Wishful Beginnings

February 25, 2013

nyc

Wishful Beginnings.

One of the few Outside songs that Bowie never performed live, “Wishful Beginnings” was also dropped from the album on a few occasions: a late Nineties CD reissue and a vinyl edition. Unlike “Too Dizzy,” whose deletion was an act of self-criticism, the 5:09 “Beginnings” seems likely to have been cut for space reasons. Still, as it’s one of Bowie’s creepiest songs, hinting at the ritual murder of a young girl, it’s also possible that he had qualms about it (that said, it’s been restored to the most recent editions of the record).

Its lyric was allegedly the perspective of an “Artist/Minotaur” figure that Bowie made occasional gestures at explaining. It’s Bowie playing with one of his favorite interview subjects of the period: ritual sacrifice and murder as an art project. Tracing a line from Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” and Andre Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level“) to the scarring and blood-drips of Ron Athey, Marc Quinn (whose Self was a cast of his head filled with eight pints of his blood) and Kiki Smith‘s anatomical art, Bowie said all of it was of a piece, a tradition of modern paganism whose impetus goes “back to the Romans and their drinking the blood and eating the meat of the bull to enable us to go forward into the new era…a kind of appeasement to the gods to allow us to go into the next millennium.”

So the Minotaur figure, which Bowie had depicted in a few paintings for a 1994 theme exhibit in London (“Minotaur Myths and Legends”), was part of this movement, representing a piece of the artist that needed blood and appeasement before it had the strength to create again. A few lines hint that Bowie’s performing the blood ritual on himself (“I’m no longer your golden boy…flames burn my body“), and one reading of “Beginnings” is that it’s Bowie’s fear he was endangering his hard-won, carefully-constructed family man persona by indulging in base, violent fantasies for the sake of making better records.

As a track, “Beginnings” was one of Bowie’s most radical soundscapes, a sprechstimme vocal over a set of loops: a constant 4/4 drum, a two-note “chime,” and a thudding kick drum sample hitting on every other downbeat, bringing with it a satanic cackle and a rattling tambourine loop. At first, the only harmonic material is a synthesizer chord in sync with the kick drum sample, and Bowie’s voice hangs suspended for bars without any sense of grounding: it furthers the feeling that the singer has gone untethered, venturing into madness and estrangement from humanity. (It’s mainly a single-tracked vocal, with occasional echoes mixed right.)

As “Beginnings” goes on, the patterns loosen—the synthesizer plays an occasional melodic fragment, and begins sounding ahead of the downbeat, while the tambourine loop slightly lengthens and shortens. By the midpoint of the track, where Bowie is at his gentlest (“we FLEW on the wings…we will NEVER go DOWN”) and a keyboard offers a trio of tiny melodies, “Beginnings” feels like it could blossom into something human. Instead, the song freezes again. The kick drum sample and synthesizer chords vanish, leaving only a doleful Bowie and his percussion loops. The project has failed. We had such wishful beginnings, but we lived unbearable lives…I’m sorry little girl. And out comes the knife.

Scott Walker is an obvious presence here: “Beginnings” is one of the Outside tracks where Bowie was seemingly attempting to do a pre-cover of Walker’s Tilt, released during the last round of mixing. There are traces of Bowie’s past as well, like Lou Reed’s “Make Up” (cf. Reed’s “you’re a slick little girl” with Bowie’s “you’re a sorry little girl“). Where Reed had warmly detailed the stylish, precise makeup ritual of a transvestite, Bowie dehumanizes the ritual, making the girl simply a body, stripped of humanity, a piece of meat being prepared for the blade. And its key ancestor was Bowie’s own “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” with which “Beginnings” shares a structure (a spoken-sung melody that’s barely connected to any harmonic base) and a lurid, exploitative flavor.

Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studios, London, and the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. Deleted from 1. Outside Version 2 (replaced by the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”), but restored to the 2003 and 2004 reissues (Europe and US, respectively).

Top: Andreas Freund, “New York,” 1995.


The Hearts Filthy Lesson

February 20, 2013

pride

The Hearts Filthy Lesson.
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (video).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Trent Reznor “alt” remix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Rubber Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Simple Test Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (first live performance, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Late Show with David Letterman, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 1997).

Born during the Leon sessions in March 1994, “The Hearts (sic) Filthy Lesson” was systematically dirtied for more than a year before it emerged as Outside‘s debut single. It sold meagerly (UK #35, US #92) and some critics (including this one) have argued that Bowie would’ve had a better shot had he led off with “Strangers When We Meet” or “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.”

But it’s obvious why Bowie chose “Hearts” as his opening salvo. The track packed a punch; it was cold and weird, his boldest shot at re-invention since Tin Machine. It signaled a new Bowie persona, or at least the return of an old one: obscurantist, distant, menacing, clinically obsessed with blood and guts. It was The Man Who Sold the World, minus the folkie trappings; a Wan White Duke.

Bowie worked up some visual counterparts to the track, most notoriously its Samuel Bayer-directed video that implied some grotesque sacrificial ritual underway (minotaurs, decapitations, Pinhead piercings, baptisms, a goth-punk Last Supper).* More interesting was Bowie’s performance of “Hearts” on the Late Show With David Letterman, the day before Outside was released in September 1995. For those who had grown accustomed to the icily charming Bowie of the Eighties and Black Tie White Noise, this new incarnation, clad in black leather and wearing eyeliner, black nail polish and what looked like tinted contact lenses, gave off a hostile, jittery vibe. With an air of bemused contempt, getting lost in his mad pantomime, Bowie contorted himself, moving in exaggerated, jerky gestures; he acted as if the audience didn’t exist, that he was playing to a mirror, then he would suddenly acknowledge the crowd with leers and half-smiles. His band clashed behind him. Mike Garson played a solo like a Teppanyaki chef, while Gail Ann Dorsey (this was the first time most Bowie fans got to see her) was cool charisma.

“Hearts,” whose production had a flavor of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral,* a favorite of Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’, was allegedly from the perspective of Nathan Adler. But its lyric was more a series of warnings that could be assembled in any order (something in our blood…falls upon deaf ears…her hundred miles to hell….I’m already in my grave). Two of the characters mentioned in the lyric, Adler and Ramona, hail from the character segues, while two others, Paddy and Miranda, are just names. The latter have as much dramatic import in the song, if not more. (“Paddy” could be a Beckett-esque nickname for God, a fellow Art Crime detective, or another version of the Minotaur/Artist character that Bowie was developing in other songs).

What was the heart’s filthy lesson? Bowie once said it was knowing the certainty of one’s impending death (the lesson is that the heart will stop one day). But the heart’s also filthy because it’s a blood-sponge. The center of our bodies is a grisly instrument, a ceaselessly throbbing muscle that we pretty up into a shiny red icon used to symbolize our soul, our ability to love, the best of our natures. So there’s a trace of Bowie’s Gnostic leanings in his song’s title phrase—the body’s a prison and we grant nobility to our jailer, making a happy god of our dirty waterworks.

db

The song itself…is made up of juxtapositions and fragments of information. [It] doesn’t have a straightforward coherent message to it. None of the album has any message; it’s really a compression of information, it’s just information: make of it what you will….The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.

