowie thanking his wife for saving him, for Coco Schwab for protecting him (in the “Never Let Me Down” line), for his children for letting him escape being “Bowie” for a while, tethering him to earth. “When I met you…the edge had become/ the center of my world….I was off my head/ I was filled with truth/ it was not God’s truth.”

Yet whatever salvation he got from the muse/angel in his head, it’s fading away now. It’s all the same, rescued and rescuer sing to each other. The darkness has crept back, covering everything in sight. In Lazarus, Newton sings the final refrain as he prepares to stab the Girl, which he does as the last notes sound. Death’s release; no knowledge comes.

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Of the Lazarus songs, “When I Met You” was the most difficult to transition into a solo Bowie recording. It had been a duet on stage, and was woven into the play’s narrative (as much as there was one). And when racked against its counterparts, it was the least of the new compositions.

Bowie tackled it during the first Blackstar sessions in January—he was starting out by doing remakes (“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“) and getting down his takes on the Lazarus songs, as if to clear the ground for leaps to come. He took the scissors to “When I Met You,” cutting a line (“the dream of time”) and switching some chorus lines around in later refrains.

For the arrangement, he emailed Donny McCaslin that “the structure of ‘When I Met You’ is sound, but now we need to mess with it so we hear it from another angle. Put in a couple of passages in the corner (in darkness) and throw a small pen-light beam on the rest—like a P.I. scouting a motel room.” (“He’s never saying something like ‘can I have a bass drum on 2 & 4’?” McCaslin recalled. “It’s more these kind of images.“)

The result was what McCaslin, Tim Lefebvre, and other musicians heard as “hearkening back to older Bowie.” Bowie’s “When I Met You” lacks McCaslin’s saxophone, where in Lazarus Henry Hey had scored subtle brass lines for refrains. It runs on skitterings (Jason Lindner’s synthesizers in the intro and vocal breaks), pulses (a jaunty Lefebvre bassline) and jabs (an acoustic guitar (possibly Bowie?) strummed more scrappily than the player on the Lazarus recording), with the “Hawaiian”-sounding lead lines (McCaslin heard “an African highlife thing”) as a dreamy counterpoint to Bowie’s voice in the verses.

In the Lazarus duet, Alabado’s chorus vocal is sharp, insistent, holding on one note, spiking over Hall’s lower, moaning phrases—her final repeats of “when I met—when I met” sound like a distress call. Bowie’s backing vocals, placed further back in the mix, are both more playful and more dramatic—there’s a greater emotional spectrum to them.

And for his lead vocal, Hall, faced with lines like “the peck of a blackened eye,” “the streams of debris” and “now the luminous dark,” unfurls them, lets them roll off, stiffly at times. Bowie takes far more pleasure—there’s a grin in some of his lines, despite their occasionally despairing words. Among the last vocals that he recorded in his life, it shows that he always wrote parts with one actor in mind.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 January 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 5 May 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: No Plan, 8 January 2017. Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus. McCaslin quotes from Mojo, December 2016.

Top: Frederik Ranninger, “Girl Alone in 16:9,” 2015; Hall and Caruso, Lazarus; Mercer Mayer, The Figure In the Shadows.