Bowie, on “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” promotional film for Outside, 1995.

“Hearts” began as a group improvisation in the Leon sessions (Garson started things off by playing a hook on piano, while Eno’s contribution was to loop a French radio broadcast and blast it every four bars) and it shows in the song’s structure, as “Hearts” can seem like a welded-together collection of pieces. There’s a “verse” where Bowie sings a D-flat minor melody over a G-flat bass pedal point, a “bridge” that reconciles with the bass pedal by moving to G-flat Lydian (“Oh Ramona”), then to G-flat minor (“something in our skies”), and an F-flat Lydian “chorus,” while the song, after a few more permutations, ultimately closes back in G-flat.

Interweaving the various sections are a set of motifs—a Bo Diddley bass hook, a jabbing Garson piano fill that calls back to Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” a guitar riff (Kevin Armstrong, or Reeves Gabrels on his Parker Fly, plays trills down the low E string, punctuating the motion with a quick run of descending notes on the D string.) For stitching between sections there’s an eight-bar antic Garson piano solo, some helpings of the guitar riff and a sudden sigh that triggers the song’s dramatic peak, a G major second bridge (“Paddy will you carry me”).

The devil’s in the details, which were likely Eno’s biggest contributions to the track: the consonant, sibilant backing vocals from the Edwards family**; the dog-whistle-pitched noise (a tuning fork?) that sounds on every other downbeat in the chorus; the mutterings underneath Bowie’s vocals; roiling waves of static; shaken chains; the plaints of a guitar so distorted that it sounds like synthesized strings (around 3:15).

Bowie’s singing is phenomenal and precise throughout the track, from the snarling ease of his opening verse, to the bridge sequence of “OHH Ra-MONa…if there was ON-ly” that Bowie disrupts with “be-TWEEN us,” keeping the stress rhythm but gleefully spoiling his internal rhyme scheme. Or the doomed-sounding “I’m already five years older…already in my grave,” where Bowie seems to intone a mournful organ line against Garson’s agitated piano. Gary Numan called it one of Bowie’s best vocals, saying to David Buckley, “Bowie oversings a lot of the time. He sings harder than he needs to…[“Hearts”] was right back into that not-so-full-on singing.”

That said, Gabrels may have salvaged the song. Bowie had second-guessed himself at some point during the overdubs, writing a completely different lyric based on English landscape painters. “David, that’s nice and all, but it’s kind of destroyed the essence of the song, don’t you think?” Gabrels recalled saying (as per Paul Trynka’s biography). An irritated Bowie told Gabrels to get lost, but he eventually relented and restored the original lyric.

hfl

Bowie’s change of costume on “Hearts” and Outside could come off as juvenile and desperate. Studied alienation, pretentious narration, gasped and muttered vocals, a video hinting at Se7en-esque ritualized torture: to some critics, it seemed like a man chasing a train while trying to catch his breath. But a YouTube comment on the “Hearts” video struck me. It was written by someone who was 15 when “Hearts” came out, who said that “Hearts” was the first Bowie song he ever heard, and it freaked him out.

It’s remarkable that a 48-year-old rock musician, who’d been making records since A Hard Day’s Night came out, could still manage to unnerve teenagers, making himself shabby and weird again. What’s more, there was a hard commitment to the present in Bowie’s latest revision, which he would make clear in his album’s title song: It’s happening Now. Not. Tomorrow. It happens Today.  On Letterman, a slight unease hung in the air after the Bowie performance, when Letterman was gassing on to Paul Shaffer and Doc Severinsen—it’s likely someone during the commercial break cracked, “what the hell was that all about?” But Bowie wasn’t singing for them; he just made them seem irredeemably old and square. Tell the others, as he’d murmured as the song careered to a close, tell the others.

The Outside era, kicked off by “Hearts,” was a last throw of the dice for Bowie, where he tried to become a bothersome cult figure again. Sure, it was calculated: so was Young Americans, and Low, for that matter. And it worked, for some. There’s a little-acknowledged generational gap in Bowie fandom, between those who grew up with him in the “classic” Seventies and early Eighties, and those who first knew him with Outside. For the latter, this cadaverous aging creep, muttering about Ramona and blood and filthy things, was their Ziggy Stardust.

By decade’s end, after two albums and tours, Bowie would fall back, exhausted, into the sway of the past. But in the mid-Nineties, he willed himself to be shameless and there was something marvelously crackpot about it. He wouldn’t get hit singles anymore, but he also was a presence again; an irritant, an embarrassment. He became vaguely disreputable. As Greil Marcus once wrote of Randy Newman: he was back at the margin, scheming. It suited him.

Recorded ca. March 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs at Mountain throughout late 1994, and the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. January-February 1995 (where Armstrong recorded his guitar overdubs). Released on 11 September 1995 (RCA/BMG 74321 30703 2), in a mind-numbing array of versions and mixes (see the Illustrated DB entry for details); the most interesting of the latter was the Reznor-affiliated “Alt Mix.” The US digipak single (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), which did hit #20 on the Modern Rock charts, had “Nothing to Be Desired” as a bonus track, where the UK/Europe/Australia singles had “I Am With Name.” Of course, “Hearts” was used to ominously score the end credits of David Fincher’s Se7en.

Performed regularly from 1995 to 1997. A recording from the Phoenix Festival, 18 July 1996, was included on liveandwell.com, a CD issued exclusively for BowieNet members in 2000, as well as the French-only Limited Edition Track 3 Sampler, while a version from Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden was included on a CD that GQ magazine distributed in its November 1997 issue: Earthling in the City. The closing show of the “Earthling” tour, Buenos Aires on 7 November 1997, was the last time that Bowie ever played the song live.

* Mark Romanek’s video for “Closer,” with its bondage gear, Francis Bacon-inspired slabs of beef, crucified monkeys, decapitated pig’s head, nude human mannequins and general filthiness, was an obvious inspiration for Bayer and Bowie’s video for “Hearts.” (It was a tribute to a tribute, as the heart of “Closer” is a bass drum sample from Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”)

** Bryony, Josey, Ruby and Lola Edwards, who also sang on “I Am With Name.” (I’m assuming they’re related, unless it was a Ramones-type of thing.) To my knowledge, Outside is the only record on which they’ve been credited.

Top: pride goeth before a fall, Se7en (Fincher, 1995); filthy lessons.


A Small Plot of Land

February 14, 2013

ted untitled

A Small Plot of Land.
A Small Plot of Land (alternate version, Basquiat soundtrack).
A Small Plot of Land (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1996).

After having spent so long in the hypothetical never-was (scrapped tapes, character segues, indecipherable prose), it’s a comfort, if a cold one, to finally reach the Outside songs. These were in two blocks: pieces that came out of the Montreux sessions in March 1994, mostly improvised by Bowie and Eno with Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell, and the block recorded in early 1995 at the Hit Factory in New York. The latter featured Gabrels, Garson, old Bowie hands Carlos Alomar and Kevin Armstrong and a new rhythm section of Yossi Fine and Joey Baron.*

The latter songs were generally a catchier and punchier set: the Hit Factory is where “Strangers When We Meet,” “Outside,” “We Prick You,” “No Control” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town” came together. The songs that began in Switzerland (with some exceptions) tended towards the grim, theatrical and rambling. Many of them shared a common port of origin: Bowie’s old obsession Scott Walker (more in “The Motel”).

“A Small Plot of Land”** is certainly Walker-haunted, with its references to “Nite Flights” (“swings through the tunnels”) and Bowie’s condor-swoops on the reoccurring “POOR dunces” suggest Walker’s strangled tenor. (A live version from Utrecht in 1996 sounds like Bowie is trying to win a Walker impersonation contest). But “Small Plot,” a song built on running collisions among its players, is also an example of the sound that Bowie and Eno had wanted from the Leon sessions. The track opens with Garson on piano, doing his typically frenetic wire-dancing, but he’s soon fighting to be heard against Campbell, who keeps constant fours with his bass drum while seemingly trying to throw Garson off with a rocketing snare pattern. For over a minute nothing advances, no verse appears; the song remains trapped in its intro. Campbell’s insurrections harden into a pattern—he’s stuck in a loop while Garson still has a measure of freedom allotted to him. Gabrels keeps upstage, playing a nagging pair of notes, mixed right, that are the twine holding everything together. Erdal Kizilcay’s bass seems to abandon the song after a few bars, as if he walked into a room and didn’t care for the atmosphere.

Bowie said about seventy percent of his lyric was pure computer-generated cut-up, hence lines like “he pushed at the pigmen.” Using a moderated sprechstimme, he worked his set of random words into a group of mourners. From the first note, he established a funereal march pace: a two-note opening phrase (“poor soul,” “prayer can’t,” “poor dunce,” “brains talk”), where Bowie holds the first note while letting the second, lower in pitch, quickly expire; and two or three “spoken” closing phrases, with just a few notes emphasized or raised in pitch (“he never knew what HIT HIM,” “and it HIT HIM so”). This pattern builds to the two final “POOR dunces,” with the last repeat ballooning the structure: a three-bar endurance of “POOOOOOR,” followed by a muttered “dunce.”

On to Gabrels’ solo, which he said took Adrian Belew’s solo on “Red Sails” and Robert Fripp’s on “Teenage Wildlife” as launching points. Aided by Garson pounding the bass octaves of his piano, Gabrels bloodies and dominates the track so much that when Bowie returns to sing another round of “poor souls,” he’s been reduced to a supporting role.

“Small Plot” had an alternate life. Eno arranged another version of the track for the Basquiat soundtrack, where Bowie sang, echoed by a delayed second vocal track, over “long, drifting overlays” of synthesizers, some intended to sound like motors and machines humming. Here Bowie’s dramatic build to the final “POOR SOUL” was scrapped in favor of a humbly-sung, double-tracked set of closing phrases; it’s the churchyard in place of the cathedral. Julian Schnabel, Basquiat‘s director, told Eno he thought it was a better version than the Outside track, and he used it in the film to score the death of Bowie’s Andy Warhol.

“Small Plot” was meant to be long, punishing and hard, and Bowie sequenced it to be unavoidable. On the album, slotted after the one-two punch of the title track and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” it stilled the momentum. On stage in 1995 and 1996, Bowie plopped “Small Plot” dead in the middle of his sets, often prefacing it with a shabby man’s monologue on the poor dunce (“he wasted all his life, he was dumb, he deserved to die and now he’s dead!”) During early performances, he followed a routine where he first sang with his back to the audience, then paced in a tight circle, and during Gabrels’ solo, he walked across the stage pulling on cords, tugging down long, rectangular banners. Some thought it was a mime sequence symbolizing Bowie’s separation and alienation from the audience. Gabrels, in 2000, said it was just something for Bowie to do with himself during the solo, and it helped set the stage for the following number. “[It was] functional theatricality,” he said.

That said, the finest live performance Bowie ever gave of “Small Plot” was more in the Basquiat version’s line. At a private charity performance in New York in September 1995, Bowie sang it accompanied only by Garson, and he loosened the severity of his phrasing, allowing the song to mourn more openly. The climactic “POOR dunce,” sung gorgeously, led into a tolling Garson piano solo that seemed at times to be churning up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (“The last time we worked together before this year was in 1973, and as you can tell, we still haven’t found our way to finding a melody in those years,” Bowie cracked afterward.)

Recorded ca. May 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. late January-March 1995. The Basquiat version may hail from the overdub sessions Eno and Bowie did at London’s Brondesbury Villas Studio in early January (there’s a reference to this version in Eno’s diary of the period). The version of “Small Plot” that Bowie sang accompanied only by Garson was for, in Nick Pegg’s words, “a private charity function at a New York hotel,” held on 18 September 1995. They also performed “My Death” there.

* One way to tell to which block a song belongs is its publishing: if it’s credited to Bowie/Eno/Gabrels/Kizilcay/Garson/Campbell, it’s definitely from the early Leon sessions. That said, most of the earlier songs were possibly reworked and recut and definitely overdubbed during the Hit Factory sessions.

** Bowie found the song’s title in the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (recall that Duncan Jones was getting a philosophy doctorate at the time, although Deleuze and Guattari were catnip for Bowie, who likely got a kick from lines like: a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.) The paragraph Bowie took his title from could have been a manifesto for Outside: This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of land at all times.

Top: Ted Barron, “Untitled,” 1994. (As I’ve written before, Ted is a friend and a fine photographer).


The “Narratives”

February 11, 2013

Dear Diary: today I met a number one packet sniffer

The Diary of Nathan Adler (Bowie performance, fragment, CBC, 1995).
The Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle. (plus annotations!)
“You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece.

As I’ve said before, all this is true. Not that I’ve got anything against fiction—which is easily said, because nobody is writing it any more anyway. Nobody—they’re simply writing nonfiction that never happened.

James McCourt, Time Remaining.

At the end of 1994, Q magazine was preparing its 100th issue, a celebration of itself. Q asked Bowie to contribute, wanting him to keep a diary for 10 days and to send them the entries. As he was recording in Switzerland at the time, Bowie figured that a day-to-day account of his life would be “incredibly boring.” Instead, he asked himself “what would Nathan Adler be doing?” As Q warned its readers, “he’s written a short, strange, story, bits of which may or may not be autobiographical. The computer illustrations/portraits are by him as well.”

The “Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew”* which Bowie reprinted in the CD booklet of Outside, became the “storyline” of Outside, the intersection between its characters and the songs that ingested them. Bowie had come up with names, voices and possible motives, and in the “Diary” he arranged the characters in a narrative. Well, not really. There are a number of ways you can consider the Diary. Here are a few to start:

1) Anti-Mystery.

The difference is that in the traditional detective novel there must be a solution, whereas in ours there is just the principle of investigation. Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is “sense.” There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when “sense” appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, interview by Susha Guppy, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 91.

While some of the Diary comes out of what Bowie had been watching, like Twin Peaks, Romeo Is Bleeding and possibly Wings of Desire (in the latter Peter Falk, essentially playing Columbo on vacation, walks around Berlin talking to fallen angels), there’s also the taste of French “Nouveau Roman” authors like Robbe-Grillet, who used the template of the detective story but withheld things like a plot and a resolution.( Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (1955) is about a crime that may not have occurred: the details change with every chapter.) So Bowie constructed the Diary in this vein: a set of contradictory flashbacks, precise “meaningless” details and vague “critical” ones, the reader forced to play detective, to no avail. It ends on a cliffhanger.

2) Analog Web Page. The Diary is a transcription on paper of what should have been a Web page, where its sentences would have been sewn through with dozens of links. The Diary breathes only through its portals. Confined to paper, it dies.

3) Art-World Snooker.

I favour the clever con artist who remains intact to the committed Fine Artist who ends up with his arms cut off or even worse (in the case of that Austrian blockhead—he would be Austrian, wouldn’t he?—with his dick cut off). I mean this is so romantic, it’s ridiculous…”the artist must suffer for his art.”

Brian Eno, “Internet conversation with David Bowie,” Q, January 1995.

Bowie had joined the board of Modern Painters, was conducting interviews with the likes of Balthus and was collaborating with Damien Hirst (standing on step-ladders and throwing paint at a spinning canvas). In 1995, Bowie had his first solo exhibition, at the Gallery on Cork Street (“New Afro-Pagan and Work, 1975-1995″; we’ll get a bit more into this in a later entry). So the Diary is a vicious little satire of the contemporary art world. Read in chronological order, the Diary lists the ante-raisings of a generation of “body” artists, from the Viennese mutilationist/fakers like Schwarzkogler to Chris Burden getting crucified on a VW Bug to Ron Athey’s “scarification” art. It also includes Hirst’s shark and lamb cadavers and the return to vogue of the death-obsessed fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (the heroin-chic waif look of the mid-Nineties was derived from Bourdin). So Ramona Stone’s alleged “art murder” of Baby Grace is just the next stop on an increasingly desperate line, and one soon outfoxed by reality. (Bowie in 1995: “Murder may be art. If you get away with it. Like, perhaps O.J. Simpson.”)

There are mixed motives here. Bowie was trying to break into a new game, hanging out with the hip new British artists like Hirst and Tracey Emin, and he seemingly wanted to be taken seriously as a painter. But the Diary and his later gleeful contributions to the “Nat Tate” hoax, in which the writer William Boyd created a fake Abstract Expressionist painter who’d supposedly killed himself in 1960, also suggested that Bowie thought the contemporary art world was credulous and ridiculous.

4) “Verbasised” Babel. The Diary is simply Bowie arranging sets of random words spewed out by his automatic cut-up word dispenser program, the “Verbasiser.” One tell is the “11:15 AM” entry, in which appears a raw block of Verbasiser text that includes the repeated words “RA Stone,” “Caucasian,” “saints,” “martyrs,” “tyrannical,” etc. The subsequent entry, “June 15 1977,” is what Bowie conjures out of those words. Note how many words from the Verbasiser stack he uses (e.g., “Caucasian Suicide Temple”) in it. The Diary is a crazed copybook of randomly-generated sentences.

5) Musemapping; Pre-Criticism.

I suppose you can never tell what an artist will do once he’s peaked.

The Diary dates in the “past” (July 1977, October 1994) coincide with periods of high creativity for Bowie. In the summer of ’77, he had been in Berlin, finishing Lust for Life and about to start “Heroes,” while in autumn 1994 he was deep in the distillation process, turning the raw Leon material into Outside. The Diary is an indication that in late ’94, Bowie felt the most inspired that he’d been in well over a decade. But it was also a way for Bowie to craftily frame critical discussion about Outside, directly linking the album to his Berlin period. And it worked: it’s all but impossible to find any review of Outside, past or present, that doesn’t mention the Berlin-era albums (this blog included, natch).

6) Tragedy. The world of Nathan Adler is a cruel, bloody and empty one. Fourteen-year old girls are eviscerated for art; Mark Rothko delicately slashes his wrists; mothers go missing, children are snuffed out. The young pierce and ink themselves, unconsciously following ancient tribal rituals but lacking the religious transformations those rituals had enabled; they merely believe that their bodies are the only sacred thing left to them. There are severed limbs, diamond-studded umbilical cords, webs of intestines, bloodstained tissues hung on wires. The galleries are full of bleeding men and the bisected corpses of cows. There’s no one noble in this world except sad Adler, a last soldier of narrative. He wanders along, serving as a witness and inadvertently as a conscience.

7) Gag Reel. Bowie wrote the Diary in a couple of days as a way to irritate/befuddle Q and his fans. After he released Outside, he never thought about it again. Well, there are a few nights when he will laugh over a bottle of Malbec, recalling how absurd the whole thing was and how wonderful that it’s become the subject of tortured, tedious blog analyses. He sips his wine, then flips open his laptop to write some more one-star reviews of Morrissey albums on Amazon.

bowie meets tricky!

Don’t hide the fragments. They’re all we’ve got left.

Q was a sucker for punishment. A few months after it published the Diary, it asked Bowie to contribute another article. This time, the assignment was for Bowie to interview the musician Tricky. Q possibly envisioned “Paul Weller Meets Noel Gallagher” or “Ray Davies Meets Damon Albarn”: a dues-paid member of an Important Pop Generation bestowing his credentials upon a worthy young aspirant. Instead, Bowie turned in something completely batshit.

“”You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece” is a fiction (were it not for the accompanying photos of the two, you’d never guess Bowie and Tricky had really met) and the sequel to the “Diary of Nathan Adler,” with Bowie casting Tricky as Leon Blank (so Tricky as a character he inspired) and himself as a British Adler.

Opening with an ode to Tricky’s muse, his singer/partner Martina Topley-Bird (You, Martina, sang me down, under the turf”), the piece has “Bowie” looking for “Tricky,” prowling through the “low bars of Bristol,” being told that Tricky’s left for America, although he’d been “spied by the Magpie girl only last Thursday, slipping in and out of shadows down by the quay, drawing black lines on his own posters…the phantom was known to move as a group of one.”

jones and thaws

So Bowie sets off, gumshoe style, on the trail of Tricky Thaws. What follows is a text stuffed full of industrially-mixed metaphors (“the dark wisps of rumor trailed him like two-ropes and now I was reeling him in“), name-drops of other Bowie current faves (“round the corner of the building disappears a guy called Gerald“), an Easter Egg hunt’s worth of Massive Attack and Tricky titles: blue lines, black steel, Karmacoma, Maxinquaye, round the corner. And a few lines which have the flavor of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

But meanwhile the quiet English faces on the front row, in what could have been the glow of shepherds’ fire-baskets, nodded out their fleeting thoughts as they were Overcome. So this is the slow shimmering speed that loaned a few moments of the future to us all?

Bowie eventually finds his man. They climb a 97-story building, chatting as they ascend, occasionally scaring the cleaning ladies. They talk of “the War,” of the “haunting ’90s,” of the perils of being young again (“you’re tweeny-little, just a speck of a spindly-stick…by the time you are a teen, you’re in your renegade chapter”). Then Tricky, whether out of malice or mercy, kicks Bowie in the arm and Bowie falls to his death. His appointed successor has claimed his throne, and it’s a fine thing. This album is over. It was the best of chimes. It was the hearse of chimes. Here come the horse to drag me to bed. Here come the Tricky to fuck up my head.

“Nathan Adler” first appeared in Q 100, January 1995 and became the liner notes of Outside; “You Don’t Wanna Be Painting…” was in Q 109, October 1995.

*I don’t have the issue of Q, just a transcription of the Diary from it, and so to my knowledge very few, if any, alterations were made to the text when it was reprinted in Outside. While some sources have the Diary originally subtitled “The Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew,” a majority have it as “Blue.” Was there originally a joke about Adrian Belew in the title? Anyone who has the issue, please let me know. [edit: and it was Belew after all—see comments.]

Thanks to commenter Sean MacGabhann, who made the Romeo Is Bleeding connection in the previous entry.

Photos: Text in a sea of subtext; oblivious young men; masked marvel bums cigarette from spiv, 1995.


Segues: Nathan Adler

February 6, 2013

addled

Segue: Nathan Adler (1).
Segue: Nathan Adler (2).

What does Nathan Adler want?

I think Nathan Adler would require the world to come back to…certain parameters that he understands. He looks back rather nostalgically to a time when there was a seeming order in things. He’s really rather despondent that things are broken into this fragmented chaotic kind of state. Which of course it always has been. But in his own Apollonian way he sort of created the parameters for his society and how he should be. That’s him. And he’s got to solve this crime…

Bowie, interview by Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.

Edmund Wilson, in 1944, wondered about detective stories: why were they so popular? why were so many of his friends and “respected” literary figures obsessed with them? So being Wilson, he read a stack of books and pronounced a verdict. He read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (“a dim and distant copy of the original [Sherlock Holmes]“), Agatha Christie (“[her] writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seems to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out“), and Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (“a cold underworld brutality…[but] not much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.”)

Wilson sniffed that detective stories were popular because they suited their shabby times, the interwar and war years, when the world “was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility.” In a mystery novel, by contrast, “the murderer is spotted and, relief!, he is not, after all, a person like you and me…[and] the supercilious and omniscient detective…knows exactly where to fit the guilt.”

Bowie’s Nathan Adler comes fifty years later, during another time of vaguely-perceived impending disaster. Speaking in an Englishman’s memory of a hard-boiled gumshoe’s voice, clad in the private eye’s uniform of trench coat, necktie and cigarette pack, Adler is the alleged protagonist and narrator of Outside. In his three segues (two official and one that’s part of “I Am With Name”), you might expect to learn something: background, clues, details on suspects, even a resolution.

You don’t get that. What you get is a stream of unaligned information: names, jargon, settings, incomprehensible actions. As Phil Sandifer wrote about the hip “paranoid” TV shows of the Nineties, especially The X-Files, which devoted years to sifting through layers of conspiracies within conspiracies, “the conspiracy does not provide an answer so much as it provides an interminable narrative stretching towards an answer that never arrives.” So Adler is a private eye who’s a red herring; his presence is a confusion. He’s a lost soldier of order who’s an unwitting element of chaos, and he’s as clueless as you are, if not more so (he may not have heard Baby Grace’s tape, nor is he privy to Ramona and Touchshriek’s thoughts).

This was a revision of Adler’s role. On Leon, Adler is far more present, speaking in each of the three suites. He’s still cryptic but his reoccurring presence acts as an adhesive that binds the bizarre suites together. On Outside, Bowie reduced Adler to cameo appearances. He was playing with the established role of the private eye: the loner who manages to break into a closed circle. Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. The private eye is a walking means to advance a story: he doesn’t know anything, so he asks questions; he pokes around and stumbles upon bodies and secrets; he eventually shades in the plot.

Adler* talks like his predecessors but no one talks to him, no one tells him anything. He’s not even trying to solve a killing but only to determine whether the murder qualified as art (he also works for an overseas employer: he’s a telecommuter). The screen detective he most resembles is Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville: an unflappable fragment of some lost narrative, blankly wandering through a world he can’t understand, still serving as a grounding point for viewers (and listeners, in this case). (Of course, a direct ancestor of Adler was Bowie’s cameo role as the lost FBI agent “Philip Jefferies” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.)

The two Adler segues hail from different stages of the recording of Outside. The first is an edit of two segues from the “I Am With Name” suite and given a new backing track dominated by a jittery Reeves Gabrels guitar line (it’s possible it’s Carlos Alomar). The second, which is barely half a minute long, was recorded during a round of overdubs with Eno in early 1995 (it’s credited only to Bowie and Eno, unlike the other segues), and has Bowie muttering and moaning over a middleweight drum ‘n’ bass loop, an early sign of where Bowie would go next.

However, Adler also left a diary behind…

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs (and in the second segue’s case, the complete recording) at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

* There’s plenty of speculation where Bowie took the name from. Candidates include the psychologist Alfred Adler, the 19th Century British rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, the 18th Century Kabbalist Nathan Hakohen Adler (all dignified agents of order), and, Maj’s astute suggestion, Irene Adler. The name could also just be a joke about being “addled.”

Top: Gumshoe Jones.


Segue: Algeria Touchshriek

February 4, 2013

glowers for algeria

Segue: Algeria Touchshriek.

Do I detect a character from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ lurking on your new album?
Bowie: Not intentionally….
The guy who rents the room–
Bowie: Aha! Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
There’s a little bit of him, I thought.
Bowie: It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner.

Interview with Seconds, 1995.

Bowie meant “Charrington,” but he was so tickled that the interviewer had unearthed a piece of his subconscious that he blended Orwell’s character with his own. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Charrington is the junk shop owner who rents a room to Winston Smith for his liaisons with Julia. “The old man seemed seldom or never to go out of doors, and on the other hand to have almost no customers. He led a ghostlike existence. Wandering about among his worthless stock, with his long nose and thick spectacles and his bowed shoulders in the velvet jacket, he had always vaguely the air of being a collector rather than a tradesman. He had dragged out from the corners of his memory some fragments of forgotten rhymes.

Charrington turns out to be a Party member who helps bait the trap that lands Winston in Room 101. (Some scholars have argued that Charrington is a veiled T.S. Eliot, who Orwell had defended from attacks by leftist critics and who later “betrayed” Orwell by declining to publish Animal Farm.) The loyalties of Bowie’s character on Outside are more vague. Touchshriek is a 78-year-old shopkeeper who, according to Nathan Adler, “deals in art drugs and DNA prints [and] fences for all apparitions of any medium.” His personality is described as “harmless, lonely.”

Lonely, yes. Is he harmless? Touchshriek has one of the more opaque roles in the Outside “narrative.” He seems to have seen something (Grace’s murder, Leon or Ramona’s arrangement of the body), as in a deleted Leon segue, he mentions having been walking near the Museum of Modern Parts, where Grace’s body was displayed. He’s considering renting a room above his shop to a fugitive (perhaps Grace was once kept there), and it’s possible Touchshriek was involved with the killing in some manner. In another deleted Leon segue, he mentions that he “knew Leon once.”

But Touchshriek’s far more interesting than his cloudy role in Bowie’s admittedly plotless mystery. His Outside segue, an edited/re-recorded version of a segue on the “Enemy Is Fragile” Leon suite, is a clever, touching, sharply compressed piece of writing. Bowie opens with some Edward Lear- and James Joyce-inspired wordplay and, showing a fine touch for detail, he builds up Touchshriek’s enclosed world in a handful of lines.

The backing track suits the flow of the segue, with Reeves Gabrels guitar and Mike Garson piano lines cycling beneath Touchshriek’s monologue, as if they’re interrogating him. (In the original segue, Bowie spoke over a gradual crescendo of Garson piano glissandi and Gabrels arpeggios). Some Eno “jungle” sounds accompany Touchshriek’s last words, and he walks off stage to a quiet flow of synthesizer chords.

If the various Outside characters are refracted pieces of Bowie’s personality, Touchshriek is the withered end of one unlived life, a David Jones who had stayed in Beckenham, had kept up marginal ties to the local art scene (imagine him still running an Arts Lab at the Three Tuns in 1995) and who had grown old and alone there. In this vein, Touchshriek also ties back to Bowie’s Sixties character studies, his songs of shabby bachelors, elderly shoplifters and Gurney Slade-esque suburban dreamers: he’s the heir to Uncle Arthur, the Little Bombardier, and the lonely scholar in “Conversation Piece.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

Top: Bowie, older than he is today.


Segue: Baby Grace (a Horrid Cassette)

February 1, 2013

sad girl blue

Segue: Baby Grace (a Horrid Cassette).

When I listen to Outside now—yes, I do play my own records at home—it’s also Baby Grace’s voice that touches me most. Perhaps because I based her story on a girl I know very well and who’s been through a whole bunch of bad relationships in which she was abused. It seemed like she really picked that kind of man each time…

Bowie, interview with Humo (Belgium), 1995.

A mystery needs a corpse to set things in motion, so Bowie opens his narrative with “the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue,” whose eviscerated, dismembered and mutilated body is found (in various pieces) at the Museum of Modern Parts, in Oxford Town, NJ. The gruesome state of Grace’s body is described in obscenely loving detail in the first section of the Nathan Adler diary, and the first character “segue” you hear on Outside is Grace’s, allegedly her last words, found on a “horrid cassette.”

Bowie was playing with a tangle of cultural references here: Laura Palmer, the dead girl who lies at the heart of Twin Peaks, was obviously an influence. But there are echoes of actual horrors, too. As Nicholas Pegg noted, the Moors Murders tape, in which 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was taped pleading for her life by her killers, was an inescapable reference for a man who’d been a teenager in Britain in the Sixties. The “Grace” segue was also in line with a horror film trope that developed in the Eighties and Nineties: the use of “real” footage in a fictional horror. With cassette and video recording having become cheap and near-universal by the late Eighties, this enabled horror film directors to up the ante by including videotaped “real” killings (the most effective, and absolutely, utterly horrifying, in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and using “found” footage to intensify a film’s sense of realism. This culminates in something like 1999’s Blair Witch Project, entirely filmed via hand-held video camera.

What to make of Grace’s segue? It’s a blend of absurdity and voyeuristic creepiness, with Reeves Gabrels playing wailing blues guitar licks and Bowie having a blast at imitating the rambling speech patterns of an adolescent (one admittedly under the sway of “interest” drugs). He told interviewers he got a kick out of gender-bending again. But Grace’s story, in which she hazily describes being prepared like a sacrificial lamb for a ritual that will result in her body becoming a bloody plaything for sadists, has enough real-life analogues in the past few decades that Bowie’s “tape” can come off as exploitative and cruel. (The original version of the segue on Leon is more disturbing, as Bowie’s voice is a fairly natural-sounding imitation of a teenage girl’s voice: on Outside, he altered his voice to near-Chipmunk speed). One of Bowie’s most (deliberately) tasteless works.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

Top: Bowie attempts a second adolescence.


I Am With Name/ Segue: Ramona A. Stone

January 31, 2013

ramona

I Am With Name (Leon suite) (plus annotations).
Segue: Ramona A. Stone/ I Am With Name (Outside).

There was a theory that one creates a doppelganger and then imbues that with all your faults and guilts and fears and then eventually you destroy him, hopefully destroying all your guilt, fear and paranoia. And I often feel that I was doing that unwittingly, creating an alternative ego that would take on everything that I was insecure about.

Bowie, Arena interview, 1993.

So you are what’s been manipulated in each of these pieces [segues]?

Bowie: Yes, they’re all based on me.

Interview with Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.

The five characters Bowie invented for Leon, and which he later imported into Outside, allegedly came out of his “orgiastic” improvisation session with the band in March 1994, with Bowie pulling together voices, intentions and actions by reading lines from sheets of paper scattered across a table. (Later interviews established that there had been some preparatory work done before this, with Bowie using his “Verbasizer” (an automatic cut-up lyric generator) computer program, among other things.)

In what seems like the “final” version of Leon, Bowie’s characters crept in and out of three suites: “Leon Takes Us Outside” focused on the detective Nathan Adler and the cipher Leon Blank, while “Enemy Is Fragile” was a revue, with all the characters making appearances. And “I Am With Name” was devoted, in spirit at least, to Ramona A. Stone, the villain of the piece. This was the most disturbing and weird of the suites, featuring two unnerving/irritating “anxiety raps,” where Bowie sounded like a man who believes rats are climbing all over his body, and a SF fascist sequence involving the “Leek Soldiers.” “Bit of a dark spiral with no end,” as old Touchshriek mutters at the close.

What survived of this suite on Outside was a re-recorded, edited version of one of Ramona’s two segues: her appearance on “I Am With Name.” This piece was mixed over the backing track of “I Am With Name” and then segued directly into the latter song. While it was Ramona’s only appearance on the album, she was elsewhere as a specter/object of malice and lust (“Hearts Filthy Lesson,” for example).

There’s a hierarchy of sorts in the Outside crew: Leon is kept the farthest distance away; Baby Grace and Touchshriek, victim and witness, are miniature character studies; Adler and Ramona, an interlocked pair, seem most like twisted self-portraits of Bowie. We’ll get to Adler in a bit, but it’s worth looking at Ramona here.

I won’t go as far as Steele Savage, who wrote that Ramona “represents everything that Bowie hates about himself,”*but there is the sense that Bowie’s using the character of Ramona—a futurist fascist, white supremacist and aesthetic murderer (an art critic who kills!), a vain “high priestess” of art (“I was an artiste!…in a tunnel”), someone so disgusted by aging that she dreams of becoming a machine—in the vein of the ugly parallel self he’d created with the Thin White Duke character. She’s a highbrow version of another reappearing Bowie doppelganger: the emotionally void, possibly homicidal creep of “Running Gun Blues” and some of the Tin Machine songs. As Momus said (in the comments to “I Can’t Read”), “this parallel self is a fink, a fish, an automaton, a killer-zombie, a wife-beater, a conformist, empty and dead inside.”

It’s not that grim, though (I mean, the picture of Ramona alone, with Bowie’s face imposed on a She-Hulk cyborg figure wearing a Mohawk, is pretty barmy). Ramona’s also a parody of Bowie as High Artist and cultural vampire. She first appears in Adler’s diary in “Kreutzburg, Berlin,” 1977, where she’s running a Caucasian Suicide Temple, “vomiting out her doctrine of death-as-eternal-party into the empty vessels of Berlin youth.” She turns up around the millennium in London, Canada, running a “string of body-parts jewelry stores,” and in her song, “I Am With Name,” she seems reduced to a pure automaton, a “good time drone” that, in Adler’s words, says “in the future, everything was up to itself.”

For the Ramona character, Bowie triple-tracked (or more) his voice, altering each with a vocoder and/or other harmonizing synthesizers, possibly Eno’s Eventide H3000. Bowie winds up sounding like a premonition of Andy Serkis’ “Gollum” voice. The only thing that’s not synthetic on “Name,” which is built on sounds generated by, among others, Eno’s Yamaha DX-7, E-mu Procussion Module and Lexicon JamMan, is Mike Garson, whose fleeting bursts of piano are a last bit of humanity left in the matrix.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London (with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995). “Stone”/”I Am With Name” was released on Outside, September 1995.

* See also Angela Bowie’s typically barbed comment to Peter Koenig: “David wants to be a dictator, not God. His fixation is with himself and he strives to ignore his own self-loathing.”

Top: Bowie dresses in battle gear as Ramona.


Leon Takes Us Outside

January 28, 2013

tricky bird

Leon Takes Us Outside (Leon suite w/”I’d Rather Be Chrome,” “We’ll Creep Together,” annotation/links).
Leon Takes Us Outside (Outside).

Of what was once a tangled forest, all that remains are a few saplings. So the opening track of Outside, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” a minute-and-a-half piece consisting of guitar, piano and synthesizer accompaniment for a voice that murmurs a list of random dates and holidays, is the only surviving piece of a 21-minute musical suite.

Likely planned as the first of the three Leon suites, the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, which begins with the “Leon Takes” fragment, devotes much of its length to two movements that have been bootlegged —the “OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence and “We’ll Creep Together,” the latter unfortunately circulating in a maimed version. Where the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite featured a set of paired characters (detective/suspect, child victim/elderly witness), “Leon” centers on the mysterious figure of “Leon Blank,” outsider artist and possible killer/martyr. The only other voices appearing in the suite are those of Bowie’s various deranged narrators and of the detective Nathan Adler, who apparently sings the climactic “I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence.

While Leon Blank’s perspective survives in several of the Outside songs (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” whose ancestor may be in the “Leon Takes” suite, is from his POV, for example), this intro fragment is the only time that you hear Leon “speak.” He’s just whispering a stream of random information, a conflation of American and British (Leon mentions both Michaelmas Day and Martin Luther King Day, says both “July 6th” and “5th March”), as though he’s programming a string of code, a sequence to wake up the machine. As Nicholas Pegg noted, its similarity to the buzz-and-murmur opening of one of Eno’s most recent projects at the time, U2’s Zooropa, is likely no coincidence.

leon can ya hear?

These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live.’

Bowie, co-interview with Eno for Time Out, by Dominic Wells, 1995.

Bowie’s only published information about the Leon character was in the “Nathan Adler Diary,” which noted that Leon was a 22-year old of mixed race who had a rap sheet (including “plagiarism without a license”), and in one of the official Adler segues, where Adler recalled Leon jumping on stage at midnight and, wielding a machete, cutting “zeroes” in everything, and eventually ripping a hole in “the fabric of time itself.”

Even by the standards of the Outside “non-narrative,” the Leon character is a cipher. Still, he generally seems meant to represent the “outsider” artist figure that so fascinated Bowie and Eno at the time (e.g., their visit to the artist’s wing of Gugging Asylum). And in particular, the character seems partially inspired by Tricky, a young British musician who was a favorite of Bowie’s in the mid-Nineties and who Bowie would soon “interview” in a bizarre article for (see the upcoming “The Narratives.”)

Leon’s rap sheet seems to reference Tricky’s life. The son of a Ghanaian-English mother and Jamaican father, Tricky had spent time in prison as a youth for allegedly buying counterfeit £50 notes from a friend, who later grassed on him to the police. And by 1994, when Tricky had split from the rap collective Massive Attack and was finishing his debut Maxinquaye, he was arguably the most vital musician working in Britain. Bowie rewrote him as Leon, a boundary-shattering artist who gets caught in a narrative web, and he used some of Tricky’s sonic trademarks—ambient street noise, esp. the sound of rain, and Tricky’s own murmuring flow, which Bowie is arguably imitating on “Leon Takes”—as signifiers on Outside.

Was Bowie guilty here of fetishizing Tricky, or “outsider” artists (esp. racial minorities) in general? (The late Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is also in the mix here—soon after he made Outside, Bowie would play Andy Warhol in Julian Schabel’s bio-pic of Basquiat.) We’ll dig into this more in the upcoming “Narratives” entry. But it was in keeping with an established Bowie strategy. He was an adventurer who needed occasionally to replenish his stock of forward scouts, so he appropriated various “outsiders” for his own ends, whether as collaborators or as symbols (or, in Iggy Pop’s case, both).

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released (“Leon Takes” song fragment) in September 1995 on 1. Outside.

Top: Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, 1994.


Strangers When We Meet

January 10, 2013

riots

Strangers When We Meet (promo mix).
Strangers When We Meet (Buddha of Suburbia).
Strangers When We Meet (Outside.)
Strangers When We Meet (single edit, video, Outside).
Strangers When We Meet (live, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (The Tonight Show, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (Top of the Pops, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (Later with Jools Holland, 1995).

“Strangers When We Meet” appears on two Bowie albums, neither of which it suited. On Buddha of Suburbia, its first, sparser incarnation stood out as the most “standard” track of the record, though it sounded undercooked when compared with the effulgence of “Untitled No. 1.” Realizing that he’d thrown away a possible hit on an album that wasn’t released in the US, Bowie reworked “Strangers” in the last sessions of Outside, for which it served as the closing track.

On Outside, the bright chorus melody of “Strangers” was a payoff for a listener who had endured a long, dark, claustrophobic album. Coming after a set of 18 “segues” and generally ominous tracks, “Strangers” felt like a boarded-up window being pried open to let in the sunlight. That said, “Strangers” also sounded like a bonus track, like something appended to the album after it was used in a film.

“Strangers” seems at heart one of Bowie’s transient songs, one more suited for the stateless company of “Holy Holy,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Under Pressure” and “Alabama Song” than it was for any album. It was a pure single that Bowie instead netted and mounted in two different tableaux. And while it felt like a hit, “Strangers” wound up a relative obscurity. Released as Outside‘s second single, it was eclipsed by its B-side, a so-called “live” version (it wasn’t) of “Man Who Sold the World.” “Strangers” only reached #39 in the UK and didn’t chart anywhere else in the world but Sweden. Had it been Outside‘s lead-off single, or had Bowie put it out ahead of the album in, say, spring 1995, perhaps it could’ve had more space to thrive in.

Its commercial failure was a shame, as “Strangers” has one of Bowie’s sturdiest melodies and most haunting lyrics of his later years. It should have been ranked with “Absolute Beginners” and “Modern Love” as one of Bowie’s beloved “silver age” hits; “Strangers,” rather than “Jump They Say,” feels like it should have been the last big Bowie pop moment. Perhaps it was too somber for its time; the doomed, conflicted relationship that dominates its lyric denying any easy access for a listener.

“Strangers” began as another of Bowie’s trawls through the past while he was making Buddha, as the song is built on the bassline of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” (which Bowie had already used, jokingly, in his “Join the Gang”). Bowie was also playing with the associations that its title phrase summoned up. “Strangers when we meet” was associated with adultery: it had titled a Kirk Douglas film about tortured adultery and had been the chorus hook of Leroy Van Dyke’s jaunty ode to adultery, “Walk on By” (“just walk on by/wait on the corner/I love you but we’re strangers when we meet”). In all its uses, the secret lovers in question had to play-act as strangers in public, reserving their true feelings for behind closed doors.The Smithereens had a song in the Eighties that continued these associations—don’t look my way, I’ve still got a wife, I really love you, remember, but we’re going to be strangers on the street.

So Bowie’s lyric took this set of expectations and undermined them. Rather than being any sort of secret lovers, the couple in the song are so brutally alienated from each other, are so consumed by passive/aggressive emotional violence, that they often literally cannot recognize who they once were. There’s an emotional numbness, with the singer’s world bled free of color. “All our friends, now seem so thin and frail,” Bowie begins. The TV shows a blank screen, religion has no consolations, nor does nature (“splendid sunrise, but it’s a dying world“). Sometimes the couple even forget each other’s names. The man weeps in bed, cringes when she tries to embrace him.

The twist is, as the final chorus comes around, that the singer masochistically welcomes this state. Numbness, disassociation, alienation are at least some sort of feeling. Better to serve in hell, as the line goes. As the end chorus begins, with the beat slightly increasing in tempo, Bowie tears into his lines with a sudden, growing conviction. ALL your REGRETS ride ROUGH-SHOD over me, he sings. I’m so GLAD…I’m so THANKFUL…I’m in CLOVER…HEEL HEAD OVER that they’re strangers. Because then they can pretend to fall in love again.

strangers

Bowie didn’t alter the song’s structure when he remade it for Outside. “Strangers” remained a standard progression in A major, with the verses banked to quickly sweep in the dominant chord, E, (“secrets”) after a tense pit stop on a B eleventh chord (“thin and frail”). The choruses reverse course, beginning on E (“violence”) and quickly shuttling back home to the tonic, A (“the sheet”).

The revisions were more subtle, and owed to the greater cast of characters in the studio: Mike Garson, often keeping to the bass end of his piano, offers small commentary and a lovely, ruminative solo; Reeves Gabrels discards the agitated, jabbing hook in the original track’s verses for a set of subtler colors (he also provides a few what-the-hell noises, like the Fripp-esque “elephant roar”  in the intro). Kizilcay on bass plays a similar groove as his performance on the original (it’s also possibly Yossi Fine on bass here) while the drumming, whether Sterling Campbell or Joey Baron, is more dynamic. (The revision moved “Strangers” from the dance floor to a locked room, especially given the diminished presence of the synth drum “march” pattern that had been the backbone of the Buddha version.)

For me, the Outside version’s superiority lies mainly in Bowie’s vocal. His singing on the remake seems an extended critique of his earlier performance. The original found Bowie strong, confident, in full form as “Bowie,” happily delivering on expectations. The double-tracked close harmonies of the chorus emphasized the hearty strengths of its melody and Bowie took the closing lines as a series of hurdles, delighting in his rhymes, bringing the song to a close as if he was landing a plane. On Outside, this bravado has fallen away. Bowie begins in a near-conversational tone, in what sounds like his “gumshoe” Nathan Adler voice—he’s acting, playing a ridiculous role, and in the first chorus he breaks down. His emphases land on unexpected beats: he sings “strangers when we meet” now, letting the last word trail off—it gives a more provisional feel to the line, the singer fixating on the “when,” knowing that they may never meet again. And in the closing chorus, the naked beauty of his voice (accompanied by a ghostly, lower-mixed backing vocal) makes the climactic lines a series of painful, hard-fought delusions.

It’s one of his finest, most beautiful, autumnal songs—Bowie would spend his some of his last decade as a performer (well, until this past Tuesday) playing variations of the character, someone betrayed and bewildered by life, that he unveiled on “Strangers.” Whether he ever bettered it is another question.

Recorded: (original) June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux; (remake) ca. January-February 1995, Westside Studios, New York. A longer, different mix of the original “Strangers” appeared on a Dutch promotional cassette—its most notable differences are the lack of the “Gimme Some Lovin'” hook and a greater emphasis on the synth drums. The remake of “Strangers was released in November 1995 as RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2 (c/w “Man Who Sold the World,” #39 UK—the UK CD single also had “Get Real,” one of two “official” Outside outtakes.) Performed on the Outside and Earthling tours as well as on the Tonight Show on 27 October 1995, TOTP on 9 November 1995 and Jools Holland on 3 December 1995.

Top: “Allison DC,” “Riot Grrrls, Gay Rights March,” Washington DC, April 1993.